Notebook from Chimay

IMG_0051Fans with long memories will remember the town of Chimay for something other than its beer, although if you are into motorcycle racing it may have become a blip on your radar. However, 90 years ago Chimay began holding races on a fast road course, not very different in character to Spa, except that it lacked the hills. There were long sweeping curves, houses, forests and one fairly exciting moment when the cars went between a church and a pillbox at top speed, with n run-off on either side. Being Spa’s poor cousin it was always in the shadow at international level but, nonetheless, it hosted its own Formula 1 races (non-championship, of course), with the race usually being known as the Grand Prix des Frontieres. The list of winners includes Maurice Trintignant, who won twice for Bugatti in the 1930s and again in 1953 in a Simca Gordini and Prince Bira, who won in a Maserati in 1947. By the 1960s it had become an event for Formula Junior (and then Formula 3) and in its final years between 1970 and 1972 it was won three times by David Purley. It lost its international licence after that but hosted local touring car races and motorcycle events. It was always a track fraught with danger and as recently as 2014 three riders were killed in the same weekend in a race with modern racing bikes. I ended up there late on Monday morning on the way home from Spa, having given a colleague a ride to the station in Liege (a fabulous piece of architecture, by the way) and then made the decision to drive along the River Meuse to such oddly-named places as Troque and Chokier, to the fortress cities of Huy and Namur and then (by way of Profondeville and Hun (yes, really) to the charming riverside town of Dinant. I was originally planning to follow the river as far as Charleville-Mézières, but it became clear that I would not be home before midnight if I did that after a morning spent grumbling about dawdling Dutch caravans and tatty Bulgarian trucks and so I high-tailed it to the west and ended up stopping for a breather in Chimay, before racing across the French plains to Laon, Soissons and the forest of Retz to Paris. The French holidays are now over and so I took a loop around the city to avoid getting caught in the inevitable traffic of grumpy Frenchmen still thinking about their joyous days in St Trop.

All of this gave me plenty of time to mull over the Spa weekend. There has been a lot of comment about the adventures of Max Verstappen and the Ferraris in the race and it seems that a lot of people assume that because they have a TV and a rewind button they are, therefore, qualified to have an opinion to challenge the decisions of race officials, who have access to far more information and data than the average fan can imagine. It should also be pointed out that the stewards last weekend were Danny Sullivan and Felipe Giaffone, both former top-line racing drivers, plus Dr Gerd Ennser, the chief steward of the DTM for the last 10 years and a full-time professional judge in his native Bavaria when he is not going racing. If they had felt that anyone was driving beyond acceptable boundaries, then they would have reacted. They did not. One can say that Verstappen was certainly pushing the limits of what is acceptable, but that’s racing, isn’t it? Loads of F1 fans spend their time complaining that’s there is not enough racing and when they get it, they complain that it is too dangerous. Anyone who has watched a GP2 race recently will tell you that F1 drivers are positively staid compared to the youngsters who are desperate to impress.

What is interesting about Ferrari, and particularly Sebastian Vettel, is that he seems to have developed a rather whiny attitude to other drivers when they dare to duff him up, which I don’t remember him having in his younger days. It seems that he is constantly complaining about people getting in his way. I have put this down to an underlying sense of frustration at the state of his career. He went to Ferrari with high hopes at the start of 2015 and I fear he is beginning to realise that it was probably not the right thing to do, particularly in the wake of the departure of James Allison, the man who was putting together the team that Ferrari requires to get to the top. Ask anyone (not in a red shirt) how they think Ferrari will do in the next few years and it is hard to find anyone who sees them moving forwards. Ferrari fans may not like that and think that this somehow makes me biased, but I am simply reporting what I see and hear. Maybe everyone is wrong and Ferrari will zoom to a string of titles in the years ahead, but I see no signs of that happening.

The really good thing about Formula 1 at the moment is that after a period of relative stability of the top driver front, we are now seeing a whole new generation muscling their way in with Max Verstappen, Kevin Magnussen, Pascal Wehrlein, Esteban Ocon and others looking like that they will start to kick over the status quo. Given that some of the older F1 drivers have had careers lasting more than 15 years, that is not a bad thing for the sport. And, for the Belgians, there is much excitement as Stoffel Vandoorne will soon be in a McLaren full-time. As much as I like and respect Jenson, there comes to time when racing teams look to the future rather than the past and I would be amazed if they kept JB and let Stoffel wander off elsewhere. I sense that the team is probably delaying announcements in order to keep JB keen and motivated because a driver who knows he is departing a team will inevitably lose pace, even if it is only subconsciously. The interesting thing about the new generation of drivers is that they may end up having an impact on the shape of the F1 calendar in the future. When the German GP attracts about 10,000 Dutch and the Belgian GP pulls in at least 50,000 of them, there is a clear case that a Dutch GP is probably possible, if a venue can be found. Upgrading Zandvoort would be a big job, but the property developers who own it might seen the logic in that because there is plenty that could be developed at the site. Traffic access will always be a problem but when there is a train that takes 35 minutes from Amsterdam Centraal and it is annoys walk from the station to the circuit, one can see that this could be a very environmentally-friendly event, with few or no cars (a la Monaco). There are two parallel tracks all the way to Haarlem and so the Dutch could easily run the same kind of service that one sees at Monaco or with the trams at Albert Park, shifting crowds in and out with ease. There are other options, but I sense that Zandvoort is the one that would work best. You never know, with all the enthusiasm about Verstappen, there are always possibilities that other projects might emerge, not least a place like the Eurocircuit rallycross facility in Valkenswaard, which is hidden away in a forest, deep in Verstappen country, close to the Belgian border.

The interesting thing at the moment is that the Formula One group has a slight problem with its calendar choices at the moment because F1’s global expansion has meant that Formula One is struggling to meet its contractual obligations for the right balance of races. There is, would you believe, a clause in the various contracts that says that, unless the teams agree otherwise (and when did they ever agree on anything?) Formula One must present a calendar that has at least half the races in Europe and the United States.

This year’s 21-race calendar features 11 European/US events (Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, Monaco, Russia, Spain, and the United States) and 10 non-European events (Abu Dhabi, Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, China, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico and Singapore). This is fine.

But when you look at the races that are really struggling you see Austin, Germany, Italy and Brazil all in difficulties – and Ecclestone cannot afford to lose three European/US races, because the calendar would be well out of kilter, with the requirements. This is why there is so much talk of a mythical race in Las Vegas and work going on in California. The problem is that F1’s fees are too high for the US market, which is why previous negotiations have failed. This also explains the tenuous argument that Baku is in Europe. It’s not, but the teams have allowed Ecclestone to get away with that one, because the new race pays lots of money into the kitty.

Austin has a 10 year contract to host the race, which began in 2012, so it is now reaching its halfway point, but it is clear that funding is a problem. Germany is an even bigger problem because while Hockenheim is happy to fund a race every two years, the Nurburgring seems to be out of the F1 game for the time-being. This is a shame, of course, because it’s a great facility and within easy reach of the Netherlands. However, it is a mess and no politician wants to give any public money. Running it without public money would be a huge challenge.

A deal will be struck with Italy and ought to be announced in the next few days, but it has not been easy.

Brazil has a contract until 2020, but the promoter needs to find money to fund the event because of economic upheavals in recent times. However, with Formula One contracts, the money must be paid whether there is a race or not, so usually promoters go on hosting races because they get at least something back for the money they spend.

If an alternative race cannot be found in the US and Germany drops out in 2017, the balance required will be upset and the teams will have to agree to accept nine events in Europe/US and 10 elsewhere.

With all these struggles, Ecclestone is looking around for alternatives. No-one in Germany capable of paying the fees seems to be interested in an F1 race. The word is that Ecclestone may solve the problem by taking over the promotion of Hockenheim and getting all the revenues available, leaving Hockenheim to fund its own upkeep. That might work. There is nothing serious in Denmark or Sweden and no obvious interest nor money in the east of Europe. Turkey might like to make a comeback, but its status as a European nation is at best dubious (along the same lines as Azerbaijan) and the race was never a success. There is no real reason for F1 to go to Portugal and no money to fund a race. There are legal and environmental problems with Switzerland. The one place other than Germany where logically there should be an F1 race is France, which ought to be more interested in F1 given the return of Renault. On the driver front there is still Romain Grosjean, but Jules Bianchi is gone, Jean-Eric Vergne has been wasted by Red Bull and Charles Pic has disappeared. There is Esteban Ocon, who could excite the French fans, and Pierre Gasly might get a ride with Toro Rosso, but Norman Nato and Arthur Pic need to do more to progress from GP2. The problem remains, who – if anyone – is going to pay for it?