Head for local parking lot to collect car – the authorities have kindly waived daily charges to encourage folk to catch buses to circuit – then depart Le Castellet for Paul Ricard, with, admittedly, a slightly heavy heart: I loved my stay in the medieval village, and would have loved to linger.
The upside to my morning start is that again traffic flows freely, a relief as I’m meeting colleagues for breakfast at Ferrari at 9am. In the event I’m parked up and in the media centre by 8:45am, and easily make the appointment. Clearly the expected spectators have not yet hit the region.
Breakfast is typically continental: fresh fruit, yogurt, juice and the freshest croissants I’ve tasted in many years, accompanied by strong tea. One of the delights of F1 is the superb selection of dishes we’re served: Regardless of team pecking order, the fare up and down the paddock is invariably first-rate. I for one am grateful that marketing and hospitality costs are excluded from the budget caps due to appear in 2021.
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Walk through paddock. Strangely there’s not much concrete information to report on, although a well-meaning colleague suggests that there’s a visiting South African delegation here to investigate a grand prix. The information proves wide off the mark – it seems there are SA visitors in the paddock, but they’re not connected with any project.
Still, a pleasant surprise: Rolex and Liberty have ordered a limited number of Sir Jackie Stewart-style tartan flat caps in celebration of the three-times champion’s 80th birthday earlier this week. Stewart dominated Paul Ricard’s first French Grand Prix on the way to his second world championship in 1971: winning from pole position and setting fastest lap.
He’s a man I admire enormously; a personality who’s arguably done more good for F1 than any other living individual. Thus, I feel honoured to have been given a cap. One for the office mantelpiece, not wearing.
For the rest, I obtain opinions about F1’s proposed new financial regulations due to be implemented in 2021 – and am rather surprised to hear that various team bosses hold a number of (different) reservations about them. A little over a week ago they unanimously waived their rights to challenge the regulations, yet a good number now apparently have second thoughts about some of the clauses.
I grab lunch at Mercedes: Grilled beef/chicken skewers and Mediterranean vegetables (what else?), followed by fruit salad and dulce de leche mousse.
Grid time, as always the highlight of my ‘fan’ experience during grands prix weekends. I spot Sheikh Mohammed – who represents Mumtalakat, Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund, the largest shareholder in McLaren – heading towards the grid with guests.
At the access point they’re unsure which way to turn, so I point right: “That way towards the sharp end” – a reference to the team’s best qualifying performance since 2014.
Sheikh Mohammed smiles, then says, “It’s a nice problem to have…”
I note the main stand is about 85% full. While returning to the media centre I check out stands at the back of the circuit: 65%. Although the general admission areas seem a bit thin, I reckon suggestions of 30,000 race day punters are pessimistic, with 50,000 being a more accurate reflection. The promoters speak of a 135,000 weekend attendance, but I put it at closer to 120,000 – still well down on last year’s reported 165,000.
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Race over (none too soon), time to hit the interview trail, with the Mix Zone, through which drivers pass after the race, being first stop. I chat to Sergio Perez, Lance Stroll, Max Verstappen, George Russell and Daniel Ricciardo before heading for McLaren with a first (debrief) with team boss Andreas Seidl.
I’d interviewed him in Canada a fortnight ago, but that was general chat. Tonight he’s in race mode, and, if anything, more impressive than in Montreal. In the German recruit (from Porsche) the team has a genuine racer on its hands, and one cannot help but feel a return by the orange team to the top echelon is just a matter of time.
The FIA has scheduled a media debrief with Michael Masi, who stepped into Charlie Whiting’s (sizeable) shoes after his death on the eve of the 2019 season. It’s Michael’s first such session, but he carries it off with aplomb, providing sensible answers and lucid explanations to some tough questions. Not only were there F1 matters to contend with, but also the banning of F2 driver Mahaveer Raghunathan after he exceeded the 12 penalties point limit in just nine starts.
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I need to be in Marseilles by 9pm to check into my airport hotel, and fearful of traffic – last year’s journey took four hours, but I’m optimistic. In slow but seldom stop-start traffic I reflect on the grand prix.
I find, frankly, little commendable about this event: insufficient accommodation in close proximity and woefully inadequate infrastructure make it user-unfriendly. The track design does not lend itself to close action and wide run-offs neuter the spectacle and lead to inevitable and tedious rows over track limits. If Liberty needs to cull European events in order to facilitate its planned global expansion, this event should top the hit lit.
Talk to you next week from what promises to be a sweltering Austrian Grand Prix.
2019 French Grand Prix
- Hamilton: French GP pace defied team’s predictions
- Ricciardo accepts one of his two last-lap penalties
- Raikkonen not surprised by Ricciardo’s penalty: “We all know the rules”
- Mercedes explain why the Virtual Safety Car cost Bottas four seconds
- Hamilton wants a “complete neutral”, not Wolff, running F1