Green notebook from qatar

William Williamson had “gone native”. A public school educated Englishman, who had had all kinds of adventures in his youth, Williamson had settled in the Middle East, where he earned his keep as a horse trader, gun-runner, pearler and a spy.

He was rather eccentric and was known to have ridden around Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) on a penny farthing bicycle. He changed his name to Abdullah Fadhil, adopted local dress and even went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, earning himself the nickname “Haji”.

When he did business with Westerners he put on a navy-blue double-breasted suit but maintained the Arab headdress, which meant that he cut an odd figure…

But the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (which would become British Petroleum) needed someone who understood local ways and so hired him to negotiate oil concessions in the region. The result was a deal in 1935 with the Emir of Qatar for a 75-year oil concession covering the whole of of the country.

 Two year later it was discovered that Williamson was advising other local chiefs about negotiations with the oil company and so he was packed off into retirement and T.F. “Jock” Williamson, a British geologist, no relation to Haji, and France’s René Pomeyrol began exploratory drilling in October 1938 near Dukhan, 50 miles west of Doha, close to the country’s west coast. They were still drilling when war broke out 14 months later but soon afterwards hit oil, although the war meant that things did not really take off for Qatar until the 1950s. But, wow, did they take off. I offer this background  information so that readers can understand why Formula 1 went to Qatar. The country has tons of money but the government realises that it will not last forever and so they are investing in many different things, at home and abroad, in order to create an economy that can survive without oil in the future. Not that this is a big threat as there is so much oil here that it will last for over a century. Still, there is much to be done, as Qatar does not have much to offer in terms of natural resources (unless you like sand). The whole place is low-lying desert, which has less than three inches of rain a year. Before oil it was one of the poorest countries on earth.

In recent years the country has turned to sport as a good way to win friends and influence people and by purchasing the FIFA World Cup competition for 2022 it put itself on the map. This has been accompanied by vast construction projects, which show that the country is willing to spend whatever is necessary to create a good impression. There are glittering skyscrapers everywhere, and imposing government buildings, not to mention eight stadiums, a new metro, a fast-expanding airport, and a rapidly growing road network, plus eight stadiums and many other projects. In recent years construction has contributed 15 percent of the national GDP.

The soccer tournament has given Qatar plenty of publicity, not all of it positive. And that is the positive aspect of so-called sportwashing, because using sport to improve a country’s reputation and public image works both ways. It can improve the image of a nation but at the same time shining a spotlight on the country can also attract criticism. This is troublesome territory because while it is easy to accuse countries of poor human rights records or rules that are out of step with western liberal ideas, it also leads to Western countries being criticized for hypocrisy for using human rights as a way to attack countries that have different values, while ignoring their own failures.

Formula 1 long ago decided that it was best to try to transcend such questions by claiming that sport should be a uniting force that operates on a different level from politics. It is a nice idea but balancing the different concepts is not easy and can be quite uncomfortable for the sport.

The Losail International Circuit, which was built 17 years ago as a motorcycle racing venue, was perfectly adequate for a Grand Prix, if not being anything special. The decision to go there in 2021 was all very last minute because of the need to replace Australia. And so there were lots of compromises needed. The track is a good one for drivers, with a sequence of predominantly high-speed corners, but from a visual point of view it was not great. Desert tracks rarely are, but running a race in darkness is a good option, particularly as temperatures during the day are still high at this time of year. The important thing about Doha is that there is a new 10-year contract with F1, beginning in 2023, after the World Cup is out of the way.

However, it seems that the government of Qatar, led by the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has bigger ambitions and is planning to create a downtown street track, along the lines of the circuit that is just being finished in Jeddah. The difference is that Jeddah does not have the impressive skyline that Doha has built.

We hear that the plans are focussed on the West Bay district to Doha, which is known as the diplomatic district around the City Center Mall and the Exhibition and Convention Centre. It will no doubt include sections of the Corniche which runs along the waterfront, adding a little Monaco spice to the venue. The aim is for the track to be very high speed, so that it will produce good racing, as has been seen in Baku in recent years, with the likelihood of the race happening at night, thus adding a little bit of Singapore magic to the mix.

The goal is to become the favourite F1 race in the Middle East, although competition with Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia will be intense.

There was little in the way of real news in the F1 Paddock in Doha. No-one has had any time to do much between during the four races in the last five weeks, It has been a question of battling on the end. Mercedes and Red Bull were busy slinging mud at each other, in the hope that some will stick and that the rival will be diverted from the task in hand. Based on the performance in Brazil and Qatar one has to say that Mercedes looks like it is doing things right and Red Bull looks like it is struggling to keep up. One could see a very real anger within Mercedes about some of the goings-on and the best response came on the race track with Red Bull being drubbed at Interlagos and in Doha. If the same happens in Jeddah, we will be set for a massive showdown in Abu Dhabi, which will be the perfect end for a memorable season. Hopefully, Red Bull will stop trying to stir up trouble and get on with racing. All the kerfuffles about the Mercedes rear wing prove nothing. If a car passes the FIA tests, then it is legal. Red Bull knows this because it has done the same itself, so too much weeping and posturing will not gain much sympathy – except perhaps in the Netherlands, where an army of orange people are keen to see Verstappen win. The danger, of course, is overstepping the mark as Christian Horner did on Sunday when he got himself knee-deep in cack by making silly statements about flag marshals. His attendance at the annual FIA International Stewards Programme in early February may end up being instructional for him, as it was for Max a couple of years ago. If nothing else it will teach him how much effort goes into stewarding and trying to make it as fair as possible. So that’s a good thing to emerge from the Grand Prix. I went to one of these events a few years back and I am now much more respectful of stewards as a result. It would probably be a good idea if some of the other team principals also went along…

The announcements about Guanyu Zhou and Oscar Piastri were not unexpected at all.

Zhou’s Chinese identity looks good for Alfa Romeo and for Formula 1, while the money that will come with Zhou will effectively pay Bottas’s salary. The biggest problem, of course, remains the team’s poor performance this year. The operation has been eighth in the Constructors’ each year since 2018, but this year it has fallen to ninth behind Williams – which will cost the team a chunk of prize money. One can blame Ferrari engines for the very poor showing in 2020, but as the power units have improved this year, the Swiss-based team has fewer excuses. There are optimistic noises being made about 2022, but that is true up and down the F1 Paddock, and we will have to wait to see whether the team under technical director Jan Monchaux can deliver better performance in comparison to everyone else. Most teams can make excuses about lack of budget but int his case it is more difficult as the owner Finn Rausing has been putting money in to try to move things forward. Given that the investment has produced no improvement, the only logical conclusion is that the money has not being used in the most effective way.

The hiring of Zhou has made news because of the Chinese element in the story and this has helped to avoid the uncomfortable reality that Alfa Romeo has just dumped the only  Italian driver in Formula 1 – and there is no sign of another in the immediate future. The Italian media has been fairly brutal to the team in recent weeks regarding the on-track performance and the fact that the famous Italian car brand is not being helped by a non-Italian team, owned by a Swede and run by a Frenchman. It remains to be seen whether there will be scapegoats, who will be thrown under the bus in Hinwil.

Giovinazzi has had his chances. He will now move to Formula E next year driving for Jay Penske’s Dragon Penske Autosport, where he will be partnered with Brazil’s Sergio Sette Camara.

The Zhou announcement means that the Chinese driver is now out of the Alpine Academy, with no options in the future. This means that he has to deliver in 2022 because Frederic Vasseur wants to promote young Frenchman Theo Pourchaire, who is part of the Sauber Junior Team.

The only other point of interest in the Doha paddock was that I met someone who is hard a work trying to convince the F1 world that the sport should be part of the metaverse. When I heard this I smiled and nodded, as one does when one doesn’t have a clue what someone is talking about. The metaverse, so they say, is (or will be) a digital universe where users will be able to interact with one another using new technologies, including virtual reality, augmented reality and video. The other day Red Bull gave me a piece of card with a flash code that gave me access to a 3D image of Sergio Perez’s overalls. I was told this was special and that it was a non-fungible token (NFT). Like many people, I am a little bit wary of value in virtual things – like cryptocurrencies (for example) – but I am told that with blockchain technology an NFT is something that is unique and can be sold, like a piece of digital art.

The logic is that there is a value in collecting art, whether it is real or virtual, and that people will pay to own things that are unique and cannot be copied, although such creations can still be copyrighted and reproduced, in much the same way as works of art can be printed and sold. Anyone can buy a poster featuring work of a famous artist, but few can afford to buy the originals.

While the older generations may struggle to see the value of all things virtual, the younger generations may be more open-minded and so fine art, music and even just ideas can have value, in the same way that bitcoins can be used in the same way as real money.

The trick is to convince people that a virtual item has a real value, which can be done by showing it is useful or desirable and also that it is not available to everyone. People collect and trade cards which contain images that they value, such as baseball cards or Pokemon, which they believe will increase in value. Doing the same in the virtual world thus ought to be possible.

Attempts to sell virtual merchandise are still in the very early stages of development but there are other virtual experiences that can perhaps generate money. One such idea is to create virtual clubs or prizes that give access to events, such as Formula 1 car launches, or interactions with racing stars. People are willing to pay for such access and thus there are commercial opportunities that the metaverse may be able to offer, based on simple supply and demand. Not everyone can sit in on a discussion with Lewis Hamilton, or visit the Ferrari factory, but if one can do this in a virtual way, there are going to be people who will be willing to pay for the experience, which can be retained forever in some form of NFT.

Well, maybe one day…

Real world chat is a little more down-to-earth. And in F1 it doesn’t get more down-to-earth than freight.

After the freight delay dramas on the way to Brazil, there were similar – but less dramatic – problems getting the freight from São Paulo to Doha, when three of the Formula 1 freighters were delayed for eight hours. Why? Because there was – would you believe – another massive fog delay in Mexico City. Don’t ask me why his routing makes any sense from a geographical perspective, but it is all to do with freight carrier hubs, refuelling requirements and so on. Anyway, three teams had to scramble a little but as it was not reported at all, it obviously wasn’t a major crisis. The other point that was barely reported was the replacement of one of the stewards in Doha for reasons of “force majeure”. No-one seems to have asked what that was all about, but I did notice that there was no sight of the others all weekend in the F1 Paddock, which suggests to me that perhaps they were in some kind of quasi-quarantine, although I am told that they all tested negative throughout the weekend. F1’s COVID-19 protocols have been a real triumph in the last 18 months, allowing the sport to continue where others have run into trouble. I am not saying that it is enjoyable to have the so-called bubbles but it has been very efficient – and the word is that other sports are keen to learn how F1 has done it. Things are loosening up a little bit now, which is good, but we are all still wearing masks in the Paddock, even if outside the Paddock few are paying much attention to the rules. It has been interesting to see different attitudes to the pandemic in the different countries and it has been a surprise in some respects to see so many precautions in Mexico and Brazil, especially when compared to the United States and some European countries. In the Middle East, the caution is accompanied by technology which means that in Doha, for example, one cannot do much if the app that you must put in your mobile phone turns yellow rather than green, if you do not test sufficiently.

However, there are some drawbacks as technology doesn’t always work properly and, despite a string of negative tests (with results printed out, just in case) my app turned yellow for no obvious reason as I was heading to the airport on Monday. I wasn’t about to ring up the Ministry to ask why and had to rely on old-fashioned good fortune to get into the airport.

I was planning to try the old “Oh my god a flying elephant!” routine if I had been stopped, but the security man on the door seemed happy enough to let me through, which I guess meant that he might have had the sun in his eyes… or perhaps I don’t know enough about how the app worked. I was quite happy to delete the damned thing as soon as I was safe in the departure area, hopeful that when we return in two years, such things will no longer be needed.

One has to remain positive about being negative all the time… although now and then one of our number disappears and we have discussions about how poor old Fred “went down with a false positive”… and we thank our lucky stars that we have not run into similar troubles.