After Valtteri Bottas’ coming move to Alfa Romeo is announced, Dieter Rencken makes a well-timed trip to the Sauber-run team ahead of the Italian Grand Prix.
Having driven to the Munich area on Monday after the Dutch Grand Prix to visit Germany’s IAA motorshow I head for Monza via Hinwil near Zurich, where I honour a long-standing invitation to visit the Sauber team, which runs the Alfa Romeo-branded F1 operation. It’s a matter of third time lucky after previous arrangements were cancelled due to the pandemic. In order to make this possible under the current circumstances, strict social distancing measures were observed at all times and masks worn.
I’ve toured the Swiss team’s base thrice previously, with each visit coinciding with a significant period: 2001, when founder Peter Sauber unveiled plans for a state-of-art wind tunnel; 2007, during the team’s expansion under BMW; and 2014, at the height of its financial struggles – which culminated in the takeover by current owner Islero Investments AG – an off-shoot of Longbow Finance, Finn Rausing’s investment fund.
More from the visit will feature in upcoming coverage but it is evident that Islero has made – and, by all accounts, is still making – substantial investments in the team. The recent signing of Valtteri Bottas, plus the construction of a new driver-in-the-loop simulator are just two demonstrations of intent from Rausing and team boss Fred Vasseur.
Over lunch – red wine risotto with frothed smoked burrata cheese – Vasseur explains his rationale for signing Bottas, who he guided to the 2011 GP3 title, under a long-term contract as replacement for Kimi Raikkonen. Bottas’ deal is believed to run to the end of 2024 with options. Every successful team project, Vasseur notes, has been built around a driver, citing Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel at Red Bull and Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes.
I depart Chur, a scenic Alpine town with easy access to motorway to Italy via the San Bernadino Pass, and arrive in Monza shortly after 11am – well before the start of the weekend’s proceedings which are pushed out due to the timing of Saturday’s sprint qualifying session.
My first walk about the paddock reveals that the final strategic engine meeting – ahead of far-reaching decisions by both F1 and the VW Group about future powertrains – is planned for Sunday. The sport will really need to seriously consider its options if Audi and/or Porsche walk away, for just three engine suppliers (plus Red Bull’s in-house ex-Honda project) for ten teams makes for a precarious future.
My sources insist Vettel’s relationship with Aston Martin is, at best, uneasy, and during the press conference he does little to allay the speculation. If all is rosy why does Aston Martin not take up his option; if not, who will replace him? The obvious candidate is Nyck de Vries given the Formula E world champion is a Mercedes driver and the German company is a shareholder in Aston Martin, but does he have the gravitas?
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I ask both Lewis Hamilton and George Russell whether it is possible for two highly talented drivers to support each other rather engage in disruptive polemics. The latter believes that Mercedes have learned from past “poor dynamics”, obviously a reference to the falling-out between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Still, the acrimony didn’t stop the team and drivers sweeping the championship silverware during that time.
Hamilton, who had well-documented fall-outs with Fernando Alonso (at McLaren) and Rosberg, reckons it’s a matter of “ultimately how it’s managed”, seemingly not-so-subtle digs at his team bosses, but admits F1 is “a strange sport where it’s a team sport but also an individual sport. You have those two championships. Individually you want to finish ahead but at the same time you have to do the job to get the team ahead.”
Thereafter it is time to busy myself with paperwork: I have an early Friday appointment at the Russian visa service, and, as always, reams of supporting documents are required, particularly where media applications are concerned. I would usually apply in Brussels, but the triple-header makes timing tight and the Russians have kindly laid on an express service in Milan during the grand prix period.
I’m up and out by half past six to ensure I make my 9am visa appointment in central Milan despite the city’s notorious traffic jams. Upon my return it transpires that so high is F1 demand that there are considerable delays.
Visas retrieved, we return to the circuit. Friday’s qualifying session for the sprint qualifying race is, again, marred by excruciatingly daft slow out laps as drivers try to position themselves perfectly to benefit from the slipstream of a rival – or team mate.
Every year we face the same issue here – this idiocy was also evident in Formula 2 – and every year F1 promises to do something about it then collectively wrings its hands in despair. One wonders what it will take to bang some order into proceedings, particularly as Monza is not the only venue where such antics are resorted to.
After the session logic dictates that we await the usual post-qualifying press conference and interview opportunities – but none are scheduled despite our having just observed an official, timed qualifying session that will decide a grid. Instead we are forced to await vanilla soundbites provided to F1’s in-house PR service for the benefit of television cameras.
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As I depart the circuit it’s clear crowds are on the thin side. True, it is Friday, true, Ferrari is hardly on top form and even more off-boil than usual at Monza, and true, Covid restrictions limit attendance and make for challenging cross-border travel. But my trusted motorsport travel company source is adamant that optimistic ticket pricing is to blame.
He reckons the circuit attempted to recover its 2020 losses by hiking prices over 30% in a depressed market. The top grandstand price has, he says, increased from €450 to close on €600 while other price increases are equally steep. None of this bodes well for F1’s planned strategy of reducing the number of races to make the sport more exclusive, then hiking prices to maintain revenues.
Folk refer to Silverstone, Spa and Zandvoort’s crowds as proof of F1’s popularity, but would those venues pack fans in to the same degree without Hamilton or Max Verstappen? Ask the German race promoters about the post-Schumacher era, or the Brazilians about the impact of Ayrton Senna’s tragic death. Ultimately F1 isn’t about the gimmicks, it’s about the fans, and it takes them for granted at its peril.