October 3, 2017 by Joe Saward
On Friday in Sepang, Romain Grosjean’s Haas hit a drain grille while running in the first free practice session. The grille was not properly secured (as it should have been) and it tore through Grosjean’s right rear tyre, sending him off the track and into the barriers at high speed. The car was extensively damaged. Normally racing teams are responsible for repairing any damage to the cars caused in any accident. Teams cannot claim against one another, but in this case it was rather more complicated than that. The circuit might be deemed to be responsible for the accident and thus would have to pay for the damage, although circuits and sanctioning bodies purchase specialized insurances to protect their interests.
But who is to blame for a badly-fixed grille? Is it the circuit, or is it the sanctioning body that cleared the circuit to be used? For F1 circuits the tracks are inspected by FIA officials prior to each event, to make sure that all is well. If the inspectors miss a bad weld, is it their fault? The FIA regulations relating to circuits recommend that the national sporting authority should make regular inspections of all facilities, as proper maintenance is a condition of the circuit’s licence. There is even a specific mention of drains in the FIA rules, which says that “drains should be cleaned, and inspected by the ASN for correct operation prior to major competitions”. But does that relate to the grilles or just to the drainage? And should the Malaysian national sporting authority pay, or should it be the circuit?
Clearly Haas does not feel it should be pay for the damage, which was estimated at about $750,000 and the team has raised the question of compensation.
“In my opinion, things like this in 2017 shouldn’t happen on a permanent circuit, they shouldn’t happen on any circuit,” team boss Gunther Steiner said. “This is, in my opinion, not acceptable. This is not up to the standards.”
No doubt the lawyers will sort it all out in the end…
While his Force India F1 team is preparing for the Japanese Grand Prix, out in Suzuka, Vijay Mallya is in more trouble in the UK. He will soon face extradition proceedings at London’s Westminster Magistrates Court, which has been asked to send him home by the Indian authorities to face charges of fraudulently obtaining and misusing funds relating to the now-defunct Kingfisher Airlines. Today in London he was arrested again, this time on charges of money-laundering, with the F1 team being mentioned as the destination for some of the missing money. Mallya was later released on bail.
The initial charges were following an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in India, while the new charges come from a separate investigation by the Enforcement Directorate (ED). Mallya continues to deny all the allegations. His extradition hearing is due to begin on December 4, but there is no doubt that he will continue to try to avoid being sent back to India by appealing as many different grounds as he can possibly find, if the court rules that he must be returned to his homeland. He is stuck in the UK at the moment after India cancelled his passport.
At the same time, Subrata Roy, Mallya’s partner in Force India, is still up to his neck in trouble with the Supreme Court having run out of patience with his ducking and weaving. It has ordered that his Aamby Valley development be sold at auction next week. The authorities say that Roy illegally raised $3.1 billion in 2011 and ordered him to deposit the money with the regulator. He failed to do so and so was sent to jail in May 2014. Since then the authorities have sold off parts on his empire to raise the money owed. The Aamby Valley project is the largest part of his crumbling empire and its sale could raise $1.5 billion, but there are currently only two bidders and the price may not be that high. Roy is currently on parole.
The word in Formula 1 circles is that Force India is for sale, but the two Indians seem to have rather high expectations of its value and so no deal has yet happened. The fear is that if they do not sell quickly, the team could become tied up in the various legal messes – which could be disastrous.
It was clear many years ago that Max Verstappen was something special, even before he had sat in an actual racing car. His progress through karting was impressive and in 2014 Red Bull and Mercedes fought over the young Formula 3 driver. Red Bull won because it was able to offer him an F1 drive, while Mercedes could only agree to put him into its young driver programme. Verstappen, and his dad Jos, who had his F1 career blighted by wrong career decisions, decided that it was better to be racing, adding to Max’s reputation and value. That was the right decision and early in 2016 Red Bull switched him from Scuderia Toro Rosso to Red Bull Racing itself, as it considered him a better bet than Daniil Kvyat. Max won on his debut with the team in Spain. It was a fortunate victory because the two Mercedes collided, but it was a win nonetheless. The victory broke a string of different records, making him the youngest F1 winner ever (at 18 years and 228 days), the youngest man ever on a podium, the first Dutchman to win a Grand Prix and the first F1 driver born in the 1990s to become a winner. This year Max has been unlucky and frustrated but it all came together in Malaysia, where he was able to outrun Lewis Hamilton and win, but he wasn’t really satisfied because he knew that if the two Ferraris had not had troubles he would not have won his second victory. He was asked on Saturday about his best moment in racing and said that it was still when he became the World KZ Kart Champion in 2013 at Varennes in France.
“It still is,” he said on Sunday.
So the win in Malaysia did not feel better than that karting victory?
“No,” he said. “Because it doesn’t feel like that…”
Max is remarkable for his age and he is a key player for the future of Formula 1 because he is getting the attention of his own age group, something which the older stars Kimi Raikkonen (37), Fernando Alonso (36), Lewis Hamilton (31), Sebastian Vettel (30) and Daniel Ricciardo (28) have failed to do. There is some excitement in F1 circles about the new generation led by Max, but including Esteban Ocon (21), Pascal Wehrlein (soon to be 23), Lance Stroll (19) and Carlos Sainz (23). They will soon be joined by Charles Leclerc (who will be 20 this month) and, probably, Antonio Giovinazzi (23).
Verstappen has a contract with Red Bull in 2018, but there are performance clauses that Red Bull Racing might not be able to achieve, if that is the case then Max could come onto the market. He seems to be a shoe-in at Mercedes, where Valtteri Bottas is one a one-year contract, but he might also go to Ferrari, where Kimi Raikkonen is also on a one-year deal. Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton are currently the big cheeses of F1, but having Verstappen alongside one or the other could be destabilising. Hamilton seems to be more serene about his team-mates, while Vettel seems a little more insecure in this respect, preferring Raikkonen, who is no great threat these days.
The decision will not be just about money. The Verstappens know that there will be plenty of rewards in the years ahead and so they are looking for the best performance to esnure that Max can win and add to his value – because he likes winning. Red Bull Racing cannot do a great deal to keep Verstappen, based on current performance and the fact that Renault has it own factory team but in Ricciardo they have a solid and very good racer and there will be no shortage of talented youngsters on offer if Max moves on.
Formula 1 is planning to open a commercial office in New York, according to a report in Sports Business Global. The news has been confirmed by the F1 Group, which may also open offices in other regions as it chases after new deals. F1 has a range of trackside sponsors an a few official partners and suppliers, but there is plenty of scope to increase such arrangements in different market sectors. The current partners include Carbon champagne, DHL, Emirates, Heineken, Pirelli, Rolex, Snap Inc. and Tata Communications. Other sectors where deals are possible include soft drinks, fuel, gaming, telecommunications, financial services, insurance, rental cars, sports apparel and so on.
NASCAR has around 35 official partners, plus an additional dozen “performance partners” including such things as convenience stores, chocolate, trailers, hotel booking services, power tools, batteries, construction and even dentistry.
The Malaysian GP pages in my green notebook begin with: “No Sean, no Ross, no surprise”, which tells me that neither Sean Bratches nor Ross Brawn attended the race and that I was not surprised to see that happening. There is no future for F1 in Malaysia, no matter what the Prime Minister says. The chapter is closed. F1 has already moved on. A lot of people in Formula 1 are a little sad, Malaysians being generally likeable folk, but the truth is that while the government blowhards might blame Formula 1 for asking too much money, the F1 folk at least had the good grace to say nothing. They might have said that Malaysia is no longer the kind of place that F1 wants to be seen, but that would have been a bit rude.
It was not always that way. Back in the day, Malaysia was the regional trendsetter, trying to overcome innate disadvantages, notably it’s small population, thanks to the remarkable vision of Dr Mahathir Mohamad. In comparison to many leaders in the world, Dr M believed that the job of a politician was to do what was best for his country, rather than doing whatever he could to fill his own pockets. The race was his idea because he wanted the world to know that Malaysia was developing from its sleepy past and accelerating towards industrialisation. The country’s money was ploughed into infrastructure, technology and education. It was a smart move because Malaysia has only 36 million people, which is nothing compared to Vietnam’s 100 million, Indonesia’s 260 million or China’s 1.4 billion.
In the notebook there is a scrawl about Vietnam wanting a race in Hanoi. It’s not a new rumour, but it is still out there. The idea is to boost tourism in the city, which currently attracts four million international visitors each year, but is aiming to push that upwards dramatically in the next few years. Is Hanoi the kind of place that F1 wants to be in the future? Why not? There are plenty of Chinese who might like to stop by on a coach tour.
But, when you think about it, having a second race in China makes far more sense. A street race in Macau is so logical that it is almost obvious. And, no, it wouldn’t be on the old Formula 3 circuit, with its silly hairpin. It would need to be on a new circuit, laid out on the fast wide roads between the new casinos, built on vast tracts of land reclaimed from the sea in recent years. Macau is now a bigger gambling centre than even Las Vegas and, in a few weeks, it will be linked to Hong Kong by a series of bridges and tunnels crossing the Pearl River estuary – 18.6 miles above water, 4.3 miles beneath it in tunnels between man-made islands. Soon one will be able to drive it in half an hour.
Well, unless you are a Malaysian, because they drive slowly…
“Malaysians have always had an affinity for motorised activities,” says one of those flimsy promotional magazines that one finds in hotel rooms. “We can’t really pinpoint why, but it could be down to these few reasons. For starters, Malaysia has abundant well-connected roads and highways, some of which takes us past some truly stunning vistas.”
True, I’d agree with the stunning vista thing, but the signage is haphazard and the driving shocking. The second page of Malaysian GP notes consists entirely of instructions as to how to get from the hotel to the circuit. This was required because we kept getting lost on our journeys at strange hours of the night. One night we found ourselves lost in the vast oil palm plantations of the region, running out of fuel, with no idea where we were. No, it wasn’t because we forgot to refuel, but rather because our Proton had the consumption figures of a Ferrari, without even a tiny fraction of the performance.
“It could also be due to the love affair Malaysia has with motorsports,” the article continued. “Boasting a pretty impressive international race calendar, along with a world-class racing circuit, the country is a true motorsport hub”.
Hmmm… Well, ye-e-es, Sepang is a world-class facility. That much is true. There are some international races, and maybe Malaysians do like motorsport. They certainly seem to spend a lot of money on wide wheels and other such demon tweaks for their Protons, but the vast majority of them then seem happy to potter along at 30mph, never looking in their mirrors and never considering checking in the direction of oncoming traffic when pulling out of a side road. One can only guess that this is because they think the other people are going so slowly that it doesn’t matter.
Mixed in with these people are a fraction of lunatics who drive at warp speed, yet show few signs of knowing what they are doing, and hundreds of little pop-pop motorcyclists who wander about on the tarmac, blocking the passage of cars. One doesn’t really want to know the road accident statistics (I must remember to ask Jean Todt)…