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.

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’.

Mclaren: The new Ferrari?

Such is the way of Formula One, any team’s prospects at the beginning of the season are entirely impossible to predict. You may start out in the back of the midfield and end up fighting for the championship, or you may start out with a dominant car and see your championship hopes fizzle out three rounds before the season’s end. However, there is even the chance that you may dominate the whole season and wrap up the championship before the last flyaway races, or you may find that your chances are nowhere at the beginning and the end. Such is the way of Formula One; nothing is for certain.

Had you asked the big wigs at Ferrari at the end of 2012 testing where they expected they would be fighting, you would have gotten a few mumbles about how things weren’t as they wanted at the moment, but they were confident of improvements throughout the season. After the first practice session in Australia last year, Ferrari’s concerns were magnified. Driving for survival was the only way to go.

Much to the shock of the paddock, through relentless determination and sheer, dogged desire for success, Ferrari helped Fernando Alonso stay in title contention until the very last lap of the season finale. Feats of this caliber come only a few times in an F1 generation, and while 2013 looks to be a much better season for the Maranello squad, prospects are not so positive for Mclaren.

It seems the lads at Woking are taking the performance hit they expected at the beginning of the season a bit harder than they, and of course the fans, expected. In a time where evolution was the path of many others, Mclaren’s relatively radical car design has out them on the back foot in terms of performance. The rationale behind such a deviation from their previous design was that they would have more room for development at the end of the season. The possibility of hitting a performance ceiling before season’s end was of real concern to everyone at Mclaren, thus their design took on a more revolutionary scope in a bid to give the team more season-long potential. Red Bull, Lotus and Ferrari may wish they had done the same come the end of the season.

This weekend, Jenson Button has revealed that throughout testing Mclaren was unable to compete with the times set by the likes of Red Bull, Mercedes, Lotus and Mclaren. Gone are the days where drivers and teams could hide behind phrases like “it is too early to tell” or “we don’t know what fuel levels the others are running”. Testing is over and now it is time to show what you really have up your sleeve.

All conclusions from the first two practice sessions in Australia point to a Mclaren that is off the pace significantly. Worrying parallels can be drawn to the woes Ferrari dealt with at this same point last year. Both Jenson Button and Sergio Perez finished practice outside the top ten, and with time and track time at an absolute premium, there is not a realistic chance of the team making up enough laptime to fight for the win.

More specifically, Mclaren’s problems can be traced to the car’s new pull-rod front suspension. Without getting too technical, what having pull-rod suspension does is move the intricate mechanical components deep down inside the body of the car, making any adjustment to the system a long and drawn-out process. As a result, the drivers don’t get as much time on track, reducing the amount of information gathered, thus increasing the chances of needing to spend even more time in the garage making even more slow adjustments. It is a painful cycle that Ferrari found a struggle to break.

Unlike Ferrari, however, Mclaren is renowned for developing a car over the course of a season. While Ferrari is no technical slouch, there is no denying the Woking squad’s ability to make simulator and wind-tunnel data correlate very well in the real world. The upgrade brought to Germany in the middle of 2012 is a testament to Mclaren’s ability to turn the performance of a car around when absolutely necessary. After this update, Mclaren won the next three races in succession, should have won the Singapore and Abu Dhabi GP’s and finally won again in Austin and Brazil. At a time when Red Bull was supposedly dominating the championship, Mclaren had the fastest car. Ferrari’s ability to keep the F2012 competitive against the likes of Red Bull as well will give Mclaren hope that they can do even better this year.

The balance between priorities will be the hot topic of 2013. Each and every team has to develop their 2013 cars to ensure they get the championship (and money) they need at the end of the season, while also pouring resources into their 2014 designs, which by all accounts, could just put a couple teams out of business completely. While Red Bull, Ferrari, Lotus and even Mercedes could be fighting it out at the front of the grid in the first half of the season, Mclaren will be slowly but steadily chipping away at any deficiencies in their car, until it is championship worthy. The mandatory factory shut-down during the summer break could hurt those teams that are nearing the dreaded “performance ceiling”. While they struggle to come up with updates and balance 2014 development, Mclaren could be perfectly poised to pounce on the situation. They will already have updates planned throughout the whole season. Theirs should be more effective given the car’s all-important “potential” and that means they could really surprise.

Looking to the rest of the season, it is obviously too early to draw any conclusions about who will be the world champion, or who will even win the first race. What we know for certain, though, is that Mclaren are set to struggle at this first race at least. The team will have to lean on their famous ability to out-develop their rivals if they are to have a go for the championship. Such is the way of Formula One, however, they may not get a chance at all.

Barcelona Testing: Day 1

The F1 circus returned to action this morning at the chilly Circuit de Catalunya for what may be the prologue to another classic Formula One season. Williams finally revealed their 2013 challenger, thus completing the field and there was plenty of work to be done. Here is how everyone got on.

The morning was relatively quiet as everybody got used to the very green circuit. Once the teams came to grips, however, they were quick to show their speed. The last 20 minutes was when the drivers started to show their speed as Vettel, Raikkonen, Alonso and Rosberg impressed.

Sebastian Vettel in the Red Bull enjoyed a lot of time at the top of the time sheets (he ended the morning session fastest). He would eventually end the day 4th.

Fernando Alonso got his first taste of the F138 after he opted to sit out the four days of testing in Jerez. He said the new car was on another planet compared to the F2012 of last year. Funnily enough, this is precisely what Felipe Massa had to say about the F138 in Jerez. Fernando also completed by far the most laps of anyone, slipping past the 100 lap mark to finish on 110 for the day.

Sergio Perez kicked things off for Mclaren in Barcelona. A lengthly reset process after an aero run delayed his running for a large chunk of time in the morning, but he had a productive day nonetheless.

Kimi Raikkonen was the first of the Lotus drivers to get to know the E21 around the Spanish circuit. He was happy with the progress made today, but feels there is still some work to be done. He also enjoyed time at the top of the time sheets today, eventually finishing second.

Nico Rosberg had some gearbox troubles this morning. He was delays for a worrying amount of time, but eventually got running after the lunch break. He was quick to show his speed as well, ending the day fastest, just .007 second quicker than Raikkonen.

Esteban Gutierrez had a very quiet day in his Sauber. He was vocal about the tire situation, saying that they were degrading very rapidly, just like they did in Jerez. Nevertheless, Sauber have a lot of information to analyze over the next three days.

Paul di Resta was the early pacesetter this morning. There weren’t any mechanical issues of note and he ended the day 8th fastest.

As the first man to drive the brand new FW35, Pastor Maldonado had a lot to do today. The Venezuelan was very happy with the progress made on the new car and his is pleased with the overall performance. If there is anyone to gauge good car performance around the Barcelona circuit, it is last years’ winner.

Daniel Ricciardo impressed the time sheets, often hanging around the big boys on the speed charts. He didn’t encounter any mechanical issues and ended the day 6th fastest.

Marussia’s Max Chilton and Caterham’s Charles Pic were tenth and 11th respectively as the first of the four days of testing came to an end.

Tuesday times:
Pos  Driver                              Time                     Time                                 Laps    Tyre*
 1.  Nico Rosberg       Mercedes     1m22.616s            54  Medium
 2.  Kimi Raikkonen     Lotus        1m22.672s  + 0.007s  44  Medium
 3.  Fernando Alonso    Ferrari      1m22.952s  + 0.336s  110 Medium
 4.  Sebastian Vettel   Red Bull     1m22.965s  + 0.349s  66  Medium
 5.  Pastor Maldonado   Williams     1m23.733s  + 1.117s  86   Soft
 6.  Daniel Ricciardo   Toro Rosso   1m23.884s  + 1.268s  73   Hard
 7.  Sergio Perez       McLaren      1m24.124s  + 1.508s  77  Medium
 8.  Paul di Resta      Force India  1m24.144s  + 1.528s  82  Medium
 9.  Esteban Gutierrez  Sauber       1m25.124s  + 2.508s  68   Hard
10.  Max Chilton        Marussia     1m26.747s  + 4.131s  65   Soft
11.  Charles Pic        Caterham     1m27.534s  + 4.918s  49   Hard