The first surprise of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend came as Haas launched a protest against Force India. @DieterRencken brings his insight from the paddock.
As is usual for fly-away grands prix, my race weekend effectively started on Wednesday with a long-haul flight, in this case leaving home at 11:30am to catch a train to the airport in time for 2:30pm take-off. All went well, and the flight landed at midnight in Dubai, slightly ahead of schedule.
Then an hour wait at rental car desk on the basis that “We’re very busy today, sir,” – something I could have told Europcar over a year ago when the F1 calendar was first published…
Yas Marina Circuit is a 30-minute drive from downtown Abu Dhabi, so after morning formalities and catching up on news I leave the hotel within an hour of surfacing.
Arrive at F1 personnel parking area, and am pleasantly surprised to see Robert Kubica ambling across the lot towards the shuttle. He and I go back to 2006, when he was third driver for BMW Sauber and I moonlighted on odd bits of media work for the company – mainly, it must be said, on Formula BMW and touring cars, as I have issues with direct conflicts of interest.
In any event, my pleasure at seeing Bobby K, as he’s known within the paddock, is compounded when I realise we are the only occupants of the shuttle – so we talk off-record about his 2019 return, which at the time is a couple of hours away from confirmation. He doesn’t divulge much that isn’t already speculated, but it’s gratifying to realise our sources have been on the money.
He is clearly pumped-up about a comeback which once seemed a far-fetched dream. There are plenty of morals to the story, and there could hardly be a more deserving individual, for Robert sleep, dreams, lives and breathes racing. I recall a comment from his BMW days: “All I need from life is a fast car and a bed – in that order.”
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Settle into the media centre, then brunch at the adjoining media restaurant – pepper steak pie with spud wedges – during which I catch up with Maurice Hamilton, whom I hadn’t seen for a while given he is now writing books full-time now longer on the regular F1 trail. We chat about this and that, including grand prix attendances, F1 during the seventies and Liberty’s management of the sport.
The Kubica announcement goes as expected, then I move on to the first scheduled interviews before catching up on paddock gossip after I’d given Brazil a wide berth. The consensus is that I hadn’t missed much, what with the main title dusted two races early, but most colleagues remarked upon the much-improved security situation. A pity F1 personnel needed to endure regular attacks before promoter and Sao Paulo’s city fathers reacted.
The FIA press conference begins and I’m somewhat bemused: a tweet pops up claiming Max Verstappen has just given an interview in which he allegedly implied Esteban Ocon deliberately crashed into him in Brazil. Yet during the conference Max has a more measured take – so I read the tweet to him. He denies having said or implied as per tweet, subsequently sparking much comment on media channels. The confusion clears up once video of the interview emerges.
More interviews, and I’m struck by how brutally honest Valtteri Bottas is in reply to some searching questions: it can’t be easy being one of the best drivers on the planet (and a deserving grand prix winner), yet constantly be in the shadow of the legend that Lewis has become.
Force India sponsor Hype and Williams tech partner Acronis have fun functions planned, but these clash with the launch of F3’s 2019 car. Duty calls, so I give socialising a miss: Fortunately, for I hear rumblings that Haas protested the legality Force India’s cars, apparently on the basis that they don’t comply with appendix six of the Sporting Regulations.
Why now, given that the pink team was given the all clear in August? It seems Haas hit stalemate in its squabble with Liberty over F1’s so-called column one monies, and this could be Haas’s tactic to obtain disclosure over Racing Point Force India’s admission as a new entrant, yet be viewed as an established team for revenue purposes.
Haas team principal Guenther Steiner, interviewed before the protest came to light, admitted they were “not making progress” over the issue of Force India’s prize money.
Intriguingly, FIA World Motorsport Council member Garry Connelly was a steward in Belgium when the original decision was handed down, and is again the senior man on the Abu Dhabi panel – which could explain the timing.
As predicted, the Force India saga will run for a while, particularly as the Mazepin consortium’s legal action against the administrator is bubbling away in the background.
Dinner in the media restaurant – chicken pie, roast potatoes and salad – before packing up and heading for my hotel. It’s a comfortable 25C – a far cry from the frosty Belgian nights I left a little over 24 hours earlier…
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