8 September 2020

Green Notebook from Virgilio

Virgilio is, according to legend, the birthplace of the Roman poet Virgil. But that was not why I ended up in the village. That was pure chance.In fact the whole visit was down to luck.


I made no plans at all for the days after the Italian Grand Prix. I had to get a Russian visa sorted out and past experience had taught me that it was best not to have anything planned. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself at lunchtime on Monday with all that I needed to get to the Russian Grand Prix. It is rather a complicated business in some respects, notably with the airlines, as very few people are flying to Russia at the moment - as the borders are still closed and you need special permissions to get in. The airlines are cancelling flights willy-nilly if they do not have enough people. There are charters for the F1 teams but the prices of these are even more eye-watering than a soppy chick-flick and it isn’t worth the investment given the limited access that the F1 media has at races at the moment. Paying out a lot of cash for flights at times you don’t want, with very limited ability to work when you get there, is not such an attractive proposition. I’ll be impressed if they get 10 international journalists… This means that the so-called Covid Cup for the journalist who does the most races during the pandemic will be dropping to four contenders and two of them are not certain. I’ve no idea if I will make it, but if nothing else  I have the bits of paper I need…

However, Monza showed that there is still value in going to Grands Prix because you get the experience of a race that was anything but ordinary. People say that F1 is too predictable – and then the sport suddenly launches a stray torpedo into the argument – and it sinks without trace.

Still, this year it has been a little easier to predict than some years and, as the cars were on the grid with the pre-race activities going on, they played the "Il Canto degli Italiani", the bouncy national anthem that is always quite fun to listen to. There was even a fly-past despite the empty grandstands, but there were 250 spectators, known as the COVID-19 Heroes, who were people who had been in the front line of the pandemic in the Monza region, which was one of the hardest hit areas in the whole country. It was a nice gesture.


As the anthem played I muttered to a colleague that it would be the last time we would hearing the tune that day, a reference to the woeful state in which Ferrari finds itself. It never even crossed my mind that Scuderia AlphaTauri – the other Italian team in F1 - might win the race. You might say: “What about Alfa Romeo? That’s Italian”. True, but not in F1 where Alfa Romeo is as Italian as yodeling in Schweizerdeutsch…The Alfa Romeo team is a paint job that disguises Sauber, which races under the Swiss flag – and in its current form has no chance at all of a victory, barring floods, earthquakes, forest fires, volcanic eruptions or any other natural disaster that might take out the opposition.


Still, such unusual victories are always emotional and as they were playing the French national anthem "La Marseillaise" to celebrate Pierre’s triumph, the sound of raucous singing could be heard drifting through the Monza Media Centre. Le jour de gloire est arrive!

One forgets how long it is since a Frenchman won a Grand Prix and what it means. When it was mentioned to Gasly that he was the first Grand Prix winner from France since Olivier Panis, who won a celebrated victory at Monaco in 1996 in a Ligier, Pierre remarked, in all innocence, that that had been the year he was born…


He even got a call from French President Emmanuel Macron, so it was a big day for the French. That morning Renault CEO Luca de Meo was at Monza to tell a small group of us that in 2021 the Renault F1 team will be rebranded as Alpine, with Renault once again being relegated as a brand to the role of engine supplier. Next years the cars will be Alpine-Renaults and I trust they will have an A designation.


“I am a car guy,” de Meo said. “Nostalgia is OK, but I think we need to look at the future. So we need to think in a different way, and use Alpine to build the future. Even if Renault is a glorious brand, I think that the fit within the Formula 1 world of Alpine is even better. I am a big believer that Formula 1 should be a championship of constructors with brands that make people dream, with the connection possibly between racing on Sunday and selling on Monday.


And he wants Alpine to be seen as French, not a global brand… and so the cars next year will run in French racing blue. From the side they will look like the French tricolore flag…

Ironically, France’s greatest success in F1 came from its alliance with a British team: Williams Grand Prix Engineering. The Williams-Renaults from 1989 until 1997 with their striking blue liveries scored 63 victories for Renault – more than the Red Bull-Renaults in the years leading up to 2014.


This success is why Sir Frank Williams was knighted back in 1999 and why he is also a chevalier in France’s Légion d’Honneur.


Sir Frank stopped coming to races a few years ago because of health problems but the Italian Grand Prix was a sad affair as it was announced that the Williams Family will no longer be involved in the running of the team that bears the name. The current board of directors have all resigned and CEO Mike O’Driscoll has retired. For the moment the team will be led by Simon Roberts, who is the current managing-director of F1. He has been named as “acting” team principal, which means that the new board obviously has something different in mind, although we have no really heard anything from them, so it is hard to gauge who they are and what they are trying to achieve. What we do know is that Williams Grand Prix Engineering (WGPE) now has three directors: American citizens Matthew Savage and Darren Fultz and Britain’s James Matthews, a wealthy hedge fund owner who is brother-in-law to Prince William, as Matthews’s wife is the future king’s sister.


The available documents show that control of the business is now in the hands of a Bermuda company called BCE Ltd, which was registered in August 2019. This means that the name was not chosen to upset Bernie Ecclestone and it must therefore be serendipity.


The key point about all this is that Sir Frank Williams is no longer an F1 team owner and no longer a team principal. And that is quite something. Francis established Frank Williams Racing Cars Ltd in 1967 and took the team into F1 two years later. With the exception of a few weeks in 1977, when he left his original team after it was taken over by Walter Wolf and started a new team with Patrick Head, called Williams Grand Prix Engineering, F1 was an F1 team principal. That is 51 years. It is a record that will be almost impossible to beat. Since 1977 the team won 114 World Championship race victories and collected nine Constructors’ and seven Drivers’ championships. Sixteen World Championships in total.

“Frank Williams is Britain’s Enzo Ferrari,” said Damon Hill late weekend. “He is very British. He had no other interests other than racing and F1. He just loved it. And he was proud of having own F1 team. He loved every second of it.”

Jacques Villeneuve, another Williams World Champion agreed.

“I have great memories,” he said.“I loved it there. It felt like a family. I know some drivers found it tough, but I never felt that. I always had a good relationship with Frank and Patrick. I stayed close with them after I left the team. The relationship was a bit special.The team is important in the same way as McLaren, or it was. It stopped being so when it stopped running at the front and started being run like a business. It is a team that can rebuild if it is run by racers, with the racers’ mentality.”

I emailed Keke Rosberg, another Williams F1 World Champion, to see if he had anything to say on the subject and Keke came back to me saying that he gave up doing interviews more than 10 years ago but “as it is FW” he agreed to say a few words, remembering his “very intense and memorable time” at Williams and how it was sad to see the Williams era coming to an end...

That said it all really.

Anyway, I walked out of the Russian Visa Centre in Milan at 1pm on Monday and I had nothing planned. I had no real desire to go straight to Mugello, now did I want to go north to go south and it was rainy and so Lake Como would not have been at its best. And it struck me for some reason that it might be a good moment to go to Mantova, something I have always meant to do.

Mantova, or Mantua as the English call it, is the home town of Tazio Nuvolari, one of the greatest racing drivers ever, and it was – more or less – on the road between Monza and Mugello.

And, as I headed to Brescia, various thoughts came into my head. Was Brescia not the site of the first Italian Grand Prix, 99 years ago? And was it not the start and finish of the Mille Miglia? And was not the route from Brescia to Mantova one that went through Guidizzolo, where in 1957 Alfonso de Portago and his co-driver Edmund Nelson were killed along with 10 spectators, including five children, when his Ferrari 335S blew a tyre and went off into the crowd, lining the road. This resulted in Enzo Ferrari being charged with manslaughter…

Ahead of me was a tour of Italian racing history. Why not spend the days I had doing that.

And so, I ended up standing outside an old church in Mantova, waiting for a nice lady to come and open up the Tazio Nuvolari Museum.

It was a fabulous place, filled with artefacts and stories of Nuvolari’s astonishing, including the head of a stag which Nuvolari killed one year in a race at Donington Park which he arranged to have stuffed and mounted, like a hunting trophy.

I had a blissful morning.

Tomorrow I will head on down to Modena – Ferrari town - and then I think I will overshoot Bologna (not by accident) and I will then have to find my way across country, rather than taking the motorway to Florence. If I make the right mistakes I will probably have to go over the Raticosa and Futa passes, which are to be found along the Strada Regionale 65. It will take a bit longer but taking the wrong road in life is always more interesting, even if one arrives a little later than planned. I have to do (another) Covid-19 at Mugello to be allowed into the Media Centre on Thusday. Still, a scenic route is always a good route and oddly enough these famous stretches of road are the only bits of the Mille Miglia course that are little changed from the 1950s. 

Sadly, there is no time to take the Strada Regionale 222 to the south of Florence, which sweeps through the hills of Chianti to Siena, through the Tuscan hills with its cypress lined  roads and mile upon mile of silvery olive groves. Oh well, maybe I will make a navigational mistake on the way to Imola in a few weeks time...

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