Notebook from Trafalgar Square

IMG_0051The last couple of days have been pretty busy, as a result of plans having to be changed for various reasons. I was planning to drive from Austria to Belgium, spend the night there and go on to England on Tuesday morning. At one point I was even hoping to be able to get to the UK of a media preview of the new Williams F1 film, but that went out the window when I had to divert to Paris for an evening and then drive to England on Tuesday. I arrived and drove up Whitehall, where crowd barriers and plastic crash barriers were already being put into place. Trafalgar Square itself was a hub of activity. This morning I went down there to sort out accreditation and saw the last car to arrive: amusingly, this was a Sauber, seemingly the team being last at everything at the moment. Still, there was good news with the announcement of Fred Vasseur as the new team principal, in addition to roles as CEO and managing director of Sauber Motorsport. This presumably means that he is not going to be in charge of the Sauber technology unit that they are trying to develop at the moment.

Knowing Fred, I am quite sure that the last three weeks has been a time of negotiation in order to get exactly what he wants in the role, because he did not wish to find himself in a position like he had at Renault, where he had the job title but not really the freedom of action nor the same vision as the bosses. So, hopefully, this time that is all in place. I think it is a huge risk for him because of the nature of the Sauber team, which is unlike any other in the F1 Paddock. It is rooted in Switzerland in more than just name.

Sauber played a big part in my weekend in Austria, largely because I had, let’s say, a lively discussion with the owner, who did not like what I had written about the team. He made the fatal mistake (as do many blog posters) of accusing a journalist of bias. Hell hath no fury… When he asked me why I had not got his views on the subject I replied that if he came to more races it would be helpful. He asked why I did not call to which I replied that getting the telephone number of a vastly wealthy but reclusive individual, who does not even wish to be named, was not exactly the easiest thing to do. I explained to him that I had taken the only course available and spoken to his representative and taken into account what he had said, but apparently this was not good enough. So we did not really get on. When I asked him to explain what the supposed targets that Monisha Kaltenborn failed to meet, he told me to mind my own business. When he asked me to name my sources, I told him it was none of his business. He ranted, in a rather condescending fashion, about how Formula 1 people in general don’t understand business, cannot read balance sheets and P&L statements. The point he missed is that F1 teams employ clever people to do that for them and what is most important is leadership and passion. Everything else is secondary to this and believing that teams will be successful if they have the right corporate structures and that F1 is just like any other business is not a sensible approach when one looks at history and sees how much money was wasted by corporate giants Toyota and British American Tobacco, or when one looks at the mistakes that Red Bull, for example, made in F1 before eventually getting it right. There is a very long list of people who have arrived and said that F1 is the same as any other business, only to depart with their pockets emptier and their egos dented. Being rich is obviously a big advantage in life, but it doesn’t mean you know all the answers, which is a mistake that billionaires often make. What it does do is give you the chance to screw up and then buy yourself out of trouble.

The other element that the invisible team owner misses is that going into the F1 business means that one is buying into a media and entertainment business. And trying to be invisible in a media business is a bit like wandering into a minefield, wearing a blindfold and juggling balls in the air. You might get out of it without your cover (and other bits) being blown, but it’s not a great idea. We all know (if we have half a clue) who the owner is, but some of us have deferred to his wishes to remain anonymous, in order to have a good working relationship with him. However, berating journalists because they don’t write what you want to hear, is not a good way to develop working relationships and, to be honest, right now I really see no reason why I would want to keep the name secret any longer.

However, let us leave that for a while and see how things develop. Right now, I am not minded to send him a Christmas card (not that I know where to send it) and I doubt he’ll be sending me one. We will see how things develop. I wish him well, if only because I love the Sauber team and believe that they are largely good people – racing people – who understand what it takes to run an F1 team. Sauber is still in existence after 25 years (it’s written in the side of the car). It is the fourth longest-standing team which has kept the same name and been around every season behind Ferrari (1950), McLaren (1966) and Williams (1977). Most of those who come into F1 as team owners underestimate that task and concentrate on the wrong things. In some worlds having money means that people respect you, but F1 is not one of them… What earns respect is knowing how to spend it.

One man who has spent money well in recent years (even if it is not always his own money) is Vijay Mallya. He may have some difficulties with the authorities in India but in F1 terms, he has done a good job. He does suffer a little from a superiority complex (not unusual in those who have inherited great fortunes), but he has managed the team well and the results are there to see. Mind you, it’s soon going to be 10 years since he took charge so time is also an element in this. The team has recently set up a load of companies in order to prepare for a new identity in 2018. These have all been called Force One but it appears that this is just a holding name and that these companies will all change their names when the new team name is accepted by the FIA and the Formula 1 Commission. The process will begin in September when Force India will request a name change. There will then be a stage during which agreement must be reached with the F1 Commission members and then an entry can be made in October with the team’s new name.

The one thing about driving to races is that one gets time to think a lot without interruption, although there are inevitably distractions with traffic jams and so on. In a way this is also relaxing because one can take off, leave the motorways and travel a little through the regions. At one point I found myself in a monster jam and headed off on a road down because the mighty Danube, visiting scenic spots and places with strange names, such as Fisching. I was also amused to see signs to Recyclinghof, presumably because the Germans do not have a word for the concept. Once in Austria, I think the best story of the weekend was not Bottas’s lightning start, but rather the adventures of Anglo-Thai rising star Alexander Albon, who has been one of the stand-outs in Formula 2 this year, admittedly, slightly overshadowed by his long-time rival Charles Leclerc, who is doing amazing things with Prema. However, one also gets the impression that the Prema cars are a bit special, which makes it rather hard to judge who is the best of the bunch. Albon would (probably) have won a couple of races this year had the Safety Car not intervened at inopportune moments. Then, just before the F2 race in Baku, he was out training on a mountain bike, along with Britain’s other big hope for the future George Russell. Albon hit some exposed roots during a fast downhill section and went end-over-end and broke his collarbone. The injury required surgery and the insertion of a titanium plate and six screws, but desperate not to be out for too long, he started training immediately and with a little help from medical wizardry involving ultrasound. The doctors were so impressed by progress that he let him return to action in Austria, having completed only around half the normal healing time required. He qualified third in the first race and finished fifth and then was second in the second, moving himself up seventh in the championship, despite having missed two races. Heroic stuff.

During my drives I did manage to overtake the Safety Car, although I did not risk punishment because it was on the back of a truck, transporting it to Silverstone. Actually there are several Safety Cars, in case one breaks down. I also overtook half the population of Holland, which had travelled to Austria to watch Max. You had to feel sorry for them because they drive 1100km to see their hero taken out at the first corner and then drove 1100km home. It is amazing how many supporters Verstappen has and one has to ask: why him? Why do Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel or Fernando Alonso not have a similar travelling armies, as Michael Schumacher once did?

The race to get the F1 circus to Silverstone was as impressive as ever as 280 trucks rushed from circuit to circuit. When I left the Red Bull Ring at 01.43 on Monday morning there was an F1 truck leaving every minute. If you do the numbers that process could have gone on for four hours and 40 minutes, although the stragglers probably did not get out before midday Monday.

En route to Silverstone was the secret F1 promotional event in London. It was a secret because of terrorist threats, which is entirely understandable, but I did love the concept of a secret promotion. It’s a bit like the new President of France Emmanuel Macron, who was a merchant banker and a socialist, a combination that does not compute at all.