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.

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Should we Stand for this?

F1 once again is tweaking the rules, should we be surprised – no, should we be pleased – no. Interestingly its technically a return to an old idea of sorts and going back to standing restarts (like the start of the race) instead of rolling restarts (how they are currently after the safety car peels off into the pits).

The idea is that apparently F1’s current DRS fueled over taking spree’s haven’t been enough and the sport needs more craziness to attract those kids that love crashes and what not! Restarts have been deemed not to create enough changing of places currently so now the process has been lengthened once more from the current annoyance where the back markers slowly limp on past the safety car and have to get far enough out in front so we can restart again to stopping the whole thing and going again! So standing re-starts it is.

However they’re keeping the safety car for no other reason than its more advertising, before its insertion as a thing either yellows were waved or the race was simply stopped and everyone went back to the grid and then we re-started. Once again however F1 is playing with fire, it is beyond me why these gimmicks aren’t tested first on the GP2 or GP3 series to see if they have the desired effect or are just ridiculous. While they are nice things to win, if you lost out to some gimmick its not the be all and end all of your junior career as they’re mostly used as talent spotting exercises.

In my opinion F1 is missing the most obvious solution to its problems – DRS needs to work in reverse  (DIS) as a sort of combination of the 2009 front wing solution and the current setup. If the car behind could add down force their car (IE  increase the angle of the front and rear wings) when within 1 second of the car in front (and then shed it again on the straights) it would minimise the dirty air issue and help them look after their tyre’s better which are the current problems with trying to race wheel to wheel in down force ladened single seaters. While its technically artificial it removes the unfair aspect of the current DRS solution as if balanced correctly two identical cars going through a turn would have the same down force in the turn and the same drag on the straights whereas the current system relies on Tilke’s ridiculous miles long straights to nullify the loss of down force through the turn and then blast bast with far superior top speed. Additionally we’ve seen things like drivers tactically not overtaking in spots to then gain the DRS and go past easily, this system it makes no difference where you overtake in fact you can tun the system on constantly (drivers within one second could have it come on and they over ride it on the straights or vice-versa). It would bring back the art of meaningful defence and we wouldn’t be sat going, yawn another boring DRS pass as it would still be the drivers making the difference as they’d either have to pull a blinder and overtake in the corner (YES PLEASE!) or use the grip to better exit the corner and do an old fashioned slip streaming to make the pass. There is currently no skill in a DRS pass, the pass itself isn’t exciting its the pace that the driver is managing to achieve and how far he will get not can he overtake because the answer is almost always yes of course he can.

 

The standing starts were discussed and rubber stamped at the FIA Sport Conference this week and the other item of note was the failure once again to agree any meaningful cost reduction. Unsurprising seeing that only the 6 big teams sit on the strategy group that decide these rules. But the sport is once again spiralling out of control of the bills after a few years of managing to keep the lid on it (the engine freeze in 2008 did wonders to reduce budgets by almost half). This year saw new open engine development, in season testing galore and a whole new aero rules package that has created merry hell with the balance sheet. But once again the idea of a budget cap has fallen away with a reduction in wind tunnel hours (Will reduce running costs but you still have to build and maintain a tunnel!), in-season testing (which 2 days will be young driver days and will reduce costs) and 4 rather than 5 engines (pointless as any saving in constructing another engine will be hoovered up by development costs of making them last that long). This season should of been a great way to re-brand F1 for the modern age with technology that matters and spending money in R&D that will create something useful except everyone has moaned at the sound and the cost and its no wonder there’s not been sponsors jumping up and down to come on board alongside an ever reducing viewer ship thanks to the rise of pay TV.

We don’t need double points, standing restarts, fan vote turbo boosts, a race on the moon, sprinklers or what ever the next crack pot idea to fall out of Bernie’s brain is – the obvious simple answer and the best drivers in the world driving the best cars – job done go back to your yachts!

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!

Haas and Dallara

The FIA has confirmed that three teams have submitted applications to be considered for entry in 2015, once again allowing existing teams one year of running before new entrants are allowed in – a la 2010.

Eternal optimists Stefan GP have entered again alongside an entry from ex-HRT boss Colin Kolles with Romanian backing. However the biggest surprise was the application of the Haas racing team, a serious US racer who runs Stewart-Haas and is apparently looking to create a proper state side F1 entry. This is no USF1.

Haas already own a F1 standard wind tunnel which is often rented out by teams to assist them in development and apparently will use Dallara to build a chassis for use with Ferrari engines. There has been some derision of Dallara after their dressing down from HRT – who were cronically under-funded, developed etc. and tried to portion the blame on the Italian company. First off Dallara is a great starting point if only used for construction as they currently make the chassis for Indy Car, Indy Lights, GP2, GP3 and World Series – their previous F1 trips have been relatively decent aside from HRT. There is no word on funding but its a serious entry from a serious racing guy.

Kolles is surely the second best option on the list as Stefan GP has had a series of dubious failed bids to enter the sport which have not endeared him to the FIA, CVC or fans. There is theoretically another two places up for grabs with the maximum number of teams currently set at 13 and after the demise of HRT 2013 saw only 11 squads take to the track.

Austin doing the Buisness

Its 5pm UK time and Free Practice has been delayed and shortened to 40 minutes after fog stopped the medical chopper from taking off (familiar Moto GP fans?) but in the build up to the second Grand Prix of the United States at the Circuit of the Americas its all been about business.

As expected McLaren announced that Kevin Magnussen will drive for the team in 2014, using the build up to the penultimate race of the season to dish out this news in the closest Sergio Perez comes to a home Grand Prix (for now) has been tough. The Mexican has also admitted that the timing has left him few oppertunities to find a seat for next year.

Lotus have revealed that Heikki Kovalienen will race for the team as the replacement for injured countryman Kimi Raikkonen in the last two races of the year. The rumblings from Joe Saward have been that Caterham have loaned their reserve driver in exchange for letting some engineering staff they poached leave without serving their Gardening leave. The Finn who last raced in Brazil 2012 but has had a few FP1 outings this year revealed that he is close to signing with Caterham next year.

Pastor Maldonado seems very up beat after leaving Williams revealing that he probably “gave the team more than they gave me” – an interesting one as there have been many a late night for a Williams engineer over Pastors career fixing his wrecked car. But the up beat mood appears linked to the fact that the Quantum money that has supposed to be arriving at Lotus all year may now not arrive at all meaning the Enstone team will plonk for Maldonado alongside Grosjean and the PVDSA money to prop up the balance sheet.

This is leaving one heck of a queue at the door of Force India with Paul Di Resta, Adrian Sutil, Nico Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez and Pastor Maldonado all in talks with the Silverstone based squad. It remains to be seen if anyone from GP2 will graduate into the premier class of open wheel racing this year with Danill Kyvat coming from GP3 and Magnussen from Renault 3.5. No word on Fabio Leimer, Sam Bird or James Calado (P1,2 and 3 respectivily in the GP2 championship this year) are in talks with any teams but James Calado is doing some FP1 outings for Force India and will look to secure that role next year I believe.

Finally we all wait with baited breather for the Austin crowd figures after last years 120,000 turn out, the hope is that many of that number will be retained for a second year after a stormer of a race. However this years event looks set to be duller with no title on the line and Sebastian Vettel romping home come rain, shine, hard tyre, soft tyre, classic track or Tilke track.

Magnussen Poised for McLaren in Silly Season Shock

This years “silly season” where drivers shuffle around has moved from its usual summer slot to the end of the year with this morning Sergio Perez confiming that he is to leave the Woking team at the end of the year. The 23 year old Mexican struggled to match Jenson Button this season in an uncompetitive car (By McLaren’s standard). The team are set to promote Danish rookie Kevin Magnussen in his place which will be a big jump for the 21 year old driver who won the Formula Renault 3.5 series this season. Most of the noise coming out of the team this year had been that Perez hadn’t been given the equipment to fight properly and would be given another season but the team believes that Magnussen is World Champion material. It is likely the team made the move to give the Dane a year before the big push in 2015 when the team will become the works Honda powered team and have high expectations.

Personally it appears as though Magnussen will give McLaren a different type of driver who will deliver in qualifying in the same mould of departed Champion Lewis Hamilton did to balance Jenson’s more methodical wiley race craft approach. It is still a risk as the 21 year old has had very little F1 mileage and will step into a team who expect victories and championships rather than scrapping for points.

Finally Lotus are still to announce who will replace the injured Kimi Raikkonen for the last two races of the season with it looking like either Heikki Kovalienen or reserve driver Davide Valsecci looking likely. Nico Hulkenberg reportedly turned down the offer to remain at Sauber another season and Michael Schumacher rejected another comeback. The issue with Heikki is that he is in the frame for a drive with Caterham next season and a move away from the team to Lotus could complicate the issue of his 2014 seat.