Despite a meek punishement for Vettel after the incident in Baku, Joe feels that this is indeed a time of optimism in Formula 1.
One could write about the weakness of the FIA’s actions over Sebastian Vettel deliberately running into Lewis Hamilton in Baku, but there’s really no point! The federation is not going to change until a new President comes along – and there’s no sign of that happening in the immediate future. The decision not to further punish Vettel is an awful precedent because one cannot punish one competitor differently to another for the same offence (although this did happen 10 years ago when McLaren was given a $100 million fine and Renault was let off with a smack on the wrist). If the FIA ever wants to be the strong and respected governing body that it ought to be, such daft decisions must stop.
But let’s be positive instead. If Vettel loses it again, even Jean Todt will have to act decisively. And in the meantime, the people of the Formula One group are really beginning to make things happen commercially in a sport that had become a rather scrawny cash cow in recent years – with all the money being sucked out and given to the jackals at CVC Capital Partners. F1 is glad to have more enlightened promoters now and the memories of the bad days are fading. F1 is looking forward, building and doing good things. There is a sense of purpose and while unity is never easy in a competitive game, there is an understanding that things are on the move in the right direction.
The F1 Live London event, which took over Trafalgar Square and part of Whitehall on the Wednesday before the British GP was a super event – designed to engage with the public and bring in more fans. It was a bit odd in that it had to remain secret until the last 24 hours, which I believe was for two reasons – there was the question of security, because London at the moment is under threat from terrorists who have used vehicles as weapons, notably in the recent London Bridge attack, and also possibly because the authorities wanted to keep the number of people under control. There was an event along similar lines back in 2004, and it was estimated that 400,000 people came to watch – which was simply too many.
There were bands playing this year in Trafalgar Square, as part of the F1 show, but the promoters were not allowed to name them until they were actually on stage – because they wanted to restrict numbers. Anyway, it was a good event and great for F1. It must have been a complete nightmare to organize, not least because in the morning the whole area was disrupted for a state visit by the King and Queen of Spain, which made things a little chaotic. Nonetheless, it went well and if there was a little disorganization it was okay because it allowed F1 people to go where they wanted to go by means of subterfuge, sleight of hand or simple blind boldness. As a result, I ended up in the VIP area, which was really a good idea – as not only was there a good view of the stage, but there were lots of people to meet and talk to. I saw most of the F1 circuit people in there and was told that there were 19 different promoters present, although Australia, Singapore, China and Malaysia (which no longer really cares) were not present. I believe the French and Germans were present, but even so I reckon that if there were as many as 19 promoters present, there must have been at least one whom we don’t know about – perhaps one of the three or so groups that are believed to be in the running for the British GP in 2020 now that Silverstone has decided to terminate its contract – hoping to negotiate a better deal. That may end up being a foolish move because if there is an alternative in London, one cannot blame Liberty Media from taking it.
Okay, Silverstone has proper F1 heritage and is very popular, but it’s still in the middle of nowhere – charming though that may be. The folks at Liberty have talked long and hard about looking for “destination cities,” and it’s not a good time to be out on a limb – with the pressure on the calendar growing all the time. There are several projects under development in the US. There is a serious one in Copenhagen, Denmark, and there are probably some others in Central America and/or the Caribbean. Liberty Media is not like the old Formula One management, in that they are not talking about things before deals are done, which may be frustrating for journalists and fans, who like gossip, but makes a lot of sense in a business environment. There will inevitably be some friction between the partners in the sport over things like the calendar and increasing the number of promotional events (about seven or eight F1 Live London equivalents are being planned for next year, so they say). Teams feel that they should be paid to attend, or at least not have to fork out money to take part. This, I believe, was the reason why Lewis Hamilton did not show up in London, which was not a smart move on his part although he defended himself by saying that his fans would appreciate it more if he were to win the race on Sunday.
The fans in London wanted to see noisy racing cars, doing dramatic things, but in Britain the culture of “health and safety” is nowadays dominant, and so the drivers were told in their briefing that they should not do doughnuts or make more noise than necessary. This was daft and when Daniel Ricciardo went out in his Red Bull and did a fabulous and noisy set of moves. “What is the definition of a doughnut?” he asked afterwards. It brought smiles to the faces of everyone. And the earnest health and safety people couldn’t say anything because one of their people had made a real mess of things in Whitehall, by trying to signal to a marshal to wave a flag and by doing so unwittingly directed Rene Arnoux to set off the wrong way round the track. Everyone else drove the intended route… There are times when health and safety can be more of a danger than a help!
Joe Saward has been covering Formula 1 full-time for 29 years. He has not missed a race since 1988.