What can Asian Races do to Secure an F1 Future?

India has found itself in a rather awkward position today. It has been officially released from the 2014 calendar, but is slated for a return the following position. Makes it sound like they are being given time to make their race promotion more robust, more comprehensive. India is a massive country with vast amounts of people. That brings the inevitable, and always challenging, task of trying to make Formula One appeal to those vast amounts of people. Arguably, India did not do a great job at the whole self-promotion for its first two years as host to Formula One.

India is just one part of a group of three races which have not been doing so hot recently, to put it lightly. Along with India, Korea and China have both hosted Grands Prix since 2010 and 2004, respectively, with varying degrees of failure. China’s endeavor into Formula One started out relatively well, but soon crowds dwindled, enthusiasm waned, and hype surrounding the even was smothered. Now, what should be an event looked forward to by a nation looks rather like a group of cars that accidentally found an abandoned racetrack and decided to have some fun.

Korea, on the other hand, has been a failure from the start. From the track not being fully constructed in its first year, to the remnants from the 2010 race being left for an entire year for the F1 circus to return to in 2011 (particularly food that was not disposed of, something the teams had the misfortune to deal with in the country’s second year as host), Korea has been an out in out disappointment to the fans at home, the teams in the pit lane, and the reputation of the sport at large.

What India has over these two venues, though, is a European connection. I won’t give a history lecture or anything, but India’s historic relationship with Europe, while not always rosy, is still alive today. Perhaps Bernie Ecclestone sees in India an opportunity for connectedness where is China and Korea, only more isolation. If anything, Bernie sees that Korea and China just don’t have the drive or desire to really be a part of Formula One. If they did, they wouldn’t have let their Grands Prix fall apart like they have.

India has a lot of potential. As a country, it has two former Formula One drivers who, while not setting the world alight with their natural talent, gave the country a reputation. A good one, at that. India’s potential for bringing something meaningful to Formula One is far greater than that of Korea and China, who, from what I know, don’t exactly have any drivers with real Formula One prospects.

So what can Asian countries do to secure a long term future in Formula One? Want it. They just have to want it. That seems, and is, far more simple than the process of getting a race actually is, but if the desire is there, then nothing is stopping them from getting what they want. If a country like China truly wants to be a part of Formula One, they have to show it from the very first race. They have to be accommodating to the teams and drivers, and they have to make sure that their facilities are properly maintained. This will assure everyone involved that they want what they’re getting.

If there is anything that Bernie Ecclestone wants more than rich Asian countries participating in Formula One, its rich Asian countries that want to be a part of Formula One.

The Start of Another Ferrari Golden Era?

The role James Allison played in Ferrari’s domination of the first part of the 21st century is no secret. His reputation speaks for itself in the success at the Scuderia, but the rapid rise of Lotus speaks even louder. His reputation for expecting, and delivering, excellence is no more apparent in the way the Enstone squad turned itself around after a disappointing 2011 campaign.

Allison’s desirability has only increased in the past two years, and exponentially so, so it was inevitable that the guys from Maranello would be sounding their beckoning call before too long. What does it mean for Ferrari? It could mean the return to something truly special.

What Ferrari acheived in the early 2000s was unprecedented. Never before had the sport seen such utter domination for a sustained period from one group of people. The going was not always easy, and the competition ebbed and flowed throughout the five straight drivers’ titles, but Ferrari always came out on top. James Allison now has the chance to make that happen again.

The move to Ferrari could not come at a more crucial time. While his impact on this season will be largely minimal given how late in the season it will be, he will be able to utilize his talent to its fullest extent with work on 2014’s challenger. Ferrari have not hidden their struggles under a bushel. Drivers and technical heads alike openly admit to issues with simulator and windtunnel data correlation. These two aspects of modern Formula One have been the bane of Ferrari’s existence of late. The Scuderia has long struggled to keep pace with the likes of Red Bull and Mclaren in these departments, even with an equal budget. This does not sit well with the bigwigs of Ferrari, who’s road car sales, in part, rely on the team’s reputation on track. No one is going to want to buy a Ferrari road car if the people designing the racers can’t make it a winner. That is the business thought process, at least.

With Allison’s imminent return to Maranello, and his first order of business dedicated to chassis development for 2014, Ferrari have the chance to begin the new era of Formula One on top. The problems that currently plague the team may not be resolved completely by next season, though progress is being made in the windtunnel department, but the team can take solace in the fact that one of the best minds in Formula One is now dedicated to an integral cause in the 2014 championship. That alone should be enough to give Ferrari hope for the future.

Hungarian GP Aftermath: Mercedes Leaves us Baffled Again and Will Lotus Ever Win Again?

What a race that was!

While we all may be reeling in anger over the stewarding over the move Romain Grosjean made over Massa (I sure am), we cannot shy away from the fact that Mercedes has scored its first genuine win this season.

Monaco is Monaco, and one could argue they were still benefitting from their test data, and Silverstone was gifted to them due to Vettel’s bad luck. All eyes were on the team to win a race all on their own, on a real track. They just weren’t on them this weekend.

Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton really confounded all expectations this weekend. All the possible variables were working against them: high temperatures, rear-limited track and they missed the Young Drivers’ Test. The fact that Mercedes dominated this race is a testament to the depth of the talent not just in their drivers, but throughout their whole team, from the technical directors and mechanics.

The Hungarian Grand Prix was also a major morale boost for Lewis Hamilton. After having to live with racing in the shadow of teammate, Nico Rosberg, Lewis was finally able to capitalize on the immense one-lap pace of his Mercedes and convert his fourth pole of the season into a win. This comes at just the right time, as well.

Since fleeing the safe and comfortable nest of Mclaren, Lewis has had to live and cope with the pressure of a new environment. Even he will admit that he still is not 100 percent comfortable in Mercedes or the car quite yet. Given all this, Lewis has proven he deserves the highest of praise. He has shown us all that he needs neither a track where overtaking is nonexistent nor the misfortune of others to win a race (not to take anything away from Nico’s wins, though). He can do it all by himself, and convincingly so, through sheer will, desire and talent.

But this race only leaves me more confused about the Silver Arrows and the brains behind the operation in Brackley. I said after the British Grand Prix that Mercedes was firmly in the title hunt. After Germany, I had to eat my words a little bit, but I analyzed their individual races and categorized them into three types: type A, B, and C, with A being a terrible race and C being a win. Today, Lewis won with contemptuous ease.

Mercedes said they needed a miracle to win in Hungary. They can thank Lotus and the stewards for that.

Lotus can only leave Hungary with a bitter taste of disappointment. After losing a shot at the win to an extremely harsh penalty, the team had to once again rely on an alternate strategy to take home a trophy. Hungary was the first real chance for Lotus to take a clear cut win on a conventional strategy. It was their chance to prove that their car is not just good at conserving its tires, but that it is quick enough to take the fight to Red Bull on any day.

I go into the summer break with some concerns, however. A host of possibilities are just waiting to alter the course of Lotus’s future, particularly the fate of Kimi Raikkonen’s 2014 drive. Whether the Finn chooses to move to Red Bull or not remains to be seen, and Red Bull must also decide whether they want to risk having two superstars in their team at the same time. If Kimi ends up at Red Bull, Lotus is put at a disadvantage. Eric Boullier and his team will have to decide whether to keep the fast but inconsistent Romain Grosjean and replace Kimi, or start from scratch. Both scenarios have strong cases to be made. Has Grosjean done enough at this point to be retained for another season? Perhaps not. Can he do enough in the rest of the season to convince the team to keep him? Absolutely. And I think he will.

Romain was going to be the star of the Hungarian Grand Prix, and arguably was, considering what happened to him. He pulled off the overtake of the day, and perhaps of the season so far, when he passed Felipe Massa on the outside of turn 4. I call complete and total nonsense on the Frenchman’s subsequent drive-through, particularly considering he was the only one punished for a move that was made by more than one person.

The penalty, though, brings me back to this question, the one I posed in the title of this blog: Will Lotus ever win a race again? At least this season, we don’t really know. We head into the summer break knowing that a brilliant and deserved win was lost due to inconsistent and overly-harsh stewarding. We, and Lotus, also know all too well that after the summer break in 2012, Lotus found themselves in a performance valley when others (Mclaren and Red Bull) found the peaks. It was only until Abu Dhabi that Lotus finally found themselves back on the podium. The rest of the second half of last season was mostly a case if so close yet so far.

This is something that will be weighing heavily on the conscience of all the members of the Lotus F1 Team. After the mandatory factory shutdown in August, the guys and girls back at Enstone need to work harder than they ever have before to ensure that Kimi can stay in contention for the Drivers’ Championship, and stay alive in the Constructors’ for as long as they can, regardless of how unlikely it is they should take the crown. That means making sure that updates come at every race, that means making sure said updates work as expected, and it also means making sure both of their drivers can win races without relying on alternate tire strategies. That advantage can only last so long.

Arguably the most important thing for Lotus to work on, though, is morale. If the valleys can feel like peaks, then any shortfalls in performance they may encounter won’t be so painful.

Yesterday, though, it seems Romain Grosjean was a victim of his own reputation. That ballsy move on Felipe Massa was a testament to the talent the young man has, but the resulting penalty was a testament to his track record. On lap 24, Sebastian Vettel pulled off an identical move on Jenson Button, getting his car just as far off the track as Grosjean did, yet he went un-punished. The 20 second time penalty employed AFTER the race for a different clash was perhaps even more infuriating. The stewards would have known that Romain was more than 20 seconds ahead of Jenson Button, the aggrieved party after the two’s little clash at the turn 6/7 chicane, and thus would have know without a question or shadow of doubt that adding 20 seconds to Romain’s race time would have done diddly squat. There is no arguing with that. Now, I’m not going to argue with their ruling, as it leaves the innocent Romain licking, rather than tending, to his post-race wounds, but I will point out what the stewards should have done had they wanted to perhaps, oh I don’t know, DO THEIR JOB. A simple grid penalty. Five places for Belgium would have done the job. It would have left the results of this race untainted and reminded Romain that he needs to be more careful for the next race. It is a simple solution on the stewards’ part that they failed to implement.

The inconsistency on the Stewards’ part, who should know better, is becoming a joke and is resulting in the ruination of race results. Could Lewis have won without Romain’s penalty? Of course. Would he?

I don’t think so…

That’s it for the first half of the 2013 season. I’ll be in and out throughout the break with some features on all things F1 2014. Interviews, analysis and some highly opinionated banter are on the menu.

Michelin in for 2014?: It’s All or Nothing

Michelin has recently expressed a possible interest in becoming Formula One’s tire supplier for the 2014 season. Whether this is in place of Pirelli, who have yet to sign a contract for next year, or alongside is yet to be revealed. Here is why the situation is either all or nothing.

A tire war starts off with goodhearted intentions. To promote quality, the FIA and FOM would set out to promote a competitive, but constructive environment in which both suppliers are able to use their competitive spirits to the benefit of their product’s quality. That is a sound argument to make in this Pirelli day and age where the memories of exploding tires and shards of carbon fiber flying through the air from a month ago are still fresh in Formula One’s psyche. If quality is improved, then surely incidents like those in Britain would not happen again? Right?

That is a completely fair assumption. Even without the competition from another tire manufacturer, Pirelli would not have for a second allowed for any more tire failures. The events from the British Grand Prix are those that we only imagine happening terrible dreams. The lives of the drivers and spectators alike were in danger that day, and the presence of another company wouldn’t have changed Pirelli’s desire to right their wrongs.

Think back to the early 2000s when tire culture was in an entirely different spectrum. Back then, tires’ impact on a race were minimal to irrelevant because of the fuel factor. As long as the tires lasted longer than a fuel stint, you would be alright. This very fact prompted tire manufacturers to construct tires that would not only last a little longer than the fuel would, but would stay intact for eons beyond that. To completely reduce the amount of time lost due to degrading tires, companies like Bridgestone and Michelin, who supplied the teams in the 2000s, would make rock solid tires that lasted far beyond their required distance.

This culture of indestructible tires went as far in 2005 that the regulations stipulated that one set of tires would have to last a whole Grand Prix distance. That seemed like a pretty terrible idea at the time, and it does now, especially when you consider that happened at the United States Grand Prix that season when the Michelin tires were so unstable that only the Bridgestone-shod teams partook in the race. It was a farce that would not be allowed to happen again.

The 2010 Formula One season was a bit of a shocker for the sport. While it was a fantastic demonstration of technological achievement and was host to one of the most thrilling title battles ever, the individual races were often quite boring. Here’s why.

In the regulations overhaul of 2009, refueling was kept. This kept the type of racing we saw that year relatively similar to that of the previous generation of Formula One. In 2010, however, refueling was banned yet the tires stayed the same. Bridgestone took it upon themselves to create tires that were a bit more unpredictable for that season, because they knew that the tires would play a much larger role in the development of the championship. Unfortunately, Bridgestone didn’t go nearly far enough. Races were easily done in one stop, barring the extremely hot or wet races, and the amount of overtaking was underwhelming due to Bridgestone’s lack of daring.

Enter Pirelli.

XPB_37782fa9daf63429d916eb0ca60961bc-4

The Italian tire company was told that the tires needed to play a larger role in the races. Not enough to alter the competitive order, but enough to wake people up. That is exactly what they did. Apart from Sebastian Vettel dominating most of the races, the 2011 season of races was one of the most engaging and exciting. Teams were challenged by the new forms of strategy involved with racing fast-degrading tires. It was a challenge, though, that would need some time for the fans to warm up to. Pirelli has been a very polarizing entity of late, and the type of racing that comes with high-degradation tires is either hit or miss with people. There is not a whole lot of room in the middle.

I will admit that in all my admiration for the job Pirelli is doing under the often laughable conditions presented to them, they have gone overboard at times. Though, I will not accept that Pirelli have done anything other than improve the sport. You know how every action has an equal and opposite reaction? Well, the argument against Pirelli during this year’s British Grand Prix has an equal, if not more potent, argument FOR Pirelli. Or is it perhaps against the teams?

The practice this season has been to swap the left rear tire with the right rear tire. This, for reasons unknown to me and out of my realm of technical knowledge, aids in cornering, handling and tire conservation.

That is, until they blow up.

You see, swapping the rear tires puts undue stress on the sidewalls that would not otherwise be seeing so much action. As a result, the sidewalls that weren’t used to the strains of cornering could not cope with the “pressure”. *Cue British Grand Prix*

With all of this in mind, here is why a tire war would not work.

Just as the culture of the early 2000s was to race ironclad tires, the culture of the 2010s is to race high-degrading tires. That is the mindset we as fans approach a race. Pirelli have done a great job with what they have, yet many seem unable to accept the type of racing that has resulted from their hard work.

This year’s Spanish Grand Prix was highly criticized for featuring four stops. Heavens to Betsy! Four stops? The racing world cringed and strained in agony at the thought of having to keep up with such a rate of stoppage for the rest of the season. What many failed to recall, however, was that the uncriticized 2011 Spanish Grand Prix also featured a winning four stop strategy.

A common sentiment throughout this season is that the races are too hard to follow. The 2013 tires are supposedly so fragile that the amount of stops the drivers has to make are too many to keep track of. Why then, is the idea of a tire war a bad idea? Just take the fans’ current confusion about race strategy and double it.

I personally would be fine with having another tire manufacturer come into the sport. That is a personal preference of mine. I do know, though, that I am one of a relatively small group, and I know that having double the amount of tire compounds at a race would only further exacerbate the issues currently plaguing the sport at the moment.

Michelin would be given the same briefing that Pirelli got in 2010: Make the racing exciting. More pitstops, more strategy, more excitement.

If you ask me, all we would get is more frustration.

FIA’s “Solutions” Avoiding the Real Problems

In the various media scrums today in Hungary, the FIA embarked on a rather ridiculous journey to increased pitlane safety. Numerous suggestions were made, and all of them were shot down through either sheer logic or indecision. There are two particular “solutions” that I want to address right now, though, as I feel they exemplify the cowardly indecision that defines the current makeup of the FIA.

Before I begin in ernest, though, I want to also address the further media bans in the pit lane this weekend in Hungary, and indeed for the rest of the season, and potentially for the rest of the sport’s existence. Broadcasting organizations under contract by FOM, which runs the TV coverage of Formula One, are now allowed only one cameraman and reporter in the pitlane during any session over the course of the weekend. A total ban on media members in the pits for qualifying and the race remains in place, although the FIA will allow certain camera crews to work from the pit wall.

This type of decision-making is completely useless. This was implemented in the first place after the unfortunate accident in Germany, where FOM cameraman, Paul Allen, was struck by a loose tire from Mark Webber’s Red Bull. But this rule, and indeed all the rules made this weekend that restrict media access to the pitlane, completely sidesteps the very apparent problem, rather than addressing it head on. This is lazy legislation on the FIA’s part, and is only exacerbated by FOM’s compliance.

Back to the original rules, though. The first one I want to address is one that I brought up in my post regarding Formula One’s sense of competition. I suggested that a possible solution to rouge tires, like the one we saw wreak havoc in Germany, was to implement a minimum pit stop duration. I suggested 4 seconds, as the normal pitstop these days is often under 3 seconds. In hindsight, that is a completely worthless solution, as it is not long enough to make an impact, and because Fernando Alonso reminded us of an incident from the not-so-distant past.

In 2009, when Fernando Alonso started the Hungarian Grand Prix from pole, the spaniard endured his own tire troubles in the pit lane. A loose wheel went flying during one of his pitstops, endangering the mechanics and FIA/FOM personnel around him. Alonso was quick to point out to the media today when the proposed minimum pitstop times were brought up, that requiring a pitstop to take a certain amount of time was pointless. In 2009, we must remember, re-fuelling was still in place. Tire changes were never under any pressure because the fuel always took long enough to give the tire changers ample time to check their handiwork. Yet, the problem was still there, and it has been ever since.

This proposal was unanimously shot down by all the drivers and teams.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly is the proposed, and confirmed, rule implementing grid penalties for accidents in the pit lane.

It seems hard to justify punishing someone for an accident. No one in the sport sets out each and every race weekend to harm someone in the pit lane. All the accidents in the pit lane are just that. Accidents. Regardless, the FIA has confirmed that any car leaving the pitlane with a loose wheel will result in an immediate 10-place grid penalty at the next event.

This is the rule I find most angering. Not all will agree with me, but surely it is pointless to punish the drivers for an even that is entirely out of their hands? This new ruling is about as useful as grid penalties for gearbox changes. Both pitlane accidents and gearbox changes are out of the control of the drivers, yet it is the drivers that are being punished. Gearbox changes are out of the control of both teams and drivers, so I can at least feel some sympathy for that rule, although it is not substantial. But pitlane accidents, regardless of their accidental nature, are entirely in the hands of the teams.

Why are the teams not being punished then? Why will we not be seeing Constructors’ Championship points deducted? Why will we not be seeing monetary fines, which, by the way are completely pathetic and minuscule in comparison to the team’s budgets right now? There are a whole host of options for the FIA to pick up on, yet they take the easy route out and punish the drivers.

In protest to this rule, Felipe Massa spoke out today about the FIA’s avoidance of the real problems. Speed reductions in the pit lanes, restricted media access and this grid penalty system all aid to sidestep the real issues at play. They are not providing solutions to the problem, rather, in their avoidance of them, they create even more.

Perhaps even more pertinent to the safety of the sport than finding a solution is the fact that no one can even agree on a solution. I don’t know what is best for the sport, and I won’t try and convince you otherwise. I do, however, know what is bad for the sport, and the FIA and FOM sure have made that task very easy for me and the rest of the sport’s fans in recent days.

The FIA and FOM have shown their true colors these past few weeks. We have seen inarguably that they are ineffective when it comes to implementing common sense safety precautions when it comes to the immediate concerns of safety today. We know now that they have been avoiding making technical changes to the cars themselves for reasons unapparent to the public. What we don’t know, is why? Why is the sport creating an environment where safety and the public’s viewing experience are compromised just because the sport can’t make common sense decisions?

Good thing the summer break is coming soon. The FIA and FOM have a lot of thinking, and hopefully decision-making, to do.

 

Let me know what you think should be done to ensure better safety in the pit lane. Should we be restricting access to the media and punishing the wrong people, or should we be developing better technology to give more assurance to personnel in the firing line?

 

Clearing the Swiss Air

It is amazing how fast rumors spread these days. Robin Frijns has just lost his GP2 drive, which, in all honesty was on shaky ground due to its race-by-race basis. Was it for a lack of money that he lost the seat, or is he being prepped for an F1 debut very soon?

Further rumors have emerged that the upcoming Hungarian Grand Prix may be Nico Hulkenberg’s very last with the Sauber team. He has already been rumored to have gone unpaid for the past six months, despite the overwhelming denial by Peter Sauber and his team. Regardless of the monetary factors in the German’s deal, the fact remains that his role in the 2013 Silly Season is one of the most important.

If Nico is to race for the final time with Sauber this weekend, who will replace him at the team, and where will he go?

As for the potentially empty seat, there are two immediate options, one more realistic than the other. Robin Frijns, Sauber’s official reserve and test driver would seem the obvious choice for filling the void created by Nico. Indeed, the “timely” loss of his GP2 drive would suggest that he is being prepped for a racing role when F1 resumes after the summer break in Belgium. But what is holding him back? The very reason Robin may have lost his seat, is money. Robin has gone this whole season under the constant threat of losing his drives without warning. His finances are underwhelming, to say the least, and one could argue the only reason he has been racing this season is due to his prodigious speed and race craft.

So, is he being groomed for a race seat in Formula One, or is this a case of extremely unfortunate timing? Come from Sauber’s point of view. Would you rather have to pay as much as you are able to for Hulkenberg, of have Frijns for free? You wouldn’t have to pay for the latter, but you wouldn’t be getting paid, as such. This is the line that Sauber has to tread for the rest of the season until their lucrative Russian deal is set in stone.

Speaking of Russia, the other, if unrealistic, option would be for Sergey Sirotkin to take Nico’ place. He has money, no question about it, but is completely inexperienced. I am not holding out any hope for this scenario playing out, and you shouldn’t as well, but considering it has been brought up in the rumors, I felt I should address it.

Sauber has gotten itself into a very tight and constricting bind, it seems. I must stress that the rumors I have mentioned are just that: Rumors. We don’t know for sure if what I have explained here will unfold. For now, we must wait until after the weekend passes to reassess the situation.

We certainly have something to sink our teeth into, though.

When Push Comes to Shove

Here is some math for all of you: New Jersey + Russia + Austria = a lot of money. On both sides of the party (ie: Bernie and the hosts), the prospect of additional races on the Formula One calendar is good for business. Bernie gets his precious merchandise profit as well as a plethora of hosting fees, while the hosts get massive boosts is tourism and hotel profits, not to mention an overall boost in their global perception. Seems like a no-brainier. Only if you don’t think about it, though.

I talked about this a few months ago when I took a look at the unsung heroes of the sport, the mechanics, and touched upon the danger of an ever-growing race calendar. To put the situation into a relatable context, over-stuffing the calendar is like swapping the rear tires of a Formula One car. And we all know how that ended.

With today’s news that the Red Bull Ring in Austria would be making a return to the 2014 Formula one calendar, we got a glimpse into what next season would be like. Crowded.

The most popular topic of conversation in the final stretch of races at the end of last season was the fact that there were three back-to-backs in a span of just 9 weeks. This puts an enormous strain on all involved in the sport when said strain is the hardest to cope with. With the three new races, three key points in the season will now have an extra race to handle.

New Jersey will slot in right after the Canadian Grand Prix, thus pushing the Beitish Grand Prix back one extra week to allow the normal two week break between races. The Russian Grand Prix is planned, speculatively, an rather vaguely, for the second half of the season. Rumors say perhaps just before Singapore, or in November around the race in Abu Dhabi. Regardless, this puts it in the thick of those back-to -back races that take so much criticism every season.

Finally, the July 6th preliminary date for the Austrian Grand Prix slots it in between Germany and Hungary. There were plans last winter to bring Austria to the calendar this season, but when they failed to materialize, plans fixated onto 2014. The three week gap we are currently waiting through was the time slot allotted for the proposed 2013 Austrian Grand Prix, so we know that there is time for the race. Will there be enough energy, though?

I am a huge proponent of increasing the number of European races on the calendar, but I am extremely wary of pushing the calendar beyond its limits. I can be sure that Bernie Ecclestone and I do not share the same concerns, but then again, I don’t have a business to run.

I thoroughly hope a solution can be made to make the three newcomers welcome on the calendar. If that means getting rid of some races like Korea and India, so be it. I would rather the sport’s European spirit be preserved for the tenure of its existence than for Bernie to line his pockets at the expense of our entertainment, and the hosts’ success.