Notebook from Sochi

IMG_0051After the race in Sochi, we banged out GP+ in just over five hours. We get complaints these days that we are now too fast because the magazine comes out before free-to-air footage is aired and people don’t want to know the result until they have seen it on TV. It’s ironic isn’t it? The written word is not supposed to beat TV…

Anyway, we departed the media centre at about 10pm, snuck in a much-needed beer and a schnitzel and then departed for the airport at midnight. We are used to doing some crazy hours, but Sochi is a tough one because after a short Saturday night and a day of racing and some high-pressure magazine-creation, the biorhythms are not at their best when there is a 02.50 flight involved in the process. The problem is that this flight is not a solid eight hours when one can catch up on sleep, but rather a skip and a jump on a plane designed for commuters. You have to wake up and deal with Moscow’s Unpronounceable airport (there are three of them, all unpronounceable). There was (inevitably) a hefty queue, but I recognized the place and knew a short cut, so I left my incredulous and unbelieving colleagues, with the words “I know a quick way” and they all decided not to follow.

Oh, ye of little faith. I was through into the terminal half an hour before most of them, which was good as I had to finish off the JSBM newsletter. Then there was another three-hour flight…

Still, there were blue skies and sunshine in Paris, which is never a bad thing. I tried to make it through the afternoon, but failed ingloriously, napping through the afternoon before failing to write this article before dinner time.

The first note in the notebook from Sochi was just two words: “Media Numbers”. That may sound a little dull, but it is important. The Russian Grand exists for five reasons that I can think of, the relative importance of each reason is open to discussions, but here they are, in no particular order.

1) the Formula 1 sponsors and car manufacturers are interested in the Russian Federation’s 142 million people, where GDP per capita is $23,700.

2) The Formula One group is interested in the high fees that Russia was willing to pay.

3) The Russians needed to use the wildly expensive facilities that were created for the Olympic Games.

4) They wanted to show Russia to the world in a good light, using sport to do so.

5) The race has proved to be part of the never-ending campaign to make President Vladimir Putin look good in front of the Russian public.

Now, here’s the thing: the international F1 press corps who attended the event at the weekend was the smallest I can remember. It is hard to be exact about these things, but there are around 150 FIA-accredited permanent “hard card” holders. And usually there are about 100 race-by-race passes allowed, mainly for locals. There is also one VIP pass (supplied by the Formula One group, rather than the FIA) that is used by someone claiming to be a journalist, who operates without access to the media centre, without the necessary visas and without any cumbersome journalistic ethics.

These numbers do not include photographers, nor TV people. Thus the normal F1 press corps is a body of around 250 journalists. I didn’t do the sums exactly, but there were fewer than 75 F1 media present in Sochi. I suspect from the spacious Media Centre that there were less than 20 race-by-race types and under 50 hard card holders. This is not healthy.

And it is sad. The track in Sochi is fine, the people are helpful, the hotel is near the track. It’s a foreign environment with a very different culture, much more brusque than in other countries, but it’s fine. We can handle that.

So why is no one going? There is no doubting that there are some conscientious objectors, who do not go to Russia because they don’t like the idea of helping Putin with Point 5 above.

To explain how obvious this is, I should relate a conversation that took place as we were watching the race, taking notes, lap-charting, throwing comments about between us, having fun and looking for insights. There are a few laps to go. Someone says: “about now the TV cameras will cut to Vladimir Putin arriving with Bernie ushering him in”.

A minute later (no kidding), the TVs cut to exactly this scene. It’s that predictable. It is clear Putin is no race fan. He turns up, sits in the grandstand for a few minutes and then appears in the Cool Down Room and on the podium. His Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev had already had his moment of glory, standing next to Charlie Whiting on the starting gantry.

And this is the thing. Where else is anyone allowed stand on the starting gantry or in the Cool Down Room? Why is there an exception made in Russia? Does someone ask Formula One to let that happen, or is it offered?

I don’t have a problem with politicians on podiums, that’s normal, but why are these two individuals given special treatment? And what does F1 gain from appearing to embrace them? The fact that these things happen as they happen always gives the impression that the sport is being used, although no-one with any say in the sport ever seems to think this is a bad thing. But we don’t see a lot of Russian sponsorship on the cars, so perhaps it would be wise to stop this sort of thing and see if money can be found elsewhere.

The other reason the race is not popular is because you have to jump through hoops to get a media visa (admittedly it is far more difficult in some countries than in others). Whatever the details, the paddock in Sochi always feels rather empty. People were only there if they have to be there. This year there was a bit of a dearth of Team Principals as well as media, with no sign of Force India bosses Vijay Mallya nor Bob Fernley, Monisha Kaltenborn of Sauber was absent (although this was caused by her son having appendicitis). Neither Frank nor Claire Williams was present. Nor was McLaren’s Ron Dennis, Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul or Manor’s Stephen Fitzpatrick.

There were, however, quite a lot of Russians in suits with bodyguards and blondes, but there was little else to suggest that VIP hospitality sales were was heaving. Still, I hear it is doing better than Baku, where the international guest count is going to be very low.

One man who was much in evidence (even if a lot of people did not know who he was) was Russian billionaire Dmitry Mazepin, who has made a vast fortune in the chemical business. He was spotted with Bernie Ecclestone rather a lot, leading to rumours that perhaps Mr E was lining him up to take over Force India from Vijay Mallya. The reason for these stories appears to be the fact that his 16-year-old son Nikita is currently moving up the racing ladder and has a development deal with the said Force India. Nikita seems like a very nice, polite young man and so I asked him why it was that he got banned from a race recently for punching one of his fellow competitors. He said that it had been a mistake and that he was sorry he had done it and had even apologised.

The suggestion that Mazepin will take over Force India is jumping the gun rather (not that the media has ever been accused of that before). It is by no means clear whether that this would be a good idea. If you are mega-wealthy and have a son talented enough not to be embarrassing, then getting him to F1 is not that difficult. Running a team is a big commitment. Having said that, many in F1 believe that the teams will one day be worth a lot of money, if one looks at the average franchise in the big leagues in other sports, so it might be worth investing because change must one day come.

The media can be annoying, but most of the teams find that the biggest problems are created by the hundreds of wannabes out there, rather than those who are actually present. This boils over occasionally and that happened on Sunday night when there were suggestions that Mercedes had deliberately delayed Lewis Hamilton.

“I think it is very difficult to take people seriously out there when they are lying on their beds with their laptops on their chests, and they are sending out those abusive messages,” said an annoyed team boss Toto Wolff. “Of course we don’t do it deliberately. The team has been abused in some of the social media and conspiracy theories are out there. My response to this is that I don’t want to ignore this bunch of lunatics who think that we would harm a driver who has been a double World Champion for us.”

Conspiracy theories, in my experience, are generally due to screw-ups that people then try to disguise. This was a screw-up that no-one is disguising.

Similarly all the fuss about Daniil Kvyat was largely a waste of energy. He misjudged the levels of grip and slid into Sebastian Vettel, that punted Vettel into Daniel Ricciardo. This caused Vettel to lift off on the next section of track and poor Kvyat was taken by surprise and ran into him again. I think poor Daniil got more abuse than he deserved. Having said that the incident is not good for him. He’s clearly a very talented guy but Red Bull seems to be looking for a way to hold on to Max Verstappen in the longer term and offering him a Red Bull seat in 2017, with options beyond that, may be a good move. Ferrari seems to be pondering sticking with Raikkonen again (which is a bit of a mystery) and there is no reason why Mercedes would want to change anything. Red Bull has shown itself to be utterly ruthless in the past when it comes to drivers and has ruined more careers than they have made.

Still, it is nice to see so many talented youngsters starting to break through in F1 with the likes of Verstappen, Stoffel Vandoorne, Pascal Wehrlein, Kevin Magnussen and others beginning to make the old guard nervous. Sadly, not all great talents can make it and often it is just down to luck. One thinks of young Jules Bianchi, for example. I was reminded of another great talent when someone suggested I look at a film called Gonchi, the story of Gonzalo Rodriguez, who I first met back in 1999 when he was team-mate to Justin Wilson with Astromega in Formula 3000. He seemed poised for an F1 career when he decided to take up the offer of a chance to race in CART…