Saturday, 28 February 2015

F1 2015 Season Preview: Ferrari - Order out of chaos

'Oddly enough, despite all the catastrophe going on around the outside of it at the management level, they could just fluke into a good car next year because it's the first of the James Allison cars, and the engine this year (in 2014) was deliberately configured to be small and concentrate on heat rejection for the benefit of aerodynamics. Now that's turned out not to be the way to go. So there's a big chunk to be easily found there. So they may well be...much more competitive.'

Photo: Octane Photography
These are the words of Motorsport magazine's Mark Hughes late last year. Prophetic I'm sure you'll agree.

The rate of heads on spikes at Maranello that season was rapid even by the standards of its most darkest of days from history: Montezemolo, Domenicali, Fry, Marmorini, Alonso. Plenty of flux was going on elsewhere in addition, with a split from FIAT and a flotation. And then at the season's end almost unthinkably Marco Mattiacci, the guy who replaced Stefano Domenicali as team principal as something of a company high-flyer and apparently was doing a lot of the right things, was himself shown the door amid considerable mystery (some reckon it goes back to something before he got involved in the F1 team).

Wags pointed out also that Ferrari's new driver pairing for 2015 was made up of two who were blown away by their team mates last year; as well as arguably were the two - certainly among the front-liners - who struggled most with the new breed of F1 car.

But as Hughes pointed out, there still despite this apparent descent into chaos was a good chance that the Scuderia could nevertheless produce a car that would allow it a conspicuous forward step in the competitive order, due to a combination of conspicuous power unit gain and this being the first car properly from the technical leadership of the extremely highly-rated James Allison, who reportedly was given complete control. And it appears that is exactly what's happened.

Throughout the opening test at Jerez the red machine was near or at the top of the times almost habitually, and while we all know the disclaimers about such headline marks rivals nevertheless were impressed.

Daniel Ricciardo noted of Sebastian Vettel's 1m 20 effort there: 'I don’t know the fuel, tyres, whatever but in any case it was a good time', then in Barcelona's first test showed outward surprise when told that Kimi Raikkonen's Thursday time was set on medium tyres. Nico Rosberg meanwhile admitted in Jerez that the Ferrari pace was an 'eye opener' while in Barcelona he noted that of all the Merc's rivals it was Ferrari that had made the 'biggest step' in relation to it.

On the power unit front the red team appears to have focussed on the things it was bad at last year - namely its power delivery and energy harvesting. It also appears to have clawed back the power deficit at least to the Mercedes of 2014, judging by the words of Sauber's Felipe Nasr (also powered by a Ferrari unit) who drove last year's Williams with a Merc engine and reckoned this Ferrari unit felt 'very similar'. There apparently is more to come from the engine too, though is should be tempered a little though with that Mercedes is reckoned to have found up to another 60bhp itself between seasons.

And as well as reliability problems being rare out on track the car has looked the business, with the chassis's own 2014 bugbear of a weak front end also looking largely resolved, the machine appearing consistently responsive and nimble through tight chicanes and elsewhere. At the time of writing the car's performance on a race run is less clear, but the consensus remains that at the very least Ferrari is in the general sense in the middle of the fight with Williams and Red Bull for the best behind the Mercedes.

The new boss Maurizio Arrivabene charmed the assembled media in Barcelona, and spoke of an improved atmosphere in the squad wherein team members will feel more comfortable in making decisions, an oft-observed problem down Maranello way in recent times: 'when people are under pressure, with everybody trying to cover themselves, this creates a kind of mess into the team' he said pointedly.

But then again, it's amazing too how doing better on the stopwatch suddenly can make other problems go away. Ferrari probably won't challenge Mercedes this year, not for the title anyway. But in the most unlikely of circumstances the team appears to have leapt back to respectability, perhaps even occasional front-running competitiveness.

Sebastian Vettel - Car #5
Photo: Octane Photography
Never say never in this game.

Even though there had been Sebastian Vettel to Ferrari whisperings in the wind going back all the way to early 2012 - even to the effect that something or other being signed - it remained something that few took seriously, at least not in the immediate term. He was part of the furniture at Red Bull almost to the point of being synonymous, and for all of the RB10's shortcomings last year the Bulls looked still a far better bet than stepping into the sheer whirlwind at Maranello. But here we are.

So why? Well for starters Seb is one conscious of his place in history and the challenge of aiding famous old Ferrari back to the top, just as his countryman Michael Schumacher did, tempts. More broadly a desire to 'flee the nest' and prove it on your own as it were away from the team that you'd been associated with since your teens, as his former boss Christian Horner suggested, is a natural one. Perhaps too in Seb's peculiar case it's related also at some level to a desire for respect from certain quarters, that which rather eluded him even when he was bagging his repeated world titles.

As for the timing, well that was a little less noble. As was suggested at the time it was confirmed, his reputation could just about cope with one season of being beaten by his team mate as he was in 2014. Had similar happened in 2015 also then it's questionable who would have been prepared to touch him...

Last season was rather the slide from grace for Seb - entering the campaign with his fourth title to his name he spent most of the season being shown the way by his new team mate Daniel Ricciardo. Everyone had their own theory as to why this was, though the most credible one was that it was down to the passing of the exhaust blown diffuser. Not only was Seb as far as just about everyone was concerned the master of driving with that feature, he also spent a lot of 2014 fighting the last war. Observers reckoned that he drove the car like it still had a blown diffuser, being ultra aggressive on the turn-in, but now without throttle blasts keeping the thing stable it served only to chew his tyres up. It was indeed curious that Seb - one who'd built his previous supremacy on his no-stone-unturned and adaptable approach - didn't do more to adapt to the new handling.

But in his new environment there are signs that the old guy of his Red Bull pomp - the ultra-industrious and bright as a button presence - has returned, replacing the rather bewildered figure of last year, one that Horner reckoned was even considering quitting the sport. The ready smile is back, as is his determination to absorb all information and to be a 24/7 presence on the simulator. He's looked pretty tidy out on track too. As you'd imagine he's therefore gathering popularity at Ferrari quickly. And his new boss Maurizio Arrivabene even went, yes, there and described him like a 'carbon copy of Schumi'. Which is a lot of what Seb had in mind. Now he has to go some way demonstrating it where it really matters.

Kimi Raikkonen - Car - #7
Photo: Octane Photography
The recent Autosport front cover summed it up, this is 'Kimi's last chance'.

Whichever way it is stacked up Kimi Raikkonen's return to the Scuderia last year was a desperate disappointment. In a season wherein he was supposed to give Fernando Alonso a challenge that he's never had outside of 2007 and all that, he in fact rarely got into the same postcode. The comparison numbers in whatever form are devastating and indeed for much of the season, especially before the summer break, he tended to not even be close to his stable mate.

And such is the way with F1 reputations some with this new evidence brought to light started to reflect on his efforts before that. Memories of his struggle for much of his first Ferrari spell came flooding back. Then there was his stay at Lotus between times, broadly considered a success but it was also so on the occasions that Romain Grosjean got properly up to speed that Kimi couldn't stay with him. Some even murmured at the time that the Lotuses he piloted were in fact even better cars than he tended to make them look. His devastating pace in the McLaren in the mid-noughties suddenly seemed a very long time. Because it was. Was his latest Ferrari experience merely continuation of a long term decline rather than a departure?

We're aware of the line of defence which seeks to mitigate his 2014 struggle, that Kimi craves a responsive front end of the car, and the F14 T had nothing like that. The Finn too - for better or for worse - refuses to alter his driving style to adapt to his machine: 'I have been in F1 quite a few years, I have never changed my driving style and I will never change; it's not the right way to fix problems'.

And this year he may indeed have had that problem fixed. Observers have noticed that this year's Ferrari front end looks to be behaving itself far more, giving both drivers confidence that it'll go where they point it. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Kimi in the car in 2015 testing has looked much more comfortable, as well as is visually more content (within his strict personal gamut of course) out of it too. Thickening the plot, he described the SF15-T as a 'completely different story' compared with last year's set of wheels.

But the flipside of course is that he doesn't now have anywhere to hide; he simply must deliver. It feels like 2015 will answer a lot of questions about Kimi Raikkonen. Perhaps definitively.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Inside Line F1 Podcast: Helmet Ban(ter)

The latest Inside Line F1 podcast is here. In this one Kunal Shah and Rishi Kapoor look at the latest Barcelona test, as well as other F1 matters such as Ferrari's progress, Renault's future moves and the helmet design change ban. You can have a listen below:

The regular Inside Line F1 podcast is produced and hosted by Kunal and Rishi, and is one of the most listened to podcasts in India and Asia, They are looking to expand elsewhere, and here on Talking about F1 I'm delighted to help share it.

Kunal has been writing on F1 for eight seasons, you can visit Kunal's website at: http://www.kunalsf1blog.com/ and you also can follow him on Twitter here.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Lewis Hamilton Career Infographic by Dronsfields

The leading independent Mercedes specialists, www.dronsfields.com, have decided to honour the new F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton by producing an infographic about his career.

It's displayed below, and you'll see that there's plenty of information about Lewis in there, both about his recent championship year and before. Hope you like it.

Lewis Hamilton Career Infographic

F1 2015 Season Preview: Williams - Practising Alchemy

F1 alchemy almost never happens. Things change slowly; tortuously; at the margins. And outcomes tend to be determined in large part by who has the most cash to splash.

Photo: Octane Photography
But try, on the basis of last season's efforts, telling that to Williams. It started having just experienced a desperately disappointing 2013 campaign wherein it took but two points-scoring finishes, and for the most part was ahead on pace only of the 'B class' of Marussia and Caterham. And yet it finished 2014 making a coherent case that it was the imperious Mercs' most consistent irritant on lap time over the season. And its habitual points-scoring - including nine podiums - totalled up to a haughty third place in the constructors' table, ahead of the much more handsomely-resourced teams of Ferrari and McLaren. It was possibly the most astonishing - almost certainly the most welcomed - story of the year.

So why was this so? Well as its Chief Technical Officer Pat Symonds pointed out: 'There isn't a magic bullet, there never is...' In some factors the improvement owed to the team's doing; in others the stars rather aligned for it. Getting the jewel of the Mercedes power unit was a massive help of course, but then again the other Merc customers were nothing like as competitive. Claire Williams filled the apparent management void that had existed since Toto Wolff left. Symonds was brought in and changed a lot - not so much in personnel but rather on how they worked. Before the car was being flooded with new pieces without much coherence, a habit which stopped. In typical Symonds fashion the operations were given heavy focus too; the team's pit stops for example improved from being one of the worst out there to one of the best.

The technical regulation changes, sending everyone back to base camp, helped. The team's brake-by-wire was considered excellent. The passing of exhaust blowing of diffusers, something that Williams never did well, aided the team also. Its super slippery car - designed in part because it assumed the Merc's fuel economy would be worse than it was - meant that the FW36 not only flew in a straight line but also that the car was probably the most economical out there, including the works Mercedes. It even managed to attract a new title sponsor, something not done by any F1 team in who-knows-how-long. Rather taking from Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, last season everything in the Williams' universe conspired in its favour.

As for pre-season for this campaign, over the first two tests while the team hasn't been troubling the tops of the times no one is worried on its behalf. Williams' way is to leave the headline-grabbing to others when it doesn't matter and instead get on with its productive work, just as it tended to do in Friday practice sessions last season. Both drivers look and sound quietly content. Its rivals consider Williams a conspicuous threat.

There too are theoretical reasons why Williams is best placed of everyone to get on terms with Mercedes, or at least run it closest. Unlike most of the teams around it the Grove squad has stability on its side. With a year's learning it can build its car around the power unit's compact layout more effectively. As mentioned the team last year deliberately aimed for a low drag configuration, and one consequence of this was that the closest the FW36 had to a shortcoming was a lack of rear downforce. Trackside observers in this year's testing reckon the car looks more stable in that regard. And even with this it's still been getting the highest numbers through speed traps.

The consensus remains that Williams is in the thick of the fight of best of the rest behind Mercedes. Perhaps even that it leads it.

On the meagre downside however, a relatively common criticism of the team last year was that there were occasions - Austria and perhaps Canada too - when a possible win was not grasped due arguably to over-conservative strategy. Given where the team had come from in a short space of time the approach was perhaps forgiveable. But onlookers will be less forgiving in 2015.

Another concern is that a very similar Williams preview to this would have been written for the 2013 season, following its 2012 wherein it had restructured and apparently successfully reversed its slide. And we've mentioned how bad that season turned out to be. Still, if history was to repeat this time it was be a major surprise.

Felipe Massa - Car #19
Photo: Octane Photography
If all of the elements of Williams' universe conspired in its favour in 2014, that very much included its selection of drivers. And the feeling was reciprocated by its new recruit Felipe Massa. Having been dumped by Ferrari he found a team on the rise, that wasn't concerned about sponsors' cash brought, and was keen to download his experience - it's hard to see how realistically he could have found a better new abode. And as for Williams, Pat Symonds outlined last season that 'had we had Alonso or Hamilton/Rosberg, it would have been a disaster. We're not ready for that yet. But Felipe was perfect for where we're at.'

In other words, while he's not one from the very top drawer, he is quick, experienced as well as is not one to kick up a stink on the inevitable occasions on which a growing team doesn't quite get things right.

Come the summer break midway through last season it was tempting however to view things as more of the same for Felipe - he was looking a little bewildered, erring too often and more to the point was being outwardly trounced by his team mate. Such an assessment was simplistic though, as Massa's campaign had at that point been undermined by a series of accidents, not all of which were his fault, to the point that in Hungary he had to run with an old spec car, which of course contributed to him again being out paced. After the break though he started the show the good form that we all know is there, and not for the first time in his career a single strong podium finish was what heralded the upturn. In Monza he finished third behind the Mercs after a flawless drive, then in Singapore - a track on which he's often excelled - he put in possibly his drive of the year, nursing his Pirellis to fifth place at the end on a day that his team mate was nowhere. He topped off the season by hunting down leader Lewis Hamilton in the late laps in Abu Dhabi, in an effort that may have brought victory without a battery problem, and that had a lot of the look of Felipe at his very best.

But then again and as intimated no one's ever doubted Massa' ultimate potential, it's just that for years now the crucial question has been whether it can be unlocked. At Williams last year we were a bit more confident than in a while that this could be answered in the affirmative.

Valtteri Bottas - Car #77
Photo: Octane Photography
Completing the harmony of all matters Williams in 2014 I give you Valtteri Bottas. He entered the sport in 2013 with much promise and in a team that raved about him, though that campaign left the jury still out. Admittedly the FW35 was no machine to show your skills, and there were flashes of potential in Canada's qualifying as well as in Austin. But for the most part in races he ran behind Pastor Maldonado. Perhaps this was what Pat Symonds had in mind when he spoke of Bottas then as 'a rookie in what was frankly a rookie team'. In 2014 driver and team rose in unison.

Bottas's speed, and consistent speed, were stunning and he tended to leave Felipe Massa behind on that score - remember that if Massa's anything he's quick. We know the Brazilian is a strong qualifier also but Bottas was the quicker on 13 Saturdays from 19. This was all allied to Bottas being robust in the overtake - seen most gaudily in his rises through the pack in no time in Australia, Silverstone, Monza and Abu Dhabi, as well as apparently being impervious to pressure, on show for example in Austria where he gave the Mercs their most competitive run in normal circumstances all season as well as in Germany as Lewis Hamilton filled his mirrors in the late laps. Mistakes were few - his tagging of the wall in the opening round, which cost him a probable podium appearance, was the only major black mark - as were off days, certainly after the FW36 really reached its competitive pitch from Austria onwards.

But Bottas's offering is not just about pace. His technical feedback has the Grove team purring, as does his ability to stretch out the life of a single set of Pirellis. Indeed a Finnish colleague likes to tell all that Bottas is just like Mika Hakkinen, except more intelligent. Just about everyone can see what he means.

Bottas - a lot like Daniel Ricciardo - last season having been given a set of wheels that would allow him to fight near the front demonstrated that he is a driver not just with pace to throw away but also one who seemingly ticks all of the boxes. Surely his first win, perhaps even his first championship, is a matter of time. If 2014 was a season in which Bottas just like his team built strong foundations then also just like his team in 2015 the key matter is the extent that he can build further.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

New GP Racing Plus article: McLaren’s real parallel from history (and it isn’t with Honda)

"Lauda McLaren MP4-2 1984 Dallas F1" by twm1340 -
1984 United States Grand Prix, Fair Park, Dallas, Texas.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lauda_
McLaren_MP4-2_1984_Dallas_F1.jpg#mediaviewer/
File:Lauda_McLaren_MP4-2_1984_Dallas_F1.jpg
With McLaren teaming up with Honda as its engine supplier for this forthcoming F1 season you hardly could have missed the heavy sense of history that has come along with it. And of highly successful history at that - what with a clean sweep of championship doubles for the partnership in every year inclusive between 1988 and 1991 on the record books.

But in my latest article for GP Racing Plus (formerly F1Plus) I outline that for me, the parallel is far from perfect and instead far the closer parallel from the past comes, still from McLaren, from a few years before that. From 1984 and the Woking squad using TAG-Porsche engines.

You can have a read here: http://gpracingplus.com/en/specials/item/7329-mclarens-real-parallel-from-history-and-it-isnt-with-honda

F1 2015 Season Preview: Red Bull - Short of breath

Don't let anyone tell you different. In F1 very little remains the same for long.

Photo: Octane Photography
And if you'd like a recent example - and an extreme one - then you need look no further than the case of Red Bull.

Around eighteen months ago it was near-impossible to envisage how the team could be beaten. As we stand now it is equally near-impossible to envisage how it can win.

It's not especially the team’s fault either. Not directly anyway. Rather the game changed. In the Bulls' purple patch F1 was close to a spec series on engines; the team could plug in Renault units and go, concentrating instead on the chief discriminator of aerodynamics, which it also so happened to be incredibly good at. The team-manufacturer relationship wasn't as close as usual in a works partnership. But it didn't have to be.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

F1 2015 Season Preview: Mercedes - Silver service

It didn't take long for the apparent confirmation. A matter of an hour or so. On the first morning of the opening pre-season test in Jerez while all others did a few first tentative steps (and some didn't even do that) the new Mercedes W06 sprinted from the blocks. Immediately from the get-go of on-track running it functioned like a watch and racked up the mileage, doing 80 laps on the first morning when all others combined managed only slightly more in 96. It all left its rivals stunned. And represented confirmation as if it was required that as far as the Brackley lot are concerned there will be no relent; Mercedes in 2015 will be a lot like Mercedes in 2014. And wasn't caring to conceal the fact.

Photo: Octane Photography
Of course Mercedes starts this particular race with an advantage. Its launch-off point of last year's car already is towering, and with only modest regulation changes in the meantime it should count for a lot this year too. Various things - Mercedes starting off as way ahead in the energy recovery game; giving more time, resource and attention apparently to the new formula; a vital innovation in the power unit layout which as the works supplier it was best placed to benefit from - all came together to send the W05 into the most virtuous of circles last season. It was on another level.

New Grand Prix Times article: For once, I’m pleased that F1 couldn’t make a decision

Photo: Octane Photography
We all know by now that F1's powers-that-be it seems cannot make a decision. Not for anything important anyway. It's a recurring theme. But not surprising when you give power to the teams, each of which have their peculiar, vested, interests.

And in recent days F1's inability to make a decision made itself felt again by halting, at least temporarily, F1's brave strides into a bold future of bigger tyres, wider cars and rip-snorting 1,000bhp engines that will give drivers more of a challenge.

So how on earth could I be happy with this? Well in my latest article for Grand Prix Times I explain why. You can have a read here: http://www.grandprixtimes.com/news/display/09878

Inside Line F1 Podcast: It's time for Barcelona

The latest Inside Line F1 podcast is here. In this one Kunal Shah and Rishi Kapoor discuss a variety of F1 matters ahead of the latest Barcelona test. These include Ron Dennis's comments about the supposed end of the title sponsor, proposed radical changes and 'cars of the future' mooted for the sport, and Lewis Hamilton's stand off with Mercedes over a new contract. You can have a listen below:

Kunal has been writing on F1 for eight seasons, you can visit Kunal's website at: http://www.kunalsf1blog.com/ and you also can follow him on Twitter here.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Inside Line F1 Podcast: Formula One is Funny

Just the latest Inside Line F1 podcast is here. In this one Kunal Shah and Rishi Kapoor remind us of this sport's persistent ability to amuse us (but perhaps not always for the right reasons) as well as discuss the recent matters of Marussia/Manor possibly taking part in the 2015 season after all. It's lively as always and well worth nine-and-a-bit minutes of your time. You can have a listen below:

The regular Inside Line F1 podcast is produced and hosted by Kunal and Rishi, and is one of the most listened to podcasts in India and Asia, They are looking to expand elsewhere, and here on Talking about F1 I'm delighted to help share it.

Kunal has been writing on F1 for eight seasons, you can visit Kunal's website at: http://www.kunalsf1blog.com/ and you also can follow him on Twitter here.