Wednesday 27 February 2013

F1 2013 Season Preview: Sauber - You've come a long way baby

Time was when you knew what to expect from Sauber. Its cars would be a firm midfield presence: good for a few points, excellent at introducing young drivers to the sport and developing them (e.g. Raikkonen, Massa), but not where you'd look for excitement, technically or otherwise, or for surprise results. A monolith within ever-changing F1. There was something rather reassuring about it all.

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
The year 2012 took that orthodoxy, scrunched it all up and discarded it in the nearest waste paper basket. When the Sauber C31 was launched before the season start there once again didn't seem a great deal ground-breaking about it, at face-level anyway. But in round two, in Malaysia, the thing flew and should have won. The team picked up three more podium finishes before the season was out, and on occasion looked plain the quickest thing out there, on race day at least. It was Sauber, but not as we know it.

There were lots of reasons for this, but the overarching one was that the C31, either by luck or by judgement, often had a magic touch on the fragile Pirelli tyres. Frequently the Sauber drivers would push while others had to rein back, carry on while others pitted. The car also from the get-go had Coanda exhausts, which would rapidly be honoured by imitation by almost the entire grid as the season progressed, as well as neat packaging around the rear.

Tuesday 26 February 2013 F1 bloggers' 2013 predictions asked me and several other F1 bloggers for their predictions for the forthcoming 2013 season. The fruits of their labours are below in the infographic. You'll see that it features no fewer than three quotes from my good self.

Fernando Alonso for the drivers' championship and Red Bull for the constructors' is the consensus. One optimist - who has been named and shamed - reckons Felipe Massa will sweep the board though. As for improvers, Romain Grosjean and Mercedes are those most expected to make a step up (not a bad shout, given there is conspicuous room for improvement in both cases).

Within each team, in many cases there is strong expectation for one driver to get the upper hand, though in the case of Williams and Toro Rosso things are poised tantalisingly.

So, will there be collective predictive wisdom among the F1 blogging community? We'll just have to wait and see.

More details can be found here:

Sunday 24 February 2013

F1 2013 Season Preview: Mercedes - Curiouser and curiouser

Every sport must have one I suppose. Something or someone who, despite having all of the requisite pieces to succeed it seems, somehow fails persistently to assemble it all correctly to the end of actually getting the results. And in F1, dear reader, I give you Mercedes.

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
The Mercedes brand is one of the strongest in the world, and not just in motoring. It is a marque with an exemplary heritage in F1 and in motorsport more widely. Its Grand Prix effort is a properly-funded manufacturer outfit, it took over the champion constructor at the end of 2009, and is headed up by one of the finest brains in the sport. And yet success since has been meagre, and the trajectory over time has if anything been downward rather than upward. About the only thing it has accumulated consistently over this time is excuses.

In 2010 Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn could point to the necessary 40% cuts of the Brawn staff during the previous season, which hampered development of the 2010 machine. In 2011 the car was fundamentally flawed, mainly down to a too-short wheelbase which was in turn related to the team not foreseeing the potential of aggressive exhaust blowing of diffusers. Last year, for a short time, it looked like Merc would finally make its breakthrough, challenging for pole in each of the first three rounds, and winning the race in round three (its first F1 triumph since 1955), and all the while boasting what looked like being the year's big thing in the Double DRS system. But it was all an illusion, Mercedes then slipped down the order rapidly. The W03, just like its predecessors, had fundamental flaws, chewing its rear tyres and having an extremely narrow operating window, needing cool temperatures and/or a track requiring quick tyre warm-up, plus a layout with short corners needing good direction change and where tyre wear is less critical. These were broadly the case in China and Monaco, where the car was devastating. But if these things didn't come together - which was broadly the case everywhere else - then the W03 was in trouble. And the Double DRS rather than a breakthrough became a millstone: apparently making conventional development to the front and rear wings much harder as well as slowed up front wing downforce reattachment after the DRS was closed. By the end of the year the Mercs were consistent midfield runners, and the team finished a distant fifth in the constructors' standings, barely ahead of Sauber.

Saturday 23 February 2013

F1 2013 Season Preview: Lotus - Dark horses?

The fundamentals of the current technical regulations have been in place since 2009. The probability of devising big advances within those diminish by the year, for the main reason that they've mostly been discovered already, and everyone else has had a chance since to honour them by imitation. Thus now as we face 2013, the regulations' fifth year of existence, reshuffles in the pecking order are not to be expected. But even within this, ever-cryptic pre-season testing suggests that there may be at least one climber between 2012 and 2013. That team is Lotus.

Credit: Alex Comerford  CC
The Lotus team was also 2012's highest climber compared with the previous year, but that owed in part to the fact that 2011 was a conspicuously bad one for the Enstone team, wherein it had gone down a technical blind alley with forward-facing exhausts, and a bad atmosphere seemed to pervade the team. If it has indeed stepped up further this time too it will doubly-impressive. And remember that any forward stride from last year will in all probability land Lotus right in the championship fight. The team may well be the 2013 dark horse, and not because of its livery.

Arguably last year's Lotus, the E20, was the best race-day car out there. It was outstanding in extracting performance from the limited-resource Pirelli tyres for longer than its rival cars, possibly due to it being softly sprung. But its best trait also contributed to its worst, in that it struggled to get sufficient temperature into its tyre for a qualifying lap, which often left its drivers with too much to do on race day (even in modern F1, qualifying remains important; only four of the 20 races in 2012 were won from off the front row). But nevertheless consistent points accumulated by inspired signing Kimi Raikkonen kept it in outside contention for the drivers' championship for most of the year, and it all was topped off by a late-season victory for Kimi, Enstone's first since 2008, in Abu Dhabi (possibly the year's most popular win too). All in, it was Enstone's best campaign since its 2005/2006 title triumphs and by a distance.

F1 2013 Season Preview: McLaren - A new page

There of course is a lot which is very good about McLaren. It is one of the best resourced outfits in F1. It boasts a vast army of fans. In terms of corporate branding and sponsor gathering it could well be the best of the bunch. It is consistently competitive; take any time period stretching back from now and you'll struggle to find a team that has been in the fight for wins as consistently as the Woking squad has. Its heritage of success is breathtaking. But there is a problem: somehow in recent times the team has shown an astonishing inability to win world championships.

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Think I'm exaggerating? Well here are a couple of facts to chew on: McLaren has won only one title - for drivers or constructors - since the turn of the millennium, with Lewis Hamilton's drivers' title in 2008 its only success. And the problem stretches back even further than that, all the way to the end of the Senna/Honda run of titles in 1991. In the 21 seasons since McLaren has won only four of the 42 available championships. Just stop and think about that for a moment.

And last season for McLaren the old story continued; indeed if anything the team seemed to find whole new ways of daintily dancing around the sport's ultimate prizes. It started the season with clearly the fastest car (perhaps unusually), some even talked after qualifying in round two of it enjoying a year of dominance as Red Bull had the year before. It ended the year with the fastest car too, and was also at the sharp end for much of the intervening period. Yet, somehow, in the final shakeout it didn't really come close to scaling either championship summit, its drivers placing a distant fourth and fifth in the drivers' table and the team ending up third in the constructors'.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

F1 2013 Season Preview: Ferrari - One more push?

One more push and they're there? Ferrari hasn't won a title since 2008, a drought by its standards, and last year it came oh-so-close to the drivers' title, finishing but three points shy of the summit in a season wherein it wasn't without its share of bad luck, or without conspicuous room for improvement in its machinery.

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
But then again things might not necessarily be that simple for the Scuderia in 2013. In truth, its closeness to title honours last campaign was to an extent illusory. The F2012 was, at best, the third-best machine out there (and some would argue even that assessment is generous) and at no round was it the quickest in dry conditions. Further, it was a debacle out of the box, and although the team was able to correct its most glaring faults in short order, it could never quite escape its inherent flaws demonstrated by the car proving maddeningly resistant to development in the year's latter part.

That Alonso missed out on the drivers' title narrowly owed to a measure of circumstance such as a tight year in which no one dominated for the most part allied to mistakes from others, a large dollop of brilliant, tenacious and consistent driving performances from Alonso, mixed in with reliability (Ferrari didn't have a single breakdown in a race in 2012) and the F2012 at least being being fairly flexible in how it looked after the Pirelli tyres.

Sunday 17 February 2013

F1 2013 Season Preview: Red Bull - Four on demand

The question is the same as it was 12 months ago. Which indeed was much the same as the question 12 months before that. Up and down the F1 fraternity the conundrum being wrestled with is thus: just how do you beat Red Bull?

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
And despite the corkscrew plot of the 2012 season, in a lot of ways the year didn't bring us much closer to an answer. Yes, I hear you cry, Fernando Alonso came within three points of claiming the drivers' title in Red Bull's stead, and with reliability and stronger operations the Lewis Hamilton/McLaren partnership likely would have swept up the honours for themselves. But, despite all of this, despite rule tweaks that could have been (and probably were) written with impeding the Bulls in mind, despite getting it wrong in the first part of the year technically and thus conceding much ground to its rivals by the season’s two-thirds' point, Red Bull still ended the year having claimed the drivers' and constructors' title double, its third on the bounce.

One day someone will tell the incredible tale properly of how the 'fizzy drinks company' took over the remnants of Ford's abortive and in the main rather shambolic F1 effort, and within a few years had usurped the sport's most illustrious names at its very pinnacle. And then stayed there. The Red Bull team doesn't seem to be winning any popularity awards right now though (outside its own staff and supporters anyway). Of course, part of it is that winners rarely get much affection from their vanquished. Others in the pitlane regard the team as arrogant, the team's spending levels arouse suspicion (though nothing has ever stuck), as does its close relationship with Bernie and its willingness to explore the outer reaches of the rules' elasticity (and get away with it). Its tendency to stand alone (with Toro Rosso, natch) on political matters arouses resentment. But even with all of these slings and arrows, Red Bull's achievements are absolutely not to be belittled. Let's not forget that only the grandees of Ferrari and McLaren have ever won three title doubles in a row before it, and in each case it was only once.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

20% discount on products bought at for Talking about F1 readers

I am pleased to announce that Talking about F1 has teamed up with Duke Video to offer Talking about F1 readers a 20% discount when buying DVDs, Blue-ray discs etc at

Simply by entering 'TalkF1' at the checkout when ordering on you will receive a 20% discount on all Duke Products.

Duke Video offers a wide range of DVD, Blu-ray and download products on F1 both present and past, including a large selection of driver documentaries, titles covering F1 cars and some season reviews, as well as products on other Motorsports, Motor Cycling, Extreme Sports and plenty of other things besides! Get yourself onto for a browse.

And as a taster, here's an amusing Duke film starring a very young Jenson Button:

N.B. This is for Duke only products so there may be the odd thing on there that they cannot redeem the code on but this will be because it is an outside supplier title.

Monday 11 February 2013

What does 2013 hold for Lewis Hamilton? - a guest post by Puneet Mitra

Lewis Hamilton leaving McLaren will have come as a big shock to many, considering his long association with the British team – a relationship that has spanned 14 years.

Hamilton has left a team with competitive cars and an illustrious history in Formula One for Mercedes – a team with a car not seen as competitive with a relatively poor record in the drivers’ championship.   

Hamilton’s 2012 season wasn’t a complete disaster by any means. The 27-year-old won four races, had six pole positions, seven podiums and 190 points overall and finished fourth with an impressive end to the season. Although he reached pole position at the Brazilian Grand Prix he was taken out prematurely during the race. 

So why did he leave?

Hamilton’s 2012 seasonwas dogged by reliability issues with his car that might well have been a contributing factor to his decision to end his successful association with McLaren, although suspected pit lane mistakes are other reasons being cited by those in the sport.

Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
Although he is by no means a pauper, it could well be argued that money played a large role in Hamilton’s decision, as he is set to earn $100 million from his three-year contract with Mercedes, which is more than he was offered by McLaren.

So what does 2013 hold for Hamilton? Does he have any chance of winning the world championship in 2013?

Well anything is possible, but it looks unlikely – the odds for a victory next year have been set by Ladbrokes F1 to 12/1, as opposed to the shorter odds that would have been likely had he stayed at McLaren. This is evident as ex-teammate Jenson Button is at 7/1 to win the Drivers’ Championship.

Hamilton is sure to look forward to the challenge of driving for Mercedes, and will be determined to lead the Drivers’ standings at the end of the 2013 season. However, driving a new car will probably mean that for the first few races, Hamilton will try and get used to it, so podium finishes might be hard to come by until later on in the year.

Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, a former McLaren team-mate of Hamilton’s, believes he will win races this year. 'I am sure he’ll be able to win. Mercedes won last year with Rosberg and Lewis has been winning races with all manufacturers', he told reporters earlier this month.

As for Hamilton, he’s expecting to encounter a few difficulties while adjusting to his new car. 'It’s going to be a tough season. It’s going to be difficult for us to gain two seconds on our rivals. We’re in it for the long haul', he said.

Even Hamilton has gone on record as saying on record as saying that it will take ‘months and months’ to make either the Mercedes team or his car competitive. But as a fiercely competitive man with a hunger to win, this will prove frustrating for Hamilton as he goes yet another year without winning the ultimate accolade in the sport.

This post was contributed by Pete, a huge fan of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes.

Sunday 3 February 2013

The curious case of the F1 pay driver

Pay driver. Few other terms inspire as much ire in the average F1 fan. It seems little else causes such disgusted self-reflection, such frenzied moral wrestling about the sport they follow.

And it's easy to see why. The concept of buying an opportunity at an F1 drive, of money brought by the candidate being the chief discriminator in the team's driver selection, seems to strike a the very sanctity of sport itself. The underpinning of any honest competitive endeavour is that it is a meritocracy, that the most talented prevail. To take an extreme analogy, were a rich but mediocre sprinter to buy his way into a place in the Olympic 100m final at the expense of a more worthy athlete it would not only be viewed as highly unfair but also as corrupt. Yet that is what happens in F1: drivers are discarded routinely in favour of those apparently less talented and qualified, but crucially who do come with a pot of gold.

And the debate has taken on particular resonance in the recent times, with each of the four driving debutants due to be on the F1 starting grid in Melbourne in March bringing finance, and the finance brought seeming by varying degrees a key differentiator for all of them getting their gig (and there is possibly yet more to come if Luiz Razia gets the Marussia drive as rumoured, and Jules Bianchi's pitch for the vacant Force India drive is thought to involve cheap Ferrari engines for the team from 2014). And of course for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, with popular pilots such as Heikki Kovalainen, Kamui Kobayashi and Timo Glock finding themselves brusquely discarded as a direct consequence (indeed Marussia made no bones about there being 'commercial' reasons for its driver switch). These follow on from other talents like Rubens Barrichello and (briefly) Nico Hulkenberg being cast to one side to make way for drivers who bring cash with them in the past three seasons.

Esteban Guiterrez - making his debut for Sauber
in Melbourne, and who brings finance to his team
Credit: Lutz H / CC
But is the issue as simple as much of the debate on the issue suggests? Of course, in a perfect world there would be no pay drivers. But this is not a perfect world, and because of this it is difficult to see how the pay driver can be stopped definitively. We live in a market economy, teams must balance their books and find money for technical development, and there is absolutely nothing to stop a driver bringing a briefcase full of money as part of their offering. And this money will always be factored into a team's decision on who to give the keys to, it cannot be decoupled. And for all of F1's self-disgust at the concept similar things aren't completely unheard of in other sports. When Arsenal some years ago signed Japanese midfielder Junichi Inamoto it was a move which seemed transparently more about commerce than footballing ability (indeed, he hardly experienced any first team minutes), and he was quickly given the nickname 'T-Shirt'. Football clubs signing players primarily in the hope of selling more merchandise is more common than you might think.

And right now F1 is experiencing something of an (im)perfect storm in which the pay driver can more readily prevail. Much of the world is in the depths on an economic slump, money is hard to come by for F1 teams as much as anyone and it's not clear when the outlook is going to improve. Compared with 10 years ago there are few manufacturers in F1, and therefore there is much less of the bounty that they bring. Many recent attempts to control the sport's spiralling costs were first watered down, and latterly have showed signs of floundering. And let's also not forget that when Caterham and Marussia - teams likely to have two pay drivers each in 2013 and seen as among the biggest 'culprits' on the pay driver - signed up to the sport initially they did so on the understanding of a £30m budget cap, which was reneged on subsequently. And of course it doesn't help at all that 40% of F1's revenues goes straight off to CVC, never to be seen again.

Further, a driver can be useful in raising finance for their employers, after all a CEO is much more likely to pick up the phone when a driver calls than when a team principal does. Perhaps the expectations of drivers raising budget is also, rightly or wrongly, the new reality that drivers have to learn to adapt to. Kobayashi for one seemed slow in realising the impending danger to his career prospects from not having a budget, which is odd given the rising importance of driver-accrued finance was hardly a secret. His belated attempts to raise some finance seemed, almost literally, a day late and a dollar short. While Kovalainen suggested towards the end of last season that he refuses to raise finance, which is either fine principle or bloody-mindedness which ensured the signing of his own death warrant, depending on your perspective. To be brutal about it, if the likes of Kovalainen and Kobayashi assumed that their levels of talent alone would make them immune from the shifting sands then they were at very least naive. Neither of them is an Alonso, after all.

Heikki Kovalainen - admirable or
signing his own death warrant?
Credit: ph-stop / CC
And compare the cases of those two drivers with that of Bruno Senna, who has clearly worked hard to develop sponsors in order to give himself the best and most enduring chance in the sport's pinnacle. I doubt that someone like Senna will have been thrilled that knocking on the doors of company CEOs had achieved such exalted importance. Yet he was sensible enough to understand that, in Jimmy Durante's words, 'dese are da conditions dat prevail', and thus he played the house rules as best he could to advance his career.

It's also worth reflecting that the truth of the pay driver vs. the paid driver conundrum is not quite as pure or simple as sometimes is assumed. Contrary to many claims, pay driver does not necessarily equate to untalented. In some ways it's easy to see why some assume that it does, as the pay driver landscape of 10 or 20 years ago was very different. Then the pay driver would be associated primarily with those such as Andrea de Cesaris who brought Daddy's money with him via Marlboro, and was someone who would show flashes of inspiration but far more crashes, and would leave you to seriously doubt that he would ever have got into F1 without the cash. Then there were the likes of Hideki Noda and Giovanni Lavaggi who to be blunt hardly seemed competent and made all wonder what the minimum requirements of an F1 superlicence actually were.

But these days the matter is not nearly as clear cut. In the current field both Pastor Maldonado and Sergio Perez brought money which was highly influential to them getting their F1 break, but despite their flaws both have shown enough since to suggest that there is sufficient driving talent there too. Santander may not be at Ferrari were it not for Fernando Alonso. And taking each of the four debut drivers for the 2013 season - Valtteri Bottas, Esteban Gutiérrez, Giedo van der Garde and Max Chilton, plus Luiz Razia and Jules Bianchi who may be filling the final two vacant seats - all come in with racing pedigrees that are at least solid, and in some cases are highly promising. All aside from Bottas have won races in GP2, and Bottas has a GP3 title on his CV as well as impressed the Williams team with his spells in its F1 car last season. I expect them all to do a solid job, and some of them may become very good F1 drivers. After all, their junior formulae records are no worse than Sebastian Vettel's - in F1, as in many things, no one knows anything.

Niki Lauda - an early pay driver?
Credit: Lothar Spurzem / CC
Indeed, the correlation between bringing money and showing talent never has been simple. Max Mosley could tell you the story of a young, buck-toothed Austrian driver, without much of stellar record in the lower ranks, whom he gave his F1 debut in a March in 1972, in return for £40,000 brought by the driver which would be vital in keeping the team afloat for another year. That driver went by the name of Niki Lauda. A major reason Eddie Jordan gave Michael Schumacher his F1 debut in Spa in 1991 in preference to other candidates for the drive was the $200,000 of Mercedes cash that Schumi brought with him. As recently noted even Juan Manuel Fangio likely would never have made it to Europe to race without financial backing from Argentina's Peron Government.

But even with all of this the balance between sponsors' finance accrued by drivers and accrued elsewhere seems all wrong right now. Very few things are black and white, more are matters of degree, so while the pay driver always has and always will be on the landscape, the weight of importance currently afforded to driver finance in balancing a team's budget and in deciding who is getting the available drives is way too much. And when you look at the cars on an F1 grid and see most of them with hardly a sponsor on them, and that many sponsors that are there are brought by drivers or associated with the team ownership, you wonder if the teams are doing enough themselves? Is it at least possible that teams are relying too much on finance from its drivers, and subconsciously or otherwise are not quite doing everything that they could on the sponsor front?

And equally, can we point the finger at the sport more broadly? While the recession will of course have been a contributor to the lean spell on sponsorship is F1's ability to make a fool of itself and show at least dubious morality at regular intervals (Bahrain, Crashgate, Maxgate etc etc) also impeding its ability to attract sponsors? I often look at the handsome sponsorship on cars in Indycar and NASCAR and surmise that F1 itself, over and above market conditions, was getting something very wrong - particularly given it has a global reach that few other entities can match. As Joe Saward noted recently: 'The...question that F1 never seems to ask itself is why sponsors do not want the be involved in F1, if it is clear that the sport is a very good way to deliver a message in the world’s developing markets. It is easier to say that these are difficult times, rather than perhaps have to face up to the reality that F1 could present a better image to the world. There is not enough work done on improving F1 demographics to make the sport attractive to mass market consumer companies that one sees in other racing championships. The brands involved are often global but F1 is not chosen by the likes of McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway or M&Ms. Why are chains such as Office Depot, Target and Walmart not using the sport? Or UPS, Black & Decker and other such products that one might expect to see with F1's demographic?'

Further, as Andrew Benson noted recently, F1's entire global TV rights income is only roughly the same as for the Turkish Premier League in football, at around $490m. And I've long got the impression that while F1 has set up camp in many new countries latterly, its promotion of the sport in these countries (and in existing markets) in terms of putting drivers on chat shows, doing car demonstrations within cities and the like has been rather feeble. It all adds up to a feeling the sport is being undersold somewhat, and is to a large extent complacent about growing its fan base. Greater focus on these would reduce the necessity of driver-raised finance.

Perhaps there are signs of a pulse here. F1, for the first time in a while, had some good news regarding sponsors recently with no less than the Coca Cola Corporation coming into F1 with its Burn brand sponsoring Lotus. This was followed quickly by confirmation that Infiniti is to become Red Bull's title sponsor. Perhaps the quality of the racing and the sport's growing association with 'green' technology, which like it or not is an increasing expectation of wider stakeholders and thus alleviating F1's possibly outmoded 'gas gussling' image, has also assisted the F1 brand. It may also, in time, attract more manufacturing investment (manufacturers in F1 aren't perfect of course, but at least they rarely rely on pay drivers). It's all encouraging, a step in the right direction, yet to borrow from Winston Churchill it all rather feels much more like the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end. Renewing cost control would help too.

The F1 pay driver will never die. Not for as long as F1 teams are private enterprises that eat money, in any case. But perhaps even in these tough times, much more can be done to ensure that they can be contained.