Notebook from Pest

IMG_0051Not everyone knows that the city of Budapest was actually two cities: Buda and Pest, and that the names were pushed together forever when the two settlements engulfed one another. Buda is hilly and on the western side of the Danube; Pest is flat and on the eastern bank. Clearly the people of Pest (Pests?) lost out in the deal, as they lost their capital letter.

Anyway, the paddock in Hungary is a fair way inland from the beautiful brown Danube, in the Gödöllői Dombvidék (try saying that after a bottle of red). These are low sandy hills and in the summer they tend to be hot and sweaty, unless they are being by torrential rain storms.

The Hungarian weekend was dominated by much twitter-pattering about track limits, radio calls and, latterly, yellow flags. It was all fairly mundane stuff, but it filled the column inches of many a website and featured strongly in the jibber-jabber of the TV commentators. There was surprisingly little chit-chat about the departure of Sauber from Sauber, nor Nico Rosberg’s signature on another Mercedes contract. The question of the F1 halo continues to float above the paddock, although for the life of me I do not understand how there can be any halos in F1 given the paucity of saintly figures and other holy people. We will know more only after a meeting next Thursday when the final details will (hopefully) fall into place. Personally, I don’t see how they have a choice now. Once you put a halo on a car and run it around a bit and then tell everyone it is the next big thing for safety, you have created (perhaps deliberately) a liability problem. If the halo is not adopted and someone now gets hurt (or worse) by flying debris, the FIA and the team involved will be wide open to negligence claims, as there will be a clear argument that they had a solution but chose not to employ it. Thus, I fear, F1 is stuck with the ugly halo in the short term. Hopefully, this will result in lots of controversy (people saying: “Yuk!”,”Ghastly!” and “I’m never watching Formula 1 again”) and then the FIA will rush to find a proper (and sexy) solution to the question of head protection. It is nonsensical to argue that heads should not be protected, but it would be better to have a full solution. The halo is not a bad concept, but it makes F1 cars look like some kind of Chris Evans character in the movie Cars, and it leaves gaps (quite literally) in terms of protecting the heads. The jet fighter cockpit is probably the sexiest solution, as we saw when McLaren produced its F1 concept car last winter (MP4-X), but it does have drawbacks that need to be carefully addressed. If these things work for jet fighters, they must be able to work for F1 cars.

With five races in seven weekends behind them, a lot of the people in F1 were feeling rather weary, particularly as the dismantle/build for Budapest/Hockenheim (which is going on as I write) is by no means an easy one.
It was odd to see that on Sunday Bernie Ecclestone had left Hungary and was not present for the race itself (or at least the grid), but today it has emerged why this happened. Most of us think that being rich is the answer to all our wildest dreams, but there are downsides to it as well… and kidnapping is a nasty business.

There were some discussions during the Budapest weekend about the 2017 calendar and suggestions that teams are soon going to start switching over to rotating crews (which has been talked about for years). The bad news is that there is no sign of any change ahead. The plan for 2017 appears to be a calendar which is pretty much the same as this year. The teams are believed to be pressing for a few subtle changes to make their lives easier, with more races being twinned intelligently and, for example, the Canada-Baku back-to-back being reversed, so that everyone gains eight hours, rather than losing them. These may seem small things, but they make a big difference in terms of human performance. There is a lot of interesting work going on at the moment inside teams to help meet the demands being put on the crews by the calendar. At the same time it was interesting to hear several teams saying, publicly, that they are finding it hard to keep staff on the race teams because it means too much time away from home. There seems to be little likelihood that any of the races will drop out. The problems in Italy will be solved. It looks like Hockenheim will get the German race full-time and the Formula One group will become the promoter, keeping all revenues, including all the local subsidies. There are some questions about Austin, but a contract is a contract and it makes more sense to hold the event and make no money than not hold the event and pay for it.

The one subject of gossip in the paddock in relation to drivers was the future of Rio Haryanto. There have been signs for some time that the chirpy Indonesian does not have the money needed to complete the season and Manor cannot afford to let that slide. There are several solutions: the obvious one being to put reserve driver Alex Rossi in the car. The Indy 500 winner was supposed to appear in the paddock in Budapest, but he did not show up, although one should not read too much into that because there was a problem with planes being cancelled in Columbus, Ohio, which meant that Alex would not have got to Budapest until late Saturday afternoon and there wasn’t much point in doing that as he has to be back in Ohio next weekend, for the IndyCar event at Mid-Ohio. So Alex went to Indianapolis to watch NASCAR instead (although it seems this was a lonely experience as the grandstands were almost empty), but he had a break from his endless travel schedule. The reason that Rossi makes sense is that he is still believed to have some backers keen to help him in F1 and he knows the team. There would be no need for a period of adjustment nor any learning phase. He could do the last six races of the F1 season as his IndyCar schedule ends a week before Malaysia and he could then do Japan, Austin, Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi. Even better news is the fact that he raced for Manor in all of these races last year (barring Abu Dhabi), so he would not need to learn the circuits and thus would be better placed to score points, if an opportunity presented itself. From his point of view, this would offer the opportunity to make an impact in F1 going into the winter break and that could help him get a drive with Manor (or someone else) in 2017. If that fails he can always go back to IndyCar next year as the Indy 500 winner is always a man in demand, particularly if you are engine supplier Honda. The Japanese firm is not in a position to provide more F1 engines in 2017, otherwise Rossi might be in a very good place. Who knows? The Honda engines are improving all the time and a Honda second team in 2018 is not impossible…

However, there are other options. It might be a good idea (from a financial point of view) for the team to do a deal with Mercedes-Benz to help reduce its engine bills, as Mercedes is clearly keen to get Esteban Ocon up to speed in F1. Ocon is quite a talent (he gave Max Verstappen a hard time in Formula 3) and while he is officially “on loan” to Renault at the moment, he wears a metaphorical Mercedes teeshirt beneath his Renault overalls. The French team has been using Esteban in FP1 sessions, but Mercedes recently used him at the Silverstone test. Mercedes may want to see him up against Pascal Wehrlein at Manor in 2017, as this would be a good driver pairing for the Mercedes F1 team in 2019 – if Lewis and Nico move on (or need to be moved on).

The other man who might be seen in the Manor is Stoffel Vandoorne. McLaren wants him pin-sharp in F1 in 2017 and so mileage this year in F1 races would be helpful. Stoffel has been racing in Super Formula in Japan, but the car has been horridly unreliable and he has gained little thus far from that experience. The only real question mark is whether McLaren is willing to pay for him, although one can imagine that Mercedes might object to a Honda driver getting to play with a Mercedes engine. McLaren has still to decide (officially) if Stoffel is in the F1 team next year, but there are signs that Jenson Button is quietly packing a parachute (a Union Jack design, of course) and will float down and land somewhere near Grove, fairly soon. This means that Felipe Massa may be in need of a new job and there has been some talk that he might be chatting to people at Enstone, where experience in top teams might be useful.

Finally, it’s bad news for Apple fans. I hear that the Californian firm has finished looking at F1 and concluded that they are not going to push ahead with the discussions. When it comes to the sale of F1, I hear there has been one other change in the negotiations, with whispers that John Malone’s Liberty Media may be back in the bidding, against the ever-present Stephen Ross consortium. The negotiations currently centre on whether or not CVC and/or Donald Mackenzie (the CVC chairman) continue as minor F1 shareholders in the future, or whether they get thrown out with the bath water. Mackenzie, it seems, is rather taken by the F1 lifestyle and wants to play on, particular as he has to retire from CVC shortly, unless he get the firm to change its rules.

Someone said to me in Budapest that it would be a good moment for the Formula One group to buy Formula E, before the electric series gets to be more successful. That might help produce more profits for all concerned (in the long term) but it could end up with the ironic situation of Formula E buying Formula One. The largest shareholder in the Hong Kong-based Formula E Holdings Ltd is none other than the aforementioned Malone, although it should be added that this does not mean that he has a majority shareholding in the electric championship.