Pastor’s Perception and Pay Drivers: Bad or Misunderstood?

No driver currently in Formula One does not deserve to be there. What Formula One fans around the world fail to comprehend is that the drivers we all know deserve to be in Formula One but aren’t, are just more deserving than the ones we perceive to be undeserving, that are. The line is grey, not black and white. There aren’t a certain number of podiums, wins and pole positions in a certain number of junior categories that suddenly qualify you to race in Formula One. That isn’t how it works. If it was, then Daniil Kvyat wouldn’t have been signed by Toro Rosso to race for them in 2014 and nor would Kimi Raikkonen have been signed by Sauber.

But like I said, the line is grey, not black and white. There is a huge margin of error, you could say, that both Formula One fans and Formula One teams like to exploit in different ways. While the former will write off any driver who brings money that overshadows his junior CV, the latter will use the money to enhance a junior CV, making an unimpressive junior career seem more impressive than it really is by sneakily using the money he brings to sign him, while employing some conveniently vague wording to justify their decision. Just look at the press releases Sauber may make should they sign Sergey Sirotkin for 2014 and you’ll catch my drift.

But why do we hate pay drivers so much? There is a certain air of entitlement in Formula One these days. Should you have a rich father and are more than half-decent at racing then one season in Formula One suddenly isn’t as far-fetched as it may have seemed as a child. That is a fact of the sport.

But nothing is ever entirely given to a “pay driver” either. If it was, then half of the grids in GP2/3 and Formula Renault 3.5 would be gone. You still have to go racing. If there is money involved, then some mistakes or frankly bad driving is inevitably forgotten, at least by the investors behind the driver. A few crashes? Just pump in a couple million more dollars.

While it is not quite that simple, a lot of goes on in junior racing is compensation. Take Rodolfo Gonzalez. He is far from the best driver in the world, and his GP2 record is frankly embarrassing, but he isn’t the worst driver either, otherwise he wouldn’t have gotten where he is. No team, regardless of how financially desperate, would take an outright terrible driver. Why then, has Rodolfo had so many pointless practice outings with Marussia then? The team is gaining nothing from them, as he is often two seconds off either Max Chilton or Jules Bianchi, and Rodolfo is gaining nothing other than an exciting afternoon because he isn’t realistically in the running for a race seat anytime soon. They guy is almost 30 years old for goodness sake. He makes these outings because PDVSA pays for them. They compensate the team for a wasted morning in return for a Formula One outing for one of it’s lesser F1 hopefuls. That is what really gets fans angry.

When a young driver is rumored to be in the running for an F1 seat, we immediately investigate how much money he has with him. If there isn’t any, then you can almost immediately write him off. If there isn’t money, but he is connected to a young driver scheme with another team, then you should still count him in the running. But, if there are millions upon millions behind him in the form of oil or banking or technology, and he has a decent or better junior career, then the seat is almost certainly his. Those are the facts of modern Formula One.

We are never going to get rid of pay drivers. While they may not be good for the sport, they are vital to its longevity. If there were no Maldonados, Perezes or van der Gardes, then the sport would not be here. They are what drives F1 forward in a time where manufacturers consistently avoid getting into the sport or threaten to leave. In a way, pay drivers are just another example of the privatization of Formula One. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, like any perceived negative in life, it must be used in moderation. Should the number of pay driver proliferate, then there would be a problem, but there aren’t that many right now. The sport is not doomed because of Max Chilton and Pastor Maldonado. Far from it. But we as fans have such an idealistic view of what the sport should be that we forget that the sport has to be.

With Pastor Maldonado’s Lotus signing today, the issue of pay drivers was once again shoved into the faces of every Formula One fan. Yes, Nico Hulkenberg deserves to be in that seat. His performances in the second half of 2013 are more than justification for Lotus to sign him. But Maldonado is not undeserving of the seat either. He is just far less deserving than Nico is. That is the grey margin we find ourselves in today. We would all love for there to be a black and white distinction between who deserves to be in a top seat and who doesn’t. But we will never get that. In fact, the sport depends on there being some ambiguity between the deserving and the undeserving. Otherwise, their vital millions would never get into the sport.

There is a question I want everyone who reads this to think about long and hard: Would you rather watch Formula One with many great drivers and a few average, or no Formula One at all?

 

Q&A With Nick Chester

It’s been a busy year for Nick Chester. After his boss moved to Ferrari, he found himself leading the technical department of one of the most popular teams in the sport. I had the chance to talk to Nick about his role at Lotus as well as the monumental changes occurring next season that threaten to shape up the competitive structure of Formula One.

Chris Cassingham: We know enormous changes are taking place in the engine and power department for 2014, but what are some of the aerodynamic changes we will see?

Nick Chester: There are regulation changes for a reduced span front wind, lower nose and removal of the lower rear wing. In addition the single tailpipe exit regulation will remove exhaust blowing development. The sidepod area will be shaped differently to account for the increased cooling required with the turbo engine

CC: What were the goals in making the wings and noses lower?

NC: The main goal with the nose is to avoid an accident where the car can be launched. The narrow span front wing and removal of the lower rear wing were brought in to limit aero performance.

CC: What do you think will be the determining factor in competitiveness next season?

NC: There will be various factors. Aero will be important as always but in addition there could be much bigger performance differences between power units that we have seen for many years. The most competitive car will have a strong power unit but will also have managed to integrate it in a very efficient manner.

CC: Will the new regulations require, or at least play into the hands of, certain driving styles?

NC: I don’t think there will be a significant difference to now. It will still be very important to manage tire degradation.

CC: How will the new tires, be them from Pirelli or elsewhere, work with the new engine and aero regulations?

NC: We don’t expect a significant difference in tire loadings and expect the tires to perform broadly as in 2013.

CC: How much of a financial strain will the new regulations put on smaller teams like Lotus?

NC: Obviously, it is a more expensive car to build and develop. We started it over 18 months ago which has hopefully put us in a good position.

CC: Why do you think Formula One chose to make such drastic changes now?

NC: The new regulations are much more relevant for road car manufacturers which is important to keep their involvement in the sport.

CC: What about the whole season in general do you think will be the most different to what it is now?

NC: Teams wil need to make the best use of their 100 Kg of fuel. As such, managing the power unit operation through the race will be extremely important and tied to race strategy.

Chester at the 2013 Belgian Grand Prix Friday press conference

Chester at the 2013 Belgian Grand Prix Friday press conference

CC: Is there a risk that reliability in the new generation will be a problem? There are a lot of new parts just waiting to go wrong…

NC: I think there may be some difficulties during pre-season testing, but teams now spend a lot of time on engine and gearbox dynes so a big proportion of the package will be validated before hitting the track. There could be some failures in the first few races but I expect teams to sort out reliability problems fairly quickly.

CC: Do you think green-friendly regulations will be able to draw upon a new fan base, or do you think we could enter a polarizing era for the sport?

NC: I am hoping it will expand the fanbase. Technically, there are a few challenges which will hopefully draw further interest.

CC: Technically, what does the future hold for Lotus?

NC: We need to stay competitive this year and push for 3rd in the constructors’ championship. For next year I hope we will start with a strong car straight away and will then need to develop it heavily through the year.

CC: What do you know about Formula E and what do you think it means for the future of motorsports?

NC: It is an exciting race format with 1 hour races on street circuits for fully electric cars. I think it will have a good following when it starts in 2014. Since the fuel limit will be reduced in the future in F1 we will keep developing and improving efficiency of the electric storage and drivetrain.

CC: How have you adapted to your expanded role at Lotus after James’ [Allison] departure?

NC: Pretty well, I think. I’m really fortunate to have such a dedicated team in all departments. We have a great team here at Enstone, with many very experienced engineers and production staff which makes my job much easier. I am enjoying the challenge of continuing to develop a competitive 2013 car whilst we design a radically new car for 2014.

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.

The Lasting Impact of Allison’s Departure

There’s no denying James Allison’s dedication to the team now known as Lotus. He joined the team in 1991 just a few years before it became the championship winning powerhouse of the Formula One paddock in 1994-95.

He left the team, though, and applied his skills at Ferrari, but he eventually made his way back to his Enstone-based team. At this point, the squad was known as Renault and, while he was not the technical director, he was an integral part of the championship success the team enjoyed in 2005-6.

In 2010, he was made technical director of a team who had all the means to make the step up to top-team status. Their two drivers had talent, with Robert Kubica in particular showing championship winning potential. Unfortunately. his 2011 crash ended most of the team’s hopes of fighting for the championship. The 2011 car also proved a major disappointment, with an ambitious design proving great initially, but eventually failing to maintain performance.

The trials of 2011 only accentuated Allison’s dedication to the team, and with the success of 2012, both in terms of car performance and driver decision, 2013 was set to be even better. This has been proved in spades already, but Allison’s departure has taken many by surprise.

While rumors of Allison’s potential departure were rampant practically the day the competitiveness of the E20 Lotus was seen, not many were expecting him to leave the team so early in the season. Allison has been very desirable in the past few years, as he has been a major player in the struggle of bringing the Enstone-based team back to the front of the grid.

With all of this in mind, Allison’s departure could potentially open the floodgates for further flights from the team. The technical department is undoubtedly weaker in the loss of Allison, but not completely, However, could this fuel the still raging fires of Kimi Raikkonen’s rumored departure? Possibly. But Kimi should have enough faith in his team by now that he knows when something like this will drastically effect his time and competitiveness in Formula One.

Allison’s replacement, Nick Chester, has a lot to prove during the remainder of the year, but all evidence points to a very competent and talented technical mind filling the void made by the former technical director. Lotus’s competitiveness may be in “danger”, but do not count them out just yet.

Barcelona Testing: Winners and Losers

This first test in Barcelona offered up the first slight glimpse at the competitive order for the 2013 season.  We know who will most likely be fighting for the championship and who will be fighting for the final money-paying position in the Constructors’ Championship.  What we don’t know, however, is who is fastest and who will eventually end up on top.  We have 19 races for that to be decided.

The test was action-packed with four different drivers on top over the course of the four days.  We also got some heavy rain and thus an opportunity to test the wet and intermediate tires on the brand new cars.  Here are my winners and losers from Barcelona.

Winners:

Williams:

With a delayed car launch, many thought that the Grove-based outfit were in some sort of trouble.  This was proved wrong when the FW35 turned out to be one of the most reliable cars of the test, while also showing a fair turn of speed in the process. The team has made it very clear that they intend to challenge the bigger teams in the 2013 season.  Indeed, if they are to consider 2013 and improvement upon 2012, surely there need to be two wins in the book, right?  They will also have some very stiff competition in the rest of the midfield, especially Sauber, who have impressed everybody so far with their reliability, speed and consistency.  Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas will undoubtedly have more work to do to fully understand the new car before the season kicks off in Melbourne, but if the team and car keep operating at the same level as in the first Barcelona test, then they are in good shape for the upcoming season.

Sauber:

The team who enjoyed a very successful and productive test in Jerez continued the trend in Barcelona. A grand total of 308 laps over the course of the four day test ensured the Swiss team was one of the most productive of the field.  Running without reliability problems was an added bonus to a thoroughly successful test. Both Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez weren’t chasing lap times for most of the test, rather they focussed more on set up work and further understanding the Pirelli tires, which have proven to be tricky to work with. Only on the final day of dry running did we see the C32 show a turn of speed in the capable hands of Nico Hulkenberg.  He went second fastest on that day and racked up a fair bit of mileage.  The small swiss team is looking like it could challenge the big teams again this year.

 

Losers:

Caterham:

Many expected Caterham to have made the step from backmarker to midfielder by now.  This is unlikely to happen if testing form proves to be the reality of their situation.  Reporting trackside, experts have observed the unstable nature of the green machine, saying that it struggles to find grip in all types of corners and that its ungainly way of changing direction makes it look even slower than it actually is.  Much of these observations could have been made while the car was on heavy fuel, as there wasn’t a lot of evidence that the team did any qualifying simulations.  Running with lots of fuel would have accentuated any bad, underlying qualities of the car, thus causing this concern.  However, if Caterham are to have a long-term future in the sport, they need to get their act together and make the step up to the midfield.  Marussia seem to have made more relative progress than Caterham, and soon, they may well overtake them in the pecking order.  Caterham have a good, if largely inexperienced, lineup in Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde.  They are capable of being consistent and delivering good performances.  Now, the car needs to be up to par in order for the drivers to deliver their best.  At the moment, this is looking unlikely.

The team have also experienced some controversy with their exhaust.  The team ran with a panel in their Coanda tunnel, thus breaching the technical regulations regarding exhaust design.  The FIA have ruled it to be illegal but, since this is testing, the team aren’t required to remove it.  If the team reach Melbourne with the panel still present, there could be significant consequences for the team.

Pirelli Tires:

In Jerez, one of my losers was the circuit itself.  Many observed that the old and worn out track surface was causing the new tires to degrade at a far greater rate than expected, thus cutting runs short and potentially skewing data from the test.  We were all relieved that the remainder of the test was to be carried out at Barcelona, a tried and tested racing circuit which the teams will be racing on this season.

What was perceived to be track characteristics causing the tire concern, has now been changed to tire characteristics.  The teams found that even the surface at Barcelona was tearing up the tires within just a couple of laps.  The data that the teams were gathering was inconsistent and runs were much shorter and carried out at slower speeds.  After his pacesetting day in Barcelona, Sergio Perez said of the 2013 spec Pirelli tires, “I hope it changes, because if we are in this situation in Melbourne we are going to see something like seven or ten stops.  There is very little what the driver can do to help the degradation.”  This concern over tire life has put Pirelli in the hot seat as the potential for another “lottery” start to the season could well be upon us once again.

The problem with the tires last year was that they were very difficult to warm up and get within their working range.  Once there, the tires were fairly durable and consistent over the course of a stint.  The tires that Pirelli have on offer for the 2013 season have remedied this warming problem, but may have created another.  All the drivers are full of praise for the tires’ ability to gain heat and get within their working window. However, the time the tires are within their working range in fleeting and soon the drivers are struggling for grip.  This rapid switch from grip to slip is a bad sign for the season to come.  These facts only go to show that Romain Grosjean’s race simulation on Thursday, where he did a behemoth stint of 20 laps on the medium tire, was one of the most impressive feats of all the preseason testing so far.  It also proves that the Lotus has the potential to be the car to beat this season.

The weather may have also had an effect on the performance of the tires.  Temperatures in Barcelona were much colder to those that will be experienced throughout the season.  Perhaps the conditions experienced in testing were causing the tires to degrade at a more intense rate.

Whatever the problem is with the new tires, Pirelli need to solve it fast. Otherwise, their decision to bring the Soft and Supersoft compounds to Melbourne may prove to be disastrous.

 

With the final four days of preseason testing upon us in just two days, and the season opener just under three weeks, there is still a lot of work to be done.  Stay tuned for coverage of each day of testing and another edition of Winners and Losers from the final four days afterwards.