10 October 2018

Notebook from DXB

Sometimes, regular air travellers talk in riddles. "I am in KIX, on my way to DXB and then on from there to CDG," they will say. This doesn't make much sense unless you know that these acronyms are International Air Transport Association codes for the world's airports. Some of them are very logical. You would expect Miami to be MIA, but others are less obvious: LHR is London Heathrow, CDG is Paris (after Charles de Gaulle), JFK is New York (after John F Kennedy) and so on, but then you get the really obscure ones such as Montreal Trudeau (YUL), Moscow's Sheremetyevo (SVO), Washington DC's IAD and Sao Paulo's GRU, not to mention ORD for Chicago, KIX for Osaka, NRT for Tokyo Narita and DXB for Dubai. One learns these things over time and it is useful to know as you can do sensible things, such as checking the baggage tags are correct before the suitcases are sent off somewhere by accident. Tricks of the trade, I guess.

At this time of year, Formula 1 road warriors spend a lot of their lives in planes and airports and soak up some serious time zone hopping and the associated jet-lag. In the course of the last month, we have been to Singapore and back, to Sochi and back and we are in the process of Japan and back. Next week, just to scramble the synapses a little more, we will rock the other way around the clock and go west to Austin and Mexico next week. Then it will be back to Europe, out and back to Brazil and finally an easy end-of-season jaunt to Abu Dhabi. in the interim, the time spent at home is going to be minimal.

The size of the F1 press corps will reduce significantly if Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes wrap up the two World Championships in Austin, although the team is wisely not counting any chickens until they are hatched. I would say that the F1 title race isn't over "until the fat lady sings", but I suppose in this day and age, such an comment would result in a tsunami of accusations that I am not politically-correct and that I should have put on a hi-viz vest and said that the World Championship will not be officially concluded until the beautiful person of unimportant shape or size, without any supposed gender (but likely wearing a dress) has produced vocal sounds of a harmonious nature. God (or any other significant deity) help us…

Anyway, the F1 season has rather slowed down with Ferrari having basically thrown away the title and little left in the annual game of F1 musical chairs. So, from a news point of view, the F1 is now rather quiet and the spinners of the virtual media are having to be extra-creative to twist available quotes into stories that will never come true. In a way, the corporate age of F1 is less colourful than the days of the buccaneers because when things went quiet in the Age of Bernie, he would hop up, like a mischievous elf, and say something outrageous, to keep the sport in the papers.

There was a Formula 1 Strategy Group meeting in the days before the Japanese GP but most of those  who attended said that there was nothing of any great import said or done. There was also a team only meeting in Suzuka, which was described to me by one attendee as having been a "Toto-fest", where a lot was said and little was concluded. Chase Carey rarely says anything "on the record" but he seems to be a little exasperated by the fact that the teams are always looking to try to find how they are being screwed, because they are so used to that happening and they cannot make any decisions without looking for complex ulterior motives that are not there. It will take time to retrain the thought processes and condition them to think that everyone can work together. Still, if Ivan Pavlov was able to make dogs salivate by ringing a bell, there is hope that the team principals can eventually be made to believe that things are being done for the benefit of all. The FIA World Council meets in Paris this week and we should hear about a tweak in the qualifying process, splitting the qualifying into four Q sessions (each shorter than previously), with four drivers being knocked out in Q1, Q2 and Q3 and thus eight drivers running in Q4, which will make it easier for the TV producers to find the right cars (a problem of late) and for there to be fewer incidents to disrupt the show. The only problem is to sort out how it will all work with the tyres.

As a result of all this, the green notebook entry for Japan 2018 has only two pages, with just a scrawl on the third page, saying "Money Hanoi" and "Loic Duval. "Money-Hanoi" is fairly clear. There is a deal in the offing for a Vietnamese Grand Prix in Hanoi in 2020, but I hear that as yet, the talk has not been backed up with any bank transfers - and nothing happens unless these materialize. The mention of Loic Duval is simply because the World Endurance Champion (and Le Mans winner) of 2013, who is now racing for Audi in DTM, has become part of the commentary team for Canal+'s TV coverage of F1.

The other two pages of Japan 2018 have several notes about the proposed race in Vietnam, with the latest plan being to have a semi-permanent facility, similar in concept to the Singapore Grand Prix, where the circuit is made up of public roads but pit buildings are permanent and are used for other activities in between races.  The word is that the project will take place in the My Dinh district of the city, around six miles to the west of downtown. This is in the vicinity of the San Van Dong Tu Do stadium, where there is the very wide Duong Le Duc Tho boulevard.

There is a scribble about Maurizio Arrivabene and Juventus, which comes from rumours in Italy suggesting that the Ferrari team principal might disappear off to run the celebrated Turin football club. The facts are as follows: Juventus is owned by the Agnelli family (which control Ferrari and Fiat). The team is managed by Andrea Agnelli, who used to work for Arrivabene at Philip Morris International (PMI).  Maurizio has been on the board of Juventus for the last six years but says he has no intention of leaving his role at Ferrari. With his former boss at PMI now in charge of Ferrari, Arrivabene is in a safer situation than he was under the late Sergio Marchionne. Ferrari had a new look in Japan, with its primary sponsor PMI deciding to have a presence on the cars for the first time in 10 years. PMI says that Mission Winnow is an initiative "to create engagement around the role of science, technology and innovation as a powerful force for good in any industry" to show the world that the tobacco company had changed.  PMI says that the logo is not related to any tobacco products but it is not clear at all what it all actually means as the release was written in unintelligible marketing jargon. PMI remains a tobacco company, selling products in more than 180 countries, with annual revenues of $78 billion.

Elsewhere there has been a change at Mecachrome, the French engineering firm that builds all the Renault F1 engines. The firm's motorsport division has been headed in recent years by Bruno Engelric, a former Peugeot sportscar engineer, who worked in F1 with Ferrari on hybrid development. He is now leaving the company because of a disagreement over future strategy. Mecachrome is now owned by institutional investors and is looking to do more in aerospace rather than investing in new racing programmes.

Another quiet rumour is that Williams may be talking to Jost Capito, who is currently the managing director of Volkswagen R GmbH, the company that builds high-performance versions of VW road cars. Capito has been around motorsport since the 1980s, working with BMW and Porsche before joining Sauber in 1996 to oversee the Sauber Petronas engine programme. He later went to Ford to head the rallying programme before moving into road car activities until hired by Volkswagen in 2012 to run its hugely-successful WRC project, which won a string of titles. He joined McLaren in 2016 but survived only a few months as he was seen as a Ron Dennis appointment at a point when Dennis was being ousted from the company.

The biggest announcement in recent days has been that Formula One is going to work with the Interregional Sports Group (ISG), which will negotiate and organise partnership rights in F1 with regulated betting brands, in a deal which is likely to include not only trackside signage, on screen images but also online integration of the betting firms with F1’s social media platforms which will allow gamblers to bet on a wide variety of things relating to F1, such as who will make the fastest pit stop, which car will pit when, who will be in what position on what lap and so on. This may be fun for the gamblers and may generate a lot of revenue, but is also a complex minefield for F1. As an example of this, gamblers must accept that teams orders can influence the result of races - as we saw in Russia recently - and that could result in claims that the results were manipulated. So not only must the gamblers be properly educated in this respect, but everything needs to be in such a way as to leave no opportunity for challenges.

This will inevitably mean that those involved in the sport cannot be allowed to gamble on the results. There must also be a restructuring of how the sport is timed. At the moment the Formula One group does the timing and provides it to the FIA. This will need to change to avoid a conflict of interest. The FIA will probably need to take over the timing but it would not have any financial involvement with gambling unless, for example, it was given the right to sign up the official timing partner, which would pay for the costs of timing the sport, while also adding to the federation's revenues. The deal that has been done includes monitoring of gambling by Sportsradar, a Swiss-based data-analysis firm, which monitors betting in sport and says it has a Fraud Detection System to keep everything neat and tidy.

The need for corporate behaviour may also be causing some problems for Williams at the moment because its Russian sponsors have difficulty moving money about because of the international sanctions that exist, following the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia. Sirotkin's sponsor SMP Bank is targeted by the sanctions, with its owners Arkady and Boris Rotenberg both also sanctioned, but in different countries. US companies (which Formula One now is) are not allowed to do business with those sanctioned, but as the Williams deal is between the team and the bank, it does not effect the sport. However, the idea of a Russian team, which was floated recently, would have to exclude any sanctioned individuals or companies because of the need for a commercial agreement between the team and the commercial rights holder.

This is believed to be one of the problems facing Williams at the moment, while the news that Artem Markelov's father has been arrested by the Russians, accused of bribing Dmitry Zakharchenko, a senior officer in the Russian Interior Ministry’s Economic Security and Anti-Corruption Department, before his arrest at the end of 2016. Valery Markelov is involved with a string of companies, all of which have close links with Russian Railways, a state-owned corporation which manages railway infrastructure and operates train services for both passengers and freight in Russia.

After his arrest, Zakharchenko was found to have had $123 million in cash in properties linked to him, plus $337 million in Swiss bank accounts.

Mercedes is hoping to place George Russell with Williams for a couple of years and there have been talks about Esteban Ocon taking a Williams drive, but that does not make a huge amount of sense, as Mercedes would be putting its two young drivers up against one another. There is a third element in the story because Robert Kubica remains Williams's reserve driver, with the Polish driver believed to have as much as $10 million in sponsorship for 2019, which suggests that Williams might go for a Kubica-Russell line-up, funding the line-up with help from Mercedes, Kubica's support and the money that Lance Stroll has to pay to release himself from his Williams contract, in order to join his father's team (née Force India). We should know the new name of the team by December 1, when the FIA is supposed to issue an entry list for next year, although the federation does not always get around to doing it on time.  The driver announcement for the team is expected to take place in Mexico, where Sergio Perez and Stroll will be confirmed (if all goes to plan). This means that Esteban Ocon will probably have to end up as the Mercedes F1 reserve driver. Pascal Wehrlein is now out of the Mercedes picture completely and is said to be under consideration at Scuderia Toro Rosso, where he might line-up alongside Daniil Kvyat. Red Bull wanted to use youngster Daniel Ticktum, but he is unlikely to qualify for a Superlicence as he must win the European Formula 3 title - and he has been blown aside in recent weeks by Mick Schumacher. Red Bull says it has no intention of signing Schumacher. There is one obvious candidate for the Toro Rosso drive when one looks at the situation in Formula 2 this year but officially Alexander Albon is now a Nissan driver in Formula E. This situation is due to money because DAMS (which  is the Nissan Formula E in all but name) ran him this year in F2 on the understanding that he would pay back the money invested with a contract in Formula E. In the overall scheme of things the money required to settle the debt is not very much and there are plenty of young drivers who could do well in Formula E. Red Bull were a little cautious with regard to Albon because of what was seen as inconsistency but in recent months he has quietly scored results and is now runner-up in the series behind Russell.  The numbers are interesting. On paper Russell has won six victories to Albon's four, but when one looks only at feature races (without the reversed top eight on the grid of the so-called sprint races) the score is three apiece.

The Strolls are in the rumour mill with regard to Prema Racing, in addition to Force India. Prema is one of the most successful teams in the junior formulae at the moment, fielding teams in Formula 2, European Formula 3 and in the ADAC and Italian Formula 4 Championships. In recent years the organization has been owned by Lawrence Stroll, who bought it in order to control the environment and give Lance was a run as possible through Formula 3. There has been talk for some time that the team is to be sold and in recent months that a deal was close with Nicolas Todt, a partner in the rival ART Grand Prix operation, who has fallen out with his partner Frederic Vasseur (now at Sauber) in an unfixable fashion. The partnership is being unstitched now and Todt says that he has not bought Prema, although the whisper in the F1 Paddock was that a deal was agreed but then Stroll changed his mind. Upsetting the Todt family is not, however, a clever thing to do given that Nicolas's dad is the FIA President and I hear that negotiations are now back on again.

Hopefully, things will have livened up a bit when te F1 circus gets to Austin...

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