February 24, 2024


All Sports To The Max

JONATHAN McEVOY: One Saudi race on the F1 calendar is quite enough for now, thanks

Are the Saudi Arabians about to buy Formula One, a subject given fresh impetus by their effective takeover of golf?

My inquiries tell me that the US-based media conglomerate Liberty Media who own grand prix racing are not ready to sell, and that they wouldn’t want to cast the sport off to that region even for many billions. Never say never, mind.

Another roadblock is that FIA president Mohammed bin Sulayem is from the United Arab Emirates and such a move would encounter opposition on that front. He was certainly very exercised when the idea was mooted a few months back.

In January, Bin Sulayem said: ‘As the custodians of motorsport, the FIA, as a non-profit organisation, is cautious about alleged inflated price tags of $20billion being put on F1.

‘Any potential buyer is advised to apply common sense, consider the greater good of the sport and come with a clear, sustainable plan — not just a lot of money.

The Saudi Arabians would love to host two F1 races - one in Jeddah and one in Qiddiya

The Saudi Arabians would love to host two F1 races – one in Jeddah and one in Qiddiya

A Saudi takeover could face opposition from FIA president Mohammed bin Sulayem (right)

A Saudi takeover could face opposition from FIA president Mohammed bin Sulayem (right) 

‘It is our duty to consider what the future impact will be for promoters in terms of increased hosting fees and other commercial costs, and any adverse impact it could have on fans.’

Those comments met with an immediate stamping of feet at the HQ of F1 Group, the people led by Stefano Domenicali, who run the sport for Liberty Media, saying it was for them to conduct commercial talks, not the head of the governing body, who are ‘merely’ the rule-makers.

Does all this back and forth leave a door ajar?

Well, the Saudi Arabians would love to host a second race, one in Jeddah and one in Qiddiya. At the moment such a notion is not under consideration in F1 circles, I am told.

My own long-held view is that sport can help advance changes in what we consider to be despotic regimes. It takes time, but sport can be a force for good.

Whatever Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel think, you cannot wave a magic wand and have western-style democracy imposed on states that are unsuited to such outlooks.

Democracy is not about holding elections alone. It is about institutions, and checks and balances. About open universities, freedom of speech, a challenging press. These wonderful things take years to develop.

If rushed through in some idealised world, you end up with sectarianism and instability. And perhaps we should respect the cultures, predominantly born of religion, that exist elsewhere, however hang ’em and flog ’em their ways appear to our more liberal eyes. But all that said, I wouldn’t want Formula One in Saudi Arabian hands. Or a second race that made the locality a hub of Formula One.

A single race there is both financially advantageous to Liberty, and serves to nudge hard-line Muslims in the direction of the sort of modernising that most of us in this part of the world would want.

Vocal Steiner needs to stick to his guns 

Guenther Steiner has made a reputation shooting his mouth off in what he wants us to believe are spontaneous outbursts. This coruscating, four-letter littered approach has made him an unlikely star of Drive to Survive.

So it was embarrassing for him to make backsliding excuses when called before the stewards for criticising them as ‘laymen’ as a response to their imposition of a five-second penalty on his Haas driver Nico Hulkenberg in Monaco for diving past Williams’ Logan Sargeant on the opening lap.

Outspoken Haas team principal Guenther Steiner has become a star of Drive to Survive

Outspoken Haas team principal Guenther Steiner has become a star of Drive to Survive

He called the decision ‘completely wrong’. I agree it was harsh. In a press release issued by the Haas team later, after Steiner was handed an official warning by the stewards in Spain, the big mouth backtracked by apologising, ‘if my statements were misunderstood or caused hurt to anyone as that was not my intention’.

Were his comments misunderstood? Was that not his intention? Perhaps this cant was part of a plea bargain with the stewards.

But, if you make declarations, you stick by them. Especially when you have carved your fame out of such remarks.

It is hard not to feel sympathy towards Sergio Perez, the poor, brilliant blighter who isn’t quite up to Max Verstappen’s level in the sister Red Bull.

Even more difficult not to think of him as the new Valtteri Bottas, a very decent performer indeed in his own right, who learns by a thousand cuts, in Bottas’s case against Lewis Hamilton, that he’s not quite as good as the best there is.

Why we need magical Monaco every year

Monaco every other year, as is being mooted, post its current deal running up to 2025? I have never heard such nonsense.

I am a sometime critic of the principality’s intransigence — such as not entertaining the idea of an overtaking opportunity being introduced. Let the circuit remain almost entirely unchanged otherwise, but one specific corner rejigged to this end? A natural addition. I am aware that for TV viewers

Monaco can seem a processional race, minus rain. It can be like that if you are there, too. But, on the spot, you regardless see the drama and jeopardy of the place.

It is magical to my eyes, and one of the pilgrimages I routinely make from the press room is to watch practice around the swimming pool. I have often been further afield, indeed all around the tight streets on several occasions of spirit-lifting joy. In the old days of the V8/V10 engines, the noise was literally deafening, not least through the tunnel.

I use the word ‘literally’ advisedly. Bernie Ecclestone wears a hearing aid, if he doesn’t mind me saying, and so did Max Mosley. Hearing impairments are an occupational hazard to those of us overexposed to the ‘music’ of the sport, as Luca di Montezemolo, the great Ferrari overlord of previous times, once described it.

But, back to the point, Monaco stands alone in the calendar, and it must be preserved as an annual extravagance without equal.

Monaco Grand Prix may seem a processional race but it must be preserved on the calendar

Monaco Grand Prix may seem a processional race but it must be preserved on the calendar

A final thought. This is speculation, not informed by anything other than intuition. I predict here and now that Andrea Casiraghi, 38-year-old scion of the Grimaldi royal family, eldest grandchild of Rainier III and of Princess Grace, nephew of the current boss man Prince Albert, fourth in line to the throne, will be appointed the next head of the Automobile Club de Monaco.

It is a role undertaken for more than 50 years by the superbly grand figure of Michel Boeri, now 82 they say, and very much of the old school, and once tipped to be FIA president, before Mosley and Ecclestone blew a hole in that theory.

I don’t mind old school, as you may have detected. But I reckon Casiraghi, always at the race in ceremonial roles, including among the national anthem-singing dignitaries, would be a modern man Liberty could do business with, while still embellishing the link of Grimaldi-F1 heritage of imperishable importance.

Your Serene Highness Albert, I respectfully put the idea before you, if, as I say, you are not already thinking of it.