F1 Paddock Insights

August 21, 2009

After nearly a month since the last race, the F1 drivers are strapped back in their seats and ready to hit the Valencia harbour. The teams have had to take a two week break from anything F1 related, but don’t be surprised if you see a raft of new changes – development happens very quickly in F1, it’s our job to try and keep up with it. Find out what’s happening in the paddock in sunny America’s Cup Harbour.

– When Fernando Alonso’s tyre went bouncing down the circuit to end his chances of a good finish in Hungary, the F1 world was taken back to the tragic accident that killed Henry Surtees only a week prior and the freak accident that injured Felipe in qualifying the previous day. Perhaps that is why the FIA took the accident so seriously and immediately banned them from the European GP. Crowd favourite Alonso was in disbelief and the race organisers were starting to count their ticket losses. In the end, though, it was four of the major teams in F1 who came to Renault’s rescue (Red Bull Racing, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, Panasonic Toyota Racing and Ferrari), by submitting letters to the court in support of the French team. Either way, the Spaniard and his French team are racing in Valencia, but Nelson Piquet is not. The unsuccessful Brazilian has been dropped by the uncompromising Flavio Briatore for his lack of points this season. Then flew a tirade of abuse towards the Italian and the whole team, saying that Flav on the radio is “like listening to something my sister would say about the car. Pat Symonds is the guy who really understands what is going on with the team” and that “he makes comments that don’t make any sense”. As Romain Grosjean takes the seat still left warm by the young Brazilian, one can only hope that he has more luck than its previous inhabitant.

– There was a time where all F1 fans’ hearts were lifted prior to the Valencia GP – Michael Schumacher had climbed back into a Ferrari Formula One car with the hope of filling the injured Felipe Massa’s boots for the rest of the season. Unfortunately for the great man, the neck injury he sustained in February on his bike was too severe for his F1 racing career to get back on track and the F1 world could breathe again. No worries for the bookies – his replacement is none other than Luca Badoer…Who? I hear you ask. Luca Badoer – the man who has started more Grands Prix than any other man in F1 (48) without scoring a single point. Now that’s a replacement to a seven-time world champion who has won a record 91 Grands Prix, scored a record 1,369 points and finished on the podium 154 times. So who is Luca Badoer? He is an Italian man through and through. Born in 1971 and a graduate of the Italian karting system. He has raced for only Italian teams and is the first Italian to drive for Ferrari since 1992, when Ivan Capelli scored a total of 3 points. He has been a test driver at Ferrari since 1997 and according to his engineers has completed “over 150,000km in F1 cars since he joined Ferrari – nearly 5 times the amount covered by an F1 driver in that time”. The decision to chose him over Marc Gené, Ferrari’s other test driver is one that confuses a number of people. Luca di Montezemolo told insiders that “In agreement with Stefano Domenicali, we have therefore decided to give Luca Badoer the chance to race for the Scuderia after he has put in so many years of hard work as a test driver”. Sounds to me like he has been given the drive as they are already testing for 2010 and Luca is the best person to test the new parts.

– Felipe Massa has recently told insiders that he is expecting to be back in time for the Brazilian GP from the 16-18 October. This, given the Brazilian suffered a double-fractured skull and eye injuries as well as injuries to his brain. The comeback would be remarkable and, of course, subject to an FIA medical. Having spoken to insiders close to Felipe, they say he “is confident that he can make it back with some karting laps before the weekend.” Suspicions across the paddock suggest that Felipe’s encouraging words ahead of his home Grand Prix have been used in an attempt to bolster ticket sales as without Piquet Jr and Massa, Rubens Barrichello remains the only Brazilian interest on the grid. Even then he might be on his way out of a Brawn team that he has fallen out with on more than one occasion this year already.

– The man to watch this weekend will be Lewis Hamilton. Not only has he been tucking into pancakes, care of his Pussy Cat Doll, in LA but he is coming to the Harbour circuit off the back of his first victory all season. He promised his fans one when the MP4-24 was a second off the pace in Australia, but few believed it was possible. Speaking to McLaren engineers in their Woking factory, it seems that the two week break came at just the wrong moment this season. They have been working “19 hour days, 6 days a week” to get the car up to speed and the break in August could “potentially de-rail their plans to take another victory in Valencia”. It’s not only the engineers under pressure at McLaren at the moment, though, as Heikki Kovalainen is fighting to retain his seat into 2010. With Nico Rosberg apparently “ready to relish the opportunity to drive for McLaren”. He added that he “would like a competitive team mate, that’s for sure” – is he saying that Kazuki Nakajima isn’t doing well this season?!

– And finally, with Luca Badoer returning to race in F1 for the first time since Japan 1999, I tried to think of anyone who had made a comeback after so long. The only man that beats Luca’s 9 years and 10 months is Jan Lammers, who retired in 1982 and returned a full 10 years and 3 months later at the 1992 Japanese GP. Lammers failed to finish that race, by the way…

After 4 more weeks of off-track news, F1 finally returns to the tarmac. Expect Valencia to be hot, tight and close, with at least half the grid looking to take podium finishes. With only a week to wait until the next round in Spa, the next fortnight could make big steps towards the destination of the Championship trophy. Or it could make it all the more confusing.

Enjoy the racing.

F1 Paddock Insights

July 24, 2009

As the Formula One season briefly settles back into its fortnightly cycle, the ten teams, global media and VIPs make their way over to the Hungaroring circuit just outside Budapest’s eastern ring road. One of the oldest circuits on the calendar, it held its first race here in 1936, only to wait 50 years before the zenith of motorsport lapped the track once more. Here what’s happening in the paddock at the historic Hungaroring:

As if the legal war between the FIA and FOTA has not dragged Formula One through enough of a public quagmire, poor old Sebastian Bourdais has joined in on the action. Having recently been booted out by Scuderia Toro Rosso for not delivering on the track, the French driver is considering taking his former employers to court for wrongful dismissal. Adding fuel to the already freely-burning fire, STR then promptly employed young Spanish racer, Jaime Alguersari. At only 19 years of age, he will likely be the youngest driver to ever race in Formula One, with his only experience before the Friday practice in the 2009 a straight-line test this week back in Italy. The 30 year old is unsurprisingly upset about being replaced, especially by someone so young, but with only 6 points in 27 races, perhaps the team is right to turn its attention to one of the brightest stars on its Red Bull young driver programme. Felipe Massa – who himself started his Formula One career at 20 years of age – recently told insiders, “Maybe he’s an incredible talent and he will do much better than everybody thinks, but for me it’s not good for him.” Jaime Alguersari has recently defended the decision for him to compete in Formula One alongside the Formula Renault World Series simultaneously by telling critics in the paddock that “I need to do as many races as possible. I need to experience as many situations as possible. For me, for sure it would be good because it would give me more experience and of course there are no clashes with Formula One, so there is not really a reason not to do it. If it becomes an issue, then obviously we may have to reconsider.”

The on-track struggles of 2008’s most successful teams have not gone un-noticed by the world’s media, despite the roaring success of Brawn GP or Red Bull, and questions have often been asked of their commitment to improving their 2009 contenders. Stefano Domenicali recently told F1 insiders that he expects Ferrari to turn its attention to the 2010 version of its F60. Having been caught up in the nail-biting finish to 2008’s Formula One season with McLaren and, to a certain extent, BMW, all three teams are feeling the pressure this year, with a severe downturn in their performances. “We have already started some work on the new project and in the next couple of weeks we will basically move on to that to make sure we do not lose any time. Next season will be crucial and we really want to start with a different pace compared to this year.” Interesting that Domenicali and his Ferrari friends should come out with this when McLaren has recently stated that Lewis Hamilton has a greater chance of winning then before with a number of new parts to the MP4-24 coming to Hungary. Some of the team mechanics in the paddock have told me that perhaps Ferrari should look at continuing their development in 2009, either that or McLaren are so far behind that they feel they need to keep working on the car before they can consider being competitive in 2010.

With McLaren looking stronger this weekend than they have all season, are we going to see another shift of power on the Formula One grid? There’s a few conversations flying around the paddock this weekend that make me think that it’s going to be down to the drivers, rather than the cars in Hungary. With all the teams looking stronger and making the right noises, we can expect to see the Brawns back somewhere near the top (the higher temperatures with put the heat back in the their tyres and returning to the site of Jenson Button’s first ever win), Red Bull are still on a high and have a car to match the Brawns in all departments, the Ferraris have looked stronger and stronger every week with the new/last developments of 2009 working wonders for Felipe Massa in particular. A number of the chief mechanics in the paddock have told me that the team with expectant smiles on their faces is Toyota. Timo Glock claimed second place here in 2008, where a Toyota podium was more of a shock than this year and with a new rear aerodynamic package to boot, it could be the Toyotas who surprise the crowds.

And finally, it is with great sadness that we are reminded about the danger of motorsport as Henry Surtees was killed in a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch on July 19th. After achieving his maiden podium in the race on Saturday, Surtees was involved in an incident in which a loose wheel from fellow competitor Jack Clarke’s car hit him on the head and caused him to crash on the entry to Sheene Curve. He later died of his injuries in hospital. Henry’s father, John Surtees, remains the only man to claim the World Championships on both 2 wheels and 4, winning the Formula One World Championship with Ferrari in 1964 and the Motorcycle World Champions in 350 and 500cc in 3 consecutive years from 1958-1960. Henry Surtees, at only 18 years of age was only just embarking on his career as a racing driver. His own father issued a statement that read, “Despite his young age he had shown maturity, technical understanding and speed.” He was also described as “one of the best Brits in the racing series” and will be sorely missed by everyone involved in motorsport. Our sincerest condolences are with the Surtees family and friends.

So, as we return to the summer heat of eastern Europe, keep your eyes out for a mixed field, a close race and some all-important tyre choices.

F1 Paddock Insights

June 3, 2009

With another performance that warrants a more impressive acronym than 3 Bs, Brawn’s Button and Barrichello once again occupied the top two steps of the ‘podium’ – this time in Monaco. An imperious drive through the streets of the principality gave the Briton his first taste of victory at Monte-Carlo. As he whooped down the team radio on his parade lap, a surprised pair of red Ferraris crossed in third and fourth to claim their strongest finish yet. From the tight turns of Monaco’s harbour-front circuit, the Formula One circus flies off to Istanbul, Turkey to embrace the 40 degree heat, undulating straights and the longest single turn on the F1 calendar (left-handed turn 8). This is what’s happening in the paddock:

Toyota’s up and down season continued at Monaco where both cars locked out the back row of the grid. President, John Howett put this down to a lack of low-speed grip, saying: “We were not good enough on slow-speed sectors and we have worked tirelessly to understand the reason for this. It tends to be influenced by traction and this was magnified by Monaco.” With the poor result two weeks ago and the ever-increasing rumour of quitting F1, it’s been a testing time for Toyota both on the track and back at the factory. Howett recently told F1 Insiders that, “Clearly we want – and expect – to deliver a significantly better performance in Turkey than we did in Monaco, which was unacceptable. Turkey is a very different circuit to Monaco and I am very optimistic we will be strong.” In addition to this, Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock are clearly looking forward to this weekend, too. They recently spoke to an F1 Insider, saying that they: “can’t wait to start practice and find out where we are because we are fired up to bounce back this weekend.”

FOTA suspended Williams this week for submitting their entry to next year’s F1 season without the remainder of the teams on the grid. In going against the rest of the teams, their only reaction was to suspend the team for not complying with FOTA regulations. With their entry lodged for next year, though, the support of FOTA is surely redundant anyway. Sir Frank Williams, team principal, told F1 Insiders at the time that: “As a racing team and a company whose only business is Formula One, with obligations to our partners and our employees, submitting our entry to next year’s Championship was unquestionable. In addition, we are legally obliged under our contract with FOM and the FIA to participate in the World Championship until the end of 2012”. A recent Williams employee told me that he expected the ‘Max and Bernie double-act’ to pull a rabbit out of their hat at the eleventh hour and for all the teams to be delighted with that option and accept the terms. Seeing as this didn’t happen, however, do we think that the deafening silence from the FIA since the deadline is to resist any temptation to negotiate with the teams? The decision on who will be entered into the F1 Championship for 2010 will be announced on the 12th June.

Istanbul Park is another of the Hermann Tilke-designed circuits on the calendar and is a new track that differs to the majority that he has recently designed. The open, expansive feeling of the Park often gives spectators and drivers the initial impression that the circuit is another simple one. The main and obvious difference is that the circuit is driven anti-clockwise, giving drivers more than just a pain in the neck, but a technical conundrum on the balance of the car. One man who might be worrying about the temperature in Turkey is actually one of the fittest men on the grid. Jenson Button managed to burn his left buttock in Bahrain as the cooling mechanisms inside the Brawn BGP001 failed. With the undulations of the track taking the cars up to 125m above sea level, the air pressure at Istanbul is much lower than in Monaco and therefore the cooling in the cars is much less efficient. He will have to make sure it is working properly before he sits inside his 60° cockpit on Friday morning.

It is usually about this time in the Formula One season that the driver roulette starts and seats and drivers are being thrown up in the air. Brawn GP insiders told me that Jenson is in line for a huge pay-rise at the end of this year, to keep him from the clutching hands of some of the ‘bigger’ teams. Young Nelsinho Piquet, currently with no Championship points, is one driver whose seat at Renault looks like it could be up for grabs and add to that the place of Kazuki Nakajima who has failed to score a single point either and embarrassingly dropped his Williams into the wall on the last lap at Monaco two weeks ago. With Nakajima comes a Toyota engine deal, however, so his place may be saved for one more year, but others are definitely on the market. Expect Bruno Senna to announce his determination to return to the F1 grid and Giorgio Pantano to make his last attempt at an F1 seat.

The Formula One paddock is playing a waiting game with the FIA. Both sides have submitted their demands and we will see on 12th June who will win which battles. For now, though, it’s off to Turkey where the 20 cars are lining up on the grid, ready to tackle one of the fastest circuits on the calendar

Enjoy the racing from the Eastern edge of Europe.

F1 Paddock Insights

May 6, 2009

Despite taking two weeks off, Formula One is still a hive of activity inside both the garages and law courts of the world. McLaren escaped with a slap on the wrist for their part in the lying scandal that has rocked Formula One since the opening Grand Prix of 2009, even though many people thought that the sanctions would be a great deal harsher. A suspended sentence, the firing of Dave Ryan and the expedited departure of Ron Dennis will, I think, be enough to scare McLaren into not trying to pull another stunt like that – this season, at least.

Almost like a new season – Never before has the start of the European season heralded such a breadth of technical developments to carry the hopes of the teams. The two week break has encouraged a raft of new developments across every single team. Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated development will come at the hands of Renault who teased us with their new diffuser at Bahrain. Spaniard Fernando Alonso has said this week that, “seeing the support of the fans always gives me a big boost”, couple that with “a new diffuser and floor, new wheel fairings to increase downforce and a new rear wing” and we should see a “reasonable step in performance this weekend.” Expect to see more this weekend from Ferrari, with their new, fabled double diffuser, too.

£40m enough? – The big news from the FIA in the last week has been the proposal of the £40m budget cap. The proposal has left FOTA divided, with the smaller teams delighted by the plans and the big boys now having to look at how they can seriously reduce their budgets. Even some of the satellite teams, such as Toro Rosso manage to spend upward of £60m per year. It leaves teams asking big questions of their finances and, unfortunately, now of their workforce. An F1 insider told me over the weekend that “the first thing to go will be the staff”, leaving even more people out of work, where the budget cuts had initially planned to prolong the life of teams and jobs. There are suggestions in the paddock that FOTA will respond by proposing a reduction in expenditure by 30-40%, rather than a budget cap – a good idea, but one that will not resolve the issue of new teams joining the F1 paddock.

Donington saga continues – As talked about in Bahrain’s F1 Insider, the Donington-staged British Grand Prix of 2010 could still be under threat. Donington Ventures Leisure Limited (DVLL) CEO Simon Gillett has met with the local council who had underwritten £100m for his re-development of the Donington site and the North West Leicestershire District Council has extended his grace period until the end of June. It is claimed that Gillett is yet to sign the planning agreements to detail the development of the site – necessary before any substantial backing can be put in place. Turns out he is still fighting on two fronts, too, as Tom Wheatcroft is still after his £2.47m, for which a law suit was filed two weeks ago.

Every car running McLaren? – Following the success of McLaren’s standard ECU throughout the paddock, an insider at the Woking-based technology firm are looking to implement the only truly productive Kers throughout the whole paddock next season. With limited downforce so far this season, the cars’ Kers have propelled them to the unexpected heights of 4th in Bahrain. Another potentially cost-saving measure, this could be the answer to the FIA’s Kers prayers, following the first 4 rounds of the season and less than a quarter of the field using the power booster regularly.

And finally – With the weather forecast looking mixed for this weekend, the paddock could be, once again, thrown upside down. An abrasive track surface, plus the high downforce requirements mean that tyre-life is limited around the Circuit de Catalunya. Will the rain play into the hands of the already-strong Brawns and Red Bulls or will we see yet another team leading the pack this weekend. Expect to see tight lap times, though, as most of the teams tested here in pre-season and should be on fairly familiar set-ups.

Enjoy the first European race of the season.

F1 Paddock Insights

April 24, 2009

Have we just seen the emergence of the new Schumacher? A consummate drive in seriously treacherous conditions guided Vettel to his second (wet weather) victory behind the wheel of an F1 car. First in Monza last year, now again in China, the 21-year old German left the field for dead. He managed his fuel behind the safety car to extend his refuelling window. Then with the extra lap he pulled out 10 seconds on teammate Mark Webber to guarantee him coming back out in front. Nice work, kid! Find out what’s happening in the paddock at Bahrain.

– Is Flav just jealous of Ross? – Flavio Briatore has attempted to mount a serious Fota mutiny against its own technical delegate, Ross Brawn. Despite the team principals supporting the reincarnation of Honda over the winter, they have now made themselves victims of their own success. First there were the quick testing times resulting in diffuser-gate. Then came two Grand Prix victories and a fresh attack on their TV money or transportation allocation as a new team in Formula One. Shouldn’t the team principals simply forget the fighting and focus on the racing – it seems like that’s what Brawn is doing!

– Experience counts – It seems as though Bahrain holds a special place in a number of Formula One drivers’ hearts. A technically difficult track and one that look likely to stay dry, Bahrain will offer some different challenges this weekend to that experienced in China. Only Ferrari, Toyota and BMW have been at Bahrain since the new regulations kicked in, so you would imagine they would have a fair idea of the set up required, but at the moment their on-track performances are anyone’s guesses. Let’s see how Ferrari’s quickest time of 1.32.102 will compare to the Toyotas and the BMWs this weekend.

– Fortune favours the brave – Following the late night garage work in China and the urgent delivery of parts to Bahrain, this weekend will provide an interesting conclusion to the first of the fly-away races. We all expect to see a host of new diffusers lined up on the grid, and with the conditions expected to be hot and sunny, word from the paddock is that this is the first glimpse we will see of how far the teams have come from Australia. Jenson Button recently told an F1 Insider that “braking from over 300kph to first gear into turn one is an amazing feeling. It is surprising to see how early people get on the brakes, so if you’re confident in your grip and corner-speed, you can really make it count.” A race engineer told me that the average corner angle for the circuit in Sakhir is 143 degrees (the F1 average is 121 degrees) so the driveability and the speed taken through the corners is going to be critical this Sunday.

– Donington in trouble already? – Donington circuits owner, Tom Wheatcroft has taken DVLL (Donington Ventures Leisure Ltd) to court over unpaid rent of £2.47m since September 2008. Simon Gillett, CEO of DVLL, took a 150-year lease and had acquired the rights for the British Formula One Grand Prix for the next ten years. Wheatcroft is a notoriously ruthless businessman and I’m certain he is not going to back down until he gets his money from Gillett.

– And finally – It turns out the Red Bull 1-2 still wasn’t the perfect weekend for the team. The Austrian (yes, Austrian) registered team, based in Milton Keynes (UK), celebrated their Constructors’ victory to the sound of the British national anthem. Helmut Marko, Red Bull Racing’s advisor, told an insider in the garage that he “was disappointed that the wrong anthem was played”. Perhaps the Chinese didn’t expect the Red Bulls to perform so well in Shanghai.

As the curtains falls on the first set of races this season, Eddie Jordan will be back in front of the BBC cameras, the sun should be shining and expect Bahrain to have prepared the Austrian national anthem. Maybe.

Enjoy the racing.