Depart for circuit. Yes, There’s no traffic and I reach the circuit without once crawling to a stop, yet lose 30 minutes: oddly, the promoters send support race cars down parking access lanes, and we’re held up by a Clio Cup train.
Enjoy bacon and scrambled egg on toast as I catch up with Marcin Budkowski, Renault F1 Team Executive Director, whom I’ve hardly chatted to since he left the FIA over a year ago. It’s a casual chat, so nothing to report. He’s settled in well in his quest to help the yellow team regain its former form. As qualifying later demonstrates, a resurgent Renault and upwardly mobile McLaren, means the sharp end of the midfield is tighter than ever.
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Watch team bosses return from ‘Coffee with Chase’ – their regular Saturday session with F1’s CEO. I’m told nothing new was discussed: no wonder as on the regulatory side we’re in limbo land until October 31st, the revised deadline for the 2021 regulations.
I do hear, though, that there are continuing snags with the 2020 F1 calendar. The possible loss of the Mexican Grand Prix threatens to create a headache at the end of the season, as it forms part of a logistical triangle with Austin and Sao Paulo.
Neither races at the Circuit de Catalunya nor Hockenheim – the two other venues in doubt – could be slotted into that date. Encouragingly for Silverstone, its race is seemingly secure, or it would have been mentioned in the same breath…
Lunch at Pirelli with my good friend Ari Vatanen and his son Max, who visiting Paul Ricard for the day. As always Pirelli’s fare is superb; Ari chooses sea bass off the menu, and Max and I eat from the buffet.
Will Buxton – author of My Greatest Defeat, which contains a chapter on Ari’s recovery after his horrific 1985 Argentina Rally crash – joins us briefly. Ari’s biography, “Every Second Counts”, is also worth a read if you can track down a copy – a little known fact is that Ari and Chris Rea shared a house in the mid-seventies, and the crooner’s song of the same title is dedicated to the 1981 World Rally Champion.
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The surprise of qualifying is McLaren, who are enjoying a very strong weekend – three-and-a-half seconds faster than last year having introduced an interesting new suspension update on the MCL34 this weekend.
But the stands are far from full, with many red and blue spaces visible. I generously put the crowd at 30,000 for the day, a point I plan to put to my mate Eric Boullier, now a consultant to the race. Whatever the true number, it’s clear the circuit is paying the price for last year’s debacle.
He admits ticket sales are down – by about 25% – but I can’t ignore that there’s simply no traffic about, that camp sites are far from packed and that a tour operator, who last year filled two coaches with 78 punters, is this year using a minivan to convey nine fans. The expected (paying) race day crowd is around 50,000, well down on last year’s much-trumpeted 65,000. Let’s see…
Interviews, and the focus is on McLaren, where the team’s best overall qualifying result since 2014 is complemented by news they are investing in a new state-of-art wind tunnel. The team also lets slip that, having agreed terms with Renault to use its third driver Sergey Sirotkin should they need to, Fernando Alonso will not be returning to drive its F1 car.
The team cites Alonso’s other commitments as part of the reason. But what are they? His Le Mans 24 Hours victory last week was his last scheduled outing this year.
Either way, it seems to be the end of the F1 road for a driver who was once the sport’s greatest track warrior. There’s a lesson lurking in there somewhere.
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Hit the road to return to my B&B, marginal traffic which causes a delay of around 10 minutes – enough, though, to ensure I miss the local supermarket’s opening hours, so head across the road for a take-out pizza. Perfect for a warm summer evening, and all I need to sustain myself after Renault’s breakfast and Pirelli’s lunch.
I munch away al fresco under 25C clear blue skies while enjoying the views across the valley, and decide there and then that my bench on the edge of Le Castellet is simply the best dining room I could imagine anywhere on earth. Truly blessed.
Pack in preparation for an early start on Sunday.
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