Notebook from The White Cliffs of Dover

IMG_0051Wow… This time of year one is really rolling with the punches in Formula 1. Three races in four weekends – and a lot of folk did not go home between Austria and Britain. A lot also went to Goodwood, so they have had no time off at all. After the secret promotional event in London last week I had a busy weekend at Silverstone (always busier than other Grands Prix as one knows more people) and then on Monday morning I headed off for Dover to get the boat home, Eurotunnel being prohibitively expensive – and less agreeable – at this time of year. If you pay a little extra on the ferry and get access to the club and priority boarding, the P&O ferry can be great. There is something comfortingly old-fashioned about the Pacific & Orient and if one can leave all the school coach parties downstairs, it’s really rather enjoyable. There was even a sundeck on this trip…

The drive down to Paris that followed was fairly swift, although someone who had not listened to Jean Todt, managed to have an accident big enough to involve a helicopter landing on the motorway. Fortunately, I was listening to autoroute radio and was I was able to get off the road before I arrived at the closed section and got stuck in a jam. Thus a detour for a few kilometres of French countryside near Abbeville was agreeable enough and then it was back on the fast road. The reason to rush home was to do with summer holidays for small people and the last few days have been all about opening up a house, blowing-up paddling pools, dealing with plumbing, cutting back jungle and so on. These are all things that get lost in the 24/7 lifestyle that is Formula 1.

However, the green notebook was there, leering at me, a reminder that F1 life goes on as well.  I did get an email from the FIA, which caused my heart to sink. The decision has been taken to use the halo head protection system in 2018. I consider this to be utterly foolish for the sport. It has come about because in the summer of 2016 the sport voted to do something about head protection. A year on, no other system has been sufficiently researched and so we are stuck with the halo, but because there was a commitment to do something, failing to do so might have created grounds for a negligence claim and so the halo has been pushed through. One hopes that this is just a phase and that the hideous halo will soon disappear and be replaced by something sexier. I am all for protecting the drivers, but not to a ridiculous extent that threatens to damage the sport because the halo looks so awful. Millions of people play sport every day, and, inevitably, some suffer injury or pain. Most players and spectators accept this risk. You cannot ban dangerous sports because otherwise it would be done illegally and be more dangerous and so one must accept that some people want to take risks and are aware of the possible outcomes. Racing drivers know that they can die (even if they don’t REALLY consider the possibility). Danger is the thing that is popular. The F1 machines today are incredibly safe. They have been for a long time. Yes, there are still risks and flying wreckage is definitely important but where is the limit? People have a choice if they go racing, they sign a whole series of waivers and the reality is that very few accidents that occur in the normal course of racing give rise to a claim of negligence. If there is deliberate disregard for the rules or if nothing has been done to solve a known problem then there are possible claims, but there must a line drawn somewhere. And I think the halo is too much, it’s just plain ugly. F1 cars should be sleek and sexy and the shield is far better in that respect. I hope that the halo gets thrown out quickly and the shield can take over before the fans start walking away.

The key point about F1 is that people want to watch gladiators. They don’t want whingers who have to have the day off if they break a toenail. They want heroes. The other day, for example, Alexander Albon, one of Britain’s rising stars, suffered a broken collarbone after end-over-ending while training when his mountain bike hit some exposed roots. A collarbone is not easy (as we saw some year back with Juan Pablo Montoya), but Albon was back in action three weeks after the shunt (about half the normal recovery time). That was heroic.

F1 stars throwing wobblies, and behaving like primadonnas, whining on the radio to Charlie and so on, does not help the image of the sport… Nor does the halo.

Anyway, back to the notebook. There is, first of all, a note about how pleasant it is to be back in Middle England, a place where things have not changed so much, in bucolic backwaters with daft names, garden fetes, pony clubs and all the rest of it. Silverstone is still just an overgrown airfield, the child of the austere post-war age, but it is still a great place and to see the 2017 cars going through Becketts at full tilt is impressive. As I said before, the sport is all about heroes, doing things the rest of us cannot do…

I realized on the ferry home that I had not read a newspaper for days and had no idea what was happening in the world outside F1. Tut-tut. I was delighted to see that the Conservatives in the UK are now beginning to slit one another’s throats over Brexit and there are more and more warnings. A Japan-EU trade deal is deemed to be a threat to the British car trade… and so on. I noticed with interest that McLaren is expanding a facility it has at IDIADA in Spain, where it tests its road cars, and I could not help but wonder whether future engineers will have EU contracts, rather than GB ones… It’s a sensible hedge in case things get worse.

I saw also that Roger Federer had won Wimbledon for an eighth time, which pushed Lewis’s fifth British GP win off the back pages. What can you do?

The major chat in F1 circles at the moment is all about engines and it is getting interesting. Sauber seemed to have the basis of a deal with Honda (it was announced by Honda and they tend not to be silly) but the word is that in order to get Frédéric Vasseur Sauber has had to agree to switch engines. Fred might like Mercedes and he is very close to Toto Wolff, but it seems that the F1 Commission needs to give permission for more than three supplies and one can see that this will never happen. The F1 Commission cannot agree on whether to open a window, let alone rules and regulations.

Given the political power of Mercedes (in terms of votes) one can see Renault and Ferrari wanting few Mercedes teams and more teams with their engines to give them more political clout. So Sauber will need to stay with Ferraris next year, probably 2018 versions  of the engine, and the word is that F2 rising star and Ferrari protégé Charles Leclerc will be snapped to drive. Pascal Wehrlein will move on, which is probably sensible…

This means that McLaren’s only choice is to stay with Honda, or switch to Renault. No-one wants to see Honda kicked out of F1, least of all Honda, and the word is that the Japanese firm may do a deal with Toro Rosso (or perhaps even buy the team) so that they can remain in F1 until they can get the engines up to speed. Red Bull needs only insert a clause in any Toro Rosso deal saying that Red Bull Racing can have the units if they become competitive and Red Bull’s engine problems would be solved. It is a big if, but it is better than drifting on as is now happening. I have heard that there is still no real contract between Red Bull and Renault because of discussions over oil companies and so on, but going straight to Honda would be a bit radical so letting Toro Rosso take the pain, or selling the team (which Red Bull has wanted to do for a while) makes sense. That would mean McLaren and Renault, which would just about OK, even if it would be a bit of a risk for the Renault team. Still, they are getting beaten at the moment by Red Bull and sometimes Toro Rosso so clearly they need to improve. Would A McLaren-Renault be enough to keep Fernando Alonso? Does he have any other real choices?

Fred Vasseur going to Sauber is a brave move, but given the time he took to negotiate the deal, it is fair to say that he must have got pretty much everything he wanted. He will no doubt get a flat in Zurich and live there a lot of the time, but he will no doubt also spend time back in his native France, where the wine and cheese is better (for a Frenchman). One would suggest that he has also been given the choice of engineers and drivers he wants. The owners of the team are awfully keen to point out that there is no favouritism towards Marcus Ericsson. They were so keen to point this out that they recently had a meeting for the whole team to explain that the evil media was making up stories about favouritism. The odd thing is that Wehrlein was not there. Some say he was not invited, but maybe he just forgot and spent the day shopping in Migros… It was all a bit odd really.

It will still not be easy to get the best engineers in Switzerland but that will be down to Fred’s ability to bring in the heavy-hitters. One expects that he has also had financial guarantees to pay for his plans, or at the very least he has the right to find money on his own account, if the mysterious owners do not want to pay more than they must. Fred has some cred in F1 circles, but it remains to be seen if this is enough.

Has McLaren finally decided to split with Honda? Who can say, but it is fare to say that the team has given the Japanese firm plenty of chances for things to get better. I would guess that there are two design teams busy in Woking, one for one engine, the other for the second. A decision must come back September. Going to Renault is not a great option for Woking but it would be better than where the team is now and my feeling is that in 2021 the team will have its own engines . McLaren is already making its own road car power units and it is only logical to go down this path in the future. That will add to the value as and when there is a McLaren IPO is 2022 or 2023.

Elsewhere the rumours of the sale of Force India have increased with the suggestion at Silverstone that this summer Austria’s Andreas Weißenbacher will become the new force in the team. Vijay Mallya may stay on as a minority shareholder but it is clear that Subrata Roy of the Sahara Group is going to give up his shares to raise money to keep the Indian courts from sending him back in jail. At the moment Roy’s empire is gradually being taken apart by the Indian authorities and his property is now being auctioned. Selling his 42.5 percent share in Force India would help raise a decent sum and Weißenbacher might also buy out the Mol family in Holland, which were involved in the team in its days as Spyker, which still owns 15 percent. No doubt, if Mallya keeps his shares, there will be options for Weißenbacher to buy them as well.

Who is this Weißenbacher character? An Austrian. He owns the BWT brand and sees F1 as a good way to promote his water products. The company has revenues of $650 million and earnings of around $10 million per annum, which is not much in F1 terms, but Mallya has run the team for between $10-20 million a year (thanks to his prize money and cash from sponsors). BWT began sponsorship in motorsport in 2015 with a DTM car for Austrian Lucas Auer. The programme expanded to two cars in 2016 and this year funds Auer and Edoardo Mortara.

Auer, the son of Gerhard Berger’s sister Claudia, is currently fighting for the DTM title with Audi’s Mattias Ekström and will take part in the upcoming Hungaroring F1 test for Force India and, if all goes well, he could replace Perez in 2018 if he gets a superlicence. Auer is 22 and finished fourth in the F3 European Championship in 2013 and 2014 before switching to DTM.

Gene Haas uses F1 to sell his machine tools and so there is no reason why Weißenbacher would not do the same with his filtration, demineralisation and lime-scale protection products. He also manufactures metering pumps and distillation devices and is in the process of building up new business in the development of membranes for automotive fuel cells. And, of course, being an Austrian, he can always get advice from Toto Wolff…

The suggestion that Perez may depart Force India (under its new name) is fairly simple. He’s under pressure these days from Esteban Ocon. He does not want to stick around and get beaten as Ocon gets better and better. He could go to Williams next year (taking his sponsors with him) or he could get an offer from Renault, which wants Ocon back but cannot get him. Perez and Hulkenberg has been a good combination in the past…

We’ll see how it pans out, but this was the gossip at the old airfield.