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Pondering Petrov

23 Jan

The delay by Caterham to announce their second driver, coupled with the shock exit of Timo Glock from Marussia this week, presents an interesting situation at the back of the grid.

Vitaly Petrov is the seemingly logical driver to take the Marussia seat – a Russian driver in a Russian backed team, with a Russian GP planned in 2014. He also has the vital sponsorship which the team needs. However, things are not that simple.

Petrov has been in the queue for the remaining seat at his current team, Caterham, along with his unlikely-to-get-it 2012 team-mate Heikki Kovalainen, Giedo Van Der Garde, Luiz Razia and Bruno Senna. Petrov’s manager, Oksana Kosachenko, has made it clear that they are focussed purely on securing the Caterham seat. This has caused some head-scratching in some quarters given the obvious Russian connection I mentioned earlier.

I have no doubt that the sudden vacancy at Marussia will have raised hopes in many quarters, including Petrov’s, but he and his manager are in a precarious position. Heikki Kovalainen has been publicly criticised by his team for seeking a seat elsewhere; indeed the somewhat egotistical senior management appear to feel personally slighted by him wanting to consider a seat in a more competitive car. If Kosachenko starts to make overtures to Marussia it could seriously jeopardise their chances with Caterham.

I suspect they have to play a waiting game (publicly at least) to see how things turn out with Caterham and if the seat does go to another driver I think we can expect them to be knocking on Marussia’s door very publicly immediately afterwards if that vacancy is still free. It is possible that Marussia may wait for that very scenario.

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2013: A Make or Break Season for Paul di Resta?

19 Jan

The 2012/13 transition period between seasons has brought some fairly significant driver movement to the mid-field. Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg were the big winners with new signings, while others like Kamui Kobayashi have no seat for 2013. Those who are staying where they are can breathe a sigh of relief, but you can never sit comfortably for long. As we have seen with Kamui Kobayashi, F1 is a ruthless game where seats can be lost if you don’t light up the field (or have buckets of sponsorship money to compensate) after a season or two. Scotland’s Paul di Resta is staying at Force India for a third season, but not without having tried to get a seat further forward on the grid and his frustration is evident.

Paul di Resta

Paul di Resta

Di Resta has made a few F1 headlines in recent weeks due to a minor twitter dispute that he had with McLaren’s new signing, Sergio Perez. It has emerged that both drivers were in talks with McLaren to replace Lewis Hamilton, but di Resta missed out to the young Mexican. From di Resta’s perspective this was down to money, but at the time it was widely commented that McLaren didn’t want another British pairing or two horses both from the ‘Sports Partnership’ stable (which manages both Jenson Button and Paul di Resta).

To be in F1 you obviously have to be a top class driver, but has di Resta really got what it takes to get to the front? He arrived on the grid at the start of 2011 (after a season as Force India’s test driver), hailed as the DTM Champion and Formula 3 Euroseries Champion who famously beat his team-mate; some German driver called Sebastian Vettel. Di Resta hails from one of Scotland’s finest motor-racing families, the most famous among them being the multiple Indy Car Series/Indy 500 Champion Dario Franchitti. But is Paul living up to what was expected of him? In 2012 Paul ended the season 3 places and 17 points behind his team-mate, Nico Hulkenberg. The contrast between them could not have been more apparent at the final race in Brazil where Hulkenberg took on the McLarens and lead the race for a period (albeit later then taking Lewis Hamilton off). Unfortunately, Di Resta’s biggest contribution to the race was to skid off in to the wall and bring out the safety car for the final few laps. With his team-mate having spent the previous year not racing (Hulkenberg was FI’s reserve driver in 2011), it must have hurt di Resta all the more for him to have then come back on to the track and beaten him. It was also Hulkenberg who was being talked about as a potential replacement for Felipe Massa at Ferrari, or for vacancies at Mercedes or McLaren. It is safe to say that in 2012 Paul was upstaged by his team-mate both on and off the track.

2013 brings new challenges for Paul di Resta. He still doesn’t know who his team-mate will be (and at the time of writing this there are rumours swirling that Force India are in serious financial difficulties), but it is expected to be either his former team-mate Adrian Sutil or Ferrari Academy hotshot Jules Bianchi. Whichever it is, Paul needs to beat his team-mate in 2013 or his credibility is going to stall and he will be at serious risk of being eclipsed by those around and behind him.

Paul’s other big challenge (from my perspective), is that he needs the British public to get behind him more. To do this, he needs more publicity and he needs to give them a reason to really cheer for him. A higher public profile could also bring more sponsorship money. Publicity-wise, Paul reminds me of Andy Murray. Both nice Scottish guys, but both are quiet and a little grumpy, and Murray has struggled to break through in a way not dissimilar to di Resta. The press doesn’t bash Paul di Resta like it has bashed Andy Murray, but the British public only fully embraced Murray when he was making it to the finals of the big tournaments. A heroic podium place for Paul di Resta or period where he leads a race could bring him back in to the spotlight and get the fans behind him.

In 2013 Paul won’t be the new Brit on the block any more. Max Chilton is the new British rookie – young, talented, wealthy and likely to be a hit with young female F1 fans – who will be looking to turn heads as he competes at the back of the grid. Chilton won’t be a threat to di Resta on the track, but he could be a threat off it.

I like Paul di Resta. He seems like a genuine talented guy, but 2013 could be his make or break season. He is lucky to be signed with the Sports Partnership (even though it may have counted against him for the McLaren spot) who will do their best to seat him in a better car in 2014 (hopefully with increased sponsorship), but he needs to deliver on track for them to stand a chance of doing so.

British readers can watch Paul on A Question of Sport this Wednesday – BBC1 10.35pm.

F1 Winter Break 2012/13 – Key Dates

30 Nov

The 2012 season may be over, and the 2013 season still months away, but the next few months won’t be completely quiet. December in particular sees a number of activities going on to close down the 2012 season. I’ve pulled together the dates that have been announced so far for anyone who wants a handy reference for when we may get even the smallest F1 fix or titbit of news. I will update this when additional events and their dates are announced.

December 2012

2nd – 21.30 GMT – Autosport Awards, London. Sadly not being streamed live online this year but you can follow a live text feed on the Autosport website.

7thFIA Prize-Giving Gala, Istanbul, Turkey. The event will be streamed live here at 22:00 GMT.

8thSwatch Snowmobile Race, Saalbach, Austria. Kimi Raikkonen is racing again this year. The event is broadcast live on Motors TV at 19:00-21:15 (internet stream on their website, or on Sky TV 413/Virgin Media 545).

14th Race of Champions Asia, Bangkok, Thailand. F1 drivers Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok are confirmed to be participating. It isn’t currently in the UK TV listings.

15th – 16thRace of Champions, Bangkok Thailand. F1 drivers Sebastian Vettel, Michael Schumacher, Romain Grosjean and David Coulthard are confirmed to be participating. The event will be broadcast on Motors TV at 13:00-16:00 GMT each day (internet stream on their website, or on Sky TV 413/Virgin Media 545).

Mid-December – expect driver line-up announcements from Lotus and Force India.

January 2013

7th – Release of the 2012 Season Review DVD/Blu-ray.

18th – 11.30am GMT – Sid Watkins Memorial Service, Marylebone, London.

February/March 2013

5th – 8th – First Pre-Season Winter Test, Jerez, Spain.

19th – 22nd – Second Pre-Season Winter Test, Barcelona, Spain.

28th Feb – 3rd Mar – Third Pre-Season Winter Test, Barcelona, Spain.

Shuffling the pack – 28 Sept 2012

28 Sep

What a day.

After an absurdly protracted silly season, the F1 driver pack shuffling finally began today. In case you have been hiding in a cave all day, Lewis Hamilton is leaving McLaren who are replacing him with Sergio ‘Checo’ Perez, while Michael Schumacher who was ousted by H.A.M. appears to be seeking gainful employment elsewhere. The entire F1 twittersphere has been expressing its displeasure/outrage/bafflement/pleasure (delete as appropriate) since the early hours.

This was the news I was dreading, and now we are 12 hours in I’ve gathered my thoughts. I am pissed off. Not as pissed off as I may have been, as this news is definitely not the worst I have received this week by one heck of a long way. The only thing which is pissing me off is the now-serious risk that my beloved über-weltmeister Schumi may have to retire permanently from the sport. Beyond that I have mixed feelings. Here is my take on the key players:

Schumi
I don’t believe he wants to retire. If he did, he’d probably have said as much today through a joint statement with Mercedes. His manager Sabine Kehm has been quoted today saying that Michael wasn’t sure in the summer if he wanted to re-sign when offered a deal. Given the nightmarish first half of the season he had, this really doesn’t surprise me. Why would he want to keep driving in the team, or at all, given all those DNF’s which were beyond his control? Was he thinking of looking around elsewhere back then? We will probably never know.

I really, really want Schumi to keep racing, but only in a team where he has a good, reliable car. Sauber would be a great fit. I don’t believe he should, would or could go back to Ferrari.

Mercedes
The team do need to think of the future, and while I personally don’t get the hype around Hamilton, he is a big name. He also has an ego to match. The arrival of Lewis, Simon Fuller, Pussycat Nicole & guest rappers will probably be quite a culture shock for the team compared to the quieter team of Michael, his manager Sabine and occasionally his wife Corinna. I suspect it will take a while for the two parties to gel, particularly with Simon Fuller.

Lewis
Was it the challenge or the $$$? Who knows. More so than Mercedes, I think Lewis is also in for a culture shock. He is no longer the protegé, no longer in the environment he grew up in where he appears to have been treated with kid gloves. If he puts a toe out of line or gives it too much attitude, the Mercedes management will come down on him hard. Niki Lauda, Norbert Haug and Ross Brawn are all fierce when it comes to discipline. This could be exactly what Lewis needs, but it could easily turn in to a disaster zone.

McLaren
Did they drop the ball? Yes, maybe. But did Ron Dennis want to keep hold of it? With relations soured it is probably best for the team that they have a new start. Jenson is an excellent team player and will give them the continuity, while their new young rising star will be a breath of fresh air. If Checo keeps Jenson on his toes from the start and only grows stronger, how long will it be before they stop looking wistfully down the pitlane to Lewis’s garage?

Checo
Mexico’s rising star is undoubtedly the one with the most to gain here. After being held back by Ferrari, he now has a seat at a top team which will give him a shot at becoming another of F1’s youngest world champions. I can’t wait to see what he can deliver next year.

Back in Bahrain…

4 Sep

It is hard to believe that it has been five months since the F1 paddock was making its controversial visit to Bahrain. The race made world headlines for all the wrong reasons, but it temporarily reminded us that Bahrain has not yet followed other countries in the MENA region on the path to democracy. Since then F1 and the mass media attention have left the Bahraini troubles behind them and moved on to other races and other stories. Meanwhile, little has changed back in Bahrain.

One of the key names the media focussed on back in April was Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a human rights protester who had embarked on a hunger strike to protest the life sentence he was given in response to his role in the 2011 protests in Bahrain (which led to the F1 race that year being cancelled). Al-Khawaja ended his hunger strike in May, and along with others had appealed his sentence.

Today, an appeals court in Bahrain ruled that the convictions  of al-Khawaja and his fellow protesters were to be upheld. You can read the story on the BBC website here.

Of particular interest is Frank Gardner’s (the BBC’s Security Correspondent) analysis of the situation: “The decision by a Bahraini civil court to uphold verdicts handed down last year by a military court on 20 activists sends a tough message to the opposition. Bahrain’s government and ruling family have now drawn a red line on how far they are prepared to compromise. There had been speculation, following King Hamad’s visit to the UK last month, that serious dialogue could resume between the Sunni monarchy and the Shia-dominated opposition. That dialogue has not progressed and now these verdicts will delight hardliners in the government camp and depress moderates in the opposition. Despite numerous reforms, Bahrain is still being criticised for its human rights record.”

It is hard to predict how things will now progress (if at all) in Bahrain, but if the government are going to take a tougher position with pro-democracy campaigners,  progress is likely to stagnate further and F1 cannot expect to find an improved, let alone resolved, situation when they return in 2013. The event will again be a chance for campaigners to (rightly, IMHO) capitalise on the publicity the race attracts and remind the world again of their cause.

The 2013 provisional F1 calendar has not yet been released, but when it is there is little doubt that Bahrain will feature on it as the circuit still has a contract with Bernie Ecclestone. When the calendar appears, F1 will once again face its moral dilemma over Bahrain. After the tensions witnessed in 2012 (and the negative press) teams will be again be reluctant to return if tensions are still high, but of course they will be contractually obliged to go.

The 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix’s controversial slogan.

The best F1 can hope for is that organisers do not try to exploit the race for international political gain as they did in 2012 with the farcical ‘UniF1ed’ slogan. Another heavily politicised race can only be bad news for the sport. We shall have to wait and see how things unfold in the next six months.