Posts Tagged ‘Williams F1’

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?

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No, not “the man responsible for this site actually writing something”.  Not that.  As usual, my absence can be explained by my being very, very busy with something else.  I would have loved to write about seeing Michael Schumacher near the front of a Grand Prix again without thinking he looked out of place, or about the McLaren role reversal that saw Hamilton’s model of restraint lose out to Button’s gung-ho attack.  Alas, more important things.

Word is that Kimi Raikkonen might be on his way back to Formula 1.  If so, that’ll be a victory of sorts for those armchair pundits who said NASCAR wouldn’t be his long-term home (stay around long enough, folks, and eventually even this writer will get something right), even if some of them might have suggested that he’d stay in rallying instead.  What interests me is his apparent destination.

Williams have a spare seat for 2012.  Pastor Maldonado is locked in, with his sponsorship from Venezuela being worth in excess of £20 million, a sizeable chunk of the team’s annual budget.  Rubens Barrichello, who brings pace, huge experience and nothing in the way of sponsorship, isn’t yet signed up.  All the indications have been that Rubinho would stay for a third season, but it’s emerged that prior to the Italian Grand Prix two weeks ago, Kimi paid an ‘informal visit’ to the Williams factory in Oxfordshire.

This might well be a quiet reminder to their existing lead driver that there’s a contract on the table which he should sign forthwith, of course, but suppose for a moment that Kimi’s serious.  Why Williams?  Simply, they have a reputation for being a racing team.  Not a PR-driven organisation – teams with an interest in their public image don’t let world champions go at the end of their title-winning campaigns (come to that, you might also argue that PR-driven organisations don’t sign Nigel Mansell in the first place) – but a team which exists solely for Sunday afternoons, presided over by a man for whom motor racing is the reason for his existence.  Raikkonen, whose understanding of PR begins and ends on an island in the Caribbean, likes that kind of thing.

Why not Williams?  Because they’re never going to win again.

 

Lap 30 of yesterday’s German Grand Prix (which we will, in a roundabout sort of way, discuss in this little article) marked the halfway point of this year’s Formula 1 world championship.  It’s never been less than intriguing so far – indeed, for the most part, it’s been simply stunning.

Back in March, just before the most thrilling season in years got underway, nobody had any real idea of what to expect from the new face of Formula 1 racing.  None of us were quite sure exactly how KERS, DRS and Pirelli’s return to the sport would mix up the pecking order or change the way Sunday afternoons panned out.  Some of us were stupid enough to make some predictions anyway.  At least one of us thought asking his mother for some thoughts was a great idea which wouldn’t in any way come back to haunt him.

The aim was to illustrate that when it came to setting predictions for 2011, you were just as well off asking someone with a passing interest if you couldn’t find anyone who’d spent the last 20 years deeply in love with motorsport.  How are we doing so far?  Let’s see…:

Rookie of the year

Adam: Paul di Resta
Sue: Pastor Maldonado

This battle is beginning to tighten up a little as Pastor comes to grips with his Williams, of which more in a moment, but over the 10 races it’s di Resta who must surely get the nod.  The Scotsman has offered more than one genuinely stunning performance this season, with 6th on the grid at Silverstone being a particular high point.  It should also be said that Sergio Perez, despite the odd quiet showing or major gaffe, has been generally very impressive too.

Maldonado started to get a handle on things at Monaco, where he’s always excelled, and is by no means disgracing himself.  When, though, was the last time you saw him and said “Wow”?

Adam 1-0 Sue

Midfield surprise package

Adam: Williams
Sue: Scuderia Toro Rosso

While I have been surprised by Williams, it hasn’t been in quite the manner I’d hoped for.  FW33’s performance thus far has remained consistently in the space between ‘slow’ and ‘catastrophic’, with a pair of 9th places being the highpoint after a pre-season in which the team genuinely looked to be there or thereabouts.  A major reshuffle is currently taking place with various key technical staff, including technical director Sam Michael, taking their leave at season’s end.  You get the feeling that a clear-out is necessary, because while the existing design team appear to know they’ve drawn a bad car, nobody seems to know exactly why.  Last weekend, the team removed KERS from Rubens Barrichello’s car, replacing the unit with moveable ballast in an attempt to improve weight distribution and cure their heavy tyre wear.  This weekend, they’re putting it back on…

STR are somewhere near the position they occupied last season, thus winning this round by default.  Pulling up absolutely no trees in qualifying, the STR6 is built with race days in mind.  Jaime Alguersuari took 3 straight points finishes in Canada, Valencia and Britain, while Sebastien Buemi has scored on 4 occasions.  Only once has the Toro Rosso pairing scored points in the same race, suggesting that what the team really needs is a little more consistency from its driving staff rather than its racing car.

What we should both have said, as it turns out, was Sauber, but none of us could really have expected that, right?

Adam 1-1 Sue

Will Schumi win again?

Adam: Yes
Sue: No

Right, here we go…

Let’s not compare Michael Mk II to the all-conquering first career, the one that saw him become statistically the most successful driver in F1 history.  There’s no sense in us doing that, partly because Nico Rosberg was never going to let Mercedes mould a team around the other guy (Nico’s contract was in place before Michael’s, lest we forget), partly because there’s no prospect of Michael having the searing one-lap pace he used to have now he’s 42 and partly because relative to the competition, these Mercs are the worst cars he’s ever sat in.

For all that Nico has the undoubted qualifying advantage, it’s nothing like as clear cut when it comes to comparing race pace.  For 5 races on the spin now, Michael has been visibly, demonstrably faster on race day.  The problem is that only once, after a sublime showing on the Montreal boating lake, has he come away with a greater points haul than his team mate.  Everywhere else, car problems or silly mistakes have cost him – at Nurburgring, for instance, he had the pace to catch Rosberg, spin on a damp patch and then catch him again, all of which was fun to watch but brought him home one place behind his team mate.  That place was 8th to Nico’s 7th, in cars which haven’t once fulfilled the promise they showed in the final Barcelona winter test.

Viewed in isolation, without the 91 wins that came before, this Schumacher chap is a non-stop whirl of entertainment.  Try to recall the last time you saw Schumi on screen, on a Sunday afternoon, doing something that didn’t involve a passing move or a crash.  He remains the ultimate competitor, he has absolutely no concept of what it means to give up a position (often, it must be said, to his ultimate detriment) and I’m certain that if Mercedes can serve up a decent car, Michael can still win a race with it.

All of which, sadly, is a long-winded justification for why I’ve got this one wrong too.

Adam 12 Sue 

Massa – still a contender?

Adam: No
Sue: No

More than any of the other questions we set, this is the one I wanted to be wrong about.

For 20 seconds at the end of the 2008 season, as he won the Brazilian Grand Prix and Lewis Hamilton languished in 6th when only a top 5 finish would do, Felipe was the world champion.  The dignity, generosity and kindness of spirit he displayed when Lewis crept back into 5th and snatched the crown back was of a type no man could fail to admire.  His brilliance in the early part of 2009 was far more than the hateful Ferrari F60 deserved, his recovery from the near-fatal head injury he sustained in Hungary that year was remarkable and when “Fernando is faster – than – you,” the loss of what would have been a fairytale victory seemed unfair in a way few team orders ever have.

It’s easy to suggest that Massa is not the driver he was before a spring from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn struck him on the head that July afternoon.  The bad news, though, is that there may well be some truth to it.  Though he led the championship in the early part of 2010, his race in Germany later that year is the only post-comeback example of the raw speed the Brazilian used to serve up as a matter of course.  In Germany this year, he was 40 seconds back down the road from his team mate.

Or should I say team leader?  Ferrari have never been shy of playing politics, nor of openly favouring one driver over another – this, incidentally, is not a practice that started in the Schumacher era, no matter what the revisionists might have you believe.  Alonso was only ever going to be signed as de-facto number one driver, though there can be little doubt that Massa’s injuries smoothed his path to some degree, and it’s worth noting how when discussing potential threats at the front of the field, Fernando never mentions Felipe.  Even given equal billing, though, I’m not sure this most likeable of racing drivers quite has it in him anymore.

Adam 2-3 Sue

Will Pirelli spice up the show?

Adam: Yes
Sue: No

They haven’t done it by themselves, not by any means.  Even in races where the tyres have hung together well, there’s been something to see.  Last weekend, for example, Hamilton, Alonso and Webber were rarely more than a couple of seconds apart and swapped the lead on seven different occasions, despite each man following their planned tyre routine and pit schedule without any major drama.

It’s the 2011 rules package as a whole we should be praising for the marked increase in overtaking and proper racing action.  There have been races – China and Turkey spring readily to mind – where tyres have been the main factor in much of the passing, but they can’t solely account for great racing in Germany, Spain or even Monaco, where everyone who wasn’t born Lewis Carl Hamilton found a way to overtake without incident.  On the whole, though, they’re promoting overtaking and varied strategies, particularly in the midfield, where Sutil and Perez have both scored big points through superb tyre conservation.  There’s speculation that, prompted by mockery from a rival tyre company’s Italian advertising, Pirelli might move towards more durable tyres for marketing reasons.  Let’s hope not.

Adam 3-3 Sue

Will anyone fall foul of the 107% rule?

Adam: No
Sue: Yes

There are – and I realise it’s quite redundant of me to point this out – perfectly good reasons for my getting this one wrong.

Come to think of it, I did say that you might see teams miss the race because they couldn’t make their car run for long enough to set a decent time.  I had HRT in mind and said as much.  In Australia, they did exactly that, failing to keep the right nuts on the relevant bolts for long enough to post a lap within 107% of the quickest Q1 time.  Game over, Adam wins and on we go, right?

Not exactly.  HRT did miss the 107% rule again in Monaco, but this too was down to technical issues and both cars had demonstrated during practice that they were quick enough to meet the required time.  Virgin can’t make the same case for Jerome d’Ambrosio in Canada.  The stewards let him in to the race on the grounds that he was running a new chassis that Saturday, one he’d never driven before.  This, just so we’re clear, shouldn’t make the blindest bit of difference.  It’s said that no two cars are exactly the same, even if they’re built to exactly the same spec, but in this modern era of computer aided design and computational fluid dynamics, it simply isn’t possible for one team to build two cars which differ wildly in performance.

Nobody expected Virgin to be quite as slow as they’ve been, least of all Virgin themselves.  I certainly didn’t, I’m startled that d’Ambrosio missed the cut anywhere, especially on a Canadian circuit which is essentially no more than a big run of chicanes connected by long straights, and I can’t for the life of me find any mitigation.  He was allowed to start the race and I really ought to use that as my get-out clause, but since I don’t believe that was the right decision:

Adam 3-4 Sue

Who’ll win the title?

Adam: Red Bull, Vettel
Sue: Red Bull, Vettel

At about this time of year, it’s tradtional for me to crown someone as champion-in-waiting and for that someone to slump like Devon Loch on tranquilisers, but can we really see it happening this time around?

For a man with one title in the bag and another waiting to be collected, Sebastian Vettel is still surrounded by a fair number of doubts.  His judgement and ability to respond when Mark Webber is faster on a given weekend are both suspect.  His defensive skills appear to be lacking – witness Fernando Alonso’s cruise down the inside into the Nurburgring’s first hairpin on Sunday.  Under pressure, he’s prone to errors, such as the one he made while hanging on to the leading trio last weekend or the slip that gave Jenson Button victory in Canada.  The 45 laps he spent staring at the back of Felipe Massa’s car in Germany suggest that even when his machinery is vastly superior, he can still be found wanting when required to make his way through traffic.

If next year’s RB8 isn’t the class of the field, that’ll give Vettel a problem.  His victories are all of the lights-to-flag variety and it’s hard to recall Seb winning a race that his car didn’t deserve.  Even that brilliant maiden win, for Scuderia Toro Rosso at a wet Monza three years ago, was achieved from pole position and with his team mate Sebastien Bourdais starting at the front with him.  This year, though, it matters not, because the RB7 has been dominant enough for long enough that Vettel hasn’t had to go wheel-to-wheel with his main rivals on equal terms.

Given the best car in the field, the reigning champion has made better use of it than Mark Webber and his advantage, 77 points at the time of writing, is such that he doesn’t have to win again this season.  Steady points are enough.  Given that Sebastian finishes 4th even when he leaves the road twice and spends three quarters of the distance stuck behind a Ferrari, there’s no reason to suggest he won’t get them.

Final score:
Adam 4
-5 Sue

The worst part (at least for me, though not, I suspect, for my Mam) is that only one of us totally understood every question and realised that the answers really were being posted online.  My only hopes of turning around this deficit are for Williams to come on strong, Michael Schumacher to win a race before season’s end or for me to change my mind on that 107% business.

I’m toast. 

A little while back, I wrote a fairly substantial piece on 5 things to watch out for during the 2011 season.  The intention was to let that stand as the meaty season preview and throw together a little series of predictions in the week before the first race.  Pre-season testing, however, has shown that predicting anything much about the 2011 season is a fool’s game.  It’s incredibly difficult to get any kind of solid read on the pecking order as we prepare for first practice in Melbourne, now only 4 days away, so anyone trying to pick a winner must be abandoning their timing sheets and employing some Olympic-standard guesswork.

With that in mind, I originally took the courageous decision to follow the example of this fine English hero:

Later, though, it dawned on me that here was a perfect opportunity to hand over the reins for a moment, letting someone else have a bash at claiming a gold medal for Great Britain in the long distance buggered-if-I-know event.  This was, in fact, a great chance to take some of my thoughts, my best judgements from a winter spent trying my hardest to decipher the results of every test session, and compare them with someone who watches Formula 1 regularly enough during the season but would manage quite happily if the sport didn’t exist.

For this exercise, I’ve been joined by my mother.  Sue started watching Formula 1 8 years after I did, for reasons I don’t recall.  They probably had something to do with there being nothing else to watch if it was Sunday and I was at home.  She was fond of Mika Hakkinen, rapidly became a fan of Johnny Herbert and had high hopes for Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who didn’t win a single Grand Prix from that point forward.  She has all the right credentials for this kind of work.

Questions are in bold, Sue’s answers are in red, while my thoughts will look the same as ever.  Onward!

 

Who will be the pick of this year’s rookies?  Maldonado, Perez, Di Resta or d’Ambrosio?

Maldonado.  I’ve got a feeling.

While I’m fairly sure this selection was made on the basis that she liked his name more than the others, it might not be a bad shout.  It’s a three-horse race, this one – d’Ambrosio doesn’t look like the next big thing and a Virgin is not the car in which to demonstrate otherwise.  Perez has been rapid in testing but his Sauber team have precedent for running a very light car, setting headline-grabbing times to attract the sponsors, while I’m not sure about the young Mexican’s focus over a long race.  Di Resta is the real deal, quick in occasional Friday practice runs last year and the reigning champion of the German DTM touring car series.  Working against him this season is a move to a Force India team who have lost key technical staff over the winter and have shown little pace so far.  No matter how attractive his sponsorship dollars made him to the Williams team, Maldonado is quick – he wins on the streets of Monaco an awful lot, which a merely average driver wouldn’t do – but his reputation for wildness has been around for so long that the corners have started to curl up.

I’m going to pick Paul Di Resta, but this is one I wouldn’t be at all surprised to lose.

 

Which of the midfield teams is most likely to spring a surprise this season?

Scuderia Toro Rosso.  Because of Albert Shuari.

She does that sometimes.  Albert Shuari is young Spanish driver Jaime Alguersuari, who rose to prominence partly through spending an afternoon annoying the life out of Michael Schumacher in Melbourne last year, but mainly through having a name that’s easy to mangle.

Sue has the same kind of hopes for Jaime that she had for Frentzen a decade ago.  His testing times on short runs, along with those of his team mate Sebastien Buemi, have been up among the front runners.  It’s a little difficult to believe that STR might have gone from occasional points finishes to genuine threats in the space of a few months, though.  I don’t doubt they’ve improved, much as I’m sure Sauber have made strides over the winter, but I’m not convinced those strides are enough to lift them into the top 10.

There’s no such thing as a completely unbiased sports writer.  The subject matter is far too emotive for that.  Organised sport is a way of compressing every possible human feeling into a couple of hours and, even at the most amateur of levels, we care passionately enough about the whole business that we want to share that passion with the world.  Against that backdrop, we’re bound to develop favourites along the way.  My favourites are going along very nicely, thank you very much, so I’ll stick with them – my ones to watch in the midfield battle are the chaps at Williams.

 

Will Michael Schumacher win again?

No.  I don’t think he’s good enough to win a race.

A divisive subject, this one.  Whatever your views on his racing ethics, Michael Schumacher’s first spell in F1 established him as one of the best drivers in history on pure, raw, unadulterated speed.  The first year of his comeback established him as just another racing driver.

Towards the end of the season there were encouraging signs, with a marked upturn in pace and results, but for much of the year Michael wasn’t quite on the pace of his team mate Nico Rosberg and appeared to have no way of making the Mercedes behave to his liking.  Initial signs from 2011 testing weren’t promising, with the MGP W02 looking to be well off the pace, but a major upgrade at the final test in Barcelona saw Schumacher set the fastest time of the winter by a huge margin.

Nobody knows how much fuel everyone ran through the winter, nor do we know which tyres were used on each run.  My suspicion is that Michael did a qualifying simulation with low fuel and super-soft tyres, while teams like Red Bull have probably ran a middling fuel level all through the winter (some reports say the RB7 has always had at least 80kg of fuel – every 10kg is worth around 0.3 seconds per lap, so by that logic Red Bull are 3 seconds a lap quicker than everyone else on a fuel-adjusted basis…).  I wouldn’t have Mercedes as the favourites for Australia, then, but I do believe they’re somewhere just behind the leading teams and I don’t think Schumacher has completely lost his touch.  Will he win in 2011?  Yes.

 

What about Felipe Massa?

Is he still at Ferrari?  He’ll always be in Fernando Alonso’s shadow.  He won’t win again.

I want to disagree with this.

Having been within 20 seconds of winning the 2008 world championship, Massa spent the first half of 2009 doing a mightily impressive job in a Ferrari that looked barely controllable at times.  Then, during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix, a spring from Rubens Barrichello’s rear suspension detached itself, bounced back along the racetrack and came within an ace of killing his fellow Brazilian.  Despite briefly leading the 2010 championship in the early stages, Massa is yet to look like the driver whose efforts in the two preceding seasons won him the respect and admiration of millions across the world.  In his one truly competitive post-comeback run, when he led for much of the way in Germany last year, “Fernando is faster than you.  Can you confirm you understand this message?”

I might want to disagree, but I can’t.  Throughout the build-up to this season, there’s been talk of the two Red Bull drivers, of Alonso and of the struggling pair at McLaren.  We’ve had the late rise of Mercedes and the sadly brief thought that Robert Kubica might be a real contender, but nothing on Massa.  Ferrari is now Alonso’s team, Massa is cast in the supporting role and in truth, he might not be capable of anything more.  Massa won’t be a serious contender in 2011.

 

Will Pirelli’s new tyres spice up the show?

The colours help.  They look pretty and people can go, “Oooh, so-and-so’s on those tyres.”  I’m not sure whether more tyre wear will help.  I don’t think that’ll add much – it’ll be the same as before but the colours will be nicer.

Uh-huh.

The colours will be nicer, yes, and as discussed previously, it should be easy to determine which drivers are running a particular type of tyre as we work through a race.  More importantly, though, Pirelli have kept to their brief of designing tyres with a very short working life.  The result is that you’re going to see cars sliding, drivers making mistakes and, in the early races at least, people trying different tyre strategies as they try to find the fastest way through a Grand Prix.

All of that should result in closer racing and more overtaking.  It worked in Canada last year, when Bridgestone’s rubber wasn’t designed to fall to pieces but did so anyway.  In 2005 and 2009, it even worked in Monaco, where every corner is barely more than a car wide, framed by metal barriers ready to catch the unwary.  It might not solve all of F1’s passing problems and the teams might wrap their heads around an optimum strategy after a few races, but for the early part of the year at least, the new tyres will definitely liven up the races. This might come at the expense of practice running, as teams try to save tyres for race day and do the bare minimum on Friday and Saturday, but the main event will certainly benefit.

The 107% rule is back.  You must qualify within 107% of the fastest time to be allowed to start the race.  Will anyone fall foul of the rule?

More than likely.  A new season, different setups and things…

I will confess that I’m not absolutely sure what Sue’s on about here.  She may have meant that the teams all have new cars and some of them are bound to struggle, especially those who haven’t yet done any running at all.

The team most likely to fall foul is HRT, whose F111 hasn’t turned a wheel yet.  Last year, they turned up for the first race in Bahrain with the same problem.  As qualifying started, they were still building the car Karun Chandhok would try to qualify.  Had the 107% rule been in force that day, Chandhok would have been off the pace by a reasonable margin but Bruno Senna would have missed out by just o.1 seconds.  By the next race in Australia, both men were setting times within 107% of pole position.

You might see teams, HRT in particular, struggling to make their car run for long enough to post a reasonable time and missing the race that way.  On pure pace, they should all just about make it.

 

Who will win the world title?

Red Bull.  Driver?  You’d have to say Vettel, though I’d prefer it if Webber won.

An awful lot of people would prefer it if Mark Webber won.  Mark is a very straightforward, honest and friendly chap who, in the autumn of his career, is driving very well for a team that very obviously favours the man in the other car.  His main problems are that he’s very, very, very slightly slower than the other guy, the other guy is the reigning world champion and it very much suits Red Bull to have a young, German-speaking driver acting as the leading billboard for their young, German-speaking drinks company.

Through the winter, the Red Bull RB7 has appeared to be quick, consistent and kind on tyres, so they’re a very solid pick for the constructors championship.  As far as the driver battle goes, I agree with Sue.  I’d be happier if Webbo pulled it off, but I expect Vettel to take the honours.

 

We’ll reconvene either in November or whenever one of these predictions goes horribly, horribly wrong, whichever arrives soonest…

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?