Translate this Blog

Monday, April 20, 2015

Sparks Fly

I don't care whether one team dominates F1 for a long period of time. I've watched Williams, McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull dominate the sport without it ever affecting my enjoyment so Mercedes is welcome to control the sport for the next five years as far as I'm concerned, as long as there is a competitive grid behind them.

I say this because it is not the fact of Mercedes dominating that upsets me, it is that the powers that be have messed with the formula so much, in order to open it up to a wider audience, that what is left is no longer primarily about racing it is about "the spectacle"!

And this is exhibited nowhere better than the fact that sparks flying from beneath the cars at Bahrain seemed to attract more comment than the actual race itself.  The replacement of the old block undertray with a titanium one was nothing more than a cynical exercise to create a "spectacle" reminiscent of the late 1980's/90's.  It would appear to have achieved its stated intent.

It did not however improve the racing.  Watching the highlights programme last night left me in no doubt that there were very few highlights to watch.  I haven't watched the Bahrain GP for four years now because of the political situation in that country but I did watch the highlights last night simply because I wanted to see if the circuit provided a halfway decent race.  It would seem not.

But it did bring home to me exactly why the current formula isn't working for me.  In the old days the team strategies were simple to understand.  Apart from the obvious need to pass the person in front of you the strategies fell under one heading; fuel.

You set your car up to run light or heavy and you made your pit stops accordingly.  You either worked out that a three stop strategy, running on lighter fuel, would get you to the end faster than your opponents or you might gamble that a one stop would get you to the end in a better position than where you started.

It was simple and at the same time fascinating! You could see someone like de Cesaris in a Tyrell starting in 12th and trundling his way around to 5th/6th by doing only one stop.  The car would be out of position for most of the race whilst all those around it flew past time and again, on their three stop strategies, but after the third pitstop, when everyone was on equal fuel levels he'd be sitting pretty with a 10 second gap to the car behind and 12 laps remaining.

As a viewer I could grasp the different strategies and appreciate how they were implemented and I could also appreciate when one of the top teams changed their strategy mid-race.

Pit stops made sense when the cars were being refueled.  The difference in pitstop times between a three stop and a two stop were fundamental to the strategy because the amount of time the car was sitting in the pits was significant.  On some tracks the strategy would be clear because it was obvious that two stops would be 10 seconds faster overall, but on others it was muddled and teams would shift between two and three with the outright speed of the car being the only essential difference.

My point is that I could understand the strategies because I could see them being played out, because I could participate.  The current situation is such that we are not participants in the team strategies because we are not participants.  We are told that Hamilton is fuel-saving and we hear Rosberg being told to manage his tyres, but we are not actively engaged in the team strategies, we are passive, viewing it without really understanding why.

The problem, for me, would appear to be that I cannot engage with the idea of fuel saving in the middle of a motor race.  Fuel saving is anathema to racing, as is tyre management.  Motor racing shoujld be about getting out there and driving the car as fast as it is capable of going until it falls apart around you.  Push the machine over the line if you have to, but don't save fuel or tyres in the middle of a race.

The refueling era gave us the "splash and dash" of cars running to the fumes and then, right at the end, ducking into the pits for a three second splash of fuel to get around the last 5 laps. Fresh tyres on and 15 litres to burn the cars would then swoop out of the pits and hunt down everyone who had overtaken them.  On old rubber they were easy meat.  Their tyres weren't going to fall off a cliff, they were more than adequate to get them to the end of the race, but new rubber combined with a light fuel load was a deadly combination that lead to some spectacular racing: spectacular overtaking and defensive driving.

As Murray used to say - "it's one thing catching them, its another entirely to get by".

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

If I want to watch car, tyre and engine management I can film myself driving to work!

So far this season I have to admit that once again I am not enamoured by the way F1 is going.  To me the races seem very static and immensely boring and, unfortunately it was the same again in China.

You can always forgive Melbourne, because that's where the cars, drivers and engines get their first taste of racing and the cracks tend to show up - as they did again this year.

But when the only excitement - other than DRS enabled overtaking - is Jenson battling his way through the corners with numerous better cars, in a phenomenally bad McLaren Honda, for 14th position then you know that there is something seriously wrong.

One thing that certainly felt, and sounded, wrong was Nico's call to the pits around Lap 20 regarding a slowing Lewis Hamilton up ahead.  The real story for me was not the complaint that Lewis was slowing but rather that Rosberg started complaining that if he couldn't stay 2.5 seconds behind he would get into the dirty air and wreck his tyres!

Nico, leave the management of the car to the team and just go racing!
Photo courtesy of Mercedes AMG Petronas

Instead of complaining about his slowing team-mate why didn't Rosberg take the opportunity to attack and try to overtake? Isn't that what racing is all about? Have I lost something in translation?

And this is exactly what is wrong with F1.  Nico is meant to be a racing driver, not his team-mate's shadow and not a manager.  He's supposed to be trying to win the race ON THE TRACK, not on tyre strategy, not by the dreaded "undercut" but actually on the track.

The excitement of a Grand Prix is watching wheel-to-wheel battles on the track, sparks flying from the undercarriage of the cars as two racing drivers speed downhill into the corner each wondering who will be the last of the late brakers.

If I want to watch car, tyre and engine management I'll film myself driving to work and look at it later!

Formula 1 is meant to be the pinnacle of motorsport, not just the pinnacle of engineering.  It is meant to be a sport. The drivers must compete against each other on the track as well as in the expensive shacks out in the paddock.  It is their responsibility to provid us with an on-track spectacle, the sight of the worlds best drivers battling for position, fighting to achieve everything that can be achieved.

The best of these guys are paid very handsomely by the teams to wring the most out of the cars and we should be seeing that happen every racing weekend.  Instead we are being shortchanged.

We are being treated to the sight of drivers in "fuel-saving mode", drivers "harnessing Energy Recovery", and drivers "managing tyres". We have drivers unable to drive flat out because they have to manage their engines due to the fact they have been limited to 4 engines per season.  

What has any of this got to do with racing? Nothing

Do we remember the furore a couple of years ago that the engine manufacturers were going to quit F1 unless it was made more relevant to their road car business? Well this is the result.  F1 is now becoming nothing more than a test bed for road cars, rather than a motor-racing series.  They got relevance and we lost racing.

I hate to go all Jeremy Clarkson on it but motor-racing is supposed to be fun isn't it? It's not supposed to be about boring, everyday concerns like fuel saving, tyre conservation, or engine management.

I want drivers to drive to the limit. I want the cars to be set free from the artificially imposed shackles of a maximum fuel allowance. I want the teams to design cars that will set an unfettered fastest lap and I want drivers to be encouraged to beat that lap-time. I want Formula 1 to organise its race schedule to reduce its carbon footprint in a realistic way rather than impose pathetic power units on the cars as a public but ultimately pointless sop to the green brigade.

Let's face it, 18-24 cars doing 56 laps flat out around a circuit is having minimal impact on the environment when compared with 12 teams, numerous TV stations, etc, carting their staff and equipment from Billy to Jack by air without considering how they could do it better.

Take of the shackles, release the drivers and the cars and bring me some adrenalin-pumping, petrol-burning, ear-splitting, high-octane car racing.

How would I do it? Simple -

  • Keep the 1.6 turbo - get rid of the batteries!
  • Forget tyre compounds - one dry tyre, one intermediate and one wet.  The slick should be capable of lasting the entire race.
  • Bring back refueling and the option of not having to refuel. Choice is the essence of strategy.
  • Get rid of KERS and keep DRS.
  • Measure the wake of an F1 car at top speed and enable DRS once the following car is within that wake. Let the driver decide whether to open it or not.
  • Penalties must be taken on Raceday they do not carry over to the next race.  Penalties that are not taken on the track are punished financially.  The team pays for penalties relating to the car, the driver pays for driver error, and finally
  • Ban racing on most Tilke tracks - they are too wide, too boring, and do not seem to encourage good racing.

We can only hope that Europe saves F1 again this season, though with F1 failing to save Europe's best, historic racing tracks the days of F1 might well be numbered.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Magny Cours, Hockenheim, Nurburgring, Monza...Is this the end of F1 Europe?

It is with despair that I read that Germany will not be hosting a GP this year. The Nurburgring, one of the most iconic of all GP tracks was unable to sort itself out of the financial mire and Hockenheim, which stepped in to try and recover the deal could not sell enough tickets to make the event profitable, even with some financial support from Mercedes, the current holder of both the Constructor's and Driver's titles.

I've harped on about this before, many, many times and, though I haven't blogged for nearly a year I had to come on and make my call for action.

  • France is gone, with no hope of a return...
  • Spa Francochamps, another of the iconic tracks, is struggling every year to make the GP happen...
  • Nurburgring is gone and is unlikely ever to be in a financial position to host a GP...
  • Hockenheim cannot afford to host a race every year...
  • And now I'm hearing that Monza will not be on the calendar once its contract is up in 2016.

And where is F1 going to replace these lost races?

New Jersey!
Abu Dhabi!

There are two factors at play here. One is Bernie stealing every last dollar for his investor's and the second is the fact that the European Governments are not allowed to fund the racetracks in their own countries to hold the event while those countries not part of the EU have no such restrictions.

There are a long list of dodgy states willing to fund F1 as a flagship, international event.

But even if we forget the suspect politics of the new boys (which is what Bernie likes to do) like Bahrain, Azerbaijan, China, and Abu Dhabi, and the opportunism of other states like Russia (who, lets face it need all the goodwill they can get and the moment), Singapore and Malaysia, do we not have a need to respect and protect the history of the sport and the historic racetracks located within the sport's heartland?

Mercedes in Germany
Ferrari in Italy
Renault in France
Honda in Japan

And these are just the current engine suppliers.

The teams are all located in Europe, in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Britain.

What Historic tracks are left on the 2015 calendar?

The Circuit de Catalunya, Spa-Francochamps, Silverstone, Monaco, Suzuka, Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace, Hungaroring, and Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

That's eight tracks out of 19 races! And only 5 of them in Europe!

F1's main fanbase is European and this is why we have night-time racing in Singapore and Evening races in Abu Dhabi, so I find it incredible that the sport I love panders to its European fans by making GP's outside of Europe pander to Europe's TV times while at the same time cutting the number European GP's! It is a crazy concept - Short-term profiteering at the expense of the history of the sport and threatening it's fanbase through neglect.

This total lack of care for the traditional F1 fan is nowhere more apparent than the move from free-to-air to subscription TV.  Not only are we losing our historic (and exciting) tracks but we are also being cut out of the loop when it comes to watching the sport we love on television.

Subscription TV doesn't need the millions of free-to-air fans to sell advertising.  It doesn't care, in the same way as Bernie and his owners have forgotten us with the move to "new markets".  They all expect us to be here when the shit hits the fan and F1 begins to struggle.

We are seeing the start of it over the past 3 years with smaller teams unable to raise the finance to be competitive.  This is not simply a result of the rising cost of F1 it is also because traditional advertising has abandoned the sport due to the fact that business sees that the numbers of viewers will decrease dramatically once Europeans can only access the sport via subscription television.

There are no longer title sponsors willing to pay upwards of €10 million to splash their name across a car. Even McLaren, a stalwart, can't find a title sponsor this year.  That makes a serious statement about the state of the sport. A statement that the Sport itself seems to be failing to hear, or perhaps they simply cannot understand it.

So, to survive, the likes of Sauber take on two drivers who pay €40 million to drive in F1, Manor (Marussia) come back on a wing and a prayer, Caterham are gone, Lotus are struggling, no-one knows how Force India are managing to fund themselves given the state of VJ's finances, Williams posted a loss last year, and aid their funding through non-F1 pursuits, McLaren are focusing on their non-F1 work, Red Bull are funded by their owner as a vanity project (a bloody good vanity project mind you), Toro Rosso the same...

Who actually makes money out of F1? And how do they make it?

They make money because we, the fans, take all the shit and keep coming back for more.

  • We let them cut our races, we let them take our GP's to the Middle-east and to Asia; to places where most of us cannot afford to go to watch our  favourite sport;
  • We let them shift away from free-to-air towards subscription television;
  • We let them build boring, sanitised circuits where nobody is penalised for making a mistake;
  • We let them mess with the format of qualifying away from the one hour 12 lap system that, these days, actually seems more competitive;
  • We let them get rid of in-race refuelling;
  • We let them mess around with our tyres to try to introduce "strategic" overtaking; AND
  • We let them stick fiddly bits on the car and in the engine to "aid" overtaking- to improve the spectacle! 

We let them do all this because they want to make the sport more attractive to non-F1 fans - In other words they want to attract people who are not already F1 fans - new people who can afford to fly to Singapore for a race, who don't care that it is being held in Azerbaijan, where they will never go: they want to attract people who will pay for the subscription but who will only watch 3 races a season!

That way they won't have to care about the rest of us until, day...the stalwart teams; Ferrari, Williams, Sauber and McLaren, all realise that their success in the sport was built on the fans who followed them from European track to track; the fans who didn't travel to a European race for four years so they could make a pilgrimage to Japan or Brazil to watch the season climax; The fans who never missed a race on television and bought the team gear because they loved the team.

When they wake up to the new reality it is with sadness that I predict that three-quarters of their traditional European fanbase will have abandoned them simply because our sport is doing us a disservice by retreating from us to some lofty height where the people who made you what you are are no longer deemed "necessary".

Come back, F1, before it's too late...

Monday, October 13, 2014

So-So Sochi!

When the most fun you can have at a race is to take the mick out of Bernie's constant mantra that our sport is non-political you know the weekend has been a total loss.

The only joy to be taken out of Sunday was Mercedes winning its first ever F1 Constructor's Championship in 120 years and even that was overshadowed by the fact that you hardly saw the Mercedes on screen at all during the race.

The Mercedes Team celebrate their first ever F1 World Constructor's Championship in the pits at Sochi
Copyright with thanks: Mercedes AMG Petronas
It was the first time, since the turkeys in Turkey and the vapidity in Valencia that I've used the words asinine, antiseptic and monotonous in relation to an F1 race.  Sochi has all the hallmarks of a track destined for the Gulag Scrapheap. God help us if it survives until 2020!

In a sport which depends so much on on-car advertising I guess it just doesn't pay to be so far ahead of the rest, do dominant, that you're not even worth watching. Red Bull/Toro Rosso, Ferrari, and Williams got the lion's share of TV coverage for which I'm sure Martini, ORIS, Shell, Marlboro, CEPSA, and Infiniti are all thankful.

Valtteri had a great race but it was Felipe Massa who provided the TV coverage, coming from the rear of the field after an engine problem messed up his qualifying.  He got regular coverage, particularly when he was hunting down Danny Kyvat (surprise, surprise!) who had a great qualifying but an incredibly bad raceday.

Felipe Massa, Sochi 2014
Courtesy of copyright holders: Glenn Dunbar/Williams F1
As I watched the race all I could think about was that Mercedes would have to start backing Nico Rosberg up into Valtteri Bottas' Williams in order to get some airtime.  It's a sad state of affairs when first through to fifth don't even get a look-in.

Once again I find myself asking if Hermann Tilke can consistently design a worthwhile racetrack. He has had success with the likes of Malaysia, but these are overshadowed by the boring circuits in China, Turkey, Valencia and now Sochi.  He is also the designer of the Azerbaijan circuit, due to be foisted on the sport in 2016 under the auspices of being named the European Grand Prix. Isn't that in Asia?

To allow such dominance at any given track by one engine manufacturer - sorry, power unit manufacturer - brings the focus squarely back onto the design and by extension the designer.

Sure, the drivers like the circuit because it drives well, because it's loops and whorls encourage them to experiment with racing lines and gives them the confidence to seek the limits of the circuit.  I'm not saying the track isn't a joy to drive...but can it produce a good race?

I would venture to speculate that the GP2, GP3 and Porsche Supercup races were far more exciting given that they all utilise the same chassis, engine and tyres.  The racing must have, by definition, been far closer than we saw on Sunday. Perhaps this is how F1 will go in the future, when the point of Formula 1 has been made redundant by the designs of Tilke and his ilk.

God help us if the US GP goes the same way.  Another potentially bright and shiny US F1 future scuppered by the inability of a Tilke design to cater for the reality that F1 goes through long periods of dominance by one team and/or one driver.

I had real hopes for Austin.  It has provided us with some good racing over the last two years and perhaps the design is such that it will provide another good race, but after yesterday I'm pretty sure that, unless Bernie imposes a speed limit on the Mercedes or sabotages the cars, all the rest of the field will be seeing in three weeks time is their dust.

Riding drag, is, I believe, the cowboy terminology for eating the dust of the cattle drive. If that's the kind of spectacle we're presented with in Texas then the questions will once again be asked as to the future of F1 in the United States.  We know that the US fans of the sport are hardcore but it is not them that F1 needs to impress to gain popularity. It is the US motorsport community.  It has to appeal to the NASCAR crowd, the Indycar crowd and the wibblywobblies that go to their local tracks on the weekend who are used to seeing close racing, lots of lead changes, and a hefty amount of on-track controversy.

The political and background games played out by the Piranha Club in the back rooms of the paddock are too subtle to provide entertainment to all but the most knowledgeable fans, the formula itself encourages dominance by the best and catch-up by the rest, and thus, to each and every team on the grid, the very idea of close racing is anathema.

In the off-season each team goes to great lengths (budget dependent) to design a car that will be far, far better than the opposition and if they achieve it, they work bloody hard to increase their dominance over the course of the season. These teams do not want to be riding drag, they don't want to be outriders, they want to be riding point; ideally a long, long way ahead of the herd.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Andrea de Cesaris

Being a fan of Jordan GP since their inception I began to take a serious F1 interest in Andrea as he lined up alongside Gachot for the team’s maiden season.  Of all the races I saw him in obviously the one that stands out is the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix.

de Cesaris in Belgium, 1991
Jordan had been in the news for all the wrong reasons in the lead up to the race as Gachot was missing the race as he had ended up in gaol in England for spraying a London taxi driver with tear gas in a road rage incident.
Then Andrea had to quietly go about his business while the press and paddock swarmed around Gachot’s replacement, a young rookie called Michael Schumacher, who, in his first qualifying placed his 7up Jordan 191 in seventh on the grid, 4 places above his team-mate.
For Schumi the rest was history, as was the race when he burnt out the clutch in the opening corners but de Cesaris really showed off his driving style and ability and, as I sat and watched, all I could think was that this race would be the first of many Jordan victories - and in their maiden season!
After the first set of pitstops Andrea was in fifth behind the luminaries of the sport - Mansell, Alesi, Senna & Piquet.
Then Mansell stopped on the track and Senna suddenly found himself unable to select a gear and began to slow.  Alesi was leading with Senna back in the fray in second with a damaged gearbox.  Andrea was in a tight scrap with Piquet and Patrese for third.
Then Alesi’s engine gave out on lap 30 and it was Senna from Piquet from Andrea, who quickly took advantage of Piquet by outbraking him into Les Combes.
Patrese got past Piquet and set off after Andrea but all the time Andrea was closing in on Senna’s troubled McLaren and, if his engine hadn’t been overheating there is no doubt in my mind that he would have got past to take the chequered flag.
Unfortunately it was not to be; on lap 41 the engine blew and his race was finished.  It was, unfortunately, the only time I saw him mount a serious challenge for the top spot on the podium though he did score important points for both Jordan and Ken’s Tyrell team in the four years he remained in F1 helping Jordan to 5th in the constructor’s in ‘91, Tyrell to 8th in ‘92 and Jordan (in his two races for them) to 5th again in ‘94.
So saddened to read that he died in a motorcycle accident on Rome’s Ring Road. Thank you for the memories Andrea.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Let Them Race: Malaysia, Williams & Team Orders

I have to preface this post by saying that I'm a huge Williams fan. Ever since I first started watching F1 the racing heritage, the competitive spirit, the all-consuming love of the sport and the hard but fair attitude of Frank and the Williams Team has attracted my attention and support & whilst for a few years, being Irish, my allegiance shifted wholly to the Jordan Team, my affection for the team was always such that I rejoiced in watching Mansell, Prost, Hill, Button, et al driving the Williams cars and always appreciated the engineering talent of the team.

I was devastated both for myself and for the team on that fateful day at Imola in 1994 and was angered over the Italian persistence in seeking to apportion blame to the team for what was an horrific and massively upsetting racing accident.

Over the last few years I would think that my desire to see the Williams Team back at the front where they truly belong matches that of the team itself and the frustrations of the last two years where the performances have failed to match up to the team's potential have, this season, vanished in the renewed optimism derived from the signing of Felipe Massa, the retention of Valtteri Bottas, the magnificent boost of pre-season testing and the storming drive of Bottas at Melbourne after his puncture.

Massa leads Bottas in the closing stages of the Malaysian GP in contravention of Team Orders
Photo Copyright: Glenn Dunbar/Williams F1
And so to Malaysia where, in the terrible and equalising conditions presented during qualifying, the driver's couldn't get themselves out of Q2 and ended up 13th and 15th on the grid, with Bottas losing a further 3 places for, what appeared to be a relatively innocuous level of impeding Daniel Ricciardo through Turns 14 & 15.

Nonetheless, come the start of the race the two drivers stormed up the field with Massa up to 8th by lap 4 and Bottas two places behind in 10th.

And the cars in front of them throughout the race? Two Mercedes, two Red Bulls, one Ferrari, one Force India and one McLaren.  Hulkenburg in the Force India qualified in 7th and simply held position, with a two pitstop strategy in order to gain 5th at the end, both Magnusson and Ricciardo having troubles which promoted Nico up to fifth.

I'm not detracting from the hard work Hulkenburg had to undertake to keep everyone behind him, or from the pace of the car which allowed him build a considerable lead over Button behind. I'm simply positing the fact that, should the Williams have qualified in a similar position they too would have been able to race for the top 5 points scoring places.

Then in the closing stages of the race, with Massa holding 7th and Bottas behind in 8th, the call came repeatedly from the pitlane to Massa that Bottas was "faster" and to allow him overtake in order to chase down Button (around 1 second up the road).

This was a devastating imposition of team orders that, in my opinion (humble or otherwise), Felipe was completely right to ignore. He had been chasing Jenson most of the race and, after the final set of pitstops, had caught right up to the McLaren but was unable to pass.

Both cars carry Mercedes engines, both cars are being driven by massively experienced veteran drivers and it seemed that the Williams simply could not carry enough speed into and through the DRS zones to enable Massa to carry out an overtaking opportunity that would stick.

What, with 6 laps to go, made the pitlane think that Bottas could do better? First he would have to overtake Massa safely, then close the 1.5 second gap that had grown up between 6th and 7th place, and only then, if Jenson Button had not taken advantage of the orchestration going on behind him, would he have an opportunity to consider overtaking the McLaren.

All-in-all it was a highly unlikely scenario and one which I do not believe Frank would have approved of at such an early stage of the season.

The post-race defence, that Bottas would have given the place back if he was not successful, was not clarified in the pit-to-car communication and would be very hard to control assuming that Bottas might have a chance to overtake all the way around the final lap.

A pecking order within a team cannot be considered at such an early stage of the season. Last year at this very race, should we forget, was the "multi 21" saga which cast such a shadow over Sebastian Vettel's season that he had to contend with booing at a number of races, up to and including Australia two weeks ago. On the other side, Nico Rosberg, at the same race, was told to hold station behind Hamilton even though he was much faster. Nico made it clear that he would expect the favour to be returned.

I accept that Williams are in a difficult position at the moment, seeking to maximise points in the early stages of the season where their car is likely better than the cars carrying Renault & Ferrari engines.

The urge to control races and their driver's racing is therefore very strong, but they must desist from micro-managing the point's haul.

Let the driver's race and trust them to show good and proper sense when it comes to overtaking each other.

Insist they hold station in the final 8 laps simply to ensure a points haul, and

Do not instill a pecking order until such time as one driver has a clear advantage over his team-mate.

Simple rules that every driver will understand and appreciate.

Felipe Massa has been given enough team orders in his lifetime.  He is definitely a top class driver and I've been arguing since March 2011 that he needed to get out of Ferrari in order to rediscover the scintillating form he showed in 2008 when he was robbed of the Driver's Championship by a combination of Crashgate and Timo Glock.

He is now in a team that needs him to extract the best from himself and one which at the moment seems to be in a strong position to have a good season. The last thing either he or the team needs is to feel that they do not have each other's full support.

I don't know who made the decision to call Felipe but I do not see how that call was in the best interests of the team: it certainly wasn't in the best interests of Felipe Massa.