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Dieter's Diary: Birthdays, cost caps and why diligence on Brad Pitt was lacking at US Grand Prix

In this edition, filed from a BnB in San Marcos, Editorial Director Dieter Rencken points to the challenges of reporting on F1 in the face of its burgeoning popularity, plus provides pointers to the latest in on-car liveries. He also pays tribute to Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz, who arguably did more to promote F1 than any other motorsport player, and wonders whether Brad Pitt’s presence in Austin is appropriate.

Wednesday Arrive 9pm in San Antonio, situated around 100km south of Circuit of The Americas and my preferred arrival point for the USGP due to SAT being less crowded than Austin airport situated close to the circuit. It’s fortunate my flight is on time(ish) because car rental companies have taken to cancelling reservations where clients are delayed - citing overbooking clauses – because they get better rates for last minute deals. Whilst collecting my car, a group who had flown in for the race argued they had paid upfront, but the clerk is unmoved, stating their car had been reallocated as they were late and no alternatives were available. I hear more horror stories - a photographer is told his booked car is in Houston - 300km away and he’d need to travel there at own expense; others are forced to double up in rooms after their hotels ‘over-capacitied’. Unless checked such practices will kill the golden goose - hoteliers, airlines, car rentals, taxis are ripping rings out of what should be fun experiences for fans. Such practices are increasingly the norm, and in no small way due to massive increases in F1 popularity. Equally, facilities at a number of venues are woefully inadequate - not CoTA, I add - and simply cannot cater for the record crowds F1 keeps banging on about. It is clear F1 needs to tighten its minimum standards and only cut deals with promoters in regions that do the sport proud rather than simply chasing top dollar. I know of various promoters who sold tickets beyond their optimum capacities yet were still forced to massively increase prices after their hosting fees were hiked. McDonalds insists that all franchise restaurants comply; why can’t F1?

Bright future for Haas?

Thursday Head for circuit from my base in San Marcos - midway between SAT and Austin - in time for the Haas / Moneygram announcement - after various embarrassments it’s time the team picks up a decent, reputable sponsor and I have no doubts this is a ‘clean’ deal. Sources tell me it’s for three years and worth around $20m/annum - about right for mid-field title - and the figure the team needs to move up to budget cap levels. Intriguingly, I hear Alfa Romeo is keen to remain in F1 after its title deal with Sauber expires at the end of 2023 when Audi takes over the Swiss team, so could transfer to Haas. Alfa Romeo and Moneygram share the same red/white/black colours; if it happens for 2024, remember where you read it first. After the standard press conferences, I chat with Pierre Gasly, and it’s clear he’s still cut up about the Suzuka tractor matter, particularly as Jules Bianchi - who died in similar circumstances at the same circuit in 2014 – had climbed through the same FFSA junior driver ranks and had mentored Pierre. “It was the first time I realised it can happen in this sport…” he tells me wistfully. Next, I wander to McLaren’s garage to learn more about LED panels the team is trialling. Effectively small screens - still mono at this stage - they are stuck on a car (or helmet mouthpiece) and display rotating driver or sponsor messages on a pre-programmed basis. The next step is FIA crash and fire approvals, but the team is confident these will soon be forthcoming. The screens are the small grey areas on the car and helmet below Dinner is delicious burgers and (very) spicy fries at Haas, served in celebration of both the team’s home grand prix and Moneygram deal - with the choice being Steiner (cheese/bacon), Mick (spicy with guacamole) or KMag (vegetarian) Burgers. I have one of each of the meaties…

No progress for Andretti

While researching the latest on the budget cap – matters are getting increasingly ugly, with so-called F1 fans victimising Red Bull team members - I bump into two former F1 drivers earning (good) livings in Indycar: Romain Grosjean and Marcus Ericsson. The former I caught up with in Miami, but the Swede I hadn’t seen for a while, so congratulate him on his Indianapolis 500 win as he proudly flashes his victory ring. Also in the paddock is Michael Andretti and we chat about his plans to enter F1, but clearly little progress has been made since Miami, what with F1 making clear its intentions of sticking to 20-car grids. More teams either dilutes the prize find or forces commercial rights holder Liberty into dip into profits to top up the ‘pot’. Faced with a choice of more bucks or less sport, the NASDAQ listed entity clearly favours the former… Dinner is hosted by ExxonMobil, who have booked out Austin Speed Shop, a local hot-rod emporium / fabrication shop. Both the BBQ brisket and the various chopped cars are to drool over, my favourite being a 1937 Lincoln Zephyr V12 coupe .

Mateschitz passing

Saturday The day opens to the FIA team boss presser, where McLaren’s Zak Brown and Red Bull boss Christian Horner sharing the stage with Jost Capito (Williams). The latter announces that US youngster Logan Sargeant has been signed as 2023 race driver - provided he obtains a superlicence, but there is no Plan B, says Jost… For the rest, it is all about the budget cap, with Horner robustly defending his team’s alleged spend breach. The plan is for the FIA to put the matter to bed by Saturday evening, but, while discussions between the team and the governing body are in progress, news breaks that Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz has succumbed to a long illness. Talks are understandably suspended. Having fleetingly met Mateschitz twice at race - once each at Hungarian and Austrian rounds - then once in Red. Bull’s Hangar 7 ‘toyshop’ filled with cars and planes while doing some TV work for his Servus station, I cannot profess to having known the man, but obviously have enormous respect for not only what he achieved but the manner in which he did so. RIP Diedrich. Qualifying I watch from CoTA boss Bobby Epstein’s Turn 2 hospitality ‘suite’: an enormous temporary facility in which he hosts the great and good of Austin and Texas to the best in food, drinks and track viewing. So spectacular are the views of the track from the top floor that I beg - and am granted - an invite to visit for the opening laps of the race. CoTA’s top celeb for the weekend is Brad Pitt, planning to team up with F1 and Lewis Hamilton to produce the ‘best ever racing movie’ but in the run-up to the grand prix various allegations of domestic abuse surfaced, so one wonders how much due diligence had been done before the invite was extended. Or whether it will detract from the movie…

Birthday surprise

Sunday I meet with Alfa Romeo’s Fred Vasseur for coffee, and it is clear he is frustrated by the lack of points since the Canadian Grand Prix: just one scored due to a combination of driver errors – the team’s and others – and unreliability. These factors have pushed the team, which started the season punching above its weight, well down the order. But, he grins wryly that a least they’ve been relatively untroubled by the budget cap. Thereafter I’m given a very pleasant surprise: My mates and colleagues arranged a birthday gathering - if you must know, my 69th - complete with cake, a special lunch and signed memorabilia. Thanks all, in particular Sandor Meszaros, Puma and Pirelli - the gesture is very much appreciated.

A modest Mateschitz

Race time is grid time, and this year it’s more packed than ever, what with the Pitt army and US celebs. Given Mateschitz’s contribution to two and four-wheeled motorsport - he pumped tens of billions into his passion over the past 20 years, the lion’s share into F1 - it is absolutely fitting that tribute is paid to the man pre-race on Sunday. However, that proves easier said than done given F1’s race-day programmes, its TV schedules and the need to liaise with the great man’s family and office in Füschl am See, Austria - during a race weekend, with a seven-hour time difference to Europe. That it goes smoothly is a tribute to all concerned. After the race I ask Christian Horner, wearing jeans in common with all team members given that blue denims were the big boss’s favourite, whether they intend introducing DM model names (or power unit designations) in memory of the company founder, but Christian tells me it had been discussed previously but that Mateschitz did not want that. A very modest man to the end. Note: Due to a combination of travel disruptions and other pressing news this edition of Dieter’s Diary was delayed. Normal timing will be resumed next week.

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