Notebook from Port Dickson
October 3, 2017 by Joe Saward
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)…
When it comes to motorsport, Malaysia seems at best unremarkable, although history was made at Sepang the other day, when one of the Formula 4 races resulted in not a single car getting to the finish line in an eight-lap race. This may have happened before in the history of the sport, but no-one could remember such a story. Two of the F4 races had to be run back-to-back because of delays caused by Grosjean’s Grille and someone forgot to put fuel into the cars between the two races. And so all but one of the cars ground to a halt during the sixth or seventh lap of the eight-lap event, leaving Anglo-Thai Kane Shepherd as the only driver still going, although his car duly ran out of fuel at the second corner on the last lap, leaving the man with the chequered flag to roll it up and wander off for a cup of tea.
Malaysians seem a docile lot and one might put this down to the fact that getting excited in such hot and humid places is probably not good for your health. The government officials who were complaining about F1 being too expensive did, quietly, explain that the reason that the Grand Prix has not been a success is because the locals did not buy tickets. Perhaps this was because the tickets were too expensive. This year they reduced prices by 82 percent and the circuit was nearly full, although clearly the financial situation was much the same. The Grand Prix was always a government project and one wonders why they did not simply write off the losses as an expense for promoting the country. There does seem to be something of a laissez-faire attitude towards public money in these parts given some reports about Prime Minister Najib Razak.
When he was first elected in 2009, Najib set up a sovereign wealth fund called 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which was supposed to invest billions of dollars of Malaysian money in international things. This became rather blurry in that “Oops, where did I leave that $11 billion?” sort of way. Eventually the Wall Street Journal picked up the story and claimed (after endless fact-checkers, no doubt) that $700 million had appeared in Najib’s personal bank accounts. The Prime Minister denied any wrongdoing. The US Department of Justice did not believe this and has been trying to seize assets worth $1 billion which it believes were acquired using the missing funds. DoJ legal documents include many references to “Malaysian Official 1”, who was alleged to have received around $681 million. The Prime Minister denied being Malaysian Official 1.
All of this so upset Dr Mahathir that he became a vocal critic of Najib and his government. He quit the party and will stand against the the PM in the next elections in 2018.
Mahathir is 92…
When Najib turned up at Sepang on Sunday and made some unwise remarks about the F1 race being too expensive, some of us had to bite our tongues to stop ourselves asking whether, in his position, he might not have been able to come up with some public money to keep the race going…
Another scribble in the notebook said: “Hatz arrested”, which was a reference to the news from Germany that Wolfgang Hatz had been carted off to prison for his role in VW diesel scandal. This was quite a shock for the car industry. Hatz is a racing man, who I encountered back in the 1980s when I was writing about BMW M3 touring cars. Later he was responsible for the development of the utterly disastrous Porsche V12 engine, used albeit briefly by the Arrows team (known at the time as Footwork) in 1991. Before this appeared everyone wanted to get their hands on the engine because of the earlier success of the Porsche-designed TAG Turbo engines used by McLaren, but the V12 turned out to be a major league lemon and the team rapidly retreated to the safety of Cosworth. Porsche has such a good reputation that such things seem (and seemed) unthinkable, but no doubt there will be people at Porsche who remember that belly-flop when discussions take place (as they are at the moment) about Porsche getting into F1 in 2021. It’s not a dead cert, although in lots of ways it makes sense. Porsche ambassador Mark Webber keeps telling me it will never happen, and one must assume that he is right, despite the fact that a man from Porsche is visiting teams and talking the talk.
On the third page of the notebook after the scribble that reads: “Budkowski – Renault” and further on another that says “Swiss law”. These relate to a nice fellow called Marcin Budkowski, the head of the FIA Formula 1 Technical Department, who resigned a few days ago, apparently bored by the prospect of waiting any longer to take over as Race Director from Charlie Whiting. Some of the F1 teams were upset because it has emerged that Budkowski is only serving three months of gardening leave, and has seen many of their secrets. Sadly, three months leave is all that is possible under Swiss law, so if the FIA wants to be trusted by the teams, they need more people on French contracts. Budkowski is not commenting about his future employment, but he will join Renault shortly and will take up a role which will be, or equivalent to, Chief Operating Officer of the F1 operation. Although he is an aerodynamicist, he has management ambitions and Renault needs someone to get its much-revamped factory operating as it needs to do to make the team competitive in the future. There is also a note that says RCI Bank, with which Renault announced a late-season partnership. This is Renault’s own bank and the announcement suggests to me that the team needs more money to continue its revival and so has borrowed some from within the Renault empire.
Further on in the notebook there is a page of notes under the title of “Matt Roberts”. He is the new head of research at Formula One and had a little press gathering to show some of the work he has been doing since he arrived. This revealed that just under two thirds of sports fans say they are interested in F1 and Roberts thinks Formula One should now try to convert vaguely interested fans into avid followers. There are several hundred million of these, according to his numbers and he believes the way to hook them is to get them to go to a race…
The survey work also suggested that the best known F1 driver is Fernando Alonso, who was recognised by 73 percent of the people surveyed, ahead of Lewis Hamilton 72 percent and Sebastian Vettel 68 percent. When it came to the drivers people like the best, it seems that Vettel scored highest (was it before or after Baku, one might ask). Raikkonen was second, ahead of Alonso and Hamilton.
There was the expected announcement that the Chinese Grand Prix has extended its contract and that, subject to the FIA’s agreement (which will come), the Chinese and Bahrain Grands Prix will switch dates in 2018, so that Bahrain will become the second race of the year, on April 8, followed a week later by the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai. The one discordant note was that the new contract is only for three years but this seems to indicate that Formula One is confident that it can make a great deal more money from F1 and so it makes no sense to be locked into long-term deals as the previous management were (trying to lock value into the balance sheets).
We do need to watch out for developments in Spain as it could impact on the Spanish GP, as the current race is held in Catalonia, which wants to break away from the rest of the country. Over two million Catalans, 90 percent of those who voted in the referendum at the weekend, want to leave Spain, and a further 770,000 people were prevented from voting by Spanish police. Around 800 people were injured in clashes and Catalonia’s regional leader, Carles Puigdemont, is now demanding the removal of all Spanish police from his region. Spain says that it has the power to suspend Catalonian autonomy if it declares independence. Things could get very ugly if that happens.
Talking of invasions, further on in the notebook there is a hand-drawn map of numbered boxes. This came from a conversation I was having with Christian Horner about the number of buildings that the Red Bull team now owns in Milton Keynes. If they are not careful, the entire neighbourhood will soon have to be renamed Red Bullville, as all the buildings will be painted in Red Bull’s deep blue.
Further on in the notes, there is a scrawl which says “RB engine supply 2019-2020”. I do not go with the rumours which suggest that Renault will stop supplying Red Bull with engines after 2018 because I believe Renault is contractually-bound to continue, although (strangely) not in a contract with Red Bull. I hear that in the bilateral deal between Renault and Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone insisted on the French firm agreeing to supply his mate Dietrich Mateschitz until the end of 2020. Red Bull might switch to Honda if the Japanese engines are better, but it will be up to Scuderia Toro Rosso to do the donkey work… Thus Red Bull Racing can concentrate on chassis development and let Renault worry about the engines. Whether these engines can be branded as Aston Martin V6s is an interesting question, which I have yet to ask. If they can be called after a watch company like TAG-Heuer, presumably anything is possible.
Toro Rosso gets to do all the dull jobs for Red Bull, training up young drivers and so on. There is a scrawl in the notebook which says that Franz Tost is interested in signing Pascal Wehrlein to replace Daniil Kvyat, but another scribble contradicts this with the words: “Helmut Marko”, which means that Dr Marko would block the idea of signing up a Mercedes reject. That’s a bit silly because Wehrlein is the best driver on the market at the moment (and shouldn’t be) and it’s doubtful that Mercedes will be able to use him next year. If Williams did not have to please its sponsor Martini, he would be the perfect fit at Grove, but it looks like Felipe Massa will stay on. Others in the frame are Paul di Resta and Robert Kubica. The team is planning to test the Polish driver before making a decision, probably not before the end of the year.
The biggest problem at Williams, however, remains the team’s performance and it was interesting to see a figure who never attends races popping up in Malaysia. The team’s head of composite design Brian O’Rourke is one of Williams’s longest serving members, having joined the team from Northrop in 1982. He hadn’t been to a race for 32 years and said he was on holiday, when we had a little chat. Several people did ask me if I knew who the old Williams bloke was, who was so interested in their front wings… Holidays can be funny things.
Sitting in the hotel in Port Dickson, down on the coast, overlooking the Straits of Malacca, the world seems a long way away. As already discussed, nothing happens quickly in Malaysia, except changes in the weather, but is nice to get a day or two off before heading up to Japan…