Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Red Bull lays down the marker as rivals stutter at Sepang

Red Bull Racing finally overcame their reliability problems from the first two races of the season to take a 1-2 victory at Malaysia, as chief title rivals Ferrari and McLaren had a less than ideal weekend. A rain interrupted Qualifying session on Saturday saw both the Ferraris and both the McLarens fail to get through the first part of Qualifying, Q1. The Red Bulls on the other hand qualified 1st and 3rd on the grid with Mark Webber on pole, and Mercedes' Nico Rosberg separating the Australian from his team-mate Sebastian Vettel.

Being the monsoon season in Malaysia, it was to be expected that there will be lots of rain throughout the weekend. The big question was the timing of the rain, and how that would affect the proceedings. Saturday's Qualifying session started under heavy downpour, although the weather forecast was showing that the rain should ease off relatively soon. Most of the teams, including Red Bull, went out on the track straight away at the beginning of Qualifying on the intermediate tyres to set a benchmark lap time. Only Ferrari and McLaren stayed in the pits, looking at the weather radar, and expecting to do a faster lap towards the end of Q1 on drier conditions. However, going completely against the forecasts, the heavens opened up even more towards the end of Q1 and that meant that by the time Ferrari and McLaren did go out on to the track to set a lap time, they were forced to use the extreme wet tyres instead of the intermediates. With conditions worsening, lap times set with the extreme wets were never going to be as quick as the ones set on intermediates. So the teams that went out for their runs early in Q1 all got through to the next part of Qualifying, at the expense of two of the traditional front-runners, Ferrari and McLaren. So Button and Hamilton qualified 17th and 20th for McLaren, while Alonso and Massa qualified 19th and 21st on the grid for Ferrari. So the scene was perfectly set for a great race, with four of the fastest cars on the grid having to start from the back and then fighting through the pack, and that was before taking the threat of rain into account.

Race day was looking dry and sunny, but being the monsoon season in Malaysia, one could never rule out rain completely. However, as the cars set off on the formation lap, it was bright and sunny with clear blue skies. Sauber's Pedro de la Rosa hit back luck even before starting the race as his Ferrari engine let go on the formation lap, and the spaniard failed to start the race. His fellow Spaniard, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, broke his clutch on the formation lap and that means the double World Champion had the prospect of fighting an entire race with a broken gearbox. Driving a manual transmission car with a broken clutch is still relatively possible, but with the paddle-shift transmission systems of the Formula 1 cars, it is nigh on impossible. So it was a miracle in itself that, with no clutch, Alonso managed to get off the grid for the start of the race.

Apart from Jenson Button, almost all of the other cars at the back of the field started on the harder prime tyres. Button started on the softer option tyres, but it proved a bit costly as he had to pit very early (on lap 10) to change to the harder compound after struggling with tyre degradation. His team-mate Lewis Hamilton had a very good start and overtook 6 cars by taking the inside line into turn 1 on the opening lap. Ferrari's Felipe Massa was right on Hamilton's tail, and despite the McLaren's clear top speed advantage, the Ferrari has hanging in there. Alonso lost a couple of positions at the start, and he was having an excruciating race as he was having to blip the throttle manually everytime during downshifting to forcefully re-engage the gears, but the Spaniard was still keeping up with his team-mate.

Up front, Sebastian Vettel had a great start from 3rd place and he overtook Nico Rosberg straight away off the grid and then team-mate Mark Webber by taking the inside line into turn 1. From then on, Vettel and Webber both cruised to the Chequered Flag as Red Bull took a comfortable 1-2 victory led by the German.

Meanwhile, as Hamilton was making the charge through the field at the early part of the race, he had a tough fight with Renault's Vitaly Petrov who had started from 11th. The McLaren's top speed advantage allowed Hamilton to overtake Petrov on the main straight, but the young Russian then tried to tuck in behind Hamilton's rear wing to try and catch the slipstream, which aides in straight-line speed. To prevent this, Hamilton weaved from left to right to left several times on the main straight going flat out, with Petrov following close behind. As the rulebook says that a driver is only allowed such a defensive move once, Hamilton was later warned by the stewards for his conduct. The Briton eventually finished the race in 6th place. Ferrari's Felipe Massa, after starting from 21st on the grid, drove very well and even overtook reigning World Champion Jenson Button near the end to finish in 6th place, with Button in 7th.

Behind them, Fernando Alonso perhaps had the drive of his life and proved once again why he is simply in a different league when compared to most other drivers. Fighting with that broken gearbox with no clutch, the Spaniard was having to work two or three times as hard just to keep the car going, but he still managed to post the 2nd fastest lap of the race and was attacking McLaren's Button for 8th place near the end before his tortured engine finally let go on the penultimate lap. It was heart-breaking to see Alonso retire just two laps from the end after such an amazing drive, but to put it into perspective, imagine what he could have done if he had a perfect car that day! Possibly apart from Michael Schumacher, I personally do not think there is any other driver on the grid who could have fought with that broken car the way Alonso did. Here is hoping that Ferrari does not face too many other reliability problems over the rest of the season.

Talking of Michael Schumacher, the seven times World Champion was forced to retire from the race on lap 9 with a loose wheel nut on his left rear wheel. 3 races into the season of the legendary German's comeback, he has been beaten every time so far by his much younger team-mate Nico Rosberg. However, we must remember that staying away from competitive sport for 3 years and then making a return is not an easy job, and Schumacher has been gradually improving his pace race by race. It will be interesting to see where the situation stands at Mercedes at about half-way through the season.

Despite the mix-up in Qualifying and Alonso's retirement in the race, Ferrari still sit on top in the Constructors' Championship, but with McLaren and Red Bull close behind. Felipe Massa leads the Drivers' World Championship with 39 points, with team mate Fernando Alonso in 2nd with 35 points. Vettel, Button, Rosberg, Hamilton and Kubica are all close behind.

We now head off to Shanghai for the Chinese Grand Prix, the 4th race of the season and the last of the early fly-away races. It will be very interesting to see which team and driver can take the early advantage back into Europe. Until next time, drive safely everyone!

Monday, 29 March 2010

Ferrari continue their strong start to the season while Jenson Button wins the Australian Grand Prix

As the downpours gradually began over the skies in Melbourne late on Sunday afternoon, the FIA declared a wet race allowing the teams to start the race with wet weather tyres. While the rain only lasted for about ten to fifteen minutes, and it was only wet enough for the teams to use intermediate tyres and not the extreme wets, it ensured that the temporary Albert Park circuit provided a classic race to make up for the dull season opener at Bahrain couple of weeks back. Amid all the chaos of a big incident in the first lap, that saw Kobayashi, Hulkenburg and Buemi all retire, and the consequent safety car, reigning World Champion Jenson Button made a brilliant strategic call that allowed him to go on and win the race.

The Qualifying on Saturday did not throw up too many surprises, as Red Bull locked out the front row on the grid with Sebastian Vettel on pole for the second time in a row, and his team-mate Mark Webber alongside him. Ferrari's Fernando Alonso qualified 3rd, ahead of Jenson Button. The other Ferrari driver Felipe Massa had been struggling with tyre temperatures all weekend, and because of that the Brazilian was a bit behind his team mate in terms of pace and qualified 5th on the grid. At MercedesGP, Nico Rosberg once again out-qualified his seven times World Champion team mate. McLaren's Lewis Hamilton failed to get into the final part of Qualifying, and as a result had to settle for 11th on the starting grid. It had been a dismal weekend for the Briton because Friday night, while leaving the track after the 2nd Free Practice session, he was caught by the local police doing burnouts on a public road. His Mercedes C63 AMG was consequently impounded by the police and he was reprimanded for "driving in an over-exuberant manner".

The start of the race had a lot of incidents. The two Red Bulls got away cleanly, but behind them, Fernando Alonso had a bad start due to having lots of wheelspin and a lack of traction from his grid box. Alonso's team mate Massa took full advantage of that as he swept past both Alonso and Button to get into 3rd. Behind him, coming into turn 1, Schumacher, Alonso and Button all went wheel to wheel with Alonso in the middle and slightly ahead of the other two. Button, who was on the inside line, hit Alonso as the Ferrari turned in for the corner. That hit caused Alonso to spin out, and the Spaniard was only able to get going again when all the cars had gone past him. Schumacher's Mercedes also suffered from the incident as the German needed to make an immediate pit stop to change his front wing. Alonso's car, meanwhile, was intact and the Spaniard then began his charge from the back of the field.

By the time it had stopped raining and the track was beginning to dry, Jenson Button was the first man to come in to the pits and change his tyres to the dry weather super-soft slicks. This was a crucial move, because all the other front runners did not start pitting until the next lap. By then, Button's tyres were already up to temperature, and as all his rivals pitted one by one, the Briton took the race lead and cruised to the finish line from there. It was later discovered that McLaren were not planning to bring in Button for another lap, but it was Button who made the call to pit one lap earlier and what a brilliant decision that turned out to be!

Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, on a charge since his first corner incident on the opening lap, was blasting through the field after putting on the super-soft slick tyres. By the time the race has gone past the half-way mark, Alonso was already up in 4th just behind team mate Felipe Massa. Although Massa was slightly off Alonso's pace, as he had been all weekend, Alonso decided not to attack Massa as the Spaniard's tyres were already starting to degrade too much. Instead, both the Ferraris settled into a nice rhythm as they looked to nurse their tyres and go all the way to the Chequered Flag without stopping again. That was exactly the same strategy used by Renault's Robert Kubica, who was up in 2nd and race leader Jenson Button.

Michael Schumacher, after his early pit stop due to the first lap incident, was struggling to make his way through the mid-field. He spent 36 laps behind Jaime Alguersuari's Toro Rosso, trying to overtake, as the Mercedes struggled for downforce when closely following another car. He then pitted for a fresh set of option tyres, and started lighting up the time sheets as the difference in pace with the front-runners who were on old worn out tyres was very apparent. That prompted McLaren to pit Lewis Hamilton for a new set of tyres as well, as Hamilton had already destroyed his rear tyres by then. McLaren was confident that the pace advantage given by the new tyres would allow Hamilton to challenge for a podium. Red Bull's Mark Webber, who had fallen quite a few places down the order by then due to going off the track a couple of times, was just behind Hamilton at this stage and the Australian decided to pit as well.

Following the pit stops, Webber and Hamilton made good use of their new tyres and were lapping well over a second quicker than the front-runners. With just over 10 laps to go, Hamilton up in 5th place, was starting to attack Alonso. But some clever defending from the double World Champion, and the fact that Hamilton's McLaren was struggling to follow Alonso's Ferrari closely because of a lack of downforce created from the wake turbulence of the car in front, meant that the Briton could not get past. Two laps before the Chequered Flag, Hamilton made one final move on Alonso by outbraking him on the outside on the final corner. Close behind was Webber, and the local hero was keen to take advantage of that and try to pass both Alonso and Hamilton as the two fought out in front of him. However, being just behind Hamilton's tale, Webber's Red Bull was having the same problems of a lack of a downforce when following the car in front too closely. So when Hamilton made that move on Alonso, Webber tried to dive down the inside of Hamilton but instead he went straight on and into the gravel trap as the loss of downforce meant he had far less braking power than normal, taking out Hamilton with him. Webber than needed yet another pit stop for a new front wing and eventually finished a lowly 9th. Hamilton did recover, but only managed to limp home in 6th.

Meanwhile the reigning World Champion Jenson Button recorded his first Grand Prix victory for Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes as he took the Chequered Flag in Melbourne for the second year running. Robert Kubica got his first podium finish for Renault as he came in 2nd. The Ferrari duo of Massa and Alonso finished 3rd and 4th respectively, meaning a brilliant team result for the Maranello outfit. The Scuderia now sits on top of the Constructors' table with 70 points, McLaren-Mercedes second with 54 and MercedesGP third with 29 points. Fernando Alonso leads the Drivers' World Championship with 37 points, ahead of team-mate Felipe Massa with 33 points and the current World Champion in third with 31 points.

In both the races so far this season, Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel started the race on pole and looked on course to win if it were not for reliability problems. In Bahrain, a spark-plug failure caused a loss of power from Vettel's Renault engine and the German only finished 4th after leading most of the race. Here in Australia, he was well in the lead again when a loose wheel nut broke into his front left-wheel brake disc and caused a failure, because of which Vettel went off the track half-way through the race and was forced to retire. Reliablity problems was what cost Vettel and Red Bull the World Championship last season, and it will be interesting to see if the same gremlins are there for them this season as well.

The next round of the World Championship takes us to the Sepang circuit near Kuala Lumpur for the Malaysian Grand Prix next weekend. Last year's race here was red-flagged and abandoned half way through due to torrential downpours. The weather forecast for this year's race is not looking too promising as well. But we can certainly hope to see the race last the full distance this time. 1st Free Practice for the Malaysian Grand Prix starts 2:55am UK live on the BBC Red Button service or the BBC Sport website. Until then, drive safely!

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Calls for immediate changes to spice up the racing after a supposedly 'boring and uninspiring' Bahrain Grand Prix

Fernando Alonso in a Ferrari, the return of seven times World Champion Michael Schumacher, the ban on mid-race refuelling for the first time since 1993, the return of Mercedes and the Silver Arrows after a period of over 50 years, four World Champions on the grid, four teams closely matched in terms of pace - these are some of those factors that made the build up to the 2010 Formula 1 season one of the most hyped up in the sport's recent history. Everyone has been expecting a very close and competitive season this year, and any one of eight drivers could potentially win the World Championship. On top of that, the refuelling ban and changes to the points system where the winner now gets a much bigger points tally than those who finish behind him have left everyone in expectations of close racing with lots of overtaking.

However, over the last couple of decades or so, as modern aerodynamics have developed more and more, Formula 1 cars have gone to the point where they have so much aerodynamic grip, they stick to the track like a train on rails. Then there have been other innovations such as getting rid of manual gearboxes and the introduction of semi-automatic paddle shift transmissions, which makes it impossible for the drivers to make any mistakes in gear changes. Then in recent years, the governing body FIA have limited the car designers and engineers very tightly with strict technical regulations. So to the casual viewer, Formula 1 cars these days all look very similar, they all sound very similar and they all perform very similar (with relatively small performance gaps).

Back in the '70s and '80s, Formula 1 went through a real boom. The technical regulations were nothing like they are today. The teams could literally let their engineers' minds run free, and they would then come up with fascinating stuff. Some cars would have massive engines and enormous power while others would concentrate more on clever aerodynamic stuff. Towards the late '80s, during the 'turbo' era, the top teams would be running turbo-charged engines as opposed to others running less powerful naturally aspirated engines. That provided a fascinating battle on its own. The naturally aspirated engines worked well in all conditions, but were a bit down on power. Whereas the turbos provided a lot more power, they were more prone to overheating and suffered a bit more generally in terms of reliability. Throughout those couple of decades, we have seen some epic battles on the track, and the main reason for that was because a large part of the performance depended on the driver. In the early part of his career, legendary Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna was known for his capability to take an inferior car and give the dominant McLaren and Williams teams a run for their money.

With the new regulations for 2010, everyone expected that Formula 1 could be returning to see some of those action again. However, we have to remember that Formula 1 has never been directly comparable to the likes of GT racing in terms of track action. In Le Mans for instance, we can sometimes see a fast car overtaking five or six cars in a single lap. In Formula 1, even a significantly faster car would at least need to set itself up for a lap or two behind the car in front before attempting any overtaking move. On certain types of track, such as Monaco for instance, a fast car may be stuck behind a slower car throughout the entire race and not be able to overtake. In last weekend's season opener at Bahrain, we saw a mainly processional race with barely two or three overtaking moves in the entire 49 lap race.

That is why everyone is calling for immediate changes to be made to the regulations to spice up the action. Problem is, all the changes in regulations is one of the main reasons why Formula 1 has been greatly criticised in recent years for a lack of on-track action. What we need is for the FIA to have a bit of a hands-off approach from the actual racing, but still play their part to ensure safety and the enforcing of the sporting regulations. As for the technical regulations determining the designing of the cars, that should be left down to the individual teams as much as possible. With certain restrictions, say defining the length and width of the car for instance, everything else should be left up to the engineers. Let them come up with fascinating new innovations. Sure, from time to time, that will mean certain cars will be significantly faster than others, but to keep up, the other teams will have to catch up otherwise risk being left behind.

Difference in power has a great effect on the performance of the cars. So we need to get rid of the standard ECUs (Engine Control Unit) and bring back engine development. That might mean that Ferrari and Mercedes engines dominate the rest of the field, but that should only inspire rival constructors to come up with better engines on their own. So if the likes of Renault and Cosworth cannot keep up with the development phase of Ferrari or Mercedes, may be they just are not suitable to be in the pinnacle of World Motorsport! Bringing back that competitive spirit in car development, and not just aerodynamic development that we have today but developing all round including engine and gearbox, will certainly help to spice up the racing.

Tyres have always played a big part in Formula 1. A single tyre manufacturer is yet another reason why races have suffered from a lack of action in recent years. We need to go back to the era of the 'tyre war', and that will mean keeping Bridgestone in the sport and bringing back Michelin. What is also important is getting rid of such rules as forcing the teams to use two compounds of tyres during a race. Let the tyre suppliers bring every different compound of tyres available and leave it up to the teams to choose what compound they wish to run. If that means that one team chooses to run the entire weekend (Qualifying and Race) on soft compound dry tyres, well then be it.

All of the above will just make sure that teams have a lot more choice in terms of choosing their strategies for a race. We have to remember that this is not IndyCar or A1GP we are talking about, this is Formula 1. In recent years, the FIA's attempt to try and make everything more and more standardised in the name of cost cutting has been slowly taking us away from the roots of Formula 1. So the FIA should just leave engineers up to their job, of designing and building the cars, and more importantly, the governing body has to stop changing the regulations every single year. We need to be going back towards the core of Fomula 1 and not away from it, to remind ourselves why we fell in love with this sport in the first place.

As for this year, changing the regulations yet again and after just one race will bring no benefit. Let us all give the current regulations a bit of chance to settle in, and we can hope that Albert Park will throw up a bit more of an exciting race in just over a week's time for the Australian Grand Prix.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Ferrari kick start their 2010 campaign with a 1-2 finish in Bahrain

Driving in his first ever grand prix for the Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro, double World Champion Fernando Alonso enjoyed a dream start with his new team by leading home a 1-2 finish at the season opening Bahrain Grand Prix. His team-mate Felipe Massa, driving in his comeback race after the horrific accident at last year's Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying, finished in 2nd place and recorded his best start to a Formula 1 season ever. For the legendary Italian team based in Maranello, this was the best possible start they could have imagined for themselves after a disastrous 2009.

Ferrari ditched the development of their 2009 car half way through last year and put in all their efforts on their 2010 contender instead to avoid the mistakes of last year, when Ferrari started the season with a car that was well over a second off the pace of the front-runners. During the 2010 pre-season testing, it was looking like those efforts were about to pay off as Ferrari's new F10 seemed to be the car to beat. However, with some major changes in regulations, most important of which is the ban on mid-race refuelling, it was very hard to read anything into the lap times set during the test sessions. All that meant that coming into the first race weekend of the year, it was nearly impossible to say who had the fastest car. What was clear is that the likes of Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren and Mercedes all had very strong cars.

The Qualifying session on Saturday gave everyone the first real chance to learn the true pace of all the leading cars. Qualifying this year remains pretty much the same as last year, the only difference being that in the third part of Qualifying, Q3, the top ten cars do not have to carry race fuel anymore. Although the leading cars can now do their fastest lap in Q3 on very low fuel, the new regulations mean that they have to start the race on the same set of tyres that they set their fastest Q3 lap on. The option tyres, super-soft during this race weekend, was clearly the faster tyre over one lap, which is why most of the front runners qualified on those. Although both the Ferraris were looking strong contenders for pole position, Massa and Alonso had to settle for 2nd and 3rd repectively as Sebastian Vettel pulled in a brilliant lap right at the death to grab the season's first pole position. McLaren's Lewis Hamilton qualified on 4th, ahead of Rosberg in 5th, Vettel's team-mate Webber in 6th, the returning seven times World Champion Michael Schumacher in 7th, reigning World Champion McLaren's Jenson Button in 8th, with Kubica and Sutil completing the top ten.

At the start of the race, Vettel had a clean getaway up front. Massa, starting from 2nd but on the dirty side of the grid, lost out a position to team-mate Alonso as the Spaniard took the inside line into turn 2 to overtake and get into 2nd place behind Vettel. Due to the mid-race refuelling ban which has been re-introduced to the sport for the first time since 1993, all the cars started the race with more than 160 kilograms of fuel on board, enough to last an entire race distance. Because of that heavy fuel load, all the drivers were taking it a bit easy in the first few laps, eager not to overheat their brakes or destroy the tyres. Despite all previous worries, the super-soft tyres on the front-runners were holding up pretty well for the first 8 or 10 laps. Race leader Sebastian Vettel had soon built up a 5 second lead over the two Ferraris, and Alonso and Massa were not able to close the gap as the Red Bull seemed slightly faster on the option tyres.

Around lap 14 or 15, all the front-runners started to make their first and only pit stop. Ferrari brought in Alonso one lap before Vettel and put on a fresh set of the medium compound prime tyres. Massa came in a lap later and also switched to the primes. After the round of pit stops, Alonso had managed to close the gap with Vettel to about 3 seconds, with Massa close behind. About half way through the race, both the Ferraris were starting to eat into Vettel's lead, and before long, Alonso was just over a second behind the race leader and was prepping himself up to attack.

However, following Vettel's car closely was proving difficult for Alonso as the slipstream from the Red Bull was creating a lot of heat, thus damaging the Ferrari's tyres and the engine. Around lap 34, Vettel suddenly started to lose a bit of pace and immediately, Alonso was all over on his back end. Vettel then came on the team radio and was complaining of a lack of power from his Renault engine. Although at the time, Red Bull thought it was an exhaust problem that was causing the lack of power, it was later clarified to be a faulty spark plug. Because of reduced power, Vettel was pretty much helpless and could not do anything to stop both Alonso and Massa drive past him to take 1st and 2nd places. The young German eventually limped to the finish line to take 4th place, behind Hamilton's McLaren.

As soon as Alonso had past Vettel and was now into the clear air, the Spaniard just blitzed it and started rapidly pulling away from his team mate. Driving in 2nd place, Massa was being told by his race engineer Rob Smedley to conserve the engine a little bit as the car was having some problems, possibly due to some debris picked up somewhere on the track. That problem meant that Massa was forced to run a richer mixture of fuel, which results in higher consumption for the engine, and so he had to back off the pace a little bit to enable him to last the remaining of the race distance. However, without any of these problems, Alonso was setting fastest laps after fastest laps in the lead. His ultimate fastest lap of the race was over a second quicker than anyone else's time. Despite that, Alonso said in the post-race press conference, that he still had some speed to spare with the car. This should act as a huge warning shot to all his competitors and also act as an ominous sign that the double World Champion means business.

The other Ferrari driver Felipe Massa also drove brilliantly to take 2nd place with relative ease. The Brazilian had been out of competitive action since his accident in July last year, and was very pleased for himself and the team for having made a successful comeback. He will now be more than eager to prove that he is a match for his double World Champion team mate, but it will require Massa to raise his personal game once again - as he has done so several times over the past three or four years - if he is to have a chance of beating Alonso.

Talking of comebacks, seven times World Champion Michael Schumacher, on his return to Formula 1 with Mercedes, started the race in 7th and finished in 6th place, thus not quite having a fairy tale comeback. The legendary German did admit to the press after Saturday's Qualifying, that he feels a bit 'rusty', particularly over one lap. His much younger team-mate Nico Rosberg out-qualified and out-raced him, which should be a bit of a concern for someone like Schumacher. However, given a bit of time, the winner of a record 91 grands prix should be fully back up to speed.

Among the new teams, Lotus proved to be the most successful as both their cars managed to finish the race. However, the other two new teams Virgin Racing and Hispania Racing, were less fortunate as none of their cars managed to last the full race. Lotus, and to a certain extent Virgin, do have some potential of development in the future and it will be interesting to see how they fare as the season moves on. Hispania Racing, renamed and rebranded under a new owner of what was the previous Campos Meta Racing, had never turned a wheel of their new car before coming into this race weekend. They were clearly miles off the pace, and both their cars suffered a lot of reliability problems, with one of their drivers Karun Chandok only getting to drive his car for the first time during Saturday's Qualifying session. His team mate, Bruno Senna, nephew of the legendary Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna, did manage to get a few laps during Friday practice, but with a lack of proper testing, both the rookies failed to the finish the race.

Fernando Alonso now joins a legendary group of drivers, the likes of Juan Manual Fangio, Nigel Mansell and Kimi Raikkonen, who managed to win their first ever race driving for Ferrari. Alonso has already won over most of the Tifosi with his display of love and passion for the Scuderia, and has built up a great working relationship with his team-mate Felipe Massa and all the personnel from Maranello. The scene is set for Ferrari to create history one more time, as they have done so many times before, not least due to one Michael Schumacher.

The next round of the World Championship takes us to Australia to the semi-permanent Albert Park race track in Melbourne. Will Ferrari continue their dominant run? Will Red Bull be able to sort out their reliability issues? Will Mercedes or McLaren be able to catch up with Ferrari and Red Bull by then? We will find out in two weeks' time. Until then, drive safely!

Monday, 1 March 2010

2010 pre-season testing shows Ferrari back on the pace but the pecking order still too close to call

Following the end of the testing ban that lasted throughout the 2009 season and into the winter break, the preparations for the 2010 season began with the first of the pre-season test sessions on the 1st of February at the Ricardo Tormo circuit in Valencia, Spain. Only 7 of the 13 teams signed up to race in the 2010 Formula 1 World Championships arrived at Valencia for the inaugural testing session. They were: Ferrari, McLaren, MercedesGP, Williams, Sauber, Renault and Toro Rosso.

After Felipe Massa topped the timesheets for Ferrari on days 1 and 2, Fernando Alonso also came out on top on day 3 proving that the new Ferrari F10 was definitely a fast car. The teams then moved on to Jerez de la Frontera for another 8 days of testing over the following two weeks. At the first Jerez test, the previous 7 teams were also joined by 2009 Runner-up Red Bull Racing, Force-India and the first of the debutant teams Virgin Racing. Another one of the debutants, Lotus Racing, joined the rest of the teams for the second Jerez test. Over the two weeks at Jerez, several teams took turns to top the timesheets on different days including Mercedes, Red Bull, Williams, Sauber, McLaren and even Toro Rosso.

All 11 teams then moved on to the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona for the final 4 days of pre-season testing in the last week of February. Here again, Webber for Red Bull, Hulkenburg for Williams, Rosberg for Mercedes and Hamilton for McLaren all took turns to top the timesheets on separate days. Analysing the lap times from all the testing sessions directly is pretty meaningless because of the uncertainty of the differing amounts of fuel load a car could be carrying at any given time. Due to the mid-race refuelling ban, the cars this year have fuel tanks big enough to carry enough fuel to last an entire race distance. So during a flying lap in testing, a car could have had anything from 10kg of fuel to 160kg or more fuel on board. The difference in that fuel weight could result in more than 5 seconds a lap in pace. Then there is also the question on the type of tyres being used, as fresh super-soft tyres would almost certainly be quicker than used medium or hard tyres. On top of that, the teams continuously brought in aerodynamic updates throughout all 15 days of pre-season testing, and several teams are likely to bring in more updates for their cars before the first race of the season in Bahrain.

So for the first time for many years, we are heading into the start of a season with a pecking order that is genuinely too close to call. Even unlike last year, when BrawnGP clearly had a car that blitzed the rest of the grid, this year there simply is no single team with a huge advantage. In terms of mileage covered in testing, Ferrari is on top as their two drivers Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso have done the most laps combined compared to any other team. The Ferrari certainly looks good in terms of race pace, and the reliability of the F10 looks absolutely rock solid. It's hard to tell how the Italian team is over a single lap, as Ferrari haven't really pushed its car to the max during a qualifying simulation at any of the test sessions. However, it can't be said that Ferrari are clearly on top since Red Bull and McLaren are also looking very strong. Mercedes is probably just a little bit behind than these three, but the mastery of Ross Brawn and the return of Michael Schumacher can never be underestimated.

Apart from these four teams, Force India, Sauber, Williams and Toro Rosso look like they will be providing a very strong competition in the mid-field with occassionally being able to challenge for podium finishes. The Ferrari-engined Sauber team, salvaged from the ashes of BMW Sauber by Peter Sauber, has talented young Japanese Kamui Kobayashi and former McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa as its lead drivers. Force India has still got the bright and young German Adrian Sutil, while Williams has signed up veteran Rubens Barrichello and 2009 GP2 champion Nico Hulkenburg. Toro Rosso is sticking with its 2009 driver pairing of Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastian Buemi.

The debutant teams Virgin and Lotus did not have an entirely smooth start to their testing programmes, with both teams having problems on reliability. That was to be expected however, as both of them are not just starting brand new from scratch but are also working on much smaller budgets compared to the bigger teams. In case of Lotus, they got their entry to the 2010 Championship confirmed very late last summer after the announcement of BMW Sauber's withdrawal. This meant that Lotus had very little time to gather its team of personnel and design a completely new Formula 1 car from scratch. The Malaysian owned team is headed by Malaysian airline AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes, while former Toyota and Renault technical chief Mike Gascoyne is in charge of the technical side. Their fellow debutant team Virgin had more time to design and develop the car, but working on a small budget, they decided to avoid the use of wind-tunnels in designing their car. Formula 1 teams these days normally use Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) and wind-tunnel to design and develop the car, but Virgin's design chief Nick Wirth said that they only used CFD since they thought it would be sufficient. It remains to be seen whether that is the case or not.

The two other new teams who are signed up to race in the 2010 Championship is fighting for their survival even before a wheel has turned. Spanish team Campos Meta 1 and American team USF1 are struggling to get proper funding, do not yet have a fully designed and developed car, and it will be a huge miracle if they can take part in even one race this season let alone the full Championship. Meanwhile, since Toyota announced their withdrawal from Formula 1 very late last season, they had their 2010 Championship contender more or less ready at the time of the announcement. Now the car and Toyota's Formula 1 base in Cologne, Germany had been taken over by a new Serbian outfit Stefan GP. Despite having the car ready, Stefan GP do not have an official FIA entry but are pushing hard for a place instead of the stricken USF1 and Campos Meta 1. Only time will tell when and how that story ends.

It is just over 10 days to go until the first race weekend of the 2010 FIA Formula 1 World Championship kicks off in Bahrain. Four teams, that is Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull and Mercedes, will be fighting up front but for now, it is absolutely impossible to predict who has the capability to win the first race. It promises to be a hugely exciting and close season this year. Until Bahrain, drive safely everyone!

Sunday, 27 December 2009

The legend is back - Michael Schumacher signs for Mercedes

After a three year absence from motorsport's premier category, Michael Schumacher has agreed to come out of retirement to race for Mercedes in Formula 1 next year. Having made his debut in 1992 with JordanGP, Schumacher went on to win two World Championships with Benetton in 1993 and 1994, before moving on to Ferrari where he won five back to back titles in the early part of this decade. Winning seven world titles and 91 grands prix makes the German legend statistically the greatest Formula 1 driver ever. Schumacher retired from Formula 1 at the end of 2006, after a 14-year spell with Ferrari.

2009 Driver's World Champion Jenson Button left his BrawnGP team at the end of the season and signed for McLaren, as soon as BrawnGP were taken over by Mercedes. The other BrawnGP driver Rubens Barrichello had already been confirmed to have signed with Williams for next season. In his place, former Williams driver Nico Rosberg became the first driver to sign up for Mercedes. Since then, Schumacher had been linked with Mercedes but all sides remained totally silent on the matter.

After retiring from competitive racing back in 2006, Schumacher seemed to be pretty content with not having to deal with the pressures and tensions of racing in Formula 1. He had remained on the payroll with Ferrari, working with the Italian firm as a consultant. Schumacher did take time to enjoy karting every now and then, some Formula 1 test sessions with Ferrari and some testing in motorbike racing. However, when asked, Schumacher always said that he his happy with his life now which gives him the chance to spend a lot of time with his family, and has always ruled out a comeback to professional racing.

Back in the summer, when Ferrari's Felipe Massa had a terrible accident during the Qualifying session of the Hungarian Grand Prix, Schumacher was approached by Ferrari to come out of retirement and act as a temporary replacement until Massa is fit enough to be back. Schumacher took up the offer but had to cancel the plan in the last minute when his doctors said that his neck was not fit enough to take the strain of the G-forces that he will encounter in a Formula 1 car. The German injured his neck in early 2009 when he had an accident during a test session with a German superbike racing team.

Although the comeback plan did not materialise then, what it seemed to have done is relight the fire of competition and a passion for racing within Michael Schumacher. So at the end of November, when Ross Brawn approached Schumacher with an offer of racing with the backing of Mercedes, it was too tempting for the German to refuse. The team had won both the Constructors' and the Drivers' World Championships this year, they have some great people working for them including master tactician Ross Brawn - with whom Schumacher had won all seven of his titles - and on top of all that, they now have the full factory backing of Mercedes-Benz. So Schumacher is confident that he will have a fast car for next year, a car good enough to allow him to challenge for a record eighth world title.   

When the comeback plans failed earlier in the summer, Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo looked for other ways to get Schumacher back on the track. He even approached the FIA to let the team run an optional third car in certain races, to allow Schumacher to race again in Formula 1. However, it did not seem like Schumacher was quite up to make a full time return, and in any case, Ferrari had signed up Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa as their lead drivers for the next few years. The pairing of Massa and Alonso offers better long term prospect to Ferrari than Schumacher, who is turning 41 years old in a few days time. Since the German now does seem to be ready for a full season of racing, di Montezemolo was happy to release Schumacher from his consultancy role at Ferrari to let him race for Mercedes. Between 2000 and 2004, Ferrari gave Schumacher some great cars and in return Schumacher gave back five World Championships, along with contributing to the Constructors's Championships as well. So in spite of the fact that he is now part of a rival team, Schumacher and Ferrari will always have a special relationship. As a Ferrari fan first and foremost, but also as a die-hard Schumacher fan, I genuinely thank him for everything he has done for Ferrari and wish him all the best for the future.  

Schumacher says that the three year absence from the sport has given him back all the energy that he needs. He is absolutely ready to take on the challenge from much younger drivers such as Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa, Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and so on. His signing of a three year contract with Mercedes means that this is not just a one-off return, but another full three years of racing. So he might be the oldest driver on the grid, but he is statistically by far the best of the lot, and he comes back with a serious focus on a potential eighth world title. One thing is for sure, 2010 is going to be a cracker of a season!

It's just a little over a month to go before the teams start their pre-season testing in February. It is only then that we will get a good taster of what the different teams' cars are like. Until then, drive safely and a happy new year!

Monday, 21 December 2009

Round-up of all the latest off-season developments in Formula 1

The season may have ended back in November with the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but the world of Formula 1 hardly ever stops moving. So here is a summary of all the latest developments in the sport that have taken place since the 2009 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Toyota have announced that they are pulling out of Formula 1 with immediate effect. The announcement came from the Toyota Motor Company headquarters in Tokyo just days after the season ended in Abu Dhabi. Having made their Formula 1 debut in 2002, Toyota has been one of the highest spending teams on the grid, often out-spending the likes of Ferrari and McLaren. However, with the Japanese car maker facing its biggest financial loss ever on the back of the worldwide recession and its Formula 1 team yet to achieve its coveted first victory, the bosses at Tokyo decided that they had no other option but to pull out of the sport to allow them to concentrate more on their core business. The future of all the employees at Toyota's Formula 1 base at Cologne is still unclear.

Formula 1's tyre supplier Bridgestone has announced that they will be withdrawing from the sport as well when their current tyre supply contract runs out at the end of 2010. Bridgestone has been the sole tyre supplier in Formula 1 since 2007, after French tyre manufacturer Michelin pulled out at the end of 2006. Bridgestone say that their decision to withdraw came after a strategic re-think of their business due to the economic crisis. The FIA say that it will now look for other tyre makers to bid for a new contract for 2011 and onwards.

Amid massive uncertainties, French car maker Renault has sold a majority stake of its Formula 1 team to Luxembourg based investment company Genii Capital. After all the crash-gate scandal engulfing the team earlier in the year that led to the departure of its team bosses Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds, Renault was on the verge of quitting Formula 1. However, the deal with Genii Capital now mean that the team will remain in the sport and will continue to use the Renault brand in Formula 1.

After German manufacturer BMW announced their withdrawal from Formula 1 earlier this year, the Formula 1 team originally founded by Peter Sauber was left in severe uncertainty. However, after weeks of negotiation, BMW decided to sell the team back to Peter Sauber and the FIA has granted the team a place on the 2010 Formula 1 grid. The Sauber F1 team will use Ferrari customer engines to power their cars next year.

The Lotus brand is coming back to Formula 1 after a hiatus of almost 15 years. Lotus cars is now owned by Malaysian car maker Proton, which is a fully owned subsidiary of the Malaysian government. With the backing of the Malaysian government and Malaysia based low-cost airline Air Asia, Malaysia is launching their own Formula 1 team under the name Lotus F1 racing. They will take Toyota's place on the grid next year. The team will be headed by Air Asia chief executive Tony Fernandes and the entire operation will eventually be based in Malaysia, near the Sepang circuit which hosts the Formula 1 Malaysian Grand Prix.

Richard Branson's Virgin Group has confirmed that it is taking over one of next year's debutants Manor Grand Prix. Manor GP, or as now called Virgin Racing, is based in Sheffield, England. Virgin also announced at the same time that it has signed former Toyota driver Timo Glock and Brazilian rookie Lucas di Grassi as its lead drivers.

2009 Driver's World Champion Jenson Button has left his BrawnGP team and signed up for McLaren. After months of negotiations with the BrawnGP team bosses, that went on even during the season, the two parties failed to come to an agreement regarding Button's salary. Button took a huge pay cut when BrawnGP was salvaged from the ashes of Honda last winter, and after winning the championship in 2009, Button was just looking to go back to his previous salary levels. However, he failed to come to terms with BrawnGP and instead signed up for McLaren where he felt he has a better future. An all-British line-up of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button in McLaren next year is a pretty tasty prospect indeed!

Finally, 2009 Championship winner BrawnGP has been taken over by German car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz. The team has been renamed to Mercedes Grand Prix, and they have signed Malaysian oil company Petronas as their title sponsor. Mercedes Motorsport president Norbert Haug confirmed that former BrawnGP team bosses Ross Brawn and Nick Fry will remain in charge. This is the first time since 1955 that Mercedes is starting a season with its factory backed works team. For the past several years, Mercedes has mainly been involved with Formula 1 as primary engine supplier and strategic partner of McLaren. While the engine supply deal will continue as it is now, McLaren would now become more of an independent manufacturer using Mercedes customer engines. The legendary Silver Arrows brand would obviously be seen on the Mercedes cars next year. German driver Nico Rosberg has been confirmed to be Mercedes' first driver. He swaps his place with Rubens Barrichello, who takes Rosberg's place in Williams. Rosberg's team mate in Mercedes is still to be confirmed, but there are strong rumours that seven times World Champion Michael Schumacher may come out of retirement to form an all-German pair at Mercedes next year. Schumacher is currently contracted to Ferrari as a consultant to their road car division.