F1 Business Diary 2017: The Belgian Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton holds off Sebastian Vettel to win in Belgium and reduce drivers’ championship deficit to seven points.

F1 Business Diary 2017: The Belgian Grand Prix

Formula One’s brief European summer break came to an end this weekend under the beating Belgian sun at the historic Spa-Francorchamps circuit.

In accordance with the majority of the past 11 races of this Formula One season, championship rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel continued to set the pace on the track. The Briton, in the wake of a record-equalling 68th career pole position, won his fifth Grand Prix of the 2017 Formula One season and looked serene throughout race weekend. 

The lights-to-flag victory reduced Hamilton’s deficit in the driver's world championship to Ferrari’s Vettel, who, despite having one fewer 2017 victory to his name, remains seven points ahead in the standings. 

Over the weekend, a record 265,000 fans flocked to the Ardennes forest to cheer on McLaren-Honda’s Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne and Belgian-born wunderkind Max Verstappen, who drives under the Netherlands flag. Despite the local clamour to see their young pilots succeed, it was Hamilton, racing in his 200th Grand Prix, who drew most of the plaudits come the chequered flag.

The Mercedes’ man’s tactically excellent race - coupled with a neatly timed tow from a safety car restart - allowed him to achieve his 58th career success on a day when the Belgian track payed tribute to a stricken past-master of Formula One, Michael Schumacher, who took the first of his 91 career victories in Belgium 25 years ago.

Schumacher, who has not been seen publicly since a 2013 skiing accident put him in a medically induced coma, had won six times at Spa. To commemorate the anniversary, Schumacher's 18-year-old son Mick drove an exhibition lap in a Renault car from 1994 - the year his father won his first world title.  

The competitive race was one that Schumacher senior would have surely appreciated. As multiple world champions Hamilton and Vettel played out an almost private battle at the head of the field, their respective teammates - Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Räikkönen - scrapped for the final spot on the podium with Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen. 

It was eventually Ricciardo - known as the ‘Honey Badger’ due to his tenacity on the track - who sniffed out third place, his sixth podium finish of the 2017 season. The Australian has now accrued almost double the points of his teammate Verstappen this year. The Dutchman, for his part, was openly disappointed by another mechanical failure, pointing out on his team radio that “it's now 50 per cent of the races in retirement”, a figure that he felt was “unbelievable”.

Liberty Media continues to modernise Formula One   

When Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, said that he wanted to improve the series’ digital output, it was thought that he was talking exclusively about social media and the embrace of an over-the-top (OTT) platform.  

But the wider scope of the opportunity emerged when Formula One announced last week that it will launch an esports series - based on the soon-to-be-released F1 2017 video game - with esports specialist Gfinity and video game developer Codemasters.

The inaugural competition will begin in September to coincide with the launch of the video game, and will run until November, when the championship’s first virtual world champion will be crowned at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. 

The esports series will be held in three stages, beginning with qualification events throughout September to determine the 40 quickest virtual drivers. Semi-finals will then be held at London’s Gfinity Arena in October, with the top 20 competitors progressing to a three-race final at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit between 24th and 25th November.

“This launch presents an amazing opportunity for our business: strategically and in the way we engage fans,” said Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations. “First, it’s a growing category with tremendous fan engagement that we’re entering in a big way.”

Driverless safety car on the way

In a recent interview with specialist outlet Autosport, Marcin Budkowski, head of the FIA's Formula One technical department, suggested that a driverless safety car could be implemented in the near future.

The innovation might put safety car pilots out of employment but, Budkowski believes, an autonomous car would “promote a technology about which there is a bit of scepticism and, instead, it could be shown that it works”. For Formula One, it could provide a route into an advanced R&D market that might otherwise be closed to the sport.   

Budkowski is, nevertheless, aware that “the engineers would love it, but not the fans".  

Still, he added: "Autonomous driving will have a very strong impact on safety and we know how the FIA and [president] Jean Todt are engaged in the Action for Road Safety campaign."

China to stay, Singapore still hard to say 

When the 2018 Formula One calendar was announced in June 2017 there was an asterisk next to the Chinese and Singapore Grands Prix, which denoted that they had only been provisionally retained.   

The lucrative Asian market - a region that is highly sought after by most global sports properties - is not one that Liberty would want to lose out on. In an interview with the AFP news agency, Sean Bratches declared that a new deal with the Shanghai International Circuit “will be executed by the end of next month”.

Meanwhile, though Bratches could not confirm the future of the Singapore Grand Prix, he did say that he is “spending a lot of time reaching out proactively to cities” in Asia. He added that future calendars will contain “more street races than we have seen historically."

Monaco, Singapore, and… Woking?

Could one of those street circuits be in hitherto unheralded surrounds? With serious doubts over Silverstone hosting future editions of the British Grand Prix, series owner Liberty Media is considering viable alternatives. One such offer has come from UK-based McLaren, who unveiled an ‘absurdly ambitious’ plan to stage the British Grand Prix on the streets of their hometown in Woking, Surrey.        

A McLaren press release said that the proposed Woking International Circuit would rival Monaco and Singapore as one of Formula One’s ‘most glamorous and iconic race locations’ and, with a projected top speed of 195mph, would be one of the fastest street tracks in the world.

Jonathan Neale, McLaren Technology Group’s chief operating officer, said: “Why not? Why not bring Formula One to the streets of Woking? Obviously, aside from the huge social and financial commitment needed to set up the infrastructure, re-profile roads, re-lay tarmac, fit miles of armco, build grandstands, pay for race-hosting fees and gain approval and sign-off from the International Automobile Federation (FIA), we don’t see any barriers to our vision.

“In an era that’s often seen as being hemmed in by bureaucracy and narrow-mindedness, that’s actually very refreshing.”

Woking? Could be joking.

“It’s me or the engine!”

For all their ambitions to set new standards in motorsport glamour, McLaren have some issues to address a little closer to home. It is fair to say that the relationship between two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and McLaren’s Japanese engine manufacturer Honda has been about as compatible as one of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s nine marriages. 

According to German industry outlet Auto Motor und Sport (AMuS), Alonso, who appears to have a close relationship with McLaren’s executive director Zak Brown, has decided enough is enough. AMuS reports that the Spaniard has indicated that he will only extend his McLaren deal - which expires at the end of the 2017 season - if they switch their engine supplier from Honda. 

Needless to say McLaren’s 2018 engine situation is more complicated than Alonso appears to think it is. 

With a desired deal with Mercedes seemingly dead in the water, Renault now appears the only possible alternative to Honda. The French manufacturer is, however, not keen to supply a third customer team in addition to their own factory outfit in 2018, meaning that Toro Rosso would probably need to take Honda’s supply of engines, to free up a set of Renault engines for McLaren.