31 May 2019

Notebook from the road

Time flies when you are having fun…

Apologies for the late arrival of the green notebook but post-Monaco is always a busy time. Not least because one has to drive the 1200km home after the race weekend. And after two long nights producing magazines, Monday was a long haul, although it is never such a chore driving across France. Rather than belting up the road they call the Autoroute du Soleil (the A7 followed by the A6) by way of Lyon and Beaune as most folks do, we turned off at Vienne and went by way of Saint-Etienne and through the Forez region to Clermont-Ferrand and then up the A71 by way of the Bocage bourbonnais, Bourges, the Sologne to Orleans and into Paris on the western side. It might take a little longer but the roads are clear, the countryside beautiful one doesn’t have to put up with the traffic jams of Lyon and Paris.

Tuesday was a day to recover a little and Wednesday was filled with writing for the folks who pay. And then Thursday, well, Thursday in France was a national holiday and that means other commitments with little people who come wide-eyed at the world and wanting to help with the gardening. Monaco used to coincide with the Ascension day holiday each year, which is why there was always practice on the Thursday (the holiday) with Friday being a day when the F1 circus rested. When the French have a national holiday on a Tuesday or a Thursday, everyone takes an extra day off work and thus creates a four-day weekend. The idea is to “faire le pont”, build the bridge between the days off. It would be nice to have Monaco back on the Ascension Day weekend, where it is supposed to be. It is a traditional, a bit like having the Indy 500 happening on Memorial Day, regardless of the day of the week, a practice that is now long gone.

There are still some bank holiday Monday races in England, but most of the other similar tradition have died out. I do recall one year going from a race at Donington on the Sunday to Magny-Cours on the Tuesday, as this was May 1, a national holiday in France and so a race day, and then ended up on the Friday at Paul Ricard for another event.

Monaco this year was something of a retrospective weekend as a result of the death of the much-loved Niki Lauda and there was not much else going on. It was great to see so many people wearing red caps in honour of Niki.

The notebook thus was pretty thin in terms of news. There is a note that says Angola because someone whispered in my ear that Morocco and South Africa might not be the only two countries trying to become the one African country to have an F1 race. This may sound a bit odd but Angola has vast oil reserves and has been peaceful for nearly 20 years now. President Jose Eduardo dos Santos was President from 1979 to 2017 but has now been replaced by Joao Lourenco, who began an anti-corruption crusade last year targeting elites under the old regime. It is a little known fact that there is a proper racing circuit in Angola, known as the Autódromo Internacional de Luanda, which was designed by Brazilian architect Lolô Cornelsen, who was more famous for the designs of F1 circuits at Jacarepaguá and Estoril. The Luanda circuit opened in 1972 but civil war broke out a few months later and went on until 2002. Of course, money can fix a lot of things. And there is a tradition of running international races in the city, dating back to the colonial era when there were international sports car races on a street circuit in the city.It struck me as an unlikely idea given that Morocco and South Africa both have circuits that are more advanced, but let’s see. I expect to see an F1 race in Africa (somewhere) in 2021.

The major rumour of the weekend was that Ferrari is looking to reclaim Alfa Romeo’s technical director Simone Resta, who was previously chief designer at Ferrari. I asked Mattia Binotto and he said “Maybe is the right answer”. What is interesting in all of this is that on the drive home on Monday I heard on the radio that there are talks between Renault and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to merge in order to create a mega car company, leaving the Renault-Nissan alliance in place but plans for a full merger put on hold, although Nissan would, it seems, get some voting rights in the new company, something which the Japanese have been keen to get. Such a deal would mean that brands such as Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Fiat, Chrysler, Abarth and Dodge would join up with Renault, Samsung, Dacia, Alpine, although the alliance would also include Nissan, Infiniti and Mitsubishi. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that this would mean that Renault and Alfa Romeo would be competing in F1, which might make sense. The main focus however would be to help the companies globalise their brands sharing their research and development costs and spreading the technology between the brands. There would be economies of scale with the companies are using the same platforms, plants and engineers but this is not always easy to achieve given different cultures and inevitable government meddling.

A lot of people have made the mistake that Ferrari belongs to FCA. It does not. The company shares some of the shareholders but has been an independent company for several years. It is true that Alfa Romeo is currently using Ferrari engines, but could switch to Renault if such a merger did take place. Having said that the planned acquisition of more Sauber shares by FCA seems to have been postponed. Alfa Romeo is not doing well this year with sales down 30 percent in the United States and an even bigger drop in the European markets, despite new models coming on to the market.

The Monaco GP is often the race at which rumours begin relating to drivers for the following season and I did hear some whispers that Sebastian Vettel is considering retiring from the sport at the end of this year - at the age of 31. I am not sure I believe them, with Vettel still driving with fire in his belly, but one can see the logic that he has made a lot of mistakes and is now under pressure from Charles Leclerc, a driver who is much younger and has more potential to improve, which would make Vettel’s life more difficult. We will see what develops but for the moment I would classify these stories as wild speculation. However, there are lots of different media around the world who would like to have their representatives in the seat, so Mexico, France, Denmark and Finland have all got pretty excited about the rumours.

There is also a note about the 2020 calendar with the first drafts expected to be seen soon. What is clear is that the teams are not keen to go over 21 events and so with new races coming up, there need to be some races that will be dropped to make way for the new events in Vietnam and in the Netherlands, both of which have signed deals for 2020. It is increasingly unlikely that Spain and Germany will be on the calendar and although there is still officially some doubt about Silverstone, multiple well-placed sources continue to insist that the deal is done and is being kept quiet for reasons that are not entirely clear. Perhaps it is because the Grand Prix is holding up the announcement until this year’s race weekend…

The 2020 calendar is still a work in progress but I believe that the season will kick off on March 15 in Australia with Bahrain following on either March 22. This would put the Chinese GP on April 5, with Vietnam two weeks after that on April 19. Normally new races are not back-to-back with existing events, in order to try out the customs and avoid possible problems. This means that the Dutch GP will likely be on May 10, with Monaco on May 24. That would suggest a Canadian GP on June 7 with Baku moving to June 14. The calendar would then follow the recent schedules with France on June 28, Austria on July 5, Britain on July 19 and Hungary on August 2. The summer break would end with the Belgian GP on August 30, Monza on September 6 and Singapore on September 20.

The future of the Brazilian GP remains under discussion with the word being that the promoters in Rio de Janeiro have found an investor – believed to an American – who will fund the construction of the semi-permanent track in the Rio de Janeiro suburb of Deodoro, which sounds like some kind of anti-perspirant for old folks. The goal would be to transform the old military base there into a public park, along the lines of Albert Park in Melbourne. We’ll see if it ever happens but the President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro seems to support the idea. However, Bolsonaro doesn’t always get things right. His recent announcement that he is ending a sponsorship deal between Petrobras and McLaren because it is worth $195 million over five years is not really credible. The Petronas deal with Mercedes is worth around $40 million a year, which gives the Malaysian oil company the title sponsorship and a lot of signage on the cars. The Petrobras deal with McLaren is barely noticeable and thus one must assume that someone somewhere has got their numbers wrong. In F1 circles the deal is reckoned to be worth about $13 million a year…

It is probably worth noting that despite the disaster that was the McLaren Indy 500 programme, Zak Brown is saying that he has not given up on doing it all again – but getting it right next time. Much will depend on whether or not the board of McLaren agrees to the idea… We’ll see how it goes. Whether Fernando Alonso is involved is another question…

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