30 October 2019

Notebook from Dealey Plaza

Dealey Plaza is at the western end of the Dallas downtown area. It was where the city began, with the first store, the first post office and the first courthouse all having been in the immediate vicinity. It was completely revamped in 1940 in order to allow Main Street, Elm Street, and Commerce Street to converge and dip down to pass beneath the Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad and on from there to a bridge across the Trinity River.

It is the top tourist attraction in the city, not for these reasons, but rather because it was the place where President John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, by one (or more) snipers, depending on which version of events one wishes to accept. There are probably people somewhere who know what really happened that day, although they will all be getting rather old by now - if indeed they did not die young - for knowing or seeing too much. The Plaza is much the same as it was in 1963 and is now a protected National Historic Landmark. The spot where Kennedy was killed is marked with an X painted on the road. X really does mark the spot. The former Texas School Book Depository, from where Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly fired the fatal shots, now features a Sixth Floor Museum, which being in America, is on the fifth floor of the building. The Grassy Knoll, where other gunmen may have been in action is unchanged as well. I don’t often get the chance to be a tourist, but as a student of history I was interested to see the place. It was all much smaller than I had imagined.

You may ask why I was in Dallas on my way from Mexico City to Austin, as the flight path from the Mexican capital to Dallas passes directly over Austin. Well, that is the logic of international flying. I could have gone directly to Austin for twice the price but chose instead to fly to Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) and do something interesting during the five-hour stopover. So I caught the DART Rail Orange Line train from the airport which goes into the city and got off the train at West End station, from where I could walk down Elm Street to the Plaza. I didn’t really have time to go the museum because it was going to close shortly and so I wandered back towards the station, had some ribs at Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse and then caught the train back to the airport. By the late evening I was in Austin.

My Mexican 2019 section in the green notebook had a lot scribbles in it, including '24-25 races. How to handle it?’ This is a subject of much discussion in F1 at the moment as Liberty Media adds more and more events to the season. The maximum under the current commercial deals is 25, but those who actually live the full season are already struggling with 21. The life-work balance in F1 is already up the creek without a paddle and adding more races is going to make things even tougher, as much as we all love what we do. Teams are worried that it will be more and more difficult to find staff willing to do the whole calendar, and about the costs of increasing staff levels.

Another note recorded the fact that there was a group of people who are working on the Miami Grand Prix, who were looking at Mexico to see what could be done if the Florida race goes ahead. We will have to see. The Miami Dade politicians did not come across very well when I watched the hearings about whether F1 should be allowed or not. Still, Miami is not the only choice and I also spotted some folk from Las Vegas, where things are quietly moving forwards. I am told that the Brazilian GP deal to switch to Rio de Janeiro is nearly done and once the last few planning issues are sorted out, building work will began.

There is also a note in the book saying that the election in Argentina over the weekend would effectively kill the idea of the Argentine Grand Prix making a comeback if President Maurizio Macri was defeated, which he was...

There was also talk about the idea of the Russian GP moving venues. That didn’t make much sense when the stories first came out around the time of the Russian GP, but it seems that the request to change venues actually came from the Russians themselves, as the government has decided that tourism is not enough for Sochi and now intends to convert the Olympic Park into a technology and innovation cluster. If this goes ahead there will be new buildings and the current race track will have to go to make way for them. Moving the race to a ski resort in the forests an hour to the north of Saint Petersburg doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but if the money is right, F1 goes anywhere. Watch out for a Saudi Arabian GP in the years ahead. The Red Bull Ring is a good example of how races can happen even if the infrastructure is insufficient. Perhaps the idea is to use the race to expand the resort and thus reward President Putin’s friends who have invested in the development. Who knows? 

The other place that is being talked about a lot is Chengdu in China. This project makes an awful lot of sense, even if Chengdu is hardly a global destination city. Perhaps F1 will make it become one. It is a fast-expanding city that is both a hub for transportation and freight and a gateway to western China, while also being the land of the panda, not to mention one of the biggest automobile manufacturing centres in the country... The word is that Formula One people have been coming and coming on a regular basis. Incidentally, and completely unrelated to the story above, Lewis Hamilton went to Chengdu in 2017 to visit the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding... 

Elsewhere, Robert Kubica’s future is still being discussed with talk of work at either Haas, Racing Point or McLaren. Everyone wants the sponsorship that comes with Robert, but only Haas can offer him the faintest chance of a race drive in the future. He can offer the US team more than just money as technical input would probably be helpful given the struggles the team has had this season.

There has been surprisingly little talk about Nico Hulkenberg, which suggests that he probably has some kind of deal already done. I’m not a gambler by nature but I feel that Ferrari is a good bet for The Hulk as reserve driver with the possibility that he could one day race alongside Charles Leclerc... Nico is a very talented fellow and might be a good fit because the team has had a long tradition of employing strong second drivers, rather than trying to manage two number ones.

Esteban Ocon, the current Mercedes test driver, is very frustrated at the moment because the team has ceased to use him because he is off to Renault next year and so he is hoping that deals can be struck to let him drive for the Enstone team at the post-season Abu Dhabi test.

There is another note in the book about Jean-Dominique Senard, the chairman of Renault, who is the man who is making the decisions at the moment. There has been a lot of speculation about Renault’s future in F1 at the moment but I honestly don’t see the logic of quitting after the team has spent the last few years building up. This year has been disappointing but, despite rumours to the contrary, it looks like the team is not planning to remove anyone, but rather to add others to make the whole thing stronger.

The only slight fly in the ointment when you dig into the facts is that Senard joined Renault from Michelin. This (and a previous job at Total in the 1980s) has given him a  good understanding of the value of F1 as a way of building global awareness of brands, to motivate staff and to generate new technology that is relevant to the industry. However, there is one small point that should be mentioned. Soon after he joined Michelin in 2005 as CFO, the United States GP took place at Indianapolis. You may recall that the FIA insisted that the race must go ahead despite some unfortunate Michelin tyre failures. The tyre company tried to find compromises but the FIA would not listen. The result of all this was that Michelin was forced to advise teams that they could not compete because of liability issues in the United States. The result was that all the Michelin cars pitted at the end of the parade lap, which did F1a pile of damage in the US, hurt Michelin hugely and soured relations between Michelin and the FIA, leading to the firm quitting F1 at the end of 2006. Senard is therefore believed to be pretty wary of F1 and its ways of doing business. Having said that, the people at the top of the FIA and Formula One have changed, and so Senard may feel a little more comfortable as the FIA is now much more corporate and the Formula One group is NASDAQ-listed and so has to be a little less cavalier than it used to be on occasion.

I love what Liberty has done with the F1 Paddocks, with stalls and bars, with local food, haircuts, beer, you name it. The paddocks are busy and drivers have to keep on the move to avoid getting bogged down. Lewis uses a scooter, while I saw Sebastian trying a new technique with Ferrari team members running on either side and ahead of him, like blockers protecting a running backs in American football, to avoid having to stop for autograph hunters and selfie-seekers. In mexico one of these paddock stalls was given over to a fellow called Jimmy Pierce from Alabama, a Los Angeles-based “contemporary urban artist” who now goes by the name of Jimmy Paintz and was inspired by Jackson Pollock and the abstract expressionist movement, amongst others, who basically splashed paint on their canvases. Paintz throws in the occasional smiley as well.

It’s not really my thing, but, hey, what is art? I could ramble on about this subject and whether or not expressions of human creativity need to be beautiful, or whether it is sufficient for them to have emotional power, but in the end what’s the point? No-one will ever agree on anything in the art world. Some might say that Paintz’s style looks like there was an explosion at a paint factory, but as long as there people who think this is great, then his work’s will have value. Still, art or not, it is rather odd to see balding 50-something year old reporters wearing paint-spattered jean jackets trying, one supposes, to be considered cool and modern. Seeing such a sight reminded me of a sort of F1 version of Norma Desmond, the ageing queen of the silent film era in the movie Sunset Boulevard, who lives in a fantasy world, in which she dreams of a comeback to the silver screen.

Maybe it’s because I live in France, but I have always believed that people who grow old gracefully are far more beautiful than those who feel the need to force themselves to look youthful, with blue rinses, nips and tucks, boob jobs, botox and clothing that is simply not right for their generation. Still, who knows? Perhaps those jackets will provide the funding for the scribblers in their old age when Paintz’s work is recognised as art and sold at auction for millions. Still, I am really not very good at grovelling around and sucking up to the right people to try to get one...

I guess that every artist sees him or herself as being the new impressionists, opening the floodgates to wild new ideas and techniques, but they don’t all get to cash in. There have been lots of different artistic movements but who today remembers tonalism, vorticism, biomorphism, maximalism, synthetism, purism, precisionism, rayonism, synchronism or lettrism? Anyway, whatever, there was 'art' in the paddock...

There was also a great goody bag for the journalists which featured Panama hats, although only for those with small heads (who are quite rare in the F1 Media Centre) and stick-on moustaches, plus some mescal, hooch made from agave. It was a lovely gesture and I very much enjoyed my weekend and the passion and atmosphere at the Autodromo.

However, one is sometimes brought down to earth with a bump. As I was checking out of the hotel and heading to the airport on Monday morning I noticed a darkly-clad security man with a bullet-proof vest and a serious machine-gun, standing guard outside the hotel. The message was clear. The glorious chaotic, passionate world of Mexico City with all its joy and happiness, its mariachi bands, its wrestlers and its Dias de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities, obviously has a darker side as well...

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