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.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Renault given two year suspended ban, Briatore banned for life

Following an extraordinary meeting of the FIA's World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) in Paris today, the ING Renault F1 team have been given a two-year suspended ban for their role in fixing the outcome of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix. The team was alleged to have asked their driver Nelson Piquet Jr. to deliberately crash in order to help team mate Fernando Alonso win the race. The hearing today was attended by Piquet Jr. who orginially blowed the whistle on the whole scandal, Renault Sport president Bernard Rey, Renault driver Fernando Alonso, FIA president Max Mosley and Formula One Management (FOM) CEO Bernie Ecclestone.

This suspended ban means that if Renault are to commit any similar offence within the next two years, they will be permanently banned from the Formula 1 World Championships. For now, however, the team remains firmly in Formula 1. For playing his part in the scandal and continuing to deny the allegations, former team principal Flavio Briatore has been banned from all FIA sanctioned events for life. Renault's former director of engineering Pat Symonds, due to cooperating with the FIA in the investigation and admitting his guilt and duly apologising, has been banned from all FIA sanctioned events for five years.

Although Nelson Piquet Jr. was at the centre of the scandal, the FIA decided to give him full immunity in return for his role in helping to uncover the details of the scandal. However, after such an incident, and already sacked by Renault earlier this season due to a lack of performance, it remains to be seen whether Piquet Jr. can ever make a comeback to Formula 1.

Renault driver Fernando Alonso was cleared by the FIA from any involvement in the race-fixing scandal. The governing body said that they are satisfied about the Spaniard's innocence and thanked him for his cooperation with the enquiries.

Although this race-fixing scandal is one of the worst to have hit this sport ever, the FIA is satisfied that once the events came into light, Renault (the parent company) took drastic and significant measures to change the failings within the team besides condemning the actions of the individuals involved. The fact that Renault admitted guilt and fully apologised for their part in this scandal, and sacked the main men behind the plot resulted in the FIA taking a lenient view on the team. Besides, if Renault had been given a harsh penalty or worse banned, it would have been bad for the sport that has already lost two major manufacturers in two years (Honda at the end of 2008 and BMW's decision to quit at the end of the current season). So although this incident brings into question the integrity of Formula 1, we need to remember that the whole Renault team and its employees were not behind the scandal. It was all masterminded by three men and all of them, in one way or the other, are now out of the team and the sport itself.

The FIA statement also said that Renault would be paying the costs incurred by the FIA in its investigation and also will be contributing significantly to various FIA safety related projects. It was also said that Flavio Briatore will not only be barred from any areas under the FIA's jurisdiction, but will not be allowed to be involved with any form of motorsport that is governed by the FIA. The governing body will not grant licence to any team which is directly or indirectly involved with Briatore, and any driver who is managed by the Italian will not have their FIA Super Licence renewed.

Flavio Briatore's position as a co-owner and president of the London based Queens Park Rangers (QPR) football club also hangs in the balance. The Football League, which governs all Championship clubs of which QPR is a part of, has asked the FIA for more details regarding Briatore's ban. The Football League rules state that an individual banned by the governing body of another sport will not be allowed to own a majority stake or be a director of a football club.

So effectively that is the end of Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds in motorsport. The two men have a long and successful history in Formula 1. Although Briatore has been involved with other allegations and scandals in the past, there is no denying all the Championships he led his team to and the talented drivers he has picked up in Formula 1. During his tenure at Benetton, he got Michael Schumacher to win two World Championships and later on as team boss of Renault, the Italian got Fernando Alonso to win another two World Championships. Pat Symonds had an equally successful motorsport career and is known to have one of the best engineering minds out there today. It is a shame that both these men's fledgling Formula 1 careers had to end like this, but as the old saying goes, "if you live by the sword, you die by the sword!"

As for Piquet Jr. he did not exactly take the Formula 1 grid by storm in his one and a half seasons in the sport, apart from all his spins and crashes of course. His father may have won three World Championships, but like father is not always like son I have to say because Piquet Jr. is far from Championship material. Besides that, his involvement in such a gruesome scandal so early on in his career will surely put off any team or sponsor from even thinking about getting involved with him.

For us though, we hope that we have had enough of politics and scandals for now and that we can return back to the true essence of Formula 1, which is grand prix racing and not sensational political headlines. We are just a few days away from Round 14 of the 2009 FIA Formula 1 World Championship, which ironically, takes us to Singapore, exactly one year on from that scandalous race. Until then, drive safely everyone!

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Race-fixing controversy rocks Formula One to its core

When the 2009 Concorde agreement was signed back in early August, I wrote that the political bickering that has been going on between the FIA and FOTA may have been settled for now, but the next round of off-track politics and controversies is never too far away in Formula 1. As we head off to Singapore for the last part of the 2009 season with a superb fight for the title in our hands, it is action off the track that is not just making the headlines once more, but is threatening to shake the very foundations of the sport.


The scene of crime here is the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, Formula 1's inaugural night race that took place at the Marina Bay street circuit. Renault's double World Champion Fernando Alonso won that race, and it was a special one as it was Renault's first Grand Prix victory in almost two years.

Alonso started from 15th on the grid, with his team mate Nelson Piquet Jr. starting on 16th. Alonso was on a short first stint, with only about 14 laps of fuel on board. However, he was made to make his first stop two laps earlier by his team on lap 12. That was a gamble because Alonso came out of the pits to find himself right at the back of the field. Renault was gambling on a safety car incident that could then benefit Alonso. That was not a wild gamble, because being a street circuit and the first ever night race in Formula 1, a safety car incident was very much possible.

Two laps later, on lap 14, Renault's other driver Piquet Jr. had a big accident when he spun and crashed into the barriers on the exit of turn 17. The safety car came out to slow down the field while the debris was being cleared off the track. While the safety car was out, most of the front runners made their first pit stops. This played into Alonso's advantage, as he gradually moved up to the front of the pack while the others pitted. When the safety car came in, Alonso had taken the race lead and he went on to win the race. What also helped the Spaniard is that original race leader Felipe Massa had a troublesome pit stop due to some mistakes by the Ferrari pit crew.

It was a chaotic race with an unlikely winner, but everyone just took all the chaos as racing incidents and no one even contemplated of questioning Renault's victory that night, up until now.


Nelson Piquet Jr. was dropped by his Renault team after this year's Hungarian Grand Prix to be replaced by Romain Grosjean. Renault said that after one and a half seasons with the team, Piquet Jr. has failed to perform time and again and as a result they had no other option but to replace him. Piquet Jr. was clearly bitter about this and was openly critical of team boss Flavio Briatore not giving him the chance to show his full potential.

Few weeks later, in the days leading up to the Belgian Grand Prix, Piquet Jr. backed by his father Nelson Piquet, dropped the bombshell. Piquet Jr. testified to the FIA that his crash at last year's Singapore Grand Prix was caused by him deliberately, as it was part of a plot masterminded by him, team principal Flavio Briatore and Renault's director of engineering Pat Symonds. Piquet Jr. said that they had a meeting just before the race, where they agreed that the Brazilian would crash on a specific lap (lap 14 in this case) to prompt the deployment of the safety car, so that it helps Fernando Alonso win the race. In return for playing his part, Piquet Jr. would be guaranteed a race seat with Renault for 2009.


During the Belgian Grand Prix weekend, the FIA said in a press release that in light of new information being uncovered, the governing body is launching an investigation into events that took place at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix. It was only during the week after the Belgian Grand Prix that news finally started to come in to the media that the incident under investigation by the FIA is in fact a race-fixing allegation against Renault.

The FIA then said that they will be looking at telemetry data from Piquet Jr.'s car and also the Renault team radio transcripts for that race. The governing body also decided to employ an external investigation agency, Quest, to help them in the probe. It was also announced that Renault will be asked to appear before an extraordinary hearing of the FIA's World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) on 21 September 2009 to defend their case. After this hearing, which ironically takes place in the week leading up to the 2009 Singapore Grand Prix, the WMSC will announce what sort of sanction they will impose upon Renault.

In the week before the Italian Grand Prix, the FIA said that due to making them aware of the incident and cooperating them with the investigation, Nelson Piquet Jr. will be given full immunity. During the race weekend at Monza, it was further announced that Renault's director of engineering Pat Symonds will also be given full immunity as he may hold information critical to the investigation. So it looked like that Piquet Jr. and Symonds, in spite of being two of the three men behind this alleged race-fixing, will walk free while Flavio Briatore becomes the only man to take the brunt. However, this soap opera like incident was far from over.


The main protagonists in this incident is clearly Piquet Jr., Symonds and Briatore. When questioned by the FIA during the Belgian Grand Prix weekend, both Symonds and Briatore vehemently denied the allegations. Later on, during the Italian Grand Prix weekend, the two Renault chiefs announced that they were taking legal actions against Piquet Jr. and his father Piquet Sr. in the High Court of Paris for making false allegations. They said that Piquet Jr. is just bitter for being sacked by the team midway through his contract, and is hence intending to take the team down with him.

However, when some crucial documents were inadvertently leaked to the media, it was revealed that Pat Symonds had later on agreed to a meeting taking place between himself, Briatore and Piquet Jr. before the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, although Symonds said that the idea of a deliberate crash originally came from Piquet Jr. All this time, Briatore still continued to deny all allegations against himself.

This week, in the days after the Italian Grand Prix, rumours started to mount that Briatore and Symonds may not see out the end of the week in their roles at Renault. On Wednesday 16 September 2009, Renault released a press statement saying that Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds have left the ING Renault F1 team. The press release also said that Renault will not be contesting the allegations made by the FIA concerning the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix. At this stage, it is not clear whether Symonds and Briatore resigned or were sacked by Renault, although Briatore later told the media that he left to save the team.

Nelson Piquet Sr. originally said that Fernando Alonso knew about this plan all along but has intentionally kept quiet. However, he later traced back on that stance when the FIA said that after interviews with Alonso, the governing body is satisfied that the Spaniard did not have any knowledge of the incident concerned. Alonso's innocence is believable, because looking back at the footage of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, it can be seen that Alonso did express his surprise - while talking to Briatore after the race and before going up to the podium - of the safety car coming out at the right time that allowed him the chance to win.

Yesterday, Piquet Sr. dropped another bombshell when he told the media that the FIA officials were made aware of the allegations last year by the Brazilian himself. The three times former World Champion said that he talked to FIA race director Charlie Whiting at the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix about the allegations. This was then carried on to the FIA president Max Mosley. However, Mosley told Piquet Sr. back then that since they have no hard evidence, the FIA cannot begin any investigation without an official sworn testimony from Piquet Jr. who was one of the men behind the plot.


All eyes will be on Paris this Monday as Renault appears before the FIA World Motor Sport Council to find out their fate. Although the departure of Briatore and Symonds, along with the decision to not contest the allegations, sound like an admission of guilt, Renault will be hoping that the WMSC takes a lenient stance on them for the sake of the sport and the 600 or so Renault employees.

Formula 1 has already lost one major manufacturer team last year (Honda), and will be losing another one at the end of this season (BMW). The last thing anyone needs, after all the politics and controversy that has already tainted this sport this season, is to lose yet another manufacturer team. Formula 1 needs the big names and the big manufacturer teams to survive. After almost three bad seasons, Renault's future hangs in the balance regardless of this race-fixing allegation. If they are imposed with a huge penalty, the bosses at Boulogne-Billancourt may decide to pull the plug on their Formula 1 operations, and that is if Renault are not banned from the World Championship outright.

The allegations are huge, and the implications are massive. This is not like a simple match-fixing scandal in other sports such as football, cricket or rugby. In this case, a plan was made for a deliberate crash during a race, and the driver involved could have been injured or even worse dead; other drivers around him at the time could have been injured from debris flying off his car; the race marshals could have been injured or worse dead; and last but not the least the spectators' lives could have been in danger. However, the whole plot was masterminded by three men, and all three of them have now left the team. What is remaining, besides the integrity of the sport, is the livelihoods of all the Renault employees and Formula 1 in general. Renault do not need Formula 1 for their survival. They are a big car manufacturer, and in times of this recession, they have got enough on their plate to worry about. The worry for us is however, that Formula 1 cannot afford to continue losing the big manufacturers. Surely there are lots of new independent teams coming in, but this is a very expensive sport, and it needs the big teams to survive in the long run.

As time goes by, it looks more and more likely that the race-fixing allegations are true. However, we will all be hoping that the WMSC takes a lenient view on Renault because the team in general and its employees were not behind this scandal and thus should not have to take the fall for it. The answer to all our questions probably will be known on Monday. Until then, drive safely everyone!

Monday, 14 September 2009

Barrichello leads home a BrawnGP one-two at Monza as Raikkonen gets his fourth consecutive podium finish

Following a brilliant Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps that saw Kimi Raikkonen get Ferrari's maiden win of 2009, Formula 1 arrived at the historic Autodromo Nazionale Monza for Ferrari's home race, the Italian Grand Prix. The race at Monza has always been a very special one because no other team sees anywhere near the level of support on their home races as much as Ferrari does here. The Tifosi from all over the world come out in their hundreds and thousands to show their overwhelming love and passion for the legendary Italian marque.

Even besides the sea of Reds in the grandstands, the circuit itself always provides superb racing. Monza does not have a lot of corners but its long and fast straights coupled with the slow speed chicanes provide the ultimate test for a car's engine and gearbox. Like Spa-Francorchamps, cars with low downforce levels perform the best here but unlike Spa, cars really need to have the lowest levels of downforce of the year and the best engines powering them to win a race at Monza. Aerodynamics are a crucial part of the performance of a Formula 1 car, and the lower is the downforce, the higher will be the car's top speed at the expense of grip and handling at slow and medium speed corners. That is why, every year, teams come to Monza with an aerodynamic package particularly suited to Monza because of its unique characteristics. Ferrari is a religion in Italy and it becomes very clear when one visits this race track during a Formula 1 race weekend, but this year the Scuderia did not quite have the pace to challenge for a win here. The triumphant team was BrawnGP who returned to form with their first one-two finish this year since the Monaco Grand Prix.

Over the practice sessions on Friday and Saturday, it was getting quite clear that the Mercedes engines were the best and the most powerful in the field. It was confirmed at the end of the Qualifying session on Saturday that saw all six of the Mercedes-Benz powered cars (the 2 McLarens, the 2 BrawnGPs and the 2 Force Indias) qualify within the top seven. The only car, seemingly out of place, was Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari in 3rd place.

Although traditionally teams always opt for a one-stop strategy at Monza, as that is the quickest strategy, in recent years a two-stop pit strategy have been experimented with as it is faster in theory. The idea is that the lighter cars, on a two-stop strategy, should get away in front and build up an advantage early on in the race big enough to counter for their extra pit stop as opposed to the one-stoppers. So the top 3 cars on the starting grid, Hamilton on pole ahead of Sutil's Fore India and Raikkonen's Ferrari, were all on a two-stop strategy. Every other car behind them on the grid were on a one-stop strategy. On that note, it can be said that the two BrawnGPs were the fastest cars as they qualified 5th and 6th with the heaviest fuel load of anybody in the top ten. Kovalainen, who qualified 4th, was on a one-stopper but was slightly lighter on fuel than the BrawnGPs. This was good news for BrawnGP, and particularly for Championship leader Jenson Button, who has had a difficult time over the last few races and was keen to get back on form in this race. Behind Barrichello in 5th and Button in 6th, Liuzzi, Alonso, Vettel and Webber completed the top ten.

At the start of the race, pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton did not have a particularly good start and was almost about to be overtaken by Raikkonen before he forced the Ferrari to marginally go out wide on the grass on the main straight. Raikkonen backed off slightly but remained glued to the back of Hamilton's McLaren, and going into the first chicane the Finn overtook Adrian Sutil to take 2nd place. Behind them, the two BrawnGPs made tremendous starts as Rubens Barrichello was up in 4th place by the time he got to the first chicane. By the end of lap 1, Jenson Button and Vitantonio Luizzi in the Force India had also overtaken McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen who made a bad start. Although, unlike the last race, there were no big pile ups on the opening lap, the only incident was involving Robert Kubica and Mark Webber when the BMW hit Webber's Red Bull going into the Ascari chicane on lap 1. As a result, Webber spun and crashed into the barriers ending his race immediately. This incident caused some damage to Kubica's front wing as well. Part of his front wing left end-plate was hanging out quite dangerously for a while before Kubica was forced to come in to the pits by Race Control to replace his front wing. That unscheduled pit stop put Kubica right at the back of the field before he retired on lap 15, citing an oil leak.

Meanwhile at the front, as Alonso overtook Kovalainen on lap 3, race leader Lewis Hamilton was setting a string of fastest laps. Round about lap 9, Hamilton was more than 4.5 seconds clear of 2nd placed Raikkonen and was more than a second a lap faster than the BrawnGPs in 5th and 6th place. At the end of lap 13, Hamilton, who was now 6.5 seconds ahead of Raikkonen and 16 seconds ahead of Barrichello, set a new fastest lap of the race before making his first pit stop on the next lap. As Raikkonen took the race lead closely followed by Sutil, Barrichello and Button, Hamilton came out of his pit stop in 5th place ahead of Liuzzi.

Adrian Sutil pitted on lap 17 to come out in 7th just ahead of Kovalainen. Crucially, Raikkonen pitted in the next lap and came out in 5th place, ahead of the one-stopping Alonso and Sutil and behind Liuzzi. A bit later on lap 20, Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari retired with a gearbox failure.

At this stage, the two BrawnGPs had burnt off a lot of their fuel and were lapping almost half a second a lap faster than Hamilton's McLaren, with all three of these cars fighting for victory. On lap 22, Hamilton was more than 11 seconds behind race leader Barrichello. Force India's Vitantonio Luizzi, who replaced Fisichella at the Silverstone based team, was forced to retire at this stage with a gearbox failure.

On lap 26, Button made his one and only pit stop while his team mate set a new fastest lap of the race. Button came out from the pits in 5th place as Barrichello made his pit stop on the very next lap. The Brazilian came out in 4th place, ahead of team mate Jenson Button and behind the two-stopping Hamilton, Raikkonen and Sutil.

On lap 33, Lewis Hamilton made his second and last pit stop but more importantly came out just behind Button. This now meant that if the defending World Champion wanted to win the race, or finish any higher than 3rd place, he would have to overtake the BrawnGPs on the track. This would prove to be a tough ask as the BrawnGPs were clearly faster than the McLaren.

Meanwhile out in front, Raikkonen and Sutil were setting the fastest sector times of anybody on the track and both were lapping on similar pace. The Ferrari and the Force India both pitted on lap 36, and Raikkonen led the way out of the pits by rejoining the race in 4th place ahead of Sutil in 5th. From here on until the Chequered Flag, although Sutil's Force India was faster than Raikkonen and was closing in on the Ferrari at up to half a second per lap, the KERS-powered Ferrari did not have too much trouble keeping the Force India at bay.

On lap 45 and nearing the end of the race, the BrawnGPs were looking like as if they are cruising to the finish line. They simply were the fastest cars out there. However, Hamilton in 3rd place was pushing like crazy and despite having a slower car, was closing in on Button. Button was more than a second ahead of Hamilton and responded with a personal best lap time. He was now starting to close in on race leader Barrichello. Behind them, Raikkonen in 4th place was having to drive flat out to ensure that he can keep Sutil behind him, as the Force India was the faster car of the two.

On to lap 53 and the race leader Rubens Barrichello was coming up to the Parabolica on the final lap of the race, with team mate Button not far behind. However, the drama was not over yet, as Hamilton in 3rd place, almost a second behind Button but still driving beyond the limits of his car trying to overtake his fellow Briton, lost the rear end of his car coming out of Lesmo 2 and slammed into the barriers. The yellow flags were out which meant no more overtaking was allowed. The safety car also came out just as Rubens Barrichello took the Chequered Flag for the 2nd time this season and for the 8th time for his BrawnGP team. Jenson Button completed a BrawnGP one-two finish, their first one-two this year since Monaco but unlike earlier in the year, this time it was the Brazilian driver to come home first. Behind them, thanks to Hamilton's crash on the last lap, Raikkonen came in 3rd amidst wild cheers of the Tifosi. The Finn has now been on the podium for Ferrari for all of the last four races and with 30 points collected during that time, has earned more points than any other driver to consolidate his 5th place in the Drivers' World Championship.

Jenson Button, with 80 points, now has a 14-point lead over his team mate Rubens Barrichello and a mammoth lead over Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber in 3rd and 4th place. The Red Bull drivers have 54 and 51.5 points each respectively. Kimi Raikkonen is in 5th place with 40 points, and if his strong run of form continues like this, he could be eyeing 4th or even 3rd on the Drivers' World Championship. More crucially however, Championship leader Button now has one main title rival and that is his team mate. Although the Red Bull drivers are still mathematically in the running for the title, realistically it is a fight between Button and Barrichello now. As Monza marks the end of the European leg of the 2009 season, Button certainly has a decent advantage in the form of those 14 points over his team mate.

Being the Italian Grand Prix, I have to say a few words about Ferrari. The Tifosi were out in full force throughout the weekend and they certainly enjoyed and appreciated the team's effort despite not having the fastest car in the field. Raikkonen's 3rd place was the best Ferrari could have achieved with this year's car, since Maranello has already shifted all its focus on to the 2010 car while other teams are still developing the 2009 car. It was an absolute flawless and brilliant drive from Kimi Raikkonen. His team mate, home hero Giancarlo Fisichella, also drove pretty well given that this is his first race with Ferrari. He certainly needs some time adapting to the handling and braking characteristics of the KERS powered F60, which is a bit different to the non-KERS Force India car that he had been driving up until two weeks ago in Spa. Fisichella still drove pretty well, finishing in 9th place after starting from 14th on the grid, and near the end of the race was pretty close to Raikkonen's lap times. He should be able to fight for some decent points at the next race. Although his former Force India team had a faster car this weekend, being an Italian how could he have dreamt of anything more than driving a Ferrari! More importantly though, after a couple of dismal races with Luca Badoer, Ferrari finally seem to have found a worthy temporary replacement for the injured Felipe Massa. The Brazilian is not expected to return to Formula 1 until the start of the 2010 season.

What a fantastic way to say farewell to Europe for this season with two brilliant races at Spa and Monza, two of motorsport's most historic and legendary circuits. Formula 1 will return to Europe in 2010 for the start of the winter testing in January. Before that though, we have the glamorous night race at Singapore's Marina Bay street circuit, followed by Suzuka for the Japanese Grand Prix, then Interlagos for the Brazilian Grand Prix before we find ourselves at the brand new Yas Marina circuit for the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as the season finale. The Championship is set to go down to the wire with main contenders Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, both driving for BrawnGP, on the best form of their lives. Until Singapore, drive safely everyone!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Ferrari signs a five-year sponsorship deal with Santander

Scuderia Ferrari has signed a major sponsorship deal with Spanish banking giants Grupo Santander for the next five years. In a joint press conference at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza circuit on Thursday, Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo and Grupo Santander president Emilio Botin said that the Spanish bank will be Ferrari's "main" sponsor from the next season.

"We are very happy to have a new partner like Santander, with whom we are beginning a very important and long term collaboration," said di Montezemolo.

"We share common values, such as striving for excellence, a passion for competition, an international approach and, last but by no means least, the colour red. These values will make this a fruitful partnership, noteworthy around the world."

Although Ferrari's current title sponsor Marlboro has an agreement with Ferrari that lasts until 2011, it is not clear at this stage if Santander will be the team's new title sponsors from next season.

Santander entered into Formula 1 sponsorship through McLaren-Mercedes at the beginning of the 2007 season. The deal with McLaren runs out at the end of this season, and the Spanish bank has decided not to renew that deal but go to Ferrari instead.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Giancarlo Fisichella to drive for Ferrari for the rest of 2009

36 year old Italian Formula 1 driver Giancarlo Fisichella has left his Force India F1 team to drive for Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro for the remainder of the 2009 season. The Silverstone based Force India F1 team announced on Thursday afternoon that they have released Fisichella from his Force India contract effective immediately to allow him to go off to Maranello. Later Ferrari confirmed days of mounting speculation that Fisichella will be replacing the struggling Luca Badoer at Ferrari as stand-in for the injured Felipe Massa.

Felipe Massa is recovering very well after his horrendous accident during the Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying, but Ferrari say that the Brazilian will not be fit enough to make a comeback until the beginning of the 2010 season. Maranello originally planned to get the legendary Michael Schumacher to come out of his retirement to temporarily replace Massa at Ferrari. However, the seven times World Champion’s comeback had to be called off because of a neck injury he suffered at a motorbike accident earlier in the year. Left with no other options, Ferrari turned to their test and official reserve driver Luca Badoer to take over Massa’s car number 3. Although Badoer had been a Ferrari test driver for more than a decade, he last took part in a competitive race in 1999, and his lack of racing experience was immediately obvious out on the track. The 38 year old Italian trailed home last in both the European and the Belgian Grands Prix, while his team mate Kimi Raikkonen finished 2nd at Valencia and won at Spa-Francorchamps.

Ferrari said after the Belgian Grand Prix that they will be reviewing their choice for Massa’s temporary replacement before the next race. The next round of the World Championship is at Monza, for the Italian Grand Prix. Being Ferrari’s home race, amidst the hundreds of thousands of Tifosi expected to be there cheering for the Italian legends, the Scuderia could not afford a repeat of the poor performance from Badoer. Although Badoer was originally given the chance to race as a reward for the commitment he has shown towards Ferrari, by being a loyal full-time test driver for more than a decade, the cold and hard truth is that he failed to deliver. Ferrari had no other choice but to look for a better alternative ahead of their home race.

Team principal Stefano Domenicali said that before deciding on Fisichella, they thought well about what sort of future the driver might have within Ferrari once Massa is back. It could be seen that Fisichella is reaching the end of his active Formula 1 career, since he still does not have a contract for next year when there are plenty of other young drivers out there looking for a race seat next year as well. In his now former Force India team, Adrian Sutil looks to have a guaranteed drive next year. On top of that, team principal Vijay Maliya seems keen to promote their official reserve driver Vitantonio Luizzi to a full time racing driver next year. So when Ferrari offered Fisichella the chance to race for them in the remaining five races of 2009 and stay on at Maranello as official reserve driver for 2010, the Italian could hardly refuse. Fisichella was also immediately thankful to his former Force India team for allowing him the chance to realise his dream, which is to race in a Ferrari. Being an Italian, racing in a Ferrari at Monza was probably beyond his wildest dreams, but that dream is about to come true for Fisichella in just over a week’s time.

Straight away on Thursday evening, Fisichella left his home town Rome for Maranello to get acquainted with all the Ferrari engineers and personnel. Felipe Massa’s race engineer Rob Smedley will certainly have no problems working with Fisichella, as the two of them worked together in Jordan back in 2003/04 when Fisichella won the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix to claim his first ever Formula 1 victory. Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali and President Luca di Montezemolo both congratulated Fisichella and said that they are proud to have an Italian driving one of their cars at Monza. They said that they are confident and hopeful that Fisichella will continue to show his great race form and experience with the Scuderia, as it tries to secure 3rd place on the 2009 Constructors’ World Championship. The bosses at Maranello also thanked Luca Badoer for his commitment and hard work, and said that he came in a very difficult time at a very short notice and that he could not manage to show his true potential.

Since Fisichella has been confirmed as official reserve driver for 2010, it naturally means that he will be the test driver as well alongside Marc Gene, Ferrari’s other test driver. That implies that this is probably the end of the road for Badoer with Ferrari. It just goes to show that Formula 1 is not just a racing series, but it is only for the best drivers driving the fastest cars in the world. If someone is not good enough, he has no chance to be here, not even as a test driver. So all I say is that thank you for your services Luca Badoer, and welcome to Ferrari Giancarlo!