Thursday, 30 October 2014

New F1Plus.com article: F1 – from despair to where?

Photo: Octane Photography
You'll know of the recent news on Caterham and Marussia moving into administration, that rather underlined F1's financial problems.

It's not a new issue, and further the recent crisis is one we should have seen coming.

In the latest of my articles for F1plus.com I outline how we got into this mess, and ask on behalf of the sport, from despair to where?

You can read the article via this link: http://www.f1plus.com/en/news/item/6942-f1-from-despair-to-where

Monday, 27 October 2014

Austin Preview: The best of times, the worst of times

F1's final frontier. Its unfinished business. Its itch that it just can't scratch. Call it what you will, but it has applied to the sport's relationship with America for years and decades.

Austin rapidly has become a favourite stop-off
Photo: Octane Photography
The debut Austin Grand Prix two years ago was approached with a degree of trepidation. It was no fewer than F1's US venue number 10 - a record by a distance for the most Grand Prix host circuits in a single nation. And it's a number that betrays the regularity in history with which the bold dreams of a new American home for the sport have evaporated.

In Austin's case too it managed to emit non-encouraging noises in advance - delays (the race contract was even terminated for a while), financial problems, schisms, side-linings, and environmental protests to name just a few. All contributed to a 'here we go again' feeling among F1 folk.

But such doom-mongers could not have been more wrong. It transpired that the sport could hardly have selected a better place to host a Grand Prix. Austin as a city charmed the fraternity: eclectic, outward-looking and lively, also as the self-styled 'Live Music Capital of the World' it was used to putting on large events and giving visitors a thoroughly warm welcome. With around one million inhabitants - just as with Adelaide and Montreal - it is just the right size to embody a Grand Prix; to be it. Not too big so to be just another event there; to be swamped. It continues this way with a variety of fans' events at the track and in the city over and above the on-track action, that rather shames just about all other venues. The place pulsates with the sense that nothing has been spared, and that they are simply delighted to have the race in town. Wherever you look, whenever you turn on the TV or radio, the Grand Prix it seems is being referenced. Chequered flags and other paraphernalia drape from every other shop front and from every other bar.

Even F1's most hardened cynical types agreed after the first visit that it was probably the most successful debut F1 event they could remember, blowing even mighty previous events such as Adelaide's out of the water.

Austin embracing the race is clear wherever you go locally.
This is Austin airport.
Best of all, 120,000 were there on race day to see it all in the debut year (and plenty were in attendance on the other two days), and the numbers were nearly matched in the follow-up weekend 12 months later, even though in both years there were rather unfortunate rival events on the same weekend.

'There's lots that we can learn from the American way of doing things' said victor Sebastian Vettel after last year's fare. And he's absolutely right - far from Austin being the itinerary's raw newcomer it's quickly become the standard bearer and the rest have an awful lot to learn from it. And on another point, if F1 - finally - doesn't get it right in America from here it can have no one to blame but itself.

Austin's Circuit of the Americas facility further is a fine one: the layout challenging, undulating and popular with fans and drivers alike.

The circuit - as just about all Hermann Tilke-penned layouts - has a something-of-everything quality, but in COTA's case it is taken to an extreme. Apparently the lap contains more corners at over 250 kph than Spa and more at less than 100 kph than the Hungaroring. It's also taken direct inspiration from many other tracks, with Silverstone's Becketts section, Istanbul's Turn 8, Hockenheim's stadium section and the Red Bull Ring's uphill hairpin all represented in there.

This bit-of-everything track should of course suit the good-at-everything Mercedes. Not that it needs help, given the W05s have spent just about the whole season on another level.

The turn-out at both Austin races have been strong
Photo: Octane Photography
More pointedly we are reaching a critical point in the Merc-on-Merc drivers' championship battle. Lewis Hamilton has a trailer-load of momentum, and his 17 point advantage built over team mate Nico Rosberg means one more victory from the remaining three leaves Nico needing snookers. In other words, Lewis somewhere, somehow, finishing outside of the top two. Which to be yet more reductive probably means him either not finishing or being hit by a massive delay (as Nico himself demonstrated in Sochi last time out, not even a medium-sized delay loosens the Merc grasp on the first two places these days).

And Austin likely wouldn't be Nico's first choice as the place in which to get one over his stable mate. Lewis won the inaugural Austin race with a superb drive, facing down Sebastian Vettel in an intense tête-a-tête. And last year too, even though he entered the weekend with Rosberg apparently in much the better form, he bounced back and qualified and finished far ahead of Nico. Nico indeed in both Austin visits has been rather a footnote.

But such thoughts must be banished far from Nico's mind. As intimated this weekend he simply must deliver.

In perhaps not the best place for him, Nico Rosberg simply
must deliver this time
Photo: Octane Photography
The rest as ever will be fighting over the scraps, but not for the first time Valtteri Bottas seems a good shout for best of the rest. The Williams should fly down the lengthy COTA straight, while last year at Austin Bottas was astonishing - qualifying ninth (and he thought he was good for fifth but for a mistake) and finishing eighth. And to emphasise what an outlandish result this was, other than that the Williams team scored but a solitary point in 2013, and the chat at the time was that Bottas's Texan score kept Marussia and Caterham away from the Grove team's door in the constructors' battle. Don't let anyone tell you that nothing changes in F1.

About the only bum note in the Austin F1 repertoire thus far is that, although the first Grand Prix here was a fine one, the 2013 race was rather tepid. Pirelli that year just as in 2012 brought its most conservative compound selections of the medium and hard - the Italian firm possibly wary of the sport's previous in the US, as well as was generally spooked at that stage by Silverstone and all that. But one year on chickens rather came home to roost with an easy one-stopper for just about everyone contributing to not much happening. Pirelli appears to have learned though and has gone a step softer this time - bringing the soft and medium - with two-stoppers instead expected.

And while as outlined F1 in Austin is the best of times, the F1 that arrives in Texas is in its worst of times. Two of the 11 teams - Caterham and Marussia - we found out in recent days are giving the race a miss, and due to severe financial struggle. Much for F1 to think about, but for now the number one rule of show business must be adhered to and the show must go on. And go on with a grid of 18.

Indeed come Saturday at COTA the runners will be yet more scarce as in qualifying we'll be down to 17 with the self-same Vettel (how things have changed for him too in the space of 12 months) sitting out as an engine change means he'll be starting at the back of the grid whatever he does therein. It'll all make qualifying more perilous though, given now three non-Caterham/Marussia runners (plus Vettel) will drop out in Q1 rather than the usual two.

How the sport could do with a lift right now. Fortunately, it'll be in exactly the right place to get one.

New F1 Times article: What does the future hold for Red Bull?

Photo: Octane Photography
Many changes in F1 await in 2015. And most of these have been much-ruminated over as to what they might mean. To give a few examples: Ferrari's overhaul, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso's new abodes, Honda arriving at McLaren etc etc.

Yet of all of the impending shifts, have we forgotten about what's going on at Red Bull? The team has much to think about, and on more than one front.

In my latest F1 Times article, I take a look at the matter and at the team's prospects for next season. You can have a read here: http://www.f1times.co.uk/news/display/09488

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

New Vital F1 article: Mercedes reaps what it sows

Photo: Octane Photography
It of course has been inevitable for months. At least since the start of the season; arguably since long before.

But still, this shouldn't stop us pausing to pay homage. The matter in question being that Mercedes is now 2014 World Constructors' Champion, and wiped the floor with its opponents in so doing.

For Vital F1 I did indeed stop to pay homage to the Silver Arrows, as well as explored just why the Merc has been so far ahead this season, with much of the reasoning going way back beyond the start of this campaign.

You can have a read here: http://www.vitalf1.com/sitepage.asp?a=2636

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Double trouble

The day after the Russian Grand Prix - and Lewis Hamilton's latest triumph - my brother got in touch with me on Twitter with the following (and apologies to Nico Rosberg fans for his choice of nomenclature):

Alright, here's one. Imagine Lewis finished 1st in Austin with Britney second: Lewis leads by 24 points. Then the same thing happens at Interlagos: Lewis then leads Britney by 31 points. Under normal circumstances he'd be champ. Lewis retires at Abu Dhabi, Britney finishes second to (say) Bottas. Britney champion by five points. Britney ends the season with four wins to Lewis's eleven, and ends up champion. Imagine the seethe. Haha.

Lewis Hamilton has been doing more
of the winning at Mercedes this year
Photo: Octane Photography
And within this is a considerable thing left unsaid. That some of us might have even forgotten about amid the heat of an exciting championship battle. The notorious double points that awaits in the final round of the season.

This scenario imagined by my brother if played out would not so much break a record but smash it to smithereens. Lewis Hamilton claimed his ninth win of the season last Sunday, and no one has lost a drivers' title having won that many or even with one fewer than that (seven is the record, held by several drivers). So with the above chain of events the mark would be advanced by upwards of 150%.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Rights and wrongs

Following F1 it often can feel that you need as much knowledge of geopolitics, foreign policy and the international human rights movement as the sport's esoteric matters. And this in a pursuit that at its core is as simple as which car can complete a proscribed distance most quickly.

But it can be and frequently is turned into more, often much more, than that. Agonising over the countries the sport visits - whether it should be keeping such company - is a regular feature these days. And the long wrestled over first visit to Russia that took place last weekend was merely the latest case.

Vladimir Putin's appearance, and the reasons for it,
were predictable
"GranPrixRussia2014 winners" by kremlin.ru - www.kremlin.ru.
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/
File:GranPrixRussia2014_winners.jpeg#mediaviewer/
File:GranPrixRussia2014_winners.jpeg
I'll admit that the multi-faceted nature of F1, including the notorious political dimension, is for me part of the appeal. But when it reaches the politics of outside of the sport's boundaries it even from my perspective becomes rather wearing. Equally though it's unavoidable - everything is connected to everything else. Of course, at such moments we often hear the 'don't mix sport and politics' line. Would that it were but it's not the world we live in. Particularly not in a game wherein national governments are more and more footing the (vast) bill.

Sunday's pictures during the Russian Grand Prix didn't leave much to the imagination on that one, and I suppose if some good came out of it all it was in showing how absurd, or at best naive, the sport and politics shouldn't be mixed line is. Russian President Vladimir Putin's presence on the world TV feed, even appearing in the podium anteroom, a sort of appearance which I struggle to recall an equivalent of before, rather underlined it. The F1 race was being used by someone who in many eyes is a contentious figure as a means of lending himself greater legitimacy, and it could easily have been predicted that would be so.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Why, despite everything, I'm hopeful for the Russian Grand Prix

Confession time. I actually entered the Russian Grand Prix weekend in a hopeful state of mind for it. And ended it, despite everything, with reasonable optimism too. A position that for much of that time felt rather like one in a minority. But please, stay with me.

I ended the inaugural Russian Grand Prix with optimism
"GranPrixRussia2014 box" by kremlin.ru - www.kremlin.ru.
Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via
Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/
wiki/File:GranPrixRussia2014_box.jpeg#mediaviewer/
File:GranPrixRussia2014_box.jpeg
The event as far as plenty were concerned was ill-starred from an early stage. Sochi as a town is small (some 350,000 inhabitants) and remote; Moscow being a three hour flight - or if you prefer a 24 hour car journey - away. F1 isn't well-established in the country either. All of which carry implications for it attracting a crowd and achieving viability.

Then of course there are some of the happenings within the country that cannot be defended, and that its notorious President Vladimir Putin clearly was going to associate himself closely with the race (as indeed he did). We can add to it the more recent events of 2014 - the Ukraine situation and allegations of Russia's contribution to it - which for plenty exacerbated the point and meant that up until the 11th hour some were talking of the race not taking place at all.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Russian GP Report: Russian stroll

Mario Andretti opined some years ago that - contrary to what us outsiders may assume - being in first place is actually the easiest place to be in a Grand Prix. There you have unique privileges, as out of all competitors you and only you are able to drive within yourself, merely at the pace of those who trail. To save your strength, your car, your fuel. It's a virtuous circle in other words. In F1, nothing succeeds like success.

Lewis Hamilton triumphed once again today
Photo: Octane Photography
And Lewis Hamilton benefited from it today. From the end of the first lap the tension in the inaugural Russian Grand Prix of the F1 era was over who would finish second at the very most.

As both Mercedes drivers had predicted the lengthy run from the start and subsequent big stop at Turn 2 (which despite names was the first turn as far as everyone was concerned) was vital. And indeed Nico Rosberg's launch was good enough for him first to draft and then get just ahead of his team mate and title rival on that run. But he seemed to get a bit overexcited at this and missed his Turn 2 braking point by what looked a distance. He ran well off into the benign tarmac run-off at the exit, which meant he'd have to give Lewis the place back. But even worse for him the resultant flat-spots on his tyres meant he had to pit at the end of the opening tour also, leaving him next-to last.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Sochi Qualifying: Continuing the Lewis theme

You wonder if Nico Rosberg turned up to the new Sochi Autodrom earlier this week, and let out a groan.

Not a reflection of the quality of the track hosting the inaugural Russian Grand Prix per se. No one was entirely sure what to expect in advance, after all. Data for simulation had been hard to come by. And once they were actually circulating on it for real drivers were pleasantly surprised by the circuit's challenge apparently.

Today Lewis Hamilton continued his recent momentum
Photo: Octane Photography
But many had already noted the Abu Dhabi similarities. An ultra-smooth low grip surface, with plenty of short 90-degree corners. A track that Lewis Hamilton is mighty on. He hardly needed it given the recent momentum, but before a wheel had been turned it looked like advantage to Lewis.

So it proved. For most of the weekend he's appeared on another level, as much to Nico as to everyone else. And this continued into qualifying. Nico could shadow box, but he never looked likely to land a glove on his team mate and title rival. Lewis took the pole from him by a clear two tenths.

'Lewis was quicker all weekend really' said an honest Nico later.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Matters to emerge from the best and the worst

Perhaps it is fitting that at a time of extreme we are witness to the very best and the very worst. And so it has been since the unfortunate events at what turned out to be the conclusion of the Japanese Grand Prix last weekend, with the result of Jules Bianchi in hospital and what awaits as yet remaining unclear.

The F1 community has come together
in support of Jules Bianchi
Photo: Octane Photography
But from somewhere within this harrowing and regretful matter as I said the very best of F1 was displayed. What often can appear a highly disputatious sport really came together in support of Bianchi, his family and his team. Moreover the community of F1 fans around the word united similarly and moreover devised many touching ways of demonstrating collective messages of hope and goodwill.

Yet some sadly went rather beyond. Of course as noted last Sunday on this site after the Suzuka race it is in large part human nature after a shock and a trauma to seek answers, seek resolutions. But a few inauspicious actors exhibited the behaviour in an unattractive fashion - stirring up a hornet's nest of recrimination and reaction. There had to be fault, and culprits, and pronto. Something - maybe lots of things - had to be changed on the same timetable. This too even though the FIA investigation into the matter had barely begun and the establishment of facts remain at a similar stage.