Oz Grand Prix – What we now know

So the F1 season took flight today with the first Grand Prix of a 19 race calendar at Albert Park, Melbourne won by Nico Rosberg. While the race was interesting it wasn’t a classic (but definitely worthwhile viewing) but we like the teams have had some questions answered.

1. Mercedes are out in front

Mercedes would of had a 1-2 finish were it not for reliability issues with the engine of Lewis Hamilton’s car, Nico Rosberg calmly pulled away at over a second a lap on Daniel Ricciardo after the saftey car. Whether anyone can catch them up remains to be seen and pace will vary a lot race track to race track this season but the Silver Arrows is the car to be driving at the moment.

2. Red Bull aren’t as far behind but still have attitude issues

Daniel Ricciardo finished 2nd on the road but was disqualified after the team refused to follow FIA advice on the fuel rate being used in the car. While the meters have been troublesome all weekend the team failed to both change it on Saturday evening and to reduce their flow rate during the race on advice from the FIA. Sebastian Vettel had a sick engine and after managing 5 laps had to retire, however by lap 25 he’d left the paddock all together. Its a far cry from the man who famously took time during the off season to go and chat to people at Pirelli about their tires. However the car looks good and they seem to be in that front pack of McLaren, Ferrari and Williams.

3. Williams Pace is real

Williams would of finished better if Kobayashi’s brakes hadn’t failed at the first corner and ploughed him into Felipe Massa and if Valteri Bottas hadn’t tagged the wall causing the first safety car. Despite the Finn’s mishap he fought through the field to finish 5th after dropping way back showing the car is working well and should be competing for podiums this season.

4. McLaren are back on form

Despite a poor second test the McLaren looks to be on the pace especially in race trim were after penalties both cars would of finished on the podium. Kevin Magnussen looks right at home as an F1 driver leading home the effort from the Woking squad ending their drought of podium finishes.

6. Lotus are in deep trouble

If Red Bull surprised us with their reliability, pace and ability to catch up the Lotus team did the opposite. After qualifying plumb last and the car failing to go round corners at speeds the safety car would baulk at the team managed around 2/3rds of the distance in the race. They’ve still not completed a race distance with either car and have a heap of work to do.

7. Still no idea about the young teams

Failures brought an end to both Caterhams during the race and issues at the start hampered Marussia (with Chilton starting from pit lane and Bianchi starting 8 laps later). Qualifying showed us nothing more than they are faster currently than the Lotus – it may not be the dream move forward they were both hoping for.

8. The cars are more reliable than first feared

After all the doom and gloom and Jerez people were frantically flicking through the rule book to find out what would happen if no cars finished in Melbourne. However possibly aided by a cool Autumn evening only 7 cars succumbed to the new power plants (Massa retired from an accident with Kobayashi and Bianchi while counted here was still running at the end) leaving us with 14 classified finishers which in years gone by would of been considered high!

The F1 Rookies of 2014

With Formula 1 having its largest rule shake up in decades we expected many of the teams to retain their drivers for this season, however the silly season produced a game of musical chairs that left only Mercedes and Marussia with the same drivers as in 2013. The movement was prompted by the retirement of Mark Webber and Ferrari finally losing patience with Felipe Massa and hiring Raikkonen from cash strapped Lotus to try and improve their constructors standing. That said there are still 3 fresh new faces to follow this year over the 19 race calendar:

Kevin Magnussen

Kevin Magnussen the 2012 Formula Renault 3.5 series champion replaces Sergio Perez at McLaren to be the first rookie at McLaren since a certain Hamilton quietly joined in 2008. The Dane is the son of former F1 driver Jan Magnussen and has looked like he could certainly improve on his father’s career tally of 1 point. In testing the youngster has impressed many watching by jumping in the car and getting on with it, he could well prove to be a World Champion but its early days and the pressure is most certainly off.

However he has build a solid junior career and been with McLaren for a few years in their junior programme. He battled hard with fellow McLaren driver Stoffel Vandoorne (who finished 2nd and will race in GP2 this year) and Red Bull youngester Antonio Felix Da Costa (3rd) to claim the championship and has been richly rewarded. There were strong rumours that McLaren had tried to place him in a smaller team for this season but failed to find him a drive leading to them to dispose of Sergio Perez after a year and go for the young Dane in the main team. He will need to prove himself and quick to make sure he stays at Woking.

Daniil Kyvat

Many eyebrows (and spell checkers) were raised when Toro Rosso announced that Russian GP3 driver Daniil Kyvat would be joining the Red Bull junior team to replace the recently promoted Daniel Ricciardo. He was chosen over Antonio Felix Da Costa who was loosing his battle to beat the McLaren young drivers in Formula Renault 3.5 and Carlos Sainz Jr who was also racing in GP3. Both men had more experience but the decision may yet be vindicated as after his signing the Russian 19 year old romped home to the GP3 title in his rookie year taking pole, win and fastest lap in the last two feature races of the year and followed it up with solid drives in F1 tests/practices.

The more you look into the Russian you realise that he is a super talent and stands to do better than any of his country men before him in the premier class of motorsport but will he fall foul of the Red Bull curse? While the Red Bull young drivers program is a shining example of what to do to bring on young drivers the real question has always been is it the time to do it? The 19 year old has only had 4 seasons of open wheel racing under his belt none of which has been in a category that people consider to be the rung below F1 (E.G. GP2 or FR 3.5).

There’s great potential but I wonder if it will be a bit too much of an ask for him to jump from GP3 straight to F1, while Valterri Bottas did it he was nurtured by Williams with plenty of test outings. Kvyatt had just got his super license by Brazil last year.

Marcus Ericsson

Caterham is host to the final rookie of 2014, 23 year old Swedish driver Marcus Ericsson who was spotted when racing karts at 9 years old. The Swede wasn’t on any ones radar until Brazil when it popped up that he was talking to Caterham that weekend in the paddock. Ericsson has had average GP2 results with 2 feature wins (Germany 2013 & Belgium 2012) along with a sprint victory (Valencia 2010). His championship standings over the past 4 years show a steady improvement – 17th, 10th, 8th and 6th suggesting he possibly reached GP2 a little too early in his career. However a feature win in Spa aside there is very little to pick Ericsson out from the crowd so one would have to assume (and Caterham have alluded to it) that he brings with him a decent wad of cash.

He’s up against another driver who didn’t have a fantastic GP2 career in Kamui Kobayashi (Although he did win the 08/09 GP2 Asia Series), however the Japanese racer has shown that he has what it takes to overtake in F1 and is a strong fan favourite who has won his place on the grid through gutsy performances after Toyota pulled out leaving him without backing in 2010.

Unfortunately we’ve seen far too much of this driver selection over the past few years in F1, drivers with middling GP2 results but large wallets snapped up by teams to help fund them (and its always been so but just very so over the past few years). But at least this season Caterham have paired him with an established and popular name on the grid – hurrah!

F1 finishes Pre-season as we gear up for an interesting 2014

The tyre’s are cooling off in the pits and the lights are being shut-down at the Bahrain International Circuit as F1 finished its last day of pre-season testing before the first Grand Prix in Melbourne in two weeks time. The story hasn’t changed much during this second test in the desert with Mercedes powered teams all looking comfortable with Williams and McLaren both running their test engines past their mileage and into failures (this is useful to do as there are only 5 engines per driver this season so knowledge of how far they can push these new power plants is key). Ferrari look solid but with only 3 teams running the engines this year they are behind on mileage, but Marussia got up and running fairly well and were able to post competitive times alongside a good number of laps.

The real headaches are for the Renault powered teams of Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Lotus and Caterham – all of whom have suffered awful reliability and a lack of overall power during pre-season. Lotus have had to end every day early and Red Bull failed to complete a lap on Saturday with defending champion Vettel behind the wheel. The big question will be can any of them get their cars to last for 300km at full speed and even if they do these 4 teams are sorely behind on development work on their cars.

But none of the power plants are without their issues as all teams (Williams aside) have had serious failures during this test and the number of cars over the line in Melbourne could make for interesting reading. Historically we remember the season opener of being a low finishing race with a few drivers getting brain fade after the long break combined with cars that aren’t all sorted out. This hasn’t been the case since 2009 with the engine freeze meaning car internals have remained pretty static apart from tiny new gearboxes that were developed to get the rear as small as possible. Additionally Im really excited to see these new cars with the huge amount of torque they produce being raced in anger and the real possibility of drivers getting it wrong. Despite reports to the contrary I believe these cars will need better drivers to pilot them.

As for who is where its so hard to say, I think Mercedes are definitely pre-season favourites but Ferrari and McLaren have been keeping their cards close to their chest. Im pretty sure McLaren have spent most of this test doing simulator correlation work as they are the team that trusts the system the most. Furthermore if Renault sort out their issues I’d expect Red Bull and Lotus to be back up at the sharp end of the grid. Finally it will be interesting to see where Caterham and Marussia end up and whether they’ve managed to move closer to the performance of the established teams. The young teams joined in 2010 a year after the last technical overhaul in 2009 and never looked like catching the field and ended up taking pay drivers, doing battle with themselves and remaining pointless. Personally I would of liked to have seen the FIA tender for teams to join for this season so they don’t lose ground to the current field.

Switching to racing of the two wheel variety Ducati finally confirmed that they will be racing under the open specification for the 2014 season. Moto GP has modified the CRT class to become the main class named “Open” and have dropped the claiming rule. Teams entering bikes in this class will get 24 litres of fuel, 12 engines, 120 tires per rider for unrestricted testing (excluding tracks 15 days prior to their race weekend), softer tyres and no engine homologation but will have to run the spec ECU.

This leaves Yamaha and Honda as the only two marques racing their bikes in the newly christened “Factory Option” specification. This allows them to run their own software on the ECU but they will only get 20 litres of fuel, 5 engines which are now homolgated for the entire season, no testing apart from official in season events and no softer option tyre. Ducati have made the move to allow them to develop their bike throughout the season as they don’t have to freeze their engine for the year now.

However Magneti Marelli who make the new ECU hardware for the entire series previously made Ducati’s unit and there was quite a stir when a huge update arrived in Malaysia during testing. The update was so large and comprehensive that none of the teams ran it as they didnt have to work on their bikes and understand this huge new upgrade. Only thing was, the header to one of the files was labelled “Ducati Motor Company”. There’s nothing in the rules to prevent Ducati letting Magneti Marelli use their software as long as all the open teams get it.

But despite not using the upgrade Aleix Espagaro was consistently at the top end of the time sheets using his new open Yamaha bike. This likely prompted Ducati to make the switch seeing that riders could really be competitive using the open specification. The question now remains will Suzuki who are due to return next year enter in the open class (they delayed their entry this year to work on porting their software to the new spec ECU) or as a full factory entry. If Suzuki do choose to go open it could well be the death knell of the Factory Option as the open specification would have 3 full factory teams in their ranks (Aprilla and Ducati)

Renault last in first race

Renault are facing a massive race against time this week to sort out their engine troubles before the homologation deadline on the 28th of February when the new F1 power units will be frozen for the season save for reliability, safety and cost saving fixes. Renault suffered yet another poor test in Bahrain after the dire showing in Jerez, managing a meagre 770 laps of the Sahkir circuit with their four teams.

Lotus who skipped Jerez altogether were the most encouraging managing to get their new car running and putting in 111 laps (and have now only clocked 36 less than Red Bull despite their no show in Spain). Furthermore the team claimed to have put in a lap using full power which is more than can be said for the other teams running the power plant. While the total laps may not be critical, Ferrari powered cars completed 1000 laps (however that was pretty much split by the works team and Sauber) the teams completed their laps at quite a deficit of speed – over 5.5 seconds even at Lotus running “full power”. The main problems have been software related according to the official line but one of the main issues has been Red Bull’s lack of running.

The reigning World Champions are the de facto Renault works team who have a related title sponsor in the car brand, Infiniti, have had issues with cooling, gearboxes and spent most of the test tinkering with the toolbox. Their sister “junior” team – Toro Rosso who switched to Renault power this winter to take advantage of sharing as much technology as permitted by the regulations have faired not a whole lot better. They desperately need a good test this week to have even a fighting chance in Melbourne. Caterham have been leading the charge with 249 laps in Bahrain this week and a confident they are in the best position of the Renault powered teams but they still are lacking in actual speed despite solving most of their gremlins.

In contrast Mercedes have been having a wonderful fill of desert sun with the silver cars of the works squad and McLaren along with the royal blue of Williams testing livery glinting for an impressive 934 laps between them. Force India had a problem that limited them on the final day of the test but still chipped in well to bring Mercedes Power pre-season lap total to 2002, double their nearest rival. The Mercedes teams have been completing race simulations and qualifying runs and look set to spend the final test searching for outright speed. Mercedes were the only team to start true quali runs leaving the timing sheets to be grim reading for those who were struggling to complete single tours of the circuit at GP3 pace.

Ferrari are somewhere in the middle, the works squad have had a good time of it running relatively trouble free and appear to be on the pace – although they are playing their cards very close to their chest. Sauber struggled on the final day to get any real running, not even setting a lap time however they have completed decent mileage and are able to run on good pace at the moment. Marussia meanwhile are having an awful time, even worse than Red Bull – the smallest team on the grid have only managed 59 laps with the 2014 power units and something has obviously gone amiss with their integration of their car as they now sit bottom of the lap counter charts.

However all the talk of Mercedes being way out in front are wide of the mark we still no nothing about tyre usage, aero performance and fuel performance (a key issue this year as they are now limited to 100Kg of fuel). But it looks as though the Mercedes powered teams along with Ferrari will have quite a march on their rivals as Renault look to spend another 4 days getting the cars up and running while the others go off looking for perfect setups and aero performance. There is a real danger of Renault showing up to Australia without having completed a representative race distance – ouch.

That double points idea at Milton Keynes is starting to look like the best idea Bernie’s ever had!

Why the Big F1 Teams Must Embrace Cost Cutting to Preserve their Dominace

The political storm of 2014 is brewing and its not to do with rear suspension, turbo fan covers or double points; its a war that has been brewing since 2008 when the financial crash happened in the US and Europe and sent car manufacturers and sponsors running to the hills. This came shortly after the forced withdrawal of Tobacco sponsorship due to pan European health legislation, the exception being Philip Morris who still fund Ducati and Ferrari, mostly for Corporate hospitality and point of sale advertising in countries where it is still permitted (I remember seeing prominent Valentino Rossi posters advertising Marlboro in shops in Bulgaria in 2012).

This has lead to teams in Motorsport facing a significant cash flow problem, one that is yet to be solved. Moto GP had to take the radical approach of creating a new sub class of bikes called CRT, which allowed for modified super bike engines to be run in prototype frames allowing sub 1 million euro places to appear on the grid (compared to the 20 million upwards it takes to run full factory teams). After two seasons however they faced an issue, the CRT teams were catching the satellite bikes as they were permitted more fuel and engines, this season will see the creation of open class bikes and factory option bikes. The factory teams will get only 20 litres of fuel and 5 engines to last a season, in return they get to write their own software for the new spec ECU. Choose open class and you will get 24 litres of fuel and 12 engines for the season but will have to run the complete spec ECU.

These rules have been pushed forward by Honda, the longest serving manufacturer in Moto GP and Yamaha have by in large gone along with it arguing that they use the sport for R&D for their road bikes and need to be set engineering challenges. The problem however is that it has prevented new manufactures from coming into the sport with Suzuki and Aprilla both readying challenges to the two grand old teams of the sport, both have put plans on hold as the new rules create a strange artificial difficulty. But there has been a defector.

This all out cost war on bikes further and further from road relevance has worn out the patience of Ducati who look set to switch their entire entry to the open class format. One would then assume that Aprilla would not spend the incredible amount of money to create a Factory bike when there is Ducati to take on with their battle ready CRT bike from last year. Suzuki have admitted the new format is difficult and are working on porting their software but the defection of Ducati could spell the end for the “Factory option”. Furthermore Aleix Espargaro has been in the top 6 in testing on his open Yamaha engine running in a FTR chassis. If Suzuki and Aprilla go open with their entries, all it would take is for Yamaha to switch to the open format and it would render the Factory option all but irrelevant. All this because Honda refused to reduce costs in a sensible manner to preserve their dominance of the premier class.

Formula 1 has gotten a lot more expensive this year, the new power trains are hugely more expensive than the previously frozen V8 engines, thus there are several teams who are in serious financial trouble. There are three options for the sport to go in, two of which Moto GP tried which have lead to the only available option:

1. Don’t reduce costs but introduce customer cars / 3 car teams

One idea that has been floated a few times by the top teams has been allowing customer cars (selling cars to other teams) or running 3 car teams. This is what happened over the last few seasons in Moto GP prior to the CRT revolution. The rising costs and falling revenues lead to the withdrawal of Kawasaki, Aprilla, Suzuki, Blata, Proton, Moriwaki, Harris WCM and Kenny Roberts (in the space of 8 years) leaving only 3 manufactures left in the sport, this lead them to all create “junior” or “satellite” teams which helps fund the development and fill the grid. However while it gives the smaller teams more competitive machinery it creates a glass ceiling where they can’t have the latest developments and thus can’t really ever compete with the top teams.

Furthermore these customer teams are forced to run riders they don’t want as part of the deal and still having to pay large sums to the top teams for bikes. However they don’t gain anything in return as they never own the bikes so they gain no assets other than a livery space for the year, meaning Dorna (the commercial rights holder) had to financially support these customer teams to maintain the grid size.

By 2011 the problem had reached critical levels with Suzuki down to one bike and about to pull out it left Moto GP with too few manufactures to fill the grid. They were faced with a possible grid size of only 14 riders for the following year so the sport had to act fast, therefore they went to option 2:

2. Create a cheaper second tier class for the small/independent teams

In 2012 Dorna launched a new cut price formula called “Claiming Rule Teams”, they would race in the top class but allowed to run prototype chassis’s alongside a modified superbike engine. The teams would gain more fuel and more engines but their engines could be “claimed” for a price of 30,000 Euro to prevent any expensive development. The claiming rule was there to protect the class and there was a gentleman’s agreement between the 3 factories that they wouldn’t ever use it unless requested to.

This lead to a swelling of the grid, despite each factory limited to running only 4 of their own bikes. It also saw the return of Aprilla, Suter, FTR, Ioda and the appearance of BMW to the sport as independent teams took up the challenge of entering the sport and creating their own bikes. The teams pretty much fought amongst themselves but thanks mostly to the efforts of Aprilla and Aleix Espargaro started picking off satellite riders and regularly qualifying in the top 10.

Dorna then moved to remove the claiming rule and forced the factory teams to contribute to the independent teams, with Yamaha leasing M1 engines for use in the newly christened open class and Honda producing a complete bike. Those specifications while being more expensive than some of the previous efforts will go head to head with a heavily updated Aprilla ART bike (the previous champions of the CRT’s) however as the rules are now joined Ducati are looking to move down. This option of two classes will lead to people who are struggling for budget or for victories to move down into the cheaper set of rules to compete properly.

All this will eventually lead the sport to option 3:

3. Drastically reduce costs in the sport

Moto GP is looking likely to see teams only run in the open class and represents a victory for Dorna and the value of decent competition rather than a outright spending race. The big teams have not only lost a political battle, but they will have lost their influence over the rules as Dorna allowed them their changes in exchange for the creating of their class. Furthermore they will have lost ground on the other teams who will have more experience developing and running these bikes to their rivals who embraced the change.

This self preservation has lead to the complete opposite, self destruction – Formula 1 could do with taking heed.

2014 Challenges and Changes

So I have been listening and reading lots of pre-season stuff and unsurprisingly most of it talks about engines and aerodynamics. 2014 sees the biggest change in the regulations in over 20 years with a completely new power train (the new word for engine this year!) alongside significant aerodynamic modifications. Here’s the highlights of what’s going to be different once the wheels start turning in Melbourne in a few weeks time:

The “Finger” Nose

Once again the new regulations have created less than beautiful cars, after the banning of the wide wings in 2008 and the diffuser rules being fully tightened in 2010 teams have slowly sought to get their chassis height higher and higher to increase airflow to the rear of the car. This lead to safety concerns that a driver could be speared by a nose if it was the height of the car and also it increases the likelihood of cars getting airborne in crashes (Mark Webber in Valencia anyone?). Therefore after the ugly stepped noses of 2012 and the attempt to cover them up in 2013 with “vanity panels” the rules in 2014 attempted to return the cars to the sleek low noses by lowering the bulkhead (where the chassis meets the nose cone – That thing that Lotus will be changing with alarming regularity this season) by 10cm and stipulating that the nose has to end much lower. However that part of the nose can be any shape and only has to be a minimum of 10 square cm. This has lead to teams doing one of 3 things, Ferrari have created a big lolloping front to the car while the majority of other teams have a more elegant nose with then a small mini “finger” nose protruding out the front. Meanwhile Lotus have been clever and made some tusks, one longer to count as the end of the nose balanced by a slightly shorter second tusk. There could be a few more innovative designs in the coming week. Coupled with this strange new appendage is a slightly narrower front wing, which you will now notice ends in the middle of the tyres, in contrast to inside the tires prior to 2008 and at the end of the tires recently.

The Rear

The changes at the rear of the car have been significant aerodynamically, gone is the lower beam wing and the beautifully named “monkey seat” and in their place is a single exhaust exit pointed 5 degrees up with a restriction on placing anything behind the exit. Therefore gone is the exhaust blowing, even if teams were going to try and use it alongside the most complicated engines in the history of the sport. Furthermore the rear wing has been made shallower reducing the down force it generates. This has all lead to a major reduction in down force compared to what Red Bull (the masters of rear down force recently) were achieving last year, so much that they allowed the cars to run with a lot of rake (i.e. the rear is higher than the front) to balance the huge amount of rear down force and get the front closer to the ground. All this is a problem because….

The Torque

Leaving engines and the difficulties of them aside for this post, the biggest change with the engines is going to be the torque. Painfully lacking from the 2.8Litre V8 engines the new V6 Turbo’s will be torque machines, meaning drivers are going to have to look after that throttle pedal a heck of a lot more because if you floor it coming out of a corner your going to be facing the way you came pretty quickly. This huge amount of torque (created by the electrical side of the new power unit as the energy has already been generated and is sitting waiting to be deployed) is going to make the loss of rear down force all the more noticeable. We’re really hoping that this will count in skilled drivers favour.

Gears

Another huge change created by this regulations that hasn’t been discussed all that much is going to be the gearbox. With all the extra torque the engine will produce the teams will now have an 8th gear to deal with it, but this comes at a price. The new rules no longer allow for gear ratio changes (you’re allowed to make one change after the start of the season so you can correct it if you get it a little wrong) meaning that engines will be the same wherever we go, meaning that teams will have to compromise how best to run their cars over the season. Additionally the engineers can no longer tune the car into each circuit meaning the drivers will have to judge their use of power even more. Expect to see the drivers attempting Monaco using only 4 gears and dealing with the resulting torquey beast around the streets of the principality in the same engine setup that will tackle Monza.

Reliability and Chaos

In the past few seasons driving for one of the back of the grid teams meant turning up and finishing around 18th/19th once Maldonado or Grosjean had punted a few people off over the race distance. This year there will not be a full grid finish that’s for sure! With such a complex change some team principles are predicting we could see only 50% of the grid go the full way in Melbourne. Furthermore with the new engines, power trains and gear restrictions there are going to be cars that are faster in certain parts than others. It could lead to one team getting it spot on and streaking off into the distance, but it could also see cars that are hard to handle, that breakdown, that lack enough down force to contain the power, that need to be nursed for fuel and could create some merry chaos….. here’s hoping eh!

Anteater’s Reveal themselves

In 2012 we had “the step”, last year was all about vanity panels to hide the step, we’ve had the transformers of the mid 00′s and the resulting 2009 clean up. The 2014 rules however have produced the Anteater. With McLaren launching their actual car along with renderings from Force India, Lotus and the bizarre non-branded Williams sketch the 2014 cars have produced a strange set of snouts out the front of them.

 

http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/72501000/jpg/_72501894_72500084.jpg

Personally I think they look okay besides the strange noses with the Lotus render having the best of the bunch so far with a twin pronged approach. The cars look more balanced with narrower front wings alongside clean lines and a single beam rear wing. There have definitely been worse looking beasts over the past 15 or so years.

Also Eric Boullier is moving to McLaren, expect an announcement soon alongside possibly a sponsor announcement to add to that grey rather barren livery of the MP4-29.