Friday 27 April 2012

Further thoughts on the Bahrain Grand Prix

F1 fails to see itself as others see it
So, the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend has now passed. For all of Messrs Todt's and Ecclestone's public bombast on the issue, there will no doubt been small, private, sighs of relief from both that the F1 event itself passed broadly without disruption (joining many others in so doing). But it cannot be said that F1 came out of the weekend unscathed, as the sport continued its uncanny ignorance and/or ambivalence of how it's viewed more widely.

Credit: Emily Faulk / CC
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Bahraini situation might be, F1, frankly, was made to look terrible it the course of the weekend. It featured on the front pages and at the top of news bulletins interspersed with coverage of Bahraini civil unrest and clashes, including the death of one protester (and the staging of an F1 race was clearly a focus for many protesting), as well as with stories of mainstream journalists being barred from the country and of others being arrested. The sport also appeared, whatever their protestations of being apolitical, rather like it was taking sides, and way too close to the Bahraini regime funding the event. The broad impression for those looking on was that F1 is amoral, avaricious and (helped by the flippant remarks of Bernie and of the world champion) rather insensitive to what's going on around it.

Even though F1 made some money from holding the Bahrain race, the parallel damage of what you'd call F1's 'brand equity' is of course immeasurable, which in turn impacts the sport's ability to attract fans, media, sponsors and manufacturers. And it surely should have been seen coming from a long way off. Even though some in and around F1 have been complaining that the media coverage has been terribly unfair and unrepresentative, not focusing on the local support for the race and the areas of calm in Bahrain, saying this betrays a breathtaking naivety of how the media work, as well as that, possibly, reflects that the F1 fraternity was kept inside a bubble for much of the weekend.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Bahrain GP Race Report: The good side of F1

F1, or at least those in charge of it, can be exasperating. They can often struggle to miss an opportunity to make the sport look foolish. But by contrast, for an hour and a half on a Sunday F1 is often wonderful. And if we did see F1 doing a fine job of making itself looking foolish in extremis over the past few days, we also today saw a really rather special motor race.

Don't let anyone tell you that F1 is a) boring or b) predictable. Today's race, just like all of them this year, was neither. It was a tight battle for most of the way, and the protagonists at the sharp end, Sebastian Vettel edging out the Lotuses, particularly closely in the case of Kimi Raikkonen, were unexpected.

Seb had hinted at a comeback by sticking his car on pole yesterday, as well as that the Red Bulls looked better handling all weekend than they had done in a while. There were still doubts about their race pace however, especially in comparison to that of the McLarens. But not a bit of it today: it was just like what we saw every Sunday last year it seemed, Seb got a great start and simply checked out, 2.2 seconds clear after a lap, upwards of five seconds clear before you knew it.

Sebastian Vettel is back in the winner's circle,
after a strong drive in Bahrain
Credit: Morio / CC
But just when you thought Seb was going to pull off his 2011 party piece unhindered, he got a genuine threat behind, and from an unlikely source. The Lotuses, who'd qualified a mere seventh (for Romain Grosjean) and eleventh (for Raikkonen), early on showed themselves to be the quickest things out there, and there was something slightly unreal about the way they moved smoothly past the McLarens and Webber and took up chase of Vettel by the end of the first race stint. Raikkonen, on softer tyres, moved past Grosjean and cruised onto Vettel's tail before the final round of pitstops. For a time it seemed a done deal that Kimi would take the lead, giving us one of the most unexpected victories in a good while. But Seb's not got where he is today by being easy to dislodge from first place. He defended the (what turned out to be only) stab at passing him that Kimi made, they pitted on the same lap (apparently Lotus was reluctant to do an undercut due to Webber being probably in the way after a stop), and Seb looked a bit happier on his final set of tyres, thus the result was set.

Saturday 21 April 2012

Bahrain Qualifying: Spot the Force India

Anyone who thought that F1 couldn't possibly be made to look any worse today, that today would be the start of the healing process, and that those in positions of influence would start to introspect, reflect and allow the sport to move forward from the difficult position it had got itself into in recent days, would have been sorely disappointed had they watched today's Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying session on television.

The Force Indias, after missing the second practice session yesterday by altering their itinerary due to safety concerns (related to some of their mechanics being caught up in a violent protest), did indeed participate in the qualifying session today. Indeed, they did well: Paul Di Resta got into the final qualifying session and will start in tenth place on the grid tomorrow, with team mate Nico Hulkenberg thirteenth. But you'd never have known any of it. This is because, as far as anyone could tell, the team got literally no television coverage during the session.

As not seen on TV - the Force India
Credit: Morio / CC
And everyone noticed; word of this spread around the internet in minutes. By the end of the session it seemed to be the only thing anyone was talking about. I'm not one usually to go in for conspiracy theories, but this seemed transparent, and probably it represented revenge from the top for the Force India team raising, and acting on, the safety issue yesterday. Healing it seems isn't Bernie Ecclestone's style.

Quite why anyone at FOM or anywhere else thought this course of action was a good idea is not clear. Perhaps in the olden days they might have just about got away with a blackout of a single team, but in this age of saturation television coverage, and of the internet and social media, everyone noticed and word went around the internet like wildfire. And those looking on almost without fail saw it for exactly what it was: petulant, childish, despicable. And from this considerable damage to the brand equity of the sport that they're supposed to be promoting (and at a time when the world is watching more than usual) presumably awaits, over and above the damage done already. So ultimately, they lose whatever happens.

Sakhir Preview: No Gods and Precious Few Heroes

I love F1, but boy does it make it difficult sometimes. Primarily, this is because those who run F1 often struggle to pass up good opportunities to make themselves and the sport look foolish. But what's going on right now is way above and beyond even what has gone before.

Credit: Al Jazeera English / CC
Yes, the fact that I am writing this preview will tell you that F1 is marching on unperturbed into the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend, despite all of the security and moral concerns of holding the event which were fully documented and well in advance. In so doing, there is reason to think that those who work in and around F1 are being put at serious, unnecessary risk, as well as that general escalation of Bahraini tensions and violence will be incited (given the race is so closely associated with the incumbent Bahraini regime, who further transparently seem to be using this race to legitimise themselves), which in turn puts many ordinary Bahrainis at increased risk. And as far as much of the world watching on is concerned, F1 is at best ambivalent and at worst doing the PR of a regime accused of oppression - and is so doing intoxicated by the love of money. The common wider perception is that F1 is amoral, greedy, intransigent, asinine, even a touch callous. Some are even talking of the race alongside the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Like it or not, and even if this weekend goes off without a hitch from now on, F1 will be seriously diminished in the eyes of many.

And some of what was feared in advance has indeed happened. F1 has been all over the mainstream media for entirely the wrong reasons in recent days. The staging of the F1 race does indeed appear to have coincided with a ratcheting up of local tensions. Pro-democracy and anti-Government demonstrations and clashes with police are being cut interchangeably with F1 imagery in various media outlets. And the Bahrain unrest has found some of those involved in F1, most notably in the case of the Force India team, a number of whose mechanics were caught up incidentally with protesters on Wednesday night and which involved a Molotov cocktail exploding close to their hire car. Understandably, two of its team members have gone home and its cars didn't run in the second Friday practice session so to ensure personnel would be back at their hotel before nightfall. Further, some journalists are accusing the regime of stopping them reporting the anti-Government protests.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Further thoughts on the Chinese Grand Prix

Closer than close
If you were of the impression that sharp-end F1 results were getting a little samey in recent times, that's because they were. We hadn't a first-time Grand Prix winner for over two and a half years (since Mark Webber took his debut win, in Germany in mid-2009), and this at 49 races was the longest wait for a 'new' winner in the sport's history. No car other than a Red Bull, McLaren or Ferrari had won since the September of that year (when Rubens Barrichello took the flag at Monza for Brawn). Indeed, no non-member of the 'big five' as it were (that's Vettel, Webber, Button, Hamilton and Alonso) had won in that time either. And from the third race onwards last year, no one outside of that bunch even made the podium in 2011.

F1 in 2012 is much more competitive than we're used to
Credit: Morio / CC
Well, it looks like that's changing and then some. After Sergio Perez broke the podium run in Malaysia, Nico Rosberg and Mercedes in China ended the run without a new winner, in so doing making it three different drivers and teams winning the three rounds so far. And this has only been the thin end of the wedge: lap times across the order have definitely become much tighter this year. This is explained by a few things: Red Bull, with the passing of the aggressive exhaust blown diffuser, has been reigned in somewhat, and many teams behind have got their act together. This has most notably been the case with Mercedes and Lotus, who in ideal conditions seem to be pretty much on the front runners' pace. But much of the midfield, such as Williams and Sauber, have also made a definite forward strides. This is often the case in seasons with relative rule stability from the year before - teams behind can more easily learn the lessons of what is making the front runners quick, and adapt accordingly. And of course, the front runners' learning curves are shallower (it's therefore ironic that F1 tends to try to create a more competitive order by changing the rules).

Tuesday 17 April 2012

The Phoenix: Williams rises from the ashes

There was a time when Frank Williams was a joke figure in F1. Yes, seven world drivers' titles, nine constructors' titles and 113 Grand Prix victories later it seems an odd assertion. But for years Frank Williams was perceived as a forever struggling, stumbling presence in the paddock with cars invariably near the back of the pack.

He had success in his first year in the sport in 1969, claiming two second places running a privately-entered Brabham with Piers Courage driving, but after that point it appeared that Frank, year after year, was condemned to salvaging what he could from the latest failed project.

Piers Courage in a Brabham entered by Williams in 1969
Credit: Lothar Spurzem / CC
As everyone prepared for the start of the 1978 season there seemed little reason to re-evaluate that judgment. Recent form wasn't encouraging: in 1976 even with access to Canadian oil millionaire Walter Wolf's cash success for Frank's team was meagre, with no points scored. Further, after Frank was sidelined the Wolf team went on to claim three victories and finish in second place in the constructors' table the following season. And while this was going on Williams, starting again with his own operation, again scored no points competing with a private (and what turned out to be a long in the tooth) March.

His designer for the new season, Patrick Head, concurs: 'You've got to remember that Frank's reputation from his early efforts was not great. He was known as "W*nker" Williams...everybody thought his cars were just there to fill up the grid'.

Sunday 15 April 2012

Chinese GP Report: Rosberg and Mercedes prove the doubters wrong

Well it seems I owe a few people an apology.

First of all, Nico Rosberg. I doubted you could do it. Even though many rated you very highly I was more cautious, unsure if you were indeed another Jenson Button - an excellent driver struggling for years in poor cars - or instead a slightly better Nick Heidfeld, certainly quick and consistent but perhaps not top drawer. Equally, that you spurned genuine pole position chances in the first two rounds of the year made me wonder if you were equipped psychologically to get the job done when the opportunities arose.

Nico Rosberg took his debut win, and thus he
and Mercedes proved many doubters wrong
Credit: Morio / CC
Well, you showed me today and then some. After taking a serene pole, some half a second clear of your team mate (and everyone else) you won in masterful style today, leading just about the whole way. And this was no case being along for the ride with the best car: you had to nurse your tyres the whole way, as you were on a two-stop strategy (while most of your rivals stopped three times) and tyre life was seen as a relatively weak point for your Mercedes machine. You also had to keep your head at the points of the race when those behind on newer tyres were catching you hand over fist. This you did and did well. And yes, you were helped by a dud pit stop for your nearest challenger Jenson Button, which was compounded by him being condemned to run in traffic for many laps, but the likelihood is that you would have won anyway. Even Martin Whitmarsh accepts that.

Of course Nico, this is not the end but just the beginning. What's important now is kicking on from here, and you've still to prove that your ability when in combat in the pack is at the level of the great drivers in the sport right now. But today, with your fine win, you ticked a lot of boxes.

Saturday 14 April 2012

Bahrain - not worth the risk

There is an F1 race meeting taking place next weekend, and yet I'm not thinking about who might be quick there, who the likely winners are and what it would all mean for the championship. My thoughts are elsewhere. Frankly, I'll just be mightily relieved if, come the Monday following the race, the whole thing has passed off without something unpleasant or tragic happening in or around it.

I can barely think of another F1 race I've anticipated in such a way. Even the Monaco Grand Prix of 1994, which followed on from the blackest of black weekends at Imola that year, isn't quite on the same level. My trepidation then was for safety of the drivers in the course of their driving, and they at least get involved the sport knowing such dangers to themsleves are, at the broadest level, inescapable.

This time it's different. The apparent risk is on all of the people involved in the sport - team members, media, track workers and others - as well as some not even involved in F1 directly, who could well be being placed in potential danger.

Credit: Emily Faulk / CC
The FIA confirmed yesterday that the scheduled Bahrain Grand Prix will indeed take place next weekend, and that they're satisfied with the security arrangements in place. This is despite the continuing regular reports of protests and civil unrest in Bahrain, as well as allegations of brutal repression of it, and the resultant wider pressure to cancel the event.

I make no claim to be an expert on what exactly is happening in Bahrain, and given we live in an age of social media and the like we're being subjected to a barrage of claim and counter claim from both 'sides' of the debate which - without wishing to judge or dismiss collectively - is next to impossible to judge the veracity of in many cases.

Also, for the purposes of forming my view I'm parking whatever moral misgivings I might have about the Bahraini regime and its conduct (even though that many of the wider public perceive that by holding the race F1 is siding with repression for the sake of chasing the dollar, which isn't good). Indeed, F1 is not in a strong position to make moral judgments about the country. For one thing, it would be hypocritical in the extreme to do so. Even a cursory glance at an F1 calendar will tell you that Bahrain is not the only country visited, either now or in the past, about which questions could be raised, and establishing where to 'draw lines' is never easy (though F1 seems a lot more reluctant to draw a line at all than are most entities).

Shanghai Qualifying: Rosberg finally puts his Silver Arrow on target

How good is Nico Rosberg? It's a key question, one that's lingered in F1 for a while, without ever really being answered definitively. But you could argue that today he went a long way to answering it and in the affirmative, as he claimed his ever first pole position, and in a style that had brio more associated with someone who's been taking F1 poles as of habit for years.

It's a pole that's been coming for a while. The Mercedes has looked as good as anything on every Saturday of this season thus far, and for the Mercs' qualifying supremacy we've grown used over time to looking at Rosberg rather than Michael Schumacher, but in both of the first two rounds Rosberg fluffed his lines at the vital moment (leading many to nod knowingly that Nico possibly wasn't all that after all). But he was syllable perfect today.

Nico Rosberg got it right today to claim a stunning pole
Credit: Morio / CC
He stuck in a peerless lap in the crucial final session that was half a second clear of anyone else's best efforts, and then, while everyone else piled out for second runs, Nico instead left his car and strolled down the pit lane with an air of absolute serenity. And he was right to be confident, as no one even cut the gap let alone threatened to usurp him.

Not even Lewis Hamilton, who's looked mighty all weekend and always goes well at the Shanghai track, could. He did set the second quickest mark, though that converts to seventh on tomorrow's grid thanks to a gearbox change penalty. This in turn means it'll be a Mercedes lock-out of the Chinese race's front row.

It therefore makes for fascinating anticipation of tomorrow's race. The evidence of the year so far, and on practice running at Shanghai, is that while the Mercs can 'switch their tyres on' effectively for a qualifying run (especially helpful in today's cool conditions), the performance drops off relatively rapidly over a race stint. But leapfrogging them won't be as simple as that makes it sound. For one thing, in first and second places the Mercs are in a position to control the race (and how many races did Vettel win last year without the fastest race car but with pole advantage?) and the Silver Arrows fly in a straight line. And Rosberg, as mentioned, was a full half second quicker today so has pace to play with.

Sunday 8 April 2012

Return to Ricard?: F1 re-establishes its French connection

F1 is poised to re-establish its French connection it seems. Following on quickly from the long overdue return of French drivers to the sport this year (and no fewer than three of them), the equally long overdue return of a French race sounds imminent.

France is the country of motor sport's very roots. The first ever organised motor race took place there in July 1894. Such races eventually became Grands Prix and Grandes Epreuves (the use of the French lexicon isn't coincidence), which in turn eventually became Formula One. And a French Grand Prix appeared on the F1 calendar every year aside from 1955, when it was cancelled in the wake of the Le Mans disaster, seeming to be part of the furniture. But after 2008, after years of threatening by Bernie, the unthinkable happened and the French round was dropped for the 2009 season. F1's itinerary has stepped away from its heritage and core support notably in recent times - and surely the dropping of the French round is the most egregious.

Felipe Massa - winner of the last ever
French Grand Prix, in 2008
Credit: Thijs Bekkema / CC
But the issue of the French round's return has moved on in recent days ever so slightly. France's Prime Minister Francois Fillon, himself a motor racing man - he's on the committee of the Le Mans 24 hour race and has competed in the Le Mans legends sports car race - visited the Paul Ricard circuit last week. And while the actual confirmation of the returning French Grand Prix that many anticipated was not forthcoming, it did sound like it isn't far off. Fillon's utterances indicated that money is in place and Bernie is on board, with only a small and surmountable gap in finances to be bridged. It also seems that alternation of the race with another venue (most probably Spa) is how the race will be scheduled, and that the race's venue will be Paul Ricard.