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Nicholas Frankl F-1 Report, Fifth US GP & Changes Galore



Fifth US GP & Changes Galore

Nicholas Frankl
Senior Editor
The Auto Channel
Formula 1 Racing Desk

It’s been a busy and slightly confusing time in F1 recently. After months of speculation Bernie and CVC found a willing, able and qualified ‘safe pair of hands’ to buy the sport. Bernie wanted a “used car dealer like me” but found John Malone and his global empire of Discovery networks who sees it as an opportunity to own a trophy asset and, potentially, grow the sport in the world’s largest market, the United States.

Bernie is still ‘in charge’ behind the scenes and until material changes are implemented, as well he should be, as he is totally and uniquely qualified. If you don’t believe me just read Tom Bowers book “No Angel”!

The biggest issue - and let’s be honest there are many in F1 - is staying relevant to distracted PokemonGO obsessed fans worldwide. This takes new vision and management and the ability to implement huge changes so that F1 isn’t extinct in 20 years. Virtual reality is set to play a huge role: I think the sport, the teams and the whole way we experience F1 and motorsports in general will change in the next 20 years to an unrecognizable virtual / real time fan engagement / entertainment format. Just think Microsoft paid $2billion for “Minecraft” a virtual reality gaming world played by more people than watch F1 annually. Open-wheel racing has to change or face its own demise in any credible commercial way. Already the sport has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in sponsor revenues and its not getting better with Formula E (also owned by Malone) now picking up both brands and manufacturers.

Flying into Austin, with all round good guy and current IndyCar champion Alex Rossi seated just behind, I’m puzzled by the lack of F1 driver talent from the USA. We have the team, the tracks, the coaches and the history in motorsports to nurture young talent. I guess if you were to ask Alex and his father he’d simply say ‘lack of financial support’ which I’m afraid is true for many large vanilla ‘risk averse’ execs and corporations with no vision or concept of top line motorsports and the well-proven benefits of driver and team sponsorship.

The next new dynamo from North America is a 17 year-old Canadian, Lance Stroll from Montreal, who, if he’s as good as we hope (he won the FIA F3 championship this year) and his father (billionaire fashion mogul Lawrence Stroll) keeps paying Williams millions might just make it as only the second Jewish World Champion after Jody Schechter. Lawrence is the money behind my old pal Tommy Hilfiger and, more recently, Michael Kors and is a huge car guy and automotive collector. Chatting with one of the frontrunners in Austin he joked, “To be in F1 you used to have to have a millionaire father, but Jesus, now you have to be a billionaire.” With so much at stake Lawrence doesn’t want Lance to fail at the first hurdle in Melbourne, so has set up his own private Williams test team, complete with 2015 car, updated aero, tires and the like and is sending his private test team to all available F1 circuits for private testing so Lance can get real track time. I guess its fortunate we don’t race on the Moon yet – or it might get really expensive for Mr. Stroll… I remember that Jaques Villeneuve impressed us all by announcing back in 1996/97 that he was learning all the tracks on his F1 simulator – how quaint that now seems!

Finally we have a bit of movement in the driver scene, after last year’s rather flat silly season, all related to Kimi, who never left Ferrari anyway and will be there for another year at least. To be fair, he’s done far better than I thought he would. He’s now married, settled, fast and seemingly reinvigorated. I wish I could say the same for the rest of the Ferrari team. But this year it’s another factory team, one of only four in the paddock, that’s shaking it up. My old pal Nico Hulkenberg has jumped from a cushy safe Force India seat, where he has helped bring the team to within grasp of 4th in the constructor’s championship and millions of extra dollars from FOM (Bernie’s pot of gold) to Renault, who desperately need a strong, experienced driver to push the team up the grid. The deal was done in two weeks with teammate Sergio Perez failing to agree on the dollars and Nico picking up the coveted seat with his old team boss, Frederic Vasseur. It will be an uphill battle, but Renault were World Champions with Flavio and Alonso in 2005 and 2006, and big chief Carlos Ghosn is a man who likes to win and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Give them three years and I think with all the upcoming rule changes – always a good equalizer- we will see Renault in the top ten and fighting it out for podiums. Let’s remember how long it took Mercedes, even with Schumacher.

Austin not only survived the fifth test it thrived and firmly reasserted itself on the top shelf of great F1 weekends. The sun shone, the band played, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders danced, 80,000 fans came out to watch F1 qualifying, and in keeping with Austin’s world-famous musical roots, Taylor Swift and Usher helped swell the weekend crowd to over 150,000 race and music fans.

The race was fast and for Hulkenberg rather short, ending in Turn One. But for defending champ Lewis Hamilton and his ‘cool crowd’ led by fellow Olympians tennis ace Venus Williams, downhill ski legend and Tiger Wood’s ex-squeeze Lyndsey Vonn, and track and field legend Edwin Moses, it was a pole to checkered flag Sunday cruise, at least from the outside looking in. Lewis celebrated in style and I was pleased to join them all in the festivities. As Bernie says Lewis is a much more open and the public face of F1 than the more reclusive and introverted Rosberg and, to be honest, in a world of entertainment and short attention spans F1 needs more drivers and personalities like him.

Lewis’ old boss and his ‘second father’ Ron Dennis wouldn’t mind some of his young champion’s good fortune. After 40+ years with McLaren racing and group of companies his time as Chairman and CEO may be up as fellow shareholders and former business partners like Mansor Ojjeh have lost confidence with him and the company’s direction. Chatting in the team garage with him and ex-McLaren driver Stefan Johansson he told me that the computer models for 2017’s car showed ‘huge improvement’ that would ‘surprise everyone’, but then I guess that’s what he would say. I hope he stays: as one of the last original garageista that came up from the mechanic ranks, the sport owes him its gratitude.

The town came alive with NFL, Indycar and Hollywood stars mixing it up at the famous My Yacht Club. Over three nights a slew of famous faces could be found enjoying it’s “Monaco-style” nightlife experience including Hollywood actor Gerard Butler (“London Has Fallen”, “300”), who interviewed the top three atop of the podium on Sunday; Sahara Force India F1 driver Nico Hulkenberg; Sauber F1 driver Marcus Ericsson; 2016 Indianapolis 500 Champion and 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year Alexander Rossi; former Ferrari F1 driver Stefan Johansson; film maker Mark Stewart (“The Last Man on the Moon”) and son of 3-time World Champion Sir Jackie Stewart; producer and activist Kweku Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela; NFL star Quarterback and Davey O’Brien Award-winner Vince Young. As ever, Austin provided one of the most welcoming, and charming, pit stops on the annual calendar and no one left town unhappy, the rain soaked memories of 2015 well and truly washed away.