Frantic Dubious Coverage

Last weekend saw a frantic weekend for Motorsport fans while the next few weeks are a much more barren affair. But viewers on last Saturday and Sunday were treated to (deep breath) F1 in Bahrain, Moto GP in Argentina, World Superbikes/Superstock/Supersport in Holland, Indy Car at Long Beach, World Touring Cars in Egypt, Britsh Touring Cars at Donnington,British Superbikes at Brands Hatch, Moto America at Road Atlanta, 24 Hours of LeMans (bikes), Super Formula (Japan), Nascar and the United SportsCar Championship. EXHALE AND BREATHE.

While I used to be a follower of Indy Car I don’t really keep tabs too much on the series anymore but that’s an awful lot of Motorsport in one weekend. The main problem (with the exception of the Americas who carry on regardless) is that Moto GP has an agreement to avoid clashing with F1 but Bernie was up to his old tricks again so the F1 Calendar was ratified far too late. Moto GP had to press ahead with its plans but why on earth that means that its clashing with World Super Bikes i’ll never know as they are run by the same commercial rights holder (DORNA).

But all this quantity didn’t affect the quality, while the Bahrain race fell short of last years duel in the desert (which will be remembered as an all time classic) it provided yet another fantastic race and the best outing of 2015. Racing was never fantastic in the heat of the day time but the lights seem to provide a little magic – it’s not full nighttime either and it’s not a day/night race. Furthermore it works for the locals where Sunday is a work day with the weekend being Friday/Saturday so a Monday night lights event certainly suits. But the biggest improvement seems to be the racing which has come alive on the circuit.

The Moto GP race in Argentina didn’t disappoint either with a marginal tyre choice meant split strategy up and down the field but it was the old master Valentino Rossi who showed that he could really win a tenth (yes 10th!) World Championship this year at the age of 36. The leading group of Marquez, Lorenzo, Rossi, Iannone, Dovi and Cal Crutchlow quickly dispatched the under powered Suzuki of Aleix Espagaro who had hauled the bike into P2 on Saturday but simply didn’t have the pace to scrap with anyone. However it was Marky Mark Marquez who opened up a gap to the pack but his softer rear tyre left him vulnerable as Rossi started to close the gap with 10 laps to go then all of a sudden the time was being taken away in seconds a sector rather than tenths. The battle between the two was fierce but Rossi pulled ahead into the esses section and that should have been that a bit of argy bargey and a good show but ultimatley Rossi had made the right tyre choice and Marquez should have settled for second place. However he didn’t he kept his wheel stuck in and misjudged when Rossi was going to flip his bike for the next turn and it was a rear wheel versus front wheel where the front always loses. It took the Repsol Honda rider out of the race while Cal Crutchlow in a last corner do or die move took the last podium place alongside the Ducati of Dovi who also had the softer tyre and couldn’t quite live with Rossi’s pace.

But finally in back to Bahrain where those of you watching were probably wondering whether the Director had a heavy night on Saturday as come Sunday the coverage veered from poor to dubious. The long shots of the great and the good in Bahrain instead of on field battles was just blatant and unfair – fans are now paying good money to watch the races since FOM moved the sport behind paywalls therefore they simply deserve a better product than what they got. The director missed action up and down the field, cut away to people not connected to the racing in the middle of battles, refused to show Manor and also replayed the start about 10 times in a row – a start in which not a whole lot happened!

The time has come for a serious think about how the sport is run.

Italian Power wakes up the racing

Its been a while since we’ve had a weekend like this, a long long time…. there was a win for Ferrari, a pole and double podium for Ducati and no Spaniards on the steps of any Grand Prix bike race for the first time in nearly a decade.

First lets start with 4-wheels where Sebastian Vettel took in the end a comfortable victory in Malaysia over Lewis Hamilton to claim his 40th Grand Prix win and his first for Ferrari. The 4 times World Champion is looking to be back on form after a humbling 2014 and qualified second in a rain affected Q3 on Saturday (I know rain in Malaysia – shocker). However come the sunshine of the Sunday race slot (now moved to a more appropriate local time after the problems in Suzuka last year) no-one expected the Ferrari’s to be doing more than battling for the final podium spot.

There was an early safety car caused by Marcus Ericcson’s exuberance and both Merc’s pitted while Vettel stayed out and would continue to pull away from the Silver Arrows and maintain the gap. The big difference was the tyre’s and it could well be that Mercedes Achilles heel of the past has reared its head again. Sebastian managed to two stop the race and ran two of his three stints on medium tyres while Lewis could only three stop and had to use the hard tyres for the majority of his stints. The extreme natural conditions of Malaysia put a great strain on the tyres and despite a modern smooth surface at Sepang (although it is now getting on a little bit) many teams struggled to make Pirelli’s hardest (EG Most durable) tyres last to complete a two stop race.

Despite this tyre advantage Ferrari’s pace is genuine the Mercs struggled to close the gap at all to the prancing horse furthermore down the straights the power plant designed in Maranello looks to be outpacing the one from Brixworth. This gives Ferrari only downforce to chase and also points to further strengths with their package if they are treating the tyres better with a lack of downforce to the front-runners.

Moving onto two wheels and it was Italians in red who were also stealing the spotlight in Qatar as Andrea Dovisioso used the soft tyre to park his brand new GP15 on the first spot on the grid. However unlike last year where the bike could run fast for a lap before eating tyres and tiring out the riders both GP15 bikes made it stick all the way to the end. It was only the race craft of Valentino Rossi, the 7 time Premier Class World Champion that would take the victory away from Dovi but it would lead to an all Italian podium and we definitely have a race on this year. The Honda’s both struggled with Marquez getting punted out wide at the first corner and dropping to last place and Pedrosa suffering from arm pump (So bad has it been that he may now retire). However once Marquez cleared the traffic the smiling assassin couldn’t close up to the front 4 despite them going wheel to wheel in ever corner. The conclusion from all of this looks like we could well have 3 factories all competiting for the championship this year as the bikes seem evenly matched.

Also returning were Suzuki who are back with a full factory 2 bike effort and in the hands of Aleix Espagaro managed to battle to 11th behind the 6 “old factories” (we’ll call them that for now) and their Satellite bikes of Crutchlow, Smith, P. Espagaro and Hernandez. This is on a power limited circuit and the team know they are down on power so it was morale boost for the team to find themselves on the back of the Satellite pack and look as though they will be racing with some recent names this year.

Aprilla on the other hand are still a bit of a mystery after qualifying round the back of the field but after Marquez punted Alavro Bautista out of the race using Marco Melandri as a barometer is pointless with the Italian cutting a dejected figure throughout the winter. The bike this year looks to be around the pace of the Forward Yamaha’s and Open Honda’s which is as much can be expected with the bike being a ART from last year with as many purchased upgrades as possible bolted on. 2016 should see them slide up the field but it could be a long year for Aprilla and Gresini if they can’t catch up to the points soon.

F1 is alive in 2015 but its still in Intensive Care

So the first race of the 2015 World Championship is done and dusted with Lewis Hamilton showing he is one of the best drivers ever and deserved 2x World Champion with a pole and a comfortable victory. The margin of superiroity was clear for all to see and as predicted from winter testing the Merecedes works team are streets ahead, even more so than they were last year.

Hamilton was on pole by 0.6s to his team-mate and by a whopping 1.4s to the nearest rival team, Williams (Felipe Massa) in a dry uninterrupted qualifying underlining the huge superiority the Brackley based team have going into 2015. He also had an answer to his team-mate all day Sunday keeping him out of DRS range and still having better fuel usage than the German. Fans will be hoping that Nico can raise his game for the upcoming races because while Mercedes dominated last year it was great contest between that kept bums on seats right to finale in Abu Dhabi.

Ferrari also had reasons to be cheerful with their cars qualifying 4th and 5th while a rather miffed but rejuvenated Kimi Raikkonen lamented a mistake that he says cost him 3rd place. In the race their progress, especially with the power unit was underlined with new boy Vettel claiming a maiden Scuderia podium (Raikkonen got tangled in the first corner and continuted until a series of rear wheel problems lead to his retirement) and lone customer team Sauber recording a much needed 5th place with debutant Felipe Nasr after a pointless season last time around.

However thats where the good news stories ended apart from Force India recording a double points finish after their troubled winter, with events conspiring to have only 15 cars start the race and only 11 finish!

McLaren Honda’s troubles continue and the decision not to have a second team on board for the years seems less and less wise as weeks rolls by. After running no more than 12 laps in sucession all winter and their star driver injured after a testing accident the beleaguered Woking squad arrived in Australia with low expectations and they were duly met. The cars qualified last of those running and replacement driver K-Mag blew up on the way to the grid and failed to take the start. Things were a bit better for Jenson Button who managed to complete the race but the former World Champion was 2 laps down and in last. However McLarens insistence that the potential is there has started to gain some momentum after Jenson managed to keep Force India’s Sergio Perez at bay for a number of laps despite being way down through the speed trap. Also towards the end he obviously turned the wick up and put in his fastest two laps at the end of the race that would place the car somewhere in the mid-field if it could consistently run at that pace.

The Red Bull Renault teams haven’t had that much of a better time of it than Honda with the 2015 unit being slower than last years and with horrible driveabiltiy (IE the power delivery isn’t smooth). So bad is the issue that when home favourite Dan Ricciardo was asked on the radio how the tyres were he could only report on the fronts with the power delivery being so inconsistent to the rear wheels that the Aussie couldn’t get a read on the rubber. Things were even worse for his new Russian Team mate who like Magnussen managed to blow up en route to the start of the race. Max Verstappen would also fall foul of the misbehaving power plant and after a spirited drive had to retire just outside the pit entrance. Typically the Red Bull head honchos were in a fighting mood and were quick to point the finger at both an uncooperative Renault and the FIA before finally issuing a threat to exit the sport.

Lotus meanwhile showed promise with the new Mercedes engine powering both cars in Q3 but both cars would retire on the opening lap after getting stuck in the first corner melee with Pastor Maldonado ending up in the wall, but for once there was very little crash prone driver could do about it after getting his tyre struck from behind. However while there was no points for the Enstone team heads are a being held quite a bit higher on the promise of their quali speed.

Williams had a mixed weekend with Felipe Massa qualifying 3rd but only managing to finish 4th after a clever pit strategy for Ferrari put them ahead. They are still the fastest car that isn’t a Mercedes AMG (they do have the same engines however) but Ferrari have closed right in on them and it will be a vicious fight to the end of the season between these two as they must pile on the points early as Red Bull and possibly Lotus & McLaren could end up in this battle in the second half of the season. Valteri Bottas however had a tough opening weekend after hurting his back during qualifying on Saturday the Finn failed an extraction test (a FIA medical test to asses whether you can get out of the car in an emergency properly) and was declared unfit to race. The team expect him to be back for Malaysia and there will be more motivation for the Finn to make it back in cockpit promptly, however bizarrely the team alluded to the fact that Suzie Wolff is only their “test” driver so they wouldn’t necessarily race her. I’ve often stated my dislike for Suzie Wolff due to her lack of results in other series and her constant statement that her gender is holding her back (which from the evidence I would think that the opposite is true), she is still a safe pair of hands and also has had a days testing in the 2015 car.

Finally spare a thought for Manor who managed to defy the odds and make it to Melbourne only to have issues loading the software into their ECU’s and fail to make it onto track at all over the course of the weekend.

Lots to work on before Malyasia!

Teams on their Garde for the First Race

So it’s here, the 2015 Motorsport season kicks off proper this weekend with the traditional opening race in Albert Park, Melbourne (Now if we could just restore either Japan or Brazil to the finale that’d be great Bernie). The race has a history of upsets, the simple flowing track is a little tricky to overtake on but the walls are close, the cars are new and the circuit is a temporary track where the grip can change dramatically from session to session.

However while usually most eyes look towards the front of the grid at the beginning of the season to see who will be in the title mix, the spotlight this year however is on the back of the grid. Manor Marussia (I’m still not 100% sure what the official title of their chassis is) will complete their return to the sport after entering administration before the US Grand Prix in 2014. It will boost the grid to 10 teams and they will field Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi for the “opening rounds”. Mehri has a contract to race a second season in FR 3.5 which starts in April and is he is expected to still take that up after an impressive rookie season left him 3rd in the standings. The team will use a modified 2014 car that complies with the regulations until their 2015 challenger is ready sometime around Bahrain / Spain.

While Manor have pulled off a Lazarus act, Sauber have got themselves into a right mess. The team had a contract with Giedo van der Garde to race this year and people have suggested this would have been alongside Jules Bianchi who would come with cut price Ferrari engines. Van der Garde does have decent sponsorship behind him but after Sauber failed to score a point last year and the accident involving Bianchi has left him in hospital the team had to look elsewhere for drivers and more importantly, funds. The team snapped up former Caterham pilot Marcus Ericcson alongside Brazilian GP2 ace Felipe Nasr (who finished 3rd in the standings showing constant improvement over his 3 seasons), both of whom bring huge sponsorships to the table rumoured to be around 16 -18 million euros EACH! However the team apparently hasn’t been able to tie up the loose ends with Giedo who has taken them to court but unlike Adrian Sutil who will seek damages, Van der Garde has demanded a race seat for the year.

Surprisingly the courts in both Switzerland (where the team is based) and Australia (where the first race is) have agreed with the Dutchman who apparently should be racing this weekend. However it is thought there has been no seat fitting done as Giedo wasn’t in their plans for this year and now it has emerged that van der Garde hasn’t filled out the proper paperwork and doesn’t have a super license. This throws up yet more issues to a strange episode for the struggling Swiss outfit, who are the 4th longest-serving team after Ferrari, McLaren and Williams.

The team desperately need their current two drivers to race due to the sponsorship they bring but one would assume that Guido is also a pay drive so will be required to bring funds, a super license and a court injunction to race. Furthermore if Guido does race the spurned driver and their sponsors are not going to be too happy!

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 protegĂ© 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.