14 November 2018
Notebook from Guarulhos
The Aeropuerto Internacional de São Paulo is to be found (if you don't get lost on the way) in the Guarulhos municipality, in the north west of the city. To get there from the south of this vast urban sprawl, where Interlagos is located, one follows a road they call the Marginal Pinheiros, alongside a very polluted river. This later becomes the Marginal Tietê, which is very similar but with a different smelly river.
One can go through the middle of the city, but it gets very complicated, particularly if you miss the Túnel Ayrton Senna, and traffic can be appalling. Having said that the Marginals can be clogged up as well because Sao Paulo is not an inconsequential city, being the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, with a population estimated to be over 21 million. The thing about the Marginals is that they are rather complicated because they are, in reality, not one road on each side of the river, but actually two or three parallel highways, each with three or four lanes and only a limited number of places where one can filter between them.
The logic is to keep the traffic flowing, but what generally happens is that those who don't know the system end up being on the wrong highway when they get to the place they wish to exit and so they are sent off to places you definitely don't want to go to. If you have ever read Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities", you will understand that taking the wrong exit from a highway can leave you in places where it is not great to be…
But, you never know. Sao Paulo is a cosmopolitan place with, so they say, more Japanese restaurants than there are traditional Brazilian steakhouses (churrascarias).
The signage on the Marginals is such that one usually makes at least one mistake before one gets to the sambadrome (above, with a section of the Marginal Tietê), an elongated stadium where they hold carnival parades with large grandstands on either side and naked ladies prancing down the middle. They used this a few years back for the venue for an IndyCar race, but it didn't last…
When you are at the Sambadrome, you know that the rest of the trip is a doddle because you can either go up the Rodovia Presidente Dutra, or the parallel Rodovia Ayrton Senna, both of which lead to places with signs that will get you to the airport. If you miss those junctions you are on the road to Rio… but (for movie buffs) without Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. The way to spot these exits is to look out for high security prisons, as there are four of them in the neighbourhood.
The road to Rio may be the route that Formula 1 will be taking shortly, when the current contract at Interlagos comes to an end. On the Monday after the Brazilian Grand Prix, F1 chairman Chase Carey was in Rio - and he wasn't there for the Caipirinhas or the bossa nova. His trip was to visit a neighbourhood called Deodoro, which may sound like something that live in the bathroom cabinet but is actually an old military base in the western part of the city, where various competitions were held during the 2016 Olympic Games. One of these was the equestrian events and a friend of mine was there to oversee the televising of them. Because horses don't like helicopters, it was decided to get aerial shots of the venue using a balloon, with a camera attached. This was soon shot down by unknown gunmen in the nearby favelas, presumably on the basis that they thought it was a spy in the sky. A replacement balloon was sent up and was duly shot down. Rio de Janeiro is a wilder town than Sao Paulo, by all accounts, with a fifth of the population reckoned to be living in the shanty towns, without basic facilities. As the government is weak in the city, the favelas are ruled over by drug gangs, which fight turf wars with one another. At the same time the drug barons provide some kind of authority.
They say that every governor of Rio de Janeiro for the last 20 years has been convicted of corruption, is facing charges or is under investigation. The police and less well-trained and less well-armed than the gangs. It was for this reason that not long ago Brazil deployed 30,000 soldiers in the favelas to try to get things under control.
Sao Paulo may not be perfect, but sometimes you need to be careful of what you wish for. In recent years Interlagos has seen a number of armed attacks on Formula 1 staff and many in the sport would be happy to see the back of the place. Those who understand motor racing will be sad if that happens because the race track is exceptional. It's just in the wrong place. When it was built in the 1930s it was out in the country, surrounded by a vast housing development. The reason there is a circuit is that in one area the hillside was not stable enough for housing. The ground is always subsiding bit by bit and this is why Interlagos is susceptible to bumps.
These days in F1 the tail is very much wagging the dog when it comes to security. This year it was decided to close the media centre at 11pm on Sunday because people didn’t want journalists going home though the nasty bits of town after the police had been withdrawn. F1 has long had a rule about the media, which you can see written on the door of every press centre in the world. The place does not close "until the last journalist leaves", or at least it shouldn't. I have been the last journalist on quite a few occasions and have had to climb over gates which have been locked. Several times I have left the track and gone out for breakfast and there is something fundamentally wrong with a venue that forces the media to go home, for its own protection…
Anyway, there are multiple problems associated with the Brazilian GP not least the fact that the Formula 1 group has no desire to do business with the current race promoter, for reasons which might not go beyond the fact that he wanders around with the air of a man looking for water to walk on. The Brazilian Grand Prix earns F1 very little money thanks to a sweetheart deal agreed in the dying embers of the previous owners of the commercial rights. If Brazil had to pay the same money as other races, it would not have a Grand Prix. No-one is offering the right kind of money at the moment, with the city government saying that the race must be done with private money and private money (of which there is a lot in Brazilian, if you look beyond the favelas) not very keen on doing business with the people involved. Recent elections have served only to muddy the waters, but the city still seems to be intent on selling the circuit, but saying that it will pay for upgrading work which was promised for F1 but never completed, and that any new owner must agree to keep the facility open for motor races, rather than turning it into a housing estate (which will subside) or a high security prison (or whatever). The mayor (who seems to have far too many teeth when he smiles) says he has a letter of intent to continue with the current promoter, which is about as useful as a parachute without any straps because F1 doesn't want to do business with the aforementioned promoter.
When all is said and done, F1 needs South America and but at the moment no-one seems to be able to run a Grand Prix. The rich countries are all messed up and the poor ones are too poor (and messed up). The choice, it seems, is basically limited to Brazil and Argentina although the latter is in the middle of an impressive economic meltdown which has required the largest ever bailout by the International Monetary Fund ($57 billion), so it is unlikely that the government will want to be seen to be spending money on F1 any time soon, although it might not be such a dumb idea as it would generate economic activity and bring in tourist dollars.
The paddock in Brazil was really quiet in terms of gossip as there is only one drive left for 2019 (Williams 2) and so there was only a modest flutter of interest in a number of deals for young Brazilian drivers. The German media seems to think that the Williams drive will go to Robert Kubica but I don't see why there is any rush for Williams to do anything and one has to ask whether it is wise to sign a driver who has not done a season of circuit racing since an accident that nearly killed him in February 2011. If he does race in 2019 he will instantly become the second oldest person on the grid. Yes, money is important and Robert may be quite capable of racing for Williams, but is he really a better choice for the team than Esteban Ocon, one of the brightest young hopes of F1?
Still, strange decision-making is not unusual in the paddock at the moment, with McLaren having left more than a few jaws dropping by announcing plans to set up its own IndyCar team and go racing at Indianapolis in May next year. Now, there is nothing wrong with ambition, but ambition needs to be tempered by reality and matters of a practical nature. I am sure that McLaren wants to sell more of its road cars in the United States of America, and perhaps it will raise more sponsorship by lumping the two programmes together, but trying to win the Indy 500 with a new team, built in six months, would seem to be risky, whichever way you look at it, particularly when your core business (Formula 1) is only just scraping in above disastrous.
Winning in Formula 1 is all about focus and if the man who is supposed to be making strategic decisions is looking two ways at the same time, one might suggest that neither programme is likely to success. One can always hope, as McLaren fans no doubt will.
Let us hope that the idea of building a team from scratch is marketing hyperbole and that the plan is to buy an existing team, or a part of one, and paint it orange.
The only major paddock activity in Brazil was a bunch of meetings between different combinations of the teams discussing the financial future of the sport and who should get what when they are divvying up the pot. At the moment the focus seems to be on Red Bull which has a rather higher opinion of its value than its rivals do. I cannot see how such conversations are ever going to bear fruit as getting anyone to agree to anything is almost impossible and the best way to do things is to simply adopt the "take it or leave it" approach. I understand that Liberty Media is trying to win hearts and minds in these negotiations so that everyone can work together to move the sport forwards, but too much Mr Nice Guy could end up with F1 in a state of complete drift.
There were only a few celebrities in the paddock beyond the usual old lag racing drivers. There was the soccer player called Kaka not being a follower of football I am not sure if Kaka is the same as Caca as there appear to be two footballers with this name. I won't go into too much detail but in much of Europe the expression "caca" has a rather lavatorial meaning. Still, I guess that kids love Winnie the Pooh…
In the paddock in the course of the weekend I did bump into Argentine racer Juan Manuel Fangio II, a nephew of Juan Manuel Fangio I. He was a very decent racing driver in his own right and raced in Europe in Formula 3 and Formula 3000 (if I remember correctly) before going off to the US, where he did well in IMSA and Indycars. Today he has a sizeable cattle ranch in Argentina, providing meat for export.
One thing I did pick up in Brazil was that the FIA has recently appointed two new deputy race directors in Formula 1, without any fanfare at all. The two fellow in question are an American called Scot Elkins (with only one t) and Australian Michael Masi. The former is a man who started out as a NASCAR engineer with Robert Yates Racing, who then spent time in industry and as an academic before becoming technical director of Champ Car in 2004. After that he worked for IMSA as VP of competition before becoming COO of the Motorsport Safety Foundation. Masi is the Race Director of the Supercars Series in Australia.
With the World Championships all now done and dusted, there is going to be little of interest in Abu Dhabi, apart from the race itself. It would be nice to go out at the end of the season with a good battle between the big players, without the need for any controversy and then we can get into a few weeks of rest and recuperation once the prizegivings are done. The FIA is planning a very grand event at the Great Philharmonic Hall in Saint Petersburg. Usually in December the city has an average temperature of around minus five degrees, but it has been known to get down to minus 37, so it might be an idea for those planning to go to remember to pay some long johns.
I was chatting to Ross Brawn on one of the days and he mentioned that he was off to Las Vegas to be the keynote speaker at some big event for Amazon. It struck me that perhaps he might take the opportunity to stroll up and down The Strip looking for a good place to lay out a racing circuit…