Sunday, 26 March 2017

Apex Race Manager 2017 - New racing sim and strategy game, and a competition to win a FREE upgrade pack

Are you an F1 fan that likes gaming? And are looking for something that's a bit different?

If either or both of these are the case, then you may be interested that Beermogul Games has created a unique racing strategy game, updated for the new 2017 season and cars: Apex Race Manager 2017.

In the game you get to establish a career of your own at motor sport's highest echelon, and after a very brief driving test you start at a back-of-grid team for the season-opening race in Australia.

As the laps of each race tick along you have to make decisions about your driving aggression, tyre strategy and fuel. As just like the real thing you can't burn things all at once - you have to judge when to attack and when to defend. You also can choose when to pit, what tyre compound to bolt on and what your strategy is.

Occasionally you'll have specific challenges too, such as reacting as quickly as possible to the red lights going out at the race start, changing all four wheels at your pit stops (again, as quickly as possible), and top-down driving challenges such as dodging backmarkers and negotiating hairpins.

As you gather prize money and points you also can invest in your set of wheels - such as in the aero, engineering and fuel consumption.

And if that wasn't enough you may on occasion - if your team mate is on your tail - have to decide whether to obey or ignore team orders...

It's all good fun, tricky to master and rather addictive. And it's available to download for free on iOS and Android.

And even better we have five PRO Packs to upgrade the game to give away FREE to Talking about F1 readers. PRO Packs add wet weather conditions, safety cars, and a driver/team editor - which means you can switch driver lineups while retaining their skill levels, so you can see how top drivers get on in backmarking teams...

To enter the competition to win one of five PRO Packs please give your email address (so we can get in touch as well as get the prize to you if you're a lucky winner) and answer the very simple question in the box below. Five winners of the upgrade pack will be chosen at random by me from the correct answers. Good luck!

Who won the 2017 Australian Grand Prix?

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Australian GP Report - Red Revival

"Quite mad in a positive way," was how Sebastian Vettel described it afterwards. It was that. One of those races in which you have to rub your eyes so to be sure that you know what's going on. As it's such a shift from what you were used to.

Against what we'd got used to, Vettel and Ferrari prevailed
over Hamilton and Mercedes
Photo: Octane Photography
Vettel won the Australian Grand Prix for Ferrari, ahead of the usually-imperious Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes. And there was no unreliability, weather intervention, weird tyre behaviour or anything else unusual. He was plain quicker than his haughty Mercedes foe.

The placid new Merc recruit Valtteri Bottas summed it up. "The red guys were a bit too quick". Well one of them was anyway.

Plenty have noted that it's the first time since the start of the hybrid era that anything other than a Mercedes has led an F1 world championship. Impressive enough, yet the break from the norm is greater than that. Aside from the grand outlier of Singapore in 2015, and Malaysia earlier that year that owed more to tyres, you really have to dig back to find the last time Merc was beaten genuinely on pace like this. Perhaps you'd have to go before the start of its imperious march from the get-go of 2014. This new F1 is different after all.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Melbourne Qualifying - Plus ca change...

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Much is different about F1 in 2017; judging by testing it was supposed to look different at the sharp end on-track too. But things die hard in F1. The identity of the guy on pole for the Melbourne season-opener is of the very familiar sort.

Lewis Hamilton remained on top
Photo: Octane Photography
Lewis Hamilton - the perennial, and the guy who got pole position in the final four rounds of last campaign too - is on top still. Perhaps things are closer this year. Time certainly will tell on that one. But virtually all weekend around Albert Park Lewis has been a step ahead. And was when it mattered, as he took the top slot for tomorrow's grid with balmy comfort, by over a quarter of a second.

And he of course was buoyant. "It's been a fantastic weekend so far," Lewis said afterwards.

"I'm just incredibly proud of my team. This rule change has been huge and such a massive challenge for everyone. The guys have just worked so hard to make this car what it is today."

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Concept Cars De-Badged Quiz, by Select Car Leasing

Everyone loves a quiz, and Select Car Leasing has created one all about concept cars, which will challenge even for the most knowledgeable of motoring enthusiasts.

They've simply taken some concept cars and removed the badges. Can you guess which car manufacturer is behind each of these cars? It's time to find out! Click on the below to have a go - and whatever you do you should do better than me... (*cough cough* two out of ten *cough*)


You also can access the quiz on the Select Car Leasing website here: https://www.selectcarleasing.co.uk/news/concept-cars-de-badged.html

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

2017 F1 Betting Preview - Flutter on Ferrari?

A new F1 season, and particularly one with a whole new lot of technical regulations, comes with plenty of potential for big change to what we've grown used to. So with it is there betting value for those minded to have a flutter? Quite possibly.

Is Ferrari where the betting value is?
Photo: Octane Photography
Many sober analyses from the pre-season testing just passed have the Ferrari all of a sudden ahead of everyone. OK, given false dawns are not unheard of down Maranello way we remain cautious, but even so 4/1 for Sebastian Vettel to take the drivers' world championship this year looks very tempting. As does his 7/2 available to win the race in Australia.

And what of the other Ferrari? There wasn't much to tell between Seb and Kimi Raikkonen last season especially as Kimi got his car handling to his liking in the latter part of that campaign. Plus if this year's Ferrari is indeed fine-handling it should play to his strengths. It is more of a long shot, but you can get the Finn at 10/1 to win the title and 8/1 to win in Australia, both of what look rather generous. As especially does that you can get 11/10 on Kimi to win more than 1.5 races this year.

In recent years though Ferrari has tended to be furthest off the Merc pace in qualifying, due to the latter being able to turn its engines up therein, so Seb's odds to take pole in Melbourne (10/3) may be less tempting. But what therein of new Mercedes charge Valtteri Bottas? A man whose quali skills are thought particularly strong? You'll get 21/5 for him to get the pole in Australia.

Lewis Hamilton's odds, given his usually rightful status as firm favourite, haven't always been the place to look in recent years to make a quick buck. Still the new uncertainty mentioned at the outset may conversely make it worthwhile this time - betting on Lewis to win the title (at 6/5), win the Melbourne race (5/4) and even to bag Melbourne pole (6/5) will get you double your stake back if they come in. The last one of the three looks the best value of them.

Melbourne races are known for frequent safety car periods, and indeed eight of the last 10 races there have featured at least one. And 5/4 for one safety car appearance this time, and 22/5 for two, appear tempting. The frequency of safety cars, as well as the reports of difficulty of overtaking, may also make it worth going for a long shot driver to finish in the top six.

And if you fancy a frivolous extreme long shot punt then why not go for the 40/1 available on Fernando Alonso to win a race this year. Yes, I know. But consider that a single, albeit maybe unlikely, change of Honda suddenly getting its engine right (yes, I know) will do rather a lot to make it a probability, and it might just be worth your while.

All odds quoted in this article were accurate on the Oddschecker website at 2200 GMT on Tuesday 21 March 2017.

Inside Line F1 Podcast - Will Bottas Make Us Miss Rosberg?

As we excitedly countdown to the 2017 Australian Grand Prix, we wonder if we'll be treated to an epic Formula 1 race or a Sunday morning snooze fest?

We're hoping for that a single team (read: Mercedes) doesn't dominate, but even if they do, will Valtteri Bottas be able to challenge Lewis Hamilton? Or will he make us miss Nico Rosberg? The pressure is on the Finn given that the Mercedes bosses have given him four races to prove himself. But will the fans be as patient?

And there's more to look forward to in Australia: is Ferrari vs. Mercedes possible? Will Red Bull Racing's RB13 look different than the one that appeared in pre-season testing? A pink Force India, an after effect of Holi? The rookies: Esteban Ocon and even Lance Stroll, Daniel Ricciardo's new party trick, Mercedes' finger hole clutch paddle and finally, a 'Fittest Driver of the Day' award?

For your weekly dose of Formula 1 humour, remember to subscribe to us on iTunes and audioBoom.

Tune in!

(Season 2017, Episode 11)

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Enter the Vital F1 Prediction competition (and pit your wits against me)

You may know that one of the websites I write for is VitalF1.com. It has plenty on it for F1 fans - news, a discussion forum and comment articles among other things. And it has a prediction competition, back for the new season, that you can enter.

Photo: Octane Photography
For every Grand Prix you pick two drivers to score points for you depending on where they finish in real life. In some races it's the relatively straightforward matter of predicting who'll finish first and second, but in others it gets more tricky as you have to try to predict who'll finish in a precise positions further down the order, such as P5 and P6... It's all free too.

If you'd like to sign up, or find out more, here is the link: http://www.vitalf1.com/article.asp?a=3873

And, if it helps encourage you to take part, you'll get to pit your wits against me, as I'll be taking part in the game too (as 'Talking about F1' - duuuh).

Hope you're able to take part. It's good fun.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Melbourne Preview: The confirmation

The opening race weekend of an F1 season is exciting. Really. As no matter what else is happening in the formula the first gathering, and particularly its qualifying session, will pretty much every time have most in the paddock and many beyond on tenterhooks.

The opening race gathering of the season will
answer many questions
Photo: Octane Photography
As it is a confirmation. After however many weeks and months of work, clues and no little speculation, this impending season-opening weekend in Melbourne will be the latest F1 equivalent of at last getting your exam results.

To borrow from Clive James, who himself was harnessing the celebrated Hollywood-ism of William Goldman, "at the start of the season, nobody knows anything". Granted, even with pre-season testing's myriad mysteries - and even then that no one will have stood still between the end of testing and this first gathering - teams love to create the impression that they know what's going on. That they have incredibly accurate models and intelligence to channel pre-season into a competitive order. And from the various analyses that spring up as well as the more general mood music, the rest of us get a broad sense of it too before it's all done in anger.

But it is not until the actual hour of qualifying that it is nailed down. The chat fizzles away. The stopwatch suddenly will be very hard to deny.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Talking about F1 2017 Team-by-Team Season Preview

Now with the season-opening Australian Grand Prix but a week away there are plenty of F1 season previews around. And Talking about F1 is not one to be left out. As you will have likely noticed I've written a preview for all ten competing F1 teams in 2017 and their drivers over the past couple of weeks.

All of my team/driver previews are collated in one place - by clicking on the '2017 Team and Driver Guide' tab above you can explore my view on the prospects of every driver and team on this season's grid. You therefore have no excuse at all for not being clued up before the cars hit the track in Australia.

F1 2017 Season Preview: Sauber - On the Longbow road back

It makes sense that two F1 teams subject to the same F1 circumstances will have similar F1 struggles. And so it is with Sauber when assessed alongside the next team up in last year's constructors' table Renault. As with Team Enstone, Sauber had been mighty once (though in the Swiss team's case mainly so in its BMW guise) but more lately under non-manufacturer owners had rather been in a state of drift, desperately lacking investment.

Photo: Octane Photography
In fact in Sauber's case it had more visible manifestations, with its 2016 car essentially a re-hash of the 2015 one. Which in turn was a re-hash of the 2014 one. Certainly its aero looked conspicuously behind the times. In-year development was near non-existent. Plenty of talented individuals left. Its very survival was in genuine and immediate doubt.

But like Renault too a takeover has at least got it moving forward, in Sauber's case this was by Swiss-based investment company Longbow Finance mid last year. And after it, long held off development was turned into actual new parts, and there was at least a mini-upturn in competitiveness. Though it was only amid rainy Brazil's chaos that it guaranteed it wouldn't be bottom on the constructors' pile, as Felipe Nasr bagged two points for ninth.

And it's continued into this year as the C36 was launched. "We can see that they've really started to develop a proper 2017 car, they've thought about the regulations," noted an observing Craig Scarborough at the time. And in another indirect consequence of Nasr's Interlagos tour de force F1 is down to ten teams (as missing on the constructors' cash broke Manor), assuring Sauber constructors' placing payments for the foreseeable future.

More of a note of worry comes from its engine for this campaign, which is a year-old unit from Ferrari (albeit one from the end of 2016, so it'll be an upgrade on what Sauber had last year). Team principal Monisha Kaltenborn said it was a conscious choice, in that it allowed the team to develop its chassis sooner as it knew what it had to build around. Maybe so, but we all can recall the problems Toro Rosso had in a similar situation last season, particularly as the campaign progressed. More specifically, Ferrari admitted it had to beef up its engine for the extra lateral forces this year, so one wonders what the implications will be for Sauber's long in the tooth version.

Sauber often has scored points early in a season while others flail. Use of a year-old engine, and its resultant reliability,  may help to perform this trick again. But there was little in testing to suggest that the team would be near the front of the queue to clean up if there is unreliability ahead. The smart money is that the Sauber was off the back of the midfield. Perhaps in the mix with the recalcitrant McLarens at the very back. Perhaps by itself at the very back. The car doesn't appear to have much wrong as such, it's just that it's behind the others. Not surprising, given everything - plus that a big reg change wouldn't be good news for a team of its size at the best of times.

As with Renault, while the slide has been addressed the road back is a long one. What lays ahead is likely a year of trying to re-achieve respectability while it re-staffs.

Marcus Ericsson - Car #9
Photo: Octane Photography
Marcus Ericsson isn't as bad as some like to assume, and certainly since his 2014 F1 debut at Caterham has made pretty consistent improvement. And last year at Sauber he built a little further on the bricks he'd assembled. While his then-team mate Felipe Nasr scored the team's only points of the year Ericsson was the more impressive in general, often being ahead - and sometimes far ahead - on Saturdays and Sundays. His season started and ended well, with China and Spain early on, and USA and especially Mexico (where he came through to P11 after having his nose knocked off on lap one) late on, likely his best showings. He did experience however a conspicuous mid-season slump wherein he both struggled in qualifying as well as - in an old bugbear - didn't always keep his tyres together well enough in race stints.

The team's saviour Longbow Finance is close to Ericsson's plentiful backers, so this as good as guarantees his job security for the next while but he demonstrated last season that there may be more to him than that. It could get better too, as Ericsson's junior formulae record was impressive until he started to encounter designed-to-degrade tyres (not only in F1 but in GP2 before that), which as intimated he often struggles with. This year the tyres are reckoned to be much more durable.

One way or another this season, alongside the young hot shoe Pascal Wehrlein, should tell us a lot about Marcus Ericsson.

Pascal Wehrlein - Car #94
Photo: Octane Photography
A young man in a hurry - and one who has just been irked. Missing out on the vacant Mercedes race drive (and the Force India one before that) for this campaign clearly grates with Mercedes protege Pascal Wehrlein. So he'll be even more keen than usual to prove a point. It may just add up to something spectacular. Even in a Sauber.

Certainly from his public pronouncements he is not one to underestimate his own abilities. It is a trait that may serve him well, but a good few theorised that his being overlooked for the promotions mentioned for 2017 owed as much to an abrasive personality as any lack of experience or talent.

But there is plenty of talent there, and he showed it plenty in 2016 in his freshman F1 season at Manor. He managed to get the tail-end machine into Q2 on no fewer than five occasions and he got close a few other times too. While in Austria he likely would have gone one better to Q3 had Manor brought more qualifying tyres - he missed out narrowly on the top ten on much slower rubber than those around him. He also was consistent both between and within races, was unafraid to mix it with other cars and didn't make a massive amount of errors (though there were some dotted around). And his fighting drive to a point in Austria, chasing down some haughty opponents late on, was his best of the bunch.

There wasn't much in the debit column, though he sometimes struggled with tyre temperature, didn't impress in the wet in Britain or Brazil (indeed in Interlagos team mate Esteban Ocon seriously left him behind) while early in the campaign he was out-qualified by Rio Haryanto in the other Manor rather more often than anyone anticipated. Now though it's about proving wrong those who blew him out.

Friday, 17 March 2017

New Motorsport Week article: F1's engine conundrum - what will power the future of the sport?

Photo: Octane Photography
Everything is up for grabs it seems since Liberty established its power over F1. Not surprising given its clear mandate for change, and that most in and around the sport are rather hankering for said change.

And it applies, fervently, to the debate over the future of F1's engines, even though that one theoretically is set until 2020. But things are bringing it into immediate focus, and it sits in close proximity to a core question of what F1 wants to be - pleasing the road car industry or pleasing itself? And could it please the road car industry of the near future even if it wanted to?

In my latest for Motorsport Week I outline the key considerations. You can read my piece here: https://www.motorsportweek.com/news/id/14044

Thursday, 16 March 2017

F1 2017 Season Preview: Renault - On the long road back

Autosport's headline got it right: this is "Renault's real first year back". Just over a year ago the French concern returned to find a hollowed out Enstone squad, desperately lacking in investment. Thus it started rebuilding - which in this game never is the work of a moment. The headcount had eroded to 475. Now it is up at 575 with the target to return it its peak level of 650. The rebuilding at the Enstone facility is literal too.

Photo: Octane Photography
Yet as noted if Renault is on the journey all the way back to the top, 2017 will be the proper first step. The team's husk qualities was reflected in last year's car which was essentially a patch-up - the team had been in an effective holding pattern for six months waiting for the takeover to be finalised, and when the takeover arrived it was late. Unsurprisingly technical focus was then switched to 2017 early.

But even so and even with the fine heritage of the Renault-Enstone coupling there were broader doubts. Discontented murmurs were heard last year about its management - the odd approach to hiring drivers for 2017 was taken as a case in point - and a few doubted Renault's overall commitment as well. There was friction too between racing director Frederic Vasseur and Renault Sport MD Cyril Abiteboul. The former - unable to run things how he pleased - left in the close season, and the departure met with general paddock incredulity (including from is new driver Nico Hulkenberg reportedly). A few wondered if instead it should have been Abiteboul pointed towards the exit.

Still what the team came up with amid all of this looked pretty good. The RS17 launched for this season contained lots of nice aero detail and impressive packaging. And, when it ran at least, it looked pretty good in testing too. "Out of the bunch of cars behind the big-three teams, the Renault looks as good as any of them," reckoned Gary Anderson.

And he thought it had potential. "The fundamentals are there and with a bit of confidence and good development work, Renault will see a reward."

It also has improved its ride quality, the big weakness of last year. Jolyon Palmer added of the car generally after the first test that "it's a pleasant surprise at the moment,".

But as outlined this was when it was running. Like all Renault power unit runners it had plenty of problems (mainly with the energy recovery system) costing plenty of mileage. Only Toro Rosso and McLaren completed fewer pre-season laps. Still, while the French unit has been problematic it has had a clear performance step-up as well. Plus Renault sounds confident of a swift solution to the woes.

The Renault squad had a few problems all of its own though, such as losing an entire morning in the first test waiting on new brake ducts being sent after problems. It got auxiliary bad news the day after when it was told its rear wing was illegal, as it can't be mounted on DRS actuator.

But the optimism lived on. "I think Renault is better placed than last year," noted Hulkenberg. "The team moved closer to the midfield." He added some caution though. "Points will be difficult as I think four teams are clearly in front."

The RS17 won't be pulling up trees, instead it's likely to be in the midfield scrap, perhaps towards the bottom part of it. Certainly the team's aim expressed in the launch of getting fifth in the constructors' table seems at the extreme end of optimism. But the consensus is that Renault's forward step has been greater than almost any other.

Nico Hulkenberg - Car #27
Photo: Octane Photography
It seems a recurring feature of the modern F1 age - Nico Hulkenberg is yet another who plenty rate as high as they come, but whose talent is squandered in sub-standard equipment. And he is another who in this context has rolled the dice - throwing his lot for this year in with the theoretical potential of the works Renault squad.

In the past few years however - loosely since he returned to Force India - it's fair to say that Hulkenberg's only shown his best in fits and starts. In continued that way initially in 2016 too as in the early rounds he looked a shadow. The season ended though with him appearing right back at the top of his mighty game. Some reckoned his Renault switch being confirmed resulted in him finding his urge of old. But in fact his upturn could be traced to before that, perhaps even was pinpointed at the car's major upgrade in the Spanish round. In Monaco he qualified a superb fifth indeed and might have at last broken his F1 podium duck had he got the pit stop timing that his team mate got. In Austria he reminded us of his excellent wet-to-dry track confidence by bagging a front row start.

We've long known about Hulkenberg's tremendous raw speed but many attribute his rather tepid results of recent years to the notorious delicate Pirelli tyres - and that the aggressive Hulk seems unwilling as much as unable to adapt to them. Some said that in late 2016 he'd finally started to learn from his team mate Sergio Perez on how to get the best out of the rubber. And given that this year's tyres are of the much more durable sort, combined with his works team move, it may mean that things are swinging his way at last.

Jolyon Palmer - Car #30
Photo: Octane Photography
Jolyon Palmer could hardly have asked for a more fiery F1 baptism - a difficult and under-performing car and a Renault team that from an early stage didn't conceal its shortage of faith in him. Palmer indeed appeared out of his depth in the early rounds of 2016, and several crashes at Monaco was his extreme low point.

He did knuckle down however and eventually got to grips with things, with the man himself identifying improved technical understanding as key to this and particularly the post-British Grand Prix test as his breakthrough. A better run in Hungary when he looked good to break his points duck was spoiled by a half-spin. Then he got into Q2 in five of the final nine rounds, scored his only point in Malaysia, and generally was the lead Renault pilot. It perhaps reflected what he has tended to do throughout his motorsport career, which is taking a little while to get up to pace in a new series.

Ordinarily it still would have been too late for a reprieve in merciless F1, and Palmer's eventual Renault retention for this campaign owed much to that several others turned the drive down. It's up to him now to take advantage of that fortune - he wouldn't be the first in the sport's history to have a fine career after such a sliding doors moment. And it's worth reflecting that another trend from his past is that he does much better in year two in a formula than in year one.

Inside Line F1 Podcast - McLaren Is The Fan Favourite For 2017

As we near the start of the 2017 Formula 1 Season, Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull Racing are busy trading the 'favourites' tag with each other. In this week's episode of the Inside Line F1 Podcast, Mithila and Kunal tell you that despite their lack of pace and reliability, McLaren-Honda are definitely the fan favourite for 2017.

The million dollar questions staring at Formula 1 right now are: Will Mercedes unleash more pace? Will McLaren-Honda be able to go the full race distance? Also, does Daniel Ricciardo have a new party trick for 2017? Because we know that Max Verstappen does.

Liberty Media have re-branded GP2 to F2, but with F3 already there, what will they brand GP3 to? And we were most glad when they admitted that traditional races in Europe are key to Formula 1's future. The new owners of the sport seem to be making the right noises (again). Is this why Bernie Ecclestone chose to not stay on?

Along with iTunes and audioBoom, we're also now available on Google Play Podcasts. Pick your platform and subscribe for your weekly dose of Formula 1 humour.

Tune in!

(Season 2017, Episode 10)

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

F1 2017 Season Preview: Haas - Tearing up the rule book

Last season Haas tore up the F1 rule book. Debutant squads these days are supposed to be comically bad, barely clinging on at the back of the pack; perhaps living a hand to mouth existence.

Photo: Octane Photography
Not so Haas, which was right in the mix right from the get-go. It scored a whole 29 points (including sixth place in its first race) and ended up eighth of 11 in the constructors' table.

Some curmudgeons muttered however that by their estimation Haas had torn up the rule book in a more literal sense also. Certainly it stretched its wording in a way that shocked a few, particularly in the 'listed parts' regulations and the minimum in-house components required to be an F1 constructor. It outsourced build of the chassis as well as the design and manufacture of its listed parts to Dallara on a contract basis, as well as sourced many non-listed parts from its effective A team Ferrari. Haas also as a non-competing team in its preparation year was then unbound by restrictions on windtunnel and CFD running, and used Ferrari facilities which only increased the grumbling, although an FIA visit declared everything kosher. Still, in more ways than one Haas was no ordinary debutant.

There were teething problems of course. After a fine start - scoring in the three of the opening four rounds - the squad fell away a little. Sometimes it flailed amid the myriad requirements of being a modern F1 team, and there was also internal squabbling and staff departures. Most noticeable to the rest of us were its problems with brakes that lingered notoriously (and much to its drivers audible chagrin) for much of the season. Most suspected a more established squad would have sorted it a lot more quickly.

Not for nothing many predicted a more difficult sophomore year for Haas in 2017, including because this time it'd be subject to the same restrictions as everyone else. But the team appears at least to have maintained its level, with the consensus that its is a neat and compliant machine that is somewhere within the crowded midfield peleton. Karun Chandhok reckoned it looked driveable and "ahead of the likes of Sauber and McLaren, and genuinely in the [midfield] fight".

A few spotted more evidence on it of Ferrari technical collaboration, particularly in the bargeboard and turning vanes. It also is benefitting from an improved and ultra-reliable Ferrari power unit. Team principal Gunther Steiner said in testing that "the engine and gearbox here, we had almost a flawless test with the same engine - we never changed engine...They [Ferrari] have done a fantastic job in my opinion."

There was a sensor problem on the final day, and Steiner spoke of a car struggling for low speed grip. He also admitted that the brake problems that coloured so much of its debut campaign weren't entirely solved, and indeed repeated brake locking from the car was seen.

But he reminded us too of what should be Haas's bottom line: "A lot of people promised us that the second year is going to be harder than the first one," he noted at testing's conclusion, "but I think again we came here prepared...and we did what we said to everybody we will do - have a good second year, hopefully better than the first one."

Romain Grosjean - Car #8
Photo: Octane Photography
How quickly we forget in F1. The argument still stands - there are those who rate Romain Grosjean as high as they come; perhaps as the quickest of everyone. Not hyperbole - Pirelli has cornering data that backs the contention. We also can think back to the final weeks of the 2013 season when he was a routine, and high-quality, contender at the sharp end. And yet today the Franco-Swiss is another whose talent is squandered by poor equipment and a sport with a very exclusive number of plumb drives.

It was amid these considerations, and knowing that the Renault squad he was at would take a time to rebuild, that Grosjean last year rolled the dice by joining Haas, with the hope of getting into Ferrari's eye-line. And initially it looked a masterstroke as he scored in three of the first four and showed his range of skills in so doing - such as by holding off faster rivals in Australia and then going on the attack in Bahrain. But in line with his team's fortunes it got a lot tougher, the car's handling often was evil and the chronic brake problem was particularly regrettable for Grosjean as it curtailed perhaps his greatest skill of carrying vast speed into corners. And we all heard his frequent radio frustrations. Still even in this tough spell a highly impressive Suzuka weekend reminded us of his acute talent.

It was a pity too, as outside the heat of the moment he was a soul of patience and fully recognised the need to keep morale up via being positive. Those close to the situation said he had his shoulder fully behind the Haas effort. One hopes for more than one reason that things finally come right for Grosjean before too long.

Kevin Magnussen - Car #20
Photo: Octane Photography
Now in his third F1 team in three full seasons in the sport, Kevin Magnussen's peripatetic existence continues, this time at Haas.

Such F1 nomadism isn't often a good sign (remember Andrea de Cesaris?), yet Magnussen already at 24 years old has been maltreated more than most. At McLaren of course he was dumped rather unsympathetically (and the decision was stretched out over a calendar year near enough while the Dane was left in limbo). He got an unlikely reprieve, and a rare stroke of luck, by getting a Renault drive at the last minute for 2016 when Pastor Maldonado's cheques didn't clear. Yet even so he couldn't shake his ill-starred tendencies. The car was a late patch-up job and the Renault team appeared to lose faith in him early. Word emerged from Enstone that he wasn't committed or disciplined enough and erred too often - a lot like it had when he was at Woking. As the year entered its final part his team mate Jolyon Palmer got ahead of him consistently.

He gets another chance though, and his repeated reprieves may owe something to that he apparently brings more sponsor cash than he likes to let on outwardly. Yet we should not forget the raw driving potential that got him his McLaren gig in the first place, plus Magnussen firmly denies the Enstone criticisms (and points out not unreasonably that the team tried to retain his services for this season). And now at Haas in a more tight and sympathetic environment - the backing of Gene Haas and Gunther Steiner seems strong - and with the opportunity to put roots down he now perhaps has his best chance to finally make good on it all. Certainly the man himself thinks so. "It's a different feeling coming to a team that wants you...it's motivating," he noted recently. "Hopefully I have found a team that I can stay with for longer than one year and grow together."

Sunday, 12 March 2017

F1 2017 Season Preview: Toro Rosso - In good company

The new Toro Rosso for this year turned plenty of heads, and not merely because of the rather nifty new colour scheme based on Red Bull's cola brand. Its Mercedes resemblance was clear, in general shape and in its intricacies that were right from the sort that the far better resourced Brackley squad came up with. There were many direct similarities, such as the front suspension raised for aero benefit. Craig Scarborough called the STR12 "an absolute jewel of a car".

Photo: Octane Photography
"On the one hand we were sort of pleased to see someone else has done a similar thing," said the Faenza team's highly-rated technical head James Key of the similarities to the Mercedes W08, "but on the other we were disappointed that we weren't the only team to think of something." Still, if any other team's going to be up on your level then right now you'd pick Merc...

It shouldn't shock us too much either. Toro Rosso under Key's direction has been producing aerodynamically-fine chassis for a number of years now (albeit ones let down on occasion in other areas such as reliability and preparation). It produced a fine chassis last season too, to the point that some speculated about podium finishes in the early rounds. But the downside of having a year-old Ferrari engine (due to being left high and dry - and late - by its big brother team's spat with Renault) was foreseeable and foreseen. Not only was accepting the engine at such a late moment of the chassis's development problematic, the unit also stood still as the season progressed while all others around it improved.

This year it's nipped that one in the bud by returning to Renault, and Key recognises that the French concern has "turned a huge corner" on performance.

However the opening test was underwhelming for Toro Rosso, with some reliability problems meaning the STR12 clocked the lowest mileage of all (yep, lower even than McLaren) and it was lowest in the lap time ranking too. Its earlier filming day also was halted early by a Renault problem. But the sense of the car's latent promise lived on - "it looks good, it looks fast" opined team principal Franz Tost. It all meant Key described the opening gathering as "encouraging but frustrating".

The second test was perhaps tilted a bit more towards encouraging - Carlos Sainz set third fastest time on the final day while the car got more than double the mileage of the opening test - but the team still was frustrated by (usually Renault) problems curtailing running. Key admitted that with it all the car's not quite yet in its set-up window.

Still no one doubts the machine's potential; that even in the here and now it's in the thick of the midfield mix and perhaps could be near or at the front of it once all niggles are fixed. Tost said at the launch that he's "optimistic that Toro Rosso will be in the front part of this midfield" and that a best-ever fifth place in the constructors' championship is the target. Given everything that looks an achievable aim.

Daniil Kvyat - Car #26
Photo: Octane Photography
The Red Bull collective clearly sees something in Daniil Kvyat, given it skipped on its own notorious ruthless ways to retain his services for this season. Moreover such was a lot of his 2016 campaign that even a team boss from the extreme benevolent wing of F1 decision-making would have struggled to make a case to keep him on.

His season was for a time like one of those scenes of carnage that you felt you shouldn't look at but somehow couldn't quite avert your eyes from. He was dumped unceremoniously by the Red Bull big team after just four rounds to make way for the prodigious Max Verstappen (aided by Kvyat getting nowhere near Daniel Ricciardo on pace), and back at Toro Rosso the Russian appeared to be unravelling further. After Germany's qualifying he was so bewildered indeed that we feared genuinely for his well-being.

But the turning point was only a day away as he put in a much improved race performance in Hockenheim, and followed that up with a decent if not necessarily spectacular latter part of the season. And somehow it ended as an unlikely tale of salvation as outlined, even though the latest off the Red Bull conveyor belt Pierre Gasly was on the way to bagging the GP2 crown. On a certain level we can understand the decision to stick with Kvyat, as when he's good he's very good. But this perhaps is the crux - apparently Kvyat's is an ultra-aggressive style that requires everything underneath him to be just so to get the best out of it. Yet how often is everything just so? Entering year four of his F1 existence he needs to somehow find an ability to string together his highs with far greater regularity.

Carlos Sainz - Car #55
Photo: Octane Photography
One of things to be glad of about the last F1 season is that in it Carlos Sainz stepped out of Max Verstappen's shadow to get his own proper due. Some in the Toro Rosso team reckoned Sainz only really stepped up once Verstappen had left the team early that campaign. But that on the face of it seems harsh as for the year-and-a-bit they were paired there rarely was much if anything to choose between Sainz and the epoch-making Dutchman. Perhaps too it reflects that it was only as Max won ever more friends in a front-running drive that Sainz's ability - by way of comparison - was brought into its proper focus.

He scored on ten occasions in 2016 and made Q3 nine times, the latter showing there's nothing wrong with his raw pace. In many rounds he finished several places higher than he started; usually these were places higher than his car deserved. He likely would have got a podium appearance - only the team's second ever - in Monaco but for a botched pit stop. In Brazil he showed not for the first time that he's superb in the wet. He also in many rounds demonstrated Alonso-like on-track feistiness. Mistakes were few. All was achieved too in a car sliding inevitably from the pace as the season went on. Sainz, in keeping with his character, simply shrugged and reckoned the adversity made him a better pilot.

His lucid and sober ways ensure that he is one who seeks always to improve. Some even ended the year thinking him a champion of the future, and clearly Red Bull agrees there's something special that it needs to clutch tight, given the firm way it rebuffed various potential suitors of Sainz's last summer and kept him on at Toro Rosso for a third year. Certainly teams capable of winning championships - and not just Red Bull - could do infinitely worse than give him a drive.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

F1 2017 Season Preview: McLaren - Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps

For the most part, despite everything, we were prepared to give the benefit of the doubt. Yes the McLaren Honda since the partnership's return to F1 was persistently off the pace, but we could point at mitigating circumstances. Plus things seemed at least to be going in the right direction, albeit progression was slower than hoped.

Photo: Octane Photography
That was until the new machine for 2017 - new in colour scheme and nomenclature too as the MCL32 - started to run on track. Or rather not run. All eight test days were characterised by stuttering, piecemeal appearances - usually 10 laps maximum at a time - before conking out thanks to power unit related maladies. First there were multiple unit failures then repeated electrical problems from excessive vibrations.

And the thing isn't even fast but fragile. It instead lacks desperately through speed traps - as much as 25km/h off the quickest - although in some defence the unit has been run turned down given the problems. Its mapping too makes the car difficult for its drivers to tame. And it all added up to being around three seconds a lap shy of the pace. Little wonder racing director Eric Boullier spoke of "maximum" strain between team and engine supplier, and that Fernando Alonso spoke later of there being "no reliability and no power" from the Japanese unit. Some expect the orange cars to fill the back row in Melbourne.

It's too early of course to talk of things being back at square one but it had plenty of outward similarities. It felt too that with all of this a few long since taut senses of patience finally snapped.

And while it's been tempting this whole time to think that all would be rosy as soon as the Honda is got right a few have asked questions of the McLaren chassis also. Observers in testing have noted it looking nothing like as nailed through the corners as the nominal front-runners and in a way that may not be explained by a lack of set-up work done so far. Gary Anderson after the first test rated it the worst chassis of the ten out there. It may reflect, at the very least, that with a power unit so lacking it will have been very difficult for the team to rate where its chassis development is.

The new aero regulations were essentially a McLaren proposal too, which would add to the ignominy of getting them wrong. Furthermore Alonso spoke in the first test of the extra drag from the new regs counting further against the Honda's lack of grunt.

But the problem for the McLaren Honda partnership remains as it was in another sense as well - that to a large extent they remain stuck with each other. Not only will acrimony likely be counter productive, switching engine suppliers mid-stream, as some have suggested, will not be at all easy technically or administratively.

Perhaps it will all suddenly click. As noted the no reliability/no power issues are in fact likely related rather than disparate. Perhaps the chassis will look much better too if the unit's problems are solved and it starts shoving out what was expected. Perhaps. But one wonders how long all can keep talking in such terms. Including the team and engine supplier who continue to suffer so much reputational damage.

Stoffel Vandoorne - Car #2
Photo: Octane Photography
"One cannot stem the tide forever," noted Will Buxton at the time it was confirmed. After a few years of procrastination McLaren bowed the inevitable finally, breaking its all-champion race lineup to make room for its prodigious protegee. One who comes highly recommended. "Stoffel Vandoorne is, alongside Lewis Hamilton, the single most exceptional talent I ever witnessed in GP2," concluded Buxton glowingly.

In 2014 Vandoorne became only the fourth driver in history to win his GP2 debut race, and in the final dozen races that year he outscored eventual champion Jolyon Palmer on the way to a fine runner-up slot. While in 2015 he was crushing in claiming the GP2 crown for himself, and scored near enough double the points of the next guy up. Yes he had everything in place to prevail, but McLaren made it clear that he had to deliver the title. And even so the scale of his triumph shocked.

He showed too that he is not just one to lead from the front, as in reverse-grid sprint races he ghosted forward time after time, looking after his tyres well and showing Alonso-like abilities to vault places amid the chaos of the opening corners. Last year his brief and 11th hour F1 race weekend debut in Bahrain did his reputation no harm at all.

The parallels with Lewis Hamilton go further, as plenty point back to a decade ago and Lewis getting his full debut season alongside Alonso at McLaren, just as Stoffel is now. We all recall what that entailed. Expecting something similar from Stoffel though probably is unfair for a few reasons. Plus the car will no doubt be more difficult, and we've seen repeatedly in warped F1 that even the most promising talent can have their reputations suffer by association with poor equipment. Usually too being paired with Nando is quite the graveyard shift. But then again the placid yet exceptionally talented Belgian seems very well-equipped to handle it all.

Fernando Alonso - Car #14
Photo: Octane Photography
Few in and around F1 doubt that Fernando Alonso given a car good enough, or nearly good enough, would still most likely take it all the way to a title. And if last year was any sort of guide all of his repertoire remains as sharp as ever - relentless pace, unquenchable determination, pitiless aggression. The only problem is that it has all been rather wasted by an achingly disappointing McLaren Honda project.

And Alonso indeed makes no effort to conceal that for him the title is the thing; that the lack of championship number three irritates like an uncleansed sore. Even before the MCL32's woeful on track debut Alonso noted that even podium finishes this year would "probably not" satisfy him. He doesn't conceal either that he's a man in a hurry, and doesn't always conceal his frustrations at his underpeforming mount more generally.

We tend to view Alonso as a pressure cooker on the verge of explosion at all times, perhaps on the point of walking or else alienating others sufficiently to be punted by his team, and the risks now are foreseeable. One can construct a plausible scenario involving yet another disappointing McLaren Honda plus Alonso in the final year of his Woking contract, and in the second test some thought he'd started early on that one (though word was he said what he did with the team's blessing). But we've said that sort of thing of Alonso plenty before, and he's still here. Plus usually once his visor is down he doesn't know any other way than to go for it - "I will be 80 years old in a go-kart pushing kids out of the track" he noted recently. Self-interest will dictate too - if he wants selected for a plumb drive in 2018 (and plenty think he does) he'll need to do himself justice on track in 2017.

For all that some seem gleeful in speculating to the contrary, in modern F1 few have got rich by writing off Fernando Alonso.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

F1 2017 Season Preview: Williams - Marching again?

In F1 certain things can't be denied for long. In 2014, after a few years of doldrums, it was glad confident morning for the famous old Williams team. It bounced forward with Mercedes power units, a low drag chassis that made good on it as well as new technical figures such as Pat Symonds and Rob Smedley aboard. But in the years since the team drifted. It took a while for observers to notice as Red Bull's 2015 slump cloaked it somewhat. But last year there was nowhere to hide as not only did the Bulls get ahead so too did Force India - a team not a great deal larger than half of Williams' size.

Photo: Octane Photography
The FW38 was rather uninspired and then proved resistant to development, as well as wasn't good at extracting performance from the tyres. Yet the team's face off with Force India shed light on a more fundamental Williams conundrum. As outlined recently in Motorsport Magazine while Force India is a lean outfit designed to make the best for one its size, Williams is still structured as a large team - doing most things in-house - but hasn't the budget to maximum it. Given everything we can understand why Williams would be reluctant to raise a white flag and re-structure itself in Force India style. Yet for now it seems between a rock and a hard place.

The team at least cannot be accused of sitting on its hands in the face of all of this. Among other changes Dirk de Beer (one of many punted from Ferrari last year) is in as the new head of aero, Dave Redding is in from McLaren as sporting manager, while former Ferrari tyre specialist Antonio Spagnolo is in to improve its iffy understanding of the Pirelli rubber already cited. Best of all the return of celebrated Mercedes technical head Paddy Lowe is thought imminent.

But the flipside to all of this upheaval is that it may take time for it to bear fruit. Certainly Lowe's impact is unlikely to be felt in the immediate term. Yet Williams' record after big technical changes is good, as especially is Pat Symonds', who while he left the team in recent weeks will have been responsible for the team's broad 2017 direction.

On the crude basis of how the 2017 car looked in its (computer-etched) launch many sensed a 'will that do?' effort. "The Williams is disappointing," said Craig Scarborough, "there's nothing really that you can pick out on that car would really set it apart from the opposition". Motorsport added that its simple features "beg the question as to whether Williams will make the most of the new regs".

Ted Kravitz suggested however that "it's in the sort of Red Bull concept of nice and simple, just get the flow right...it seems to be fundamentally a pretty good car." But while the team's opening test was quiet - not helped by losing much running time due to a series of prangs from its rookie driver Lance Stroll - the second test seemed to bear Kravitz out. The car got not only plenty of mileage but Felipe Massa set headline times among those of the big boys - indeed he topped the charts on the opening day.

And it might just all be real. "Just spent an hour trackside," said Will Buxton on the second day of the second gathering. "Reckon Felipe's choice to unretire might be the best one he ever made. Holy wow, what a car he's got this year." Keep an eye on the old Grove soldiers.

Lance Stroll - Car #18
Photo: Octane Photography
Drivers who enter F1 backed with cash start out on a hiding to nothing. And with this, son-of-a-billionaire Lance Stroll could hardly have kicked off his life in the sport's pinnacle series less auspiciously. He had three off track incidents in his first two days of testing, which - combined with a shortage of spare parts - in effect lost the team two of the four days' running.

Some sought to defend him - Rob Smedley described Stroll as an "innocent victim" of cold tyres while Lewis Hamilton made the not unreasonable point that the new breed of F1 car is particularly challenging for a rookie. The F1 wag community didn't however require further encouragement - Stroll was the new Pastor Maldonado (money, Williams, crashes a lot), they sniped.

Stroll has been in something like this situation before though, just a year ago. Then coming out of a debut F3 season in which he had been promising but erratic, he got number one status in the series' top squad of Prema Powerteam. He didn't even start the campaign that well. And just as accusing eyes started to burn upon him to make good on his favourable opportunity he did so, and superbly, by creaming the title with an almost 50% win rate. His driving indeed developed a polished yet assertive disposition as the season went on.

If anything he exceeded the lofty expectations. "Money buys a lot but Stroll transcended that," noted Marcus Simmons at the campaign's conclusion, "by the time the season finished people were talking about his ability, not his family's wealth." It's way too soon to call him the new Maldonado in other words.

Felipe Massa - Car #19
Photo: Octane Photography
The doubts around Williams in advance of testing extended to its driver line up. Stroll may well have potential as outlined but it can hardly be denied that his selection owes much to money. While the choice to bring Felipe Massa back from retirement to replace the promoted Valtteri Bottas was interpreted as an imagination failure. Harsh? Maybe - but it has a ring of truth too.

Granted Williams wanted a solid offering in the suddenly-vacated seat alongside Stroll after Bottas was head-hunted at the 11th hour. Granted too Williams' chief sponsor didn't want both drivers under the age of 25. Granted too Jenson Button was enquired about but found to be out of the team's financial league. Yet the suspicion persisted that a more worthwhile compromise could have been found than a guy whose qualifying and pace deficit to his team mate gaped probably larger and more consistently than in any other pairing on the grid last season. For whom whatever the emotion around his apparent retirement no one doubted that he'd timed his retirement well.

Claire Williams insists the interpretation is simplistic, that among other things Massa's experience will come in handy in a year with a reg shift. And Felipe has surprised us pleasantly before, particularly when he feels he has a team mainly focussed on him, which surely he'll get in 2017 at least initially. As outlined his testing form has looked good. He might just be in for an Indian summer.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Inside Line F1 Podcast - PR Laps To Hoodwink Sponsors

The second pre-season test is underway in Barcelona. While the form factor of most teams is predictable, in this week's episode of the Inside Line F1 Podcast, Mithila and Kunal wonder which team will actually put in a 'PR' lap. Also, which team needs one the most?

On the note of sponsors, there's talk that Force India might turn pink IF a particular sponsor joins them. We tell you Vijay Mallya's link with the brand and name Pinky and why at least two people wouldn't mind the Force India being coloured pink.

Williams followed up their JCB announcement with a partnership announcement with Bombardier. Is the air plane partner the best (and cheapest) way to transport spares across the world just in case Lance Stroll turns out to be the next Pastor Maldonado?

Finally, we talk about Hamilton-Bottas's team-mate relationship, Hamilton-branded Monster Energy can, the dip in Formula 1 viewership in 2016 before we finally conclude with our 'The Joke's On McLaren' section. Tune in!

Remember to subscribe to the Inside Line F1 Podcast on iTunes and audioBoom for your weekly dose of Formula 1 humour.

Women In Racing, by Select Car Leasing

With the recent retirement of Susie Wolff from F1 testing and the buzz surrounding up and coming talent Marta Garcia, Select Car Leasing thought they'd take a look at women in motorsport as a whole and see who were the trailblazers of the sport, which females are considered the best of today and the drivers who we could all be talking about in the not too distant future.

They also uncover what F1 governing body, the FIA, are planning in order to get more females into motor racing.

women-in-racing
women-in-racing by SELECT CAR LEASING.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

F1 2017 Season Preview: Force India - Holding what you have

Over recent years it's been an annual presence in F1 season previews: 'Just where can Force India go from here?' Twelve months ago we all asked it once again, and the Silverstone team answered it once again. Emphatically. From its best ever fifth place in the constructors' table in 2015 it went one higher in 2016 to fourth. The only ones ahead were those with upwards of twice Force India's staff numbers and with bonus payments from FOM that outstrip its entire budget. Really, it is not clear how more could reasonably have been asked of the team.

Photo: Octane Photography
Of course, the flip side is that even with us being confounded on the point year after year it surely by now is hard to see how Force India can progress higher. Its target now has to be consolidation.

This time too there is the big regulation shift for 2017 which tends to work against those with less resource. Then there is the risk of whether owner Vijay Mallya's frolics away from the track will have its impact on the team, but then again that's another thing we've been asking annually for a while. In any case, the team's series of strong constructors' placings and resultant prize money has given it some insulation from this.

And compliments indeed are due to the outfit. Yes, having the jewel of a Mercedes power unit in the back is a real bonus, particularly in the hybrid era. But then again others have had this too and haven't done nearly as good a job - Williams most notably which is another team with greater budget and staff. Last year indeed Williams was beaten to that very same fourth place by Force India even though a few thought the Grove car had the more raw pace. The VJM09 seemed superior however in consistency and adaptability as well as was less problematic. And the team just seemed to make better of it all.

It is beyond dispute too that at least a couple of teams behind Force India should be ahead of it and would be if they ever got round to maximising their offering (but that's another thing we seem to say annually). But Force India's doing plenty in of itself. Its wind tunnel programme, these days at Toyota's facility in Cologne, is a highly effective one; it's easy to forget too that the car in 2016 once set the second quickest qualifying time (in Baku) and another time the third quickest (in Austria). More generally it is a lean, efficient and motivated operation with plenty of talent.

As for this season, many observers were impressed with the Mercedes-esque detail on the new car, though its 'snorkel' nose tip and step over the front suspension gave it an ugly duckling air. The first Barcelona test didn't tell us much about where it is competitively as it didn't draw attention on lap time or mileage. Observers reckoned it looked decent enough on track but not yet much more than that. But that brings us to another thing that Force India has done before - developing its machine superbly in-season. Indeed in the past couple of years it started the season with a rather basic model and then introduced something like a B-spec mid-term which delivered a clear second wind.

And we should be extremely cautious of declaring the start of Force India's downward curve. Despite as outlined plenty of predictions to that end, none have yet been proved right on that one.

Sergio Perez - Car #11
Photo: Octane Photography
A clear best-of-the-rest behind the 'big three' teams in the 2016 drivers' table with upwards of 100 points. There really should have been little to quibble with. But that many still seemed a bit cautious about it all says something about the traditional view of Sergio Perez.

As often seems the case with Checo the high points last campaign were very high. He made two more podium appearances - in wet-to-dry Monaco he timed both stops perfectly, benefitted from others' delays and drove aggressively to third. While Baku was his best weekend of the year, with his qualifying mark good enough for the front row (though sight should not be lost that it was his own error that got him his grid drop) and then some more classic Perez gentle tyre-handling and tough resolve pushed him up to third place in the race.

But despite this the evidence over time is that Checo has become a complete performer. Some had doubted his raw speed - suggested his occasional strong results owed much to a gentle touch on the delicate Pirellis. But in the past 18 months - since a set-up breakthrough - there has been almost nothing between him and his highly-rated then-team mate Nico Hulkenberg on qualifying pace. For much of the same period the Mexican's race delivery has been pretty consistent too, and last year from Germany onwards he scored everywhere and almost never under-performed. Perhaps it's about time we had a Checo reevaluation.

Esteban Ocon - Car #31
Photo: Octane Photography
There are many reasons for Force India's persistent punching above its weight, and one we forget about perhaps is that in an increasingly rare characteristic it gives driving talent its opportunity. This year, having let Nico Hulkenberg get his break at a manufacturer team, it's sticking to that by recruiting the prodigious Mercedes protegee Esteban Ocon.

He is one well-known to the team. He has twice driven in tests for it, and the squad was impressed with his pace and feedback. That he was picked for the race seat ahead of the other Merc young pup (and Manor team mate in the latter part of last season) Pascal Wehrlein raised a few eyebrows, particularly as when they were paired Ocon only qualified ahead twice in nine attempts. This may have been a consequence though of coming in as a rookie mid-season and indeed in practice and race pace there often was little to tell.

Wehrlein claimed that it reflected an assessment of personality as much as driving talent (some indeed suggest Wehrlein is abrasive), but it's worth reflecting that Force India has ran Wehrlein in a test too so is in a position to make a direct comparison on pace and everything else. In any case perhaps evidence of Ocon's star during his brief Manor spell was elsewhere. In the Brazil rain he left Wehrlein behind to the tune of 1.5 secs per lap, as well as battled in the points until the penultimate tour. He also managed to even out-Alonso Fernando Alonso in Malaysia's opening corners, by vaulting no fewer than ten places. We also could rewind further and note that he beat someone called Max Verstappen to an F3 crown. Ocon is one to watch.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

F1 2017 Season Preview: Ferrari - Under promise and over deliver

Ferrari might actually be learning. Twelve months ago much bombast emanated from the Scuderia. Its abrasive president Sergio Marchionne spoke of championships, but the car was a desperate disappointment and the team unravelled. This year, in its early days the exact opposite is happening it seems, in both senses.

Photo: Octane Photography
The team appears to have embodied the Italian phrase on their caps, translating as that one should keep their feet on the ground and their head down. On Marchionne's orders barely a peep has been heard from Maranello this winter, and whaddayaknow, the Ferrari machine the team's come up with looks a good one. "I think we learned our lessons from the past years" noted Kimi Raikkonen in Barcelona testing, not for nothing.

Marchionne learned at last it seemed that he should pour oil on troubled waters. The team resisted any temptation to head hunt after its hollowing out of its technical team last year, and instead backed the people it had (with Rory Byrne brought out of hibernation). And the launched car appeared purposeful, with interesting innovation most notably in its sidepod shape but also in the bargeboards and the front of the floor. There's solid talk too of a bold new piston design.

Most importantly the red car looked superb on track in testing, on all tyre compounds and all programmes seemingly. The car could be seen going precisely where the drivers wanted and almost never got out of line even on full throttle.

"The Ferrari simply looked like the best car out there" stated an observing Gary Anderson. "Mario Andretti used to say that the ground-effect Lotus 79 he won the 1978 world championship in was painted to the road, and that's exactly what the Ferrari looked like."

It translated to lap times too as Sebastian Vettel's fastest mark was just a quarter of a second off Valtteri Bottas's table-topping pace and was done on soft rubber rather than the Mercedes's ultra-soft.

Of course, there are some caveats. Ferrari usually runs lower fuel than Mercedes in testing, plus it's thought the silver squad hasn't been running its engines on full chat. In previous years the major part of Ferrari's deficit lay in qualifying that rather than in general running. While false dawns are far from unheard of in Maranello; in the opening test a year ago indeed Ferrari was fastest on three of the four days.

And Vettel was suitably cautious in his words about the SF70H: "By the looks of it the car is working, we don't have any major issues. In terms of performance, still too early to tell but by the looks of it we still need to find a decent chunk, so there's a lot of work ahead."

But at the very least we can say that Ferrari has improved, which is just as well as the fallout of another disappointing season would likely have us hiding behind sofas. And McLaren boss Eric Boullier probably got closest of all: "The Ferrari is surprising and people were not expecting Ferrari to be matching Mercedes's lap times."

Sebastian Vettel - Car #5
Photo: Octane Photography
It's easy to forget that without rather glaring pit wall errors Sebastian Vettel could have had three race wins from the first half of the 2016 F1 season. With that, even with what came next, our views of his campaign would be very different. But rather than the anticipated championship charge he became just the latest to discover the tendency for hopes down Maranello way to be dashed. With it any sense of his charmed existence ended abruptly. And for Seb the transition seemed a painful one.

Increasingly so as the year progressed. His driving got a little scrappy, particularly in the opening corners of races, some of his personal behaviour got tetchy, and oddly too he appeared to lose his qualifying talisman with his team mate Kimi Raikkonen actually ending up ahead on the quali count. It all left some to wonder, with minds on 2014 as well, that while Seb gets the absolute maximum out of a good situation perhaps in difficult situations he doesn't keep up his own end of the bargain. Then a rift with his immediate boss Maurizio Arrivabene got public, with the latter stating his driver should stick to the driving instead on sticking his nose into team running. For someone like Seb - one who among other things lauds Michael Schumacher - it could have been designed to wound. Perhaps it was.

But we shouldn't get too excited on all of this. Vettel remains absolutely one of the best things about Ferrari, and he showed it plenty even in his difficult campaign just passed. And if Ferrari is indeed set for a bounce back this year then you can bet rather a lot on Vettel doing the same.

Kimi Raikkonen - Car #7
Photo: Octane Photography
F1 can be quite the mystery. Most were nonplussed - some were cynical - when in Silverstone last July Ferrari confirmed Kimi Raikkonen's retention for this campaign. Yet it was only in the rounds after that Kimi's performances demonstrated that the Scuderia was onto something.

As the season went on he looked more and more a man transformed. He indeed headed stable mate Sebastian Vettel in the points standings late in the season, and might have stayed there had he not got the rough end of the stick a few times. He even managed to show up better in qualifying, his bugbear of recent seasons, and started ahead of Seb in the final five rounds. This helped him actually top that match-up for the year.

With political whirlwind all around him particularly in the year's latter part few are better equipped to let all debris bounce off than the bullet proof Finn. But it wasn't all that; it also owed plenty to engineering changes mid-season and Kimi at last getting a Ferrari machine more suited to his handling taste.

Which brings us to a potential bottom line. For years we were told that Raikkonen needed a responsive car to do full justice to his talent. Testing thus far suggests Ferrari this time is providing precisely that. Should we do the math?

Saturday, 4 March 2017

F1 2017 Season Preview: Red Bull - Sticking to what you're good at

So reports of Red Bull's F1 death were greatly exaggerated. In 2016 the team stopped arguing with its engine supplier and threatening to quit the sport, and got back to what it's good at. Which is building exceptional F1 racing cars and making the best of it with extraordinary swagger.

Photo: Octane Photography
The fourth place that the team drifted to in the 2015 constructors' table was a year on converted to a clear and striding second, as well as status as perhaps Mercedes's only irritant. By consensus too the still-maligned Renault power unit accounted for most, perhaps all, of the deficit.

The consensus from far out also was that the 2017 regs - with bags more downforce available - would suit the Bulls just fine. And with it the team became something it's less accustomed to, the vessel into which neutrals poured their will. As James Allen for one noted on Twitter at the time of the RB13's launch, there are a "lot of hopes riding on this Red Bull car to make a competition of it this year".

Yet at the very same launch things threatened to deflate a little, as onlookers were slightly underwhelmed. "I think for the most of of us the first impressions were 'where's all the really clever stuff on there?'" said Craig Scarborough of the new machine. Gary Anderson concurred that "the Red Bull doesn't have the same wow factor that you get from looking at the Ferrari sidepods/bargeboard area or the depth of the Mercedes design detail." True its 'Pingu' nose got attention, but the paddock view is that's a nice feature not a game changer.

Its start to testing was a little inauspicious too, with a double technical stoppage on the opening day, and lap times (and mileage) not troubling Ferrari let alone Merc. Word also developed that while Mercedes's trick suspension would be declared kosher the Red Bull system would not be.

But we shouldn't forget the team we're dealing with. "The one thing you can be sure of with Red Bull is that it never shows its wares until late in pre-season testing, if at all" cautioned Anderson. While Scarborough added that "this is the style of Adrian Newey that he's very minimalist in adding bits and pieces to the car. But only when you start to look at some of the shapes and some of the simpler details you can the start to see their underlying complexities."

Both drivers have insisted also that they're not chasing lap times yet. "For us at the moment it is not showing how quick we can be" noted Max Verstappen after day two. Daniel Ricciardo later spoke in simailr terms. "We're trying to get some laps, some consistent laps, for reliability as well, to make sure nothing's getting hot or there's no problems," he said. "The lap times, for now it's still not too representative."

There also was good news that the Renault unit indeed appears to have stepped up finally, and there was an unusual accompanying sight in testing of Red Bulls near the top of speed trap charts... Renault engine chief Remi Taffin reckoned the unit is "95% different" and Verstappen added that on that front "we're definitely catching up". There are strong accompanying rumours that the layout has been tidied too giving the Bulls' designers yet more space to play with.

And if 2016 confirmed anything it is that we should never count Red Bull out. It remains a formidable organisation.

Daniel Ricciardo - Car #3
Photo: Octane Photography
The excitement around Red Bull these days applies absolutely to its driver line up. And in an age hardly short on fine pilots there is a growing view that Daniel Ricciardo is the very best out of all of them.

It's certainly difficult to identify reasons why he isn't. He is one with everything - stunning pace particularly on a qualifying lap; being equally at home on the fast and mighty as in the tight and technical; Fernando Alonso-like racecraft and ability to avoid trouble; resolute consistency; a voracious willingness to race; sound judgement; fine brain power and apparent imperviousness to pressure. As for faults? Nothing obvious. Errors, even off days, from him are hard to pinpoint.

All of this and more was on show in 2016. That he won but once, and rode his luck in doing that, is quite the inappropriate calling card. With more even fortune three other wins could/should have been his and even so he wrapped up third place behind the Mercs in the drivers' table with two rounds remaining - a battle that by rights should have been close. While his entire Monaco weekend - on the sheer exhilarating edge in qualifying; clearly the quickest in wet and dry in the race - was one for the ages. That weekend confirmed too that he lacks nothing for determination and seriousness, for all his famous perma-smile.

More durable Pirellis this season should make him even more potent, given the closest thing he's had to a weakness is looking after his tyres in races. Make no mistake, if the Red Bull is even nearly as good as the Mercedes, Ricciardo will be right there.

Max Verstappen - Car #33
Photo: Octane Photography
Sometimes, even in F1, do believe the hype. In 2016 it was confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that Max Verstappen is a phenomenon. And where the 19 year-old goes from here simply is uncharted - without exaggeration the sport never has had someone this good this early.

Yes we knew he was quick. We knew also that he is the sport's most willing - and possibly most able - overtaker (and an elegant one as well). But we got confirmation of other things too. That he has brain power, poise, adaptability and a fine ability to stretch out the life of any tyre compound. And, oh yeah, he stepped into a front-running team mid-season without the tiniest hesitation in his stride.

There still are things to iron out - some of his moves in defence of his place stretched standards of decency and just like in 2015 while he was quick in Monaco he couldn't keep his car out of the barriers for long. More fundamentally some wondered if his fine drives owed more to gentle tyre handling than stunning raw pace (a skill that may become largely obsolete with more durable Pirellis this year). But another thing he is quick at is learning, and this included that while when he joined Red Bull his qualifying deficit to Ricciardo was notable at a few tenths consistently, as the season entered its final chapter Max was qualifying ahead with something like regularity. Many of the foibles and errors of his debut 2015 season were gone too last campaign.

And it built up to his crescendo in Brazil's foul conditions, where Max far surpassed even what he had done before with a drive that left jaws on the floor. Even the most truculent surely are converted now.