After all, Formula 1 had a real story with James Allison returning to the racing team at Mercedes, which they hope will turn things around at Brackley. I have to admit I was a bit surprised as James seemed to be finished and dusted in F1, but I think he enjoyed the challenge of turning things around. Overall, this is not surprising as, as mentioned in the previous Green Notebook, many team changes are expected in the coming months after Red Bull’s dominant start to the year. Such dominance always leads to earthquakes.
In fact, it was nice to have an Easter break, albeit inadvertently, thanks to the cancellation of the Chinese GP. It was a bonus that F1 people are not used to. Watching spring is quite a new experience for us as we tend to be everywhere but at home at this time of year.
This is the second time in three years that we’ve had the pleasure (considering the forced inactivity during the 2020 pandemic) and it’s a joy. Yes, seeing a cherry blossom in Japan is an experience, but time spent at home is precious.
People sometimes have funny ideas about F1 journalists, but I understand why. We fulfill the dreams of some of our readers who think they would like to have the same lifestyle. It’s nice to get away from real life, work, mortgages and all the rest. Car racing is an escape, a way to get out of the grind and into a place where anything can happen. It’s Alice going to Wonderland, Dorothy dancing on her way to the Emerald City or running away to the circus… We’re dream sellers (and women).
The fans (quite rightly so) don’t want to hear that we do normal stuff between races. We go to the supermarket, mow the lawn, service the car and get stuck in traffic jams.
People imagine that we spend our time on the beaches of the Pacific sipping kava (a strange but legal, slightly intoxicating drink made from the crushed root of a Polynesian shrub called yaqona, which makes your mouth and tongue numb). And of course it has to be delivered by sensual island girls, although if your lips are numb it ruins the story a bit…
I do my best to live up to those expectations by living in the French countryside, one of those romantic lifestyles for those who wonder “what’s that” when the afternoon drags on a bit. There’s plenty to brag about, but it’s not just hammocks and rosé sipping… There aren’t many people in the countryside, which means if you’re looking for specific things, you’ll have to look far. A shoe repair shop or a working train station requires half an hour’s drive. In France you always have to fight strikes (banal but true). Then there are the mindless local bureaucrats, or functionaries as they call them.
I was looking forward to receiving Gunther Steiner’s book, but the publishers sent it to me by registered mail. It was addressed to Joe Saward, so the damn post office lady refused to give it to me because I don’t have an official ID with a photo showing me as Joe. First, I politely explained that Joe was a diminutive and showed her various photo papers with that name on it. But these were not official documents. Even an FIA F1 permanent pass would not impress this petty person. I finally lost it and told her exactly where to paste the book (Gunther would be proud of me). I left hoping the post office would burn down and its hamster would be turned into a sidewalk pizza by a very large mail van. I’ll have to wait to read the book. She will have to wait for her life…
Anyway, if the letter had been delivered to my house by a regular postman, this would never have happened, but when they came, I was out and about. I was away from home a lot last week and was rather shocked to add up the mileage which included a trip to Bordeaux and back at the family business followed by a day trip to the UK followed by a short visit to Paris for a visa. That all adds up to 2,300 km… the equivalent of driving from London to Marrakech or New York to Wichita, Kansas.
So I could have written this Green Notebook from many places: from Rouen, where the British burned Jeanne d’Arc (who was probably a troublesome postal worker), to the Pays de Bray, where they make heart-shaped cheese in Neufchatel. It may have come from Moyenneville (literally an average town), near Abbeville. He could have come from Le Mans, Brands Hatch or even Bexleyheath, where Bernie Ecclestone grew up and ran his first motorcycle shop. He could have come from Villeperdue (The Lost City), south of Tours, or from a camel farm on the banks of the Garonne (yes, it really does exist).
In the end, I chose Gaillon, where I spent half an hour on the way back from Paris. Readers will know that France has a rich history of racing, while Britain had laws against racing on the road, so the British were years behind the French in terms of automotive development. The British were only allowed to race at Brooklands, while the French raced on dozens of public road courses. When I’m hanging around, I like to visit to see what’s left.
The Seine Valley has played an important role in the motoring world since the first race, held from Paris to Rouen in 1894.
If you jump into the Seine at the Eiffel Tower (as I now recommend to all French postal workers), the river will carry you lazily downstream in loops. If you’re a good swimmer, you can still float when you pass Boulogne-Billancourt, the headquarters of Renault. A moment later (as a corpse) you will pass by the huge Stellantis (read Peugeot) factory in Poissy. Far to the right is the world’s first climbing course at Chanteloup-les-Vignes, which was established in 1898. Some say La Turbie was the first, although the climb from Nice to La Turbie was really just part of a much larger event in 1897, not the climb itself.
You will then drive past Flins, a huge Renault factory, and then into the countryside. You’ll pass Giverny, where Claude Monet painted water lilies, and Vernon, where half of a medieval bridge juts out (oddly) into the river. If they pull your body from the river at Courcelles-sur-Seine, they’ll probably take you to nearby Gaillon. Turn right there on the old Nationale 15 and the road starts to climb, gently at first and then steeper. It rises 88 meters per kilometer, which is nine percent of the climb. Nowadays, any old hearse will go uphill without a problem, but even in late 1899 this part of the road was a real challenge. The hill featured in the aforementioned Paris-Rouen race and impressed those who were puffing and puffing to the top. It was a real test, so five years later they came back. There were 73 entries in the first year and on a foggy December day the Stanley Steamer, driven by Mr. G. Debacker, climbed the hill in 1.45 seconds. Such was the progress of that era that five years later the record was lowered to 33.6 s by Louis Rigolly in Gobron-Brillie. The British showed up, having nothing better to do, and in 1906 Algernon Lee Guinness’s Darracq went uphill in 25 seconds. That same year, the Paris-Le Havre Express stopped at a local station to bring spectators, and Monet showed up to watch his son’s competition. It was a place of many novelties: the famous photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue took some famous shots there, and the hill hosted Grand Prix cars and land speed record machines until the late 1930s – the challenge it once was. Nevertheless, in 1928 Madame Janine Jennky, admittedly the only driver of the Bugatti Type 35, set the fastest time, though far from the hill record, although a woman who won the competition was still big news. Hillclimb died in 1932 – but the road is still there.
At the top of the hill is a new roundabout with a turn into Renault’s huge secret testing facility, hidden in the woods that was once the hunting ground of the Chateau de Gaillon. Look at Google Earth. It’s impressive…
While I’ve been toiling and complaining, the F1 teams are no doubt busy trying to catch up with Red Bull, but there has been a lot of desperation in the media coverage of the sport. Stefano Domenicali was going to Hanoi when he didn’t. We talked a lot about Malaysia and South Africa, which seem like completely dead stories. Adrian Newey leaving Red Bull is just as likely as a penguin winning a crossword contest, and Harry Potter had fantasies about Lewis Hamilton going to Ferrari, which could only be true if Lewis really lost his marbles.
McLaren has delivered one real piece of news by announcing that it intends to launch a new young driver programme. This is good news, although most of the newest talents are under contracts with rivals. These days you have to start young if you want to catch the good guys. Emanuele Pirro is a smart choice to lead the program as he was not only a versatile driver who raced in F1 where he was in the right place at the wrong time. He went on to play a highly underrated role as a McLaren test driver in the heyday between 1988 and 1991, while also enjoying an extremely successful career in other championships, most notably in sports cars, as a five-time Le Mans winner. His list of victories is impressive. In recent years, feeling the need to return to a sport that has looked after him well, he has worked as an FIA steward in F1 and other series. He will know how to recognize good young people and is well prepared to help them.
What else? There have been strange attempts to get the FIA to change history and award the championship titles to Felipe Massa, Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Reutemann because there is nothing else to write home about. There has been idle speculation, coming from Red Bull (amusingly), that several teams may be over budget. There were regular Formula E and IndyCar drivers who shot in F1 because they never made it.
The silliest story of all appears to have come from a German publication that produced an AI-created interview with Michael Schumacher. This can only be described as a bizarre (and very bad) idea. I haven’t read the article and don’t intend to. There is still much to write about Michael and his career, but artificial interviews will not help. One day the moment will come when this complex entity can be adequately explained. But not now.
The only good thing about it all was that it wasn’t the usual boring stuff. One of the issues F1 needs to watch out for in the coming years is “message management”. I don’t know what they teach in public relations class, but I think Formula 1 offers a very good illustration of right and wrong. PR people have become more and more desensitized to the sport. Drivers say what they’re told. Everyone has notes before going to press conferences. They all say the same crap: “Today didn’t turn out the way we expected. We will continue to work hard to become better” and “the team at the factory is working very hard”. It’s all very valuable, but not interesting at all.
To be fair to the PR people, they just do what they’re told and try to protect the team they work for. The obvious conclusion is that the real problem comes from team owners and bosses who only want warm fuzzy air in their incubated lives and avoid the cold blasts of reality.
Actually, it’s not just F1 that suffers from this kind of thing. In recent days, we have seen some spectacular examples of shoddy and dishonest PR. SpaceX’s explosion was described as a “quick, unplanned disassembly”, while Florida’s emergency alert system sending out a high-pitched 04:45 alarm was a situation that was “not ideal”.
What’s missing from all this is that real people like real people. Grannies, vicars and PR people can tut-tot on his tongue, but Guenther Steiner is currently the most popular figure in Formula 1, thanks to Drive to Survive.
How is this possible? Because he’s real. Real people swear. Real people call a vanker a vanker.
Which brings me back to the lady at the post office…