Notebook from Styria

IMG_0051The first notes that I have in the notebook from the Red Bull Ring concern driver movements for 2017. The first note says “Sainz – STR 2017 deal”, the second “Perez-Ferrari”, the third “Wehrlein-Force India”. There are other random notes on the same pages which say “NR=will be done”.

The Sainz deal is confirmed, but all the other chatter remains dependent on decision that have yet to be taken. Ferrari, for example, has hinted that Kimi Raikkonen needs to up his game, although it is not really clear whether that is serious as Kimi and Sebastian Vettel make a drama-less combination. However, if someone (Sergio Marchionne)decides that paying Kimi Raikkonen is not as good a deal as hiring Sergio Perez, who has around $20 million from Mexico and the source is not very different from the Mexican sponsorship that Ferrari has, thanks to Esteban Gutierrez’s testing deal last year. Perez is certainly fast and has matured a lot since his abortive adventures at McLaren. The alternative choices for Ferrari, given that the Red Bull drivers are all locked into contracts, would be Valtteri Bottas and, perhaps, Romain Grosjean, but it seems to me that the team needs a reason to get rid of Kimi and I am not entirely sure if they have one as yet. Right now, they are equal on points although to be fair Vettel seems to have a lot less luck this year. Kimi is very popular with the fans, which always makes sponsors happy. If Perez was to go to Ferrari, then Mercedes would move Wehrlein to Force India, on the basis that the team owes it money and this would be a good way to settle at least some of that debt. Still, Toto Wolff will have the opportunity to see Vijay Mallya at Silverstone, as the embattled Indian is planning to show up at race for the first time this season. This is possibly because it is the only race he can go to, given some troubles relating to passports. The investigation into alleged fraud at the defunct Kingfisher Airlineshas run into some unfortunate problems of late as the Serious Fraud Investigation Office has been informed that the company’s accounts have all disappeared – and there is no back-up. They have also probably been told that a cow had landed on the moon, but they may not believe that.

Another man who is going to be spending a lot of time in England in the days ahead is Renault F1 boss Cyril Abiteboul, who is relocate to the UK from Paris. Cynics say that this is because it is a great idea to be paid in Euros and live in the UK while all this Brexit chaos is going on, but Cyril says it is because there is a lot to be done to me the team competitive and he has finished the restructuring of the engine division in Viry-Chatillon. Given the current performance of the team, it is fairly clear that he’s not wrong, but clearly the problem is more to do with money than with a lack of talent at Enstone.

I have a note that says Praga because I keep seeing representatives of the Czech company in F1 places. The company is owned by racer Petr Ptáček, who manufactures cars, karts and planes. His son Petr Ptáček Jr is now involved in karting.

There is a page filled with things Toto Wolff said after the crash between his two drivers at the end of the race, which triggered this week’s chatter about team orders.

There is just one other word, by itself, on a page: “Button”. This was designed to remind me to think about Jenson’s future. I’ve been watching Jenson recently and I don’t get the impression that this is a man who is about to leave F1. He seems rather assured and, while he’s not one to engage much with the media, beyond being jovial, I sense that he knows where he is going – which is an odd thing to be when one is in his situation. When you are 36 and only Kimi Raikkonen is older, and in a situation like Jenson is at McLaren, with Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, clearly waiting to take his seat, one does not expect a driver to be unworried about the future. Yet Jenson seems relaxed and able to produce some remarkable performances. And I cannot help thinking that perhaps this is because he has a deal elsewhere. Racing teams rarely tell the media what is going on, until they want to do it, but I can see the former World Champion, a major star in the UK, as being a man who may well be in the mix at Williams, where he started his F1 career 16 years ago. When you look at Williams at the moment, it is clear that the car could be better (Force India has the same engine and is doing a better job with it). This may be because the team has switched to the 2017 car already. At the same team one also sees a requirement for more budget and with a driver like Button, it might be possible to extract more funds from companies like Unilever’s Rexona, Martini and BP (among others). Jenson is a proper high profile celeb in addition to being a very good racing driver and I can see that working for them. Felipe Massa is likely to be the man left out as Brazil’s economic problems are not helping his situation, although to be fair he is usually a match for Bottas. Publicity value is an important thing in racing these days and that is why the BRDC has enlisted the help of Prince Harry as the patron of Silverstone Heritage Ltd, a registered charity which is in the process of creating a permanent exhibition to celebrate the history of the Silverstone and British motor racing in general, with a collections and research centre which they hope will pull in 500,000 visitors a year and generate some business for the club. Half the funding is coming from the Heritage Lottery Fund,while the remaining money is being raised by former F1 team principal and commercial director (not to mention former journalistic colleague of mine) Ian Phillips.

It may be that we will get an announcement at Silverstone regarding Sauber, but it is not 100 percent certain as yet. The word is that Peter Sauber will be selling his shareholding in the team (believed to be 70 percent) to someone else. There are lots of rumours about Swedish people but I get the impression it may be billed as a management buyout, with Monisha Kaltenborn remaining CEO and with her 30 percent shareholding and other investors supporting her in that role. From what I can pick up, the investment will keep Marcus Ericsson in the team, hence the Swedish rumours, but will be more of a long-term investment, rather than having a specific marketing aim, as a lot of people believe that the F1 franchises will one day have great value, which is not the case at the moment.

The sport is changing and it is clear to me that we are in for some lively times ahead as the four groups involved: the Formula One group, the FIA, the big teams and the little teams try to sort out what F1 is going to be in the future. It is clear that Bernie Ecclestone and CVC are not getting what they want, either from a buyer, or from the manufacturers, and now Bernie is making noises about sharing revenues equally, which will please the smaller teams and the European Commission, but is going to make Sergio Marchionne and Dieter Zetsche hrmph in their board rooms. The FIA is to a great extent irrelevant politically because it sold its rights in F1 for a pound of silver. Perhaps the FIA folks ought to have considered that Bernie doesn’t like paying pounds of silver when he’s not getting much for it. Thus I was very interested to discover, while pottering trough a trademark application by one of the Formula One group’s lesser-known entities, the poetically-named GP2 Trade Marks Limited, that curious things are happening. GP2TML already owns trademarks for “GP1” and “GP1 Series”, but back in March it made an application for the trademark for something called “Sports Technical Services”, although no such company exists in the UK. This in itself is not wildly interesting until you look at the categories in which it is applying for trademarks, notably for “regulatory services to motor racing events” including the provision and appointment of technical delegates to interpret and enforce rules for sporting events; scrutineering services; advising; managing event access, event personnel, event facilities, event timetables; provision of information and “appointing officials, stewards, clerks, secretaries, adjudicators, scrutineers and medical officers; provision of medical facilities and equipment” at racing events.

These are all things that the FIA does.

I personally don’t see it being a great idea for a self-administered GP1-style breakaway series, but I do see it as being something that entrepreneurs with no respect for the sport and his heritage might do in a world where TV revenues can be multiplied with new generation OTT services for all manner of viewing devices, and pick-and-play pricing.

There are lots of secret contracts binding everyone to one another in the F1 world, but if a new company called GP1 was to have its own sanctioning body and its own rules and some of the big F1 races, I can see quite a lot of the teams jumping straight into bed with the idea if they were offered a better financial deal than is currently the case. I doubt that they would all want it, but beggars cannot be choosers. I would imagine that one way to keep the big names involved would be offer one of them the contract to supply everyone with cars, or to provide engines, but only the terms offered by the series. The ethos of such a series would then shift from being technology-led racing we see today (which is unsustainable in the long term) to becoming all about TV and star driver appeal. With many of the F1 teams lured away to this by the promise of big money, could there be enough support for the continuation of the World Championship as we know it? Or would the manufacturers walk away and try to do something else? If no-one really cares about official “World Championship” status then the FIA has no value at all. In any case, when push comes to shove, the federation would probably beg to be involved if a new series took off. It would be a Premier League scenario, pulled off not by the teams themselves, but by the commercial rights holder. The best that the manufacturers could do would be DTM-style single-seater racing, but if F1 already had the venues sewn up and big F1 team names involved, it is hard to imagine the manufacturers would do that for long. How it all develops remains to be seen. All I can say is that this trademark application is being considered at the moment.

It was good to see Alexander Rossi back in the F1 Paddock for the first time since his Indianapolis 500 win. The American hopes to be able to return to F1 soon, but there is no doubt that he is getting offers to race in the US. His ambition remains F1, and his presence in F1 would obviously help the sport to grow stronger in America, but I can see the sport losing that potential by letting Rossi go.

The crowd at the Red Bull Ring was small, much smaller than in previous years, which is not good news (even if Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz does not have to worry about calls from the bank manager). There is talk of expanding the current point-and-squirt track by reintegrating the old western section of the circuit with the brilliant Hella Licht and Dr Tiroch’s Kurve sections. The real aim of this would be to have a longer track so as to be able to attract other racing series, but it could mean F1 returning to the original track design, although hopefully F1’s track designer Hermann Tilke would not be allowed to fiddle with it to make it more camera-friendly. The good thing is that big races bring money to the region, which is not wealthy, the bad thing is that some of the residents of the village of Flatschach might make this rather difficult.