I bounce through Miami International Airport every now and then, and it always makes me smile when I see the airport code MIA. For me this acronym means Missing In Action. Quite often, one feels a little like that when one is jumping around between the time zones.
When I find myself in MIA with time to kill, I will walk through the terminal, which has crushed shells in the flooring (see below), presumably to make it more durable, as well as quite pretty to look at. When I get to Gate D4, I hide myself away in the Islander Bar and Grill. There’s nothing special about the place but for reasons that I cannot quite fathom it feels like a safe haven and one gets a hint of Caribbean life, with some dishes that originate from the islands. It used to serve conch and other such delicacies, but these days the menu is rather less Gulf Stream and a little more mainstream.
I had a few hours to kill in MIA on the return from Mexico City (it’s cheaper when you do not fly direct) and I was pondering the Mexico F1 weekend, as I munched my way through some Cuban spring rolls. It struck me that Islander can be viewed as “I slander” and that one of the themes of the Grand Prix had been defamation, largely in relation to social media and how toxic a world it can be. This came up in the post-race press conference.
“I think it’s just the sport is more popular so there are more people watching, so more people are writing,” said Max Verstappen. “I think it’s just that. It’s not great that they are allowed to write these kinds of things so I hope we can come up with a kind of algorithm that stops people from being keyboard warriors. Because these kind of people… they will never come up to you and say these things in front of your face, because they’re sitting in front of their desk or whatever at home, being upset, being frustrated, and they can write whatever they like because the platform allows you to. That can be really damaging and hurtful to some people and it’s not how it should be. Social media is a very toxic place.”
Lewis Hamilton was also quite vocal on the subject.
“Social media is getting more and more toxic as the years go on and we should all come off it, ultimately,” he said. “Mental health is such a prominent thing right now. So many people are reading the comments, the stuff that people say, and it is hurtful. Fortunately I don’t read it, but the media platforms need to do more to protect people, particularly young kids and women. At the moment they are not doing that so I think this will just continue.”
And Sergio Perez agreed.
“They don’t understand that we are also human beings. And I think this has got to stop,” he said. “And, obviously, as a sport, we need to also be responsible of what we post, by ourselves. We all have a lot of followers so it’s very important that we try to get the sport in the right way because Formula 1, it’s a great sport and has great values, but has to do more in that regard.”
I could not agree more. One cannot post anything without someone taking offence, or gnashing their virtual teeth. The other day, I saw a tweet which suggested that researchers at Stanford University, a very fine institution, had come up with what they considered to be the image of God. It all sounded very unlikely and the image looked a lot like Fernando Alonso. In fact, it looked so like Fernando that I concluded that it was a fake story but, just to be sure, I did a little surfing on the web and discovered that the image had nothing to do with Stanford and was simply a 3D rendition of Alonso that one can buy on the web, if one feels the need to part with money to own a non-fungible token.
I have always struggled with NFTs because while I understand that an image can be considered special and valuable, when you buy a virtual piece of art, you are getting absolutely nothing part from an image that anyone who knows how to use a screen shot can also have at home. If you buy a painting you are at least getting some canvas, wood and paint.
I guess it is just about belief, similar to thinking that a bit of paper is as valuable as a piece of gold.
Anyway, I tweeted that it was an NFT and not some religious experiment that looked like Alonso and my phrase: “It’s not God, it’s just Fernando” soon appeared on a virtual teeshirt because Fernando fans thought this was a good meme. Then, of course, I got some responses from religious types saying that there is only one God and that it is disrespectful to compare Him (why not Her?) with Alonso because the bible is filled with exhortations to avoid and/or destroy gods other than the one mentioned in the “Good Book”. Gods, in the wrong hands, are troublesome (I’d better © that one).
Anyway, Mexico City is all the fault of an Aztec deity with the easy-to-remember name of Huitzilopochtli, who said that the best place for the tribe to settle would be when they saw an eagle, perched on a prickly pear cactus – in a lake – and eating a snake.
Well, blow me down, this is exactly what some of the Aztecs saw in a swamp in the valley of Mexico. So they built a city called Tenochtitlan, created “floating gardens” on which to grow food and settled down to enjoy life, sacrificing people from time to time to stop the gods from making the ground shake, by ripping out the still-beating hearts of the victims. OK, they gave us popcorn and chewing gum as well, but the sacrificing stuff was not a very nice way of going about business.
Thanks to the hungry eagle, the settlement now known as Mexico City was founded (and the Mexican flag created), although in the modern world, the place is anything but perfect. It is in a flat valley at 7,000ft, surrounded by volcanos that rise as high as 16,000 feet. It is sheltered from winds but has no drainage so that when water descends from the mountains it has nowhere to go and causes floods. These conditions are not very helpful because a concept called temperature inversion means that air pollution is trapped and when the warm air near the ground does escape it creates violent thunder storms that cause more floods.
And that’s without the earthquakes…
Despite these disadvantages, Mexico City has grown and grown. Today there are 22 million people living there (21.8 million of which are Checo Perez fans). Pollution used to be really horrible back in the 1980s but the Mexicans have done a decent clean-up job by building a very efficient mass transit system, although the traffic is still pretty awful. Mexico City is reckoned to be only the fifth most congested city in Latin America (avoid Bogota, Lima, Recive and Santiago) – but it is still a very congested place.
And yet visitors come to enjoy its cosmopolitan charms, its energy and its historical places. In the old days, everyone in F1 used to stay at the airport hotels because they were there to race and didn’t care about the fancy hotels downtown. Today they want to stay in the wildly-expensive places and so have to spend additional money on police escorts and waste time getting through the traffic in their cars. One of my favourite stories of the Grand Prix weekend was that Carlos Slim Domit, the billionaire petrol head, who has funded much of Mexican motorsport in the last 20 years, and is largely responsible for Sergio Perez surviving long enough in F1 to get a decent seat, decided that he didn’t want to sit in traffic and so took the metro to get to the circuit. Fortunately, this was so unexpected an act that nothing bad happened…
If you want to make friends in Mexico you don’t need to learn a lot of Spanish. If you can say “Checo” and give a thumbs-up, they will be happy and proud. However one gets the feeling that it isn’t just Perez. Mexicans love racing. The support for Perez is spectacular but it is not quite the same as success-chasing supporters of Max Verstappen, who will fade one day if Max stops winning.
For Mexicans it seems that there is also plenty of national pride about the Grand Prix. It is a great event. It won the prize for being the best Grand Prix for five consecutive years between 2015 and 2019 (the award has not been made since), and the promoter has just signed a new three-year deal and the future looks rosy. The main focus these days is to build up the festival (ie money-making activities) around the event. Already it coincides with the colourful Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) and so visitors can combine the two, which will bring more revenue to the city and thus enable F1 to ask for more money. This is exactly what Liberty Media’s vision of F1 is – and it is working.
There is a developing problem, however, with the secondary market for tickets, which can get to daft prices because so many people want to come to the races. This presents a challenge for the organisers because if they sell cheap tickets these will end up nurturing touts. One can raise the prices to squeeze out the scalpers but if the demand is strong enough there will still be a margin for them.
The problem in Mexico City is that the Grand Prix cannot sell any more tickets and there is no space left for more grandstands. The logical thing to do in the circumstances is either to sit back and enjoy the situation, or to try and repeat the success elsewhere. With six races in the American time zones in 2023, there is probably still room for one more (which will mean one being lost in Europe) and although having two races in Mexico is not a realistic ambition, there is no reason why the promotions company cannot go elsewhere in the region and help out countries that do not know how to do it.
Anyway, the reason the new contract is short, is because there is an election in 2024 when the mayor of Mexico City Claudia Sheinbaum gets to the end of her term of office. It looks like she is going to stand for the presidency and so the Mexico City could get federal funding again and perhaps return to being the Mexican GP.
Perez is so popular in Mexico that his father Tono thinks it could win him votes in he presidential election and he says he standing for the role. This will not happen because he is in the same party – called MORENA – as Sheinbaum and Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, who are probably a little more attractive to voters than Perez’s dad, enthusiastic though he may be…
Mexico will at some point need to look for a new driver to support because Perez is coming up to 33 and while he is eight years younger than Fernando Alonso and could, in theory, go on forever in F1, there may come a point at which Red Bull will think that a youngster might do a better job. You can cheer until you are hoarse, but Sergio is nowhere close to Max’s pace. He’s solid, he’s older and (perhaps) wiser, but there may come a day…
Mexico does have Pato O’Ward, who is nine years younger than Perez and a very bouncy individual. He is under contract to McLaren in IndyCar until the end of 2025 and is the same age as Lando Norris, which is two years old than Oscar Piastri, while Alex Palou is two years older. So, McLaren has an option that could one day make Mexico happy. A successful driver can make the sport very popular in their own country. We have seen that in Spain (with Alonso) and in Germany (with Michael Schumacher), but it doesn’t always work because Sebastian Vettel never appealed to German fans in the way that Michael did. I have asked a lot of Germans about why this is the case and the answer seems to be a class thing. Michael was a working class hero, who rose to fame at a time when Germany needed figures to unite around. It all happened just after the reunification of East and West and, so they say, this is what made him such a huge phenomenon. That, and a lot of victories…
Today we have China’s Guanyu Zhou but the Chinese are not yet getting excited. Things are a little complicated because I sense a new kind of caution in F1 about China. The 2023 race is going to be called off because of the zero-COVID policy. The Chinese leadership cannot let F1 bust all the rules without it stirring up trouble and that is the last thing that they want. So the race will have to go and maybe in 2024 they will get round to easing the lockdowns and getting on with life.. At the same time I feel that the view of China is changing. It is no longer viewed the investment opportunity it once was and lots of Western companies are winding down their operations. China’s failure to condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine has not gone down well in the West and President Xi’s combative attitude towards Taiwan is worrying. F1 cut all ties with Russia soon after the invasion of Ukraine – and would likely do the same if Taiwan was attacked.
But, worse than that, there is a wariness about China that the leadership has created. I am sure they don’t give a monkey’s about F1, but it could mean that F1 will moved its targets to places in Asia where it is easier to do business. Yes, China has 1.4 billion people, but India has about the same… Perhaps if the Indians can get rid of their red tape and F1 might look again. Perhaps not.
Next year, probably, we will have American Logan Sargeant trying to do the same thing with the USA. Colton Herta seems to have disappeared from the scene and I am told that he has just been signed to a vast new contract ($7 million) which is unheard of in Indycar. Perhaps if there is ever an Andretti F1 team Herta might make F1, but right now it is all rather doubtful.
F1 continues to build in the US and this week at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas, the leading automotive trade show, Williams F1 is going to be present. Next weekend there will be a launch party for the Grand Prix in Las Vegas.
Sargeant’s situation remains uncertain, which is a little ridiculous. The gap between the penultimate Formula 2 race meeting and the finale is a massive 10 weeks (from September 11 to November 20). This is one of number of flaws that Formula 2 suffers from: it is expensive and the cars are not always reliable and so the championship can be impacted by mechanical failures, which is not what you want when one is trying to develop the best drivers and technical issues distort the results. Secondly, the gap at the end of the year means that a number of current Formula 2 drivers need to wait until after the last race to see whether they qualify for an F1 super licence or not. They do not want to commit to returning to Formula 2 in 2023 because there is no real point in doing another season if one finishes well in the championship, but as they don’t know where they will finish, they cannot commit. Felipe Drugovich has already won the 2022 title, having collected 241 points thus far. This means he cannot be caught by the second-placed Theo Pourchaire, who has only 164 points. There is maximum score of 39 points for an F2 weekend, which means that Pourchaire is not safe in second place because Sargeant (135), Jack Doohan (126), Jehan Daruvala (126) and Enzo Fittipaldi (126) could all beat him. There are five other drivers who might be able to overtake Sargeant for third place, if they score maximum points and he fails to score: Liam Lawson (123), Frederik Vesti (117), Ayumu Iwasa (114), Juri Vips (110) and Dennis Hauger (98).
So there are 10 drivers who could finish third in the championship. Sargeant needs to be fifth to qualify for his licence and thus be able to take up the Williams F1 drive that is on offer to him.
The problem with this is that while the drivers wait to see what will happen, the 2023 drives are beginning to fill up with drivers who know what they need to do. The same mistake is being made again in next year’s calendar.
The paddock chatter in Mexico was largely about the cost cap, until the decisions were handed down, after which it ceased to be news and sank beneath silently the waves.
There was a bit of talk following the Audi announcement that it is jumping into bed with Sauber, a surprise to no-one. What is interesting about this is that the announcement said that Sauber will “undertake the planning and execution of all race operations during the 2026 Formula 1 season”. Cutting through the waffle, this means that Audi is hedging its bets, but you can understand why. If a manufacturer comes in with full branding there is a risk that if it all goes wrong, the company will look bad. Toyota is a good example of how not to do it. Mercedes dived in head-first in 2010 when it acquired Brawn GP but Brawn was the World Championship-winning team at the time, whereas Sauber is nowhere near achieving that.
Prior to that, back in the 1990s, Mercedes hid behind Sauber before becoming Sauber-Mercedes in 1994.
When Sauber was bought by BMW at the end of 2005 the team remained BMW Sauber, rather than being a straight BMW team, but if things had gone better it might have been transformed, but it seems that the sporting bosses had over-promised and the BMW board decided it was wasting its time and quit.
The other big question at the moment is what is going to happen with Audi’s sister brand Porsche, which was hoping to enter F1 in league with Red Bull. In recent days there have been rumours that Porsche could buy into Williams. This is not serious. Williams’s owners have shown no intention, despite several approaches, to hand over control. Williams would like to have manufacturer support in 2026 – but Porsche does not have an engine and, so they say, does not currently have the capacity, the people nor the time to build an engine for 2026.
Hence the Red Bull deal…
Porsche does have some knowledge of F1 engines because back in 2017 the VW executive board commissioned the firm to build a prototype F1 engine. This was going to be used from 2021 onwards but the impact of the VW diesel scandal shifted the group towards electric motorsport. The dynos that Porsche had planned to use were sold to Red Bull.
When Audi announced its F1 plans, its boss Markus Duesmann was asked if Audi and Porsche could collaborate, the obvious thing to do if one is being cost-efficient. But that would be far too easy for a complex company like Volkswagen. Audi does not want to work with Porsche. It is a flimsy argument to say that they cannot because integrating chassis and engine is impossible. If you look at the technical regulations about power unit mountings, these must consist of six studs connecting to the survival cell. The precise nature of the rules includes coordinates of where the studs must be placed, which means that different engines can be used with different chassis. This was created to make it possible to change engines without huge costs being involved and so integration is a lot easier than it might appear.
Since Duesmann made these remarks a couple of months ago, much has changed: the Red Bull-Porsche deal has fallen apart, but Porsche boss Oliver Blume has taken over as the boss of VW Group, while still retaining his role at Porsche. This means that Blume is Duesmann’s superior. Well, that’s the theory. Logically, if he went to the VW board and suggested that Porsche and Audi share the same technology, it would be entirely logical for that to happen. You can argue that this is not the way that Porsche does business, but then badging a Red Bull engine was not at all a Porsche kind of strategy.
The simple (but difficult) solution is for Porsche to be given whatever Audi has. One can stick a different badge on the cam covers and who will know the difference? Obviously Porsche would then need to invest in people and machinery so as to develop along its own path, but this might be a good starting point.
However, when it comes to VW politics, nothing is ever simple…
Money is not the issue.
Money is an issue in some parts of F1, notably the cryptocurrency firms, following on from the catastrophic loss of investor confidence in the sector last summer. Bitcoin has tumbled from $60,000 to $20,000, while Ferrari sponsor Velas has seen its market cap tumble from $1.2 billion in January to just under $100 million. F1 sponsor Crypto.com has also been suffering and has recently laid off around 30 percent of its staff and has cancelled a big sponsorship deal with UEFA.
Conversely, the more traditional money transfer businesses such as Haas’s new sponsor Moneygram or the likes of PayPal and Western Union are booming, along with a string of newer money transfer firms.
F1 is famous for looking at problems and finding solutions, so perhaps we will see some new names popping up soon.
The other day Alejandro Soberon, the race promoter in Mexico, came up with a brilliant concept about F1 and the environment. F1 is busy trying to convince everyone that it can reach zero emissions by 2030. This is a good idea, but it is pretty meaningless if one does not count the emissions created by F1’s spectators. One can try to get people to use mass transportation systems (as Carlos Slim did in Mexico) or one can try to convince them to switch to emission-free cars. But, if one thinks about the problem, one can already argue that Formula 1 is carbon neutral. How? Well, Soberon argued, if one only counts the people attending events, you are missing a trick. F1 is responsible for them, sure. But F1 is also responsible for keeping people at home to watch races, rather than going out on Sundays to have drive in the country, picnics, shopping trips and so on. So one needs only to find a way to measure how many people stay at home because of F1 and work out the environmental damage avoided and one can quickly see that the number of spectators will quickly be outnumbered by the number of TV viewers.
Staying home is something that more and more media F1 media are now doing, which means that most of the coverage comes from people who use what is spoon-fed to them, or copy what those who still travel are producing, although obviously they do not pay for it. This means that the travellers foot the bills but publications won’t pay what they used to. Anyone who travels the world at the moment knows that the costs are now horrendous. Flights are double what they used to be, hotels (particularly at F1 races) are off the clock. Hire car prices are bonkers. This is the cost of F1’s success, the result of the pandemic and businesses trying to make back what they lost.
This can get you down sometimes. I see all the followers on my social media feeds and I ponder the fact that if all them were to purchase a subscription to the JSBM newsletter (http://flatoutpublishing.com/jsbm/) just once, not only would they get a unique news every week for a year – much more than appears in the Green Notebook – but I would then never have to worry about F1 costs again.
Ah, in a perfect world, where social media was a positive thing…