13 September 2020

Green Notebook from the Côte-d'Or 

It might be a bit of a surprise for some readers that I am writing this notebook from the wine country to the north of Beaune, not quite in the Côte de Nuits, but not far away either. It’s wine snob heaven and I’ve been staying in a rather precious sort of joint where they were taken aback when I was ordering dinner and said: “I’m not here for the wine. I just want to eat. I’ll have a glass of rosé”, but I couldn’t complain. The food was up to Tuscan standards…

Beaune is a long way from Mugello, something I could attest as I had driven all day to get there, just short of 900km by the route I took. And the next day I faced another 500km to get home. One can more than that in a day, without too much trouble but I tend to work through the nights to a large extent on Saturdays and Sundays at Grands Prix, so I try to not push over 1,000 km on a Monday…


The Italian trip amounted to 3,200 km and the total of driving in the last 11 weeks to around 11,000 km. I’ve enjoyed all of it. Next week I will take a plane for the first time since Australia back in March, as I don’t think it is possible and/or wise to try to drive to Sochi, which would be 7,200km round-trip and would involve a trip across Ukraine and Crimea, which might not be the wisest thing in the current day and age.


Anyway, the trip to Italy was a delight, as detailed to some extent in the previous Green Notebook. Mugello is a wonderful venue and although the facility has changed rather a lot since my last visit, back in 1984, the region is as charming as ever. Mugello, in case you don’t know, is not simply a racing circuit, but actually an entire district which one finds in the northern part of the province of Florence, in the region of Tuscany. It is lovely country, a land of magnificent forests of oak, beech and chestnut, with vineyards and olive groves in the lower parts and medieval hilltop villages, with roads lined with cypress trees.


It is one of those places where you live well, without having to try too hard. The circuit is there because 100 years ago some of the locals thought it would be a great idea to have a Tuscan version of the Targa Florio (the famous road race through the mountains and Sicily) and so scoped out a circuit of public roads about 40 miles in length, including some fearsome climbs and descents and more than a few villages. The event survived until the 1970s when a nasty accident meant that it had to stop and so the locals found the money to build a modern track in a valley close to the village of Scarperia, famous for the sharpness of its knives. The result was a superb, sweeping track, ranged across a valley, with the main straight feeding into a rising and curling right-hander. Sweeping across the hillside behind the pits, the track then sweeps downhill across a bridge and soars uphill, through a sweeping left-hander, to the other side of the valley.


It was never on the cards to have a Grand Prix because Italy already had one and a half Grand Prix (counting Monaco as the half) and later acquired a second race when it was contrived to have a San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, to keep Ferrari happy.


So Mugello was condemned to Formula 2 and sports car races and then, as it grew older and safety demands increased, Formula 3. By the late 1980s the track was in financial trouble and was beginning to decay. There was talk that the valley could be flooded to create a reservoir to serve Florence, but in 1988 Ferrari swooped and bought the circuit to be a testing facility and the threat of a reservoir disappeared when they built the high-speed Firenzuola railway tunnel, which is 15km long and pops above ground briefly just by the circuit entrance, which explains the rather odd noise of a fast train from time to time with no obvious sign of an railway line…


A longtime pal from Australia John Crawford told me a great story about Mugello which he has written about on his blog (click here to visit).After Ferrari had rebuilt the track in the early 1990s (under the guiding hand of a young Stefano Domenicali), the team began to use Mugello a great deal. It was longer than Fiorano and provided a variety of corners and terrain changes. The problem was that Michael Schumacher hated going testing there because the available accommodation was not up to his exacting standards. So, Ferrari, which will to do anything to keep its driver happy, acquired a rundown property in Borgo San Lorenzo, the nearby town, rebuilt it and opened the Parkhotel Ripaverde. I’ve no idea if Ferrari is still in the hotel business, but it might have been sold by now. Anyway, I’m told it’s still the best hotel in the neighbourhood, although I quite liked where I stayed, even if it was a rather old-fashioned family-run place. The restaurant was pretty decent but in the age of Covid-19 it can be a bit depressing going out for dinner. I was sat in the restaurant, in my own F1 Covid bubble, with three other F1 bubbles on tables around me. They were all having a fine old time, but under F1 rules one is not allowed to sit at the same table as another bubble, although one can sit in the same restaurant…


You might think it is totally daft (there are dafter things than that) but one cannot argue with the numbers. There have been around 42,000 PCR tests of F1 people in the last 11 weeks and of these only Sergio Perez has been a high-profile case. Most of the others were not in the paddock itself, but were set-up people or local employees. It may be a pain, but it is a very efficient system to keep the sport healthy and not getting a bad name for itself by spreading the virus.


Mention of Michael Schumacher was inevitable when it came to the Ferrari 1000thrace, which was celebrated with another miserable performance at Mugello. However there was a big party in Florence on Saturday night, and on the Sunday Mick Schumacher drove one of his father’s Ferrari F2004s around the circuit. I didn’t get teary-eyed because although I thought Michael was a hugely-talented driver, I didn’t like his morality (or lack of it) on the race track, and he never made much of an effort to try to win over those who did not laud him.


Mick (who is a very nice young man) has been much in the spotlight of late and in Monza he finally managed to win a Feature race in Formula 2, as opposed to the Sprint races, which have far less perceived value as they use a top-8 reversed grid. This year’s nine Feature race victories have gone to Callum Ilott, Robert Shwartzman and Nikita Mazepin (two apiece), with the other three won by Schumacher, Yuki Tsonuda and Nobuharu Matsushita, while Christian Lundgaard and Felipe Drugovich have both won two Sprint races. So six drivers have won more races than Mick and five of them are in the running for the title, but he has been most consistent. We will have to see who wins the title, but this has caused some headaches for Ferrari because F1 obviously wants to get the Schumacher name involved again, but if Mick is beaten by fellow Ferrari Academy drivers Ilott and Shwartzman then it would not be right nor fair to promote him over them. And getting three new drivers into F1 at one go would be rather difficult.

It doesn’t help that Honda would love to see Tsunoda in a AlphaTauri next year and if he manages to get a Superlicence it should be taken as read that he will be in alongside Pierre Gasly. But if Schumacher is third in the F2 championship behind Ilott and Shwartzman can all three be given places? Well, in theory there are four drives available with Ferrari-engined cars: two Alfa Romeos and and two Haases. Alfa Romeo seems to have a deal where Ferrari names one of its drivers, so whichever Ferrari Academy driver is highest-placed would logically get that, in place of Antonio Giovinazzi, while there might be room for a second if Kimi Raikkonen was replaced as well. Going into a new season with two rookies would not be an advisable thing for the team, which hasn’t been doing terribly well in recent years, although it currently seems to have a car that is faster in races than Ferrari.


One must also remember that Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg are also both on the market and that Haas drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean are also in the mix. Haas could change both drivers, but it would be wisest to take Perez or Hulkenberg rather than a Ferrari youngster, unless the financial incentive was overpowering. I hear that Haas has only just signed a new Ferrari supply deal and it may not be a long-term deal.


Why would any team ally itself for Ferrari at the moment as that effectively guarantees being at the back of the grid for at least a year and probably more, such is the mess in which Ferrari finds itself with its engines and the engine freeze? Fixing the problem, so they say, will take at least two years because of the limited amount of modification allowed each year. So it really makes no sense doing it, if there is a better option. And there clearly is because Renault is looking for a partner team. It is very doubtful that you could have an Alfa Romeo-Renault, even if it is possible to have an Aston Martin Red Bull Honda, so it is safe to assume that if Renault is looking for a new partner it will be Haas. So why sign with Ferrari? Because Haas needs an engine for 2021.

If Haas has agreed to a Ferrari deal longer than a year I’d be surprised… unless, of course, Haas doesn’t really care and needed to have an engine deal to add value to the team which he is trying to sell. However, I’m told that Haas has turned down at least three offers thus far, so it doesn’t look like he wants to sell…


The reason that offers are being made is because in the new commercial agreement is a troublesome clause which means that any new team would need to pay $200 million to be allowed to join, in addition to all the set-up costs and the deposit that is required by the FIA. It is probably half the cost to buy an existing team than trying to enter a new one.

Why the $200 million? Well, the teams understandably don’t want to split the prize money 12 ways rather than 10 and they have calculated that $20 million each would be suitable recompense, in the full knowledge that no-one will ever pay it – and that the value of each team is thus going to go up…


This might explain why the people buying Williams seem to have overpaid somewhat for the privilege of owning a team. Getting a team as quickly as possible also meant as cheaply as possible. And they were not the only bidders because Dimitry Mazepin (who owns the Hitech Formula 2 team and is the father of F2 driver Nikita Mazepin) clearly wants to “do a Stroll” and buy a team for his boy to race with.


The Williams deal remains rather odd and mysterious although the new owners (or at least the representatives of the owners) turned up in Mugello, although with the media stuck outside the paddock there was no chance to ask questions of the folk who showed up. It is fairly clear that we are waiting for something else to happen – waiting for the other shoe to drop. If this was the finished story, the new team principal Simon Roberts would not be there as an “acting” role. Clearly, there are others under consideration, or in the pipeline.

It seems an odd way of going about business because it simply incites annoying people like me to dig for the truth. It would be far wiser to have explained who or what Dorilton is and why it wants to be in Formula 1. It is a bit like suspending a lump of raw meat over a den full of foxhounds and expecting them not to bay and run around in circles.


I was sent an anonymous tip the other day about who might be behind Dorilton and I considered sailing the into the public domain and see if anyone denies it. It is not really my style to do this, but the person involved seems to be intensely media averse and would probably not answer the question if asked, even if I had a clue how to make contact. My source (an anonymous one with an email address that bounces back with a message that the address doesn’t exist) says that the owner of Dorilton is a rather secretive well-connected Jersey-based financier. I have dug around a fair bit but the fellow in question is a secretive chap and has company structures in tax havens here, there and everything. I am not certain that the information is correct so I will continue digging because I am sure that there is more to this deal than meets the eye. Anyway, I hope that whoever the owner is will rebuild Team Willy and make it into a sustainable business by diversifying the team in the same sort of way as we have seen McLaren do (Or Ferrari if you go back in time). Whether that it advanced technologies from F1 being used in other industries, or perhaps even Williams electric road cars. Who knows?


Williams is a great F1 brand, even if it has never been properly exploited.


I asked Jean Todt over the Mugello weekend how important having Ferrari was for F1 and his response was interesting. Ferrari, he said, was like one of F1’s limbs. Yes, it can be cut off and it will survive, but the body will be forever damaged after that. I thought that was a very good assessment, although over the years we have seen a lot of important brands fall out of racing for one reason or another. The sport has survived without Brabham, Team Lotus, Tyrrell, BRM, Cooper, Maserati and Ligier, although to be fair you can add all their victories together and you still don’t reach Ferrari’s total.


So I hope that the team can do a better job as quickly as possible. However, I think that a lot of things need to change down in Maranello – primarily the attitude that got them into the current mess. For the moment I see no real signs of that happening and the team seems to be in some sort of denial in order to cope with the distressing situation. Still, 1,000 Grands Prix is impressive.


I was rather shocked to realise that I have been present at well more than half of Ferrari’s F1 races. That led to some idle calculations that if things go on as they are going (when they get back to normal) I will be reaching 1,000 races in around 2037. I’ll be over 75 by then (and might perhaps be willing to accept suggestions that I am old), but then again I have known several F1 journalists who were still going at that age… Who knows? Maybe the delights of life outside F1 will one day outweigh the value of F1 and I will happily stop. Whatever the case, I have had the great good fortune to work in a world about which I am passionate. I never have trouble getting up to go to work and I never think ‘Thank God, it’s Friday’.


So onward we go… to Russia. The good news is that we’ll back in Italy again on November 1 for the Gran Premio dell’Emilia-Romagna at Imola – the third Italian race of the Covid-blighted 2020 season.


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