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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.

Passing the Baton – Germany’s F1 drivers

27 Nov

The fall of the chequered flag in Interlagos yesterday saw the passing from one era of German F1 history to another. The legendary seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher retired from the sport for the second and final time, while his young friend Sebastian Vettel claimed his third WDC title in as many years, making him the youngest triple world champion in the sport’s history. There are few who doubt that Vettel will win more titles, and many now wonder if he can beat his childhood hero’s WDC record. Vettel’s achievements in 2012 certainly make him a worthy recipient of the ‘German motor sport hero’ baton.

A successor is anointed – Michael Schumacher congratulates Sebastian Vettel on his 3rd WDC title, as the 7-times champion retires for good.

With Vettel now moving up to ‘top dog’, I have been pondering who should or can succeed him as Germany’s next big hope. Germany currently (although the UK will equal their number if Max Chilton does race for Marussia in 2013) has more F1 drivers than any other country, so in theory should be well positioned to have another up and coming star, but who deserves the mantle?

Timo Glock is the eldest of the four German drivers on the grid, but while he is a great guy (and another of my favourite drivers), he is stuck at the back end of the grid in a Marussia. The team are improving, but it is highly unlikely we’ll be seeing him on the podium any time soon. Timo’s new role will essentially be the elder statesman of the German camp in F1. He is good friends with Sebastian Vettel and is another useful wing man for the new leading light.

Within F1 this leaves the two Nico’s: Messrs Rosberg and Hulkenberg. Both have potential, but which, if either of them, will be great?

Nico Rosberg

Nico R is the most experienced of the German drivers on the grid. He has now completed seven full seasons in Formula 1; four with Williams, and three with Mercedes. During that time Nico has been on the podium seven times, taken one pole position and one race victory. His pole and race victory finally came this year in Shanghai, and many commentators at the time talked of him finally being able to “shake the monkey from his back”. Since then, the performance of his car has been less than impressive so he has been unable to repeat these successes.

Victory at last – Rosberg wins in China, 2012

Nico’s biggest achievement to date has to be his ability, at times, to race on a par with, or better than, Michael Schumacher in his second F1 career. His biggest test is yet to come though. His new team mate will be keen to stamp his authority all over the Mercedes team, and despite having been promised equal treatment, Nico will need to prove he can race as hard as Lewis Hamilton. Few are expecting much of the 2013 Mercedes car, but 2014 is cited as being their big opportunity.

Nico Hulkenberg

Nico R has the least experience of the German drivers. He has been racing in F1 for only two seasons; one with Williams and one with Force India with a season as Force India’s reserve driver in between. He is the same age as Sebastian Vettel.

Although he is yet to step on to the F1 podium, Nico has already bagged a pole position at Brazil in 2010, and led part of the 2012 Brazil race (Interlagos must be his lucky track). During 2012 he has out-performed Paul Di Resta and made a good enough impression on Sauber’s management to secure a drive with them for 2013.

The Hulk makes his mark in Interlagos, Brazil 2012

Nico Hulkenberg has made a few mistakes along the way like any young driver, but he seems to have an edginess and energy about him which Nico Rosberg perhaps lacks. His move to Sauber is a great opportunity, and with a rookie team mate he will be in a strong position to drive the team forward as the more experienced driver. I’d be very surprised if he isn’t on the podium in 2013.

Both Nico’s have an opportunity to step further in to the German limelight, but which will it be, if either? Does Germany need to wait longer for its next star?

The only German in GP2/GP3 at the moment is Daniel Abt, who finished second in the GP3 series in 2012. He is just 19 years of age, but has Red Bull sponsorship and is recognised within Germany as a future star. The next few years will be key for Abt.

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.

Penalty Fair?

2 Sep

The annual Grand Prix at Spa rarely disappoints when it comes to providing drama. Despite an amazing pole to flag drive from Jenson Button, this year’s race will be remembered for the dramatic first race crash and other controversies which resulted in penalties being handed out.

Cars fly at Turn 1 in Spa.

 

Penalties are always a massive talking point throughout an F1 season, particularly when one driver is making regular visits to the FIA stewards, or when a series of similar incidents occur and the punishments handed out are inconsistent.

Cause and Effect

Today’s incident at the start of the race which caused a terrifying crash resulted in Romain Grosjean being handed a 1 race ban by the FIA and a 50,000 Euro fine. This was not Grosjean’s first incident at the start of a race (for example, he was involved in a dramatic start to this year’s Monaco Grand Prix) and it resulted in the scariest incident we’ve seen in a while.

The replay of the start showed Grosjean making a quick start and then moving over to the right, which squeezed Hamilton who did not veer outside of the white line to avoid contact. If you take this part of the incident in isolation then it is quite similar to other incidents we have seen this year, but the impact was so much greater because the whole of the pack were bunched together so closely at the start, while also braking to go round turn 1. If the two had come together like this later in the race and nobody else had been affected, chances are it would’ve just resulted in a grid-drop for Grosjean.  It can be difficult to differentiate between the two scenarios, but ultimately drivers need to take extra care at the start of the race.  Grosjean described the incident as a “small mistake with big consequences” and has apologised to the other drivers involved (and their fans). I’ve seen some emotional comments on twitter attacking Grosjean’s words, but I suspect he would have learned from this incident with or without the ban for the next race. I’m not saying that he shouldn’t receive it, but I’d be gob-smacked if the gravity of the situation and good fortune that nobody was seriously hurt  doesn’t have a deeper impact on him than a race ban. We saw in October 2011 the devastating consequences that a small coming together between two cars can have on a race track when there is traffic ahead. Wade Cunningham and JR Hildebrand came together at the Las Vegas Speedway which sent cars in front airborne, resulting in the tragic loss of Dan Wheldon.

The role of the FIA

The inconsistency of penalties from the FIA is one of the most controversial issues in motor racing. The inconsistency applies not only within Formula 1, but also across the feeder series of GP2, GP3 and World Series Renault where young drivers (like Grosjean) usually graduate from prior to their F1 careers. Stefano Domenicali, Ferrari’s team boss called for a higher standard of driving to be required in these lower series: “In my view, the most important thing is looking at the behaviour of drivers. It has to start in the championships before Formula 1. You see it too often in the other series that drivers are very aggressive and try to do something almost over what it is possible to do, so it is important to be very strict since they start racing and then they will arrive in F1 in a better condition for that”. Others, including GP2 and GP3 world commentator Will Buxton have supported this view. We shall have to see if Jean Todt pays attention to this call for action from his former team.

The most irritating thing from the FIA today was one of the reasons given on their official notice confirming Grosjean’s penalty: “It eliminated leading championship contenders from the race”.

The FIA official notice confirming Grosjean’s penalty

This sentence is simply infuriating. It shouldn’t matter who is affected by the incident or their position in the championship standings. All drivers must have an equal standing in such incidents whether they drive a Ferrari or an HRT.

What next?

F1 moves to Monza in just a few days, and it is not yet known who will drive the second Lotus car. In theory it should be Jerome D’Ambrosio, the team’s official reserve driver, but there is already speculation that Jaime Alguersuari could be called upon given his experience this year as Pirelli’s test driver. I would be delighted to see either driver race next weekend. This is likely to be the main talking point for the next few days until Lotus confirm the driver line-up.

Will the FIA act on Domenicali’s call for new standards? The organisation has a reputation for changing regulations on a whim to hush the cries of teams crying foul about technical details, or to stall the progress of an exceptional team/driver. They are not so smart at responding to lucky escapes. I hope the F1 paddock will not let them ignore the issues which emerged today, and that we will see a sensible, FAIR, crack down on dangerous driving throughout all the racing formula which they control.

 

 

F1 Drivers – The Age Issue

15 Jul

Age can be a delicate subject for many, but in the world of Formula 1 it has become a somewhat contentious one. As someone of an age considered to be ‘a bit past it’ for sportsmen, I always find it somewhat bemusing to read about someone being too old. I can’t help but wonder, is 40 the new 30 in Formula 1?

Before I start to look at the age issue, here’s some basic figures for you:

The average age of the 2012 Formula 1 drivers is 28.75 years old

The average age of the 2012 race winning drivers is 29.75 years old

The driver contract ‘silly season’ always re-ignites the age debate in Formula 1, with contract lengths always being assessed against a driver’s age. Drivers of a ‘certain age’ who sign long contracts, such as Fernando Alonso and his contract extension with Ferrari until 2015, are predicted to see out their careers with that long contract. Alonso will be 33 in 2015 – not exactly over the hill – and the chances of him retiring then are incredibly small.

The ‘old timers’

The most controversial ‘old’ driver in Formula 1 is of course Michael Schumacher. He’s 43, on his second career, and his contract with Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 expires at the end of the current season. No decision has been made as yet about whether he will extend, but both he and Mercedes team principal, Ross Brawn, have alluded to him extending for at least one more season. After two difficult years with the car, and despite some awful luck this season, Schumi has found his feet and is pushing hard for more success. There is no reason for him to retire other than any lack of personal motivation to continue, and the 7 times world champion appears as motivated as ever.

Michael Schumacher on the podium in Valencia, 2012.

Second oldest is Pedro De La Rosa, the 41-year-old Spanish driver for HRT. It could be argued that Pedro has been HRT’s most successful driver. He has duelled very effectively with the Marussia drivers this season, and wrung everything out of the worst car on the grid. Like Schumacher with Mercedes, De La Rosa can be a very strong asset for HRT to improve their car in the future, given his experience and ability.

Pedro De La Rosa, HRT 2012

2011 saw the F1 retirement of Rubens Barrichello, who recently turned 40. After leaving F1 Rubens moved to Indy Car. Four days after his 40th birthday, Rubens won the trophy for Best Rookie at the Indy 500. Not bad for an old dog.

Fast heading in the ‘old timer’ direction is Mark Webber, with his 36th birthday only just over a month away. Everyone’s favourite Aussie driver is a serious contender for the 2012 title, and appeared to have a choice between driving for either Red Bull Racing or Ferrari next year. Mark has just signed a year’s extension with Red Bull, and it is highly unlikely that 2013 will be his last. Lewis Hamilton was very recently quoted as saying he hoped he’d still be racing when he’s as old as Michael. Sounds to me like Schumi is going to become a trend-setter.

Timo Glock and Heikki Kovalainen, both aged 30, are worthy of a seat further up the grid and Heikki in particular may well get one in the next year or so, rather than eventually slipping away.

2012 is proving challenging for all of the drivers on the F1 grid. Pirelli’s new tyre compounds, and a tighter development race are testing the patience of many. Maturity and experience appear to be serious assets for F1 drivers in 2012.

When adversity challenges drivers, maturity wins the day. Hamilton may be young, but he throws away points through a lack of maturity on the track and an attitude problem off it. Yes, there’s the principle of being a ‘true racer’, but at the end of the day points win prizes. When adversity strikes, whether it is your own doing or not, how you conduct yourself affects everything around you. One of the most impressive things about Michael Schumacher this year has been his ongoing public support for his team, despite the many technical failures which have put him out of contention for a shot at the title. A younger Schumacher, or a younger driver like Lewis would be highly unlikely to show such maturity and restraint.

The Young Guns

At the other end of the age spectrum from Schumacher and De La Rosa are the three youngest guns at the tender age of 22: Sergio Perez, Charles Pic and Jean-Eric Vergne. All have recently graduated from GP2 and Formula Renault.

Now if you’re a big fan of the F1 feeder formulas, you’ll be keen to see the top talents from GP2, Formula Renault etc securing a seat in F1. The longer the established drivers stick around, the fewer seats there are available for these young whipper-snappers. GP2 commentator Will Buxton highlighted this issue earlier this year in an interview with fellow blogger Jack Leslie: “There have been some incredible talents in GP2, but for as long as the likes of Grandpa Schumacher want to carry on trying to get a podium to prove to themselves they’ve still got it, there won’t always be space for them over the road in F1.” Derogatory references to Michael Schumacher aside, Will is right, and the lack of seats opening up, combined with the difficulties of obtaining sponsorship present a serious challenge to young drivers.

The current reality

With the majority of the top seats in F1 filled by drivers aged over 30 (only four out of the ten drivers in the top five teams are under 30 years old), a log jam has developed in F1. This will result in greater pressure on the young mid-field talent trying to push their way forward, and fend off the threat of ‘pay drivers’. If I could be confident that talent would always trump sponsorship money I’d be inclined to say this is a good thing as the quality of driving in F1 would increase further.

There will, however, be those who just don’t make the cut and never break in to F1 when they may have had the chance ten years ago. Given the years of dedication it takes to reach the top, this will always be frustrating for those who don’t make it, but the prize for those who do will be all the sweeter. Not only do they get to race at the top, but they get to do so alongside their heroes.

There’s no right or wrong opinion about the age of F1 drivers, as it is just that; opinion. My personal view is that having a range of ages and experience in F1 makes it a richer sport. The six world champions on the grid, and some top (more mature) dogs like Webber are making 2012 a fascinating season.

In other walks of life, the age of retirement is increasing. It would be naive to assume that the standard retirement age of an F1 driver should stay the same when the rest of us are going on for longer. 40 definitely seems to be the new 30 in the F1 world. Older drivers are here to stay, and the average age is only likely to increase in the coming years.

What do you think?

Who will ‘Lady Luck’ favour in Monaco?

24 May

It’s hard to believe it is a year since that dramatic race weekend on the streets of Monte Carlo in 2011, but the Formula 1 paddock has sailed back in to the principality for another spin of the roulette wheel.

Last year brought misfortune for a number of drivers, notably Sergio Perez with his massive crash during qualifying, while both Felipe Massa and Pastor Maldonado clashed with a frustrated Lewis Hamilton. Vitaly Petrov’s misfortune brought good fortune to Sebastian Vettel through the red flag his accident caused and the ‘free pass’ tyre change it gifted Seb and the other drivers on the grid.

Lady luck was certainly smiling on Sebastian Vettel in 2011 but who will she favour this year?

After 5 races with 5 different winning drivers and teams, many seem to believe that stretching this pattern to a sixth race would be a safe bet. If this is the case, Lotus and either Kimi Raïkonnën or Romain Grosjean could win big on Sunday. After Pastor Maldonado’s surprise victory for Williams in Spain many in the mid-field may now also be dreaming big and hoping their chance of a podium will come.

The other drivers in the thus-far successful teams will also be hoping their time has come – Mark Webber, Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton are hungry for victory. Felipe Massa seems to have no answer to Alonso’s ability to squeeze everything out of the F2012, and Bruno Senna will desperately want to prove he is a match for his previously underestimated team-mate. Where better to do so than at the track his uncle excelled at?

With his 5 place grid-drop, the odds aren’t in Michael Schumacher’s favour and he appeared to be struggling with the tyres in the practice sessions today. After such poor luck so far this season I really hope good fortune comes his way.

Felipe Massa is undoubtedly more in need of luck than anyone else on the grid. The vultures are circling and the rumour mill is in overdrive. I really hope he can score some more points this weekend and keep the wolves away from his door but it may only be delaying the inevitable. Outpacing his team-mate today in FP2 may bring some minor consolation but with a decision on his future at Ferrari likely to be made in the next month, it could well be a make or break weekend for the Brazilian.

After only limited running in FP2 today due to the weather, it is still difficult to gauge exactly how the odds stack for each team and driver. As always we will only know for sure when each of the players shows their hand in qualifying on Saturday. Lotus, Grosjean in particular, appear to be favourites amongst the pundits, followed by McLaren. The weather may well determine the outcome with more showers forecast. Whatever happens though, this weekend promises to be an absolute cracker.

Every Underdog Shall Have His Day

25 Mar

The Malaysian Grand Prix rarely disappoints when it comes to on-track action, and the 2012 race was certainly no exception. The weather played a predictable hand which helped bring great, potentially unpredictable achievements for many drivers/teams who could be considered to be underdogs, while those who were predicted to excel struggled.

The Underdogs

Alonso & Ferrari – the F2012 has been one of the most highly criticised cars at the start of this season, and nobody expected a victory for them. I’m not really a fan of either Alonso or Ferrari, but I was genuinely touched by their emotion after the win, and their determination to improve.

Perez & Sauber – we’ve seen flashes of brilliance from Checo in previous races, but today was the start of something new for the young Mexican. Had he not made that one mistake he may have won, but second place is still an incredible achievement and his delight at his first podium was truly infectious. His achievement today will only further fuel rumours about his future, particularly given Felipe Massa’s performance.

Image via Sauber F1 Team

Image via Sauber F1 Team

Senna & Williams – after a disappointing first race in Australia, Bruno Senna gave the best performance of his F1 career today by finishing sixth, showing both what he can do and what the FW34 can deliver. It was a real shame that Maldonado’s engine failed, as he is starting to really show his skill. If both of them can keep this up then Bruno should be able to step out from the shadow of his uncle’s legacy and build his own reputation, while Maldonado starts to shake off his reputation of just being a pay driver.

HRT – a mixed bag for who many see as the joker in the pack today. First achievement was meeting the 107% requirement, and despite an issue for De La Rosa at the start and drive-through penalty caused by a team member being on the track at the wrong moment, a clever early tyre strategy saw Karthikeyan up in tenth before the race was red flagged, the team’s best ever position. Sadly for them it inevitably wasn’t to last, and at different stages Karthikeyan got hit by both Button and Vettel. Button conceded responsibility for his incident, but Vettel harshly blamed Karthikeyan, who ended up with a 20 second penalty being applied to his race time.

Webber and Red Bull – the Bulls are struggling at the moment, but Mark Webber is quietly getting on with racing and gathering points while his team-mate struggles. He has out-qualified him in both races so far, and is currently ahead of Vettel in the tables.

Marussia – this back marker team had another strong race, with Pic up in 7th position at one point during a pit-stop phase. Both cars finished the race despite the tricky conditions and the team appear really pleased with their performance.

Caterham – both cars finished their home race, despite a minor incident for Heikki. Petrov finished ahead of his team-mate, while for one brief moment Kovalainen set the fastest lap of the race. The pace of the car was good and it will be great to see how they perform in a normal dry race.

Vergne & Toro Rosso – the young French rookie climbed ten places up the grid and scored his first points in Formula 1; quite an achievement in what would have been incredibly difficult race conditions. It’s early days for him at Toro Rosso, but these early points will certainly please his lords and masters.

How the Mighty Fall…

The two most obvious casualties of the race were Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel. As noted above, JB showed his maturity and admitted he’d made a mistake while the current world champion was particularly ungracious in defeat. As a Vettel fan I was really disappointed in how he conducted himself on and off the track, and felt Karthikeyan’s penalty was unfair.

JB should be able to put this behind him quickly and focus on China whereas Vettel, who is already unhappy about the performance of the RB8, will have a greater mental hurdle to overcome in the next three weeks. I’m sure there’ll be some serious head-scratching going on in Milton Keynes over the next couple of weeks.

It was also disappointing to see the Mercedes perform poorly after such an excellent qualifying effort from Michael Schumacher. I hope they can turn this around and deliver some strong results.

 

 

 

 

 

2012 Preview – My Other Pic for the Season

6 Mar

With FP1 in Melbourne just 10 days away, I wanted to take some time to write about who I’ll be watching this season, and why.

It goes without saying that I’ll be supporting Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and Heikki Kovalainen (and as I wrote before, I’ll be focussing more on Schumi and Heikki this season). I think everyone will be watching Kimi Raikkonen’s return closely, myself included, but there is one other driver I will be rooting for: Charles Pic.

Rookie comparison

The 2012 grid features a couple of rookie drivers: Pic and Toro Rosso driver Jean-Eric Vergne. Both are young, French drivers who have progressed through similar racing formulas. Vergne is a product of the Red Bull Junior Team, while Pic has progressed independently (albeit with some influential mentoring from former driver Olivier Panis). Some are also classifying Romain Grosjean and Daniel Ricciardo as rookies, as they are embarking on their first full seasons in F1, but I don’t classify them as such because they already have race experience.

Both Pic and Vergne will face a challenge to retain their seats in F1 for 2013.

Vergne faces the intimidating prospect of meeting the incredibly high standards of Red Bull head honcho’s Horner, Marko and Mateschitz. This will be particularly prominent in the minds of the F1 media, given the shock sacking of both Sebastian Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari for not being up to standard, and I predict a number of articles mid-season about whether Vergne and his team-mate Ricciardo cut the Red Bull mustard.

Why Charles Pic?

Pic, meanwhile, is starting in possibly the worst circumstances. He is in arguably the weakest car on the grid, and apart from a few laps at Silverstone yesterday for the Marussia launch and shakedown, Pic and Glock haven’t driven their 2012 car. The team did give him 3 days of driving during pre-season tests to try out the new Pirelli tyres, but on the 2011 car. It will inevitably take a few races for the team to find their feet, assuming that they pass the 107% rule in the first race (which can’t be guaranteed after no winter testing).

For three years on the trot the team have hired rookies, and neither of Pic’s predecessors (Lucas di Grassi and Jerome D’Ambrosio) managed to retain drives within F1.

So, with a less than wonderful car in a team with a history of not hanging on to its rookie drivers, why focus any energy on this young driver? Well… I am British, and yes I am conforming to the national stereotype of rooting for the underdog. But it isn’t just that.

I’ve been reading up on Pic ever since his signing with Marussia was announced, having not really heard of him before, as well as following him on twitter. He is enthusiastic, charming, and I’ve been really impressed with the way he has interacted with his twitter followers. Having not followed his career previously I don’t have much to go on, but this young man just seems to have a bit of  ‘je ne sais quoi’ about him.

Also, I was a bit of an Olivier Panis fan back in the day, so his role in Pic’s career has also been a factor.

I really hope that Charles Pic manages to shine in 2012, and light up the back of the grid with some impressive racing moves against his team-mate, Timo Glock, and the two HRT drivers, Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan.

Bonne chance Charles!

Going for the Hat-Trick

3 Mar

The 2011 season left many F1 fans in fear that a new era of dominance by a single team and driver was dawning. After clinching his first world title in Abu Dhabi in 2010, Sebastian Vettel blazed his way through 2011 to claim his second in truly dominant fashion. The technical supremacy of Red Bull Racing in both seasons earned them back-to-back constructor’s titles.

As the 2012 season dawns I, like pretty much everyone, have been wondering how things will pan out this year, as well as pondering that eternal question of whether dominance from one driver or team is a good or bad thing.

The new season

As always, pre-season testing has been like an elaborate game of poker with none of the teams showing their true hands. The experts on location currently believe Red Bull have the edge, and this is likely to be extended by the major upgrade that the team are running for the final two days of the test. See here for details: http://www.autosport.com/news/report.php/id/97811 McLaren have also brought some significant upgrades to Barcelona, but not on the scale of Red Bull.

We won’t know how things really stand until Melbourne, but if a Red Bull is on pole position, particularly Sebastian Vettel, and then goes on to win the race, then many will resign themselves to another white-wash.

Team/Driver Dominance

Different people will perceive dominance from a driver or team in different ways. General consensus will always be that it is a bad thing; after all there will always be 11 other teams and 23 other drivers who are racing and they and their fans aren’t going to be too pleased about it.

Although there are twenty four cars on the starting grid and action throughout the pack during the race, attention is inevitably focussed on whoever wins the race. If this is where your attention is focussed then yes, dominance is never going to be a good thing unless you support whoever keeps winning. Personally speaking, I like to focus on the whole race and don’t mind a consistent winner as long as there has been some great action further back. I am a fan of racing, not of supporting a winner. Readers may be cynical about this given who two of my three favourite drivers are (i.e. Schumacher and Vettel), but I honestly take equal pleasure in watching Kovalainen fighting forward in to the mid-field.

I was interested to get some views from other Vettel fans about driver dominance and what they felt about Seb in 2012 and the future (many thanks to those who helped me out by completing a quick survey).

60% of those asked thought that dominance from a single driver was a bad thing. This is pretty much as I expected. Even if you like the driver who is winning, it is easy to see that other fans will become disillusioned, to the detriment of the sport.

I was also interested to find out who they would like to see win the WDC in 2012 if Vettel didn’t claim the title again. The Sebson ‘bromance’ clearly extends to Vettel fans, as Jenson Button was clear favourite. Although I’d love to see Schumi come through and win the title again, realistically speaking that is unlikely (even less likely for Heikki), and so Jenson would be my next choice. He’s a decent competitive guy with none of the nonsense associated with his team-mate.

It is likely that Vettel and an Adrian Newey-designed car could form a formidable pairing for years, and many of Vettel’s critics have claimed that his car should be credited with his success. It is inevitable that having the best car on the grid is going to  be a significant factor, but claims like this do Vettel a real disservice. My final question for Vettel fans was whether or not he should seek to stay at Red Bull beyond his current contract (which runs until the end of 2014). Responses were split on this – some would like to see him stay and succeed, while others want him to prove his talent by driving another car. It is good for drivers to race for at least two teams in their career, and the 2015 season would be a sensible point for Vettel to seek pastures new, as long as the set up is right. I don’t think McLaren would suit him, but if Ferrari don’t improve their form then there’s little incentive to move.

Final thoughts

Whatever happens in 2012, I think we’re in for a cracker of a season throughout the length of the grid. If Vettel and Red Bull do dominate I hope that disenchanted F1 fans will take a look further down the grid and appreciate all the great action happening back there.

I’d like to close this article by setting out my stall for 2012. In 2011 I focussed mainly on Vettel, proudly waving my pointy finger whenever he won, but my focus this year will be on Schumacher and Kovalainen. Both are likely to have great stories and great battles.