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.

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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.

The freshly released discussions between the FIA and FOTA certainly make for interesting reading – let alone embarrassingly dirty washing, hanging out to dry. Many are saying that the Max Mosley-led FIA is now standing up against the playground bullies of FOTA and is taking a stance that the true fan of Formula One would like to be allied with. A federation that cares about its members, that cares about introducing new teams to the upper echelons of motorsport and that cares about those who ultimately pay its wages – the spectators.

FIA’s press release
The FIA does not hold back in this most recent of public slanging rounds and makes no apology for naming names throughout the entire the document. It is interesting, though, that one of the most severe accusations of the document receives only one line: “Is it about an attempt by some teams to take over the commercial rights to Formula One?”. However tangled Bernie’s web of commercial rights finds itself, I, for one, find it hard to believe that FOTA’s members are looking crowbar his business bread and butter from him. Bernie is as astute a man as you’ll find in any motorsport paddock and I’m pretty certain that he can defend himself when it comes to Formula One’s commercial rights.

The obvious accusation was again thrown into the mire, as FOTA was tarnished with the brush of trying to assume the “regulatory function” of the FIA. Everyone involved is well aware that FOTA is looking to have greater regulatory power over the future of Formula One and perhaps this shouldn’t be a decision so sniffed at by the FIA – at the very least it might lead to a greater level of team retention in the future.

Finally on the FIA’s press release, it reminds us that Mr di Montezemolo was tasked with gaining letters to confirm the inclusion of a Formula One team from all the incumbent manufacturers currently in the paddock. A fantastic idea in principle – a man with such international recognition that even the door of Fort Knox would swing open for him. It may have been a more difficult task than Max or Bernie had originally hoped, however. With the exception of FIAT, the charismatic Italian has no sway in the corridors of Honda, Renault (or even the French Senat, for that matter!) or any of the other manufacturers and asking them to commit their future to F1 at a time like this is as absurd as proposing a two tiered technical specification in F1.

It’s the FIA’s party and it can cry if it wants to
So what is the most recent release trying to do for the FIA? Is it trying to re-position itself as the stronger of the two warring factions – amplifying the voice of the people, owning up to the mistakes of the past? Or is it simply looking for other ways to win this battle?

In a churlish attempt to heap scorn on the actions of FOTA, the FIA has taken the bait and bitten. The FIA is the first to crack under the pressure of war and, in doing so, has exposed its weaknesses. The FIA takes the proud ownership of a Championship that it claims can survive without Ferrari and co., but has not yet had the confidence to rid the resistance from its embattled frontiers. It reads: “In light of the success of the FIA’s Championship, FOTA – made up of participants who come and go as it suits them – has set itself two clear objectives:”The FIA announced a provisional list of entrants for the 2010 Formula One season and included the new teams in Campos, Manor and USF1, the FOTA breakaway teams in Force India and WilliamsF1 and, remarkably, the conditional entries of, among others, Renault, Toyota and McLaren. If the FIA believe that they are standing on the higher moral ground, that they have given the teams the right to a fair negotiation and that they are simply invited guests at its not-so-expensive-anymore party, a strong decision would have been to eliminate the warring factions and focus on those teams who are willing to play the party games under the rules that the FIA want so badly.

I certainly agree with the many analysts who view this Friday as either a new dawn or an apocalyptic day in the history of Formula One, however the FIA has let its guard down. The FIA appears desperate and will try to get the teams to play its game at all costs.

The only thing for the FIA is, however, that there is no mother behind the door to boot out the unruly children. The FIA has to stand up to them. Given the current evidence, I’m not convinced that the FIA is prepared to make such critical decisions for the future of its sport.

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.