30 May 2018

Notebook from an olive grove

We get an extra day in Monaco, the Grand Prix meeting effectively beginning on the Wednesday and running through until Sunday night. This used to be related to the festival of Ascension Day, which jumps about in the month of May, but is always deemed to be 39 days after Easter. Years ago, Bernie Ecclestone managed to separate the Monegasques from their religious holiday, but agreed to retain a day off on Friday. This pleased the hoteliers as it meant that they could continue to charge six-night minimums and thus squeeze the purses of the rich and famous, to extract the maximum amount of cash in the course of the week. There has long been piracy along this wild coastline, but it seems that most of the pirates have now retired to life as hoteliers, which is less taxing because you don't need to don tights and a mask nor carry a heavy sword. All you need to be a real buccaneer today is a credit card machine.

The reality is that the people who can afford to stay in Monaco are those who are either on expenses, or those who don’t know the price of a pint of milk. And why should they? Monaco is about excessive excess. No-one seems to get the point that the real skill if you are very rich is to enjoy the money without being seen to be wealthy. The Monaco Grand Prix is all about showing off how much money you have and what you can buy. In the words of Gordon Gecko: greed is good, greed is right, greed works... etc

While this is mildly off-putting for most normal folk, there is no doubt that when the sun goes down in Monaco harbour and the yachts are all lit up, one is easily seduced by the sounds that waft on the warm air across the port: the sound of cutlery on bone china, the clinking of ice on crystal glass and the gentle laughter of people without a care in the world.

I gave up staying in Monaco long ago and this year rented a small house in Eze, with a fabulous view of the famous village, with the sea and St Jean Cap Ferrat away in the distance. It is a view to die for and the property was made all the more special by a super terrace and an acre or so of ancient olive trees on five other terraces behind the house. When the sun is shining it doesn't get better than this.

I know people always complain that Monaco has boring races, but I don't see it that way. Monaco was always an absurd place to race Grand Prix cars, right back to the start of the event in 1929, but that is part of the attraction. It is always amazing to watch the best drivers in the world charging around between the barriers. It never gets old. I know of nowhere in the world where one can recharge one's enthusiasm for the sport as easily as in Monaco. You cannot help but be impressed. OK, on TV everything is wider and flatter, but the key point is that people keep watching and they keep buying tickets. The appetite for the race still exists. Look at other major races across the world and the same is not true. Yes, the Indy 500 had around 300,000 bums of seats but the viewing figures were not good. I am not an expert in these matters, but the Nielsen rating was 3.4, down from 3.6 last year, from 4.1 in 2016 and 4.3 in 2015. This was much better than NASCAR's big event on the day, the Coca-Cola 600, which scored a 2.4 rating. And most NASCAR races are lower than that. So, in the global scheme of things, F1 is doing pretty well and is growing very quickly on the social media scene. There is plenty still to do, but I find it very tiresome when people - particularly journalists - endlessly talk down the sport and look for negatives in everything.

The first note in this week's green notebook says "Force India coming to a head". This is self-explanatory but things are perhaps worse than some people think, with a sale needed very rapidly if the Silverstone team is not going to get into trouble. The problem appears to be that the two primary owners are having trouble coming to terms with the reality that they cannot get the price they want for the team, and as they cannot fund it, they must step aside. It is getting to a point now where they are going to have to accept whatever they can get because both of them are in deep, deep trouble, not just financially, but also legally. The money raised by the sale of the team will make no real difference to their troubles. Both men owe so much money that $100 million is but a drop in the ocean in their troubles. What is important now is for the team to be looked after to ensure that it continues to function properly and that jobs are not put in jeopardy. There are reported to be several potential buyers and I continue to hear that at least one of them has a strong American element to it. There is the usual story of Chinese funding, but in F1 Chinese money is as rare as a bleu steak in England, and will remain so until some Chinese financier actually arrives with some dosh, rather than just talking about doing so. I heard mumblings that we could see a private equity-style takeover of the team with an established US racing team being part of the package. I would guess that this would be structured in such a way as was seen in NASCAR back in 2007 when the Fenway Sports Group, a sports investment company, purchased 50 percent of Jack Roush's celebrated NASCAR team, leaving him to run the business. The Formula One group would love to see another US racing team name in Formula 1, as it begins its push into the United States, but which is the most likely to take such a step? One thinks of Penske, Andretti, Ganassi and Rahal as being obvious choices, but do any of them have to desire to get into F1? Obviously, if someone else is paying then it becomes an easier choice and with Force India being a team that works well, it would not involve much in the way of disruption. There is the added bonus that Force India is, in fact, run on a day-to-day basis by an American - the oft misspelt Otmar Szafnauer (checks to make sure that is correct). His story is an amazing one, worthy of a Fascinating F1 Fact, which began in Romania, went by way of Detroit to the Ford Motor Company, motor racing, and then BAR, where he was named Operations Director 20 years ago. He spent a lot of years at Honda after that before moving to Force India at the end of 2009.

There is a note that says "Sauber TD" as I heard that an announcement was coming soon at Hinwil, but I was not able to track down the name of the newcomer before it was announced on Monday. Still, you can't get every new story in F1. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have made a stab at Simone Resta because it was obvious that the new person would be Ferrari linked.

There is another note that says "Sassi" and in that one word is a whole complicated story that relates to all the reports that appeared over the weekend about allegations of irregularities with Ferrari engines. The key point in all these stories is that there are no proven facts available, so to suggest that Ferrari could be kicked out of the World Championship, as some newspapers did, is pretty high-wire journalism, without a safety net.

These are the facts: Lorenzo Sassi was the chief engine designer at Ferrari until last summer. He was fired by Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne, apparently because modifications to the engine did not produce the desired results or, as the French say, "pour encourager les autres" (to encourage the others). Sassi did his necessary gardening leave and then joined Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains in April. Since he joined there have been a number of technical directives from the FIA, relating to energy stores and to oil use in the turbochargers. The FIA's Charlie Whiting told Sky TV that the federation hears things from "teams who have taken employees from another team" and confirmed that he had been "asked to look at a certain aspect on the Ferrari". Whiting said that the FIA is always on the lookout for signs in the data that cars are using more power than they should be and said that the data "looked a little unusual" and was "very difficult to explain". Teams are responsible for satisfying the FIA that their cars are legal and it seems that Ferrari did not manage to do this. Whiting said that "we failed to be satisfied. We didn’t really have enough to go to the stewards with and say the car doesn’t comply, but we just worked through it with Ferrari. They made a few changes to the software on the car, and now once we looked at it and see how the car ran on the first day of practice we were entirely satisfied".

Everyone in F1 today assumes that no team is stupid enough to cheat and risk being caught and suffer the fate that befell Renault in 2009, but there is still a lot of action in what F1 refers to as "the grey areas". Some folks, who see gunmen behind every tree, have suggested that the FIA's apparent lack of clarity during the current process was because the federation was more interested in toning down Ferrari's opposition to rule changes in 2019 and 2021, rather than pushing for a big ugly cheating scandal. I suppose such things could be true, but quite how any journalist would prove such a story in court is another question. It may just be a hill of beans, but there will be circumstantial supporting evidence if Ferrari's performance drops off on circuits with more horsepower (such as Canada) and if the firm softens its political position.

Whatever the case, one hopes Marchionne will learn that having an itchy trigger finger in F1 is not always the best way to get what you want.

In the course of Sunday night, while others struggled with beer and dancing, I was puzzling through all these matters and also the question of how to explain to the world that Monaco was actually a disappointment for Red Bull. Yes, Daniel Ricciardo won a famous victory in great style and against the odds, given his MGUK problem, which he was able to driver around by avoiding using sixth and seventh gear. That was uplifting and the rejoicing garnered much publicity, including Daniel's splendid swan dive into Red Bull's on-site Swimming Pool (doesn't every hospitality area have one?) and yet, when the hangovers cleared on Monday in Milton Keynes there will have been the inevitable conclusion that Monaco was a missed opportunity because of Max Verstappen's Red Bull in a China Shop moment on Saturday morning when, distracted by a slow car in the Swimming Pool section, he misjudged the exit, clipping the barrier on the inside, breaking his suspension and flying across the central kerbing and into the wall at the exit, an almost exact repetition of an accident he had in 2016. The car was so badly damaged that he missed qualifying and had to start from the back of the grid and could only gather two points on Sunday. So the team scored 27 points when the car was capable of scoring 43. This made the job of "damage-limitation" much easier for Ferrari and Mercedes, which both knew that they were going to struggle to beat Red Bull.

The other notes worth mentioning are "LH done. GB", which suggests that Lewis Hamilton's deal with Mercedes is done and will be announced at the British GP. There is another that reads "JEV Merc", although to be fair Jean-Eric Vergne seemed to be visiting most teams during the weekend, trying to parlay his success in Formula E into a return to Formula 1. There are various faces I noted including Hans Stuck, Nelson Piquet Jr, Oliver Turvey and Pastor Maldonado and Sir Patrick Head, who won my prize for straight-talking by asking Alejando Agag whether the Spaniard's success with Formula E was down to skill or luck.

And finally there was a note, made on the grid, which questioned the oddity of having female and male "representatives of TAG-Heuer" with cardboard message boards for the drivers, with messages from fans such as "a podium is long overdue" for Nico Hulkenberg and "Full throttle, Lance" for Lance Stroll. I am sure that Nico did not need reminding of his lack of podiums, while Stroll obviously knows how to press his pedals. The point of all this was from the TAG-Heuer models to post pictures of themselves and these cardboard signs on social media. A bit like having a computer, powered by a steam engine.

Possible, but rather a daft idea…


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