4 July 2019

Notebook from the Pfälzerwald 

One can talk of the romance of being on the road, but like most romance, there is lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes. You might, perhaps, be wondering where one might find the Pfälzerwald. Fair enough. Would you be any wiser if I said it was the Palatinate Forest? This runs north to south, to the west of the Rhine, stretching westwards towards the French border at Saarbrücken. Most people don’t go there because you can whizz past on the autobahn by way of Kaiserslautern, but I always find it rather therapeutic to go through the forest, on a road that is almost as fast - and has fewer vehicles.

One of the problems of driving around Europe these days is the traffic, even in the quietest places. I regularly drive from the Red Bull Ring to Paris in a day. It is about 1,200 km and it is pretty hard work if one obeys the law. You get on the road at six in the morning, which isn’t difficult if the gasthaus has yappy dogs who wake (and wake you) at four thirty. That is assuming, of course, that you haven’t been working all night. Anyway, it takes about 15 hours of driving, allowing for lunch on the Rhine at Speyer, and one arrives in Paris after the rush hour is finished. But this year I moved to Normandy so things are a little bit more complicated. The journey time goes up to more than 16 hours and that makes for a very long day.

It probably didn’t help that I didn’t get all the necessary work done until ten o’clock in the morning and so any thoughts of a heroic (or should that be stupid) non-stop run evaporated. And then, after about half an hour on the road that goes north-west from near the Red Bull Racing up to the German border at Passau, I ran into a traffic jam. The road was clogged with trucks and a zillion Dutch racing fans, all a little worse for wear after a night clog-dancing to celebrate Max Verstappen’s victory…

I saw a sign to the village of Rottenmann and decided that it was worth a visit. I’d rather be moving and wasting time than looking at the back of a Dutch caravan. And then I just kept driving, leaving the jammers behind. There was no real plan apart from getting on to the German autobahn network. I decided not to go through the Salzkammergut because, delightful though it is, I knew it would be slower and so went down a valley that took me eventually to Schladming, a name that is famous in the world of skiing. I was soon on the A10 motorway, hurrying north to Salzburg and then went west to Munich, Augsburg, Ulm and Stuttgart, driving through some massive rainstorms, in the course of the afternoon. I figured that I would do 700km on Monday and save the other 700 for Tuesday. And thus I ended up at Landau in der Pfalz, the gateway to the Pfälzerwald, set in a pleasant wine country. If the name sounds familiar – and you’re not thinking of a Welsh racing circuit (Llandow) or a McLaren driver (Lando), it is because this was the town where they invented four-wheeled carriages in which the seats faced one another and so the name passed into the language as the Landau Carriage and was even used in the early years of the automobile, when they used a similar layout is some of the horseless carriages. It was time for my last Wiener Schnitzel before crossing the border, after which one orders an Escalope Milanese instead and get the same thing, albeit without cranberry sauce. For those who like culinary history, the reason for this was because in 1848 Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky imported the recipe to Vienna after fighting some battles in Italy and enjoying a few lunches in Milan. This may be why Johann Strauss Sr composed a march in Radetzky’s honour, which kept the name alive.

When one is doing the really long-haul drives, one tends to just keep going and so I ignored the old Argonne circuit, near Verdun, and bypassed the former F1 track at Reims, but by early afternoon I was a little weary of being on the road and after a stop to write the “Pat Fry leaves McLaren” story I decided to take half an hour for myself and went in search of the Peronne circuit, the home of the Grand Prix de Picardie from 1925 until 1939.

For racing historians, this is not the same as the Circuit de Picardie, which is closer to Amiens, which hosted the French GP of 1913. The GP of Picardie was for a while the second biggest race in France for Grand Prix cars and was won by the likes of Philippe Etancelin, Robert Benoist, and later saw voiturette victories for Prince Bira, Raymond Mays and Johnnie Wakefield. 

There is little today to suggest that there was ever a race track on these country roads but then suddenly at the crossroads, where once the pits were located, there is a large monument in honour of Louis Trintignant and Guy Bouriat, two racers who were killed on the same weekend in 1933. Trintignant was the brother of Maurice Trintignant, the future Monaco GP winner, while Bouriat was the head of competition at Bugatti.

I made it home by five and I was going to sit down and write up the Notebook but there was a podcast to do and then real world things like lawn-mowing to be done - as it is only a few days before I set off once again for the British GP. July is always a bit of a blur for F1 folk, as we rush through six races in nine weeks.

At some point during this period the silly season tends to kick in and we start to hear stories of who is going to go where in 2020. It has already started, largely due to the poor results set by Pierre Gasly. It is fairly clear that nothing is going to change at Ferrari and Valtteri Bottas would be mad to leave Mercedes. Thus Red Bull is the focus of all the rumouring and, while the team might complain about the wild stories surrounding Gasly, it is worth noting that Red Bull consultant Helmut Marko has had a long career dumping drivers mid-season. If you look back at the Red Bull teams you will see Christian Klien dumped in mid-season in 2006. In 2007 it was Scott Speed. In 2009 it was Sebastien Bourdais, in 2016 Dany Kvyat was given the heave-ho by Red Bull Racing while the team let Carlos Sainz go off to Renault, so the team ended the year with two different drivers to those at the start. The problem is that so many Red Bull Young Drivers have been axed that there aren’t any left who are ready for F1. Alex Albon looks like a man who will get into a top team one day, but it would be foolish to promote him too soon, as happened with Kvyat. So Red Bull is going to have to look outside the programme for a driver next year unless Gasly suddenly perks up.

Marko’s brutal approach has been seen again in recent days with the news from Japan that Dan Ticktum has been dumped from the programme having failed to do much in his first races in Super Formula. The English driver will be replaced in Japan by Mexican Patricio O’Ward, Marko’s latest favourite, who won the Indy Lights title last year but struggled to find a budget for IndyCar. Red Bull has supported him but does not want him racing on ovals (except Indy) and so last week parachuted him into Formula 2 with MP Motorsport. It was a tough call but by the end of the weekend he was looking OK. Now he will go off to take over Ticktum’s ride with Team Mugen and may be back doing more F2 races as well.

One good choice for Red Bull in the short term could be Nico Hulkenberg who has been waiting around for a top team for far too long. He can wait for Renault to get up to speed (if it can), but jumping in as Max Verstappen’s team-mate at Red Bull might be rather daunting. This would be neat as it would open up a seat for Esteban Ocon at Renault, which would give the French a Frenchman to cheer. The Silly Season is really a chain reaction, like dominos falling. It starts with the top teams and continues until the last seat is filled. Those involved spend their time setting up different scenarios and then go with which fits the bill at the moment an opportunity arises.

Verstappen’s win in Austria was a sign that Red Bull is getting to a point where it needs to have two real hotshoes and it is probably safe to say that Hulkenberg would do a better job than Gasly, although to be fair to Pierre he has had some hard times in the past and fought through them. We’ll see how it develops.

The win in Austria was great news for F1 for a number of reasons. It will cement Honda’s involvement after years of struggling. It gives fans a clear vision that we could have three teams winning races and it was also good that the FIA Stewards ruled that the move which got Max the lead was “a racing incident”. This is important because in recent weeks there has been much controversy about the way the stewards work and whether or not they apply the rules too strictly. The fact that it took the stewards so long to make the decision was really nothing very sinister. The race ended at about 4.30pm, after which the top drivers had to do a whole lot of media work. Thus the hearing could not be before 6pm. The stewards then had to talk to both drivers, watch all the necessary video and see the data. They then had to go through precedents to make sure that the decision was consistent with other rulings and then there were discussions before a decision, which then had to be typed up and delivered to the teams before it was all made public. In reality the process took one hour 45 minutes, rather than the three hours 15 minutes that some complained about…

Despite what the many cassandras in F1 will tell you, things seem to be going rather well at the moment with demand for F1 races growing – even allowing for hot air in some places. There are currently 21 venues on the calendar. There will be two new ones in 2020, which means that Spain and Germany are going to be disappointed, but there are around a dozen others who are expressing what might be termed “serious interest”. I don’t have the full list but there are at least two in Africa, there is a big new one in the Middle East, Spain and Germany don’t want to be left out, there is a project in London that looks quite credible. There are plans in Brazil, ambitions in Argentina and I believe there are things going on in Central America, in addition to the existing race in Mexico City. And, of course, there are various different projects ongoing in Asia and the United States. At the moment Miami remains the primary target for the Formula 1 group, with the plan being to hold a race on a purpose-built race track around the Miami Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium. From what I understand, the facility is not averse to giving up parking areas as it recently converted a significant amount of space into a permanent tennis centre, featuring 19 courts. This will take time, of course, and the biggest hurdle in the way appears to be the fact that the stadium will host the Super Bowl in February 2020 and does not want the venue to be a building site. For the moment, this remains the most likely new F1 race in the States. Whispers from China suggest that the most likely venue for a second race in China is not a well-known city such as Beijing or Hong Kong but rather the capital of Sichuan Province, Chengdu. This is the fifth biggest city in China, with a population of around 15 million, which is about twice the size of London, it is only the 10thmost popular destination of international tourists, which translates to around three million visitors a year, compared to three times that number in Shanghai. Oddly enough, the Chinese government is keen to convinced its citizens from travelling abroad and to spend their money visiting China itself, which would be a big economic boost. They also want more foreigners to come visiting so there is a motive for the national government and the locals to get excited. It has the reputation of being one of China’s most liveable cities and is the Chinese base for a large number of international companies, with excellent access by way of an international airport and high speed train lines that link it to the other major cities in China. In 2011 Chengdu was recognised by UNESCO as being “a city of gastronomy” and it is associated with the giant panda, which is a national symbol for the country. To the world at large, however, Chengdu remains virtually unknown, despite its size and importance, which means that it is a perfect place for F1 treatment…

Elsewhere, things are happening in Rio de Janiero but the F1 project is already running into problems with reports that the tender process to build and operate the planned F1 track has hit trouble as the President of Rio Motorpark, José Antonio Soares Pereira Júnior, is also a partner in a firm which worked as a consultant for the city government - on the tendering process!

The demise of the Spanish GP has yet to be confirmed but already I am hearing that there are other venues who want to take over the event if Barcelona loses the race (which it will). Inevitably one of these is from Jerez de la Frontera but one can imagine that Madrid might also be interested. Carlos Sainz Jr is from the city and his father is very well-connected in the political world there… 

Elsewhere, there are whispers from the United States that NBC has made a significant bid for the Formula 1 television rights for the United States, with the idea being to run a number of races on the network and the remainder on the NBC Sports Channel. The rights are currently being exploited by ESPN, which is part of the ABC/Disney empire, the rival of Comcast’s NBC. It is worth noting that since the end of last year Comcast has also been the owner of Sky television, which owns the TV rights for F1 in various countries, notably in the UK. Thus, if you hear people whingeing about having to pay Murdoch to watch F1, you might like to point out them, in a nice way that Murdoch is no longer involved… The word is that F1 was not overly impressed with the numbers on offer and so the negotiation continues, as F1 doesn’t want to sell the US market too cheaply, based on its current impact in the US and is looking to do a deal based on its expectations…

Finally there is likely to be some movement soon at Williams as the news that Paddy Lowe and the team are parting company, means that a deal has been done and Williams no longer has to take into account the fact that Lowe is legally still employed there. Now he isn’t and so the action can begin. It may just be a coincidence that Pat Fry has chosen to depart from McLaren, but he would be a good man to pick up the pieces at Grove and get the team moving in the right direction. There are likely to be other changes as well with a new CEO expected to be announced fairly soon. One can speculate about who this will be, but the choice is fairly limited, unless one takes a risk and goes outside the sport. In Williams’s situation this would not be wise so one would expect the team to go for someone who knows what they are doing, which means that one can imagine the job going to someone such as Eric Boullier or Jost Capito, both of whom fell foul of McLaren. Otmar Szafnauer of Racing Point might have been a good option, but he seems to be tied in there now.

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