Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Slings and Silver Arrows: Thoughts on F1 in 2014

In F1 not much is new. In a sport that prides itself on never standing still that may seem a dubious claim. But such is the expanse of its past that usually some parallel can be found therein whatever happens now. Some things are new however. And it doesn't seem exaggeration to say that more so than at any other time in the sport's long history, F1 in 2014 hit the reset button.

We've had engine regulation changes before. We've also had chassis changes. But rarely have they arrived together. They certainly haven't to this seismic extent. Never before has there been such a leap between F1 seasons; such a leap into the unknown.

In effect all teams had a new and highly complex technology thrown at them - a 1.6 litre turbo internal combustion unit plus greatly increased energy recovery, combined with a 100kg fuel limit, as well as a limit to the flow - and were told curtly to get on with it. Moreover, as Adrian Newey pointed out to Gary Anderson, a new hybrid car on the road will have five years' testing and development behind it, and the F1 equivalent of now is 20 times more complicated than even the most complicated road hybrid. Those in this game had but 12 days of track testing to get it right.

F1 teams have had plenty to be getting on with in 2014
Credit:  J.H. Sohn / CC
And there was plenty of doom mongering in advance about what could be expected in F1 2014-style. The cars would be hideously slow (perhaps lap times would slip over those of GP2); the races would be conspicuous fuel economy cruises; someone even - and with a straight face - in the early part of the round one weekend in Melbourne asked Race Director Charlie Whiting what would happen if no one finished...

We should have known better - compared with such expectations things instead in the opening four rounds have gone rather swimmingly.

There were but five mechanical stoppages from 22 starters in either of the first two races; three in Bahrain's round three; come the latest round in China the figure was down to two. Numbers pretty comparable with 12 months ago in other words. As for the speed, the car's lap times are undeniably slower, but not by much, and in the afore-mentioned Chinese race Lewis completed the full distance of 56 laps taking only 26 seconds longer than the Shanghai winner did 12 months previously, while this campaign's one dry qualifying session so far (in Bahrain) resulted in a pole time less than a second off the 2013 equivalent. And given the considerable development potential that remains in there - always the case with a new spec, indeed Fernando Alonso reckons there are three or four seconds to be had within this season alone - times at or better than before can be expected before too long. Remember too that at least some of the lap time drop-off can be attributed to reduced wing sizes, the passing of the exhaust blown diffusers and less grippy tyres.

Races also were not the feared economy runs, indeed some Mercedes runners are thought to have not been using the whole 100kg allowance.

So...what we have is a sport already doing roughly the same speeds as before the changes, and doing it using around 40% less fuel as well as in so doing making considerable strides in issues that had been wrestled with for years outside, in the car industry and elsewhere. Namely in a form of technology that will benefit the wider world when transferred to the automobile industry via less use of finite resources, greater efficiency, lower emissions and greater collection and use of what otherwise would be waste energy.

And ultimately what F1 has done (or should have) is not only negate by far its and motorsport's biggest brand negative, that of irresponsible gas guzzling, but do a lot to reverse it by harnessing the extraordinary ability of the F1 designer and engineer to to find solutions not before thought of in double-quick time. As Darren Heath - having witnessed the new cars close at hand and in the main functioning beautifully after just 12 days' testing time - noted post Melbourne: 'just imagine - outside the world of F1 - how long getting this right would have taken. Many company bosses in the wider automobile world would pay billions for such expertise, rigour and result'. I even spotted a glowing article on what F1 has done in The Guardian of all places, and not even in the sports pages. It's a considerable - and you feel much-needed - thing for the sport to be rather proud about.

You feel that only Formula One could take such a good news story and turn it immediately into something negative. Snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. And sure enough somehow it managed it.

Some noticed that the cars didn't make as much noise as before. Ironically they managed to create a heck of a lot of decibels over the matter.

Bernie Ecclestone had rather a lot to say about 2014-spec Formula One at the time of the opening pre-season Jerez test, none of it positive, and of which noise was part. Nevertheless those present in southern Spain (and Bernie wasn't one of them) while noting they wouldn't need earplugs anymore reckoned mostly that the sound of the revised machines remained representative of a racing engine, as well as that the lower volume would have a few auxiliary benefits. So not a great deal more was made of it.

But then the circus arrived in Melbourne for the season-opener, and it was there that things really kicked off.

Who's he again? Much of the discourse
of F1 in 2014 has involved Bernie Ecclestone
Photo: Octane Photography
It started with local journalists in their copy protesting at the new relatively hushed F1 machines, especially in comparison with the old V10 in the two-seater Minardi that was doing passenger runs around the Albert Park venue. And before you knew it plenty of fans - some at the race, some not - were complaining in kind on internet forums and social media, a sentiment which spread like flame after someone had spread lighter fluid around the place.

Bernie (who still hadn't inconvenienced himself to actually show up to the track) probably couldn't believe his luck and thus hopped onto this rather convenient bandwagon with a gleeful 'I told you so' air. And he was joined quickly on it by his big mucker Ron Walker, Race Chairman of the Melbourne event, who was in colourful prose espousing threats to sue as well as to host Indycar at his place instead of F1, and convince other venues to follow.

Various bigwigs from Red Bull in time leapt aboard too (including Sebastian Vettel, who has in Nigel Roebuck's words 'long shared with Melbourne promoter Ron Walker the presidency of The Bernie Ecclestone Appreciation Society' - not that I draw any conclusions from that) as did Ferrari's President Luca Montezemolo. Their rap sheet in addition to the noise included their respective various other bugbears of choice about the new formula - supposed unappealing on-track fare and apparent complexity among them. Big Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz even seemed among it all, without actually spelling it out, to throw his future involvement in the sport into doubt. Which came as a bit of a shock to all those employed in the Milton Keynes team.

Such people have also done their best to whip up fans' fervour to support their case, but even so it's not clear what the actual split of opinion was and is (an no, Ferrari's absurd 'poll' got us no nearer an answer); the extent that the complainants are representative or simply reflect a small and possibly vexatious bunch shouting loud (perhaps appropriately). The best evidence is yet that fans were divided.

Of course, one doesn't want to sneer. For many fans the noise of the cars is an important part of the experience, and it would be wrong to dismiss all concerns expressed as malign.

And perhaps those who'd like the volume turned up again haven't been all that well-represented. Some of the claims made in support of their 'side' have stretched credulity to breaking point, such as Walker's threats to sue on the grounds of the diminished noise and 'sexiness' (I find it hard to believe that his race contract contained a minimum definition of either), as well as in his threat to decamp to Indycar (erm, who wants to tell him that Indycar engines are just as turbo and are actually quieter than F1 engines?)

But still, this change as any must be viewed holistically as any change almost inevitably will have a downside from somebody's perspective. And in taking the holistic view, is not the loss of a few decibels a price well worth paying for the benefits already outlined?

It's also tempting to ask, as Karun Chandhok did, what exactly those objecting now expected in advance? 'I have to say I'm bored with this whole noise chat' said Chandhok on Sky's F1 Show, 'it is what it is and when you put an exhaust through a turbo that's what it going to sound like, it's not like we didn't know what's coming. But I think it sounds alright, it's more of a raspy growl than a screaming banshee...'

It's also tempting to point out, as Ron Dennis has, that many of those complaining such as Red Bull and Ferrari participated in constructing these regulations. Now, after manufacturers have spent millions and the technology has only just hit the track, hardly seems the time to start complaining. It's further tempting to ask where exactly the sport would be right now without change, both in terms of how it's viewed more widely, and closer to home what exactly it would be doing for engines right now...

There is little from sport's history from when it used turbos before or from other forms of motorsport that use turbos themselves that suggests we have much to fear, and indeed the closest thing to a constant in F1's past is change, as well as that such change is got used to very quickly. In this ilk someone dug out a picture of a fan's banner from a race in early 2006 decrying the then-new V8 engines in comparison with the previous V10s. Plus ca change...

Above all else, for all of the fury is anyone apart from the odd crank really going to walk away from F1 without a backwards glance purely because the cars aren't making as much noise as before?

Yet whatever your predispositions on the noise issue one can appreciate something a bit strange going on here, in that the guy whose job it is more than anyone's to promote the sport, as well as some of its major players, should be denigrating it so audibly in public. Such a thing would be unthinkable in NASCAR for example, or in pretty much any other activity or industry. Pat Symonds in Bahrain rightly warned of the real risk of 'doing a Ratner'.

It all seems further evidence that despite being awash with capitalists as well as that the paddock crawls with nominal PR staff wielding Dictaphones, F1 exhibits something somewhere between naivety and ignorance when it comes to PR's very fundamentals.

Part of the problem is that F1 doesn't really have any centralised PR capability, so any messaging requires one of the players within the game to take the initiative, and often none of them do. So it was this time. Bernie wasn't going to do it as we have seen. Nor were any of the teams, nor the race promoters (and these two groups in any case tend to act on their own accord rather than coordinate).

Should Jean Todt have done more?
Photo: Octane Photography
Which leaves the FIA, and while Jean Todt and his organisation can be commended with being the main driving force in establishing the new F1, he also seems rather reluctant to talk much about it. It seems Todt's modus operandi is and always has been one of a bunker-occupier, rather than one who draws attention to himself in public. He's also not one as far as we can tell that keen on head-on conflict, instead preferring consensus-building. This further was evidenced in this case when one of the few of Todt's public comments on the matter of the new rules was to offer to row back somewhat if everyone agreed.

As Joe Saward noted on Sidepodcast what Todt really should have done in Melbourne for the season opener were he PR-savvy was very publicly and visually celebrate the sport's new 'green washing'. This could even have involved dressing the grid girls in green, perhaps getting them waving big green flags and the like. Maybe even Todt himself could have got in on the act (the wearing green part I mean, him waving flags I can do without). It would have been silly but it would have got the message across. It also likely would have taken the attention away from the noise matters among those local journalists who started the rather destructive ball rolling. Nature abhors a vacuum after all. As it was, there was barely so much as a press release on what F1 was up to.

Bernie's not been into the new rules pretty much from their first conceptualisation. It's never been clear why (I consider his arguments of concern over the fans' experience too much of a Damascene conversion), though many assumed that it owes to his continuing power politicking with Todt. But in the opening weeks of the 2014 campaign the conundrum just might have had some clarity added to it. The idea formed that Bernie might be seeking to lead a consortium to buy the sport's commercial rights back from venture capitalists CVC Capital Partners, and just like when you buy a second hand car you might try to knock the price down by pointing out the miles on the clock and that the brakes seem a bit dodgy, possibly Bernie's talking down of modern F1 is aimed at the same end.

And - as further rumour has it - Red Bull and Ferrari (and Mercedes) may be part of the said consortium. Which if so would explain their respective stances too.

And when the question was put to Bernie as to whether he was indeed planning such a thing, his response was a hardly unequivocal 'not really, no'.

Other matters that really could have benefited from the sound and fury afforded to the noise debate in early 2014 have instead continued to fester like uncleansed wounds. These include establishing a more equitable revenue share among the teams as well as effective cost control - and the latest attempt at a budget cap has been quietly dropped much to the smaller teams' chagrin while Fabio Leimer found that not even a GP2 championship plus $14m is enough to get into F1 these days, and Lotus this year has demonstrated rather graphically the extent that even highly-rated teams can sail close to the wind on finance. It would also include changing the weight limit rules so that drivers don't feel the need to starve themselves to the point (literally) of passing out. Among other things.

But as seems the way in recent times as the teams, the FIA and FOM cannot unite around sensible things that would fix such glaring problems they find some silly things to rally around instead, possibly so to create the illusion of activity (it puts me in mind of the line from Yes, Minister: 'They need activity. It is their substitute for achievement'). So the sport as well as agonising over the noise issue now talks also about glowing brake disks, cars that emanate sparks and the like. Tweaks to increase the volume are to be tried out in Spain.

Another festering matter is the sport's sell-out to CVC from 2006. The CVC deal is regrettable for a number of reasons: partly because the venture capitalists take revenue from the sport that as intimated it can hardly do without; partly too that it's obliged Bernie - he now in effect an employee - to follow the money even more than he'd be minded to do anyway. And this has tended to manifest itself in chasing vast hosting fees from new territories, which has had the double negative impact of taking the sport away from its core support as well as associating F1 with, shall we say, questionable governing regimes who wield the chequebooks. It's also more lately strated to manifest itself in the sport's TV coverage disappearing behind paywalls. In other words the fans are the first to miss out.

But moreover the CVC deal itself continues to have a rather murky drip-drip from it, which as the deal's author has ensured Bernie Ecclestone once again is at the centre of matters. There have been a swarm of court cases related to the deal, but while none yet have landed a glove on the said Bernie they remain rather embarrassing to the sport, including one case a few weeks ago wherein the judge described Bernard Charles Ecclestone as not 'a reliable or truthful witness'.

And now Bernie faces his biggest battle of all. Criminal charges and a court case which - given how it is staggered so to allow Bernie to continue to run the sport - will stretch on throughout the summer. The accusation is by now oft-repeated - that he bribed a German banker called Gerhard Gribkowsky, formerly the chief risk officer of Bavarian state-owned bank BayernLB, to undervalue its shares in the sport when it was sold to present owners CVC eight years ago, as said deal would allow Bernie to retain control of the sport's reins. And the bribee just so happens to be sitting in prison as a result of it all. Bernie admits he made the payment, but insists that it was instead a response to blackmail from Gribkowsky, as he was threatening to go to HMRC on his involvement in the Bambino Holdings trust, which had the potential to land Bernie with a large tax bill. Bernie insists he did nothing wrong on that one, but was worried about Gribkowsky making false claims and thus paid up.

Bernie up until now has shown a persistent ability to dodge the muck; it remains to be seen if he can emerge from this particular dirty pool smelling clean.

In just about any other activity someone, particularly someone in such a CEO-type role, facing criminal charges would be suspended from their duties at the very least. In the latest occasion of F1 operating by rather different rules seemingly Bernie however carries on, aside from stepping down from the Delta Topco board whatever that means.

Those in F1 willing to be audibly critical of Bernie - be they teams, drivers, journalists, even fans - are as rare as hen's teeth; plenty while all of this has been going on indeed have been rather vociferous in their support of him. Perhaps it's fear, perhaps it's something akin to the Stockholm Syndrome at play, perhaps it's an instinctive desire to defend 'one of their own' against attack from the outside ('he may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch' as varying US Presidents have been attributed as saying of varying brutal dictators...). Perhaps it reflects more simply that such as been his all-pervading influence on F1 for now upwards of 40 years that many simply cannot imagine what things would be like without him.

I however have been of the view for a while that we've passed the point at which Bernie not only has outlived his usefulness, but at which he's started to hold the sport back on a few levels. Even over and above the various legal embarrassments and the other regrettable consequences of his CVC deal outlined already, he continues to make the sport look foolish at regular intervals with cringe-worthy comments (those on Vladimir Putin and homosexuality being merely the latest). More generally he appears a man out of time; the age of the rogue - of which Bernie definitely is one - has now passed replaced by corporate squeaky-cleanliness.

Bernie also has something of a mental block on internet and social media coverage - I'm told on the grounds that he sees it all as something he can't make money from rather than appreciating its intangible benefits, particularly in terms of what younger people expect in terms of coverage these days (the young person's lack of love for F1 - and for the automobile more generally - probably is the sport's biggest future challenge).

Of course we all know what Bernie's done for the sport (though he's taken a lot too let's not forget), but everyone has a shelf life. Harsh? Yes - but this is a harsh business. Bernie should know this better than most. And if nothing else he's 83 years old. Any responsible organisation would have a succession plan in place for someone with that importance, even without his advanced stage in life. If there is such a plan vis-a-vis Bernie then it's been kept well under wraps.

And now - finally and with a heave of relief no doubt - onto on-track matters. Another stick used to beat F1 2014-style is that its in-race entertainment value has so far been rather lacking. Possibly, albeit with but the low base available thus far, they had a point. Though equally their beat was rather disrupted by the Bahrain round, the most diverting F1 race in some time.

But again perhaps such an outcome - for now - shouldn't have been unforeseen. To outline a pertinent example, those who like to say that modern F1 has gone to the dogs tend to refer back to the balmy days of the late 1990s and early to mid noughties as the era wherein the sport got it right (never understood why personally, most races then were soporific. But I digress). Yet when the fundamentals of that formula were laid out for the 1998 season we in the early days had an even greater gulf between a single team and the rest with the McLarens lapping the field in round one, before in round two beating the rest by a mere minute - and in neither case giving the impression of getting beyond half-throttle.

Or to put it another way, it's always a possibility that when rules are changed radically a single team either from good luck or good engineering can get it right, or at least a lot closer to right than anyone else, from the off and thus periodically divide the competitive order into two highly distinct groups - them out front and the rest.

This has happened this time too, and the one doing the dividing yet again was not unforeseen. Even before cars first rolled out of the trailers for the first test in Jerez - indeed for some months previously - most thought the Mercedes was the power unit with the legs of the rest. And of the Merc runners the works team would be best-placed to make good on it all. So, pretty much exactly, has it proved.

To most, Mercedes has been but a blur in 2014
Photo: Octane Photography
The marque indeed has had this year's change in regs circled on their calendars for a while now; let's not forget its preparations were a crucial part of convincing Lewis Hamilton in late 2012 to come aboard. Some have said that its advantage can be traced back yet further, to 2008 when unlike Ferrari (who outsourced it to Magneti Marelli) or Renault (who let the teams get of with it) Mercedes kept its development of the impending KERS technology in-house, and it's now benefiting from the knowledge that accrued from there.

But even with this lead-in Mercedes's Eureka moment was incredibly simple, Merc placing the turbo's air compressor at the front of the engine rather than at the customary rear, which has had a myriad of inter-related benefits (for more details see here). The other Merc-powered runners have of course access to the same unit, and thus have been able to benefit to some extent especially on tracks such as Bahrain's wherein there are long straights. What they didn't have however was the same time in which to plan and thus build their cars around the beneficial layout that the works team had. Word is this idea came into focus around two years ago.

Four poles and four wins from four rounds have gone the way of the Silver Arrows, and the sheer extent of the W05's advantage was on show in Bahrain; after the safety car peeled back in giving us ten or so laps of racing to the flag 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 was in the region of 1.7 seconds over that of either. Perhaps given that the Mercs were on fresh tyres in that final sprint and many of those behind weren't the gap was a bit exaggerated, but few doubt that the representative time that the silver cars at full pelt have in hand is well north of a second a lap right now.

As for the match-up between the two Merc pilots, as expected neither has blitzed the other, but with things breaking down currently to two clear wins for Lewis Hamilton over Nico Rosberg, one close call and one race inconclusive things do seem to be totting up in Lewis's favour ever so gradually. And he in 2014 - so far at least - appears to have at last developed a positive mental approach that matches his talent, and we've long been of the opinion that if he could ever do that then he might just become unstoppable.

Thanks in large part to a DNF for Lewis in the season-opener in Melbourne though Nico leads the drivers' table - just.

As for the rest, as Jonathan Noble in Autosport noted even with this year's massive shake-up and with Ferrari and Renault which supplies Red Bull far from getting it right, it still appears that the top three teams of before - not by coincidence the three to be the massive winners from the sport's latest financial settlement - is prevailing, with the Red Bull and Ferrari even this early clawing its way up to being next up after the Mercs. And if this season with all its change can't alter this prevailing orthodoxy then you begin to suspect that almost nothing will.

The reverberations from the Merc earthquake have been felt at both of its nearest rivals however. Ferrari has lost a team principal, the popular and genial Stefano Domenicali falling on his sword in order to save the heads of those below him apparently. The first few races this year created a scenario that made seasoned Ferrari-watchers shudder. While losing out to garagistes on aero - as has broadly been the case in recent years for Ferrari - was one thing, its experience this year of losing out to a rival manufacturer that has taken the same new set of rules (that was supposed to suit the Scuderia) at the same time and cleanly leapt ahead having done a markedly better job, and mainly on engines, is something else entirely. And to top it all off Luca Montezemolo along with various other members of Ferrari royalty were in attendance in Bahrain to witness the red cars being cruised past on the straights by such luminaries as the Force Indias. You could almost see the axe being sharpened before your eyes.

Marco Mattiacci is the guy brought in in Domenicali's stead, from within (or rather, from selling Ferrari road cars in North America). While the broad reaction was 'who he?' and this led some to head straight for the conclusion that he was merely keeping the seat warm for one such as Ross Brawn, the team instead concluded apparently that promoting from within was the way to go as learning Ferrari and its politics was more of a challenge than learning about F1. If the Scuderia's history could be summed up in one line...

Despite everything, Fernando Alonso
has continued to impress
Photo: Octane Photography
Once again Fernando Alonso has been the Scuderia's most valuable asset; the Spaniard placed third in the table (though that's something of a kingdom of the blind coronation right now). However, while the Ferrari unit has looked rather breathless on the full throttle bits, in a reverse of the team's traditional priorities its chassis apparently is not a bad one.

While Red Bull's pre-season suggested that things would be worse still, with throughout testing - and to everyone's astonishment akin to slipping into a parallel universe - its RB10 appearing genuinely off the back of the pack on pace as well as unable to complete more than a handful of laps without conking out. A lot of the problem was with the Renault power unit, which for reasons as yet not fully explained was woefully under-cooked. But perhaps Red Bull contributed to the woes with its as-usual to-the-edge cooling package.

Come Melbourne most of the worst vices had all of a sudden been solved and many observers just as swiftly realised that in among all of the smoky halts once again the Milton Keynes team's chassis looked the class of the field. If only the Renault unit could be got right.

Or even, for that matter, the Ferrari.

The full extent of Red Bull creating troubles for itself wasn't over however. For reasons best known to the team's management it decided to pick a fight with the FIA over the matter of fuel flow (another new rule for this year), claiming its own readings more accurate than those of the authorities in the Melbourne race and therefore refusing to cede to the stewards' requests to turn that particular tap down. Funnily enough Red Bull lost, and thus 18 points and Daniel Ricciardo's richly-deserved debut podium evaporated.

Some were cynical enough to suggest that it was all a ploy by Red Bull to get the fuel flow regulations eased or removed altogether, as it reckoned it would benefit competitively from such a tweak. It certainly wouldn't be the first time it had indulged in such behaviour, as anyone whose memory stretches back 12 months could attest. At least though, unlike then, the team now seems to have unclamped its jaws from this one.

A common sight from pre-season testing
Photo: Octane Photography
Behind the haughty silver cars much of the intrigue has been within teams. With yet more Red Bull intrigue, against most expectations it is Ricciardo who's been more potent than Vettel in the opening four rounds, with the Australian qualifying ahead and finishing ahead (on the road at least) in three of those meetings. Danny Ric being much better than most thought from his Toro Rosso days is part of the explanation of this, but Seb also appears to be experiencing woes all of his own. The most common mooted reasoning is that the passing of the exhaust blown diffuser has punished him especially, but no one - least of all Seb or his Red Bull team apparently - knows for certain as things stand.

While the keenly-anticipated Fernando vs Kimi face-off at Ferrari hasn't lived up to billing, with Raikkonen thus far rarely getting near Alonso vapour trails. Word is that the F14 T isn't handling to Kimi's precise preference. Though perhaps the most potent explanation is also the most simple; that Fernando Alonso is very good at driving fast.

And while an unintended consequence of the testing restrictions was making things particularly tricky for the F1 young guy, in early 2014 we had our strongest indication in a while that, after all, the kids are alright. Ricciardo we've mentioned, and Valtteri Bottas, like Ricciardo not yet 25, also has impressed. Daniil Kvyat and Kevin Magnussen, both debutants this season, have turned a few heads too; Magnussen even bagging a podium finish on his debut and hardly putting a wheel wrong as he did so.

In the more immediate future though the most pressing question is can the Mercs be hauled in, just as McLarens were to a large extent back in 1998? My guess is no, and this is due to the nature of the team's advantage. Perhaps the greatest beauty of all as far as the Brackley squad is concerned is that where it has the decisive edge - the power unit layout and coke bottle area - are probably the most time-consuming and difficult to create your own versions of. It will be no work of a moment for rivals to honour this by imitation. Even though power unit homogolation is to a large extent more honoured in the breach than in the observance, and Ferrari and Renault will be working hard to make up the deficits, the probability is that even if they do get it right by that time Mercedes will, for 2014 at least, be over the hills and far away.

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