Archive for the ‘F1’ Category

F1: What can be learnt from American racing (part 1)

August 21, 2012

The recent wild finish at the NASCAR Watkins Glen road course brings memories of what happened in Hockenheim, where Sebastian Vettel was penalised for overtaking Jenson Button while going off track and was demoted from second to fourth as a result.

The NASCAR race at the Glen produced one of the best finishes in recent times with Marcos Ambrose moving from third to first in a short period of time, including an amazing battle with Brad Keselowski and an overtaking move that included, er, going off the track and back. But this is NASCAR and there wasn’t even a suggestion of a penalty.

NASCAR gets it right. Why?

Because as long as we have a level playing field, it’s fine. Drivers should be able to use all the track and a bit more, because that will generate more spectacular moments. Those magic moments where fans at the circuit or at home stand up and cheer. Moments they remember years later. They may even want to watch a video replay and pay for that content.

Of course, tracks should be designed in a way such that going off track does not yield an unreasonable advantage, like a massive shortcut. Most of them already are.

F1 should be much more pragmatic and less purist in its approach to racing. Penalising moves such as Vettel’s will make others think twice before trying something audacious, although in this instance Vettel had the chance to try and get out of it when it was clear he was going to run off track.

There is already a strong incentive to wait for a super safe opportunity to overtake in the DRS zone (curiously, that is where this incident occurred). Penalising ambitious but not unsafe moves isn’t exactly a good way to promote overtaking and the show.

Over-penalising also brings incentives for rival teams to protest as soon as there is something vaguely unusual about an overtaking move. For example, Button took less than a lap to complain to his team on the radio. Whilst these protests are within the rules, they are not positive for the sport, just as it is not positive when football players pressure the referee for a penalty as soon as something unusual takes place in the box.

Finally, the biggest negative of all is F1’s inability to deal with
incidents promptly. Even of Vettel were to be penalised, someone in race control should have demanded him to give up the position immediately back to Button. If teams have an army of dedicated strategists following the race, it is not unreasonable to have one dedicated individual to each driver in race control that would make this call within seconds of the incident. In this case, Vettel would have dropped back to third place which was still a fair outcome.

Instead, stewards added an arbitrary amount of time to his race, promoting Romain Grosjean, a man who was never in contention, to the podium.

That’s definitely not right.


F1: Plane crashes are not caused by a single factor

July 16, 2012

Maria de Villota’s unfortunate accident while doing a straight line test for the Marussia team has led to a lot of speculation around its causes, with questions being raised around driver experience and the safety standards of such tests. This is a serious debate given that the incident, which involved hitting a stationary truck, resulted ultimately in the loss of Maria’s right eye, arguably the biggest injury sustained while driving a Formula 1 car since the death of Ayrton Senna on May 1st, 1994.

Two weeks after the incident, the Marussia team issued a statement in which car failure was ruled out as a contributing factor to the crash. This “it wasn’t me” attitude has not been extended to explaining the location of the truck and how it came in the way of a moving F1 car, although to be fair no one has really looked seriously at safety standards and potential hazards of straight line tests, which tend to be done in places like airfields instead of proper racing circuits.

The scenario of driver error remains a possibility, with the potential for some embarassing scenarios such as Maria being caught by the car’s anti-stall system due to her lack of experience with such devices and powerful single seaters in general.

It is still too early to establish the exact causes of this tragic accident although, just as with modern plane crashes, it’s unlikely that one single factor was at play. If in-season testing was better regulated (this doesn’t mean a return to unlimited testing), Formula 1 cars would only be driven in racing circuits meeting international safety standards. If the funding model for teams was fair, Marussia wouldn’t need to employ a driver purely due to financial reasons. And the handling of these mighty powerful machines should arguably be left to drivers with a superlicense that have shown to be competitive in GP2, FR3.5 and other similar championships. Maybe one of these factors is a non-issue in this instance but it’s very likely that most of them were part of the problem.

Safety in Formula 1 has been a trial and error process in the past, at times too reactive. On the other hand, the sport has shown an irritating propensity to investigate things that don’t have to be investigated. Sometimes freak accidents happen. But in this instance there are enough open questions to justify a proper look at the incident. And possibly to change a few things.

F1: Special Moments Reduction System

June 11, 2012

And Hamilton goes round the outsiiiide… And TAKES THE LEAD FROM ALONSO!!!

It wasn’t THAT exciting in reality, was it? Because everyone knew that Hamilton would get through. He just had to wait until the DRS zone, open his wing and wave bye bye to Alonso. Some have praised him for not trying a crazy overtake anywhere else on the track. He did well to keep his cool and only attack when he knew Fernando would be a sitting duck.

With DRS, the sport is losing magic moments every race. The real overtaking moments or the really smart defending tactics with an inferior car. With DRS, Gilles Villeneuve would not have won the 1981 Spanish Grand Prix. Mika Hakkinen wouldn’t need to make a brilliant move past Schumi in Spa 2000. Everyone still goes to youtube to see those moments. We will not be going to youtube in a few years time (or pay for content) to watch Hamilton open his rear wing and breeze past Alonso to win the Canadian Grand Prix.

F1: Entertainment by design

June 10, 2012

After yet another thrilling race in Canada, the obvious question is why can’t we have more tracks like Montreal, that always seem to generate an interesting race for one reason or another?

It is a fair question. What is the answer?

It seems to be possible to construct a race track that is likely to generate good racing. Low grip, punishing run off areas, a few walls and multiple overtaking points; mix all of those, add a few spices and it’s done. With a modern simulator, a new track could be programmed and the effects of various options could be assessed. Why on earth do need to put up with all the new boring Tilkedromes?

Safety is probably one reason. F1 has become obsessed to reduce the risk of death or serious injury to such an extent that it has, consciously or uncousciouly, sacrificed some of the racing excitement. It is easy to criticise this choice until something goes wrong. In Montreal, this seems to happen every 10 years or so with Olivier Panis breaking both legs in 1997 and Robert Kubica lucky to survive a major impact in 2007. None of these accidents would have happened in Abu Dhabi or in the Buddha International Circuit and it’s a close call on whether having one serious accident every 10 years is an acceptable cost for a thrilling race every year. It can be argued that the perfect circuit simulator would allow for the best of both worlds as long as the supercomputer could solve a very complicated set of equations and constraints but in practice this may be difficult to achieve.

What other reasons are out there for the Boring Lookalikes? A viable conspiracy theory is that, whilst drivers and fans love circuits like Montreal, the bosses do not. They want a proper return on their investment and if they have a technical edge, predictable and safe racing may be a good way to bring home the bacon.

For the fans and the racers, the picture is less rosy. In 10 or 20 years time, it would be sad to see a World Championship full of Tilkedromes and circuits such as Spa, Montreal and Albert Park gone. Everyone should enjoy races like today’s while they can.

F1: Everything is “under investigation”

May 30, 2012

The Spanish and Monaco GP have again highlighted the issue of penalties in modern F1. Schumacher was penalised in Barcelona for running into the back of Bruno Senna with a five-place grid penalty for Monaco, something that cost him a potential victory. Massa and Vettel were penalised for not slowing enough under the yellow flags, a penalty that had last been applied to Jacques Villeneuve in 1997. Several drivers were under investigation for short-cutting Ste. Devote on lap 1 of Monaco to avoid the spinning Lotus of Romain Grosjean. Sergio Perez was penalised for crossing the track in front of Kimi Raikkonen while entering the pits. Pastor Maldonado, the hero of the Spanish GP, was penalised for running into Perez during practice and then incurred a second penalty by changing his gearbox. He was lucky to avoid a third penalty for running into the back of Pedro de la Rosa at the start of the race.

Everything seems to be “under investigation” in Formula 1 these days. The number of penalties is exponentially higher than 10 or 20 years ago. Why is that?

For a start, there are more rules nowadays, so the sport had to invent more penalties for breaking those rules. For example, 20 years ago there was no Safety Car and no pit lane speed limit, so obviously no penalties were required.

Secondly, there are technical requirements that require a penalty, such as the limitation in number of engines to be used in a season or the need for gearboxes to last four races. In the past, any technical infringement would be dealt with through disqualification, but that’s obviously not very reasonable in case someone’s gearbox goes bananas.

Finally, there is a “excess of zeal” culture in Formula 1 that has gone beyond reasonable limits. It all started for good reasons after Imola 94 but has evolved to a stage where there are way too many penalties, which creates a negative culture in the sport, with various participants in the sport chasing penalties for any incident, much in the same way as football teams claim penalties for anything vaguely unusual happening inside the box. The myriad penalties we see in modern F1 racing also generate significant consistency issues, which further reinforces negativity amongst teams, drivers and above all the fans.

For example, is the pit unsafe release rule really required given that cars are already damn slow on the pitlane? What about the investigation done on the cars avoiding Grosjean on Turn 1? No action was taken but the simple fact that the matter was investigated shows the current culture in Formula 1. Even more ridiculous are the penalties for impeding other cars in qualifying, often in very dubious situations. If Ayrton Senna was alive, surely he would tell the cry babies to shut up and SORT IT OUT, if they find traffic in their hot laps it is their own fault for not being good enough to get a good track position. Most of the drivers come to F1 via karting where constant overtaking is required. They should stop complaining and just get on with it.

Collisions and incidents are way over-penalised as well. Most of them are racing incidents and should be treated as such. If anything, drivers should sort out their issues as adults. Of course, there are limits to be respected and any dangerous driving should be dealt with seriously.

Finally, there is one big issue with the way penalties are applied. They should only affect the event where the infringement happened. No “leftover” penalties for future events should be allowed. So, Schumi shouldn’t have been penalised in Spain in the first place, but if it would be deemed fair to give him a penalty, then it should not affect future races. He was out of the race so the only thing left to do was to fine him or dock some points (not that he has many…). Anyway, it is a sure thing that it is the penalties system that needs be urgently “under investigation”.

F1, INDYCAR: The worst corners in motorsport

May 23, 2012

Very good article…

F1: Big manufacturers don’t likey, why?

May 16, 2012

Map of official manufacturer involvement as of 2012:

Why does this happen?

One obvious reason is cost. Formula 1 may provide a decent return on investment for sponsors, but the maths are more challenging for a fully fledged F1 manufacturer operation. This model has proven to be too expensive – Renault has reverted to being an engine supplier and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Mercedes decided to do the same in the future. They could gain the same benefits by supplying say McLaren as they get by having their own team.

The meritocratic, technically driven, winner-takes-it-all nature of Formula 1 also makes it difficult for new manufacturers as they have a lot of catch up work on the technical side vs. the incumbents. The number of different teams winning a race in a given season ranges from 2 to 5 which shows how difficult for a new team to achieve success. Toyota for example spent hundreds of millions of dollars over 8 years to achieve a few podiums (podia?). It is striking that if we have six manufacturers in F1 then someone’s best results will be around tenth place or so and if they are less experienced they could remain there for a while. After a couple of seasons the big cheeses in the boardroom will start to ask tough questions and might pull the plug.

Other series have attempted to lower the cost of manufacturer involvement and level the playing field by introducing “spec” elements, such as the chassis – eg NASCAR with the Car of Tomorrow. If Formula 1 wants to be more manufacturer-friendly then it needs to consider this path.

Likeness to standard automobiles is another advantage that the likes of NASCAR, DTM, WRC and WTCC can offer and F1 obviously can’t. So not much to do there.

Finally, manufacturers are looking for publicity through innovation – eg Audi diesel engines or Toyota hybrids in Le Mans. Formula 1 rules are way too rigid for manufacturers to be able to achieve true differentiation in their involvement. Cars and engines look the same because the rule book does not allow teams to think outside the box.

Of course, the most fundamental question for Formula 1 is whether it NEEDS mass manufacturers to be successful… The answer is not straightforward.

F1: Would Gilles Villeneuve be successful today? (Part 2 of 2)

May 11, 2012

Maybe he would.

Gilles was an extreme driver with a unique personality. That could be used as a marketing tool. Several examples exist today, most notably in American racing. Danica Patrick is a talented driver but has attracted more than her fair share of interest from top teams and sponsors. Charlie Kimball is a decent driver but the case for him to drive for Ganassi probably revolves around the fact that he is the first person with diabetes to compete in a top racing series. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Has experienced more successes off the track than on it. And so on.

Some people believe that Villeneuve was destined to win world championships in Formula 1, but the reality is that he lived for the next lap, where he wanted to be the fastest, or the next corner, where we hoped to outbreak someone and overtake them spectacularly. That is often a bad route to try to win championships, especially in modern times where rock-solid reliability means that drivers need to absolutely try to make the most out of a bad day, even if that means an extremely boring race.

Villeneuve would probably not be successful on the track in terms of victories and championships, but surely he would pull a few inspired performances. Throw in a few brands with deep pockets to support him as an enfant terrible and he would be destined for a successful career.

F1: Would Gilles Villeneuve be successful today? (Part 1 of 2)

May 8, 2012

I love motor racing. To me it’s a sport, not a technical exercise. My ideal Formula 1 car would be something like a McLaren M23 with a big normally aspirated engine, 800 hp, 21 inch rear tyres. A lot of people say we should have narrower tyres, but I don’t agree because you need big tyres to slow you down when you spin. And you need a lot of horsepower to unstick big tyres, to make the cars slide. That would be a bloody fantastic spectacle, I can tell you. We would take corners one gear lower than we do now, and get the cars sideways. You know, people still rave about Ronnie Peterson in a Lotus 72, and I understand that. I agree with them. That’s the kind of entertainment I want to give the crowds. Smoke the tyres ! Yeah ! I care about the fans, because I used to be one of them ! I believe the crowd is really losing out at the moment, and that’s bad.”

If Gilles Villeneuve could get back to life 30 years after and return to racing, he would be shocked. He thought that the F1 machines of his time had too much grip and too little horsepower. The behaviour of modern F1 cars would be repulsive to the little French Canadian. So much downforce and stability. And what about these “Formula 2” engines? Gilles would probably not be interested in making it to the pinnacle of open wheel racing so most likely we would not see him there. If somehow he ended up in Formula 1 and reproduced his performances of ’77 and ’78, he probably would have been fired. If he wasn’t fired he would quit out of boredom. Or because it’s too politically correct.

Where could he survive, or indeed thrive? Rallying would be an option, although he would be writing letters to the FIA to ressurrect Group B. He would try NASCAR and conclude that the machines are likeable but why the hell are they used to go round in circles like an idiot? And what is the point of tandem drafting? That’s not racing!

Whilst in North America he would check Indycar. If F1 was repulsive, a modern Indycar would make him vomit. He would call Randy Bernard and say “Randy, the closest thing I would consider doing is to drive those 90’s Indycars. I saw a few videos and yeah, wouldn’t mind racing those babies. Could you please bring them back?”

Motor racing used to be wild. Now it’s civilised. That’s why we love Villeneuve. Like the centre of the universe, he represents something that is lost in the spacetime continuum and we can never access again…

F1, INDYCAR: The Lotus farce

May 4, 2012

Lotus has a F1 team with its name but it doesn’t own or sponsor it… Why does this work? The hypothesis is that team owner Gerard Lopez is either interested in buying Group Lotus or selling tge F1 team to them. If both these options come off the table then it makes no sense for the F1 team to continue carrying the name when it can monetise value with other potential sponsors.

Lotus also has an engine in Indycar which was actually built by Judd and is way behind other engines in the series… So two of their teams already gave up on them. Whether any of their cars qualifies for the Indy 500 remains to be seen.

Lotus Cars is struggling and its parent company just got sold. The world domination plans are likely to be shelved and their strategy of doing motorsport on the cheap is probably going to collapse.

What a farce.

UPDATE- Another Indycar team (Dragon Racing) has dumped Lotus and sued them over contract fraud. This leaves Simona de Silvestro’s HVM Racing as the only regular entry to use the “Lotus” engine. The farce continues.

F1: China positives and negatives

April 21, 2012

Oh well, one more decent race in Shanghai with a little bit of help from DRS and the long back straight.

First positive mention goes obviously to race winner Nico Rosberg who drove like a winner. Excellent timing to appease his critics and also the big cheeses in Stuttgart who were starting to wonder why they have bought their own Formula 1 team.

Romain Grosjean finally managed to avoid trouble in the early laps to finish sixth and earn his first ever points. Well done to the Frenchman.

Williams was heavily criticised for hiring what effectively are two pay drivers but managed to produce a car that can fight for points. The team has already scored more points in three races than in the whole 2011 season. Things are moving in the right dictection for Sir Frank.

As usual, the selection of negative highlights was simpler. Ferrari could only manage 9th with Alonso whilst Massa finished outside the points again and now has the unfortunate distinction of being the only driver with no points besides the HRTs, the Marussias and the Caterhams.

The “Sebastian Vettel is losing it” theme continued as the reigning world champion could only manage a fifth place, was again beaten by his team mate and had heavy complaints about straight line speed during the race which is a slight issue in a circuit like Shanghai,

Finally, Mercedes’ pit crew did their best to prevent Michael Schumacher from reaching the first podium since his return. It used to be possible for cars to come back to the pits on three wheels without terminal damage, but somehow that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore…

F1: Malaysia positives and negatives

March 29, 2012

The changing conditions at Sepang produced an interesting and eventful race with a surprising victory for Fernando Alonso and a brilliant second place for Sergio Perez.

Those are obviously the first two positive highlights. It’s not easy to choose a third one from the various contenders but in the end Jean Eric Vergne is probably a worthy pick. He drove magnificently in a wet track with intermediate tyres en route to his first world championship points.

It’s much easier to highlight negatives.

Felipe Massa, who finished 97 seconds behind his teammate in 15th place, must be starting to think that he could be better off somewhere else, like Sauber (who gave him the first opportunity to drive in F1). Of course, that is assuming that Sauber would choose him to replace Perez in a straight swap, instead of going for Adrian Sutil or Jaime Alguersuari.

Mercedes were appalling in the race and could only manage a point for Michael Schumacher after Pastor Maldonado’s retirement near the end. Surely there some German big cheeses in Stuttgart must be wondering why Mercedes has a works team in Formula 1.

The final negative mention has to go to Sebastian Vettel who is seemingly losing it after a poor race – not something we have seen last year. It will be interesting to see whether Red Bull can close the gap to its rivals and Vettel can regain a more positive mood over the next races.

The next battle in China should provide plenty of artificial DRS overtaking in the long straight and potentially interesting tyre management strategies.

F1: Australia positives and negatives

March 19, 2012

As usual, Melbourne produced a decent race and some surprises. Here is a compilation of the main positives and negatives from the weekend.

Positive #1 has to go to Jenson Button. He dominated the race and looked comfortable at all points. It’s going to be an interesting year at McLaren with Jenson increasingly taking the leadership of the team and Hamilton charging back to regain that role.

Positive #2 goes to Sauber, who managed to get two drivers in the points with Sergio Perez looking particularly impressive and Kamui Kobayashi benefiting from the disruption in the last lap.

Romain Grosjean deserves Positive #3 with his strong qualifying performance – would be interesting to see what he could have done in he race without his unkucky incident with Pastor Maldonado.

The main Negative goes to Ferrari who clearly is only the third fastest car at the moment and continues to rely on Fernando Alonso’s brilliance to produce average results. Felipe Massa never looked a strong contender to even score points and everyone including him must feel that these are his final days with the team.

Negative #2 goes to Williams and Pastor Maldonado in particular. No one was expecting them to challenge for the podium but both drivers spent way too much time off the track or bumping into other competitors. Maldonado had a great drive and was putting pressure on Alonso for fifth towards the end but losing good points by crashing on the final lap is hardly what the team needs a the moment.

The final Negative mention is awarded to HRT who again decided to do their pre-season in Melbourne, failed to set a time below 107% of the fastest Q1 time and was correctly denied the opportunity to participate in the race. Narain Karthikeyan in particular looked like a mobile chicane during qualifying – it will be interesting to see if they are able to make the cut in Malaysia and if they don’t bets will start to be taken on whether they will be around at the end of the season.

F1: Trulli finally out

February 21, 2012

It was a last minute decision, but it finally happened: Jarno Trulli has been replaced at Caterham by Vitaly Petrov just before the start of 2012 season. A few days after this decision it was announced that Caterham would have a new Russian sponsor.

There were several comments on how this change shows that decisions on drivers are mainly motivated by money. There is some truth in this but in this particular case, the spotlight should be on the fact that Trulli’s performance over the past two seasons at Lotus / Caterham has been truly awful, especially when compared with teammate Heikki Kovalainen.

Trulli was a real F1 survivor. Having been unfairly forced out of Renault in 2004 after falling out with team principal and his own manager Flavio Briatore, Trulli managed to land a lucrative contract with underperforming big spenders Toyota. After a good 2005 season his performance dropped significantly but he was rewarded with a new 3 year contract. He did some occasional good performances for Toyota but was lucky to continue in F1 after the team shut down at the end of 2009. Now, after two lacklustre seasons at the back of the grid, his F1 career is finally over. Vitaly Petrov is no superstar but regardless of the big roubles he deserves a seat in Formula 1.

F1: 2012 driver line-up is complete

February 4, 2012

The news that Narain Karthikeyan signed to race for HRT are not really a surprise given that the team was expected to take the weirdest decision possible. It would be interesting to know the background but it can be hypothesised that Narain falls into a narrow category of drivers that have money, are able to get a superlicense, are desperate enough to drive for HRT and believe that HRT are actually going to show up in the first race of the season.

Anyway, this means that the 2012 driver line up is now complete and it is interesting to note the high churn from last season, which has been concentrated on the midfield teams. The Team Formerly Known as Renault has replaced Senna, Petrov and Heidfeld and given a chance to Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean. Of these, only Senna was able to remain in F1. Toro Rosso has axed Buemi and Alguersuari. Force India has upgraded Nico Hulkenberg to a race seat forcing Adrian Sutil to the sidelines. Williams has put an end to Rubens Barrichello’s long Formula 1 career whilst HRT has said adios to Tonio Liuzzi and Virgin has continued its “Timo Glock + A.N.Other” approach to drivers.

All in all 8 drivers have lost their seats (9 if Karun Chandhok is included) including two top ten championship finishers, the only two drivers who finished on the podium outside the top 5 in the championship, and a former GP winner. Life in the middle of the F1 grid is pretty tough these days…

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?

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.

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.