Posts Tagged ‘Nico Hulkenberg’

When last we met, there was talk of how best to thoroughly louse up a season preview. For those of you who find yourselves too bone-idle to scroll down and read the last entry, a reminder: I, combining my extensive knowledge with my God-given knack for making predictions which diametrically oppose what subsequently goes on to happen, selected a top 10 for this year’s F1 world championship, taking the time not only to justify those picks but, in a new and exciting twist, explain why I might turn out to be wrong.

As the teams head off for their summer shutdown, some 34 laps into the second half of the season, let’s take a few moments to review whether I’ve been successful this year or whether I’ve instead managed to maintain my usual standards of foresight. Spoiler alert: it’s probably the latter.

This time we’ll be summarising the fortunes not only of those I selected in pre-season but of those who had the temerity to arrive unbidden. I’ll italicise those drivers who are so far performing in line with my predictions, partly so they’re easier to spot and partly in lieu of the lap of honour I’d normally embark upon in cases of unexpected success.

10: Pre-season pick – Fernando Alonso (McLaren Honda, currently 15th)
      Real-world interloper – Romain Grosjean (Lotus Mercedes)

If your powerplant is capable only of going nowhere fast or going nowhere at all, not even the best driver in the sport can help you.

Honda’s ongoing struggles are a waste of two talented drivers and a McLaren that appears to be a reasonable weapon when presented with a series of corners, possessing point-scoring pace at Hungaroring (the slowest permanent track on the calendar) and Monte Carlo (the slowest street circuit). Alonso’s Q1 run at Silverstone was both his and McLaren’s season in microcosm: 6 tenths down on a Ferrari along the straights of sector 1, a further 6 tenths down in sector 3, home of the Hangar Straight, but only 2 tenths away through the middle sector of the lap – through Luffield, where mechanical grip and traction are tested; then through Copse; through Maggotts; through Becketts, the kind of almost-but-not-quite-flat-out high-speed blasts that highlight the differences between a great racing driver and a Fernando Alonso.

The Honda may go on to be a potent weapon – it can’t be any less potent than the engine that earned both Alonso and Jenson Button a 25-place grid penalty in Austria – but the Spaniard is presently hamstrung by a power unit that, it seems, went racing a year too early. Give the man the tools and Alonso remains without peer.

Down Enstone way, Romain Grosjean’s chief handicap is a team lacking the funds to properly develop a reasonable car. While it’s not difficult to look calm and measured in comparison with Pastor Maldonado, the patron saint of drive-through penalties, the Grosjean of 2015 is a much more rounded, mature racing driver than the “turn one nutcase” Mark Webber so pointedly shot down not 3 years ago. The fundamental speed has never been in doubt and remains present, allied now to enhanced racecraft and the ability to better understand which causes should be fought on-track and which should be conceded.

Aside from his collision with the lapped Will Stevens in Montreal, when he seemed simply to forget that the Manor Marussia was still there, Grosjean has kept his nose clean, taken what this year’s improved chassis and aero package are willing to give him and converted that performance into solid points at every opportunity.

9. Pre-season pick – Nico Hulkenberg (Force India Mercedes)

Force India’s post-Monaco step turned out, for reasons financial, to be a post-Spielberg step, one which coincided with Hulkenberg’s victorious return from Le Mans. Nico, Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy’s win for Porsche at La Sarthe gave a clear shot in the arm to a driver whose abundant gifts had briefly threatened to wilt under the weight of another year in mid-table.

After a relatively tardy opening to the campaign, The Hulk came alive in Austria, qualifying 5th and finishing 6th in what was still a bare-bones evolution of last year’s Force India, a result which he followed up with further points at Silverstone when the new VJM08B made its debut. That Austrian qualifying effort has been exception rather than rule, with it being hard to escape the feeling that Nico leaves himself a little more to do than he ought to come Sunday afternoon, but what’s been particularly evident of late has been his haste in making up for that, running 5th in the early going having started 9th at Silverstone and 5th from 11th at Hungaroring.

The team think a podium was on at the latter event had an errant front wing not forced a spectacular retirement and while it’s difficult to agree with them, I have no problem seeing why paddock rumour links their driver with a return to Williams for 2016.

8. Pre-season pick – Daniil Kvyat (Red Bull Renault)

While it’s difficult to argue that Daniil’s 2015 to date has been anything other than a little underwhelming, the reasons for that have less to do with the young Russian than with the situation in which he finds himself.

Promoted prematurely into a team whose disharmonious relationship with its engine supplier has threatened to derail the entire year, Kvyat’s year has been spent chasing after a car/engine package that can’t give him as much grip as he desires without leaving him a sitting duck in a straight line. Red Bull’s RB11 is a more highly-strung piece of equipment than its immediate predecessor but where Red Bull have been able to set up their car for optimum performance (Monte Carlo, Hungaroring), Kvyat has scored handsomely, keeping his nose just about clean enough for long enough to take his maiden podium in Hungary even if he lacked a little pace relative to Daniel Ricciardo. Where the set-up has been compromised to compensate for the obvious deficiencies of the Renault V6 (absolutely everywhere else), the other Red Bull has tended to be a little way ahead, its driver coping that bit better with a car being purposefully moved away from a sweet spot that the team haven’t always been able to find to start with.

All exactly as you’d expect, in other words, from someone whose details sit in the file marked “Quick But Inexperienced” – remember, Kvyat only recently turned 21.

7. Pre-season pick – Felipe Massa (Williams Mercedes, currently 6th)
    Real-world case of overoptimism – Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull Renault, pre-season prediction 4th)

Felipe, you remarkable man, I am yet again quite wrong about you.

Back in March, writing my pre-season piece, I believed that Williams were best of the rest behind Mercedes and that Massa, better in 2014 than at any time since his near-fatal 2009 accident but still not quite the driver he’d once been, lacked the consistency to do the car full justice. In what is assuredly the season’s 3rd-best package, Felipe has not only been metronomic on Sundays but fast enough on Saturdays to hold a 6-4 qualifying lead over the supremely rapid Valtteri Bottas. Away from the Ferrari pressure cooker and now entirely settled at Williams, Massa’s peaks are on the same level as the best of his 2008 championship near-miss and being delivered more regularly than at any time since then, free of the sense that his concentration might fail at any moment that so blighted his final years with the Scuderia.

If that’s unexpected, not just by the viewing public but by Felipe’s self-confessedly startled employers, it’s also very welcome. From spent force at Maranello to a force to be reckoned with at Grove, this most personable of drivers is making the most of an unexpected Indian summer.

Down the road in Milton Keynes, Daniel Ricciardo is making the best of an unexpected French shower. This year’s Renault power unit started life with no more power than last year’s but with a far greater fondness for ritually barbecuing itself. Just like Kvyat, Ricciardo’s only hope of competing on the straights has been to trim the car out and deprive himself of the downforce Adrian Newey’s design team are so famously adept at providing. If chasing after the scraps at the lower end of the top 10 is demoralising the habitually cheerful Daniel, you’d hardly know it. Indeed, only once has Danny Ric’s natural frustration been expressed in public, during a Canadian weekend in which he professed himself lost with a car that wouldn’t handle and an engine that wouldn’t power.

Above all else, Ricciardo remains a racer. His talent as an overtaker remains undimmed, boosted as ever by a remarkable feel for the limits of adhesion in the braking zone, and he remains like a dog with a bone when presented with the faintest sniff of victory. In the end, his bid for honours in Hungary was stymied by – whoever would have thought it? – a lack of top speed on the straights, forcing him into bridging ever more outlandish gaps under braking, but if the final desperate lunge on Rosberg was doomed to failure from the start, it’s impossible to do anything but love the man for giving it a go in the first place.

6. Pre-season pick – Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari, currently 3rd)
Real-world occupant – Felipe Massa (Williams Mercedes, see above)

Yeah, I know…

The case for the defence is that a few months ago, it really wasn’t clear whether Sebastian Vettel’s 2014 struggles were with his Red Bull specifically or with adapting to the absence of blown diffusers generally. The team won 3 races but each time it was the car on the other side of the garage taking the honours, Vettel enduring the first winless full season of his F1 career. Not only was Daniel Ricciardo generally quicker, he also did a better job of tyre management, traditionally one of Seb’s strongest suits. Vettel began this year with his reputation dented, driving for a team whose last genuinely quick car was produced 5 years previous and, perhaps most importantly, no longer driving for those who offered him such backing and protection in years gone by, irrespective of whether or not that protection was actually warranted.

2 races into his Ferrari career, Vettel won, not through luck or inclement weather but through great pace and – wouldn’t you just know it – terrific tyre management, letting him sneak through a door left only a little ajar by Mercedes. His entire season has been spent illustrating that while he claimed 4 world titles driving terrific cars, the bloke behind the wheel was none too shabby either. The Malaysia win was opportunistic, his recent win in Hungary absolutely dominant and that other hardy perennial, “Yeah, but he’s no good in traffic, is he?” was laid to rest once and for all by a magnificent drive through the field after technical problems ruined his qualifying in Montreal. Within 50 points of the championship lead going into the break, clearly enjoying his work and in prime position to pounce should Mercedes falter, Vettel’s reputation is as high now as at any time during his championship-winning streak.

5. Pre-season pick – Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari)

In a race-winning car ran by a team becoming ever more aligned to Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen has only a single podium to his name.

It’s hard to shake the nagging feeling that what we’re watching is Kimi’s farewell to Ferrari and, in all likelihood, to motorsport at the highest level. Once a man whose qualifying runs could put the entire paddock on notice, Kimi returned to F1 seemingly shorn of that electric pace and is no closer to rediscovering it. The 6 tenths he’s consistently missing in comparison to team mate Vettel on a low-fuel flyer appear to be gone for good and if the reasons are a complete mystery to those watching, so they seem to be equally perplexing to Raikkonen. At times unlucky come race day, as when leaving the Melbourne pits with only 75% of his tyres safely attached and when losing a certain Hungaroring podium to mechanical trouble, Kimi is too often either the architect of his own downfall or, more concerningly, simply too slow.

He has argued that his race pace has been strong all season and that he’s suffered from being caught in traffic on Sunday afternoons, to which the obvious remedy is to start in front of the slower cars – Raikkonen has somehow contrived to miss Q3 twice already this season. At his best, Raikkonen remains a driver from the very top drawer but his best is increasingly hard to come by…

4. Pre-season pick – Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull Renault, currently 7th – see above)
    Real-world Flying Finn – Valtteri Bottas (Williams Mercedes)

…which isn’t something you’d say of Valtteri Bottas, 10 years Raikkonen’s junior and poised to save Ferrari’s mechanics from the trouble of having to take those Finnish flags down from the garage awnings next year.

The original prediction, of course, was for Valtteri to be a place higher, with the qualifier that he’d struggle to attain 3rd place if Ferrari or Red Bull outspent and out-developed Williams. Ferrari were faster from the outset, as it turned out, but believe they’d be faster still with Bottas at the wheel. A quick glance at the championship table doesn’t necessarily reveal why – Bottas, Raikkonen and Massa are covered by just 3 points after 10 races – but, for all that I love a good statistic, glances at the championship table don’t allow you to see a substantially quicker car getting caught behind a Williams in Bahrain and being completely unable to find a way past its steely, millimetrically-precise occupant. Nor, come to that, do they show you how Bottas claimed a podium position in Montreal by virtue of a strong start and a race spent repelling the theoretically faster man behind for as long as it took that man to lose patience and spin himself out of contention.

On both occasions, the car behind was red. They were paying attention in Maranello.

3. Pre-season pick – Valtteri Bottas (Williams Mercedes)
    Real-world humble pie baker – Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)

2. Pre-season pick – Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)

The enigmatic Rosberg has days when he simply can’t be defeated – Spain and Austria for starters – and would progress from potential threat to genuine contender if he could only have them more often.

The relationship with Lewis Hamilton that threatened to turn into open warfare during 2014 seems far better on the surface this year, to Rosberg’s ultimate disadvantage. The combination of Nico’s Spanish dominance and that remarkable Monaco win, inherited when Hamilton’s 20 second lead turned to dust in one needless pit stop behind a late-race safety car, would last year have been seen as the ideal platform from which to ramp up the mental pressure on his team mate.  This year’s model, perhaps still feeling the after-effects of the booing that stung him post-Spa 2014, has too often seemed to genuinely believe that Hamilton has his number and misjudged his one attempt to destabilise the reigning champion, complaining that Lewis had thought only of himself and not the team in China. Rosberg’s key complaint that day was that Hamilton was driving excessively slowly to preserve his tyres, thus allowing Vettel the opportunity to stay close. The watching fans, either missing the subtle nuances of Nico’s argument or else blowing a gigantic hole through it, depending upon your viewpoint, suggested that if the man ahead was going so slowly, it might have been worth trying to pass him.

Rosberg remains the second fastest Mercedes driver but without the edge, the faint air of menace he brought to last year’s title fight. To stand any chance of usurping Hamilton over the remaining 9 races, Nico needs to rediscover that air, quickly.

1. Pre-season pick – Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)

The fastest Mercedes driver, 2014 qualifying weakness fully addressed, driving better than at any stage of his career.

From the word go, Hamilton proclaimed himself happier with the W06 than with the title-winning W05, that happiness leading to the return of that Schumacher-esque searing speed over one lap, the speed we’d grown so used to in Hamilton’s McLaren days. Car 44 has sat on pole position 9 times in 10 races, going on to win 5 times, and only in Austria has he been soundly beaten for pace. Several wins, most notably those in Melbourne and Shanghai, came with pace to spare had it been needed, while his domination of the Monaco weekend was as crushing as his ultimate disappointment. His reaction to that weekend and his immediate return to winning ways in Canada were marks of the man’s increasing maturity, as was his willingness to take blame for a Hungarian race spent hitting everything that moved, as if he’d crashed into his bedside table upon waking up and decided to take it as a sign of something.

The lead is 21 points. But for one pit-wall gaffe, it would have been 38. Lewis believes he has more in his locker yet.

That pit-wall gaffe is something for which the neutral fan should be thankful. As a direct result of it, the summer break begins with Rosberg able to take the championship lead if he wins in Belgium and Hamilton fails to score. Substitute Vettel for Rosberg in the same situation and the top 3 drivers could head to Monza separated by less than 20 points. Imagine Vettel, already celebrating his wins in delighted Italian over the radio, going to Italy for the first time as a Ferrari driver right in the heart of the title fight, the Tifosi turning Monza into the kind of seething, foaming sporting cauldron only those of Latin blood can ever properly create, the Mercedes drivers cast into supporting roles by that most partizan of crowds…

Anything is possible. In truth, though, the Mercedes has had the legs of the Ferrari too often in 2015 for Vettel to properly sustain a title tilt, no matter how many miracles he might work between now and November. Seb’s presence guarantees that the Silver Arrows have to extend themselves come race day but the battle for ultimate honours remains between their drivers. My money remains on Hamilton.

Where’s yours?

Before we get moving, the reason there’s no Turkish GP write-up: the first lap on which there were no overtaking moves was lap 17.  Kamui Kobayashi sustained a puncture in the middle of the race which I only found out about 3 hours after the chequered flag.  I didn’t see any hope of putting together the usual recap with so much action to consider, so I decided to write something about the new rules instead.  Which I will do.  Soon.

First, though, there’s this.  The facts of this case are difficult to pin down and shall doubtless remain so for some time.  What we know is that after the Chinese Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton and Adrian Sutil were among a gathering in a private room at Shanghai’s M1NT Club.  Also in the room was Eric Lux, the CEO of the Renault team’s owners Genii Capital.  After a while, Lux left the room nursing a fresh, bloody neck injury.  Nobody has confirmed exactly how this wound was sustained and exactly how many people were involved, though all seem to be in agreement that a broken champagne glass played a key role.

Sutil has since admitted to injuring a man “completely unintentionally”, which raises many questions, chief among them being how exactly one goes about the act of accidentally sticking a broken glass into another man’s neck.  Lux’s statement mentions that the option of taking action against other parties involved remains open, which would seem to suggest that Sutil isn’t the only man with cause for concern (there is, incidentally, absolutely no suggestion whatsoever that Lewis Hamilton is responsible for any wrongdoing, with it appearing that he simply had the misfortune of being present).

The wicked whisper is that Force India are particularly keen on the idea of having Nico Hulkenberg in a race seat.  The team are seen by many as an unofficial Mercedes junior outfit, benefiting from engines, technical support and a long-term Merc driver in Paul di Resta.  Hulkenberg, being young, German and very rapid, fits in very well with the junior team concept – have a couple of years learning your trade at Force India, bag a works drive when Rosberg moves on (one assumes that Schumacher will stop at season’s end and that di Resta will be his replacement).  Sutil has nationality in his favour but is older and for a man entering his 5th year at the top level, still remarkably prone to crashing.  Any negative publicity, particularly that with embarrassing and potentially criminal after-effects, should therefore be avoided at all costs.  And yet…

It wouldn’t do to draw any conclusions at this stage.  All we can say for certain is that Lux believes he was assaulted and has identified Sutil as the assailant.  For now, only the protagonists know the truth, but Sutil’s situation is going to be well worth monitoring over the coming weeks.

With Robert Kubica now beginning what seems likely to be a long recovery from injuries sustained in a rallying accident on Sunday, attention at Renault now turns to the task of appointing his replacement.

Questioned on the subject of selecting a new driver, Lotus Renault GP chairman Gerard Lopez said, “If Robert’s recovery will be long and he will not return this season we will rely on a driver with experience.  The fate of our season will depend on the new driver.  Obviously, we’ll bet on a runner capable of winning the championship.”

Obviously.  Who wouldn’t, given the choice?  A more pertinent question might be whether Lopez actually has that choice himself.  It’s now the middle of February and we’re getting into the heart of the pre-season testing schedule.  The first race in Bahrain is just 31 days away and everyone you’d think of as ‘capable of winning the championship’ is already in gainful employment elsewhere.

With a quick reminder that the first person to mention that Nigel Mansell didn’t ever retire from driving and is now a Group Lotus ambassador will win a very firm invitation to leave, let’s consider the main options:

Bruno Senna

Why?

  • As Renault’s lead reserve driver (they have 5 reserve drivers on their books), one of Senna’s roles would ordinarily be to replace an indisposed race driver on a short-term basis.  Using what you’ve already got rather than adding to your payroll makes an amount of sense, particularly when what you’ve already got was racing in Formula 1 last year, albeit at the slow end of the field.
  • For a man who didn’t start his serious racing career until 2004, Senna’s progress through the ranks has been remarkable.  It would be unfair to judge him on 2010 and a season in the awful HRT, but a look through his earlier career reveals adaptability and a knack for learning quickly, married to a good amount of basic pace.
  • Bruno’s uncle drove a black and gold car with the Lotus name attached to it and a Renault engine in the back.  The marketing department want Senna in a Lotus, even if Bruno might never serve up anything as electrifying as Ayrton at his best:

Why not?

  • A good amount of basic pace is a minimum requirement for a Formula 1 drive.  It doesn’t mean you’re destined for the very top of the tree, nor does anything else in Senna’s CV earmark him out as a man on course for a world title.  As a stopgap measure he’d be fine, but he’s neither consistent enough nor ultimately fast enough to make a realistic bid for the world title if Renault produce a car capable of that.
  • He has no experience of leading a team or developing a car through the course of a season.  A lead driver has to be able to provide detailed, concise accurate feedback on exactly how a car behaves and where it can be improved, something Bruno has never been called upon to do.

Kimi Raikkonen

Why?

  • The only man on this list with a world title to his name, edging out Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso to take the 2007 crown for Ferrari.  The Iceman has that experience to call upon, along with near misses in 2003 and 2005, something no other man on this list can offer
  • At his best and most motivated, Raikkonen is as quick as anyone the sport has ever seen, both over a single qualifying lap and a race distance.

Why not?

  • Kimi was last seen at his best and most motivated in a Formula 1 car in the middle of 2008.  Even in his championship year he was inconsistent, a trait which worsened noticeably in the following 2 seasons.  When Kimi isn’t in the mood, his performance nosedives and with no guarantee that the Renault R31 really is the front-running car Gerard Lopez is trying to sell, a man only interested in winning immediately might not see any incentive to take the drive at present
  • Renault approached Raikkonen last year with a view to a 2011 drive.  Their public pronouncements that the Finn was interested in the drive are said to have caused talks to break down, though there’s some conjecture over exactly how advanced these talks ever became.
  • Kimi Raikkonen is contracted to drive for Citroen in the 2011 World Rally Championship, where he can indulge his passion for rallying in a relaxed atmosphere a world away from the pressure-packed, media-fuelled F1 paddock he so hated.  Tempting him away from that will take enormous persuasive powers and, one suspects, a blank chequebook.

Vitantonio Liuzzi

Why?

  • He’s available after being dumped by Force India.
  • Tonio is held in high regard as a test and development driver, known for providing detailed and accurate feedback on car behaviour.

Why not?

  • ‘Dumped by Force India’.  There’s a little more to his departure from the team than meets the eye, but had Liuzzi ever looked remotely like matching his team mate Adrian Sutil last year, he wouldn’t be out of a drive now.  When he’s quick he’s stunning, but Liuzzi is at that level far too infrequently.  The Italian simply doesn’t fit the profile Lopez has put together for his new driver, which makes earlier reports of his inclusion on the shortlist a little difficult to understand.

Nick Heidfeld

Why?

  • Experience.  Nick made his Grand Prix debut with Prost in 2000 and has 172 Grand Prix starts to his name.  He’s led races for BMW and Williams and is the safest pair of hands on this list, with his 41 consecutive race finishes from the 2007 French Grand Prix to the 2009 Singapore Grand Prix representing an all-time record.  To find his last self-inflicted retirement, you have to go right back to a collision with Michael Schumacher in the Australian Grand Prix of 2005.
  • 12 podiums during a career in which only his 2008 BMW could be called a genuine front-runner indicate that Quick Nick is exactly that, possessing the same outright speed that made him so impressive in Formula 3000 through 1998 and 1999
  • As the initial tyre tester for Pirelli during their tyre evaluation programme last year, Heidfeld has more knowledge of their new tyres than any driver currently employed in a race seat.  The construction of the tyres has changed a little since his spell with the company, but the basic philosophy behind their manufacture is the same.  The more knowledge a driver has of how a tyre works, the better he can tweak his car to get the best from them.

Why not?

  • Heidfeld himself comes across as a very pleasant fellow, but one with little presence or marketing clout.  Martin Brundle once described him as being ‘as neutral as Switzerland’ during a TV commentary.
  • Nick is perceived as a nearly man at best, a journeyman at worst.  12 podiums ties the record for most podium finishes without a win, while if he does go on to win a Grand Prix he will shatter the record for most attempts before claiming a maiden victory, currently held by Mark Webber with 131.  It’s perhaps a little unfair – after all, Kubica and Heidfeld were team mates at BMW for 3 seasons and Heidfeld finished ahead of Kubica in the championship for 2 of those – but through his lack of wins and his tendency to be there at the end of every race, Heidfeld has earned a reputation for being the safe, steady choice rather than a world beater.

Nico Hulkenberg

Why?

  • Quick with a capital Q.  Hulkenberg has been a champion wherever he’s competed on his way up the ladder and gave Williams their first pole position since the 2005 European Grand Prix (Nick Heidfeld, our previous contestant, was the man at the controls that day) with a sequence of searing laps on a damp track in Brazil last season.
  • While he’s not proven as a team leader at the highest level and was partnered with the best analytical mind in the car setup business last year, Williams love drivers with a solid engineering background and an understanding of racing car mechanics and dynamics.  He might have had Rubens Barrichello to rely on in 2010 but he has the right credentials to succeed as a development driver himself.

Why not?

  • Is he ready?  Nico came on strongly in the latter part of 2010 but remained inconsistent throughout his rookie year.  For all his pedigree, he remained a man making his F1 debut at the age of 22 and viewed in that context Hulkenberg did a fine job.  That doesn’t necessarily make him the man to lead Renault right now.
  • Hulkenberg is tied to Force India as their test and reserve driver for 2011, while their Mercedes engine supply gives him a route into the works team should Michael Schumacher decide that retirement wasn’t really that much worse than being a racing driver.  Question marks hang over his availability and his desire to go racing this season when there could be a bigger drive at stake come the start of 2012.

Opinions?  I’ll offer you mine.  If I could sell Kimi Raikkonen the idea of a Formula 1 return for one more shot at the big boys, with a package capable of winning from the off and sustaining his motivation for a season, I’d sign him in a heartbeat.  Since I don’t believe the man capable of selling the Finn that idea has yet been born, the logical choice is Quick Nick.

That was quick, wasn’t it?

11 weeks on from Sebastian Vettel’s title-winning drive to victory in Abu Dhabi, we’re up and running again. Not that we ever really stopped in the first place. The public face of Formula 1, the weekends that show the difference between prize champ and prize chump, might have disappeared from view in the middle of November but the race continues year-round. Some have spent the winter making detail changes, others trying something altogether different from the rest of the pack and all are preparing to show their hand.

Today, new cars from Red Bull, Scuderia Toro Rosso, Ferrari, Renault, Mercedes, Sauber and Williams made their debut appearances in Valencia. Tomorrow the new Lotus will join them, with Virgin and McLaren following next week. HRT will return too, rolling out their new car the very instant they have a new car to roll out. 2010’s battle for the championship saw four men in contention at the start of the final race and left this year with a big act to follow, but there are already plenty of points to discuss. Here are 5 for starters:

Movable rear wings

2011’s headline rule change sees the introduction of a driver-adjustable rear wing designed to increase straight line speed and provide more opportunities to overtake. Using a switch mounted on the steering wheel, drivers will be able to open up a gap in the wing, with the resultant lowering of air resistance leading to an increased top speed. In practice and qualifying they’ll be able to trigger the new wing system at any time. In the race, they won’t.

The plan is for the wing to be activated using electronic timing loops located around each circuit. During the first 2 laps of a race, nobody will be permitted to use the device. After that, only those who are within a second of the car ahead will have the option to adjust the wing, being allowed to do so only while inside a designated overtaking zone determined by the FIA. Drivers will know when they’re close enough to take advantage thanks to a light in the car’s cockpit, while the car ahead will not be permitted to use their wing as a means of defending their position.

You can see the wing in action here:

The concept is an interesting one but how well it’ll work in practice is a matter for debate. The governing body seem to be adopting a flexible stance, having not announced the location of any overtaking zones as yet. The current belief is that zones will be selected in the week prior to each Grand Prix, which gives the FIA rulemakers a chance to monitor the effectiveness of the wings and adjust the rules where necessary. This is vitally important, since the two keys to making adjustable rear wings work are going to be correctly locating each passing zone and ensuring the time gap between the two cars has been calculated properly.

Why? It’s largely to do with matters of common sense which you’d hope have already been thought of. Place an overtaking zone directly before a fast corner and there won’t be any way to complete the pass before everyone arrives at the turn-in point, at which point someone has to play follow the leader. Make the zone too short and the car behind will never catch up. Take it to the other extreme, with a long straight leading directly into a hairpin, and the chasing driver will either breeze past down the straight or else complete a simple pass into the hairpin. Should the wings be more effective at increasing speeds than anyone expects, a gap of a second would be gone quickly enough that any one of us could make a passing move.

The big danger, then, is that we’ll move from being fans of a sport in which overtaking is difficult but moves are often superbly judged to one where there are 5 passes on every lap that could have been carried off by any driver in the world. Which is better?

Pirelli

After 14 seasons, Bridgestone have said goodbye to Formula 1, with Pirelli the successful applicant when the sport’s tyre contract was put out to tender.

Since the start of 2007, the F1 tyre supplier has had to bring two different kinds of dry tyre to each race, with each team having to use both compounds during the course of a normal dry race. Too often, particularly after the refuelling ban was introduced at the start of 2010, the difference between the harder and softer tyres has been so small as to make them indistinguishable, while the tyres have been built to provide durability and consistent performance.

As a showcase for the tyre manufacturer, it’s been fantastic. Want a quality tyre? Buy some everlasting Bridgestones. As a means of encouraging exciting racing, it’s been abysmal. Without there being any great difference in the tyres or any great drop-off in performace, there’s been no reward for trying different strategies, with the result that everyone starts on the same kind of tyre, pits to change at the same time and slogs around for the rest of the race without any difficulty.

The exceptions have been races where, through unexpected weather or peculiar track conditions, teams have had to rethink their tyre usage. Think of the 2009 Monaco event, where Sebastian Vettel took 5 laps to destroy a set of soft tyres, or last year’s race in Canada which saw everyone abandon their usual stop-once-and-that’s-it plans in a frantic bid to understand the behaviour of their rapidly disintegrating rubber. Pirelli’s task on their return to the pinnacle of motorsport is to design a range of tyres that produce the same varied approach to tyre management at every single race weekend.

Schumi

From main event to first bout on the undercard in 19 races. Last season began with fanfare and fireworks, huge hype surrounding the return of the most successful driver the sport has ever known and a promise that he was back to win an 8th world title. It ended without a single race win, without a single podium finish and with the slow-dawning realisation that in Singapore, Michael Schumacher really had finished 13th.

How could it have gone so wrong? Did it, really? Parallels were drawn with Niki Lauda’s 1982 comeback and Alain Prost’s title-winning return to action in 1993, but those parallels tend to ignore that neither man had spent 3 years away from F1, Prost’s Williams was so dominant that year that the world crown was won at a relative canter and Lauda was beaten by his team mate John Watson in his first year back. The reason such apparently useful bits of information were ignored was connected entirely to Schumacher’s approach.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have listened to talk of another championship tilt, of more race wins to go with the 91 he collected first time around. Perhaps Michael and Mercedes should have held 2010 as a learning year, a chance to ease the great man back in before a proper shot at things in 2011.  They didn’t, we listened and we did so because it was Michael Schumacher. Surely nobody could be bang on the pace after such a long absence, but if anyone could…

He couldn’t. Amidst talk of a Mercedes whose characteristics he disliked and Bridgestone front tyres that gave him no confidence to push to the limit, Schumi was summarily dispatched by Nico Rosberg, another man who professed to hate the car Mercedes had given him.  Rosberg has often seemed somewhat put out by the insinuation that his inter-team victory came about through Schumacher being poor rather than any brilliance on his part, understandably and perhaps with justification.  It’s difficult to assess, simply because for every race where Michael was on song – his season-ending run of form in Japan, Korea and Brazil was enough to remind everyone that there remains a very talented racing driver in there – there were a couple earlier in the season where he was at best anonymous and at worst atrocious.

His upturn in form towards the end of 2010 provided encouragement to his legion of fans, though downplaying expectations for 2011 would still seem the wisest choice.  Already, though, there’s talk of podiums, wins and another championship for the Red Baron. A case of no lessons learned or one of genuine hope?

Renault’s exhausts

You read that and you said, “Wow…” Perhaps you rolled your eyes somewhere in there too.

It’s traditional for the exhausts on a racing car to exit at the rear of the car, just as they do on your daily driver. When you’re running a car full of tightly-packaged heat-producing components in an environment where good temperature management is crucial, conventional wisdom has it that the best place to channel hot gases is far away from anything important.

Conventional wisdom, one assumes, hasn’t made it as far as the Oxfordshire base of Renault’s design office. The exhausts on their new R31 exit the car at the front of each sidepod, being designed to blow the hot exhaust gases directly underneath the car. The intention is to improve the airflow along the bottom of the R31, accelerating the air so that more downforce is created – for an explanation of the full ins and outs, Craig Scarborough’s blog should be your first port of call.

The theory underpinning the idea is a sound one, but the main concern has to surround those temperatures. Protecting key components from exhaust heat over a 90 minute race, particularly wiring and radiators, won’t be easy but must be done effectively, since the fastest car in the world is no use to anyone if its insides melt every 10 laps. If Renault can manage it and demonstrate a big performance gain over the winter, watch for every chief designer in the pitlane setting to work on their own version. 2008 had the shark fin, 2009 the blown diffuser and 2010 the F-duct. 2011 could be the year of the front exit exhaust.

The rise of the funded driver

Throughout its history, Formula 1 has been open to the well-funded enthusiast as well as the highly-paid professional. The introduction of the Super Licence and stricter conditions for those wishing to take part in Grands Prix went a long way to improving overall driving standards and ensuring that only those truly capable of doing so were allowed to race competitively, but as recently as 1995 the occasional wealthy no-hoper was slipping through the net with teams who had no alternative but to take whatever funds were available. Prime examples include Jean-Denis Deletraz, whose brief Grand Prix career with Larousse and Pacific was eloquently summed up by the great Murray Walker, and Taki Inoue, whose lasting contribution to motor racing was to somehow be ran over by a safety vehicle during the Hungarian Grand Prix that same year.

Of course there’s a video.  Stay with this particular clip to its conclusion for a description of Taki’s other triumph, in which he was turned upside down by a collision with a course car at Monaco while his broken Arrows was attached to a tow rope:

 

The 2011 grid features a new kind of pay driver filtering towards the front of the grid. At the sharp end, the top teams remain wholly concerned with winning races, with success attracting the sponsorship funds needed to invest in car development and attracting the best personnel. Towards the rear of the field where substantial investment is harder to come by, Narain Karthikeyan’s drive at HRT comes with backing from Tata Group while Virgin virgin Jerome d’Ambrosio brings around 4.5 million Euro with him. What’s a little more unusual is the reliance on funding towards the middle of the field, with several examples worth highlighting.

Renault have retained Vitaly Petrov for a further 2 years, after a 2010 season which featured occasional flashes of promises buried underneath prolonged spells of crashing into things. The team will continue to benefit from sponsorship sourced from across Russia and the former Soviet bloc, Lada and Snoras Bank being the most prominent brands on show, though it’s tempting to wonder whether the team would end up in better shape come year end if they hired a faster driver with no personal sponsors, bringing home more prize money and fewer repair bills to compensate.

Sauber, perennial home of the mid-grid journeyman and the up-and-coming hotshoe, have 21 year old Mexican driver Sergio Perez driving alongside Kamui Kobayashi this season. With Perez, whose career to date has been steady rather than stellar (2nd in the GP2 series last year is the highlight on paper, but look at who he beat rather than where he finished and it loses a fair amount of shine), comes a deal with Telmex, the Latin American telecoms firm who own almost every phone line in Mexico City. A clear sign of the economic times, especially when you consider that Peter Sauber’s insistence on running Kimi Raikkonen instead of Enrique Bernoldi in 2001 would ultimately cost him his Red Bull funding; this is not a man renowned for chasing the corporate dollar.

Frank Williams was one of those men once, in the early days when he ran his team from a phone box and survived on a race-by-race basis. His standing, both professionally and financially, moved on to such an extent that when Honda came to evaluate their F1 programme during 1986, he was in a position to refuse to run Honda’s favourite son Satoru Nakajima. The Japanese company would take their engines to Lotus and McLaren instead, while Williams underwent an interim year with Judd before forging a new and hugely productive partnership with Renault.

The second half of the last decade saw Williams tail off, settling into a midfield role with the occasional podium finish to lighten the mood. When blue-chip backers such as Philips and Royal Bank of Scotland came to the end of their contracts, there were no ready replacements. It is for this reason and this reason only that Pastor Maldonado drives their second car this year.

Maldonado comes with US $10million of support from PDVSA, Venezuela’s state owned oil company. He replaces Nico Hulkenberg, who was his team mate at ART in the 2008 GP2 series. Nico was a class rookie that season while Maldonado, a permanent fixture in GP2 during recent years, was entering his 3rd season. One of them won the championship, the other finished 6th and by now you won’t need to be told which was which. Nico has no financial backing. He gave Williams their first pole position since 2005 with a stunning series of laps on a damp track at Interlagos last October, but he doesn’t bring a penny with him.

For the midfield teams, money might be the primary focus in a world that has less of it to spend, but will taking the less talented, better financed option prove to be a false economy?