28 November 2018

Notebook from home

It is always a bit of a race to get things done after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, not because it has to be that way, but because everyone who is vaguely sensible wants to go home, after a long season on the road. There are those who wish to stay to see the new team-driver combinations for the first time in the post-race tests, but we will see plenty of them next year, so there does not seem a whole lot of point in it, unless you want to prolong your time in good weather before plunging back into the darkness of a European winter.

We had GP+ magazine done and dusted just before midnight and an hour or so later we were off to Dubai, driving through the desert in the darkness, although we were rarely without company on the road. We were at the airport by about 03.00 and it was pleasantly quiet. We checked in and settled in to the lounge. Out came the computers again and we battered away through to dawn, when the various planes took off in different directions. It was a close run thing for me, as the JSBM newsletter needed to be done before I boarded the plane, but I scraped in with a few minutes to spare and was still able to be the first to board the plane. I was asleep before we took off. The pilot was a cheerful Australian who informed us as we began the descent into Paris that the weather was not exactly lovely... and his assessment was bang on. It was cold and wet, but I headed off joyfully towards hibernation, pausing only to buy some firewood to keep me company. The first plan was a day off... and this morning, I have to admit, it was a struggle to pick up the battered green notebook, filled with scribblings of a hieroglyphic nature, and phrases that might seem incoherent to the casual reader. Some of the notes were fairly obvious, notably the "Kubica - Williams. €15 million. Poland oil company". Others were less obvious, such as "McLaren - Seidl" not to mention "LVCVA and Sphere".  There was a lot of stuff about Honda, while I usually scrawl the names of people I see, so the notes are interspersed with: "Alan Jones", "Steve Soper", "Lord March", "Billy Monger", and "Laurent Mekies - Ferrari".

I have no idea what Jonesy was doing in Abu Dhabi because I saw him only on the one day and he was busy chatting with someone. Soper was there on "a jolly", while "Lord March" is actually not Lord March at all, but rather The Duke of Richmond, Lennox and Gordon, as he was elevated to the family dukedom more than a year ago. His Grace, who might be mistaken for Hugh Grant's elder brother, is the owner of Goodwood. His estate is stupendously successful, not only with its motoring events but also his horse racing, notably what used to be called "Glorious Goodwood", but is now known as the Qatar Goodwood Festival, in deference to a sponsor, which probably explained his presence in the region.

When I was looking up his various titles I noticed that he is also the Duke of Aubigny, which seemed a very familiar name, but I could not place it until I asked the question to Professor Google and discovered that, yes, Aubigny does have some significance in motor racing, being the dukedom associated with the town of Aubigny-sur-Nère, near Bourges, in France, which is most famous as being the home of Mécachrome, the French engineering company that manufactures all of Renault's Formula 1 power units. Funny old world, isn't it?

The Duke keeps a relatively low profile but it wasn't anywhere near as low as the profile adopted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, (known as MBS) a man much in the news these days after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. The famous MBS arrived in Abu Dhabi on Thursday for talks with UAE leaders and was I am told given a tour of the circuit by his local counterpart and was later spotted on a superyacht called Serenity, which was docked in Yas Marina. This is a boat with some history. It was built for Russian millionaire Mikhail Lesin, a former adviser to Vladimir Putin, who died in mysterious circumstances (blunt trauma) in a Washington DC hotel in 2015, which the police put down to him falling over having drunk too much (and others suggested was more sinister).

It will be interesting to see if MBS has a big role to play when Formula E lands in Saudi Arabia on December 15… It is possibly not the best timing given the criticism of the regime (except from Donald Trump, of course), but motorsport tries to avoid getting mixed up in politics. Ah well, in comparison to the world outside, F1 seems positively angelic, quibbling over money and other mundane matters. There is very little in the notebook about the Haas protest against Force India. This is because I never felt it would result in anything significant but was rather a sign of Gene Haas's understandable frustration at the way he has been treated in Formula 1.

Perhaps it might have been better to keep quiet and work out a suitable deal with the powers-that-be, but Haas is not a man given to such behaviour. He comes out firing at the hip and one might suggest that at least some of the reason for the protest was that the previous weekend Stewart Haas Racing, which has had an impressive season in the NASCAR Cup, getting all four of its drivers into the last eight in the so-called Runoffs, lost the title in the finale to Ford rival Penske Racing… Not something that Gene would have enjoyed.

There are lots of scribbles about who is going to drive where in Formula 2 next year, some of which have since been announced. My list included ART with Nikita Mazepin, Prema with Mick Schumacher and Sean Gelael, DAMS with Nicholas Latifi and Sergio Sette Camara, Carlin with Louis Deletraz and (perhaps) Artem Markelov, and Trident with Giuliano Alesi and Leonardo Pulcini. The name Ticktum is also there with a question mark next to Arden, while the new GP3 champion Anthoine Hubert is also listed, but without any indication of which Formula 2 team he may join.

There is also a mention of ART's Fred Vasseur with a note that reads: "selling, but no buyer yet". This relates not to ART (in which he has recently bought out longtime business Nicolas Todt), but rather Spark Racing Technologies, the company that assembles Formula E cars, which he has been running since the start of the series. One wonders whether Vasseur needs to spend more time at Sauber...

The reference above to Kubica and an oil company is all about a firm called PKN Orlen, which is a major oil refiner and retailer in the Polish market. Reports in the country say that the company has agreed to sponsor Robert to the tune of $26 million dollars, split between 2019 and 2020. Another very reliable source suggested to me that Kubica's deal with the team was worth $17 million in 2019, which suggests that there may be other minor sponsors also involved. Whatever the case, it explains why Williams has chosen Robert, as other contenders for the seat were unable to match the numbers. Performance may have something to do with the decision, but perhaps not as much as Robert's fan boys think.

The reference to Seidl relates to Porsche’s former World Endurance Championship LMP1 team principal Andreas Seidl, who is whispered to be on his way to Woking. McLaren has been quite touchy about criticism of its plans to go IndyCar racing when the F1 programme needs to be sorted out. It insists that there will be no overlap between the two programmes, and that this will become a little clearer as further plans are revealed. On paper, it did seem a little back-to-front with the F1 team being overseen by former IndyCar team owner Gil de Ferran, and the IndyCar team being run by former F1 deputy team principal Bob Fernley, but I suspect that Seidl will appear and will be put in charge of F1, allowing de Ferran to rise to a bigger role, overseeing both projects, in the fullness of time. We are still waiting to hear how Zak Brown is going to pull an IndyCar team out of his hat for the Indy 500 (along with assorted rabbits, sponsors etc), but it is clear that what McLaren does not want is another customer deal, involving the rebadging of an existing Andretti Autosport operation. It wants a programme that is seen as being its own operation, distinct from others, as the goal is to have a fulltime team in the longer team, in order to push McLaren road car sales in the US market. In 2016 the company sold 876 cars in the US, in 2017 it was 1,110 and this year the number is expected to be in the region of 1,500, and obviously McLaren wants a sporting programme  to support these numbers as quickly as possible.

Thus, while the F1 does need to be sorted out, there is a commercial argument that makes sense. It will also make sense if, perhaps, sponsorship can be found that bundles the F1 and IndyCar programmes to make the US programme cash-neutral.  In the overall scheme of things, IndyCar teams are cheap as chips compared to F1 and it is most likely that McLaren will acquire assets and equipment from Ed Carpenter Racing. The team recently lost its primary sponsorship from Fuzzy's vodka and may need to slim down a little as a result, as sponsorship money is hard to find these days. The team has run three cars at Indianapolis in recent years and has done well with Ed Carpenter taking pole and finishing second last year, in his Chevrolet-powered Dallara. Last year the team also ran Spencer Pigot and Danica Patrick in the 500, while running Jordan King in place of Carpenter in the road races. It is worth noting that King has just signed a deal to race for Bobby Rahal at the Indy 500 so is clearly not expecting to do anything with Carpenter. Buying part of the ECR operation would not only help out Carpenter (stepson of IndyCar boss Tony George), but would also give access to cars and to Chevrolet engines and perhaps some of the people. It's not 100 percent that this is the route that McLaren will take, but it makes more sense than anything else being talked about at the moment.

The mention of "LVCVA" and "The Sphere" are references to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Liberty Media boss Greg Maffei last week gave the first official confirmation of negotiations for a Formula 1 race in Las Vegas. Up to that point it was clear that F1 was interested in the city but there was no word of actual progress. The mention of the LVCVA is because this is a very important body in any decision-making in the city, while the casino operators and also very important. These days most of them are listed companies and they are driven only by the push for more dollars. The city is keen to attract more people because of the changing habits of gamblers and the new laws which mean that people no longer need to travel to Vegas to gamble. This means that the city needs to attract more people for conventions and family events switching the image of Vegas to that of a place packed with atttractions, with a few casinos as well, rather than the opposite. The mention of The Sphere is because of a big new attraction that is now under construction, an 18,000-seat entertainment venue inside a 360-foot-tall sphere, which is being built on a 63-acre lot to the east of the Sands Expo & Convention Center, as a partnership between Madison Square Garden in partnership with the Las Vegas Sands Corp, which knows all about Formula 1 thanks to its dramatic Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore. The sphere is due to be completed in 2021 on a 63-acre lot to the east of The Sands Convention Center and might be a useful focal point for a race. I am sure it is a coincidence but there is also an MSG Sphere in the works in London, identical to the Las Vegas venue and located in Stratford, close to the Olympic Park, which has often been talked about as a possible F1 venue in London…

The stuff I mentioned about Honda, ended up being a wild goose chase. I was told that Honda might be buying Scuderia Toro Rosso and so I set out to find out if there was a story. Red Bull said no. Honda said no and so I accepted that the answer was probably no. It does not mean it could not happen one day but Toro Rosso is complicated team with lots of different buildings and staff at two locations: 350 in Italy and 150 in the UK. It would probably be easier to start a new team… it is no secret that Honda is desperately keen to get some Japanese drivers into F1 and I am told that there will be a scythe going through the current crop of Honda youngsters with Formula 2 drivers Tadasuke Makino and Nirei Fukuzumi both being sent home and the experienced Nobuharu Matsushita, who finished sixth in GP2 in 2017 back in F2 next year along with Super Formula and SuperGT Champion Naoki Yamamoto. There will also be a couple of Honda youngsters in the new FIA Formula 3.Yamamoto (above), while two newcomers are expected in Formula 3.

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