Florida Winter Stories – Part 2

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Monday morning arrived along with a fair amount of trepidation and excitement. This was the day when I’d get to measure myself against some of the best young racing talent in the world. Although to be honest that thought could not have been further from my mind. My engineer Mario and I had fairly clear objectives for my first ever competitive session. Get out there, learn the track and make the most of the time. The practice day was split into three one-hour sessions, one fewer than the four hours allotted at the first event, as the tight ship run by Rene and Prema meant that the faultless running of the cars had seen higher mileage than anticipated. Even three hours though is an insane amount of time. When you think about it, that’s the equivalent of half a season of GP2 practice. It should have been ample time to learn and improve.

The Formula Abarth I would be driving is a good little car. Sequential gear shift lever by your right knee, six speed Sadev gearbox, 1.4l turbo FOT 414TF engine with 190hp, adjustable front and rear wings, Hankook tyres, and all constructed to FIA F3 safety standards. The only questionable part was the soft squishy bit between the engine and the front wheels.

The proper drivers were up to speed quickly, lapping in the 1m15s and soon into the 1m14s on the 2 mile Palm Beach International Raceway. I was nowhere near. Im30s were my opening gambit as I tried to take in my surroundings and not get in anyone’s way. Through the tricky first two corners I saw two cars bearing down on me, I looked in my mirrors and before I knew it felt the front left go as I spun off track. I’d taken too much kerb and run onto the grass. Firing the engine back up I brought the car back to the pits. I felt like an idiot. It wouldn’t be my final spin of the weekend, but it had cost me time and confidence and most negatively of all, although I didn’t realise it until much later, I would be tentative towards the kerbs for the rest of the weekend.

I was soon dipping under the 1m30s, but my consistency was nowhere near good enough as I struggled to maintain regular braking and corner speed. That said, the laptimes did start to come down. My penultimate run saw a relatively steady stream of 1m26, 25 and 24s. And with my very last effort, I dipped down to a 1m22.565, my best of FP1. After 18 laps, my best time was 8.485 off the session leading time of Antonio Fuoco, a 1m14.080. It wasn’t great but it was a start.

Lance and I c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

Lance and I
c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

After each session, Lance would sit with me briefly and ask how my session had gone and advise on where I could find some time. After FP1 he handed me a tip that served me impeccably.

“Have you got a tinted visor?”

“Absolutely,” I said.

“Use it, man. The glare out there is so bad, you’ll tidy right up with it.”

And so I did.

I sat with Mario as he overlayed Lance’s lap with mine to give me an idea of how much later I could be braking, and even how I could change my style of braking. I was hitting the brakes early and with about three quarters of the pressure of Lance, pressing on them and then coming off almost completely in a square shape. I was holding a slightly higher minimum speed in the corner, but only because I was squaring the corners off and gurgling around them for far longer before getting back on the power. I was losing at least a second a corner with my technique. The idea was to brake later with an immediate hit, then graduate off, bringing the throttle back in as soon as possible.

I started acting on the new objectives in the second session, focusing on the left right sequence of Turns 1 and 2, and the final long right hander. Franz and Mario had told me to only ever think about two points for improvement, as trying to improve everything at once would not work. Pick two places to improve, and when we’ve got them nailed, we can move onto two more. Small steps, but crucial steps.

Practice Day c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

Practice Day
c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

I started to gain confidence in the car and with my braking, and the laptimes soon started to drop. I spun on the exit of the final corner by getting the power down too early. I spun at Turn 1 when I got on the brakes too late and shifted down to second instead of third gear, locking the rears. But with each screw up I was learning what not to do as much as what to do, and most importantly I had kept it out of the walls.

By now I was starting to feel far better with the car and with the track. So far we’d been running on old tyres and my slightly incorrect lines in the corners, coupled with trying to keep out of everyone’s way, had only added to the amount of pickup on them. The vibration on the straights from the old and now flat spotted tyres was insane, to the point where trying to decipher between the 3 and the 2 markers at the end of the back straight became almost impossible.

My best lap of FP2 was a 1m19.603, just under three seconds faster than FP1. But it was set on my 8th lap of the 25 I had completed in the hour. It put me 5.685 off Ed Jones’ session topping time of 1:13.918. I was happy to see that my improvement was real, as the overall fastest laptime had only improved by a tenth of a second. I still had a long way to go. But I had a set of fresh tyres to help me out and a final hour of practice.

I sat down at lunch, and a heavy rain shower drenched the track. Conditions were going to be more like Snetterton than Sebring. But being Florida, the sun was soon out and the final practice session began on a damp but drying track. I went out early on wets, completed my outlap and, with the car feeling great underneath me, started pushing on my first flyer.

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My gear changes had felt clunky all day, but having never driven a car like this before I had no idea if that was how they were supposed to feel of not. I was about to get my answer. Coming out of Turn 4, shifting from third to fourth gear, my right foot went flat, the revs screamed and the car started to slow. I looked at the dash. Fourth gear was engaged. I tried the throttle again. Screaming revs but no drive. I shifted down to third. Still no drive. Second… nothing. First… nothing. I pulled offline, high into T5 and got on the radio to Mario.

“No drive,” I said, as calmly as I could.

“What do you mean, William?” came the reply.

“I mean I’ve got nothing. No drive. I’m high in Turn 5. The car is in neutral and in one piece.”

“OK William, sit in the car, they will bring you back.”

The huge truck turned up and attached the metal cable to the rollhoop. I sat behind it as it dragged me back to the pits, wondering if it was something I had done wrong. I felt like Taki Inoue being pulled around Monaco, waiting for Jean Ragnotti to drive into me. I stopped at my box, clambered out and explained everything that had happened. My day was over. And crucially, I’d lost an hour in which I had hoped to make the greatest leap forward with my driving and competitive laptimes.

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I debriefed with Mario. Unsurprisingly, it was pretty quick. So we worked out our strategy for the second day. It was supposed to begin with two half hour qualifying sessions but you had to fuel your car for both sessions at the start of the day. No refueling is permitted between Q1 and Q2. As such we decided we would use the first session as practice with two six lap runs. Then we would use the second qualifying session as more of a qualifying session. At least we would if I was allowed to take part. I still hadn’t spoken to Luca.

I walked back to the garage and asked Paolo and the boys working on my car if there was anything I could do. They smiled and said no. Hell, I was having a tough enough time getting a competitive lap out of the thing, let alone taking it apart. I went and got the boys some chocolate and a few bottles of coke and went back to watch lap videos with Mario and look over the data.

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The day finished, as every day finished, with a classroom session in which the two best laps of the day were run side by side so that everybody could get an idea of how the fastest drivers were attacking the track. I sat there in wonder, looking at how late the guys were braking, how late they were turning in and how fast they were taking the quick stuff, especially Turn 5. But rather than being disheartening, it told me that it could be done. I could brake later, I could take more speed through. The car could do it. The proof was there, on screen and in the data. I just had to believe and trust that it was going to do what I asked of it. And then pray my talent didn’t run out.

We finished the debrief and I saw Luca. I told him of our plans for qualifying. He smiled and said it was the best idea to run that way, and he was sorry to see me miss the final practice session. I’d improved by three seconds between FP1 and FP2 and he’d been looking forward to seeing me improve again. That was that. Not even a question over qualifying. It was happening.

“Oh and Will,” he called back to me. “At the end of the second qualifying we will give you two practice starts so that you will be OK for the race.”

“OK Luca. Thank you.”

That was that. I was racing.

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I made my way back out to the garage to see the boys. They smiled at me.

“What was it?” I asked.

“Primary shaft. It snapped in two pieces. It just happened. Not your fault.”

I went to bed that night feeling a range of emotions. In the first instance I was frustrated. That last hour of practice could have made a huge difference on a day when my learning curve had been set on an incredibly steep gradient. I was relieved not to have dinged the car and that the drive issue wasn’t of my making. I was annoyed that I wasn’t faster. I was relieved that Luca had seen enough to believe I would make a considerable step the next day and was competent enough to race.

Exhilarated and exhausted, I stood in the shower before bed, letting the day wash over me. I started laughing to myself. Uncontrollably.

Tomorrow I would be starting my first ever race. In a bright red car. A bright red car with a prancing horse on it. Whatever dreams were due to come my way that night, my realities were going to take some beating.

Practice Day c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

Practice Day
c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

Coming up in Part 3 – From lights to flag. Things get serious in Florida. CLICK HERE

Florida Winter Stories – Part 1

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The first two lights illuminate in the gantry over the start line. As the third red beam flicks on, the engine notes rise around me. With the fourth light the vibrations begin, rattling the car and me inside it. By the fifth my sight is becoming blurred, my eyes moist as my focus tightens on the spots of red, and on them alone. The lights hold. I draw in a steady stream of air and hold my breath. My hand tightens its grip around the wheel. It is the calmest I’ve felt all week.

The lights extinguish, my left foot leaps from the clutch, the rear tyres squeal and squelch around for grip and I’m off, past the white car in front and to the right of me and tucking under the wing of the blue car in front.

For the first time in my life, I’m watching a race from inside the cockpit. And what’s even more astonishing… is that I’m completely silent.

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This whole story began at the Indian Grand Prix last year when Ferrari’s chief of F1 PR Renato Bisignani explained to me his team’s concept for a new winter racing series. It was due to take place in the United States in early 2014. Would NBC Sports be interested? I said I couldn’t see why they wouldn’t be, and thereafter I may have made a little joke that I’d just passed my race license so if there was any way they could jump me into one of the cars I’d be pretty OK with that. Well, if you don’t ask…

Fast forward to the first week of the year, and a phonecall from Renato. He’d been talking to NBC Sports’ Motorsport Producer and my boss Rich O Connor about the winter series, and asked which race I would be interested in. I looked at my dates and figured that the second race event in Palm Beach made the most sense. Renato agreed. We ended the conversation and I went about my day, looking forward to getting out to the States to report on some of the world’s best up-and-coming young racing talent.

And then it dawned on me. And I had to call Renato back. Just to be sure.

What followed was me joining a gym, getting a personal trainer and then actually going to the place every, single, day. I had last set foot inside such an establishment in 2006 when I had joined the one under the GP2 offices in Geneva. I had attended said gym precisely twice during my annual membership. But now I had a focus and a goal. And a desperately unhealthy Christmas of red wine and cheese to get over. OK, an unhealthy past decade would be a fairer description. My diet changed immediately and so too did my shape, my strength and my stamina. James, my PT, pushed me every day. We worked on core strength, arms, legs, neck, balance and reactions. And so, after an intense month, I left for Florida in arguably the best shape of my almost 33 years on this planet.

Autosport’s Ben Anderson had contested the first Round of the 2014 Ferrari Florida Winter Series at Sebring, and I had watched every session online with great interest. Ben is a good racer with a lot of experience in British Formula Ford. He fared well against the field on a tricky and physical track. As for me, with my level of racing experience at zero, I was going out to Florida with absolutely no guarantees that I would even be allowed to compete.

You see, although the series is a private racing championship, I still had to come up to a certain level. Racing remains an intensely dangerous exploit, and throwing some idiot journalist into the mix if he didn’t have a clue what he was doing or was so slow or unaware of his surroundings as to be a danger, was never going to be on the cards.

My judge was to be Luca Baldisserri, the man who engineered Michael Schumacher to the 2000, 2001 and 2002 Formula 1 world championships, and who now heads Ferrari’s Driver Academy (FDA). No pressure, then.

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After a good night’s sleep, I arrived bright and early on the Saturday morning at a lock-up in the Florida town of Stuart where I met the team behind the Florida Winter Series. Rene Rosin and the Prema Powerteam boys are the cogs that keep the machine running. They oversee the 12 cars and ensure that every minor detail is taken care of. And for me, the first order of the day was my seat fit. I’ve seen hundreds of these things done in the GP2 and GP3 paddock over the years, but until now had never grasped quite how tough they are to do.

You have to figure out your driving position and then remember it. This was easier said than done considering the only single seater experience I had was half a day testing F4 last year. What was my driving position? How would I be most comfortable with the pedals? And all, of course, has to be done within the constraints of the regulations. You can’t sit too high or your helmet will be outside the maximum height to protrude. Sit too low and you lose your reference points. And all the while, you can’t lean on the back of the tub. Just as well I’d been building up all that core strength in the gym.

The other thing I hadn’t been expecting was just how hot it gets when that empty plastic bag is filled with quickly expanding foam. It’s an odd sensation, neither nice nor nasty. But heavens, it’s warm.

Seat made, I was then given a tour of the facilities and introduced to Francesco Pon, known as “Franz,” Sporting Manager at FDA. Franz showed me the classroom, the enormous touch screen “whiteboard” and the Ferrari simulator. The Florida Winter Series, he explained, was not a racing championship like any other. It wasn’t about scoring points and winning races. It wasn’t about spending your money to win meaningless trophies in championships that nobody even knows exist. It was about education. It was about setting individual goals, unique objectives, and reaching them. Your challenge was not to beat the other drivers, but to better yourself.

Starting from the basic level that I was, this was music to my ears.

I spent 30 minutes on the simulator and jumped out. Luckily I had some advance knowledge of the track having been invited to use my friend and Peugeot 208GTi 24hr racer Bradley Philpot’s home hub, but it was clear from Franz’s reaction that I was quite some way from the pace of the drivers who had been driving the sim the day before. We went over the data for my best lap. This was going to be a hell of a hard slog.

I had the rest of the day off and the whole of the next morning. Usually when faced with a sunny afternoon and morning in Florida I would have sat by the pool and filled myself with beer. Instead I hit the gym, then had an orange juice at the pool and an early night.

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Sunday was the first day at the track. Blair Soden, who rocks Original Programming and Development at NBC Sports, had left a very chilly New Jersey and the Super Bowl to come and oversee and film my progress on track. We’d only met at Austin last year but in a short pace of time Jason and I had managed to turn Toni (as we dubbed her… after Tony Blair) into a petrol head. I spent the entire thing in meetings and embarking on a track walk with all the other drivers, Franz, and other members of the team including racer Mihai Maranescu, FDA trainer Andrea Ferrari and Winway driver manager and coach Nuno de Sousa Pinto. Toni realised early on that this wasn’t going to be like a normal weekend at the track, and that the usually bubbly and bouncy Will would be armed with a steely focus on something other than playing to the camera.

Each driver is given an iPad and a training manual including tech specs and operating advice for the Tatuus Formula Abarth car and track maps. The corner by corner guides allowed space for note taking, and on the ipad a tool for marking out ideal lines, drawing reference points and brake markers, and of course receiving any updates from the championship organisers.

While the technology was fabulous, and seeing the asphalt for real a great chance to note unforeseen camber, the track walk was also a great opportunity to get to know the other drivers.

The Palm Beach Drivers' Photo

The Palm Beach Drivers’ Photo
c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

Ferrari had sent along their 2014 leading lights of the FDA to compete. First there was Raffaele Marciello, known as “Lello.” Tall and skinny, with a new military grade haircut, the F3 champion was the man everyone wanted to beat. Bound for GP2 in 2014, first impressions would assume he was quiet and moody but he couldn’t have been nicer. Watching his onboards you’ll know why he’s the jewel in the FDA’s crown. He’s flat out, maximum commitment. Hugely impressive.

Antonio Fuoco must be at least a foot shorter than Lello. One of those horribly good looking young Italians who you sense sort of knows it. At 17, he is the 2013 Formula Renault ALPS champion and very quick. Again, a nice guy and consistently on the pace. Following the first weekend, along with Lello he was the man with the largest target on his back.

Lance Stroll. My garage mate. And on first impressions of him being late for every meeting, playing with his phone, goofing around, I presumed was going to be a cocky karting graduate nightmare. How wrong first impressions can be. A genuinely lovely guy, still so young at 15 and blisteringly quick. Supportive of his boys in the garage, a smart brain… and ever so confident. Confident to the point that if you don’t know him, you’d think he was being arrogant. Just as I had, before I really knew him.

And then there was the rest of the grid, those who weren’t part of the FDA and who weren’t yet permitted to wear the red of the Scuderia.

In the #2 car, Ed Jones. 2013 Euro F3 Open champion, 18 years of age, a great overtaker, naturally fast and a very tidy pedaller. Tended to hide and bunk out of the warm up running sessions.

In the #4, Dennis van de Laar who celebrated his 20th birthday while we were racing. A really nice guy and, again, quick. The kind of guy who, with a decent team, you feel could have a real shot at F3 honours this year.

In the #7, Tatiana Calderon. Already a race winner in Florida by the time I arrived, the 20 year old Colombian had endured a tricky season of F3 in 2013. But you could already see that running in a series at the same pace or often faster than the likes of Marciello had given her the boost she needed. Not just quick for a girl. Quick. Full stop. Incredibly sweet off track, hard as nails on it.

In the #11 and #17 cars, the two quiet and unassuming boys from the East, Alex Bosak and Vasily Romanov. Romanov at 17 was just jumping out of karts, while Bosak had the mega Marco Asmer along for support.

In the #18, the very likeable and very fast Nicholas Latifi. I met Nicholas, briefly, last year when he was banging around Fiorano in a Corsa Clienti F2004 (I think). I was impressed then by his handling of the car. Having driven alongside him and tried to keep up, I’m even more impressed now. His career is being watched over by Anthony Hamilton, and it was good to catch up with AH again.

In #23, Takashi Kasai. Straight out of karts, very little English vocabulary, and the driver whose times I was to get the closest to all week. Considering his laptimes in Sebring, Palm Beach was to be a big step forward for the young Japanese racer.

Max Verstappen

Max Verstappen
c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

And finally, but only finally out of building up expectations, in car #3… Max Verstappen. Son of Jos, European KF and KZ and World KZ karting champion, and from what I saw on track, sickeningly talented… Max appears to have a very bright future ahead of him. At 16 years of age he already has the maturity of a driver in his early 20s. There is a lot of talk about Max already, and after a week with him it is obvious why. It’s hard not to be impressed by him.

To be fair, it was hard not to be impressed by all 11 drivers. Each of them, as I, had their personal goals and objectives. For some it was a first step into single seaters. For others it was to put a disappointing 2013 behind them. For a few it was about perfecting their art.

For me, it was simply about not screwing up.

Coming up in Part 2… spins, stress and the pursuit of speed. CLICK HERE

A Piss-Up in a Brewery

Jerez awaits the first day of testing c/o James Moy Photography

Jerez awaits the first day of testing
c/o James Moy Photography

It’s funny how quickly we forget the past. My over-riding feeling today watching the tweets rolling in from Jerez was just this, as the eight teams to hit the track amassed a paltry 93 laps of running.

For the first time in a few years, I opted not to go to the first test of the year. Jerez was always going to be disrupted at best. At NBC, we decided to miss Jerez and attend Bahrain in the hope that by then the cars would have some miles on them and the drivers be able to provide slightly better feedback on their aspirations for 2014 than they would after a couple of outlaps, a blown engine and a rain delay.

It isn’t that the F1 teams and engine manufacturers have forgotten how to do their jobs. It is simply the fact that the technical regulation changes for 2014 represent one of the biggest shifts in the sport’s rules for a generation. Not only do we have a total shift in engine and power philosophy, but we also have badly worded aerodynamic regulations to contend with.

So it wasn’t surprising to see that the day was filled with negativity towards ugly noses, and bewilderment at the low level of completed laps. Indeed, last minute hitches meant that Marussia only sent their car to Spain today and Red Bull got just 3 laps completed on Day 1.

But should we be surprised by this?

It wasn’t so long ago that testing was conducted pretty much wherever and whenever teams wished. A few of them would gang together and take over a track for a week and pound around with as many drivers as they wanted. The peak probably came in the 2006 pre-season. According to the excellent FORIX website, there were 63 sessions of pre season testing at 21 circuits over 192 days. Sixty-one drivers turned out 91,568 laps and amassed 411,012km in running. That’s an awful lot more than one car per team and 12 days of group testing at the two tracks permitted for 2014.

But if we look back to that very first day of pre-season testing for 2006, on November 28, 2005 at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain, Nick Heidfeld ran 28 laps for Sauber and Alex Wurz just 11 for McLaren. The other car that day was McLaren tester Gary Paffett who ran 58. But nobody turned their noses up at Wurz’s 11 laps that day. Quite simply, it was testing. And whether you ran 11 laps or 111 laps, testing was testing and you’d have good days and bad days. That’s what testing was for. 97 laps were run on November 28, 2005. Only four more than today.

The problem today is that everything is condensed and put under the microscope. By limiting testing and grouping it together, the world’s media, now emboldened with the ability to report news in real-time via social media and scrolling live updates on their websites, can pounce on everything.

Lewis Hamilton before his front wing failure c/o James Moy Photography

Lewis Hamilton before his front wing failure
c/o James Moy Photography

Lewis Hamilton suffered a wing failure. That will be the lead story on Mercedes’ first day of testing. Never mind the fact they were ready to hit the track when the clock hit 09:00 and should quite comfortably have set the most laps of the day without that issue. The failure of the wing is the news. In the past, it would have been shrugged off as just one of those things in testing. Not now. Because now there are only 11 more days for “one of those things” to further knock the team back.

By far the biggest talking point thus far however has been the new generation of F1 noses. Although I am yet to see them in the flesh, I’m already getting used to them. And I must say that I absolutely love the fact that this shift in regulation has given us a field of completely unique cars, each one with their own individual interpretation of the rules. Of course, whichever car ends up being fastest will be the design around which we see the field converge before the regulations are hopefully reworded for next season, but for now at least it is great to see the thought process of each design team in the open.

It doesn’t take away from the fact, however, that the cars look stupid. They are not aspirational creations, and that is something which Formula 1 must address. The technical regulations were made with good intention but they were badly worded. And now we have a situation in which the teams are openly calling their cars ugly, questioning their safety, and decrying the governing body for letting things get this far.

They are right, of course, but the teams are utterly hypocritical in being so upset. The Technical Working Group, now replaced by the controversial Strategy Group, was integral in the formulating of the new rules. At what point in these discussions was the question of safety raised? At what point was the wording raised? At what point did somebody suggest that this was not the route the sport should be going?

I asked Caterham’s Mark Smith recently why, with regulations forcing teams to adopt low noses, we weren’t going to see glorious creations such as the 1980s and early 90s low nosed F1 cars. The answer was simple. We know more about aerodynamics today than we did 30 years ago… so much so that if the 1980s F1 regs were in place today, we probably wouldn’t see such simple and graceful designs as we did back then.

Those hoping for MP4/4s in 2014 will be disappointed c/o James Moy Photography

Those hoping for MP4/4s in 2014 will be disappointed
c/o James Moy Photography

It’s a fair point. But it also reinforces the fact that a bunch of supposed design and technical geniuses got together and bashed out a set of regulations that have resulted in these… things.

And ultimately, this is what has me worried about the future of F1. The teams, by their very nature, are competing entities. They are so focused on maintaining their own competitive advantages that when looking at the manner in which the sport is taken forward they lose sight of the bigger picture. Their focus is on their interests and their interests alone.

Why hasn’t FOTA worked? Because a group of competitors will never agree on everything all the time. There will always be fractures. Sadly, the teams couldn’t keep their focus away from their own interests for long enough to keep their collective will in tact. That is why FOTA splintered. That is where FOTA failed.

Now we have ugly cars, and a stupid double points rule for the final race of the season. Team discussions have recently taken place. The double points rule was not reversed. Despite dissatisfaction from fans, the media, and even the reigning four time world champion…

The teams are as much to blame for the ugly cars as the FIA. The teams are as much to blame for this stupid double points rule as Bernie. And the teams, by not pulling together and agreeing on a resource restriction or a cost cap are to blame for such limited testing, because they’ve had to have cost cutting measures thrust upon them.

Frankly I don’t know what the answer is. Bernie has always acted as a benign dictator, and one worries about who will smack the teams’ heads together when he is gone. Somebody has to do it. Either that, or the teams must realise that in the interests of the sport they need to remove themselves from having any say at all in the direction in which Formula 1 is taken.

Because sadly, it seems they’re too busy staring down their now globally mocked noses to see that a bigger picture even exists.

New Teams and Customer Cars

Yesterday was a pretty big day for news in motorsport. It began with Robert Kubica leading the Monte Carlo Rally and was quickly followed by Bernie being indicted on criminal charges in Germany. Mr E then stood aside at CVC, just as the Oscar nominations were read out and Rush was somehow snubbed in every single category. And at the end of a day of huge news, Ron Dennis announced to McLaren employees in a 20 minute speech (so, about three sentences) that he was back in charge. What impact this will have on the team and on the future of Martin Whitmarsh is sure to be a storyline that carries immense interest.

But hidden amongst all the power politics yesterday, came the leaked news via Auto Motor und Sport in Germany that three teams were being viewed by the FIA for final consideration of the last remaining place on the F1 grid for 2015. The three interested parties were StefanGP, an entry from former F1 team boss Colin Kolles, and a new US venture run by Gene Haas.

The last time we saw new teams enter the sport was back in 2010. It is worth remembering that the initial three parties granted a place on the grid by the FIA were Campos, Manor and USF1. Campos became HRT, Manor became Virgin (later to become Marussia) and USF1 failed to happen at all. When BMW Sauber pulled out, the team we now know as Caterham entered the fold. HRT folded, and neither Caterham nor Marussia has scored a point in its four years of existence. Nor, if we are being brutally honest, have they ever realistically looked like doing so.

It does seem odd, that with such a poor recent history for new teams, coupled with the top-heavy, arguably unfair financial structure of the sport and a world economy in the midst of a drive towards cost-saving, there would be any interest in setting up a new F1 team at all. But apparently there is, and that’s great news for the sport.

Of course, Colin Kolles knows Formula 1 only too well and one supposes that an entry from him would not have been launched had it not sufficient support and infrastructure to make a decent run of things.

The American entry also looks interesting. Gene Haas is a NASCAR team owner and runs the Windshear windtunnel out in the States, which has been used by many F1 teams. Although based in California, Haas does have European interests and could possibly use a European base for his team. The entry supposedly has a deal to run Ferrari engines, will start life with a Dallara designed chassis and Guenther Steiner has been mentioned as Team Principal. Not a bad little line-up when you think about it.

And so to StefanGP. The story of StefanGP is long, complicated and thoroughly messy, but a good run down of its F1 interest can be found here.

The last time I saw Zoran Stefanovich was underneath the podium in Monza in 2012, cheering for Luca Filippi as he took the win in GP2 for Coloni. There was talk at the time that Stefanovich had bought Coloni’s GP2 entry. The only issue was that Coloni no longer had a GP2 entry.

With such a tumultuous history, including filing a complaint against the FIA with the European Commission, one wonders how much realistic hope StefanGP has of being taken seriously. But that is for the FIA to decide.

What interests me most, however, is how any new team would fare in 2015 and beyond. As already stated, no new team has scored a point in four years. Perhaps the massive shift in technical regulations will allow scope for the gap between the “new” and established teams to shrink. Perhaps the gap will merely increase.

What, then, is the answer for a new team?

For my money, the answer is customer cars. Just hear me out on this.

What I am not proposing is the opportunity for anyone to come in and buy a 2015 chassis and stick an engine in it and go racing. I don’t like that idea and I don’t think there would be any appetite in the sport for it either.

At the Indian Grand Prix last year I asked the Team Principals in the Friday press conference for their views on Customer Cars. There were a wide range of opinions from positive to overwhelmingly negative. This is the Reader’s Digest version of what they said.

Christian Horner: It’s an interesting debate, really, because if you look at costs and the cost drivers in Formula One, the necessity to have four or five hundred people in order to even compete is, in all reality, too high. Now if you’re just looking at it from a pure cost point of view, the most logical way to take out a huge amount of cost would be to sell a car or a year-old car in its entirety. Now whether that goes against the grain of what a constructor should be and is in current Formula One is a separate debate. But if you are absolutely transfixed on saving costs, it is, without a shadow of a doubt the most effective way to reduce costs. Whether it’s the right thing to do is obviously another questions. Inevitably there is going to be a lot of debate about it and it’s something that, as a sport, we need to be open-minded to.

Ross Brawn: I don’t think we, as a team, are particularly enamoured with the idea of customer cars. I think we are more keen on working towards reducing the base cost of the cars for all teams. And perhaps finding ways of sharing parts that are non-performance differentiators. I think there is some progress that can be made in those areas without damaging the DNA of the sport at all.

Vijay Mallya: We are completely opposed to the even the concept of customers cars. To try to address lowering of costs through a radical customer car concept is ridiculous in my view. What happens to the smaller teams that have factories, that employ hundreds of people and who are effectively running companies. You can’t just discard everything and just buy a one-year old car from an established team and go motor racing. I think that affects the total DNA of Formula One from the day it was started.

Monisha Kaltenbourn: I absolutely agree with that. Sauber’s been in motorsport now for more than 40 years and our core business is making race cars in different series, so we are absolutely against this concept of a customer car because we’re ruining our own business here. When you introduce these kind of measures you’re changing so much. This will not lead to any cost reduction because you might have four teams in there that are capable of putting in that much money, but at some point in time – they are all in their to win – when they don’t do that and maybe just end up with a few points they leave the sport as well. So it’s a very dangerous route to go down.

Eric Boullier: I think that customer cars are against the DNA of Formula One personally. But I think obviously there is a cost restriction that needs to be in place in Formula One. So if you want to avoid the customer car… we can maybe run three cars in the near future to keep a decent grid but still it’s more money and it’s against cost saving, so we need to think and think cleverly about it.

The one interesting thing that kept being said was how the concept of customer cars was against the DNA of Formula 1. Any student of the history of Formula 1 knows this to be complete rubbish. How many teams started life in the 60s and 70s buying a chassis and engine in order to go racing?

But if you want a modern example of how customer cars can work, I would still use the example of Super Aguri. If ever a team showed what can be achieved by allowing a newcomer to the sport the leg-up that a customer car could provide, it was this team.

The team made its 2006 debut with the SA05 which was, to all intents and purposes, the old Arrows A23… a car which was not a championship winner even in its 2002 heyday, let alone a further 4 years down the line. But not only did it get them through their debut season, with a fabulous design office, the upgraded SA06 actually impressed in the latter half of the season.

But it was in 2007 that the team made its greatest leap forward. There were arguments over its legality under Concorde, but the modified 2006 Honda works chassis put in some incredible runs. Takuma Sato scored points in Barcelona, and the Japanese driver put in one of the performances of his F1 career in Montreal to pass reigning world champion Fernando Alonso and finish sixth. But for a botched pitstop it could have been even higher. Crucially, the team finished above both works Honda cars in the race with a car that was a clever development of one the works team had discarded.

Ultimately Super Aguri folded in 2008, but the focus of the squad had always been on designing their own car for 2009. The design team at Super Aguri were incredible. Fascinatingly, the team had designed a nose hole for the SA07 almost identical to the one later seen on the Ferrari F2008. If the team had been granted more budget, there’s a chance Super Aguri could have run the concept in 2007, over 8 months before we saw it on a Ferrari.

The basis of the 2009 Super Aguri went into creating part of the 2009 Toyota, and was hugely influential on the car that would become the BrawnGP BGP001. A car which won both championships.

My point is this. Super Aguri took an outdated car, and with intelligent use of minimal budget turned it into a car that beat the factory squad. The team was competitive. With better financial management, had the team been able to complete the SA09 by itself, there is every reason to believe that at the 2009 Australian Grand Prix Super Aguri could have been fighting for the podium. If not the win. If not the title.

This is why I believe in customer cars. Not forever. But at the start.

The woes of Caterham and Marussia cannot be ignored, and one hopes that the technical regulation changes offer them the level playing field that will allow them to compete. But in the future, I firmly believe that any and all new teams should be given a two year grace period in which they should be allowed to utilise an old car as a stepping stone, and build their own car from year three.

It is cost effective for the new team. It is a source of revenue for the team from whom they are purchasing.

Does that really sound so bad?

Postscript:

I had a few extra thoughts on this while I was in the gym this afternoon… further to Yeti’s point below in the comments section, I don’t believe it is as simple as Super Aguri having had a great design department. Yes, they did. But the reason that design department was able to do such great things was that it was not having to spend all its time and money developing major parts of the car to eat into the huge chunks of time it lagged behind its competitors. By starting with a customer car it wasn’t starting from zero. The design department could look at ways to improve on a solid foundation, rather than having to build that foundation in the first place, all the while dedicating a large part of their design resources to that all important first car of their own.

This is a problem that the “new teams” have faced. For Caterham and Marussia to get to within five seconds of the front runners came quite quickly. The next challenge is to then find the next seconds. Then the tenths. Then the hundredths. Then the thousandths. And that takes time. Too much time.

If we allow customer cars for new teams, for that limited period of two years, we allow new teams to start from a position it has taken the likes of Caterham and Marussia the better part of four years to achieve. Four long, arguably wasted years. Why wasted? Because all of that effort was for naught. No points. And now a regulation change which puts a great deal of that work in the trash.

But, in order to not reach a point where a new team could simply come in and buy a year old Red Bull and start taking the fight to the “genuine” constructors and teams who have been around for a good few years, I think we would need to put a cap on which cars would be for sale.

I would say that the top five in the championship should be taken out of consideration. As such, if technical regulations were staying the same and a new team wanted to join in 2014, it would have the pick of Force India, Sauber, Toro Rosso, Williams, Marussia and Caterham. If these options were then priced on a sliding scale dependent on championship position, a new team would be able to decide what it wanted to do with its funding. It could pay a bit less and go for a Marussia or a Caterham and take a solid but not necessarily hugely competitive chassis… or it could fork out a higher percentage of its budget and plump for a Sauber or a Force India.

In this way, established teams which we know are struggling for budget would be the ones to benefit from any such introduction of customer cars, and in turn could use the money gained from the sale of old IP to ensure their new car doesn’t get beaten by the old one.

Just some thoughts.

If I was FIA President… that’s what I’d be trying to push through, anyway.

Memories of John

John Button c/o James Moy Photography

John Button
c/o James Moy Photography

It is Saturday 17th October 2009, at about half past ten at night in Sao Paulo. Our Brazilian taxi driver has taken my travelling room-mate and I to the wrong hotel and it’s going to take a while to order another one, so we go to the hotel bar and order a glass of wine.

There, we bump into John Button… sat alone, lost in his thoughts, no doubt contemplating what lay ahead of his son in the morning of a day when he would be crowned world champion. Always Jenson’s most ardent supporter, John barely missed a day of his son’s career. And October 18th would mark the culmination of their incredible journey.

John invited us over that night, as if he was glad to have the company to take his mind away from his thoughts. And there we sat, spoke and laughed long into the night.

Conversation swirled around the place, but eventually moved onto the next season and if it could possibly come up to the levels achieved by Jenson and BrawnGP in 2009. With so much discussion about the future of the team, would the car match up?

“Oh, we’ve already seen next year’s car,” he grinned with his inimitable grin.

“Really? What’s it like?”

“Amazing. It’s going to surprise a lot of people.”

“Oh go on, tell us more.”

“I can’t,” he laughed. “But it’s brilliant. Jenson’s made up.”

We left that night knowing that whatever befell Jenson that Sunday in Brazil, with the championship all but tied up so too was Jenson’s future. A future that included a BrawnGP car in which JB and all his closest confidant’s held immense faith.

Jenson was duly crowned world champion the next day. But it was only in mid November that the true gravity of John’s words the night before that Brazilian Grand Prix hit home. To be precise, it was the day that Jenson was announced as a McLaren driver for 2010.

The wily bugger… he hadn’t meant Brawn at all. That amazing car? The one that was going to surprise so many people? It wasn’t a Brawn. It was the McLaren.

Sitting here now it’s making me smile all over again. He’d been asked a question and he hadn’t lied. He hadn’t handed down a bullshit line. He’d just been John. He’d been completely honest. And in doing so he’d betrayed nobody.

I cannot imagine the paddock without his smile. I cannot imagine walking into McLaren and not seeing him deep in conversation, owing to his absolute openness and willingness to talk to anyone and everyone at any time of the day.

I cannot imagine the pain and grief being felt by the entirety of Team JB and the Button family today. If John leaves a hole in the F1 paddock, one can only imagine the void his passing leaves in his family.

John was a successful racer in his own right, but never was he happier than watching his boy do what his boy does best. He rarely, if ever missed a race.

I’d like to think that won’t change. Just his vantage point.

Godspeed Johnboy.

Worst. Rule Change. Ever.

Comic_Store_Guy

OK, so this has probably been done before but I was on holiday last week so I’m only just catching up with what stands out as quite possibly the stupidest idea the FIA has come up with in a very long time. I refer, of course, to double points for the final race of the season.

As far as dumb ideas go, this one ranks up there with the very worst. Eleven years ago the FIA proposed that drivers would race every car on the grid in 2003, and once a rotation had been done they’d be able to pick with which team they would complete the season, having the right to choose their rides on the basis of championship position at that time. Stupid, right? Thankfully that one didn’t see the light of day.

Aggregate qualifying was introduced in 2005. It lasted precisely five races.

We’ve had other crazy ideas, usually suggested by Bernard Charles. Sprinklers, the medal system… multiple route circuits including overtaking lanes.

The issue is that this double points thing isn’t a suggestion. And it hasn’t been thrown into the mix to ruffle a few feathers as most of Bernie’s ideas have. This thing’s a reality. Unless common sense is found in the next 80-odd days.

Let’s take a look at the final race of 2013 and ask what would have changed had double points been awarded. Well, in the drivers’ championship all would have remained pretty similar. Vettel would have won with 422 points, Alonso would still have been second and Webber third. It’s actually only at the very edge of the top ten where we see a shift. Sergio Perez would have had a points haul of 16 points to Nico Hulkenberg’s 8, pushing the Mexican into tenth and relegating Hulkenberg down to 11th.

It’s in the constructors’ championship that it gets really interesting though, as it is Ferrari, and not Mercedes, who would have finished the season in second, beating Merc by 3 points.

Frankly, I think we’re going to encounter enough problems in 2014 without throwing this ludicrous situation into the mix. Most worrying of all is that the new Strategy Group actually OK’d all of this. But of course it had to be approved unanimously by the F1 Commission, under the terms of the operation of this new group… did it not? Well, no it didn’t actually.

“These changes are immediately applicable, given the mandate assigned to the FIA President at the last World Motor Sport Council meeting, held on 4 December in Paris,” the FIA said in a statement. Democratic process at its finest, that.

Of course there were fears, as soon as the Strategy Group was announced, that rules could be manipulated and misrepresentation on the group lead to dangerous and unwanted changes. Jon Noble was reporting such from as far back as October. These fears seem to have come to fruition earlier than anticipated.

So why has the change been made? The FIA claims it is “to maximise focus on the championship until the end of the campaign.” But would it have stopped Vettel from winning his fourth crown in India? No. Would it have stopped Red Bull from taking its fourth crown before season’s end? No. Would it have stopped certain teams from shifting their focus to 2014 from mid-season? No.

The fact that some teams were forced to shift focus away from 2013 after a mid-season tyre construction shift that was entirely of the FIA’s making for not having its house in order in the first place, apparently hasn’t registered either.

So what’s the point in all this?

At its least harmful it devalues 18 of the 19 races to the point that any one of the 18 promoters might, quite reasonably, take umbrage to this shift and question why they should pay such a high sanctioning fee to host their race. If its value is now at 50%, surely so too should be their sanctioning fee? I can imagine Bernie’s phone has been ringing non-stop since the announcement.

But at its worst, far beyond considerations of finance and fees, this rule change threatens to devalue the entire championship. The entire sport.

If you want to start handing out more points, how about points for pole or fastest lap? How about a point for each position gained from lights to flag? Frankly I rather like the last option. But is it all not a tad unnecessary?

Eleven years ago, when the FIA last announced a raft of pretty bonkers suggestions for rule changes I, as a very young jobbing journo, wrote an article for Joe Saward on GrandPrix.com. It centred on the musical legend of the crossroads, and why Formula 1 could learn from it. In it, I wrote the following…

If [the sport] chooses to stand at this crossroads and sell the soul of Formula 1 to a commercial devil in return for a quick fix of fleeting glory, then the sport, as the musical legends of the myth, will pay for a few short glorious years with it’s life.

The very fact that these laughable ideas have been tabled should give cause for concern (not least for the attention they are dragging away from the very real problems facing F1.)

As the sport nears the crossroads it is the privileged few who will decide the fate of the game and when they arrive at this fabled junction they will have two choices. They can wait until midnight, play their song and sell the soul of the sport for an easy fix. Things will be good for a while but a sport with no soul, like a person, is living on borrowed time.

Or they can sit down, weigh up all the options available to them and, use hundreds of years of combined knowledge, and sort out the mess – with no gimmicks.

Eleven years ago. Eleven years.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Post-season Bits and Bobs…

So the seasons are over and the winter is setting in, and while the teams knuckle down on preparation for the 2014 season, the final calendar for which has just been released, I thought I’d just jot down my thoughts on a few of the stories doing the rounds as most of us start to wind down for Christmas.

The driver merry-go-round

Neither Van der Garde nor Perez has a confirmed ride for 2014 © James Moy Photography

Neither Van der Garde nor Perez has a confirmed ride for 2014
© James Moy Photography

The last week has provided clarification on two of the empty seats in Formula 1, with Lotus announcing Pastor Maldonado alongside Romain Grosjean for next year, and Nico Hulkenberg returning to Force India. What was perhaps most interesting in the Hulkenberg case was that his announcement was also, although it didn’t state as such, confirmation that at least one of Force India’s 2013 drivers will need to find a new ride. With rumours circulating that the team’s second seat could fall to Sergio Perez, perhaps both Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta will be racing elsewhere in 2014.

There remains a chance for Perez to land back with his former team Sauber, so too for both of Force India’s 2013 drivers. Perez remains the key player in the mix right now, as his combination of speed, tenacity and backing make him an attractive prospect. There remains a big question over where Esteban Gutierrez will wind up. I believe the young Mexican did a fabulous job in his rookie season, and the romantic side of me would love to see he and Perez shape up as an all Mexican line-up with increased backing at Sauber.

The problem for Perez seems to be that his split with his former manager Adrian Fernandes did not go down well with Carlos Slim. Fernandes is Slim’s motorsport man, and so there is talk that the split has created a rift between Perez and Slim. Many of us in the F1 paddock feel that Perez exceeded expectations at McLaren in what was a difficult year for team and driver, and it would be a shame to see him leave the sport. \

Where next for di Resta? © James Moy Photography

Where next for di Resta?
© James Moy Photography

Paul di Resta, meanwhile, has admitted that he may have to do just that as his 2014 options now look slim. There has been much talk that he might be interested in a move to Indycar, possibly even to take over his cousin Dario Franchitti’s now vacant #10 Ganassi. Despite some positive noises, I understand that Paul, privately, isn’t terribly keen on such a move. So where does that leave him? A return to DTM? Maybe WEC?

Indycar, DTM and WEC right now hold some of the most attractive seats for racing drivers, and in that list we must include those talented drivers in junior formulas who simply do not have the budget to continue into F1. Nicolas Todt was seen in discussions with Mercedes bosses in Brazil, and with the futures of Maldonado, Bianchi and Massa all confirmed, could it be that a Mercedes AMG F1 reserve role for James Calado is in the offing, potentially with some DTM thrown in? Calado tested DTM a few weeks ago, so it isn’t out of the realms of possibility. Antonio Felix da Costa has also been linked to a move to DTM.

Sam Bird’s name has been linked with Indycar, after the Briton was conspicuous by his absence from the final two F1 races for Mercedes AMG. It is understood that he turned down the opportunity to test DTM, preferring instead to repay the faith shown in him by Russian Time to help them create a baseline with their new GP3 car. If an Indycar move doesn’t come off however, such a decision to repay Russian rather than German confidence may prove costly in his relationship with Mercedes for a future DTM drive.

There have also ben rumours surrounding Carlin and an Indycar foray. How realistic such a move would be is debatable, but personally I’d love to see Red Bull put some money into the venture, and see the likes of da Costa move stateside with Carlin.

With space in F1 limited, money really does talk… which brings us back around to Maldonado…

Lotus and Maldonado

Valsecchi was overlooked by Lotus © James Moy Photography

Valsecchi was overlooked by Lotus
© James Moy Photography

OK, let’s start at the start with this one. With three races to go in F1 2013, Lotus had a shot at second in the constructors’ championship. When the issues with Raikkonen surfaced and it became clear that the Finn’s heart was no longer in the fight, I argued at the time and I stand by this even more so now, that Lotus should have sidelined him and taken on their reserve driver Davide Valsecchi.

The reasoning was simple. Valsecchi, going into the 2013 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix had the best record of any driver on the grid at the track. He had won in Abu Dhabi three times in GP2 and GP2 Asia. He had a wealth of experience at the track testing F1 machinery. He had tested and was at home in the E21 and was a loved part of the team. Give him Abu Dhabi. If he didn’t shine there he wouldn’t shine anywhere. So if he didn’t come up to scratch, take the opportunity to put someone else in the car for the final two.

As it was the team stuck with Kimi for Abu Dhabi and went for Heikki Kovalainen for the final two. Kimi got involved in the most un-Raikkonen-esque first corner incident in Abu Dhabi. You can make up your own mind on that one. And then it was up to Heikki to step into a team with which, although he had a past, would have still been fairly unfamiliar. He had to step into a car he had never driven, on tyres he had never raced, and score points.

Heikki Kovalainen’s objective was clear: score points. The results do not lie. He failed to achieve the objectives the team had set out for him. And so, I ask again… three races in which Romain Grosjean’s team-mate failed to score a point. How much worse would it have been had the team taken the option many in the paddock felt it should have done and taken a punt on Valsecchi?

Let’s not even get started on the debate over the worth of a reserve driver, and what Lotus’ decision has done for that role. The fact is that they overlooked their man, and the option they took failed to achieve the results he had ben brought in to ensure.

Kovalainen failed in his objectives for Lotus © James Moy Photography

Kovalainen failed in his objectives for Lotus
© James Moy Photography

The team’s focus at this time, of course, was hugely on 2014. The higher up the table the team finished, the more money they would get. As it is they lost out on second and finished fourth. Yes, that matched their 2012 finishing position, but it isn’t where they could and arguably should have finished the year in a car which, over the final quarter of the season, was the only one which could regularly compete with Red Bull.

The focus was also shifting away from the track in the protracted financial discussions with Quantum. I will not go into the details here, as they remain sketchy at best, but in talking with Eric Boullier on the record in the final rounds of 2013 he was at pains to point out that the financial future of his team was in the hands of Genii. So too the driver decisions. So whatever your take on Quantum, and whatever your take on the driver decisions the team has made, ultimately Boullier is an employee of Genii and is doing his best with the hand he is given.

It seems utterly incredible that after two years of exceeding expectations, of Kimi Raikkonen’s return and Romain Grosjean’s validation, of winning races and scoring podiums, that the team could not secure solid funding for its future. Does that responsibility rest with Enstone or further up the chain at Genii? Whoever is responsible for securing such funding has a lot to answer for, because it is their failure that has led to the team hanging on to the promises of an outfit which, with each passing day, looks less and less likely to deliver.

Boullier and Lopez © James Moy Photography

Boullier and Lopez
© James Moy Photography

In such circumstances, Maldonado was the team’s only option. He comes with money. A lot of money. As Eric Boullier said many, many months ago when it first became clear that Raikkonen was not being paid, his responsibility first and foremost is to the employees at Enstone. In failing to secure second in the constructors’ championship, in failing to secure solid funding for the future, Maldonado’s money was the only route left to the team to secure it can still go racing. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but having Lotus racing is surely better than it slipping off the grid.

And just how bad is Maldonado? He is a multiple champion. He is a Grand Prix winner. And on his day he can be blisteringly fast. But he remains a loose cannon, a hot head, and his attitude towards Williams in the final races of 2013 was utterly disgusting. But looking at how Lotus has created a man out of Romain Grosjean, could the guiding hand of Eric Boullier hone the scintillating pace of Pastor Maldonado and turn him into a genuine prospect? Nicolas Todt told me a long time ago in our discussions about racing drivers that it was impossible to make a slow driver fast, but that you could always calm down a rapid but aggressive talent. Perhaps this is all Maldonado needs.

One thing is sure however. While Williams will miss Maldonado’s millions, they will not miss the man. He made many enemies in his final few races, and it has long been known that his technical feedback and intelligence have always been questioned by those at the very top of the technical food chain at the team.

So is Maldonado a simple cash cow to allow Lotus more time to carry on racing and find future budget? Perhaps. But if the team couldn’t make the most of the marketing opportunity afforded to it by Raikkonen, how the hell are they going to put a positive spin on Maldonado? Perhaps it is time to put less effort into creating horrendously labored hashtags, and more into selling the squad to investors.

Changes at the top?

Pressure is on at the top © James Moy Photography

Pressure is on at the top
© James Moy Photography

How long can Martin Whitmarsh, Stefano Domenicali et al stay at the helm of their respective ships. It is a tough question. And with Ross Brawn now in open play after he takes a year off fishing in 2014, team bosses up and down the pitlane have every reason to be fearful.

If F1 was as cut throat as soccer, Whitmarsh and Domenicali would likely have been moved aside a long time ago. Let’s take the example of Whitmarsh. Under his watch, McLaren has gone from winning world championships to having the fifth (only just) best team in Formula 1. He lost their star striker (Hamilton) and the replacement he pitched the team’s future hopes on has been dumped after one season.

I’m not saying anyone’s job in this industry is easy. And personally I think Martin is doing a good job, so too Stefano. It’s almost impossible to compete with the budget and resources that Red Bull is throwing at Formula 1. But ultimately the days when team bosses were also team owners are essentially over. At what point will the ultimate owners decide enough is enough? It happens in every other sport… so how long until it happens in F1? As I said, I don’t believe these guys are doing a bad job, but if 2014 turns into a failure for any team, will we start to see changes at the top?

The Show

A new running order in 2014? © James Moy Photography

A new running order in 2014?
© James Moy Photography

Things next year are going to be different. Very different. If the video released last week of what is claimed to be a Ferrari V6 Turbo mule doing the rounds at Fiorano is accurate, the cars are going to sound very different indeed. In terms of pace, there are already claims that F1 will struggle to match or even beat GP2.

Pirelli, the scapegoat for so much in F1, has still not tested 2014 tyres. If we thought they went conservative in 2013, just think about the slabs of concrete they’ll have to produce in 2014. Development drivers are reporting wheelspin up to third, some say fourth gear in the new cars on the sim. Pirelli are going to have to create incredibly strong tyres if we aren’t going to see rubber disintegrating next season.

And so, a proposal has been made to introduce two mandatory pitstops for next season. Cue the traditional negativity and the argument that the racing is being ruined by gimmicks. I can see those arguments, and the idea of initiating a maximum percentage of a race to be run on a certain type of tyre holds absolutely no interest for me. I’d go beyond that actually and say I find it abhorrent, for in this instance we would fall into the concept of pit windows, which does nobody any favours at all. By imposing mandatory pitstops you are creating guaranteed excitement with strategy. But by introducing pit windows you then ruin that very same strategic element.

GP2 has seen mandatory pitstops every since its creation, and these have always added a fascinating element to the racing. The only pit window is that you have to wait for six laps until your first stop. That’s it. And it works.

More of the same in 2014? © James Moy Photography

More of the same in 2014?
© James Moy Photography

The interesting thing here is how many people complained that Austin 2013 was boring because it was a one stop race. Well, if you think Austin was boring, with overly conservative tyres leading to a race all about tyre preservation, then welcome to 2014. By mandating a compulsory second stop you make it more exciting. Why? Because rather than sitting on tyres and trying to race to a delta, you can actually start to push a bit more.

Think about that. Drivers get to push. It’s truly incredible how many people this year have complained that Formula 1 has become a sport about tyre preservation. And yet, when a rule change is suggested that would allow drivers to push harder because a one stopper is outlawed, all of a sudden those same people decry the notion because it hurts teams and drivers who are able to look after their tyres.

You can’t have it both ways.

Either you want a sport where drivers are able to push, or you want a sport where drivers have to be a little bit smarter, look after their tyres and use their brains as well as their right foot to ensure victory. I’m not saying that either version is better, but I think the first option may make racing juices flow a little faster.

There’s a long way to go until the 2014 season starts, but that’s just my take on a few little things bubbling around at the moment.

Fans, Friends, F1 and Fundraising

© Jamey Price Photo

© Jamey Price Photo

Thursday night in Austin, and a queue around the corner at The Speakeasy on Congress Avenue. I’ve got to say, even before the 2013 Buxton’s BigTime Bash started I was blown away.

For the second consecutive year, fans, friends and Formula 1 nuts gathered in Austin for a party designed to kick off the race weekend by giving something back to the fans, and raising money for charity and giving something back to the local community here in Austin. The event had been planned to the very last detail by the fabulous Kerri Olsen from The Austin Grand Prix http://www.theaustingrandprix.com, and once again benefitted the great folks at Meals on Wheels and More, Austin.

 © Jamey Price Photo

© Jamey Price Photo

Unlike our first year we asked for a small donation of $5 on the door, or whatever anyone could afford, and with that everyone was given one raffle ticket. Formula 1 teams, sponsors, clients and friends were incredibly generous and donated some brilliant prizes for a charity raffle, and right now I want to thank Infiniti Red Bull Racing, Scuderia Ferrari, Caterham F1 Team, Tim Bampton and Aurelie Donzelot from the amazing JMI International, TW STEEL, Sahara Force India, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, The Lotus F1 Team, Sauber F1 Team, Mercedes AMG F1 Team and Lewis Hamilton, Karun Chandhok, Haggar Co and Codemasters. (I hope I haven’t missed anyone out.)

Gil de Ferran salutes the crowd © Jamey Price Photo

Gil de Ferran salutes the crowd © Jamey Price Photo

Hundreds of fans turned up and rubbed shoulders with folks from the F1 and wider motorsports paddocks, many of whom agreed to take to the stage, engage in some great banter with the crowd and hand out the prizes. The crowd welcomed my NBCSN colleagues Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett, future F1 stars and Force India reserve drivers Conor Daly and James Calado were on fabulous form and Lotus F1’s overlooked superman in waiting Davide Valsecchi popped down on his way to dinner to say hi and meet with folks who mostly just wanted to give him a hug. The star turn of the night came from all round racing legend Gil de Ferran however, who came straight from the airport and regaled the crowd with fabulous stories and great humour. I’d like to thank them all for giving their time to attend.

© Jamey Price Photo

© Jamey Price Photo

I also have to thank The Speakeasy for allowing us to host the event at their fabulous bar without charge, and to the frankly amazing Continuums for being a truly awesome band and keeping everyone jumping late into the night with both their own songs and some rock classics. You can’t go wrong by breaking the Led out. Also huge thanks to Jamey Price, a hugelt talented young American motorsport photographer who covered the event for free.

Everyone giving of their time so freely and generously meant that every cent raised on the night could go straight to charity and I am delighted to say that the takings on the door amassed a simply fabulous $4560.

However, thanks to the incredible generosity of the Berber Family and The Glimmer of Hope Foundation, and the Garber family, whom I am delighted to know and call friends, a pledge was made to match every penny raised. As such, the total was trebled, and I and Kerri are delighted to announce that $13,680 will go direct to Meals on Wheels and More.

The generosity of this paddock, of the city of Austin of which I am proud to have been named an Honorary Citizen, the incredible people of this city and state, the amazing fans who turned out and I hope had a great night, and to two incredible families means that the lives of the homebound and other people in need in Austin will be helped through programs that promote dignity and independent living, as is the mission statement of Meals on Wheels and more. The total raised will provide 5472 meals for those in need.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you all.

© Jamey Price Photo

© Jamey Price Photo

For more information on Meals on Wheels and More, please visit http://www.mealsonwheelsandmore.org/

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

How different will the line-up be in 2014?

How different will the line-up be in 2014?

Its been one of the most fascinating 48 hours in Formula 1 for some time as silly season has been ramped into overdrive with talk of driver deals and contracts, signed and unsigned, flooding in. While confirmed deals would normally serve to give us some clarity, quite incredibly the F1 driver pool for 2014 now appears more clouded than ever. Each turn of events has, in its own way, created new questions.

Kimi, Quantum and Lotus

Raikkonen walks away from Lotus

Raikkonen walks away from Lotus

The Raikkonen / Lotus relationship is over and it is a shame it had to end this way. But end it had to, and so it is probably better that it’s been done now.

There seems, to me, no small coincidence that the day after having his seat fitting at Ferrari, Kimi or his management team decided to move forward his planned treatment on the back injury which nearly saw him pull out of the Singapore Grand Prix. The earlier he can get his rehab started, the better for his new employers, and while he’s not being paid by his present employers, what motivation was there to stay put?

There’s another facet in this however, and it sits with that now very public spat over pay. Kimi made it clear in Abu Dhabi that while he had not been paid, an agreement had been put in place and assurances given that he would receive all unpaid moneys. Quantum itself was vocal over the fact that as soon as its deal with Genii and Lotus was done, it would pay the Finn what he was owed, plus a sweetener for his troubles. Quantum was also keen to sign Nico Hulkenberg for 2014, something which seemed a mere formality as soon as the deal was done. Everything seemed to be moving in a very positive direction and we all expected news of a concluded deal in the days after Abu Dhabi.

But no news arrived. No confirmation of a done deal. No confirmation of Hulkenberg signing for 2014. And then… Kimi walks away from the team.

If Kimi said he would only race if the assurances were met, and he has now decided not to race, might one infer that these assurances had not therefore been met, and that perhaps the Quantum deal is no closer to being concluded now than it has ever been?

There has, as of the time of writing, been no confirmation over Raikkonen’s replacement for Austin and Brazil. Why not? The natural and logical choice is the team’s reserve driver Davide Valsecchi. If he doesn’t get the drive then the whole purpose of a reserve driver is nullified. He’s a GP2 champion and deserves his shot. But, as always things aren’t quite that simple.

Perhaps, Lotus is trying to lure Hulkenberg away from Sauber for the final two races to get him settled at the team for 2014. Perhaps, the team has been offered a sizeable amount from a potential 2014 sponsor to put a completely different driver in the car for the final two. Perhaps a driver has big budget to run the final two races of the year. Maybe a GP2 driver. Maybe an ex F1 star. There was even talk a few races ago that Rubens Barrichello was trying to raise enough funds to get himself a drive in Sao Paulo so as to afford himself a proper F1 farewell.

When you think about it, there are hundreds of options open to Lotus for the final two races. Some will help its 2013 plight and its attack on the constructors’ championship, some would help its short term funding, others its long term funding. And all of this at a time when word over the deal which should have assured its future finances, has gone particularly quiet.

Williams and Massa

Massa is Williams bound in 2014

Massa is Williams bound in 2014

So, Felipe Massa has his Formula 1 salvation and it has come in the form of the Williams F1 team. Funding will come from Banco do Brasil, which had in 2013 adorned the Carlin GP2 car of compatriot Felipe Nasr. He will partner the hugely talented Valtteri Bottas.

Of course the big news here is that Williams will split with Pastor Maldonado, and crucially with the cash cow that is PDVSA. That’s a huge investor to lose, although for PDVSA to have pulled out of its deal with Williams it will have had to pay handsomely. As such, Williams may well have come out of this with a decent wedge of cash to put towards pulling itself back up the grid.

With Massa it has a driver who knows how to win Grands Prix and lead a team to the very top. But is Massa the force he once was? It is such a debatable question. While there is no denying that he has not been the same since his accident, he has, since learning of his exit from Ferrari, shown flashes of the genius and racing brilliance which saw him crowned world champion for an agonizing 30 seconds in 2008. But flashes of brilliance do not form the basis of anything stable.

Perhaps this is just the chance he needs to re-establish himself as number one. With Mercedes-Benz engines, and momentum building around rumours that Ross Brawn is on the way to Grove, Massa could be arriving at the perfect time. There are also stories that Rob Smedley is on his way to Williams, although talk of that has been doing the rounds since before Raikkonen had even been confirmed to replace Massa at Ferrari. Smedley wants a new challenge, and coincidence may yet see him and Massa switching sides together.

Has Felipe had his cance? Yes you could argue that he has. Would I rather see young talent like Sam Bird, once a Williams tester, given a break? Absolutely. But Massa brings budget and experience, and while there is no place for sentimentality in the cold business world of racing, I am glad that he will be afforded one more crack. Whether he can make a greater success of his time at the team than his compatriot Barrichello however, is the ultimate question.

In the meantime, of course, the confirmation that Maldonado will not drive for Williams means that one of the most powerful and cash-rich players in the sport is now in open play on the driver market. While we always knew Maldonado was looking for a way out of Williams, we now know that he has it and so rumours of his availability have been replaced by cold hard certainty. Maldonado and his tens of millions of PDVSA bucks are in play.

McLaren and Magnussen

Kevin Magnussen is in play for 2014

Kevin Magnussen is in play for 2014

McLaren have signed Kevin Magnussen for 2014. Apart from the fact that the contract isn’t signed. So they haven’t. Not yet.

It’s sort of like saying Lotus have signed Hulkenberg because we know that a contract exists. But until it has been signed the deal isn’t done, is it? This isn’t Waynestock. Just because you book them doesn’t mean they will come.

What is fascinating is just how close Sergio Perez appears to be running to, at best, becoming a player on the open market and, at worst, losing his seat in F1 altogether. What a difference a year makes: from the golden boy of F1 and McLaren’s coming man, to being roundly considered a flop who will be replaced by only the third rookie McLaren will have taken a chance on in the last 20 years. And where would that leave Martin Whitmarsh, who 12 months ago was making noises about how the team was looking to build a future around Perez and give him time to flourish?

I’ve said from the outset that I didn’t think Perez was the right choice for McLaren for 2013 and beyond, but I will also say this: he has far exceeded my expectations this year. While he may not have been as consistent as the team had hoped, he has shown pace, grit and fight. This has not been an easy season for McLaren, but I think Perez has handled himself well and has delivered some fine performances.

When one looks towards 2014, it will be something of an odd season for McLaren. Huge technical regulation changes and the last year of their deal with Mercedes mean it may be a challenging, if not entirely wasted season. As such, perhaps the team would do well to put their rookie in the car simply to give him mileage before he and Button commit a full assault on the world championship in 2015? There’s a nice little bookend to it all as well, I suppose, in that Jan Magnussen, Kevin’s father raced for McLaren in 1995 – their first year with Mercedes power. There’d be an element of romance to his son racing in their final year as a partnership. But as we’ve already said, there’s little room for such romantic notions in F1.

Will Magnussen race next season in F1? Will he race for McLaren? Will he be the team’s third driver? Will he sign a deal with McLaren and race at Marussia? Right now, nobody knows. And that’s the truth. Sources can confirm this and that, but until pen is put to paper and we have the cold truth out in the open, it is all just talk. Yes there appears to be a very good chance we will se Kevin Magnussen in Formula 1 next season. And he’d deserve to be there. He’s hugely talented. But until ink hits paper, I’m not going to be nailing my colours to where or for whom he will be plying his trade in 2014 even if all the evidence seems to be pointing towards what would be a huge shock.

And make no mistake, it really would be a huge shock. Let’s be brutally honest here. When half of the F1 media centre can’t even be bothered to walk 100 yards to the GP2 paddock, let alone the extra 30ft to the GP3 paddock and are left baffled that there’s a 19 year old lad called Dany Cravat or something apparently racing down there who is going to be making his F1 debut next season, then even fewer will have been aware that Kevin even existed until he won the World Series title and suddenly twigged who the young, slightly awkward looking blonde chap in a McLaren shirt was.

The last two rookies McLaren fielded were Lewis Hamilton in 2007, and Kevin’s father Jan in 1995. If Kevin races for McLaren in 2014, it will be an almighty shock. Even to those who were aware of just how good Kevin was.

But, let’s play devil’s advocate and say that the deal isn’t done. Why let it play out? Why let this bubble to the surface the week of the US Grand Prix and the most important race of the season for Sergio Perez and his Mexican backers? Simple. Because Perez isn’t out of the picture yet. By allowing this to come out now, it applies tremendous pressure on the Mexicans to put more backing into McLaren after the rushed deal that saw Checo land the seat at the tail end of 2012. Why else has McLaren delayed the planned announcement of its 2014 title sponsor, which was due to take place the week after the Brazilian Grand Prix?

I get the feeling there is more to this than simple performance. Perez hasn’t been awful in 2013. Magnussen was impressive in WSR and absolutely mega in his McLaren young driver test. But ultimately, I get the impression that the presence of Magnussen, both with the team at races and now in the press, is to apply pressure on the Mexicans to up their backing of Perez and put more money into McLaren for 2014 and beyond.

I’m likely to be wrong and perhaps Perez really is out on his ear. There is an awful lot of potential investment behind Perez, and if McLaren do throw him away then he, along with Maldonado, could become the one of the most influential players in the driver market.

Lotus, Sauber and Force India have plum rides open for 2014. Silly season is reaching a tantalizing peak.

The last 48 hours have been fascinating. The next 48 could be equally as enthralling.

Get Ready to Rock

Buxton's-BIG-TIME-Bash-white

The 2013 US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, is almost upon us. If you’re booked in to attend the event, you have an amazing few days coming up in your life. Austin is the most brilliant city, and with college football and F1 both playing at home over the weekend, it’s going to be an absolutely massive sporting weekend in this incredible part of Texas.

Last season, with F1′s return to the US, and in association with The Austin Grand Prix http://www.theaustingrandprix.com, we launched Buxton’s BIG TIME Bash: an evening of friends and fundraising for Meals on Wheels and More, hosted by yours truly. The concept was simple… to develop the tweet-ups I’d been running for the past few years and make the event a bit bigger and a bit more enjoyable.

Last year’s event at Fado Irish Pub was hugely a successful evening where F1 fans and friends came out to celebrate the return of Formula 1 to America. Guests enjoyed a karaoke contest where the two best competitors were awarded stunning watches by TW STEEL.

Both Austin Grand Prix and I were beyond impressed with the generosity of the guests in attendance: $2,135.25 was raised for the Austin non-profit organization, Meals on Wheels and More, right before the Thanksgiving holiday. Meals on Wheels provides a range of services to those in need, including daily nutrituous meal delivery to home-bound individuals.

This year, we have dropped the karaoke and called in one of Austin’s best live bands, in the hope to meet and beat last year’s fundraising efforts. As such we’ve organised a number of amazing door prizes to be given out. When guests donate $5 at the door for Meals on Wheels, they’ll be eligible to win one of the many prizes throughout the evening, including team merchandise, luxury items and part of an F1 car. You can donate as much as you like, with a $10 donation leading to a second entry to the prize bucket… but a maximum of two entries per guest is the limit. You can, of course, donate as much as you like.

I know I said I would never charge on the door for a tweet up or an event, but I will make one thing as clear as crystal from the outset. Every penny taken will go direct to charity. I will not take a cent of anyone’s hard earned cash. Fans pay enough for a race weekend as it is, but there are some amazing prizes donated by F1 drivers and teams to be won, and I hope $5 won’t break too many people’s budgets. My intention with the Big Bash is to turn the tweet up into something from which the local community, along with everyone that attends, can benefit.

Handing out the prizes, we hope to welcome a number of racing faces, familiar to the passionate and knowledgable US crowd.

The party will take place indoors at Speakeasy on Congress Avenue. Join me, AGP and an international F1 crowd for an evening of live entertainment, unique door prizes, special guests and a few surprises.

NO RSVP OR TICKETS ARE REQUIRED FOR THE EVENT: JUST BRING A MONETARY DONATION FOR MEALS ON WHEELS AND BE READY TO KICK OFF YEAR 2 OF FORMULA 1™ RACING IN AUSTIN, TEXAS!

// DETAILS
Buxton’s BIG TIME Bash

Speakeasy

412 Congress Ave., Austin, Texas 78701 (On Congress Avenue, between 4th and 5th Streets)

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Doors at 7:00PM

Suggested $5 donation at the door to benefit Meals on Wheels and More

Be entered to win a fabulous door prize by making a donation at the door!