Sunday 27 March 2011

Australian GP Report: Like we've never been away

There you have it. First race of a new formula, all sorts of changes and associated language of the apocalypse used in predicting their effect. And Seb runs away with it in a fashion that we've become accustomed, just as he spent most of the latter part of last season doing.

Seb was in a class of one, at least from qualifying onwards, at Melbourne. Not even his similarly equipped team mate, Mark Webber, was on the same plane. He has, dare I say it, a Senna-esque ability to claim pole, blast into the lead at the first corner and then dominate a race from the front. The result of a Vettel victory was never in doubt, at least from the first stops onwards. His rivals will now go back to base for some serious head-scratching before the next race in two weeks time.

Lewis was mighty as usual in keeping Vettel at least honest in second place, and given their pre-season form he'll be mighty pleased with his run to second. He also had damage to his floor from about half-distance, but managed to nurse the thing home.

Saturday 26 March 2011

Melbourne Qually: Seb delivers a rude awakening

The rest of the field must feel a little like they've been beaten up.

After all of the winter optimism about a tight scrap at the front, Red Bull, or more to the point Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull, curtly reminded them all of reality by comfortably qualifying on pole for tomorrow's Australian Grand Prix. He was a full three-quarters of a second ahead of the next man, Lewis Hamilton, and was even further ahead of his Red Bull team mate, Mark Webber. And all of this without touching his KERS button, worth around 0.3 seconds per lap (though Hamilton didn't touch his either).

Vettel's opponents have only small crumbs of comfort. Tyre management and strategy could well throw a googly in tomorrow, and the direct 'feed in' between qually and race won't be the case to anything like the same extent as in previous years. Plus Melbourne has historically been a rather atypical track and not always the most reliable indicator of general competitiveness throughout the season (indeed, Jacques Villeneuve debuted the 1997 season by qualifying fully 1.7 seconds ahead of the pack here, only for it to transpire to be one of the most competitive F1 seasons on record). But, despite all of this, there will be serious head scratching going on up and down the paddock. There's absolutely no sign of resting on laurels from either Vettel or his team.

Friday 25 March 2011

Melbourne Preview: As you were...

Nothing like a bit of watching F1 to blow away the cobwebs.

And despite everything, all the speculation, all the various changes and associated language of the apocalypse, at the outset of the 2011 campaign what's most remarkable is how little has changed since the end of last year. Red Bull still appear to be leading the way, followed by the Ferraris (well, one of them at least), the McLarens, the Mercs (not necessarily in that order), then a gap to midfield. And the Pirellis don't seem to be nearly as bad as some had been predicting.

Indeed, alongside the Pirellis doing a bit better than thought, the big news of practice so far is that reports of McLaren's death have been greatly exaggerated. With a 'bolt on and go' technical upgrade, including dropping a troublesome (and complex) 'octopus' exhaust system for a more standard set-up, the cars look both better handling and much more reliable than was in the case in testing. Indeed, Jenson and Lewis topped the FP2 timesheets (in that order), and their long-run pace also looked impressive.

Of course, all the usual caveats apply, it was only a practice session, different cars will be running different programmes (and there's reason to think the Red Bulls and possibly the Ferraris didn't fully show their hands - indeed Vettel got within 0.16s of Button's best, and Jenson reckons he didn't use his Drag Reduction System [DRS] in so doing). But it seems at the very least McLaren have saved themselves the ignominy of running in the midfield, and are comfortably within the top four teams. That they have made such progress this quickly is indeed impressive, even by their standards.

Monday 21 March 2011

F1 2011 Season Preview: Renault - Hamlet without the Prince?

Renault was in many ways the revelation of 2010. The team emerged from the littered wreckage post Singapore 'Crashgate', with the understated Eric Boullier replacing the flamboyant and controversial Flavio Briatore, and the Renault company rolling back their involvement. And what do you know, they produce a fine handling machine for 2010 which, alongside their inspired decision to recruit the brilliant Robert Kubica as driver, resulted in three podium finishes and a comfortable fifth in the constructors' table (as well as troubling the top teams regularly along the way). This very much ended three years of Renault going nowhere.

And the momentum appeared to be continuing into 2011. In addition to producing a neat, attractive chassis in the R31, with interesting detail (clearly putting their new wind tunnel and CFD resources to good use), they also showed the confidence to produce the most innovative design concept of the winter: forward-facing exhausts. The idea is that the exhaust gases enter the car's undersides from the front of the sidepods, and thus ensuring a faster airflow under the car and through the diffuser (a development of the exhaust-blown diffusers seen throughout the field last year), thus increasing the downforce. Ross Brawn has gone so far as to say that forward-facing exhausts are the new double-diffuser, a concept that everyone will have to copy.

Sunday 20 March 2011

F1 2011 Season Preview: Mercedes - Salvaged from the wreckage?

What a difference one test can make. After three of the four scheduled pre-season tests Mercedes looked to be struggling, perhaps to an even greater extent than McLaren. After failing to trouble the top of the testing times for the most part, team principal Ross Brawn admitted that the team were around a second off where they wanted to be (i.e. with the front runners).

But just when everyone was writing them off, they turned up to the final test, in Barcelona, with a major technical upgrade, which catapulted them up the order, claiming first and third on the timesheets on day four. All of a sudden they appear to be closest challengers to the Red Bulls and Ferraris, and Schumi is talking about fighting for podiums as a minimum, and claiming the odd win. They may even be dark horses for a championship charge.

To an extent, this transformation is expected. The car was completed late, due to personnel changes, so the car that was launched and debuted in testing was even more a work in progress than their rivals' were, meaning that they had much greater potential than others to find time with upgrades (and Brawn was always clear on this point in his public pronouncements). It's of course hard to tell where the upgraded Merc is on the basis of one test, but it certainly looks promising for them, both in terms of optimistic noises from the team and in terms of the stopwatch.

Saturday 19 March 2011

F1 2011 Season Preview: Ferrari - Street-fighting horses chasing the Bulls

'We have to win every year, because we are Ferrari' said a tifosi member on BBC's recent excellent The Changing Worlds of Formula 1 documentary.

And in 2011 this applies, if anything, more than usual. The frustration of last season's near miss on the drivers' title will have building up over the winter, waiting to be unleashed from Melbourne onwards. And for Ferrari a title from 2011 is the minimum requirement.

There are plenty of other reasons to believe that the Prancing Horse will give the Red Bulls much to ponder this year. Last year Ferrari successfully recovered from a difficult 2009, reversing what some reckoned was a terminal post Todt/Brawn/Schumi etc decline. They've been close to the Red Bull pace in this year's pre-season testing, and some suggest that they're ahead of them on the longer runs. Relatively low tyre wear rates have been a strength for Ferrari for a number of years, and this could really play into their hands on race day in 2011 with this year's Pirellis.

What is also fascinating is that Ferrari's approach differs fundamentally from that of Red Bull. They've not tried to out-Newey Adrian Newey (sensible - given there's one one of him) and instead gone for something of an adaptable, street-fighting strategy.

F1 2011 Season Preview: McLaren - Playing catch up?

They have the feeling it's happening to them again.

As in 2009, as well as in 2006 and 2004, McLaren appear to have produced a car not on the front-runners' pace. How far they are behind, and how quickly they get back on it (and the extent that they can limit in the points damage in the meantime) will be the key factors in McLaren's chances of the titles in 2011.

It all seems a far cry from the optimism at the launch of the MP4-26 a few weeks ago. That they were launching after most of their rivals, just like in 1988, led many to believe that they had tricks up their sleeve. The radical design, including U-shaped sidepods, as well as the bullish noises coming from the team, and the sheer confidence of assembling their car in front of watching world at their launch, meant there was a common assumption that McLaren were a team to watch this year.

This lasted until the new machine first turned a wheel in testing. It rapidly became clear that it was lacking both in grip and reliability. Some analyses had it completing more testing miles only than the HRT. Martin Brundle, having watched it out on track, went so far as to describe the car as a 'mess', before going on to say 'It didn't slow down. It didn't turn in. It couldn't get the power down. Lewis [Hamilton] looked absolutely at sea in the thing. Clearly they have a fundamental issue.' Such concerns were to an extent confirmed when the two drivers started to make pessimistic noises, admitting they were not yet on the pace of the Red Bulls and Ferraris.

Friday 18 March 2011

F1 2011 Season Preview: Red Bull - Leading the charge

The recent Autosport front cover summed up the Red Bull: 'The car they all must beat'.

Given the competitiveness of the 2010 F1 season it's easy to forget that the technical advantage of the Red Bull car was the largest seen in the sport in a while. Some even likened it to that of the Williams FW14 in 1992.

While that perhaps overstates the case (let's not forget how soporific most of the 1992 races were due to Williams' dominance), it can't be denied that the RB6 was on a different plane to its rivals. This was especially in the quick corners where it could take whole tenths of a second each lap even from its closest challengers. The age of resource restrictions and engine freezes could have been designed for their genius Technical Director Adrian Newey. It's a sobering thought that, with another year's experience at the sharp end and the first championship under their belts for driver and team, many of the Red Bull errors of 2010 that let their rivals into play are not likely to be repeated in 2011.

The RB7 is more evolution than revolution, but the Red Bull team has the advantage of not needing to go radical to make up ground. This further means that their understanding of their machine is likely to be unrivalled. The packaging is clearly tighter than last year, especially at the rear, and their exhaust solution has got other teams' design teams scrambling to honour by imitation.

Sunday 13 March 2011

F1 2011 Season Preview: The more things change...

But two weeks from now the Australian Grand Prix, the first race of 2011, will be done and dusted. At that point the speculation on how the 2011 F1 year is to go will give way to actuality to a large extent, both in terms of who's hot and who's not competitiveness-wise, and how the 'new formula' in 2011 will pan out.

It may seem odd that after a 2010 season that was commonly accepted as a great one, F1 should immediately be indulging in fairly substantial regulation changes. Depending on who you speak to it's either unnecessary and potentially counter-productive tinkering, or a healthy desire to improve the show from 2010's high level.

Above film of Barcelona Testing 2011 courtesy of Sutton Images

The change that is thought to be by far the biggest has also been thrust upon F1 to an extent. Bridgestone have pulled out of the sport after 14 years' sterling service, and Pirelli return in their stead as the single tyre supplier.

Saturday 5 March 2011

Looking back: F1 wizards' first visit to Oz

As you're no doubt aware by now the Bahrain Grand Prix has been postponed, possibly to be shoehorned back into the calendar later this year. The season's opening round will instead take place in Australia on 27 March, around the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne. Seems something much more appropriate about that.

The Australian race is one of the most eagerly anticipated rounds of the season, such is the atmosphere and local enthusiasm it always engenders (it's a pity therefore that it currently seems to be under threat). F1 was nevertheless fairly slow to discover the potential of an Australian race, with the first visit there as late as 1985. What's more, anticipation of the initial visit was accompanied by considerable scepticism from the F1 circus. But on arrival this gave way rapidly to huge enchantment, probably of an even greater intensity than the Melbourne round currently enjoys.

When the first Australian Grand Prix, to be held around a street circuit in Adelaide, was placed as the final round on the 1985 calendar misgivings were widespread. F1's recent record at the time on newfangled street tracks was far from good: the Dallas round of the previous year wherein the track had fallen apart over the weekend, and there were several other organisational difficulties, was fresh in the memory, as were similar problems at Detroit and Las Vegas. Indeed, the record of such rounds even going ahead was somewhat patchy, such as the Flushing Meadows street race in New York which had been on the calendar for three years in a row and had yet to become a reality (and it still hasn't).