Could Perez be Lotus’s Savior?

Now that Sergio Perez has officially announced he is leaving Mclaren, its time to officially add him to the mix of drivers currently looking for employment in 2014. Speculation has no place here. This is real uncertainty for Sergio.

It’s hard to deny that Perez was given a pretty tough set of circumstances to deal with in 2013: a bad car, a teammate at the top of his game (at the end of 2012, at least), tricky tires, more media/sponsorship commitments than ever before, national pride always pressuring him, oh, and a bad car. All of these factors conspired against Sergio and eventually clouded what really hasn’t been a bad season for the Mexican. Sure, it has been far from what he expected, and some mistakes on his part have prevented him from scoring more points than he has now (Monaco comes straight to mind), but considering all of the setbacks mentioned before, Sergio has been a solid performer this season.

Perez’s departure, then, would seem as something of a surprise to the casual onlooker; surely since it was not Sergio’s fault that the car was uncompetitive, the only fair thing to do would be to give him another chance in a much more competitive car to see what he can really do. Mclaren, in all likelihood, would have taken this path, had their priorities not gotten in the way.

I can completely understand the Perez sympathizers in this situation. I agree that he deserves another chance in the car when it is more competitive and representative of his talent, of which there is plenty. But I do understand the commitments Mclaren have to their own, that is, to Kevin Magnussen. It is rare to get the chance to put a rookie in a top team these days. It’s been six years since Lewis Hamilton made his splash into the F1 scene. Mclaren would be silly to turn down an opportunity like this, and looking for any way to do so is understandable.

We must also not forget that Perez is not a Mclaren man. He was a Ferrari protégé just days before the 2012 Singapore Grand Prix, destined for greatness alongside Fernando Alonso in 2013 and as the team leader once the Spaniard left. But then Lewis Hamilton left Mclaren. That meant the team had some frantic searching to do to find a suitable, or at least suitable enough, replacement for their 2008 champion. At that time Perez was the man to watch, having just scored his third podium of the season at the previous race in Italy after, ironically, almost chasing down Hamilton for the win. Importantly, he was out of contract for 2013 with Sauber. That gave Mclaren some pretty serious leverage when it came time for contract negotiations.

Many rightly criticized Mclaren’s decision to sign Perez. I still believe he was not meant for the seat. Nico Hulkenberg was the man to sign, and that became even more clear at the Brazilian Grand Prix. But his lack of “standout” performances at that point in the season (though his fourth and fifth place finishes in Belgium and Valencia, respectively, were extremely impressive) meant he was at a disadvantage when it came to making his case to Mclaren as to why they should sign him for 2013.

One year-and-a-bit later, and now Perez is gone. Almost like he wasn’t even there at all. One can almost here the name “Kovalainen” ringing in one’s head as the words of Perez’s classy, respectful, but rather sad, letter are read aloud.

The driver market is now busier than it has ever been, with Perez, Pastor Maldonado and Nico Hulkenberg the three key players in this rather confusing tale of the silly season. This is how it all plays out, though: Should Lotus’s deal with Quantum fall through (remember, it isn’t officially done, just agreed to on both sides of the deal i.e. Quantum and Lotus), then money from a driver is of vital importance.

Pastor Maldonado has been the favorite candidate for that seat should the situation play out in the manner described above. But Maldonado’s millions are not as secure as we may have once thought.

AUTOWEEK reported in its most recent issue that all “disbursements of hard currency to automobile and motorcycle racers (from Venezuela) who compete abroad” have been “frozen” as the Venezuelan government investigates a corruption scandal. That means Maldonado shouldn’t sit pretty just yet. That $48 million a year in precious oil money could all but disappear just when it would come in its most handy.

Enter Sergio Perez.

His Telmex money, once a major sponsor for Sauber when the Mexican was a driver there in 2011 and 2012, could be put to use in securing him a drive at the Enstone-based squad for 2014. Perhaps not quite as sizable as Maldonado’s sponsorship, Perez’s backing from Telmex would still ensure whichever team was the recipient was far from scared for its financial future. This is where the Mexican’s more highly regarded talent would come in handy. The fact that he isn’t labeled a crash-happy nutcase puts him a step ahead of Pastor. While the mistakes have been cut down vastly in 2013, it takes more than just obscurity on the grid to erase a name like that. Just ask Romain Grosjean.

Sergio Perez may have ended the day a sad fellow, but all is not lost. He could just have set himself up for a future at a team that now has the capability to beat Mclaren on a regular basis. That is something to smile about.

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Why Kimi’s Legacy Begins With Lotus

Earlier this year, I wrote all about why I believed Kimi did not belong at Red Bull. At the time of writing that piece, the rumors of a potential Kimi/Vettel pairing were still in their infancy, but I believed, and still believe, wholeheartedly that Kimi does not belong there. The culture and atmosphere at the team, regardless of what Red Bull may tell people, is just not right for the Finn.

Now I want to explain to you, mere weeks before a decision is to be made on the matter of Webber’s replacement, why Kimi needs to stay at Lotus.

It is a matter of legacy, for both Kimi Raikkonen and the Lotus team itself. Both have had their moments in the sunshine, which were all well-deserved, but both have endured their days of trial and tribulation. 2014 could be the year when both Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus cement their places in the sport’s history books.

Raikkonen’s monumental comeback in 2012 will be well documented for years to come, but Lotus’s own revival at the same time should not be discounted. Regardless of who was driving the car that year, it was a great car. Remember, it wasn’t Kimi who put the car in 3rd place on the grid for the 2012 season opener…

After a rather unceremonious parting with Ferrari at the end of 2009, Kimi found himself itching to get back in the game. The options were plentiful, but the Finn’s choice to come back with Lotus. I think he saw a very good opportunity waiting for him.

Kimi’s laid-back attitude can sometimes give onlookers the wrong impression. He cares about the sport immensely. Why else would he have come back with Lotus? The Enstone team offered him the best opportunity to just race. He could forget about the politics that plagued, and curtailed, his tenure at Ferrari and just get back to doing what he loved. Because of this opportunity, Kimi proved to the world that he cares about his legacy.

Had he hung up his helmet for good at the end of 2009, many would have remembered him as the guy who impressed throughout his career, but only won the championship at the expense of others’ losses (i.e. Alonso and Hamilton). I’m not saying that is true at all, but time is a tricky mistress, and it tends to fabricate our impressions of the past.

The unvarnished truth of the matter is, though, that Kimi Raikkonen wasn’t done. He wanted, no matter how much it may seem like he doesn’t care, to prove that he is one of the greats. Lotus gave him the opportunity to prove just that.

If, at the end of the season, Kimi Raikkonen is a double world champion, he will have accomplished what he set out to do. He will have proven that he has what it takes to bring a team out of the midfield doldrums into the spotlight of world championship status. That is what every driver wants in this sport. Think Michael Schumacher without all the controversy.

If Kimi is not champion after the Brazilian Grand Prix, then he has another chance to prove he can be. For the sake of his legacy, Kimi needs to approach every loss as another opportunity to try again.

The same goes for Lotus itself. A constructors’ title is a long shot this season, but next year offers the team another chance to prove they can be a powerful and lasting entity in Formula One.

In its various guises, Lotus has enjoyed its fair share of successes, and endured its fair share of losses. Just as Lotus struggled in 2011, it succeeded in 2012 and 2013. Lotus wants and needs to prove to the watching world that it is a team that is here to stay. Financially, that means perhaps it has to be more creative. Technically, that means it needs to think outside of the box. Mentally, that means it needs to just be tougher. If Lotus wants to be a team that all the drivers want to drive for, then they need to prove they can be. Mclaren, Red Bull, Ferrari and even Mercedes are the four teams that, from the outside, look like stable environments that can offer lasting success. Lotus needs to be the fifth team in that group.

If Kimi can cement his legacy at Lotus by winning a championship, then the way is paved for Lotus to cement their own in the very near future.

Canadian Grand Prix: Vettel Victory Worrying for the rest of the Field

Sebastian’s performance in the Canadian Grand Prix was eerily similar to those of his dominating championship season in 2011. The signature Vettel start made an appearance, the German making a 2 second gap to second place by the end of the second lap. All the talk was of tires and the split between one, two and three-stop strategies. In the end, all three of those scenarios played out in what was an interesting, if slightly underwhelming Grand Prix.

With Valtteri Bottas valiantly, if slightly artificially in third place on the grid, the opening stint of the race would be all about getting around the Finn in the Williams. He made a better start than most would expect, but didn’t put up much of a fight when defending for position. It was probably for the best; why put off the inevitable, really? After about 10 laps, it was apparent that this race would be a lot like many of Sebastian’s past, where a sprint at the start set the stage for a controlled and calculated win. The pace at which his competitors fell behind, though, was astonishing. There were times when Sebastian would set a string of five of more fastest laps in a row. This type of consistency was not apparent during practice when, quite visibly, the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso was the fastest man in the field.

As the laps ticked away, so did Vettel’s lead increase. Fernando Alonso, from 6th on the grid, found himself stuck behind Valtteri’s Williams for a few laps, the Finn defending hard once he got settled down after the start. The Spaniard eventually got past, but he had significant time to make up in order to catch the two Red Bulls and Mercedes at the front. Once in clean air, though, the going was much smoother.

Jean Eric Vergne made a good start to hold position in the opening laps. The pressure to impress Red Bull acting as impetus to finally pass the struggling Williams after several attempts. These two initial passes on Valtteri were just the start of a disappointing day in which points seemed very likely. The Finn will have to wait another day to jump in a body of water for his team.

As all of this happened, though, triple world champion, Sebastian Vettel, cruised serenely off into the diastase, leaving the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Mark Webber scrambling for the last podium positions.

Nico Rosberg and Daniel Ricciardo were the first to blink as they hit the pits before the 20 lap mark. A two stop strategy would be the way for them. As they were the first to pit, it looked to be that one and two stop strategies would be the only options for success, barring any disaster. Nico was able to hold position after his stop to Mark Webber, despite all the signs that the German was struggling for pace. When his teammate emerged from the pits two laps later, the gap between them was bigger than he would have liked.

By this stage, Sebastian had about a 10 second lead. When he made his first stop after the three drivers behind him, he was able to increase this further. For the rest of the race, the gap to the second placed driver remained in the 14-18 second range. Any sign of the lead disappearing came when Vettel had a slight off-track excursion.

In the midfield, things were getting dicey between the Saubers, Williams, Mclarens, Toro Rossos and Lotuses. The latter were hoping to make much more ground in the opening laps with Kimi Raikkonen, instead getting caught up in the train behind Valtteri Bottas.

Pastor Maldonado and Adrian Sutil had a wild moment after slight contact between the two caused the German to spin in the middle of the track. To avoid a major incident in this narrow part of the track, avoiding drivers had to take to the grass. Adrian came away form this incident with worrying rear wing damage which, at high speeds, caused the left side of the wing to lean awkwardly at one side. The wind seemed to be structurally sound, though, and Adrian carried on.

Back at the front, Vettel was maintaining his huge advantage. At this stage in the race, it became apparent that the only fighting left in the race was for the final two steps on the podium. It wasn’t only between Lewis, Nico and Mark, though. Fernando Alonso relentlessly closed the gap to the frontrunners to put himself in contention. All the while as well, Paul di Resta and Romian Grosjean, who started from 17th and 22nd respectively, were pounding around on the Medium tire. The two were in serious contention for a top-5 position until the reality of running for so long on one set of tires kicked in. Romain Grosjean lasted for nearly 50 laps on the harder tire while, more impressively, di Resta managed even more. Romain Grosjean had a terrible time on the Supersoft tires, though, and made a second, unplanned stop after just 8 laps. His bid for points was over for the day.

Nico Rosberg was also having tire issues. The Mercedes tire gremlins were here to stay for at least one driver. After his second stop, Nico was unable to keep pace with the leaders and his two challengers from behind. The German had to make an unscheduled third stop towards the end of the race, ending his bid for a podium.

After their second and final stops, Lewis Hamilton, Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso were set for a great battle for the podium. Mark was further back than he would have liked, but his deficit was not insurmountable. Fernando Alonso was able to get ahead of the Australian while Rosberg was struggling with his tires. After his second stop, Fernando’s gap to Lewis Hamilton was just small enough to overcome. In the dying laps of the Grand Prix, the Spaniard made his move on the Mercedes driver for second place. He was successful, but Lewis was right behind him on the next lap and made an unsuccessful attempt to regain the place. In this battle, however, was Adrian Sutil. He was given a blue flag warning to slow down for the leaders but failed to do so to the satisfaction of the stewards. He was given a drive-through penalty, thus putting him in danger of not scoring. The German emerged from the pits in 10th place, but was under threat from Sergio Perez in the Mclaren. Both he and teammate Button had races, and weekends for that matter, to forget. Sutil was able to hold 10th at the drop of the checkered flag in the end, just behind the disappointed Kimi Raikkonen.

At the front, though, we had hardly seen anything of Sebastian Vettel. He managed his tires to perfection, pushing when he needed to and scaling back when necessary. It was a brillliantly calculated drive, one a perfect representation of his talent. Sebastian even resisted the urge to set fastest lap on the last lap of the race, much to the relief of everyone in the Red Bull garage. This was also Sebastian’s first win in Canada, and leaves only three tracks on the current calendar for him to master, the first of which, his home race, coming up in less than two months.

What does this dominance mean for the rest of the season? We certainly expected him to dominate in Spain after his performance in Bahrain, but that didn’t happen. Will the same happen this time? I get the distinct feeling, much to my annoyance, that Sebastian’s form his here to stay. Who knows, though? Formula One is impossible to predict.

Be on the lookout for “Canada: The Aftermath” where I will discuss the implications of Sebastian’s win and why Mercedes’ good result in Canada will only fuel the fire that is ‘Testgate’.

2013 Australian Grand Prix Preview

It’s safe to say that no one really knows who is going to win the season opener. Belting out laps over and over again may prove that your car is reliable, but it doesn’t reveal the most important part: speed. While testing has clouded our judgement of the cars rather than clear it up, the fans can rest assured that whatever happens come Sunday, they most likely will not have expected it.

For the teams, preparing for the race will involve some new and interesting challenges. First off, not everyone completed their testing programs entirely. The rain and cold temperatures made sure of that. This means that rather than just getting re-aquainted with the smooth surface of the Melbourne track, all the teams will still be testing new parts. The significance of all of their impacts is yet to be deciphered, but it would be a good bet to say that the Friday practices will be hectic; more so than any other time we will see this year.

For the top teams, they will also have to prepare for the possibility of the midfield teams springing an early surprise. No one was expecting the fight between Sauber and Ferrari in Malaysia last year (although the rain made sure of a mixed race). Regardless, Red Bull, Mclaren, Ferrari and Lotus will be on the lookout for the likes of Sauber, Williams and even Force India to force their way to the front.

Another part of this preparation will be coming to grips with the relationship between the tires and the track surface. The rough tarmac of Jerez and Barcelona will make way for the smooth surface that characterizes the Melbourne street circuit. Pirelli have been brave to bring the Supersoft and Medium tires to Australia. This will be the former’s first appearance Down Under, prompting many to question the Italian company after the tire debacle we saw in testing. Pirelli assures the paddock, however, that despite all the concerns from testing, two to three stops should be expected this Sunday.

With the step in tire compounds comes an increased importance in strategy. Long gone are the days where drivers drove flat out until they got low on fuel and then pitted. Now, there is a huge degree of tire management that often defines the outcomes of races. The step between the Supersoft and Medium tires is expected to offer more than a second between lap times. Indeed, starting position, along with what tire you start on, will be major factors that influence race strategy.

With all the unknowns surrounding strategy and the running order, the season opener promises to be even more unpredictable than last year’s. The only certainty in uncertainty! Only 58 laps are allocated for the race, ensuring there will be an epic battle for supremacy this weekend.

Qualifying Prediction:

I feel a shoot-out between the top-5 teams is entirely possible. This doesn’t mean, though, that the midfield teams will be left out of the top-10 entirely (although that might be good for strategy). For pole, though, I am not going to discount Mercedes and expect Lewis Hamilton to come out on top.

Race Prediction:

I expect an entirely different narrative for the race. Despite all their flashes of speed and brilliance, I am not convinced Mercedes have what it takes to win right off the bat. With a Ferrari that is much improved compared to last year’s and a driver that is only more determined, I don’t see why Ferrari and Fernando Alonso won’t come out on top. Look out, though, for the likes of Vettel, Button and Raikkonen to fight it out to the checkered flag.

Race Stats:

Track distance: 5.303 Km (3.295 miles)

Race distance: 58 laps or 307.574 Km (191.11 miles)

Expected weather: Sunny for practice and the race with rain predicted for qualifying. Temperature is set to drop over the course of the weekend.

Mercedes Get it right the Second Time

A simple hashtag.  That’s all it was.  A hashtag.  A hashtag that managed to overwhelm the website of one of the most professional Formula One teams in the business.

What Mercedes failed to consider last Saturday was the power of their fans when given the opportunity to see their favorite car two days early.  When the official Mercedes F1 team website crashed for a number of hours, the fans went mental.  The goal behind this infamous hashtag mentioned earlier was to get their fans excited about the possibility of an early reveal.  The fans would tweet with the hashtag #F1Wo4Reveal and in turn, each tweet with the hashtag would slowly open a virtual garage door on their website with an image of their new car behind it.

With this scheme failing for the most part (the site was eventually back up but opening the door was a slow and painful process), Mercedes really needed to get their official launch down to a tee.

This morning, Mercedes unveiled their challenger in a manner most civilized.  Well, if you consider Lewis Hamilton doing doughnuts in his Mercedes SLS AMG Black Series civilized, it was the most tame event in the history of mankind.  In all seriousness though, the unveiling of the F1W04 was one of the most important of the whole field.  Lewis Hamilton has arguably put his career on the line with a team which has failed to achieve most of their goals.  The one race win in China was the highlight of a season riddled with the most extreme lows the team has experienced.

As Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton slowly drew back the cover of the car which everyone had already seen, I thought to myself, “Boy, I hope this car can be remotely decent”. If F1 is to live up to the excitement of 2012, this car needs to challenge.  The F1 fans will not want to settle for only four top teams.

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As you can see, Mercedes has a brand new sponsor in BlackBerry. Indeed, Lewis and Nico were sporting brand new smartphones with which they took many photos of the new car and themselves.  What is immediately apparent is the vanity panel.  The 2012 Mercedes sported the most revolting stepped nose of the whole field. Personally, I am thrilled with the new look. As with most of the launched cars, the front wing is very similar to that of last years’, though this will change tomorrow when testing commences.

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The atmosphere, from what the live feed could give me, was one of positivity.  Nico Rosberg has said that he doesn’t expect Mercedes to be one of the cars to beat at the beginning of the season, as it was last year, because the deficit the team had to the leaders at the end of 2012 will be too great to overcome so swiftly.  He does however believe that Mercedes can be competitive this season.  similarly, Lewis Hamilton is positive for what may be a career defining season.  He has stated that he doesn’t expect to fight for the title this year, and right he should. I would question his sanity if he thought otherwise.

What is obvious, though, is that Mercedes have a very important year ahead of them.  They no longer have any excuses. They have two fantastic drivers, the best technical and operational bosses (of questionable organization, though) and most importantly, motivation.  This is a recipe for success.  Whether it comes in 2013 or 2014 remains to be seen.

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