Notebook from the Riviera

IMG_0051It is a grey Tuesday morning in Paris and the Côte d’Azur seems suddenly a long way away. When we left Monaco on Monday morning, the sun was shining and it was a perfect Riviera morning. Every year one feels a little the same as one leaves the place. Why don’t we move here? And yet, somehow, we never do. By the time we reached Lyon, the rain was starting and as we drove through Burgundy and up across the Morvan, it might have been November, with rain teeming down, people driving insanely fast for the conditions and, at one point, a road so flooded that they had cut the traffic to one lane in each direction to stop drivers playing pinball with themselves. Now and then, we passed a big wreck, surrounded by blue flashing lights, evidence that if the FIA wants to deal with road safety, perhaps it might be wisest to start at home.

Would that every race weekend was like Monaco. I have always had a love-hate relationship with the place because it is so lovely and yet the beauty has been spoilt in so many ways by human greed. I spent some time on a yacht on Saturday evening and while the folks aboard were charming, some of the humanity around us was not. They were a bunch of loud, crass, show-offs, with loads of money, and all the trappings that come with such status. Perhaps one day I will make a fortune by starting a company to teach people how to be rich because so many of them do it so badly.

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Rubbish in Monaco

As I wrote in my GP+ column, I have always found the ethos of Monaco at GP time to be “very off-putting (cynics will probably say that this is because I have never made a fortune), but I am sorry to say that wedding cake yachts, barking Lamborghinis, big fat Cuban cigars, sexy tartelettes, with diamonds in their ears and silicon in their chests, and whatever other positional “goods” one can buy when you have “loadsamoney”, do not do it for me.”

One can analyse it and even understand the psychology, but I can never understand the need to do it. But Monaco, as a piece of land, I have always loved, despite the carbuncles of real estate development. It’s pointless saying that it was so much more wonderful in the 1930s, but that’s not really the point. The crime of Monaco is the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness. The plans for the development of some museums down by the old yacht club at the end of the paddock, I thought were very striking and will give the town a new signature building and I quite like the new yacht club as a piece of maritime design. It works. But far too many of the buildings are simply designed for the profits, although I suppose there is a superb irony in the fact that wealthy people have to spend so much money to live in boxy little flats in order to get their tax status…

Such rumination led me to cite the recent (and brilliant) Woody Allen movie “Midnight in Paris”in which a modern writer (played well by Owen Wilson) goes back in time to the romantic golden age of Paris in the 1930s, with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and all the rest of them. And yet, he also found people wanting to go back to the Belle Epoque, the golden age before the golden age. And when he went there, he found people wanting to go back to the Renaissance, because they saw that as a golden age. The conclusion of all of this was that we should just get on with it and live in the present. And that relates to F1 as well. “People tell me that F1 is not like it used to be,” I wrote, “but I disagree. I think it is greater than ever. Golden ages are wildly over-rated…”

The magic of Monaco, when you look at it geologically, is not that different to Sochi (except the rocks are taller), but that race in Russia has none of the charm. So many race tracks today are dull and flat, with slow speed corners so that the TV cameras can do a better job. What we need is a few more Monacos. Following the logic of the Monaco Barbies, I suggested to a pal in Australia that perhaps Melbourne could make Albert Park more exciting by pumping billions of tons of silicon beneath the venue to give the place a bit more Monaco sparkle, not to mention raising the house prices as real estate agents could then gush forth about “the superb vistas of Port Phillip Bay” and hazy views of distant Geelong…

But back to Monaco. The odd thing with a race which boasts an extra day is that because there is so much going on, the work that needs to get done seems often to get delayed and Sunday is a rush. The other thing that delays things is that they always show the Indy 500 in the Media Centre. This is great, but it means that one is inevitably delayed. There was much cheering at the end of the 500 with victory going to Manor’s reserve driver Alex Rossi. I’ve known Alex since June 2008, when we had dinner together in Montreal. He was 15 and very shy but over time he flowered into a hugely impressive young man. It was a great shame that he only got a handful of F1 races (and I hope he comes back and does more) because he is a much better package than quite a lot of the youngsters in F1 because he is so rounded and grounded. He has taken so much in his stride and has not been knocked back by crushing disappointments that might have destroyed other drivers. He just smiled and kept going, never doubting that when his moment came, he would be able to do a good job. And so he has. In the modern era only three men have won the Indy 500 at their first attempt: Graham Hill in 1966, Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000 and Hélio Castroneves in 2001. The win will do F1 no harm at all in the US because over there no-one really knew Alexander. Now he has won the biggest prize in US open-wheeler racing and that ought to help him get back to F1. I hope he does that and does not decide to stay over there…

The news in Monaco this year was somewhat limited. We are expecting a big announcement in Canada in a few days which will be one of the biggest F1 sponsorship deals ever, but the money is not going to a team, but rather to the promoter as trackside signage and title sponsorships. The teams are green with envy…

The biggest news was, in reality, the sad story of Jules Bianchi’s family deciding to take legal action against various parties who were involved, to a lesser of greater extent, in his accident. While I feel for the family, I do not think that this is a wise thing to do. The accident was investigated in depth by a very eminent panel of F1 experts. They made recommendations as to what could be done to improve safety, as happens after most accidents. Those recommendations should not be viewed as the sport having done anything wrong. Things can always be done better. The panel was careful not to blame Bianchi, but merely said that the speed at which he was travelling was one of the contributory elements. Trying to blame others serves no real purpose. Motor racing has always been dangerous, but when the rules are followed, the sport is remarkably safe. I do not see anything that was done wrong and nor do I see any grounds for negligence claims, which would be required to overcome the disclaimers that Bianchi signed. These are very specifically worded and include not only his own claims, but also of those of his family. Drivers understand what they are doing when they sign legal documents that expressly and irrevocably waive all recourse. My feeling is that the family is not being well-advised because to announce such a thing in Monaco gives the wrong impression. When you do that it shows that you are primarily looking for media coverage. Why does a legal claim need that? The only explanation that I can think of is that it is way to try to put pressure on the parties involved to settle out of court. But if they don’t think they have done anything wrong, why would they do that? The other thing that I find odd is that the lawsuit does not include the Suzuka circuit and the race promoter, Mobilityland Corporation, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Honda Motor Company. This is obviously not easy, but trying to blame the Formula One group and not the Japanese entities makes no sense at all.

What else? There was a lovely celebration in the Casino on Friday to remember Olivier Panis’s victory in Monaco in 1996, at the wheel of a Ligier-Mugen. The car was flown in from Japan and Panis and the then Mugen boss Hirotoshi Honda were there, along with Guy Ligier’s grand-daughter Camille, and Martine Walkinshaw, the widow of the then Ligier team boss Tom Walkinshaw. It was good to see a string of other old faces attend.

I have a note saying that things are happening at Sauber, but CEO Monisha Kaltenborn is saying nothing until deals are done. That is the smart way to do deals. My instinct says that a new investor will be taking over Peter Sauber’s shares, but that the deal will mean that the team keeps the same name, which is a good solid F1 brand, with much potential for development. Sauber is a group of companies including an engineering business and the wind tunnel and I see the firm following the route taken by McLaren and Williams to build up engineering businesses to support the F1 team. This is a guess but I don’t see Kaltenborn backing away from the sport any time soon. There is a reason that Peter chose her to lead the company forward and most of that is the fire and the desire to be successful.

The most interesting thing going at the moment is the negotiation between Nico Rosberg and Mercedes, or rather between Gerhard Berger and the team, as he is doing the negotiating for Nico. Rosberg is currently paid around $15 million, while Lewis Hamilton is paid twice that and with Nico winning so much this year, his desire is clearly to make more. But it is a dangerous game. Mercedes does not want to increase its salary bills more than necessary and so the idea that Nico and Lewis could be paid the same is not workable, if only because Nico has no other serious options and everyone wants to drive a Mercedes, and a lot of F1 drivers would do it for less money. Mercedes is not playing hard ball yet and says that a Nico-Lewis duo is what they want to see. When all is said and done, the real question is one of ego. Rosberg does not need the money and would be mad to give up the drive, so the best solution will be a small increase in salary and the chance the win the title. If he does that then his worth will increase.

The other news is that Red Bull has signed a deal to have both of its teams using Renault engines in 2017 and 2018. This is a very clear admission that there is no other deal out there and that there is not a lot wrong with the Renault engines, as Dan Ricciardo would have proved if the team had not messed up his pit stop. Red Bull has done a tour of manufacturers looking for someone to team up with and the fact that there is no-one willing to join in is something of a statement about the sport.

Honda continues to make progress with McLaren and there was a significant moment for Japan on Saturday in Monaco when Honda protege Nobuharu Matsushita became the first ever Japanese driver to win a race at Monaco.

Elsewhere CVC Capital Partners continues to be keen to sell the Formula One group, even if some of the people say they are not keen. They are hoping that the Chinese will come in, but a recent discussion with the internet group Alibaba has faded away and the bid from America’s Stephen Ross remains the most likely, even if CVC thinks that they can get the Chinese to come in. As Ron Dennis has proved with McLaren, getting Chinese investors in a business like F1 is not easy. Perhaps when the first such deal occurs, we will see others come, but for now China seems more interested in Formula E. F1 is too scary, too short-termist and too complicated.

Meanwhile NASCAR made a quiet announcement which show just how off the pace F1 is in terms of marketing itself. The latest NASCAR film project is with the Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh and is a heist movie centered around Charlotte Motor Speedway. The film will be called Logan Lucky, and will star Channing Tatum, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough, Adam Driver and Seth MacFarlane. Of course, Soderbergh’s heist movies would be perfect for Monte Carlo and would it not be fun to have one centred on the F1 race… Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy has made $1.1 billion at the box office. Surely F1 could get a slice of a similar pie, if it realised that the cinema is not only a cash machine, but also a great way to publicise a sport.

Onward, to Canada next week…