Thursday, my first day back on the F1 trail after the summer break, is seasonally warm and sunny although weather forecasts predict rain during the Belgian Grand Prix, some say the last at Spa-Francorchamps as the hallowed circuit faces the axe due to F1's global expansion which means traditional European venues will inevitably be culled.
My first stop is at the Source Hotel, situated below the hairpin of the same name, where I've been invited to a media session and lunch with Alfa Romeo (Sauber) drivers Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu. Apart from F1 talk, the former chats about his recent 100km cycle race in Wyoming, USA, while the latter discusses China's Covid quarantine regime of three weeks (now lifted) which means he has not been home since 2019.
Once at the circuit I head for the driver press conference, and while awaiting the start I engage in banter with Daniel Ricciardo about his premature departure from McLaren. While the decision was a blow to his hopes (and ego), the Australian seems in good spirits (maybe a reputed $18m pay-off softens the blow) and I sincerely hope we see the likeable Australian back for 2023.
After the formal pressers I have an exclusive scheduled with his team-mate Lando Norris. I'm struck by how much more relaxed he seems during interviews – I first met him in 2018 ahead of his (winning) F3 season and recall a nervous, knuckle-cracking youngster whereas today I a self-confident, lucid driver is sat opposite me, one not afraid of expressing strong opinions. His interview comments are worth waiting for.
My next task is following up on race hosting contract renewals: Monaco, Mexico (and Belgium?) are still not confirmed. I believe an announcement about first-named is expected shortly despite all the rhetoric in May, with talks about the latter due to be finalised shortly. Re Spa: the cat-and-mouse game continues despite the writing being on the wall for South Africa’s return in 2023, so why all the agony?
On my return home – the 35km journey takes around an hour all in – I reflect on the fact that SA F1 fans deserve better, having been tantalised over a SAGP for over a decade now. Those who confidently predicted a race at Kyalami in 2023 should start getting out the custard sauce to dilute their helpings of humble pie…
Surrounded by doom and gloom over the future of the Belgian Grand Prix on Friday morning I depart for (a damp) Spa-Francorchamps 35km away. En route an impeccable source calls to confirm that talks between Formula 1, the (nascent) South African Grand Prix promoter company and Kyalami have (not unexpectedly) broken down completely – thus opening a slot for Spa. Despite official denials I decide to run with it.
At the root of the issue lies – you've guessed it – money: Kyalami circuit, understandably, demanded financial and other guarantees before entering into agreements that require substantial investments on its part; the promoter, though, planned to cover these from advance ticket sales which was unacceptable to the circuit, which viewed such revenues as 'trust funds' until the race was staged. Thus talks stalled.
Once at the circuit it's time to grab a front row seat for the Audi F1 announcement: The Four Rings are entering F1 in 2026 with a team and as multiple power unit supplier, but the question is: With whom? On cue an email arrives stating that the Alfa Romeo/Sauber partnership will end next year, so that's a clue: Audi are set to buy the Swiss outfit, with my information being they will acquire 50 per cent in 2024 and 25 per cent each in 2025/6.
When I later see Sauber Team boss Fred Vasseur he is (smilingly) tight-lipped but it all makes sense as this will enable the Four Rings to progressively 'Audi-fy' the Hinwil operation. During the conference Audi CEO Markus Duesmann said the power unit will be 'Made in Germany', adding that Porsche will operate from England – a clear hint that the Red Bull-Porsche partnership is gathering pace. Confirmation in Monza?
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After a tasty lunch I meet with Julian Jakobi, a driver manager whose opinions I value. Talk turns to the Oscar Piastri saga, and Julian outlines the processes to be followed when registering agreements with F1's Contract Recognition Board: Both parties submit in writing to the authority of the CRB, whose final decision is binding. If contracts are unsigned (or unlodged) the driver concerned is a free agent…
Julian, who manages Sergio Perez amongst others, regales me with some hilarious tales, including one about James Hunt, whom he managed even after the 1976 World Champion retired: Hunt received a 'James + 1' invitation to a Wimbledon Final, and James, then between female friends, decided to take his enormous German Shepherd Oscar as partner.
However, James was compelled to leave the dog in the hands of Julian when he headed for Centre Court. "Everybody thought I was a security guard," quips Julian, "but the funniest is that the Wimbledon committee was more upset about the fact that James arrived barefoot than about Oscar being there…"
At 7pm it's time to head for home. The traffic flows (relatively) easily compared to the same Friday a year ago, and it sets me wondering: Why do circuits jack up their catering and traffic flows only once their races are under threat?
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RacingNews365.com F1 journalists Dieter Rencken and Michael Butterworth are joined by Cedric Selzer, former chief mechanic to Jim Clark in his championship-winning year of 1963.