2 May 2019

Notebook from DXB

It’s God-knows-what-o’clock here in the lounge in Dubai and my shoes are very shiny. I have been waiting for hours for the plane to Paris and I finally gave in and let the ever-cheerful shoe cleaners have their way. They were excited not to be rejected.

Going from Baku to Paris by way of Dubai may seem a strange routing, but airline logic is often bizarre. In any case, DXB (the airline code for Dubai) is something of a comfort zone for the F1 world at this time of year. This is my eighth visit in seven weeks, so it is something of a home away from home. But now the focus is on getting home and having some quiet time before the European season begins. Here in the A Lounge in Dubai, I have been working my way through some Cloudy Bay that they left lying about. It would be churlish not to. And I’ve been eating ice cream as well… It’s quiet now, but soon it will start to get busy when the planes come in from all around the world and everyone switches around and then heads off to their next destination. If all goes to plan, I’ll be back home by Tuesday lunchtime and then be able to enjoy the French national holiday on Wednesday. May 1 is a holiday in many places, call in May Day, Labor Day,

International Workers' Day, Spring Day or whatever. The French have a very particular tradition of giving each other muguet – which is what Englander would call lily of the valley. And in every town and village people set up stalls on the streets to sell these flowers to passers-by. Of course, in the world of Formula 1, May 1 is a significant date for other reasons, as it is the day on which Ayrton Senna died at Imola. It is amazing to think that it is now 25 years ago. A quarter of a century. It feels like only yesterday.

The primary scrawl in the green notebook this week was “GB GP”, which is the story that the British GP has been saved for three more years. It came from an impeccable source, was confirmed by a second impeccable source and I noted on the day after I wrote in in the JSBM, the story also appeared elsewhere from what I would call a reputable journalist, so I am not quite sure what is going on. One thing is certain is that it is absolutely not “fake news”, as some idiot at Silverstone suggested in a tweet (later withdrawn). It was a properly researched and cross-checked story and so the denials are rather odd, suggesting that perhaps an agreement was in place but paperwork was still needed to be done; or an agreement was not inked and new negotiations have begun for some reason. The most likely explanation is that there was some kind of agreement in principle and that is now under discussion because Silverstone doesn’t want a second GP in the UK, as there are clearly discussions going on about a race in London. This is not to replace Silverstone but the Northamptonshire track is probably worried that it will lose some of its spectators if there is an alternative which is not out in the sticks.

We will see what happens, but unless Silverstone throw the toys out of the pram, I believe that there is an agreement for a three-year deal in one form or another. Anyway, this appears to be contentious stuff in some circles, although beyond the shores of the UK, it is not massive news. Another note in the book says “Dutch GP” with another note saying “May 14 announcement” and a separate scribble that says May 10. All of this translates to the fact that there will be a Dutch GP at Zandvoort on May 10 next year, which will be announced in Holland on May 14 this year. My understanding is that it will go ahead on the basis that the Dutch will do some work on the paddock. How much work, I do not know. The word is that the Dutch GP will replace Spain as the opening European race, with Spain unlikely to keep a race. Germany too looks like its involvement in F1 is coming to an end as the calendar is now becoming very busy, as teams don’t want more than 21 races in 2020 and we already have the new Vietnamese GP confirmed. There are several other new races in the pipeline, which means that either the calendar must expand, or promoters must agree to pay more – or both. It is important to point out that F1 races are not all treated the same: there are, effectively, three divisions: the high-payers, the strategically-important and the traditional races. There is huge pressure in the first of these divisions as governments compete for F1 races, the strategic races are those deemed to be important to grow the sport, some of which will require different financial models, and the traditional races that old fans want to see continue but cannot pay a huge amount, without government help. The skill is to balance these different elements to produce an annual increase in revenues, even if some of them pay less…

Those who look for negative stories about F1 are joyously reporting that the Miami GP is dead and extrapolating that into some kind of failure on the part of the new owners, but the reality is that the Miami project has a Plan B, which sounds pretty plausible, with a track being laid out around the Hard Rock Stadium, which is owned by Stephen Ross, the man who was going to promote the street race. Ross has a huge amount of land around the stadium and is developing new ideas all the time about how to turn his stadium into a mecca for sports fans. To give you an idea, the stadium, which traditionally hosts NFL and MLB games has been used also for the Miami Open tennis competition, with part of the facility having been permanently converted to become a tennis centre. It is an interesting plan, which would see the racing at the stadium but the partying in the downtown area, following the model of the Canadian GP. And while some will wince and remember Vegas in the 1980s, and others will say it would lack atmosphere because Florida is flat, one should point out that Montreal is also flat and no-one ever says that lacks atmosphere, and that perhaps the race could be under lights, which would be a pretty sensational show, particularly if Singapore drops from the calendar, which has been whispered for some time.

Singapore gets a lot from F1 and F1 gets a lot from Singapore, but the city sometimes does strange things. Last year it gave up being the host city of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) Finals, despite a very successful run of events from 2014 to 2018. The various parties could not agree on a price. The event has now moved to the Chinese city of Shenzen until at least 2028. The competition attracted around 130,000 fans each year and was axed for no apparent reason, apart perhaps that it is bidding for the ATP Finals from 2021 to 2025. London has staged the event since 2009 at the O2 Arena.

It is interesting to note that another of the scribbles in the green notebook relates to a “London GP” and says “Docklands project” and “Promoter?” and the word ExCel, which is the Abu Dhabi-owned exhibition centre that is in the area.

I cannot say I know that part of London very well but I did once take a ride on a thing they call The Emirates Air Line, which is basically a cable car from the 02 Arena on the Greenwich Peninsula across to the Royal Victoria Dock, which is close to the ExCel exhibition centre. This is an area where much development has been going on and is part of what is known as the Green Enterprise District, which includes a building called The Crystal, a permanent exhibition about sustainable development, onwed and operated by Siemens. Formula 1 may not be seen as being very green but the reality is that its hybrid technology is ground-breaking to an astonishing level and it is likely to be much more important than the battery development work going on in Formula E, in the mid- to long-term. It is interesting to note that at the Geneva Motor Show this year Formula 1 chairman and CEO Chase Carey said that one of the sport’s two “strategic priorities” this year is to “build not just on our technological leadership, but the incredible achievements in efficiency and sustainability for our cars and hybrid engines” and “to continue to invest in opportunities to further reduce carbon emissions and other initiatives to be at the forefront of road relevant technology.”

One can see that being allowed to race in the Green Enterprise District would draw attention to F1’s achievements in this respect, which have been pushed into the shadows somewhat by Formula E. However, the car industry is beginning to see a push back in relation to electric cars, with an important study being published recently by theIFO Institute for Economic Research, an influential Munich-based think-tank, which suggests that the Tesla Model 3 produces more carbon dioxide during its life cycle than either a diesel-powered Mercedes 220d or a Mercedes C Class converted from petrol to natural gas. Volkswagen, which wants to sell 10 million EVs in the coming years, admitted its electric Golf is less environmentally-friendly than the diesel version but says that the calculations are skewed by the fact that Germany’s energy production model is very inefficient because of the political decision to give up on nuclear power, forcing the power industry to rely on coal-burning power stations in the short- to mid-term.

Elsewhere in the notebook, there are references to “Roberts – McLaren” and “Alperin – Racing Point”. There is also another scrawl which says “Bamford – RP”.

The first refers to the fact that the number four in McLaren – Chief Operating Officer Simon Roberts – is leaving the team he has been with for 15 years. One presumes that Roberts has another job to go to, but it is still a fairly major change at McLaren, where he has long been one of the pillars of the team. A pretty heavy-hitter in the car industry in his youth, working as head of divisions at Rover and at BMW after the British firm was taken over by the Germans, Roberts has been at McLaren ever since, apart from a stint at Force India when the team was a major McLaren customer and Simon was seconded to Silverstone to make sure things ran smoothly. Also leaving Woking is Dave Probyn, a management consultant who has a background in quality control, but who has been with the team for two years, using the title “Operations Director”. His background was at Toyota, where he spent 10 years before working for five years with Mercedes in various F1 roles.

The reference to Alperin relates to Argentine aerodynamist Mariano Alperin, who has worked in F1 since the early 1990s. He joined BAR at Brackley in 2005 and moved up to be chief aerodynamicist there in 2006 before moving to Sauber when Honda pulled the plug on the team in 2009. After nearly 10 years in Switzerland he is joining Racing Point, although the team does much of its aero work in Cologne in Germany.

The reference to Bamford relates to the British billionaire Lord Bamford, the owner of JCB, who has joined the consortium that owns Racing Point. He is a longtime friend of Lawrence Stroll, the two sharing a taste for exotic (and very expensive) Ferraris, and has sponsored Lance Stroll in recent years…

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