31 July 2018

Notebook from a sweaty airport

Years ago, on the night of a German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, won I think by Eddie Irvine, after Mika Salo was ordered to let him pass, we finished work pretty late. There was nothing to eat and we needed food and so we rushed in indecent fashion to the only place we thought might be open and arrived at close to midnight at a McDonalds in the industrial suburbs of Ludwigshafen, where they hadn't yet put the lights out.

“Well,” said my mate, as we munched on lukewarm hamburgers and gazed out at the chimneys of the BASF chemical works, "don’t ever let anyone tell you that this Formula 1 is a glamorous life!”.

I am always reminded of this moment when things seem pretty miserable and it came into my mind at three in the morning in Budapest, where I was sitting at a cheap desk in a cheap hotel room. It is the kind of place where they raise an eyebrow if you ask if they have room service or a minibar.

Knowing this in advance, we had stopped off at the Shell garage on the M3 motorway on our run back from the circuit to the city. We wanted something, anything, that was edible. They had some sandwiches which even seagulls would have turned up their beaks at, judging them likely to be filled with unhelpful clostridium botulinum. We bought some crisps (or chips as the Americans would say) and there were some energy bars.

How far wrong can you go with energy bars? I thought. Some crunchy cereals glued together with honey or something similar, with a little cinnamon or whatever to make them taste better than glued-together cereals. Knowing it would be a long night, tickling the keys of the battered Apple that travels the world with me, I put them aside for the early hours, when a little boost can help the metabolism power on through to dawn. I was looking forward to a little crunchiness but instead I found a bar of what appeared to be purple gloop. The label said that they were free of gluten, sugar and various other nasty things, They were also free of anything nutritious, any flavor and any evidence that they increased levels of energy. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why I didn’t finish my work until eleven o'clock on Monday morning, seventeen hours after the race. I usually manage to do everything in 12 hours, but the Hungarian weekend was one that involved complicated news stories that needed unravelling as well as writing. And unravelling is always a lengthy business. There were two stories in particular that ate the time and energy: the mess at Force India (and what happens next); and the disappearance of Sergio Marchionne and what it means for F1 in general, Ferrari in particular and Sauber as an aside.

The notebook was filled with jottings about Force India, including such gems as "Stroll paying the salaries", "Vijay talking rubbish about debt" and so on.

As I understand it, the actual debt owed by the team amounts to "only" $43 million, which is nothing in F1 terms. This means that the administrator ought to be able to easily raise the money required to pay off the creditors, by selling the team as a going concern, with everyone who is owed money being able to get 100 cents on the dollar, which is a fairly unusual state of affairs. However, this still has to be achieved and we will have to see what ripples appear in the road ahead. What cannot easily be done is to transfer all contracts and assets from the old company to a new one because that would impact on the rights and benefits of the company, under the F1 commercial agreements. The same company must be used. One can try to get all the teams to agree to a company switch, but experience suggests that they won't do that. So, either Force India Formula One Team Ltd (02417588) emerges from administration, or the whole thing will reduce in value significantly and the buyers will likely dry up because not getting the commercial rights money would make it very hard for a team to survive.

What this probably means is that the drivers are free to leave if they wish to move elsewhere and there was a lot of talk in Budapest of Esteban Ocon being shifted to Renault when the F1 circus goes back into action in Spa. I am not saying any of this is true but that doesn't make it fake news. There is a huge amount happening as managers and teams negotiate for all the possible scenarios, but nothing happens until the dominoes start to fall, and they may not fall as people think. This is why this time of year is called "the silly season", but that does not mean that all the rumours are silly. It means that some don't work out in the end. In some respects it is probably better to NOT try to be the news-breaker at this time of year because for every story you get right, there is a risk that others will be wrong.

For what it is worth, the thinking in the paddock in Budapest was as follows. If Ocon moves to Renault, then his place at Force India will likely be taken by Lance Stroll, not because his father will own the team (because that is very unlikely to happen), but rather because Lawrence Stroll will have made some loans to Force India and that will give him the chance to argue in favour of his son. Force India is a better place to be than Williams (no-one will argue against that) and so Lance will be able to spend the autumn showing off his skills. If that was to happen, there are two possible scenarios: Williams might put Robert Kubica in the car, but it would probably be wiser to agree to hand over the spare drive to George Russell.

George is real Williams material. A rising British star with lots of potential and support from Mercedes, with which Williams has little choice but to ally in the future. The word is that Team Willy is going to have to give up making lots of its own parts in the future, for lack of money, and will thus develop a relationship which is close to that of Haas and Ferrari. There really isn't a lot of choice given the situation.

Ocon's move to Renault (Allez les bleues) would displace Carlos Sainz, but McLaren are hot to trot with the Spaniard, and his arrival will please Fernando Alonso (which the team feels it needs to do at the moment). This will, of course, mean that the miserable Stoffel Vandoorne will be offered a free ticket home to Belgium, although he will possibly end up back in F1 next year with Sauber (Fred Vasseur is a BIG Stoffelphile)  although this rather depends on who is paying the bills in Hinwil, as the owner's passion for Marcus Ericsson seems undimmed, despite the drubbing that novice Charles Leclerc has given him this year. It also depends on whether Leclerc is plucked out and taken in at Ferrari (or Haas, as an alternative option).

These questions are dependent on the other big question of the Hungary weekend: who runs Ferrari now, and will they follow the policies of the late Sergio Marchionne? The chances are that there will be big changes because Marchionne is believed to have had some fairly radical ideas in the pipeline, including the replacement of Maurizio Arrivabene by Mattia Binotto, and the appointment of Laurent Mekies as the new TD. The problem is that the new Ferrari CEO is Louis Camilleri, who is the chairman of Philip Morris International, the tobacco firm that has long supported Ferrari. Camilleri was Arrivabene's boss at PMI for many years before the latter moved to Ferrari and the two are believed to be friendly, which suggests that Arrivabene will probably stay on and begin to build some kind of a power base, which has been nonexistent under Marchionne, which perhaps explains why he always looks so grumpy. The pundits in Italy (not that they know much these days) suggest that this means that Raikkonen will probably stay on for yet another year because they don't want to upset Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari's star turn. Marchionne supposedly believed in bringing in Leclerc to push Vettel harder, but as we have often seen Vettel is not always great under pressure and so it might have been a bad idea (for him). As an indication of this situation, I find in the notebook a scrawl that reads: "Sebastian… Kimi is faster than you".

It was clear in the middle of the race that Raikkonen was indeed quicker than Vettel and any team that wants to be considered to be fair and even-handed would have instructed Vettel to get out of the way and let Kimi go after Hamilton. That did not happen and one must draw the appropriate conclusions from that. Kimi knows the situation and he accepts it because he gets paid a whopping sum of money and because he is coming up to his 39th birthday and no-one sensible is going to offer him another deal.

We will see what happens but that was the feeling in Hungary. There are also question marks about the Alfa Romeo support of Sauber, which was by all accounts weakening even before Marchionne died. There may be money in the future but it does not look like there is going to be any takeover, which was what Marchionne was originally planning. There is also the question of a possible merger between Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Korea's Hyundai, with stories in Asia suggesting that Hyundai boss Chung Mong-Koo has been watching FCA's stock closely and will buy as many shares as he needs to get control as the price falls, which was expected after Marchionne's planned departure. The FCA shares have fallen from €16.5 to just over €14 since Marchionne departed the company (just before his death), which was a drop of more than 15 percent. We will have to see how that develops but on paper the deal makes a great deal of sense in that it would create a fourth contender in the fight to be the world's largest car manufacturer, in competition with Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, Toyota and Volkswagen.

Back in F1, there were some odd rumours about Renault and Martini, but these seem very unlikely given that France has the worst anti-alcohol laws in the world (ironic, isn't it?).

There is a lot of chat about James Key moving to McLaren. What is clear is that Toro Rosso is not happy and intends to push hard to get the most possible compensation. It cannot stop Key moving for more than six months, but there does need to be a financial settlement for that to happen. As soon as the news came out, Matt Morris quit McLaren, as he is not a Key fan, the two having worked together unharmoniously at Sauber. While Toro Rosso has a replacement for Key in Jody Egginton, McLaren doesn't have a replacement for Morris and they need someone to design a 2019 car. Key will not be there to do it, nor will Morris and so the team will probably need to find a stop-gap chief designer to tide them over.

Will the Key release discussions involve Lando Norris? Toro Rosso would like the youngster, but would probably want him for a year or two. McLaren might want him sooner as if Alonso goes, it will need another hero… Perhaps there is a deal there somewhere.

In the meantime the Formula One group and Germany are working hard to try to find a solution to keep Hockenheim on the calendar next year, after a successful race a week ago. It will need some more cash kicked in, but then Mercedes might like to help out, something that Bernie Ecclestone was never keen to see happening. He wanted Mercedes to buy signage, rather than giving its cash to the promoter…

Finally, Formula 2 is proving to be most entertaining this year but as the season goes on, it seems that British drivers may finish 1-2-3 in the championship, if the current trends continue. George Russell currently has 171 points, Lando Norris 159 and Alexander Albon 141. With four rounds to go (thus eight races) the title is up for grabs. Russell and Norris both seem to have F1 futures mapped out for them, but no-one talks much about Albon.

I was chatting the other day with Norris's dad Adam and he mentoned that when Lando was starting out in karts, at about eight years of age, he was a huge fan of a driver who was a couple of years older. The poster on his bedroom wall at that time was none other than Albon, today his F2 rival.

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