Friday, 28 February 2014

F1 2014 Season Preview: Red Bull - The party's over?

Time was that Red Bull was viewed - nay derided - as F1's party team. Even today four world championship doubles later the moniker remains apt to an extent, given the squad's tendency to act generally as well as to celebrate triumph with much greater abandon and expression than is the case for their rivals.

Photo: Octane Photography
But is it so that as we stand before the 2014 season start that, finally after four years of living it up to the most raucous degree, the party's over? The bar's shut?

Major sets of rule changes - and we have just had about the most major of the sport's modern times - always carry more risk for whoever's on top by definition, given their tendency to repatriate everyone to base camp; to render irrelevant previous advantages. History is littered with examples of such occurrences turning cheetahs into slugs at a stroke, sometimes irrecoverably.

So the risks were there. But even with these there were specifics that set perilous traps before the Bulls. The tilting of the formula more towards engines and away relatively from aerodynamics, for a team for which aero usually was the trump card, was one. That Red Bull, unlike its two closest rivals in the 2013 championship table, does not manufacturer its units under the same umbrella - and either down the corridor or down the road - was another; instead they're made several hundred miles away and over the English Channel in Viry-Chatillon. Add to this that even during the team's dominance it never appeared entirely at one with energy recovery systems either, which now are a bigger factor.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Fernando Alonso Collection - a fitting celebration

To be honest I didn't know what to expect; indeed I was a little worried. I'd organised a city break to Madrid, an idea originating around a desire to visit the new Fernando Alonso Collection and which rather grew from there.

Why the worry? Well for all of the publicity that it has got, to me the risks of the collection falling short of expectations seemed plentiful: that it could be half-hearted; thrown together. That it would be tucked away and hardly-visited. But it turned out that I was worrying over nothing - it could not have been further from these things.

The Fernando Alonso Collection is a triumph. It's an extensive collection with everything imaginable and more from Alonso's career and life present. It's equally apparent from your visit that Fernando Alonso's involvement in its creation has been a close one and clearly been a labour of love. And the Madrid public have responded in kind if the abuzzed mass of people that were in attendance when I visited is any sort of guide.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Looking back: 20 years ago - the calm before the storm

1994. In F1 terms it even twenty years on is a campaign considered barely to have a redeeming feature; a rancid low point. It is viewed as a season of rancour, bitterness, tragedy.

It was a year of persistent and acidic controversy, both technical and sporting; race bans were frequent and the success of the champion Benetton team - the target of much of the contention - even today from many perspectives still festers rather like an uncleansed old wound. It was a year of sickening violence. Most traumatically two drivers, Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, did not survive the campaign, others had their careers at the top in effect ended by injury, and there were plenty of near misses besides in which widespread injury and death was avoided only by chance. It was also a season lacking in competitiveness, featuring several soporific races in which the cars at the back, indeed in the midfield, barely belonged in the same formula as the cars at the front. And, almost appropriately in the perverse sense, in the final round the destination of the drivers' title was resolved in the most unsatisfactory manner, with Michael Schumacher's stricken Benetton via whatever explanation coming into contact with the Williams of title rival Damon Hill, thus ending both of their races and settling the championship in the German's favour. In many ways, in comparison with the 1994 season start by the climax of the harrowing campaign the sport appeared rather more than a year older.

But less well-remembered is that, fleetingly, the season promised rather different. Roughly twenty years ago at that very campaign start, the opening round in Interlagos in Brazil, it appeared that just maybe 1994 was instead to be the scene of the sport's renaissance, however laughable that concept seems to hindsight.

Ayrton Senna was expected to dominate the year
Credit: Instituto Ayrton Senna / CC
It appeared so unexpectedly too, as in advance not many looked forward to the season with a great deal of relish. For one thing the world championship looked bought and paid for before anyone had turned a wheel. The Williams cars had been insultingly dominant for the previous two years and now for 1994 it had triangulated much of the opposition that remained by seizing as its own its main, perhaps its only, irritant in this time. Ayrton Senna despite battling against much superior Williams machinery throughout 1992 and 1993 had won eight races (one in four) in that time somehow, and a few of these drives were of sufficient quality so to go into folklore. Now for 1994 Williams had Senna signed up all for itself and the logic seemed irrefutable: best driver, best car, best engine should equal sweeping all before them. Most foresaw a year of demonstration runs.

Monday, 17 February 2014

The latest GPFocus podcast has landed...

Photo: Octane Photography
The latest GPFocus podcast is here for your listening pleasure. I and my GPFocus friends look forward to the forthcoming pre-season test in Bahrain and in particular the unlikely travails of Red Bull. we also discuss other F1 matters of moment, such as Eric Boullier's move to McLaren, potential new sponsors for F1 (well, one sponsor in particular) as well as the most recent thoughts of a certain Jacques Villeneuve...

You can listen via the link blow. Enjoy:

GPFocus #115: Pre-Season Part 2

And a little reminder that an archive more than two years' worth of GPFocus podcasts that I have appeared on can be accessed via the 'Podcasts' tab above.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

The plot thickens: What we learned in Jerez

We know. We're constantly reminded. But we never learn.

Yes, F1 and pre-season testing. We have no excuse to not be at one with all of the usual disclaimers regarding interpreting it and its lap times. We don't know the respective programmes, fuel loads, state of the tyres and the like, all of which can skew a car's behaviour as well as what the stopwatch shows by several seconds and make who's actually looking good and who's not a particular riddle. And this is at the best of times: add in that in this the 2014 variety there's reason to think that such interpretation is significantly more complex even than is ordinarily so.

The F1 fraternity gathered in Jerez
Photo: Octane Photography
This time there's an added expanse of obfuscation provided by the fact that between seasons we've had perhaps the most significant simultaneous shift of engine and chassis regulations that the sport has ever faced. As a consequence everyone returns to base camp; previous years' pecking orders therefore count for not much. There may also be more scope for variation in the testing programmes as teams explore the new and uncharted landscape. And you can add to the disclaimers of the previous paragraph that now too there's a proscribed 100kg per hour fuel flow limit in the book of regs, a limit which might not necessarily be heeded in testing. This time more than most, you might be better served seeking to predict the world championship outcome by reading tea leaves than by poring over a pre-season test.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

New F1 Times article: Binning the noses – not as unthinkable as you may think

Photo: Octane Photography
My latest article for The F1 Times is now available for your reading pleasure.

I focus on the, shall we say, interesting noses we've seen on the unveiled 2014 F1 machines, and I therefore ask the perhaps unthinkable question: at what point do we require the teams to put these noses in the bin and re-write the rules for this season before the opening round at Melbourne, so that the noses become sensible again? And is it possible? History suggests it just might be.

You can read my article at this link: