4 July 2018

Notebook from a greasy spoon

I left Austria late, it must have been seven thirty on Monday morning. I meant to be on the road much earlier, but at some point when the magpies were starting to thieve, I fell asleep at the wheel of my computer. Thus, there was a mad rush to finish the JSBM newsletter and then it was straight on to the road. It is a long way from the Red Bull Ring to Paris and as the Germans are in the middle of a lengthy programme to replace the original autobahns, which have finally worn out after 90 odd years of service, it takes longer than Google tells you it does. 

Austrians are always boring and so there are tunnels under every hillock. When you get out of the final one going north, you can either turn left and head to Salzburg, Munich, Stuttgart and Mannheim and from there to France, by way of Saarbrucken; or you go on northward to Passau, Regensburg, Nuremberg, Heilbronn and Mannheim. I decided to take the northern route because the last time I went south it was a total mess.

I found myself in convoys of grumpy Dutchmen, as I had last year, although they were grumpy for different reasons. Last year it was because Max retired early and so their 2000km there-and-back came with little reward. This year it was because most of them had hangovers after a night of drinking and clog dancing to celebrate Max's victory. And I’m not just being clichéd, there were lots of orange clogs to be seen out in the public areas. Anyway, grumpy Dutchmen can be quite disagreeable, particularly when the road seizes up. I took an executive decision to ditch the motorway after a few miles. I don't think I have ever seen such ridiculous traffic jams as there were between Passau and Regensburg and then later between Sinsheim and Mannheim. As thousands of trucks sat in jams for dozens of miles on end, I jinked about on back roads and had a number of adventures, seeing various F1 teams stuck in the jams as I passed close to the seized autobahn.

I was happy that I knew all the rat runs around Hockenheim, as this took an extra hour off the journey. I don't know what impact these jams had on everyone getting the F1 pantechnikons to Silverstone on time, but I suspect there were some dramas as a result. Anyway, it was almost four in the afternoon before I got to the French border and spent the next three hours leap-frogging ART Grand Prix trucks as one or the other of us stopped along the way. I was home by nine thirty.

F1 doesn't really leave a lot of time for the rest of life at the moment, but I was off in the morning to mow some lawn and weed the raspberry patch in Normandy (in a place where there are no phone signals) before taking a night ferry to England… Yes, I suppose I could hire someone to cut the lawn for me, but I rather enjoyed the monotony of it - and watching butterflies fluttering about. It reminds me of the world we left behind...

​The Austrian GP, upon many hours of reflection, was a good race and the fat lady didn't really sing until a lap before the chequered flag, when it became clear that neither of the Ferraris was going to catch Max. He had done a terrific job to keep his tyres alive, but it was tense all the way.

​It was pretty awful day for Mercedes, the first double retirement since Hamilton and Nico Rosberg collided in Spain in 2016 and the first time Lewis has not finished since Malaysia that same year. It has to happen occasionally, I suppose. Even steamrollers break down. This was fortunate for Ferrari because it put them back in the hunt and at the same time helped to disguise the fact that they have rather fallen back since all the kerfuffles about the double battery just before Monaco. The fact that they are fighting with Red Bulls is an interesting reflection on where they are. Mercedes is clearly ahead, but they need to keep the cars running… and not screw up on strategy. It was interesting to hear the team's chief strategist James Vowles punch his own lights out and take the blame. You don't hear that sort of thing often in F1 and it is a sign that Mercedes is not a team with a blame culture, which is how the best teams are. Yes, it was a screw-up, but it highlighted just how strong Mercedes is psychologically.

​Before the race I was talking to various team principals on the grid and it is clear that the big guns are not happy with the engine rules that the FIA is trying to get sorted for 2021. There is a fair bit of opposition and some decent arguments against the new rules, but one must also say that it is in their interest to argue and delay decisions in order to make it impossible for newcomers to get involved. And what F1 really needs is some new engine manufacturers to liven things up. It is good that Honda has gone with Red Bull, although it is rather confusing how a team can be named Aston Martin Red Bull Honda, when Aston Martin and Honda are rival car manufacturers. This odd alliance has been cobbled together because Red Bull wants to continue its long-term industrial partnership with Aston Martin, which is growing all the time, based on creating Aston Martin customers by offering cars designed by Adrian Newey. Red Bull gets a share of royalties for every vehicle sold and this feeds back into the system as the Aston Martin sponsorship. The deal is rumoured to be worth $30 million a year for three years, so the team cannot just drop it. Besides, it keeps Adrian Newey interested...

It is doubtful at this early stage that the relationship is more than the hotch-potch it appears, but one might imagine that it could lead to things in the future. Aston Martin is rumoured to be lining up for a flotation at the moment, with the current investors keen to reap some of the benefits of the ongoing revival. However, if Honda was to be interested in buying shares and using Aston Martin as part of its range, it might prove to be just as good. Honda currently has only two brands: Honda and the luxury brand Acura. It does not have any sports car names, unlike other manufacturers who use different brands to sell to different market segments. Aston Martin has plenty of potential to increase its current sales to Ferrari levels. And when you get that you can overcharge shockingly because the world is full of people who want fancy cars to go with their overpriced watches and shiny suits.

The boss of Aston Martin is also a man well-versed in the quirky ways of the Japanese. Andy Palmer was doing business with Honda in the early 1980s when he worked for Austin Rover which at that time had an alliance with Honda, which produced the Rover 800, known elsewhere as the Honda Legend. Later Palmer moved to Renault Nissan and became an important executive at Nissan for 13 years, rising to the top of the company and playing an important role in its revival. So he is well-equipped to do good things with a big budget and an autonomous brand. Knowing Andy, he might see it as a chance to become President of Honda one day... That would be radical but the current CEO Takahiro Hachigo argues that Honda needs to wake up and re-invent itself with some old-fashioned fighting spirit. I’m not saying it’s going to happen but it is the only way I can figure out to turn the Aston Red Bull Honda into something logical.

However, the ever changing landscape of the car industry means that things change. For the last few months we’ve been expecting an Alfa Romeo takeover of Sauber, but now I’m hearing that the passion is cooling, not because the team hasn’t done a good job of late, but rather because the decision-maker will soon be changing and Sergio Marchionne may not be getting the successor he wanted. He planned to use an F1 programme to promote Alfa Romeo as a luxury sporting brand, by linking the new Alfa Romeo products with the glamour of F1. Now, it seems, Fiat Chrysler Automobile (FCA) chairman John Elkann (one of the Agnelli family) disagrees on the future direction of the company. Marchionne will stand down officially in May next year but he is already tidying his desk and looking ahead to running only Ferrari.

Some believe that Marchionne has ambitions to take over the whole of Ferrari, with some form of management buyout to gain control of the firm which is now listed on the stock exchange, in order to become a modern version of Enzo Ferrari.

Marchionne wanted to hand his FCA job to CFO Richard Palmer (no relation to Andy), but Elkann is reportedly pushing to engineer the family’s exit from the car business and is planning to do a deal to sell the entire FCA business to Hyundai. He is not passionate about cars and has already sold off chunks of the business. FCA is facing a lot of challenges because of rising oil prices, the company's lack of electric vehicles and the related technology - and slow sales. The word is that Hyundai’s CEO Chung Mong-koo will launch a bid for FCA when the summer holidays are over. It is possible that the Alfa Romeo sponsorship might continue, but that would only work if the company’s objectives remain the same.

All of this means that someone may have to fund the team and with big budget sponsors rare the owners would have to step up to the plate. Finn Rausing certainly has the money to pay for his F1 team if that is what he wants to do.  

On the subject of other manufacturers, it was interesting to see Fritz Enzinger, the head of Volkswagen Group motorsport and all Porsche competition activities in the paddock at the Red Bull Ring. There have been tons of rumours about one or more VW brands coming to F1 in 2021 but Enzinger, a twinkle in his eye, said that he was there because he comes from the village of Oberwölz, which is not far from the circuit.

Meanwhile sources in Italy are reporting that Charles Leclerc has agreed terms to join Ferrari in 2019, but has yet to sign the contract, which would cover the 2019 and 2020 seasons, with the Monegasque driver running as team-mate to Sebastian Vettel, learning the ropes and then, if all goes well, taking over as the Ferrari number one at some point in the future - when Vettel moves on. 

The move has been on the cards for some time with Ferrari nurturing Leclerc's career through Formula 2 and placing him at Sauber this season. If the deal is confirmed it will be the end of the line in Formula 1 for Kimi Raikkonen, unless the Finn is able to land a drive elsewhere - or even wants to. He could go back to knocking down trees with rally cars.

Elsewhere on the F1 driver market, it is looking more and more likely that Fernando Alonso will spend one more year with McLaren before he heads off to IndyCars, because as a contracted Toyota driver in the World Endurance Championship, it would be impossible for him to race for Honda at Indianapolis. Honda's motorsport boss Masashi Yamamoto says that such a decision would remain with Honda North America, but added that he would advise the US operation on such a decision. There are questions about whether Stoffel Vandoorne will remain where he is as he does not seem very comfortable at the moment at McLaren. As team-mate to Alonso, it was always going to be difficult and while Stoffel has matched Fernando from time to time in qualifying, he is usually outraced by the Spaniard. 

Much depends on the way the driver market develops, with the key element in the midfield being what now happens to Force India. The hope is that there will soon be a neat and tidy sale that allows the team to go forwards without any financial or legal drama, but this depends on whether the two eccentric Indian owners behave in a sensible fashion. If they cannot agree terms for a sale, the team is in danger of suffering the same sort of fate as Manor, which was forced into administration because the owner had an unrealistic idea of the value of the team. 

There is also the question of whether Daniel Ricciardo decides to go or stay at Red Bull Racing. If Ricciardo moves elsewhere - and there seems to be little hope at Ferrari or Mercedes (with the latter expected to announce shortly - perhaps this week - that it is retaining Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas). If Ferrari goes with Leclerc, Ricciardo's choices are limited. Renault and McLaren would both be seen as a step backwards and so his best hope is to stay with Red Bull.

Mercedes is currently looking at what to do if the Force India situation deteriorates, with the contingency plan being to put Ocon into Renault for a period of time. The French would love to get the youngster, if only on loan. If Ocon moved to Renault this would displace Carlos Sainz, although the latter could go to McLaren if a seat was available there. Although he is still a Red Bull driver, it is unlikely that he would go back to Toro Rosso, unless there were no other choices available to him. 

There is also talk that Sergio Perez could end up at Haas, replacing Romain Grosjean, who seems to be facing the end of his career in F1 after a series of incidents, although the result in Austria may help him.

We will find out more this weekend. I’m now in England and having had the obligatory fry-up will wend my way to Silverstone, by way of here and there...

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