2 October 2019

Notebook from Sheremetyevo

If one cannot get out in time for a Sunday night flight from Sochi, one inevitably ends up in Alexander Pushkin International Airport in Sheremetyevo, just to the north of Moscow, and usually there is then a long wait to make connections to the west.

This means that once the work of a Grand Prix weekend is finished – usually on Monday morning - one has to sit around for six or more hours before heading off to the airport. One can complain but it is an opportunity to see things and do things and so I found myself wandering around the Olympic Park in Sochi (which is actually part of the town of Adler) and I ended up in front of the Hotel Bogatyr, a faux-medieval Disney-style castle where some of the teams stay during the race weekend. I then wandered down through a red-painted path lined with shacks, which housed shops and bars and ended up on the boardwalk beside the sea (although it was tarmac) and strolled onward, heading east until I found a restaurant that looked like the kind of place I wanted to eat lunch. It was called the Mare d’Amore – the sea of love – and I think, given the name, that it was Italian-themed, although the menu had a bit of everything. The sun was shining and the Black Sea was glittering and with a beer in one hand, all seemed well in the world. The food was good and then a couple of my French colleagues were wandering by and came in to join me.

Looking back over the five days, it had been a pleasant enough stay. It had began in a complicated fashion when I turned up and was told that I was only staying one night in the hotel which had been booked for five nights. But, with the help of Google Translate and divine intervention from Expedia, it was all sorted out and I got an upgraded room for my troubles. It struck me that whoever invented Google Translate should really be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for making it possible for different nations to communicate with one another without learning their languages. The minute one can understand what another person is saying, so much of the stress goes out of the process and you discover that people are just people, doing the best they can - as we all are.

One evening in the restaurant at the hotel, I asked for some ice cream using my mobile with the Google Translate system and added a thought: “Next year,” I wrote. “I’ll try to speak a bit more Russian.” The waitress smiled a lovely smile and disappeared off to return a few moments later with her mobile phone. “And I will try to learn more English,” she wrote. People are people.

One thing that years of international travelling has taught me is that I was dumb not to have continued with Latin lessons when given the choice at the age of 11. It seemed such a useless thing at the time but now I wish I had done it because it is the mother of all the so-called Romance languages: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese etc. But not German. Fortunately I learned a lot of German later on, but I am still jealous of people who can pick up languages sufficiently to hold conversations that I can only dream of having. I would suggest that all young people reading this blog decide to study Latin, but I guess that in a few more years, we won’t need to know any languages as machines will automatically tell us what to say and understand what others are saying.

The English are spoiled in Formula 1 in that the default language is English and if you do not speak it, you are at a disadvantage. There are some folk who can switch effortlessly between three or four languages, which is something I always find astonishing but would love to be able to do. I guess that one needs to immersed in one or the other for a significant period of time…

Immersion is an interesting thing not just in languages but also in cultural terms. I was born and grew up in the Cold War era, which ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia was the enemy and so we were all naturally suspicious of anything and everything. When I first started visiting the country I guess that this subliminal mistrust remained, but as time goes by I understand more and have concluded that people are people wherever you are. They are moulded by their experiences (just as we are) and one needs to be open-minded and accept the differences, rather than being upset that they have different norms.

Looking out over the Black Sea, with its jet skis and parasailing boats, and kids with rubber rings, I concluded that really there is no reason to distrust anyone apart from taxi drivers, who are untrustworthy in many countries, and of course politicians. Wherever I went in Russia people could not have been more helpful. Just as an example, on Sunday night we were walking back to the hotel when a car stopped and reversed back towards us. It was the race promoter Sergey Vorobyev, and he wanted to know if he could give us a lift anywhere…

In terms of news, it was a good weekend for me as I managed to break the McLaren returns to Mercedes story. In such circumstances there are always plenty of media who use such a story and credit “paddock rumours” rather than acknowledging the source. I particularly enjoyed one well-known F1 media outlet which wrote that a deal was in ”advanced negotiations”, which clearly indicated that they had no clue about what was going on, and so I replied that the parties involved had better hurry up because the deal would be announced in the morning… Getting real scoops in Formula 1 is not easy and thus when it does happen it is a moment to be savoured. In truth, breaking stories ahead of announcements works for the parties involved because it gives them two bites of the PR cherry, with a load of press when the story is first written and then another hit when the news is confirmed. The three teams involved (McLaren, Mercedes and Renault) all had different views about who had told me the secret, which was amusing as I was able to tell each of them that their organisations were very leaky… And, no, I will never tell…

The other good story of the weekend was the news that Red Bull has applied to change the name of Scuderia Toro Rosso to Scuderia Alpha Tauri from the start of next year. In order for this to happen all the signatories of the Concorde Agreement have to be in agreement. This should not be a problem, however, as the team has had the same name since 2006, after Red Bull bought control of the old Minardi team. It is a bit of an odd thing to do given that there is a team called Alfa Romeo Racing which competes with a car known as an Alfa, although this was designed and constructed by Sauber Motorsport AG, and is badged as an Alfa for promotional reasons. Thus next year will likely feature Alfa Romeos racing against Alpha Tauris, which will be a little complicated for commentators when they have to explain Alfas overtaking Alphas and vice versa. It is of little interest beyond that except that it may be an indication that parent company Red Bull is changing its approach towards the team, which has always been treated as a junior team with no real commercial strategy beyond that. The drinks company has sold chunks of the team before but none of the deals has ever ended Red Bull’s control. However, with a budget cap coming, a limited number of entries and a high barrier to entry under the terms of the new commercial deal, the teams will soon take on more value.

Alpha Tauri is the name of a fashion brand which was established by Red Bull in 2016, named after a bright red star in the constellation Taurus (hence the Red Bull). The brand revealed its first collection in 2018 and specialises in new textile technologies and currently has a range of clothing being sold online and through stores in Graz and Salzburg.

Much of the paddock gossip in Sochi related to the ongoing discussions about  the technical regulations in 2021. The teams seem to be fairly opposed to the ideas that are being put forward by the FIA, with input from the Formula 1 group. When all is said and done, they can be opposed to the idea but if the governing body wants to do its own thing, it can do so at will. Then the teams must decide whether they wish to compete but there really is not much mileage in teams saying that they are going to quit. They use F1 now because it has a value and there is no real alternative that does the same job. And the idea of the teams setting up their own series is something that has been discussed a million times since 1981 but it has always failed to get off the ground. The Manufacturers want to be able to claim they are “World Champions” and only the FIA has the right to use the term.

The one thing that might stop the changes from happening, apart from negotiation, is Ferrari’s celebrated veto, which dates back to 1981. However, one might argue the 2021 rules are not covered by the 2013-2020 agreements and so Ferrari does not actually have a veto…  There is a counter argument in that the Concorde Implementation Agreement of 2013 commits the signatories to renew the deal for the period 2021 to 2030 on “substantially the same terms”. But what does “substantially” actually mean? Because much of the agreement can be unchanged but the veto can be left out. During the Sochi weekend, Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto said that it would be “a shame” to have to use the veto but there is another fight required before that can happen. Even if they win this discussion there are still conditions that applied to the veto which confuse matters as Ferrari is only allowed to use the veto if certain conditions were met, notably that the veto would not be “prejudicial to the traditional values of the championship and/or the image of the FIA” and that the new regulations were “likely to have a substantial impact” on Ferrari’s “legitimate interest”. One would also therefore need to define what these terms actually mean.

I was chatting to Bernie Ecclestone in the paddock in Sochi and he said that if he was still in charge he would stop messing around and say that the teams had a few days to sign up for 2021 and that would be that. If they didn’t sign, they would be out… Bernie was very confident that they would all sign because when push comes to shove, the racing bosses of big companies are not the main bosses and must answer to them and the main bosses want the benefits for F1, without any stress, as they have other things to worry about.

F1 history shows that all F1 contracts can be renegotiated if everyone wants things to change, but in reality most of the time it is impossible to achieve complete support for anything… One rumour doing the rounds in Sochi would require an existing deal to be axed. The Russian GP has a contract until 2025 and so the idea of the race switching to a new venue near Saint Petersburg in 2021 is rather unlikely. The story, published in the Daily Mail, suggested that there will be a new purpose-built circuit around 15 miles from the city centre, which will be funded by Russian President Vladimir Putin. This makes no sense at all.

There has been talk of F1 circuits in the Saint Petersburg region for more than 20 years, with Ecclestone trying to get a deal together to run a race at a proposed facility close to Pulkovo Airport, which is around 12 miles south of the city centre. This never happened. More recently there were discussions about a street track in the city - but these failed as well. President Putin is a very powerful fellow but in order to switch a race he would need agreement from Formula 1 and from the current promoters.

In theory, building a new circuit 15 miles outside Saint Petersburg, might make sense, except that a new facility built by a Putin ally is close to being finished 50 miles north of the city near the Igora ski resort. This is a Grade 2 track. Formula 1 requires Grade 1. The new circuit is going to struggle to survive financially because the region is snow-bound for four months each year, which means no significant revenues for one third of the year. There is no infrastructure to support a Grand Prix out there in the forests, and while Saint Petersburg is a global destination city, having a Grand Prix at Igora would be a bit like having a London Grand Prix at Clacton-on-Sea… The only interesting thing about the suggestion is that Saint Petersburg has a period in June when the sun never fully sets and the sky stays bright all night and so F1 could have a night race in full daylight… which would certainly be a first…

Anyway, there is a disconnect between the 15 miles mentioned in the story and the 50 miles that exists between St Petersburg and Igora. Are we really supposed to believe that a second circuit will be attempted and delivered within two years, when eight of those months mean that construction is very difficult? Or did the Daily Mail confuse 15 and 50?

Russia spent a fortune to develop Sochi and to get F1 there. The event is now working pretty well, so why would a change make any sense? Putin is not a Formula 1 fan as he has proved by showing up each year at Sochi just to take part in the podium ceremony. You don’t see him there when they are playing the national anthem before the start of the race, do you? He didn’t show up this year, but Bernie Ecclestone turned up on race day in a suit, which suggested that perhaps he was expecting something to happen, but Putin did not show up this time, the first time he has missed the photo opportunity.

The only other decent rumour doing the rounds of the Sochi paddock was that Robert Kubica and his sponsor Orlen could end up with Haas next year, with Robert acting as the reserve and test driver and Orlen getting a lot of space for not much money. With the implosion of the Rich Energy sponsorship, Haas has space on the car and is keen to reduce the contributions made by Haas himself. Kubica is reputed to be a good test driver and simulator driver and th Haas team has struggled this year to figure out how to make the Haas VF-19 work with the current Pirelli tyres. The car is essentially quite quick but it has tended to fade in the races and neither of the current drivers nor reserve Pietro Fittipaldi has been able to find a solution, although Grosjean’s suggestion to return the car to Australian spec did result in some progress.

Talk of a possible sale of the team to Saudi Arabia should not be taken too seriously. The stories came from Rich Energy’s William Storey, although his credibility in the F1 paddock is somewhat damaged these days… 

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