27 June 2019

Notebook from Berchtesgaten

There was a time, many years ago, when one could enjoy being a tourist between races; when I travelled from race to race and stopped wherever and whenever I wanted to. Technology changed the nature of the journalism game and we typewriter-batterers became slaves to machines that demanded “social media” activity, rather than one or two deadlines each week.

Admittedly, there was also a desire to have a home life (of sorts) and so it became the norm to rush from circuits to airports and fly home to wives (one at a time, of course) and children. The freedom (and the joy) of just wandering off faded away and we didn’t miss it because when you are a Formula 1 reporter, you already have a wonderful life and losing a bit of the icing on the cake doesn’t seem such a bad thing…

However, with the recent scheduling of the French GP back-to-back with Austria, suddenly there was a situation in which it really makes no sense to go home (although plenty of people still did it) and the opportunity arose to spend a few days pottering about between Provence to Styria. They are 1,100 kilometres apart, if you take the fastest route by way of the Cote d’Azur and the Italian Riviera, and then turn north through Liguria, towards Alessandria, and then loop to the east across the plains of the River Po to Brescia. You skirt past Venice, and then head north to Udine, and through the mountains into Austria, near Villach.

Last year, I did this route, stopping off from a couple of days in Imperia, a place of fading but rather alluring splendour near San Remo. I sat there, typing when I felt like it. It was rather a dull sort of adventure. This year, without really analysing it, I decided to do it differently and “take the scenic route”. And so I followed the prescribed route as far as Verona and then turned off and headed up the valley of the Adige to Bolzano, in what is known as the Südtirol. This is the northernmost province of Italy which, according to the local tourist board, “combines Alpine staidness with Italian joie-de-vivre”. It seems odd that two thirds of the population speaks German rather than Italian. Although most people appeared to speak both languages. I won’t go into detail about why this happened, suffice to say that cannons were involved at various points in history.

Today, this region is famous for producing linguists, who move in international circles, switching between languages as though it was easy. A number of them have ended up in Formula 1, a mobile village in which linguistic gymnastics are the norm and one can avoid Englishman joking about fried donkeys (mules frites) in French fish restaurants - something I overheard one evening in La Ciotat.

The most prominent Südtiroler in Formula 1 is Günther Steiner, otherwise known as Günther F@*king Steiner, on account of his colourful language in the Netflix F1 series. Motor racing is a world filled with anomalies of nationality. If we can accept that Dario Franchitti is a Scotsman, that Robert Shwartzman is a Russian and that back in the 1990s there was an Argentine racer called Brian Smith, who spoke almost no English, one must surely be able to absorb the possibility that Günther Steiner is an Italian. Or was. These days he has a US passport peeking out of his coat pocket.

Günther’s home town is Merano, a place known for its spas and art nouveau palaces, but there was no time for a detour and after a night in Bolzano, where one never cuts a dumpling with a knife, I headed off towards the Brenner Pass, with a seemingly never-ending stream of trucks flowing with me. I decided that instead of doing it the easy way, I would turn east to Lienz and then go over the Hochtor Pass, a place where one is guaranteed not to encounter any form of truck and where the major hazard is the zig-zagging cyclist, struggling to pedal themselves up to 7,500 ft, in order, presumably, to feel a sense of achievement just before they have a heart attack.

It took a long time to get to the charmingly-named village of Heiligenblut, which translates as “Holy Blood”, mainly because of a truck with Berger on the side (Gerhard’s family firm) which was going rather slowly on wiggling roads where overtaking was not easy. Eventually, amid rousing cheers from the peleton, the trundling Austrian lorry turned off and soon I was beginning the climb through the numbered hairpins of the Großglockner-Hochalpenstraße.

When this road first opened in 1935, in order to promote its existence, it was used to host an international hillclimb, on a 12-mile section to the north of the pass, which makes spaghetti look organised. It was won by Carlo Pintacuda in a Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeo. It is the kind of road that requires the lack of imagination that is often seen in racing drivers, who never seem to worry about the 1,000 ft drop next to them. I suppose it was a bit of a European Pikes Peak. There were two further races in 1938 and 1939 on the same course, these being called the Großer Bergpreis von Deutschland – the German Mountain Grand Prix – on the basis that by that point Germany had annexed Austria. The two events were won by Hans Stuck in an Auto Union and Hermann Lang in a Mercedes. The 1938 race is also remembered also as the occasion on which Professor Ferdinand Porsche gave his KdF car (the prototype of the Volkswagen Beetle) its first public run. I've never been to Pikes Peak (maybe one day) but a race up the Großglockner-Hochalpenstraße would be complete madness, and impossible in the age of man in reflective jacket with clipboard...

The road ends up down in the valley of the Salzach, near Zell am Zee, and from there I headed to Berchtesgaden, a place of exceptional beauty. If you want the best views, so they say, one needs to go to the Kehlsteinhaus, a tea-room on top of the mountain, otherwise known as The Eagle’s Nest, where Adolf Hitler and his unpleasant chums used to hang out in the bad old days. Down below there used to be a whole compound of Nazi holiday homes which were badly damaged in air raids and then ultimately blown up by the post-war German government. The last redoubt of Nazism has thus become a large parking lot and bus station, from where tourists are ferried up a truly daft road to the Eagle’s Nest. One arrives at the base of a cliff and then walks more than 100 metres into the side of the mountain in a tunnel to arrive at a brass lift, which takes you 124 metres up to the building. It is all very Dr No. Up on top it was a delightful day and  I was wandering around when someone asked me if I would take a picture of him. He then looked at me rather oddly and said: “You’re Joe”…

It turned out that it was Australian IndyCar driver James Davison, who recently finished 12thin the Indy 500, and who races what he can, whenever he can. He comes from a celebrated racing family, his grandfather Lex having won the Australian GP four times and his father Jon having raced in Formula 5000 before being the promoter at Sandown Park in Melbourne for many years. He is also the cousin of Supercar racers Alex and Will Davison. His interest in WW2, he told me, came from his step-grandfather Tony Gaze, a swashbuckling war hero fighter ace, who won three Distinguished Flying Crosses and crash-landed in France on one occasion and escaped to Spain, with help from the French resistance. He then turned to motor racing and raced in Formula 1 and is credited with having suggested to the Duke of Richmond & Gordon that he should build a racing circuit at Goodwood…

We spent an enjoyable hour chatting before it was time to head on to my new digs, a classic Austrian gasthof, where the host, wearing the traditional leather shorts, known as lederhosen, awaited. When he started talking, I noted that the accent was decidedly Dutch. Yes, the joys of modern Europe. An Englishman in a French-registered car arrives at an Austrian hotel run by a Dutchman…

Anyway, the green notebook from Paul Ricard was not very busy. There were more driver rumours, primarily regarding Pierre Gasly being replaced, although Red Bull’s Helmut Marko said that this was not going to happen. The rumour mill says that Gasly will be replaced (probably next year) by Nico Hulkenberg, while the German’s place at Renault would go to Esteban Ocon. There were also rumours suggesting that Hulkenberg has signed for Porsche in Formula E, although these didn’t sound very likely for a number of reasons, not least that Porsche already has two drivers in Brendon Hartley and Neel Jani. If Gasly doesn’t get up to speed quickly, Red Bull does have a problem because Daniil Kvyat has already been at Red Bull and was dropped, while Alexander Albon is still a little too new to jump into a top team and it would be a risky move for all concerned. Red Bull has been trying to boost its beleaguered Junior Team but Dan Ticktum has been having a very disappointing time in Super Formula in Japan, having scored just one point in three of the seven races. Red Bull is bringing Mexican IndyCar driver Pato O'Ward over to race in Formula 2 this weekend in Austria, replacing the banned Indian driver Mahaveer Raghunathan, otherwise known as “Ragamuffin, who has not impressed thus far, being well off the pace and having picked up so many penalty points for infringements that he is suspended.

The other news related to Red Bull in France was about an attempt by the team to convince the other F1 teams that they should agree to go back to 2018 tyres and give up on the 2019s. The argument was that this would improve the show, but most people felt that was a way of hiding the fact that it would help Red Bull improve… Mercedes is against the idea and there is no way it will get the required 70 percent agreement because the smaller teams know that this year’s tyres are so peaky that some weekends things will work in their favour and they will score points, which is what decides how much money they will be paid in 2020.Thus the idea seems to have been rejected.There is no doubt that the French GP was predominantly a fairly dull race, although the midfield action was fraught. Every time F1 has a less than interesting race, the Jonahs come out, say that the end of the world is nigh; that F1 is finished and that the future lies with Formula E; or something equally silly. Then F1 has a good race and the whole thing is forgotten.

It is the same with domination. If one team dominates too much, the others try to get the rules changed, dressing up the idea with a lot of old hokum. The changes don’t usually happen, although we have seen this kind of campaign being successful when the FIA was under different management and there were political agendas other than the actual racing. So I tend not to waste too much energy chasing around after these stories, unlike some of my colleagues who delight in all things negative and are always trying to stir up trouble, in order to have things to write about. The teams hate this but they are polite, depending on the number of readers that a journalist has.

It is a bit the same with other kinds of news. On Saturday evening, I encountered a worn out Grand Prix de France representative who was lost for words because the French journalists would not accept the crowd figures that he was giving them. “I’m not making these things up,” he said, wearily. “These are the figures, but they won’t believe them because they think they know how to count spectators better than we do. It’s madness.”

The reason that the roads were not blocked and the camping sites seemed to have fewer people was because things were better organised, not because the people were not there. It is quite normal for a new  race to see a drop in the second year and there were fears that after last year’s troubles the numbers would be seriously down, but the GP de France did good work promoting the race, taking a road show to more than a dozen cities around France and drumming up interest. The figure was 135,000 over three days, which seemed pretty reasonable from what I saw. Last year the figure was 160,000, so it was down 15 percent, but it was far better organised with the gendarmes, who caused so much trouble last year, being given less taxing roles than recognising the difference between F1 passes.

What was really good about the race was the number of high-flying business people who attended. In France there is a stock market index called the CAC 40, which is the top 40 firms, along similar lines to the FTSE index in London. There were no fewer than 10 of the 40 CEOs of the big firms present, which was very impressive. Those present included Jean-Laurent Bonnafé of the BNP Paribas bank, Bruno Bouyges of heavy construction firm Bouyges, Paul Hermelin of IT giant Cap Gemini, Philippe Brassac of the Credit Agricole bank, Thierry Dassault of Groupe Dassault, Alexandre Ricard of the drinks firm Pernod Ricard, Robert Peugeot of Peugeot, Renault chairman Jean-Dominique Senard and the company’s CEO Thierry Bolloré. There were also Olivier Brandicourt of the drug company Sanofi and Patrick Pouyanné, the CEO of Total. Yannick Bolloré of the Havas advertising firm, Paul Desmarais of the Power Corporation of Canada and Angel Gurria, the Secretary General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) were also there.

One of the goals of F1 is to attract more big business names and get them to see a Grand Prix as an opportunity to do business, not only with other companies but also with government types. The thought process is to use the Extreme Innovation Series, which F1 organises in league with from the MIT Sloan School of Management, to create a kind of mini-Davos every few months, getting entrepreneurs, politicians, academics and other interested parties together to exchange ideas and opinions. The next of these events will be at Silverstone where the focus will be on “Winning Against Intense Competition”. MIT is providing some of its neuroscientists and an expert on logical decision-making in humans, animals and computers, while F1 will provide input from former World Champion Mika Hakkinen and racer-turned-commentator Karun Chandhok. The keynote speaker for this event will be Carly Fiorina, who was the CEO of Hewlett Packard from 1999 to 2005, the first woman to lead a major US company.

The US remains the nut that Liberty Media wants to crack and while Chase Carey went to Brazil after the French GP, Sean Bratches jetted off to Miami, to continue working on the planned race there. Carey has asked teams what they think of the idea of a return to Indianapolis but that did not go down well as Indy is not really the right target demographic and F1 had an unfortunate history there. Chicago would be an interesting option but the fan festival there was no more than that. The next fan festival, by the way, will be taking place on Hollywood Boulevard in LA, in the days before the United States GP in Austin. While some argue that it makes no sense to have fan festivals without the teams being involved, Liberty’s view is that if there are cars running and there is a big screen to show the live action from an event, the interest of those attending will be piqued. In order to run cars, they have acquired some F1 machinery to do the job, without having to negotiate with teams and drivers on every occasion.

Getting F1 into so-called “destination cities” is not easy but one thing that will definitely help is to show F1 as being just as ground-breaking as Formula E. F1 has really failed to significantly deliver that message despite achieving astonishing levels of efficiency with the hybrid turbos. As there is increasing scepticism about electric mobility, the efficient hybrid remains the most likely path in the immediate future, with hydrogen likely to be the set after that. Earlier this year Chase Carey spoke of the need for F1 to do more promotion about its environmental credentials and it is expected that a new campaign will be rolled out in the autumn.

If F1 can convince people that it is delivering good technology then cities will be more willing to host races in the future. F1 is still quietly working away on a race in London, working with London’s mayor Sadiq Khan and his staff to organise an event in the Royal Docks. The idea of a London Grand Prix is a Monaco-esque dockside environment is obviously attractive to boost London’s image at a time when the number of overseas visitors to the UK dropped by four percent in 2018.

Aside from this, the only real news in Paul Ricard concerned McLaren’s decision to name Sergey Sirotkin as its reserve driver. The Woking team will share the Russian with Renault, with the Enstone team having first rights in the unlikely event that both teams need a reserve. McLaren need a reserve because Brazil’s Sérgio Sette Câmara, who was its test and development driver for this year, was linked to a now defunct deal with Petrobras. And the idea of Fernando Alonso making a comeback as a reserve driver is rather hard to imagine. His future seems to be off-road.

Down in Woking there is also talk of a brand new wind tunnel being built into the yin and yang design of the McLaren Technology Centre. There is already a wind tunnel inside facility but the team has not been using it for more than 10 years because it needed to be upgraded and there was no space to do that. It was easier in fact to ship all the aero people and parts to Cologne, to use one of the two Toyota F1 wind tunnels that are there. The trouble is that wind tunnel development is moving ever onwards and so to keep up McLaren is going to invest in another. Racing Point will probably do the same in its planned new facility adjacent to the original factory (although planning permission has yet to be officially applied for with this). For the moment Racing Point has given up with Toyota as well and is sharing the Mercedes wind tunnel in Brackley.

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F1 and Brazil »