F1 to Watch – Alice Powell

Alice Powell - c/o Alice Powell

Time to resurrect a feature I used to write for Formula 1 Magazine back in the day… F1 to Watch. The concept is simple enough: every now and then I’ll bring you a profile or an interview with an up and coming racer who I reckon has something that little bit special. Back in the F1 Mag days our hit rate was pretty good – Alan van de Merwe went on to play a big role at BAR Honda and now drives the FIA Medical car, Ryan Briscoe may never have raced in F1 but has been hugely succesful in the States, Christian Klien got a good run at Jaguar and Red Bull before becoming a tester and then moving to HRT this season, and Tonio Liuzzi went on to smash the F3000 crown and then make his mark in F1.

So to bring this feature back to life, I can’t think of anybody better than the 2010 Formula Renault BARC champion Alice Powell. I first met Alice last year when she was in the middle of her debut single-seater season in Formula Renault UK and I was immediately impressed with her maturity and outstanding racecraft.

She moved from karts into Ginetta Juniors in the winter of 2007, coming fifth in the winter series before taking part in the full Junior championship in 2008 in which she recorded four podium finishes. In 2009 Alice moved into single seaters and the Formula Renault UK championship which launched the careers of the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen, joining the hugely succesful Manor Competition as team-mate to eventual champion Dean Smith.

This season Alice moved across with Manor to Formula Renault BARC and became the first female driver to win not only races but also the championship.

Still aged just 17, Alice Powell has already announced herself to the single seater fraternity and is a talent I can’t wait to see develop and grow over the coming seasons.

Winning at Silverstone c/o Alice Powell

Will Buxton: Congratulations on winning the championship. Talk us through this season.

Alice Powell: At the start of the year I didn’t know if I was racing but we managed to get some money together at the last minute. The season started off well and I was able to keep consistent which I think ended up being the key to the championship. The wins I collected combined with regular podiums is what made the difference.

WB: How much did your experience of the car from the year before help?

AP: It was the same chassis and car just with a restrictor plate, so I think that helped a lot. But I missed out on quite a lot of testing. When I finished the season in 2009 I didn’t step back into the car until March, while all my rivals had been testing every week through the winter. It took me a while at the first round stepping back in. I took two fifths though, and by the next round at Silverstone I made the jump and took pole. The season just rolled from there. It was a great year.

WB: You’ve come to a championship very fast. It was only three years ago that you made your car racing debut in the Ginetta Junior series. Why did you decide to begin your life outside karting in Ginettas rather than Formula Ford or Formula BMW?

AP: It was to learn the circuits mainly. It was on the TOCA package and I went to one of the TOCA rounds in 2007 and I saw what it was about and how much pressure you get, how the TV coverage made up part of the package… and the crowds too, there were loads of people there so that got us excited. So in 2008 I did Ginetta Juniors and I got to learn the tracks, but the step up to Formula Renault in 2008 was huge. I was still 15 so I couldn’t test over the winter and I had a short amount of running before the testing ban came into effect. The biggest lesson was learning about using slicks and wings, jumping from treaded tyres to slicks and trusting how much grip the cars had and how much downforce you have was a big challenge.

But Ginettas are great fun and I managed to do five rounds this year alongside my Formula Renault championship.

WB: 2009 saw you alongside some pretty strong opposition like Dean Stoneman, Lewis Williamson and Dean Smith, guys who have gone on to some good things this year. But they’re all about five years older than you… how did you find it, stepping into Formula Renault, aged 15, getting used to slicks and wings and being that much younger than all your male rivals?

AP: It was tough but I was very lucky to have Dean Smith as my team-mate. It was his third year in Formula Renault and he’d done a year in Formula BMW so I learnt a lot from him. I learnt so much that year from a racing perspective, and I was studying for my GCSEs too, so it was pretty hectic. Racing against those guys though was a great school and we got some great press from getting some good results.

WB: And being with Manor too must have been a big boost – they’re a team that have done it all in Formula Renault and Formula 3 and now of course they have a GP3 and Formula 1 team, too. How much did their experience help you?

AP: They’re a great team and their help was fantastic both in my rookie season in Formula Renault UK and of course this year in Formula Renault BARC. My engineer Sarah and I get on brilliantly and I learn something new from her every single weekend. She’s done Formula Renault since I don’t even know how long and Formula Vauxhall before that so she knows the ins and outs of the car and she’s worked with some great drivers and she was pleased with my performances this year.

WB: So it was only your second season in single seaters, you missed most of pre-season testing and didn’t even know you’d be racing. Could you even have hoped to have been fighting for the title at the start of the year?

AP: In January I wasn’t even thinking about winning a championship. I just wanted to get out and race in whatever I could. When we got the money together and I looked at the competition I thought, ‘Well, these guys have done a hell of a lot of testing so it’s going to be a tough year.’ But once I got the first win under my belt at Silverstone it all turned around. I was second in the championship, 25 points behind, and it sort of stayed like that for most of the season with me chipping away. We got to the final round and I was 16 points behind and I really just got my head down, stayed consistent, kept a cool head and it all paid off.

No, boys don't take getting beaten by a girl at all badly c/o Alice Powell

WB: This is bound to be a question you’re asked a million times, but as a girl in a predominantly male world, how do you find you are treated? When you beat the boys are they a little bit more upset than if a boy had beaten them? When the helmet goes on are you just another racing driver or is there some kind of novelty in the fact you’re a girl?

AP: When I started karting at the age of eight and a half I think I was the only girl in the championship I was in and I remember being very conscious of that. It felt strange. For the first four years of karting I remember still feeling that, much more than I ever have done since switching to cars. Now… now that I’ve won a championship, and even before that, it simply doesn’t play on my mind. I just get on with it… I don’t want to say I’m one of the lads, but you know what I mean. I’m a racing driver. And I’m a champion, so after this year I hope their questions, if they had any, have been answered.

WB: Now, sponsorship and money are crucial in this world. Does the fact you’re a female racer help you at all?

AP: It is definitely a help as some of the companies we speak to will ask how many other girls are in my championship and right now I can tell them I am the only one. It’s a great USP and it can attract them. So from that perspective yes being a girl is something that can help, but it all comes down to results and I’ve got to do the job on track.

WB: Let’s go back to basics then… what got you into motorsport?

AP: Ever since I was young my Grandad used to go to F1 races, and I remember looking out for him in the grandstands. I think that’s when I caught the bug. I used to drive around the garden on my bike pretending I was Michael Schumacher. I’ve always enjoyed it and I guess my family might say the biggest mistake they ever made was taking me to a kart track for the first time. It started as a hobby but now its my life.

WB: So who were your heroes?

AP: When I was younger it was Michael Schumacher. I had a little set of red overalls I’d wear on my bike and a red helmet. I was a huge Schumacher fan.

Alice races for the Virgin F1 affiliated Manor Competition

WB: Now looking to the future, you have a championship under your belt. What is the next step?

AP: Given that there was a new Formula Renault car in 2010 and they’re making some developments on it for 2011, allied to the fact it is on the Touring Car package and has good fan attendance and TV coverage, Formula Renault UK is the aim for the budget I have. After that I would love to move up to GP3, then hopefully GP2.

WB: And that Manor link could be crucial. I mean so many young drivers now depend on teams or backers to pull them through. Sebastian Vettel for example has been nurtured by Red Bull for his entire career. Are you hoping to stick with Manor because there is a link all the way to F1?

AP: I think it is important and I’m sure a lot of people would automatically point at staying with Manor because of the Virgin F1 link, but that’s not the reason. The thing is that Manor are a great team. They are always there for me, be it on track or off track. They give me advice and try to help and they’re always on the end of the phone. Sure the F1 link is great, but the reason that I love racing for Manor is that I feel a part of a family, and it is a family that knows how to win. Again though, you need results above everything else, and with Manor I know I can get results.

WB: So I guess the absolute objective is Formula 1?

AP: Definitely. It sounds, sitting here right now, a long way away but you have got to be positive about it and take it step by step.

WB: And you’re still so young. This year in F1 we saw the youngest ever F1 champion crowned and I was just wondering how much pressure there is on young drivers these days to rise through the ranks so quickly?

AP: I think that young drivers of course aspire to be like Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, but you’ve got to remember how hard they work. It’s not just going to happen for you because you’re young. You have got to work hard in the gym, in debrief working on data… it doesn’t just fall into your lap. But there is a lot of pressure because champions are getting younger. But I do think that is a good thing because it could get more people into the sport. But seeing Jenson Button win the title last year in his late 20s and the fact that after so many years in GP2 Pastor Maldonado has made it to F1 is also really positive. It’s a good time for Formula 1, and hopefully in a few years time I’ll be there too.

F1 bound? Alice Powell is one to watch.

Whitmarsh – FOTA and McLaren willing to help new teams.

Martin Whitmarsh © http://www.sutton-images.com

McLaren’s Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh has pledged that Formula 1 will do all it can to help the sport’s new teams succeed, as the financial and sporting future of at least half of F1′s new entrants looks to be in jeopardy with a matter of days to go until pre-season testing gets underway.

His comments come just a day after Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo reignited the discussion surrounding the provision of customer cars to new teams in order to aid their transition to F1.

“I think we, as McLaren and myself as chairman of FOTA, recognise that we will do all we can to demonstrate that new entrants are possible in F1,” he said at today’s launch of the McLaren MP4-25.

“It is clearly tough for the new teams to come into the sport. We know how difficult it is, with all the experience and resources we have, to be ready for the start of the season. So it must be very difficult for any new team. I don’t think we should apologise for that. F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport and if it was easy for anyone to get out their chequebook and go motor racing at the highest level next year, then we would really not have been working as hard as we should have been as established teams.

“We don’t want any team to fail, we should be doing all that we can within the F1 community. I think FOTA has been a coming-together of all of the teams for the first time in the history of F1. The spirit that exists in F1 is unique now, certainly in my 20 years of experience in the sport. So I think we will do what we can, but ultimately if there are teams that just don’t have the capability or resource or underestimated the task of being at the highest level of motorsport in the world, then some you can help and some you can’t.”

Whitmarsh maintained that McLaren remained open to the possibility of supplying customer cars, but expressed his surprise that none of the new teams, save for the as yet still mysterious Stefan GP, decided to take up the option of buying Toyota’s completed 2010 racer.

“I think philosophically McLaren believes that it is important F1 entrants develop their own cars, however, we are pragmatists and we have demonstrated in the past a willingness to provide customer cars. We remain willing, but I don’t know we are ready to do it quite before Bahrain if a team needs it.

“Ironically quite a lot of these teams had an opportunity to acquire a Toyota chassis. Toyota built two cars that were available from Christmas, and I am rather surprised that some of them did not do that – they rather looked a gift horse in the mouth. That was, perhaps, the wrong decision but nevertheless they had their own reasons for that decision. We have to see in the coming weeks or months whether we can help those new teams to be there to add to the flavour and diversity of F1.”

Wirth rejects “laughable” Brawn sob story

There have been a few internet reports today which have included some words attributed to Virgin Racing’s tech chief Nick Wirth laying into Williams boss Patrick Head at yesterday’s Virgin team launch. Well you’ll be pleased to hear that he didn’t just have a go at poor old Patrick… oh no. He also took time to have a pop at recently crowned 2009 F1 constructors’ champions BrawnGP.

On a day in which Sir Richard Branson had referred to BrawnGP’s 2009 season, in which his Virgin brand logos appeared on the BGP001 cars, as “David versus Goliath,” Wirth could not help but chuckle when I asked if Branson was expecting the same sort of giant killing form from Wirth’s car in 2010.

“I’m laughing because that’s one of the things I find most annoying about last season because it was Goliath versus Goliath. That was the car that had more money and more resources spent on it than any other 2009 car, possibly [more than any F1 car] in history, so it’s an absolute PR coup for them and it’s laughable. They might want to perceive it that way, and believe me they did a magnificent job in surviving and all the stress they went through, and all credit to those guys and Ross and the whole crew, but it was not a David against Goliath story.”

Wirth’s comments reflect opinions voiced during the 2009 season itself by former Honda and early BrawnGP reserve driver Alex Wurz.

“The car was taken in three different directions in the wind tunnel,” he said earlier this year. “Two directions were found to be wrong, so the team could just switch. The Brawn is probably the most expensive car with the lowest operating budget ever.”

The BGP001, which would have been the Honda RA109, benefitted greatly from 18 months of design work undertaken at Leafiled by the Super Aguri F1 Team which had begun in 2007, a year of design work at Honda in Brackley and Tochigi during 2008, and, it is understood, additional work at the Dome base in Maibara, Japan. The double decker diffuser concept, which would prove so pivotal to the success of the BGP001, is believed to have come from either Super Aguri or Dome. At times it has been claimed that anywhere between four and six wind tunnels were in operation, through the various different arms of the development chain, at one time.

Such benefits will not be afforded to Wirth’s Virgin racing car in 2010, which will be the only car on the grid next season designed solely by Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), and without the use of a single wind tunnel.

Virgin Racing to launch Driver Academy

The Virgin Racing 2010 Line-up © Virgin Racing

For me, one of the most interesting things to come out of today’s Virgin Racing launch in London was an admission from some of the team’s leading managers that it was their intention to create an Academy to nurture driver talent for the future.

“We’re hoping to have some kind of Academy that Marc Hynes will be directly responsible for,” Sporting Director John Booth admitted when I quizzed him on the subject. “It probably won’t happen next year [2010] but that’s our direct aim: to develop our own drivers for the future.”

Hynes, who won the British Formula Renault and F3 title with Booth’s Manor squad, has been a driver coach for the Yorkshireman’s outfits for some years and Booth indicated that, while it has yet to be finalised, there is a plan in place for the Virgin brand to extend its reach to the Manor GP3 squad.

Virgin Racing’s new Team Principal Alex Tai confirmed the plans for the racing academy.

“We have got plans to do that,” he replied when I put the question to him and Sir Richard Branson. “We don’t want to announce them now, [as] there’s [already] a shelf load of information that’s being thrown out there. We want to make the sport more accessible and we don’t want to just make it accessible as a sport, as a participant sport, for people who are rich kids. That’s not a democratisation of the sport. We’re looking at ways now to try and open up that to give the ability for drivers from all backgrounds, and from all sexes and from all countries, to be able to access the sport, we want to be able to provide that opportunity. Now this is something that every new team says when they come in to the sport, so before we start talking definitively how we’re going to do it, we’re going to pressure test the system and make sure it works and then we’ll come out with these plans. But this is a young driver academy for both sexes and for all economic backgrounds.”

With Booth seemingly under the impression that the Virgin brand could extend its reach to his new-for-2010 GP3 Manor team, and with Virgin Racing’s testers Alvaro Parente and Luis Razia both admitting today that they were hoping to compete in the 2010 GP2 Series with some form of backing from Virgin, this could be the “pressure test” of which Tai spoke.

It is also worth mentioning that with Durango recently revealed to be out of the 2010 GP2 Series, there will be at least one team slot in GP2 up for grabs for the 2011-2013 championship, which could yet be completed by a Manor/Virgin team if its GP3 plans and link to its 2010 testers pays off. With the Virgin Racing Academy due to come into being in 2011, the timing could be perfect.