17 October 2019

Notebook from Kansai Kokusai Kūkō

In the Formula 1 world, one gets to visit some remarkable places in the course of each season, and with more races no doubt we will encounter even more of them, although there won’t be much time to enjoy any of it… as the calendar gets bigger and our personal lives contract still further.

This is a problem that the money man pay lip service to, but really don’t care about because they assume that there is a never-ending supply of people willing and able to fill every position. They may be right, although the younger generations do not seem to stay as long as they used to. Still, there is only one way to find out how much people can and will take.

Formula 1 is never as effective as when there is a crisis, or a problem to be solved. Typhoons are nothing new. Political crises are a piece of cake, Rioting on the streets. And? Gun-toting bandits ambushing F1 personnel? Tick. Doing insane back-to-backs, even a triple-header, dodging ash clouds, and so it goes on. F1 just gets on and does it. What next? The four horsemen of the apocalypse? Hey, let’s organise a race between them…

Typhoon Hagibis was a very large and powerful storm, considered to be the most devastating in Japan since Ida in 1958, it has become the deadliest since Talas in 2011, which claimed 82 lives. The current death toll is 77 but at least 10 more people are still missing. The statistics are pretty impressive: 47 rivers burst their banks, many regions received up to 40 percent of their annual rainfall over two days, the town of Hakone (near Mount Fuji)  recorded one metre of rainfall within 24 hours. In Suzuka, the F1 circus battened down the hatches and hunkered down in hotels. It was miserable weather but nothing compared to what was going on in other areas further up the coast. I went out for a wander at midday on Saturday to see how things were going and had my umbrella inverted a few times, but I was not scooped into the sky like Dorothy and her dog Toto in the Wizard of Oz, nor flown around by umbrella like Mary Poppins. Up at the circuit the Formula One television people dismantled their TV centre (a big tent) and rebuilt everything inside the pit garages in just hours, with all the systems tested and ready to go. This meant there was no risk of the race going ahead without being televised. It was a Herculean achievement.

When we all went back to work on Sunday morning, it was tough cramming everything into just one day, but we got GP+ out within seven hours of the finish of the race, and then with all other work finished by midday (and some sleep as well), it was time to have a late lunch at the rather unglamorous local shopping mall – the only place open – and then we set off by train on the Kintetsu Line to Osaka Namba, from where we switched to the Nankei Rapi:t (this is not a punctuation mistake) and headed out to the man-made island that they call Kankūjima, which sits three miles off the coast of Osaka Bay. This is known to travel agents the world over as KIX, or Kansai International Airport. It is a facility that was designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, who also designed the Ferrari wind tunnel building in Maranello. It is linked to the mainland by a bridge which a year ago, when we arrived here for the 2018 Japanese GP, was damaged by a 2,591-ton oil tanker called the Houn Maru which had been driven into the bridge during Typhoon Jebi. Luckily, when we got there, the island was no longer flooded and the bridge had been reopened a few hours earlier…

Kansai International Airport is a remarkable place, but not unique as just up the coast in Ise Bay is the Chubu Centrair International Airport (aka Nagoya), which is very similar.

The Emirates Lounge in Kansai is nothing special, except that it features an automated beer-pouring machine. Perhaps they are widespread in Japan. We never really get out and about enough to know such things. The machine pours the perfect drink every time, tilting the glass to exactly the right angle, to achieve the perfect head. It’s so very Japanese.

The lounge is busy but it’s quiet as Japanese people are not given to shouting into their mobile phones providing the other lounge-users with too much information that none of us really need, as seems to happen everywhere these days. They are playing Mozart’s clarinet concerto (which never gets old) and the Sauvignon Blanc is slipping down with alarming ease. It gives me time to focus on one thing that I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere: F1’s luck when it comes to typhoons. The sport has been incredibly lucky over the years and has dodged a bullet at least four times in recent years. The typhoons always seem to roll up on Saturdays. It is really quite remarkable. But one day, that luck will run out and we will end up with a race that doesn’t happen.

Russian roulette is a dumb game.

Going to the Japanese GP in the typhoon season is tempting fate and it seems on paper quite an easy thing to switch the Grand Prix with the opening round of the Super Formula, which is held in April each year, a delightful time of year in the region, where there is a lull in the flow of tourists, after the cherry blossom pilgrimages are over. The race could so easily be back-to-back with the Chinese GP, which would provide a much more efficient calendar. The problem is that the Japanese want the race to be in October because the race falls on the Taiiku No Hi holiday weekend, with the Monday being Health-Sports Day (which is why everything is closed when we go out looking for lunch on the Monday). The Mobilityland Corporation (a subsidiary of Honda), the promoter of the race, and the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) are both keen to hold on to the date because they believe that this means that they will  get bigger crowds (and thus more revenues).  A switch would also create a problem in that the last round of the Super Formula Championship is traditionally held at Suzuka a couple of weeks after the Grand Prix and so it would mean that there would be two similar races close to one another on the calendar.

The ever-growing F1 calendar means that such problems really need to be fixed because if the sport is going to go up to 25 races in the years ahead, the dates need to be properly streamlined and not being stand-alone flyaways, which make no sense at all. Reorganising the F1 calendar is not an easy task given the demands/desires of the different race promoters. One thing I did discover in Japan was that the Australian GP doesn’t mind moving forward a week or two, despite a contract that ties them to one of two weekends in mid-March and gives them the first race status every year. They want to keep that but they can move forward a bit, although this would result in two things: it might impact on the Adelaide 500 Supercars race, which is traditional held two weeks before the Grand Prix, and it might coincide with the annual Moomba Festival in Melbourne. Most races would love to be part of a holiday weekend such a Moomba, but in Australia the business model is a little different to other events and there are questions as to whether Moomba is the best weekend for the race because “the corporates” might be away on holiday and so VIP hospitality might not be as profitable as it could be. This illustrates the problems of scheduling when one is demanding such high races fees.

Whenever a new race is announced there are always the naysayers who try to stop it happening. There used to be an organisation called Save Albert Park, which believed that the race was no good for their neighbourhood. It has slowly disappeared because the old folks who were involved seem to have finally died off and the value of the houses in the area has gone up enough to make the rest realise that actually the Grand Prix is a good thing. Anyone in Miami reading this and thinks that hosting a Grand Prix is a bad idea for their region should go to booking.com and try to get a room for next year’s Dutch GP weekend without having to take out a mortgage. Two thousand dollars a night might seem reasonable to mad Max Verstappen fans, but it seems thoroughly unreasonable to people who have to pay excessive hotel bills wherever they go…

One of the consequences of Typhoon Hagibis was that there wasn’t as much gossip about as usual, as Saturday is a day when news tends to swirl around. With everyone isolated in hotel rooms and then busier than usual on Sunday, there was little news beyond what was happening on the race track.

There was all the kerfuffling about Sebastian Vettel’s start, the early chequered flag and so on, but then came the intriguing protest from Racing Point alleging that Renault is using what was described as “a pre-set lap distance-dependent brake bias adjustment system”. This was obviously a complicated question and there was no time to look into it, but I suspect this is the not the last time we will hear of such a thing. The FIA has seized various parts and now intends to investigate and work out what is going on.

Having said that, we should not forget that Racing Point is not without its own skeletons in the cupboard as there is an ongoing arbitration case, which no-one is allowed to talk about, over the question of whether or not the resurrection of Force India in the summer of 2018 was conducted in line with the rules laid down in the Formula 1 commercial agreements. While one can appreciate that it was right to save the team which had been brought to its knees by the troublesome Indian ex-magnate Vijay Mallya, there is an argument over the fact that Haas had to go through the new team procedures and Racing Point (which is clearly a new team, based on the company number) did not. 

Mallya has been in the news again in recent days in the UK as the result of a law suit (another one) in which he was ordered to pay £150,000 to Advisory and Management Partners (AMP) of Liechtenstein for its involvement in the BWT sponsorship deal, which was to have paid the team €74 million if it had gone to full term, but in the end paid only €29 million. One presumes that the other €45 million is being spent on Racing Point. AMP was trying to get millions in commission (of 15 percent) on the deal but Mallya said that AMP did nothing to warrant the money and said that it was Toto Wolff of Mercedes who recommended Force India to BWT. I must remember to ask Toto if he ever got paid any commission… Mallya continues to try to avoid extradition, his expensive lawyers arguing that Indian jails would be too nasty for their client…

The big news of the race weekend in Japan was that the Renault board of directors voted to remove the company’s CEO Thierry Bolloré with immediate effect. The coup seems to have been orchestrated by the company’s chairman Jean-Dominique Senard who seems to have got the support of the French government, which controls 15.01 percent of the shares in the company, to get rid of Bolloré. Renault is in a bit of a mess at the moment as the French try to work out how to deal with its relationship with Nissan, following the demise of Carlos Ghosn, who remains in Japan on bail awaiting trial for alleged abuses of Nissan company funds. All of this is way above the question of F1 and there remain uncertainties about Renault’s future in the sport, with the pressure for better results being quite intense. There have been rumours for some time about changes within the technical side of Renault F1, but we are still waiting to see what happens.

Elsewhere, there are similar stories in relation to the Alfa Romeo sponsorship of Sauber as Alfa Romeo is not doing very well in the car markets and it is thought very unlikely that the partnership will continue after 2020. That would mean that the owners would have to find another sponsor of similar magnitude, or pay for the team’s activities on their own. The team’s results this year have been pretty disappointing and it seems that no-one is really getting on very well with one another, although they all smile when the cameras are around. There are some who argue that the policy of being a Ferrari satellite team was not the right move, particularly when one considers that the previous management of Sauber was working on a deal with Honda, which has been doing rather well of late with Red Bull and Scuderia Toro Rosso. With McLaren having jumped to Mercedes for 2021, there is no room for Sauber to do the same, although Fred Vasseur is close to Toto Wolff and seems to spend most of his time hanging out with the Austrian at the circuits, although Wolff is often seen spending his evenings in the company of Lawrence Stroll of Racing Point. Honda might be interested in helping out Sauber as a way to get Japanese drivers into F1, if they have achieved a little more success with Red Bull, but it would not be the same kind of relationship as was being discussed prior to Sauber’s decision to ally with Ferrari.

For the moment there is no sign of any new manufacturers planning to enter F1 so little chance of the team becoming a factory operation again… Haas remains tight with Ferrari but Gene Haas now wants to get more sponsorship in to support his team. The team has done what it was meant to do in terms of raising the global profile of the Haas brand and now is the time to get others to pay for it… The experiences this year with Rich Energy were fairly predictable (and indeed predicted) but it seems that the next move will be a deal with the publicly-traded oil company Orlen, which has been supporting Robert Kubica at Williams. Robert’s time with Williams is done, but he doesn’t want to leave the sport on such a low and so is looking for a deal with Haas that will allow him to be the team’s development driver, doing a number of FP1 sessions in 2020 and to race for the team in 2021. Most of this is achievable, but the team may baulk at giving his a fulltime drive…

 

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