Tuesday 28 August 2012

Spa Preview: Back with a bang

It's a well-worn concept, but no less true for that: there's something very special about Spa-Francorchamps.

There's nothing quite like Spa
Credit: Nathanael Majoros / CC
This is for a variety of reasons. Its high average speed and fearsome sweeps are almost unparalleled on the modern F1 itinerary, as well as increasingly rare in the age of the Tilkedrome. Had the track never existed and someone now was to suggest building it as an F1 venue the concept would likely be laughed out of town. It's all set in a beautiful, undulating and wooded Ardennes landscape. Each year meetings there provide further evidence to back the thesis that if you give F1 drivers a proper track they'll give you a proper race. And furthermore the circuit is situated in a notorious mini-clime, meaning rain can (and usually does) arrive with little notice and thus turn things onto their head.

I'm sure there have been dull races at Spa, but it's genuinely hard to imagine one.

And, not unimportantly, Spa retains a direct link to motor sports' deepest heritage. The history of circuit racing in the region is as old as circuit racing itself, with the first race at the Circuit des Ardennes taking place in 1902, on a circuit that was a snip at 86km in length, before being extended to 118km for the 1904 race (yes you read those right)! And the original Spa circuit, a fearsome and iconic 15km track that makes even the current layout look positively sedate, was first used in 1921, and the one used in F1 as late as 1970 wasn't much different from it.

Friday 24 August 2012

Teams' half way report

In some ways it's just as well that this season features a five week summer break. For unpredictability and competitiveness it's difficult to think of a previous F1 season that matches it. The mid-year moratorium is a good opportunity to take stock of who's hot and who's not, and what may be likely to happen next. Here's a team-by-team rundown.

Red Bull
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
Top of the constructors' table and 53 points clear of the nearest challengers after 11 races; yet in Red Bull land this counts as a disappointment. Perhaps that tells us something.

Red Bull is still top of the class overall, but not in 2012 the clear A star performers of 2011. There have been three wins in 11 races (half the level of this point last year), but only in a couple of rounds has the Red Bull been the clear pace setter. And both drivers trail Fernando Alonso in the drivers' table by the region of 40 points.

The RB8 didn't have the most successful of births, and all of a sudden we had to get used to the unaccustomed sight of the Bulls being near, but not quite at, the front. Technical Director Adrian Newey had admitted that the severe restriction of blowing (and of off throttle blowing) of diffusers has disproportionately impeded his cars. It also didn't help that the Bulls' initial 2012 exhaust solution didn't work and had to be abandoned. Interestingly, Newey also admitted recently that stricter policing of wing flexing has further given the team difficulties.

But a few things helped them nevertheless. One is that the team's operational side remains as strong as ever; pit stops and strategies are sharp and the team rarely drops the ball. Plus gritty drives from both of the drivers have maxed out the results. And, as the controversy over its exploitation of loopholes in the engine mapping regulations showed, the squad is still perfectly capable of pushing the boundaries in the name of performance. And gradually as the season progressed things have improved for the team - it has always been excellent at in-year development. In Valencia it even looked like it had a clear stride on everyone else.

Saturday 18 August 2012

Why I'll welcome Pat Symonds back to F1

If you have ever been to the annual Autosport Show in Birmingham you'll be aware that a frequent feature is that various F1 luminaries do question and answer sessions for the gathered fans in attendance. It was while at one such event at this year's show that I overheard the following exchange between two fans in front of me about the luminary in question: 'Who is he?' asked one. 'He's the guy who told his driver to crash' replied the other.

It therefore may not be a surprise to you that the identity of the luminary being discussed was Pat Symonds. Reading this month's Motor Sport magazine brought this conversation back, as it features an extensive interview with Symonds. And here, for the first time I can recall, he talks about that crash at Singapore as well as outlines his intention to return to F1 in 2013, adding that he has had offers from 'several' teams. The 'silly season' for who goes where for next year is therefore not only about drivers.

For the uninitiated (where have you been?) Symonds was one of the most experienced, skilled and respected engineering heads in the F1 pitlane. He joined the Toleman team in its early throes in 1981 and, aside from a brief spell in 1991, stayed there through its phoenix-like rise to the top of the sport, via the Benetton and Renault incarnations, taking in seven world championships and working with the likes of Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso along the way.

Monday 6 August 2012

Retro F1: 1991 Belgian Grand Prix

With a full four weeks now until our next F1 race I thought it would be jolly nice to hold the latest Retro F1.

And given that the next race on the F1 calendar is at the magisterial Spa-Francorchamps, I decided to make this Retro F1 a Spa race. We therefore watched the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix. It was a great topsy-turvey affair, and stars no less than Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell, as well as one Michael Schumacher making his F1 debut in the beautiful Jordan 191.

Retro F1 is when we watch a classic F1 race in full online, and chat about it on Twitter as we go, using the #RetroF1 hashtag. All are welcome!

The link to the race on YouTube is here, and can also be watched below.

Highlights of the Twitter chat follow:

Hey y’all, welcome to the latest instalment of Retro F1. Watching 1991 Belgian GP at magnificent Spa, starring such titans as Senna, Prost, Mansell, and one Michael Schumacher making his F1 debut. I would love to hear your thoughts as we go. Remember to use the #RetroF1 hashtag!

Now holding aloft the 5 minute board for Retro F1.
@F1isP1 Just left the pits on my formation lap...
Quality, just about to form on the grid :)

Right-o, clicking play now.

Click ‘Skip Ad’ :)

Some scene setting: the year is 1991 and Ayrton Senna has been on top of the pile all year. He won the opening four rounds of the season. But since then he has faced a strong challenge from the Williams FW14 (designed by one A. Newey), especially in hands of Nigel Mansell. 'Our Nige' got within 8 points of Senna by mid-season, but in the last round at Hungary Senna struck back by winning (with Mansell 2nd).

Sunday 5 August 2012

Looking back: 1997 - an underrated classic

A F1 season in which grids and races were tight and we'd enter weekends with no idea who would be on top; it could have literally been anyone from more than half of the grid. It was also a season with a close championship battle. And one in which tyres would often fall apart quickly and would have to be nursed through a race stint.

No, it's not now. It's fifteen years ago: the year of 1997.

When classic seasons in F1 history are discussed I often think that 1997 is curiously rarely-mentioned. It was an underrated classic. While much of F1 in the 1990s was characterised by only a small number of likely winners at any given moment, and often one team dominating, 1997 represented something of a renaissance. Perhaps part of the season's not getting the credit it deserves owes something to its being poorly served by statistics. For all of its competitiveness, it can only claim to six different winners (from four teams) in 17 races. But with cards falling the other way it could easily have boasted anything up to double those numbers.

Jacques Villeneuve,
some years later
Credit: Rick Dikeman / CC
In this year Williams Renault was the dominant force, but the Schumacher-Ferrari double act, joined this year for the first time by Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne, was getting into its stride and more than capable of making a thorough pest of itself. Then there was McLaren who, with Mercedes engines, was finally emerging from its post-Senna/post-Honda trough and was an increasingly consistent front runner as the year went on. Benetton and Jordan were both credible contenders for wins on occasion.

And further was the variable brought in by the Bridgestone tyres. For the first time since 1991 Goodyear had opposition in supplying F1 teams, and it could be argued that for the first time since 1984 (when Michelin left the sport) Goodyear had a serious threat to its pedestal position. If anything the Bridgestone was the superior tyre, certainly the more durable. And in this its debut season it could only count midfield runners at best among its customers: Prost (née Ligier, just bought by Alain), Stewart (also in its debut season) and the like; but the Bridgestones could, on occasion, bring these guys right to the sharp end. Heck, even Arrows nearly won a race on them. And Goodyear in response sometimes got its sums wrong, the resultant gumball rubber meant that 'blistering' and subsequent pace variation returned to the F1 parlance with a vengeance.

Thursday 2 August 2012

The next Retro F1: 1991 Belgian Grand Prix, this Sunday at 1500 GMT

With a full five weeks until our next F1 fix you may be glad to you only have to wait until this weekend for the next Retro F1. It'll take place this Sunday, at 1500 (3pm) GMT.

And given that the next race on the F1 calendar is at the magisterial Spa-Francorchamps, I've decided to make this Retro F1 a Spa race. We'll therefore be watching the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix. It was a great topsy-turvey race, and stars no less than Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell, as well as features one Michael Schumacher (in the beautiful Jordan 191) making his F1 debut.

Ayrton Senna - one of the stars of the show
Credit:: JMex60 / CC
Retro F1 is where we watch a classic F1 race in full on YouTube, and everyone can post updates and chat about it on Twitter as live. And this race will be a very good one.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Further thoughts on the Hungarian Grand Prix

Title tilts
Way back in the aftermath of the Spanish Grand Prix in May I made the entirely foolhardy decision to try to predict the drivers who I thought would be title contenders this year. I went for Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. And, unusually, I can pat myself on the back as if I was picking drivers now I'd again go for that four.

Fernando Alonso leads the way,
but who is likely to challenge?
Credit: Morio / CC
The inclusion of Alonso is a no-brainer. He sits 40 points clear at the table top and is driving beautifully. And even though his Ferrari is by no means the envy of the field, as outlined in this column last week several things count in his favour: that Alonso is always maximising things and finishing everywhere, and that the field remains tight and the likelihood is that others will take points off each other.

After the events of Hungary one could argue that Lewis Hamilton is Alonso's most credible rival. Following a mini-trough the McLaren has looked to be back on the money in the last two rounds. Lewis has a lot of ground to make up - 47 points - but with each win getting seven points back at least and with nine rounds remaining nothing is beyond the realms. And Lewis has been driving brilliantly all year.

Sebastian Vettel remains right in there also, even though just as with Hamilton there is a long way back to the table summit (in his case, 42 points). The car remains quick, Newey & co. will continue to push the boundaries to make it quicker, and Seb remains as competitive as always. And remember that this time last year after a period of relative struggle he came back from the summer break with a devastating run of form and victories, which definitively put the title beyond others' reach. The same again would suit him just fine.

Kimi Raikkonen also manages to hang in there in the vicinity of Lewis and Seb at least, mainly due to his consistency and ability to bring the car home in 2012 (he's finished everywhere and only in China did he fail to score). And in a race there are few, arguably no, cars as good as the Lotus, and as we saw in Hungary (and elsewhere) Kimi remains perfectly capable of taking advantage of it. Further, Eric Boullier reckons that once its double-DRS system is race-worthy Lotus will be in a position to win every time. There of course is likely to be a bit of blarney in there, but the confidence may tell us something. If nothing else a device that boosts the car in qualifying (which an enhanced DRS system will do) will target Lotus's overarching weakness in 2012. And remember where the next round is: Spa is very much Kimi country.

The most glaring omission from my selection (I hear you cry) is Mark Webber, who lest we forget remains in second place in the championship. However, I retain a hunch that over an entire season Vettel will ultimately emerge on top of the Red Bull intra-team battle. The list also omits Romain Grosjean and Jenson Button. I wouldn't count either out for race wins in the year's remainder, but for the championship I believe both have ceded too much ground, not only on Alonso at the top but also on their respective team mates. I say this because on the days that they have a mechanical advantage their team mate will also, so overhauling someone in the same equipment to that extent will be doubly-difficult.