Friday, 28 November 2014

Vergne and the margins between success and misery in modern F1

Here's a challenge for you. Try to explain to someone the general logic behind which drivers get retained in F1 race seats and which get ditched. Without sounding insane.

You'll no doubt be aware that it wouldn't be an easy task. And this week we had just the latest cruel rejection of a worthy competitor, that of Jean-Eric Vergne.

The Abu Dhabi race was indeed the last we'll see
of Jean-Eric Vergne at Toro Rosso
Photo: Octane Photography
It was a slightly on-off goodbye. He was officially out way back in the summer break when the fledgling Max Verstappen was confirmed for a Toro Rosso 2015 gig. But then when Sebastian Vettel's unanticipated departure from the Red Bull big team had the domino effect of Daniil Kvyat being promoted to replace him, some started to muse that Vergne could be retained after all so to plug the resultant vacancy. Indeed Franz Tost confirmed during the Sochi weekend that Vergne was back in the running.

But no. Before we know it we're back where we started, as Vergne himself confirmed on Twitter earlier this week: 'Despite a good season and 22 points, I'll not drive anymore for Toro Rosso in 2015. Thanks for those years. Let's go for another big challenge.'

Instead it appears that one of the latest Bull up-and-comers Alex Lynn or Carlos Sainz Jr will partner Verstappen, with the grapevine having it going to Sainz. The same grapevine has Vergne resurfacing as a Williams reserve.

But still it seems a terrible waste of talent. Moreover it seems comparing Vergne's predicament with where his former team mate and fellow-whipper snapper Daniel Ricciardo is now underlines how the margin between success and misery in modern F1 is often absurdly thin. Worse it seems far from the first time we've been given cause to lament about either phenomenon.

It's odd to think that for most of their time together at Toro Rosso there wasn't a great deal to choose between Vergne and Ricciardo. Indeed word from within the Red Bull camp was that Vergne was the more highly-rated of the two.

As Toro Rosso team mates there was little to choose
between Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne
Photo: Octane Photography
The selection of Ricciardo for promotion to the Red Bull A team for 2014 wasn't random of course. He stepped up to the mark when the big seat became available in the mid-part of last year, seizing his opportunity knocks moment with a series of stunning Q3 grid slots as well as converting a few into a good points finishes. While Vergne at the same moment if anything regressed a little. And the ability to set a representative qualifying lap - him tending to look edgy and error-prone when it mattered - continued to hold him back.

Both faced a pitch with bat in hand; Ricciardo took a swing and scored a home run. Vergne left the ball and never got to face another.

But I still view Vergne as a very strong F1 driver - as do plenty who have worked with him. He's a proper and willing racer, classically skilled and blessed with fine car control. And to give some examples of his high-tide watermarks, in Hungary this year he battled gamely in second place for several laps, and ambushed Nico Rosberg in fine style along the way to getting there. While in Singapore his race was supreme, gobbling up the road and several opponents - particularly in scintillating final laps - to overcome two penalties and finish sixth.

But what really shows Vergne in a good light is that essentially the only difference between him and Ricciardo when paired in the same cars was in qualifying in the dry. Indeed in other aspects such as race pace if anything Vergne was slightly the better (though helped by tending to have more fresh tyres as a result of dropping out of quali sooner). And for 2014 Vergne self-admittedly focussed on his weak spot, and it had a clear positive impact as he bagged a succession of top ten qualifying slots, as well as did not give much away to his fast young stable mate Kvyat on Saturdays. So - given how Ricciardo has wowed us in 2014 - you do the maths.

He's also been far the more impressive than Kvyat in races (the latter not really yet having sorted looking after the rear tyres), as evidenced in part by his 22 points in total this year to the Russian's eight. And foul luck - especially early in the year with a series of mechanical failures - stopped him getting a lot more even than that.

But still it seems he rather was on a hiding to nothing. Toro Rosso pilots have a strict three-year lifespan as well as that after being passed over for a step up there apparently usually is no way back, even with his improvement. Vergne in his specific case was likely diddled either way - if Ricciardo did well at Red Bull then there was nowhere for him to go; if he didn't then it would reflect badly on him.

But while we don't often need encouragement to point fingers at Red Bull on the charge of being terribly nasty to its drivers in fact the behaviour isn't confined to it. It is a general phenomenon, and one that has contributed to F1 careers these days being incredibly knife-edge, as Vergne has just found out.

F1's financial crisis impedes drivers such as Vergne
Photo: Octane Photography
For various reasons the good midfielder - not a talent from the top drawer but comfortably good enough to be within the top 20 or however many rides there are - doesn't exist anymore in modern F1. The three-year limit we associate with the Bulls has applied to virtually all others (not bringing money) outside of the Red Bull stable in recent years too, in that if you don't within that timespan demonstrate that you're from the very top level, or else bring money and/or commercial opportunities, you're out. Go through F1 drivers for 2015 and virtually (maybe actually) all now fit into one or more of the following three categories: top level talents, pay drivers and youngsters within that opening three years.

And see Paul di Resta, Kamui Kobayashi and Heikki Kovalainen as a few recent non-Red Bull examples that conform almost precisely in being good midfielders ditched on that timescale (though the latter two managed to sustain their existences on life support at Caterham for a while afterwards). In Kobayashi's case, in a scenario with some echoes of Ricciardo and Vergne, in 2012 he scored only six points fewer than Sergio Perez as Sauber team mates (66 to 60), but at the season's end Perez got a big break at McLaren while Kobayashi at the very same moment got the heave-ho from F1.

Which brings us nicely to the oft-discussed subject of pay drivers. They have always existed as we know; probably always will too. But F1's financial crisis we know about also, particularly for those teams competing in the midfield downwards, thus drivers with cash are especially welcome to such squads right now. And the effect of this is manifold, in that not only are team bosses more demanding of their drivers and have more of an incentive to ditch them in short order to bring in Mr Moneybags, it also all means that if a driver is dropped they have fewer race seat alternatives in F1 to take refuge at. Indeed I worked out that for next season outside the top five teams (ignoring Toro Rosso which has its own priorities of course) there are a grand total of two drivers that are there primarily on talent and not on helping to balance the books - Nico Hulkenberg and Romain Grosjean.

Retaining your place in F1 has always been tough. But the sport's warped ways of lately ensure that right now it is toweringly so.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

TeamSport Infographic - F1 2014 season round up

You may recall last week in the build-up to the season-concluding Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that TeamSport - UK indoor karting specialists - produced an infographic outlining the state of play heading into the vital round.

Now that the race and therefore the season has reached its conclusion TeamSport has been kind enough to produce a final end of season version, summing up the key stats for the year. This is below. Hope you like it.

More detail can be found here, and you can let TeamSport know what you think on Twitter.

#F1 2014 season
Source: TeamSport

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

New F1Plus.com article: Why Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari spell was no waste of time

Fernando Alonso said goodbye to Ferrari last weekend
Photo: Octane Photography
The season-concluding Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was a time to say goodbye, and the goodbyes came in a a variety of forms.

One of the most sombre though was that we finally received confirmation that Fernando Alonso and Ferrari, after a five-year relationship, are officially over.

In the latest of my articles for F1plus.com I look at why the partnership did not deliver its minimum objective of a world championship, but also argue that despite this, from Alonso's side the Maranello stint was no waste of time.

You can have a read of the article via this link: http://www.f1plus.com/en/news/item/7117-why-fernando-alonsos-ferrari-spell-was-no-waste-of-time

Monday, 24 November 2014

Mattiacci - brought down by his own fire

Divorce is rarely easy of course. Neither are goings-on within Scuderia Ferrari. Bring the two together and you have...well, you work out the rest.

And there has been a lot of Ferrari conforming to type in its latest big soap opera; the matter indeed that had smouldered throughout the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend. And today we received confirmation that as is often so there was no smoke without fire. Marco Mattiacci is out; Maurizio Arrivabene, brand manager for Marlboro Europe and one close to the Ferrari team for some time via that sponsorship, is there in his stead. The Scuderia has its third (count 'em) team principal in the space of just eight months.

Marco Mattiacci is out of the Ferrari team
Photo: Octane Photography
So - apart from the obvious - what does this in particular tell us? Well to start with there's one thing we can fairly safely conclude that it isn't. That being that Mattiacci's flying visit was always part of the plan.

When he first arrived earlier this season many indeed reckoned it was an interim appointment, particularly given his gaping lack of motorsport experience. But over time fewer and fewer felt sure on this point.

As the BBC's Andrew Benson noted by mid-season Mattiacci was 'making a good impression among senior figures in F1 as a man who means business and looks like he can deliver.' That Mattiacci reportedly was backing the highly-rated new Technical Director James Allison to the hilt looked spot on too.

But the main problem with the suggestion that today's events are simply a natural conclusion to the Ferrari strategy all along is that assumption was based on Mattiacci being a company high-flier ear-marked for a Luca Montezemolo-type role, and therefore that a bit of time at the F1 coal face beforehand would help him therein. But Ferrari's statement on the matter today made no mention of Mattiacci being moved to a new position within the company, which you'd imagine would have been confirmed simultaneously if that was the plan. Worse from Mattiacci's point of view the wording used made it sound a lot like he was out of the company altogether.

Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne was quoted thus: 'We would also like to thank Marco Mattiacci for his service to Ferrari in the last 15 years and we wish him well in his future endeavours.' And how else are we supposed to interpret that?

Adam Cooper for one thought he had the answer: 'Mattiacci fell out of favour with Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne' he said on his site, 'and his handling of the departure of Fernando Alonso - which led to a huge pay-off to the Spanish driver after the team was left with three World Champions under contract for next season - clearly did not help.'

Cooper expanded the thought on Twitter, first describing Mattiacci's 'clumsy handling of the Alonso departure' as a 'big black mark against him'. Before concluding that 'as he leaves, canny operator Alonso helps to take down the guy who pissed him off. You couldn't make it up...'.

And on top of the absurdity of paying Alonso a vast sum not to drive for you, if one is to be brutal about it - as Ted Kravtiz was repeatedly on television over the weekend - we can add also that Ferrari has ditched Alonso (arguably the best out there) and ended up for 2015 with two drivers trounced by their respective team mates this campaign. It doesn't look good.

Fernando Alonso said farewell to Ferrari in Abu Dhabi
Photo: Octane Photography
Possibly there is more to this though. Perhaps Mattiacci also underestimated the depth of feeling there is in Ferrari for Alonso. Perhaps as Cooper suggested he underestimated Alonso too.

A murmur indeed to emanate from the Maranello direction lately was that Mattiacci was wary of Alonso's power within the squad and was therefore a lot like a compressed spring waiting to be released, to face Alonso down in order to 'show who's boss'.

If this is indeed so then Mattiacci would do well to reflect on the words of the Chinese philosopher Confucius: 'Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.'

To think too that just a few weeks back there was some rather smug reporting to the effect that Alonso had been played in this, and masterfully, by Mattiacci. Make a note never to play poker with Nando.

But whatever is the case the denigration of Fernando Alonso from the Ferrari direction in recent weeks - and after everything he had put in for them - was for me by far the hardest part of this affair to take. Betraying apparently a rather grubby way of doing things.

Suggestions started to emanate a few weeks ago that Alonso was a disruptive figure in team; that he was bigging himself up too much in public at the squad's expense; that he was too old for Ferrari's new long-term project. One claim from therein moreover stretched credulity to breaking point by saying that Alonso - yes, Alonso - wasn't putting the required effort in these days. Fernando in Singapore indeed was heard to complain that he reckoned elements within the team were seeking to undermine him.

And if we had constructed a hypothesis about this we could have speculated that these murmurings were sourced from near the top of Ferrari, maybe to cover itself in order to make the loss of Alonso seem in fact noble and for the team's good, rather than Alonso himself deciding to up sticks. And, perhaps inadvertently, Mattiacci during the Abu Dhabi weekend seemed to rumble himself to this very thing.

As in his statement in which Alonso's departure and Sebastian Vettel's accession were confirmed finally he referred implicitly and at some points explicitly to the very matters that the anti-Alonso whispers had covered. Thus bringing the trail of suspicion for the mysterious negative briefings rather close to himself. It might be a (non-criminal) example of classic criminal psychology - being brought down by one's own ego. A desire for credit for the dark deeds.

Do not play poker with this man
Photo: Octane Photography
In welcoming Alonso's replacement Mattiacci said: 'In Formula 1 terms Sebastian Vettel is a unique combination of youthfulness and experience and he brings with him that sense of team spirit which will prove invaluable'. Something which Martin Brundle called 'a plain dig'.

And as if we needed confirmation Mattiacci added: 'We need to thank Fernando for all he has done for us, what we have done together over the last five years. But at the same time, it is clear to everybody that we want both to open new cycles, but it was important to do it with the utmost motivation and commitment.'

Alonso too seemed to have worked it all out.

'I heard the comments and I don't think they were very good' he retorted. 'If he tried to mean that I was not motivated, he arrived at Ferrari too late.

'He's only been here for a few months and has not seen the five years that I've spent here and how I've fought every single race.

'Probably I was too old when he tried to renew me until the Monza race, and he kept pushing, and pushing and having talks, and even in the last moment we had a lot of phone calls and e-mails that I still have in my computer.

'Probably at that time I was not so old, but when I took my decision I guess he had to find another driver.'

The last bit didn't seal Mattiacci's fate most likely, as word was already by that point that he was a dead man walking as mentioned.  But I'd like to think that the apparent attempts to trash in public by far the best thing about the Ferrari team in recent times formed part of the rap sheet. At the very least in my view it ensures that Mattiacci shuffles off from his brief spell on the F1 stage with his reputation rather sullied.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Abu Dhabi GP Report: In the end, in the beginning

Thinking logically, it was hard to see in advance how he could have been denied today. But in this game logic only goes so far.

Things indeed came right for Lewis Hamilton today
Photo: Octane Photography
Possibly in no other sport can so much go wrong as in F1, and so definitively. Indeed the man himself admitted that he'd spent the night before preoccupied with such possibilities. No doubt most of his fans did too. But for all that we remember the sport's dramatic last-race shifts, the probability remains that the guy who needs a mere nudge over the line manages it. And so it was today. Lewis Hamilton won the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and with it the 2014 World Drivers' Championship. His second.

It would have taken the unusual to deny Lewis, and while there were such unusual goings-on come the race they in fact fell in his favour. The very get-go was our first hint that today was going to be Lewis's day. The start of his title rival Nico Rosberg with too much wheel spin was far from ideal, but Lewis's was a peach. Launching like a rocket into a clear lead and Nico already having to cling to the end of his vapour trails. 'It was the best start I can remember having, it felt incredible' noted Lewis later.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Abu Dhabi Qualifying: Nico refuses to go quietly

'Nico is not going quietly' mused Damon Hill afterwards. And he was spot on. It's been a recurring theme of F1 in 2014. Along with that whatever else has occurred, on the Saturdays Nico Rosberg has been the man. In the season's final Saturday in Abu Dhabi he was the man again, claiming another pole position.

Nico Rosberg once again was the one smiling on a Saturday
Photo: Octane Photography
And this was a scrum won against the head, as for much of the weekend it seemed Lewis had matters well in hand. The Yas Marina track is one on which he specialises, and it looked that way again. In Friday practice he was king, and while Nico sudden pulling out of a time three-and-a-bit tenths quicker than Lewis's in Saturday morning's FP3 put a timid kitten among the pigeons, come the qualifying session it seemed order had been restored. Lewis was quicker in Q1 and set a mark a whole half a second under Nico's best in Q2.

But Q3 is the thing, and therein Nico whizzed around first with a 1m 40.697, almost six tenths under anything he'd done before. And whether related or not Lewis suddenly got scruffy, locking a wheel on two on the way to cutting the beam some three tenths over Nico's time.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Lewis Hamilton vs. Nico Rosberg in 2014

You are being spoiled today as here we have a second infographic for your perusal in anticipation of this weekend's vital championship showdown in Abu Dhabi. This infographic created by sports spread betting company Spreadex below focusses on the drivers' title protagonists of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

You'll see that it outlines their respective histories as well as a variety of stats comparing their 2014 campaigns with but one round remaining. Hope you like it!

Spreadex Hamilton v Rosberg F1 Infographic 2014
Infographic brought to you by Spreadex, leading provider of sports spread betting in the UK.
Click here for the full size image (1600 x 7000 px).

TeamSport Infographic - F1 2014 round up before Abu Dhabi

As you'll no doubt be aware by now the season-concluding, and championship-deciding, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix awaits us this weekend. And TeamSport - UK indoor karting specialists - in anticipation of this have produced the infographic below, which details the state of play as we head into the vital final round, with the top six in the drivers' championship detailed. So you can have no excuse for not being genned up.

More detail can be found here, and you can let TeamSport know what you think on Twitter.

  #F1 2014 seasonSource: TeamSport

Monday, 17 November 2014

Abu Dhabi Preview: Between cup and lip

There is many a slip between cup and lip as the saying goes. And how appropriate it may seem to the season-ending and championship-decisive round that awaits us in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

Lewis Hamilton holds the aces this weekend
Photo: Octane Photography
Lewis Hamilton to this end holds the aces. He knows what he needs to do to guarantee for himself the drivers' title of 2014. And that seems well within the probable outcomes. But in this game such situations come with a massive disclaimer, as possibly no other sport encompasses a wider variety of things that can go wrong, that which come seemingly from nowhere, and which have nothing to do with whether the protagonists get it right or get it wrong. The Goddess Fortune of F1 can be, and has been, particularly cruel.

And if she decides to be cruel to Lewis this time then the path to the title will likely open up to his team mate Nico Rosberg. At no point will this be too far away from many minds. The tension throughout the Mercedes camp will this weekend fill the air like molasses. Even the imperturbable Niki Lauda admitted in advance that 'it's going to be difficult'.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

How I learned to stop worrying and love Caterham's crowdfunding

It's not a lot, but it's something. Something at least for now.

Rather like the Monty Python and the Holy Grail character, Caterham yesterday exclaimed that - despite wider assumptions - it isn't quite dead. Not yet anyway. As the team that (along with Marussia) has missed the last two rounds amid financial woes and administration and that many expected never to see again will indeed be present in the forthcoming Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, thanks in large part to money raised via a 'crowdfunding' scheme.

Against expectations, Caterham are due
 to be seen in Abu Dhabi
Photo: Octane Photography
The scheme was announced at the start of last weekend and its target was to drum up was £2.35m to get the squad to the season-closing Yas Marina race meeting. And while at the point yesterday that Caterham declared itself alive and kicking again only around 80% of it was raised (just over £1.9m), that level in itself helped apparently by a few sizeable contributions late on, reportedly too some sponsors have been found to make up the shortfall.

At the same time the deadline for the scheme, originally the end of yesterday, was moved to nine days hence; something I'm told is above board. Perhaps all surmised that there was no harm in keeping it open.

If you need brought up to speed as to what 'crowdfunding' is, well it's quite the new big thing in our age of the online community. It's a means of raising funds for projects that (presumably) would struggle to be funded otherwise - ordinarily those starting-from-scratch - via an accumulation of voluntary pledges of cash from individuals. The pledges of course can vary in size, right from pocket change to fairly vast sums. Often too the pledge is in return for a 'reward', perhaps some kind of name credit or something more tangible (though apparently equity and credit crowdfunding exists out there too).