You Can’t Beat a Bit O Bully

Well there race fans, October comes and goes quickly in the Motorsport world as the remaining races in European series are squeezed in alongside the showdowns in most championships in far flung locations. Most of the victors of the past 12 months have been confirmed with few series left to complete:

Lewis Hamilton is the 2015 F1 Champion, while Stoffel Vandoorne wrapped up an impressive GP2 season and will likely race for McLaren in 2017. In GP3 the title is still open with 2 round (4 races) left to go with the steady Frenchman Estebhan Ocon trailing the Itailian Luca Ghiotto by only 2 points. Ocon is setting the junior categories on fire at the moment with both pace and consistancey after winning the Euro F3 title last year at the first time of asking and is lining himself up to do the same in GP3. While Ghiotto is recovering after a dissapointing 2014 in FR 3.5 (which looks like it could of been a step up too early) he too has a stellar Junior career and it could well be witnessing the too bang wheels time and time again over the next few seasons.

Looking outside of F1 Scott Dixon took the Indy Car title, Sebastian Ogier the World Rally Championship and Jose Maria Lopez (of fleeting USF1 fame) took the WTCC crown. Pascal Wherlein wrapped up the DTM title putting him on the path to F1 and Gordon Sheddon took another BTCC series win. The World Endurance Championship has still one round left to go with the Porsche Team of Bernhard/Webber/Hartley in the prime seat to take the title in Bahrain but endurance racing is a cruel mistress.

On two wheels Johnathan Rea dominated the Superbike championship while Danny Kent should wrap up the Moto 3 title at the last round after Johan Zarco polished up Moto 2 earlier this year.

That all leaves us with one very big motorsport championship hole to fill in the shape of Moto GP and with the title to be deicded at the traditional season finale in Valencia this weekend the last round in Malaysia certainly ramped up the drama. Rossi and Marquez (whos out of the title race) got into a ding dong during the Thursday press conference and then qualifying and then during the race there was an almighty battle until Rossi lost patience and force Marquez outwide and sat him up (and made him crash/kicked up/ whatever). The result has been Rossi leads the standings going into the last race looking for that 10th World Title (and 8th Premier Class title) 7 points clear in the standings but looks likey to start from the back of the grid. It should make for good viewing thats for sure!

F1 still has two more events to go after the refreshing visit to the Mexician GP last weekend, while the racing was poor due to the new tarmac (as is often the case for new races) visiting an historic track with a passionate full house of fans brought a smile to many a face. The classic track has been upgraded well and the loss of the Peraltada is great (and lets face it unavoidable for a corner that was too dangerous in 1992 and is now completly blind thanks to the stadium) it has been ofset by that stadium section which worked incredibly well. Next up is Brazil which rarely surves a dud with its gritty old schoolness unlike the glitz and glamour of Tilkdrome Island (or Yas Marina if you prefer), which will finish the season off.

The off season is likely to be dominated by Red Bull and their search for an engine, the team have 4 cars on the grid as they operate STR as a junior team and have used Renault engines in the hybrid era which have been woefulyl underpowered and un-reliable. It appears that there is no other option availble for the main team while STR could well be running 2015 Ferrari units which could lead to STR out performing the “main” Red Bull team if they end up running re-badged Renault PUs. Meanwhile it looks 100% certain that Renault will take over Lotus once more – although they may not immediatly re-brand the team and the big rumour on the street is that Vijay Mallya’s finally come undone and Diago are backing a buy out of the team to run it as a Johnnie Walker sponsored Aston Martin Mercedes team, now that could well be a potent mix!

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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!

F1 Returns to Classic Mexico – Sort Of

The main news this week in between the German and Hungarian races has been the announcement that F1 has signed a 5 year deal to race in Mexico from next season. With two drivers in the field along with telecoms giant Tel Mex heavily involved in the sport it was a logical move to bring a race to Mexico. After the (apparent) failure of the New Jersey race there was still scope for another race in the Americas and with the amount of Mexicans visiting the Grand Prix in Texas the market is quite clearly there.

After many discussions of new tracks the sport will return to the Autodromo Hermanos Rodrigez for the first time since 1992 however as suspected many changes at the track are necessary to accommodate modern F1 machinery. The biggest issue with the track is its final corner the Peraltada which is a long 180 degree left hander onto the start finish straight. The corner is hugely fast and features little to no run off. Further adding to the complications are a large public dual carriageway which now sits behind the corner and the construction in 1993 of the Foro Sol baseball stadium which makes the entry to the corner completely blind. This will be solved be diverting the cars into the baseball stadium itself and then out mid way onto the final turn. When Champ Car raced at the circuit in the 2000’s the corner was deemed too dangerous and a chicane was added before the turn to slow the cars down, this from a series where the cars were designed to run on walled ovals.

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However the track features more re-profiling alongside the curious decision to add more hairpins than necessary into the final corner sequence. The first two sections of turns have been tightened, one would assume to promote overtaking and slightly reduce corning speeds in the modern cars, but this should provide similar speeds to the old track when raced using late 80’s machinery. The removal of the first ess in the sweeping section again is likely due to run off requirements as it gets close to a bank of tress, however this will speed up the cars entry into the remaining corners. Previously the track featured grass run off into tarmacked areas but we’d unfortunately expect run off areas to be heavily tarmacked despite already providing punishing but safe run off.

The track was built out in a park in 1962 but the city has grown out to meet it and now sits as a sporting oasis in a metropolitan sprawl. When the track underwent its last regeneration in 2001 it pulled a staggering 402,413 spectators to the race. With a best of both worlds situation of a permanent circuit in a populous area it could be primed to pull in huge crowds to cheer on Sergio Perez if it is priced correctly and one can only hope this will be the case after witnessing the sparse grand stands of the Hockenheimring last weekend.

It is again another return to a classic circuit after Austria’s triumphant re-appearance a few weeks ago, the loss of the final corner was to be expected (many commentators believed the sport wouldn’t return to the track due to not being able to re profile the last turn) but the decision to change so much of the circuit is a curious one and it will remain to be seen how much character will remain. The circuit will join Texas and Brazil towards the end of the season Americas leg again leaving Canada as a stand alone race in the great white north. However there are a mooted 23 roundss lined up for next years championship as along with the 19 races from this season along with Mexico there will be a return of India (which was only on a “break” this year), Azerbaijan (Baku street race) and New Jersey. As mentioned before all indications are that the New Jersey race has fallen through, furthermore¬† the political situation hasn’t shifted any in India meaning the sport is unlikely to return there. This still leaves another race to face the chop if the Baku street race goes ahead as the calendar is unlike to go beyond 20 events but the political situation in Russia may create the appropriate opening.

Oz Grand Prix – What we now know

So the F1 season took flight today with the first Grand Prix of a 19 race calendar at Albert Park, Melbourne won by Nico Rosberg. While the race was interesting it wasn’t a classic (but definitely worthwhile viewing) but we like the teams have had some questions answered.

1. Mercedes are out in front

Mercedes would of had a 1-2 finish were it not for reliability issues with the engine of Lewis Hamilton’s car, Nico Rosberg calmly pulled away at over a second a lap on Daniel Ricciardo after the saftey car. Whether anyone can catch them up remains to be seen and pace will vary a lot race track to race track this season but the Silver Arrows is the car to be driving at the moment.

2. Red Bull aren’t as far behind but still have attitude issues

Daniel Ricciardo finished 2nd on the road but was disqualified after the team refused to follow FIA advice on the fuel rate being used in the car. While the meters have been troublesome all weekend the team failed to both change it on Saturday evening and to reduce their flow rate during the race on advice from the FIA. Sebastian Vettel had a sick engine and after managing 5 laps had to retire, however by lap 25 he’d left the paddock all together. Its a far cry from the man who famously took time during the off season to go and chat to people at Pirelli about their tires. However the car looks good and they seem to be in that front pack of McLaren, Ferrari and Williams.

3. Williams Pace is real

Williams would of finished better if Kobayashi’s brakes hadn’t failed at the first corner and ploughed him into Felipe Massa and if Valteri Bottas hadn’t tagged the wall causing the first safety car. Despite the Finn’s mishap he fought through the field to finish 5th after dropping way back showing the car is working well and should be competing for podiums this season.

4. McLaren are back on form

Despite a poor second test the McLaren looks to be on the pace especially in race trim were after penalties both cars would of finished on the podium. Kevin Magnussen looks right at home as an F1 driver leading home the effort from the Woking squad ending their drought of podium finishes.

6. Lotus are in deep trouble

If Red Bull surprised us with their reliability, pace and ability to catch up the Lotus team did the opposite. After qualifying plumb last and the car failing to go round corners at speeds the safety car would baulk at the team managed around 2/3rds of the distance in the race. They’ve still not completed a race distance with either car and have a heap of work to do.

7. Still no idea about the young teams

Failures brought an end to both Caterhams during the race and issues at the start hampered Marussia (with Chilton starting from pit lane and Bianchi starting 8 laps later). Qualifying showed us nothing more than they are faster currently than the Lotus – it may not be the dream move forward they were both hoping for.

8. The cars are more reliable than first feared

After all the doom and gloom and Jerez people were frantically flicking through the rule book to find out what would happen if no cars finished in Melbourne. However possibly aided by a cool Autumn evening only 7 cars succumbed to the new power plants (Massa retired from an accident with Kobayashi and Bianchi while counted here was still running at the end) leaving us with 14 classified finishers which in years gone by would of been considered high!

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)

Sauber Going Giedo and DTM Reunions

With the Caterham drivers line-up expected to be announced today (They announced it while I was writing this!) Giedo Van Der Garde has popped up at Sauber as the test and reserve driver for 2014. A surprise considering after hiring Adrian Sutil from Force India to partner Esteban Gutierrez for a second season, the team was widely expected to name Sergy Sirotkin for the majority of the In-season testing and Friday practice runs. Instead the 2013 Caterham pilot will fill this role and has confirmed that he will get Friday running in the new improved FP1’s (where there is an extra set of tires for the first 30 mins and driver swaps are allowed) alongside driving some of the 8 days of in-season testing permitted in 2014. While Van Der Garde does bring with him fashion brand McGregor with him Sirotkin is backed by a lot of Russian investment in the team, so maybe the new pay masters have either not paid up or have been talked down.

Marcus Ericsson and Kamui Kobayashi have completed the field in F1 alongside Robert Frijns swapping from Hinwil to Leafield to be the test and reserve driver.

In the spirit of reunion’s the DTM roster has been filling up now F1 has slotted into place and Paul Di Resta has announced his return to the series he won in 2010 with the works HWA Mercedes team. He could yet drive F1 machinery this year as he could have landed a Mercedes test/reserve role alongside his drive. He will be joined in DTM by stalwart Gary Paffet, Timo Glock and Red Bull outcast Felix Da Costa, who missed out on the Toro Rosso drive to GP3 Champion Danill Kyvatt.

Expect a lot more movement this week with test/reserve roles now looking slightly worthwhile in F1 and a few spots left to fill in DTM, WEC and Indy Car.