Posts Tagged ‘Williams’

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?

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.

 

Summarising rather than recapping, for several reasons.  It’s late.  I ate quite a lot earlier and feel somewhat lethargic.  I played the guitar for a couple of hours and keep getting cramps in my hand and forearm.  Most importantly of all, I’ve been at the cider.

Still, we should probably say something, right?

  • Another race, another Vettel pole position.  Not even losing most of Friday to a heavy crash in the rain slowed him down.  This represents Sebastian’s 8th consecutive front row start.  The last man to manage more was Damon Hill, never outside the first 2 places on the grid from the last race of 1995 to the last race of 1996.
  • Next door to him, though still 4 tenths away from being ahead, the other Red Bull.  Last year, as you’ll doubtless recall, Vettel and Webber completed 40 harmonious laps of Istanbul Park and then crashed into each other.  While a repeat performance tomorrow would do the championship fight no end of good, one suspects it wouldn’t be received quite so well by the team.  It’s a start for Mark, but there’s still quite a gap to bridge before he can really begin to threaten his team mate.
  • Mercedes have a Magic Paddle in their car.  It’s a device that gives the drivers quick, easy access to various settings on the car, though nobody’s prepared to say which ones.  Whatever it does, it’s situated next to the Curiously Ineffective Q3 lever, which Michael Schumacher pulled in error.  Rosberg has outqualified both McLarens and starts 3rd, while Schumi has been as quick as or quicker than Nico all weekend and is clearly mystified by how he’s ended up 8th, 1.1 seconds slower.  At least he made it to Q3, though.
  • Rubens Barrichello didn’t, but 11th is a step forward for Williams and he was within 24 thousandths of pipping Heidfeld to the last Q3 spot.  Signs of life from a sleeping giant?
  • They’ll be hoping so, as the scrap to avoid being embarrassed by Lotus heats up.  Heikki Kovalainen, trouncing Jarno Trulli yet again, is inching ever closer to the back of the midfield pack in qualifying.  Williams, Force India and Toro Rosso in particular must now be casting a nervous glance over their shoulders in the final seconds of Q1.
  • Kamui Kobayashi, who isn’t exactly backward in coming forward when there’s overtaking to be done, starts last after his Sauber’s wheels ceased to turn before he’d recorded a flying lap.  The idea of Kamui, a garage full of fresh tyres, KERS and DRS on a track which has always allowed some overtaking is a mouth-watering one.  Judging from his BBC interview earlier today, a wide-eyed affair in which a grin was never once off his face, Kobayashi thinks so too.  Keep your eyes on him tomorrow.

Everyone has at least one “I remember where I was when…” moment.  Something you could describe in minute detail without fear of contradiction, an event frozen in time.  You might recall your exact location when news broke of John Lennon’s death or what you were doing when BBC News first reported Princess Diana’s passing.  If you’ve been fortunate enough to keep your wits about you for so long, you might even know how you celebrated Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick goal against West Germany, though you’ve probably got more chance of recalling your reaction when Gazza burst into tears.

Tomorrow, Sunday 1st May, marks exactly 17 years since the last fatal accident in a Formula 1 car.  On lap 7 of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, the Williams of Ayrton Senna veered to the right in the middle of the long, flat-out left curve at Tamburello.  An impact with a concrete wall on the track perimeter sent suspension components into the cockpit, where Senna sustained head injuries that left no hope of survival.

Every aspect of that day remains crystal clear in the memory.  I can tell you all about the crash, what I did for the rest of that day and how, when Moira Stewart announced Senna’s death on the evening news, my Dad felt the need to reinforce the message.  I didn’t believe it immediately, being 8 years old and still holding on to the idea that maybe it was all some terrible mistake.  Murray Walker’s remarkable Keep Calm and Carry On commentary from that afternoon has stayed with me too.  Watching a live feed from the Italian host broadcaster RAI, Murray could see and appreciate the gravity of the situation, cameras remaining fixed on the medical team and their increasingly desperate efforts to save a situation which was already beyond hope.  BBC had taken their own cameras to that race, which saved British viewers from witnessing Senna’s ultimate end and gave Murray the task of publicly hoping for the best while privately staring at the worst.

What I couldn’t tell you is what I was doing the day before.  I’d probably been to see my grandparents, as I did religiously on Saturday afternoons as a child.  Unthinkable though it may be in these days of live text updates in winter testing and multiple red button viewing options during a race, qualifying wasn’t live on free-to-air television in 1994.  Going from hazy memory, I think there may have been a brief telephoned report from Murray covering that afternoon’s events, through which we were made aware of the accident that claimed Roland Ratzenberger’s life.

Just like Senna, Ratzenberger was the victim of a mechanical failure.  Telemetry traces showing the steering of his Simtek car suggest that Roland had left the road on his previous lap, wagging the car from side to side as he rejoined the track to make sure everything felt fine.  The Simtek carried on, negotiating Tamburello at full speed and heading towards the even faster right-hand kind of Villeneuve.  When the Austrian turned right, his car failed to respond.  A suspected front wing failure carried him across the grass at barely reduced pace, striking a wall at a higher speed and more acute angle than Senna would the following day.

Ratzenberger was killed instantly.  Had the wing failed a little earlier, towards the exit of Tamburello, he might have had time to slow the car down and give himself a chance.  A little later and he’d have been well into the braking zone for the Tosa hairpin, with ample room to slow down without hitting anything at all.  Formula 1 is a sport of fine margins at all times, but rarely do those margins produce such cruel results.

Unlike Senna, who’d already started 161 Grands Prix, 65 of those from pole position and 41 of them ending in victory, Roland Ratzenberger’s life in Formula 1 was just beginning.  He’d made it there the hard way, losing momentum after a promising early career.  A late starter who knocked 2 years from his age to make himself more appealing to team owners, he became a champion in Formula Ford racing across central Europe.  Roland then came to England for the Formula Ford Festival races at Brands Hatch, losing out to Johnny Herbert in 1985 but coming back to claim top honours the following year.  In those days, only real hot-shoes won the Festival, at a time when top teams from across the continent made an annual pilgrimage to Kent.  The time was right for a move into British Formula 3, another breeding ground for future stars, but with the crack West Surrey Racing outfit, Ratzenberger could finish no higher than 12th in the 1987 championship.

The result was repeated in 1988 with the Madgwick team.  Subsequent drives in touring cars, British Formula 3000 and the Le Mans 24 Hours kept the wolves from the door but did nothing for his F1 aspirations.  For that, Roland followed the well-trodden path to Japan, the last-chance saloon for any single-seater driver whose European career was at a dead end.  Those who had the dedication to uproot themselves and the talent to succeed in the hugely competitive domestic F3000 series came back onto the F1 radar.  For Ratzenberger, it took 2 years of solid performances in sportscar racing to make it even that far.

History is littered with drivers whose undoubted talents were let down by a lack of desire.  It’s not enough to be fast in motor racing.  Without dedication to your craft, speed is nothing.  You’d have travelled a long way to find a man more dedicated to being a racing driver than Roland, who’d covered the globe in pursuit of a dream that was just beginning to come true.  Having been too slow to qualify for 1994’s opening race in Brazil, he shared the final row of the grid for the Pacific Grand Prix with his team mate David Brabham.  Simtek, in their first and only full season of racing, were never going to be major players but Ratzenberger would see the chequered flag in 11th.  If there’s any kind of comfort to be taken from his story, it’s that he had at least a little time to savour the realisation of a life’s ambition before Imola.

It was both inevitable and understandable that Senna, one of the most gifted talents to ever drive a racing car, should receive more attention in death than an Austrian rookie.  This weekend, while considering the legacy left by that remarkable Brazilian, don’t forget that Roland was taken at the same time, without ever having had the opportunity to establish his own.

As surely as spring follows winter and Christmas falls in December, so it is written that at this time every year, the tall Hartlepudlian blogger shall disappear for 10 days and fail to mention some things which may go on to be quite important.

Anyone else feel a quick catch-up coming on?

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The 2011 Formula 1 season will open in Melbourne on 27th March.  Crown Prince Salman confirmed last week that the ongoing political unrest in Bahrain has quite correctly left ‘staging a motor race’ fairly low on his list of priorities for the time being.  Had the race been left to go ahead, the odds of any major team turning up, leaving themselves open to accusations of condoning the bloodshed, would have been somewhat lengthy.

The race organisers will not be charged Bernie Ecclestone’s $40 million sanctioning fee and are keen to get back on the F1 calendar as quickly as possible.  They’ve spoken of staging a race later this year but, leaving aside the political aspects for now, there are few gaps in the calendar big enough to slot one in.  The one outside chance, in early November after the first Indian Grand Prix, is out because without a year’s experience of getting team personnel and equipment through Customs, those in charge are reluctant to organise another race a week after visiting a new venue.  It would also leave teams facing an India-Bahrain-Abu Dhabi triple header without any scope for a breather between races, which is a no-go for reasons of common sense as well as practicality.

Failing that, the only options available involve persuading the Indian authorities to give up their date and have an extra 12 months to prepare or shunting the season finale in Brazil back a week to free up space in the calendar.  The championship would then conclude no earlier than 4th December, though there’s no precedent for such a late finish in modern times.

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Tomorrow is expected to see the announcement of a tie-up between Red Bull Racing and Infiniti, the luxury arm of Japanese carmaker Nissan.  The exact nature of this link isn’t yet clear, though as Red Bull’s engine supplier Renault have a 44% stake in Nissan, the likelihood is that the team’s engines will carry the Infiniti badge.

The Infiniti name spent a largely unsuccessful spell in the Indy Racing League a decade ago and the company have recently launched the first model in their Infiniti Performance Line of luxury cars.  The brand is primarily used in the North American market, with occasional forays into Asia, but a push into Europe is expected this year.  It’s likely that Renault’s CEO Carlos Ghosn views F1, more specifically Red Bull’s F1 team, as a marketing tool to build brand awareness and help to shed the safe, middle-of-the-road image Infiniti has acquired.

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You’ll recall that a little earlier this year, we were introduced to Ferrari’s 2011 challenger, the F150.  You may also know that the best-selling car in the world is Ford’s F-150 pick-up truck.  You might quite reasonably draw the conclusion that these two facts have nothing to do with each other.

If that’s the case, you probably don’t work for Ford.  The American carmaker threatened to sue Ferrari for attempting to infringe upon copyright and benefit from the goodwill built up by the F-150 brand name.  The net result, notwithstanding the Scuderia’s perfectly sensible assertion that their F150 wasn’t going to be sold commercially now or at any other time, is that it’s now the Ferrari F150th Italia.

Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo is busying himself with becoming a major player in Italian politics, aligning himself as an opponent of Silvio Berlusconi, so it could be embarrassing to have a grand gesture (F150’s name was selected to honour the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification, with the car featuring the Tricolore on its rear wing) shot down in a blaze of illegality.  Presumably that’s why Ferrari are inviting us to believe that the car was always called F150th Italia, with F150 being used as a shorthand form.  It wasn’t and it wasn’t, Luca…

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Daimler and their partner Aabar Investments now wholly own the Mercedes GP team, having bought the 24.9% share in the outfit owned by team management including technical chief Ross Brawn.  No organisational changes are expected, with the design and engineering team responsible for the championship-winning Brawn GP car of 2009 remaining intact.

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Williams have unveiled the definitive livery for their FW33, an apparent homage to the Rothmans colours the team sported in the mid 1990s:

Time to confess to a little personal bias, a bias which the hardened regulars will already be aware of.  I began watching Formula 1 during an era of Williams dominance featuring major British drivers – Mansell, Hill, Coulthard.  They were destined to be my team from the start and have remained so ever since.  Their current lead driver, Rubens Barrichello, is a man I’ve always wanted to see succeed.

If a Williams returns to the winner’s circle in 2011 and does so with Rubinho at the wheel, my write-up of the race in question will be late.  It will be late because I will have exploded with joy.

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?