Second In Championship Promises Lotus More Than Just Bragging Rights

Lotus could buy themselves some time by securing second in the constructors’ championship this season. How? Well, the millions in prize money offered to the top-10 in that championship is often the difference between success and failure in next year’s campaign. That stuff is obvious, though. Lotus, however, could solve their driver problem (yes you can call it a problem at this point), by securing the “best-of-the-rest” spot in the standings.

Should the team finish where they are now (4th), Lotus would be in exactly the same financial position they find themselves in at the moment. And it isn’t all too comfortable a position. The Enstone-based team’s financial woes have been the most publicized aspect of the 2013 championship besides the silly season and “Testgate” from early this summer. That says a lot about the importance about financial security in Formula One. Of the top teams, Lotus is the only one without a car manufacturer or global mega-company funding the team’s budget. In fact, Lotus is very small in terms of what it has to spend compared to its direct rivals. Just look at how they have done compared to Mclaren this year and you see just how well Lotus has spent and divvied up its funds this season. The late introduction of its long-wheelbase chassis also attests to their financial savvy.

Grosjean2

But Lotus is far from financially secure. Their financial needs have been covered every which-way by the media this season, particularly the struggle to secure a deal with Quantum Motorsports (formerly Infinity Racing). The deal is said to provide funding for a major step up in competitiveness for Lotus, a five-year plan the team has been preparing to implement for years now.

It hasn’t been a smooth ride, though. Time after time, we have heard Eric Boullier promise the deal is days from completion, followed by a frustratingly vague statement about how the “details” still need to be sorted out once those promised days have passed. A never-ending cycle, it seems.

It would certainly seem that way for Nico Hulkenberg who has, inarguably, shined the brightest in the second half of the season. Behind Vettel, you wouldn’t be blamed for saying he has been the most impressive driver from the whole field since the summer break. His connections to the vacant seat at Lotus were almost made subconsciously by the public once news broke that Kimi Raikkonen would be leaving for Ferrari. It seemed obvious he would be the best candidate for the seat.

The trouble Lotus have been having with Quantum means that second in the championship could make or break Nico’s future with the team; a future everyone says could (and very well should) begin in 2014.

Should the deal not come through by the time the season comes to a close, or even by the time the month is out, then second in the championship could be the difference between Lotus taking on Hulkenberg, or settling with Pastor Maldonado and his millions of oil dollars. No disrespect to the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix winner, but consensus in the paddock, on the internet, and basically everywhere Formula One is discussed, is that Nico is the best young driver out there for quite some time. Perhaps since a certain other German came along in 2007…

Bragging rights are meaningless unless you have the goods to back it up the following season. Obtaining second in the championship is just what Lotus needs (I mean REALLY needs) to cover the immense costs of 2014, and it would allow for the team to take on Hulkenberg should their deal with Quantum take longer than expected. With the clock ticking, that is looking like a real possibility.

For the sake of Lotus and Nico Hulkenberg, let’s hope Romain can keep that podium streak going.

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Pirelli with the Upper Hand…For Once

There is something seriously wrong with a sporting entity when one of, if not THE, most important of its partners threatens to quit; full-stop, no regrets, quit. Pirelli has been subjected to some of the worst working conditions in the history of the sport, so their threats are completely understandable.

These are not empty threats. Pirelli would be fully justified in their decision to quit supplying tires to Formula One. A lucrative business Formula One is, it is not whiteout its headaches. As the sole supplier, Pirelli has all the pressure resting upon its on-track performance. In a way, Pirelli’s reputation is similar to that of a competing team: results matter. While there isn’t a tire manufacturer championship (wouldn’t that be fun, though?), results in terms of quality, durability and usability are the lifeblood of Pirelli in Formula One; they ensure the company’s place in the championship just as podiums and wins and points ensure Ferrari or Mclaren doesn’t pack up and leave.

It would come as no surprise, then, to hear that Pirelli would not hesitate to quit should its desires–nay–needs not be met just as the teams’ are. The recent strategy meeting this past Monday included Pirelli, but none of its desired points of discussion were mentioned. With only four races to go in the season, preparations for 2014 should be, and are, well underway back in Pirelli’s manufacturing plant in Turkey. But in order to ensure the Formula One teams are getting the best product possible from Pirelli in 2014, significant preparations must be made. The most important of which is testing.

Pirelli were recently denied permission to test their prototype tires at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX with a two year-old Mclaren because of fears Mclaren would benefit from the knowledge of the still-new track. The stupidity and unnecessary nature of this denial only serves to accentuate the issues with Formula One already laid bare for all to see.

Let’s get over the fact that Pirelli were denied permission to test. That isn’t what this is about. Pirelli’s threats now put them in a great position of leverage when it comes to their future desires.

Pirelli could easily pull out of the sport. It would save them a great deal of money, and it would help their already shaky reputation. Should Pirelli leave, Formula would be comprehensively stuck for 2014. It would be impossible to find a tire supplier in time for them to construct reliable tires for the huge demands of the new technical regulations. Formula One absolutely CANNOT let Pirelli go. It would put the whole championship in jeopardy, to the point that it might have to be skipped entirely for 2014. But F1 won’t let that happen. They can’t.

Pirelli will be able to test, because they are the only thing keeping the sport together, in a way. If there are no tires, there is no championship. Simple as that. Pirelli wants to test in Brazil immediately following the season finale with teams willing to stay on. That seems a simple request. All the teams would be there anyways, and there isn’t another race to head off to. Yes, the new cars need to be built, but preparations are already so far underway at this point that a one or two day test wouldn’t make a difference.

This makes complete and total sense. Too bad Formula One doesn’t have a great track record with the whole logic thing. I understand completely. Sometimes I get confused when plain and simple facts are spelled out for me in an easy to understand way. You never know, they could be trying to trick you.

But, as I said, Formula One cannot afford to not give in to Pirelli’s demands. The reputation of the sport relies on their compliance. This is why Pirelli holds all the cards in this situation. And I mean ALL the cards. The FIA has no credible argument for denying Pirelli this necessity.

Let’s hope logic dictates the outcome of this unfortunate situation.

What is Wrong With Formula One’s Decision-Making Process?

A lot, would be the simple answer.

Formula One’s new strategy group met yesterday to discuss all manner of sporting related topics such as tires, cost control and future rule changes. This all sounds wonderful, especially considering the difficulty that often accompanies any changes to the sporting regulations. What is not wonderful, however, are the entities missing from the discussion.

Whereas Marussia and Caterham would have had as much input into the decision-making process in the old Strategy Group, FOTA (Formula One Teams Association), they were nowhere to be seen in yesterday’s meeting. In fact, only half of the current Formula One teams have any input at all in the group. A so-called “Heritage” group of teams consisting of Red Bull, Ferrari, Mclaren, Mercedes, Lotus and Williams, along with representatives from the FIA, FOM and Pirelli are the sole movers and shakers driving sporting innovation forward. This is where the problem emerges.

It isn’t hard to see the logic in the makeup of the group. You could argue that these six teams are the most “important” of all, so their needs are placed slightly above the rest. But that is a very subjective stance to take on a matter that really should be approached with as much objective pragmatism as possible.

The problem we now face is that the sport’s elite are making major decisions. “Elite” isn’t a fun word to use, but Formula One brought this criticism upon itself when it decided that placing the opinions of one team over another was a good idea when regarding the longevity of the sport. Formula One has decided that Marussia and Caterham, Toro Rosso, Force India and Sauber, the sport’s fourth oldest team I might add (now there’s heritage for you), are not important enough to the sport to warrant an opinion from them. They weren’t present at the meeting yesterday, and neither were their concerns.

Eliminating the minority is a dangerous thing to do in any political situation. It renders the needs and concerns of an integral part of a population unimportant and not worth the time of the rest of the group or, in this case, the future of the sport.

Arguably the most important issue in Formula One today is cost control. Every bone of contention in the sport, be it the role of tires in racing, the lack of testing, the 2014 regulations and their impact on smaller teams (this concern won’t be as intensely voiced for reasons now apparent) or the need for pay drivers, stems from the elephant that is cost control.

It is a big elephant indeed, and it’s presence is a testament to how long the head honchos of the sport have taken, and are still taking, to resolve it. Cost control is a polarizing issue. In a simple world, there are two ways to solve polarization: talk it out in a respectful manner, making sure all sides of the argument are voiced in a bid to come to a decent compromise, or to eliminate one side of the argument from the discussion completely.

It seems the new strategy group has taken the latter route. Sure, one could argue that Williams (and perhaps Lotus) will be the staunch voices of reason in the midst of the cash-happy world Red Bull and the other teams live in. This could be the case. But considering it takes a 70 percent majority to make decisions in this strategy group, it would take a miracle for any left-field suggestions to gain any traction.

Force India’s deputy team principal Bob Fernley was quoted by Autosport saying of the strategy group, “I think the process we’ve had of Sporting/Technical Working Groups has served Formula One well. Yes, it’s got downsides, and it’s frustrating sometimes in terms of its ability to deliver quick results, but it’s a balanced approach in terms of measuring what the overall needs of Formula One are, as opposed to looking through the eyes of four very, very well-funded teams”.

This quote is extremely telling. First it reveals the inherent frustrations of being excluded from important discussions regarding F1 and secondly it underlines, quite subtly, the issue with the group’s members: they are very, very well-funded.

If this group is a balanced way of gauging the needs of the sport as a whole, then why are his and the rest of the excluded teams, as well as Williams and Lotus, being financially run into the ground without any means of getting out? There is something extremely angering about the way the sport has blatantly disregarded the desperate need for collective (all the teams) discussion about the direction of the sport in favor of appeasing the four richest teams. The final kick in the teeth comes from the thinly veiled and pathetic attempt at including the voice of the “masses”, so to speak, in the form of Lotus and Williams. Even these two are vastly better funded than some of the other teams struggling to get by.

We may applaud the decisions made at the end of yesterday’s strategy group meeting. It may mark the first time in a long time that real decisions were made regarding Formula One’s future. But the nagging feeling that much of the field will potentially suffer as a result of not having their opinions heard will always taint the legacy of this group.

The “elite” is undermining the needs of the Formula One grid. When Red Bull pulled out of FOTA it was only a matter of time before the rest of the grid followed suit. This is when Ecclestone took the opportunity to help form this new strategy group of the sport’s elite. It is a sad day, indeed, when the needs of others are disregarded. The sport will surely suffer for it in the long term.

 

 

It’s the Fickle Teams that are to Blame for Pirelli Drama

Pirelli has been under a lot of pressure this season, and indeed every season since it returned to the sport. This pressure, though, hasn’t stemmed from the company’s inability to build tires properly, but from the teams’ fluctuating reactions to its tires.

Two recent races in Italy and in Korea have shed further light onto this situation, one in which completely different views of Pirelli’s tires are made clear from the same people.

Much of the media was yawning during the Italian Grand Prix for its lack of strategic variation. The preferred strategy was, of course, a one-stop, for the medium and hard compounds brought to the race made it a relatively easy task. But Pirelli came under fire, as it did during the latter half of the 2012 season, for being too conservative in its approach to the race. Those criticizing, however, seem to have failed to take into account the fire and fury Pirelli endured during and after the British Grand Prix this year, when multiple, violent tire explosions plagued the race.

In Korea, Pirelli was scrutinized for precisely the opposite reason. The supersoft and medium compound tires offered a variety of strategy options between what tires to start on and whether a two or three-stop strategy worked best.

Drivers like Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber couldn’t have been more displeased with the tire choices for that weekend, as they both complained that the supersoft tire would not even last a whole lap during qualifying.

In response, Pirelli Motorsport boss, Paul Hembrey, suggested Alonso and Webber take a few lessons from Sebastian Vettel on how to work the tires, because he wasn’t experiencing any issues. Hembrey later apologized for his statements, but his rebuttals do make a lot of sense.

The tires are as durable as you make them. Yes, they have their limits, but degradation can be managed with the careful application of patience. That isn’t to say Alonso and Webber are impatient, but there is a sense that they are either unwilling, or perhaps incapable, of truly succeeding in the Pirelli era.

Hembrey pointed out his frustration at the Korea disputes today. “We’ve come off the back of Monza where everyone moaned that they were falling asleep because it was a one-stop race and nobody knew what to write about”, said Hembrey of the recent criticism. “So you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t sometimes” he continued. “I just wish people would let us know what they want.”

Ironically, Ferrari and Fernando Alonso discovered a brilliant solution to the problem during the Spanish Grand Prix this season. The Scuderia put the Spaniard on a four-stop strategy. This allowed him to push for the entire race and, eventually, win. This strategy came received a lot of criticism from fans saying that four-stops was entirely too many for one race. They seem to forget that in 2011, a time when a four-stop strategy should have been much more shocking, Sebastian Vettel employed a four-stop strategy to win the very same race. No one complained then.

Pirelli has been doing everything right since 2011. It is the teams who, for some unknown and increasingly frustrating reason, make Pirelli’s life, and our enjoyment of the sport, much more difficult. When the teams decide whether they want tires with degradation, many pitstops and lots of tire conservation or whether they want durable tires, easy strategy and boring races, then Pirelli will finally get the break they deserve, because at least there will be a desired direction for them to take.

Hulkenberg Downplaying the Extraordinary

Image courtesy of Lotus F1 Team

Image courtesy of Lotus F1 Team

Nico Hulkenberg may not recognize the significance of his fourth place finish in Korea, he is even playing it down, bet there is no escaping the glaringly obvious fact that every time he sets foot in his car, every time he puts on his helmet, and every time he leaves the pit lane, he is consolidating his soon-to-be-permanent place in the top echelon of the world’s greatest drivers.

Apart from this rather subjective opinion, it is nigh on impossible to sum up Nico’s talent in just a few words. Words are meaningless in Formula One, for actions are what moves a car, a team, and a career forward. In fact, it could be misconstrued as insulting of me just to sum up his talent in mere syllables, but I will make an attempt, in all due respect.

Nico has faced two inversely proportional factors in his Formula One career, in that as he has gained experience in the sport, his teammates’ experience has gone down, and his cars’ ability to perform well on track has gone down. If you were a rookie in F1 and you were racing alongside Rubens Barrichello, a multiple race winner and the sport’s most experienced driver, you would be forgiven if you were slightly apprehensive to take risks, for one mistake would make you look worse that you were already going to look. But it wasn’t Rubens who set pole position in Brazil by more than a second that season. It was the rookie, the one who was already out of the team for 2011, the one who was supposed to be learning, not leading. It was Nico who bagged pole position that weekend, in what would be a career defining performance. His lap of Interlagos in November of 2010 in the dying moments of Q3 is one of the moments we still talk about.

That is what makes Nico great.

In 2012, after a year on the sidelines at Force India and with one years’ experience of F1 racing, Nico was paired with another sophomore driver. More experience himself, less experienced teammate. Considering the job he did at Williams in 2010, expectations were high to say the least.

After matching his teammate in the first half of the season, his performance in Belgium was the result of some inner performance epiphany that carried him through the rest of the season. Leading the Brazilian Grand Prix on merit, in the wet, while fending off the more highly regarded and vastly more experienced Jenson Button isn’t something that happens by accident. It happens as the result of skill meeting opportunity. It wasn’t luck. It was, at the risk of stimulating some gag reflexes, fate.

That is what makes Nico great.

Nico’s results this season speak for themselves. Even when in the anonymity of the deep midfield, he was impressive. He hasn’t had to struggle this much to impress since the early races of the 2010 season, so for him to maintain his composure during those trying times is commendable.

In fact, the juxtaposition of his car’s glaringly obvious doggish qualities against the way he immaculately disguises them is what makes him really remarkable. Not since with Fernando Alonso in Malaysia of last year have we seen a driver out-drive his own car, and even then Fernando’s car wasn’t truly horrible.

If the body weight concerns of late are actually substantive, then there is a serious problem with the sport. Never should a driver be at risk of losing, or at least not obtaining, a seat because of circumstances completely out of his control. If Mclaren seriously think that Nico being on the “heavy” side is reason enough to dismiss him for a drive, then they are making an even bigger mistake than when they turned him down in favor of Perez in 2013 (no offense to Perez, of course, but Nico is in a different league).

This was an attempt to do something I said should be impossible. But that is exactly what Nico has been doing all season. Lotus had better be reading this sometime soon…

On Fernando and Mark’s penalties

We are all upset by Webber’s penalty from yesterday. The interaction between him and Fernando was a sight for sore eyes. In the midst of intensifying rivalries and drivers enduring completely unwarranted booing as they receive their trophies on the podium, it was wonderful to see genuine friendship, even plain sportsmanship, come to the fore.

And for it all to end with both men given a reprimand, and subsequently for Webber a 10 place grid penalty, was very disheartening to see.

But it was necessary.

While it was nice to see Alonso give a ride to Mark after his car broke, it was dangerous. To top it off, it wasn’t even what Webber was penalized for. Only Alonso was reprimanded for offering, and eventually giving, Mark the lift.

No, Webber was punished for something completely justifiable and, frankly, necessary.

Mark entered the track, after he got out of his burning Red Bull, without the expressed permission of the Marshals. This is forbidden by FIA regulation, thus it was only correct that Mark received due punishment.

The fact that this happened to be Mark’s third reprimand of the season, thus giving him an automatic 10 place grid penalty in the next race, was a dreadfully unfortunate and terribly timed case of bad luck.

But that is all it was. Frankly, mark’s forbidden entrance to the track, and his subsequent ride with Fernando, is a much more pressing matter of safety than we all made it out to be. When you remove the rose-tinted glass, it was an outright and blatantly dangerous thing to do.

Yes, some of the sport’s most iconic images and beloved memories stem from these types of generous and sportsman-like acts of kindness, but safety must be considered.

It would take only the slightest of mistakes on Fernando’s part to offset Mark’s precarious position on the side of the car and throw him onto the track and into the path of oncoming cars. The fact that Hamilton and Kimi had to take evasive action when nearing Alonso (this was taken into account when the penalties were dolled out) speaks to the grave danger Mark could have been in should something have gone wrong.

Had Alonso pulled into a safer area of the track, and had Mark gotten the express permission from the marshals to enter the circuit, none of this would have happened. But it did.

We all love when drivers are nice to each other. It makes the sport more human. We can connect with it. It makes the drivers seem more like people than robots.

We all remember what happened in Germany, though. That rouge tire caused a lot of physical and mental trauma for that cameraman and his family. But that was a freak accident. Mark and Fernando were acting in complete consciousness.

I’m not suggesting for a second that any potential accident that could have happened would have been on purpose, but any accident that could have happened would have been a direct result of a conscious decision to do something that was, however consciously they thought about it, overtly dangerous.

Safety is the message here. Mark wasn’t punished for the ride, he was punished for getting back on the track in the first place.

Sebastian Vettel: Public Enemy Number One

It’s been a rather stressful day in Singapore. Not only is Sebastian Vettel cementing his 4th championship by the minute, but he is criticized for doing so! I don’t know everyone’s opinion of Sebastian Vettel, and I won’t claim to either, but it is a sad day when “fans” attend an even they paid good money for only to boo the driver who won, just because they’re tired of seeing him on the top step so often.

Vettel should, and will, be rewarded for his efforts. I am far from his biggest fan, but I am certainly mature enough to recognize his other-worldly talent. It’s staggering, especially when all the talk of Formula One is centered around how closely matched the cars are. If someone can make everyone else in the field look like lost sheep compared to his own performance on track, he should be applauded and, frankly, worshipped for his monumental achievement.

Every one of Sebastian’s actions to day is praiseworthy, yet, at the first opportunity, those attending the event belittled them and reduced them to something to be ashamed of. Sebastian was a picture of supreme composure as he talked to Martin Brundle during the podium interview. The barrage of boos would have thrown off anyone else, frankly, and that is a sad thing, as it is a testament to how often Sebastian has had to endure it.

No one should have to get USED to being booed. It is a misfortune no one is deserving of.

So why did we once again hear booing during the podium ceremony? Our personal preferences got in the way of decency and humility. I won’t try to tell anyone to not have an opinion about a driver or team; lord knows I don’t try to hold back. But I do question the purpose and loathe hypocrisy of the booing,

It is fairly obvious that most of the podium onlookers were fans of Fernando and Kimi. That was clear. Yet, those two drivers, arguably, are the most humble of all the drivers on the grid. They put on Herculean performances themselves, yet they let Sebastian bask in what little glory was given to him. If the so-called fans of Fernando and Kimi, and indeed the sport as a whole, can watch a race in awe of those two humble drivers, admiring their skill on the track and their attitudes in defeat, how can they sit back and boo the very driver their heroes  congratulate? This type of hypocrisy is tainting the reputation of the sport every time that young champion steps onto the podium.

I think we all know Sebastian is going to be champion this year; I welcome any opportunity for myself to be convinced otherwise. But what will happen in Abu Dhabi or Austin?  Judging by the gap in the standings right now, the championship is hardly likely to go down to the wire. When Sebastian is finally crowned the 2013 champion, will there be more boos? I wouldn’t be too surprised if there were, to be honest. And knowing that is a hard pill to swallow.

The problem Sebastian, and perhaps Red Bull itself, faces is that he is and is not a part of the true culture of Formula One. He is a young guy leading a team that is upsetting the natural order of the sport. Formula One is pretty conservative. The switch to more green technology is a few years overdue, and any change to the sport is nigh on impossible to execute. Just look at the cost-cutting measures in place. Oh wait, you can’t. Because they haven’t happened yet.

Because Sebastian is a part of a team that is upsetting the natural order of the sport, people are going to not like him. There are two distinct Formula One audiences: the ones who have been watching for years and don’t want change to ruin what they’ve considered the status quo, and then there are newer fans who are more open to change, more open to the fact that a new guy in a new team is shaking up the order. This doesn’t sit well with a lot of Formula One fans.

You may trace the roots of the booing to the “Multi-21” scandal back in Malaysia. Sebastian was pretty selfish during that race. While, he would have probably gotten past Mark for the lead eventually, nothing can deny the truth of the matter; he disobeyed team orders. That is the number one no no of the sport. Sebastian learned his lesson from that. I don’t think he had a responsibility to apologize to anyone but the team. It would have done wonders for his reputation if he apologized to Mark, but he didn’t have to. It wasn’t Mark who told Sebastian not to pass him, it was the team.

You may see this as the source of the booing, but it really isn’t. Sebastian has been public enemy number one since he won his first title back in 2010. He took it from two other equally deserving men in Mark and Fernando, two drivers who were easily held in higher regard than Sebastian at the time. Whether that flicked a switch in the psyches of half the watching world is hard to tell, but it certainly set the tone for the next three years.

You may not like Sebastian one bit. Your opinion is totally up to you, and I will never try and tell people to like a certain driver and hate others on this blog. But there is a certain amount of decency and respect we all should express toward the drivers we all hold in such high esteem. You may not like Sebastian, but he sure deserves your respect.