Why F1 (and motor racing) is again Road Relevant (Almost)

Over the past few weeks in F1 we have seen much wrangling not over someone’s clever technical innovation (think Double Diffuser, F-Duct, Blown Exhaust, Twin Tusk Nose, Engine Covers etc. etc.) but rather what path the sport should take in the future. With the teams having a near sensible debate about where the sport should be x-years down the line and most of the big names pitching in with ideas without fear of fan or PR rebuttal.

Its a welcome change to the political argy bargy of previous years over rules and a good PR exercise in the least that the teams do care about the sport as well winning at all costs. Ferrari revealed a concept image of trying to make the cars more beautiful with horrendous amounts of downforce generating wings and appendages. Red Bull previous let designer Adrian Newey rip on a virtual car for Gran Turismo called the X1, with his vision of how fast he could make a car with no rules.

The current discussion has been about wider tyres, lower profile and a move to 1,000 BHP with a possible raise to the fuel flow meter. While raising the fuel flow meter could be seen as a dangerous move away from the hybrid efficiency movement it would of course drive all the energy recovery systems faster and harder to recover more of the energy lost. I personally have no problems with making the cars more powerful and unwieldy to drive, personally I think the cars should have less aerodynamics rather than more but boot loads of power – too much for the car to handle. The 2014 engines provided this in spades thanks to the torque provided by the electric engine alongside the removal of changeable gear ratios.

However amongst all this pie in the sky thinking is the real fear that some teams may not survive the year never mind an exponential increase in running costs. The hybrid engines have already cost a lot, especially as they have been marketed so badly and unfortunately they have missed the boat. With oil prices tumbling over the past 10 months we are looking now at a sustained period of low oil prices and already in the US Hybrid sales are tumbling while SUV’s roll off garage’s forecourts. But this will not last, the effect of low oil prices long-term is that many oil companies aren’t now looking for new oil as the deeper wells and arctic locations means the cost of production is higher than the selling price. This will drive the price up slowly but it will also pressure governments into forcing efficiency to stop a huge price spike.

However Le Mans seems to have it right with regards to tempting engine manufacturers into the sport with their free range options on fuel, engine layout and energy recovery systems. A similar approach in F1 simply limited by maximum fuel and fuel flow (the fuel flow is stop someone creating some crazy engine qualifying mode and keep a lid on the costs) but lifting the restrictions on the engine layout and energy recovery. Would the costs increase? Almost definitely. Would the manufacturers queue up to pay them? Most certainly.

You can image a diesel turbo hybrid Audi going up against petrol V6 Ferrari’s and all sorts of other cominations to provide the manufacturers with a platform to advertise their new engine configurations. The R&D would quickly filter down into road cars which have no real need to go faster or have better aerodynamics, but will need better efficiency in years to come. Now while costs would be higher risks could be lower because as long as the engine is competitive enough the manufacturer can point to the poster on the wall and say “Well Mr.x you may doubt this super duper hybrid low fuel engine but it runs on F1 technology”.

As it stands at the moment you have to make a V6 petrol engine with a very specific set of energy recovery elements, your hands are tied by the rules. This makes it a straight fight to the best layout with that engine rather than a game of wits with the twists and turns it could provide. Le Mans costs are not substantially lower than F1 (Teams spend around 80 million – 120 million Euros on just the 24 Hour Race (and then more to run the cars for the WEC) – and that’s just their outlay, additional costs will be covered by sponsors and prize money), however many motor manufacturers have queued up to join the competition despite the lower payout in press & coverage.

20 years ago the 1995 season saw 8 different engine manufactures with Peugeot, Ford, Yamaha and Hart lining up against Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault and Honda. In the years since 1995 we’ve also had BMW and Toyota grace the grid with their power plants however this latest revolution has only convinced Honda – who regularly compete in F1 – to return to the top table.

If it’s not all out costs, it must be the rules and the sports image, both of which we’d be better off considering fixing rather than introducing bigger tyres and wings in attempt to gather the fans.

Testing Times for McLaren as Barcelona 1 wraps

So its two tests down and only one more 4 day test to go before the season begins in Australia. In 20 days time the first Grand Prix will have been run so its full steam ahead into F1 2015.

The middle test(s) are always almost something of a non event, the first test see’s the shiny new chargers roll off the lorries for the first time and many calamities ensue as teams work out their gremlins. The final test (which starts on Thursday) see’s the teams start to chase performance properly, there are normally updates introduced and its a case of who blinks first. In recent years Red Bull have constantly made headlines by bolting on a huge upgrade package with only hours to go of the final day.

Therefore with no new cars or comparable times (there’s still always a bit of cloak and dagger at the test but a better picture is formed next time out) all eyes were on the new pairing of returning engine manufacturer Honda and McLaren. The team had a tough time as expected in Jerez but things didn’t let up too much come Barcelona with a seal on the MGU-K causing issues on the first 3 days. On the final day the team believed to have nailed it and not before time after only managing short runs or de-tuned runs on the previous outings. However their running would be cut short by Fernando Alonso crashing at turn 3 and being taken to hospital. The good news was that Alonso was ok and just had a minor concussion but stayed in the Hospital overnight for monitoring. The bad news was that after 20 laps the day and the test was over for McLaren, the car needing extensive checks and ruined any chance of JB getting in the car as initially planned. The team now desperately need to get some good running in later this week to stand a chance of featuring in the first few fly-away races. [Its now been confirmed they believe it was the wind which was gusting all day that caused the crash rather than any car failure]

Mercedes look in top form with Nico Rosberg matching most people’s fast laps (set with super softs) on mediums as part of a 7 lap run. A little glimpse that the boys from Brackley have also taken a big step forward, leaving their rivals with no doubt that they will be the team to beat this year. While neither of their drivers were in top form with Lewis suffering a bout of Flu and Nico a trapped neck nerve with the help of reserve driver Pascal Wehrlein (more on him in a bit) the team were able to top the lap charts for the week with Rosberg pounding 131 out on the last day alone. The one issue Mercedes had last year was reliability but you couldn’t claim that looks to be a problem from testing thus far!

Williams have kept themselves to themselves and haven’t chased times but have done plenty of km’s with Suzie Wolff getting a run on day 1 followed by Massa and Bottas sharing the remainder. Wolff’s trip out in the car wasn’t without incident when she collided with Sauber’s Felippe Nasr, however it only restricted her to 86 laps – a total that McLaren could only dream of.

If Ferrari were the surprise glory hunters of the first test that dubious honor fell to Lotus at Barcelona. While they were very late to the party only managing to get their car built after the first test has started things are looking up for the Enstone squad. After one of the worst (if not the worst) seasons in their illustrious history the team look to be on the bounce back with the newly powered Mercedes car proving both quick and reliable topping the time sheets on 3 days. However it has been Pastor Maldonado who has done the lions share of the distance with new reserve driver and GP2 champion Jolyon Palmer also getting a days running.

Red Bull looked to have put their problems of last year behind them and topped the time sheets on day 2 but during a race simulation they were just under a second slower per lap than Nico Rosberg despite running shorter stints. Renault, who now only power the two Red Bull teams after the defection of Lotus and the collapse of Caterham have stated that they intend to delay the use of all their engine upgrade tokens till later in the season. This will hamper the progress of the team who were heavily hampered by Red Bull’s lack of power last season.

The final interesting story of the test was the appearance of Force India at the test with their 2014 car possibly to try to pay some bills. Despite not having the car ready the team decided to go to the test to gather “Tyre data” however this took a strange turn when Mercedes proteg√© Pascal Wehrlein was to drive the car for 2 days. As Mercedes supply the team with their engine many assumed that it was some sort of deal that was cut to either reduce or defer payment on the engines. The team have been hampered by cash flow problems as issues, takeovers and lawsuits swirl around its two owners, Vijay Mallya and Subrata Roy. All was well until Lewis Hamilton took ill and withdrew from the test prompting Mercedes to take Pascal back for the rest of the day! He would return later on in the week to complete a days running with the teams regular drivers filling in the blanks.

Back to Front

While Formula 1 has burst back into action with 3 tests taking place across Feburary the front running teams have dispelled the disarray of last year and are moving forward. Honda’s arrival stuttered as expected but the last two days of the Jerez test saw Jenson and Fernando put some decent mileage on the McLaren-Honda. Merecedes pumelled the lap charts including setting a F1 record for single day mileage on the first day, quite the opening salvo. Ferrari look to have caught up some ground and the Williams looks as fast as ever. The other bizarre thing is leading into the season is the front running teams aren’t arguing over too much – there was a breif scuffle over the engine freezing but its been sorted out quite sensibly.

The road map for the future looks set including a move to higher horsepower engines and wider tires for 2017 and keeping things stable for this year and next. The nose rules appear to have had the desired effect and still have produced visibly different designs and interpretations of the rules. But its less rosy when we start looking further down the field.

The collapse of Caterham now seems confirmed as the final auction of equipment goes ahead in mid Feburary which will properly close down the team. Haas F1 have taken the oppurtunity to snap up lots of F1 standard gear at cut prices as Gene continues to show he’s the first team owner in a long time with their head located in the correct place. Marussia (Now using their original name of Manor) however have created a rescue package of finance headed by Justin King, the former Sainsbury’s CEO who has been touted as a sucessor to Bernie. However the car is unlikely to be ready and the team are negioating running the 2014 car for the first few races. But they have until Bahrain to show up but theres been a lot of rumbling from the other teams.

Force India look in big trouble they launched with a huge event in Mexico (most teams now opt for online launches or just from the factory) where they showed the new livery and anounced they were skipping the first test as the car wasn’t ready. No alarm bells went off, its been one of the shortest winters ever and Red Bull showed that skipping the first test for more development time can be beneficial. However the subsequent announcements that the car wouldn’t be ready forst the second test and they are hopeful for it being ready for the final test. According to some friends who work in F1, the car is still not built and they owe large amounts to suppliers. Force India have addressed this saying that since the collapse of Marussia and Caterham suppliers are wanting money up front rather than working on a credit account. Their owners continued fiscal problems only compounding their poor credit rating in the eyes of other companies.

Sauber ran well in the first test with their new striking livery provided by Banco de Braslia (also irconically the swedish national colours making everyone happy). Their pay driving pairing highlights the money problems at the back of the field with both drivers reported to be bringing 16 million Euros for the privelage to race this season. Its a duo light on experence with only Marcus Ericcson having a shortened season at Caterham under his belt but like Williams in years gone by this will be a building couple of seasons for Sauber.

Lotus remain an engima with the new Mercedes engine strapped in they should at least propel themselves up the pecking order despite the desertion of many sponsors after the torrid time they had last year.

However with 3 these teams all looking on shakey financial ground the F1 grid would be wise to wheeler dealer Manor back onto the grid in case of another drop out during the season. While F1 teams do come and go the grid size has always been around the 20 mark, not since 2005 when BAR were thrown out has an entry list been so short on competitors. Furthermore with more and more countries providing races, teams and drivers its a sad state to have possibly only 18 cars lining up for Austrialia. Furthermore the prospect of another team failing during the season could reduce the grid size too far and force action from the FIA / FOM to boost the number of competitors.

Reasons to be Cheerful – 2015

So i’ve been off the blog through the long hard winter months – sorry about that but after a slightly strange but compelling 2014 season the calendar has flipped and 2015 is here. The Motorsport year starts in full swing next week so here we have some reasons to be cheerful part 2015:

  1. ITS NOT LONG AWAY! – Force India and Williams have already shown their new looks off (albiet on a render and a old car) but its hard to believe that testing starts next week. Last winter felt like it lasted for ages after Sebastian Vettels slow waltz to the title in 2013 but with the 2014 F1 title going down to the wire and a short winter we are almost ready to be burning rubber again. But still – its not until March!!
  2. NEW LOOKS – While Williams haven’t changed much for 2015 apart from some under arm de-ponger on the sidepods (and no bad things considering that the Martini livery is one of if not the best look on the grid)¬† 2015 should see a number of new paint jobs and removal of Ann Summers approved appendeges. Force India have made a lot of improvments to their incresingly messy livery with a much smarter look. McLaren’s web presence has seen a removal of all things silver and a lot of white, red and black so expect to see a completly new look over at Woking with the arrival of Honda. But still – the Ferrari will be red – phew!
  3. ENGINES – F1 gets its first new engine supplier in over a decade with the return of Honda and the other manufactuers will have been able to update 50% of their engine. Now Mercedes are likely to have also moved on a step and start as favourites in the power plant category but everyone else knows what they did and also can introduce their upgrades at any point during the season. Furthermore there are conflicting reports about Honda and their power plant and wether it will produce the goods or not. But vareity is the spice of life! But still – Mercedes will be out in front
  4. MERCEDES – F1 was served up a treat in 2014 by Mercedes after years of domination by the Vettle/Red Bull combo. They may of been streets ahead but like days of Senna/Prost they just let their drivers go at it and scored a huge P.R. victory alongside their technical one. Red Bull have lost their cool edgy-ness in F1 after tumultuous years with Webber & Vettel alongside plenty of politicing. Mercedes have won many a fan with their dominating campaign in 2014 and lets hope its something looked long and hard at by the pay masters in Milton Keynes. But still – we’d like to see many teams in the mix
  5. DANIEL RICCIARDO – will be lead driver for Red Bull next season with hopefully a more competitive Renault engine inside the last (possibly ever) Adrian Newey F1 car! He has all the makings of a world champ and seems to be able to draga car by the scruff of the neck around a track to places it shouldn’t really be. He showed it at Toro Rosso on some Saturdays during his formative seasons but exploded last year overtaking everywhere and taking the only non-mercedes wins of the year! But still – there is that Russian rocket in the other car
  6. TALENT AT THE TOP – F1 is set for another steller year in terms of driver talent with Ferrari and McLaren fielding two world champions each and Mercedes line-up remaining unchanged. Red Bull go into the season looking the lightest on paper with Daniel Ricciardo’s 3 wins the only top step action amongst their drivers but no-one doubts his pedigree. Williams remain unchanged with the vetran multiple race winner (and near 2008 World Champion) Felipe Massa going up against Bottas for a second year after a string of rostrum finishes. But still – Saubers looking rather pay drivery and Pastor Maldonado is still on the grid
  7. THERE MIGHT BE MORE THAN 9 TEAMS – Things are apprently looking up for Marussia and asset sales have been halted but we should know by the first test what the prognosis will be. If they do survive it will be a race to put a team together and build the 2015 car while they make do with the 2014 challenger. Caterham remain doubtful due to the mess of inter-linked companies that make the sale of the team so difficult. But still – there are no buyers and Haas F1 now owns the Marussia factory!

Well thats all for now, its almost time for some racing!

Forza Jules: 4 Wheels follows 2 with Depleted Grid

First of all apologies for a lack of posting, and secondly we’d like to wish Jules Bianchi all the best with his recovery after his horrific accident at Suzuka a few weeks ago. Anyone who’s seen the accident knows it was incredibly serious and it may be some time before we know the full extent of his injuries and what sort of recovery we can expect.

On to the current race weekend at Austin that will see only 18 cars take to the grid as Caterham and Marussia have both gone into administration, furthermore Force India narrowly avoided defaulting on their Mercedes engine payments that would of also left them sidelined.

Despite Bernie’s insistence that he doesn’t really care for the smaller teams and wishes to run 3 car teams this reduced grid could of hardly come at a worse race for the sport after the 2005 debacle at Indianapolis that saw only 3 teams run and effectively sank F1 in the states for many years. With the payments due very soon for next years entry recovery deals must be done quickly and both teams are in a race against time to shore up a recovery deal. In this post we take a look at the teams that are currently struggling and what chance they have of fielding a challenger in 2015.

Caterham0 Points
Caterham were sold some months back to a group of mysterious investors from the Middle East and Europe. At first the deal seemed to be solid as Tony Fernandes had finally run out of patience for his F1 outfit that had failed to drag itself off the bottom of the F1 table into a meaningful outfit. However after laying off staff and saying the team was far too big and installing new people at the top the team has folded.

The main problem appears to be an issue of who owns what, there is one company that owns the F1 entry but a myriad of other companies that own the premises and the cars and the manufacturing equipment. Why this is the case no one really knows and it has come back to bite them. Even the administrators who shut the doors to the factory to try and untangle the mess had no idea what belonged to whom.

Unfortunately I can’t see this being resolved in time for next year, never mind making the last race. This web of companies needs to be consolidated but that can’t be done overnight and without the whole race team and the entry any sale is essentially useless.

Marussia2 Points
Marussia have had some year of ups and downs, a lean mean F1 outfit managed to make a decent (by their standards) F1 car that’s outpaced Caterham most of the year and a clever drive by Jules Bianchi saw him collect the first points in Monaco for any of the teams from the class of 2010. This sets them up to collect a large windfall in terms of prize money.

However Jules is currently in hospital and the team is in administration and like Caterham it hasn’t made the plane to Austin and Brazil. However unlike their main rivals they have a pretty plain setup and the administrator has kept the factory open and there are a few serious offer on the table for someone to buy the team from the current Russian owner.

The main issue is valuation, Andrei Tsheglakov wasnts around $10 million more than most people think the team is worth. However the team is still open and its just going to be a case of who blinks first, if Sauber also nick a point or two at the next few races expect the price to drop further as the prize money will be gone. But they will be rescued in time and Id expect them to be racing in Abu Dhabi.

September Goings On

September has been a busy month in Motorsport, with the majority of series returning after the summer break we also had the launch of Formula E and the end of the Indy Car season.

On four wheels the championship battle has become pretty much all square again with Mercedes reliability catching up with Rosberg and handing Hamilton his 7th win of the season. Whoever tops the standing come Abu Dhabi its almost certain that Hamilton will end the season with more victories than his German team mate. More concerning however has been the fate of a number of teams as the sport again turns to its favorite trick of shooting itself in the foot.

Bernie has been shouting about 3 car teams again this month stating that 3 teams could disappear over the winter break leaving a gird size of 16. This would trigger a clause in the concord agreement that the teams would have to all field a 3rd car to make up the grid. However within the rules these cars could not score points and as highlighted by a number of teams would need significant investment in money and personnel for a season. It almost certainly has an ulterior motive because the arrival of Gene Haas in 2016 would return the grid size to the minimum of 18 cars. Furthermore there are plenty of pay drivers with enough cash to carry the limping teams over the line until then. Caterham, Marussia and Sauber are the likely candidates to disappear into the annuals of history but there are also concerns at Force India and Lotus over their long term financing.

On two wheels however the story has been quite different and the Moto GP grid is set to swell over the coming seasons with the arrival of various manufacturers. The old CRT bikes with modified superbike engines will be a thing of the past and the privateer teams will run the customer Honda bikes, the Forward Yamaha or open Ducati’s. However next season Paul Bird’s team will be taken over by Suzuki and Gresini have given up their Honda satellite bike (Now taken over by Marc VDS to run Scott Redding) to run the factory effort from Aprilla after the manufacturer stepped in to provide funding to the team. Both new factories will compete in the open with concessions class like Ducati before the sport becomes fully unified in 2016 using a spec ECU with the software shared between the teams.

Not one to miss out on the party KTM also announced that they will have a prototype bike for 2017, however most sources indicate they aren’t planning on running a factory team so it will all depend on cost and subsidies as to whether any of the teams take up the offer. But potentially we could see in two years time 6 different manufacturers on the grid properly and its a huge vindication of the cost cutting measures put in place by Dorna over the last few seasons.

The mid field battle next season looks set to be intense with the all new Ducati alongside Suzuki and Aprilla. Also with the disappearance of the old CRT bikes and the customer Honda’s receiving a huge upgrade and the ever fast Forward Yamaha (who took their first trip to the podium with Aleix Espargaro’s 2nd place in Aragon) there will be a huge glut of riders on similar bikes. The Honda’s and Yamaha’s are likely to be up front and it remains to be seen how fast the new Ducati and the Suzuki will be, but they will still be running with Open concessions next year meaning they are unlikely to challenge the top step too often.

The rider market is in full swing with a factory spot at Aprilla and the Suzuki rides still up for grabs, the main man everyone is waiting on is the star of the CRT/Open class Aleix Espargaro and whether he can move up to a factory team or whether he will stay with Forward for another year and asses his options.

Elsewhere Indy Car finished early with Will Power finally claiming a championship crown, the long break allows the teams to work on the cars ahead of the introduction of Aero Kits made by Honda and Chevrolet alongside the original Dallara aerodynamics. There are mixed feelings about both its early end and a long time before seeing the championship again and a possible end to the tight competition caused by the spec cars.

Finally Formula E kicked off in Beijing with a highly successful event although Nico Prost caused a huge last corner accident by driving into Nick Hiedfeld and handing the win to Lucas Di Grassi. The series does have a few kinks to work out but the driver swaps went smoothly and the racing was good despite the awful circuit design. Definitely one to look out for over the coming years.

Gene Haas Ferrari Feeling

In the build up to Monza all eyes usually start to look at the following season with many agents using the last weekend in Europe and the modern showcase event in Singapore to do their deals along with their commercial partners. (Which I have to say these two events next to each other demonstrate some lovely symmetry of the history and modernism of F1).

But all the sounds coming from the PR men have been regarding 2016 not 2015 and the arrival of Gene Haas’ new American based F1 entry. Firstly there has been the confirmation that the team will use the name “Haas F1 Team” and have launched their official website. Secondly and more importantly has been the announcement that the team will run the full Ferrari power unit in a multi-year commercial deal. America is a hugely important market for Ferrari and the two teams commercial interest have little overlap outside of racing so the tie up has long been expected.

Surprisingly (or not as the case may be) there has been little heard from Forza Rosa the new Romanian team that had been accepted onto the grid for 2015! Colin Kolles was meant to be heading up the team but he’s currently knee deep in tearing up Caterham. One can image the Caterham team merging with Forza Rosa but if they are serious about making the grid for next season a power plant deal needs to be sorted imminently and with no races in Europe left one can’t see any other perfect PR opportunities to go and make some noise.

Finally despite the press releases and bravado from Honda, the engine which will power McLaren next year is late. A full systems test was meant to be carried out with the engine running on a dyno by the end of the month but the time for the check has come and gone and there are growing concerns out of Woking about the state of the engine. The delay will impact performance more than reliability and all things point to another quiet season for Ron and his boys. A final interesting side note, for everyone who thought there was a rabid pack of Honda engineers waiting for the Mercedes engine to arrive at Woking to dissect it, they may have been waiting some time! Mercedes only provided McLaren a block shape for development and don’t allow them to keep the engines, they are brought to every race and installed by Mercedes engineers from Brixworth (The engine factory). So the closest that engine got the MTC in McLaren hands was Silverstone!!!!