It has been a busy time since the Mexican GP, beginning with a flight out to Dallas on Monday morning, followed by a quick bounce on the overnight to Paris. This fitted neatly with Halloween as I was seated behind a crone, who need not have taken the plane to go to Paris, as a broomstick would have done the job. I’ve travelled for 34 seasons and this was the worst passenger I have ever had to deal with. Anyway, I would have written the column if I had had the space to open my computer, but there was not a single minute when that was possible. Anyway, my mood lightened somewhat when I arrived in the City of Light. It was a national holiday, which meant that there was no traffic getting home. This also meant a rare day off as it is the French bank holiday which they call Toussaint, which literally translate as All Saints. It might also be called All Hallows, the night before is the eve of All Hallows, otherwise known as Halloween. All Saints Day is followed by All Souls Day, which is what they celebrate in Mexico as the Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Or in the case of most F1 people at the moment, the day of the dead beat, which is completely different to the noun dead-beat, the one meaning exhausted and the other meaning an idler or a wastrel.
No-one in F1 is idle at the moment, least of all the gossips, who have been very busy in recent days with all manner of tosh-encrusted rumours. One story that seems to have passed without much comment has been the demise of the Audi WEC team, which will close at the end of this season. This is due to a number of factors, not least the fact that Audi never wants to have its name used in the same sentence as “diesel” ever again. The diesel emissions scandal that has done so much damage to the Volkswagen Group has claimed another victim. Audi’s strategy now is to be greener than greener than green and so it has decided to go into Formula E, which is as green as it gets if one avoids the word “batteries”.
It was a surprise to see Alejandro Agag in Mexico on Sunday, but one must presume that he, like many others, is now pitching Liberty Media for a job. Agag seems to have sold most of his Formula E stock and is now in a position to sidle away if a better offer comes along.
Anyway, back to Audi for a moment. The news is sad for Formula 1 because it ought to have been the logical step for Audi as hybrid technology is still expected to have its day before electric machines take over. The most optimistic estimate is that electric cars will make up 58 percent of the car market by 2030, but that is still 14 years away and there will need to be a lot more work done on charging stations if the electric car is to be competitive and sustainable. Hybrids are already being mass-produced and so F1 seems to be a better bet for now.
What’s done is done and the team or engineers at Audi will now break up because Formula E has no need for chassis technology and so while the project will excite the Audi engine men, the designers and an aerodynamic staff will disappear off. I have a feeling that a lot of them will turn up at Sauber, because a lot of work has been done by Audi at Hinwil, especially in the wind tunnel. So this will give Sauber an advantage when it comes to hiring ex-Audi folk. The other person likely to benefit will be Colin Kolles, the former team boss of Force India and Caterham F1, who runs his own ByKolles sports car operation from a town not far from the Audi sporting headquarters. He should be able to hire some of the refugees… Some of the Audi people may end up at Ferrari, if they are brave. The word from down Maranello way is that the end-of-season will see quite a few engineering staff walking away. The word is that Ferrari will be putting huge amounts of effort into getting the engines right next year as horsepower is still deemed to be the primary element in current success in F1. The problem with this idea is that when you push to the limit, you will get more mechanical failures. This may explain the decision by Sauber to stick with 2016 Ferrari engines in 2017 not only will they be cheaper, but they might end up being more reliable…
The wild outbursts of Sebastian Vettel at the end of the Mexican GP are an indication for me of the state of mind of the four-time World Champion who, one might think is grown up enough not to call everyone rude names and to use bad language in relation to Charlie Whiting, the FIA Race Director. I am sure Charlie has heard worse in his long motor racing career, having worked for many years at Brabham, but I do tend to agree that swearing at the teacher in the classroom when the microphones are turned on is neither very charming, nor very intelligent. Vettel was lucky not to get rusticated by the headmaster, Mr Jean Henri Todt. Sebastian seems to have regained his senses after the race and apologized profusely and has written groveling letters to all the injured parties in an effort to save himself a caning, although I guess one should be careful using such language in the same paragraph as the acronym FIA.
Mr Todt was thus given the chance to be gracious. Maybe we can see a little more grace in some of his other dealings in the sport. Todt, it seems, was apparently in a good mood because the United Nations Association of New York (UNANY) named him as Humanitarian of the Year.
I had no idea what a United Nations Association actually was and so I decided to consult my pal Dr Google on the subject and discovered that these are organizations which promote UN activities at local level. The United Nations Association of Minnesota (UNAM), for example, recently held a “Bowl for Peace” event at the Bryant Lake Bowl & Theater in Minneapolis, while the United Nations Association of Greater Oklahoma City (UNAGOC) had a trick-or-treat for UNICEF over Halloween. I am thankful to the United Nations Association of Beverly Hills (UNABH) because it has introduced me to a new concept while surfing around these associations. UNABH believes that we should all fight for LGBTI rights and I now know that the i in the acronym means intersex persons, which is an umbrella term used to describe those with a “wide range of natural bodily variations”. The things that you learn in motor racing…
Anyway, good for JT for pushing the cause of humanitarianism in New York City, a place where even Sebastian Vettel would blanch at the language of the street. Sebastian’s apparent desperation at the moment is a sign of a man who is not at peace and I fear that he is suffering from Ferraritis, which is a condition which racing drivers suffer from when they go to Maranello and realize that it is not like it used to be in the days of Mr Todt and Mr Brawn.
On the subject of Mr Brawn, there are loads of excited stories about him being plucked from retirement to become an officer of Liberty Media in the Formula One group. There are a couple of things that suggest that this is not a very realistic story. Firstly, Liberty Media is not really in any fit state to start appointing people to different jobs. At the moment, Chase Carey is busy listening to the views of all and sundry and trying to figure out how the whole F1 business works and until he has fully assessed the problems, it would be unwise to appoint someone to fix them.
Secondly, there is the thorny question of a Mr Ecclestone, who still holds sway in the sport. I know this because in Mexico the sign FOM over the Formula One hospitality unit was replaced by the sign “Mr E”. This may have been a kind gesture to help Bernie celebrate his 86th birthday, but equally there are some who would say that it was a message about power.
I don’t think Ross is going to go wandering into a power struggle with Mr E. I may be wrong but Ross was always very smart and good at politics, so he might have just a few teeny-weeny reservations about taking on such a job when a man like Bernie is in the big office. I suggest that Ross may have been asked to give Liberty some of his advice and wisdom, rather than agreeing to throw himself headlong on to a barbecue. Brawn is a man who might be useful for Liberty at some point, but I think it is a little too early to be doing that sort of thing. On the same subject, I note that another F1 refugee Adam Parr, who recently wrote a book with Brawn, has just started a course at the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford. This is a school of public policy. This follows on from his PhD in eighteenth-century history and literature at University College in London. I cannot help but get the impression that the former Williams CEO – a very bright man – is keeping himself busy, waiting for something to happen… I doubt that it is to find a job as the head of another F1 team, although there are several that might benefit from his expertise and energy.
On the driver front, things are rather complicated at the moment and it was clear in Mexico that no deals were actually signed. Ocon was due to meet with Vijay Mallya in England this week, while Felipe Nasr was on a flight to Miami out of Mexico City on Monday and is likely to have gone straight on to Brazil, so as to be ready to give his best in front of his home crowd. My feeling is that Ocon will get the Force India drive, and that Nasr will go to Renault for a year and there will be negotiations to get him into Williams in 2018. He did a good job for the Grove team as a test driver and he would be suitable replacement for Valtteri Bottas, as the Finn will likely move on to Renault in 2018. The problem with the second Renault seat in 2017 is that most of the drivers believe that it is a one-year deal and that is not the best scenario for any of them. Thus there are strong rumours, which are to be believed, that Kevin Magnussen is in discussions to drive alongside Romain Grosjean at Haas next year. Esteban Gutierrez is quick in qualifying and a very nice fellow, but his races have been less than successful and Haas wants to get more points in the future. Gutierrez’s future is pretty unclear at the moment although he might return to Sauber if there is money enough. Having said that there is also Jolyon Palmer and Rio Haryanto who are keen to land seats at Sauber. On paper there are seven seats still available: a Force India, a Williams, a Renault, a Haas, a Sauber and two Manors. In reality, the Williams will be gone tomorrow morning, with Lance Stroll to be announced by Williams. If Ocon lands at Force India and Nasr joins Renault, with Magnussen signing for Haas there will be only three seats: a Sauber and two Manors. With three cars available, the competition will be tight between Pascal Wehrlein, Jolyon Palmer, Esteban Gutierrez and others. Alexander Rossi will not be there, his Indy 500 victory making him much more valuable in the US than in Europe. He has a contract for three years with Andretti Autosport, with backing from Honda, but it is believed that he can get out of his deal if an F1 contract comes along. That’s not likely, but with Honda expected to increase its presence in F1, you never know.
Elsewhere in F1, there is a fair amount of movement among the engineers with everyone wanting to know what will happen to James Allison when his 12 months of gardening leave is over. The F1 Paddock currently sees his future as being with Mercedes GP Petronas, although this would not be easy unless Paddy Low departs his role – and there is no sign of that happening. Allison’s head of aerodynamics at Ferrari was Dirk de Beer but he has left the team now and is expected to reappear at Williams.
It is worth noting, by the way, that the Mercedes team may not be called Mercedes AMG Petronas forever. The Malaysian government has long been an investor in the world of motorsport with Petronas providing sponsorship for many of the country’s racing activities. It seems, however, that times are changing and motorsport may not be such a major force in the future. The use of motorsport to drive progress dates back to the 1990s when the then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad invested in the Sepang circuit and Petronas began sponsoring F1 teams. Times have changed and in recent weeks Mahathir’s son Mokhzani has resigned from his role as chairman of Sepang, after being asked to leave. Mokhzani has overseen the Malaysian GP organization since 2003. The government is buried in a huge scandal about a sovereign wealth fund diverting money out of the country and into bank accounts of those who ought not have had it. Some of this money seems to have been used to buy a share of Scuderia Toro Rosso, but that has all been sorted out in F1 terms, with Red Bull taking full control of the team once again. The scandal, plus the disastrous drop in the price of oil, means that the government is cutting back and Petronas has axed more than 1000 employees in recent months. The company is cutting $11 billion from its budgets over the next four years. There have been reports that this could impact on the Petronas sponsorship of Mercedes. There are also questions about the future of the Malaysian GP.