I often use the expression “pecking order” in articles about Formula 1, but I realised the other night that I had no idea what it actually meant. I discovered this vital gem of knowledge because a poorly-calibrated Portuguese rooster decided to crow at three forty-five in the morning, waking sleeping dogs who naturally wanted to continue to enjoy the Land of Nod and so barked what I took to be canine abuse at the foul fowl. I presume this included threats to turn said cockerel into a capon. I am not one who believes in violence but I have to admit that he, she or it (even chickens must be treated fairly in the Age of Woke) would better have transformed into a chicken nugget to be dunked into tomato ketchup and eaten by a fat kid, which I concluded was the ultimate in humiliation for a proud rooster.

Once I was awake, of course, that was it and so, being an inquisitive soul by nature, I decided to investigate why it is that cocks crow in the morning and I soon stumbled upon a 2013 research paper from the University of Nagoya in Japan, which explained that chickens have a very complex societal structure, which means that the most powerful hen is allowed to peck the others, but the second most powerful can only peck those less powerful and so on until there is one poor chicken who can only indulge in self-harm or trampling poor unsuspecting worms.

Amazingly, it seems that crowing is the same. The most powerful rooster gets to crow first and then the others may follow, but only in the order of their importance. So, if the leader of the gang is out of sync with nature, they all are… As to why they crow when they crow, it seems that they have some built-in mechanism that usually works.

I relate these tales only because it might help the reader to understand the trials of life as a Formula 1 racing reporter on the road in Portugal. To be fair, we don’t have much dealing with chickens in F1, although some of the Continental members of the F1 community seem to think that a deviation in the race track is called a “chicken” rather than a chicane.

Still, we do have a pecking order and after three races things are becoming a little more clear. For now, everyone can still say: “We’ve only had three races…” but a couple more Grands Prix and we’ll be getting towards a quarter of the season (because I don’t think anyone really believes we will get 23 races this year) and that means that the Silly Season can begin and decisions can be made about who is going to drive where in 2022. And the signs are that the market will probably move quite quickly because drivers and their managements will be wary of suggestions (from Zak Brown) that driver costs should be regulated to put the sport on a more level playing field. What he means by this is that drivers should have a salary cap.

Thus deals that are done early could end up being more valuable than contracts that are negotiated later in the year, if any action comes as a result of Brown’s suggestions. We know that a number of drivers are on the market at the end of the current season and there will probably be some other changes brought on by poor performances from a driver or a team. The older generation of F1 drivers are still hoping that their experience is worth more than speed, but the fact remains that racing is about getting results and if they are not doing so then they need to watch out. So, Kimi needs to beat Antonio, Seb needs to beat Lance and Fernando needs to beat Esteban. Oh, and Valtteri needs to beat Lewis as well, because George is snapping at VB’s heels. And Red Bull has to decide whether it wants to keep Sergio Perez for another year and things are complicated because the Austrians have five drivers and four seats and Alex Albon is too good to waste, as there are other teams who would be happy to get him. 

Pierre Gasly has more than proved his worth at Scuderia AlphaTauri but there are currently no obvious opportunities for him outside the Red Bull structure, unless he is pushed out. He doesn’t fit with the ethos of Scuderia AlphaTauri, which is to develop young drivers for Red Bull Racing… 

Traditionally, the start of the European season is when the talks begin to get serious and with Monaco coming up, the so-called “Silly Season” should become more lively. After five races teams and drivers are in a better position to know where there are – and what they want to do in the future.

Brown’s letter to the world, which was published by McLaren, made a few interesting points, including mentioning the fact that it is unheard of on Netflix for a series to rate better with its iteration than with its first. He concluded that this was down to the human stories of the protagonists and because Drive to Survive is an entry level guide to a very complex sport. He was not very keen on the ever-increasing schedule of races which “places a challenging physical and mental strain on travelling personnel” and said that it would be better to race across 25 markets but have only 20 races with 15 of them fixed and five rotating between two different venues. Variety, he concluded, is good and allows room for new countries to host a grand prix, while maintaining a level of scarcity value in our sport.

My view on this is pretty much the same. I think 25 races is too many and if they want to push up revenues they should squeeze more money out of the “nasty” and rich governments and hit their revenue targets in this way. It’s not that I don’t like travelling, but I also like some time at home and as the years have gone on, that has been squeezed more and more. A season used to be just 16 races, mainly in Europe and now it is (in theory) 23 all across the world. This year, of course, it is harder than ever because of COVID restrictions. We thought it was tough last year, but this year is a lot harder and we are now down to just two journalists who have done all 20 races since the world went mental. This is hurting the sport because pay-TV, which has all the access these days can only do so much. If you look at the numbers of viewers, it is a fraction of what it used to be, even if the revenues are better. This is no good for any sport.

It is interesting to note that in Germany, where the rights are held by Sky Deutschland, he viewing numbers have collapsed of late, but the former broadcaster RTL has just done a deal with Sky to broadcast four F1 races this year because it seems to have realised that giving up F1 was not a great idea as Sebastian Vettel’s move to Aston Martin and the arrival of Mick Schumacher have made more Germans interested in the sport.

Ultimately the way to go is probably for the sport to get rid of the middle men and go direct to consumers with a reasonable price for watching a race, and if they like other levels of access for the richer folk who want more. But pay-TV does not generate new business. This is why Netflix has been so important for F1 but it is also why they need the written media (which, by the way, has a far larger reach than pay-TV) because it is the scribblers who give the TV chatterers their leads. In any case, TV can only ever tell a pretty basic story, with a few sound bites, stitched in. It is the writers who weave the tapestry that turns casual fans into people who will pay money to attend races and buy F1 merchandise. F1’s stated goal is to turn its casual fans into paying customers and so it should really be supporting the media. Some of the people at the FIA understand this but I get the impression that some of people who deal with COVID rules don’t have a clue, but are enjoying their time in power.

Some TV people may have the ability to get drivers to open up and be themselves, but a TV camera is an intimidating piece of machinery and with a team PR person standing nearby, the drivers – particularly the younger ones – tend to say only bland things, if only to protect themselves. But while bland might be good for them, it very definitely isn’t the best thing for the sport. We need a grid full of characters: good guys, bad guys, monosyllabic Finns and garrulous Australians. What we don’t need is PR police so teams should allow the drivers more freedom to say what they really think. Hopefully, F1 writers will soon be allowed back into the paddock and not have to stand in a cage with COVID police peeking out of windows policing them lest they get within 1m75 of the person they are talking to. I still struggle to understand what the difference is between a TV journalist and a written journalist when it comes to our ability to spread viruses. The statistics clearly shows that the TV people are far more dangerous to the sport than the journalists are, and the worst of the lot are the drivers, who seem to be a bunch of superspreaders and should be avoided at all costs!

Anyway, I continue to avoid airports, which look more and more like virus factories. The open road is free and easy and airy and one is in control of one’s own destiny and not stuck in an airport at the mercy of airlines that cancel flights without even blinking. The paperwork involved in driving seems to be less as well, although it is still pretty daunting and if one documents is not there, you are torpedoed if anyone asks. The trip to Portugal is the longest of the year, as the drive from home to Budapest is a piffling 1,000 miles, while the trip to Portimao is a solid 1,300. I didn’t work it all out very much but I am pretty sure that driving costs more, takes longer and causes wear and tear on the person and the vehicle, but I don’t care. I get to go to the races and I feel safe doing it. I take a stack of documents wherever I go and I keep shoving bits of paper at policemen, if they ask, until they give up asking questions and wave you through.

Driving also gives you a little more respect for the F1 teams need to do, sending dozens of trucks from place to place. But we all seem to keep turning up in the right places, so we must be doing something vaguely right. I am sure that the teams have everything planned out in military detail, but I tend not to do that. I just wing it (it’s not hard these days, as there are so few people on the move) and so, after a beautiful day driving across France, I found myself in the rather unbeautiful city of Miranda de Ebro.

If I was writing a travel blog rather than a motor racing column I could wax lyrical about the glories of the A28, which crosses Normandy from Rouen to Le Mans and never has any traffic as it works it way from glory to glory, but let’s just say that it starts near the Circuit of Rouen-Les-Essarts and ends up near Circuit de La Sarthe. I had time to stop and look up Robert le Diable, because there is a chateau (ruin) named after him, which one sees on those brown “Points of interest” signs you see across Europe. I was wondering who he was because I didn’t remember the name and so I was delighted to learn that I hadn’t forgotten some obscure king with a silly name like Charles the Simple, Louis le Fainéant (Lazy) or William the Bastard, because Robert was a medieval legend, who discovered, so they say, that he was the son of Satan. I guess Mummy has a wild night out at some point… The Franco-Spanish frontier had a lot of blue flashing lights but no-one paid me any attention and I was waved through without a document being inspected. After leaving France I didn’t see a non-Spanish car until I had crossed the border into Portugal. The signs in Spain declare every few miles that there is a “Estado d’alarma” – a state of emergency.

If you haven’t heard of Miranda de Ebro, you should try to imagine a sort Spanish version of Crewe, a big railway junction, where lines from east and west met those from north and south. Sadly, it’s not really remembered for that, but rather because it was a very nasty prison camp where the unlovely General Franco had lots of people killed and incarcerated international prisoners. I left without a backward glance and pottered amid majestic cathedral-like rock formations of the Montes Obarenes range and then climbed up on to the plateau of Castille, where one is about 2,500ft above sea level. The signs suggest that one should watch out for “bancos de nieblas” and there are snow poles and signs for refuges so this must be wild country when the sun is not out. I decided at Salamanca to take a different route to last year and headed south on the Autovia de La Plata (literally, the silver motorway) which follows an old pilgrimage route that goes north to Santiago de Compostela. Heading south, one goes across the Sierra de Béjar (where the fog is thick) and then across the plains of Extramadura to Caceres and then Merida and from there into Portugal, by way of Badajoz.

Roosters aside, it has been an enjoyable week in Portugal, even if we were under lockdown conditions in some areas (but not in others). Now F1 has gone and the hotel is filled with bicycle teams which have arrived for the Volta ao Algarve. If people think F1 is invasive, thry should watch out for cycle teams. My car in the hotel car park is completely surrounded by Ineos Grenadier vehicles are other paraphenalia and the hotel dining room (quite important in these days without restaurants) hase been taken over by the said team, UAE Team Emirates and Deceuninck Quick-Step. It’s interesting to see how they operate, but I’ll be happy to get on the road again. Next stop Ciudad Real, en route to Barcelona…