Having missed the Austrian Grand Prix due to a family bereavement, I'm raring to go to what is highly likely to be the last French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard, certainly for the foreseeable future. True, the country gave us the term 'Grand Prix' and hosted the first-ever international motor race, but such sentiments count for nought in a sport ruled by US money interests.
The fact is the circuit is in the wrong location and owned by the wrong entity – it forms part of the Bernie Ecclestone family trust, currently under the spotlight of UK tax authorities – and the race consistently failed to capture the fans' imagination despite some incredible efforts by the innovative Eric Boullier and his enthusiastic team. Plus, the deal was one of the last inked by Ecclestone before being ousted by Liberty…
Once at the circuit I busy myself with catching up on what I missed since Silverstone, my last race, then wander down to catch sight of Sebastian Vettel circulating in 'Green Pea', a 1922 Aston Martin that contested the 1922 French Grand Prix. I am, though, amused by claims by the company that "no current Formula 1 manufacturer enjoys such an early history of top-flight competition."
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Alpine unveil new sports car
Fact is Renault – owner of Alpine F1 and Renault's F1 engine operation – won the 1906 French Grand Prix, while Mercedes, which contested that event and won it two years later, is a major shareholder in the eponymous team and supplies engines to three others – including Aston Martin F1. The sole connections between Aston Martin and 'its' F1 team are green paint, a logo and Lawrence Stroll, who owns shares in both.
Talking Alpine: Before heading for the Mercedes BBQ, effectively the first media get-together since Covid struck, I attend the unveiling of the Alpine A110 E-Ternite in the pit lane. I chat with project leader Phillipe Varet about this electrified version of the svelte sports car, and he tells me that, due to the torquier e-motor, the car's performance is similar to that of the original, despite the higher weight of the car due to its batteries.
After the BBQ – Mercedes sure lay on fine spreads – colleague Sandor and I head for our apartments at the Toulon University about 40kms away, such is the dearth of accommodation in the area.
Arrive at Circuit Paul Ricard with time in hand before my 10:30 interview with Ferrari Racing Director Laurent Mekies, who shares a wealth of stories we'll be bringing you during the summer break. Thereafter I start sniffing around the crypto situation in France: I'm told some teams have covered up Crypto sponsor logos in deference to local advertising laws, which have always been out of kilter with the rest of Europe.
I recall the hoops Williams jumped through in 2018 to remove Martini logos on cars, team gear and trucks, although the product can be legally drunk at a circuit named after Paul Ricard, founder of the aniseed liquor brand! It seems cryptos are treated similarly in France: some products may be sold but not advertised, while, perversely, Ferrari may display Velas logos on the car. Why so?
It seems France's (somewhat hazy) laws permit crypto trading platforms to advertise, but not crypto products – akin to commercial banks advertising their existence but not the individual products or credit cards they provide. Weird, but in keeping with the travails of tobacco sponsorship in France: Government-controlled SEITA sold cigarettes under its Gitanes and Gauloise brands – yet its owner banned tobacco sponsorship!
During lunch I learn about the passing of Paddy Hopkirk, the legendary Irish rally driver who made Mini a household name during the Swinging Sixties through his giant-killing exploits. I'd been honoured to meet Paddy a few times while he was President of the BRDC and recall a charming man whose smiling banter hid a steely will to win. RIP Paddy.
Could the Belgian GP retain its place for 2023?
As my Friday draws to an end, I learn that South African billionaire industrialist and President of the Confederation of African Football Patrice Motsepe, said to be one of the backers of the proposed South African Grand Prix, is expected to hold talks with F1 this weekend in a final attempt to salvage the race for 2023 – but the omens do not look good.
A return to Spa-Francorchamps in 2023 looks to be on the cards, but not France…
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