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A Bahrain Night to Remember- F1 Report From Nicholas Frankl

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A Bahrain Night to Remember
By Nicholas Frankl
Senior Editor and Motorsports Correspondent
The Auto Channel

The headlines read “What a race” and they were right. Bahrain gave us something of everything that F1 can be: sparks, strategy, driver and crew errors, accidents, retirements, spectacular overtaking maneuvers (Hamilton taking three cars into turn one) and drama right down to the checkered flag, all packed into a balmy middle east evening. The Kingdom of Bahrain was the first middle east country to host an F1 Grand Prix back in 2004 and it has built a solid reputation for a well-run, well-organized weekend which attracts some of the biggest motorsports and political power brokers to enjoy sumptuous and genuinely warm hospitality. From Bernie E to Gerhard Berger, Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason (yes, the one who owns the spectacular Ferrari 250 GTO), HRH Prince Andrew, Sir Jackie Stewart and Google’s Eric Schmidt, it was the place to be last weekend.

Being my first time to the country, and coming straight from the Ferrari owners track day at the famous Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi, it was easy to compare. Obviously the desert track lacks the super yachts and surrounding hotel facilities but makes up for it with a fabulous VIP tower that gives the fortunate invited guests a genuine bird’s-eye view of over half the race track and ability to almost reach out and touch the Gulf Air Airbus as it buzzes the tower with, so I was informed, their chief test pilot at the controls.

On the Thursday Formula One’s new owners (when do they stop being the ‘new owners’?) released their guidance for the 2021 rules changes. Those of us looking for specifics were disappointed as key points at the top of the press release included “Simpler, louder and road-relevant power units” plus “Revenue distribution according to meritocracy” (I’m sure Bernie and Ferrari were laughing at that one!) plus “We believe how you spend the money must be more decisive and important than how much money you spend”. None of this was earth shattering or new, nor the belief that “areas not relevant to fans need to be standardized” as these general themes have been discussed for twenty years whilst numerous teams went bust, manufacturers and engine suppliers left the sport, and teams’ budgets ballooned.

Should it really take McLaren, Ferrari, Red Bull & Mercedes $300m-$500m and 400 plus staff to develop and build two cars to race 21 times per year? The engine & testing “caps” have simply shifted the R&D budgets to closed door engineering test beds and racing simulators that make even NASA jealous. These were widely described in the press room as “Wishy washy” and “American” given that the last owner of F1 didn’t and still doesn’t believe in ruling with a democratic balance in a sport so filled with ego, rivalry and Machiavellian scheming that without the sports original ‘dictator’ it would have imploded years ago. Naturally it served Ecclestone’s purposes as much as the teams, drivers and promotors whom he made rich but if you don’t believe me read “NO ANGEL”, his unauthorized biography.

I chatted with Mr. E in Geneva on the Lamborghini stand where he came to say hi to his old friend (and mine) Stefano Domenicali who was, as you might recall, at Ferrari F1 for 20 + years and is now Lambo CEO (and doing a damn good job, too). He was also joined on the new stand featuring the Huracan Performante spider by FIA president Jean Todt. Bernie was in good form and said he thought that the season would again “be boring” and that the owners couldn’t “force the promotors” to ditch the grid girls and run it “like a democracy”. He’s quite right, and forcing whatever the latest American media sensitivities are upon the world’s most global racing series is a pathetic knee jerk and insulting to other cultures and customs: just ask the now out of work COTA girls in Austin and their female owned business agency how they feel about it. I didn’t incidentally see the NFL or NBA ban cheerleaders or swap them for ‘cheerkids’… The good news is that Monaco’s automobile legendary boss of forty-four years, Michel Boeri, has already informed Liberty that the grid girls will be back where they belong this May for the 76th running of the race – Liberty execs, my sources tell me, “weren’t surprised or against” the decision and anything that’s good enough for Monaco is good enough for the Russians in Sochi.

Whilst on the now apparently politically incorrect subject of beautiful women I would urge you all to watch the newly released HBO documentary on Giovanni Agnelli, the former industrialist playboy style icon and chairman of FIAT, who famously would arrive at his house in the South of France in his helicopter and dive out the passenger side straight it into the sea! When Henry Ford was courting Enzo Ferrari he purchased and saved the prancing stallion “for Italy”, he said, and later installed a racing engine in a 70’s FIAT four-door that he raced (Niki Lauda described him as the best driver who never raced in F1) through the streets of Turin, with police escort trying to avoid kidnap or assassination by the Red Brigade. By all accounts Gianni was a totally extraordinary character with charisma to spare and a thirst for adventure, life and beautiful women. There is speculation in the film that he even bedded the First Lady Jackie O on her Italian summer holiday whilst JFK was in office.

Back to Bahrain and Ferrari have played a delightful hand in persuading everyone, including the Silver Arrows, that they were “off the pace” in winter testing and not to expect too much at the beginning of the season. Luck plays a big hand in sport but Vettel clearly has a car he and Kimi like and it appears to be fast and reliable. Lewis’ “party mode” button (essentially turning up the boost and switching all the hundreds of different engine and gearbox setting to maximum attack) has done little to stop the red duo. McLaren were performing better than last year but still woefully and rather embarrassingly badly at their ‘home race’ (Bahrain owns a large stake in the company and bought out Ron Dennis’ shares). The team were ‘baffled’ by their poor qualifying performance and not much changed in the race. Most embarrassing of all is that having blamed Honda for all their problems for the past three years and unceremoniously ditched them for a works unit from rival Renault, French hot shot Pierre Gasly - in the now Honda-powered Toro Rosso - out qualified them and finished an extraordinary 4th place, albeit some 55 seconds behind the leading pack, meaning that once again this season unless you’re driving for one of the top three teams you’re in another race. It was pointed out that in the last 61 podium places available only one went to a driver not with the top three and that was Stroll for Williams (who are now off to a dismal season) in Baku last year.

Liberty are making great strides to bring F1 into the present and make it more relevant to new and existing fans striking promotional deals with Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter recently and getting content out much faster and making it more widely available. This is vital if the sport is going to grow and survive, as viewing & lifestyle habits change so fast: Simply, Gen Y / millennials aren’t interested in watching when you say they should watch and for how long – they want it ‘wherever and whenever’ they want. The challenge will be to bridge the commercial necessities of the rights holders with the rather old school thinking of the FIA who already control a sexy young series, namely Formula E which is taking sponsors straight out of F1 teams and series under the nose of Liberty. I guess its fortunate that they also own a stake in that series, too.