Notebook from Middle England

IMG_0051There have been earthquakes in England, figuratively-speaking, in recent weeks and this has meant that everyone has been talking about Brexit, Boris and “that twat Farage”, but an English summer is a lively business and so as the country is left in the hands of its second woman Prime Minister, life will return to normal a bit and everyone can go back to talking about the weather. I have often wondered why it is that the English love the weather so much and the conclusion is that it is a story that has never-ending permutations and is thus always a topic of conversation so Englishmen and women are never short of opening lines and thus are at ease with the world. Whether it be “lovely weather we’re having” or “Can you believe this rain?” the English have something to say. Back in 1995 (which I am amazed to calculate is now 21 years ago) I wrote a column about the British GP, which I think says pretty much all you need to know.

“There are times when England can be a wonderful place,” I wrote. “Early in the morning, with the sun shining brightly on the mottled countryside and the early morning mist rising gently from the hedgerows, you can cruise into the Silverstone track and meet the local wildlife: a deer, a rabbit or perhaps even a fox. This is a green and pleasant land in mid-July, probably because the usual summer rain makes sure that the landscape does not turn brown and gold. Silverstone has a special place in the hearts of all British racing fans and they are often surprised when they find out that many of the visiting continentals don’t really like their annual visit. They reckon the food is like British women: white, lumpy and miserable. They think that the hotels are quaint, but have creaky floors and dodgy plumbing. The beer is served warm and disgusting to drink and you cannot buy decent wine in a British pub. The English drive on the wrong side of the road – and to make matters worse it almost always rains…”

The green notebook was rather soggy after the downpour that hit the grid on Sunday and the paper has now dried and is rather crinkled, but it was a typical British GP weekend. Silverstone is always a big event in terms of numbers and this year’s spectator total over four-days was 350,000, with no real sign of any decline in interest. Britain still loves F1 even if other countries are flagging a little.

The British GP was the fourth F1 race in five weekends and, with many of the F1 fraternity had spent the fifth weekend at Goodwood, people were tried. The mad dash between Austria and Silverstone was reckoned to have been the worst ever F1 back-to-back because it did not involve planes and was more than 300 miles further than any previous double-header and involved the crossing of the English Channel. The story of how all this was achieved has been told in detail in this week’s GP+ magazine but to give you an idea, and to be true my notebook, here are some numbers that were jotted down. My aim was to calculate the number of 40-ft semi-trailer trucks involved in the process. The idea came from my journey on the Monday after the Spielberg race, when I drove past convoys of F1 transporters, all heading for the UK. It was impressive and I wondered how many vehicles were actually involved in this mass exodus.

The biggest construction in the F1 Paddock is the Red Bull “motorhome”, which they call the Energy Station. This is a home for the two Red Bull teams and most of the paddock people who have nowhere else to go. It has to be bolted together by crews of riggers and requires several cranes, in addition to a fleet of trucks. I was taken aback to discover when you add up the team trucks and the Energy Station vehicles, the total of Red Bull transporters is an impressive 50. When I began asking around about other teams, I discovered that this is not as crazy a number as I imagined. McLaren’s fleet is 27 trucks, with Mercedes (26), Ferrari (25), Williams (19), Renault F1 (16), Force India (12) and Sauber (12) following on. Haas F1 added a further 10 and Manor nine, while there were also three Honda transporters, bringing the total of team trucks to over 200. The Formula One group’s TV production facility added 21 transporters plus a motorhome for Bernie Ecclestone and its own support truck. In addition there was a fleet of 15 DHL trucks for the Paddock Club VIP hospitality equipment, plus another 12 provided by a German company called Wagner GmbH & Co. KG Sport Signage, which not only transports all the F1-related vehicles, such as safety and medical cars and VIP minibuses, but also moves everything relating to the trackside signage. Then one must also add Pirelli’s fleet of trucks, which fluctuates between 10 and 15 trucks, depending on the races taking place. The FIA had a total of eight transporters for its people and there were six fuel tankers.

After Austria there were also a number of sleeping coaches following the convoys, in order to provide rest for the off-duty drivers. In addition to all of this there were 35 transporters for the GP2, GP3 and the Porsche Supercup teams, plus around 20 trucks used by the TV companies that broadcast the sport.

The grand total is hard to establish because of random diamond screen transporters, merchandising and so on, but the number seems to be around 340 in total… One hell of a circus. There are lots of good stories about the adventures long the way, and the routes taken and when I reached Silverstone everyone was talking about one of the Ferrari transporters having been stoned by migrants in Calais. Given that it clearly had happened, it was slightly daft of the team’s logistics head to deny it. He also told me that they had only 14 trucks when there were 16 lined up on one of Silverstone’s runways and other people who know these things told me that the team’s total is always 25. I never understand why any organisation thinks it will gain anything from telling bald-faced lies, but that seems to be the culture at Ferrari under the current management.

The scrawls relating to F1 news were somewhat limited over the Silverstone weekend because there had not been much time between the races, but there is one that says that there are whispers from Princes Gate, home of the Formula One group, that there is another round of intensive due diligence going on, which suggests that there is another serious bidder emerging in the process of selling the sport. The whisper is that the latest bidder is Apple Inc., which is a company with $161 billion in net cash at the moment, despite having spent $117 billion on share repurchases and $46 billion on dividends in recent years. Apple doesn’t typically make big purchases but usually buys small business and incorporates the technology into its products but as the viewing habits of the world are changing, with traditional broadcasters, cable and satellite networks under threat from “over-the-top” content providers. This basically means the delivery of content via the Internet, without requiring users to subscribe to a traditional cable or satellite pay-TV service. This has led to a gold rush of companies moving into streaming and looking for the most attractive content to bring in customers. Apple TV is one of the most popular streaming devices around and has Sling TV, a content-driven hub for sports fans and television viewers, providing consumers with the opportunity to watch their favourite shows and channels live and on-demand, with one simple registration at much lower prices. There is also the possibility of what is called a la carte television, where you pay for what you order. Going direct to consumer is a way to multiply revenues by cutting out the middle men (i.e. the TV channels) and owning the content is thus desirable. It should also be remembered that Apple is on the verge of launching into the world’s automotive markets, with an electric car that remains a secret, although it is hard to hide such a project when you hire more than a thousand engineers to work on it. The Apple car is expected to appear by 2020. Thus, there are three elements that would make the purchase of F1 a logical step for Apple. It can afford it, it can boost sales of Apple TVs and get people thinking about Apple in relation to cars. Strangely enough, no-one is willing to confirm or deny the stories.

Formula 1 continues to move slowly towards new technologies with Formula E being much more active in this respect. The electric car championship has just announced its new calendar for 2016-2017 and there are a number of races that will annoy the F1 people. Formula E will return to Mexico City and Monaco, but will now add Montreal and New York. There has also been talk of a race in Singapore, but that has not been confirmed. The New York race will take place at Port Imperial, where F1 was going to race if it had not wanted too much money. Formula E has now lost its London venue in Battersea Park, but is trying to do a deal to use parts of the St James’s district, perhaps even including The Mall. It reminds to be seen if this will happen.

Silverstone marked the first appearance this year (and probably the last) of Force India owner Vijay Mallya, who is stuck in the Uk at the moment because the Indian government has cancelled his passport because he will not return to his home country to answer questions about his business activities, notably the collapse of Kingfisher Airlines, but also a string of other dealings which are under investigation. Mallya owes around $1.5 billion to Indian banks and made the mistake of having an overly-ostentatious birthday party while many are suffering because of his failure to pay his bills. Mallya says that there is a witch-hunt against him and said at Silverstone that he does not think that his behaviour is bad for the sport, although beneath the surface questions are being asked, not only because he is a high profile team owner, but also because he is the Indian representative on the FIA World Motor Sport Council. Despite all his adventures (and those of Roy Sahara, his partner in the business, who has spent the last two years in jail) Force India is doing a terrific job, despite the fact that money is tight.

The Renault team is spending money at the moment but not really producing the goods and so CEO Cyril Abiteboul, the MD of Renault Sport Racing is relocating full-time to the UK to look at ways to make the team more successful in the long term, while team principal Frederic Vasseur will continue to run the team at events, while also overseeing other Renault sporting activities.

Elsewhere two former F1 team principals Ross Brawn and Adam Parr have joined forces to create a book called Total Competition, in which they promise to reveal some of the secrets that Brawn used to win a string of World Championships with Benetton, Ferrari and Brawn F1. It’s an odd idea, but will probably make interesting reading.

Another interesting idea is Damon Hill’s Professional Racing Drivers’ Association, which is still be be formally announced but has come to light as a result of a company registration made in the UK in March. Professional Racing Drivers’ Association Ltd has been incorporated as a private company limited by guarantee, this is a form of incorporation that is primarily used for non-profit organisations which exist not as purely commercial entities, but require a structure to allow them to operate in a commercial manner. It remains to be seen if there is demand for such an organisation, which Hill believes would be useful to give drivers more of a voice in an industry that is dominated by promoters and teams.

Money is always a topic for discussion in Formula 1 and so it is worth noting that billionaire’s son Lance Stroll is continuing to build up his credentials to become an F1 driver with a plan to conduct a programme of private F1 tests all over the world, using a 2014 car to avoid political troubles. The word is that he will have 15 days of testing at tracks that he has never visited. This will cost a fortune but will help him be more attractive for teams in the future and help him be competitive if he does get an F1 break.

Elsewhere, there was the sad news from the United States that Carl Haas has died at the age of 86. Haas is no relation to Gene Haas, who is currently running his own F1 team, but – bizarrely – was the last US team owner in F1, back in the 1980s when he launched the Beatrice-funded Formula One Race Car Engineering Ltd team. FORCE was generally known as Haas Lola, with drivers Alan Jones and Patrick Tambay, and Ford factory engines, but the Beatrice money ran out after the company was taken over and the team closed after just two seasons. The team was where the young Adrian Newey and the young Ross Brawn learned the ropes. Haas also ran a very successful CART team in league with actor Paul Newman, Newman Haas racing winning titles in 1984 with Mario Andretti, in 1991 with Michael Andretti, in 1993 with Nigel Mansell and in 2002 with Cristiano da Matta. Later they would win four consecutive titles with Sebastian Bourdais in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007.