Screw you Guys, I’m going home

Is Formula 1 in crisis? No. But you’d never know it given the hullabaloo in the press. Red Bull saying this isn’t Formula 1. Ferrari saying this isn’t Formula 1. Bernie saying this isn’t Formula 1. Well I’m sorry guys, but you’ve only yourselves to blame.

This new engine formula came about as a direct result of Renault holding the sport hostage. Formula 1 was living in the past said Carlos Ghosn, and Renault would not be hanging around unless it changed its regulations to move in line with more road relevant technology. If they’d had their way, we’d currently have flat fours. As it is, they backtracked slightly to the 1.6 litre V6s which have so divided the sport’s fanbase.

That Renault has arguably done the poorest job in preparing for this new formula is nobody’s fault but their own. They pushed for this technology. They made their bed. They should be made to lie in it.

Of course Red Bull and Adrian Newey are upset. Formula 1 has become an engine formula once again. Even Newey’s mighty aero wizardry cannot get his team out of the spot it finds itself in.

Ferrari is in a similar bind. How ironic that the great Enzo Ferrari once claimed that aerodynamics were for those that could not build engines.

Mercedes has simply done a better job than its rivals. And for that, Formula 1 apparently wants to tear up the new rule book and start again. I have to agree with Toto Wolff in his remarks that such an idea is “absurd.”

We are not yet three races into this new formula, and yet already we are told it cannot and will not work. I have no doubt that if Renault had produced an engine worthy of battle with Mercedes that we would not be having these arguments. Its a classic story of a kid picking up his ball and going home because he’s not winning the game.

But it is a game whose rules this child helped create. These new regulations didn’t just appear. They were written over months and years, having been digested and pondered by those who own supposedly the smartest brains in our industry. If Adrian Newey, Red Bull, Ferrari, Lotus, or any other team or Technical Director had an issue with these regulations then they should have voiced their objections then. Not now.

The absurdity of it all, is in the concept that competing entities can ever work together for the furtherance of the sport. Their own self interest is what got us to this point, their own insular views of the rules and how they might affect their own position in the sport.

Ferrari claims over 80% of the fans of Formula 1 don’t like the new sport, thanks to a fairly poorly worded and leading poll it conducted on its own website. One wonders the answers they would have had if Ferrari had won the first two races. One wonders what response a similar poll on a Mercedes website would garner.

One wonders why Ferrari and Red Bull are suddenly so concerned over the opinions of the fans, when every poll conducted in the independent domain over double points repeatedly sees well over a 95% dislike of the rule, and yet they have not seen fit to push for its eradication. Ferrari and Red Bull are not pushing for change for you, the fans. They are pushing for themselves, because they and their partners simply haven’t done as good a job as their rivals.

And therein lies the problem. Whatever changes are made, Mercedes and its teams will still be three months ahead of Renault and Ferrari. That is not going to change.

There is a short term simple fix for a few of the issues the sport is experiencing, however. Take away the fuel flow limit. Cars will rev higher, noise will be increased and drivers will be able to push. Yes engines will be under increased strain but that is for the teams to sort. There will still be disparity between the teams and engine suppliers, but in the short term at least its a fix that makes some sense.

If this was the FIA of Mosley times, I could see the Court of Appeal dismissing Red Bull’s appeal against Ricciardo’s Australian GP disqualification next week, and the very next day removing the fuel flow regulation. It was Mosley’s Machiavellian manner of politics that led to the strength of the FIA. And today’s sport requires such a strong armed approach.

You cannot have competing entities dictating rules. It does not and cannot work.

In an apparent move to appease the championship leaders, Bernie Ecclestone has this morning said that any move towards regulation change will be lead by Mercedes. And this must be seen as a positive step.

Because if the rules of this sport are changed significantly because the two teams considered to be the most important by the commercial rights holder, as proven by the unique financial rewards they individually receive for simply turning up, aren’t as competitive as they want to be, then the answer to the question I asked at the start of this article will need to be reappraised.

The Art of Noise

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Hello folks, Will Buxton here. Corporate schill. FIA apologist. TV puppet. Whack job. Clueless hack. Fucking idiot. Or any one of the other tags I’ve had attached to me over the past fortnight for simply stating that I actually don’t mind the sound of the 2014 Formula 1 power units.

Frankly, I’m getting a little tired of the fact that at the beginning of one of the most technically fascinating and competitively open championships for a generation, all we seem to be doing is arguing about noise. But that is all it is. Noise. Wasted energy. Yours and mine. And the cars’.

I wasn’t going to write a blog on the topic because over the past week, it is all anyone has seemingly cared or written about. I have retweeted numerous articles whose opinions I have agreed with, and yet still people are either unwilling or unable to accept that I am genuine in my statements that these things sound pretty cool. And so I am writing this so as to be unequivocal.

Here are the facts as I see them.

The 2014 V6 Turbos are not as loud as the 2013 V8s.

The 2014 V6 Turbos are not as high pitched and thus are not as exciting to listen to as the 2013 V8s.

They sound crap on TV.

But, in the flesh they really do sound quite awesome. And they sound different depending on where you stand. You are going to get a different impression of these cars if you are standing in the middle of the straight where the cars are at full revs, to if you are in the braking zone and are experiencing the fascinating sound of the two MGUs kicking in. If you stand mid corner you will hear tyre screeching as the drivers scrabble for grip with the huge torque being produced. If you stand on corner exit, you’ll hear the growl of the engine and watch huge black lines being laid down, tyres screeching as the cars wheelspin up to 5th gear.

More torque, less grip c/o James Moy Photography

More torque, less grip
c/o James Moy Photography

I’ve had messages from people here in Sepang who said that after watching the Australian Grand Prix on TV, they were worried about how it would sound for real. But they’ve been pleasantly surprised. Even Bernie Ecclestone admitted to me yesterday on NBCSN that the cars sounded far better in the flesh than they had done on TV. As such I put it to him that this was by far and away the biggest problem and the one that needs resolving. It is down to his company to bring to the wider world the sounds that we are hearing trackside. That is easier said than done, but it is pivotal to making this new formula a success as 99% of the fans of this sport do not have that luxury of standing trackside as we do.

If you look back at the articles post Australia, there was an interesting division between those who came out positively in favour of the new engines and their sound and those that did not. I would say that the largest percentage of those in favour of the new engines were at the track and heard the engines for real. The vast majority of the doom-mongers were bloggers who had received their impression of the new engines through the TV.

Now obviously, I appreciate that not everyone gets to visit the races and what I have never said is that what you hear at home is not disappointing. I am well aware that it is. All I have said, from day one, is to please give it time because what you are getting through your TV set right now is not in any way representative of what these cars actually sound like.

The point has been made and rightfully so that without these new power units, we would be down to two engine manufacturers in Formula 1, maybe even just one, as Renault and possibly Mercedes would have left the sport. Honda would not be coming back. One engine manufacturer would have pushed Formula 1 closer towards being a spec championship and I don’t know anyone that wants that.

These new power units are not green. Formula 1 will never be green. But it must be road relevant to keep the manufacturers interested. No we’re not endurance racing, but efficiency is hugely important. And it always has been. Build an engine that is more efficient with your fuel, carry less fuel, have a lighter car, go faster. Build a car that is more efficient with its tyres, require fewer pit stops. This is simply a continuation and an evolution of a basic tenet of motor racing.

Fans cried for a return to the halcyon days of the Turbo era, with more power than grip and drivers having to fight their cars rather than just point the thing and hit the throttle. Well that is what we have. Revel in it. Revel in the majesty of the best drivers in the world having to actually DRIVE.

If the FIA is to be believed, the future of motor racing is Formula E. Compared to that, the 2014 F1 power units are fire breathing, lung busting, animalistic growling monstrosities. Perhaps we should be thankful for what we’ve got.

The fact is, this IS what we’ve got. It isn’t going to change. The sport had to move forward and while V8s were all well and good, they were old technology and outdated. I liked the sound of a Cosworth DFV, but you place that alongside a 2014 F1 power unit and its like comparing Stephenson’s rocket with NASA’s Orion Spacecraft. Times change.

There have been suggestions that the teams are listening to the opinions of the fans and are worried about the negative response to the new sound. But from the comments I have received it seems there is a definite and clear divide. I’d say 40% like it and 40% hate it, while 20% remain unsure. Meanwhile, I’d estimate close to 95% of fans hate the idea of double points races, and yet the teams didn’t see fit to budge on that one.

What does not help is having an F1 team boss standing on the pitwall proclaiming “This is not Formula 1.” Because it is. This is how it is. He had a chance to influence the way this sport was going technically, and if he or his team failed then they have nobody to blame but themselves.

Mr E has been critical of the new power units c/o James Moy Photography

Mr E has been critical of the new power units
c/o James Moy Photography

What does not help is having the commercial rights holder come out so negatively before he has heard the cars in person, because while his backtracking this weekend is commendable, the damage has already been done.

What does not help is having the reigning world champion decrying the new engines as “shit.” A case of placing the sport in disrepute under Article 151c? Arguably. The last driver to say F1 rules were “shit” was Jacques Villeneuve and he was threatened with suspension. And would Sebastian even have dreamt of saying such negative things if his engine was powering him to pole positions and victories?

What does not help is having people sat at home, writing with supposed and, via the weight we give online media, unquestioned authority about how these engines sound in the flesh when they have only heard them through their TV.

So call me a hack. Call me a schill. Call me an annoying fanboy sycophant (After 13 years as a journalist and broadcaster in this industry, I think I like this one the best.) I’ve been called far worse. Fernando Alonso has said he’s not going to wade into the discussion as he knows he’ll get slammed from either side no matter what he says. Such is the wonder of social media.

But please, just give this new Formula time. The sound will improve, the way it is relayed to you at home will improve. And when it does, hopefully you will appreciate this new technology for what it is. An exciting new beginning for a sport that had to evolve.

Headline news

Over the last few days I’ve received countless tweets, mostly from folks stateside, linking to news articles detailing the treatment of grieving relatives of those lost on Malaysian Airlines flight 370.

“Ferrari F1 Team kicks grieving relatives of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 out of hotel rooms”

“Malaysia jet search: Grieving relatives forced to switch hotels as F1 crews move in”

“Grieving Families Booted From Hotel for Formula One Grand Prix”

Kicked. Forced. Booted.

Strong stuff.

But sometimes we would do well to look beyond headlines and actually think for a moment.

There are two hotels at the centre of all this. One is the Sama Sama, formerly the Pan Pacific. It is a large hotel, connected to the airport by a walkway, and was for many years the accreditation centre for the Grand Prix. It is still used by many teams and sponsors and one imagines it will have been booked solid on Grand Prix week for over six months.

The other is Cyberview Resort and Spa. It is nowhere even close to the airport. It is a luxury retreat often frequented by drivers. I stayed here a few years ago for two days as a treat to myself before the race started. Two days was all I could afford. It isn’t cheap.

But reports say a dozen Chinese relatives were “forced” out of this hotel, and that Malaysia Airlines took the decision to move itself from Sama Sama.

There’s a lot of bile being spat at the moment about terrible Formula 1 and the heartless bastards who have moved the families. But just take a moment.

What do you think happened? Ferrari turned up at their hotel, found their rooms inhabited by grieving relatives and haughtily ordered the manager to eject these weeping individuals, post haste?

It’s not as if Formula 1 travel is the work of an instant. Flights and hotels are booked months, sometimes years in advance. Repeat bookings at hotels are not uncommon.

The hotel managers would have been well aware when taking the families in that their establishment was fully booked for Grand Prix week. If they failed to make Malaysia Airlines or the families aware of this then the root of this problem lies with them.

But I am also quite sure that nobody expected the search for flight 370 to be entering a third week. What those poor families are going through I cannot even fathom.

But Formula 1 has not booted, thrown or kicked them out of anywhere. They have simply been moved to another hotel because the one in which they had been placed was fully booked for the week commencing March 24th. And I am perfectly sure that it will have been the hotels themselves that made the families and/or the airline aware of their need to switch hotels, days before any crew arrived. The F1 teams claimed to have done the booting probably had no idea that any of this was happening.

It saddens me that some media outlets would chose such an easy target as the grief of those families, to come up with such a nasty and ill thought through story. And that so many would unflinchingly believe what they are spoon fed by the media at large, without taking the time to do a little bit of thinking for themselves.

So what do we know?

The sun has set on pre-season testing c/o James Moy Photography

The sun has set on pre-season testing
c/o James Moy Photography

This time next week I will be touching down in Melbourne for the start of a Formula 1 season, the anticipation for which I have rarely felt. It’s not just going to be the first day back at school. Nor the first day at a new school. It’s going to feel like the first day at a new school in a different country, speaking a whole new language. It is a veritable voyage into the unknown… and I can’t wait.

We always say you can’t learn much from testing, but that’s not altogether true. In past years, laptimes have been a not blind science. With reliability reaching almost bulletproof levels, yes sandbagging occurred, but more often than not we would arrive in Australia with a pretty good handle on who was where. And when laptimes didn’t give the clues, we could always rely on body language to gauge general confidence.

For 2014, Formula 1 has undergone one of the largest technical regulation shifts ever seen. Winter testing has not run smoothly for a single team, and not one of them will be departing for Australia in anywhere near confident mood. To us, as fans, and to those of us fortunate enough to make our careers narrating the sport to a global audience, this is manna from heaven.

So after 12 days of pre-season testing, what do we know?

Even the Toro Rosso looks good from certain angles c/o James Moy Photography

Even the Toro Rosso looks good from certain angles
c/o James Moy Photography

First of all, yes the cars look weird and they sound weird. But after ten minutes you don’t really notice anymore and you start to appreciate what they now are. In profile, you don’t notice the silly noses. That will mean more to those at the tracks than watching on TV as I imagine most televised shots will still have a three quarter or head on element, but really, they’re not as offensive as the still photographs suggest.

As for the sound, no its not as raucous. It’s quieter, but I would say rather interesting. There’s something of a sweet high note, with almost sci-fi whooshes, whizzes and pops under braking as the energy recovery and turbo can be heard well above the noise of the Internal Combustion Engine itself.

And what of that Power Unit itself, from the ICE to the ERS and turbo? You are going to hear voices this season that decry the new technology as being the anathema of Formula 1. But to them I say this: the brain trust in the sport has produced in 18 months what it would normally take road divisions a decade to perfect. The creases will be ironed out, the issues will be solved and you will get used to the sound. Revel in the technical genius that has created such an incredible development in the harnessing of energy and the delivery of power.

These engines are producing so much torque, drivers are wheel spinning up to fifth gear. Check this out from the twitter account of Auto Motor und Sport’s Tobias Gruner, comparing Massa’s fastest lap from testing in Bahrain Vs Rosberg’s pole lap from last year.

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Look at the top speed. Massa took 19.2kph more out of his Mercedes engine in testing through the speed trap. And, if the stories are true, we’re still not seeing the Mercedes power units cranked up to 100%. The only reason the laptimes are slower is because the teams and drivers can’t yet get the power down. There simply isn’t the mechanical grip to do so. And all this power is coming from a brand new engine whose capacity is smaller than the free bottle of Coke you get with your take-away pizza. Think about that. It’s incredible.

Right, what else do we know?

The balance, as far as engines go, looks like this. If you have a Mercedes you have every reason to be confident. If you have a Renault, you don’t. And if you have a Ferrari you don’t really know where you are, but it’s looking better than if you had a Renault.

While there are no such things as certainties in racing, we can say with some confidence that Red Bull Racing are as close to panic as they have been in half a decade. Their car is not reliable, and when it is it isn’t fast enough. Some estimates put them two months behind their rivals. When asked by my colleague from Sky Sports News Rachel Brookes in Bahrain if the team was designing a B Spec challenger for 2014 given their struggles with the RB10, Christian Horner failed to deny it. Things really are that bad.

A familiar sight in testing for Red Bull Racing c/o James Moy Photography

A familiar sight in testing for Red Bull Racing
c/o James Moy Photography

This is great news for Formula 1. It means the benchmark team of the past four years will not have things its own way and will have to fight like it has never fought before to retain its world championships. It means Adrian Newey is fallible. It will be a test the likes of which the team is yet to endure, one which some quarters would argue they are overdue and of which they are only too deserving. A reality check, if you will.

From a driver’s perspective, it will give us an opportunity to see how Sebastian Vettel copes with a car which is not the best, nor even we think in the top three… possibly even top five. He hasn’t been in that position since he drove for Toro Rosso. His team-mate however has all too recent knowledge of such a plight.

For Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing’s woes could not have arrived at a better time. It takes the almighty and arguably crippling pressure off his shoulders as he beds himself in at his new team. Rather than being thrust straight into a pole and win shootout with his 4-time champion team-mate, Dan will be part of a team pulling together to get on top of its greatest challenge. The Australian is used to having to pull rabbits out of hats. Seb isn’t used to fighting for scraps. Dan is. For Red Bull Racing, even making Q3 could be an achievement. With expectations so low, Ricciardo will have time to adjust to his new surroundings and shine.

2014 Dark Horses c/o James Moy Photography

2014 Dark Horses
c/o James Moy Photography

But while the multiple championship winning benchmark of the 2010s is on the back foot, the team that was doing all the title winning over two decades previously looks to have finally turned a corner back towards the front of the field. Williams could not have timed its switch to Mercedes engines from Renault power more perfectly. With Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas they have an experienced lead driver with a new lease of life and a youngster seen as a world champion in waiting. The team has the strongest technical department it has known for many a year. It has a raft of new and lucrative sponsors, including the worst kept secret of 2014, the return of Martini and their iconic livery as title partner (to be unveiled in London on Thursday.)

Its car is reliable. It is fast. There is every reason to think Williams could be the dark horse not just for race wins, but possibly even the title in 2014. In a season in which focus will be placed on the Power Unit and the recovery and use of energy, Williams Engineering’s offshoot Williams Hybrid Power looks set to be a tremendous feather in the team’s cap.

While Force India and McLaren also look strong, Williams is by far the strongest Mercedes customer team. But if Williams is to take the plaudits in 2014, it must take on and beat the factory Mercedes squad and this will be no easy feat. As we depart for Australia there are no two ways about it: for the first time since 2009 and its former guise as BrawnGP, the boys from Brackley are the dialed-in favourites.

It is all smoke and mirrors right now, but in Bahrain I heard talk that the team was nowhere near running at 100% and had a second and a half in hand. I had a brief word with a source at the team before I left testing. He laughed, winked and replied, “A second and a half? Not quite that much.”

Merc are undoubted favourites c/o James Moy Photography

Merc are undoubted favourites
c/o James Moy Photography

While the team won’t be drawn on exactly how big their advantage is, there are some who believe it could be even greater than the 1.5 seconds bandied around at testing.

From what I understand from a high level independent source after testing had finished, the reality could be even more astonishing. If the data adds up as he believes and the factory Mercedes team was able to run their cars at 100%, right now they would win every Grand Prix not by a few seconds but by two clear laps.

Two. Laps.

So long as their reliability holds up, his feeling was that Mercedes AMG won’t need to go anywhere near showing their hand in the early races. They should be able to use the season to slowly build confidence and reliability and just as everyone thinks they’ve caught up, Mercedes can turn it up and blow everyone away again.

The reason for this is the team’s superior grasp not only of the engine but, just as with Williams, an incredible handle on energy recovery and its usage. This will be the key in 2014, and right now Mercedes has the edge.

So does Mercedes AMG really have such a huge advantage? Can Williams truly fight for wins? Is Red Bull really in trouble? I honestly don’t know.

Next week we will learn who stands where at the start of one of the most eagerly anticipated F1 seasons in a generation.

Who will be smiling in Melbourne? c/o James Moy Photography

Who will be smiling in Melbourne?
c/o James Moy Photography

Jacques, Juan Pablo & the future of Indycar

I am a spotty, squeaky voiced 14-year old pupil at Lord Wandsworth College boarding school in Hampshire, England. As we count down the days to the under 18s disco at Harpers nightclub in Guildford and our best and pretty much only chance to awkwardly kiss a girl, our days are filled with new, seemingly life changing music. Oasis’ “What’s The Story Morning Glory”, Pulp’s ”Different Class” and Radiohead’s seminal “The Bends” are on constant rotation. I have a poster of Drew Barrymore on my wall. Windows ’95 has just been released and the Encarta CD ROM has blown our minds. A whole encyclopedia… on a disc. Forrest Gump wins the Oscar for Best Picture. Bill Clinton is in his first term as US President. OJ Simpson goes on trial for murder.

The 49ers win the Super Bowl. Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras win Wimbledon.

And Jacques Villeneuve wins the Indy 500.

1995 was 19 years ago. That’s a hell of a long time. An awful lot has changed. And so, when it was announced earlier this week that JV would be contesting the 2014 Indianapolis 500 after an almost two decade break, it was rightfully seen as a pretty big deal.

He will be racing a third entry from Schmidt Peterson, and made all the right noises in the PR blurb.

“To have the opportunity to return to IndyCar racing and the Indianapolis 500 is something I never thought possible,” Villeneuve said. “The memories I have there will stay with me for the rest of my life, and I’m excited to create new memories in 2014.”

Villeneuve, never one to shy away from a decent soundbite, hasn’t exactly been Indycar’s biggest fan over recent years. But he admitted that the new direction the championship had taken was pivotal to his desire to return.

“I guess it started when they started going back to road racing, going back to a mix of tracks, going back to the IndyCar that I knew, basically. Then came this new car, which was quite a surprise with the spoilers and everything.

“I was dubious until the first time I saw it racing, then I realised how amazing it was, how close the racing was for open-wheel racing. It’s never heard of anymore in modern days. That’s how racing used to be.

“When I started seeing that last year, I started getting excited again, just because the racing was amazing, the cars looked fast and aggressive, it looked hard on the drivers, and the battles were fierce, which is all what I love about racing.”

Not Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins. Actually Jacques Villeneuve.  c/o James Moy Photography

Not Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins. Actually Jacques Villeneuve.
c/o James Moy Photography

For Indycar, this is hugely positive PR. A champion who had become disillusioned with the series sees a bright new path being forged by the sport and wants to be part of it. The fact that this comes in the year when another mighty champion in Juan Pablo Montoya returns, should only add weight to the Indycar PR machine.

I do question, however, whether at 42 and with a lack of running in the DW12, Jacques will be ready. Sure, people will point to the fact that Al Unser won Indy 500s 17 years apart. They’ll remind us all that Emmo came back in his 40s and that this is the wonder of the 500. I get that, really I do. I love the history and the unique nature of the event and that, in the right car and with luck, anything can happen.

Jacques himself might argue that the last time he raced the Indy 500 the cars were faster and thus his task in 2014 is not so grand. Pole was set at 231.604 mph in 1995. Last season, Ed Carpenter’s pole speed was 228.762 mph. That’s only a 2.9 mph deficit. Not a huge difference. Factor in also the immensely physical nature of the DW12 and that lack of testing and it becomes clear that JV will have a huge challenge in May and will have to make the most of the practice week before Pole Day. If it rains like it did in 2013, his challenge will be greater still.

Juan Pablo Montoya is training his guts out to be ready for 2014. He cannot afford for his season to be a failure. And ultimately, that is the risk for both drivers here. Villeneuve talks of the desire to write a new chapter, to make new memories. But what if those memories are miserable?

Montoya hitting the gym - hard c/o @jpmontoya Twitter

Montoya hitting the gym – hard
c/o @jpmontoya Twitter

Kimi Raikkonen returned to Formula 1 and made a huge success of it, rejuvenating a career on the skids. Michael Schumacher made an F1 comeback and failed to win, scraped a solitary podium and for the first time in his F1 career, couldn’t beat his team-mate. Three years running. So which will the JV and JPM comebacks prove to be? Will it add to the legend, or take the shine off something that glistened so perfectly?

In Villeneuve’s case, I fear it may be an ego-driven folly destined to lead only to disappointment. I say this purely from the standpoint that his focus is on Rallycross, as it should be. And that, after 20 years, if he’s not coming back to win the Indy 500, why even bother?

Then there’s the other question… should Indycar be promoting its past glories over its potential future stars?

While it is easy to claim Villeneuve is denying others an opportunity to race, the simple fact is that Jacques Villeneuve is not taking anyone’s seat. This third entry for Schmidt Peterson has been lined up specifically for him, although it was interesting to note the omission of mention of any solid funding for the drive at the announcement.

Villeneuve Vs Montoya Vs the Indycar gang we’ve come to know and love over the past few years is a huge selling point. The only way you could improve on that is to bring Little Al, Paul Tracy, Gil de Ferran, Bobby Rahal and Mario or Michael Andretti back into the fold. But then you’re bordering on the old GP Masters concept and Indycar already has enough detractors claiming it is a retirement series.

There remains, however, a question over who will fill the empty slots to make up the 33 car field for Indy as at present the grid sits way under quota. And this is by far the larger issue here.

While my first impression of Villeneuve’s return to the Indy 500 was negative in that I didn’t see the point in him risking his reputation for a vanity project, he’s a grown man and can take responsibility for his own choices, no matter how stupid we may think they are. On reflection I have come to see that the positive aspect is that in 2014, alongside Montoya, we will have the only two drivers in history who have competed at the Indianapolis 500, Brickyard 400 and United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis lining up to go head to head for the Borg Warner.

As such there has perhaps never been a greater opportunity for driver managers and the money men to get funding for their driver for the 500. And, who knows, if these folks do their jobs properly, perhaps we’ll even see 35 cars or more and a Bump Day that actually means something. Because the 2014 Indy 500 is going to be a huge draw.

Hand on heart, I’d rather be at Indy than Monaco for the Grand Prix this year.

Who fills those seats is the big question now, and I hope that the return of Villeneuve and Montoya starts to help Indycar promote itself better, something in which it has been woefully ineffective in recent years. With Dario Franchitti hanging up his helmet for 2014, there are some real stars waiting to shine. But one questions whether Indycar is marketed well enough to allow them to do so.

Half the grid are ageing to a point that they will not, or should not, be in a position to carry on for much longer. But there is, as yet, a lack of an influx of hungry and talented youngsters to make the older guard fear for their positions or feel challenged on track. Sure we’ve seen some great new talent enter the fold over the past few seasons, but not enough. So where is the future of the sport?

Where does America's future lie for single seaters? c/o James Moy Photography

Where does America’s future lie for single seaters?
c/o James Moy Photography

I put this question to Randy Bernard a few years ago before he got the chop. There is no denying that the man got some things wrong during his tenure at Indycar, but in his vision for the future I believe he was spot on.

He wanted Indycar to become a driver’s first choice, not second or third on the list of where they wanted to be. His focus, he told me, was on GP2. His reasoning was simple. In GP2 you had some of the world’s greatest young racing talent, but their chances of getting to F1 relied solely on bringing enough money to the table and if you didn’t have $10 million you weren’t going to get a chance. Indycar budgets, by comparison, were and are comparable to GP2 budgets at closer to $2 million. Bring in the talent, watch the racing shine, draw in the sponsors and all of a sudden you have more funded drives and a full field of quality racers… those very same racing talents that F1 should have been nurturing instead of financially screwing.

I agreed with him completely. I still do. But even if you get these talented youngsters over to the US, Indycar has a problem. It can’t market itself. Because it doesn’t know what it is or what it wants to be.

If I have learned one thing since starting in American television, it is that the US fanbase is fiercely loyal to what it loves. We see that with the F1 broadcast and how many fans tune in at insane hours of the day. But if there is one thing that US sports fans are loyal towards, it is their country. It’s no surprise that the biggest sports are all national sports. The great rivalries are town against town, State against State, University against University. The most successful championships are those that play their seasons exclusively within the USA. Fans will watch because they want to, not because you tell them to.

This is one of the reasons why Formula 1 has struggled to get a foothold. It thinks it is the big player, the most important championship in the world, and so from the outset that causes resentment. No band ever broke America by saying they were the best. The Beatles didn’t turn up and tell everyone they were better than anyone else. They played the Ed Sullivan show, were announced as a popular beat combo from Liverpool, and showed everyone they were the best. They changed the world.

In Formula 1’s case, a bit of humility would go a long way. It would never do such a thing, but I’ve always thought F1 would do itself no harm in acting as a support event at a NASCAR race to draw in new fans, by providing a different show to what the main players were selling.

But by far Formula 1’s biggest issue in America is that it dips its toe into the US market just once a year. Formula 1 will never have the same bedrock of support as NASCAR because NASCAR races so often and so widely across America that it is possible for most of the populous to see a race with their own eyes. NASCAR promotes American heroes to American fans from one coast to the other. Formula 1, as a World Championship, will never be able to do that.

But Indycar could. And yet it doesn’t.

When Ryan Hunter-Reay won the Indycar Series in 2013, the championship’s marketing department should have PR’d the hell out of him. A good looking, wholesome, American family man had just taken on the world and won in an American–based racing championship. But what did they do? Next to nothing.

And it’s sad. I love Indycar. It is proper racing, hard racing, populated by a paddock full of talented people and incredible racing drivers who don’t get the international credit they deserve. It isn’t a B championship to F1. It stands on its own and should be promoted as such. It can cross the boundaries of being a racing series which races almost exclusively stateside and yet boasts an international cast of some of the finest racing drivers from around the world.

In order to do that, however, it needs to figure out that this is precisely its USP to American fans and advertisers. And then it needs to promote itself as such.

When we look at this year’s Indy 500, we are presented with an example of how this championship can get itself back on the offensive. If, by some monumental failure by the sport, the 33 spots at Indy fail to be filled, I would propose that Indycar does the following: field the cars itself. Slap Indycar logos all over them, dedicate the liveries to charities, do whatever they want to with the cars. But field the cars themselves. Take the financial hit. And open it up. Run a three-day shootout in which you invite the best talent from around the world to come to Indianapolis and compete.

Left behind. F1's next generation could be Indycar's. c/o James Moy Photography

Left behind. F1′s next generation could be Indycar’s.
c/o James Moy Photography

Bring over the Conor Dalys, Sam Birds and James Calados, Fabio Leimers and Stefano Colettis, Antonio Felix da Costas and Luca Filippis. Get Robin Frijns and Geido Van de Garde, and ask Simona to jump in one last time. Ask Bruno Senna to give it a go, draw Nelson Piquet Jr in from NASCAR. Don’t limit it. Bring the talent and the names and the next generation, run them against each other in a controlled practice environment and pick the best five or six to run in Indycar funded seats.

If one of them wins or even comes close to winning, it’s a huge story.

Just look at what Carlos Munoz did last year. He very nearly Montoya’d it and won on his debut. It can be done.

Take the financial hit, promote the hell out of it, and give new talent in Indycar a shot. Show them that America really is the land of opportunity and that Indycar really is a championship that can stand on its own feet. Give the established order a kick up the backside, reinvigorate the fanbase, and give people something to talk about.

Most importantly, give the sport a vision of its future.

While I love the idea of JPM and Jacques going wheel to the wheel for the win at Indy, it’s not the future, is it?

In the past 19 years, a lot has changed. Some things, though, have not. I still love Oasis and have a thing for Drew Barrymore. And the Indy 500 is still one of the biggest races in the world.

Nineteen years ago a young guy turned up, took the race by the throat and from two laps down, won it. This year he returns no longer a kid but a champion, a man, and, to some degrees, the embodiment of the establishment he took on and beat two decades ago. If his return is to mean anything, then it must be because the flame of hope is being passed from one generation to the next. If that new generation isn’t there to do to Jacques, Juan Pablo and all the others, what they once did as kids themselves, and more importantly if nobody feels the desire to watch, then their presence means nothing, they are proving nothing, and the series has no hope left at all.

JV wins the 500 in 1995 c/o @Indycar Twitter

JV wins the 500 in 1995
c/o @Indycar Twitter

Call off the Search – Why Simona is what F1 has been looking for.

Simona joins Sauber 14.02.2014 c/o Sauber F1 Team

Simona joins Sauber
14.02.2014
c/o Sauber F1 Team

Today’s news that Simona de Silvestro has become an affiliated driver with the Sauber F1 team is fabulous news for the Sauber, for Simona and for the Sport. Anyone who sees this as a gimmick needs to look again. It is so much more than that. I have long been a champion of Simona’s merits as a racer. Regardless of gender. Last year, before its untimely demise, I wrote an article for GPInternational Magazine on why Simona was exactly what Formula 1 needed.

I hope it gives some insight into the excellent driver Sauber intends to give an F1 debut in 2015.

……………………………………………………..

Women in Formula 1. It’s the topic that has created as many column inches in the paddock this season as Pirelli’s tyres and Lewis Hamilton’s dog. A few choice words from Sir Stirling Moss lit the blue touch paper of controversy, but the simple fact remains that a woman has not taken to an F1 grid in two decades. The well trodden response in the argument as to why that statistic holds true is that, in all that time, there simply hasn’t been anyone good enough.

Rubbish. There has. And at 24 years of age, she’s at the perfect stage of her career to step up to the top table. The problem? Simona de Silvestro is doing rather well in Indycar thank you very much.

The Swiss racer began her racing career in European karts, just as her F1 counterparts, but after her first season of single seaters in Italian Formula Renault in 2005 she shifted her focus Stateside.

“I didn’t have the budget to stay in Europe,” she confides during practice for the Indy 500. “But I found an American sponsor who wanted me to come over here and do Formula BMW. There were opportunities to go back but we never had the funding to do it. We found a sponsor over here who embraced who I was and wanted to help me in my career and so we stayed over here.”

Simona tests GP2 1.11.2007 c/o GP2 Media Service

Simona tests GP2
1.11.2007
c/o GP2 Media Service

One of those opportunities to step back to Europe came when she tested GP2 at the tail end of 2007 for the mid grid Campos team. With only half a day in the car and against drivers who had been competing in the GP2/05 all season, she ran impressively well. She was just over a second off the pace of eventual champion Davide Valsecchi and current F1 racer Giedo van der Garde.

I watched her working in the garage and stood trackside that day. She was desperately impressive. I spoke to the Campos team and her afternoon team-mate Vitaly Petrov. All were in no doubt; she was the real deal. She could have made the move back across the pond. And she would have been fast.

“The biggest thing was not to over step things,” she reflects today. “I think I did that mistake in go karts when I went from juniors to Formula A without doing ICA and I thought about that. I could have had so much success doing ICA and winning races, but I didn’t and so Formula A was much tougher. When I tested GP2 I’d only done one season of Atlantics over here and it wasn’t a great season. I think going into GP2 would have been a little bit too early, and really taking our time to do Atlantics for three years allowed me to grow so much, and having that final year in 2009 where I was running up front, leading the championship until the last race, it gave me so much confidence that yes I really am able to do this, to win races and run with the best guys out there. That was the key. Going through those steps and not going too fast.

“Racing can be over so quickly. When you have something going for you, you have to realise it. Of course you want to go to F1 or Indycar as quickly as you can, but there is so much learning that happens in the smaller categories that personally gives you the confidence. You can look back and say ‘I beat these guys there so I can beat them here too.’ It gives you that confidence.”

It is confidence which is well established. As de Silvestro herself admits, moving to Formula Atlantic (the equivalent today of Indy Lights) gave her the foundation she required. She was winning races from her second season, and fought for the title in her third. It was only a matter of time before Indycar came calling, and so it was that, at just 20 years of age, she made the step into the biggest single seater championship in the world outside F1.

As she says herself, “It was pretty remarkable,” but there was never a hint that Simona de Silvestro had made it to Indycar because of her gender.

“I think the biggest thing is that in Europe you have so many categories that whether you are female or male it is hard to find a path. Here it makes so much more sense. You have Star Mazda, Indy Lights and then Indycar. You know that if you are in that you work though. In Europe, there are so many series that you don’t know where people are racing, the budgets are crazy and that’s what is so hard when you go from karts to cars.

“So many awesome drivers can’t find the budget and I think that’s a shame. It is how it is. You have to have the whole package coming together. Two million Euros for GP2 when you have no practice, run around and then maybe you have a chance… it’s crazy. Over here the two guys who have won the Indy Lights in the past two years made it to Indycar. Over here I think there is more hope. It’s not just because you have money that you get somewhere. People look around, they embrace what you have done in the past and the budget is way less. The amount of money in Europe is crazy.”

Long beach 2013 c/o Simona de Silvestro

Long beach 2013
c/o Simona de Silvestro

That said, racing remains a heavily male dominated world. But, perhaps because of the way Americans view their racers, perhaps because the focus was already on Danica Patrick, or perhaps because of the way in which de Silvestro’s team have intentionally protected her from the gimmicks of being simply seen as a “female racer,” she never felt the burden of her gender.

“It’s hard to say if it was harder for me or anyone else. I think everybody who gets to Indycar it’s a really tough path with a lot of years of commitment to get here and for me I never felt that it was more difficult. I’m a girl and I’ve always been racing against guys so it’s just normal. I’ve never been racing against other girls. This is what I do. I have respect from the other drivers because I have had the results in the past and I’ve earned my stripes. I came into Indycar not with the best team and I’ve had to work. It is hard anyway, but you just have to work through it.”

It hasn’t always been easy for de Silvestro however. She suffered burns after a frightening crash at the Texas Motorspeedway in 2010, and fell victim to an enormous accident in practice for the 2011 Indy 500 which saw her confidence tremendously shaken.

“I got out of the car and was like, ‘OK I’m done. I don’t want to do this any more.’ But by the evening I was thinking that this is what I’ve lived for and it would be a shame not to get back in the car. The first thing was to get back in as quick as I could because if I didn’t it would become harder to get back into it. And then I told myself that if I get back in and I’m scared and not having fun then I shouldn’t do this. But I got in, I had fun… sure I was a bit sketchy, but I had a big smile when I got out and I proved to myself that this is what I was supposed to be doing. It was something that builds your character a little bit and builds your respect for your sport. As a racer you go for it, you don’t care, but after something like that you look at it all a bit differently. It’s a dangerous sport and something like that matures you.”

She’s not called “The Iron Lady” for nothing.

Of course, having the right team around you is key to the development of any driver, and for Simona de Silvestro that has been critical to her success. Pivotal to her career has been Imran Safiulla, who speaks passionately about the manner in which Brand Simona has been built Stateside.

“Racing is one of only two multi gender sports where girls and boys compete at the same level. It’s not like anything else. Tennis, football, volleyball, even darts, the boys play with the boys and the girls play with the girls. Most products, most ad campaigns are targeted towards the male demographic which is why you see tennis players’ skirts getting smaller and volleyball players in their knickers, and this situation was ripe for exploring. But if you were able to create an ambassador on the back of performance, integrity and a genuine image and leave her gender out of it in the short term, have it merit based so almost a gender neutrality, then when you bring the gender back into it once you have established the merit parameters, you have a huge value proposition. I think that is what Simona represents: a change in paradigm.

“Through Simona’s evolution we have focused on that and I feel that we have achieved that and now the companies that are around her are those who want to exploit the strength of her gender, not the sensuality or the sexuality of her gender. That’s where I truly believe the future lies from a marketing perspective. It is all result based. It has to come from performance. From an advertising standpoint you are not going to resonate if the ambassador cannot live up to that basic parameter in their own discipline. It isn’t genuine or wholesome and so it is fake and will fall short. It doesn’t work. It definitely doesn’t work to the female populous. It might work through exploiting sensuality and sexuality and creating a wow factor towards a male populous but that’s not what we are trying to do. If we do what we are doing we will get resonance from both sides of the gender divide, because the male populous will be forced to give credit where it is due and that is what we have focused on.”

c/o Simona de Silvestro

c/o Simona de Silvestro

And this is where Formula 1 has got things wrong. In searching for a female racer for the sake of it, that most important parameter, ability, can all too easily be lost amongst the gimmick of that racer’s gender. Today, Simona is backed by one of the world’s largest automakers in GM, and has, for a long time now, been backed by the energy sector, an as yet untapped revenue stream in F1.

It’s why Simona de Silvestro is such an attractive prospect for the sport. She’s marketable. Not because she’s a woman, but because she’s fast. But does F1 even interest her?

“Yeah,” she beams. “For sure. It is a dream. I think if you ask any driver they would love to drive in F1. Is it going to happen? I don’t know. But it is a dream.

“I think it has to be the right circumstance. I don’t want to go to F1 and drive a year and that’s it. I want to be given the right chances to be competitive. It’s hard nowadays, but if the right opportunity comes then maybe, yeah. Why not?”

To leave behind the foundations she has established in Indycar would be a huge leap of faith. To sacrifice what could be a hugely successful career for the F1 dream is a gamble which might not be worth taking.

“I think I can win races over here. I think I can fight for the championship. So F1 has to be right. You have to be in control on a lot of things to be successful in F1. I think it is hard to say right now if I would make the switch. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It has to be the right opportunity.”

But it is an opportunity which may yet fall in her lap. Formula 1 teams are, covertly, courting her for a trial run in the rookie tests. Her management team have been at recent F1 races, Bernie is aware of her results and her potential, and she herself still dreams of that F1 shot.

Simona de Silvestro could be just what Formula 1 is looking for. A fast, committed and successful racer, the fact she’s a woman is simply a pleasant coincidence.

And, refreshingly, the least important aspect of all.