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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.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Melbourne was a good race...when there was racing!

But is it really F1?

Yes there is the matter of the engine sound (or distinct lack thereof) but there are other far more fundamental questions that need to be asked about the direction our sport is taking.

I mean our drivers appear to be car managers rather than racing drivers under the new rules. They manage tyres; they manage fuel; they manage KERS and DRS; so, when do they actually manage to race each other?

Answer: when they've managed to manage everything to a point in the "race" where they can be sure that their tyres won't give out and their fuel won't run out.

I'm just not convinced that this is what F1 should be aspiring to.

Even worse than all of the foregoing is the absurdity of limiting fuel usage to a maximum of 100kg/hr. This is what saw Daniel Ricciardo being disqualified from a well deserved second place in the first race of the season. Our sport is limiting fuel AND fuel consumption!

Daniel Ricciardo was disqualified from second place for exceeding maximum permitted fuel consumption rates.
Pure Madness!
Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images, published courtesy of Infiniti-Red Bull Racing
What is the purpose of this insanity? To appear greener?

As I was considering F1 last week a friend put this idiocy in its proper context:

We have 22 cars racing on up to 20 tracks per year. The teams rack up a massive number of air miles and road miles over the course of the season which completely environmentally outstrip any miniscule damage being done by the cars themselves on-track.

He's absolutely right, if you're going to do something about the environmental impact of F1 then the F1 circus should address this issue rather than emasculating the cars themselves to a point where they are little better than GP2 material.

I don't mind the engine size, I celebrate the return of turbo and applaud the installation of electric batteries; all of these changes are commendable, to a point. but we had 1.5L turbos in the 1980's and, as the above friend pointed out, they sounded brilliant! They gave F1 a distinctive and loud engine sound.

Can anyone explain to me how all these changes are good for the sport? They may reduce it's envionmental impact by a teensy, weensey marginal amount but that has nothing to do with it being good for the sport.

There will be those that argue that F1 was becoming irrelevant to the engine manufacturers and that may have been true but those same manufacturers would still learn shedloads from a 1.6L V6 Turbo F1 engine with two electric batteries attached that is neither limited on fuel or fuel consumption which would translate down to their hybrid cars being constructed on the factory floor.

I don't want to come over all Jeremy Clarkson on this issue but Crikey! These changes are about as logical as giving the inmates control over the asylum. Let's put the racing back into Formula 1 racing for crying out loud!

Melbourne & Engine Noise

Watching Melbourne I was amazed to hear the tyres squealing under braking; it's a sound that I have very rarely heard before because it was generally, completely masked by the engine's roar.  

I was astonished to hear it at Melbourne and, to tell the truth, I am not in the least surprised that the race organizers are looking for some kind of compensation for the spectacle of near silent cars travelling at reduced speeds around a track while fuel saving madly for half the race.

The City of Melbourne may have a love/hate, contentious relationship with F1 but it may be that this level of change may be a step too far and could tilt the question of Melbourne's future in favour of the naysayers.

Formula E

It is madness to continue down this road when the FIA are already bringing Formula E to the track this year. Why am I actually looking forward to this series? Because it will do exactly what it says on the tin. All the cars will be electrically powered. This will give a huge boost to electric vehicle technology which is currently limited by distance vs need to recharge. If the Formula E cars can be recharged in 90 seconds in the pits in 2015, which is what the FIA were predicting last year, then essentially the main obstacle to the sale of Electric vehicles will have been overcome and surely the Formula E car technology will push improved engine design and output, should this series gain enough popularity.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Pre-Melbourne Musing

I know it's been a long time between posts but with all of the rule changes and the pre-season testing fiasco's out of the way I have one or two thoughts about the season to come that I thought I'd commit to paper (well e-paper!).

The first obviously concerns Red Bull who have suffered three disastrous tests in Jerez and Bahrain.  The Renault engine would appear to be the least competitive on the grid over the pre-season but there's no question but there are other problems affecting the car in terms of its packaging.

We all know that Adrian Newey is fastidious when it comes to packaging all the various elements of an F1 car under the skin and this space-saving has, in the past, created problems which the team have had to overcome. Invariably they have done so and have come out the other side stronger than ever. Why should we expect it to be any different this time around?

Red Bull: not a pre-season to write home about!
(Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

It is likely to be a difficult start to the season for them but I would be confident that, by the time they get to Europe, Newey will have expelled the gremlins from the machine.

Based on pre-season times, which tend not to be indicative of true pace, the Renault engine will not be the fastest on the grid but I would expect Red Bull to be leading the French Marque's charge by mid-season.

The other possibility is, of course, that Red Bull suffer the way McLaren did last year.

Seeing another top team suffer an Annus Horribilis as they struggle to keep pace with the front-runners is not a prospect that I look forward to. I would prefer to see the teams at the back catch up to the front four rather than watch one of the front four fall back into the pack: the latter is a temporary spectacle that does nothing for the sport whilst the former represents a marked improvement that can result in spectacular and unpredictable races.

The pre-season engine has definitely been the Mercedes with both the Marque team, Williams and Force India indicating that it will be the engine to beat in the coming season. But what of McLaren?

Mercedes Engines have been looking good in pre-season
(and of course Bahrain will be under lights)
Photo copyright of Mercedes
I'm not sure that they are getting the same level of co-operation from their engine supplier as they did over the course of the last few years.  I've seen the reports where Mercedes have been saying that their commitment to the team is as strong as ever and that it will remain so until such time as it is in their interests to distance themselves from a team which is taking on Honda engines next year but I have to wonder, on the strength of pre-season if Mercedes attention has now refocused onto Williams. After all Toto Wolff has a history with Frank and his wife is third driver for the team and will be given FP1 time this year.

Perhaps McLaren will have to endure another depressing year struggling to keep up with Williams and Force India before finding their feet in 2015 with the new Honda Works engine. That of course is predicated on the expectation that Honda will come out of the box at a sprint. All other engine suppliers will have had this coming year in the cars to learn and improve, Honda will be starting from scratch.

With such a strange preseason the joke has been going around that most of the cars won't see the chequered flag in Melbourne but underneath the pithy tweets and news reports there is an underlying seriousness which wonders if the event that we are all looking forward to, the 2014 season opener, will be less spectacle and more fiasco!