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)

Advertisements

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.

Aprilla Comes Undone as Moto GP goes “Open”

As the Moto GP season winds its way towards its close with 3 races left in Australia, Japan and Valencia, Dorna the sports commericial rights holder has started looking to 2014 as has Aspar having all but wrapped up a second CRT title with Aleix Espargaro.

Firstly with the new rules next year the CRT class (for “privateers”) will become known as the “Open” class and the full prototypes will become “Factory”. However over the past few weeks teams have signed up their manufacturers for next season and something funny has happened. After Dorna made the factory teams help out the privateer teams they have gone and done just that, Honda with a full production racer bike and Yamaha with the lease of full spec M1 engines.

The open class teams do get 4 more litres of fuel, the softer tyre and 12 engines throughout the season, however they are stuck using the spec ECU. The “Factory” teams will have one litre less than this year, only 5 engines but are allowed to write their own software onto the new spec ECU. This addition to the rules meant Suzuki delayed their entry until 2015 to give them time to port their software across to the new platform – despite this I am surprised they didn’t strike a deal with a team to run a “open” version of the bike with the standard ECU for a season.

With the introduction of these two new privateer options from HRC and Yamaha have seen quite the shuffle in the riders and hardware the teams will use next year.

Forward Racing
Colin Edwards has lead Forward Racing for the past two seasons and this year has performed well on the FTR-Kawasaki, however they have been the team to take the plunge opting to lease the full Yamaha M1 engine. They will be helped out this year by Yamaha with their chassis design which should help them out greatly. This has seen Aleix Espargaro jump ship and pay his way out his contract with Aspar.

Aspar
Despite strong links to Aprilia over the years, the possible weakening of the package with the sepc ECU and the move of the head of racing to Ducati Corsi has lead Aspar to opt for the Honda RCV1000R production racer. Honda have also provided some fiscal help one assumes as they have announced that 2006 World Champion Nicky Hayden will race for the team next year. The second seat is unconfirmed as Randy De Puniet will move to testing duties at Suzuki and look to return on a factory bike in 2015.

Gresini Honda
Gresini have opted to trade in their Honda powered FTR bike for the production Honda as expected due to their close ties with the manufacturer (their other bike is a Satellite Factory bike with full support). Bryan Starling will make way for Moto2 leader Scott Redding.

Cardion AB
Karel Abraham’s family run team will drop the ART as well next season and run the RCV1000R alongside those listed above. No prizes for guessing who will pilot the single bike here.

All of this leaves Paul Bird as the only team who currently run a Aprilia machine to announce what they will do next year. However PBM have been developing their own chassis this year around the Aprilia engine and have indicated they wish to continue that next year with two bikes.

All this movement over the past month or so has now left Aprilia with a problem, an upgraded bike with seamless shift and pneumatic valves but no teams to run it. So they have the option of entering as a factory however they would severely struggle with the engine limit even though as a new Factory team they would be granted 9 engines for the following year, enter a quasi factory team into the open class or get one of the other teams to take up the package for next year.

We must really hope that Dorna hasn’t shot itself in the foot with getting the factory teams to assist the privateer entries and edge out other manufacturers who took up Dorna’s new vision for the class. If the Aprilia project fails it will point to failure of the new format which ART have under taken in earnest and have looked to be heading towards producing a full factory effort long term. If they have been edged out of the equation by further restricted factory bikes then it will have all been for nothing.

Its June 2013 so 2014 anyone?

2013 might have only clocked through the halfway stage however preparations are well under way for big shake ups in 2014 for Grand Prix racing on two and four wheels. As discussed at length recently on the blog has been the shake up to the CRT rules that will see “privateer” teams getting more power under their custom frames in various forms, however F1 has laid out its plans for next season which see’s the introduction of 1.6 Litre V6 engines.

F1 – The Long Haul

Next season is likely to see 21 Grand Prix raced around the world alongside earlier testing to give time to weed out any issues with the new engines that see an introduction next year after seasons of an “engine freeze”. The majority of teams have nailed their colours to the mast regarding who will be powering their challenge next season however further changes are a foot for next year. There will 4 in-season two day tests completed throughout the season completed after selected European rounds (Barcelona and Silverstone have already been confirmed), this will see the dropping of the young drivers 3 day test and a reduction in straight line tests from 8 to 2. Additionally “promotional” days have also been cut from 8 to 2 to offset the cost of the testing (which according to journalists will need an extra engine at a cost of around 1 million Euro) . This will likely be a blessing for rookies and drivers attempting to break into F1 as its unlikely that race drivers will take part in much of the running after spending 3 days at the circuit competing (One assumes Kimi will do none of it). Another interesting dimension will be under pressure drivers will have to face reserve drivers hopping in the car in the middle of the season and lap times inevitably compared.

A 21 race calendar has also been proposed starting in Bahrain at the begining of March with Australia seemingly set to loose its status as the campaign opener. It also proposes the final test to take place at Bahrain before the Grand Prix to have a warm weather test that will also reduce costs.

This all seems like a dose of common sense in the paddock and a solution to Pirelli’s testing issues alongside giving young drivers regular mileage during the season to alleviate rookies struggles to break into the top category without huge cash support. My only gripe is Bahrain is set to be a rather dull affair with 3 or 4 days of testing prior to a full weekend the teams will have the measure of the place and a test possibly at Qatar should of been considered (which has the ability to run into the night for temperature variations)

Moto GP – The Grid Swells

With the removal of the “Claiming Rule” which will see Aprilla launch essentially a stealth factory bike proper alongside Honda offering a budget satellite bike and Yamaha engines for those who want them its been confirmed that Suzuki will now be allowed to enter the championship without having to purchase a team (as the numbers were many times above Dorna’s estimates of around 1 – 1.5 million Euros). Furthermore it would appear that some teams from Moto 2 are looking to make the jump up to the premier class next season with Marc VDS looking at the possibility of running Scott Redding in a Kalex frame / Yamaha leased engine combo to keep the British talent within the squad. Furthermore Sito Pons is looking at returning for the first time since 2006 to the top flight with the Honda production Moto GP machine with its current Moto 2 line up.

This could see Moto GP grids swell well beyond 26 riders towards 30 and Dorna has laid out plans for not financially supporting failing teams languishing at the back of the grid in an effort to keep everyone roughly competitive.

 

Exciting times indeed

Yamaha Bounce Back and the End of CRT

 

Yesterday at Mugello Yamaha bounced back after fearing the worst from Honda’s developments. Round 5 of the 18 in 2013 saw Lorenzo leading with the two Repsol Honda’s in tow however with around half race distance complete the Spaniard put the hammer down and drove off into the lead. It was looking like another all Spanish affair until Dani Pedrosa encountered issues and began to slow. Eventually Marquez passed him with a excellent clean overtake (he looked like he was terrified of bowling off his team mate and current championship leader) . However as has happened all weekend Marquez chucked the bike down the road (after some horrific crashes during the practice sessions which left him with a patch up job having to be done on his chin).

This left Yamaha Tech III rider Cal Crutchlow to pick up the pieces and although he attempted to chase down Dani he admitted that after seeing Marquez crash out he buttoned off the pace and had settled for yet another podium. Despite the other Satellite bikes of Ducati and Honda receiving factory support and thus essentially the full factory bikes the Tech III team only have a good Satellite package and as such should be at a bit of a disadvantage. However the British rider is well on his way to beating Valentino in the standings this year and is pushing hard to get a full factory bike. The rumours flying round the paddock this weekend are that Cal has demanded a factory bike amongst rumours that Lin Jarvis was intent on signing Pol Espagaro to run in the Tech III team with a full factory bike in 2014. The picture now however has become more complicated as Suzuki have essentially stated that Cal is welcome to walk into a contract with the returning manufacturer next season and that Ducati are also interested in signing him to re-unite Tech III’s 2013 line up on the factory Desmosedici bikes. Additionally Crutchlow appears to have the support of Monster (Yamaha and Tech III’s primary sponsor) so if he leaves he could take the Energy drinks cash with him creating a real head-ache for Yamaha.

Crashes and Heartbreak lower in the pack

Despite being on the pace most of the weekend Valentino Rossi failed to get onto the front 2 rows and started from 7th meaning he had to get a sharp get away on Sunday in a perfect Mugello race track drenched in sunlight. However he collided with Alvaro Bautista on the first lap with both riders going for the same piece of tarmac and getting tangled in the chaos of the mid-field race start. It highlights an issue with Rossi this year of not being able to extract the maximum one lap pace and has essentially now put him out of the running for the title and will require some effort to get back past Crutchlow in the standings. Furthermore there was a bad crash for Bradley Smith in practice that left him with a damaged hand and a skin graft appointment this morning, however he saved face by racing on Sunday and despite some scares bringing the bike home in 8th position. Ben Spies recovery took another dent with the American having to withdraw on Friday from running the race as he still felt a lack of power in his shoulder and accepted that it would of been foolish to ride, the former race winner will try again next time out in Spain. Stefan Bradl improved on his dire finishing record this season by keeping it on the island and passing the factory Ducati’s into 4th place, which will be a relief for the German who hasn’t had the best of starts to his 2013 campaign.

Goodbye CRT hello Non-MSMA

Also in the news of over the weekend was the widely expected rule change that will see the “Claiming Rule” dropped as there is now a different distinction between the classes in 2014. Teams running the spec ECU and software will be classified as “non-MSMA” and will get 24 litres of fuel alongside 12 engines for the year. However any team can now elect to become a MSMA team and run 20 litres of fuel and only 5 engines per year in return from being able to write their own software for the ECU. This will relax Yamaha’s fears as they plan to release lease customer engines next year and it also opens the way for a much more aggressive engine from Aprilla (as previously discussed the manufacturer may release an update this year to significantly increase the power of the bikes). Next year there should be at least 2 FTR Kawasaki’s alongside Aspar continuing with the Aprilla ART, NGM Forward Racing are looking at the Yamaha engines and other teams are evaluating Honda’s “customer bike”.

 

Manufacturers Encroach on CRT format for 2014

Honda’s new production racer

From next year both Yamaha and Honda will offer assistance to Moto GP teams competing under the CRT rules in an effort to boost the competitiveness of the Privateer teams. This is in addition to a 2 bike Suzuki Factory team returning next season after 2 years away from the sport, bringing the grid numbers to 8 factory bikes, 6 satellite bikes and a number of CRT privateer entries.

Yamaha Takes the F1 Route

Yamaha is going to offer privateer teams an engine lease with a very similar spec to the Tech III bikes for around £675,000 a season leaving the cost of around £300,000+ for the 2 chassis’s required to fit the bike depending on how much development takes place. However this should see a dramatic improvement in speed as the CRT bikes this year have shown a real performance increase but are still lacking horsepower to compete with the main factory teams. Teams taking this option cannot have their engines “claimed” but will compete under CRT rules with the 24 litres of fuel and the standard ECU with the standard software (from next year all teams will be running a spec ECU but the factory teams will be allowed to write their own software for it). Thereotically this means you could take this engine and power your way into the mid field with a good frame. Interesting indeed. NGM Forward Racing, this year lead by veteran American Colin Edwards are actively chasing a Yamaha deal for next season to replace their current FTR Kawasaki.

Honda Takes the Same Old Route

Honda have also stated they would help privateer teams but instead of giving them near factory spec engines like Yamaha to give them a real shot at upsetting the “full” Moto GP Prototypes (arguably with an M1 engine and a custom frame that WILL be a full Moto GP bike but anyways….) Honda are producing a new production racer for CRT teams next year. The bike will not have Pneumatic springs (which allows higher revs and increases horsepower – only the prototype bikes have this currently) or Honda’s quick shift gear system but it is likely to be fast out of the box. It also has been developed with Dorna’s original target costs for CRT bikes in mind with a price of £850,000 for two bikes along with engine rebuilds for a season. However unlike the Yamaha deal you will actually purchase the Honda and you wont have to give it back at the end of the season. This isn’t really a great solution from Honda as it essentially gives teams a slow the satellite bike to run around and pick up the minor points it misses the point of Moto GP unlike Yamaha who are only giving you a power plant and leaving the teams to develop the rest of the bike around it.

Aprilla Strike Back?

The best of the CRT bikes over the last 18 months (or so) of the Claiming Rules format has been the Aprilla bike which many have said is a thinly veiled factory effort. Although the FTR frames with the Kawasaki engine in the hands of Hector Barbera have left him snapping at the heels of the factory efforts so far this season it has been the heroics of Aleix Espargaro on the ART that have shone the brightest. The latest news is that Aprilla are readying a Pneumatic Valve update for their engine around September which should see a healthy boost to the engine power. All this comes at a cost for teams however and the ART machine is rumoured to cost around £1 million for the two bikes making it arguably the most expensive of the 3 options for next season but it is the tried and tested route.

Whats left?

The remaining bikes range in prices but the FTR and Ioda bikes are rumoured to cost around £700,000 a season (The Avintia Bluesens FTR-Kawasaki costs a mere £600,000 for a pair) but they have been off the pace of the Aprillas this year and would likely be thrashed by a CRT bike from HRC. However you have to weigh up how much support you will receive from Honda over the year as Yamaha and Aprilla are likely to bring any improvements to the bikes down the food chain. Furthermore if Suzuki get off to a solid start claiming points could be difficult as the Ducati seems to be improving its handling woes and it clearly has the legs over the privateer class, meaning 14 out of the 15 points scoring places could now be filled by prototypes. Furthermore with the option to run a “near Tech III” spec engine or the updated Aprilla could leave the rest in the dust, but whatever happens next year the CRT bikes are really going to be in the mix.

Stoner Signals Shock Exit!

Casey Stoner the 26 year old reigning World Champion has made the shock announcement that he will retire from Moto GP at the end of the season. The rider is now regarded as one of the greats after his dominant season last year and his 2007 world championship on the Ducati which has embaressed ever other rider who has tried to master the Italian machine. The Austrialian has said it is a combination of the lack of support he felt in 2009 when he took the second half of the season off with fatigue which was later diagnosed as a Lactose intollerance along with the top flight of motorbike racing moving to the new CRT format.

Its a bold move and a real shame to see the 26 year old hang up his helmet. It does make for a mental silly season at the end of this year with all of the factory riders out of contract (along with Tech III) and a ride on the competitive Honda to fill.