Driving standards and blocking – A Stateside view from James Hinchcliffe

James Hinchcliffe c/o http://www.hinchtown.com

As part of my research into current driving standards and safety in the highest echelons of modern single seater racing, I’ve heard many suggestions of the introduction of a rule similar to that implemented across the Atlantic in Indycar. Indycar has, for a long time, had strict regulations regarding what is and is not permitted as regards the acceptable limitations placed upon the defence of racing position. To many of us, myself included, such rules have always seemed to be somewhat archaic and unfair. Perhaps this is because I have grown up immersed in the very Euro-centric style of racing we associate with Formula 1, GP2 and before it F3000, GP3, Formula 3 etc, where the ability to defend is seen as being as important as the ability to attack.

But given that my recent articles and interest has focussed on driving standards, and in particular the acceptability of blocking, I thought it would be only right to seek the opinions of one of Indycar’s finest.

I first met James Hinchcliffe in his days racing in A1GP, and since that time he has blossomed into not only an excellent racing driver and megastar of the Indy racing world, but a fine man and a wonderful ambassador for our sport. Here, he shares with us his views and opinions on driving standards in Indycar, and provides an insight into how blocking is policed on the other side of the pond. When read in light of last week’s comments from Charlie Whiting on this very blog on the topic of blocking, and also when taken in the context of Conor Daly’s feelings following his crash in Monaco, James’ insight provides a fascinating and thought provoking alternative view of an argument which continues to be discussed.

James Hinchcliffe c/o http://www.hinchtown.com

James, as a star of the Indycar world, could you explain to my readers how the rules on blocking differ in Indycar as opposed to what we see in Europe in GP3, GP2 and F1?

The rule in IndyCar is simple. You are allowed to defend your position as long as your move is pre-emptive. If the move is made in reaction to another driver pulling out to pass, that’s illegal. The other element is that you may only move once. Once you have picked the line you want to take to defend, that is the line that you must enter the corner from. You can’t defend to the left, then swing back out right to make a left-hand corner, for example. This seems to differ from Europe in that I haven’t been able to discern any rules in European racing! It always seems to be a bit of a free-for-all. I have to admit, as someone who races I find it shocking what drivers in Europe sometimes get away with.

What kind of punishment can be expected for breaking the blocking rules?

Blocking usually ends in a drive through penalty for the offender. If it takes place on the last lap, then a time penalty of the amount of time it takes to drive through pit lane at that specific track will be added to the final classifications.

You’ve raced in championships that don’t utilise the blocking rule seen in Indycar. Do you think that racing without a blocking rule is purer? That the ability to defend is just as important as the ability to attack?

IndyCar used to race with a rule that didn’t allow ANY defending. You could not deviate from the racing line at all. This rule is asinine and in my mind ruined the racing in IndyCar for years. This year we have moved to a version of the rule that allows defending, creates racing, but is still safe. The ability to defend is an art and a big part of racing. I don’t really think that this version of the rule is any less ‘pure’ than having no rules at all. The big factor is the reactionary element. When making a pass you are so on the limit, you pick your path and commit to it. When drivers are allowed to react to another car AFTER they have initiated a pass, there is no room for adjustment for the passing car and it leads to accidents. In open wheel, those types of accidents usually end in someone going airborne. I am all for pure racing. But I am also for respectful racing. There are too many drivers that show complete disregard for their competitors and I just don’t see how that makes the racing better.

There is a line of thinking in the European based championships that perhaps youngsters these days feel invincible, because the cars are so safe, the tracks have so much run off, and because there are few drivers coming through the ranks that have experienced a major injury to a colleague… let alone a fatality. Can you see how such a mindset might be formed, or is it simply a case of us reading too much into the aggressive racing style of some youngsters?

That’s a great question. I think that certainly the sport’s safety record has made it easier maybe for some younger drivers to not think about the consequences. But at the end of the day, even in Formula 1 at it’s worst, when drivers were being killed every fortnight, all the other drivers still strapped in and got on with the job. A real racer will race the way they do regardless. It’s in our DNA. When the helmet is on, you don’t think about how safe your car is or how much run off the track has. Maybe the youth of today are simply a more aggressive breed! Something in the water or video games maybe!

Indycar suffered its own tragedy last year. How much has Dan (Wheldon)’s loss brought driving standards to the forefront of your and your rivals’ minds when out on track? Has it made you more wary of giving space? Have Indycar drivers changed the way they race… even if only subconsciously?

Despite all that was written and maybe said in the immediate aftermath of Dan’s accident, driving standards weren’t the problem. The formula was a recipe for disaster. The minute you start thinking of driving ‘safe’, if you will, it can actually be more dangerous because you become unpredictable. As a driver, you expect all the other drivers to behave in a way that is pushing every scenario to the limit and so you know what they are likely to do in a given situation. When they stop doing that and back out of something unexpectedly, it can actually create a bad situation on track. I think there is a good level of driving standards in IndyCar and I certainly haven’t seen guys giving more room than in the past! We are all racers that will fight for every inch of real estate.

A huge thank you to James, who took time out of his busy schedule to respond to my questions.

Charlie Whiting on driving standards and safety – Exclusive

Charlie Whiting © James Moy Photography

Following Conor Daly’s GP3 accident in Monaco, and with driving standards at all levels in the sport an area of relevant and, I feel, huge importance in the modern era, last week I emailed the FIA with a few questions I had on the subject for an article I was going to write for this blog. Rather than answering them there and then, I received a reply that Charlie Whiting would rather discuss the topic openly and freely at the Canadian Grand Prix. Now, Charlie doesn’t give many on the record interviews, so I was absolutely delighted to accept his offer and on Thursday I had the pleasure of an exclusive audience with Formula 1′s Race Director. The following 30 minutes provided a fascinating insight into the current levels of safety and accepted driving standards in the sport.

As I said, I was going to turn the quotes into an article, but frankly I feel they stand better and will prove more informative if I simply print the complete transcript of the interview for you on this blog.

So here it is…

There are questions that exist at present about driving standards and what is considered acceptable driving. I’d like to start, if I can, by looking at the Conor Daly incident in Monaco and the fact that no penalty was awarded to Dmitry Suranovich for what appeared to be a dangerous defence of position.

There was an investigation, and presumably the stewards didn’t think that he had made more than one change of direction to defend his position. This is something that people often don’t quite get. I’ve only looked at it a couple of times and really only for the purposes of seeing what happened to the car not really the driving standards, that’s not really my business as I’m not race director for GP3. My concern was for what happened to the car and how the fences and guardrail worked. But what often happens in these cases if you have a driver who moves once and then he’s allowed to move back towards the racing line as long as he leaves room, one car width. That’s a new rule for this year. I could see a little bit of darting about but I didn’t think personally that constituted making a change of direction to defend a position, whereas we had quite famously Lewis and was it Petrov in Malaysia, where Lewis went from one side of the track to the other and then again in Malaysia and again with Lewis he got a drive through for doing exactly that. But they were significant changes of direction. But again, I’ve only seen that a couple of times.

On that topic, there have been a number of incidents this year, thinking back specifically to races such as Bahrain and Rosberg edging drivers to the track limits and over the track limits. Nico was investigated for that and no punishment was giving and OK, he was within the regulations in that he only made one move, but from the outside looking at that move it could appear to viewers worldwide that he made a dangerous move in that he has pushed someone off track to defend a position. How is that decision made, what is the thought process in determining that such a move is legal?

That’s quite an easy one. What Nico did was make one move. He made it decisively he didn’t hesitate he just made the move and went in one direction. Crucially he moved before the driver behind him. So he started it. In Alonso’s case they probably decided together if you see what I mean. But it was much clearer in the case with Lewis. But at no point, when there was one car width left between Nico’s car and the edge of the track, at that point there was no part of the car behind that was alongside him. That’s what swayed it just in Nico’s favour. Because at that point he’s allowed to use the full width of the track to defend his position, and the rules say that specifically. He’s allowed to use the full width of the track. He didn’t force the driver off track, the other driver drove off the track. Fernando backed off, lost momentum, but Lewis decided he was going to go for it whatever and kept going, and that for me was the only contentious thing: did Lewis gain an advantage by going off the track?

The same thing happened in the GP2 race earlier in the day when Gutierrez was edged off the track, but it was him that was put under investigation for gaining an advantage by exceeding track limits.

I’d have to look at that one again, but I’m very familiar with the two Rosberg incidents. But Nico was marginally OK, and it was very marginal. Since then I have written a note to the teams and have said that if there is any substantial part of the following car alongside, then you can’t use the full width of the track. I’m due to talk to the drivers about that on Friday here in Canada. We need to have a little chat about that.

There’s also the question of race starts and drivers edging each other towards the pit wall or even during the race when they are coming down the start/finish straight, which is often the DRS zone, and we see drivers being edged towards the pit wall. Is that something you are happy with, watching drivers push each other that close?

Not really, no. That’s what happened with Michael and Rubens in Hungary wasn’t it? Again, in that case a part of Rubens’ car was alongside Michael and Michael didn’t leave Rubens the space he should have done and that’s why he was penalised. If you analyse it, with a completely clear head, and don’t look at the video and say ‘Wow that was terrible,’ if you try and analyse it in very precise terms, in fact Michael’s move wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t far off what Nico did. It was just that there was a wall there so it looked a whole lot worse. Nico was right on the edge of acceptability, Michael was over the edge.

Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1, Bahrain 2012 © James Moy Photography

When you have tracks with so much run off, the big Tilke tracks, do you feel drivers maybe feel that they can push each other to the limits more because they’re not pushing their rivals onto grass or into a wall, there are metres of run off. They’re not necessarily taking more risks but perhaps pushing each other further than they would on tracks where there’s more to lose?

Probably. But not consciously, perhaps. It’s the same as the risks they take when they’re driving. They probably do more because they know that the worst that could happen to them is to spin off into a vast expanse of asphalt.

Is that a good thing?

Well, that’s a rather philosophical point.

Does it come down to a question of respect?

Well there are two things we need to think about there. Normally and I think Bahrain is the exception to the rule, the track verges, as in the edges of the track, are grass. The run off areas are the parts straight on around the outside of a corner. I think I’m right in saying that there are no other circuits with asphalt for verges. I’m just trying to think but I’m sure they are all grass. So it would have been a whole different story if Lewis would have kept his foot in and used the grass instead of the asphalt in Bahrain. He would have lost downforce, grip, he would have lost everything on the grass. I don’t think Nico would have done anything different had it been grass, I think it’s the driver behind who would have done something different.

As far as drivers taking more chances shall we say if they’ve got a huge run off area, I think a lot of things wouldn’t happen. There are lots of manoeuvres that drivers probably wouldn’t contemplate if there weren’t the big run off areas. If we go back to Prost and Senna in Suzuka, there’s no way they would have engaged in those things if there’d been a wall at that part of the track. That’s an extreme, of course, but the principle is there in my opinion.

I was speaking to a young driver yesterday, on the record, a GP2 race winner and a current F1 reserve driver, and he told me that while young racers don’t necessarily feel immortal, they know the cars are so safe that they can push each other closer to the edge because the car will save them. Is that the risk that we run? That the cars are so safe now, the tracks are so safe, that these guys are racing with no consideration for their own wellbeing, or even worse, for the wellbeing of their rivals?

It is, I suppose, an unintended consequence of having much safer cars and much safer tracks, but that’s what the stewards are there for. If you think a driver has deliberately forced another driver off track, and we go back again to Nico and Lewis, that was a very close call for the stewards. Did he force him off or not? If he’d got half way alongside and you’d forced the guy over then you’d be nicked, despite how safe the track is or how safe the cars are. I’d like to think drivers didn’t think that. I’m sure they take more risks when it comes to trying to do a quick lap, when they’ve got open expanses of run off area. That’s inevitable. I think laptimes around Monaco would be a bit quicker if there was no guardrail there, you know? But I don’t think that they do anything that they shouldn’t do, and even if they did they’d be nicked. It wouldn’t matter how big the verges or the run off areas are, whether it is grass, asphalt or gravel. If the move is wrong, it is wrong.

Charlie Whiting with FIA President Jean Todt © James Moy Photography

How much responsibility do you and the stewards feel when looking at an incident in Formula 1 and deciding whether or not to apportion blame or a penalty for defending that has been too harsh, that if it is not dealt with sufficiently that it will filter down to junior categories that this is an acceptable way to race. If we go back to those Rosberg incidents, potentially in a young driver’s mind it may have been on the limit but perhaps it’s now OK to push somebody off.

In answer to the first question, yes there has to be some consistency especially in GP2 and GP3 because they are with Formula 1 and everyone sees what goes on. But obviously with Formula 1 being televised worldwide other drivers see it and if they think, and I’ve heard clerks of the course say to me, ‘This bloody driver said to me, well if Michael Schumacher can do that, then so can I.’ It’s going to happen. But the difficulty, really, is trying to explain for example why Nico wasn’t penalised. Because when I first saw it I said, ‘Wow, he can’t do that.’ But when you analyse it, and you realise that well he did move first, he decided to go that way, Lewis decided to go that way but not until after and he never got alongside him and had to drive off the track to get past him… but it didn’t look that way at first. That’s why it takes time to analyse these things properly and to get the right outcome. But to get that across to young F3 drivers in Germany let’s say, who were watching it and are racing in the Euroseries the next weekend and think, ‘Well he got away with it, so it’s acceptable,’ it is very difficult for them to understand why it was found acceptable.

And for the fans as well. Perception is 95% of reality. You’ve got all the cars carrying FIA “Make Roads Safe” logos and yet apparently it’s OK to pull off a move like that and if the fans don’t correctly understand why that move is OK, there’s a mild irony to them carrying that message.

I can see why people would say that. All the stewards can do is look at each incident and judge it on its merits. They have far more available to them than the public can see. This is often the problem. They have on board camera shots that haven’t been shown on a broadcast, we have a race incident system which helps us analyse things from different angles, that you can’t get from normal cameras. With all those tools available to them they can make the right decision. In Rosberg’s case it was the right decision. But it is quite hard to get that across. If someone has got an idea in their head that what Rosberg did was wrong, it’s going to be very hard to shift that in my experience.

The repaired catch fencing at Monaco following Daly’s accident © The Buxton Blog

Moving away from driving standards for a moment then, and back to something you touched on at the very start in relation to Conor Daly’s accident in Monaco and that you were more interested in the fencing and how it did its job. The race was red flagged because the supporting poles were bent back and the fencing was gone. How well do you think the catch fencing did its job, and is the FIA looking at alternative methods of supporting catch fencing because one thing that has come up in conversations I’ve had since Monaco is just how lucky we were and how lucky Conor was in that incident, because of how bent those poles were and we think back to last year and the manner in which Dan Wheldon lost his life… and but for 90 degrees of rotation it could have been an incredibly similar accident.

Of course. Yes, it could have.

The debris fence designs are laid down as to what we recommend as ideal. For example the posts are separated by four metres, they have reinforcing cables and the mesh goes over the top. That is exactly how it is designed in Monaco. They use steel “I” beams, unlike the fences here in Canada which use round supporting poles. There are lots of different ways of doing it. But I think they did an exceptional job in Monaco. They did a really good job. It kept the car from going over the guardrail. It prevented a marshal post being hit. But, as you quite rightly say, imagine the force it would take to bend those “I” beams. If that had been his head it would have been an un-survivable accident. That, unfortunately, is where luck comes in. It’s really hard to guard against that. It’s really hard to build fences that don’t have big solid structures in them. Because big large unsupported areas of mesh, I mean there are things around apparently, such as those they use for skiers and rock falls, avalanche sorts of things to stop rocks falling onto the road, but you still need some sort of support for them.

What we have at the moment is what we consider to be the best option. You will always run the risk of a car and driver hitting the debris fence at just the wrong angle and in Dan’s case, when you look at those fences over there on those ovals, we’re talking tubes a foot wide. They wouldn’t have moved at all. Massive. Twenty reinforcing cables, much higher than our fences. They are fundamentally to stop a car going into the crowd and at those speeds they’re the sort of things you need. But for that cruel twist of fate he would have probably had this horrific looking accident and walked away from the car. I think 14 cars were in that crash.

In Suzuka they have substantial fences there down the pit straight, and it’s a good few years ago now but Ogawa was involved in a crash there, and died after his Formula Nippon car hit a supporting pole.

You will never eradicate injury because of the nature of the sport. But what you can do, you can look at what’s likely to have the best outcome in the majority of cases and a typical example is the height of the noses on F1 cars. We’ve done a lot of research and chucked cars into rotating wheels and we found the optimum height above the ground to stop a car launching is between 150 and 200 millimetres. You go over that you’ll launch, you go under that and you’ll go under tyre barriers.

So, you still run the risk of possibly going under a tyre barrier if you’re bouncing over a gravel trap, and you still possibly run the risk of launching if your ride height is a little bit higher than normal. But that’s the best thing we can find to do, and if we implement that then it is going to attack a large part of it. You’ll never get it all. You’ll never find something that is 100% safe. If you look at the upsides and the downsides you say well, how many accidents have we had where cars have been launched by a nose hitting a wheel? Lots. How many times have we seen a car go under a tyre barrier? One. So which do you want to stop? The one you see the most of. That’s the trade off you have to make sometimes.

Going back to catch fencing, are you looking at alternate methods? I’ve heard talk of Perspex type affairs almost like what they have in ice hockey.

I’ve not seen anything like that. I’ve not heard any discussion. We do have new debris fence material which is really quite good. It was used on the first corner in Malaysia for the first time this year. It is made by a company called Geobrugg AG in Germany, and it is used for avalanche containment. The advantage is you can have a larger spacing between posts so it reduces by half the amount of posts you could potentially hit.

Have you worked with or are you in discussion with the guys in Indycar about what they have learned from Dan Wheldon’s crash?

Oh yes. We have a full report on that.

So one final question, and thank you so much for bearing with me through all of this, we saw a number of loose wheels in Monaco and they all appeared to be very clean breaks.

There were two examples in Formula 1, and Maldonado’s was most bizarre. It actually broke the axle and it snapped the disc in half, so the wheel was there with half the axle and half the disc so the tethers weren’t able to do anything. I don’t believe there’s anything we can do about that to be honest. The other one, which I believe was Perez, was that he hit the guardrail and literally punched the middle of the wheel out. There is very little one can do about that and the only consolation you have is that the amount of energy required to rip that off dissipates a huge amount of the energy of the wheel and you didn’t see the wheel going that far. Conor’s wheel went quite far though.

It did, and it very luckily missed the cars coming through the debris. How are things going at the FIA with your investigations into cockpit safety?

That’s a big project and we’ve tried fighter jet canopies. They work but there are quite a few problems with those. They need to be 30 millimetres thick which presents sufficient optical difficulties. We need to try and get something that you can see through when you’re sat down there and that’s very hard. We tried a roll structure. It’s an ugly thing but it did the job. So next we’re trying to find something that’ll be a deflector. In the end we may have to end up with something that will help a lot but won’t eradicate the likelihood of something hitting a driver. It may not prove to be impossible to completely eradicate that. Even if you put a driver in a closed car, there’s no guarantee a wheel won’t fly through the windscreen for example.

We are doing our best, the guys at the Institute are doing a lot of work on this, but it is not the work of a moment and it is fraught with difficulty.

My thanks to Charlie Whiting for taking time out of his schedule to talk to me, and to Matteo Bonciani at the FIA for organising the interview.

On Bahrain

Bahrain Curbing c/o GP2 Media Service

Bahrain Curbing c/o GP2 Media Service

So, I’ve done it. I’ve bitten the metaphorical bullet and booked my flights to Bahrain. I waited as long as I could to see how the situation played out, and following the confirmation yesterday from Bernie, the teams and the Bahrainis that the event would actually be going ahead as planned, I took the plunge and made my booking.

Now there shouldn’t be any real surprise in this, should there? You can see the headline – Random Bloke in Does His Job Shock. But many of us in the media have been questioning whether or not we would or even should be attending the race.

I was one of very few media to be in Bahrain during the original risings in February last year, as I was present in Bahrain for the GP2 Asia race weekend that never took place. Following the events of those few days, I have to admit that the thought of going back had filled me with some dread. It’s not that I dislike Bahrain. I don’t. I have always enjoyed going there and have always enjoyed going to the Bahrain International Circuit. And with the exception of 2010 when the unnecessary circuit changes were made I think the track layout has lent itself, more so for GP2 than F1, to some pretty good racing too.

The route to the BIC was lined with tanks on my last visit to Bahrain

The route to the BIC was lined with tanks on my last visit to Bahrain

The problem that we all face right now is that Formula 1 has been politicised. Whatever the sport had decided to do would have upset somebody. If the FIA had cancelled the race, then it would have sent out the message that the sport was unhappy with the way in which the ruling regime had conducted itself and that would have been seen as a tacit show of support for those rising against the ruling elite. Conversely, by not cancelling the race Formula 1 has, through no fault of its own, thus shown tacit support for the ruling elite.

Sadly, it was always going to be a case of “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

It is an impossible situation to be in, and one in which I do not envy either Bernie Ecclestone or Jean Todt. The ruling regime clearly want the Grand Prix to be a sign that things are back to normal in Bahrain, and to use it as a point of unity for the country. And I truly hope it can prove to be just that. Sport can be a healing tool for unrest, just look at the Olympics and the fact that so many nations caught up in conflicts have competed side by side with one another over the history of the games.

But an international sporting event is also a very good tool for those with an agenda to get their message out to a wide audience.

Ecclestone himself admitted just a few days ago that the Grand Prix in Bahrain could find itself at the centre of such a demonstration, but that such a vulnerability made it no different to any other Grand Prix on earth. If somebody wanted to make a scene, he said, there is little anybody could do to stop them, regardless of where we race.

Of course, Bahrain is not the only country in which we race which suffers from questionable human rights. Bahrain is also not the only country which has experienced violent unrest and death over the last 12 months… London burned last summer amidst violent protests and yet the British Grand Prix is under no threat. Yes, the London rioters were more interested in stealing a new pair of shoes than they were in fighting for democracy, but incredibly, and despite the gaping holes in the comparison, this is an argument which has been raised in support of maintaining the Bahrain Grand Prix and is thus why I bring it up here.

However, it is due to the longevity of the violence, and the continued insistence by protesters that the Grand Prix is part of the problem rather than being part of the solution, that there are still genuine fears that all will not be peaceful.

Bahraini Media coverage of the Demonstrations. February 2011

Bahraini Media coverage of the Demonstrations - February 2011

Yesterday in London, my Fleet Street colleagues were invited to a media luncheon at the Royal Automobile Club, at which the Bahrain International Circuit Chairman Zayed R Alzayani refuted the need for additional security.

“There’s no need,” he said. “You will come out and you will see — it is business as usual. There are some clashes with police, isolated in villages. Some of these clashes are very small — 10 or 15 people — but it gets blown out of proportion and made to sound as if the whole nation is rising up.”

Bernie Ecclestone himself blamed the media for inflaming the situation. “Seriously, the press should just be quiet and deal with the facts rather than make up stories.”

But the facts are, some of us are still scared.

I am still awaiting news on whether my media visa has been accepted. Without it I will not be going. Even with it, there are still fears over the safety of the media at large. Many have been detained in the Gulf state over the past 12 months and even with an F1 media visa there are no guarantees that we will not be looked upon with suspicion.

There is an allocated media hotel and media shuttles have been laid on. I will be avoiding both. It’s just too much of an obvious target for those wishing to get their message across to an international audience.

Maybe I’m getting overly worried. And I hope that I am. I hope we get out there and everything is fine, that Bahrain is the place I remember and that we have a great weekend of racing in which media, teams, drivers and fans are able to compete in and enjoy a race weekend like any other.

I hope that the Grand Prix can unite a divided nation and help to bring happiness to a country which has been put through a year of misery.

And I hope that we are able to leave after the chequered flag with happy memories of our return to Bahrain, not because the voices of the people who have been silenced since February 2011 have once again been suppressed, but because the line we have been handed about the race uniting people is one which genuinely resonates throughout Bahrain and brings people of different faiths and opposing politics together, to celebrate under the banner of sport.

BIC exit - February 2011

BIC exit - February 2011

A win-win situation for F1… incredibly.

Sergio Perez, Sauber - Winter testing, February 2011

It has been a while since I’ve put pen to paper, and for that I can only apologise. A combination of a heavy season, some personal stuff, and a bit too much time talking rubbish on twitter have all contributed to me perhaps not making enough time to write.

There have been a few topics on which I’ve wanted to write recently, but interestingly, as time has passed, they have all seemed to merge into one topic. So maybe it is just as well I waited.

There is a great deal of talk doing the rounds at present about a return of in season testing, and I for one think it’s about time. It’s one of the only decent suggestions FIA President Jean Todt has managed to come up with thus far in an otherwise lacklustre presidency which, this year in particular, has seemed to lack direction, conviction and fortitude. The return of in season testing, however, is to my mind essential on a number of levels. But it needs to be done right.

My suggestion, as I have declared a few times this year on SPEED, is to have a one day test on the Monday after each European Grand Prix. It’s a system used by motoGP and works well in that category. What it would mean for Formula 1 is that the teams would be able to rest easy on Sunday after the race and actually enjoy their celebrations rather than having to pack up the paddock and disappear off to new lands. The cars, the teams, the equipment, the timing infrastructure… everything is in place. The fans are there too.

My tweak however, would be to only allow a team’s reserve driver to do the testing. Here’s why…

Teams no longer have test drivers. Because testing, quite simply, doesn’t exist at the same level that it used to. There was a time when the likes of Alex Wurz, Pedro de la Rosa and Marc Gene were some of the highest regarded drivers in the sport, not so much for their racing acumen, as for their incredible feedback and for the incredible insight they were able to give their teams in the testing and development of a Formula 1 car. F1 2011 has no need for such men. And it’s a huge loss.

Lucas di Grassi tests for Renault, 2005

I’ll give you an example: Lucas di Grassi. A driver of staggering talent, and an incredible development driver. He was the favoured son of Renault and his skills are so well regarded that he has recently been hired full-time by Pirelli to act as their tyre tester and developer. If this was the same Formula 1 of a decade ago, I have no doubts that Lucas would be held in that same bracket as the Wurz’s, Gene’s and de la Rosa’s. The go to man if you wanted a quick car.

But it’s about more than that. Teams no longer have the need for test drivers so instead they have a reserve driver. But are reserve drivers actually reserve drivers at all? Sauber, for example, have promising young Mexican GP3 champion and GP2 race winner Esteban Gutierrez on their books as their reserve driver. But when Sergio Perez felt he could not take part in the Canadian Grand Prix following his huge Monaco shunt, Sauber’s reserve driver was not used. Despite there being a question mark over Perez going into the Montreal weekend, Sauber hadn’t even brought Gutierrez to the race. Instead of using their reserve driver, then, Sauber was forced to ask McLaren, minutes before second practice, if they could borrow Pedro de la Rosa for the weekend.

Another example is Renault, the F1 team with perhaps more reserve drivers than any other in the sport. But when their lead driver Robert Kubica was dreadfully injured pre-season, which of their 176 reserve drivers was called up to replace him? Senna? Grosjean? Well, both of them have F1 experience. And yet neither got the shout. Instead the role fell to Nick Heidfeld.

So what’s the point? What is the point in having a reserve driver if you’re not going to use him? It’s like Fabio Capello making up his England national football team and keeping a few promising youngsters on the bench, and when he needs to make a substitution making the shock decision to give Geoff Hurst a call.

I mean this not as a slight on Pedro or Nick who are immense talents… but surely we have got to look to the future of this sport, have we not?

It seems to me that only Force India, Toro Rosso and Lotus have got this reserve driver thing figured out. By giving their reserve driver time in their cars on Fridays at races, they are not only able to observe and analyse that driver’s potential as a future racer, but they are able to give that driver the experience of the car that he will need should the unfortunate happen and one of the main drivers need replacing. The teams are also getting a fresh opinion on car set-up and direction. Naturally they’ll want to go in the direction that best serves their race drivers, but the more information from the more sources that they can get, the better their chance of moving up the field.

Ricciardo has been given time to develop and impress.

Toro Rosso, this season, has been a prime example of using a reserve driver. That Daniel Ricciardo is talented has never been in question. He is clearly a big favourite with the Red Bull bosses too. He has shone in Friday outings, and there had been talk all season of him getting a call up to race in 2011.But with both Buemi and Alguersuari putting in great performances of late, there was no way that STR could replace one of them without causing a stink. The obvious thing for Red Bull to do was to put him in at HRT, alongside Tonio Liuzzi who Red Bull know well from his days at STR when the Italian raced alongside, amongst others, the current world champion Sebastian Vettel. The German and Liuzzi were fairly closely matched, with Vettel just edging the Italian. If Ricciardo can get even close to Liuzzi, it’s a good sign.

Ricciardo’s first race meeting as an F1 race driver was Silverstone and he in no way disgraced himself. But ask yourself… would he have been able to get as close to Liuzzi had he not had the recent, relevant experience of driving an F1 car every race weekend for STR? I doubt it very much.

There are a wealth of good drivers out there who are all vying for their shot at F1. But with testing so limited, how many will get their shot? How many more seasons will we see the likes of the Trullis, Heidfelds, de la Rosas getting back into F1 cars, when the future stars of this sport are left sitting on a pitwall, or even worse left sitting at home, because they “lack the necessary experience.” Experience, which could be gained if they were simply allowed to test.

Signing a young driver as your reserve, and then not using him because he lacks experience makes a mockery of the very appointment. If you’re not going to use him as reserve, sign him as your “youth” driver, or whatever you want to call it.

But it isn’t the teams’ fault. They have been forced into this position by the limit on testing. Do you honestly think Red Bull would have given Ricciardo time in Vettel or Webber’s seat during Friday practice? Would Ferrari have allowed Jules Bianchi to step into one of the scarlet machines in place of Alonso of Massa, or would Ross Brawn have given Sam Bird the nod over Michael Schumacher or Nico Rosberg at Mercedes for practice 1?

GP2 racer Sam Bird is highly regarded at MercedesGP

Because of this, we need a rethink. We need to do something that will allow the young drivers to build their experience should they ever need to step into the breach, whilst at the same time allowing these youngsters the opportunity to show their worth to the teams in order to keep the evolution of this sport’s talent pool fluid. We need a reserve driver test day after every European weekend.

The other bonus about running this system is that the majority of F1 teams employ reserve or junior drivers who compete in the GP2 Series. GP2 races take part… yep, on European F1 weekends. So everyone’s in the right place. It is just such a simple concept.

It would, of course, mean that back to back races would have to become a thing of the past, in Europe at least, but when you have a frankly bonkers situation such as we had this year when you run Barcelona before Monaco, and Monaco starts a day earlier than most races, I think seeing the back of back to backs in Europe probably wouldn’t be that much of a bad thing.

The recent off throttle exhaust blown diffuser confusion is another fine example of why a bit of testing might be a good idea. With a mid-season shift in regulation, everybody went into first practice at Silverstone running blind, on a new track configuration, and in the wet. Nothing meaningful was learned. By the afternoon the goalposts had been moved in time for practice two, but again nothing was learned. So we wasted a day, and everyone went into Saturday once again running blind.

Imagine if we’d had a one day test post Valencia, either on the street track or at Ricardo Tormo up the road. A full day of testing, with the FIA in attendance, might have seen these issues ironed out earlier. It might have avoided the frankly ridiculous situation we were faced with, and are now faced with, where we’re returning to what we had before.

There’s also a safety issue. While today’s cars are incredibly safe, it hasn’t been too long since Felipe Massa’s monstrous accident at the Hungaroring which he had, incredibly, touched upon in the days leading up to that weekend when, in an interview I had carried out with him for GPWeek magazine, he’d said he was worried that a lack of in-season testing was causing people to run new parts on cars under the pressure of a race weekend and that at some point in the not too distant future something was going to break and someone was going to get hurt.

Bringing back testing makes sense from all angles. It allows development within a season, and increases safety potential. If run, as I think would be the most preferable option, on a Monday after a race, it would be neither a financial nor a logistical burden for the teams. And, if run with young reserve drivers, it would ensure that the future generation of F1 stars are brought up to speed, given the experience and given the chance to shine, rather than being constantly overlooked for their lack of experience.

Everyone wins. For once.

Mercedes to use NASCAR pitstop tech?

MercedesGP in the pits, Malaysia 2011.

I was walking the pitlane this morning while MercedesGP was conducting pitstop practice, and a photographer pointed something out to me that I had not seen before.

The tyres waiting to be changed onto the car already had what looked to be the wheel nuts attached to the wheel rims. Similarly, those that were taken off the car still appeared to have the nuts attached. The guns did not appear to pull a nut off nor put one on, merely to unscrew the existing one and then tighten the replacement.

This kind of technology is nothing new to fans of NASCAR. In that series, each wheel rim features five wheel nuts (or “lug nuts” as they are termed Stateside), which are attached to the rim with an adhesive. When a car comes into the box, those five nuts are loosened and the wheel removed with the nuts still attached, before the new wheel is placed on the car and the five attached nuts tightened.

The importance of this is that it speeds up the pitstop process and eliminates the chances of a wheel nut falling onto the floor or the thread becoming crossed.

In 2010 Mercedes topped the average pitstop time, recording the fastest stop in (if memory serves and I’m sure someone will correct me if I am wrong) eight races, although world champions Red Bull racing recorded the actual fastest stop of the season.

From what I could see this morning it did not appear that all spare tyres had the nuts already attached to the rims, but there could be two reasons for this. First, that the team is still experimenting with the system before rolling it out at a later date. Or secondly, that there are only so many of these new nuts to go around and that they have only been attached to the rims to be used in practice, before being switched onto the rims for the race.

Now I could be barking up completely the wrong tree, so I requested confirmation from the team once practice was over. I’ve also put in a quick request to the FIA just to double check there’s nothing prohibiting this kind of thing, as it seems like a fairly simple and obvious solution to the wheel nut issue and one which we surely would have seen by now unless it is banned. I’m not suggesting MercedesGP would be doing anything illegal, but as colleagues and I have agreed this morning, it seems like such a simple and effective idea that for only one team to have suddenly stumbled across it would seem odd.

As soon as I get word from either avenue, I will update.

If I’m right and this is what Mercedes are doing, and if it is a success, we could probably expect to see something similar appearing at the other teams over the next few races as I don’t believe, and again do correct me if I’m wrong, that any other team is doing something similar.

Wing Regs in a nutshell

Here is a very simple guide to how the new DRS wings will be used this weekend in Australia.

DRS can only be used if car A is within a second of car B at the timing beam on the run in to Turn 14, which is noted by a line across the track.

Between Turn 14 and the beginning of the overtaking / activation zone at Turn 16, the driver of car A will be notified that he can use the DRS in the overtaking zone.

If car A is within a second of car B at the timing zone, but driver B pulls into the pits at the end of the lap, the driver of car A can still use DRS in the overtaking zone.

If car A has been lapped by the driver of car B, but car A is still within a second of car B at the timing zone, the driver of car A can use the DRS in the overtaking zone.

If the track is declared wet, the DRS cannot be used.

DRS can be used at any point around the track in all practice sessions (including qualifying) unless otherwise stated by race control.

For reference, the detection point for the gap between drivers is 13 metres before Turn 14, and the activation point for DRS is on turn in for Turn 16, 867 metres before Turn 1.

Ferrari gives the game away

One big family - Hockenheim 2010
© http://www.sutton-images.com

There will no doubt be a lot of media chatter today and in the short break before we arrive in Hungary about what happened in today’s German Grand Prix. I don’t want to go on too much, as there’ll no doubt be a million articles like this, so I will keep it short.

I won’t debate the merits of whether it was the right decision, because of course Fernando is ahead in the championship and the team’s considered best shot for the title. I’d wager Felipe could fight for it too, but as we’re into the second half of the season, the team has to make a choice.

Here’s the thing, though. Team orders have always been a part of Formula 1, but that doesn’t make it any more comfortable to witness when they are played out in such blatant fashion.

We know it goes on in code over the radio, via “botched” pitstops or preferential treatment for one driver over another, but we also all thought, or rather hoped, that the regulations had been changed to stop this kind of thing from happening so blatantly on track; to stop teams from manipulating the race in a style that short changed F1′s billions of fans around the world. They had, but this time it didn’t work and Ferrari is set to feel the wrath not only of the World Motor Sport Council, but of this sport’s global, passionate and very vocal fanbase.

Ferrari will, and is, claiming innocence in the affair.

But I ask you this. If the team felt it had done things by the book, why the need for the shambolic post podium podium? Why did Stefano Domenicali (in whom I will admit I have huge respect), see it necessary to drag his drivers, one of whom clearly did not wish to be there under such circumstances, onto the top step of the podium to share the win?

And why, in the post race TV scrums, was Felipe Massa in posession of the winning driver’s Bridgestone cap, clearly marked with “1st”?

In one moment with that laughable podium show of “unity” Ferrari showed the world just how embarrassed it was about what it had done to its driver and to its fans. That one moment simply oozed with an overwhelming sense of guilt.

Remind you of anything?

Rubens Barrichello lifts the winner's trophy after team orders robbed him of victory - Austria 2002
© http://www.sutton-images.com

A stupidly simple safety car solution

SLS 63 AMG, Safety Car (C197) © Mercedes Benz

Safety cars, delta times, when to pit, who gets a penalty, who doesn’t get a penalty, when should we race, when should we slow… it’s all getting a bit silly, isn’t it?

The thing is, it’s actually a very easy problem to solve. Which probably means that the solution Formula 1 eventually comes up with will be even more convoluted than the original regulation it was intended to clarify. But it needn’t be.

Here’s my idea to solve the problem. And it really is simple…

As soon as the “safety car deployed” message is shown on the race control screen, the pitlane will be closed to all cars, other than those carrying substantial damage which risks either the car in question or poses a potential danger to others on track. With refuelling no longer an issue in Formula 1, there is no longer the prospect of anyone running out of fuel and thus there is no longer a requirement for the pitlane to be kept open under the safety car. This was the only reason that closing the pitlane for safety reasons under the safety car had been rethought in the first place.

Once the safety car has been deployed, the track will go under full course yellow and all cars will be limited to running at a maximum speed of 200kph. This can be easily monitored at race control, could easily be stuck to with a pitlane speed limiter style button on the steering wheel, and will take out the need for the confusing and overly complicated delta time scenario.

When the safety car leaves the pits, it will wait by the side of the track or circulate slowly until it picks up the race leader. All cars will drive straight past, without waiting to be waved through until the leader is picked up. They will know when to pass and when to stay behind the car with a simple system of lights – let’s say for the sake of argument a blue light will flash to indicate to the drivers that they should pass, changing to the orange/yellow light as and when the race leader pulls into view. Failing that, the safety car will simply wait to leave the pits until the lead car is entering the final corner.

And that’s pretty much that.

It’s not rocket science. It’s just common sense. Pure, simple and uncomplicated. Race order is maintained, nobody gets an advantage, so nobody should be able to complain and Charlie can concentrate on race incidents rather than having to waste his time sorting out safety car transgressions which needn’t be and shouldn’t be as big an arse ache as they currently are.

Is Formula 1 bringing itself into disrepute?

The Safety Car - Valencia 2010 © http://www.sutton-images.com

What a difference a day makes. On Sunday morning we were all expecting a fairly dull race on a weekend in which F1 had finally seemed to find some stability. A feeling of calm had washed over the paddock with the teams all fairly happy and united under FOTA, the driver market pretty much sorted and the rules and regulations for the future cemented by the FIA.

But Fernando Alonso’s claims of a fixed race have well and truly rocked the fragile peace in the sport. Indeed there have even been suggestions that the FIA is acting with severe bias towards Lewis Hamilton and McLaren.

Now if you’re finding those comments odd, you’re not the only one. The FIA favouring McLaren against Ferrari? Really? Have we switched into a parallel dimension? Fair is foul and foul is fair and all that? There was a time, not too long ago, when the FIA was nicknamed “Ferrari International Assistance” after so many of the body’s decisions seemed to favour the scarlet cars over any others, particularly those from Woking.

Instead, after the European Grand Prix, there was something of a feeling that Ferrari and Alonso’s petulance and comments in themselves were the most damaging thing for the sport, and they could yet land them in hot water for bringing Formula 1 into disrepute.

But then again, you can kind of see where they’re coming from. Hamilton passed the safety car and finished second. Alonso didn’t and came eighth. So in essence, Hamilton cheated and yet wasn’t really punished harshly enough in Ferrari’s eyes as he pulled a better result out of the bag than the man who didn’t cheat. I like Lewis, I’m a big fan, but by overtaking the safety car he broke the rules. Simple.

Alonso said he’d never seen anything like it before. But I have, and I’m afraid that it won’t help Lewis’ cause, because he was the guilty party once again. It was 2006, in the GP2 race in Imola, and Lewis overtook the safety car after falsely thinking he was being waved through when in fact it was waving through the Campos cars ahead of him. Lewis was leading the race at that time and should have stayed behind the safety car. His penalty? A black flag and disqualification from the race. So I can see why Ferrari would be upset that a similar penalty was not applied to Lewis for this transgression.

Lewis Hamilton shortly before his black flag - GP2 Imola 2006. © www.sutton-images.com

I’m also failing to fully understand the brace of 5 second penalties handed out to the nine drivers who ran too quickly in comparison to the delta times when entering the pits under the safety car. Because if this is the precedent, then why on earth should drivers pay any attention to the delta times in the future? If a 5 second penalty is now considered the norm for such a transgression, sticking to race pace on an inlap under the safety car could very easily buy a driver far more than the 5 second penalty he’d incur for sticking to his delta time.

The result of the stewarding decisions in Valencia, therefore, have completely made a mockery of the safety car regulations. And if anything, is not the role of the FIA to ensure that the rules and their application are consistent, transparent and precise enough to instil confidence in the sport? What about the fans who watch the race, be they those who pay for their tickets or are simply watching it at home? If 9 drivers had been kicked further down the field hours after the race had finished, for their safety car transgressions, what sort of message does that hand out to the fans?

It says, don’t bother to tune in to the race. Just watch the news tomorrow morning when hopefully we will have had a cup of tea and figured out who should have won. It is little wonder Ferrari is kicking off. But their gripe shouldn’t be with McLaren or Hamilton because they simply made the best out of the situation they were placed in. They were handed a penalty and they rose above it beautifully, just as Mark Webber did in taking his first F1 victory at the Nurburgring last season. The issue here lies in the regulations, and more importantly in their application during the race.

There was another example of stewarding inefficiency in Valencia and it was for a moment in the first GP2 race when Alberto Valerio’s Coloni was released from the pits with the rear jack still attached. The team appeared not to tell Valerio to pull over, and for 5 corners the Brazilian ran at race speed with the rear jack lurching from side to side as a clearly edgy Sergio Perez tried to keep his distance. In the end the jack released itself at Turn 5 and crashed heavily into an FOM camera point, scaring the living crap out of Nicolo the cameraman on site. It smashed the crap out of the camera too.

The team was brought before the stewards after the race. And their penalty? A €1500 fine. Seriously. €1500 Euros.

Let’s go back 12 months to the Hungarian Grand Prix when Fernando Alonso was released from a pitstop with a loose wheel, which detached itself and bounced down the track. It didn’t hit anyone or anything, but the Renault F1 team was slapped with a ban for the next race. The ban was subsequently overturned, but the message was clear – you do not knowingly, under any circumstances, endanger your driver, the other drivers, the track workers or fans.

How on earth the stewards deemed that €1500 was a sufficient penalty is beyond me. A ban from the next race, or at least a fine that would have paid the tens of thousands of Euros that a new trackside camera will cost FOM, seemed a fairer decision.

They had a nightmare in Valencia, plain and simple.

Lewis Hamilton passes the safety car - Valencia 2010 © www.sutton-images.com

Their indecision and delay in the F1 race meant that the handing down of Hamilton’s drive through had nowhere near the level of effect which the application of a penalty should have. The precedent was a black flag but they applied a drive through. A simple look on a pocket calculator would have told them a drive-through wouldn’t change much in terms of race order, so if they had really wanted to penalise Hamilton why not give him a stop-go, or the black flag the precedent had already set down?

Given the level of data at their disposal, why did it take the stewards over half the race to figure out that 9 drivers might have gone too fast on their safety car in laps, and with all of that data on hand why therefore could they not have applied drive through penalties during the race rather than creating a potential “false” result, to use Ferrari’s words, after the event had been concluded.

For one of very few occasions in my life, I find myself agreeing with the sentiments of Luca di Montezemolo, who today has claimed that the events of the weekend have set “dangerous precedents, throwing a shadow over the credibility of Formula 1.”

The stewards decisions seemed to be too little too late and set a dangerously ineffectual precedent on the position of the stewards and their power or strength of character to make the correct call at the correct time.

Nobody wants to see a race decided in the stewards office after the chequered flag has fallen. As Lewis proved in Valencia, and as we have seen many times in the past, a driver can often pull out the most incredible races when he has an obstacle, or a penalty, to overcome. What is most galling for the fans of this sport and for the drivers themselves, is when they are penalised off the track for something they have done on it.

We need decisions to be made faster by the stewards during the races to allow the drivers an opportunity to fight back on track. We need the penalties, when applied, to be comparable to the offence, be that in their harshness or in their leniency. And above all we need consistency in the penalties and their application from case to case, weekend to weekend, driver to driver and team to team.

If we don’t get it the only thing that will bring the sport into disrepute, is the sport itself.

Woah, what’s going on?

Sorry for the lack of blogging of late. What with new job, new child and the start of the world cup, I have been somewhat busy. No excuse, I know.

Anyway, I thought I’d just jot down a few thoughts that I’ve got running around my melon at the moment – as much to try and compartmentalise and make sense of them to myself, as much as to bring you some semblance of comment or opinion.

So, in the words of Marvin Gaye – Woah, what’s going on?

The issue of tyres in 2011 has become something of a mess. The basic synopsis is thus: The FIA and Michelin agreed terms, but the teams and Bernie weren’t happy that the deal had been done without consulting them. All of a sudden up crops Cooper/Avon and Pirelli with rival bids. Cooper/Avon is quickly dismissed despite the company’s links with Bernie, and Pirelli, new GP3 supplier in 2010, almost immediately appears to be the most likely choice. The tyres will be cheap, but the company won’t put as much into the sport in terms of trackside signage etc. Michelin’s bosses declare themselves somewhat upset that their sure deal has fallen through, and come back in at the eleventh hour in Turkey to try and salvage the deal. Their tyres will be more expensive, but they’ll provide more trackside signage of which the teams receive a cut.

Pirelli currently supplies the GP3 Series

Then there are the tech regs. We’re expecting tyres to stay at 18 inches for the next two years before switching to low profile tyres in 2013. Any new tyre deal will need to be run for a minimum of three seasons, meaning that whoever comes in will have to do so under an agreement that they will have to design two types of tyre. For Pirelli this will be something of an annoyance, but for Michelin it is all fairly simple as they still have the moulds for 18 inchers from their last F1 appearance, and they have low profile tyres in use in sportscars.

Then there’s the role of the FIA. It now seems clear that one of the reasons Jean Todt has been so quiet is that the role of the FIA President in Formula 1 has been enormously marginalised by the increased strength and power of FOTA. FOTA’s decision to wade into the tyre debate came after the teams felt the FIA President had overstepped his mark by as good as agreeing terms with Michelin before they’d even been consulted. Now there is the argument that the FIA should not be involved in the decision at all because with the teams paying for tyres this is a commercial issue. Not so, says the FIA, as the choice of tyres is a sporting a safety issue, and thus of course involves the FIA. But if it involves the FIA, then the FIA has broken its own rules as the supply deal was never officially put out to tender.

Interviewing Jean Todt on the Monaco grid
© http://www.sutton-images.com

I asked Martin Whitmarsh, FOTA Chairman, in Canada whether this was all essentially politics, and the FIA President stamping his feet, Rumplestiltskin style, in order to get himself heard for the first time in his Presidency. He simply gave me one of those knowing looks, smiled, and laughed, before giving me a beautifully neutral answer.

Whatever the political factors behind the decision, we now understand that the deal will be announced with Pirelli shortly.

All of which leaves us with little time to develop the tyres before next year. There has been much talk that the work will be carried out by Nick Heidfeld in a Toyota F1 car, as this is the easiest way to avoid any conflict of interests and any team gaining an advantage.

Ah, but hold on a minute. Nick Heidfeld is Mercedes’ tester. So what you ask? Well for some, myself included, the last thing anybody wants is a return to the days when teams become so engrained with tyre companies that a certain type of tyre was designed almost exclusively for that one team. In the 2000s it was Bridgestone and Ferrari, and the Ross Brawn / Michael Schumacher / Ferrari / Bridgestone combo reaped massive rewards. Today, in a car designed for someone else and on tyres designed for the sport rather than for him, Michael Schumacher is struggling to show us any sign of his apparent genius. Sticking Heidfeld on tyre testing duties would, I feel, be a massive mistake and a big step back to the days of old as it would hand an advantage back to Mercedes.

Will Mercedes and Schumacher benefit if Heidfeld runs tyre tests?
© http://www.sutton-images.com

You want a great tester, with a feel for tyres, no conflict of interest, and with relevant recent F1 experience, you call Anthony Davidson. Simple as.

And as for the Toyota… well here’s another interesting thing. Rumours in Canada were rife that one of the prospective new teams intend to use the 2010 Toyota which never saw the light of day as the basis for their 2011 car should they be given the entry. It’s a very sensible plan, and would allow the team in question to enter the sport with a firm foundation and what looks, from the photos we’ve seen, to be a very tidy car indeed. Simply take off the double diffuser, stick KERS back in, and you’re ready to run.

The team rumoured to be talking to Toyota about using their racer which never raced is ART, and it is just the kind of sensible decision I would expect to come from Nicolas Todt and Frederic Vasseur.

My one fear in all of this is how ART will be perceived if the team is given the nod for F1 in 2011. I fear that the media at large will come down hard on the FIA and on Jean Todt, claiming nepotism and a conflict of interests should his son’s team be granted a grid place in Formula 1. But any such suggestions will be made to score cheap political points. ART is, from what we know of the prospective entries, by far and away the strongest potential new F1 team. It has big funding in place, and in terms of class there is perhaps no other team at a sub-F1 level which has consistently proved itself to be so strong – be it GP2, F3 or GP3. There is no better team out there than ART.

But if ART end up using as a basis for their car, the very same car that was used to develop the new 2011 tyres, then again a conflict of interests will no doubt be called, and if it is overlooked then the relationship between Jean and Nicolas will again be questioned. It shouldn’t be so, but I fear it is just too easy for some to look at the shared surname and forget the individual achievements of each man on their own merits.

Nicolas Todt - a 2011 F1 team boss?
© http://www.sutton-images.com

What of the other new teams, I hear you ask? From the entries we know have gone in, only Epsilon seems to stand any real shot at a grid space. But for a team determined to build its car from scratch at its fantastic facility in Spain, a decent lead time is running short.

The chance of an American team making the grid in 2011 is also not completely out of the realms of possibility. I had a great chat with Parris Mullins, one of the men behind the still-born USF1 project, and the good news is that he now represents a group of big investors who want to start an American F1 team. Following the USF1 mess, the even better news is they don’t want to do it from scratch. Instead, they want to buy an existing team and to turn it, piecemeal, into an American team – Force India style. Bring in the sponsors, and little by little, make it American. Win hearts and minds, to adopt a well-used Americanism.

The two teams that we know are on shaky ground right now are Sauber and Toro Rosso. Sure, HRT has its problems, but with Colin Kolles on board and rumours that Geoff Willis wants to do a Ross Brawn on the team, they are looking OK. Instead it is two former race-winning teams that look the most in danger.

On present form, you’d have to say that Toro Rosso is the better option of the two, but the infrastructure at Sauber is pretty impressive. A big investment may yet be the only thing to save Sauber. The team launched its C1 (Club One) initiative in Canada which is a project to bring in sponsors who do not wish to have big branding on the car, but to remain anonymous. While my colleague Dieter Rencken has written a fascinating piece on this subject on his Daily Grapevine column on autosport.com, I have my doubts over the scheme. Afterall, haven’t we seen this before? Isn’t this simply the Honda earthdreams concept under a different name? Sure, in today’s economic climate big business doesn’t want to be seen to be frittering its money away, but those companies are unlikely to be sponsoring anybody right now anyway – their boards simply wouldn’t allow it. The days of something for nothing just do not exist. If someone, anyone, is putting money into a project, I don’t think anybody can be naive enough to seriously believe that they wouldn’t want an increased public perception of their brand in return. It didn’t work for Honda, so why should it work for Sauber? Perhaps that makes me naive. It’s certainly an interesting debate.

But the Americans may not be the only saviours on the horizon. With Sergio Perez a leading light in GP2 and Esteban Guttierez leading the way in GP3, the racing prospects of the Mexican nation are looking very good indeed. And with one of the world’s richest men, Carlos Slim, known to be interested in F1, could we yet see one of the struggling teams take on a Mexican flavour?

Sauber - problems on and off the track
© http://www.sutton-images.com

When asked about this back in Turkey, the repeated word from a high level source at Sauber was, quite simply, “We have a very good relationship and dialogue with Carlos Slim.” Is this why Guttierez remains under the wing of the team? Could we see a Mexican investment in Sauber? “Sauber Slim” anyone?

The driver market may be pretty well sorted for next season, but that doesn’t mean the news has stopped in Formula 1. There are still a lot of fascinating stories bubbling under the surface, and the next few weeks look set to be really rather intriguing.