1 August 2019

Notebook from a snack bar in Budapest

I was going to call this “Notebook from a perfect summer day”, which was the case on Monday, but is no longer really true. I spent Monday driving home from Germany, across much of France, on the usual A4 motorway from Metz to Verdun and on to Reims. After that I took a loop north to Saint-Quentin, Amiens and home, in the late afternoon, to Normandy.

It took slightly longer than the planned seven hours as I bumped into James Roberts, otherwise known as Jimmy, who was driving a very fancy Mercedes, loaned to him by Mercedes UK, when we both stopped for a break by chance at a service area at Longeville, near Saint-Avold, just a few miles after crossing the border into France.

We used to call him “Squirrel” in the old days, on the basis (I guess) that he was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and seemed like the kind of chap to whom colleagues would bellow “Tally-ho! Squirrel” before zipping off to bag a few Messerschmitts, in the days when one did things like that. These days he’s a big enough wheel at F1 Racing that he can blag fancy cars to take him to races. It is funny how one rarely has time to chat in the fast-moving world of F1 and it was a pleasure to chew the cud for a while, not really caring about the passage of time, except that he had to be in Calais by the early evening. Eventually he bought himself a baguette and I bought an ice lolly and, after an obligatory photo (to plug the Merc on Twitter), we went our separate ways (going the same way). I guess he must have enjoyed the baguette because I spent the next 150 kilometres plugging along in my Prius expecting to be overtaken at any moment by his flashy German speed monster, but I saw no sign of him and eventually pulled off at Valmy, near Chalons-en-Champagne, for a bit of lunch. Valmy was once famous for a battle, but now it is simply a place to have lunch…

The A4 motorway runs from Paris to Strasbourg, but if one turns off at Freyming Merlebach one can cross the German border after just a few miles at a place called Goldene Bremm. This is right next door to the site of the Battle of Spicheren and if one follows the A4 across country, it is like a history of the various conflicts that France and Germany, dating back more than 1000 years. It’s the best advertisement I know for a united Europe, as millions have died fighting over this land. The biggest of these was Verdun, which was so big a battle that no-one really knows the casualty figures. The latest thinking is that France lost 360,000 and Germany 340,000. These days, our conflicts are fought on football pitches and racing circuits, with British-based Germanic teams, led by slightly bonkers Austrians, fighting it out to beat off the Italians, the French and then a few composite teams of diverse natonalities. A united Europe is much more intelligent than risking a return to the bad old centuries.

Anyway, Tuesday was spent recovering and collecting up loose ends and tying knots in them and then suddenly it was Wednesday and time to get ready to go again. Driving to Budapest (or rather back from Budapest after the race) is too much, even for me, and so I booked a flight which departed from Paris at 06.40, which required getting up before I went to bed so I spent the night in Paris. The summer break cannot come soon enough. We’ve been on the road six months and a break is required before we embark on the end-of-season continent-hopping.

In Hockenheim the primary subject of gossip in the paddock, after the weather, was the calendar, with the news that the Catalan politicians have finally woken up to the fact that the Spanish GP was in deep trouble and had thus voted to give the circuit $23 million in order to secure a race in 2020. It is a one-off deal because the political situation in Catalunya (and Madrid, come to that) is such that they cannot agree on the day of the week and thus committing to deals over $100 million is all a bit overwhelming. The problem is that in F1 circles a 22nd race is not exactly welcomed with delight by the people who do the heavy-lifting. It may make teams a little more money apiece, but not a huge amount, and so one has to question whether the additional human damage is worth the gain. I tried to work out a possible calendar and discovered, much to my surprise that you can get 22 races in without too much drama and in fact you can end the championship earlier than it ends this year. I’ll not share the potential calendar as I am leaving that for the subscribers to my JSBM newsletter… and to readers of GP+ (see www.flatoutpublishing.com for further details). The JSBM gang have already had it. They have also had the news that Fernando Alonso is going to compete on the Dakar, which must have been a couple of weeks ago.

There was some chat in Hockenheim about the silly season and on Sunday night more than a few folk wondered about the impact that the race performances might have on the decisions that must begin soon. There are very specific questions relating to Valtteri Bottas, Pierre Gasly and Nico Hulkenberg, all of whom had the chance of good results and threw them away. They weren’t the only ones, but they are the ones who have the most to lose. Bottas’s error immediately had people talking about Esteban Ocon again, and while Bottas has done a solid job this year, there is an argument that Mercedes has been rather fortunate that its rivals have been underperforming and that if the others were firing on all cylinders, Mercedes would be under more pressure and should consider Ocon, not only to beef up the challenge but also to prepare for the day when Lewis walks away. There is some logic in this thinking. The question of Gasly arose once again because the two men who are most likely to replace him: Dany Kvyat and Alex Albon both had very good days. Albon’s performance was particularly good given that he had never driven an F1 car in the wet before the race began. In the end, he fell victim to a bunch of backmarkers gambling on slicks in the hope that it would get a bit more dry. It did and their gamble paid off, leaving Alex a few places behind where he deserved to be. It might still be a little early to promote him to Red Bull Racing in 2020, but a few more performances like Hockenheim and The Doctor might start thinking it is not such a big risk.

As for The Hulk, well to feel for him. His future at Renault depends a little on who else is on the market, but one can imagine that the French team might go for Ocon if he was available. The Hulk would probably be a good recruit for Haas, which is definitely looking to change one driver, as the two seem incapable of avoiding one another…

There are also questions about the Sauber (sorry, Alfa Romeo) team, but that is a little further down the F1 pecking order.

There was some talk about the changes that are required at Zandvoort, about a second Netflix series about F1 and about the fact that Zak Brown seemed not have given up on the idea of taking McLaren to Indianapolis once again. This time he wants to run a full-time team and is believed to be negotiating to buy an operation…

Well, we’ll see how that all works out.

In the meantime, I’ve ended up in a snack bar at Budapest’s Ferihegy Airport, waiting for my GP+ partner David Tremayne to arrive…

Oh, the fun we have.

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