Monday, 19 March 2018

Melbourne Preview: Fount of knowledge

"Nobody knows anything". So goes William Goldman's celebrated line on Hollywood.

There is always tension around the opening round
Photo: Octane Photography
And although F1 has in recent times has given a good impression of one whose results can be called well in advance, it applies to that too. No matter what else happens the first season's gathering, and particularly the first qualifying session, always will have the paddock on tenterhooks.

As it is a confirmation. Talk is replaced by numbers on a stopwatch which are hard to deny. After however many weeks and months of work, clues and no little speculation, this impending season-opening weekend around Melbourne's Albert Park is the latest F1 equivalent of getting your exam results. And despite the attempts to give an impression otherwise, no one really knows what will happen.

As is expected between seasons with no great regulation shift pre-season testing just passed in Barcelona suggested no grand reshuffle in the competitive order since 2017. Yet it offered points of intrigue, not least the prospect of a tighter battle between the 'big three' teams.

Talking about F1 2018 Team-by-Team Season Preview

Now with the season-opening Australian Grand Prix almost upon us there are plenty of F1 season previews around. And Talking about F1 is not one to be left out. You will have noticed that over the last week or so I have written a preview for all ten competing F1 teams in 2018 and their drivers.

All of the previews are now collated in one place - by clicking on the '2018 Team and Driver Guide' tab above you can explore my view on the prospects of every driver and team on this season's grid.

New Motorsport Week article: Thirty years on - the McLaren MP4/4 delivers F1’s most devastating blow

By Instituto Ayrton Senna derivative work: Karpouzi
[CC BY 2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
We are almost exactly 30 years on to the day from likely F1's most devastating single blow ever being delivered.

23 March 1988 was the date that the McLaren Honda MP4/4 debuted on-track. The very last day of pre-season testing, just nine days before opening practice of the first round. And the blow was as devastating as it was late and sudden. The car was immediately far quicker than all rivals that had been pounding around all winter.

We know what happened next - 15 Grand Prix wins out of 16 for Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost that year. But up until that later than late on-track bow there was nothing inevitable about it; for the MP4/4 things could very easily have been very different.

In my latest for Motorsport Week I tell the story. You can have a read here:

Sunday, 18 March 2018

F1 2018 Season Preview: Sauber - Playing catch up

Things could always be worse, as the saying goes. All at Sauber know this. They experienced it.

Photo: Octane Photography
In recent times the team existed in financial turmoil and for years. Its car for each season was essentially a rehash of the preceding one. Many staff left and, to be blunt, hearing confirmation of the team going out of business seemed a matter of when not whether.

Yet it was at last rescued in mid-2016 when Longbow Finance took over. As is often the way with such things a shake-up followed. Team principal Monisha Kaltenborn left mid last season and the highly-rated Frederic Vasseur arrived eventually in her stead. Earlier in the year Jorg Zander came in to head up the technical side after a long spell away.

As is also the way of such things the legacy of the under-investment will linger a while. Zander found a team not only rather husk-like after years of survival mode, it also was somewhat in disarray.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

F1 2018 Season Preview: McLaren - I am curious, orange

We thought it so simple. Ditch the dread Honda power unit for anything else you could find and it would all be rosy. Yet with McLaren for the nth season in a row we enter a F1 season with more questions around than answers.

Photo: Octane Photography
Pre-season testing provided evidence of what some had suspected over the last three trying seasons - that far from all of McLaren's problems had been Honda ones. The now Renault-powered car completed the fewest laps of all in Barcelona; running forever was interrupted by a variety of technical problems. Some by the team's admission were mere finger trouble. A wheel falling off the car in testing's early throes provided an unwelcome visual metaphor.

It is said the car is ultra complicated under the skin, and the implications included that problems take a long time to resolve - for example an engine change is reckoned to take at best three hours rather than the standard sub-two. Pitstop practices in Barcelona were chaotic.

A few wondered also why McLaren, almost alone, used the softest tyre compounds as a default. McLaren racing director Eric Boullier insisted there were "technical reasons" and there wasn't much pace difference between the compounds in any case. On the hyper-softs McLaren set a late and low laptime. It didn't convince too many though.

Friday, 16 March 2018

F1 2018 Season Preview: Haas - Surprise surprise

Whatever else can be said about F1, it never loses its capacity to surprise.

Photo: Octane Photography
Take Haas. In pre-season's first few days the team hardly was mentioned. Apparent nondescript plodders in a congested midfield, and perhaps somewhere near the ceiling of its buy-in-and-outsource-everything-you-can model. Sauber's closer ties with Ferrari likely wasn't good news for it either. There was little visually in the car launched to make you reassess, beyond that it contained a clear Ferrari influence. But it was far from alone on that.

Yet we'll go to Melbourne almost expecting Haas to be best of the rest behind the big three teams, certainly in the mix with the likes of Renault and McLaren; well capable of points and perhaps big hauls of them. Somehow the car appears to work. Towards the end of Barcelona running it was setting laptimes mere tenths off the Ferrari and the fuel loads were understood to be similar.

Its long runs were in the right ballpark and the car passes the visual test of looking to be handling well on circuit. Only McLaren and Sauber - both of whom had conspicuous room to improve - made a bigger gain in its best time compared with 2017's testing. And for what it's worth with the Pirelli compound delta applied to each test's best lap Haas suddenly was top...

Thursday, 15 March 2018

F1 2018 Season Preview: Toro Rosso - International relations

It goes to show that in this game should never make your mind up irrecoverably. Before testing we didn't expect much of Toro Rosso this year beyond struggle. Due not least to it being left holding the Honda power unit when the music stopped.

Photo: Octane Photography
Two weeks of testing later and things look a little different. Toro Rosso with the supposedly ultra unreliable Japanese unit in fact topped the mileage charts in testing's first week. And while accepting the weather disruption made that part slightly odd, even at the end of testing overall only the much better resourced Mercedes and Ferrari out-ran it. There was only one (minor) Honda failure that anyone was aware of. Honda indeed near enough doubled the pre-season mileage it got 12 months ago.

In a more broad sense some yet hold out hope of the Honda unit's ultimate potential. The resources are there of course, as presumably is its commitment given it's still around post McLaren's ditching.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

F1 2018 Season Preview: Renault - Yellow fever

This year we are expecting a high climber. A former champion team. One that will stride forward after years of lingering doldrums.

Photo: Octane Photography
However it may not be the high climber that everyone had been anticipating before testing started. Rather than McLaren's papaya, the evidence of 2018's early shadow boxing was that we may instead need to look to Renault's yellow.

It shouldn't have been that much of a surprise though, as the aims at Renault are big. Of course it is a works effort, one that as mentioned has championship pedigree. It is rearming after what it calls almost a decade of under-investment, and staff numbers have grown from 470 to 750 since 2015 when Renault took back over the Enstone collective. Team principal Cyril Abiteboul has said he wants Renault ultimately to win titles, and at 85% of the size of its main rivals.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Inside Line F1 Podcast - Key Questions Ahead Of The 2018 F1 Season

Yes, the 2018 Australian Grand Prix is less than a fortnight away. In this week's episode of the Inside Line F1 Podcast, we ask some key questions that will be answered through the 2018 Formula 1 Season.

Apart from the usual questions around Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing, we ask if Kimi Raikkonen knows the cost of a litre of vodka. Where will McLaren be in 2018? Hopefully not at the Honda HQs in Japan! Btw, we totally believe that for McLaren to be a force to reckon with in Formula 1, they should build their own engines.

Also, we wonder if the art of rolling restarts will be lost to drivers and Formula 1 and if Renault is explaining their drivers and customer teams the 'returns on penalty' equation as they prepare to use four power units this season. Tune in!

PS: Like McLaren, we are facing some pre-season testing issues with our new recording system. We promise to be back to perfect sound (ceramic microphones, of course) by next week's episode!

(Season 2018, Episode 6)

Subscribe to the Inside Line F1 Podcast on iTunes and audioBoom for your weekly dose of Formula 1 humour

F1 2018 Season Preview: Williams - In the balance

We talk a lot about the Williams decline. We used to think of the team a little as we do Mercedes now - bound to get it right and run at the front, whatever else happens.

Photo: Octane Photography
But the Williams decline can be traced back a long time, all the way to 1997. And in the last decade and a bit it's been mainly midfield flailing. Was the upturn with the Mercedes engine in 2014 a dead cat bounce? Since, in results at least, it's been in a state of downward drift.

Its heritage is a burden in a more tangible sense. Williams retains the infrastructure of a large team, but these days is without the money to make it work. Instead it is being usurped by Force India which has a streamlined model, with plenty outsourced, that gets much better results at that level.

The latest staging post of the Williams decline in the popular consciousness is its driver selection for 2018. The team that once lost prize Honda engines by refusing to take on a Japanese sop now has two pilots whose cases owe at least something - many think a lot - to the money they bring.

Monday, 12 March 2018

F1 2018 Season Preview: Force India - Changing context

Force India's predicament says a few things about life. That all things are relative. That no man (or F1 team) is an island entirely of itself. That all is judged in its zeitgeist.

Photo: Octane Photography
Force India is by consensus F1's best team pound for pound (which works on a metaphorical weight and a literal money level). It allies a strong power unit and gearbox with an almost as strong driver line up, sound development and sensible race strategies. A slimmed down operation that makes the best of what it has.

These days it gets plenty of respect to go with its comfortable fourth place in the constructors' standings last year - a particularly towering achievement given it came after a big rule change that often catches the smaller teams out. But even so Force India's expected to fall in 2018.

All to do with the sort of phenomena outlined at the outset. Renault, rearming itself as a works squad, is expected to improve. McLaren, having shed its dread Honda, is expected to improve. The assumption is that both will clear Force India in 2018. Without Force India especially doing anything wrong.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

F1 2018 Season Preview: Red Bull - The Bulls are back in town?

"I think there's three quick teams and there's no doubt that Red Bull are going to be people that we're going to be fighting with this year," Mercedes' technical head James Allison told TV during the second test. "There's clearly no doubt about that.

Photo: Octane Photography
"Looking at what they've brought here, I'd say they've still got some bodywork to bolt on before Melbourne."

Yes, whatever else has been going on pre-season Red Bull has been the talk of the town.

Yes, we've been waiting a while for Red Bull to step up and deliver a proper season-long fight for the championship between it, Mercedes and Ferrari. Yes, Red Bull for a number of years has been disappointing us in season starts, by falling from the competitiveness it had ended the previous season with.

Last year at this point the Red Bull was conspicuously bare and started off the pace in Melbourne, though the team had the mitigation of windtunnel correlation problems. True to form it clawed its way back as the year progressed and for a time in the autumn looked even the consistent pace-setter.