Archive for January, 2012

INDYCAR: American drivers

January 30, 2012

AJ Allmendinger’s victory in the Daytona 24h last Sunday has brought the spotlight on a driver who could have been the next big thing in American open wheel racing. Allmendinger won 5 Champcar races in 2006 but decided to move to NASCAR. His best finish in the Sprint Cup was 15th in 2011 and whilst that is a solid performance, it shows that ex-Indycar drivers moving to NASCAR prefer to be small fish in a big pond rather than big fish in a smaller pond. The best example is Sam Hornish Jr who moved over after winning three Indycar championships and one Indianapolis 500, yet he only achieved one victory (in NASCAR’s second tier) during 4 seasons of racing.

Indycar urgently needs more American talent. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti are decent drivers but have only 5 victories amongst them. Graham Rahal has the potential to become a title contender but has a big challenge in 2012 to show he can be a consistent front runner and finisher. JR Hildebrand has shown some potential and it will be interesting to see what newcomer Josef Newgarden can do. However, the series would benefit incredibly from a more established American name in a leading team. In particular, Penske Racing has three “foreign” drivers with Hornish and Allmendinger under their umbrella in NASCAR. Could one of them make a return to open wheel racing? Very difficult, but not impossible.

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INDYCAR: A new beginning

January 29, 2012

Indycar and its CEO Randy Bernard are under pressure to respond to safety concerns after the recent accident as Las Vegas motor speedway that resulted in Dan Wheldon’s death.

For 2012 a new car is being introduced (a decision taken well before the accident) and engine competition will be present for the first time since 2006 with Honda, Lotus and Chevrolet participating in the series.

It will be interesting to see what the impact of the new car will be – from a safety point of view, it has been designed to avoid cars taking off after interlocking wheels (a cause of several serious accidents over the years including Wheldon’s), although it’s not clear if this will be effective in high speed oval tracks. The car also seem to be more difficult to drive in ovals which may lead to more driver errors but may also reduce the amount of “pack racing” seen in recent years (and certainly in the tragic Las Vegas race) where drivers running with similar cars and engined are flat out throughout the track and end up running in packs of cars, often three abreast, with no one being able to complete a clean overtake.

From a racing point of view, we may have opposing effects as well. It could be an opportunity for new teams to fight for the title as everyone will be struggling to find the right technical specs, or it may well be that the most resourceful teams (Penske and Ganassi) will be the only ones to make this difficult new car work and their dominance will increase as a result.

Engine competition is certainly positive as it will lead to higher differentiation between cars and possibly a power race, both factors being useful to reduce the “pack racing” effect.

The other response to safety concerns has been to reduce the number of races in ovals. Only 4 races are planned, down from 6 in 2011. It is common for race organisers to overreact following a serious accident but this decision raises some concerns as oval racing is core to Indycar and the races are way more interesting that road courses. The solution is not to avoid oval racing, but to make it work better from a safety point of view. The solution may require more radical steps than the new 2012 car (more horsepower / less downforce / different aero packages available) but sooner or later those decisions will need to be taken if Indycar has any hope to thrive – or indeed survive – in the years to come.

F1: Red Bull Junior Driver programme

January 19, 2012

In recent weeks Red Bull has been criticised for their treatment of Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari, with both drivers being dropped from Toro Rosso to make way for Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne and then labelled by Dr. Helmut Marko as “not winners”.

This has raised questions over the way the team has handled its Red Bull Junior Driver programme, as the same situation has happened in the past with the likes of Christian Klien, Vitantonio Liuzzi and the beautifully named Scott Speed, not to mention other drivers who got sidelined before they made it to a F1 racing seat, such as Neel Jani.

It has been pointed out by many that some of these names have been sidelined too early and that by applying the same logic we would never have had world champions such as Nigel Mansell, Jenson Button or Damon Hill or other F1 winners such as Gerhard Berger. For example, both Buemi and Alguersuari are under 23 and they could well be winners in the future with the right team and a good car.

Red Bull obviously runs the programme for its own benefit with the major achievement to date being the rise of Sebastian Vettel. Given the amount of participants in the programme, they have the luxury of being able to dump less successful drivers.  Some of them should look at the brighter side and realise that without Red Bull’s support they would not have made to F1 in the first place.

The main issue with Red Bull rejects seems to be lack of alternatives. These days, drivers build strong relationships with F1 teams and manufacturers quite early, some good examples outside the Red Bull world being Lewis Hamilton with McLaren, Paul di Resta with Mercedes, the Mexicans with Sauber, Valteri Bottas with Williams, various Japanese drivers with Honda and Toyota (when they were around). This means that teams basically have a number of drivers in the pipeline with others retire or move on. So, when Red Bull releases drivers who have been under their umbrella for years, it’s not obvious where they can move to re-start their careers. Surviving in Formula 1 is becoming tougher and tougher.

F1: Williams becomes a pay driver team

January 17, 2012

Williams has announced that Bruno Senna will partner Pastor Maldonado in 2012. Essentially they are becoming an all pay driver team as Maldonado’s choice was based on the funding brought from PDVSA (the Venezuelan oil company) and Senna’s choice is not unrelated to the fact that he brings valuable sponsors to the team. Williams could have kept Rubens Barrichello or hired Adrian Sutil, Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi (before he became Red Bull’s reserve driver). There are identified issues with Barrichello (damaged relationship with the team after a dismal 2011) and Sutil (called to court following an alleged assault) but overall the team appears to have prioritised money over talent.

This is a worrying trend and may be another significant  step in the team’s structural decline. This is not unseen in Formula 1. Lotus won races in 1987, hired world champion Nelson Piquet in 1988 and by 1994 was gone, having employed numerous pay drivers during their last year. Brabham scored points in 1989, and by mid 1992 had left F1. How long will Williams survive?

NASCAR: Dumb drafting

January 14, 2012

Forget DRS in Formula 1, the Indycar push to pass and other aberrations. Bump drafting in pairs is the stupidest thing ever seen in racing.

 

Please NASCAR let’s get rid of this… it’s ridiculous.

F1: Japanese drivers

January 12, 2012

Kamui Kobayashi has done a decent second season for Sauber even if his overtaking brilliance was hidden by the fact that everyone did lots of DRS-led overtaking. He out scored his team mate Sergio Perez 30 points to 14, which was convincing, but had a long slump in the middle of the season, partly due to lack of car performance.

However, one has to wonder how long we will continue with the team. Sauber has a Mexican connection through Perez and already has Esteban Gutierrez in the sidelines. It is safe to say that the team’s funding strategy is focused on Mexico just like Williams is focused on Venezuela (how the world has changed!) so it’s very likely that one of the team’s drivers will be Mexican. On the other hand Ferrari supports Jules Bianchi and Sauber is an obvious place to place the youngster due to the Ferrari customer engine deal. At some point it is therefore possible that Kobayashi will get the boot and it will be interesting to see whether he is offered further opportunities in F1.

He deserves a proper opportunity  Kamui is probably the first Japanese driver to be on a F1 team on merit. The issue historically has been that Japanese drivers were tied up with either Toyota or Honda and their career was dependent on their plans to be in F1 with their own team or supplying engines to other teams.

That is why Takuma Sato ended up at BAR Honda then Super Aguri and now Indycar. Satoru Nakajima also ended up at Lotus and Tyrrell-Honda back in the 80’s and 90’s. His son Kazuki was supported by Toyota and therefore drove for Williams. And so on.  This is a rather strange model as drivers put their career at stake and became dependent on boardroom decisions.

Kobayashi was a Toyota driver and indeed the team allowed him to make his debut before withdrawing from the sport. At least that allowed him to showcase his talent for 2 races and get the Sauber deal.

We need Japanese drivers in F1 and would be a shame to lose Kobayashi. Hopefully he will have a decent 2012 to respond to some of his critics.

Indycar: Barfield rules

January 7, 2012

Indycar has appointed Beaux Barfield as its new Race Director, replacing Brian Barnhart who over the past few months has been under increasing pressure over a number of controversial decisions, culminating in a re-start order under rain at the New Hampshire race which led to a multi-car crash on the start/finish line. That decision had a very high stupid-o-meter score (not the least because someone could have been hurt) and, together with loss of support from team owners, drivers and fans, meant that CEO Randy Barnard was basically left with no choice but to replace him.

Indycar has a lot to improve in terms of rules. It is shocking how blocking rules was applied in non-oval courses with drivers being basically forced to leave the door open for others to pass and penalised for not doing so. Yes, it makes sense to apply a strict definition of blocking in an oval, where you don’t want cars chopping over one another at 220 mph, but in road courses the application of the rule always seems to generate unfair outcomes. Penalties for causing collisions were also applied in a rather inconsistent and ad hoc way (not that Indycar is alone in this matter, as F1 officials take similarly poor decisions) and that’s another area that Beaux Barfield will also need to have a look at.

F1: 2013 drivers

January 3, 2012

The most important F1 driver deals tend to happen 12-18 months in advance of the actual start of contracts. For example, Fernando Alonso signed for McLaren at the end of 2005 to start in 2007 (although he didn’t last very long there) and Kimi Raikkonen also signed for Ferrari 1 year in advance.

This means that, amongst the top 4 teams, at least Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes must be making decisions for 2013 at the moment.

Red Bull is interesting as it is possible, maybe even likely, that Mark Webber is going to leave at the end of 2012. He is currently a decent #2 driver as he is able to help the team win the Constructors championship and is often (but not always) able to maximise points when something happens to Sebastian Vettel. However, over the past year he has lost some of the pace and brilliance seen in 2010 when he was a title challenger. The plan could well be to replace him with one of the Red Bull young drivers but it’s unclear how the  decision will be taken in a logical way. Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari have been thrown out of Toro Rosso (Red Bull’s junior team) to make way for rising stars Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne but it’s not obvious how to conclude which one should be upgraded to a Red Bull in 2013 after a single racing season. Buemi is going to be the reserve driver for Red Bull which these days pretty much means being the official driver of the team’s simulator and watching the races from the pitwall. Alguersuari may end up at HRT if they manage to build a car before the beginning of the season but that’s unlikely to help his cause.

The point therefore is that we won’t have a lot of evidence at the end of 2012… another opportunity for an ad hoc decision by Mr. Helmut Marko?

Ferrari has probably already decided that 2012 is going to be Felipe Massa’s last season with them. He is a nice guy and was useful to the team but at the moment there is no indication that he can be the #2 that they need. He finished 139 points behind Alonso in 2011 and Ferrari finished 122 points behind McLaren, meaning that he is the bottleneck preventing the team from finishing higher in the Constructors championship. He hasn’t helped Alonso in his 2010 challenge and is unlikely to do so in the future. Until recently, Ferrari seemed keen on Robert Kubica but it’s not clear if and when the Pole will be fit enough to make a competitive return to F1. And how would it work? They need to test Kubica in an old car and at that point it will be pretty obvious for Massa that he’s going to be replaced. Besides Kubica, there is some talk about Jules Bianchi but I can’t remember drivers making their F1 debut for Ferrari and the last inexperienced rookie they hired was Gilles Villeneuve in 1977. A more sensible plan is to test the youngster (say in a Sauber) and keep him as an option for the medium term.

Ferrari’s best option could well be Red Bull’s reject Mark Webber with Adrian Sutil as a backup plan. Webber is on a slow motion career decline but so was Rubens Barrichello in 2000 and he was useful. The team has also hired average drivers from average teams in the past, most notably Eddie Irvine in 1996, and he was useful. Curious to see what the decision will be…

Mercedes will need one driver when Michael Schumacher finally retires for good. It seems that Mercedes-supported Paul di Resta is on pole position for that vacancy. He is strong but it remains to be seen whether a team with Rosberg and di Resta is going to deliver the wins that the Mercedes boardroom expects.

Anyway, we should be seeing busy weeks… in the background.