26 September 2019

Notebook from here, there and everywhere

Life is pretty busy at the moment, as readers of the blog may have noticed. I’m sitting in the check-in area in Paris Charles de Gaulle, bound for St Petersburg, but I seem to be an hour or two earlier than I should be. I was here in Terminal 2C yesterday, arriving back from Singapore and I have since been to the Russian visa centre to pick up my visa (nothing like cutting it fine) and I spent a splendid 13 hours at home…

“You travel more than I do,” said an Emirates flight attendant when we were discussing life in F1, when we were waiting to get off the plane from Singapore when we arrived from Dubai. The Formula 1 schedule this autumn is pretty brutal, not that many people these days do all the races. Russia is the least popular with the media because one has to jump through hoops to get visas sorted out, and Sochi isn’t exactly the centre of the world on the global aviation map.  In order to get there you have to stop in multiple airports along the way and if you have no real desire to visit Istanbul, Astana, Tashkent, Irkutskor Krasnoyarsk, you might as well have a slightly longer return journey and go home, have a date with the wife, sleep in my own bed and pick up more miles on airlines that I wish to fly with on a regular basis. Siberia and the Stans can wait until I develop the desire to visit… Doing the F1 calendar is quite difficult and I suspect that if the folks from Liberty Media were doing all the races in Economy Class, we might have a 16-race calendar. But good for them for squeezing more money out of every situation. They are there to do that.  Nonetheless, this year we have nine races in 14 weekends, with no fewer than four races crammed into the month of September (there were five weekends) and we will go on from here to a heavily–loaded October and November as well. Before you know it, it will be Christmas, although I did notice the other day that the first shops near my home are already decking themselves with boughs of holly and soon there will be fa-la-la-la-lanoises and the jolly season will truly begin.

The Singapore Grand Prix is always quite a tough event for everyone because the race ends at after 10pm and when it takes six hours to produce a magazine, it does not require a lot of petaflops of computing power to figure out that the publication will be done by that joyous of all possible hours, four in the morning. Then there was the question of finding a taxi. This was easier than we thought but the driver us that our trip of about a mile would require us to pay him $75. We asked him if he knew the modern translation of “go forth and multiply” but he was obviously not a biblical scholar. Such people are always around when the laws of supply and demand kick in, but they are hardly great adverts for their countries, unless the nation is question wants the world to think that Singapore is a place for ruthless capitalists, in which case they are all heroes of the system. Anyway, we soon found a more reasonable human being and within five minutes we were back at the hotel  and had paid $7.

And then it was back to work again. There was a breakfast pitstop at six and then I hammered on through the morning until the work was done, with a couple of unscheduled face plants into the keyboard.

It was then time to leave the hotel and find some lunch but by three we were wondering what to do for the next three hours before heading off to the airport and duly wandered around the shopping malls of Singapore – tourist attractions that appear to be akin to the canals of Venice. Small wonder that the island state has been described in the past as ‘the world's only shopping mall with a seat in the United Nations'. 

And then it was off to Changi to fly back to Paris in time to find out what was happening on the Russian front (if you see what I mean) and pick up the visa.

So what happened in Singapore that warranted a scrawl in little green book? The big talking point was the future of Nico Hulkenberg, dropped by Renault and then not snapped up by Haas. That seemed an odd situation. Why would the two parties not leap readily into bed together? The team made all the right noises about why keeping Romain Grosjean alongside Kevin Magnussen was a great idea, but my sense is that this hid the problems with the negotiation. From what I hear, they could not agreed on money. The Hulk is currently paid about $5 million a year, which is a decent amount of money, well clear of the minimum wage. He wasn’t exactly happy at Renault when it emerged that Danny Ric is trousering almost four times that amount for doing a job which, to be fair, is not very different. As we head towards Sochi, Daniel has scored 34 points, Nico 33. One can feel for Nico but that is market forces for you. Clearly, Renault was not going to pay Nico substantially more than he is currently getting, having overpaid for Daniel. Ricciardo may not find it quite as easy to get the same salary when the deal is up for renegotiation, although that does depend, to some extent, on whether there want any other teams bidding for his services. Haas is believed to have financial deals based on results, with a big bonus per point but a fixed maximum, to make sure that the team keeps to budget.

I also heard that The Hulk and Haas could not agree on the duration of the contract, with the team wanting a one year deal and Hulkenberg wanting three. If that sounds a little odd, it is probably because Gene Haas does not want to tie himself down with contracts when it is not clear whether he will want to continue running the team, which has a commercial deal only until the end of 2020. If Haas doesn’t like the new rules, or thinks that they make it impossible for the team to win, he might decide to jack it all in and flog the team. It seems from his tweets that the hairy man from Rich Energy (his name escapes me as it is now completely irrelevant in F1) believes that Haas is negotiating a deal to sell the team to some Saudis. The team says this is not the case. I don’t give Mr Rich Energy much credence, but I do have a tip for him. If I had a buck for every potential new F1 investor from the Middle East (or wherever) mentioned then I’d have sufficient money to buy him a few cases of his own drink. Well, if I could find it anywhere…

With the doors being closed at Williams and Red Bull Racing, the former by Nico himself (so they say) and the latter by Red Bull, which says it will keep either Alex Albon (most likely) or put Pierre Gasly back into the seat (why would they do that?), then Hulkenberg’s only chance of a race seat in 2020 would appear to be at Alfa Romeo. He has raced for the team before and is also close to the current team principal Fred Vasseur, having come through the junior formulae with Vasseur’s ASM and ART teams. The problem is that it is by no means clear to the world who makes such decisions. Would it be the hired hand, Vasseur? Or would it be the Swedish billionaire who is paying for everything and occasionally shows up to watch a race? Or, might it be Ferrari, which supplies the team with the engine, transmission and energy recovery systems, and had a deal to nominate one of the drivers? The team is sponsored by Alfa Romeo (for now) and although Ferrari and Alfa Romeo are now independent of one another, they still have a lot of powerful shareholders in common. The word in F1 circles is that this year Ferrari nominated Antonio Giovinazzi for the drive, while the team picked Kimi Raikkonen, with a two-year deal. The aim was for Giovinazzi to develop and become Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari team-mate in time, but thus far there has been little sign of that happening as Giovinazzi has not been able to match Kimi - even if he led the race in Singapore during the pit stop cycles when he was out of sync with the other racers. The score is very clear. Kimi Raikkonen 31 points, Antonio Giovinazzi four points, each with just one retirement. In F1 terms that is a slam-dunk. And Giovinazzi’s case is not helped by the fact that last year Kimi couldn’t compete with Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari and this year he is struggling to compete with Charles Leclerc. In other words, Giovinazzi is not doing the job that they believed he could do. However, at this point, Ferrari is in a bit of a spot because, despite its recent revival on-track, it is not going to be easy for the Italian national racing team to ditch the only Italian driver on the grid… The local newspapers, who hold much sway down Maranello way, will have their knives out if that happens. The name Hulkenberg comes into the picture, because if Ferrari want a good driver who is solid but will not much worry Leclerc (in theory), then Hulkenberg would be better choice in 2021 when Vettel will possibly be out of the picture. If you were Mattia Binotto (or whoever makes these decisions) then would you choose Giovinazzi or Hulkenberg? Thus there would appear to be a choice between the two and a choice of what happens to them. The easiest way to sweep Giovinazzi under the carpet would not be to keep him at Sauber, but rather to make him the Ferrari test driver. That way he can disappear without trace next year and no-one will even notice. Th other option is to put The Hulk into Ferrari as reserve and leave Giovinazzi where he is to hang himself out to dry, thus They will have all bases covered and can still get Daniel Ricciardo or someone else at the end of 2020. There are persistent rumours that Ferrari wants either Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen but the team needs to show solid and consistent performance for more than 10 minutes to get that kind of commitment from one or the other. There is a parallel story as well as everyone seems to want a seat at Sauber (aka Alfa Romeo maybe, or maybe not) open for Mick Schumacher in 2021, apparently on the basis that the name will sell a squillion tickets and drive the business forward. Mick still needs to get himself a Superlicence in F2, but he ought to be able to do that in his second season of F2, based on his performance thus far.

If these scenarios do not play out then The Hulk may be exploring remote waterways with his paddle in the cupboard back home.

The decision to drop him from Renault seems to have been made on the basis of results that he achieved when he was team-mate to Sergio Perez a while ago, when compared to the results achieved when the Mexican was teamed with Ocon.

These suggest that Esteban is a better bet.

We will see how it all plays out, but the real action is likely to be at the end of 2020 as that will be when a lot of the current driver contracts come to an end, including those of Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas, Max Verstappen, Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo.

Elsewhere in the paddock things were pretty calm, although the Formula 1 race deal negotiation crew was on hand, which suggests that there was some talking required to someone. Given that Hanoi is a done deal and there seems to be no interest at all in a Malaysian revival and China is not yet ready for a second Grand Prix, one can surmise that the folks were there to talk turkey (with a small t) with the big bananas in Singapore. They have already said that they want the race to continue in the long-term “at the right price”, which is a not so subtle message to F1 that they have paid too much in the past. Everyone wants the race to keep going so there is a negotiation to be done. However, there are some interesting elements that need to be addressed. One concerns the circuit design. This will have to change if there is a deal that goes beyond 2021 because The Float at Marina Bay, the waterfront ‘stadium’ used as part of the Formula 1 track, (aka The Piquet Complex) is to be completely demolished and will not be available between 2022 and 2025 when a new event space, known as NS Square will be unveiled. It hasn’t been designed yet but it will cover much more space that the existing facility and one would assume that it will take into account the F1 track. The tender brief indicates that the current 27,000 seat grandstand should be replaced with seating for more than 30,000 (up to 35,000). Now, the easy way to fix this problem is to run the cars straight on at Turn 16 until they get to Turn 20, which might give the drivers a place to overtake as it would add 300 metres of straight road.

The problem, of course, that this will leave 27,000 bums without seats and the Singaporeans cannot afford that to happen (because it works out at about $6 million a year in ticket revenues). Thus the race promoter needs to find space for 27,000 seats elsewhere on the track. The answer when you look at the circuit is fairly obvious. If one extends the road to the first corner into what is currently the Grand Prix Village, and move the village up a block, on to what is currently a big car park, then add a couple of left-hand corners and run it back down Republic Boulevard, there will plenty of space for grandstands on both sides of the track, and the existing infrastructure can be reconfigured. This might also help the cause of overtaking and when the NS Square development is completed in 2025 the track can increase its capacity significantly, thus bringing in more money… This year’s race drew 268,000 fans over three days, up 5,000 from last year, but only would imagine that an extra 30,000 seats would bump that figure to about 350,000 over a three-day event.

Meanwhile, the F1 folk have not given up on their plans for a second race in China and the current activity is taking place in Chengdu, 2000km due west from Shanghai, just before the foothills of what eventually becomes the Himalayas. There is already a circuit in the region, known as the Chengu Goldenport Circuit, where there have been a few international events in the past, notably with A1 Grand Prix around a decade ago. This is being demolished and the plan is to build something new and fit for F1 purpose. I am told that the new facility is going to be designed by the US-based company run by South African engineer Alan Wilson, who previously designed a circuit in Ningbo. However the word is that there will be some kind of alliance between Wilson and Tilke, which is the usual F1 circuit design company.

There is a note about Racing Point and Mercedes which indicates that the Silverstone team had to reach a new agreement with the German engine maker last year when it went through the administration process. This deal is believed to be for seven years and includes Mercedes supplying the team with all the required power units, transmission and so on. There is another note that suggests that the new TV rights deal for the United States is now close to be concluded, although it is not yet clear whether these will remain with Disney offshoot ESPN (which is linked to ABC), or whether it will be won by a rival such as NBC, CBS or Fox of their affiliates. The deal is a difficult one to negotiate because of F1’s desire to have its own direct-to-consumer OTT network but we expect a deal to be announced in the run-up to the United States GP in Austin.

The other note mentioning relates to that clever fellow Alejandro Agag who has managed to give his new electric enterprise – Extreme E – a dash of F1 chic by announcing that Veloce Racing will join his off-road racing championship - and that Adrian Newey will be involved. This is piggy-backing off F1’s success, but hat’s off to Agag, who has always been a smart operator, constantly doing new things to get the spotlight on Formula E. The folks at Liberty Media have woken up to this and you will soon be seeing a lot more publicity about the green credentials of F1. The Veloce Racing organisation is filled with F1 connections, by the way. It is run by Daniel Bailey, who is the son of former F1 driver Julian Bailey and his partner Deborah Tee. Jack Clarke, another of the directors, is his step-brother. Their mother comes from a celebrated F1 media family, which owned Motoring News and Motorsport magazines and the LAT photographic archive for many years. The team will be chaired by two men who have been involved in F1 in the past, notably with Virgin/Marussia: Darryl Eales (the former CEO of investment firm LDC) and Andy Webb (former CEO of Marussia F1) and the connection to this whole gang probably comes from Tee’s half-sister Angela de Ferran, who is married to Extreme E’s chairman… Gil de Ferran.

On to Sochi.

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