11 July 2018

Notebook from a country house

English country houses, with their crunchy driveways, manicured lawns and draughty bedrooms are a key part of the Silverstone experience.

Many of the F1 world stay in their own homes for the Grand Prix but the rest of us have to make do with B&Bs, even if we are often up and gone before the second B kicks in. Still, there are worse things to be doing than whizzing through the leafy lanes of Middle England early in the morning, passing ancient oaks, golden fields and signs for village fetes, and getting stuck behind those who choose to take life at a slower pace, driving their urban tractors in lanes that were built for slimmer machinery. The radio is discussing the weekend's political developments with the cabinet having been locked up at Chequers, the Prime Minister's country residence, trying to work out what next to do with the Brexit mess. I cannot remember where I read it (probably on Twitter), but there was a glorious comment about what happens when upper middle class English people gather in remote country houses. There is always at least one murder… By Monday, the resignations were beginning.

The early mornings of Silverstone continue, even if we have handed the crown for traffic jams over to the French, because of the distances involved getting from the B&Bs to the Media Car Park. It used to be that we spent the first five minutes of every paddock conversation spent discussing the traffic problems, but that no longer happens. Yes, we might encounter the occasional horse riders or corpses of the nocturnal critters who fell victim to the Mr Toads of the modern era.

This year part of our route was closed to traffic, which triggered a rant from DT about the evils of the HS2. He wouldn’t accept that it had nothing to do with the high speed train route and was actually caused by work creating access for a 4.5-acre technology park that will be built around an interesting new aerodynamic testing facility that is being developed inside a 1.7-mile disused Victorian railway tunnel at Catesby. Once part of the Great Central Railway, it was abandoned in 1966, but will soon provide the ideal way to measure airflow over full-scale fast-moving vehicles (doing the same job as a wind tunnel) but with the car moving through the air, rather than the air being pushed over a model. This means that the data gathered is closer to the reality and there will be no problems with the heat from the fan. It will also mean that engineers can heat or cool the tunnel to simulate different air temperatures. The best thing, of course, is that this will all be happening underground, leaving the bucolic bliss unaffected by noisy racing machinery. This will fit nicely into what is currently known as Motorsport Valley, although the bureaucratic types are currently working to replace that moniker with the "Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge development corridor" name. This  aims to create a single, knowledge-intensive cluster of high tech manufacturing and research industries, while also creating homes and jobs while also protecting the current countryside. Work has already begun on new towns and the government has approved the idea of a new expressway for the corridor. This will also fall into line with a new East-West railway line that will connect Oxford and Cambridge. This provides and possible opportunity for Silverstone because although this railway will pass to the south of the track there is the possibility  of reviving an old branch line to Buckingham. These are all old railways where the rail beds are still in place, making it cheaper and easier to resurrect them. If this was to happen there would be a railway line within eight miles of Silverstone and a strong argument for the government to fund a link to what is one of the major hubs of the development corridor. Silverstone is also potentially the right kind of place for a "parkway" style of station, which would act as a park and ride interchange. Silverstone has plenty of car where commuters could their vehicles. It is also now becoming a destination in its own right with the growth of Silverstone Park, plus the soon-to-be-completed Silverstone Experience and the existing technical colleges. The track will soon have its own 197-room Hilton hotel, if contracts currently being prepared are signed off as planned. Getting people in and out of a venue is the key to making an event environmentally-friendly and efficient and any sensible modern racing facility features public transport.

There will soon be another aerodynamic facility opening at Silverstone Park, with the news that the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team has (rather quietly) off-loaded one of its two windtunnels from the crowded Brackley campus and will open it for customer business in the next few months. The tunnel was trucked out of Mercedes in January, allowing the team to expand the drawing office into the old windtunnel building, which will be linked to the reception building with an extension built over the old access road. This will provide the team with useful revenues, while also allowing it to expand at Brackley, where a four-storey parking garage has just been completed, helping the team with its problems of overcrowding.

There may at some point be another windtunnel built at Silverstone, as there have long been plans for Force India to build such a facility alongside the current factory. It has all been held back by lack of money but it is looking increasingly likely that the team will soon be sold as none of the owners is in a position to pay for it. Money is very tight and there are creditors baying at the doors and the danger of winding up orders if the team does not either pay or seek protection from bankruptcy. Although Vijay Mallya gives the impression of a man suffering serious delusions, it is clear that there are a string of buyers lining up. Perhaps no-one has yet agreed the price he wants, but if he is not careful the team will end up being sold off by an administrator, as a going concern. Among those interested are the Stroll family, which currently funds the disastrous efforts of Williams, there is Force India sponsor BWT, a water company from Austria; there is a much-trumpeted consortium including an energy drink that no-one has seen, which is supported by publishers-turned-sport entrepreneurs David Sullivan and David Gold, who own West Ham United football team. There is another consortium from the United States, which is believed to include Mexican-American Tavo Hellmund who may or may not be involved with a New York private equity fund called Castle Harlan. There is also a bid from Andretti Autosport, which is being linked to Rockefeller Capital Management (RCM), an ambitious private equity operation, linked to a huge hedge fund. This organisation recently helped baseball player Derek Jeter purchase the Miami Marlins. This bid would likely include Alexander Rossi, as he has unfinished business in F1. Much depends on decisions that need to be made about the budget cap in F1, which will pump value into the teams. The latest word is that a $150 million budget cap will be introduced by 2023, with budgets coming down in increments each year. This will only effect the big teams, as no-one else has such elevated budgets. There continue to be attempts to delay the introduction of new rules with the impression being that those currently involved want to slow things down so as to make it impossible for newcomers to enter F1 without being at a disadvantage. If manufacturers want to enter F1 in 2021, they need to have rules in place this year.

The uncertainty is impacting on the driver market as there is much chatter about what happens if Force India gets into troubles with talk of Sergio Perez planning to parachute into Haas (replacing Romain Grosjean) and Esteban Ocon being loaned by Mercedes to Renault for 2019 and 2020, which would help the French team and continue Ocon's development until he is required by Mercedes. These are all contingency plans at the moment, but could kick in if Mallya and his partners wake up to reality.

Reality has begun to bite at McLaren where the departure of Eric Boullier has led to a restructuring as Zak Brown tries to turn the team around. It remains to be seen whether the American marketeer can provide the leadership required to get the team moving. The team remains oddly structured and in need of clear chains of command and it is likely that further changes will come.

Things seem to be brewing up at Williams as well, where the team's woeful performance with a Mercedes engine will inevitably lead to heads rolling. The question is which heads…

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