Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Singapore Preview: Monaco for the new millennium

We all know the one about F1's gradual shift eastwards in recent times. It hasn't necessarily been universally loved either. Perhaps with good reason; plenty of the new Grands Prix have failed to really capture the imagination. Some have been cringeworthy.

The Singapore Grand Prix is a stunning event
"1 singapore f1 night race 2012 city skyline" by chensiyuan -
chensiyuan. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-
Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1_singapore_f1_
night_race_2012_city_skyline.jpg#mediaviewer/File:1_
singapore_f1_night_race_2012_city_skyline.jpg
But there's one such latterly-established race that can hardly at all be considered a failure. Indeed instead it is a favourite, and in but visit number seven already it feels like part of the furniture. That the sport just belongs here and would be rather diminished without it. And the race is this weekend; the Singapore Grand Prix around the Marina Bay circuit.

As for why this is, there are several reasons. But an overarching one is that it all just seems very F1. Or rather what F1 at its best would like to be. It is a glittering, vibrant event in which the visuals rarely fail to look stunning. For several reasons, the venue feels a lot like the Monaco for the new millennium.

Just like Monaco, Singapore is a city state that is a quintessential F1 host, to the point that in the latter case you wonder at quiet moments quite why a Grand Prix wasn't established here decades ago. It is glamorous, dripping with money and tearing towards the future, and perhaps most importantly never fails to fully embrace its F1 visit.

And in another way that it is a lot like Monaco, Singapore is the weekend that everyone wants to be at, that representatives of sponsors and other stakeholders - both current and potential - are brought. Plenty of deals are done here.

Further, when the Marina Bay circuit arrived on the sport's itinerary someone somewhere had the bright idea to make it F1's first night race, taking its cue from other sports which showed that being conducted under floodlights somehow ratchets up the intensity. And it's hard to cite anywhere as more befitting for a race taking place after hours: not only does Singapore boast a fervent night life but the cityscape night time backdrop to proceedings is stunning; as well as that the cars never fail to look beautiful under the lights. Sure enough upon first sight the sport fell in love with the place and the event.

In a further nod to the principality, the Marina Bay circuit is a proper downtown street track, almost a throwback, all bumps, city landmarks, with nearby barriers lining the snaking, tunnel-like layout offering little room for error. The acrobatic test with almost constant braking and turning means that the driver has scant opportunity for rest.

Adding yet further to the demands is that the Singapore event is all run in crippling humidity that seems somehow trapped within the crowded confines, and as if to top it all off the race nudges, and often goes over, the two-hour limit in an age wherein no other race gets close (Lewis Hamilton once likened a race here to working out in a sauna for two hours). As may be befitting, the Singapore Grand Prix is almost standalone among today's F1 circuits in what it lays before the competitors - it represents the year's greatest challenge to mind and body.

Perhaps underlining the grand, and unique, examination that the Singapore race poses, only three drivers have won the Grand Prix here in its short history: Sebastian Vettel (three times), Fernando Alonso (twice) and Lewis Hamilton (once).

Nico Rosberg has a strong record at the Marina Bay circuit
"Nico Rosberg 2009 Singapore 4" by Sam Badeo - Nico
 Rosberg - Williams TOYOTA. Licensed under Creative
Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nico_Rosberg
_2009_Singapore_4.jpg#mediaviewer/
File:Nico_Rosberg_2009_Singapore_4.jpg
But with this - and that Hamilton is one of the few winners here - we shouldn't consider the result this time a foregone conclusion, even considering that the Mercedes will likely as ever set the pace. For one thing Nico Rosberg is another who appears to specialise in the Marina Bay track's challenges.

Even in his pre-Hamilton days his five results here - achieved in a range of recalcitrant Williams and Mercedes - read as P2, P11, P5, P7 and P5. And that P11 in 2009 could very easily have been a P2, when he looked well on the way to finish there at the very least only to cross the pit lane exit line after a stop, and then having to serve his penalty after the bunching of a safety car period, losing him several places.

Last year too in a direct match-up with Lewis he qualified three places ahead of him, with a best lap some three tenths under that of his stable mate. He finished ahead in the race too.

Further complicating predictions is that the race may be a battle of survival. Reliability has never been entirely licked by the Brackley team this season and indeed both Merc cars wilted in the Montreal heat. Compared even with that the cooked, enclosed intensity of Singapore - stretched over two hours - will be something else entirely.

Planning too far ahead on strategy can be perilous in Singapore also. The chances of a safety car here are 80%, the appearances of which can ruin a few strategies as well as rescue those seeking to stretch things out, plus here track position is important as overtaking is far from straightforward. Pirelli after going as conservative as possible in Monza has for Singapore gone as aggressive as it can, and one step softer than 12 months ago at the same venue, with the supersoft and soft tyres brought. Pirelli's Paul Hembery says this means we can look forward to interesting strategy variation. And indeed in races here there is a key conundrum of two stops vs. three.

Those able to stretch out a two-stopper will likely have a big advantage as the pit stop loss time at this track is among the biggest there is - close to 30 seconds - thanks to a lengthy pit lane and lower than usual speed limit. That's before even adding in the probability of safety cars and difficulties in overtaking mentioned. We have also seen here in 2011 and 2012 Paul di Resta get strong finishes - and look well on the way to one last year before a late off - via unusual strategies, and it'll be interesting to see if anyone (perhaps another Force India?) is able to do the same this time.

There is a new matter to contend with in fuel also. The anticipated Sunday economy runs for this year with the strict 100kg limit haven't really manifested but it is in this race that the gas available get its fullest workout. Fuel consumption is about as high as it gets at this race, thanks to the all-action track with plenty of braking and accelerating combined with the lengthy duration (safety cars will help though). The lack of long straights makes fuel saving via lift and coast more difficult too.

This should help the Merc cars, with that power unit considered to be the most efficient this season. For Williams it has been especially so, though the FW36 with its relative lack of downforce may struggle somewhat on the low grip track.

When it comes to downforce though we can usually look to the Red Bull, and indeed that team has reportedly been looking at this weekend as one in which it can get close to the Mercs, particularly if the silver cars falter. Perhaps it'll be close even if they don't. Daniel Ricciardo we know about, but Sebastian Vettel has won here three times as mentioned and has usually looked solid as a rock around this track, so it may be a good place for what by now seems a long overdue bounce back.

And there is another matter of the very new variety. That for whatever reason various radio messages, as well as pit board communications, that are to do with aiding driving, have been clamped down on. There has been rather fevered speculation as to the effect it will have, the drivers that may win and lose, those that may be stranded on the grid and the like. Sadly though the most likely manifesttaion is at least a race or two of bickering and recrimination as what is allowed and what is not is wrestled with. And it wouldn't at all surprise me if the effect on the competitive order is negligible.

Whatever is the case though, make sure you're plugged in this weekend for F1's very own light fantastic.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Why, despite everything, there's reason for optimism at Ferrari

His departure was a lot like the man. Unorthodox, dramatic, no doubt rubbing a few up the wrong way. After a summer wherein rumours that he was about to quit, perhaps already had done, lingered throughout. A matter of days after requiring the world's media to gather outside the Ferrari motorhome for Lord-knows-how-long in the midday heat of the Monza paddock amid much anticipation only to tell them there was nothing to see here. It was confirmed: Luca Montezemolo was on his way out of Ferrari.

Luca Montezemolo was a man in much demand at Monza
Photo: Octane Photography
Such a step is not to be underestimated, and not just because Montezemolo's current stretch at the team extends to 23 years. He wasn't loved universally, indeed his interventions more latterly were treated by a few as the mad ramblings of an embarrassing elderly relative. As if Mrs Rochester had been let out of the attic. And such is the way of these things it took his departure for exactly what his contribution was to be expressed. His place at the very centre of Ferrari's lengthy history, indeed as one of the most central figures in modern-day Italian public life more generally, is incontestable. Bernie wasn't too far off in placing him somewhere within the bastion of the Commendatore.

There probably was justification for Montezemolo's dividing of opinion. But his effectiveness and achievements are absolutely not to be belittled. First of all as Sporting Director - team manager at the F1 team's coalface - in the early-to-mid 1970s, where he turned an outfit that appeared to the outsider to be slipping from the sport and causing the most minor of ripples as it did so to being F1's pace setters within six months; champions within 18. Only Jean Todt can be said to have been as successful in the role. You could make a case that not even he was.

Then upon returning to the company in 1991, to find it in turmoil (and not just on the F1 track), and turning it around on both fronts this time, with 118 wins and more F1 championships than it knew what to do with gathered, record profits and moreover, according to BrandFinance, 'the most powerful brand in the world' bar none (not just in motoring in other words). No small fry.

But while on his watch the Scuderia dominated the sport in a way never done before or since, it's also the case that there was a conspicuous decline also on his watch more lately. As things stand the team hasn't won a title since 2008; hasn't won a drivers' one since 2007 (which in itself was a big last-gasp surprise). Fernando Alonso's abilities in alchemy, oh-so nearly rewarded with two drivers' titles in this era of famine, frankly flattered the team. To underline the point, since that last title was won in 2008 there have been 107 Grands Prix and a Ferrari has started on pole position in a grand total of four of them. Removing those won in the wet and it's down to a mere two; the last one of the latter was won almost exactly four years ago. Almost never since the 2008 championship has the sport's pace and technical standard-bearing machine been one painted red.

And it all wasn't a pure matter of the buck stopping with Montezemolo, he had a few fingerprints on the incriminating evidence. Forcing Michael Schumacher out at the end of 2006 which Schumi himself certainly felt was ahead of time we know about. His conscious effort to Italian-ise the team in the post Todt, Brawn et al era wasn't backed up with results either as indicated. Then there's the fact that as far as most were concerned the Team Principal for most of that slump Stefano Domenicali was one clearly malleable to Montezemolo's ways.

And the feeling grew that Montezemolo had become a direct hindrance. That he was sticking his oar in too much, constantly hauling people in for crisis meetings with all of the distraction and disruption that entails. As German F1 journalist Michael Schmidt outlined: 'The biggest achievement of (previous, and successful, Sporting Director) Jean Todt is that he protected the team from Luca, Luca let him do. Domenicali didn't have that luxury, he (Montezemolo) was always interfering.'

The negative spiral continued further; a rather craven culture, and one of rapid ostracising, developed in the team. As was noted by an observing Gary Anderson at Silverstone this year: 'everyone is frightened of sticking their head above the parapet and making a call because if they do, and for any reason they're wrong, it will be chopped off.' The parting shots, of the self-justificatory variety, from sacked engine head Luca Marmorini a few weeks ago didn't reflect well on the Scuderia mindset either.

The Ferraris have been mainly stuck in the pack this season
Photo: Octane Photography
There was a sense too that Montezemolo still was fighting the last war, tending to yearn for a return to good old days of unlimited testing and spending (when, as if by coincidence, Ferrari dominated), when its re-establishment, or anything like it, in these austere times never looked likely. And the team by now faced a different sort of opponent, a stripped down and entirely focussed racing operation in Red Bull. And now a Mercedes team that has learned a lot of the Bulls' lessons. Ferrari appeared unwilling or unable to adapt.

It's not coincidence either that it came to a head in this season. In previous years Ferrari had lost out in an aero battle, mainly to Red Bull. That was one thing, as down Maranello way few pulses are quickened by aerodynamics. Engines however are something else; those have always been the real badge of honour for Ferrari ever since the freshman days of the Commendatore Enzo Ferrari. And this campaign it not just is losing out but is being utterly humiliated in an engine formula.

Worst of all from the Scuderia perspective a rival manufacturer of performance cars (as opposed to a mere garagiste) had taken the same new set of rules (that was supposed to suit Ferrari), started with the same blank sheet of paper, at the same time, if anything with less in the way of resource and facilities and cleanly leapt ahead having done a markedly better job. Ferrari if anything have looked further away from where it wants to be than ever.

Montzemolo responded in a very old way too. Via politics, turning up to round three in Bahrain to tell all that the sport was in urgent need of change because of it lacking on the entertainment front. It wasn't at all subtle though, and just about everyone saw it for what it was.

Nevertheless by the next race Domenicali was gone. Montezemolo wanted the head of engine boss Marmorini; Domenicali fell on his sword instead. There is an irony in that Marmorini went a few months later anyway.

But even Domenicali's departure came back on Montezemolo to an extent, as he as it turned out had left a slow-emitting stink bomb. It transpired that F1's design star of modern times Adrian Newey as well as Mercedes engine boss Andy Cowell - as responsible as anyone for the silver dominance this year - both were in advanced talks with Domenicali about moving to Maranello, and both were put off by Domenicali's departure and everything that it entailed.

Still though despite this lengthy litany of woe there are some reasons for those associated with Ferrari to feel optimism; even now with the ripples on the surface not yet becalmed from Montezemolo being cast overboard some evidence exists that Ferrari may just be turning its vast tanker around.

This is mainly because in Domenicali's replacement Marco Mattiacci Montezemolo may in fact have given the team a wonderful parting gift. His selection when confirmed before the Chinese race miffed a few - plenty noting his lack of racing experience (instead he'd been selling Ferrari road cars in America) and a lack of profile that apparently rivalled it. Some assumed that he was a mere stop gap for the return of the team's King over the water in Ross Brawn. That in China and subsequently he seemed to spend most of the time when cars were on track sitting impassively, rather like an ornament, not conspicuously getting involved like a Christian Horner for example would, cemented the view further.

Marco Mattiacci is one winning people over
Photo: Octane Photography
But there's since been a bit of discrete backspacing as gradually over time Mattiacci has impressed. Viewing him at work is to view one who is steely, authoritative, a man you can't imagine being messed with.

And despite his absence of F1 and even of racing experience, he appears to have done a good job of identifying the areas to prioritise, in so doing benefiting from the fresh thinking that one from the outside offers.

This is something Jonathan Noble of Autosport has noticed: 'I spent an hour and half with Marco at the German Grand Prix...he's very much a listener, he's gone in there, he knows what he's strong at, he knows what he's weak at, he knows that he doesn't know Formula One as well as other people...One interesting thing he said is that he's gone in to understand how to improve the team, where people think it's right and wrong, but he said "I don't have meetings"...he just randomly sits at someone's desk with them and says "right, what do you think we need to change at Ferrari?", puts them on the back foot. Then you get proper honest answers...He's going about it in quite a unique way.'

The BBC's Andrew Benson meanwhile, more to the point, noted that Mattiacci is 'making a good impression among senior figures in F1 as a man who means business and looks like he can deliver.'

Importantly too - given the problems explained earlier - Mattiacci has also spoken frequently of the need for 'culture change' in the squad.

Mattiacci further reportedly has identified the team's new for this season Technical Director James Allison - who in the forthcoming post Newey age has good claim at being the strongest technical figure in the sport - as the man with the torch required to lead the team out of the gloom. Benson reckons Mattiacci is backing Allison 'to the hilt'. Perhaps it's not the most outlandish call by Mattiacci given everything but it reflects well on his judgement all the same. And even more importantly - particularly given that this is Ferrari - as well as the mere act of identifying the strategy he appears to be succeeding in driving it through in terms of delivery also.

This was reflected by Allison's words in Hockenheim a few weeks ago when he described the quiet and incremental revolution that has been going on in Maranello as it picks its way back to the front: 'You need to make big changes and small changes at the same time' he said.

'Any team in F1, any of them, good or bad, are all pretty impressive organisations and it's actually much much easier to make them worse than it is to make them better. So the changes that need to be made in an absolute sense are quite small, but there's lots of them and they've been happening for some months.

'Marco's (Mattiacci) arrival has helped to galvanise more of them, and across the board at Ferrari there are changes that are extremely helpful to moving us in the right direction.

'If you were to come and sit alongside me or any of the other senior figures in Ferrari and watch the changes that are being made you'd think "well that doesn't look very big, that doesn't look very big either", but by the time you've got the totality of them they add up to something significant, and when you're in a sport that's very competitive all those little things add up to making a big difference.'

Fernando Alonso's efforts have flattered the Ferrari team
Photo: Octane Photography
Mattiacci even appeared to be achieving what Domenicali couldn't, in protecting the team from Montezemolo's dubious influence. That Montezemolo's gone now presumably this process becomes easier. And as a source close to Ferrari noted to Andrew Benson in response to Montezemolo's departure: 'Finally, Ferrari has a chance to sort itself out'.

Schmidt though had a note of caution, as upon musing that it'll likely not be this year or next that Ferrari returns to the top added: 'I say it's too long because they don't have the patience'. He added however that Mattiacci being able to work without Montezemolo's interference may make the journey back to the top quicker.

There has been speculation that Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne - who has been put into Montezemolo's place as President - is merely keeping the seat warm to allow Mattiacci to move into it. It would make sense on the company level in some ways, given Mattiacci's status as a Ferrari company high-flier combined with that it's the New York stock exchange that the Fiat-Chrysler October flotation is taking place on, and as mentioned Mattiacci has considerable recent experience (and presumably contacts) in the US.

But for the sake of the F1 team's immediate prospects it makes much more sense you would have thought to leave Mattiacci exactly where he is, and allow him to finish what he's started. And to give him his way as much as possible.

And Sky Italia's Antonio Boselli thinks this is most likely indeed, in the immediate term at least: 'There's not going to be any big changes in the next weeks, in the next months' he noted on TV a few days ago, 'because if you think about in the last six months what's been happening at Ferrari is something incredible. If you would have asked me one year ago what do you think is going to be Ferrari in one year nobody could have guessed such big changes...so I think Mattiacci's going to keep his post and Marchionne is going to be the President, but I think he's going to give a lot of power to Mattiacci. I think they're going to give a lot of money into investments especially on the engine side...I think that the team now needs to stay stable and steady and focussed on the priorities for 2015.'

And Marchionne too enters the Ferrari fray as one with a strong reputation, and with turning the FIAT company into a major global force as his most recent accomplishment on his CV.

In among all of this there too was one further spot of bright, for Ferrari and - however grudgingly it might be felt - everyone else. Or at least a potential one. The company's success as well as the record profits mentioned, and just posted, were not enough to save Montezemolo. Because the Ferrari team on the F1 track has been lacking. The quotes made upon his departure indeed dripped with it. 'The important thing for Ferrari is not just financial results, but winning...For the last six years we have struggled like hell...' noted Marchionne over the Monza weekend, and days later in confirming Montezemolo's departure he added 'Luca and I have discussed the future of Ferrari at length, and our mutual desire to see Ferrari achieve its true potential on the track has led to misunderstandings.'

We can take from this that Ferrari, despite everything, despite the breadth of its activities, despite its persistent threats to walk away, remains as its core a racing team. And an F1 team. Racing is its raison d'etre, its priority.

OK - everything is connected to everything else, and the team's struggle on the race track may have an impact on the wider company brand. But it didn't seem to be manifesting itself yet (not at the bottom line anyway). Kate Walker also took a different tack, saying that the split reflected a difference in opinion between Montezemolo and Marchionne over the exclusivity and price of Ferrari road cars, as well as the latter wanting full control in advance of the upcoming FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) Group flotation on the Wall Street stock market. And in any case over recent years FIAT control over Ferrari has grown, this strike having a lot of the natural conclusion about it.

Boselli concurred, calling the on-track results 'part of an excuse' for the move and noting that Montezemolo was due to step down at the year's end anyway. It seems one hell of a coincidence too that Montezemolo's leaving date - 13 October - is exactly that on which the floatation is due to take place.

But again everything is connected to everything else, and even with these disagreements it's hard to imagine the pressure would have been so intense had F1 race wins on track been the accompanying background noise. That it can be used as an excuse is a good sign too.

And it 'twas ever thus at Ferrari. After all, Enzo only started selling road cars to help fund the racing programme. So again, despite everything, we can consider Ferrari an F1 perennial. One that will always go racing as long as it is able, just like we do with Williams and McLaren (and - as a comment not a criticism - something we can't say necessarily of some others like Red Bull, perhaps even of Mercedes). And that is something that should really gladden us.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Why does F1 love a conspiracy theory?

Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent. - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

All concerned were justified in being incredulous afterwards. When the chequered flag fell in Monza those in the Mercedes camp no doubt heaved a sigh of relief. They had got their first one-two finish since June. Moreover they had got their first race devoid of any sources of bitterness and rancour since early May.

Lewis Hamilton's Italian Grand Prix win was
only the start of matters, in some ways
Photo: Octane Photography
That's what they thought anyway. As you'll know by now they didn't get it. Some had managed to find a source of bitterness and rancour. In how the lead switched from Nico Rosberg to Lewis Hamilton at mid-distance of Sunday's Italian Grand Prix proceedings, thanks to Nico outbraking himself at the first chicane, under pressure from a rapidly closing Lewis (who as Mark Hughes has outlined was faster in the Monza weekend for a few reasons). The resultant delay was more than enough for the latter to seize the lead, which proved decisive to the final result.

Not much to see it seemed; it looked to the unaided eye a genuine error. Indeed it was one that Nico made earlier in the race too (though he didn't lose a place that time). Plus he made similar errors in the races in Canada, Austria and in Hungary earlier this campaign, as well as in Hungary's qualifying (though in mitigation the Hungaroring ones were both in the wet). He came very close to the same in Spa, managing to give himself large flat spots on his tyres instead - which given the problems they caused him there may have swayed him to take the escape road this time. He did it in Monaco quali too, but perhaps we best not go there.

But a few maintained that there was something to see. That it was deliberate from Nico, a pre-arranged move to give the win to Lewis, as part of his retribution for Spa and all that.

As with the previous conspiracy theories directed at Mercedes this year I'm not buying this one, and on the grounds that in my view it does not begin to pass any sort of credibility test. And probably this particular one fails it the most miserably of the lot.

There has been some helpful debunking of the claims since, this one by James Allen is particularly good, so there's little that I can add to these beyond a brief retread.

The main problem with this conspiracy theory is, as Damon Hill noted on TV when it all was put to him, how exactly would you sell that to Nico Rosberg?

For him to, as the theorists have it, deliberately give the impression to the world that he'd cracked under pressure, one race after making another high profile mistake which he took the culpability for thus seemingly cementing the idea that he's a bit flaky at vital moments, would be to wilfully drive a sword into his own reputation. Add to that that the Monza result was potentially about much more than the 14 point swing resulting from Rosberg's mistake. The consensus is that it marked the passing of the psychological advantage baton, as well as the ever-crucial sense of momentum, to Lewis for the remainder of the championship battle. Make no mistake about it, if Lewis Hamilton does prevail in this 2014 world championship Monza will be looked at as a point - probably the point - upon which matters pivoted.

Nico Rosberg wasn't universally popular in Monza
Photo: Octane Photography
And all of this for an offence at Spa that in itself was rather trifling - clumsy rather than egregious. The sort that we see routinely race after race up and down the order. To cop all of that on that basis would be - as Mario Andretti once noted on another matter - like getting the death penalty for a parking offence.

And as Allen also outlined even if you were going to do something to ensure Lewis prevailed in the Monza race you wouldn't do it in such a risky fashion. To borrow from Sir Humphrey Appleby on Yes, Minister: 'if you insist on doing that damn foolish thing, don't do it in that damn foolish way.'

As with most conspiracy theories, inconvenient facts are either ignored, or somehow enough will is applied to contort them to suit nevertheless. As mentioned Nico made a close to identical error earlier in the race, as well as several other times in previous weekends. Perhaps it all was an elaborate attempt to put us off the scent. Then there was the radio message to Lewis from his engineer just before, which advised him to stay 2-2.5 seconds behind, which had Lewis complied with might have meant he wasn't near enough to jump Nico when he goofed. Perhaps that was an attempt to perform George Constanza-esque reverse psychology on Lewis. Terribly sophisticated these conspiracy theories these days, I'm sure you'll agree.

Which brings us to the main problem with such theories and not just in F1. As outlined Nico's error has a simple explanation - he erred by braking too late just as has been done for as long as cars have been raced. Particularly when under pressure. From a faster team mate. In a title battle.

But it is the way of the conspiracy theorist to discard the simple - and more probable - for the more complex. In Britain we like to say 'cock-up before conspiracy' (for the uninitiated, in Britain a 'cock-up' is a blunder), derived from the words of Margaret Thatcher's former press secretary Bernard Ingham: 'Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of government. I do assure you that they would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory.' It most likely is the way in F1 too.

With all of this why do conspiracy theories persist? Particularly, it seems, in F1? Well, in a general sense conspiracy theories have always had their attractions. They tend to purport to explain the unexplainable; imply human control over everything rather than allow the possibly more bewildering (certainly more accurate) concept that some things just happen, as well as that we all are fallible. They also tend to be more interesting than the often mundane reality. So it is here. The best evidence is that the mundane reality is that Nico made a mistake, and that it just happened, and he's fallible.

Nico led early, but the switch of Mercs later got a few going
Photo: Octane Photography
They also as intimated tend to be neatly all-encompassing. Which as well as a key part of their attraction also ultimately tends to be their downfall, in that they're too all-encompassing. They're untestable; almost circular. They cannot be proved wrong, and with this you have no way of knowing if they are wrong. As the adage goes if you don't allow any opportunity of being proved wrong then you lose any opportunity of being proved right.

It's easy to blame the modern age and social media for such phenomena, but perhaps we overstate this. After all in this case the likes of Eddie Jordan and Jackie Stewart have stirred the pot via the old media, while The Times led its sports news coverage on its website on Sunday evening with the conspiracy claims. Plenty of other outposts of the written press did similar.

While plenty of commonly-aired conspiracies pre-date the social media age. And not just in F1. Just think of the JFK assassination and the moon landing for two. And within F1, going back years and decades they roll off the tongue: did Lorenzo Bandini know what he was doing when he collided with Graham Hill in the title-deciding round in 1964, which as it transpired aided his Ferrari team mate John Surtees's way towards the championship? Did Pedro Rodriguez win the 1970 Belgian Grand Prix with an oversized engine? Bernie's Brabham team had various acts of skulduggery attributed to it, at least one of which has since been admitted. Was Nigel Mansell correct that Honda diddled him out of the 1987 title, when it became clear that Nige and the Japanese concern wouldn't be together the following year? Then there's Benetton, 1994 etc. And various goings-on of both 'sides' in Jerez 1997.

But still, it seems beyond doubt that the internet and social media age lends greater potential than before for such theories to first be started as well as to be spread. And it is the case too that F1 likely has peculiar recent reasons - more so than in most activities - for its followers to assume that little can be placed beyond its participants. Most obviously Singapore 2008, with others such as 'Spygate' and and it being revealed that Ferrari has for years had a technical veto (curiously kept quiet from its contemporaries) also perhaps contributing. Heck, we've even found out since the Monza race just passed that Williams needs the permission of a Mercedes engineer to use its overtake setting (as every team does with its respective engine supplier engineer). And as Hughes noted someone in the team suspects the permission is curiously less forthcoming when the Williams is battling a Mercedes... So it's little wonder a few feel the need to be vigilant.

Add to this also that F1 there seems generally more potential than in most pursuits for the conspiracy to take place; at least it seems so to the public eye. If the conspiracy theory usually is complex then also few sports can be said to be as complex as F1; much goes on behind closed doors and inside the various black boxes that most of the rest of us know next to nothing about. The potential ways and means of getting up to no good are never-ending. The list of examples above - both historic an recent - demonstrates that.

So totalling all this up: we have a sport that is apparently fertile territory for conspiracy theories, watered by a few high profile cases recently and fertilised by a social media age that's rather big on such things. Perhaps with this it's no wonder that this season, and most lately in Monza, F1's conspiracy theory harvest has been a plentiful one.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Italian GP Report: The day the story changed?

Of course, it was only one race. But it may well prove to be so much more. Lewis Hamilton won out in the Italian Grand Prix today, and gets no more than the usual 25 points for it, as well as only a seven point swing to the table top. But again it may prove to be so much more.

Lewis Hamilton was the one celebrating victory
Photo: Octane Photography
It felt a lot like that way. We know about the story that has persisted for Lewis for much of this campaign and in this title battle that is a very private matter between him and his Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg. The feeling that no matter what little would go right for him. In today's Italian Grand Prix at Monza the story may well have changed.

But in the early pages however the tale looked an incredibly familiar one. No one needed have worried about Lewis and Nico navigating the first chicane side-by-side after everything that had happened, as Nico even by that point was way ahead. There even was a couple of cars between.

Pole-sitter Lewis's start was a stinker, due according to his engineer to a 'muddle' in his race start system, which seemed in the early laps to be slowing him too. Nico's lead rapidly was pushing four seconds. Already it looked a lot like it was all over bar the shouting.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Monza Qualifying: Lewis finally gets it right

We'd waited rather a long time for this.

Very nearly four months indeed. Or, to put it another way, eight rounds. Or to put that another way not far off half of the season.

Finally Lewis was the one smiling after a qualifying session
Photo: Octane Photography
Yes, today for the first time since for the Spanish Grand Prix in early May Lewis Hamilton took a pole position. For the first time since then he got one over his team mate Nico Rosberg on a Saturday. For the first time since then indeed he got it spot on in the vital throes of the qualifying hour.

And it could hardly have been more decisive. As is their way this campaign the race for pole in Italy appeared nip-and-tuck between the two Merc pilots, and while as expected the Williams were relatively close at hand still the fight for ultimate supremacy looked reserved for those in silver.

But the nip-and-tuck aspect was changed abruptly and utterly in the first part of the crucial Q3. Nico first off set what seemed a perfectly respectable 1m24.552s. But Lewis came round and stopped the watch way under it at 1m24.109s. The reverberations could be felt throughout the Monza royal park, including presumably in Nico's spine.

New Vital F1 article: How F1 speeds are changing throughout 2014

Photo: Octane Photography
Back in the balmy days of the Spanish Grand Prix in early May this year things were very different.

The Nico Rosberg vs. Lewis Hamilton seethe hardly was an issue astonishingly, but still the sport had something to fuss over. And in Spain it was that the cars under the new for 2014 regulations seemed too slow.

At the time I thought there were a few reasons not to worry so much; that Spain's headline picture was a bit unusual. And now several months on it was a good time to look at the lap time numbers throughout the season to see if they back me up.

You can have a read of what I found over on Vital F1 via this link:
http://www.vitalf1.com/sitepage.asp?a=2539

I'm sure you'll agree that I missed my calling as a scientist...

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

New F1 Times article: Has Mercedes created a problem for itself?

Photo: Octane Photography
My latest article for F1 Times is on a familiar subject. Yes, Spa, Nico, Lewis, collisions and all that.

Mercedes has since reacted to it all, and while the team's response had a lot going for it, it may also may have stored up some problems for the future. I outline what Merc should have done, and do so by taking inspiration from football manager Brendan Rodgers.

How so? Well you'll just have to read and find out won't you?

You can have a read via this link: http://www.f1times.co.uk/news/display/09290

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.

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.

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.