13 June 2019

Notebook from The Four Seasons

The Canadian Grand Prix weekend is one of the favourite Formula 1 races. The city is great. The circuit is great – and with much better facilities than was previously the case.

This year, the weather was great. The food was great. The only problem is that with the media being as it is these days, I spent far too much time looking at the same computer screen I am now using and pumping out words. It’s not that I don’t like doing it, it’s just that it seems to be never-ending and, of course, in this modern day and age, everyone wants words for free. Or editors want reactions to ridiculous stories that they have read online, thinking that the authors know what they are talking about, when most do not.

I am sure that lots of people in F1 see journalists cruising around the paddock all day as having a pretty easy life, but until someone invents a machine that collates the information gathered in note form, melds it into ideas and then produces coherent arguments which are then turned into flowing but crisp text, it has to be done in the old-fashioned way. And that means that when everyone else goes off to party, I spend my F1 nights tapping keyboards in drab hotel rooms. If there is no room service (and the Hotel Fleapit did not run to that), one needs a brisk walk to a convenience store to be fed. It’s not nearly as glamorous a life as people think. Anyway, with all the excitements of Sunday afternoon, my Sunday night ended at around nine-thirty on Monday morning when I fell into bed from a very great height, only to be woken an hour later by a phone call, which was answered in a completely incoherent fashion, as happens when one is woken suddenly from the depths of sleep.

An hour after that I was at the Four Seasons having lunch, trying to feel suitably glitzy and, I guess, failing horribly as one of my fellow lunchers did point out that I looked “scruffy”. I would have disagreed with him but poor old Emanuele had not had an enjoyable 24 hours prior to our lunch and was also looking a little worse for wear. We had been talking about getting together for dinner at some point when we met on the grid the previous day and it was a quirk of fate and mutual friends that brought this about rather earlier than expected. It was a casual chic restaurant with a high-falutin' celebrity chef, and while the conversation centered on what had happened in the race, we did also find time to comment on the quality of the tomatoes, the scallops and other eminently nibblable things. Our hostess had great earrings and despite the weariness I had a very pleasant lunch.

It is fair to say that when it comes to picking my favourite people in this wonderful sport, one of them is very definitely Emanuele Pirro. We have known each other for 36 years, in fact he finished third in the very first race I ever reported on.  And, in the course of those 36 years, we have had many happy times in places all over the world. Of all the drivers I know, Emanuele is the one who tries hardest to give back to the sport. He works as a race official both in Formula 1 and in other championships, he is involved in commission work at national and international level and he is the President of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Club as well. He doesn’t need to do any of it, but he wants to do it. So when I heard a bunch of F1 commentator types attacking him for the decision to penalise Sebastian Vettel – and doing it in a nasty way in several cases – I was irked.

Emanuele is a man with impeccable credentials that most F1 drivers would – or should – respect. He was a top single seater racer, who raced in Formula 1 for three seasons. The right opportunities did not come along when they were needed but he then became test driver for McLaren-Honda and worked with Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna to create on of the most successful teams in F1 history, which won 15 of the 16 races in 1988. At the time he remained active as racing driver in touring cars, in which he was very successful, winning the Nurburgring 24 Hours, the Guia Race in Macau and a string of other victories. Later he would move into sports cars and became one of the most successful endurance racers of all time, with five Le Mans victories, two Sebring 12 Hour races and three Petit Le Mans. He has since become one of the top officials. He knows the rules, unlike half the commentators who judge things on how things were in their day and not how they are today. The reason the rules exist as they do today is because that is what the drivers (and teams) wanted. They did not want grey areas. They wanted clear rules and clear penalties. And that is what they got. And so the rules were made that way, leaving no margin for error nor for interpretation – and no margin for sensitivity in the decision-making process. Since then the stewards have their hands tied to some extent as they are bound to issue a punishment if an offence is reported to them - even if they might consider it to be a racing incident. One cannot compare the modern era with previous times, as the critics always do, because the rules are more rigid and the guidelines issued to stewards ensure that there is consistency in the decision-making process, which is what everyone is always screaming about. Vettel was in the wrong. It was a marginal call, but he left the track and rejoined in a fashion that forced Hamilton to take avoiding action. Leaving the track and rejoining unsafely requires a penalty of five or 10 seconds, or a drive-through. Because it was such a marginal call, it was decided to give him the most lenient penalty available. So that is what happened.

You can blame the rules, if you like, but they were written that way for a reason and while one can understand that people felt it was harsh, the bottom line was that Vettel had made a crucial mistake – again – and lost the race as a result. You cannot have things both ways. If one creates a rigid rule structure, without the possibility to be interpreted in different ways, one is condemned to have some decisions that are too harsh or too lenient because one does not have flexibility. Not allowing the stewards to interpret the rules and issue punishments that perfectly fit the circumstances means that this sort of thing is inevitable. It should perhaps be added that Vettel was quite fortunate to avoid any punishment for his daft theatricals after the chequered flag as in previous ages he might have been heavily punished for his disrespect of the sport. For me, the most important thing that happened in Montreal was the fact that Ferrari showed that Mercedes can be beaten.

Now all we need is for them to stop falling over their own bootlaces and do the job properly.

You can argue that such decisions are bad for the sport but that is only because people do not understand the decisions - and if commentators do not help them to understand better then I would argue that the fault is in the communication, not in the decision.

After lunch I headed off to the airport where I bumped into Stefano Domenicali, another of my favourite F1 people, who is today the CEO of the Italian super car company Lamborghini. Stefano was recently appointed a Commendatore by the President of Italy, a great honour, which basically translates to a “knight commander” in the English honours system. In England, therefore, he would be Sir Stefano. It is an honour which is fully deserved for his many achievements as head of Ferrari Gestione Sportiva and at Lamborghini, which recently reported record sales in 2018, up 51 percent compared to 2017. The company sold 5,750 cars last year, compared to 3,815 in 2017. The revenues rose 40 percent to €1.4 billion. It’s impressive stuff. We have a running joke that Lamborghini under Stefano’s leadership must be planning some future prestigious motorsport programme, which makes sense when one looks at what Ferrari and McLaren do… The title of Commendatore has a very special meaning in racing terms as this was how Enzo Ferrari was referred to for many years.

The English honours system is rather less impressive because it has failed to mark Lewis Hamilton last year equalling the five World Championships of Juan Manuel Fangio, and closing on the outright record of seven titles, held by Michael Schumacher. The New Year’s Honours List came and went with nothing for Lewis and we assumed that it was probably too soon after Lewis’s title to get the necessary paperwork done in time and so we expected something in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, which is published each year in June. At some strange hour of a jet-lagged night, I read through the latest list looking for some recognition for Lewis for his extraordinary achievements on the global stage.

A British honours list is a fascinating thing, listing endless numbers of anonymous people who have done worthy work in categories that often raise eyebrows. Awards were made for services to choral music, opera, race equality, the Welsh language, badminton, mountaineering, women’s football in Wales, Buddhism in the UK, trampolining, wildflower and pollinator conservation in Lancashire, school Athletics in Cumbria, music in Ballymena, Irish craftwork, highland dancing, running in Wales, kayaking and canoeing in Scotland, minor county cricket, target shooting, ballroom dancing, developing the arts in Wolverhampton, wheelchair curling, snooker, netball, hockey and so on and so forth…

I cannot claim to be an expert in any of these subjects but I struggle to believe that all of these worthy folk are the Lewis Hamiltons of their different sectors, or that the majority have had anything like the effect that Lewis has had in the course of his career. In total more than a thousand awards were made, 47 percent of them to women and 75 percent to people who have worked in local communities. The very fact that the bureaucrats feel the need to spotlight such statistics tells you that this is all about political correctness.

There are about a dozen committees that cover different sectors, including sport (which at the moment is headed by the chairman of the British Olympic Association). Anyone can nominate anyone for an award on the basis that they have been outstanding at what they do and that this has helped Britain. I fail to see why being tiddlywinks champion of Morpeth would do this, but… Whatever the case, the whole system is undermined by such injustices. Lewis has an MBE, (at the time the lowest grade of award). This dates back to 2008. Claire Williams (who has an OBE, which is higher than an MBE) thus has more recognition for her role in the sport than does Lewis, which is odd considering the complete lack of success of Williams in recent years. In the end, of course, such omissions simply serve to undermine the credibility of the system and make it irrelevant as a means of recognising great achievement. Anyway, I guess that before too long people will be getting awards for services to Brexit…

The F1 Paddock is still not yet truly bubbling with silly season activity but the first rumbling of change are being whispered. Right now there is not much to it, just a few conversations going on about possible in-season changes (Robert Kubica being mentioned in this respect). There is a lot of waffle about the ongoing negotiation processes for the rules and regulations and financial agreements that will come in for 2021. Things are moving in the right direction, but it is a slow process and one has to commend Chase Carey for his patience in trying to change the culture of the sport, which has been built on antagonism for the last 40 years. This means that getting people to work together is not easy. But in the end we will get to a solution and if no-one is really happy and no-one is really unhappy then Carey will have succeeded in the task. The company stock is trading not far off its highest ever point and work goes on to restructure the sport to achieve more than it has achieved in the past.

The Canadian weekend coincided with a fan festival in Chicago, which attracted around 60,000 people, according to the F1 group. It might not seem very logical to have such an event over an F1 weekend as that means that there will be no team involvement, although Red Bull was running a car in a separate event in Copenhagen, but the teams have baulked at helping out because they want money to pay the inevitable bills. I guess the only way forward is to have a promotional fund which is shared out on the basis of who makes the effort, but for now F1 is running its own selection of cars which include a two-seater and an old Sauber which makes the right kind of noise. Sponsored by Emirates this event took place in the Museum Campus area around Soldier Field, with cars running on Museum Campus Drive. The festival, which was free of charge, featured a big screen on which the visitors could watch qualifying from Canada.

There is no doubt that there is potential to create a race venue on the Lake Michigan lakefront where the festival was taking place, with roads around the Soldier Field Stadium and other venues such as the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Burnham marina area. There is also an isthmus of land which Solidarity Drive crosses to Northerly Island, a 91-acre man-made peninsula which used to house one of the city’s airports but is still being redeveloped. The area includes the Huntington Bank Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheatre that has a capacity of 30,000 spectators. The whole area is within walking distance of the downtown area, and has stunning views of the skyline. It can be self-contained to avoid traffic disruption and has very few residents nearby. It could thus follow the Albert Park model very successfully. And there is no question that the city is the right kind of destination city that Liberty Media is looking for with F1 and has the kind of infrastructure that F1 requires. That is all a work in progress with little having been heard from Miami and Las Vegas of late, but the ambition remains to grow F1 in the Americas and so it is worth reporting the presence of the Mexican GP promoter Alejandro Soberón in company with Carlos Slim Jr and there is no doubt that talks were taking place to try to get a renewed contract for Mexico agreed. The problem is one of money as the new Mexican government wants to spend its money on other projects and so the bill must be footed by private enterprise. The F1 group seems confident that the Mexicans will find a way, which is a logical conclusion given the financial firepower of the Slim Family, which owns the promotional company. 

It was interesting to see a number of race promoters showing up in Montreal this year to take a look at what is being done with representatives from Australia, Bahrain and Vietnam all being spotted in Canada, looking for ideas to improve their events. The Montreal model is probably the closest thing there is to what Liberty Media wants all F1 races to be like, although the island is not big enough to have more commercial activity on-site.

There continues to be discussion about the 2020 calendar but from what I hear there will be only 21 races and 20 promoters now have contracts - the odd one out being Silverstone which says it does not have a deal, despite multiple well-informed sources saying that a deal is agreed and all will go ahead, with an announcement at the British GP next month.

The two new races will be Vietnam and the Netherlands and the races that will disappear are Spain and Germany.

Our spies tell us that the season will look quite similar to this year in terms of structure with the season kicking off with a series of stand-alone events every two weeks starting in Australia, followed by Bahrain, China and Vietnam. The European season will kick off with the Dutch GP (on the Spanish GP date) with Monaco following and then Canada, with Baku a week after Montreal. The season will then become more intense with back-to-back races in France and Austria with Britain and Hungary before the summer break. The delays in producing the calendar are down to uncertainty about the tail end of the season, with question marks over Mexico and Brazil. Still, it will not be too different. Bigger changes will come in 2021 – if all goes to plan.

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