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...

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