Wednesday, 20 August 2014

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

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

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

You can have a read here: http://www.f1times.co.uk/news/display/09228

Monday, 18 August 2014

Spa Preview: More to watch than usual

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

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

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

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

While in the late 1970s the Spa track was shortened from its classic triangular layout into broadly its current form, almost none of the spirit of the old circuit was lost in so doing. It is set in beautiful Ardennes forest, the layout is all dips, rises, long sequences at full throttle and challenging quick turns. And, increasingly rarely in a contemporary F1 venue, when cars are proceeding around the track it feels that they are going somewhere.

And in an age wherein F1 has dashed to new, clinical and sometimes tepid autodromes, more-and-more Spa's charms have appeared explicit. It has stood too as a totem of what can be achieved even within the modern myriad of constraints for an F1 venue. It helps also that it pretty much always provides entertaining races.

Many eyes will be on Williams
Photo: Octane Photography
You can add these days that it is where we reconvene after a four-week break, all the anticipation built up.

Spa followed by Monza, both with lengthy straights, mean that most teams bring a stripped for speed low downforce spec for these two rounds - even though within the break there is an enforced two-week factory shutdown wherein no development is allowed. This can tweak the competitive order. Nevertheless, and despite the Hungary goings-on, the Mercedes retains a big pace advantage of course and starts the weekend as firm favourite to win out. And straightline speed isn't much of a problem for the silver cars.

But this time there may be more reason than usual to think that things could be different. Or at least a bit closer. That reason is Williams.

The Grove team has - self-admittedly - had this round and the Monza one that follows circled on its calendar for weeks. And with good reason given the extended blasts at full throttle (at Spa roughly 70% of the lap) and that the FW36 has topped the speed traps habitually in recent times. Valtteri Bottas like his team is at the top of his game right now and you'd be surprised if brave high-speed racing around Spa does anything other than suit him down to the ground.

If it's enough to get ahead of the Mercs remains to be seen but it is one to watch closely.

As for the intra-Merc scrap as ever it is near-impossible to predict. Lewis Hamilton has won in Spa once before (and was first across the line another time only to have it taken away post hoc). Nico Rosberg's fourth place here last year meanwhile is his best result at this circuit, but in that effort he did run Lewis close.

Nico Rosberg ran Lewis Hamilton close at Spa last season
Photo: Octane Photography
Another habitual factor at Spa - and one that adds to its status as a weekend to be anticipated - is the rain. The track is set within a notorious micro-climate, which means rain arrives frequently and usually without much warning, as well as that weather forecasts are of little consequence. The expanse of the circuit too often results in it being bone dry in one part and wet in another. We witnessed a variation of the theme in last year's qualifying session, with rain's arrival in Q1 and then again Q3 and then the track's fairly rapid drying both times all providing twists of their own.

While Nico Rosberg looked to have just as much of the legs of the rest in the wet in the early part of the Hungary race it was a little like the Merc strategy went to pieces after an inconvenient safety car (though it didn't really work out for Williams either). This weekend of all weekends the team will need to make sure its ability to think on its feet is brushed up.

But whatever is the case this track's characteristics probably means it'll be to the aid of the Merc-powered runners, which will likely contribute to Ferrari and Red Bull experiencing more of a struggle than usual.

Ferrari is an interesting case. Usually, for political reasons, it puts more resource than most into its low downforce spec so to aid a good result at home at Monza, and that as intimated has an overhang for the rapid Spa track also. But given the considerations already outlined its effect this season may be rather negated.

Rain is a frequent feature at Spa
Photo: Octane Photography
Kimi Raikkonen will be interesting to observe however. Of course his 2014 woes are much-ruminated-over, but Hungary at least was one of his better runs of the year (albeit solid rather than spectacular). But time was that Spa was considered Kimi's home turf, given he has four wins to his name here forming just part of a series of strong performances. Though on the flipside if he doesn't do himself justice this time it'll be tempting to ask if he can anywhere. Fernando Alonso meanwhile has never won at Spa but can be counted upon to as usual make the best of the Ferrari botch job.

Another of Spa's many notorious variables is on set-up, wherein a compromise has to be found between the lengthy flat out sections and the more twisty middle sector which features turns such as Pouhon and Stavelot. Indeed it all came into sharp focus in the 2012 meeting, as some of the famous Spa rain reduced dry running in practice to a handful of laps, and Jenson Button by luck or judgement landed upon an ideal set up which prioritised straightline speed (and led to his then stable mate - who'd gone down the other path - committing a Twitter faux pas in frustrated response). And it contributed to a surprise, and surprisingly dominant, pole and win for Button, as well as to a jumbled-up grid with Saubers and Pastor Maldonado's Williams high up, Lewis Hamilton just seventh and Sebastian Vettel down in tenth.

But another good thing about Spa is that a poor qualifying slot isn't necessarily the end of your hopes. Even before DRS and gumball Pirellis race-day progress at this place was much more of a probability than at most other tracks. DRS of course makes such progress more presentable still. To wit - the pole sitter has only won this Grand Prix four times in the last 13 years.

Will the 2014 cars return Eau Rouge to its former glory?
Photo: Octane Photography
And while the previous towering endeavours of Eau Rouge and Blanchimont had latterly become little other than full throttle zones - due to a few reasons, the scarcely-credible downforce of the F1 car being not least of them - what with the new regs and the severely reduced grip of the 2014 car will these turns be restored to their former magisterial driver challenge? If so it might be considered ironic, given the agonising in certain quarters over whether the new spec for this year was ripping the sport away from its dearest and longest-held principles.

For more reasons even than usual, there seem a lot of reasons to keep a close eye on proceedings in Spa this weekend.

New F1Plus.com article: Sorry, but Daniel Ricciardo is not going to be 2014 world champion

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

In am article over on F1Plus.com I outline however, albeit with regret, that for a couple of reasons especially Ricciardo's chances do not at all look realistic.

You can have a read via this link: http://www.f1plus.com/en/news/item/6457-sorry-but-daniel-ricciardo-is-not-going-to-be-2014-world-champion

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Jenson Button's knotted Williams past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Button surfaced again, this time at BAR, which for most of its existence had been quite the vainglorious joke. But by now under David Richards' stewardship it was beginning to show signs of making good on the latent potential, and Button was determined to play full part. In 2003 he put the squad's (expensive) perennial Jacques Villeneuve away, then in 2004 it appeared that things were coming good for him at last with firm best-of-the-rest casting behind the dominant Ferraris and a series of podium finishes, culminating in an excellent one in Germany, coming through the field from a P13 start to finish second.

But the tune of the nice guy finally finishing far away from last almost immediately experienced a major bum note. Days after that race Button's manager faxed the BAR team announcing that his charge had signed for Williams for the following season. Which was news of the particularly acute variety to BAR as it reckoned it had Button under contractual lock and key for then thanks very much.

Given this was nice guy Jenson, then as now all affability and easy charm, it all had a strange otherworldliness; a little like discovering after all of this time that Paddington Bear had in fact filled his sandwiches with stolen marmalade. In this ilk, I recall a tense interview for Button with ITV as part of its coverage of the next round at the Hungaroring, which had until then given Jenson routinely the soft soap. Button's eyes screamed all of the desperation and confusion of one being held captive against his will.

Time was that F1 was something like the wild west when it came to contracts. Namely that there wasn't a lot anyone could do to stop a driver driving for a team they wanted to, regardless of what any inconvenient ink might state. Ayrton Senna for one had apparently demonstrated as much by leaving Toleman for Lotus at the end of 1984 despite being in the middle of a contract at the former; similar happened when Alain Prost left McLaren for Renault at the conclusion of the 1980 season.

Button was possibly counting on similar - though he sought to justify the move by citing a clause in his BAR contract that allowed him to move if the team's Honda engine deal was in doubt. Though quite what the doubt amounted to - as the Japanese concern had not long before reaffirmed its commitment to the team - was lost on most. A few cynics reckoned instead - and perhaps typically - it was in fact all about money. More specifically about a disagreement on a points-related bonus payment scheme.

But the world had changed since Senna and Prost performed their respective stunts. Or rather F1 had changed as a Contracts Recognition Board - there to resolve such disputes without the need for lengthy recourse to the courts proper - had since been set up by the FIA. And come October it ruled in BAR's favour, leaving Jenson no choice but to return sheepishly to the enclave that he had previously and publicly rejected.

But few fully appreciated the significance - or rather than immediacy of the significance - of Button's words in reaction to the CRB decision: 'I look forward to joining the Williams team in the future' he said. As almost exactly 12 months on - again while all were gathered at the Hungaroring - we experienced something close to a mirror image.

Button had only gone and signed for Williams for 2006 - and had a right to this time - not long after the above had played out. But sadly in the months since he decided he'd rather stay at BAR after all. Williams had lost its BMW works engine deal while Honda had increased its own involvement in BAR, indeed would take the team's name for the following year. In an astonishing boot on the other foot situation Jenson claimed now his signed Williams contract wasn't binding and he'd in fact rather drive for BAR.

'I suppose it is ironic' noted Button from behind a nervous grin. But he went on: 'I don't think any team would want a driver that would like to be racing for someone else', demonstrating that not everything had changed.

But Frank Williams wasn't for budging. And his team outlined as much firmly - mainly in words of one syllable - as well as fired the odd hostile shot in Jenson's direction about the importance of sticking to one's word. And another thing that hadn't changed was again the original contract, this time the Williams one, was the one that stuck. Button did though manage to free himself, in exchange reportedly for 35 million US dollar bills (incidentally it was a certain Nico Rosberg who got the Williams drive instead - getting his F1 break).

You'd imagine that Sir Frank - like many in this game - is not one for bearing grudges. A fact that may yet elicit a sigh of relief from Button.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

My favourite motorsport moment from the past 25 years

It likely unites most sports fans. The sense of injustice. And there was plenty around that day.

Year 2000 at Spa; Mika Hakkinen vs. Michael Schumacher. And I was there; my first overseas Grand Prix. Stationed on the Kemmel straight. Where it happened.

Mika Hakkinen in action in the year 2000
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In those days I was a Mika man. But an injustice sense came along with this. Always quick, but his McLaren team insistent on treading on its own tail. Schumi-Ferrari meanwhile led a charmed life seemingly.

But then latterly the fortune was with Hakkinen. In Spa he had the track to himself, claimed pole easily, Schumi down in fourth.

Yet there was the weather; overnight rain arrived. It relented eventually but the track was damp for the off.

Bringing Schumacher right back into the picture; he cleared the cars between in no time and nibbled into Hakkinen's lead.

Mika then gave him it all on a plate by half-spinning; Schumacher led and moved away. For me it all seemed tremendously unmerited.

But later Mika retaliated – track dried and qualifying pace returned he was with Schumi in the late laps. But in this F1 passing was near-impossible. Surely that was that?

No, up the same Kemmel straight Hakkinen bore down. He went for the inside. Schumacher repelled with an egregious chop. Adding to the injustice there already.

At that point next lap it was same again, only this time backmarker Ricardo Zonta occupied the middle of the road at a gentle pace. Schumi went to his left; Hakkinen for a tiny gap to Zonta's right. In an exhilarating flash the three were briefly abreast.

You had to make a point of comprehending. The big screen showed Mika's on-board, and nothing ahead. He had the lead, and kept it for the short remaining distance.

Justice, for once, was done.

The article is my submission to be one of ten official bloggers of the Autosport International Show 2015. The theme chosen for this is 'My favourite motorsport moment from the past 25 years'.

The Autosport International Show is Europe's largest motorsport show, and takes place at Birmingham NEC every January. More details on it, including on purchasing tickets, can be found here, and you can also follow the show on Twitter and on Facebook.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

New Vital F1 article: Time for Bernie to go

Photo: Octane Photography
Earlier this week all of a sudden Bernie Ecclsetone's bribery trial was over. Leaving us with the other-worldly feeling that all of the anticipation stretching on for months, and years, would in fact amount to nothing. And the man himself before the day was out was telling all of his absolute intention to return to work and carry on as before

But should he? For VitalF1.com I explain why, despite the ending of his trial, it's high time for Bernie to depart the F1 stage.

You can have a read here: http://www.vitalf1.com/sitepage.asp?a=2493

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

New F1 Times article: The top 10 drivers of the 2014 season so far...

Photo: Octane Photography
Everyone loves a top 10 drivers' ranking don't they? They're all the rage.

And given we're in the midst of the sport's summer break as well as (roughly) at the 2014 season's mid-point I thought it a good moment to - for F1 Times - give my personal ranking of the drivers so far.

You can have a look at the order and my reasoning for each via this link: http://www.f1times.co.uk/news/display/09188

Monday, 4 August 2014

Long time, no GP

The article has been supported by voucherbin.co.uk, a site which provides links to discount vouchers for a variety of High Street stores. Check it out here: http://www.voucherbin.co.uk/

In the Hungaroring paddock weekend before last there was a definite end of term atmosphere. And with reason, after months of whirlwind activity the sport was off on its summer holidays - compete with bucket and spade and rubber ring. Possibly. Whatever was the case no one would have to think about FRIC, team orders or any other of the sport's uniquely esoteric matters until reconvening at Spa in late August.

The Hungarian race was the last we'll
see of F1 cars for a while
Photo: Octane Photography
The roughly month-long summer break is in itself a new thing, introduced in 2009, and gratefully received by a fraternity experiencing a calendar both growing (in 2003 and the years immediately preceding 16 or 17 races was the norm - now 19 or 20 is, and the 2003 season ended in mid October rather than late November) and featuring much more in the way of long haul travel (again back in 2003 but six rounds were outside Europe, now 10 are and indeed last year there was 12). Quite the unprecedented attack of generosity from Bernard Charles.

Thus we now are in a full four weeks with no F1. And the associated withdrawal. But it's a marginal improvement at least on this time last year when the Hungarian round was the only F1 meeting in a run of six weekends; which in turn was partially down to the summer break, partially down the New Jersey round being cancelled and not replaced, thus leaving the summer months more generally with a rather sparse look.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Jules Quest

Rewind to last Saturday afternoon, and the first part of Hungary's qualifying session. Lewis Hamilton was out; Pastor Maldonado was out - both victims of technical maladies ending their sessions before setting a time. The remaining four of the six drop-out slots would therefore surely be taken by the 'B class' of two Marussias and Caterhams each, given they appeared way off the back of the pack as usual. This even with the soft tyre looking much quicker than the medium that all of the haughty A class had set their times on. Cool your jets in the garage and save the softs for the next part.

Jules Bianchi's Hungary qualifying lap was stunning
Photo: Octane Photography
But there was a tiny flaw in these best laid plans. That flaw being they reckoned without Jules Bianchi. At the very last he put his Marussia on its end and grabbed the final spot to get into Q2 of P16 all for himself. Further it was the revered scalp of Ferrari and Kimi Raikkonen - straggling at the back of the A class - that was bagged.

We can criticise Ferrari for a misjudgement - and indeed plenty have - which gave Bianchi his opportunity to pip one of its cars, but looking at the lap times one can begin to see perhaps why the squad's supposedly very clever people were caught out. Put simply the prodigious Frenchman pulled a rabbit out of the hat.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Dear Sir, Am I Alone in Thinking? - Buxton gets it bang on

It was a lot like reading one of those letters to a newspaper that starts 'Dear Sir, Am I alone in thinking....?'. And upon reading it concluding no, you're not alone. I think exactly the same.

An article written by F1 journalist and NBC's pit lane reporter (as well as he of the GP2 and GP3 commentary and podium interviews) Will Buxton, cryptically titled 'New Coke', I'm talking about. My reading it gave that rarest of sensations, that of viewing the thoughts of another yet rather feeling you are having your mind read. You can have a scan of it yourself here: http://willthef1journo.wordpress.com/2014/07/28/new-coke/. I strongly suggest that you do.

Will Buxton (left) - got it spot on
Photo: Octane Photography
F1 on track fare is definitely boring right now. It's letting everyone down. People keep telling us this, after all. And demonstrating as much crisis meetings are being held in response. There was one among the teams and Bernie in Hungary last weekend; another today apparently. Yet another awaits around Monza time as proposed by Ferrari Chairman Luca Montezemolo.

To back it all up this year's TV viewing numbers have been disappointing reportedly, the latest step in a long-term decline on that front. Plus much of the recent German Grand Prix was conducted in front of vast numbers of those disguised convincingly as empty grandstand seats. All pretty irrefutable then? Well, as Buxton points out, no.