Friday, 29 May 2009

All FOTA members submit conditional entries for the 2010 FIA Formula 1 World Championship

According to a statement released by the Formula One Teams' Association (FOTA) just a few hours ago, all of the current Formula 1 teams have lodged entries to the FIA to enter the 2010 Formula 1 World Championship. Earlier this week on Monday, Williams became the first of the current teams to enter for next year's championship. While the rest of the FOTA members were still planning on what should be their next move on the budget cap standoff between FOTA and the FIA, team AT&T Williams decided to somewhat break ranks with the FOTA and become the first team to enter next year's championship. Team owner Sir Frank Williams argued that he had no other choice because his team's core business is Formula 1, which means that Williams has a big obligation to all its financiers and sponsors. So although most of the other FOTA members understood Williams' reason, they still temporarily suspended Williams from FOTA while they carried out negotiations with the FIA regarding next year's regulation. At the same time, FOTA also warned all its other members that if anyone else broke ranks with the organisation, will also find themselves suspended even if temporarily.

Then on Wednesday, the FOTA members met again in London to plan their next move ahead of the Friday deadline to enter the 2010 Championship. Although not much of a news came out of this meeting, this afternoon FOTA released a statement saying that all its members have jointly submitted entries to the FIA to enter the 2010 Formula 1 World Championship. The statement also said that this entry is conditional and will only hold if the FIA agrees to delay the introduction of a £40 million budget cap at least until 2011, have a budget cap of £85 million for 2010, have one clear set of regulations for all the teams and base the 2010 regulations on this year's regulations and update them according to the FOTA proposals. In return, all the current teams in Formula 1 will sign the Concorde Agreement pledging their commitment to Formula 1 at least until 2012. The FOTA members also said that they realise that in the current economic climate, it is necessary for the sport to cut costs dramatically, and at the same time bring in new teams and give them the chance to succeed. They have all agreed to help any newcomer team in their first year by supplying them cheap parts and also by sharing certain technical information with the new teams. The idea of this is that the new teams, in their first season in Formula 1, can keep up with the existing well established teams and then continue development on their own accord in the following seasons. The FIA have already said that the maximum number of cars on the grid will go up from the current 20 to 26 next year. That makes room for at least three new teams, on top of all the ten current teams. Among several interested parties, five teams have already submitted entries for next year's championship. The FIA will review their applications and choose three teams out of Prodrive, Lola, USGP Engineering, Litespeed GP and Campos Racing.

So after all the political upheavels of the last few weeks, the good news is that this crisis created by the controversial budget cap proposal has finally come to a solution. Although the question remains on the future governance of the sport, because traditionally new rules have been brought in to Formula 1 after consulting with the teams and then reviewing them over through an F1 Commission, before being finally approved by the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC). But recently, the FIA have tried to write its own rules without first consulting with the teams, and that is why the teams want this system of governance to change. What is also interesting is the fact that the President of the FIA, Max Mosley, is up for re-election this summer. So after almost a decade and a half at the helm of world motosport's governing body, it will be interesting to see whether he runs for another term and if not, who takes his place.

Hopefully, the politics have been put behind us now and we can look forward to enjoying more of the on track action in the coming months. Scuderia Ferrari have made a remarkable turnaround after a disastrous start to the season, by finding more than a second a lap of performance within just about 4 weeks. So the Italian marque will be going into Istanbul next week knowing that their future in Formula 1 is secure, the fact that they finally have a car that is able to fight for victories this season and most importantly their biggest motivation will be that Felipe Massa have won all the last three races at Istanbul. If Massa can win it this year as well, he will join a very exclusive drivers' club of winning four or more races consecutively on one track. Only four other drivers- Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Michael Schumacher- have accomplished the feat of winning four consecutive races at the same venue. In the entire history of Formula 1, only one driver has been able to win more than four races consecutively at the same track- he is of course the legendary Brazilian Ayrton Senna, who won in Monaco every single year between 1989 and 1993 making it 5 out of 5. Although if current Championship leader Jenson Button can win in Istanbul next weekend, he will have snatched Michael Schumacher's record of best start to a season ever by winning six of the first seven races. In 2002, Schumacher won five of the first six races on his way to win his fifth world title.

So it promises to be a very exciting race next weekend and like I have said, everyone's eyes will be on Ferrari's Felipe Massa and BrawnGP's Jenson Button. Of course Red Bull will be eager to make a come back after their bad weekend at Monaco. Stuttgart based Toyota will also be looking to make some sort of an impression at Istanbul, which hosted its first race in 2005 and is known to be one of the most modern and fastest tracks on the Formula 1 calendar. There has been lots of rumours going around that Toyota might pull out of Formula 1 at the end of the season if the team does not deliver some decent races this year. There has also been rumours of French car giant Renault, following falling sales in their road car division due to the recession, pulling out of Formula 1 at the end of the season as well, although the team could be salvaged by current team principle Flavio Briatore. So the race weekend for the Turkish Grand Prix starts next Friday the 5th of June with first and second free practice sessions. For UK viewers, all three practice sessions will be broadcast on the BBC red button service or the BBC Sport website live from the Istanbul Park Circuit in Turkey. So until then, drive safely everyone!

Monday, 25 May 2009

The fairytale of BrawnGP continues in Monaco, while the team of the Prancing Horse finally return to form

It is the most prestigious and most glamorous race on the Formula 1 calendar, and first started in 1929, the tiny and narrow streets of Monte Carlo have always been home to the Monaco Grand Prix. The qualifying session in Monaco is known to be one of the most important qualifying sessions of the year purely because Monaco is notoriously difficult for overtaking. The street circuit of the small principality is one of the slowest and one of the shortest race tracks on the Formula 1 calendar, but the narrow streets have always meant that overtaking here is virtually impossible. Which is why the driver who qualifies on pole can almost guarantee to win the race if nothing unexpected goes wrong.

But that does not mean that once a driver has bagged the pole position on Saturday, he can start celebrating his victory. It's far from it. Despite the slow speed of the circuit, Monaco has always been very hard on both the drivers and the cars. It is hard on the drivers because there is almost no run-off area on either side of the track, which means that the slightest mistake can result in the car crashing into the barriers. It is hard on the cars because of the sheer number of gear changes made on a lap of the Monaco circuit. Although not even half the circuit is taken at full throttle by these Formula 1 cars, which means that this race is not particularly hard on the engines, it really punishes the gearbox. Besides that, the slow speed nature of this track also mean that having good mechanical grip is a lot more important here rather than aerodynamic downforce, in order to achieve good lap times.

Because of these factors, Monaco has always been a very highly anticipated race. The first and second free practice sessions, which take place on a Thursday here instead of the usual Friday, showed the Ferraris and the McLarens posting some promising lap times along with king of practice, Nico Rosberg of Williams. During the Qualifying on Saturday, one of the biggest incidents was Lewis Hamilton making a serious driver error which caused him to crash and out for the rest of the qualifying sessions. During one of his flying laps in Q1, Hamilton outbraked himself coming into the tight Mirabeau hairpin, lost the rear end of his car and slammed into the tyre barriers, completely destroying the rear suspension. Although at the time he had the 7th fastest lap time, by the end of Q1 Hamilton had dropped down to 16th. To make matters worse, because of that crash McLaren had to change the gearbox in his car which carries an automatic grid penalty of 5 places. So starting right at the back of the grid on Sunday pretty much meant race over for the reigning World Champion before it had even started.

The rest of the qualifying went without much more surprises. The two Toyotas were really struggling for grip throughout the weekend, just like BMW Sauber. So they qualified near the back of the pack as well. The real surprise was the lack of pace in the Red Bulls, who up until the last race in Barcelona seemed to be the team to beat after BrawnGP, but here in Monaco the Milton-Keynes based team barely kept up with the mid-field. But the real promise of a return to form was shown by Scuderia Ferrari. The reigning Constructors' World Champion, after introducing a host of new upgrades in Barcelona, failed to get some good results back in Spain apart from Massa's 6th place finish. Although the two Ferraris had good pace back in Barcelona, reliability was their biggest problem that cost them a better result. But that would not be the case here in Monaco. Both the Ferraris constantly kept up with the pace-setters BrawnGP, and in Q3 Kimi Raikkonen even managed to get provisional pole before being pipped by Jenson Button, who did a superb flying lap at the death of the qualifying session to snatch pole. Although Ferrari were happy that Raikkonen got them their first front row of the season, and his team mate Felipe Massa qualified in fourth just behind BrawnGP's Barrichello.

At the start of the race, both the BrawnGP cars started on the super-soft tyres, whereas both the Ferraris and most of the other front-runners started on the harder soft tyres. This meant that the Brawns had a very good start off the line, and going into turn 1 in the opening lap, Barrichello had already gone past Raikkonen to take 2nd place behind race leader Button. From then on, there wasn't much either of the Ferraris could do to gain places. Although in the middle stint of the race, both Raikkonen and Massa were posting impressive lap times, the confines of the Monte Carlo circuit meant that they couldn't finish any higher up the order. In fact Felipe Massa even set the fastest lap of the race, lapping in the 1:15.1s, and this fastest lap was about one-hundredths of a second faster than the fastest lap set by eventual race winner Jenson Button. One thing that is now confirmed is that Ferrari have really made some remarkable progress over the last four or five weeks, and in a more free flowing circuit can now push for victories.

The only other incident worth mentioning from the race is Sebastian Vettel's retirement sometime around lap 20. Although his Australian team mate Mark Webber was still doing pretty good, Vettel's RB5 was particularly struggling for grip. He started the race on the softer option tyres, which gives better performance than the prime tyres at the start but degrade a lot faster than the prime tyres. So by lap 10, Vettel's tyres were already gone and that forced him to pit earlier than originally scheduled. This was quite surprising because the two Brawns have also started the race on the options, but they were able to run quite a bit longer than Vettel. After the first pit stop, Vettel changed to the harder prime tyres but his lap times continued to suffer. This probably magnified the fact that the Red Bull cars struggle for grip in the slow speed corners, although they are very quick through the high speed corners and have good straight line speed as well. This, coupled with the fact that Red Bull have introduced their own interpretation of the double-deck diffuser in Monaco, means that at the next race in Turkey we should be seeing Red Bull back up the order. Although now apart from BrawnGP, they have a new competitor in the form of the Prancing Horse!

So overall, a very exciting race weekend in Monaco ends with yet another one-two finish for the Brawn-Mercedes team. Jenson Button is now by far in the lead in the Driver's Championship, just as his team is in the Constructor's Championship. They do seem all set to win the Championships this year, if any miracles don't happen between now and the end of the season on the 1st of November in Abu Dhabi.

Off the track, the budget cap row is finally coming to a solution. After last Friday's meeting between the FIA and FOTA in London, the FOTA members met again this Friday in Monaco on Flavio Briatore's yacht, to discuss possible solutions to this crisis. After that meeting, they all met with Max Mosley, the President of the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone, the chief of commercial rights holder Formula One Management (FOM). It now seems like a possible solution is on the cards, where most of the current teams will enter next year's championship, but under the condition that the technical and sporting regulations remain as they are this year and the introduction of any budget cap is delayed at least until 2011. FOTA realises the need for cost cutting in Formula 1, but it has to come in a sensible manner and within a reasonable time frame. So negotiations are still ongoing between FOTA and the FIA about possible cost-cutting measures, but it is clear that the FOTA wants a greater say on where and how to lower costs, rather than being imposed with a fixed and unreasonable budget cap.

So next Friday the 29th of May is the last date for lodging entries for the 2010 Formula One World Championship. This is why FOTA is eager to get a concrete solution before then, although Max Mosley has indicated that any teams that have not entered within that deadline, will still be able to lodge an entry after that date given that there are empty grid places available, which is very likely will be the case.

But for us fans, the good news is that teams like Ferrari and Renault are not going to leave this sport we all love so much, and thanks to the unity of all the teams and particularly FOTA's chairman Luca di Montezemolo (also President of Ferrari), Formula 1 will not be effectively downgraded into a lower category racing just for the sake of cost cutting. So that's it for now. Round 7 of the 2009 FIA Formula 1 World Championship will take us to the Istanbul Park Circuit in Turkey in just under two weeks' time. Stay tuned for that, but until then drive safely!

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Ferrari fails to capitalise on a hugely improved F60, while BrawnGP continue their dominance with a one-two finish in Barcelona

This weekend saw Formula 1 return to Europe for the first time this season with the Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya near Barcelona. It was a very highly anticipated race weekend because, being the first European race of the season, many teams promised to bring in major upgrades to their cars. Among those teams were BMW Sauber, Renault, Toro Rosso-Ferrari, Williams-Toyota and Scuderia Ferrari. Other teams like Brawn-Mercedes and Red Bull-Renault made some minor upgrades as well. Although the most noticeable increase in performance came from the scarlet-coloured cars, the two Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen. With the current in-season testing ban in place the two practice sessions on Friday were the first chance Ferrari had to test out the new parts, which include a new front wing, new sidepods, new rear wing and a new rear diffuser, in race configuration. Following the tests, Ferrari ran the third practice session on Saturday with the configurations set for qualifying, and the result was that they trumped every one else in the field as they snatched a one-two in final session of practice.

Going into the first part of Qualifying, the two Ferraris again started off well and were posting lap times that were in line with the Red Bulls and the Brawns. But a serious tactical error saw Kimi Raikkonen failing to get through to Q2. The reason for that was because Kimi had only done 5 flying laps in Q1 and thinking that his lap time would be enough to get him through, he and his engineers decided not to run again in that session. But some very quick runs late in the session by some of the other drivers saw Kimi slip down to 16th, which meant that Ferrari had made the same mistake for the second time this season, the first one being with Felipe in Malaysia.

So although Qualifying was over for Kimi Raikkonen, the other Ferrari of Felipe Massa was running very good indeed and comfortably went through to Q2. The only real shock of Qualifying apart from Kimi was McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen only managing 18th on the grid, while his team mate reigning World Champion Lewis Hamilton although getting through to Q2, but still only managed to qualify 14th. In fact over the whole weekend, the two McLaren-Mercedes' really struggled for pace as the cars seemed to lack a lot of downforce and grip.

In Q1, Felipe Massa managed to qualify in 4th position which gave Ferrari their best starting position on the grid so far this season. After a couple of disastrous races, BMW's Robert Kubica also managed to get through to Q1 where he eventually had to settle for 10th place. Barcelona being the home Grand Prix of double World Champion Fernando Alonso, the grand stands were understandly full of Alonso supporters. The Spaniard qualified 8th with the lightest car, in terms of fuel load, among the entire grid. That really showed how much that Renault R29 is lacking in terms of pace. Although Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel drove a brilliant flying lap to get provisional pole ahead of Brawn's Rubens Barrichello, the other Brawn of Jenson Button stole the pole from Vettel with a stunning lap at the dead of Q3. So this gave Brawn-Mercedes yet another pole position in a track which is notoriously difficult for overtaking, and where apart from Michael Schumacher in 1996 no other driver had to managed to win without starting on pole. So Button was very well set indeed, and history was backing him for victory. Although when the fuel loads were published at the end of Qualifying, it was clear that 2nd place Sebastian Vettel had a heavier car than Button. But in the post-qualifying press conference, both Button and Vettel seemed to be concerned about the KERS car of Felipe Massa overtaking them at the tricky turn 1 at the start of race.

The start of the race was very eventful indeed. Brawn's Barrichello had a tremendous start where he immediately overtook both Vettel and Button off the line and by the time they had arrived at turn 1, Barrichello was leading the race. Massa also had a great start and immediately overtook Vettel to take 3rd position behind Button. A few cars behind them though, the tricky turns 1 and 2 caused a havoc with bits of carbon fibre flying around the track as Force India's Adrian Sutil, Toyota's Jarno Trulli, and the two Toro Rossos had a massive crash resulting in all four of these cars retiring. The safety car came out straight away to slow down the field while the track was being cleared of debris near turns 1 and 2. At the re-start on lap 6, the two Brawns immediately started pulling away from the field. Although Massa had a much faster car than in the first four races of the season, Red Bull's Vettel still had was faster behind him and was constantly pushing him. It was only Massa's KERS and a defensive driving that saw Vettel follow the F60 for most of the afternoon.

Among all the havoc at the back of the field, the other Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen made up some good grounds and was already up in 10th place, fighting for 9th with BMW's Heidfeld ahead, by the end of the first lap. It was sheer misfortune that a hydraulics and throttle failure forced Raikkonen to retire on lap 17. World Champion Lewis Hamilton, who started from 14th, also took advantage of the crash in the first lap and was in 9th position by the end of the first lap as well.

At the re-start though, one interesting incident was Red Bull's Mark Webber and Renault's Fernando Alonso fighting for 5th and 6th place. Webber was in front when Alonso made an overtaking move at the inside of Webber on the start/finish straight. Alonso did get through but as he started to brake for turn 1, Webber went on the inside to brake later and harder and regained his 5th position. It was true wheel to wheel racing and the crowds loved it.

A few laps later, Rubens Barrichello was among the first of the front runners to pit, and he was on a three-stop strategy. His team mate pitted soon after him, but although Button started the race with a three-stop strategy in mind, team principle Ross Brawn decided to change Button to a two-stopper with a long middle stint. This meant that if Barrichello still wanted to win the race ahead of his team mate, he really had to push hard between his first and second pit stops. Soon after the Brawns pitted, Vettel and Massa came in on the same lap and went out of the pits with Vettel still following Massa. Over the next few laps, Jenson Button posted an impressive set of lap times despite being heavy fuelled, while his Brazilian team mate failed to keep up that performance. This meant that by the time Button had done his 2nd and last pit stop, he was already in a postition to overtake Barrichello when the Brazilian would come in for his 3rd pit stop, which is what exactly happened.

Another driver to watch during this time was Red Bull's Mark Webber. Though he started the race on three-stop strategy, he changed his strategy during his first pit stop and opted to go for a long middle stint instead. Meanwhile, his team mate Vettel stuck with his three-stop strategy while following Massa's Ferrari. The long middle stint meant that by the time Massa and Vettel had done their last round of pit stops, Webber was able to leapfrog them.

Coming up to the last 10 or so laps of the race, Ferrari's Massa was looking good for a 4th place finish. But it was not to be the case. This is time that Massa's race engineer Rob Smedley told on the radio that they had a problem with the fuel rig during his pit stops, and as a result of that Massa was running one lap short in fuel. So Rob Smedley told Massa to back off a bit to lower the fuel consumption and ensure that he can go the full distance. Massa, while constantly fighting off Vettel behind him refused to do so up until very late. By the time it was lap 62 of 66, Smedley told Massa to back off and let Vettel go, so that they can at least ensure 5th rather than having to run out of fuel before taking the Chequered Flag. This time Massa had to oblige, but having to make up 1 whole lap time within just 4 laps meant that Massa was now running almost 5 seconds a lap slower than all of the front runners. This meant that Renault's Alonso, who was 17 seconds behind Massa in 6th, quickly caught up with him and the grand stand of the Circuit de Catalunya erupted when the home hero overtook Massa at the end of the start/finish straight on lap 65. Massa's situation with the fuel was so bad, that although he crossed the finish line without having to concede any more positions, he finally did run out of fuel and was not able to bring the car back to the pits after taking the Chequered Flag.

So with a vastly improved car, where in terms of lap times, the Ferraris seemed to have made up almost 8/10ths of a second to the front running Brawns and Red Bulls, some unfortunate mechanical problems and some bad strategic calls meant the Scuderia could only manage 3 points from this race thanks to Massa's sixth place finish. But what is up-lifting for the Maranello based squad is that, the car is finally looking good in terms of raw pace and downforce, and with more upgrades to come over the next few races, current Championship leader BrawnGP and Button realise that Ferrari will be the ones to watch over the next couple of months. Behind them, the problems are far from over for McLaren and Lewis Hamilton, as the MP-4/24 continues to struggle for pace. It seemed like the great performance in Bahrain was just a blip, and Barcelona that always has been a high downforce demanding circuit, showed off the sheer lack of downforce and grip in the McLarens. As a result, defending World Champion Lewis Hamilton only managed to come home in 9th place and out of the points, while his Finnish team mate could not even finish the race due to a gearbox failure.

So from Barcelona we go off to Monte Carlo in just under two weeks' time for the glitz and glamour of the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix. Although before that, there is plenty happening in the world of Formula 1. Most of the manufacturer teams in the Formula One Teams' Association (FOTA) have been openly opposing the FIA's proposed budget cap for next season, and some of the teams including Toyota, Red Bull-Racing and Scuderia Ferrari have now threatened to leave Formula 1 at the end of the current season if the FIA does not change the rules for the next season. Other teams including BMW Sauber and Renault might possibly join them as well. FOTA also said that if the FIA does go through with the 2010 regulations as they stand now, then most of the current participants will have left Formula 1 with only BrawnGP, Williams and Force India remaining. Ferrari's President Luca di Montezemolo, who is also the chairman of FOTA, is supposed to meet with the FIA President Max Mosley sometime within the next week or so to discuss these issues on behalf of the FOTA. All this while, commerical rights holder Formula One Management (FOM) and its chief executive Bernie Ecclestone has constanly said that things will never get to the point where teams like Ferrari actually do leave the sport. So over the next few days it will be very interesting to watch what comes out of this. Not to forget as well that the FOTA members are supposed to meet among themselves within the next week to further discuss this issue. The last meeting among the FOTA members was held at the Toyota motorhome in Barcelona on Sunday just before the race. So until next time, drive safely everyone!

Friday, 8 May 2009

Ferrari reveal their new 'F60B' for the first time in the practice sessions in Barcelona, while several other teams also bring in upgrades.

Team Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro bring in their heavily upgraded car to the first European race weekend of the season, the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona. Dubbed by some as the 'F60B', the upgrades include a lot of aerodynamic changes among which are competely new front wings, new sidepods, a new underfloor of the car also resulting in a new diffuser. Ferrari still haven't got a full double deck diffuser like the Toyotas or the Williams for instance, but the diffuser they have brought in to Barcelona is definitely upgraded from the one they had in the first four races. That upgrade, in the simplest of terms, is a big hole in the diffuser and a more sweeping shape at the bottom connected to the car's underbody, overall increasing the downforce of the car. Although Ferrari would not give any official numbers, there is a lot of talk going around that the two Ferraris are the ones that have brought in the biggest upgrades in Barcelona. So everyone is expecting Ferrari to make some big inroads up the grid.

In the practice sessions though, none of the Ferraris were exactly flying around the track. Obviously given all the changes they have made to the car, it was more like that they used the first and second practice sessions as test sessions, to find out the optimum set up of the car with all the new packages. Both the Ferraris are using KERS, and according to Ferrari, the team have worked on their KERS system over the last couple of weeks to make it more reliable. On top of that, Kimi Raikkonen who is the heavier of the two Ferrari drivers, gets a new lighter chassis from this race onwards. This would enable Kimi to use KERS more effectively, as there will be more ballast weight available to play with, to get the balance of the car right. So throughout the practice sessions, Ferrari just kept on trying different sorts of set ups on the car to find the optimum balance and this meant that they never really pushed hard enough get close to the top of the time-sheets. Although Kimi and Felipe finished the 2nd practice session in 10th and 15th position respectively, by my reckoning both of them will be a lot faster in qualifying and the actual race itself.

Further up the field, not much of a surprise though. Along with the Brawns, Red Bulls and Toyotas, the Williams as usual continued to post some great lap times just like in the previous practice sessions this season. Brawn-Mercedes' Jenson Button topped the time-sheet in 1st practice, while Williams-Toyota's Nico Rosberg set the pace in the 2nd practice. Although once again, like I have said before, the Friday practice sessions never reflect the true pace of the cars because every team runs with a different set up in the practice sessions. These different set ups include different fuel loads, different tyre strategies such as the hard tyres versus the soft tyres, and so on. So tomorrow's qualifying session should provide a clearer picture of where each of the cars stand in terms of race pace. Qualifying tomorrow starts at 1:00pm (British Summer Time) in the UK with coverage on BBC One and BBC Sport Online starting at 12:10pm, to be broadcast live from the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona.

Among off the track news, there has been a lot of politics going on in Formula 1 over the last couple of weeks. Since the FIA President Max Mosley announced the new regulations for 2010, including the controversial £40 million budget cap, many teams have shown their discontent over such a low and unrealistic budget cap. Although most teams realise that Formula 1 needs to cut down on costs during such hard economic times, most manufacturer teams agree that such a cap needs to be agreed by all the teams with the FIA. The teams also fear that the voluntary cap could lead to a two-tier championship, with teams operating under the cap having a lot more technical freedom than the teams spending more than the cap. So when the Formula One Teams' Association (FOTA) met in London on the 6th of May, they all agreed that they need to talk to the FIA on an urgent basis to discuss the viability of the new regulations. What also concerns FOTA about the new regulations is the fact that the FIA have also included the controversial medal based winning system for the Driver's Championship from next year, without highlighting this point as one of the changes in regulations. This new system would mean that the driver with the most wins would be awarded the World Driver's Championship next year, instead of the driver with the most points like it has been for so many years. The FIA wanted to bring in this medal based winning system for this year, but intense criticism and vetoing by the FOTA forced the FIA to hold back its introduction at least until next year. The FIA did agree back then that it needs to consult the teams more and give them more time before making such a dramatic change in regulation, but once again that's exactly what the FIA did not do. President Max Mosley even went as far as saying that if any teams were so dissapointed with the new regulations that they were considering leaving the sport, the FIA would regret it but would not actively do anything about it. This statement arose from the fact when he was asked by a journalist that Ferrari are very dissapointed about the budget cap and were threatening to leave the sport.

Now almost all Formula 1 drivers have publicly stated that if Ferrari were to leave the sport, it would be almost impossible for Formula 1 to survive in its current state. All of Ferrari's opponent teams and most Formula 1 fans from the around the world also agree to this. Even the commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone understands Ferrari's importance to the sport. This is not just because they are the biggest or the richest team in Formula 1, it's partly because they are the only team that have taken part in every single Formula One World Championship since its inception in 1950, it's partly because through the years Ferrari have helped shape Formula 1 to bring to what it is today and also because Ferrari do have the biggest fan base in Formula 1. The FIA and Formula One Management (FOM), the commercial rights holder, know very well how much they earn from Ferrari merchandise sales. Which is why Bernie Ecclestone would never let Ferrari leave the sport, and he has publicly stated that he will do everything in his powers to make sure that Ferrari remains in Formula 1. Although Ferrari have denied any such rumours of this threat of leaving the sport, and the FOTA have also said that none of its members consider leaving an option. Instead the FOTA members agree that they have to stay united and work through this together.

The way I see it is that the FIA and FOM are doing this to get the teams to renew the Concorde Agreement, which expired a couple of years back. This agreement is basically a guarantee that a particular team will remain in Formula 1 for a certain number of years in the future. So this gives the FIA a solid base to form its revenue forecasts and such. Ever since the Concorde Agreement expired, the FIA have been trying to get all the teams to sign it, but most of the manufacturer teams have refused to sign it so far. So it will be interesting to see how the FIA versus FOTA showdown play out eventually. But for now we have got a full race weekend to enjoy ahead of us, firstly with the 3rd practice session on Saturday morning, followed by Qualifying and then the Race on Sunday for the Spanish Grand Prix, which is Round 5 of the 2009 Formula One World Championship.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Team McLaren-Mercedes handed a suspended 3-race penalty, while the FIA also confirm a raft of new measures for 2010

This last Wednesday, the 29th of April 2009, saw McLaren-Mercedes and it's team principle Martin Whitmarsh face an extraordinary hearing before the FIA World Motor Sport Council in Paris, to answer charges relating to breaches of Article 151c of the International Sporting Code. The incident in question was the overtaking of McLaren's Lewis Hamilton by Toyota's Jarno Trulli during the safety car period towards end of the season opening Australian Grand Prix. Although when the safety car came out Trulli was ahead of Hamilton, a mistake by the Toyota driver caused him to spin off the track and as a result Hamilton had no choice but to pass him. When Trulli rejoined the race, McLaren ordered Hamilton over the radio to let Trulli go past to regain his position. This was not necessary because the rules state that although overtaking is banned while the safety car is out, cars can overtake if the one in front goes off the track or comes to a stop due to a mechanical failure. McLaren didn't realise that the team order they gave to Hamilton was a mistake until after the race. So when they were called to a meeting to face the race stewards of the Australian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton and McLaren team sporting director Dave Ryan pretended that Trulli overtook on his own accord and that Hamilton was not ordered to let him go past. As a result, Trulli was given a 25-second time penalty that automatically promoted Hamilton to 3rd from 4th position.

Less than a week later, when the race stewards gained access to the teams' radio conversations, they had irrefutable evidence that Hamilton was ordered by his team to let Trulli go past. So when they called McLaren to another meeting, Hamilton and his team stood by their previous statement. This is when the race stewards accused McLaren of lying while they played the tape of the recorded radio chatter between Hamilton and Dave Ryan. After this meeting, the stewards disqualified McLaren and Hamilton from the Australian Grand Prix and reinstated Toyota's Jarno Trulli back to 3rd.

Wednesday's hearing with the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) was to let the governing body decide whether there should be any more sanctions on McLaren due to this misconduct. According to the FIA, as McLaren-Mercedes have proved an imminent change in team culture by sacking sporting director Dave Ryan, who was the main man responsible for this incident, the Woking based team was let off by being given only a 3-race suspended penalty. This means that this penalty will only be enforced if McLaren breaches the same code of conduct within 1 year, or if further evidence of this incident arises within the near future.

Although many people in Formula 1 have been saying that McLaren got off too lightly for such a severe misconduct, and that they should have been given a much harsher punishment where they actually serve some sort of a ban, had that been the case, in a broader view it would have been detrimental to the sport. An unreasonably harsh punishment could have led to Mercedes leaving Formula 1, as they did threaten to before the WMSC hearing, along with McLaren's principal sponsors pulling out as well, which would have meant that team McLaren would not have been able to return to Formula 1 for quite some time. Being a Ferrari fan, as much as I hate McLaren, there are some teams that are absolutely integrated to Formula 1 to the extent that the sport will find it very hard to survive without those teams. McLaren is one of them. So for the greater good of the sport, this matter is done and over with and we should be looking forward to more on-track rivalries and competition rather than off-track politics.

Among other big news in the world of Formula 1 this week, the president of the FIA Max Mosley has confirmed some of the changes in technical and sporting regulations that would come into place for the 2010 Championship. One of the biggest of those new regulations is a new voluntary £40 million budget cap for the teams. Currently some of the biggest teams spend upto £450 million a year behind Formula 1. But in times of a global recession, and to ensure that some of the smaller teams can remain in Formula 1, the FIA feels that this is a necessary initiative. It also makes sure that other teams do not follow Honda out of Formula 1 and in fact some new teams can be attracted to come in with this significantly low budget cap. The FIA say that this budget cap will be voluntary, so teams can choose not to take on the cap and spend as much as they like while remaining within the current technical regulations. But for teams that do agree to operate within the cap, will be given a greater technical freedom including flexible rear wings, a bigger movement in the front wings, twice as powerful KERS packages, a removal of the 18000rpm limit on the engines, potential four-wheel drive cars and so on. So teams operating within the budget cap will be able to make use of this greater technical freedom as long as they remain within their agreed yearly budget.

Personally though, I just cannot see how this budget cap is going to work. Firstly because there is absolutely no way the FIA can govern the costs of the teams correctly. Specially the big manufacturers like Ferrari, Toyota, McLaren-Mercedes and so on are free to spend as much as they like in their road car division before bringing the innovated technologies to their Formula 1 divisions for a token cost. Secondly, although the budget capped teams theoretically have a greater technical freedom, there is no way they can make use of all those laxed regulations without going over their meagre £40 million budget. Some of the big manufacturers, especially Ferrari, are furious with the FIA due to this budget cap. Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo have even told the FIA that this is going to essentially create a two-tier championship, where some teams operate under the cap and follow their own set of rules, and teams not operating within the cap are forced to follow a different set of rules. Although the FIA disagrees with the Ferrari president over this, I personally cannot see this going through in its current format. Although the Formula One Teams' Association (FOTA) understands the need for significant cost cutting, I can see rounds and rounds of negotiations with the FIA before any of this is actually implemented.

Among other new regulations for next year is the ban on mid-race refuelling. To cut down costs of transporting heavy and expensive refuelling components round to every race, the FIA says that from next year the cars will have to last the entire race on one tank of fuel. That will mean that next year's cars will have to have fuel tanks at least twice as large as this year's cars. Although the increase in the car's minimum weight from 605kg to 620kg make a slight compensation for this, it still means that the cars are going to be very heavy at the start of the race and will have to follow a wholly different set of race strategies throughout the race. Although there will still be pitstops to change tyres, drivers will have to drive in such a way that they can conserve fuel at least for parts of the race, and the engine manufacturers will have to find a way of making more fuel efficient engines without compromising performance. This should definitely provide some interesting racing. Drivers who will be able to save their tyres longer than the other drivers will be going for a lower number of pitstops, giving them an overall advantage in grid positions. That can be a hard job for the drivers indeed, because tyre blankets, that are used to cover and warm up the tyres before the race, are also going to be banned. So warming up the tyres will be entirely up to the drivers, providing some serious challenge, especially in the early part of the race as Formula 1 cars are known to be undrivable on cold tyres.

The qualifying sessions next year will remain similar to what they are now, the only difference being that in the third part of qualifying, that is Q3, the cars will not need to run with race fuel. That means in Q3, all the drivers can go out for their flying laps with as little fuel as they want. So I am looking forward to the front runners constantly trading fastest laps in Q3, something which was very common in the 2004 season.

Inspired by the low budget cap, a number of new teams have expressed interest in coming in to Formula 1. Some of them are Prodrive, Lola and the American USGP Engineering, the latter of which have almost confirmed their entry in 2010. Commercial rights holder Formula One Management's Bernie Ecclestone has said that the maximum number of teams on the grid will also rise from 10 this year to a possible 13. So we could potentially see a full grid of 26 cars. Now I can imagine the first laps in places like Albert Park being very very messy indeed!

Coming back to the current season, it's just a few more days before Formula 1 returns with more on track action at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona for the Spanish Grand Prix, this years first of the European races and the fifth of the season overall. Many teams including Ferrari, Red Bull, BrawnGP, Renault and BMW Sauber have promised significant upgrades to their cars before the race weekend at Barcelona gets under way. In fact Ferrari have just today launched the F60B in Vairano in Italy. The F60B is a hugely updated version of the original 2009 car, the F60. Among significant changes are a much lighter body, 15kg lighter in weight compared to the current car, that should benefit Ferrari's use of the KERS. Other changes also include a completely new front wing and a new double-decker diffuser. Ferrari reckons that all these upgrades should translate to a lap-time advantage of several tenths of a second. So team Scuderia Ferrari could surprise current championship leaders BrawnGP and Red Bull this coming weekend! But, like I said before, other teams are bringing in upgrades as well. So overall it should be a very interesting race weekend.

Before signing off, I just want to take a moment in commemorating one of the darkest days in the history of Formula 1 today, because it was on this day 15 years ago at Imola, Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna died in a fatal crash while leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. The Brazilian born Ayrton Senna da Silva won the World Driver's Championship three times in 1988, 1990 and 1991. Although Michael Schumacher is statistically the best Formula 1 driver ever, Ayrton Senna could do magic in a Formula 1 car that even Schumacher would not even dare try. And that's me talking as a die-hard Schumacher fan! So Senna is arguably the greatest driver to have ever driven a Formula 1 car. 15 years on, the legend of Ayrton Senna not just lives on but has transpired to gain a mythical status. All I want to say now is... Formula 1 misses you more than ever before Ayrton, may you rest in peace...