Monday, 1 September 2014

Monza Preview: F1's soul survivor

The modern F1 calendar, shall we say, divides opinion. But in this period after the summer break these days you will hardly find a murmur of protest on the subject. It feels a lot like an oasis. We've just been to Spa of course, and this weekend coming we'll be in Monza, the venue for the Italian Grand Prix.

But even more than for Spa Monza's status as a revered, perhaps irreplaceable, presence in the sport is resolute. And was underlined by the reaction to Bernie's musing a few weeks back that the stop-off could be dropped. Incredulous was only the beginning of it.

There's something about Monza
Photo: Octane Photography
Also more so than Spa too the reasons for Monza's status might not be obvious to the uninitiated. The venue lacks the gleaming modernity of the more new-fangled ones. The place has never entirely shaken its vague feeling of ill-disguised mild chaos. Unlike Spa's its layout isn't all that much of a driving challenge, being as it made up essentially of straights separated by chicanes with only the Parabolica turn much of a discriminator. Also unlike Spa it hasn't always produced enthralling races in recent times. And the locals while unquestionable in their passion aren't necessarily universally welcoming (as Ayrton Senna might for one have told you).

So what is it then about Monza? Well, you don't really have to ask.

Its heritage is unparalleled: racing cars have been witnessed in combat around this Italian royal park going all the way back to 1922, and the layout, other than the addition of chicanes and the coming and going of a fearsome banking section, has for the most part remained untouched in that time. Only in one season, 1980, did Monza not feature on an F1 calendar. No other track, not even Monaco, can boast close to that level of ubiquity. It has been the scene of the most astonishing and gallant triumph, the most enthralling stipstreaming battle and breathtaking split second finishes, as well as the most horrific tragedy. All of the greats have passed through Monza's gates. Many drivers have been defined here; some have perished. The ghosts of the legends of the past who used to race before a rapt Monza public still seem tangible; the atmosphere of an Italian Grand Prix here always hangs heavy with a discernible sense of trepidation and mythology.

It features a weighty reminder of how the sport used to be in the vast and haunting banking that still broods over the Monza track, having witnessed much but now is dormant, yellowing, being ever-so slowly overtaken by nature as the metal perimeter guardrail gently rusts.

Monza has always been synonymous with speed, and remains so; even today it boasts the highest average of all.

The passion of the tifosi is unmistakable
Photo: Octane Photography
Monza's ambience is inimitable, familiar, wonderful. The event is tinted by the deep colours of the Italian late summer sun, and the shadows that stretch across the track from the lush trees of the royal park. Then there is the sheer passion of the Ferrari-loving tifosi that gather here annually in vast numbers, bedecked in red, waving flags, and providing an atmosphere with an intensity that is never replicated at any other race. The tifosi that follow F1 fervently, read about it, are knowledgeable about it, yet none of this dilutes that they have eyes only for the two red cars...

And for as long as F1 exists, indeed for as long as machines of speed race one and other, nothing quite like Monza will ever exist anywhere else.

You've either got soul or you haven't. Monza has it.

Spa and Monza come as a pair in terms of technical set-up too. Like the Belgian race, but even more so, an outlying low downforce spec is brought to the royal park, and this has the ability to shuffle the usual order. Ferrari for one tends to put more resource into this than most due to the political importance of a strong result at home, and this too may have aided what appeared a slightly more competitive showing last time out at Spa. Sometimes the odd smaller team also identifies Monza as a weekend to make hay and does similar.

But once again Monza will be all about Mercedes, one way or another. And as you won't need me to point out there will likely be a bit of additional focus on the coexistence of pilots Nico and Lewis this weekend. Mercedes after the intra-team fankle in Spa has done a reasonable job of taking the froth out of the situation, though perhaps has made rod for its own back by warning of consequences of any future contact. In reality though it seems hard to believe that such a warning will make a difference to either Merc pilot when in battle (as well as it's hard to see what Merc could do if there is further contact), but what happens next will still be fascinating.

The Mercedes will be strong on Monza's dominant straights
Photo: Octane Photography
Once again the win will likely be a private matter between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. The Merc is good at everything, and the straightline speed requirements of Monza shouldn't present it with significant problems. As usual about the only threat comes from within. Perhaps amazingly, despite having a clear pace advantage everywhere the the last one-two finish for Merc was in Austria. five races ago. The last nice weekend free of rancour was way before even that, in Spain. In early May. How the Mercedes management would welcome another this time. Whether they get it remains to be seen.

Merc's nervousness may not be helped either by the possibility of some of its challengers being a bit closer this time. Just as it did with Spa the Williams team a while ago identified this round in Monza as one that they could challenge the Mercs on, perhaps even beat them if all goes well. It didn't quite happen in Spa, in some part due to not making the best of a wet qualifying, but Monza in theory looks the better of the two for the FW36. The Grove machine has topped the times through the speed traps habitually in recent weeks, and as intimated Monza is dominated by full throttle sections, making up a gluttonous 74% of the lap.

Perhaps the Merc threat isn't confined merely to those with the same power unit either. Red Bull boss Christian Horner in some of his utterances essentially wrote the Bulls' chances off for the Spa-Monza leg of the season in advance but the Renault unit clearly has improved lately and the Red Bull didn't appear to be giving too much away on the straights in Belgium. While of course, every time the Merc collective has fumbled this year if has been Red Bull - and Daniel Ricciardo - that has cleaned up in its stead. Presumably this weekend he'll be similarly poised.

Ferrari tends to put in a strong showing at home
Photo: Octane Photography
As for the rest, Nico Hulkenberg may be worth watching. There is some evidence that he's a Monza specialist. Last year he did a brilliant job to qualify third and finish fifth having clung to the Alonso-Webber-Massa train throughout, while in 2010 he left Rubens Barrichello behind when they were Williams team mates (and Rubinho is a three-time winner at Monza). And of course this time he has the rocket of a Mercedes power unit behind him.

Ferrari will be likely contenders somewhere around the top five at least for the reasons mentioned, and whether Kimi Raikkonen can continue his improved form shown in his de facto home patch two weeks ago will be another key consideration.

When it comes to strategy Monza's race is probably the most one-dimensional on the calendar, with the possible expectation of Monaco's. Given the time lost of proceeding down Monza's lengthy full blast pit straight on the pit lane speed limiter, combined with the low tyre wear (and just like last year the hardest two tyre compounds are to be brought), means that simulations tend to have a two-stopper around 10 seconds slower than a one-stop here, which forces everyone's hand. Indeed, last year only the Caterhams of Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde went for a pre-planned two-stopper.

This means that strategy variation is rather constrained. As an example last season Ferrari sought to do something clever by leaving both of its cars out longer than usual before making their solitary halts, but it didn't really do anything for them. On the contrary it proved counter-productive. Nevertheless we all recall what Sergio Perez managed to do in 2012 having started outside of the top ten on the harder tyre, barrelling through the field in the latter part of the race. No doubt a few that don't make Q3 will try to replicate it this time.

But whatever happens most of us won't be too discontent. That's because we'll be at Monza,

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Taking youth to the Max

It's easy to forget now, but before Nico and Lewis's latest fankle it was the thing that we were all talking about. Often with a lot of heat; some self-disgust. That, as announced before the Spa weekend, next year Max Verstappen will be racing for Toro Rosso. That's Max Verstappen, not a year out of karting. Max Verstappen with at the time of writing just 26 car races on his CV. Max Vertsappen who's 16 years of age, and will be a mere 17 when he makes his F1 bow proper in Melbourne next March.

Max Verstappen was the centre of
attention for much of the Spa weekend
Photo: Octane Photography
Of course, plenty weren't happy with this. As compared with what has gone before in terms of age this is uncharted territory. Even with the sport's dash to youth in recent times this will not shave the record for youngest ever F1 driver but rip the body out of it, smashing the record by close to two years or to put it in perspective by upwards of 10%. They said surely Verstappen won't be ready - in terms of his driving or mental approach - and worse the premature throwing of him into the deep end has the potential to ruin what looks a promising talent.

I don't agree though. Not entirely anyway.

My instinct always in such situations is to give people the benefit of the doubt, and to at least afford them a chance.

And this isn't just out of compassion. About the only universal rule in F1 is that there are no universal rules. It loves to confound us. Plenty of fine F1 careers started out as teenagers - Alonso, Vettel, Amon. I'm also old enough to remember 2001 when many - including FIA President Max Mosley - wrung hands over the debutant in that year's campaign-opening Australian Grand Prix, who had but a solitary season of car racing, in his case in Formula Renault, and just 23 car races in total under his belt, fewer than Verstappen has now indeed (although he was four years older). His name was Kimi Raikkonen. Think he turned out all right.

The lesson is that nobody knows anything. Particular not in F1 which reminds us continually that past performance is not guarantee of future results, and that we cannot say with confidence how someone will do in F1 until they're doing it. It was perhaps with this in mind that the consensus view among current F1 drivers in Spa on the Verstappen promotion was each to their own, that everyone is ready at a different point, and being ready very young is not impossible.

Then we should remember what we're dealing with. The Red Bull young drivers' programme, and its afforded opportunities, is many things. Ruthless certainly. Unorthodox often. But up until now its judgement just about every time has been shown to be impeccable.

We don't even have to go back a full 12 months to find an example, and one with a lot of parallels. When 19 year old Russian Daniil Kvyat was confirmed for the Toro Rosso drive for 2014 late last year - leapfrogging the apparent shoo-in of Antonio Felix da Costa - there was much cynicism about. He was too young; too inexperienced. Someone even went so far as to work out the number of Red Bull cans sold in Russia year on year, the not-particularly-concealed implication being that the promotion was based on the drinks company's commerce. You don't find many questioning the decision now.

Some were similarly aghast when Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari were discarded by Toro Rosso at the end of 2011 in preference of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne. You wouldn't argue with the call now. Nor would you with Danny Ric getting the chance in the big team ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, which a few claimed at the time it was confirmed was based on the assumption that the Australian wouldn't challenge Vettel. Plenty, including fellow drivers, decried Jaime Alguersuari's qualifications when he got his Toro Rosso chance in mid-2009, straight from F3 and only with straight-line testing of an F1 car behind him. They reckoned he'd be a danger to others. He wasn't.

Verstappen has impressed in F3 this year
Photo: Octane Photography
And those who have observed Verstappen this season in F3 speak of a rare speed, flair and audacity, and certainly throughout the Spa weekend he showed impressive maturity and poise in front of the media too. And that the Bulls are prepared to go to such lengths in order to get him under lock and key, and not lose him to a rival outfit in Mercedes (where everyone for the most part had assumed he was going), can only reflect well on his potential.

We know too that many are in effect destroyed by getting their chance before they're ready, and indeed Max has a glaring close-to-home example in his father Jos. He got thrown in at Benetton in 1994 (paired with a certain Michael Schumacher), and indeed was older than Max is now by around five years, and the perception was that it rather snuffed out a bright talent. But there is a potential flipside, that having this experience close at hand Max and Jos have no excuse not to be wary of it, and perhaps are best placed to learn lessons. Max indeed hinted as much at Spa: 'I have always been together with my Dad...He was an F1 driver and really close to me and we did everything together...I think I am ready for it. The age is just a number.'

And in many ways the trend towards younger drivers makes sense, given that these days drivers start earlier, as well as are developed more intensively in advance. Verstappen noted this too: 'You start a lot younger now in karting and car racing, compared to a few years ago. I think we have a lot more things available now with regards to data and simulators, so you're much better prepared to make a big step.'

Jacques Villeneuve perhaps typically was instead rather scathing about it all, declaring that 'it will either destroy him or, even if he is successful right away, then F1 will be meaningless.'

The latter point struck me as betraying an odd attitude, rather like the banner headlines that accompany improved exam results which insist that it reflects that exams are getting easier (it couldn't possibly be that young people are getting cleverer...). I'm pretty sure too that when Pele led Brazil to a World Cup triumph in 1958 at the age of 17 no one viewed it as a damning indictment of football. Perhaps our focus should be on a job well done, and on things getting better.

Jacques Villeneuve for one was scathing about the decision
"Jacques Villeneuve at Canada's Sports Hall of Fame
 Induction Dinner" by 5of7 - Jacques Villeneuve. Licensed
under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via
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But Villeneuve did threaten to have a point when he asked: 'What's the next step? A team who will sign someone at 15 just to get the image out of it?' You have to assume the saturation point exists somewhere. F1 doesn't yet have a minimum driver age but perhaps it should head off the sort of issue Villeneuve foresees by establishing one.

He also had a point in there that - even with all of considerations outlined above - this decision remains one heck of a gamble. As mentioned Verstappen's debut will take place at an age that will not so much sneak under that of any driver in F1 before but bore a large excavation. It does have a lot of the sink or swim about it.

Some too have speculated as to why the chance came about, and why now. A few thought that the Toro Rosso race gig was confirmed within a week of Verstappen joining up to the Red Bull programme instead of Merc's - as noted his assumed destination in advance - wasn't at all a coincidence. There was one thing that the Bulls could offer that Merc couldn't: an instant F1 race seat.

And as Jenson Button (himself one who got an accelerated F1 opportunity, that some thought too accelerated) noted: 'if someone comes to you and says, "are you ready for a F1, I will give you a drive?", what are you going to say?'.

Red Bull is an organisation that likes to raise the stakes. And even its long shots have an uncanny tendency to come in. It remains to be seen if this particular gamble comes off.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Gimme some space

Let us rewind 37 years to the day. To the 1977 Dutch Grand Prix at fast flowing Zandvoort.

As was often so in that campaign the pace-setters were James Hunt in the McLaren and Mario Andretti in the Lotus, the latter especially. Andretti started from pole, but Hunt took the lead off the line. Andretti nevertheless looked easily the faster and swiftly was on Hunt's tail.

James Hunt - his view prevails today it seems
Credit: Gillfoto / CC
At Zandvoort the notorious banked hairpin Tarzan bend at the end of the pit straight was about the only realistic passing point, but each time through there Hunt blocked the inside. So fifth time around Andretti stuck it around the outside, getting alongside his rival. But as far as Hunt was concerned that wasn't on and he took his line on the exit like the American didn't exist. The inevitable followed, the pair collided, and Hunt was out on the spot while Andretti continued for a few more laps somehow unscathed before an engine failure put him out too.

Hunt seethed, with steam almost as visible from his ears as it was from the broken water pipe of his stricken McLaren he told Andretti later 'in Formula One you're not expected to pass on the outside'. It was a claim met with general incredulity, not least by the American who retorted: 'where I come from you pass wherever you can...I deserve that piece of real estate as much as you do, and so you have to drive accordingly'. He later added: 'He ignored me, drove right into me and is trying to blame me because I wasn't supposed to be there. I had him and he didn't accept it.'

But all these years on it seems that despite its apparent absurdity it is in fact Hunt's take that has prevailed. And we had our latest dollop of evidence in the Belgian Grand Prix just passed.

It was mainly from Kevin Magnussen. Not in the move that got him his post race penalty, of forcing Alonso off the road going down the Kemmel straight at full pelt, which he was bang to rights for. It was before that when Fernando Alonso (not for the first time) and then Jenson Button sought to pass him on the outside of the Rivage corner. Each time despite being mostly alongside Magnussen forced them clean off the track.

This is not to pick on the Dane especially; it's something we see routinely from F1 drivers up and down the field race after race (and we can understand that Magnussen's keen to drive for his future). It's cultural. Those who try to pass on the outside just about every time are run off the road or required to slam on the anchors to avoid contact as a result of their opponent veering sharply - and as far as we can tell wilfully - into them. And almost never is there the merest suggestion that the driver defending their place is doing wrong let alone any indication of steward investigation or sanction in response.

Kevin Magnussen - robust in his defence in Spa
Photo: Octane Photography
But I've often wondered why this is, and at what point those trying to pass are entitled to space. And while the wording of the existing sporting regulations doesn't deal with it specifically, only in specifics with dicing on straights and at the approaches to corners, what there is on the matter suggests that those such as Alonso and Button do indeed have cause for grievance. Here is the verbatim:

20.5 Manoeuvres liable to hinder other drivers, such as deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track or any other abnormal change of direction, are not permitted.

Not much help there to understand why it's tolerated. Indeed if anything the wording seems to explicitly rule out the sort of moves we saw from Magnussen at Spa and from others routinely before.

It does not say that you can crowd a car beyond the edge of the track if the other car's trying to pass on the outside of a turn and you've reached the corner's exit. It seems instead to have somehow become F1's equivalent of the unwritten rule. An accepted practice. Something that's not (or rather is) cricket.

You have to wonder why this is. And further you have to wonder if us, the fans, are missing out as a result. Of course we want to see aggressive racing, but should forcing other drivers off track be part of it? Not only does it strike me as crude it also likely is denying us good racing and overtakes. And we have a good supporting example again in the Spa race; therein earlier Alonso exited the pits on Sergio Perez's tail, but come the same Rivage turn he want for the outside on the exit. Perez chose to give him room, and Alonso seized the place on the inside of the following left-hander, in what by common consent was the pass of the race. You also wonder how far the legendary Gilles Villeneuve-Rene Arnoux battle of Dijon in 1979 would have gone had either decided to wipe out the other guy whenever they sought to pass on the outside. They both had plenty of opportunities to do so.

All activities have their unwritten rules, but I struggle to understand why this one is so.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Quitting the boos

You don't need me to tell you about Nico, Lewis, Mercedes, Spa, collisions, punctures, fallout, yada yada.

The resultant wrangling, sometimes invective, has since been plentiful and shown little signs of abating. But within the shrieking prose there was something of a footnote, that on the podium after having later finished second in the Spa race Nico Rosberg was booed by many of the assembled fans. And in case you managed to miss somehow what the motivation was, a few chanted Lewis Hamilton's name as Nico spoke during his podium interview.

Nico Rosberg reception on the Spa podium wasn't all positive
Photo: Octane Photography
You'll also likely recall that booing of drivers on the podium (or rather, booing of a driver - one Sebastian Vettel) was a lingering presence for much of last season too, and led to a bit of agonising about it all. My own view on the matter hasn't altered with the change of target. Booing of F1 drivers is not something that I care to hear.

Of course, the stock defence of booing is that it is one's right, and I suppose to an extent it is, in that to my knowledge it doesn't break any laws nor any terms and conditions on the back of the ticket (not explicitly anyway). And due to this I wouldn't support any sort of coercive measures against those partaking in it. But all rights must be counterbalanced with responsibilities, and it is in this that in my view booing of F1 drivers falls down, and why I'd prefer that people didn't do it.

Mainly I think it is bad manners, belligerent; not what I like to be associated with F1. But more specifically, while I love F1 for many reasons a major one among these is my view all F1 drivers, indeed many of those in F1 teams, are much better than the rest of us, capable of things that I for one would never even consider let alone begin to have the capabilities of putting into practice. And for that reason they are deserving of a lot of respect, or at the very least a plentiful reservoir goodwill to draw on before we decide to turn on them.

And in this particular case with Rosberg, while it's easy to forget now, we should consider that at the time of the podium it was before Lewis Hamilton's allegation that Nico has crashed deliberately as well as Toto Wolff's confirmation that Nico made a conscious choice not to yield in order to 'prove a point' (and I like a lot of people thought Rosberg was also rather unfair in his comments on the fans booing him made later). The clash was certainly Nico's fault but was also in itself the sort of clash seen fairly regularly, and comes with the mitigation of each car having a vast front wing that cannot be seen from the driver's viewpoint in the cockpit. Indeed Alonso did something not dissimilar to Vettel on the last lap of the same race.

It developed a whole new dimension later as outlined, but at that point we had little reason to think it was anything beyond a clumsy - but ultimately honest - error from Nico. With that the booing of him taking place when it did can only be considered a gross overreaction.

With all of this I absolutely concurred with Eddie Jordan's implore to the assembled fans that were booing Rosberg under the Spa podium: 'Steady, Nico drove an unbelievably good race...that's not fair you know it's not fair, he's driven his heart out like every one of these three guys and every one on the grid to put on a spectacular race for you, I think that he needs and deserves a round of applause'.

Such behaviour is far from new of course. It's been a feature with reasonable consistency of the crowds at Monza for decades while I'm also old enough to remember how Silverstone's massed ranks in the age of 'Mansell mania' used to fire dripping bile at Ayrton Senna on an annual basis. Seb last year we've mentioned. And we can contend ourselves too that such acts and indeed more unpleasant tribalism among F1 fans are much less common than among fans of many other sports (thinking about football in particular).

Sebastian Vettel was booed at several
 podium ceremonies last year
Photo: Octane Photography
But still even with all of this I'd much rather that it didn't happen at all. And following on from Seb and all that it worries me ever so slightly that it appears to have the characteristics of a creeping habit. We can debate all day as to the reasons for this - that's assuming it is a trend at all of course - though perhaps a main contributor would be that we we live in an age wherein expressing one's views as part of an interactive process, rather than being a quiet recipient of information and entertainment, is more and more thought a positive expectation, even an entitlement.

Of course, this shift in itself is on balance a good thing - if it has resulted in booing then it's more an unfortunate and unintended consequence of it - and Edd Straw of Autosport is absolutely right to say that F1 interaction and openness to fan feedback are things that the sport has not so much room to improve in but vast plains in which to do so. Also none of us are obliged to like everything an F1 driver does, or indeed to like each and every one of them more generally. But booing an F1 driver strikes as far from the best means of resolving the interaction issue, as well as far from the best way of expressing displeasure more generally.

Then there's the place, the fact that the booing was done during the podium ceremony, that is supposed to be the scene of rewarding a job well done. Even in football - where crowd booing is commonplace as mentioned - booing during a trophy presentation would likely cause some introspection.

All in, I'd much rather that the booing stopped.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Belgian GP Report: Ricciardo rises above the rancour

There seemed something almost of the logical conclusion about it. It had been anticipated for months. And yesterday was the day.

Despite appearances Spa's race was a lot like the previous one from before the break in Hungary. Of course, there were differences in weather (Spa inaptly being the one without the precipitation), and the Hungaroring and Spa track layouts could barely be more distinct. But the similarities were there.

Just like in Hungary, Daniel Ricciardo triumphed in fine style
Photo: Octane Photography
Just like then it looked from the off that the battle for the win would be a matter for Mercedes only. But it went wrong. And just like then it was one Daniel Ricciardo who smoothly ghosted into prime position to seize the bone dropped from the Merc mouths.

'It went wrong' of course is only the beginning of it. Another parallel with Hungary was that Spa's race provided us with the latest thing to fervently debate over regarding this F1 season's chief theme of the Mercedes pilots. And this time it most definitely surpassed what had come before. That thing that had been anticipated, the major plot of territory in the Lewis Hamilton vs. Nico Rosberg battle for the title that had yet to be encroached, suddenly was invaded. They collided.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Spa Qualifying: Rosberg keeps rolling along

Whatever happens, whatever is thrown at him, he continues. Indeed, the more that happens around him, or is thrown in his direction, if anything his progress gets yet more inevitable. Like Ol' Man River, Nico Rosberg keeps rollin' along.

In a qualifying session Nico Rosberg
triumphed yet again
Photo: Octane Photography
He did it again today in the qualifying session for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, winning out in his latest intra-Mercedes set-to and seizing another pole position. And - not unusually for this venue - rivers were appropriate as the track resembled one throughout, it being wet thanks to a downpour beforehand and staying as much for the whole session thanks to a few showers.

As ever the Nico Rosberg vs. Lewis Hamilton battle for supremacy was a close one; Nico pipped Lewis in Q1, Lewis pipped Nico in Q2. But in Q3 when it really mattered Nico immediately banged in a 2m 05.698 which proved to be enough to triumph. Lewis's own first effort was scrappy and just under a second slower; his second was better but still scrappy and two tenths shy. And Nico then as a coup de grace shaved a little more of his own time. Not that it mattered.

'It's always difficult on this track in the wet, so I'm really, really happy' noted Nico afterwards. 'The car was handling well and together with my engineers we fine-tuned it perfectly now in qualifying and really got there in the end. So, in the end I was really feeling comfortable and able to push, so fantastic.'

We're also now pushing four months since Lewis was last on pole, or indeed since he last started ahead of Rosberg. Of course each of the quali sessions in the meantime have had something of the odd about them, and so indeed did today's. Hamilton in the final part complained of brake 'glazing'.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

New F1 Times article: Mexico's return – it’s good to be back

"MexicoAutodromo" by (WT-en) Fabz at English
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It's hard to find F1 fans all that pleased with how the sport's calendar has evolved in recent times. And with Monza of all places being under threat the matter has got particularly cringeworthy just now.

But it's not all bad news, as a new round - though one not at all new - in Mexico at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez is promised for 2015. In my latest F1 Times article I explain why the country's return is a good thing, as well as look at its chequered F1 past.

You can have a read here:

Monday, 18 August 2014

Spa Preview: More to watch than usual

There's something about Spa. Something intangible. Somehow, no matter what else is going on (and usually it is a lot), when the F1 circus visits the Spa-Francorchamps circuit suddenly all feels right with the sport.

From asking drivers, engineers or fans for their favourite track this one in Belgium likely is to form the majority of answers.

There is something special about Spa
Photo: Octane Photography
Why this is has an intangible quality; probably it is not something that can be designed or replicated easily. There is an undoubted well worn, comfortable feeling about the venue. Spa has been grown organically rather than imposed from above.

Its heritage no doubt is part of it. The place drips with motorsport's very origins of fearsome road racing. And not for nothing; without exaggeration cars have been racing in the area for as long as road racing has existed. The classic triangular Spa circuit layout, some 15km compared to the current 7km, was first used all the way back in 1921, and the one used in F1 as late as 1970 wasn't much different from it. Furthermore, the first race at the Circuit des Ardennes in the area took place in all the way back in 1902 - on a circuit that was a snip at 86km in length, before being extended to a mere 118km tour for the 1904 race - and is thought to have been the first ever circuit motor race; before that city to city races were the norm.

New article: Sorry, but Daniel Ricciardo is not going to be 2014 world champion

Photo: Octane Photography
During the summer break I keep encountering claims that Daniel Ricciardo is coming up on the blind side of the Mercedes drivers in the points table, and has a genuine chance to be 2014 world champion.

In am article over on I outline however, albeit with regret, that for a couple of reasons especially Ricciardo's chances do not at all look realistic.

You can have a read via this link:

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Jenson Button's knotted Williams past

Jean-Paul Sartre once said 'I hate victims who respect their executioners'.

Admirable though that is, perhaps he'd not last long in F1. Therein, realpolitik is often what prevails. Despite occasional immediate appearances suggesting otherwise, grudges often come a distant second.

As an example, I recall some years ago in what must have been the late 1990s watching a Grand Prix wherein the TV feed cut to Alain Prost - then boss of the team that took his name - sat on the pit wall. But who was it sat alongside him? None other than Cesare Fiorio. The same Cesare Fiorio that was Prost's boss at Ferrari; that infamously Prost didn't see eye-to-eye with; that Prost was instrumental (apparently) in forcing out. 'How could Fiorio bring himself to work with him again?' I thought in my naivety. Little did I know.

But of course it's not an isolated case. Far from it. This year we witnessed the long-assumed unthinkable rapprochement of Kimi Raikkonen and Luca Montezemolo. Heck, even the rumour of the incendiary Fernando Alonso and Ron Dennis pairing happening again while considered unlikely hasn't been laughed all the way out of court.

Perhaps it's just the sport's way - all's fair in love and F1 after all. Maybe they learn not to take things personally, even when knives are plunged into their back. Perhaps it's more simple than that and reflects F1's rather exclusive status, with a (very) finite number of places in it, the places really sought after even more so, meaning most are able to park such things in a mental recess if it entails not being the one without a seat when the music stops.

Jenson Button - subject to two tugs of love
"Jenson button usgp 2004 onstage".
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It could all be just as well in particular for Jenson Button, on the subject of seats and making sure you have one. It's a hardly-concealed fact that his at McLaren for next year and beyond ain't certain as things stand; that McLaren's been scanning for alternatives. One such alternative mooted is the prodigious Valtteri Bottas (though quite what the Finn would get out of this is less clear to me). There has been some speculation that if that does indeed happen then Button could make the opposite journey, back to Williams. I didn't think it at all coincidence that he said some very nice things about the Grove team recently.

He has previous with the team too. We all know that Jenson made his F1 debut for Williams in 2000, but the previous is a little more knotted than that.

Jenson in his freshman year at Grove 14 years ago was to a large extent on a hiding to nothing, as he was there as a stopgap until Juan Pablo Montoya's CART contract wound down, meaning despite impressing his fate of being dumped at the season's end was mostly inevitable. The next year he drove for Benetton instead. There he experienced second-season syndrome in 2001, but managed to recover (the team now with the Renault moniker) in 2002, though not enough to avoid being ditched again, this time in preference for the incumbent test driver going by the name of Fernando Alonso.