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Postcard from Abu Dhabi

Like all good postcards, this one is coming to you about three days after it should have arrived. And it’s not really from Abu Dhabi, but from Hong Kong. And it’s powered by stupid, stupid jet lag.

Anyway!

That’s all for another season of Formula 1, with the season finale in Abu Dhabi proving to be a largely underwhelming affair due to the lack of strategy options, overtaking chances or in-race incidents.

Valtteri Bottas took a hassle-free victory that could prove crucial in the long-run as he looks to secure a future with Mercedes beyond 2018 despite expected pressure from the likes of Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon next year. All three of Bottas’ wins have been well-executed, but his slump in form between Spa and Austin – two podium finishes in six races – meant he was an afterthought in the title fight. Bottas has been impressive for the majority of his first year with Mercedes, yet when asked to sum up his season in one word after the race chose “disappointing”. He’s a man of high standards.

The season finale may have been a dead rubber for the title race, but there were still plenty of interesting storylines floating around in Abu Dhabi. All eyes yesterday were on Robert Kubica as he completed his latest test for Williams as his push for a racing return continues, with the Pole seeming to be the overwhelming favourite to get the drive. Felipe Massa was asked last Thursday if he were to bet €100 on his replacement, who would he pick. “I think I know already, so I don’t need to bet anything. But I would not say,” was his coy reply.

Massa’s own plans were also talked about following his final – for real this time – grand prix appearance in Abu Dhabi. FIA president Jean Todt revealed in a roundtable session that Massa has been put forward as Brazil’s candidate for a place on the World Motor Sport Council, while there are also suggestions he’ll be doing some TV work in Brazil next year. The Formula E links have also continued, but Massa stressed he could not race in Season 4 as he’d want time to prepare. The series, though, is set to push hard to parachute him into a seat somewhere early.

Williams teammate Lance Stroll is another driver looking at plans outside of F1 – albeit not full-time, instead only for one race in January. As reported for Crash.net last week, Stroll is due to be part of an all-star line-up in the Rolex 24 at Daytona with the Jackie Chan DC Racing team that currently races in the FIA World Endurance Championship. Stroll will share a car with Felix Rosenqvist, Daniel Juncadella and Robin Frijns for his second appearance at Daytona, racing in the same class as Fernando Alonso. Stroll shut down when I quizzed him about it on Thursday, simply saying he was focusing on Abu Dhabi. An announcement is expected very soon though.

And of course, Alonso! How could we forget? Following the test in Bahrain I wrote about in my last blog, Alonso spoke a bit more about his recent sports car forays, having also tested an LMP2 car with United Autosports at Motorland Aragon last week. The main question coming out of Saturday’s press session at McLaren was whether he would be doing a wider WEC campaign with Toyota – i.e. more than just Le Mans.

“I didn’t think about that…” Alonso said, before teammate Stoffel Vandoorne quipped: “For sure he did!” F1’s leading political writer Dieter Rencken then pressed Alonso by asking: “Now that you’ve thought about it, can you give us an answer to it please?” A bit of back and forth followed before Alonso mumbled out that “It could be nice… Probably. I would love it.” Racing director Eric Boullier then quickly moved things on by asking for the next question…

All of the signs are pointing towards Alonso doing all of the WEC rounds he can in 2018 as well as Le Mans. The season-opening 6 Hours of Spa in May will act as a perfect preparation for him, while the races at Silverstone and Shanghai also avoid F1 clashes, meaning he will only miss the race at Fuji, which is on the same weekend as the United States Grand Prix. Adding in the Le Mans test day and Le Mans itself, it only tots up to five weekends worth of additional racing for Alonso. Given that Toyota looks set to shake up its LMP1 line-up amid uncertain futures for Jose Maria Lopez and Anthony Davidson, momentum is gathering for Alonso to secure a permanent seat.

Besides the sports car talk at the McLaren press briefing, executive director Zak Brown also gave a nice speech paying thanks to Honda for all its efforts over the last three years. While the relationship did not work out, it does not feel like there is a lot of bad blood between the two parties upon their split. Both believe they are set for bigger and better things next year – McLaren with Renault, Honda with Toro Rosso – and both have the means to succeed. As well as the challenge on-track, Brown faces a big challenge off it to secure sponsorship for the team, but revealed on Friday there are two announcements ready and waiting to go after signing deals.

The other big marketing/commercial news of the race weekend was, of course, the reveal of the new F1 logo. The press corps was given an advanced reveal of the snazzy trailer unveiling the logo, as well as an in-depth explanation from F1 commercial boss Sean Bratches and marketing head Ellie Norman about the reasons behind the new logo. A lot of what was said was jargon-heavy, with my favourite phrase being “preponderance of consumer touchpoints”, whatever that means.

The long and short of it is that Liberty is pushing hard to foster a new identity for F1 since taking over, which is fair. The new logo will work far better on digital as well, with Bratches comparing it to Coca-Cola’s decision to remove the condensation from its logo for the same reason. It is also easier to use alongside partner logos such as DHL or Heineken. One journalist pointed out to Bratches the likeness of the logo to that of American broadcaster ESPN, to which he said the only similarity was the fact that both are red.

There was a lot of grumbling online about the new logo after its unveiling, but we’ll get used to it as with all things. People were unsure about the new broadcast graphics that were introduced back in 2010 at first – but we acclimatised. It’ll just take a bit of time. By Spain next year, we won’t be talking about it.

The lack of a title fight meant there was more relaxed vibe in the media centre throughout the race weekend, with the majority of journalists focusing on gathering ‘winter content’. A group of us had fun on the Saturday night watching the eSports race, won by Brendon Leigh, who followed this up by immediately getting the gif treatment onlineΒ (Justin, you’re the real MVP). The race actually proved more entertaining than the real-life one on Sunday, but I’ll save the ins and outs for a proper feature someplace over the winter.

Sunday was a somewhat emotional day personally as F1’s stint on NBC Sports came to an end after five incredible years. It wasn’t until the drive back on Saturday night it really hit me there was really justΒ one more day, and I didn’t sleep brilliantly thinking things over. But the day itself went by smoothly. There were no tears – they came at Suzuka, I’ll admit – and no angst. Only pride for all we have done.

It’s been a true, true honour to be part of such an important era for F1’s growth in the United States, with TV figures nearly doubling in the last five years, with wider coverage through shows such as Paddock Pass and Off The Grid also breaking new ground. The entire team ranging from the guys you see on the screen to the producers, editors, researchers and video crew are stars – a real privilege to work with such a professional team. I’ll save a more comprehensive thanks and explainer as to the significance of the last five years for another blog sometime.

It was great to sign off on a long, busy season with a fun night on Sunday before getting to the airport and completing the six-hour hop to Hong Kong ahead of this weekend’s Formula E season opener – strange to say given it is nearly December and nearly every other season is already over.

That said, even after 20 races, some weren’t ready for the season to end!

So – now what?

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