6 August 2019

Notebook from another snack bar in Budapest

I’m just having breakfast, although it is about 11.30 on Monday morning. It has been a long hard night, without dinner, although I had a couple of chocolate bars at around midnight. I didn’t really have lunch yesterday either because the deep fried hamsters that they serve in the media centre, alongside vast gherkins, may be the height of culinary mountains in Hungary, but there not really that exciting. Anyway, at the airport one can get anything so I’m having gyoza, the wonderful Japanese pan-fried dumplings (which actually derive from a Chinese delicacy called jiaozi), and are otherwise known as pot stickers in the English-speaking world. These are being consumed with a glass of chardonnay. I admit it is a slightly weird breakfast, but that is what is required at this particular moment before embarking on the homeward flight to Paris, where I intend to go home, lock the gate, and spend the next two weeks sleeping, lying in a hammock, hitting bits of old masonry with big hammers, pulling up weeds and eating properly. The intention is for my computer to have cobwebs on it before it is opened again, although in the countryside that can happen quite quickly.

Living the F1 dream is a great thing, but it does get a little tiring from time to time, particularly at this time of year, and again at the very end of the season. One of the topics of conversation in the paddock in Budapest was the calendar for next year, which will now, almost certainly feature 22 events, with the revival of the Spanish GP, which will go back-to-back with the new Dutch GP in May. The official calendar is yet to be published but the only loss from this year’s 21 races will be Hockenheim and there will be new races in Vietnam (in April) and the Netherlands (in May). However, F1 chairman and CEO Chase Carey has already told team bosses that the intention is to push on upwards, aiming for 24 races in 2022. This is not popular amongst F1’s working classes, who get most of the pain and do not get any of the benefits. The long-term implications are that it will become harder to find people willing to do the work in F1 because the life-work balance is getting out of kilter with reality. The option, of course, is to have fewer races and charge more for them from race promoters but Carey & Co don’t seem to like that idea.

It is nice to end the first half of the season in Hungary. It has always been a race that is a little different to other European events, simply because it takes place in the east, where they have always done things in their own style. It was always a race that felt like a flyaway but wasn’t. In the beginning it was because the country was pretty poor in comparison to the West and so when one left ahotel one was pursued around by what Hollywood would call a posse of pussy as the local girls tried to make money from the visitors, which was a sorry state of affairs. I remember back in the 1990s that Budapest decided on an unusual innovation for F1 and installed a brothel in a far corner of the circuit, where I presume they serviced Schumacher’s camper van army. I cannot say I know much about it, but I was told that it featured romantic plywood cubicles. I never did investigate to find out whether it was an official arrangement, and whether the Formula One group took a percentage (although in this respect I guess I should know the answer). Even in those days of new-found freedoms the country still had a tendency to have self-important security goons, with too many muscles, kicking about, giving orders. These days that has faded away but I did note at the airport that the first thing that one sees on arrival is some of these people in the welcoming area in Arrivals, moving everyone on, on the grounds of “safety”, which is a truly disastrous thing as first impressions go.

Still, despite these bonobos in black, tourism in Hungary is going great guns. I looked up the statistics and discovered that the city now has 12.5 million visitors each year, compared to 7.6 million in 2011. This appears to be largely due to a booming night time economy. The city used to promote itself as a heritage and cultural tourism destination but is now increasingly popular with youngsters thanks to its “party district” and its so-called “ruin bars”, which are shabby chic makeshift drinking establishments inside dilapidated buildings, furnished with quirky furniture, particularly in the old Jewish district where there were many ruins available a few years ago. It is a lively town, packed with young people having fun and fits in well with Formula 1’s stated desire to be involved in destination cities with a festival atmosphere. Sadly, the Formula 1 folk are generally not out and about as much as they used to be, but one does pick up the energy in such places.

The paddocks these days are busier than they used to be, as the pass policies have been relaxed (which is a very good thing), although one tends to see fewer star names wandering about, because they quickly become inundated with enthusiastic people wanting selfies, autographs and so on. In recent months Lewis Hamilton has acquired someone who one might term "a close protection specialist", in an effort to make his life a little easier, without causing upset. It is a job that can be done very badly. You don’t need a dark suit, mirror shades and an earpiece, and you certainly don’t need expertise in hand-to-hand combat. What is required is the ability to defuse situations before they develop and to use smooth movement and body language to send out a message of authority and control to those around you, in order to ensure that the client is treated with respect. A good bodyguard doesn’t need to shove people around. By all accounts, Lewis’s is pretty good at what he does.

When it comes to the gossip in Hungary, there was plenty of tittle-tattle about driver movements, but little seemed very sensible. And some of it was just plain silly. There was talk of a possible move by Max Verstappen to Mercedes, but it is hard to imagine that happening as long as Lewis is there. In any case, Max is locked into a 2020 contract with Red Bull as he is third in the World Championship at the start of the summer break and it is believed that this is enough to avoid a performance clause kicking in. It is possible that Mercedes already has some kind of an option with Max for 2021 but this will probably depend on whether Lewis Hamilton continues racing and it looks more and more likely that he will continue until at least the end of 2021, which is the first possible point at which he can beat Michael Schumacher’s record of seven F1 titles. The chances are that he will score a sixth title this year and could equal Michael in 2020 but to set a new record would require a title in 2021 as well. He is likely to beat Schumacher’s record 91 wins before that, as he currently has 81 and will no doubt win more races this year.

The choice of the second Mercedes driver for 2020 will be very interesting. Valtteri Bottas has done a decent job but he does not look like a driver who would step into Hamilton’s shoes. He seems to always lack the pace that Lewis has in races. Thus it would be wise for Mercedes to develop Esteban Ocon more, as he seems to have that little bit extra. If Ocon is not picked he’s not going to stick around with Mercedes any longer, as he cannot afford to sit out another year and one can imagine him moving off to Renault, to replace Nico Hulkenberg, or to join Haas where he would be in the Ferrari orbit for the future. It looks increasingly likely that Romain Grosjean is going to find himself without work, because although he is very quick, he still has too many incidents and scores fewer points than Kevin Magnussen.

Elsewhere there has been speculation about the futures of Robert Kubica, with Williams test driver Nicholas Latifi waiting in the wings and doing well in Formula 2, not to mention having access to vast amounts of money. Kubica joined Williams because of his sponsorship but he has consistently failed to match George Russell, although ironically he scored the first Williams point in Germany by being in the right place at the right time. There are also questions about Pierre Gasly, and that is a bit of a problem for Red Bull because it has dumped far too many of its youngsters (presumably on the basis that it chose the wrong drivers originally) and now has a bit of a gap in the programme. It seems, however, that in the eyes of Dietrich Mateschitz, Helmut Marko can do no wrong and so the team must figure out how to either get Gasly up to speed, or to find a suitable replacement. Alexander Albon has done a terrific job this year with Scuderia Toro Rosso but it is not wise to promote young drivers too quickly, as was proved with the case of Dany Kvyat and, one could argue, with Gasly as well. Carlos Sainz would be perfect for the Red Bull job, but he’s under contract to McLaren now and so is not available, despite having been a Red Bull driver for most of his career. The idea that Fernando Alonso could make a comeback with Red Bull seems more the pipedream of Spanish media, looking for a meal ticket, rather than a silly season rumour that should be considered. The key point, however, is that Red Bull is in no rush to make a decision and it is probably best for the team to see how Gasly does in the second part of the season before making a decision. You never know, he might yet come good…

There have been questions asked as well about the future of Antonio Giovinazzi, the Ferrari driver who is currently parked at Sauber (dressed up as Alfa Romeo Racing). He has done little of note thus far, particularly when he is up against soon-to-be-40 Kimi Raikkonen. This has led to the German media getting excited about Mick Schumacher, who is a Ferrari young driver.

While it would do F1 no harm at all to have another Schumacher in the field, it must be a Schumacher who is fast enough to do the job. There really is no point in second generation drivers who cannot cut the mustard, and there have been quite a lot of them over the years. Thus Mick’s victory in Formula 2 on Sunday in Hungary got the Germans tapping away on their keyboards. However, it should really be pointed out that his victory came after he finished eighth in the Feature event on Saturday and thus was given pole under F2’s reversed top 8 rules, which many consider to be a ridiculous gimmick. At a track such as Budapest, where overtaking is minimal, this tends to give an unfair advantage. The F1 world is not going to be taken in by this one. But it will pay more attention if Mick ever wins a Feature race. This year’s Formula 2 is not perhaps the greatest ever collection of young drivers. Latifi (who has done four and a half years at this level) has won three of the eight feature races. Nyck de Vries (in his third year) has won two and the other three have been shared between Renault’s Jack Aitken (in his second season) and Honda’s Nobuharu Matsushita, and Italian Luca Ghiotto (both in their fourth seasons). If there has been a star youngster, one would argue for Anthoine Hubert, who has won two Sprint races in his rookie year, which perhaps puts Mick Schumacher’s achievement into a better perspective. Time will tell…

On the subject of timing, the FIA has finally managed to get some new data feeds into the media centres, which mean that the journalists can finally know rather important things like the tyres being used and the running order of the cars. This is brilliant, if long overdue, although one or two of the older folks have apparently been complaining because they feel they are now overloaded and obviously do not belong in the information age. At the end of the race, the timing screens carried a short message: “Thanks again Mr Taylor”. No-one paid it much attention, but it could be quite significant as it was a farewell message for Steve Taylor, who has been responsible for all F1 timing activities since 2007. The timing may have been attributed to one sponsor or another, but in reality it has always been done in this period by the Formula One group, although the logic of the timing being a commercial matter is rather hard to comprehend. The word is that this may soon change with timing likely to become the responsibility of the FIA, which makes sense given that the federation is the regulator of the sport…

The calendar is another of those areas where one can argue about who should be responsible but in reality it is a commercial activity, although the dates are still officially rubber-stamped and announced by the FIA. The calendar has been a little troublesome this year with things still moving until the last few days as the 22 races are fitted together. There was talk of moving the French GP to avoid a clash with the Tour de France, but I now hear that the events will go ahead on the same weekend and indeed it may well be that they will be used to promote one another. There are multiple reports in the cycling press that the Circuit Paul Ricard will be used by the Tour for the third or fourth stage next year. The first two stages will be in Nice on Saturday and Sunday June 27-28. The F1 teams will be on the move on the Sunday night, rushing across to Austria for the next event, and they will all be gone by Monday night – by necessity. Thus, the circuit could use all the infrastructure erected for the Grand Prix to host the finish of the third or fourth stage on the Monday or Tuesday afternoon. That makes a lot of sense… as long as the F1 trucks get a clear run out into Italy on Sunday night and Monday morning. As the Tour does not use the autoroutes as stages this should be possible.

After weeks trying to pin it all down, I think I now have a pretty good idea of what is going to happen when, and I offer the following schedule with the proviso that it might not be 100 percent correct. Thus, the calendar will kick off in Australia on March 15 and will be followed immediately by Bahrain (March 22). There will then be Vietnam (April 5), China (April 19), Holland (May 3), Spain (May 10), Monaco (May 24), Baku (June 7), Canada (June 14), France (June 28), Austria (July 5), Britain (July 19), Hungary (August 2), Belgium (August 30), Italy (September 6), Singapore (September 20), Russia (September 27), Japan (October 11), USA (October 25), Mexico (November 1), Brazil (November 15) and Abu Dhabi (November 29).

Would I bet my house on it?

No way… These things have a habit of shifting even when you think it is all done…

Thinking is something that can often be forgotten in the rush in F1 and while the teams are now all off on holiday, you can be quite certain that there will still be emails flying about between team members as they stop and think about how things can change when they go back to work, conclusions having been reached in quiet moment that one does not get at Grands Prix.

I’d like to finish (and sign off for the summer break) with a story about Budapest which indicates that even those involved in the races don’t always get what they are doing. We were in the first couple of laps of the race, with everyone serious in the Media Centre concentrating on the action on track, taking notes, doing lap-charts and trying to figure out who is doing what and why. Suddenly, a couple of cleaning ladies decided it would be a good moment to hoover the press conference area, separated from the media room by a wall of lockers where folks store their cameras, computers and so on, while also yapping away in Magyar. This is impenetrable but one might suppose they were talking about the latest action in the biggest Hungarian soap opera, whatever this may be. They were blithely unaware that this might be off-putting for those within ear-shot. One accepts many things as an F1 scribe because one must be able to adapt to circumstances but after several minutes of this the irritation turned to anger, if only because of their complete lack of understanding. I stopped my lap chart and rushed through the media centre and there bumped into an FIA man, who had come to sort them out. The hoovering stopped. I caught up the lap chart and calm returned… until the same two fishwives appeared in the press room itself, emptying all the bins. It felt like we were in a comedy show.

Perhaps we are...

Happy holidays. I'll be back in action again in the week before the Belgian GP.

« Gasly out, Albon in

Six hours after the race... »