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.

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.

Lotus, Lotus, the Beatles and a solution!

I had a lovely relaxing weekend not really thinking much about Formula 1, but instead weeping over the crucifixion of many classic Beatles songs on X Factor on Saturday night. The greatest, most influential band on earth were paid a “tribute” by the supposed up and coming musical talent of the UK which seemed, to me, more like a slap in the face to the genius of Lennon and McCartney.

Of course, the very fact we had a “Beatles week” on X Factor at all was thanks to a marketing campaign around the news that after decades of arguments, it would appear that Apple (the makers of computers, phones and mp3 players) and Apple (a record company established by The Beatles in the 1960s) have finally buried the hatchet as for the first time in history one can now download Beatles songs from itunes. Hoorah!

And it got me thinking, and thus I tweeted: If Apple and Apple have kissed and made up, there’s hope yet for Lotus and Lotus. All you need is love!

And so my mind flipped back to Formula 1… and Lotus.

Autosport.com yesterday carried a fantastic interview with Mike Gascoyne, in which he described himself to be “perplexed” by the entire Team Lotus Vs Group Lotus mess. I, for one, couldn’t agree more.

Gascoyne makes many salient points in the interview, which I heavily suggest you read, but perhaps the one with which I agree the most is the following: “They seem to have announced that they’re going to join every racing series around the world, and the only question is who’s going to pay for it?”

“Because they seem to want to do every racing series that there is, and for a loss-making car company, that seems to be slightly perplexing. But if that’s what they want to do, good luck to them.”

Now I’m not overly fussed over who is going to pay for Group Lotus’ foray into motorsport, but I agree with Gazza in that Group Lotus’ motorsport strategy seems to lack any semblance of structure or sense.

It is as if they’ve just looked at global motorsport and said, “Ooh that looks fun let’s do that. And that looks good too. And that. Yeah, and that too.”

A Lotus? No, that'll be an ART...

And so it is that we now have a bonkers situation in which Group Lotus is due to sponsor Renault in Formula 1 next season, ART in GP2 and GP3 and KV Racing in Indycar. But why? I mean seriously, think about it… what’s the point in all this?

Did anybody give Lotus any credit this year when Takuma Sato ran their colours in Indycar? Did the results show Takuma Sato in a Lotus? No, they showed Sato in a KV Racing car. Next season, when I commentate on GP2 and GP3 will I call the ART team Lotus? No I bloody won’t. Because I don’t call Addax, Barwa. I never called Racing Engineering Fat Burner. So why should I rename ART, with six glorious years of GP2 history and a double championship in GP3 anything other than ART? Why should I suddenly start naming them by their sponsor?

And in Formula 1… when have you ever heard McLaren referred to as Vodafone? Ferrari as Marlboro? Williams as AT&T? So why will anybody call Renault Lotus next year? Simple answer is, they won’t. Quite apart from the fact that the public good will in the paddock surrounding Lotus rests very firmly with Tony Fernandes, I have never known anybody name a team by their sponsor rather than the team name.

I first got an inkling that the Group Lotus strategy was messed up when they announced they’d be sponsoring ART in GP2 and then all the Renault F1 chat began. Because, if Dany Bahar had thought about it, if they went in and invested in Renault F1, they’d get the exposure of a GP2 team for peanuts because DAMS carries the Renault livery in GP2. So they’ve gone and wasted all that investment in ART when they could have had it for a fraction in DAMS. I mean, it is a small thing, but it just shows there’s been very little forethought in what Group Lotus is doing.

Group Lotus has been riding off the back of Team Lotus ever since the Malaysian’s and Proton bought the company and suddenly realised it didn’t include the motor racing arm of the Lotus brand. There’s an excellent website on the history of the subject here.

What I do not understand is why Group Lotus has come in all guns blazing, when it could quite simply and for a fraction of the cost and the hassle, formed an official alliance with Tony Fernandes, Mike Gascoyne and Team Lotus whereby the car building arm of Lotus could have benefitted from what the racing team was doing. What we have right now suits neither.

So are the Malaysians trying to force Fernandes into buying Proton and Group Lotus? Frankly Fernandes isn’t that stupid. He won’t get forced into something he doesn’t want to do. And if that is what they’re trying to do then I can just see Fernandes digging in his heels even harder. He’s a very clever man and a very passionate man, and I think he is going to fight this thing until the bitter end. And I hope he does. Because he’s got huge support. Factor in also that Fernandes has paid an as yet undisclosed sum to David Hunt for the right to use the Team Lotus name next season… money which could have been spent on R&D… money which for a small team is critical.

The history of Team Lotus is the story of innovation and excellence. It is a story of mavericks, of legends and heroes. It is not the story of short cuts or ponying off other people’s work. Simply calling a team Lotus does not make it so.

Lotus Racing showed in 2010 that it was serious about Formula 1, serious about motorsport and serious about the heritage and history of the name that it was proud to carry. It wanted to be appraised on its own merits and make its own way.

That it now stands to lose its name because of some stupid marketing ploy which doesn’t make any sense in the wider world and just makes Group Lotus look petty and bitter, is a huge shame. There are a lot of people in this sport who are more than a little disgusted with the manner in which Group Lotus has approached this entire subject.

But if Bahar and Group Lotus want to go down this path, I have an idea… all Fernandes and his team need to do is to bring in a title sponsor which has a name that is, by some huge coincidence, the same as the name they look set to lose.

Lotus Bakeries in the UK and Lotus sanitary products come instantly to mind. Both logos would look great in gold against a black background as per the JPS stylings the team has said they’ll be forced to adopt next year with Group taking the green and yellow to Enstone. Group Lotus could not claim a naming conflict as neither company is motorsport affiliated. The companies wouldn’t even have to bring any money – simply supply the team with biscuits for their coffees or toilet paper for their motorhome. Lotus gets to call itself Lotus and there’s nothing Group Lotus can do about it.

A silly idea? No more silly and petty than what Group Lotus is doing, and I know which outfit would get the most support for its actions.

Whatever happens next year, I know which team I’ll be calling Lotus.

The Ultimate Experience. Part 2.

I awoke early and stretched out like a starfish in my monster bed which could, quite happily, have slept about seven people. This was most definitely the life. I flicked through the options on my digital remote and tried to turn on the TV, but actually ended up turning up the air con. After five minutes of not being able to figure out how to turn on CNN, I though that it might be a better idea to get a shower.

It was at about two minutes into my shower that I realised something was wrong. Did I usually look at my feet this much? Come to mention it, didn’t I almost walk into the bathroom door because I’d been staring so intently at the floor?

Oh crap. This wasn’t good. I actually couldn’t lift up my head.

Last night’s two-seater ride in the F1 car had really taken its toll on me. My body ached a bit, but my neck… well, my neck was suffering.

I strained my head to look over at today’s itinerary.

I think the expletive that came from my mouth may well have woken up my neighbours. Yep, you guessed it… first thing on today’s list was the physical examination and weight training.

Yes Jules, very clever. Now stop showing me up...

I’ll be honest. I hated the next few hours. Not only were we being put through our paces in physical training, but I was going one on one with the lovely Leone from CNN Abu Dhabi. That’s right. Any contests I failed, I wouldn’t only be faced with the stinging slap of failure, but it would be failure to a girl.

She whooped me. In every… single… test. Bar one! But more on that later.

First up were the weight exercises. Lifting weights up to various heights, holding them there or swinging them round, for most tasks I ended up screaming profanities after 30 seconds and giving up after a minute. Yes I know that sounds pathetic, but I honestly hadn’t done anything resembling physical exercise, save for what resulted in my daughter, for over five years. I had started going running when I knew I’d be going to Abu Dhabi, but a few miles jogging around Chipping Norton was never going to net me the Mr Universe title.

There was a steering wheel with weights attached to it (I fared a bit better on this one), a balance board to show the manoeuvrability of one’s arse (not so much on this one) and then the challenge I’d really been looking forward to. A race helmet, with a rather large weight hanging from it.

On the right side of my head, I managed to hold it up for a minute and a half. And on the left side? Five seconds. Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up. Five seconds. Something in my neck went ping, my head dropped and I literally couldn’t move my head. Leone lasted four minutes. Johnny Herbert nearly pissed his pants when I told him I’d lasted five seconds. It doesn’t take much to make Johnny laugh, but I honestly thought he was going to collapse.

My neck is about to let go with a worrying snap

The one challenge I actually did well on, was the one challenge that all the docs expected me to fail. The lung capacity test. As the only smoker in the group, there was an expectation that I’d be pretty bad at this one, but I had a few secret weapons. One, I’m not a massive smoker. I know that doesn’t make a difference because you’re either a smoker or you’re not, and even as a social smoker you’re still expected to have worse lungs than someone whose breath runs fresher than the air over the Swiss alps. And two, I used to play the trumpet and French horn. Plus I used to be a chorister. I was pretty sure my lung capacity was better than average.

And it was. Buxton scored 128%. That means my lungs are almost a third bigger / stronger / generally better (I don’t know, I’m just making this bit up) than the average chap of my age, weight, height etc.

All in all, a massive result.

With the morning session survived and my neck on the road to recovery it was lunch and then a fun few hours spent on the Playstation simulators running the new F1 2010 computer game. I must admit I’d been very glad when the announcement came along that Codemasters would be making the new game. My favourite PS3 game up to today had been Racedriver Grid (another Codemasters game) and the attention to detail on tracks like Spa and Istanbul had left me breathless, as had the online capabilities and difference in car characteristics.

The F1 game takes the example set by Racedriver Grid and takes it to a new level. If you haven’t played it already, get out there and buy a copy. It is, quite simply, one of the very best computer games I have ever played… although the time trial section is so annoying I stopped playing. If you screw up a lap that lap is scratched. Fine, no worries. But if you cock up again and run wide, your next lap is scratched, too. So I was tootling around waiting to start the next, next lap and I ran wide through Ascari at Monza and up came the message that my next lap wouldn’t count either.

“Well balls to that,” I thought. And I quit. Because that doesn’t even happen in actual F1. “Oh sorry Fernando, you cut the corner so we’re not just going to take away this laptime but your next two as well.” Wouldn’t happen, would it?

Yes, I know it is a game, but games should be fun. The second they’re annoying, they’re not fun.

It’s a great game though. And yes Codemasters, I’d love a free press copy if you’ve got one.

Anyway, back to Abu Dhabi.

We made our way over to the pits and there, sitting in a Radical, I saw Bruno Senna. He was ashen faced. He looked over to me and made a small circle with his forefinger.

“You ok?” I whispered

“My arse,” he whispered back. He looked at his curled up finger… “It’s this tight. I’ve never been so scared in my life.”

Turns out the person, and I will say person in a deliberately vague manner so you can’t guess who he was talking about, had driven slowly, in the middle of the track and then built up speed but had still not figured out how to use the brakes. Or where the racing line was. Bruno had bricked himself. Poor chap.

Mr Senna is about to show me how to drive a Radical

I got into one of the Radicals in the passenger seat and awaited my instructor. And in jumped Bruno! Wow! Well this was a turn up for the books. Last night he’d driven me in the F1 car and now I’d have the honour of him instructing me.

We took a quick lap of the track together and then it was my turn.

“I’ve got to say I’m a bit nervous mate,” I told him before we left.

“Just remember you’ve got nothing to prove. Just go out there and give it your best, but only go as fast as you feel comfortable. There’s nobody to beat.”

And with that, we were off. The Radical felt like it had the power of the Aston Martin and the weight of the go kart. The brakes had no ABS and there was no traction control though, unlike in the Aston. A quick squeeze of the throttle showed she was a feisty little minx, too.

Lap after lap, I increased the speed. Bruno’s hand signals were clear and minimal. Be it pointing to the rev counter to show where I needed to be changing gear to avoid short shifting, telling me to go flat, to brake harder, to use less kerb, I had no problem understanding his gestures… especially the one that said “Back off at that corner you nut bar.”

After three laps I was flat on the straight and braking at the 100 metre board. I kept it flat in fourth through the double right at which I’d lost it the day before in the Aston. And I backed off at the corner Bruno had asked me to. With each lap it felt as though we were carrying more speed through the corners, as though the lines were getting cleaner and the rhythm was coming with ease. I was having a ball. And then the chequered flag fell.

We removed our helmets and Bruno shook my hand.

“How was it?” I asked. “And be honest.”

“Honestly? I was really worried when you told me you were nervous… because that made me nervous. But you had no need to be. That was really good. I’m actually quite impressed. With some work and some practice, there’s no reason why you couldn’t be OK.”

“Seriously? I mean, seriously?”

“Seriously. You know me. I find it very difficult to bullshit people. It was good. Apart from that corner where I asked you to back off. There I got a bit scared. I felt you were on the limit and even though you were in control, if you’d gone over the limit I was the one closest to the wall.”

“Fair point. Thank you, it means a lot to hear that from you.”

Formula Yas, here we go. The closest I'm gonna get to driving GP2.

And with those words ringing in my ears, and a stupid grin plastered across my face, it was time for the final drive of the two day experience. The Formula Yas F3000 cars. To be honest they look more like first generation GP2 cars than F3000 cars and with flappy paddle gearshift instead of the old F3000 style stick shift that Alan van der Merwe and Tonio Liuzzi and told me to expect, I was massively excited about this one.

Bruno told me that the Formula Yas cars reacted almost identically to the Radicals, so just to do exactly what I’d just done with him and I’d be fine.

I lowered myself in, pulled my straps tight and stretched my gloves over my hands. Gripping the steering wheel I looked left and right. A marshal pointed at me and I hit my ignition button, blipped the throttle, engaged first gear, brought the revs up to 3000 and lifted the clutch. Away we went. No stalling, my confidence was high.

I followed Johnny Herbert down the pits and waited for Nabil and Sanjeev to catch up. Down the hill, into the unbelievably tight left hander under the tunnel and then up the hill and out of the pits, for the first time I was out on the Yas Marina circuit, in a single seater under my own steam… and it felt great.

With each lap we upped the pace, and as I swerved all over Johnny’s rear wing I egged him on to go faster. Coming through a chicane the back end stepped out on me as I took too much kerb, but I planted the throttle, gave it a dab of oppo, and shot off back under Johnny’s rear wing. On the straight I got that wonderful feeling of my helmet being pulled up again, just as I had in the F1 car, but this time when the brakes went on I was ready for it. When I turned in to the high speed corners, I knew which way to lean. I knew what was coming, and I was in control.

All of my physical worries were gone. I was just loving this too much.

But once again, it was all over too soon.

I pulled the 3000 into the pits and jumped out, thanking everyone I could find. Johnny walked over and I hugged him.

“You’re slow old man,” I grinned?

“Slow? I was waiting for you to pass me, or at least put a move on me to tell me to go faster.”

“We weren’t allowed to pass. I thought sticking my nose up the inside of you was warning enough.”

“I never saw you. Are you sure you did that? Don’t remember. You must have been too slow. How’s your neck?”

“Shut up Johnny.”

We were still laughing when we arrived for the farewell bbq that night by the marina. I honestly don’t think anybody wanted to go home, but like all dreams it had to come to an end at some point. Everybody had experienced something new. Whether it was Rod who’d swapped a dragster for a single seater, or the F1 boys who’d got to sit in a dragster, the competition winners who’d had two days they would never forget or the F1 media who had suddenly been given the most incredible insight into the sport they cover… everyone came away with stories they’ll be telling forever.

For me the whole experience was unforgettable, but one of the biggest highlights came one week later in the Japanese Grand Prix paddock in Suzuka. I was in the media centre, and three Brazilian journalists came up to see me. They told me that they’d just come from Bruno Senna’s Brazilian media time and that they’d started talking about his time in Abu Dhabi.

“And you know what? He mentioned you. We didn’t ask him or prompt him to tell us anything, and he just came out and said, ‘You know who could race if he wanted to? Will Buxton. He impressed me.’”

I’ll be talking about those two days for a long time. But I’ll be dining out on that quote forever.

What an incredible experience. What an incredible track. What an incredible opportunity.

Now, if I can just find half a million dollars, maybe I should give Colin Kolles a call about that second HRT seat alongside Bruno for Abu Dhabi…

Bruno and his Abu Dhabi HRT team-mate... if I can find the cash.

All images c/o Darren Heath

The Ultimate Experience. Part 1.

The Yas Hotel - Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi

It was a pretty exceptional invitation: normal bloke to racing driver in 48 hours. Come to Abu Dhabi, flights and hotels paid. We’ll pick you up from the airport, put you up in the Yas Circuit Hotel (yes, the one that spans the track) and for the next two days you will be a racing driver. We’ll train you mentally, physically and we’ll put you in some exceptional racing cars with tuition from F1 drivers past, present and future.

You just don’t say no to something like that.

And so it was that, immediately after the Singapore Grand Prix, I flew to Abu Dhabi for two of the most amazing days of my life.

On arrival in my palatial room at the Yas Hotel, there was a bag waiting on the desk. In it sat a pair of Puma racing boots and gloves in my size, an itinerary, a welcoming letter and a disclaimer to sign in case I nerfed myself into a wall.

After a restful night’s sleep, I met up with my colleagues and friends for breakfast, where we were told how the two days was going to pan out.

First up for me was a morning of mental training with Dr Riccardo Ceccarelli, head of Formula Medicine and Robert Kubica’s personal trainer. The tests were tough. All based around a computer programme created by Formula Medicine, we would have our reaction times, concentration and memory put through their paces. Then we’d learn breathing techniques to calm us and focus the brain, before being put through the challenges once again.

Hot Rod Fuller blitzes the reaction tests. Well he would, wouldn't he.

I impressed with my concentration. Kubica has the record of 100% on this challenge, but I achieved 92% on my first try and 96% on my second. The good Doctor seemed impressed, as he did when I underwent a resting heart rate challenge. I scored an average of 60 beats a minute, which I then lowered under pressure to average under 57.

“Are you sure you’re not a racing driver?”

“No,” I replied. “I trained for this in Burger King yesterday, I had a few beers on the plane and I’ve already had a few cigarettes today.”

Unfortunately I failed almost all the other tests. Shockingly, and as my wife will attest, my memory is appalling.

From there, it was off to lunch, again prepared by Formula Medicine to provide exactly the correct levels of nutrients and vitamins a racing driver requires. A fillet steak, steamed vegetables, cheese and a banana. Healthy, but tasty too.

The afternoon of day one saw us in two different cars. First up for me was an Aston Martin GT4. And to show me how to drive it and where to go on the track? None other than Jean Alesi.

And I will tell you this much. He. Is. Bonkers.

Buxton gets the pedal to the metal... and almost ends up in the hotel.

So bonkers, in fact, that when I went out myself in the car, my instructor was most alarmed that I kept putting all four wheels over the kerbs and jumping them into the heavy braking zones.

“What are you doing? All four wheels on the track always.”

“I’m just doing what Alesi told me to do.”

“Fucking Alesi. Everybody he’s taught this morning says the same thing,” he grinned, through gritted teeth.

I must admit that I did have a massive moment coming up towards the hotel. I’d been carrying about 160kph through the double right hander on each of my previous laps, but on this lap I missed the first apex and was carrying about an extra 5kph. Having missed the first apex, I was miles from the second and was pulled over the kerbs and onto the painted blue lines on the run off. I hit the brakes and… nothing. The car just carried on going. With the shiny surface of the paint being compounded by the dust, there was just no grip. We stopped just in time before hitting the barrier.

“Everything OK?” my instructor asked.

“Fine, I just fancied a drink at the hotel bar,” I smiled.

Phew.

Next up, go karts. We had Jules Bianchi, among others, showing us the ropes and having commentated on his driving all season in GP2 it was great to get out on a track with him. There was a big tyre chicane on the main straight which I tactically shunted with the rear of the kart on the first lap of the qualifying session to open it up a bit and basically allow us to straight line it without lifting. But it was still tight. Side by side wasn’t going to work.

I was dropped a place on the grid for doing that, which meant I started the race third behind Sanjeev from Star Sports and one pole, Nabil Jeffri who a few weeks previously had become the youngest driver to test an F1 car when he drove for Lotus.

At the start, Nabil slowed to the back of the pack to fight with Bianchi and the pros including karting superstar Aaro Vainio (watch out for him), and by the time we reached the chicane they were all over us. On the second lap, it started to get messy. When I told you two karts side by side into the chicane wasn’t going to work… imagine five of us. Tyres went everywhere. The chicane was no more.

Sanjeev and I had a great tussle until he ruthlessly punted me in my right rear and sent me spinning. I lost half a lap, and the red mist descended. Whatever else happened in this race, he was mine.

And I got him. On the penultimate lap. Exactly where he’d nerfed me. I preferred a wider line into the first corner, while he took it very tight. So on the exit of the final corner I pulled up alongside him, taking his preferred line but trying to carry my speed from the wider line. I held it… just, but Sanjeev’s heavy braking into the corner meant he couldn’t get on the power early enough to take the position back when I ran slightly wide on the exit.

Nabil won, of course. I was second. Sanjeev came home third.

And that was it for us from a driving point of view on day one, but it wasn’t the end of the fun.

Hot Rod Fuller tears it up on the drag strip

First up we were driven to the Yas Marina drag strip to meet Hot Rod Fuller. Rod recognised me from SPEED and said he was a fan, which made me blush a bit as he’s a total legend in Top Fuel drag racing. He showed us his car. And it had two passenger seats.

1000 horsepower, tyres almost taller than me. We’d hit a quarter mile in around 5 seconds.

The Yas three seat dragster is a stunning piece of kit. By far the coolest thing for me was that our cockpits were just like Rod’s. Pedals, steering wheel, buttons, dials… the works. It really felt like we were driving. But when those lights went out, I was so glad I wasn’t.

For the first 1-2 second your brain just completely bricks itself. It hasn’t got a clue what to do. The world is coming at you so fast that it cannot take it all in and instead you just see a blur of colour and light… think about it like hitting warp speed in a sci fi movie.

It was an insane rush, and one which even the F1 drivers loved as it was such a new experience.

“You think that’s fast?” Rod smiled. “You should try my Top Fuel car. That baby’s got 8000 horsepower. We’ll hit 400kph in four seconds easy in her.”

As if that wasn’t enough, we’re then transported back to the race track, where the distinctive and familiar sound of an F1 car screaming around the place greets our arrival.

It pulls into the pits, the passenger gets out and the driver beckons me over.

“I’m glad you got here mate. Listen, I’ve only got another two runs left and I want to take you out. Tell them I want you next.”

I did as I was told, pulled on my helmet and got strapped in.

The red glove lifts out of the cockpit and swirls a finger in the air. The engine fires up and the car is lowered onto the ground. My feet and legs are pushed into the driver’s side. He reaches down and pats my leg, and we’re off.

As we exit the garage he leans his head to the side and the yellow, green and blue of Bruno Senna’s helmet become visible for the first and pretty much only time in the next three minutes.

Off we go! F1 2 seater action with Mr Senna

I’d been in a two seater F1 car before, with Alan van der Merwe in Kylami back in 2004, but this ride just felt so ferocious. My residing memory of Kylami was the mineshaft, but here in Abu Dhabi the lap felt much longer and much, much more brutal.

Down the long straight your helmet feels as though it is being lifted off your head, and as Bruno hit the brakes I nearly headbutted the retaining piece of carbon fibre between us. Your body is pushed down into the seat before your head is thrown to the side as he flicks left, then right and then back on the power. The acceleration is intense, but the braking and in particular the high speed cornering just blows you away.

At one point I think I’m going to faint. At quite a few others I feel as if I’m going to be sick.

But we get back to the pits after two laps, and I am buzzing.

“How was that?” Bruno asks.

“I’m lost for words mate. It was amazing and horrible all at once.”

“I really wanted to show you how violent it is inside these cars, to give you a proper understanding of what it takes. And you need to remember that this two seater probably isn’t as fast as a GP2 Asia car, let alone an F1 car.”

“Wow. You have to do that, for 70 laps, and keep one eye in your mirror all the time to let the other guys through? Hats off to you mate. I genuinely don’t know how you do it.”

“It’s fun though isn’t it.”

“It’s something else. It really is.”

One hell of a ride! Bruno is calm. Buxton is completely wired!

Aching, sore but elated, I returned to the hotel and watched as Jean Alesi and a certain Mr Herbert took over chauffeur duties in the two seater. Dinner was being served soon, but nobody lasted very long. We were all too tired.

I went to bed that night with a brand new appreciation for what these guys do. I’d always valued the job that they do and for me the men I get to report on, write about and spend time with have always been my heroes. But after experiencing at first hand the ferocity of what they go through corner after corner, lap after lap, I had an even greater level of respect for them.

With another day of driving and training left to come I honestly didn’t think the experience could get any better.

But I was about to proved wrong.

All Photos c/o Darren Heath, with the exception of the first (Sutton Images) and last (Will Buxton)

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.

The GP2 Season Preview

Jules Bianchi - championship favourite for 2010?
c/o GP2 Media Service

With the sixth season of GP2 set to kick off this weekend, I’m naturally very bloody excited as I’ll be doing the world feed commentary again. Love it! Anyway, here’s a little something I jotted down for this week’s issue of GPWeek… enjoy!

This year marks the sixth season for the GP2 Series and the final year of the championship’s second generation. It’s a last hurrah for the GP2/08 car and the last year for the championship on Bridgestone tyres before the changes are wrung for the launch of the GP2/11 next season. But the championship remains as relevant to F1 as ever, in 2010 providing all six rookies in the pinnacle of global single-seater competition.

For the final year of its second generation, GP2 is down to the 24 car starting grid which it ran in its inaugural season due to the very public financial issues suffered by the Durango team. Although GP2 Asia team Meritus looked ready and willing to take Durango’s space, GP2 thought it better to ride out one season with a slightly depleted field before opening the whole thing up to tender for the start of generation three in 2011.

But of those that remain there is real strength in depth. Reigning champions ART will be hoping for back-to-back titles as F3 EuroSeries champ Jules Bianchi hopes to follow in the footsteps of Nico Hulkenberg and Lewis Hamilton and follow up his F3 success with immediate GP2 championship glory. But he won’t have it easy. iSport and their line-up of Valsecchi and Turvey look to be the team to beat after GP2 Asia. While Bianchi looked ragged and impetuous at times, Valsecchi seems to have matured well and Turvey appears to have a level head on his shoulders.

Van der Garde and Perez form a potent line-up at Addax, and the Mexican may well enter the title battle if he can get a decent run of results going. For Van der Garde, as for fellow elder statesman Pastor Maldonado at Rapax, it’s a return to the last chance saloon: championship or bust this season. Without the title it’s a season of GTs on the horizon. Even with the crown, F1 now looks a distant dream for them both.

Others to watch out for? Charles Pic was without doubt the unexpected stand out of the GP2 Asia season, and it will be interesting to see how the Renault F1 re-branded Dams team fares without its longtime leader Eric Boullier.

On the whole, it looks like it could be a classic season. Bianchi enters the fray as the drivers’ favourite, but the man under the most pressure to perform. How he handles that pressure, and how his rivals go about mounting a challenge to his assumed championship run, will form the making or breaking of GP2’s sixth season of competition.

ART Grand Prix
1. Jules Bianchi
2. Sam Bird

Five seasons down, and with three drivers champions and three team championships to their name it’s fair to say there hasn’t been another team to hold a candle to the consistency of ART in GP2 history. But this year, above perhaps all others, there is a feeling that the championship really is a must. The arrival of Jules Bianchi has ramped up the pressure on ART as he isn’t just the reigning F3 EuroSeries champ, but the favoured protégé of team boss Nicolas Todt. Bianchi is quick, no doubt, but his Asia performances were often wild and he will need to rise above his eagerness to impress. Sam Bird meanwhile is an odd one: quick in qualifying, but falls apart all too often in race trim. Both need to add consistency to speed.

Barwa Addax Team
3. Giedo van der Garde
4. Sergio Perez

The team formerly known as Campos had a rocking and rocky 2009 as first Romain Grosjean and then Vitaly Petrov took charge of the squad and pulled it into a well-fought championship battle against ART. Repeating that feat in 2010 and going one better to grab the crown is undoubtedly the order of the day, as is evidenced by the squad’s strong line-up of two experienced drivers. The team leader role however may fall to the younger Perez, who has been desperately impressive in his GP2 career to date and who gelled so well with Addax in his Asia campaigns. Van der Garde meanwhile made heavy work of his 2009 season with iSport in a clearly quick car. He took wins, but not as many as he should have done. He’ll need to up his game big time if he wants to fight for the title.

Super Nova Racing
5. Josef Kral
6. Marcus Ericsson

A massively risky move for Super Nova, who in 2010 take on two rookies after the decision to run two experienced drivers in 2009 gave the squad its highest placing since the very first GP2 season in 2005. Kral and Ericsson both had their moments in Asia, but rather than giving them time to gel, the team issued a statement mid-season to state it was replacing Ericsson with Jake Rosenzweig to try and improve its results. Although it later clarified that Ericsson was only ever intended to run in Abu Dhabi, Super Nova would have done better to have kept both rookies in the car for the full Asia season. Both drivers have potential, but top three in the teams championship may be an unrealistic expectation for drivers in their first year.

Fat Burner Racing Engineering
7. Dani Clos
8. Christian Vietoris

Racing Engineering struggled with tyre wear in 2009, which was odd given that the team’s lead driver, Lucas di Grassi, was not only one of the smoothest and most consistent drivers ever to race in GP2, but because he had also carried out a large majority of the GP2/08’s development work. That di Grassi couldn’t fight for the title will leave Racing Engineering wondering what chances it has in 2010, but it has brought Dani Clos back for a second season and that parity (one of only four drivers to stay put from 2009) could pay dividends. Vietoris looked quick in GP2 Asia, winning early on, but he also looked impulsive and took himself out of too many races in his eagerness to lap backmarkers.

iSport International
9. Oliver Turvey
10. Davide Valsecchi

As GP2 reaches the end of its second generation, could we be about to see a repeat of the final season of the first three-year generation when iSport made good on its solid first two seasons to dominate and take the double crown? Its GP2 Asia form marks it out as the definite favourite, but when one considers how competitive Dams looked in the 2009 Asia series only to be left behind in the main series, Asia should not be taken as the firmest indication of form. Valsecchi and Turvey however do form a strong partnership and iSport has reported one of the best working relationships since they ran Glock to the title. Valsecchi is now one of the most experienced drivers in the field, and the championship is his sole aim. Turvey meanwhile is a quick learner and will push his team-mate all season. Confidence is high within the team that this is iSport’s year.

Renault F1 Junior Team
11. Jerome d’Ambrosio
12. Ho Pin Tung

Dams gets a new name and a new lease of life after what turned out to be a hugely disappointing season in 2009. After dominating the preceding Asia series, neither Kobayashi nor d’Ambrosio could mount a championship challenge last year and the team slipped off the radar. The Belgian remains with the team this season, as Dams is renamed the “Renault F1 Junior Team” and runs in the famous yellow and black of the F1 team. D’Ambrosio, like team-mate Tung, is part of the Gravity driver line-up, and are Renault F1 reserve drivers. Ironically though, while all this looks very positive, Renault has taken one of Dams’ strongest assets in Eric Boullier. Dams’ former team manager now fills that role at Renault and as F1 witnesses his handiwork in RF1’s competitive turnaround, one wonders the negative effects his departure might have on the GP2 team.

Rapax Team
14. Luiz Razia
15. Pastor Maldonado

The team formerly known as PiquetGP aims to get its GP2 aspirations back on track by signing up one of the out and out fastest drivers on the GP2 open market. Pastor Maldonado may have his detractors and he may still cut a controversial figure for his, shall we say, questionable racecraft, but on his day there are few out there who can drive as fast, particularly in Monaco. Razia scored a win last year and has been snapped up by Virgin F1 as their third driver. Both drivers are experienced, but there’s a nagging doubt that either has the consistency to mount a title run.

Arden International
16. Charles Pic
17. TBA (Rodolfo Gonzales likely)

After yet another season in which early promise ultimately came to naught, Arden International’s ultimate boss Christian Horner bit the bullet at the end of 2009 and parted company with his long time technical chief Mick Cook. The results were instant. Charles Pic’s pole position in Abu Dhabi was Arden’s first since 2005. With a young team of engineers led by Campbell Hobson, Arden has a new direction and a new feeling of confidence in itself and its new driver. Pic could yet be the dark horse of the season. He impressed hugely in Asia, and it will be fascinating to see how he fares in the big league. With Arden back in its traditional F3000 livery, there’s a real feeling that 2010 could see a return to the old days of regular race wins and fighting for championships.

Ocean Racing Technology
18. Max Chilton
19. Fabio Leimer

Ocean hit the ground running in 2009, as the replacement for the disappointing BCN squad which currently resides in history as the only GP2 team to never have won a race. Chandhok so nearly won for Ocean in Monaco, but it was in Spa last year that things really turned around when Parente took the team’s first pole and followed it up with a dominant race win. For a team in its first season, getting a victory was a huge effort and the Portuguese outfit under the leadership of former F1 driver Tiago Monteiro quickly established itself as a team to watch. For 2010 they’ve opted for the risky two-rookie line-up. Both are young and will be on a steep learning curve but Leimer has form. Don’t underestimate these boys. They won’t win the title but could grab some podiums later in the year.

PPR.com Scuderia Coloni
20. Alberto Valerio
21. Vladimir Arabadziev

Every year you want to say something good about this team, but every year you end up struggling. The component parts have been there for some time, but the constant changes that have affected team management have always seemed to affect ultimate competitiveness. With Zanarini and Fisichella now firmly out of the picture, the return of the Coloni name to the squad for a full season should give the team its core pride back, and Paolo Coloni and Dino Luisso will want to get back to the successful F3000 and GP2 days of old. With Valerio as lead driver that won’t be easy. He’s a lovely bloke but an accident waiting to happen on track. Yes he got a win last year, but his errors are far too frequent. His team-mate however is the promising Bulgarian Vlado Arabadziev. Already a race winner in AutoGP in 2010, keep an eye on this kid.

Trident Racing
22. Johnny Cecotto Jr.
23. TBA (Adrian Zaugg likely)

Second from bottom was not in the game plan for Trident Racing in 2009, especially as the position gave them the unenviable place at the bottom of the pile of pride for Italian teams (with the obvious exception of Durango which failed to make the end of the season and will not race in 2010.) The Asia series this year was notable not for any major success, but more for the team’s choice to run 39-year old Plamen Kralev who was, quite frankly, an embarrassment. One hopes the money he ploughed into the team will allow it to take on more worthy drivers with slightly smaller wallets in 2010, and the team’s choice of Johnny Cecotto Jr is a sound one. He’s young, hungry and has promise but he will need a more experienced team-mate to show him the way and help Trident regain its form.

DPR
24. Michael Herck
25. Giacomo Ricci

Never thought we’d be saying this but DPR was one of the stand out teams of this winter’s GP2 Asia Series. There were those within the paddock who cruelly likened their success to filling a room with monkeys and typewriters. Give them long enough, so their detractors said, and they’d write Shakespeare. Others said there simply wasn’t the quality in the Asia field this winter. But in the cold light of day, it now seems clear that all it boils down to DPR actually doing a pretty good job. That the team is still called DPR grates many, as there is nothing about the team that has anything in common with Dave Price’s outfit, and one hopes that if the team survives the selection process for 2011 it will be renamed. For 2010, Herck is still error prone but improving with every race, while Ricci really came of age over the winter. Championship contenders? No. Race winners? Incredibly, DPR might just be.