Storm Clouds Are Gathering

22 Mar

The Formula 1 season has barely begun, but it already feels like it’s never been away. As race 2, Malaysia, rapidly approaches, tensions appear to be increasing, and I’m not just talking about the stormy weather forecast for the weekend. Here’s my look at what has been bubbling up over the last few days, as well as a look ahead to the weekend.

Inter-team bickering

A new season always brings new technical developments, and an inevitable knock-on effect of that is disputes between teams about who may be breaking FIA rules or breaching informal agreements between teams. Red Bull and Mercedes are currently engaged in a spat about the respective legality of their Renault engine behaviour and the  Mercedes ‘Super F-Duct’. The FIA has ruled that both are legal, and since Ferrari aren’t involved in the dispute those rulings are likely to stay in place (ooo handbag!). I hope this dispute doesn’t rumble on all season as it can get incredibly tedious.

A ruling in the long-running intellectual property theft case between Sahara Force India and Caterham F1 and Aerolab has also emerged today. If you’re not familiar with the case, Force India accused Aerolab, a wind tunnel supplier, of copying the F1 team’s design in the development of the Team Lotus T127. Legal proceedings were also launched against Mike Gascoyne (Caterham F1’s then-Chief Technical Officer) and the team. The ruling conceded some intellectual property ‘theft’ on the part of Aerolab and awarded Force India 25,000 Euros in damages. However, much more significantly, the High Court ruled in favour of Aerolab with regards to £4 million of unpaid legal costs; a bill which Force India really could do without right now with the near-collapse of Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher Airlines.

Drivers

After their performances in Melbourne, all eyes are on Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa and for once this is due to unrelated events.

Lewis Hamilton’s disappointment at coming third in Melbourne was plain to see last Sunday as he stood stony-faced on the podium and then spoke through gritted teeth during the post-race official press conference. After such a tumultuous season in 2011, the media are desperately looking for any sign that Lewis hasn’t got over all of his ‘issues’ from last year. Whether he has or not, Lewis really needs to learn some good sportsmanship and appear graceful in defeat. In his Telegraph column this week, David Coulthard pondered whether Jenson Button’s seemingly easy success in Melbourne has knocked Lewis’s confidence. I think there is little doubt that it has knocked him, and if Lewis can’t strike back with a strong victory in the first few races then his frustrations may re-emerge on the track.

Felipe Massa did not fare well in Melbourne, and an unusually worded press release from the Ferrari team about his new chassis has ignited speculation about whether he will still be driving for them all season: “Felipe knows he can count on the team to do everything, both from the technical and the operational point of view, to put him in a better state to show off his talents – even at the cost of extra work in these few days that separate the Australian race from the one in Malaysia. For example work has already begun in the Sepang pits to prepare chassis number 294, which replaces the number 293 and will be used by the Brazilian in the second race of the season. This choice was taken to clear up any doubts about the unusual performance of his car during the weekend at Albert Park” (from http://www.ferrari.com). A number of drivers have been linked with Massa’s seat, including Sauber driver Sergio Perez and currently unemployed Jarno Trulli. Ferrari and Massa have been quick to dismiss these rumours but they have a habit of not going away. If Massa doesn’t improve his performance on track then this will only continue to distract all parties.

F1 this weekend

Melbourne saw all cards get thrown up in the air, and it still isn’t clear exactly how things compare between some of the teams. Mercedes and Lotus both clearly have very strong cars, but they were hindered by problems over the weekend. Hopefully the race at Sepang will bring both teams more luck and we’ll see what they’re really capable of.

The mid-field appears to be a tightly bunched pack and we should see some fierce battles for points.  Williams, in particular, appear to have turned themselves around, and I really hope to see them do well and score the points they so narrowly missed out on in Melbourne.

At the back of the pack, Caterham will be seeking to show what they can really do after some bad luck in Australia. Heikki Kovalainen will be hindered by a 5 place grid penalty, but he should be able to push forward through the field. Whether he will need to negotiate the mobile chicanes of the HRT cars won’t be known until after qualifying – will they be able to pass the 107% rule?

The greatest unknown in all of this though is the weather. Stormy weather is forecast which would inevitably complicate things further. If the race is wet I’d expect Button and Schumacher to do well, given their particular skills in the rain.

Other action this weekend

The GP2 season kicks off in Malaysia, and after only occasionally dipping in to coverage in previous years, I’m looking forward to getting to know this formula a lot better in the coming year. Coverage on Sky will, of course, help this rather than somewhat erratic coverage on Eurosport last year.

Also starting this weekend is the Indy Car season. The first race from St Pete’s is being broadcast on Sky Sports F1, and I’m looking forward to getting in to it again. I’m sure interest will be higher amongst F1 fans this year, with Rubens Barrichello competing, and it’ll be great to see him getting his teeth in to the races. I also can’t wait to see Dario Franchitti back in action.

Some Reflective Moments

There’ll also be a real sense of poignancy races on both sides of the globe this weekend.

It is the first Indy Car race since the tragic loss of Dan Wheldon, and this street circuit takes place in his adopted home town. Dan’s sister Holly will be waving the green flag, as well as presenting the winner’s trophy. A street on the track has also recently been dedicated as ‘Dan Wheldon Way’.

Back in Malaysia, the scene of the equally tragic loss of Moto GP rider Marco Simoncelli, drivers and teams have been visiting T11 where Marco lost his life, and pausing to remember their friend. Fernando Alonso’s comments about being in Sepang this weekend and remembering Marco have been particularly touching.

 

This will be a weekend packed full of racing action; bring it on.

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