23 November 2019

Notebook from a very cold tent

Life is a bit complicated at the moment, what with all the F1 races and real world activity in between. We’ve done eight races in 11 weeks and been all over the world to do it, which means that there has been almost no time to do anything else. There was a free weekend at some point when a couple of grandchildren came to stay, which was delightful, but it could never really be described as having been time off. There were also a couple of days spent going to and from Magny-Cours to attend the finals of Jacques Villeneuve’s FEED Racing School, which was a great event and deserves to do well. The winner of the top prize - a €400,000 drive with Carlin in British F4 next year - was Dutchman Marijn Kremers, who was a karting contemporary of Max Verstappen in the Netherlands but never had the money to move up the ladder but recently won the World KZ Karting Championship.

Heading off to go to the Brazilian Grand Prix, I had a bit of a nightmare day which basically involved a puncture on the way to the airport. I flew off with the plan being to organise everything from Sao Paulo so I could fly back in on the Tuesday morning and get new tyres fitted on my home. The overnight plane from Brazil was on time and I was heading off to do the above, with the less-than-elegant custard-coloured space-saver wheel that lives in the boot, when the phone rang.  It was my wife. We had to change all the plans and get to the other end of the country as quickly as possible, to be there for the birth of grandchild number three.  I did a quick pit stop at the garage where they lived up to their name of Speedy, drank several strong coffees and then headed off for a rendezvous with my wife in a village which fitted the geography of the moment. Then it was a day spent driving 700km to get to Bordeaux, during which we hurriedly booked a hotel room for the evening. It was dinner time before we arrived and too late to visit the little one, who had made her entrance to the world when we were somewhere near La Rochelle. So we headed to the hotel and discovered that the hotel “lodge” we had booked was actually a tent. Just what you need in mid-November… Apparently, they didn’t mention this key point in the advert because they assumed, wrongly, that everyone looks at the pictures when making a booking. It was a decent dinner, which helped improve the mood and at about 11.30pm, they somehow managed to find a proper room, having been convinced that advertising tents in November is possibly not the smartest way to impress guests. How they did that, we never did find out, but I presume that a night manager spent the night in the broom cupboard…  So it all worked out fine in the end and we met the new member of the family (she didn’t say much) and then we set off to the 700 km to get home, which explains why this week’s green notebook has been a little slow arriving.

The Brazilian GP weekend already seem so long ago that I can barely remember what happened, except that Pierre Gasly was second. I know this because Pierre seems to have been on every radio and TV show in his home country ever since. I am somewhat surprised that President Emmanuel Macron did not give him an instant invitation to join the Legion d’Honneur. I suppose it has been a while since a Frenchman won a Grand Prix – it was 1996 to be precise, when Olivier Panis shocked everyone by winning Monaco in a Ligier. It doesn’t seem such a long time ago, but the calendar tells me it’s 23 years. I bumped into Olivier at Magny-Cours and he is the same delightful individual as he has always been since I met him in 1990, when he was a relatively unknown Formula 3 driver and I helped him fill out an entry form for Macau, because he spoke no English.

The good news is that the green notebook from Brazil was a busy one, with a string of developing stories. Not least the future of the Brazilian Grand Prix. The folks in Sao Paulo were busy telling everyone that the race would stay at Interlagos after the 2020 event, but I honestly cannot see how that will happen unless the mayor comes up with $35 million a year. Given that the current fees are a big round zero, this is going to be a financial hit that the city probably won’t want to afford, particularly as there are no Brazilian F1 drivers. The event sells out each year and generates decent money from VIP hospitality and such things, but F1 gets little out of it. The promoter Tamas Rohonyi celebrated his 81stbirthday during the event, and while they say that 80 is the new 65, the latter is usually the age to retire… It is a shame that we will lose Interlagos, because it is a great racing circuit, but the city is low on the list of favourites for almost everyone in F1. If they could make a big spade and lift the track and put it somewhere else then it would be great. We said the same about Istanbul…

So, watch out for an announcement of a race in Rio de Janeiro…

There are a lot of notes in the book about Roger Penske and his recent purchase of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the IndyCar Series and the TV production company IMS Productions. This is not very interesting in F1 terms, particularly if one discards the daft rumour that Penske was going to buy Mercedes F1 (which he isn’t). However, I did pick up a whisper that was quite interesting.  I am told that the hyper-discreet investment bank Allen & Company was asked by the George Family to find buyers for the aforementioned properties and the word is that they came up with two: Liberty Media (the owner of Formula 1) and the related but independent Liberty Global (which owns Formula E). This made me giggle somewhat as the idea of Formula Es trundling around the Speedway at their usual speed was simply laughable. Anyway, it seems that Tony George was not very comfortable selling to either of the two choices because he feared that they would not respect the heritage of the sport and so he approached Roger Penske at the final round of the IndyCar Series at Laguna Seca in September. Penske was interested. The Speedway has lots of potential, of course, but it strikes me that this was more of a defensive move to protect IndyCar. The only reason Liberty Media might be interested in the pruchse would be to rapidly build up F1 in the United States by extracting existing races from the IndyCar schedule and switching them to F1. A deal could, for example, have given Liberty Media immediate access to the Indianapolis Grand Prix (on the infield road course used by F1 between 2000 and 2007. It could also have meant a deal with Long Beach to run F1 around the streets there, with other potential switches in places such as Detroit and Toronto.

Liberty folks were not overly keen to talk about the discussions, so it is hard to decide whether this was a serious possibility or whether the two Liberties used it as a chance to sniff around the books to see how things were going. The danger for IndyCar (and thus for Penske) was that if F1 stripped out strong events from the IndyCar Series, it could have weakened the series. One thing I also heard was that Penske has some partners in the purchase, one name I’ve heard being John Menard, the billionaire owner of a chain of home improvement stores, and a Penske sponsor in IndyCar, and also Tony George himself, who might wish to invest some of his money, although his sisters may not wish to invest theirs.

Anyway, it seems that F1 is going to continue to develop its own events rather than buying in existing ones and so the focus remains firmly on Miami, with Las Vegas running quietly along behind. Both are making progress.

There have been a lot of rumours in recent days about manufacturers looking at pulling out of F1. These should not be taken too seriously. With the rules and regulations for 2021 now sorted, attention has turned towards a new commercial deal that will last from 2021 to 2030 on “substantially the same terms” as the current bilateral agreements, which are based on the original Concorde Agreement. It is therefore entirely logical for Mercedes, Renault, Red Bull and Honda to all make negative noises because they want to create some space to negotiate as Liberty Media attempts to get everyone to sign up to a new deal. Ferrari has what it wants and no-one ever believes that the Italian team will quit F1, so it has now shut up and left the others to scrap it out. Toto Wolff got a lot of coverage by mentioning that it was “not a given” that the German firm will stay on in the sport. However Mercedes boss Ola Kallenius made it clear that Mercedes’s F1 activities have “more than paid off in terms of marketing. So it has to be seen as a very worthwhile investment.” In other words: We’re not going anywhere. Renault and Honda have both spent a lot building up their challenges in recent years and it would be bonkers to walk away now. However, the car industry is sometimes a bit bonkers. The only real question mark is Renault and this is only because the company is in the middle of a change of management. The word from Paris is that 52-year-old Italian Luca di Meo could be the next CEO of Renault. He started his career with Renault in 1992 but then moved on to Toyota and Fiat. He then moved to Volkswagen in 2009 and has been doing a great job building up Seat in recent times. There is plenty of opportunity to reposition and develop Renault’s range of brands which includes Renault, Dacia, Renault Samsung Motors, Alpine, Lada with potential to do more with Gordini, RS and of course with the Nissan brands: Infiniti and Datsun and with Mitsubishi Motors.

Renault has invested heavily in F1 and has a strong heritage in the sport. It is beginning to get back to where it should be but needs to take the next step to mount a stronger challenge. The team is still putting together a stronger engineering team but Pat Fry’s arrival is being delayed by McLaren, which has the Englishman under contract until next summer, which means that he must spend the next eight months on gardening leave and can only really have an influence on the new 2021 car at Enstone.

Di Meo, incidentally, is well-connected in the motorsport world, being an ally and colleague of Lamborghini boss (and former Ferrari F1 team principal) Stefano Domenicali.

The commercial negotiations in F1 will likely grab some headlines in the next year but after that the sport will need to figure out who will be leading the rights-holding company as Chase Carey will not be staying forever. This is an interesting discussion but there is a similar discussion that is beginning at the FIA, as Jean Todt will step down at the end of 2021 and we need a new FIA President as well.

It may still be two years until the election but Liberty and the teams will be keen to get an idea of the future before the new commercial agreements are done. The voting system favours the incumbent but Jean Todt cannot be re-elected because of term limitations and because by the end of 2021 he will be 75 years of age and the FIA Statutes now block all candidates above that age from FIA roles. Thus far, we have heard about the UAE’s Mohammed Ben Sulayem (58), although there are also believed to be campaigns being considered by Germany’s Hermann Tomczyk (69), the FIA Deputy President (Sport) Graham Stoker (67) and also rumours that Motorsport UK boss David Richards (67) might be looking at the idea. However, the key question is who Todt will endorse and the word is that we should look towards Alejandro Agag (49), the well-connected former European MP, who founded Formula E and is currently working on a new series called Extreme E.

Agag is a clever fellow who has come up with lots of good ideas with Formula E. He was very lucky that Formula E coincided with the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal, which panicked many manufacturers into looking for cheap ways to make themselves look more environmentally-friendly. They flocked to Formula E, although the spectacle was poor and the industry’s electrical future not at all certain. The series struggled to survive but a deal last year with Saudi Arabia to hold Formula E races there for 10 years, with an annual payment of $25 million means that the series can now use Saudi money to prop up the weaker events which give the series glitz. Many people remain sceptical about the electric future of the car industry and Formula E will not remain cheap for long, so it will be interesting to see how things develop. If Agag was to be endorsed by Todt, he would be hard to beat…

Agag is quite an exotic character, in addition to his motor racing activities. He is the son-in-law of former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, who ruled Spain from 1996 to 2004 and was a European MP before going into business with Flavio Briatore (a negative point) until he set up Formula E.

Motorsport has always attracted extreme characters and it may be worth watching out for another such person France’s Laurent Tapie, the son of controversial politician/businessman/pop singer/owner of sports teams Bernard Tapie. The younger Tapie has recently announced his intention to revive the Delage brand in the automotive world.

Automobiles Delage was once the dominant force in Grand Prix racing, back in the 1920s, while also building exotic and now very valuable road cars. The business went bust in the 1930s and its assets were sold to Delahaye, which kept it going until 1953. The plan is to launch a hybrid supercar and the word is that a prototype has been tested by former F1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve. The car has been designed by Ligier sports car designer Benoît Bagur, who was the chief engineer of Seat Sport before moving to France. The cars will be manufactured in France, with rumours suggesting that this will probably be done at Magny-Cours, where there is a strong cluster of expertise in high performance vehicles.

The goal is to compete with the likes of Aston Martin and McLaren. It all sounds like the kind of programme that do well in the new hypercar class in the World Endurance Championship…

Time will tell.

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