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!!!!

Its a Lotterery Win at Caterham

Not happy with the announcement that 16 year old Verstappen will drive at Toro Rosso, Caterham have raced out of the summer break announcing that 32 year old German Andre Lotterer will make his F1 race debut for the team this weekend in place of Kamui Kobayashi. The team have hinted this is a one time team as Lotterer has WEC events left this year that clash with F1 and announced that Kamui remains with the team.

The German has had little recent top flight open wheel experience (His last taste of F1 was in 2002!!) but is a 3 time LeMans winner (Including the current champion) so it will be interesting to see how a driver does going the opposite way to many deposed F1 drivers.

The challenge facing the German shouldn’t be under estimated with these complex new cars, no testing time and racing on one of F1’s toughest tracks – Spa. Many drivers have stated that Eau Rouge will be a huge challenge this year with these new cars and is unlikely to be taken flat.

Its another bizarre decision from the team who were recently bought out by an Arab led consortium and proceeded to lay off 1/3 of the staff. Furthermore if the new owners were unsatisfied with Kobayashi’s work there are many experienced F1 drivers around who do not currently have drives, although recent history shows that swapping drivers mid-season usually does little to improve performance.

Andre Lotterer

E-asy Does it as Formula E looms into view

Yesterday F1’s biggest challenger in years, Formula E completed a complete test simulation of an entire weekend at the Donnington Circuit in Northampton. I’ll admit to having not paid attention to the series recently after the announcement that the series will be broadcast live in the UK on the ITV network. The season will run the opposite way round to F1 and thus the season will start on the 13th of September in Shanghai. The biggest thing the series has managed to achieve over the past few months has been to secure races at classic street circuits in Monaco (The circuit is yet to be confirmed but its timing suggests it will be run in Monaco’s racing season on the Anthony Nogues circuit on the 9th of May) and Long Beach.

The series is concentrating on Street racing as the all electric championship is being used to promote the use of zero tailpipe emission cars in metropolitan areas. The inaugural season will see the 10 teams field 2 drivers in 2 cars each (drivers swap cars during the hour long races to avoid recharging) and all will field the Renault Spark car. The car has been built by Dallara with the power unit coming from the McLaren P1 super car and a battery designed by the Williams Group but from the 2015-2016 teams will be increasingly free to design their own parts for the car. To this end the most interesting team on the grid is the Audi ABT team leading to the widespread belief that Audi will produce their own power units next season along with the DAMS entry being backed by Renault.

There are some serious names behind the series too with a long list of former F1 drivers (Alugersauri, Buemi, Trulli, Heidfeld, Senna, Chandok, D’Ambrosio) there are also teams that will ring a bell for many motorsport fans – as mentioned DAMS and ABT alongside Dragon Racing, Andretti, Aguri, Mahindra and Virgin. There will be many who have raced in GP2 and F1 who are eying the series as a contender to keep their profile high and race in front of a large TV audience which outside of F1 is only really available in the US.

While the series will allow the manufactures to increase their technology base for their road cars (The current cars produce around 250 – 300 Bhp which is road relevant) it will initially provide a platform to promote electric cars as a viable option. The series is an attractive option however like many of the previous attempts to create rival motorsport series (Superleague Formula & A1 Grand Prix) it has a few questionable elements. The horrible fan boost idea allowing drivers more power during a race as a result of an online poll is a horrific idea to put any of Bernie’s mad off the cuff comments into the shade and also the choice to blast music during the races is a strange idea (with electric cars there wont be much in the way of engine noise – a major issue with electric cars). Also the decision to race on street circuits will hopefully bring in plenty of fans if the price is right (lets be honest who wouldn’t plonk down £30/40/50 to go watch top drivers race when all it takes is a brief tube/train/bus ride?) however many street circuits suffer from tight twisty slow corners with a lack of over taking due to the tight confines of the circuits. Many of the circuits listed are new and I hope for the sake of the series they’ve mostly got the layouts right because 2 hours of F1 filled drama may far out weigh the hour long traffic jam racing around city centers.

Clearly the series is aimed at the younger audiences that aren’t tuning into F1 as its demographic grows ever older, the under 30’s are a market that motorsport is currently not reaching due to a number of factors. F1 is the only worldwide motorsport championship but ever increasing prices at races alongside the move to pay TV have put it out of reach of many families. Additionally the increasingly costly and rule heavy roads have seen many youngsters opt for trains and buses rather than their driving license. Furthermore F1 has failed to engage in new media and has constantly under mind itself with constant rule changes and bickering in the press alongside stilted corporate drivers. Finally the opulence and splendor of F1 might be seen as a turn off to many teenagers and young adults who are increasingly struggling to make reasonable wages in the wake of the 2008 fiscal crash.

If Formula E can attract manufactures alongside bringing the races to the people and putting sport first (drop fan boost!!!!) F1 could have a serious contender on its hands.

The Chopping Block – Mid Season Report

With the season 9 races down (out of 19) its that time again when we cast our critical eye over the grids less fortunate and see who is on the chopping block come seasons end.

1. Marcus Ericsson – Caterham – 0 Pts – 18th

On this blog we didn’t exactly greet the appointment of Marcus Ericsson with glee, a middling GP2 driver that we assume has been promoted to the top flight on the strength on his pockets not his talent. While this is not always a sure fire reason not to get the step up, his team mate Kobayashi, Sergio Perez et al all had poorer results than the swede. Last year in GP2 he picked up a win along with 5 podium places but its a series we still want to see the top 3 graduate to the top flight not those finishing 6th. His season has largely been anonymous apart from the fact he finished 11th in Monaco hence his championship position, however when it gets slippy out there he’s often found in the barriers. With the team being sold to new management and a Red Bull protege (Robert Frijns) waiting in the wings one would assume he will depart from Abu Dhabi to pastures new.

2. Max Chilton – Marussia – 0 Pts – 21st

Ahh Max your fathers Aon cash may not save you now. While the Briton’s deep pockets helped him to a second season in F1 alongside the remarkable feat of finishing every race the F1 reaper could soon be calling time on Chiltons top flight career. Again another GP2 driver that we suspected just didn’t quite have it Max has shown he’s a safe pair of hands but while his team mate has gone from strength to strength (including scoring points) Chilton has seemed to have stayed still. Furthermore his finishing streak came to an end after he punted off his team mate on the opening lap in Canada, alongside the likely fact that Marussia will finish inside the top 10 for the second year running meaning they will reap the fiscal rewards from Bernie they may decide against taking more of Max’s cash. He may be saved if Bianchi moves to a better team but if Jules remains for another year I suspect the Marussia boys may scout out for some newer talent.

3. Esteban Gutierrez – Sauber – 0 Pts – 20th

Gutierrez is another drive on year 2 of his career but despite his up turn of form at the end of 2013 he can’t shake the look of a fish out of water. While he may of got to grips with the 2013 formula the complex 2014 power trains combined with Sauber’s dog of a car have possibly proved to much for the young Mexican. He has often tangled with the barriers in races (including at Monaco when running in 8th!) as well as a few practice shunts combined with being out shined by his experienced team mate despite his huge weight advantage in the lumbering obese Swiss challenger. Therefore one can predict sweeping changes at Sauber over the winter and unless there is a serious amount of willing from Telmex to keep him there (when Sergio Perez is doing a fine job flying the flag in the Force India) expect him to be given the chop.

4. Pastor Maldonado – Lotus – 0 Pts – 19th

Pastors move to Lotus was meant to be the dream move for the race winner from a poor Williams to a race winning team but its not turned out that way at all. The Lotus team has really struggled on track and off it and despite their form last season the move to hire the grids most notorious pay driver (estimates put his sponsorship at anywhere from 10 – 25 million a year!) should of been a warning sign to all. But while Romain Grosjean has gritted his teeth and pushed on to score 8 points Pastor finds himself way down the pecking order and yet to get off the mark. Every weekend its either dire reliability or his love of crushing carbon fibre against Armco that has squandered things. While the team haven’t given him the car he hasn’t had it in himself to get the thing over the finish line when it doesn’t go up in flames (although not the literal flames of the forward exhausts). If Lotus can secure funding expect to find Pastor out on his ear with his old habits burning his chance at the big time.

5. Kimi Raikkonen – Ferrari – 19 Pts – 12th

What is it about second drivers at Ferrari? For years the team suffered along with Felipe Massa, who now at Williams looks like a new man, and now his World Champion replacement has done no better. While his illustrious team mate has notched up 87 Pts including a podium the Finn has struggled to break into the top 10. With his major complaints being about the breaks he’s taken to smashing his car to bits in an effort to get higher up the chopping block table. He has a two year contract but he is in serious danger of his second stint at the Scuderia also being cut short by a year. Bare in mind last year in a Lotus Kimi scored a win alongside a further 7 appearances on the podium, this year he can’t even keep his team mate in sight down a Tilke straight.

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)

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.