One More Lap

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Have you ever had a moment so vivid, so crystal clear, so colourful and bright, so stunningly perfect, a moment born of such passion, hope and expectation that as it unfolds before your eyes you are forced to question your very lucidity and thereafter to forever wonder if you really were dreaming all along?

Shifting into seventh gear, right foot planted to the floor, heading uphill on the back straight at Circuit Paul Ricard at the wheel of the Lotus E20, the Renault R31 V8 engine screaming behind me, its every vibration sending pins and needles through my fingertips, life flying past me at almost 300kph… I hold my breath.

This isn’t really real. Is it?

GROUPE_1

It had been quite a year since I first set foot inside a single seater, at the wheel of the MSV BRDC Formula 4 car at Snetterton on a cold and rainy British summer’s afternoon, to find myself in the sunny South of France about to drive a Formula 1 car, via Florida and the Ferrari Winter Series. But there was no way I felt anywhere near ready to drive something so fast and powerful… and expensive.

It’s not as though you’re thrown straight in though. We media types had been invited down to Ricard to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the iRace programme, run by the Lotus F1 Team. It was started back in the day when the team raced under the Renault banner, but the entire concept has been overseen by Frederic Garcia, whom I have known since my days in GP2. Our paths would often cross due to our Renault connection, and also in no small part to the amount of time we both used to spend at Circuit Paul Ricard.

I spent so much time at the circuit between 2004 and 2008 that Ricard became my one true happy place and to this day there are few parts of the world that fill me with as much joy. I’ve lost count of the number of track variations, days, laps and minutes I have seen pass by over the seasons at this place, and yet for the first time I was to get the chance to drive the track myself.

This is not going to go well...

This is not going to go well…

I’d be joined by colleagues David Croft (Sky Sports F1 HD), James Roberts (F1 Racing Magazine), Juan Fosarolli (Fox Sports South America) amongst others… oh, and ex F1 racer Taki Inoue. And our first task was of course to give the circuit a quick once over. We’d be driving formation 3D (my personal favourite from the GP2 days). From there, we’d get limbered up with some massages before taking a spin in a Formula Renault 2.0.

The cockpit felt familiar, and not overly dissimilar to the Formula Abarth I’d raced in Florida. The main difference was the simplicity of the wheel and the replacement of the sequential handle with wheel mounted paddle shift. In terms of aero, power and handling though, the two were very similar.

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The first half hour is spent behind a safety car, taking things easy. Too easy. In spite of the pace picking up a little towards the end, I held back to try and find some space but on somewhat cold tyres, spun on the exit of Turn 1. I kept the rears lit and spun around to pick up the back of the pack having left a nice big black donut mark down at the first turn.

Then we are released on our own. It felt good to be back at the wheel of a single seater, even more so with the complete lack of any pressure at all. The day exists for fun, to allow anyone the chance to experience something that few think they ever could, and over the last 10 years iRace has given hundreds the opportunity to live their dreams and drive an F1 car.

iRace FRen 4

I’m hitting the Formula Renault’s steel brakes at the marker points and they’re proving way too early, so I take larger and larger chunks out each lap through. A few laps in I go way too deep and lock the rears at Turn 1. I catch it… sort of… half spinning but not exactly making the corner either. I turn around and get going again, dialling the brake bias forward. The car feels better under braking, more on its nose, but as I exit the final turn I’m called into the pits.

“You’re braking too late and too aggressively,” I’m told. “You’re spinning under braking.”

“Only once,” I reply. “I just locked the rears for Turn 1 so I’ve dialled the bias forward a bit.”

“Oh… OK.” A knowing smile. “On your way.”

We are given our telemetry after the session. I’m happy with my braking shape and strength. The guys however say I’m braking too hard. At least I am for the steel brakes on the Formula Renault. Still, it puts a seed of doubt in my mind at precisely the time when I wanted my confidence to be up. But there’s a good reason for that. I’m about to be let loose in the car that won the 2012 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. We may be at Paul Ricard, one of the most advanced racetracks in the world with mile upon mile of run off, but sending out a relative novice high on confidence is a sure-fire way to a massive repair bill.

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Pastor Maldonado arrives to give us a few final words of advice before stepping into the car. He tells us of his first laps in an F1 car when he drove a Minardi back in November 2004. Even for the hugely experienced, race and championship winning Maldonado, the experience was one he recalls in acute detail and one which he assures us for which he was nowhere near ready.

Which means we’re definitely not.

Our briefing on driving the E20 passes by in a haze of nerves. All in all though, we’re told it is not going to be as tough as we think. Wing levels are cranked up, traction control is at its maximum, there’s the blown diffuser… drive it fast or the aero won’t work. High revs. Brake hard to keep the temperatures up. Enjoy it.

And as each colleague returns, that’s the repeated phrase.

“You can go so much faster than you think. Don’t hold back, just go for it.”

The same line, almost identically, is repeated by everyone who gets out.

And then it’s my turn.

iRace seat fit

I drop myself into the car, but in order to hit the pedals I’m perhaps a touch too low in the tub. There’s no time for bespoke seats to be made, of course, so it’s the best we can do. Belts strapped tight, I’m now exceptionally nervous. I feel so silly. Why the hell am I nervous? I know the track, I’ve got my license, I’ve been racing against Marciello and Fuoco and Verstappen this season… I’m not an idiot, and the car has been set up for absolute novices.

The engine is fired up and it roars. The whole car vibrates with a beautiful, warming hum. We roll forward into the pitlane. Visor down. Hand clutch in, engage first gear, slowly release the clutch and off we go.

The E20 gently eases forward as the revs and speed increase. I lower my right foot down and we rocket forward. It’s the kind of immense response you get from the throttle on a trials bike when you’re used to a Vespa. The slightest touch on the pedal and you are thrown back in your seat. And it feels glorious.

Out of the pits and already up to fourth gear before braking for turn one and shifting down to second. Back hard on the throttle and hold it in third through the right hander, shifting up to fourth before getting on the brakes and dropping down again through the gears for the uphill, down dale esses.

I’ll be honest. By this point I already dislike the carbon brakes. There is maybe an inch and a half of feel in them. That’s it. I’d got so used to steel brakes and the relatively long brake pedal one gets to play with to modulate braking and control brake shape in the other single seaters I’d driven, that to suddenly have it all occur in a few centimetres of movement is nigh on impossible to wrap your head around so quickly.

For now though, I don’t care. I hit the right hand apex on the S, and the track opens up ahead of me. I press my right foot to the floor and hold my breath. Third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh… it’s like being in control of your own rollercoaster.

iRace F1 2

My eyes stand out on stalks, as my brain struggles to keep up with the speed of what it is having to compute. Its cogs simply won’t turn fast enough, and so what stands in front of you is a blur of colour and light and noise, rushing towards you along a strip of grey rising uphill to a vanishing point. It is the most exhilarated and yet the most terrified I have ever been.

The brake marker appears and I lift, shifting down to fifth, setting myself up for the final third of the track, a sequence of tricky turns which require quite delicate placement of the car to ensure you’re pointing as straight as possible under braking in the midst of seemingly never ending corners.

I still can’t get the braking right, but as I round the final corner I floor the throttle, and am shifting from sixth to seventh as a I cross the start line. My one flying lap has started, but inside the first 100 metres I’ve ruined it. I squeeze the brakes and run deep into Turn one. I was nowhere near hard enough on the pedal, not even close. I double back to the track and trundle through the turn, getting back on it through the fast right hander and into the S.

Back into that glorious back section, I hit the throttle early and feel the back end step out. My own reaction tells me to correct and get back on it, but the car has already reacted before me and I can feel the TC controlling the rear and pushing me on, back up the hill. The radio beeps on.

“Use the brakes harder.”

I look down at the wheel. Its like a bag of pick n mix. I can’t remember which button does what. I find the radio button, shout “COPY THAT” and look up. I have travelled practically the entire straight. In the time it took me to find the radio button.

The right hander at Signes is next. My one true challenge. I thought I’d held it flat in the Formula Renault but the telemetry said I’d lifted just a touch. Not this time though. I was going in hard and I was going in fast. Easy flat. Easy.

My brain said yes. My balls said no. Not quite as big as I’d hoped.

Into the next right, turn in, straighten up and hit the brakes. Hard. Too hard.

Having not been warmed up with my pathetic excuse for braking on my formation lap and into my flyer, the temperature has dropped and I lock up and fly off track, flat spotting the front right a touch and running over the blue high abrasion run off strips.

The lap is ruined (it was rubbish from the first corner) and so I just decide to enjoy myself, blasting the throttle a few times and trying to sort out how in the hell to get a feel for the brakes. The in lap is a blast, flying once again down that glorious back straight, this time taking in the surroundings and the speed with which they fly past me, all under my control.

And in a flash, those three laps are over and I’m back in the pits.

iRace incar

I’m instantly thinking back over the laps, which now seem to have gone past so quickly they’ve all meshed into one. I could have braked harder and later. I could have carried more speed into the corners. I could have got on the power earlier. The fact the TC only kicked in once… the car would have forgiven my inadequacies. I shouldn’t have been so cautious.

I jump out of the car and utter those same words about not holding back to the next driver. I know he won’t listen. I know he, as I, and for that matter all of us before, will hold back and emerge from those laps utterly exhilarated… and yet just that little bit gutted.

You see, driving a Formula 1 car is a drug. It is the ultimate buzz, heightening every one of your senses to levels you never realised possible. Never have I felt so alive. Never have I felt so thrilled. Never have I felt so scared.

And at the end, all you want is just one more lap. Just one. One more hit of that speed, of that adrenalin, of that immense feeling of being so joyously alive. But deep down you know that won’t be enough to assuage your thirst, your desire… your absolute need to taste that thrill once more.

You’ll always want just one more lap.

Perhaps, then, its best that the experience felt surreal at the time and as the days and weeks have passed since, seems now to be even more of a dream. How it must feel for that thrill to become the norm. How it must feel to then have it taken away. Its no wonder a driver will do anything to get to and then stay in Formula 1. Regardless of whether they’re Romain Grosjean driving that E20 to podiums, or hauling the E22 by the scruff of its neck into Q2, that thrill is what keeps every racer pushing.

For just one more lap.

iRace hero

New Coke

Team Pack Up c/o James Moy Photography

Team Pack Up
c/o James Moy Photography

The arrival of August may mean an enforced break for most of the F1 world, but not it would seem for some of the sport’s key decision makers. It emerged over the weekend of the Hungarian Grand Prix that Bernie Ecclestone intends to hold a crisis summit over the sport’s popularity. Formula 1 team bosses were made aware of this on Saturday in Budapest, along with the shock news that alongside a hand-picked selection of team chiefs and Ecclestone himself, would be media representatives and disgraced former F1 team boss Flavio Briatore.

Although it has been claimed that the meeting should not be viewed as a negative, to many it can only be deemed thus. Coming at a time when the fans of this sport, along with a growing number of dissenting voices in the paddock, are having their say on double points, standing restarts and the concept of success ballast, the time has surely come to say enough is enough.

I have been in this game now for 13 years as a professional. I have been a fan all my life. And rarely can I recall a season I have enjoyed as much.

Where now are the dissenting voices over engine noise? Where now, those who decried the ugly look of the 2014 cars? Yes, these are areas that can be improved, but the doom-mongers of the early months of this year seem now to have been silenced by some sublime exhibitions of racing on track.

Budapest is a case in point. Yes, the weather played its part, but the tricky nature of the cars created by this season’s aero regulations, the power and torque of the new hybrid engines and the 2014 construction Pirelli tyres all combined to create the circumstances in which two safety cars were deployed and a thrilling race ensued. And it wasn’t the first brilliant race of the season.

We have had three, possibly four, maybe as many as five races that I would say rank as some of the finest of this generation. A few possibly of all time. It is very easy to look back at history and complain that things used to be so much better, but often those views are born of melodrama and passionate prejudice… a view through rose tinted glasses, if you will.

Alonso leads Hamilton and Ricciardo in Hungary c/o James Moy Photography

Alonso leads Hamilton and Ricciardo
c/o James Moy Photography

Let’s take a little look through history. At Budapest in 2014 we had a wet/dry race but still saw 16 finishers and seven different teams finish in the top ten. Yes, we had multiple safety cars, but the winning margin was just 5.225 seconds, with the top four split by just 6.361.

Let’s rewind a decade to 2004. 15 cars finished the race, with seven different teams finishing in the top ten. With the Ferrari chassis a class apart, the winning margin from Schumacher to Barrichello was 4.696 seconds, but the top four was split by over a minute.

In 1994 only 14 cars were classified but again, seven teams were classified in the top ten. Michael Schumacher’s winning margin was over 20 seconds and only three cars finished on the lead lap.

The very first Hungarian Grand Prix was held in 1986. Nelson Piquet won that race by 17.673 seconds. Only he and Ayrton Senna were on the lead lap. Ten cars finished the race.

It is easy to forget that there were days when F1 races would see five cars or fewer classified at the flag. It is easy to forget there was a time when the winning car lapped the field. It is easy to forget that ten years ago, Michael Schumacher had the championship sewn up two races before we even started the August break.

It is easy to overlook just how good we’ve got it right now.

Perhaps it is because we are being given exceptional contests almost every racing weekend that we lose sight of how good these races really are. It becomes easier to remember the great races of days past, when those races were rare highlights in otherwise predictable and often dull processions. When we have wonderful races as the norm, it becomes harder to determine the epic from the merely brilliant.

Hockenheim Grandstands c/o James Moy Photography

Hockenheim Grandstands
c/o James Moy Photography

The problem, however, is that grandstand seats sit empty. Television audiences in some territories are dropping. Paddock Club struggles to sell out and has had to change its outlook. Teams struggle to attract sponsors. It is perhaps unsurprising that some might ask whether people are falling out of love with the sport.

The problem, however, is that there seems to be a belief that it is the show itself that is to blame. Some seem to believe that the sport no longer grasps the imagination as it used to. They believe that the product has to change to adapt to a new generation.

They are wrong.

We exist at a time when Formula 1 teams are struggling for financial survival because of an unfair and unworkable payment structure, penned and conceived in and by a bygone and obsolete generation. Racing circuits are charged so much to host races, that those costs have to be passed onto a public crippled by a global recession and who would rather take their family on holiday than shell out the same figure on watching a motor race and camping in a muddy field. Free to air television networks are losing the rights to broadcast Formula 1 because the only networks who can afford the high figures being demanded are those who charge to view.

To anyone with even the scantest knowledge of this sport, it is abundantly clear that it is Formula 1’s business model which is broken, not the racing spectacle itself.

The sport has failed to keep pace with its audience by embracing new media, and yet is willing to impose contrived gimmicks into the purity of its product to try and make the show more appealing to a market it no longer understands. It remains blind to the fact that it will only lose dedicated followers by doing so, and gain no new interest from a generation who strive to find something real in a sea of commercial falsity.

New Coke

New Coke

Twenty Nine years ago, Coca Cola changed the recipe of its flagship brand, launching one of the greatest flops in modern commercial memory. “New Coke” replaced its original namesake in April 1985. By May, company directors were already pushing for a reversal to the original recipe after sales took a massive hit. It only took until July for Coca Cola executives to announce the return of the original Coke. The company’s President Donald Keough announced the return with words that Formula 1’s rulers would do well to dwell on over the coming weeks:

“The simple fact is that all the time and money and skill poured into consumer research on the new Coca-Cola could not measure or reveal the deep and abiding emotional attachment to original Coca-Cola felt by so many people.”

The lesson is simple. Don’t mess with a product into which people have invested themselves emotionally. The public are not stupid. Don’t treat them like they are.

Formula 1 is in arguably the rudest racing health of its entire existence. I, as so many of my colleagues, and all the fans at home, pray that when the decisions are made that will shape the future of this sport, the decision makers keep this at the forefront of their minds. Because the only thing from which Formula 1 needs saving, is itself.

Reasoning, Responsibility and Run-off

Kimi Raikkonen - British GP 2014 James Moy Photography

Kimi Raikkonen – British GP 2014
James Moy Photography

Yesterday’s news that the FIA has rejected claims that Kimi Raikkonen should face punishment for his British Grand Prix-ending accident is, perhaps, unsurprising. I, for one, was not expecting a sudden about-face from the FIA.

That’s not to say that I think the FIA has got this one right, nor that their alleged reasoning for rejecting claims that punishment should have been forthcoming is anything other than moronic.

To begin this article, however, I’d like to make one thing clear. After my post on Monday about the role Raikkonen played in his own destiny in the British Grand Prix, I was forced to cease approving comments to the blog after reasonable and reasoned debate descended into fanatical-driven abuse and name calling. I will not stand for such a low level of discussion on this or any other post. I also want to make it clear that the focus of my piece could have been any one of the drivers on the grid. Just because I might at one time or another form an opinion that a driver has done something wrong, does not mean I have an axe to grind or that I dislike said driver. In these instances it is perhaps best to attempt to separate one’s emotional attachment, and to debate with reason rather than to close one’s eyes and thrust one’s head deep into the sand purely because you have read or heard something about your favourite driver with which you don’t agree. Not agreeing with something doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, nor the person who wrote it an idiot… or worse.

This article is not intended to press for a punishment for Raikkonen. It has been written merely to highlight where I believe the FIA has got their decision in this case worryingly wrong, and also to suggest a solution to the issue of drivers running wide. Not that I believe for a moment it will have a shred of an effect on future decisions, but anyway…

My colleague and well respected journalist Jon Noble wrote yesterday morning on this very subject, and reported the following:

“AUTOSPORT understands that while the FIA did look in to the incident, it decided that Raikkonen had not rejoined in an unsafe manner.

Telemetry data shows that, after leaving the track at 230 km/h, Raikkonen did scrub off some speed as he returned to the circuit, before his car was unsettled by a bump as it ran through a patch of grass.

Although the FIA accepted that Raikkonen would not have crashed if he had slowed down dramatically, it is understood the governing body believed that any other driver would have rejoined the track in the same manner.”

It is the final paragraph of this which I find to be of staggeringly short sight and to be verging on the asinine. For while Noble understands that the FIA has accepted that the accident would not have occurred had Raikkonen slowed, the governing body believes that everyone else would have done the same thing. And as such, it is perfectly acceptable.

Let’s come to that in a moment.

The remains of Raikkonen's F14T James Moy Photography

The remains of Raikkonen’s F14T
James Moy Photography

What seems abundantly clear to me is that Kimi Raikkonen’s first lap accident was born of several simple but key components.

1. He exceeded track limits
2. He re-entered the racing arena without the full control of his car and at a speed held by the FIA to be too high
3. The resultant accident eliminated himself and Felipe Massa from the race
4. The resultant accident caused substantial damage to the trackside barrier and the delay of the race restart by an hour

These are the facts

For the moment we can leave to one side the potential risk for the trackside workers and marshals and the potential injury to Max Chilton caused by Raikkonen’s loose wheel, as we thankfully escaped all of the above.

Article 20.2 of F1’s Sporting Regulations states that: “Should a car leave the track the driver may rejoin, however, this may only be done when it is safe to do so and without gaining any lasting advantage.”

Again, I would argue that in this case Raikkonen exceeded track limits and thus left the track. He did not join in a safe manner as he was at a speed the FIA has admitted was too high, and he was also not in control of his vehicle as the manner in which he rejoined the track resulted in an accident entirely of his making. Regardless of the existence of the gulley, Raikkonen and he alone was in control of the car and as such there can be no argument that he was suitably in control of the car at the point he re-entered the track. Critically, he also re-entered the track on the racing line. Arguably, by joining the track where and how he did, he failed to lose position, thus gaining an advantage over where he might have rejoined had he done so safely.

As such I fail to see how Raikkonen’s first lap incident did not contravene Article 20.2 of the Sporting Regulations. Furthermore, he exceeded track limits and arguably gained an advantage. His driving also caused the retirement of another driver. Neither of these points was investigated. But on point one alone (Article 20.2) it seems highly difficult to argue that he did not deserve some kind of penalty be it a grid drop, penalty points or something as harsh as I had originally mooted, a race ban.

The decision, as it stands, fails to place any responsibility with Raikkonen for an accident that was entirely of his making.

If it had been a Grosjean, Maldonado, Gutierrez or Perez, I can’t help but feel points would have been the bare minimum.

Maldonado and Gutierrez - Bahrain 2014 James Moy Photography

Maldonado and Gutierrez – Bahrain 2014
James Moy Photography

If we return to the FIA’s logic of why a penalty was not applied, then as Noble’s article has outlined we must believe that it was because the governing body believed everyone would have done the same thing. To take such a line of argument, however, is bafflingly idiotic. It is as clear a case of argumentum ad populum as I have seen. Logically it is utterly flawed. The mere fact that a practice or a belief is widely conducted or held, is not necessarily a guarantee that it is correct. Often referred to as “the bandwagon fallacy” this argument is a critically dangerous path for the FIA to tread. For where does it end?

“Everyone else was doing it,” is not a reasonable excuse for the perpetrator, and as such it cannot be held as a reasonable excuse for a ruling body to fail to uphold its own principles and regulations.

Unless, of course, this is the FIA admitting that the rule is unworkable. If everyone is doing it, why not simply scrap the rules over track limits and re-entry? Why not just make it a free for all?

Alonso Vs Vettel - British GP 2014 James Moy Photography

Alonso Vs Vettel – British GP 2014
James Moy Photography

The FIA told us it would adopt a “zero-tolerance” policy as regarded track limits in DRS detection zones in Austria and Great Britain. The Alonso/Vettel scrap at Silverstone showed us that this promise was, itself, a fallacy. Some would argue that was a good thing as it gave us a great scrap. Others would question why the FIA should have made so much noise about “zero-tolerance” and then failed to enforce it.

Perhaps this is part of the FIA’s move towards leniency. If so, fair play to them for allowing that particular race to unfold. But then don’t go so heavy on “zero-tolerance” if it isn’t to be adhered to. And if leniency allowed Raikkonen to escape without so much as a wrist slap, then I for one feel it is a step too far. It stops being leniency and starts being weakness.

When it comes down to it, though, the problem at the root of all of this is that racing drivers are racing drivers. Give them a kerb and they’ll use every inch of it, and a little bit of the grass over the edge too. Give them an asphalt run-off and they’ll use it. It’s what makes them racers. They will take every advantage and we cannot be upset with them for doing so.

Again, the FIA must take its share of responsibility here.

Reims... exists today as it did 50 years ago

Reims… exists today as it did 50 years ago

There was a time when race tracks were the width of the tarmac. A simple painted white line at the edge of the road showed you track limits… perhaps a few hay bails or some oil drums. I spent yesterday driving around the old track at Reims. If you exceeded track limits there, you were in the middle of a field.

Gravel traps became, and were for many years, the standard run-off. But then teams and drivers got upset that a small mistake would lead to a beached car and the end of the session / race. And so we saw asphalt replace gravel. To a large extent the changes have helped greatly as damage is not so great and a small mistake which would have ended a session before now simply leads to running off track and rejoining… hopefully when it is safe to do so.

But inherent in that is the fact that, right now, there is no deterrent for making such a mistake. If a driver can keep their foot stuck in and not lose position or even momentum, then track limits mean less and less. From a fan perspective, we also lose an element of wonder as the twitching car is allowed to drift wide rather than to be caught, saved and powered through on opposite lock.

Many varieties of run-off have been tried, with Astro-turf seemingly the best considered option. But as we saw in Silverstone in Friday practice, Astro-turf can still bite.

For my money, Circuit Paul Ricard has had things right for the last decade. High abrasion run-off. But take it up a notch. Coat the run-off areas in such a high abrasion surface that it will not cause punctures or deflation, but will scrub enough rubber off as to ruin that set of tyres. Put a wheel off, let alone all four, and you’ve got to come in and get them changed.

The Toyota TS040, surrounded by Paul Ricard's high abrasion run-off James Moy Photography

The Toyota TS040, surrounded by Paul Ricard’s high abrasion run-off
James Moy Photography

No more keeping your foot in. No more making up positions. No more taking just a few inches more than you should. Keep it on track, inside the white lines.

If you once again make run-off areas a part of the track that drivers don’t want to be driving, if you make them somewhere that will slow drivers down, then they won’t use them. The FIA has created a generation of drivers who know they can push the limits and go over them without penalty, be it an immediately competitive one or, as is becoming increasingly clear, without fear of Charlie’s axe over their heads either.

It is time the FIA took the power back. They created the run-off. They created the opportunity for the rules to be exploited. They created a forgiving attitude, a lenient approach and a sloppy implementation of a supposed moral racing code.

These are supposed to be the 22 greatest racing drivers in the world. It’s about time they were held to the highest standards. Not pandered to and excused because they can’t, or won’t, keep their cars within the clearly marked limits of the track.

Benching Kimi

The remains of Raikkonen's F14T James Moy Photography

The remains of Raikkonen’s F14T
James Moy Photography

Regardless of the condition of his ankle, I do not believe that Kimi Raikkonen should be on the grid for the German Grand Prix in two weeks time. The first lap incident which brought out the red flags in yesterday’s British Grand Prix was born of such staggering racing negligence, that I am truly of the opinion that the 2007 Formula 1 World Champion should be left at home to contemplate what could have been a far worse accident, resulting in far greater injuries than the bruised ankle he suffered.

Here are the facts. In the midst of a first lap battle, Kimi Raikkonen ran wide at Aintree corner. Using the vast asphalt run off, he kept his right foot planted so as not to lose too many positions. Maintaining racing speed, he drove back onto the track and into the pack on the Wellington Straight.

There was nothing strange about this. We see it every week. These men are racing drivers, the best in the world, and it is rare that one of them would chose to lift and heed position. The fact that so many modern racing circuits have replaced gravel traps with asphalt runoff only serves to promote such activity for without the asphalt, cars that run wide at such speed would, in years gone by, have ended up beached and out of the race.

In Sunday’s case, there was also the issue of a strip of grass / gravel separating the asphalt run off and the track. This gulley was at a slightly different height to both the runoff and the track, and it was this element which caused Raikkonen’s Ferrari F14T to become unsettled as it re-entered the track.

Our initial impressions were that, so fast and heavy was Raikkonen’s connection with this gulley, that it had broken his rear suspension, causing the sharp spearing to the right and launching the car into the 47G impact with the metal barrier. However in Ferrari’s official press statement, no mention is made of such damage, instead merely referencing that “a rut between the grass and the tarmac spun his F14 T around.”

Over the past few hours I have read countless arguments that we should blame this element of the track for the incident, and while I agree that perhaps this is something that needs to be looked at for next year, it does not exonerate the Finn.

Drivers conduct track walks before the race weekend to take note of precisely this type of detail. They will walk into gravel traps to see how much asphalt exists at the extremity near the barrier incase they run off and can make it through to the side to continue on their way. They look for manhole covers, changes in asphalt, kerbing, astroturf etc. Famously, Raikkonen rarely conducts such track walks. Had he done so this weekend, he might have been more aware of the safe re-entry points.

When you distill it down, it really is very simple. Raikkonen ran wide in an on-track battle. He maintained and, by continuing his acceleration, increased racing speed off-track. He re-entered the track at speed, on the racing line, and in an unsafe manner. He was not in control of his car and was responsible for a huge accident, the aftermath of which saw loose wheels and debris strewn across the track.

Raikkonen’s accident caused the retirement of Felipe Massa. The wheel, torn from the F14T in the incident, narrowly missed Marrusia’s Max Chilton as it bounced just inches wide of his head.

It was a nasty and unnecessary accident. Yes the runoff and the track played their part. But, and I have seen no mention from Ferrari that Raikkonen was experiencing any issue which would have taken control of the car or crucially throttle application away from him, it was the Finn and the Finn alone whose decisions and driving created the accident, one from which we are lucky everyone walked away.

I see no difference between this lack of judgment and the lack of judgment displayed by Romain Grosjean at the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix. Regardless of intent, the result of his actions created an unacceptable level of danger to the driver himself, his on-track rivals, and workers around the track.

For that reason I believe that Kimi Raikkonen, regardless of his achievements, victories, racing team or world championship, should face the same punishment as the Frenchman and should sit out the next race.

Bright Sparks

Real sparks courtesy of JB at Monaco 2013 James Moy Photography

Real sparks courtesy of JB at Monaco 2013
James Moy Photography

Amongst the decisions of the FIA WMSC last week was the move to mandate titanium skid plates on Formula 1 cars for 2015.

These plates were tested at the Austrian Grand Prix with some success, although as seems to be the all too frequent case in modern day Formula 1, little to no official warning or explanation was given as to the test taking place, and even less so as to its intentions.

It was thus presumed that the sole reason for titanium skid plates was to bring back sparks and to manufacture something twinkly and exciting, to elicit the golden era of Formula 1. While there is some truth to this, the real reason is perhaps far more intriguing.

Earlier this week at Silverstone, Charlie Whiting took questions from the press on a variety of topics, and his explanation of the substance and intention of the skid block regulation, when quizzed upon it by the BBC’s Andrew Benson, was fascinating.

“To explain: the plank is the long bit of wood, the skids are bits of metal within the plank. The skids have formerly been made of a heavy metal, which has been very resistant to wear, and they put the skids around the points in the plank where thickness is measured. Planks have to start off at nominally 10mm thick and they can’t be less than 9mm thick. However, we only measure them around certain holes in the plank. So they position the skids around those holes.

This metal is extremely heavy and when pieces detach they can be extremely harmful. We saw two punctures in Spa previously because of bits of this metal that lay in a kerb and caused damage. In a worst case scenario they could fly off and hit someone.

The purpose of making them out of titanium is threefold: Firstly, it’s safer, because if they do come off they are about a third of the weight of the existing ones. Secondly, the titanium wears some 2-2.5 times more quickly than the metal currently used. Thus cars will have to be run a little bit higher to manage wear and teams won’t be able to drag them on the ground quite as much as they have in the past. The third effect is that you will see a lot more sparks, which some people think will look a little more spectacular.”

It is the second of the three purposes which, I understand, was the greatest force behind this change for next season. Sources have suggested to me that only one team opposed the change to titanium skid plates next season… and it was for precisely the reason that Charlie outlined.

Fears had started to appear that at least one team was running their car excessively low to the ground, but that this practice was going either unnoticed or unpunished because the skid plate is so strong as to protect the car.

By mandating titanium and thus reducing the strength by 2 to 2.5 times, as Charlie outlined, this practice will be eliminated.

Had the FIA simply made this clear from the outset, the hullabaloo over the return of titanium skid plates as what we understood to be a purely cosmetic fix, would not have existed.

All we ask is information. This dripping tap culture of information dissemination from the governing body just casts everyone in a bad light.

Porcine Maquillage

FIA Truck © James Moy Photography

FIA Truck
© James Moy Photography

The World Motor Sport Council has today agreed changes to the Formula 1 Regulations for 2015. And they’re not likely to make many fans happy. Crucially, cost capping is not happening and cost saving initiatives are nominal at best.

But let’s start with the less controversial elements. Well, I say less controversial…

Only four Power Units will be allowed per driver next season, unless there are more than 20 races in which case there will be five. The penalty for changing an entire Power Unit will be starting from the back of the grid, rather than the pitlane.

Simple enough. Only it isn’t quite related in such simple terms, as under the header “Power Units” the FIA states that: “The number of engines permitted by each driver in a season will be four.”

The FIA, then, seems somewhat confused itself. Does it mean four Power Units, or does it mean four Internal Combustion Engines, themselves a component part of what we were informed by the FIA we should refer to as the Power Unit, from the start of 2014?

If the FIA could agree on what we are supposed to be calling what, and then refer to it as such in official communications, it might be slightly helpful.

Next… Aero testing. The number of wind tunnel runs permissable will be reduced from 80 hours per week to 65 hours per week. Wind-on hours are to be reduced from 30 hours per week to 25 hours. Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) usage is to be reduced from 30 Teraflops to 25 Teraflops. However, as a pay off, two periods of tunnel occupancy will be allowed in one day (rather than only one). However teams will only be able to nominate the use of one wind tunnel for one year.

There will be three pre-season track tests of four days each in Europe in 2015 (currently teams are able to test outside Europe). This will be reduced to two tests of four days in 2016. There will also be two in-season tests of two days each in Europe (instead of the current four). Two of these four days must be reserved for young drivers.

Todt has not been able to force through cost reduction © James Moy Photography

Todt has not been able to force through cost reduction
© James Moy Photography

That should save some money, although the larger cost savings which had been discussed were vetoed by the larger teams in the last meeting of the Strategy Group. As such no meaningful cost saving has been agreed or put into place. One might argue a stronger FIA President might have simply laid down his own, draconian and unworkable terms and told the teams they a month to come up with something better on which they all agreed. It’s what Mosley did. And it worked.

Friday night race curfew will be extended from six to seven hours in 2015 and to eight hours in 2016.

However, and it is a big however… parc fermé will now apply from the start of FP3 instead of the start of qualifying.

There had been much chatter that moves were being put in place to reduce the amount of running over a race weekend to save costs. The thought was that Friday would see the brunt of that, becoming more of a media day. Of course the race promoters were not happy with eliminating Friday running because it would reduce the numbers through the gates. But with FP3 now meaning cars are in Parc Ferme, how much realistic running does the FIA believe we will see on a Saturday morning?

FP3 was the time when teams would perfect set-up. But by eliminating the possibility to make changes to the cars after Friday night, what possible reason is there to run in FP3? With the slight exception that perhaps it has rained all day Friday and so you just want to check you’re not a million miles out on your dry set-up, why have FP3 at all?

Essentially what we’ve got is a reduction in running time, but not one that will make fans, or one imagines teams, all that happy.

But hey, the ban on tyre blankets has been rescinded. So that’s OK.

Oh, and we’ve got sparks because titanium kick plates have been mandated.

Standing starts now not just for the start © James Moy Photography

Standing starts now not just for the start
© James Moy Photography

We’ve also got standing starts after safety cars. With the exception of a safety car coming out within the first two laps or the final five laps of the race, this is what will happen. The safety car will control the field and lapped cars will unlap themselves. When the track is clear, the safety car will pull into the pits and the field will line up on the grid in current race order, just as they would at the end of the initial formation lap. Lights on, lights off, race restart.

Unless someone stalls. Then I guess we have another formation lap.

No mention has been made of what happens on a safety car start in the wet. Although I imagine that as the safety car would have been on track from before the second lap then we’ll just have a normal safety car start whereby everyone is released in a snake, as we are used to.

Safety car standing restarts are, much like double points, the answer to the question that nobody in the sport was asking. At least not seriously. If people were unhappy that the race leader still led on a restart, then perhaps they need re-education over the purpose of the safety car. It doesn’t pop out to close up the field and improve the chance of action and spectacle. This isn’t NASCAR. We don’t throw a full course yellow for a commercial break, we don’t go racing for three hours only to have the field neutralised and run to a Green, White, Chequer in the final minute and a half of competition in order to make good TV. We race. Start to finish, pausing only for an issue of safety. It’s called the safety car for a reason. Not the show car. Not the spectacular car. The safety car.

What happens to the driver who has had an amazing race, fought his way through the field but is struggling with his clutch? Safety car, standing restart, clutch goes, car stalls and he is rolled into the pitlane. All his hard work over. What about the driver who has led every lap of the race, and on the restart gets boonied out at the first corner by an overzealous move from the guy who knew that first corner was his one shot at the win?

It’s falsity. For the sake of it.

Like these kick plates. Utter falsity. Indycar’s James Hinchcliffe summed it up best on twitter last week. As he protested, sparks back in the day were cool because they were a by-product of the cars. They weren’t there to look cool. They were there because the plates were doing a job of protecting the gearbox. The sparks looked cool because they were cool.

And the worst part of it all is that these changes are being made in the name of the fans. This, apparently, is what the fans want. This will draw new fans to the sport and keep the existing fans entertained. Its all about the show. Its all about creating something big and spectacular. We’re in the entertainment business afterall. It’s all about how it looks.

But the FIA, the Strategy Group, the World Motor Sport Council, would do well to remember that Formula 1 has perhaps never been in better health. Bahrain and Canada were arguably two of the best races of the last decade. We are seeing contests decided by seconds. We are seeing minimal attrition in the earliest days of brand new ground-breaking technology.

People look back to the halcyon days of yore and protest it was so much better in the 60s or the 70s, the 80s or the 90s. It was decided that the folks at home wanted turbos and more power than grip. Well here it is and yet still people complain. Want it like the 60s? Fine. Then have races with 7 finishers and the winner lapping everyone. Twice. Want it like the early 2000s? Fine. Have it. And have the championship sewn up by mid-season.

We have got close, exciting racing. We have got brilliant new technology that the governing body has done precisely nothing to promote positively to get the fanbase excited about this new beginning for the sport. And so they panic, because they failed in their basic task to promote what they had. We have a governing body so weak that it cannot impose its will on the teams in the sport. A governing body which can see the financial ruin into which this sport is launching itself, but instead of pushing through meaningful change, concerns itself simply with how the cars look and sound. Papering over the cracks which grow ever wider.

Ecclestone and Todt in heated discussion © James Moy Photography

Ecclestone and Todt in heated discussion
© James Moy Photography

I was accused in Austria, by Christian Horner, of being overly negative and pessimistic towards regulation changes that are yet to be put in place and could yet make the sport exciting. And you know what? Maybe I am. I hope I am. I hope these things work and make the sport even better. But when I asked Horner if this vision of the future, with double points, standing safety car restarts and fake sparks were why he got involved in racing in the first place, his immediate response belied the PR line that followed. “No, but…”

This week, he said he believed the teams should no longer have any say in the regulation of the sport and it should be down solely to the governing body. I applauded his view, as the teams cannot agree on anything as their vested interest in their competitive and financial positions makes it impossible for them to give ground. The Strategy Group is a prime example of the idiocy that can result from allowing a Select Committee of teams to propose rules.

But when one looks at what the WMSC has approved today, you have to question if allowing the FIA to run the sport unguarded and unchecked is really such a smart idea after all.

Formula 1 is allegedly listening to the fans. Its most public example of this is over the engine noise debate. It is trying to assuage their fears and concerns. At least that’s the public face. Will any of the attempts make a difference? No. But if they can look like they’re trying then they’ll keep the fans onside, right? Wrong.

Because every change they make takes the sport away from what makes it so special. It takes that simplicity, that purity, and it pours in something bitter that leaves a foul stench and a bad taste.

I get people tweeting me every day saying how much they enjoy watching GP2 because there are no gimmicks. There is no push to pass, no boost button, no special wing flap to open on the straight. Its raw, basic racing and people love it. They ask what Formula 1 is doing to itself. People tell me they’ve been a fan since the 1970s, never missed a race… and now they can’t bring themselves to watch anymore. “I want racing, not wrestling.”

But the gimmicks have taken over.

Sadly, in Formula 1, overtaking no longer means anything because, with very rare exceptions, the majority of moves are now done under DRS.

With double points, the chance of a shock and perhaps undeserving result in the championship now awaits, too. Not content with throwing open the championship to a last chance lottery, now with the race result a gimmick in the form of standing safety car restarts can also replace something earned with something blagged. Hey, don’t worry folks, it’ll be great for TV.

But who will be watching?

FIFA tried to mess with football a decade or so ago by introducing the Golden Goal and Silver Goal concepts. Both, now, have thankfully been consigned to history. The game was exciting enough as it was. You didn’t need gimmicks to make it better.

There is an old adage – Keep it simple, stupid. It is one the FIA would do well to remember.

The fans are not idiots. The more this sport treats them as though they are, the more of them the sport will lose.

As Barack Obama once famously said… “You can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig.”

Alonso, Vettel and the emerging driver market

Aside

Mercedes AMG has been the dominant force of 2014 © James Moy Photography

Mercedes AMG has been the dominant force of 2014
© James Moy Photography

Given the dominance of Mercedes AMG and the comparative struggles of the teams we would normally expect to be their closest rivals, it is perhaps unsurprising that as we reach the mid-point of the season we should start to see reports of driver dissatisfaction and teams actively courting some of the biggest names in Formula 1.

Mercedes are sorted. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg love the team and the team loves them. Both have long term deals. They’re not going anywhere. But what of their rivals?

The big story today is McLaren’s alleged interest in a pair of drivers with six world championships between them. Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel would create a monstrously strong pairing for the Woking team, but is there any chance that such a swoop might actually occur?

The timing of talk that contact has been made between McLaren and Vettel fits both agendas. For McLaren, or indeed for any team, to have made an approach at this specific moment is a no-brainer. Sebastian has just endured his third retirement of the season. The Renault Power Unit is underpowered and unreliable. The RB10 does not suit his driving style. He is being dominated by his new team-mate. The team has told him to up his game. Adrian Newey, the architect of Red Bull’s success, has been confirmed to be stepping back from F1.

Seb's had one too many early baths in 2014 © James Moy Photography

Seb’s had one too many early baths in 2014
© James Moy Photography

It was in a moment of such uncertainty and disappointment, at Singapore in 2012, that Mercedes and Niki Lauda swooped in and convinced Lewis Hamilton to leave McLaren and move to Brackley. The smart F1 team boss will be trying to convince Vettel to do precisely the same thing right now.

Of course, for Vettel, such leaked stories don’t hurt either. It shows Red Bull that other people are after him and might well illicit a “buck your ideas up” to the team if they wish to hold onto his services.

Vettel has a contract with Red Bull until the end of 2015. At the time of his last extension it was described by Christian Horner as “a formality more than anything else.” Such a formality no longer exists. Vettel’s future is no longer a guarantee at the team that has brought him 38 Grand Prix wins and four World Championships. Whether at the end of 2015, or sooner should somebody stump up the cash to pay him out of the year remaining on his deal, there is a chance that Sebastian Vettel could move. And McLaren, with its Honda tie up next season, just as the magic of Ferrari, will surely be an attractive prospect.

Alonso's Ferrari years have gone by in a blur © James Moy Photography

Alonso’s Ferrari years have gone by in a blur
© James Moy Photography

The Alonso question is more complicated.

For years, the Spaniard has been vocal in his belief that he would spend the rest of his days racing for Ferrari. But recently the focus has shifted.

Back in 2011, Alonso extended his contract with Ferrari until the end of 2016. At the time, there seemed no reason not to believe that the momentum would carry him to a title he had narrowly missed out on in his first season with Ferrari in 2010. But in his four and a half years at the squad he has taken just 11 victories and this season just one podium. Questions have long been asked of his will to stay put.

At the start of last season, he was questioned if he would see out his deal.

“Yes, that’s what I’m going to do. It’s the best team in the world, there’s nothing above Ferrari.”

With the new regulations for 2014 expected to see Ferrari back to their highest levels of competitiveness, by September last year the Spaniard was even talking about extending his time at the team.

“I still have three and a half more years with Ferrari that I intend to respect and hopefully to increase a little bit.

“I want to finish my career in the best team in the world, which is Ferrari. At the moment we are not achieving the results that we want but we are working very hard. Next year we will have completely new rules that will open the door to many teams to stop the domination of Red Bull seems to have. We have high hopes for next year’s challenge.”

Those high hopes have been unfulfilled.

The car is not competitive. The Power Unit is not competitive. And the team itself is in turmoil as Luca di Montezemolo has, to all intents and purposes, taken back over at the top. Gone is Stefano Domenicali, replaced by Marco Mattiacci whom many in the paddock feel is little more than a front man for the big boss.

Alonso waves off the 2014 24 Heures du Mans © James Moy Photography

Alonso waves off the 2014 24 Heures du Mans
© James Moy Photography

For the first time, Alonso’s vision of the future is not of Formula 1, but elsewhere. His talk is not of finishing Formula 1 with Ferrari, but of where he finishes his career. And, having seen colleagues and compatriots Marc Gene and Pedro de la Rosa and now his good friend Mark Webber move to endurance racing, it is Le Mans that seems to have piqued his interest.

“I will [race at Le Mans], that’s 100%,” he told me in Austria. “I need to wait until I finish Formula 1 probably because it requires some tests, some training, some dedication.

“I’m a person that if I do something, I do 100%, I don’t do 50-50, so first I will try to do some more years in Formula 1, try to win championships, try to help Ferrari, and then one day, of course, I cannot be seated at home in the sofa, so endurance is a category that you can race when you’re a bit older with not big problems, and that will be my intention.”

He also admitted that such a move could even be with Ferrari.

“Maybe, to be honest, with President Montezemolo, we talk about it many times about this matter because he is very enthusiastic about the Le Mans race. He enjoyed a lot the win of the 458 with Fisichella, with Bruni this year.

“I know that there is some thinking about coming back with a big car, but the same as me, it’s not in the short term, because now we need to put in place the F1 project and we need to win here.”

To my mind, then, Alonso seems set on his future. Yes the frustration is there, but he is looking longer term. If he can help turn the team around in F1 over the next two seasons then he will. He wants to win and he wants another championship. Afterall, he always said he wouldn’t quit until he had three titles. His hope, I am sure, is that this title will come with Ferrari, possibly in his final year, before he moves with the Scuderia to Le Mans.

While I’m sure McLaren, just as any team, would love to have Alonso back, I don’t think it will happen. This has nothing to do with what happened back in 2007, but everything to do with the fact that I don’t believe Fernando Alonso is a man who likes to leave things unfinished. I think he regrets the manner in which his relationship with McLaren broke down, and I believe he now realises that if he had just accepted the team’s position he would by now have amassed three, possibly four or more titles and could still have finished his Formula 1 career at Ferrari. Older and more mature, the frustration of seeing some of his best years wash past him in uncompetitive machinery are somehow assuaged by the desire and the need to turn things around and succeed. Not least because there is nowhere else for him to go.

So Alonso stays put.

But will there be driver movement at the end of this year? Yes. I have few doubts.

Does Button still have the drive to go on? © James Moy Photography

Does Button still have the drive to go on?
© James Moy Photography

McLaren has long said it is not in a position of being able to confirm its drivers for next year, although with a huge shift to Honda power the team might wish to continue with the parity of its current drivers. Kevin Magnussen is not doing a bad job at all in his rookie season, and he has been a part of the team for many years as a junior driver. He was at the factory in Woking this morning, and gave a rousing speech to the entire staff, dedicating himself to them and impressing upon them his desire to help get the team back to the front.

As for Jenson Button, to be honest I’m just not sure he’s enjoying it anymore. This will be one of the hardest seasons Jenson has ever had to endure. The car is not as competitive as he would like, and whereas in years gone-by he and his beloved Dad would shrug their shoulders and look to the future, dear Papa Smurf is sadly no longer here to be the voice of solace and reason. Part of me thinks the joy is quickly fading for Jenson, and if he walks away at the end of the season I would not be at all surprised. Even with Honda coming back, I just don’t know if Jenson will.

Is McLaren an attractive enough proposition to lure a Vettel or an Alonso though? Mercedes has the fastest engine but McLaren currently lags behind the factory team, Williams and Force India. The team has clear deficiencies in its aero division, but it is believed some of this is down to systems, processes and a culture at McLaren which is in the midst of a shift under Boullier and Dennis. Some might also point the finger at Button, whom it has long been argued can develop an engine, but has never been that adept at pushing the correct avenue on aero and a car’s overall philosophy.

Perhaps an Alonso or, more realistically (…debatably) a Vettel, might help give the team that final kick towards a different culture and approach.

Is the party winding up for Raikkonen? © James Moy Photography

Is the party is winding up for Raikkonen?
© James Moy Photography

I also have major doubts over Kimi Raikkonen. To put it simply, he is being blown away by Fernando Alonso. Everyone expected fireworks between the two, but while Fernando continues to provide explosive performances in an off the pace machine, Raikkonen’s blue touch paper appears to have been so dampened that it simply won’t ignite. Right now, it is looking like Ferrari’s gamble has failed. Whether Kimi walks away or whether Ferrari pay him off, right now I can’t see the Finn returning in red next season.

So we’ve potentially got a seat at McLaren. If Vettel moves we’ve potentially got a seat at Red Bull (Kvyat to move up from Toro Rosso? Alex Lynn and Carlos Sainz Jr to race for Toro Rosso? I’d say so if Vettel really does leave). We’ve potentially got a seat at Ferrari. Whither Nico Hulkenberg? Whither Sergio Perez?

Talk is happening. It always happens. What people outside the sport probably don’t realise is that everybody talks to everybody, all the time… on the off chance they just so happen to talk at that one moment of doubt, and get the driver of their dreams signed up. Just as Niki Lauda did back in 2012, and within the space of dinner you’ve convinced one of the most sought after sportsmen in the world to join your team.

This year, perhaps more so than ever, it seems that some drivers have developed very itchy feet. The new engine formula has done more than shake up the competitive order. It’s shaking up the driver market too.

Hey, you, what’s that sound?

megaphone

OK kids…

Noise, or lack of it. Frankly I really didn’t want to have to write another article about this but here we go.

Toot Toot Mercedes tests its new "Megaphone" c/o James Moy Photography

Toot Toot
Mercedes tests its new “Megaphone”
c/o James Moy Photography

Today in Spain, Mercedes is testing a new “megaphone” exhaust outlet on the W05. Some are saying it looks ridiculous. Some are saying it sounds the same but a little bit louder. Some are saying it makes no difference at all. I’m not there so I can’t tell you one way or another.

But long before I was a motorsport journalist, I was a musician. Classically trained at Worcester Cathedral, I grew up not only using my voice as a Chorister but I was also a brass player, starting with the Cornet at the age of 6, moving up to the Trumpet when my lungs got a little larger, before taking on what is widely seen as the most majestic and hardest brass instrument of all, the French Horn.

So I’m going to come at this predominantly from a musical perspective, not an F1 tech angle.

The Megaphone c/o Mercedes AMG twitter

The Megaphone
c/o Mercedes AMG twitter

From the looks of things, what Mercedes has put onto the back of its car is fairly simple. I made the comment yesterday that it appeared rudimentary. The team said of course it was, it was just a development part. And, not wishing to jump the gun, I’m not sure from a musical perspective it was ever going to do much.

A megaphone at the 1908 Olympics

A megaphone at the 1908 Olympics

If we look at megaphones in their simplest form, their intention is to magnify noise. In a basic instance their construction is easy enough to replicate as all we need is a conical device… think about being at school and rolling up a piece of paper to amplify your voice, or being on a boozy night out and using a traffic cone to do the same. We’ve all done it.

In this regard, Mercedes was right to dub its development part a megaphone rather than adopt a name with any relation to a brass instrument… and here’s why.

The Brass Family

The Brass Family

The Brass family all have flared bells. This maximises the reach of the sound, whilst also creating a clean, smoother exit for the note. In the past, it is a design concept which has been adopted in Public Address systems at sporting venues around the world for that very reason.

PA Systems

PA Systems

But on the back of a car you are going to start pushing the exhaust gasses out in a far wider and less controlled arc, thus creating instability to the rear wing… thus I would imagine the decision to go with a straight cone, rather than a flared bell. Such a flared bell however would push the sound more to the extremities of the track where the microphones are positioned, as this megaphone will simply keep pushing the sound rearwards.

While the flared bell would produce a clearer and richer note, however, even that would not solve the issue.

Brass Mouthpieces

Brass Mouthpieces

The reason for this, stems from the point of input. What makes the note in a brass instrument, long before the air passes through the many feet of tubing, the valves and finally exits through the bell, is that initial entry through the mouthpiece. You’d be amazed at the sheer range and design differences in brass mouthpieces, all of which require the player to use a different embouchure. The embouchure, in layman’s terms, is how you pucker up your lips and blow.

Then we have the mouthpiece itself. A shallow cup would be used for an instrument in a high key, while a deep cup improves the tone for lower register instruments. The larger the cup, the larger the volume (think Tuba), while a small cup requires less strength but can limit the tone. Then there’s the shape itself and the internal construction, with a French Horn, for example, using a more tapered mouthpiece than almost every other brass instrument to create a rich tone.

The point is, if the sound at the entry point isn’t right, the sound on exit isn’t going to sound right either. No matter what type of outlet you have and no matter how loud you make it.

Fart down a trumpet, fart down a megaphone, ultimately all you’re going to get at the other end is a loud fart. Your arse is not going to magically create Mozart’s horn concerto.

Arse Trumpets c/o Monty Python

Arse Trumpets c/o Monty Python

A video has leaked out of testing today, and already people are saying the engine note is unimpressive, sounds worse, whatever. But the video is misleading. It features poor sound reproduction at a part of the track where the car is mid corner and not under constant acceleration and so it is impossible to determine what the true sound is. Factor in also that the film is taken from the side and the exhaust is only shooting the sound backwards, not flaring it outwards.

The FIA has taken sound experts along to Barcelona today and of course they are far better placed than any of us to decide whether the “megaphone” has made a difference and needs to be written into the rules. Of course it is Bernie who has pushed for this, so it’ll be interesting to note what FOM will be doing in terms of microphone positioning etc regardless of the outcome, because of course this will need to be tested further and then the teams will have be sure it won’t be causing them to lose performance et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

All of which just seems a bit daft.

The complaint that led to this development being tested is that the current engines are not loud enough, but such a complaint has come from a misplaced and uninformed position. What people actually miss is the pitch and the tone of the old engines. The problem with the sound has nothing to do with volume which can always be sorted in the mix.

These engines sound as they do. Amplifying them isn’t going to change that. At all.

Frankly, the only really sensible comment I’ve seen all day has been from my colleague Roberto Chinchero.

“My personal feeling: motorsport is a story of men fighting each other on the track. The rest are tools to do it.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Senna

I never met Ayrton Senna. I never even saw him drive in the flesh. And so I’m afraid that this article will give you no amazing new insight into him as a person or as a racing driver on the 20th anniversary of his passing. But May 1st 1994 changed my life forever, and would come to influence every day of my life that followed.

In 1994 I was a 13 year old chorister at Worcester Cathedral. As such, Sundays were always busy; Eucharist in the morning, home for Sunday lunch, then back to the Cathedral for Evensong. I sung so many times and for so many years in that magnificent place of worship that, over 20 years later, it has all pretty much merged into one. Except for that one Mayday.

I remember leaving the house to go and sing Evensong, wondering whether my hero was alive or dead. I asked the Precentor to say a prayer for him that evening, as I had that morning at Eucharist in memory of Roland. But walking through the front door at home that evening, my Father turned on the television just as the evening news was starting.

I ran to my room, slammed the door and cried.

Nobody at school the next day understood why I was so upset. I was pretty much the only kid in my class that loved Formula 1. Most of the other boys liked football and footballers simply didn’t just drop down dead. There was no reference point. To some, it was just a joke.

“What’s the difference between Ryan Giggs and Ayrton Senna?”

“Ryan Giggs can take a corner.”

I was a small, skinny, weedy child. Well behaved. In the choir. Never got into fights.

It was the only time in my life I ever punched anyone in the face.

That week, Dad bought me Motoring News and Autosport. My first copies of both publications. In their pages I found the solace for which I had searched so desperately. In the journalists and their writing, I found people just like me, people trying to make sense of the tragedy, people grieving. It helped me come to terms with the mortality of a man I had always seen as immortal. And it made me certain of what I wanted to do with my life.

I wanted to write those words. I wanted to let the geeky kid at school whose friends didn’t understand why he loved racing cars and racing drivers know that he wasn’t alone. I wanted to tell kids just like me why racing was cool. I wanted to help them understand, as those journalists had done for me.

Ayrton’s death, while devastating for me as a 13 year old, had given me purpose and a dream.

It was a dream I was to realise eight years later, whilst still at University, when I got my first gig writing for Joe Saward at GrandPrix.com. On graduation, David Tremayne employed me at Formula 1 Magazine. When the magazine was closed down with a few days to go until the start of the 2004 season, my parents lent me some money to buy a campervan, and I embarked on the European tour as a freelancer.

The first race was Imola.

Ten years on from that fateful weekend, and ten years on from the birth of my own personal dream, I was at my first race as an independent journalist. The fact it was Imola simply seemed like fate. Before I had even visited the media centre, I walked to the Senna memorial to pay my respects. Every race weekend I attended in 2004, I wore a red and white striped shirt on the Saturday and a yellow shirt with green and blue pin stripes on Sunday. One for Roland and one for Ayrton.

That helmet and that livery... Senna tests for ART at Jerez in 2006 c/o GP2 Series Media Service

That helmet and that livery…
Bruno Senna tests for ART at Jerez in 2006
c/o GP2 Series Media Service

As the years went on, my job role in motorsport changed and I moved to GP2 as press officer. And it was in that job, one evening of a winter test session at Jerez, that I got talking to a confident and beautiful brunette in the hotel bar. She had an eerily familiar face and the most incredibly magnetic personality. We consumed a bottle of 18 year old malt and talked about her Uncle Ayrton until the early hours of the morning and the hotel kicked us out.

Bianca and Bruno Senna are two of the nicest people I’ve ever met in racing. With so much expectation and pressure on them, so many people wanting a piece of them, their time, their history, I have always been staggered by their humility. They’re never too busy to stop and talk. Bruno, even on the way to the grid or to qualify, would always stop for a photo, to sign autographs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him turn away a request.

But of course, this was a career which Viviane, Bruno’s mother, never wanted for her son. I vividly remember Bruno explaining how he would creep downstairs in the middle of the night to watch F1 races with the sound turned down. After her brother, and tragically her husband, Bruno’s father, just a few years later had passed, Viviane couldn’t bear the thought of her son going and doing something dangerous. But racing was in his blood. When he broke his ribs karting in secret, Viviane phoned her old friend Gerhard Berger and begged him to do something about it.

He did.

And so it was that Bruno was to get his first test in single seaters.

Not what Viviane had meant at all. And Gerhard knew it.

Istanbul 2008 c/o GP2 Series Media Service

Istanbul 2008
c/o GP2 Series Media Service

I will never forget her face after Bruno had retired after hitting a dog at speed in the 2008 Turkish GP2 race. Freakish misfortune, obliterated right front wheel bouncing back towards the cockpit thankfully now held on by the very tethers brought in post-94… it was all too much. She sat at the back of the garage all alone, eyes fixed on an imaginary point far in the distance… trancelike, dazed… lost. A few idiot journalists were trying to get her to talk. They knew where her mind was taking her and the vultures wanted that Red Top headline quote. Her face was haunting. And haunted.

Of course, Bruno had always raced with the spectre of Ayrton hanging over him. That famous quote from his Uncle about how if we thought he was good we should see his nephew, only served to make things harder. How could he ever live up to that kind of billing? But Ayrton believed in Bruno, and he had good reason to, because it was Ayrton who had taught Bruno to race. On his own private go-kart track.

When Bruno finally graduated to Formula 1, he, Bianca and I talked about doing a book. Sadly, nobody was commissioning anything back then. Even a book on Jenson, who’d just won the championship, was a hard enough sell. In the end, we decided to do a feature story for F1 Racing magazine. And so it was that, in January 2010, I visited Sao Paulo as a guest of the Sennas. We drove for hours, to the outskirts of the city of Tatui and turned off down dirt tracks and through farmland to a place I had only ever seen in photographs. The number of journalists to have visited this place before could be counted on one hand. This wasn’t just anywhere. This was Ayrton’s home.

Bruno and I at Tatui c/o Luca Bassani

Bruno and I at Tatui
c/o Luca Bassani

The day will stay with me forever, and there were some immensely special moments. A few of which I’ll share.

We found an old bag, a mustard coloured holdall with maroon trim sitting on a shelf, its zips rusted shut, the colours dulled by a thick layer of dust. Stuck to the centre panel was a blue and white Japan Airways label, whose edges had curled over time. Its ownership was still visible, scrawled in blue ballpoint: “A. Senna – Suzuka International Hotel.”

“Shall we see what’s inside?” Bruno grinned. “I bet it hasn’t been opened since…”

He paused, suddenly realising the words he’d need to finish that sentence. We both knew the bag probably hadn’t been opened since its owner closed it himself for the last time 16 years previously.

“Typical Ayrton,” Bruno laughed, pulling it open. “It’s full of go-kart engines!”

Ayrton’s home today still operates as a working farm. But the part Bruno and I had come to see and reminisce over, hadn’t been used in almost two decades.

The go kart track

The go kart track

The go-kart track is covered with a thick layer of dirt. It would take a lot of cleaning up to get it ready for competition today, but you can get the gist of what made Ayrton tick as a racer from its layout. Every corner is different, tricky cambers, and all incredibly fast. We walked the track and then got to drive it, albeit in a minivan.

This was where Bruno received tutelage from arguably the greatest racing driver that ever lived… but to Bruno, he was just Uncle Ayrton. As we stood around chatting, we receive word there was something in one of the warehouses used primarily for storing tractors. We headed over and Bruno bounded up the stairs to the top level.

Upstairs was a small room, crammed full of go-karts behind a mini Lotus 99T pedal car. There were six karts, stacked two deep, stood against the wall, covered in a thick layer of dust. The white number 42 was Ayrton’s famous kart, and behind it the machine in which Bruno had taken his first win, tyre marks all up the sidepod. It was quite something, finding those karts and being in that place in the days before Bruno was to make his F1 debut. It was an honour to be a part of it.

Bruno and the karts

Bruno and the karts

That day was like visiting Graceland for me. Looking back now, I can still barely believe it happened. Being in the house, by the pool, looking through Ayrton’s things with Bruno, walking the go-kart track… it is one of the most incredible highlights of my career, and helped take me one step closer to the man I still thank everyday for inspiring me to follow my dreams in this sport.

Twenty years on from his death, Ayrton Senna continues to inspire. It seems amazing that so many young karters who never saw him race, still claim Senna to be their inspiration and their hero. He has become an almost mythical figure, deified within our sport. But why does his legend transcend? What puts him on that level?

Perhaps it is because he was taken too soon. Perhaps it is because of the tragedy that we never truly got to witness the passing of the baton from him to the next generation, at a time when we all believed motorsport had left its darkest days behind. His battles with Schumacher were only just beginning when Senna left us. What incredible heights those two might have pushed each other to achieve.

To me they were, and to some degrees still are, Formula 1’s Lennon and McCartney. I say this because Lennon wrote some awful crap as a solo artist, and yet is sanctified as the songwriter’s songwriter due, I believe in no small part to the fact he was torn from the world too soon. His death brought about a mythical status, whilst also serving to not permit him time to make too many musical faux pas. McCartney however lived to write The Frog Chorus and pen some pretty horrible duets with Michael Jackson.

Ayrton was ruthless, and he often pushed over the limit in his on-track battles. But he is revered as a hard-nosed battler. Michael was equally as ruthless, but in driving into Damon and Jacques, parking his car at Rascasse and trying to put Rubens in the pitwall at Hungary, he was afforded the opportunity of penning his own Frog Chorus.

Lennon and McCartney.

Michael never spoke much of Ayrton. The only real insight we ever truly got were his tears on equalling Senna’s win record at Monza in 2000. To many, this moment was a reflection of Michael’s true self, his true emotion and true feelings of loss over that mystical “what might have been.” But to a few within the Formula 1 paddock, there remains a belief that Michael had long carried a regret, some claim an unresolved feeling of guilt, over Ayrton’s death, knowing that at the time of the crash Senna had been trying to beat a Benetton which was, in the recent words of Ron Dennis, “absolutely black-and-white illegal in the sense of traction control” via the use of what has become known as Option 13.

I couldn’t tell you which it was. I wasn’t around the sport in 1994, and in my time in the sport since the early 2000s I was never close enough to Michael to be able to give any real insight into his true character.

Perhaps, on this the 20th Anniversary of Ayrton’s passing, Michael might finally have broken his silence. Perhaps we might finally have learned his true feelings. Perhaps not. Either way, it is utterly tragic that our daily concern for Michael is now far deeper and far more meaningful than what his thoughts on a given topic or his emotions about Ayrton might be.

It was Michael that won on that dark day in Imola, and with that victory began a new era in Formula 1. It has been an era of unprecedented safety, of pioneering technology which has made not only the sport but the world around us better and less hazardous. Would that have happened had the greatest driver in the world not been ripped from us? It is impossible to say, but certainly the impetus would never have been so great.

Similarly, without Ayrton’s passing I do not know if the cogs would have been set in motion that led me to where I am today. Without that chain of events, It is almost certain that I would not have had the fortune of doing this incredible job. And more importantly, I certainly would not have met the woman with whom I had the most precious and wonderful gift on this earth: my little girl.

Out of darkness, comes light.

Saudade. E obrigado Ayrton.

Styling it Out

Vettel and Ricciardo Chinese Grand Prix c/o James Moy Photography

Vettel and Ricciardo
Chinese Grand Prix
c/o James Moy Photography

The first four races of 2014 have been fascinating as Formula 1’s teams and drivers fight to understand and get on top of the enormous technical regulation shifts and the very different cars they find at their disposal this season. Some have adapted far better than others, and interestingly it is two world champions who seem to be struggling the most. Perhaps it is because of their pedigree that we expect them to be immediately on the pace and thus their apparent struggles seem all the greater, but to my mind the two drivers who have experienced the greatest issues in comparison to their team-mates are Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.

From what I have seen on track so far this season, and using as simple an explanation in layman’s terms as I can, I’m going to try and explain what it is that I believe about the new cars and these two great world champions’ driving styles that has led to them finding things so hard.

The driving style required in 2014 is at tremendous odds to that in 2013. The new Power Units have of course been criticised for being at the root of slower lap times this season, but when one looks at the speed trap times there can be no doubt as to the potential of these creations. We’ve seen higher top speeds at every circuit this year. The reason we have slower lap times is due, in part, to the huge amount of power and torque being produced. When coupled with the decrease in rear end downforce brought about by new aerodynamic regulations and the necessity of a single exhaust and thus the elimination of the clever utilisation of exhaust gasses via coanda outlets and exhaust blown diffusers, it is far more difficult to get the power down on the track. It is possible for drivers to wheel-spin up to fifth gear. The rear ends of the cars are far looser, creating increased instability through medium and high speed corners, and leading to increased trepidation on application of throttle out of the slow speed stuff.

This is what is, to my mind, affecting Sebastian Vettel the most.

Vettel is not happy with the RB10 c/o James Moy Photography

Vettel is not happy with the RB10
c/o James Moy Photography

Back in 2011 when off-throttle blown diffusers came to the fore, it was Vettel who got to grips with the technology far quicker than his team-mate Mark Webber. When moves were put in place to halt the tech mid-season, the pendulum swung immediately back in Webber’s favour.

Vettel thrived in the era of the blown diffuser. He would set up the car on entry to a medium speed corner by lifting or braking slightly, to pitch the Red Bull and get it pointing through the corner and toward exit in order to get on the gas far earlier than Webber or indeed many of his rivals were able to. It required a counterintuitive approach to driving, having to rewire his racing brain to trust that the additional downforce created at the rear by going into the corner harder and faster than all of his experience told him he could, would actually sure up the back of the car at a point where one would usually expect it to snap away.

Having to then un-learn this cornering technique for 2014, away from what had become his norm, to compensate for the total opposite reaction of the car is what is, to my mind, holding him back. The rear end no longer has this stability. He can no longer simply point the thing and hit the throttle. There is nothing there to sure up the rear. This doesn’t just lead to lost time on a lap by lap basis, it also leads to him overworking the tyres… especially the rears.

As Christian Horner told Autosport, “I think that Sebastian is having a tough time at the moment because he hasn’t got that feeling from the car that he is looking for. He is tremendously sensitive to certain aspects of the set-up, and he is not getting the feedback from the car he wants.The compound effect of that is that he is damaging the tyre more, which is very unusual for Seb. We have seen since Pirellis have been introduced [in 2011], that it is highly unusual for him to be going through the tyre life quicker than the average.I think that is just a culmination of the issues that he has currently. But as soon as he has worked them out, he will be back with a bang.”

Given that no team optimised its blown rear as much as Red Bull it is perhaps no surprise that Vettel should struggle so much, nor that a new team-mate far less used to relying on the technology should be able to extract more than the four-time champion from the RB10. That is not to take anything away from the incredible job Daniel Ricciardo is doing, however. He’s got Vettel on the ropes at the moment and the confidence he exudes will only increase should Vettel fail to get on top of the numerous issues the German admits to experiencing with the feel and set-up of the car.

Kimi Raikkonen Chinese Grand Prix c/o James Moy Photography

Kimi Raikkonen
Chinese Grand Prix
c/o James Moy Photography

There is another factor in the re-education of the Formula 1 driver in 2014 and it has to do with braking. Brake-by-wire has been introduced for this season as part of the new energy recovery systems. The MGU-K has replaced KERS in harnessing kinetic energy from the brakes and the resistance experienced under braking at the rear has increased tremendously.

In the past, as with all single-seaters, braking was most efficient at high speed and with a clean hard initial compression being gradually softened. This is because braking works best in the initial phase thanks to the downforce created at speed. But in 2014 this has changed. Talking to the drivers, it seems that the initial braking pressure required this season has dropped tremendously, to something like 10 bar. That said, the braking force applied to the wheels is as strong if not stronger than in the past due to the resistance created by the MGU-K. As such it is not uncommon to see the rear locking under braking. In the old days, a fairly easy solution for this once brake bias had been shifted might be to simply blip the throttle, but in 2014 you can’t do that because blipping will affect the level of power harvested.

Why is this important? Because a driver has to ensure that his Energy Store is correctly filled each and every lap. Crucially, failure to get it filled doesn’t just affect him when using the stored energy as a boost. In 2014 the energy harnessed is utilised throughout the lap by being fed back in, before also being used in driver-determined bursts as boost. Failure to top up the Energy Store thus means an insurmountable drop in lap time on the following lap.

Watching Raikkonen on track, his lines in the corners and his style of braking make me question whether this isn’t the single biggest thing holding him back. I first noticed it in Malaysia and it has continued at every track since then, but especially in the slow corners Kimi’s lines and crucially braking points are not only different to all his rivals, but also inconsistent (think Turn 1 and the Bottas incident in Bahrain). For the most part however it isn’t about braking early as to my mind Raikkonen more often seems to actually go much deeper into the corner than his rivals. This would seem to point towards an unhappiness with the severity of the braking and the likelihood of rear locking, thus too soft an application of the anchors. When he brakes too late or too softly, his mid-corner minimum speed is higher than his rivals because he isn’t slowing the car down enough, but he is then understeering due to the increased speed and, unable to get the car turned into the apex, is almost sliding the F14T through the corner.

In some ways it’s reminiscent of a karting style of cornering, although less direct and a bit sloppier, and in 2014 F1 it is not effective. He’s losing time on exit and through not braking hard enough seems not to be getting his Energy Store levels up to where they need to be, thus impacting his overall laptime. In addition, he struggles with the new harder compound tyres. In the first instance he can’t get his tyres turned on, in no small part due to his issues under braking, but then, through the understeer, he is overworking the fronts.

Raikkonen is also struggling with Ferrari’s power steering. He likes a very responsive and direct system. Every minuscule movement on the wheel he wants to be directly related to movement of the fronts. Alonso isn’t so fussed, he can handle a small amount of what is termed “play” with his wheel, a slightly softer feel if you like. The Finn needs it to be direct… again, like a kart. It affected him at Lotus and was an issue it took the team a long time to resolve, and he won’t be comfortable in the F14T until it is fixed.

He has said he doesn’t see the point in using the Ferrari simulator, but perhaps it would do him no harm at all to spend some time at Maranello, utilising the system to try and get on top of the numerous issues he has with his new ride.

As we move towards the familiar territory of the European season, it will be fascinating to see how these two mighty champions adapt their driving styles to suit the new Formula 1, with their rivals and pretenders to their crowns already two steps ahead on track.