Wednesday 30 April 2014

Twenty years on - personal recollections of Ayrton Senna and Imola 1994

Some things you can't explain. Some things just are.

I watched my first ever F1 race on TV when not yet seven years old, in the British Grand Prix of 1986. And while to this day I cannot rationalise it somehow during that hour and a half the bug bit. From that point on I was an obsessive.

My recollection of the spell of childhood that followed that day was of rather standing apart from my school friends. For them it was soap operas (Neighbours, quickly buttressed by Home and Away), pop stars (Kylie and Jason, natch), football and, increasingly, computer games that took up much of their existences. While I wasn't too bad on the latter two subjects, all-in this wasn't for me.

Credit: Norio Kioke / CC
For me Formula One was the thing. My world would stop when a live race was on television, the highlights programmes would be recorded and watched repeatedly, copies of Autosport would be pored over.

I often would incite glazed expressions among friends when I asked them if they'd watched a race over a weekend. Sometimes I would impress them but more likely would take the glazed expressions yet further with my ability to recite the entirety of an F1 grid - drivers, cars and engines, the whole season's calendar, to doodle circuit layouts, as well as quote sundry other details.

But even with this as far as I was concerned there may as well have been only one guy out there - and his name was Ayrton Senna. Throughout much of my fervent following of the sport right up until the 1st of May 1994 - now almost exactly twenty years ago - I had eyes only for he.

Sunday 27 April 2014

What's up with Vettel?

Everyone else is doing it, so why can't I? Look at the matter of Sebastian Vettel I mean, and why the appearances so far in the 2014 campaign are that he is struggling. Moreover whether - despite everything - the opening four rounds of this said campaign are evidence that he's not all that after all.

After the China round last weekend wherein his team mate Daniel Ricciardo was well on top, it all went into overdrive. Kevin Eason in The Times for one wondered out loud 'whether this race had illuminated the claims to greatness of two champions', one of which was Vettel of course. Eason went on: 'Could this be the end of the Vettel era or are we too quick to underscore those doubts about the true talent of a young man who exploited a truly superior car to the full for four seasons? The argument has often been put forward that, for all the excellence of Mark Webber, Vettel has never been up against a truly gifted team-mate - a Hamilton or a Fernando Alonso.'

Sebastian Vettel - under siege in 2014
Photo: Octane Photography
And he wasn't the only one. The BBC's Andrew Benson noted similar: 'There is no arguing with the scale of Vettel's statistical achievements in the last four seasons. But there was always a question about how much was driver and how much was car.'

As you might imagine, social media and internet forums were also awash with such deliberation.

Of course the tendency to believe that you're only as good as your last game isn't one exclusive to F1. And social media, which seems to rather cater for pendulum thinking, everything being opined as an extreme, appears highly fertile territory this sort of interpretation. But in F1 the tendency appears especially strong.

Thursday 24 April 2014

Knowing what's expected of you

In the Chinese Grand Prix last weekend something stood out for me. Something rather blink-and-you-miss-it; that didn't seem to raise much comment.

Early in the race you may recall Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso circulating in tandem - Vettel second; Alonso third. Alonso pitted for the first time, seeking the undercut on Seb, and rejoined the action a little way behind the Toro Rosso of Daniil Kvyat, not yet pitted. But on fresher rubber Alonso bore down on his opponent quickly then passed the STR9 on the back straight. And when Seb pitted himself at the end of the lap he not only emerged behind Alonso but also was himself now behind Kvyat.

Daniil Kvyat - knowing his place
Photo: Octane Photography
Advantage Alonso as Seb is stuck in traffic? Well, no. In the blink of an eye, before the first turn was even half done indeed, Kvyat - who clearly has learned quickly - had smartly nipped out of the Red Bull's way and let Seb by.

It wasn't the biggest surprise of course, in that the first thing a lot of F1 followers would attribute to Toro Rosso in a word association test is that it is Red Bull's 'B' team, owned as it is by the same fizzy drinks entity.

It's also not the first time we've seen this sort of thing; China last Sunday was merely the latest. The footage of then-Toro Rosso pilot Jaime Alguersuari having strips torn off him by Red Bull bigwig Helmut Marko in Korea in 2011 due to the heinous offence of having held up Seb in a practice session (yes, a practice session) lingers unpleasantly in the memory. While since it seems the Toro Rosso pilots know exactly what is excepted of them. Even though the instances necessarily don't arise that often, when a Red Bull gets behind a Toro Rosso, even if it's in a race for position, the Toro Rosso can be expected in a response akin to Pavlov's dog to swerve out of its pursuer's path pronto. As Martin Brundle has been given to comment (presumably in reference to Alguersuari): 'the last Toro Rosso driver to get in the way of a Red Bull no longer is a Toro Rosso driver'.

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Making your points

Lewis Hamilton has won the last three Grands Prix, making it three triumphs from four rounds this campaign. Indeed, he's barely been headed in this time, and in two of these victories he's had the place to himself pretty much.

The 2014 Formula One World Championship so far has been a lot about him in other words. Yet - in an outcome that strikes as incongruous - he's not leading the drivers' table.

Lewis Hamilton, despite recent dominance, isn't yet
leading the drivers' table
Photo: Octane Photography
This can be explained mainly by that with our current system of 25 points for a win, a massive increase on the points available per race compared with any system that had gone before in F1 history, that the non-finish with its resultant nil points is really punished. Lewis of course had one of these in the year-opener at Melbourne, and his stable mate Nico Rosberg cleaned up in his absence. Lewis has spent the time since clawing it back, but such is the Mercedes dominance that second place is the least that can reasonably be excepted from either pilot, meaning the points difference on offer per race effectively is but seven. And assuming that no one's going to be heading a Mercedes any time soon Lewis even after his triple-crown still needs yet one more win before he heads Nico in the standings. To me there seems something a bit wrong about that.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

New Vital F1 article: More to Luca Montezemolo than you might think

Photo: Octane Photography
I don't know about you, but I often get the impression that Ferrari President Luca Montezemolo doesn't get a great deal of respect from some F1 fans.

But these people may not be aware that he's got a previous at the coalface, running an F1 team on a day-to-day basis. And what's more he was very good at it.

Over at Vital F1 I tell the story of Montezemolo's highly successful time as Ferrari's team chief. You can read the article here:

Monday 21 April 2014

Lewis Hamilton - Boy II Man?

No one - or at least no one worth listening to - has ever doubted Lewis Hamilton's driving talent. Indeed, it would be hard to make the case that his instinctive skills, stunning natural speed and towering bravery are equalled by anyone in contemporary F1.

His problems - relatively speaking - in previous years were elsewhere. Not least that some wondered if his mental approach was always that helpful. Even late last year there were conspicuous examples of his 'chin dropping' (to use the football-ism), of using the media microphone as a sort of confessional; to self-flagellate.

Lewis Hamilton - plenty of smiling
this season
Photo: Octane Photography
But thus far in 2014 all that has seemed long gone. Lewis appears to have established a new-found equilibrium and ability to maintain a positive attitude in and out of the car, and I can barely think of an occasion on which he's let it slip.

It was continued in the Chinese Grand Prix weekend just past, including in his words and demeanour after his latest triumph. Paying homage to the team and making clear he's only a small part of the current results they're enjoying; as well as of the need not be be complacent and to keep pushing. He spoke of the team and his fans as a source of 'energy', of his fans as his 'angels'. He spoke with perspective about his upbringing in Stevenage; the work of those around him to get him where he is; how he'd never then have thought he'd make it as far as he had. And when Johnny Herbert on Sky asked Lewis if there has been a conscious effort to improve this part of his repertoire, to establish more positivity, Lewis agreed absolutely.

Of course, you could argue that his mental rigidity has hardly been tested this season, equipped as he is with a fine Mercedes W05 and enjoying three wins from four rounds. Perhaps when faced with more adversity the old foibles will return. But my view is that such claims reflect a bit too much determination to think the worst; I sense a genuine breakthrough in Lewis's mental approach. Even aside from the more general evidence of this, even after his car broke down in Melbourne pretty much as soon as the race started, dashing all of the anticipation of pre-season and of a fine pole position, he retained his poise in interviews afterwards, maintaining his positive and constructive disposition.

Sunday 20 April 2014

Flagging officials

The 2014 Chinese Grand Prix wasn't quite a thriller, but it had a bit a fun added after the act.

It turns out that the final two laps of proceedings didn't actually happen, despite all appearances. Instead the result was declared after 54 tours of the scheduled and completed 56.

Why? Well no it wasn't a result of us somehow suffering a collective hallucination. Instead, you may recall that on the final lap Lewis Hamilton said something on the team radio - replicated on the world TV feed - about a chequered flag. Many assumed simply that he'd mis-counted and expected the flag a lap early. But no, it wasn't Lewis that had mis-counted; he had been shown the flag a lap early.

How could such a thing happen? Especially in this age of precise computerised timing? Turns out - to borrow the catchphrase of a notorious UK newspaper columnist - you couldn't make it up. Sky has reported that 'It's understood that the mistake happened when the clerk of the course unfurled the flag to test it.' Oh dear.

Kamui Kobayashi - the one to miss out
Photo: Octane Photography
And as it turned out the effect of this was doubled, as under Article 43.2 of F1's sporting regulations: 'Should for any reason the end-of-race signal be given before the leading car completes the scheduled number of laps, or the prescribed time has been completed, the race will be deemed to have finished when the leading car last crossed the line before the signal was given.' So, results have been taken from the lap before the clerk of the course committed the goof up.

All can thank their lucky stars that there wasn't more of a consequence from this; imagine if Daniel Ricciardo had indeed passed Fernando Alonso on the last lap, or if Lewis Hamilton had broken down...

Chinese GP Report: Lewis wins a race of one

Driving an F1 car can never be said to be easy. Even more acutely, winning a Formula One Grand Prix can never be said to be easy. But Lewis Hamilton today may have got about as close as you'll ever likely get to either.

From the get-go it was a race of one; even as he led into the opening turn Lewis's ultimate victory of the Chinese Grand Prix never looked in any doubt, reliability aside. And Lewis knew as much, admitting afterwards that he 'was racing himself'. Only he could have beaten himself. And he didn't. His only minor foot wrong was running off the track at the end of his first stint when in the outer reaches of his tyre life, but beyond that it's hard to pinpoint reasonably what else could have been asked of him.

Lewis Hamilton triumphed once again
Photo: Octane Photography
'I can't believe how amazing the car is...the results we're getting is a true reflection of all the hard work (of the team)' said a contented Lewis on the podium.

While whatever concerns he had in advance about the car's handling from Friday running (though he still topped the times), plus the nagging concern that there was no dry running on Saturday wherein he could test out the overnight changes, melted away in no time.

'After P2 (Friday practice) I had to make a lot of changes in anticipation for today even though yesterday was wet, but it worked perfectly...'

Saturday 19 April 2014

Shanghai Qualifying: Continuing the themes

Shanghai is a city evolving at a supersonic rate. To the point that when the F1 fraternity pitches up each year it finds there an awful lot that is almost beyond recognition compared with what was 12 months previously. But today's qualifying session at the Shanghai International Circuit wasn't in keeping with the city just down the road. There wasn't a lot that was new; instead it seemed a continuation of various themes already familiar in the fledgling 2014 campaign.

Lewis Hamilton - on top again in the wet conditions
Photo: Octane Photography
For the third qualifying session from four in 2014 rain fell, pretty much for the duration. But just like before it didn't make much difference to the outcome, not for Lewis Hamilton anyway. Three times the rain has fallen when it matters on a Saturday; three times Lewis has claimed pole position, leaving all others far behind.

This was the pattern of the whole of China's quali hour - and further repeating the pattern of before Lewis had clear pace in hand on everyone, which extends in the wet, where his almost freakish bravery, commitment and car control can be put to best use. And sure enough come the end of today's session he had a positively mammoth six tenths of a second on the rest.

Friday 18 April 2014

Chinese GP Betting Preview - Can Lewis throw a knockout blow in round 4? By Andy Morgan

An exhilarating encounter in Bahrain showcased one of the best inter-team battles in recent memory. Now it is time for the 11th Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit to flourish and host round 4 of the 2014 F1 season, fast becoming a memorable fight between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

Two successive 1-2s and maximum points for Mercedes has consolidated the strong advantage Lewis and Nico are currently enjoying. It would be a major shock to see any of the chasing pack significantly push them this weekend, particularly as the lengthy straights emulate Bahrain and suit the power-packed Mercedes engine.

Will Lewis be in the picture again in Shanghai?
Photo: Octane Photography
Lewis Hamilton in China will be targeting three consecutive wins, a feat never achieved by the 2008 World Champion in his Formula 1 career. Yet the exciting display at Bahrain proved to the world that Lewis will not be strolling away with world title number two. Only a majestic defense drive kept Nico and his fresher, softer tyres at bay.

Lewis admitted that Nico was the quicker man in Bahrain, confirmed by the German's pumped up, steely manner on the podium. Nico is likely to carry that intensity and determination into the weekend, looking to avenge the previous two defeats to his former karting teammate.

Thursday 17 April 2014

Race Week London and Prince's Trust F1 memorabilia auctions

If you're planning on attending the British Grand Prix this year or else are likely to be in the vicinity of London in early July, then you may be interested in Race Week London. It takes place on Thursday 3rd July, three days before the British Grand Prix, at the Royal Artillery Gardens in the City of London.

The event is a six acre festival of motor sport which includes among other things:
  • live Formula One car demonstrations;
  • a concourse of 50 F1 cars from over the last 50 years for fans to peruse - Ayrton Senna's 1984 Toleman and Michael Schumacher's 1994 Benetton will be among those on display;
  • a motorsport forum held in conjunction with Sports Pro which produces the annual 'Black Book' Formula 1 guide;
  • live F1 simulators;
  • a Q&A and meet and greet with F1 drivers;
  • a F1 drivers' cricket match;
  • and much more. 
The team behind the event is the same which has produced the 'Grand Prix Ball' over the past four years.

Full details of the event and details of how you can buy tickets can be found on their website:

Furthermore, as part of the build-up to Race Week London in each Grand Prix weekend until the British Grand Prix there will be an online charity auction of limited edition Formula 1 memorabilia, in aid of the Prince's Trust - a Youth Charity founded in 1976 by The Prince of Wales which helps disadvantaged young people.

And the auction for this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix is live until Tuesday morning. You can check it out at

There's plenty of very interesting F1 bits and bobs to peruse, though if you want to bid for anything you'll need deeper pockets than I have...

You can also find out more, and get latest updates, on Race Week, the auctions and the Grand Prix Ball via the following links:

Race Week: @RaceWeekLondon
Grand Prix Ball: @GrandPrixBall

Race Week:
Grand Prix Ball:

Grand Prix Ball:

Wednesday 16 April 2014

New article: Age old matters

Photo: Octane Photography
Ever wondered why F1 drivers seem a bit younger than used to be the case (and are convinced it's not just you getting old yourself)?

It's something that I've noticed too. And over at in a new article I outline that modern F1 drivers get older 'quicker' than used to be so (and least as far as perceptions are concerned), as well as that the paddock employers look for youth in their charges much more than was once the case. I also explore the reasons why this is.

You can have a read by clicking on this link:

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Shanghai Preview: Things that happen for a reason

We all know that everything happens for a reason. Well, in F1 it does anyway.

China. A nation of 1.3 billion people and by common consent the coming force of the world economy. Bernard Charles Ecclestone didn't require much encouragement to get right in there.

Indeed he was in there earlier than you might think, with the country's Zhuhai circuit nominated as reserve race on the F1 calendar as early as 1998. Its facilities though never quite came up to snuff.

The architecture at the Shanghai International
 Circuit is stunning
Credit: Emily Walker / CC
But by 2004 everything was in place, with a gleaming new Herman Tilke designed facility completed for F1 to do its thing on. Reflecting the considerations of the start of the preview it was likely no coincidence that the track was cited just outside the country's economic centre of Shanghai rather than near the capital Beijing. And that year when everyone pitched up for the first ever Chinese Grand Prix its importance, and the reasons for its importance, was lost on few, as reflected by these words from Jean Todt: 'This has been a historic day for Formula 1, making its first appearance in the world's most heavily populated country which for the past few years has been experiencing a period of amazing economic growth'.

Monday 14 April 2014

A weighty issue

I'm going to say something that may surprise you. Bernie Eccelstone has been right in saying the current formula is absurd and that urgent change is required. Luca Montezemolo too.

No, really. The only problem however was that they both have been saying it for the wrong reasons. Forget the fuel limit and flow regulations, the engine noise, the apparent complexity of the new formula or (before Bahrain at least) the supposedly tepid action served up on-track. The matter really requiring urgent action is what the 2014 F1 driver apparently is required to do to keep their weight down.

Jean-Eric Vergne has admitted to being hospitalised before
the Malaysian race
Photo: Octane Photography
From an already extreme situation in previous years drivers now appear to feel obliged this season to reduce their weight even further, and - aside from no doubt making their lives highly unpleasant - to unhealthy and potentially dangerous levels.

For a good few years it's been the case that upon laying eyes on an incumbent F1 driver it strikes that there isn't an ounce of fat on them; that they seem made up of bone and not a lot else. But many of the breed in the 2014 campaign have looked even by previous comparison conspicuously gaunt and pale, redolent of one in the process of recovering from a serious illness.

Sunday 13 April 2014

New F1 Times article: Haas – too much home comfort? Thoughts on the proposed Gene Haas F1 entry

Credit: CC-BY / CC
Last Friday we had the unusual experience of F1 news that just about everyone was happy with. American NASCAR team owner Gene Haas confirmed that his application to join the F1 grid with a new team in 2015 had been successful. And indeed the FIA confirmed this itself later in the day.

For F1 Times I outlined my thoughts on the matter, and while accepting that the news is highly encouraging I also ask if there are a few causes for concern.

You can have a read by clicking on this link:

Saturday 12 April 2014

More to Ricciardo than we realised

How often do we say of F1 drivers employed in a team stuck in midfield or at the back: 'I wonder what such-and-such would do in a better car?' It's a tempting question to ask, but as often as not it's all illusory. Away from F1's headline acts the glare of scrutiny is less intense. The pressure is lower, and pressure is able to do funny things to all of us. Perhaps inconsistency and other foibles are less widely-noticed.

And the F1 teams, who as we know have much more evidence to work with than most of the rest of us do watching on, often know as much. Reflecting this too often those who do develop a good reputation in mid-pack and who get their step-up can then disappoint; one thinks of Giancarlo Fisichella, Heikki Kovalainen and others.

Daniel Ricciardo has had an even more ready
than usual smile this season
Photo: Octane Photography
But the evidence of his first three races after getting the keys to a Red Bull is that Daniel Ricciardo is one of those plucked from the midfield who is fully deserving of his step-up, and is showing every characteristic of one making good on it.

At the time it was confirmed not everyone backed Ricciardo's selection by the Red Bull A-team, in the stead of the apparently more qualified Kimi Raikkonen; indeed the odd interpretation not flattering to the Red Bull management was aired. I can say with reasonable conviction that I supported Ricciardo's promotion more readily than a lot of people did, but even I have been surprised, albeit pleasantly, by how he's done since getting his big break; both in the quality and extent of his repertoire as well as in the speed with which he's put it all to good use.

Thursday 10 April 2014

Fears for Ferrari

All in, it's hard to see how last Sunday could have gone worse for Ferrari.

Much of the Scuderia's royalty was in attendance for the Bahrain Grand Prix; Luca Montezemolo, Piero Lardi Ferrari, Claudio Lombardi, in a region that is a highly important market for the organisation's road cars. An F1 race has its uses as a shop window.

Another year has started disappointingly for Ferrari,
and things could be getting critical
Photo: Octane Photography
And in Montezemolo's case he was there also so that he could don his political hat, to circulate the place conspicuously and state his view to anyone that would listen that the new spec F1 was potentially cataclysmic to the sport's health and that urgent change was required. A reminder that Ferrari remains as willing as ever to take a holistic approach to getting results; fighting its battles both off-track and on (for all that he protested otherwise Montezemolo wouldn't have argued for change unless he thought it would benefit his team's competitiveness).

The problem was what happened where it really matters. Out on the circuit. There, the Ferraris were simply brick slow. And the problem moreover was where they were brick slow, rather unusually for the red cars it was on the straights that they were losing out; time after time it seemed the Mercedes powered machines took metres out of them in the extended sections wherein the loud pedal could be deployed on full noise. The Sakhir layout could have been designed to show such a problem up mercilessly, and it did.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Everything is connected to everything else for Mercedes

It had been hinted at since the point that the new cars first turned a wheel in Jerez testing in January. Indeed it had been hinted at since long before even that. And it - and its extent - was confirmed in the Bahrain race.

The Mercedes team is miles ahead of the rest. Of course, after three poles and three wins from three rounds so far this year this isn't much of a revelation; but perhaps just how much the silver cars have on their opponents as revealed last time out still had the capacity to surprise. After the safety car peeled back in giving us ten or so laps of racing to the flag in Sakhir the Mercs routinely lapped upwards of two seconds a lap quicker than anyone else including their closest (a relative term) pursuers. And in the final shake out the best lap from any other car, that of Nico Hulkenberg, was in the region of 1.7 seconds over that of either Silver Arrow. Perhaps, given that the Mercs were on fresh tyres in that final sprint and many of those behind weren't (only Valtteri Bottas and the two Ferraris among the pack next up behind the Mercs were similarly booted), the gap was a bit exaggerated. But few doubt that the representative time that the silver cars have in hand is well north of a second a lap.

Some of the secrets of Mercedes's success are
starting to be understood
Photo: Octane Photography
We often talk about the ability that radical rule changes have to jumble the order, and indeed it's proved so this time too. But another common result of such rule changes is, initially at least, that by good engineering or good luck one team can get it right immediately and leave the rest a long way behind. That's definitely proved to be so this time.

Similar has been seen before. Back in 1998, the season of possibly the biggest recent rule departure from the previous aside from the one we've just experienced, things were even more acute. McLaren turned up at the start of that year with a car so superior to the others that it was almost insulting. The two Woking cars lapped the field comfortably in the opening round, while for the most part giving the outward impression of circulating at half throttle. In round two things weren't quite as acute; the first non-McLaren was a mere minute behind the winner...

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Missing the flipping point on Pastor

Regular readers of this blog (hello to both of you) may be aware by now that I'm bit of a regular defender of Pastor Maldonado. Or at least more of a regular defender than most.

It's a task that isn't always an easy one as you can imagine, particularly as false dawns are plentiful. Pastor it seems has an uncanny ability, just at the point you feel that you can venture cautiously that he's learning his lessons thus allowing him to make good on his undoubted pace, to do something that ranks alongside his most egregious antics of before, and which sends everyone's view of him back immediately to base camp.

Pastor Maldonado was in the wars
yet again in Bahrain
Photo: Octane Photography
And - as we all know - so it was in the Bahrain race. Not long before that incident I recall looking at the live timing and noticing that Maldonado had got his recalcitrant Lotus E22 up to P9, and thinking that he must have done one heck on a job to get the car up there.

But before anyone could commend him it was all spoiled; he pitted, and then upon emerging managed to spear into the side of Esteban Gutierrez's Sauber at turn one, sending his opponent cartwheeling (literally) out of the race in a spectacular smash that the Mexican was lucky to escape unharmed.

The first thing to say here is that I am not disputing that Pastor was the one at fault here. He could claim in mitigation (and indeed has) that he was on cold tyres; he's also said that he thought Gutierrez had missed his braking point. But still, Pastor was the one in the position to see what was going on, so should have been more cautious rather than plunge into the apex like he did. And more broadly the accumulative impact of his misdemeanours cannot be ignored.

Sunday 6 April 2014

Bahrain GP Report: We were never being boring

Sometimes in life you get what you deserve.

Unless you have been living a hermit's existence just lately you'll be aware that certain people have been doing their best to claim that the product being served up in F1 right now is unspeakable, and in so doing crying about the sport and the fans when for much of their time associated with F1 they haven't given much impression of caring a great deal about either. In the hours before the Bahrain race Bernie Ecclestone called the 2014-spec offering 'unacceptable'; Ferrari's Luca Montezemolo reiterated his view that it is a 'taxi driver' formula; and this followed on from Red Bull's big beast Dietrich Mateschitz threatening to walk away in disgust at it all.

Yet in an hour and 38 minutes of circulating at the Sakhir circuit the great folly of such views - and the self-serving nature of them - were laid bare. Deserved, as I said.

Lewis Hamilton took his second win in a week,
but it was a very different one
Photo: Octane Photography
What we had today in Bahrain was the grandest Grand Prix of the season so far; indeed the grandest in a good while. And unlike a few previous memorable ones it didn't rely on gumball tyres, a rain shower, or another (dare I say slightly false) variable to spice things up. Desperate battling up and down the field was witnessed throughout on a track that whatever its limitations does contain plenty of overtaking opportunities. By the end of it all you were almost relieved, in that it allowed you finally to get your breath back. That Fernando Alonso punched the air upon crossing the line having achieved only a lowly ninth place seemed highly apt.

Saturday 5 April 2014

Sakhir Qualifying: In the Nic of time

It felt a lot like Nico Rosberg needed that. Yes, he leads the drivers' table already by a gaping 18 points, and has access to a set of wheels that just about every F1 driver would crawl the length of the pit lane on broken glass to have. But as ever in F1 don't conclude based only on the topline. Today the pressure was on Nico; today he needed to strike back; today he did.

A week ago in Sepang Nico was taken to the cleaners by his team mate Lewis Hamilton, and was so in a style that looked a lot like that would be the way of things. And in the early parts of the Bahrain gathering's running the evidence was that this round would be a simple continuation. The Mercs were far ahead, and of the two Lewis seemed capable every time of dipping under Nico's best by a tenth of a second or more.

Nico Rosberg took a timely pole position
Photo: Octane Photography
Qualifying started just like that too, but then in the second part for the first time in what seemed a good while Nico beat Lewis's mark by a tenth or so. And then in the final, vital part in their opening efforts he did it again; by even further this time, out-doing his intra-team rival by three tenths. Out for the final runs with the pressure on, the rug was pulled from under the battle early. Lewis over-clubbed it into turn one, locked his tyres, went wide, thus deciding the order of the front row there and then. Nico's engineer summed up the vital facts to his charge with sheer sang-froid: 'Lewis has gone off, your position is safe. Pole position, well done'.

Fernando Alonso: the improvisor supreme

For all of the frolics in the rainy Malaysian Grand Prix qualifying last weekend, for me one matter stood apart from all others.

Alonso's fourth place result from the session was impressive enough in itself, but was especially so when the effort was placed within its full context. He and Daniil Kvyat had come into contact early in Q2, which among things snapped a wishbone on Alonso's Ferrari's front suspension. Everyone thought that would be that for Nando, but the Ferrari mechanics displayed breathtaking speed of fingerwork and almost unbelievably Alonso was back out circulating long before the session was over.

Fernando Alonso - the sport's top improvisor
Photo: Octane Photography
Alonso noted that car was still far from healed however; that the time available left little chance for resultant fine-tuning: 'The mechanics did a fantastic job' said Alonso, 'but I have to say the car was not totally prepared: the steering on the right was so light, on the left was so heavy, that it was very very strange to drive, but enough to complete qualifying...'

Alonso perhaps is being humble. There are plenty of modern-day F1 drivers - some of them excellent ones; race winners; perhaps even the odd world champion - whose lap times grow almost beyond recognition if the thing underneath them isn't just so. Rarely do such considerations impede Alonso however; by contrast it seems almost that the more adversity you throw at him the better he does. You could argue that none of Alonso's contemporaries would have got the askew Ferrari to where the Spaniard did in Malaysia's qualifying session.

Friday 4 April 2014

What if... Williams in the 1994 title showdown had changed Hill's suspension in three minutes?

Let's talk about something that never happened. What historians call a 'counterfactual'. Or, to put it more into layman's terms, a 'what if?'.

You'll recall some of the fun that we had in the second part of qualifying in Sepang last weekend. Fernando Alonso's Ferrari and Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso on their out-laps came into contact, which among other things snapped an arm on of the F14 T's front suspension. Just about all assumed that would be the last we'd see of Nando that day, but it reckoned without the Ferrari mechanics who managed to replace the arm within three minutes, and before we knew it the Spaniard was back out circulating. Eventually it resulted in a fourth place grid slot for him.

But afterwards the events got me thinking. To Adelaide in 1994. Most of us are familiar with what happened then. It was the final race of the season; a championship showdown, with Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill but one point apart. On the Sunday the two disappeared off together in a race of one, only for them after 35 laps of 81 to - one way or another - make contact with each other. Schumi ended up in the barrier while Hill continued. But not for long as he returned to the pits at the end of that lap to retire, as a bent suspension arm meant that he couldn't continue.

Could Damon Hill's zero have converted into a one in 1994?
Credit: Morio / CC
But what if... Williams had been able to change the suspension arm in three minutes just as Ferrari did last Sunday? Would Damon have had a chance at the title? Under the scoring system of the time he needed fifth place or better to clinch it. (Before I go any further, I want to be clear that there is no implied criticism of Williams here; no two cars are the same and presumably the ability to change these things quickly has increased over the last twenty years, so it seems probable that it would in reality have taken much longer than three minutes to change the suspension arm that day. Please treat this only as a bit of fun!)

You might say at this point surely Damon wouldn't have had a chance - three minutes is an impressive turnaround time in itself but in a race it would cost you two laps. But don't forget that the gaps on pace between the cars in 1994 was much wider than now, indeed the advantage of Schumi and Hill over the rest that day was massive; a lap before the collision the third-placed man and eventual winner Nigel Mansell was some 56.5 seconds adrift. Remember they were still short of half-distance too.

Bahrain GP Betting Preview - Hamilton or Rosberg? By Andy Morgan

After predicting two race wins and two pole positions correctly we look ahead to Bahrain Grand Prix, held under the lights for the first time in 2014, where it is difficult to see the pendulum swinging away from Mercedes and their stunning early form.

The team would never admit it, but Malaysia was as comfortable as it gets in a extremely satisfactory weekend for all involved at the Mercerdes AMG F1 team. Lewis Hamilton stated that 'the race was tougher than it may have looked' but inside he knows that as far as a race weekend goes, that was simple. The only factor that could have prevented the 2008 World Champion from winning after pulling away on the first lap was a lack of concentration, complacency or a technical failure.

It looks like advantage Mercedes and
advantage Lewis Hamilton once again
Photo: Octane Photography
Reliability will be the only doubting factor concerning Mercedes in its quest for three successive race wins, yet the cars' dominance in Malaysia showed that Hamilton and Rosberg can coast through the latter stages of a race and not push their cars to any damaging limits.

The drivers are likely to welcome the news that Bahrain has become the third night race on the 2014 F1 calendar. A drop in temperature during the night will make the 57 laps more bearable for the drivers and the cars and tyres will not be too displeased either.

There are unlikely to be big surprises at the Sakhir Circuit, as the teams participated in heavy testing throughout the winter in Bahrain. Upgrades to performance will be minor rather than major in such a short space of time from last Sunday's race, so the relative performance in Malaysia is likely to be emulated.

Thursday 3 April 2014

Where's the PR?

Something has been troubling me just lately. Something that I struggle to get. We know that the F1 paddock is rather dripping with money. Or rather dripping with people who've made a lot of money in their lives. The sport always has attracted the self-made rather like moths to a bright light, as well as for the most part enticed in plenty of lucre-laden manufacturers and sponsors.

And yet, judging by the behaviour of those in it, F1 at its broadest level doesn't seem to have ever learned some of the most fundamental rules of capital accumulation. Those of Public Relations.

This may come as a bit of a surprise to you, as how often have we bemoaned that the sport is PR-obsessed; that drivers no longer are charismatic and expressive like was once the case. But even with this it seems that the tendency to trash, to be charmless, and in so doing denigrate F1 as a whole, has refused to die with it.

Sebastian Vettel has had some things to say recently...
Photo: Octane Photography
We had a recent example of this on the eve of last week's Malaysian round from Sebastian Vettel - our world champion. When talking to the press he was less than flattering about the noise of the new spec 2014 cars (which he judged as 'shit') as well as was scathing of the power units more broadly ('batteries should be where they belong, in a mobile phone' he was quoted in German publications as saying). Sergio Perez has since added to this by describing the Malaysian race as 'boring'. And these of course follow on from a certain Bernard Charles Ecclestone - whose job it is more than anyone's to promote the sport - having set forth many-a barb about F1 2014-style over of period of many months and years.

Sakhir Preview: Here comes Bahrain again

And so it comes around again. The F1 race that you may feel that you have to brace yourself for. The one that has formed a scar on whatever in this sport most closely resembles a conscience.

Yes, this weekend we have our latest Bahrain Grand Prix. The race's history stretches back to 2004, but as far as the event is concerned the problems started in 2011. As part of the Arab Spring civil unrest started in the country early that year, with mass protests calling for political reform and increased heed of human rights. Violence followed, as did death - including that resultant of troops opening gunfire on protests. Evidence of brutal repression of the protests and protestors has continued to seep from the Kingdom, including that of prisoners of conscience, of torture and of death in custody, with repeated promises of reform from the regime coming to not very much apparently. And given that it has come from the likes of Amnesty International, the US State Department and the UN-backed Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (which was set up by the King of Bahrain) it's hard to argue that the evidence has come from fly-by-nights.

The Bahrain Grand Prix remains an uncomfortable one for F1
Credit: Derek Morrison / CC
The 2011 race was cancelled (eventually), the next year's though went ahead amid much controversy with matters apparently barely moved on. And last year we had roughly the same again. In neither event has the unrest impacted directly on proceedings (aside from in the PR stakes) though in 2012 there was a close shave involving some of the Force India team.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

New Order

'All I care about is the team, and the points we earn. I don't care who scores them - why should I? Drivers are only employees, after all.'

Whose words are these? They belong to Frank Williams, said some years ago. And partly due to this Felipe Massa wasn't the only one surprised that he received a team order from the Williams pit wall asking him to cede position to his stable mate Valtteri Bottas during Malaysia's race last Sunday.

Discussing team orders? Carlos Reutemann (centre)
in conference with Frank Williams (right, back to camera)
 in 1981
Credit: Dijk, Hans van / Anefo / CC
Sir Frank (or Frank as he was known then) uttered this a few months after the Brazilian Grand Prix of 1981. In the Williams Grand Prix Engineering early days its driver Alan Jones was very much the man. He rose with the team, was a crucial part of it, and therefore the contracts were set very much in his favour. If in a race the two Williams cars were placed one and two and close enough together then Jones was to win, and positions would be swapped to achieve this end if required. As it was, it was hardly enforced as Jones won his and the team's first championship in 1980 as his team mate Carlos Reutemann rarely was quicker, but for 1981 the agreement remained in place. And come round two a freshly on-form Reutemann led from Jones in the Rio rain. Out went the pit board: 'JONES-REUT'. Reutemann disregarded it, and won. The fallout was considerable, especially from the abrasive Jones, but later - and perhaps riled by Jones leaving Frank seriously in the lurch by announcing his retirement late in the 1981 season, long after most drivers to have were signed up elsewhere - Frank mollified his view somewhat and resolved that never again would he place a single driver on a pedestal. It also was around then that he said the words replicated in the opening paragraph.

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Smile of Lewis

The Malaysian Grand Prix just passed may not have been an enthralling one, but it could well have been an important one. Its outcome felt rather a lot like a signpost of what is to come.

Is the sun to shine on Lewis Hamilton in 2014?
Photo: Octane Photography
Yes, the Mercedes being the class of the field part was expected, but the bit wherein Lewis Hamilton wiped the floor with Nico Rosberg was less so. Perhaps much less so.

Indeed, we were all familiar with the narrative expressed in the off-season: there was little - surprisingly little - to choose between Lewis and Nico in their first season as team mates in 2013; the new complex formula of 2014 would suit Nico and his cerebral, engineering-led, approach; Lewis by contrast would find the nuances beyond him and the requirements to fuel-save at cross purposes with his press-on style.

Of course, last Sunday was but a single race. Further there may have been details explaining at least some of the Lewis-Nico chasm that Mercedes isn't letting on, such as Nico entering a set-up blind alley during the Sepang weekend or having a technical problem. But on the basis of what we know last Sunday's action indicated that Lewis Hamilton will take some stopping this season, as much as for his team mate as anyone else.