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.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Red Bull say farewell to 2009 with a dominating one-two finish at Abu Dhabi

After Jenson Button wrapped up the title back in Brazil, it seemed like the last race of the 2009 season which was to be the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix did not have much to offer. Looking at just the track itself, the newly built Yas Marina circuit was on par with most other Hermann Tilke designed modern race tracks. That means that the track did not quite provide the challenges that drivers face on more traditional circuits like Spa-FrancorchampsNurburgring or Suzuka, but it had a lot of other features to offer. On top of those, the unknowns of racing on a brand new track had its own challenges put together along with the fact that this was to be Formula 1's first ever twilight race - with the race starting at 1700 local time and finishing under the floodlights well after sunset.

Then there is that peculiar pit lane exit, which starts from the right hand side of the main straight, then dips below and goes through a tunnel while turning sharp left and going underneath the track and rejoins the track from the left just after turn 3. The fact that this entire section of the pit exit was to be taken at racing speed meant that everyone was expecting this to be a recipe for disaster.

As far as the racing itself is concerned, the championship winners may have been decided couple of weeks ago, but there were still other places in the championship left to fight for. Among the key battles, traditional rivals Scuderia Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes were fighting for 3rd and 4th place in the Constructors' Championship. Then BMW Sauber and Williams were fighting for 6th and 7th in the Constructors'. In the Drivers' Championship, Sebastian Vettel and Rubens Barrichello were fighting for 2nd and 3rd while former World Champions Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen were fighting for 5th and 6th.  However, newly crowned World Champion Jenson Button was out here just to enjoy the race and show another solid drive to prove that he is a worthy champion.

Throughout the Friday and Saturday practice sessions, the McLarens looked really quick. Aerodynamically they seemed to be perfectly suited for this track, and the two long straights meant that the Mercedes KERS system was giving them a good advantage. Red Bull and the 2009 Constructors' World Champion BrawnGP were also looking pretty quick. Not surprisingly, Ferrari seemed to be struggling overall throughout the weekend as Maranello had not been developing the car since July while others have continued to develop.

So outgoing World Champion Lewis Hamilton qualified on pole position, just ahead of the Red Bull duo of Vettel and Webber who were ahead of the BrawnGP duo of Barrichello and Button. The main surprise of Qualifying was seeing both the BMWs, in their final Formula 1 race, qualify in the top ten. Sebastian Buemi's Toro Rosso was also another surprise package to reach the top ten. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen only managed to qualify in 11th while pole-sitter Hamilton's team mate Kovalainen qualified in 13th as he failed to finish the second part of Qualifying, Q2, due to a gearbox problem. Later on, a gearbox change incurred Kovalainen a five-place grid penalty.

Most of the cars in the top ten were fuelled for a two-stop strategy, while cars lower down the order were fuelled for a longer and heavier one-stop strategy. In spite of all the glitz and glamour of the Yas Island surrounding the track, the race itself proved to be a bit of a procession. However, some drivers still drove pretty impressively. Toyota's Kamui Kobayashi, driving his second race as a replacement for the injured Timo Glock, made a brilliant start from 12th to immediately get past Raikkonen in the Ferrari and then pull away into the distance. Further up in front, Jenson Button overtook his team mate Rubens Barrichello on the first lap as well.

Crucially however, Hamilton in the race lead was not pulling away from the two Red Bulls in spite of being lighter on fuel. Everyone expected that a lighter fuel load, the use of KERS and the McLaren's good pace shown in the practice sessions will mean that Hamilton will open up a sizeable gap in the first stint of the race. That was not being the case. Vettel and Webber were right up on Hamilton's tail, and due to some great laps towards the end of the first stint, the first round of pit stops saw Vettel take the race lead from Hamilton and Webber. It soon became clear that something was not right with Hamilton's car, and on lap 20, McLaren retired him from the race due to a suspected brake problem. That brake problem meant that Hamilton kept locking up his rear wheels while braking into a corner, and that was the reason he was losing lap times to the Red Bulls.

Toyota's Kobayashi was easily the fastest man of the one-stoppers, and for a rookie driving in only his second Formula 1 race, he did very well to eventually finish in 6th place. On lap 41, as Nick Heidfeld came in for his second and last pit stop, he marked the end of an era as BMW Sauber completed its last ever Formula 1 pit stop. The German eventually finished in 5th place.

Almost all the cars started the race on the prime (medium) compound tyres, and opted for the option (soft) compound tyres for the last stint of the race. This was because due to the Abu Dhabi heat, the soft compound was suffering from graining when the track was new and dirty, and only after the track had rubbered in, was the soft compound working well. However, Red Bull's Mark Webber was struggling a little bit on the soft compound in the final few laps. That meant that Jenson Button, who was just about 8-10ths of a second behind with 5 laps to go, was starting to close in on Webber. On the penultimate lap, as race leader Sebastian Vettel set a new fastest lap, his team mate Webber was under intense pressure from Button. After attempting a couple of overtaking moves, Button made one final push by trying to outbrake Webber into turn 11 on the last lap, but Webber kept his cool all throughout and came out just in front to make it a Red Bull one-two finish.

It really was brilliant drives from both Webber and Button in the final few laps, that provided the viewers with some excitement in a somewhat dull race. Sebastian Vettel drove supremely throughout the 55 lap race and probably had the pace to win even if Hamilton had not retired. The young German managed to hold on to 2nd place in the Drivers' World Championship. Despite Hamilton's retirement, the lack of pace for Ferrari meant that both their cars finished outside the points in the race. So Raikkonen missed out on 5th in the Drivers' Championship by just 1 point, and Ferrari missed out on 3rd in the Constructors' Championship also by just 1 point. A strong performance in their last ever Formula 1 race meant that BMW Sauber were able to secure 6th place in the Constructors' World Championship beating Williams.

That brings us to the end of the 2009 Formula 1 season. The next round of on-track action will re-commence with the start of winter testing in February, followed by the season opener in Bahrain in mid-March. Until then, drive safely and happy holidays!

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Jean Todt wins by a landslide margin to become the new FIA president

Following months of tough campaigning, former Ferrari team principal Jean Todt comfortably beat his rival candidate former World Rally Champion Ari Vatanen to become the new president of the FIA. The election took place on Friday in Paris, and Frenchman Todt received a 135 votes in his favour compared to 49 received by his Finnish rival. There were 12 abstentations or invalid votes. With more than two times the votes as his rival, president-elect Todt takes over from outgoing president Max Mosley with immediate effect. Briton Mosley had been in charge of the FIA for sixteen years.

Among some of the key people in Formula 1, the outgoing president Mosley, commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone and seven times World Champion Michael Schumacher had all publicly backed Todt's campaign for FIA president. Although none of the above mentioned people had a direct say in the voting process, as the voting is only done by the different member clubs that make up the Federation, it is not very hard to see that such high profile public backing definitely made Todt stand out markedly from Vatanen. Only time will tell whether Todt's election was good for motorsport, or if Vatanen could have been better.

When all the political debacle between the FIA and the Formula 1 teams earlier in the summer was resolved by the signing of the 2009 Concorde Agreement, Mosley committed to not running for re-election for what would be his fifth term in office. After seeing him at the helm of world motorsport's governing body for four consecutive terms and a total of sixteen years, many people in the sport were eager to see a change. It is undeniable that Mosley has done a lot in terms of safety, particularly for Formula 1, but many felt that it was now time for him to move on. Specially after the way he handled the disputes with the Formula 1 teams in recent times, most of the stakeholders in Formula 1 wanted to see a change at the top of the governing body. So it was not surprising to see both the potential candidates, Todt and Vatanen, vowing to bring a much needed change to the FIA.

With the election now over, Todt has called on the FIA to be united and work together to sort out all its problems. Todt also said that he will see through his plan to appoint commissioners for each of the FIA's world championships, something that will allow him to stay at arm's length from Formula 1 and not be involved in the active running of the sport. Some rumours in the media have tipped Michael Schumacher, a close friend of Jean Todt, to be in the running for the FIA's F1 commissioner. All the separate commissioners would oversee the FIA's role in the respective world championships, dealing with the teams, the commercial rights holders, helping with the rules and regulations and so on.

Among other changes, Todt has also vowed to do a complete review of all the FIA's committees and councils. He plans to introduce a new disciplinary panel, which will be in charge of handling all the disciplinary and appeal hearings instead of the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC). However, the WMSC would still meet to vote on major changes in the sport, including any changes in regulations. The new president plans to strengthen up the Race Stewards as well, as they have been involved in some controversies in recent years regarding the handing out of punishments and penalties on race weekends.

The end of the current Formula 1 season is approaching fast with just one more race left to go, but by the time the 2010 season starts, we should already be seeing some of these proposed changes in the FIA taking shape. Luca di Montezemolo, president of Ferrari and the Formula One Teams' Associaton (FOTA), and John Howett, chairman of Panasonic Toyota Racing and vice-president of FOTA, both heartily welcomed Todt in his new role. Like them, and in fact everyone else in Formula 1, I am looking forward to the dawn of a new era in the sport. Hopefully much better times are yet to come in Formula 1. With him in charge, Scuderia Ferrari turned around from a team struggling at the back of the field to one that dominated the Formula 1 World Championship for several years in a row. We all hope that he can repeat the same feats in charge of the governing body as well. Congratulations on your new role Jean, and all the best for the future!

Monday, 19 October 2009

Webber wins at Interlagos while Button proves his worth with a stunning drive to clinch the World Championship

After the dramatic events during last year's race at Interlagos, when Ferrari's Felipe Massa won the World Championship after leading the race from lights out to Chequered Flag only to lose the title to McLaren's Lewis Hamilton a mere 15 seconds later, here we were one year on back at the same place for the 2009 Brazilian Grand Prix. Being the last race of the season, Interlagos has determined the World Championship since 2005. Renault's Fernando Alonso won the title that year before following it up a year later, then Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen won at Interlagos in 2007 to clinch the title and McLaren's Lewis Hamilton came 5th here in 2008 to win the title as well. Coming into this year's race, Championship leader Jenson Button had every possibility to perform well and wrap up his title. However, his title contenders team-mate Rubens Barrichello and Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel were not far behind in the standings, and the slightest of mistakes from Button could have played into either one of his rivals' hands. Put on top of that the wonderful circuit of Interlagos and the highly passionate Brazilian fans, and we had a prospect of a superb race weekend.

Everyone knew that there were strong chances of rain anytime during the weekend, but just like always at Interlagos, no one really knew when the rain would come. The Friday practice sessions were ran mostly in the dry although there were some minor rain interruptions. On Saturday morning, the weather gods really opened up the tap and it just was not raining, it was hammering down! The FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting delayed the start of 3rd Free Practice due to lots of standing water on the track. As the FIA medical car kept going around the wet track to try and judge if the conditions would be safe enough for Formula 1 cars, the session started almost 40 minutes late with less than 20 minutes left on the clock.

These 20 minutes were very crucial for the teams. They knew that the prospect for Sunday was dry weather, but if Qualifying was to be wet, do the teams opt for a dry weather setup for their cars or a wet weather setup? The FIA Sporting Regulations state that once a car is out into Qualifying, it cannot have any more extensive changes done throughout the rest of the weekend - the car goes into parc ferme conditions. So the teams had to choose their setup during this 20 odd minutes of 3rd Free Practice. However, this practice session had to be cut short and was red flagged with about 10 minutes left on the clock as Renault's Romain Grosjean aquaplaned off the track and had a massive crash.

Although the first part of Qualifying Q1 started on time, the remaining part of the session was delayed and red flagged so many times, that it ended up being the longest Qualifying session ever in the history of Formula 1. While the cars were struggling for grip on the wet track, and with lots of standing water and the continuous downpour, aquaplaning was proving to be a big problem. Ferrari's Giancarlo Fisichella spun and stalled the engine, prompting a red flag. Later on, Force India's Vitantonio Liuzzi aquaplaned off the track and slammed into the tyre barriers prompting another red flag and it went on. This marathon Qualifying session lasted for a total of 160 minutes, almost three times as long as a normal Qualifying. Besides, with continuously changing track conditions, it was very difficult for the cars to get a good lap time in. So both the McLarens and Championship contender Sebastian Vettel failed to get past Q1. Championship leader Jenson Button failed to get past Q2 as he attempted to do his final two hot laps on the extreme wet tyres, at a time when most of the other cars out on the track were on the intermediate tyres.

With the rain easing a bit, all the cars did the final part of Qualifying on the intermediate tyres. While Button had to be content with 14th on the grid, his team mate Rubens Barrichello was putting in some great laps in Q3 to try and get pole position. Although Red Bull's Mark Webber was also challenging for pole with a car that was faster than the BrawnGP, Barrichello was lighter on fuel and eventually managed to hold on to his pole position. Webber, with a heavier fuel load, qualified 2nd on the grid. Force India's Adrian Sutil, surprisingly qualified in 3rd ahead of Jarno Trulli, Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Buemi. Out on his Formula 1 debut, Toyota's Kamui Kobayashi (standing in for the injured Timo Glock) qualified an impressive 11th.

After all the debacle on Saturday, race day was bright and sunny. When Barrichello took pole position at the end of Qualifying on Saturday, the local crowds went ballistic. The Brazilian's chances for the title were looking good since his team mate, Championship leader Button, was starting so far back. On the flip side, if Button had to prevent the World Championship from going down to the wire at the season finale in Abu Dhabi, the Briton had to do something very special. His task however, was made all the more difficult as he had his closest rival Sebastian Vettel starting alongside him in 15th, as Liuzzi took a grid penalty for changing his gearbox thus promoting Vettel up from 16th to 15th.

As the five red lights went out to signal the start of the race, Barrichello pulled away quickly to maintain his lead going into the first corner. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, thanks to KERS, had a tremendous start and was immediately up in 3rd. While attempting to make a move on 2nd placed Webber, the Red Bull closed up on Raikkonen on the inside of turn 2, taking away part of the Ferrari's front wing. Further back up the field, there was a huge crash involving Sutil, Trulli and Alonso. As Sutil and Trulli exchanged a few words blaming each other for the crash, the Safety Car was brought out. By then, Button had already moved up to 9th place, with Vettel just behind him, as both the cars negotiated through the chaos safely. While the safety car was out, Raikkonen came into the pits to change his front wing. Ferrari also took this chance to fuel him to the brim and put him on a long stint. Just ahead, his fellow Finn Kovalainen also pitted at the same time for McLaren. However, Kovalainen pulled away prematurely with the fuel hose still attached, and ended up spraying a good bit of fuel on the pit lane and on Raikkonen's car just behind, causing a momentary fire. However, the fire was nothing serious and Raikkonen was safe and running. With the help of the BrawnGP mechanics, Kovalainen was also on his way before long.

As the track was cleared out of debris, the Safety Car came back in at the end of lap 5. This is when BrawnGP's Jenson Button gave it the beans. At the re-start, he was immediately all over on the back of Grosjean's Renault just in front. Although Grosjean was defending heavily, Button made an aggressive move at the Senna Esses and overtook Grosjean. On the next lap, he pulled off another impressive overtaking move on Nakajima going into turn 1. Over the next few laps, Button was constantly pushing Kobayashi trying to get past, but the Japanese rookie was defending ferociously. After trying for several laps, Button finally made it past the Toyota into the entry of turn 1.

Meanwhile in front, although Barrichello set a new fastest lap of the race, he had Webber following him closely behind. When Barrichello pitted on lap 21, that released Webber who then drove some scintillating laps to build up a good advantage. Barrichello rejoined the race in 8th place and right in the middle of traffic, when what he needed was a clear piece of track to put in some fast laps. Almost as soon as he was out of the pits, he was overtaken by the lighter and faster car of Vettel to move back another place. At the same time, race leader Mark Webber set a new fastest lap. Barrichello's main contender Jenson Button was now up in 2nd but yet to make his first pit stop.

After driving some stunning laps and setting several personal best times, Button pitted on lap 29 to come out in 10th behind Buemi. On lap 33, Button got into Buemi's slipstream on the main straight, then pulled out and outbraked him, went on the inside of turn 1 and got good traction to come out in front of Buemi going into turn 2. This overtaking move was risky, as at one point Button was very close to hitting Buemi, but the Briton kept his calm and made it stick, resulting in perhaps one of the most brilliant overtaking moves of the season.

Button, who started the race with a heavier fuel load than Barrichello, was running longer in the second stint as well. So when Barrichello pitted on lap 50, he rejoined the race in 6th place while Button was up in 4th. Button made his second and last pit stop on lap 55 and rejoined the race in 6th, but was straight away overtaken by the lighter car of Heikki Kovalainen. Although when Kovalainen pitted 4 laps later, it released Button again to move up to 5th.

Barrichello was in 3rd at this stage and if the race was to finish like that, with himself in 3rd and Button in 5th, Button would seal the title. Unfortunately, the Brazilian's situation was not getting any better. He was suffering from graining on his right front tyre, and was told by his race engineer Jock Clear to look after the tyre. Then on lap 61, as Lewis Hamilton got into Barrichello's slipstream and overtook him going into turn 1, the McLaren's front wing briefly touched the BrawnGP's left rear tyre causing a puncture. This forced the Brazilian to go back into the pits to change his tyres just 8 laps before the Chequered Flag. He rejoined the race in 8th and as far as the Championship goes, it was surely all over for him.

Meanwhile out in front, Red Bull's Mark Webber had been driving beautifully throughout the race. After Barrichello made his first pit stop, Webber took the lead and maintained that lead for the remaining duration of the race. It was eventually a cruise to the finish line for him as he comfortably took the win, his second ever Grand Prix victory. At times however, Webber was slightly troubled by BMW's Robert Kubica, and although the BMW did not quite have the pace to win, Kubica drove out of his skin to get a more than deserved 2nd place. McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, starting way back in 17th, made his long first stint work and drove a fantastic race to finish in 3rd, his first podium in Brazil. Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel also did all he could after starting from 15th on the grid and ended up finishing 4th thanks to his one-stop strategy. However, at the end of the race, a hugely disappointed Vettel conceded that it was his poor qualifying that meant that he could not challenge for a win. Vettel's Championship dreams were also over as he needed a minimum of 2nd place finish to keep the title open. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, after having to make an early pit stop to change his front wing, did well to recover and eventually finish in 6th place.

As Felipe Massa waved the Chequered Flag on lap 71, he saw history in the making in front of his very eyes. As BrawnGP's Jenson Button crossed the finish line to claim 5th position, a flood of emotions and relief overtook the Briton as he clinched the Drivers' World Championship with one race to spare. Whatever any of his critics say about his driving abilities or his commitment to racing, the fact is that here in Interlagos, Button drove perhaps the best race of his life and with four phenomenal overtaking moves, thoroughly proved his champion's pedigree. After 9 years of struggle in Formula 1, Jenson Button becomes the 2009 World Champion. His team BrawnGP, formed from the ashes of Honda, becomes the first team ever in the history of the sport to win the Constructors' World Championship in its debut year.

Button becomes the 10th ever Briton to win the World Championship. His name goes down in history with previous greats such as Mike Hawthorn, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, John Surtees, James Hunt, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and Lewis Hamilton. After the race at Interlagos, Button told the media that he now wants to create history by being the first ever Briton to win back to back World Championships. Some of the Britons before had won multiple titles, but no one has been able to successfully defend a World Championship. Jenson Button wants to shut all his critics up and prove that he is not a one-hit wonder by being the first Briton to have successfully defended the World Championship.

It is equally important not to forget the contributions of the rest of the BrawnGP team, starting from the team boss Ross Brawn to chief executive Nick Fry down to all the guys at the factory in Brackley, England. Last winter, they were all going through a very tough time and after Honda announced their withdrawal from Formula 1, all the 600 or so employees were left stranded. However, Ross Brawn and Nick Fry held the team together and with the help of Honda, the FIA, engine partner Mercedes-Benz and the whole of FOTA, they made it on to the grid for the season opener in Australia as the re-branded BrawnGP. They had to let go of some staff since then as the team continued to work through a limited budget most of this year, but amidst all the highs and lows, they pulled through together as a team and as a family and now, they have a double World Championship to celebrate. So congratulations Jenson and congratulations Ross and the team!

With the World Championship wrapped up, Formula 1 now leaves the hustle and bustle of Sao Paolo and heads off to the wonderful new Yas Island built in the middle of the Abu Dhabi desert for the season finale. The Yas Marina circuit will host the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Round 17 of 17 of the 2009 FIA Formula One World Championship. As a brand new venue and scheduled to host Formula 1's first ever twilight race, it should be an exciting event. Until then, drive safely everyone!

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Felipe Massa back at Maranello as his recovery moves into full swing

For the first time since his accident at the Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying back in July, Felipe Massa returned to the Ferrari headquarters in Maranello on Monday. Following a small surgery in September to put a small metal plate to strengthen his skull at the point of impact, Massa has already started his physical training and the level of training is almost back to his pre-accident levels. The Brazilian will now continue with his physical training and is also scheduled to work on the Ferrari simulator besides having some technical meetings with engineers at the Gestione Sportiva (Ferrari's motorsport division).

Within the next couple of weeks, Massa will do a test session with an F2007 fitted with GP2 tyres. Already authorised by the FIA, the session will take place at Ferrari's private Fiorano test track, which is located right next to their Maranello headquarters.

"I'm finally back home," Massa told the official Ferrari website. "This is my second family and I couldn't wait to see them again, all the people I've been working with for many years and who have been close to me these days.

"Now I can really say that I start working again. There's lots to do, but I'm happy. I like the way in Maranello."

Director of the Gestione Sportiva Stefano Domenicali, who himself just came back from Suzuka on Monday morning following the Japanese Grand Prix, was happy to see Massa back at Maranello. Domenicali and Massa sat together and discussed the programme Massa would go through over the next few days.

“It's good to have Felipe back with us," Stefano Domenicali said, "and I'm happy that I can embrace him again. We called Chairman Luca di Montezemolo together and he was happy to say hello to Felipe, wishing him well for his work, while they took an appointment for the next days. Today we'll have some technical meetings and mainly physical exercise. Felipe has to get back on top: he has a demanding period ahead of him with constant activities, but he knows that we're not in a hurry”.

Domenicali also said that it is not yet confirmed when the F2007 test will take place with Massa, but it will not be at least until next week. When asked by the media over the Japanese Grand Prix weekend, Domenicali refused to rule out the possibility that Massa could be back in Formula 1 for the final race of the 2009 season, which is the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. In fact, some sources in the Italian media suggest that depending on how his physical training and his test session with the F2007 goes, Massa may ask Ferrari to let him race in Abu Dhabi.

Massa said hello to all the people from the Gestione Sportiva, who have been really supportive of him in this difficult time. Later on, he went to the Ferrari production line to see the newly launched GT car, the Ferrari 458 Italia.

Before going to the gym, Massa answered some fan emails and comments on the official Ferrari website. He said that over the next few days, he wants to thank the fans for their support and answer their questions in a live chat.

I am very happy to see Massa back 'home'. His accident really was horrendous, and he himself agrees that he was lucky even to be alive. After that, the fact that he has recovered so well in such a short time just shows his fighting spirit and his determination to come back to Formula 1 stronger than ever. Now I only wish that he will take his time to get fully race fit before getting back behind the wheel. He is very eager to be back racing as soon as possible, which is why he is pushing to make a return at Abu Dhabi. As much as I cannot wait to see him back, I want him to fully get well first. The pre-season testing for 2010 does not start until February, so in theory he could use up all that time to recover fully. As part of the regulations, Massa will need to see an FIA doctor before he is allowed to race in Formula 1 again.

Although not racing, Massa will be present in the Ferrari garage throughout the Brazilian Grand Prix weekend. Massa has always loved the Interlagos track and not just because it is his home race, but also because he has a great record there for Ferrari. It will understandably be hard for him to watch the race from the Ferrari garage, but hopefully the overwhelming support he will have there will make it up for him. Here is hoping to see Felipe Massa make a successful return to Formula 1!

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Vettel takes a dominant win at Suzuka while Toyota get a crucial podium finish in their home race

After the night race on the street circuit of Singapore last weekend, Formula 1 was back this week to a real driver's circuit. For the first time in three years, the wonderful figure of 8 layout of the Suzuka race track in Japan hosted a Formula 1 Grand Prix. The last Japanese Grand Prix to be held at the Honda Motor Company owned Suzuka was in 2006. Since then, the Toyota owned Fuji Speedway did the honours as Suzuka underwent a modernisation program. After opening an entirely rebuilt pit and paddock complex, the Formula 1 circus was delighted to be back at this legendary circuit.

Traditionally being the last race of the calendar, Suzuka has hosted many Championship deciding races in the past. The well known battles between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in 1989 and 1990 and then Michael Schumacher battling it out with Mika Hakkinen in 2000 all took place right here at Suzuka. Besides the history, it is a very tough and demanding circuit, which is why it is fun to drive on and is thoroughly enjoyed by all the drivers. Some even say that Suzuka is Asia's equivalent of Spa-Francorchamps, and that is not exaggerating at all. Coming into this year's race Suzuka once again promised a Championship battle, but this time it was a three way battle between Sebastian Vettel, Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello. The man to take to the top step of the podium was Red Bull's German driver Vettel, who drove a dominant race from lights out to the Chequered Flag. Jarno Trulli came home in 2nd, taking a crucial podium for his Toyota team in their home race while last week's winner Lewis Hamilton completed the podium.

After the Friday practice sessions were completely washed out thanks to torrential rain, the teams only had the one hour of 3rd Free Practice on Saturday morning to get some dry weather running. This limited practice time in the dry, which meant that teams barely had enough time to get the aerodynamic set up of the cars right, clearly showed later on in Qualifying. Red Bull's Mark Webber was unable to take part in Qualifying when he crashed in the closing moments of 3rd Practice and completely wrecked his car. Red Bull had to built an entirely new chassis for him which meant that the Australian had to sit out the rest of the afternoon. Webber started the race from the pit lane.

Things started badly for Toyota's Timo Glock as well as he failed to take part in the Friday practice sessions due to flu. Toyota's reserve driver Kamui Kobayashi filled in for Glock and did some laps in the wet on Friday. Although Glock was back in his car on Saturday, he had a massive crash in the second part of Qualifying Q2. Glock was on a fast lap when he went wide and straight into the barriers in the final turn, carrying a bit too much speed into the corner. The session was red-flagged as the on site medical team attended Glock in his car. It took a while for them to get him out of the car as a piece of debris from his car's front wing hit and injured his left leg. He was then taken to a nearby hospital by helicopter, where the doctors plastered his left leg and confirmed that the wound is only superficial and nothing serious. However, Glock was not fit enough to race meaning that Trulli was the only Toyota left running in Sunday's race.

That incident with Glock was not the only disruption in Qualifying though. In the first part of Qualifying Q1, Toro Rosso's Sebastian Buemi and McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen both spun and went off the track at Degner, the same place where Mark Webber had his crash earlier on in Practice. However, Buemi and Kovalainen were able to continue in that session. Then in the early part of Q2, the other Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguersuari had a massive crash at Degner again, prompting the first red flag of the session. However the young Spaniard Alguersuari was ok. It was clear that the limited practice running and the lack of set up time meant that the drivers were trying perhaps a bit too hard, sometimes carrying too much speed through the faster Degner corners.

Then in Q3, Kovalainen went off at Degner again but had a massive crash this time. So the session was red flagged for the third time. Although Kovalainen was unhurt, the red flag meant that most of the cars had just enough time left to do only timed lap. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen was lucky because he got a fast lap in before the red flag came out in Q3. Then after the red flag, in the dying moments of Q3, most of the other cars were going for their one and only hot lap. Right at that moment Toro Rosso's Sebastian Buemi went wide and crashed into the barriers in the very fast section of the 130R. The yellow flags were out meaning that no one was allowed to improve their sector times. However, since many of the cars had not set any times, some of them continued on to complete their fast lap despite the yellow flag. All these drivers were called in by the FIA Race Stewards afterwards for investigation. Later on in the evening, the Stewards decided to give the offending drivers a five place grid penalty each. That meant that Adrian Sutil, Rubens Barrichello, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso all started further down the grid than where they originally qualified in. Heikki Kovalainen got a five place grid penalty of his own after changing his gearbox. Sebastian Buemi got a five place grid penalty and a reprimand because of driving back to the pits with a damaged car after his crash, that potentially could endanger the safety of other drivers.

This meant that everyone was very confused about what the final starting grid would look like. Only after the FIA published the official starting grid on Sunday morning before the race could everyone be totally sure of their starting positions.

Sebastian Vettel had a very good start and held his line through the middle of the track to fend off the charging Hamilton going into the first corner, as Hamilton easily overtook Trulli off the line thanks to KERS and was pushing Vettel as well. Although once past the first corner, through the Esses and the middle sector Vettel started to pull away into the distance. The Red Bull's aerodynamic superiority on this track really started to show as in spite of KERS, Hamilton never had a chance to get anywhere near Vettel. The German immediately started setting fastest laps after fastest laps as he built a decent lead over the rest of the field. Throughout the race, Vettel kept his race lead and comfortably won it the end. It was a supreme drive from the young German to get his third victory of 2009.

Behind him, Hamilton and Trulli had a race long battle. As Hamilton overtook Trulli at the start due to KERS, he held his position for the first part of the race. Hamilton was still ahead after the first pit stop, but Trulli was on his tails all the time. Just before the second round of pit stops, Trulli set some personal best lap times which meant that when he made his second pit stop one lap later than Hamilton, he managed to come out of the pits just ahead of the Briton. The defending World Champion then had some problems with his KERS as well on top of having a slow getaway from his second pit stop, as the car went into neutral before going back into gear, and because of all that was not able to challenge Trulli for 2nd place.

BMW's Nick Heidfeld was on course to finish in 4th ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, but a brilliant middle stint from the Ferrari driver meant that he managed to get ahead of Heidfeld during the second round of pit stops. Raikkonen's strong 4th place finish mean that Ferrari still hold on to 3rd place in the Constructors' standings, albeit leading McLaren by just two points.

Another very important battle was betweent the BrawnGP duo of Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button. Barrichello started in 6th ahead of Button in 10th, but Button was much faster during the race as Barrichello struggled to get the right balance in his car. In spite of having a poor start and losing a place to Kubica off the line, Button drove very well in the second part of the race to eventually finish in 8th place just behind Barrichello.

All the drivers who finished in the points had a two-stop strategy for the race. However, 5th place finisher Nico Rosberg had a long first stint after starting from 7th. With just about 8 laps to go before the end of the race, Jaime Alguersuari of Toro Rosso spun and crashed into the barriers on the 130R. This forced the safety car to come out. Rosberg made his second and last pit stop just as the safety car came out on the track. By then, all the other drivers had already made their last pit stops which is why Rosberg was in a hurry to make a short and quick pit stop under the safety car and rejoin the race. BrawnGP complained to the Stewards after the race that Rosberg failed to slow down sufficiently during this safety car period, when the yellow flags were out, and he raced back to the pits while building an advantage over Button and Barrichello. However, the Race Stewards found afterwards that Rosberg did follow his lap delta (a small screen on the steering wheel that tells the drivers the minimum sector times they have to maintain during a Safety car period; this is to ensure that drivers do not use the Safety Car as a way to gain an advantage over opponents) correctly. It was discovered that Rosberg's lap delta was hindered with a low fuel message (as he was due in for his pit stop on that lap anyway) which meant that he could not know exactly how much he needed to slow down, but he still took sufficient action to follow the yellow flag rules. Hence no action was taken on that incident.

So with just two races to go before the end of the season, today's result means that the Drivers' Championship remains wide open. Jenson Button now has a 14 point lead over Barrichello, who is a further 2 points ahead of Sebastian Vettel. Both Barrichello and Vettel remain optimistic on their title chances, as any mistakes from Button in the next two races could easily hand the title over to either one of them. As far as the Constructors' title goes, BrawnGP needs to score just 1 more point to wrap it up although Red Bull say they are not going to give it away that easily.

I said after the Singapore Grand Prix that although Vettel mathematically remains in the title hunt, realistically his chances are next to impossible. This weekend proved that it is never over until it is over, and if Vettel can win both the next two races and Button faulters, he could still possibly win the title this year and become the second ever German to win a Formula 1 Driver's World Championship. The first ever German to win the World Championship was of course Michael Schumacher, and Vettel has never tried to hide the fact that he sees the legendary seven times World Champion as his idol.

In two weeks' time, we are off to Interlagos where the Brazilian Grand Prix will possibly have Button wrap up the title or will take the World Championship down to the wire for the last race of the season in Abu Dhabi. Until Sao Paolo, drive safely everyone!

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Fernando Alonso: The Second Coming for Ferrari?

Ending months of mounting speculations and rumours, Ferrari finally confirmed this week that Spain's double World Champion Fernando Alonso will be joining the Maranello team from 2010. He will be partnering Felipe Massa, with the Brazilian set to make a comeback to Formula 1 for the beginning of the 2010 season after his horrendous crash during the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying. But speculations and rumours never stop in Formula 1, do they? Each time, they just take a different turn. Now the questions are already being asked, the expectations are mammoth, the inevitable comparisons have already started and everyone is wondering if Alonso can emulate or even beat Schumacher's record at Ferrari. Is Alonso the second coming for Ferrari?

Let us first have a brief look into Schumacher's career. After winning several karting championships in his childhood and teenage years followed by several sportscar championships and junior single-seater racing series, Michael Schumacher's Formula 1 breakthrough came in 1991 when he got involved with the JordanGP team and drove for them in the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps. For the remaining five races of the season, Schumacher went on to the Benetton-Ford team. In 1992, the German won his first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, exactly one year after his debut and at a track that he later went on to describe as one of his favourites. He stayed with Benetton for the next three years. In 1994, Schumacher headed to the last race of the season in Australia with a single point lead in the Championship over his arch rival Williams driver Damon Hill. While leading the race on lap 36, Schumacher intentionally collided with Hill to stop the Briton from overtaking him, and thus forcing both of them out of the race. So he won that year's Driver's Championship with one point, which was not only his first of seven World Championships but also the first ever Formula 1 World Championship to be won by a German. In 1995, with the same Benetton team but now using Renault engines, Schumacher successfully defended his title, becoming the youngest two-time World Champion in Formula 1 history.

In the following year 1996, Schumacher moved to Ferrari, one year before his Benetton contract expired. Benetton was involved in a huge scandal in 1994 when the team was found to have an illegal 'launch control' in their cars. Citing the team's such damaging actions, Schumacher decided to terminate his contract a year early with Benetton and move to the legendary Italian team instead.

In spite of all the legend and history, Ferrari has had some very bad years in Formula 1 back then. Their last Drivers' World Championship was won by Jody Scheckter back in 1979, and their last Constructors' World Championship was won by the pair of Rene Arnoux and Patrick Tambay in 1983. However this was the beginning of a new era for Ferrari. In 1993 they hired a new team principal Jean Todt, who previously had a lot of success with the Peugeot Rally team in the World Rally Championships. In 1996, along with Schumacher, Rory Byrne who was chief designer at Benetton, and Ross Brawn who was Technical Director at Benetton, both came over to Ferrari. So came the change in Ferrari's fortunes.

Over the next few years, Schumacher fought very hard with the likes of Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen before he won his first title for Ferrari in 2000. That was Schumacher's third World Championship overall and Ferrari's first Drivers' title in 21 years. The year before that in 1999, Schumacher helped Ferrari win their first Constructors' title in 16 years. Schumacher's title win in 2000 did not come easy by any means. He fought with McLaren's Mika Hakkinen all year round up until the last race in Suzuka, where one of the best drives of his career saw the German clinch a very emotional World Championship win.

Hakkinen retired in 2001 but Schumacher went on to win four more consecutive titles in the next four years. At the end of 2004, Schumacher had won a world record seven Drivers' World Championship and helped Ferrari get a record fourteen Constructors' World Championship.

After Hakkinen retired, the dominant pace of the Ferrari cars and Schumacher's exquisite driving skills meant that he did not have much of a challenge in terms of winning the World Championships. That is, however, until Fernando Alonso arrived.

Alonso made his Formula 1 debut at the 2001 Australian Grand Prix with Minardi. Then fulfilling a role as full-time test driver for the Renault F1 team (that took over the former Benetton in 2000), Alonso was promoted to a race seat at Renault in 2003. He then became the youngest Formula 1 World Champion when he won the title in 2005. The next year, he fought very closely with Schumacher to retain his title. In the process, Alonso also broke Schumacher's record of youngest two-time Formula 1 World Champion.

After Schumacher retired at the end of 2006, Alonso spent one year at McLaren alongside the then rookie Lewis Hamilton. His relations with the team, and particularly with Hamilton and then team boss Ron Dennis turned very sour about halfway through 2007. At the end of the season, Alonso went back to Renault and has remained there until now.

We all know that Michael Schumacher is, statistically, the greatest ever Formula 1 driver. What is interesting is that Fernando Alonso is the only active driver in the sport who has beaten Schumacher two years back to back to win the World Championship. Even more interesting is the fact that Alonso comes in to Ferrari in very similar circumstances as to when Schumacher joined Ferrari. As mentioned above, Schumacher terminated his contract with Benetton (Renault's predecessor) one year early due to some damaging actions taken by the team. Alonso's switch to Ferrari comes just after the same Renault team had been brought into disrepute once again, this time thanks to their race-fixing scandal.

Another notable point is that when Schumacher came to Ferrari, he was seen as some sort of a saviour. The Maranello based outfit have had a slump for over a decade, and Schumacher seemed like the man to lift the team back up. Although in recent years Ferrari have shown anything but a slump in form, this year has been one of the worst for the Scuderia in almost three decades. Very eager to return back to top form for 2010, who does Maranello turn towards? It is of course, none other than our Spanish superstar Fernando Alonso.

It is because of these reasons why everyone is expecting Alonso to emulate Schumacher's success at Ferrari. It is no doubt that Alonso is one of the most talented and one of the most consistent drivers on the grid. He is very much capable of winning 5 World Championships in a row if given the right car, just like Schumacher did. However, the problems or the challenges come in the form of Alonso's opponents. Between 2000 and 2004, Ferrari were about the only team that had a car capable of winning World Championships. McLaren were a close second, but their performance was just not consistent or reliable enough. In 2005, when Ferrari struggled a little bit due to the poor Bridgestone tyres, Alonso and Renault (who were on the Michelin tyres) were fairly easily able to beat Schumacher and Ferrari. The Spaniard and his French team repeated the feat in 2006, however this time Ferrari contested much more closely. Unlike Schumacher in the early part of this decade, Alonso has many other rivals and teams that are also capable of winning World Championships. As long term title challengers, Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel, McLaren's Lewis Hamilton and Alonso's next year Ferrari team mate Felipe Massa are all capable of challenging for the World Championship time and again.

Looking at the next few years, it seems unlikely that Ferrari will be able to continuously produce cars that dominate the rest of the field. BrawnGP, Red Bull Racing and McLaren-Mercedes are all very much capable of producing Championship winning cars. That is not to say that Alonso will be just another driver who drives for Ferrari. He is a legend in the making and will no doubt go on to win multiple World Championships for Ferrari to add to his tally of two. Question is, can Alonso win consecutive titles for Ferrari like Schumacher did? I think it will be nigh on impossible for Alonso to dominate like his German predecessor did. That is not just because of his opponents from rival teams, but because the challenge starts from within the house itself. Schumacher was the clear number one driver at Ferrari and his team mate Rubens Barrichello always played second fiddle to him. The team was pretty much ran around Schumacher. Barrichello was only there to support Schumacher's Championship efforts. Difference now for Alonso is that his new team mate from next year Felipe Massa is a worthy title contender himself. On top of that, since the retirement of previous team principal Jean Todt, the current Ferrari team principal has clearly shown that he does not support the number one driver scenario. Stefano Domenicali has said time and again that both drivers will get equal treatment, just like Massa and Raikkonen had equal treatment from the team over the last couple of years.

Over the next few years, I can see Massa and Alonso pushing each other hard and in the process taking turns to win World Championships. However, I cannot see how any one driver on the current grid can get the chance to dominate like Schumacher did in his hey day. On top of that, just to account the sheer number of records that Schumacher has broken will mean it will take any driver years to even come close to those records, let alone beating the records!

So Alonso alongside Massa at Ferrari is a very exciting prospect, but the legendary German's records will be staying intact at least for a few more years.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Ferrari confirm Fernando Alonso to replace Kimi Raikkonen from 2010

Almost nine months after rumours first broke out, Ferrari released a press statement yesterday at the Suzuka circuit confirming that they have signed a contract with Renault's double World Champion Fernando Alonso. Initially signed as a three-year deal, with options to extend it, this means that from the beginning of the 2010 season, Ferrari's driver line-up will be represented by the Latin duo of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso. Italian Giancarlo Fisichella will be the team's official reserve and test driver. 2007 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen will be leaving Maranello at the end of this season, one year earlier than when his contract was due to expire.

As I wrote in a post back in July, the rumours were first started off by Italy's much respected La Gazetta dello Sport newspaper. Their reporter Pino Allievi is known round the Formula 1 paddock to have strong contacts inside Ferrari, and more often than not any news reported by Allievi regarding Ferrari turn out to be true. As such, after this official confirmation, Alonso himself confirmed that his contract with Ferrari was originally signed as far back as the summer of 2008. However, the original contract had the Spaniard joining Ferrari only at the beginning of 2011. It is only that a mutual consent between Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso that sees the Spaniard arrive at Maranello a year earlier than first planned while the Finn makes way for him.

Since winning the World Championship in 2007 in his debut year with Ferrari, Raikkonen has been seriously underperforming given that he is by the far the highest paid driver on the Formula 1 grid. His team mate Felipe Massa, on a much lower pay scale, has achieved more points and more race wins during the same time. Raikkonen was brought in to fill in the huge shoes of Michael Schumacher, who retired from Formula 1 at the end of 2006. Now replacing the legend that is Schumacher was always going to be a big if not an impossible task, but it can be argued that at the time there was hardly any one better for the job than Raikkonen.

The Finn always had a quiet and composed personality, never showed a lot of emotion and passion and adrenaline unlike most other racing drivers. What he had going for him, however, is his blistering natural speed. On his day, if he is motivated, he can easily be the fastest man on the track by a big margin. However, it is his motivation that has been called into question time and again over the last couple of years. Specially when the times are low, either because the car is not working well during a particular race weekend or he had a bad qualifying session for some reason that put him at the back of the field for the start of the race, the Finn would seem to have lost his motivation and drive. It is this lack of consistency that has perhaps been one of the reasons for his early departure from Maranello. What Raikkonen seemed to have lacked compared to his predecessor Schumacher was the ability to draw the team around him and pull them up during the bad times.

Raikkonen seemed like the kind of person, who if possible, will turn up on the day, drive some blistering laps if given a good car, and will go back home with no questions asked. What Ferrari wanted was someone a bit more Schumacher-esque, someone who would work extensively with the engineers and the team in general, to give good feedback in order to help in the development of the car and also to ensure that the car suits his driving style. They possibly wanted someone who will be as involved and as passionate about racing as the Ferrari family are. That is possibly what Alonso has going for him.

As the most successful active driver on the Formula 1 grid, with two Drivers' World Championships and 21 Grand Prix wins, and also as the only active driver to have beaten Michael Schumacher to win the World Championship, Alonso does not have anything to prove as far as talent goes. The difference with Raikkoen, it seems, is that Alonso is a very consistent driver. Even if he is having a bad race weekend, or has a hugely underperforming car, he will push his absolute maximum to get the most out of the car. Of course, given a car that is fast enough to win Championships, he can beat anyone on the track, and he has proven it by beating Michael Schumacher two years back to back. What is also important is that Alonso looks like the kind of person who gets very involved with the team and the engineers, and helps out a lot in terms of giving feedback to aid car development, something which Raikkonen seems to lack. The Spaniard is perhaps someone Ferrari should have originally gone with to replace Schumacher.

"We are very proud to welcome to our team another winning driver, who has demonstrated his amazing talent by winning two world championships in his career to date," said Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali.

"Of course, we wish to thank Kimi for everything he has done during his time with Ferrari," said Domenicali. "In his first year with us, he managed to win the drivers' title, thus making his contribution to Ferrari's history and he played a vital role in our taking of the constructors' title in 2007 and 2008.

"Even during a difficult season like this one, he has demonstrated his great talent, with several good results, including a great win in Spa and we are sure that we can share more good times together in the final three races of this season."

In the same Ferrari press release, Raikkonen said: "with common consent, we have agreed to terminate the contract binding me to Ferrari to the end of 2010, one year ahead of schedule."

"I am very sad to be leaving a team with which I have spent three fantastic years, during which time I won plenty of races.

"Together, we have won 50 per cent of the world titles in that period and I managed to take the drivers' title in 2007, thus achieving the target I had set myself at the start of my career. I have always felt at home with everyone here and I will have many happy memories of my time with the team."

It is not yet completely clear what will Raikkonen be doing in 2010. He said during the Thursday press conference at Suzuka that he may even decide to quit Formula 1 at the end of the current season. The rumours say that it is more likely the Finn will be making a return to his old team McLaren-Mercedes. The Woking based team is clearly unhappy with their driver Heikki Kovalainen, and will be very eager to replace him with compatriot Raikkonen to partner Lewis Hamilton. Raikkonen spent five years at McLaren before coming to Ferrari, and although he never got on very well with then boss Ron Dennis, it seems like he will be much more at home with the current McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh. Besides, Norbert Haug, president of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, who own 40% of McLaren, was openly full of praises for Raikkonen during the Singapore Grand Prix weekend. It will be interesting to see how McLaren handle two World Champions in the same team in the form of Hamilton and Raikkonen. Last time they were in a similar situation was 2007 with Hamilton and Alonso, and we all know that did not end very well. However, it has not been confirmed yet whether Raikkonen will really go back to Woking or not.

The Alonso-Ferrari announcement seems to have broken the deadlock in the drivers transfer market. Williams' Nico Rosberg is tipped to join BrawnGP alongside Jenson Button. The Brackley based BrawnGP is set to become a Mercedes works team, as the German car manufacturer is likely to buy a big equity stake in the team. In his place, Button's current team mate Rubens Barrichello is likely to go over to Williams to partner rookie Nico Hulkenburg, who won the GP2 championship this year. BMW's Robert Kubica will probably end up in Renault to replace the outgoing Alonso. Some rumours suggest that Toyota' Timo Glock might end up partnering Kubica at Renault. All these rumours will start clearing up between now and the end of the season in November.

As a Ferrari fan, first and foremost I have to thank Kimi for his services these three years. He won the Drivers' World Championship with us in 2007 and helped us clinch the Constructors' title in 2007 and 2008, and that will definitely put him down in the history of Ferrari. Michael Schumacher's shoes were never easy to fill in, but we have to be grateful to Kimi for all the good times and memories provided. I genuinely wish him all the best for his future.

Moving on, I am very excited about the prospect of next year. Fernando Alonso is definitely one of the best drivers in Formula 1 at the moment, if not the best. Felipe Massa will be very eager to fight for the Championship once again coming back from his accident and the slightly disappointing end to the 2008 season where he lost the title to Hamilton by just one point. The pairing of Alonso and Massa looks to me like a formidable one. On top of that, given that Ferrari started the development of their 2010 car very early in this season, I can see no reason why the Scuderia should not be back at the top of the grid fighting for the Championship again next season. From Maranello in northern Italy, looking towards our main rivals in Woking in Surrey, south-east England, McLaren-Mercedes also looks pretty strong for next year assuming they have the line up of Hamilton alongside Raikkonen. So I think we could be set for some epic battles next year, roll on 2010!

Before I sign off, just have to say, welcome to Maranello Fernando! It is great having you with us, and we all hope to make it a fruitful and lasting partnership. Good luck to Fernando and Felipe for 2010.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Hamilton leads from pole to the finish line under the floodlights at Singapore, while Alonso dedicates his podium finish to Briatore

After saying farewell to Europe for this season at Monza couple of weeks ago, Formula 1 has went through some major upheavels. The FIA's World Motor Sport Council announced their verdict on the Renault race-fixing allegations, where the team was a given a two year suspended ban but the team's bosses Pat Symonds banned for five years and Flavio Briatore banned for life. The main person at the centre of this controversy, Nelson Piquet Jr., has long been ousted by Renault due to a lack of performance. All this controversy was surrounding the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, because the outcome of that race was fixed by Renault.

One year on, Formula 1 finds itself back in the same place to host the sport's second ever night race. The temporary street circuit, twisting and turning through the Singapore Marina Bay, is a spectacle to behold. The entire temporary race track is lit by floodlights that are four times as powerful as those on a football ground. Around the track, the night-time skyline of Singapore provides a great visual sight. With 23 corners and bumpy road surface on a 3.2 mile track, the Marina Bay street circuit is by no means the fastest in Formula 1 but it surely provides the ultimate test of a car's gearbox and brakes, and a driver's mental and physical fitness. The three men to triumph on the podium on Sunday were McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, followed by Toyota's Timo Glock and Renault's Fernando Alonso.

Throughout the practice sessions on Friday and Saturday morning, McLaren-Mercedes, Renault, BrawnGP and Red Bull Racing were all taking turns to top the timesheets. Coming into the Qualifying session, BrawnGP's Championship leader Jenson Button was struggling to find the right levels of grip with his car. He failed to get past Q2, the second part of Qualifying. The Briton only managed 12th on the grid. The two Ferraris, not surprisingly, were pretty far off the pace throughout the weekend because most of the other teams brought in big upgrade packages for this race, while Maranello has long shifted its focus on to the 2010 car. So Raikkonen qualified in 13th while his team mate Fisichella, still struggling to get fully confident in the Ferrari, only managing 18th.

In the third part of Qualifying Q3, Lewis Hamilton set a fast lap on a fresh set of super-soft (option) tyres early on, that secured him provisional pole position. However, both Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel were on a real charge towards the end of Q3 when Rubens Barrichello had a big crash that caused the session to be red-flagged. That meant disaster for Rosberg and Vettel, as both were on a lighter fuel load than Hamilton and was thus looking to qualify ahead of the McLaren. When the session was re-started, there was only 26 seconds remaining and all of the drivers were already back in the pits choosing to save the fuel rather than go out again unnecessarily. So Hamilton was looking very good for the race, as he got his third pole of the year with a decent amount of fuel on board. Behind him, Vettel, Rosberg, Webber, Barrichello and Alonso all had lighter fuel loads that showed the true pace of the McLaren-Mercedes. Glock, Heidfeld, Kubica and Kovalainen completed the top ten. However, Rubens Barrichello changed his gearbox just before the Qualifying session and as a result had to take a 5 place grid penalty, pushing him back to 10th. He started the race in 9th though, as Nick Heidfeld in 8th place was given a 15-place penalty. Heidfeld's car was found to be below the minimum legal weight at the end of Qualifying. BMW later said that this was down to the wrong set of ballasts put on the car, and was an unintentional mistake. BMW then chose to start Heidfeld from the pitlane. This meant that Alonso moved up to 5th on the grid, ahead of Glock, Kubica, Barrichello, Kovalainen and Nakajima in the top ten.

Most of the cars started the race on the prime (soft) tyres. As soon as the lights went out (the five red lights on the start/finish straight goes out to indicate the start of the race), Hamilton got away with a clean start. Behind him, Rosberg got a good run into turns 1 and 2 and overtook Vettel. Alonso overtook Webber coming out of turn 2, with Toyota's Timo Glock close behind the Red Bull. Mark Webber then went wide into turn 7 and used the run-off area to slingshot past Alonso out of the corner. A mistake by the Spaniard then saw him lose another place to Timo Glock in turn 8. Behind them, Jenson Button was looking very good in terms of strategy as he was going for a long first stint after starting with a heavy fuel load. He overtook Nakajima off the line to move up to 10th place. His team mate Barrichello, who was in 7th at the moment, was running much lighter than him. This was a crucial battle, as Button's main Championship rival coming into this race was his team mate.

Meanwhile we have our first retirement of the race on lap 3, as Renault's Romain Grosjean retires with overheating brakes. Up front, Sebastian Vettel sets the fastest lap of the race on lap 5, before Hamilton responds with a new fastest lap of the race. At this stage, Webber had to let Glock and Alonso go past him because the Australian's overtaking move on Alonso on lap 1 was deemed illegal by the Race Stewards. As Williams' Nico Rosberg sets a new fastest lap of the race on lap 9, he was ahead of Glock, Alonso, Webber, Barrichello and Kubica in the points scoring positions.

The first of the front runners to come into the pits was Sebastian Vettel on lap 17. He came back out in 7th place behind Barrichello and ahead of Kubica. Rosberg, Webber and Glock then all pitted on the next lap. Coming out of the pits, Rosberg went a bit wide over the white line that separates the pit lane from the track, and Race Control was quick to announce that the incident involving car number 16 (Nico Rosberg) was under investigation. On lap 20, race leader Lewis Hamilton came in for his first pit stop as Race Control announced a drive-through penalty for Rosberg.

At the back of the field, Adrian Sutil and Nick Heidfeld had a crash on the apex of turn 14 that prompted the safety car to come out. Kovalainen, Button and Alonso take this chance to make their first pit stop. Heidfeld was immediately out of the race, the German's first retirement in Formula 1 in 42 Grands Prix. Although Sutil changed his front nose cone and resumed the race, he too retired a couple of laps later. Hamilton was now leading the race from Rosberg from Vettel from Glock from Alonso from Barrichello from Kovalainen from Button in the points scoring positions. Later on after the race, Sutil was fined $20,000 and given an official reprimand by the Race Stewards, as the crash was Sutil's fault.

As the safety car came in and the race re-started on lap 25, Rosberg was told to take a drive through penalty for going over the white line on the pit exit. He took this penalty on lap 27 and came out in 14th place, essentially ruining his evening as the German was looking good all weekend for a strong podium finish.

The challenges and the bumpy nature of the Singapore was taking its toll on Vettel's Red Bull, as the German lost his right wing mirror on lap 37. Two laps later, he made his second and last pit stop to rejoin the race in 7th. Now Race Control announced that incident involving car number 15 (Sebastian Vettel) was under investigation for speeding in the pit lane. The young German was then given a drive through penalty for that offence. After taking the drive through on lap 44, Vettel rejoined the race in 9th place ahead of Raikkonen.

Mark Webber, now struggling with overheating brakes, made his second and last pit stop. It lost him a lot of time as the Red Bull mechanics were looking into his brake ducts to see if there were any problems. On lap 45, Toyota's Timo Glock made his second and last pit stop to slot back into 6th place. Red Bull's Australian driver then ended his dismal weekend as he lost his brakes completely and crashed into the tyre barriers between turns 1 and 2. Race leader Hamilton made his second pit stop at this time, just as the yellow flags were being shown. Hamilton rejoined in 2nd behind Alonso, who was still to make his second pit stop.

Rubens Barrichello then made his second pit stop from 3rd place, to come back out in 7th. This is where Jenson Button, now up in 3rd, really put his foot down. He set a string of personal best lap times before making his second pit stop on lap 51. The Briton came out in 5th place, comfortably ahead of his team mate.

At this last stage of the race, most of the front runners were on the option tyres. Although the super-soft option tyres were struggling with degradation most of the weekend, at this late stage on the race, with the track fully rubbered in, these option tyres were coming alive. All the front runners were starting to post some great lap times. 3rd placed Alonso set a personal best on lap 52, before setting the fastest lap of the race on the next lap. Behind him, Sebastian Vettel was struggling with a broken rear diffuser and overheating brakes. Button and Barrichello were also struggling with overheating brakes, and both the BrawnGPs and the Red Bull of Vettel started to back off a little bit to conserve the brakes. Specially after Red Bull's Mark Webber retired just a few laps earlier with a brake failure, it was important that all these cars consolidate their points and cruise to the finish line.

Without any further incident, McLaren's Lewis Hamilton took the Chequered Flag on lap 61 followed by Timo Glock, Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, Jenson Button, Rubens Barrichello, Heikki Kovalainen and Robert Kubica. Hamilton really drove flawlessly all throughout the race, did not make one mistake, and at the end it was an effortless performance from the defending World Champion to get his second win of the season. Toyota's Timo Glock got a crucial first podium of the year for his Cologne-based team. Several uncertainties has been surrouding Toyota's future in Formula 1, as after several seasons and billions of euros in development, they are yet to see that elusive first ever Grand Prix victory. This podium finish, thanks to a flawless drive from Glock, will certainly influence the management in Tokyo to keep Toyota's Formula 1 operation running next year and beyond. Meanwhile Alonso was understandably delighted to get Renault's first podium finish of the year after a very difficult couple of weeks for the team. He had no shame at all to dedicate this podium finish to his former team boss Flavio Briatore, who had a big contribution in building up this Renault team to what it is today.

On top of all that though, the big news is that Button's 5th place finish takes him one step closer to the World Championship. He increased the lead in the Drivers' World Championship by 1 point over his team mate Barrichello, who is his strongest contender for the title. Although Sebastian Vettel in 3rd place in the Drivers' standings is still mathematically in running for the title, realistically it is next to impossible for the German to win the title this year. His team mate Mark Webber is now out of the running of the World Championship.

We now head off to Suzuka in less than a week's time for the Japanese Grand Prix. Jenson Button can potentially sweep up his first ever Driver's World Championship there, all he needs is to finish in at least 4th place. His team BrawnGP are looking to wrap up the Constructors' World Championship, and it all could happen at the Honda Motor Company owned Suzuka race track, the very same Honda from whose ashes BrawnGP was born earlier this year. Until then, drive safely everyone!

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Renault loses backing of two major sponsors with immediate effect

Dutch financial group ING announced on Thursday evening that they are ending their title sponsorship deal with the Renault F1 team with immediate effect. Earlier in the day, Spanish insurance firm Mutua Madrilena also announced that they are terminating their sponsorship deal with the Formula 1 team effective immediately. Both the firms have confirmed that this sudden termination in their sponsorship agreement comes on the back of a disastrous race-fixing scandal engulfing the Renault F1 team in the last few weeks.

Although Mutua Madrilena will continue to sponsor Renault's double World Champion Fernando Alonso, they and ING have both asked Renault to remove their logos from the cars and other team areas. The sudden loss of ING will come as a big blow to the Enstone based outfit, because as the title sponsor, ING provided Renault with more than half their total sponsorship revenues.

"In light of the verdict of the World Motor Sport Council of 21 September 2009 concerning the events that occurred at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, ING will terminate the contract with Renault Formula One with immediate effect," the company said.

"ING is deeply disappointed at this turn of events, especially in the context of an otherwise successful sponsorship."

Although ING was in line to end its Renault deal at the end of the current season, a sudden termination of contract during the season with four more races to go will surely catch Renault off-guard. Even without the sponsorship worries, Renault's future in Formula 1 had been in doubt ever since the race-fixing conspiracy came to light. The former World Champions have had almost three seasons in a row with dismal performances, including this season when they are yet to score even a podium finish. On top of that, the huge damage that has been caused to Renault's reputation by the race-fixing saga plus the possible financial worries that may arise now due to the loss of two major sponsors, the French team's Formula 1 future is in serious jeopardy.

The race weekend for the Singapore Grand Prix is almost upon us, and over the course of the weekend we will surely find out more details regarding Renault and their future in the sport. For viewers in the UK, first Free Practice for the Singapore Grand Prix starts at 1100 BST live on the BBC Red Button service and the BBC Sport website. Radio listeners can tune into BBC Radio 5 Live sports extra for live commentary from the Marina Bay street circuit.