Sunday 30 March 2014

Malaysian GP Report: Petronas Tower

Today was a day for clarity. The rain stayed away, and thus we got a clear steer of who in F1's vastly changed landscape this year has got it right, and who less so. Given this the Malaysian Grand Prix felt a lot like a portent: the Mercedes was markedly the quickest machine out there, as expected. But of the two Lewis Hamilton was emphatically the one on top, which was less commonly expected. Certainly not to today's extent.

It was one of those days wherein one guy had the legs of everyone else, and eveyone knew it. Within a couple of corners pole man Lewis had metres on the rest, who were led by his team mate Nico Rosberg. At the end of the first tour he was already two seconds down the road. And in the following laps it went up 3.2, 3.9, 4.3... Already this was all over barring reliability.

No one got near to Lewis Hamilton today
Photo: Octane Photography
Given the team's partnership with Petronas, in an appropriate place it was a towering performance.
By the end Lewis completed his rout of Rosberg and of the rest with his second-placed stable mate some 17.3 seconds away, and did so seemingly with much in hand (the graphics on the TV feed indicated that he had plenty of fuel aboard for the most part). And as a coup de grace he set the fastest lap of a 1m 43.0 with three tours left, either out of boredom or to underline his superiority. Whatever was the motivation, we got the message.

And for all that he put a brave face on it, none would have got it more loud and clear than Nico Rosberg. Following a 2013 wherein there wasn't much to chose all-in between the two Merc pilots, and a set of new regulations for this campaign anticipated to suit his cerebral approach, as well as with a quick set of wheels, he and his fans had much to look forward to. Now - after our first direct face-off of the season - a few expectations are being furiously recalculated. 'He was a bit too quick today' said Nico afterwards economically of the guy across the garage. Things may well change but it was one heck of an opening salvo from Lewis.

Saturday 29 March 2014

Sepang Qualifying: Just like last time

I often wonder if the F1 Gods have a rather wicked sense of humour. Certainly they often give this outward impression.

Prior to the season start with the new regulations there were a few rather hushed and awed comments doing the rounds to the effect of 'just wait until they're driving these cars in the wet', what with the vastly increased torque and reduced grip. Well, as of today you can make it two qualifying sessions in the new formula, and two in which the rain came down.

And today it really came down. Someone in advance of the Sepang qualifying hour said the chance of the elements disrupting things was 45%, but as water started to descend at full force 45 minutes out of the nominal session start time and refused to stop the chance looked 100%. Generously. The green flag was delayed as a result by close to an hour, and after it did fall the track was wet to varying degrees throughout as the rain still had a few more stabs left in it.

In another wet qualifying session, Lewis Hamilton
 made it two poles from two
Photo: Octane Photography
And with (fairly) similar conditions to those of the previous qualifying session in Melbourne we got a fairly similar outcome: once again the Mercedes looked hard to stop even when faced with precipitation (perhaps right now only half a metre of snow would send its cars down the order). But just like then one thing the elements did do was hoist the fine-handling but probably underpowered Red Bull right up to the sharp end.

Just like then it was Lewis Hamilton who got the job done when it really mattered, and Nico Rosberg who'd looked close throughout fading slightly at the vital moment of Q3. Just like then Lewis seized pole position, while Rosberg was left a little adrift to only be able to line up directly behind in third place.

Friday 28 March 2014

Malaysian GP 2014 Betting Preview by Andy Morgan

The new-age F1 treads further into the unknown this weekend as the hot and humid Sepang Circuit awaits, providing a vigorous challenge for all the teams and drivers concerned. Yet a major slice of 2013 will take the limelight as high degrading tyres sit at the forefront of thoughts after FP1 and FP2.

Lewis Hamilton topped FP1 and Nico Rosberg followed that up in FP2, yet the difference in times tells the real story as Ferrari and Red Bull have seemingly dragged back Mercedes after their dominance in Melbourne. Mercedes has complained about the life of the medium tyre in the long runs and last year's persistent problems on the tyres looks set to reappear this weekend as the scorching Malaysian temperatures light up the track.

Will Mercedes be on top again? And if so, which one?
Photo: octane Photography
So where does that leave Mercedes? Its cars seem to have more in hand over its rivals, particularly in a qualifying set up. The eight tenths of a second advantage quoted by Christian Horner for Mercedes engines on the long straights will be a major advantage in overtaking struggling cars on used tyres. This is likely to be Red Bull and Ferrari who may attempt longer stints in order to leapfrog Mercedes with fewer pit stops.

Red Bull has been dominant in Sepang recently with Vettel winning three out of last four and Red Bull earning an infamous 1-2 in 2013. Multi-21 t-shirts should be visible in the grandstands throughout the weekend, although Red Bull would love to be in a similar position and have to relay the same message this weekend. Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button make up the previous winners in the last five seasons.

Monday 24 March 2014

Sepang Preview: Sign of the times

If anyone was ever to write a definitive history of the F1 venue then the Sepang International Circuit, host of the Malaysian Grand Prix for the sixteenth time this weekend, would have to play a significant part in the story. In a certain sense it would be more important than any other.

No, really. Stop laughing at the back. Yes, I know it's perhaps not one of the rounds on the calendar that necessarily quickens the heartbeat like Spa or Suzuka; it doesn't attract a mass crowd like Silverstone or Monza. To be brutal, if the Malaysian Grand Prix didn't exist there wouldn't likely be much of a pressing need to invent it (unless you just so happen to be CVC's bank manager).

The distinctive architecture of the Sepang venue
Credit: Eriang87/ CC
But it is so because Sepang was the very first of the purpose-built, no expense spared, constructed from nothing, Hermann Tilke-designed facilities that so dominate the calendar these days. And when everyone pitched up there for the first time in 1999 they could sense the forward stride in standards from what had gone before that it represented; Bernie not for nothing called it 'the best circuit in the world'. Its template has been used repeatedly in just about every new venue on the F1 itinerary since.

That template by now will be familiar to you: impressive and decorative grandstand and paddock architecture; long straights book-ended by tight corners intended to provide overtaking opportunities; and a fast esses section. All are present at Sepang. And as Tilke-dromes go its layout remains one of the best, arguably only usurped by Austin in the years since. The Sepang circuit is flowing and challenging, with a wide variety of fast, medium and slow corners.

Sunday 23 March 2014

New F1 Times article: The times they are a-changin' – F1's noise debate

Unless you've been living in seclusion ever since the Australian Grand Prix, you'll be aware that most of us it seems have had their say on F1's noise debate in recent days.

For F1 Times, I've outlined my views on the matter. I look at what may explain the division and why I think we have little to fear fro the new-spec F1.

Please pop over and have a read by clicking on this link:

New article: Pastor's predicament

Photo: Octane Photography
You may be aware that as well as writing for this site I also am a regular contributor to Indeed, I attended a couple of Grands Prix last season with media accreditation on behalf of the site.

I've just written an article on Pastor Maldonado and the predicament he's found himself in having forcibly removed himself from Williams for a Lotus drive for 2014. I explain that Maldonado isn't the first (nor will he be the last) to make a career move that looks bad in hindsight, as well as why things may yet turn in his favour.

If you'd like a read, here's the link:

And there's plenty more going on at that may be of interest: lots of articles by other F1 writers and fans, merchandise, news and more. Do check the site out out if you can.

Thursday 20 March 2014

No slackening from Seb

Let me take you back ten years almost to the day, to the 2004 Australian Grand Prix, then as now at the Albert Park circuit; then as now the scene of the opening round of the F1 season.

It was a race that on the face of it didn't have much to distinguish it. Michael Schumacher in his Ferrari helped himself to a dominant win from pole, as he seemed to most times in that era; leading every lap and it never looking remotely like anyone could touch him. Yet it's one of the races that most readily springs to my mind when I reminisce about Schumi's totemic modus operandi.

Despite a difficult weekend, Sebastian Vettel underlined
that he's not letting up in 2014
Photo: Octane Photography
Why? Well after taking the chequered flag he guided his victorious machine into parc ferme and celebrated joyfully with his team. So far, so normal. But then as he turned into the paddock building in order to to climb the stairs to the podium he - apparently unaware that a TV camera was on him - had a clenched fists celebration to himself. This remember was in response to no fewer than his 71st Grand Prix win - a scarcely credible number - as well as that he by this point had a record six world championships next to his name. Yet his reaction of spontaneous joy resembled that of one who'd never won a race in any category before, let alone had enjoyed his habitual success at the sport's pinnacle. And it captures possibly the most remarkable of the many remarkable facets of Schumi, that no matter what he won (and he won plenty) his desperation to win never seemed to diminish even by decimal points.

The GPFocus Australian Grand Prix review podcast is here...

The latest GPFocus podcast has landed for your listening pleasure. A high-quality panel of Ewan Marshall, Louis Suddaby, Luke Smith and I review the opening round of the 2014 season in Melbourne.

We discuss, among other things:
  • our first experience of the new-era F1;
  • which teams and drivers can be pleased with their debuts and which less so; as well as
  • the infamous disqualification of Daniel Ricciardo.

You can listen by clicking below:

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.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

The kids are alright

Recent times haven't been good times for the F1 rookie. Testing has been severely restricted in an attempt to curb the sport's spiralling costs, but an untended consequence of it all was that it made it much harder for the debutant to get up to speed. Unlike generations past, they could not circulate in the latest car pretty much to their heart's content (or rather, to their team's budget's content) until their act was sharpened up prior to their freshman race weekend. It meant often that their first half season or so at the sport's pinnacle was something for them to endure, and unfortunately such is F1's way many made their minds up about them - and negatively - in the meantime.

That continued to be the way for the most part, until last Sunday. In the Australian Grand Prix it can be said that the rookie struck back.

Kevin Magnussen - impressive in Melbourne
Photo: Octane Photography
Kevin Magnussen, making his F1 bow, proved to be the star of the show. He set the McLaren pace, and smoothly and rapidly circulated to a third place finish (which became second after Ricciardo's disqualification), all the while in the car and out giving the impression that it was all the most natural thing in the world to him. Rob Wilson - not one given to hyperbole - said that Magnussen's assurance was reminiscent of a young Jackie Stewart.

While further back Daniil Kvyat - a man whose accelerated promotion to the Toro Rosso drive elicited some cynicism - impressed too on his way to becoming the sport's youngest ever points scorer; on the way keeping his team mate Jean-Eric Vergne more than honest in a wet qualifying session wherein Vergne usually excels as well as throughout the race. Like Magnussen his mental strength and maturity belied his youth.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Kimi's quandary - thoughts on round one of Alonso vs. Raikkonen

Much is new about F1 in 2014. But of all of the novelties anticipated one perhaps brought more expectancy than all others: Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen; two titans finally getting to clash directly in one of those rare 'two roosters in the same hen-house' scenarios, and doing so in possibly the most unforgiving hen-house there is, at Ferrari.

And in Melbourne it was an emphatic strike one to Alonso; all weekend it seemed the gap gaped in his favour. From the very start of Friday practice it tended to amount to several tenths of a second per lap consistently. The rain of qualifying didn't help Kimi much either, indeed it appeared to hinder as his best was a full 1.6 seconds shy of Alonso's in the same session.

Kimi Raikkonen's second Ferrari debut was a difficult one
Photo: Octane Photography
Further, throughout the weekend you probably could have gauged as much even without the aid of a stop watch. What Murray Walker used to call the 'body language' of Kimi's F14 T rarely looked right: all locked brakes, hesitant and wayward turn-ins, wide and sometimes off track excursions including ending the afore-mentioned qualifying session in the wall (and admitting later that he was on an in-lap when it happened and was 'playing around with switches or something').

In the race Kimi got closer, and was indeed unlucky to lose a couple of places in the safety car period due to having to 'queue' in the pits, but even so come the end he was more than twenty seconds adrift of his similarly-equipped team mate, and displayed some of the outlandish moments of earlier in the weekend still.

Monday 17 March 2014

Problem solving

Of course, Daniel Ricciardo's disqualification from the Australian Grand Prix was a matter of considerable regret. And as a by-product it served to re-open the whole debate around possibly the one aspect of F1 that causes the most wrangling and self-disgust; perhaps most perplexes the uninitiated. That in this game we can have the event and in so doing establish the result apparently, only for it to be changed later by the stroke of an official's pen.

The Guardian's Paul Weaver for one railed on that very matter: 'Picking a winner from a heavyweight contest between silks is a hazardous business; identifying the loser is as easy as waving a chequered flag. It is the F1 fan...' he said. While the local paper in Melbourne the Herald Sun was more jarring in response to it all: displaying a large banner headline across its front page reading: 'Grand Farce'. Social media was laden with similar sentiment.

Despite all appearances, it turned out that
Daniel Ricciardo didn't finish second
 in the Australia Grand Prix after all
Photo: Octane Photography
But while we can cite this as a problem rather easily, and get embarrassed when it happens, is framing a solution to it all anything like as straightforward? No, is the short answer.

The time aspect can be criticised of course: quite why it took upwards of five hours to confirm what seemed a fairly clear decision regarding a breach that the stewards knew about during the race isn't obvious (the most probable explanation was Red Bull arguing). But beyond that what can be done?

At the most fundamental level F1 must have rules (as any sport must), the rule book must be enforced and breaches must have their consequences. To not have these would amount to anarchy. And F1 unlike a lot of sports has regulations both sporting and technical, adding a layer of (often considerable) complexity.

Sunday 16 March 2014

What's Red Bull up to? Thoughts on Daniel Ricciardo's disqualification

Some years ago I bought a copy of one of those make yourself more effective-type self-help books in a bargain book shop (yes, a self-help book. Don't judge me). It was structured as a series of 'rules' which were to be adhered to in order to make success in work and life more likely. And in the author's view the most important rule therein, the one that gave the book its title indeed, was 'You can't win a fight with your boss'.

In other words, no matter your sense of injustice, no matter how convinced you are of the merits of your case, from getting into conflict with certain people - people in authority - you just will never win. So don't try. However bitter the taste, it's best for you to suck it up.

Christian Horner - at the centre of controversy
Photo: Octane Photography
And this applies just as much in the strange world of F1, and to the teams whose bosses are in effect the dual monarchy of the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone. Both must be treated with caution, and you must not challenge either of them (at the very least without the backing of the other). If you do it won't end well. Unfair? Of course. But these are the house rules, they set them and no one made you live here.

But on this basis in the Australian Grand Prix the sport's champion constructor chose not to comply with this possibly fundamental, if unwritten, 'rule'.

Australian GP Report: New dawn

In recent weeks and months we've all had our say on the 2014-spec Formula One. Consensus has been hard to find, but one aspect wherein there has been close to unanimity was that a lot would vary from what had gone before. New chassis, new engines (check that, power units - even the name is new), new regulations - especially on fuel restrictions - that threatened to usher in a form F1 racing not as we have known it, new drivers, plenty of new combinations. In short, for the Australian Grand Prix today much was new. And broadly it turned out to be refreshingly so.

Nico Rosberg took an imperious win
Photo: Octane Photography
Change isn't necessarily good of course, and plenty aired trepidation in advance. One swallow doesn't make a summer either, and with any new formula we should wait a few races for matters to settle before we draw firm conclusions. But today in our first demonstration of it all at the very least most of the predictions at the doom-mongering end of the spectrum didn't come to pass. Fifteen cars were still circulating at the end; 14 classified; only five stopped due to technical woes. The race wasn't to outward eyes a conspicuous fuel economy run - it was helped by a safety car and an added formation lap, but this race is in the top three on the calendar for fuel thirstiness. Once again, the almost superhuman ability of the sport's fraternity to overcome grand challenge and do so in an implausible timescale was on show.

Saturday 15 March 2014

Melbourne Qualifying: Rain clouds have a silver lining

We all know the one about pre-season testing and being cautious in interpreting it. And with good reason, due to a variety of factors. But nevertheless by the time it's over the jungle drums emerging from the F1 fraternity give us some idea of what's really going on, and despite its image actually is right more often than not. One beat that emerged louder and more persistent than any other from testing was that the Mercedes cars were well on top. And indeed more than anything that was the story of the year's first qualifying session. Not even the Melbourne weather doing its worst during the session and dumping rain from partway through did much to alter this outcome.

Lewis Hamilton snatched pole at the last
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
And of the two Merc pilots it was strike one to Lewis Hamilton, looking confident in and out of the car finally armed with a machine that goes like him - as well as having the benefit of crossing the line just before the clock reached zero, exactly want you want when the track is drying - he put his flair and bravery into time-honoured practice by snatching pole, more than three tenths under Nico Rosberg's mark. For Nico himself, an earlier off meant he wasn't able to similarly benefit from such fine timing and he will start third instead.

'We didn't get it quite right...third is OK, it could have been better...' said the man himself, appropriately. Lewis described his effort as 'very tough'. It didn't look that way however.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Melbourne Preview: Unknown pleasures

Could it be the case that no round in F1's history has represented as much of a step into the unknown as this weekend's 2014 Australian Grand Prix? Most probably.

Opening rounds of the season come armed with enough unknowns at the best of times: everyone starts from zero, there are new cars on show and testing only gives us a cryptic picture of which are working better than others. We've had rule changes before too of course, sometimes fundamental ones. But has any previous set of rule revisions between two seasons been so extensive? We've had big chassis changes on occasion; on other occasions big engine changes. But this time in unison the chassis and, particularly, the engines have altered radically. For the latter the capacity is reduced from 2.4 litres to 1.6, turbos are back, energy recovery is greatly increased, and on top of these we have a fuel, as well as a fuel flow, limit. As if to underline the distinction even the engines are no longer called engines - get used to the age of the power unit

The sun shone on Mercedes in pre-season testing
Photo: Octane Photography
If this wasn't challenging enough this highly complex and still largely new technology has been thrown wholesale at the teams in one go. Unlike, say, the banning of the turbo in the 1980s, or the race-day fuel restriction of a few years earlier, there's been no incremental introduction. And they've also only been given 12 days of pre-season testing running to eliminate the glitches (Adrian Newey pointed out that even the most complex hybrid road car has several years' worth to do the same).

What we've been able to decipher from testing is that the order of before has indeed been shuffled: a consequence of the new rules is that engines are now a differentiator, and the Mercedes power unit looks to be the best of the bunch in power, fuel economy and reliability. It also has had a rising-tide-lists-all-boats effect on all four of the teams that use it. But even of the Merc runners the works team looks a cut above in its pace and preparation - the smart money for a Melbourne triumph is on one of the Silver Arrows.

The GPFocus Australian Grand Prix preview podcast is here

Photo: Octane Photogrpahy
The latest GPFocus podcast is here for your listening pleasure. This time me and my friends Ewan Marshall and Louis Suddaby look ahead to this weekend's Australian Grand Prix, and its accompanying leap into the unknown of the new spec Formula One. We discuss the teams and drivers up and down the grid, and what we can expect.

You can listen via the link blow. Enjoy:

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.

Monday 10 March 2014

F1 2014 Season Preview: Caterham - The tortoise and the hare?

March. Team Haas. BAR. F1 teams big on hubris but less big on results ain't a new thing. And the modern age until recently had its very own contender: ladies and gentlemen I give you Caterham.

Photo: Octane Photography
The front worked for a while: the team being rather popular among the media and more widely in its early days, but in this game a lack of results cannot be denied for long, and the point that the outfit's charm wore off passed a good while ago. Caterham these days is rather akin to a joke that isn't funny anymore.

Last season in year four of its F1 existence the team seemed no closer to its long-awaited joining of the midfield or scoring of points - in terms of lap times it was as far from the standard as ever. And worse, the squad wasn't even able to cling to its bare minimum achievement of tenth place in the constructors' table which it lost to Marussia (and indeed had only salvaged at the very last in 2012 thanks to Vitaly Petrov passing Charles Pic in the final laps of the final round to claim P11 in the Brazilian Grand Prix). At the very least though under Cyril Abiteboul's leadership starting last year the bombast was toned down; the aims got more modest and realistic (and Abiteboul was explicit that over-promising had been a significant impediment for the outfit previously).

Sunday 9 March 2014

F1 2014 Season Preview: Marussia - Making the leap?

It says something that Marussia and Caterham are still sometimes referred to as the 'new' teams in F1. We are in fact about to start year five of their F1 existences, and the lingering perceptions of their newness is likely related to their being unfulfilled. Four full seasons down the line and the questions still swirl: when will they score their first point? When will they get on the pace of the midfield pack?

Photo: Octane Photography
The sneering that they face is rather unfair though. After all, both entered the sport promised a swingeing budget cap and technical freedom as a consequence, which subsequently were reneged on. And in F1 more than in most things you get what you pay for, and Marussia's budget continues to be around a third of the level of those further ahead. And what would we rather have, that the team spends money it doesn't have and thus encounters problems à la Lotus?

Yet even with these considerations there is evidence that Marussia might be poised to answer at least one of the questions outlined in the opening paragraph. Perhaps both.

F1 2014 Season Preview: Williams - Up where they belong

And to think that pre-season testing this year was supposed to be cryptic. Plenty of stories have come out of it: Mercedes's strides; Ferrari's operating beneath the radar; Red Bull's woe. But ranking with any or all of these is that Williams appears to be back. Right back among the leaders. A place it knows well.

Photo: Octane Photography
Yes, we've said this sort of thing at the outset of a few recent seasons; cynics might say that it's an annual event. Indeed you just have to rewind 12 months to find all in the team gushing about the grand potential of the new FW35, potential that evaporated when it came into contact with air at Melbourne for round one. The likes of Adam Parr, Toto Wolff, Mark Gillan and Mike Coughlan were supposed to herald the team's long-awaited up turn. All have since left, for varying reasons. And despite the odd false dawn, most notably Pastor Maldonado's victory in Barcelona in 2012, last year, with just five points claimed and sitting a long way off the back of the midfield pack, it seemed that the giant was no nearer awaking from its slumber that stretches all the way back to 2004. But, really, this time it seems to be different. Everything seems to be in place.

Saturday 8 March 2014

F1 2014 Season Preview: Toro Rosso - Hard to read

Toro Rosso has never been any ordinary F1 team. Aside from the bit we all know - that it's the Red Bull B squad - or perhaps even because of it in part, it's always been one hard to read. And for a few reasons at the outset of the 2014 campaign the Faenza squad seems a bit harder to read even than usual.

Photo: Octane Photography
Part of the confusion arises possibly from that Toro Rosso still seems a team in transition, of becoming one with its own aero programme rather than one, as it did up to and including 2008, that benefits from Red Bull big team hand-me-downs. The transition hasn't been a quick or easy one, indeed Giorgio Ascanelli - leading an aero programme not reckoned to be his forte - fell on his sword in 2012 and was replaced as Technical Director by the highly rated James Key. And Key appears still to be seeking to make sense of it all: beefing up the technical staff, overseeing investment in the facilities as well as doing his best to integrate the team's two bases in Bicester and Faenza. But by admission last year was a holding season while all of this was going on. The team did rise a place in the constructors' table, but that in truth owed mainly to Williams' woes - Toro Rosso didn't in the broadest sense move forward to any great extent. Adding to the confusion the 2013 car seemed an inconsistent one: sometimes qualifying well inside the top 10, other times struggling to scrape out of Q1.

Friday 7 March 2014

F1 2014 Season Preview: Sauber - Swiss Stoicism

Saying 'Sauber' in a word association test with an F1 fan would likely elicit responses in the following areas: midfielders, solid, stoic, dependable, upstanding, non-contentious, somehow perennial. A rock in the middle of the F1 whirlpool. Nothing wrong with that, indeed the sport needs its sort. And somehow after several years as a fully paid up member of the piranha club its founder and former Team Principal Peter Sauber, probably uniquely, is virtually without an enemy in the paddock. Even the name is appropriate - Sauber means 'clean' in German.

Photo: Octane Photography
There has been the odd variation from this norm: such as plucking Kimi Raikkonen from Formula Renault to give him his F1 debut in 2001, as well as the C31 of 2012 that on occasion could sail through the field like the rest were parked. But they've been the exception. However last year too Sauber threatened to vary from character, and this time not in a good way. The team that had for as long as anyone could remember been highly fastidious got behind on its supplier payments, as well as in the retainer of its star pilot Nico Hulkenberg reportedly. This devastated Peter Sauber, a man who had dipped into his own pocket in order to save the team and its 400 jobs in 2009; a man who had always prided himself on running a steady ship; in doing things the right way. Sauber it seems was just the latest team to suffer from a sport that struggles to attract sponsors and has a financial model that concentrates wealth well away from those who are not among the few at the top. And if even Sauber can be bitten by it...

Wednesday 5 March 2014

F1 2014 Season Preview: Force India - Indian Summer

Never judge a book by its cover. And in the same spirit never judge an F1 season by the top level outcome. Force India last year on the face of it re-asserted itself as the clear best of the midfield bunch, in so doing equaling its best ever constructors' table finish of sixth. Yet the feeling emanating from the Silverstone camp at the end of it all was one of lingering regret, as but for a few matters - some within its control; many not - it could have been better. The considerable scalp of McLaren's might have been its too.

Photo: Octane Photography
Why? Well as Mark Hughes noted in Autocourse, Force India's 2013 experience was that of a 'conscientious pupil who had done all of his exam preparation, only for the syllabus to be changed halfway through the exam itself'. The team in Technical Director Andy Green's words put 'a huge effort' into ensuring the car had gentle tyre usage given what was known about the delicate nature of the season's Pirelli product, and this brought its rewards in the first part of the year. After the Silverstone round Force India sat pretty in fifth in the constructors' table and did so with a clear 59-37 lead on McLaren, despite missing out on even more points via Adrian Sutil puncturing a tyre against Felipe Massa during Bahrain's lap one and both cars dropping out with wheel problems in Malaysia. But as we also know, for a few reasons after Silverstone everything changed, rendering the team's previous work on the tyres largely useless. By this time too the team had shifted a lot of resource to focussing on the radical 2014 regulation changes, and it rather confused itself in response to the here and now changes too: apparently the warm conditions at Silverstone in the young drivers' test as well as the track's unusual characteristics gave the team a bum steer about the behaviour of the revised rubber, while the squad hindered itself further with a few subsequent blind alley set up changes. A mini recovery was made in the final few races of the year but by this point McLaren was but a distant speck on the horizon.

Tuesday 4 March 2014

F1 2014 Season Preview: McLaren - Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

McLaren's ability to somehow daintily dance around championship triumphs, almost as if they were doing it consciously, is the stuff of legend. Despite being one of the sport's most prestigious and most lavishly resourced and supported outfits, winning but four titles of the last 44 available rather crudely demonstrates such a failing. But at least you used to be able to count on its cars being at the sharp end; being competitive; in the thick of the fight. That was until last season, when somehow the bone dropped clean out of the team's jaws. Even though it ended 2012 with the most competitive car out there seemingly, and there being relative rule stability, in 2013 McLaren sunk like a stone, never so much as getting a podium finish (or even coming all that close to one). This for the first time since before the McLaren International era, in 1980.

Photo: Octane Photography
And just like then there was a palace coup in response to it all, and also just like then it was a certain Ron Dennis who ended up in charge as a result. As far as Dennis and a few others were concerned the rap sheet of Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh was a lengthy one: the decision to go radical in the car's design in the last year before a major set of regulation changes, which backfired as intimated; the time taken to decide whether to stick with the MP4-28 or return to the previous, successful, machine; that having decided to stick rather than twist apparently underestimating what was required to make that car competitive; the failings of a car for which the various bits looked good in theory but never looked nearly as good together, possibly betraying disparate technical groups not interacting effectively; apparent lateness in finalising new technical recruits, which meant that they weren't able to feed into the 2014 car's fundamentals (including in the midst of it all missing out on James Allison); and an inability to attract a new title sponsor to replace Vodafone. That he sealed a Honda engine deal for 2015, while positive, got rather dwarfed. It wasn't much of a secret that Dennis has wanted to seize back the McLaren race team reigns ever since he was forcibly de-saddled in early 2009 (indeed he'd already had a few goes at it), but various events of 2013 combined to give him his opportunity finally, and he struck.

Sunday 2 March 2014

F1 2014 Season Preview: Lotus - Enstone woe

On the surface, all looked good for Lotus last season. The E21 machine was an excellent one, arguably the second best out there; some had it closer to the mighty Red Bull than top-level results suggested. The team was in the thick of the battle for second place in the constructors' table, bagged a race win as well as had a few other near misses along the way. And all this against teams much better resourced than it. Lotus had a good claim to be punching further above its weight than any other.

Photo: Octane Photography
But F1 teams are rather like icebergs, that what can be seen is but a small proportion in relation to what goes on underneath. And so it was at Team Enstone in 2013: the main problem was that the team was out of money; spending more than it was raising. A drip-drip hemorrhaging of technical staff, such as Technical Director James Allison as well as his deputy Dirk de Beer to Ferrari and Rod Nelson and David Wheater to Williams, gave the first hint at problems. Then the dam rather burst late in the year, via a very public falling out with star driver Kimi Raikkonen, the Finn owed apparently upwards of 16 million Euros in wages. The Quantum Motorsport deal, that was supposed to solve the whole matter, for months lingered apparently poised to be finalised but proved ultimately to be a mirage. And then, on the eve of the 2014 season, team principal Eric Boullier jumped ship too, gratefully accepting the rope thrown by the restructuring McLaren. It was tempting to ask that the last person out of Enstone please turn out the lights.

F1 2014 Season Preview: Ferrari - Dark horses?

Nico Rosberg summed it up. In the middle of the third and final pre-season test before everyone headed out to Melbourne for round one he reckoned he had a good handle on where his Mercedes team was on pace relative to all others. Well, all apart from one. For him, Ferrari remained a mystery. And he wasn't the only one feeling this way.

Photo: Octane Photography
Perhaps appropriately F1's most enigmatic team has been the enigma of 2014 pre-season testing, for the most part getting on with its business without drawing attention to itself; in Anthony Rowlinson's words performing 'a measured and consistent programme'.

Confusing the whole issue, with Ferrari there was none of the extremes on show at either end of the spectrum from Mercedes or from Renault/Red Bull - instead the consensus is that while neither team nor engine were experiencing anything like the woes of Red Bull or Renault, and indeed were running pretty reliably at least, they weren't reaching for the stars either.

Saturday 1 March 2014

F1 2014 Season Preview: Mercedes - Silver into gold?

Pre-season testing is cryptic enough at the best of times, as we're forever being reminded. And this year's variety has the potential to be much more cryptic still: radical rule changes render the form of previous years close to irrelevant, and will likely vary the programmes being run - and in turn the topline lap times - even more than usual.

Photo: Octane Photography
But despite this we've had something close to unanimity out of 2014's running on who's on top: the Mercedes is the best power unit of the three, and of the Mercedes-powered runners the eponymous works team is as things stand clearly poised as the team to beat.

The Mercedes team has visibly been far ahead of the rest in terms of its preparation and programme. The W05 has covered more mileage than any other car, and seeing a Mercedes circulating alone, perhaps joined only by a McLaren, was a common sight in the opening two tests. In Jerez only the Merc did a race simulation run, while uniquely in the first Bahrain test it indulged itself with a quali-type run too.