Styling it Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kimi Raikkonen Chinese Grand Prix c/o James Moy Photography

Kimi Raikkonen
Chinese Grand Prix
c/o James Moy Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screw you Guys, I’m going home

Is Formula 1 in crisis? No. But you’d never know it given the hullabaloo in the press. Red Bull saying this isn’t Formula 1. Ferrari saying this isn’t Formula 1. Bernie saying this isn’t Formula 1. Well I’m sorry guys, but you’ve only yourselves to blame.

This new engine formula came about as a direct result of Renault holding the sport hostage. Formula 1 was living in the past said Carlos Ghosn, and Renault would not be hanging around unless it changed its regulations to move in line with more road relevant technology. If they’d had their way, we’d currently have flat fours. As it is, they backtracked slightly to the 1.6 litre V6s which have so divided the sport’s fanbase.

That Renault has arguably done the poorest job in preparing for this new formula is nobody’s fault but their own. They pushed for this technology. They made their bed. They should be made to lie in it.

Of course Red Bull and Adrian Newey are upset. Formula 1 has become an engine formula once again. Even Newey’s mighty aero wizardry cannot get his team out of the spot it finds itself in.

Ferrari is in a similar bind. How ironic that the great Enzo Ferrari once claimed that aerodynamics were for those that could not build engines.

Mercedes has simply done a better job than its rivals. And for that, Formula 1 apparently wants to tear up the new rule book and start again. I have to agree with Toto Wolff in his remarks that such an idea is “absurd.”

We are not yet three races into this new formula, and yet already we are told it cannot and will not work. I have no doubt that if Renault had produced an engine worthy of battle with Mercedes that we would not be having these arguments. Its a classic story of a kid picking up his ball and going home because he’s not winning the game.

But it is a game whose rules this child helped create. These new regulations didn’t just appear. They were written over months and years, having been digested and pondered by those who own supposedly the smartest brains in our industry. If Adrian Newey, Red Bull, Ferrari, Lotus, or any other team or Technical Director had an issue with these regulations then they should have voiced their objections then. Not now.

The absurdity of it all, is in the concept that competing entities can ever work together for the furtherance of the sport. Their own self interest is what got us to this point, their own insular views of the rules and how they might affect their own position in the sport.

Ferrari claims over 80% of the fans of Formula 1 don’t like the new sport, thanks to a fairly poorly worded and leading poll it conducted on its own website. One wonders the answers they would have had if Ferrari had won the first two races. One wonders what response a similar poll on a Mercedes website would garner.

One wonders why Ferrari and Red Bull are suddenly so concerned over the opinions of the fans, when every poll conducted in the independent domain over double points repeatedly sees well over a 95% dislike of the rule, and yet they have not seen fit to push for its eradication. Ferrari and Red Bull are not pushing for change for you, the fans. They are pushing for themselves, because they and their partners simply haven’t done as good a job as their rivals.

And therein lies the problem. Whatever changes are made, Mercedes and its teams will still be three months ahead of Renault and Ferrari. That is not going to change.

There is a short term simple fix for a few of the issues the sport is experiencing, however. Take away the fuel flow limit. Cars will rev higher, noise will be increased and drivers will be able to push. Yes engines will be under increased strain but that is for the teams to sort. There will still be disparity between the teams and engine suppliers, but in the short term at least its a fix that makes some sense.

If this was the FIA of Mosley times, I could see the Court of Appeal dismissing Red Bull’s appeal against Ricciardo’s Australian GP disqualification next week, and the very next day removing the fuel flow regulation. It was Mosley’s Machiavellian manner of politics that led to the strength of the FIA. And today’s sport requires such a strong armed approach.

You cannot have competing entities dictating rules. It does not and cannot work.

In an apparent move to appease the championship leaders, Bernie Ecclestone has this morning said that any move towards regulation change will be lead by Mercedes. And this must be seen as a positive step.

Because if the rules of this sport are changed significantly because the two teams considered to be the most important by the commercial rights holder, as proven by the unique financial rewards they individually receive for simply turning up, aren’t as competitive as they want to be, then the answer to the question I asked at the start of this article will need to be reappraised.

The Art of Noise

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Hello folks, Will Buxton here. Corporate schill. FIA apologist. TV puppet. Whack job. Clueless hack. Fucking idiot. Or any one of the other tags I’ve had attached to me over the past fortnight for simply stating that I actually don’t mind the sound of the 2014 Formula 1 power units.

Frankly, I’m getting a little tired of the fact that at the beginning of one of the most technically fascinating and competitively open championships for a generation, all we seem to be doing is arguing about noise. But that is all it is. Noise. Wasted energy. Yours and mine. And the cars’.

I wasn’t going to write a blog on the topic because over the past week, it is all anyone has seemingly cared or written about. I have retweeted numerous articles whose opinions I have agreed with, and yet still people are either unwilling or unable to accept that I am genuine in my statements that these things sound pretty cool. And so I am writing this so as to be unequivocal.

Here are the facts as I see them.

The 2014 V6 Turbos are not as loud as the 2013 V8s.

The 2014 V6 Turbos are not as high pitched and thus are not as exciting to listen to as the 2013 V8s.

They sound crap on TV.

But, in the flesh they really do sound quite awesome. And they sound different depending on where you stand. You are going to get a different impression of these cars if you are standing in the middle of the straight where the cars are at full revs, to if you are in the braking zone and are experiencing the fascinating sound of the two MGUs kicking in. If you stand mid corner you will hear tyre screeching as the drivers scrabble for grip with the huge torque being produced. If you stand on corner exit, you’ll hear the growl of the engine and watch huge black lines being laid down, tyres screeching as the cars wheelspin up to 5th gear.

More torque, less grip c/o James Moy Photography

More torque, less grip
c/o James Moy Photography

I’ve had messages from people here in Sepang who said that after watching the Australian Grand Prix on TV, they were worried about how it would sound for real. But they’ve been pleasantly surprised. Even Bernie Ecclestone admitted to me yesterday on NBCSN that the cars sounded far better in the flesh than they had done on TV. As such I put it to him that this was by far and away the biggest problem and the one that needs resolving. It is down to his company to bring to the wider world the sounds that we are hearing trackside. That is easier said than done, but it is pivotal to making this new formula a success as 99% of the fans of this sport do not have that luxury of standing trackside as we do.

If you look back at the articles post Australia, there was an interesting division between those who came out positively in favour of the new engines and their sound and those that did not. I would say that the largest percentage of those in favour of the new engines were at the track and heard the engines for real. The vast majority of the doom-mongers were bloggers who had received their impression of the new engines through the TV.

Now obviously, I appreciate that not everyone gets to visit the races and what I have never said is that what you hear at home is not disappointing. I am well aware that it is. All I have said, from day one, is to please give it time because what you are getting through your TV set right now is not in any way representative of what these cars actually sound like.

The point has been made and rightfully so that without these new power units, we would be down to two engine manufacturers in Formula 1, maybe even just one, as Renault and possibly Mercedes would have left the sport. Honda would not be coming back. One engine manufacturer would have pushed Formula 1 closer towards being a spec championship and I don’t know anyone that wants that.

These new power units are not green. Formula 1 will never be green. But it must be road relevant to keep the manufacturers interested. No we’re not endurance racing, but efficiency is hugely important. And it always has been. Build an engine that is more efficient with your fuel, carry less fuel, have a lighter car, go faster. Build a car that is more efficient with its tyres, require fewer pit stops. This is simply a continuation and an evolution of a basic tenet of motor racing.

Fans cried for a return to the halcyon days of the Turbo era, with more power than grip and drivers having to fight their cars rather than just point the thing and hit the throttle. Well that is what we have. Revel in it. Revel in the majesty of the best drivers in the world having to actually DRIVE.

If the FIA is to be believed, the future of motor racing is Formula E. Compared to that, the 2014 F1 power units are fire breathing, lung busting, animalistic growling monstrosities. Perhaps we should be thankful for what we’ve got.

The fact is, this IS what we’ve got. It isn’t going to change. The sport had to move forward and while V8s were all well and good, they were old technology and outdated. I liked the sound of a Cosworth DFV, but you place that alongside a 2014 F1 power unit and its like comparing Stephenson’s rocket with NASA’s Orion Spacecraft. Times change.

There have been suggestions that the teams are listening to the opinions of the fans and are worried about the negative response to the new sound. But from the comments I have received it seems there is a definite and clear divide. I’d say 40% like it and 40% hate it, while 20% remain unsure. Meanwhile, I’d estimate close to 95% of fans hate the idea of double points races, and yet the teams didn’t see fit to budge on that one.

What does not help is having an F1 team boss standing on the pitwall proclaiming “This is not Formula 1.” Because it is. This is how it is. He had a chance to influence the way this sport was going technically, and if he or his team failed then they have nobody to blame but themselves.

Mr E has been critical of the new power units c/o James Moy Photography

Mr E has been critical of the new power units
c/o James Moy Photography

What does not help is having the commercial rights holder come out so negatively before he has heard the cars in person, because while his backtracking this weekend is commendable, the damage has already been done.

What does not help is having the reigning world champion decrying the new engines as “shit.” A case of placing the sport in disrepute under Article 151c? Arguably. The last driver to say F1 rules were “shit” was Jacques Villeneuve and he was threatened with suspension. And would Sebastian even have dreamt of saying such negative things if his engine was powering him to pole positions and victories?

What does not help is having people sat at home, writing with supposed and, via the weight we give online media, unquestioned authority about how these engines sound in the flesh when they have only heard them through their TV.

So call me a hack. Call me a schill. Call me an annoying fanboy sycophant (After 13 years as a journalist and broadcaster in this industry, I think I like this one the best.) I’ve been called far worse. Fernando Alonso has said he’s not going to wade into the discussion as he knows he’ll get slammed from either side no matter what he says. Such is the wonder of social media.

But please, just give this new Formula time. The sound will improve, the way it is relayed to you at home will improve. And when it does, hopefully you will appreciate this new technology for what it is. An exciting new beginning for a sport that had to evolve.

Malaysia Preview: NBCSN Paddock Pass

Video

I’m joined in the Sepang paddock by FOM Technical Analyst and all round F1 tech legend Gary Anderson to discuss Red Bull’s disqualification in Australia and pending appeal. We also talk to the McLaren boys about leading the championship, Lewis Hamilton tells us of his confidence for the weekend, and the Williams drivers discuss their Jekyll and Hyde car.

Headline news

Over the last few days I’ve received countless tweets, mostly from folks stateside, linking to news articles detailing the treatment of grieving relatives of those lost on Malaysian Airlines flight 370.

“Ferrari F1 Team kicks grieving relatives of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 out of hotel rooms”

“Malaysia jet search: Grieving relatives forced to switch hotels as F1 crews move in”

“Grieving Families Booted From Hotel for Formula One Grand Prix”

Kicked. Forced. Booted.

Strong stuff.

But sometimes we would do well to look beyond headlines and actually think for a moment.

There are two hotels at the centre of all this. One is the Sama Sama, formerly the Pan Pacific. It is a large hotel, connected to the airport by a walkway, and was for many years the accreditation centre for the Grand Prix. It is still used by many teams and sponsors and one imagines it will have been booked solid on Grand Prix week for over six months.

The other is Cyberview Resort and Spa. It is nowhere even close to the airport. It is a luxury retreat often frequented by drivers. I stayed here a few years ago for two days as a treat to myself before the race started. Two days was all I could afford. It isn’t cheap.

But reports say a dozen Chinese relatives were “forced” out of this hotel, and that Malaysia Airlines took the decision to move itself from Sama Sama.

There’s a lot of bile being spat at the moment about terrible Formula 1 and the heartless bastards who have moved the families. But just take a moment.

What do you think happened? Ferrari turned up at their hotel, found their rooms inhabited by grieving relatives and haughtily ordered the manager to eject these weeping individuals, post haste?

It’s not as if Formula 1 travel is the work of an instant. Flights and hotels are booked months, sometimes years in advance. Repeat bookings at hotels are not uncommon.

The hotel managers would have been well aware when taking the families in that their establishment was fully booked for Grand Prix week. If they failed to make Malaysia Airlines or the families aware of this then the root of this problem lies with them.

But I am also quite sure that nobody expected the search for flight 370 to be entering a third week. What those poor families are going through I cannot even fathom.

But Formula 1 has not booted, thrown or kicked them out of anywhere. They have simply been moved to another hotel because the one in which they had been placed was fully booked for the week commencing March 24th. And I am perfectly sure that it will have been the hotels themselves that made the families and/or the airline aware of their need to switch hotels, days before any crew arrived. The F1 teams claimed to have done the booting probably had no idea that any of this was happening.

It saddens me that some media outlets would chose such an easy target as the grief of those families, to come up with such a nasty and ill thought through story. And that so many would unflinchingly believe what they are spoon fed by the media at large, without taking the time to do a little bit of thinking for themselves.

So what do we know?

The sun has set on pre-season testing c/o James Moy Photography

The sun has set on pre-season testing
c/o James Moy Photography

This time next week I will be touching down in Melbourne for the start of a Formula 1 season, the anticipation for which I have rarely felt. It’s not just going to be the first day back at school. Nor the first day at a new school. It’s going to feel like the first day at a new school in a different country, speaking a whole new language. It is a veritable voyage into the unknown… and I can’t wait.

We always say you can’t learn much from testing, but that’s not altogether true. In past years, laptimes have been a not blind science. With reliability reaching almost bulletproof levels, yes sandbagging occurred, but more often than not we would arrive in Australia with a pretty good handle on who was where. And when laptimes didn’t give the clues, we could always rely on body language to gauge general confidence.

For 2014, Formula 1 has undergone one of the largest technical regulation shifts ever seen. Winter testing has not run smoothly for a single team, and not one of them will be departing for Australia in anywhere near confident mood. To us, as fans, and to those of us fortunate enough to make our careers narrating the sport to a global audience, this is manna from heaven.

So after 12 days of pre-season testing, what do we know?

Even the Toro Rosso looks good from certain angles c/o James Moy Photography

Even the Toro Rosso looks good from certain angles
c/o James Moy Photography

First of all, yes the cars look weird and they sound weird. But after ten minutes you don’t really notice anymore and you start to appreciate what they now are. In profile, you don’t notice the silly noses. That will mean more to those at the tracks than watching on TV as I imagine most televised shots will still have a three quarter or head on element, but really, they’re not as offensive as the still photographs suggest.

As for the sound, no its not as raucous. It’s quieter, but I would say rather interesting. There’s something of a sweet high note, with almost sci-fi whooshes, whizzes and pops under braking as the energy recovery and turbo can be heard well above the noise of the Internal Combustion Engine itself.

And what of that Power Unit itself, from the ICE to the ERS and turbo? You are going to hear voices this season that decry the new technology as being the anathema of Formula 1. But to them I say this: the brain trust in the sport has produced in 18 months what it would normally take road divisions a decade to perfect. The creases will be ironed out, the issues will be solved and you will get used to the sound. Revel in the technical genius that has created such an incredible development in the harnessing of energy and the delivery of power.

These engines are producing so much torque, drivers are wheel spinning up to fifth gear. Check this out from the twitter account of Auto Motor und Sport’s Tobias Gruner, comparing Massa’s fastest lap from testing in Bahrain Vs Rosberg’s pole lap from last year.

Screen shot 2014-03-04 at 17.38.04

Look at the top speed. Massa took 19.2kph more out of his Mercedes engine in testing through the speed trap. And, if the stories are true, we’re still not seeing the Mercedes power units cranked up to 100%. The only reason the laptimes are slower is because the teams and drivers can’t yet get the power down. There simply isn’t the mechanical grip to do so. And all this power is coming from a brand new engine whose capacity is smaller than the free bottle of Coke you get with your take-away pizza. Think about that. It’s incredible.

Right, what else do we know?

The balance, as far as engines go, looks like this. If you have a Mercedes you have every reason to be confident. If you have a Renault, you don’t. And if you have a Ferrari you don’t really know where you are, but it’s looking better than if you had a Renault.

While there are no such things as certainties in racing, we can say with some confidence that Red Bull Racing are as close to panic as they have been in half a decade. Their car is not reliable, and when it is it isn’t fast enough. Some estimates put them two months behind their rivals. When asked by my colleague from Sky Sports News Rachel Brookes in Bahrain if the team was designing a B Spec challenger for 2014 given their struggles with the RB10, Christian Horner failed to deny it. Things really are that bad.

A familiar sight in testing for Red Bull Racing c/o James Moy Photography

A familiar sight in testing for Red Bull Racing
c/o James Moy Photography

This is great news for Formula 1. It means the benchmark team of the past four years will not have things its own way and will have to fight like it has never fought before to retain its world championships. It means Adrian Newey is fallible. It will be a test the likes of which the team is yet to endure, one which some quarters would argue they are overdue and of which they are only too deserving. A reality check, if you will.

From a driver’s perspective, it will give us an opportunity to see how Sebastian Vettel copes with a car which is not the best, nor even we think in the top three… possibly even top five. He hasn’t been in that position since he drove for Toro Rosso. His team-mate however has all too recent knowledge of such a plight.

For Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing’s woes could not have arrived at a better time. It takes the almighty and arguably crippling pressure off his shoulders as he beds himself in at his new team. Rather than being thrust straight into a pole and win shootout with his 4-time champion team-mate, Dan will be part of a team pulling together to get on top of its greatest challenge. The Australian is used to having to pull rabbits out of hats. Seb isn’t used to fighting for scraps. Dan is. For Red Bull Racing, even making Q3 could be an achievement. With expectations so low, Ricciardo will have time to adjust to his new surroundings and shine.

2014 Dark Horses c/o James Moy Photography

2014 Dark Horses
c/o James Moy Photography

But while the multiple championship winning benchmark of the 2010s is on the back foot, the team that was doing all the title winning over two decades previously looks to have finally turned a corner back towards the front of the field. Williams could not have timed its switch to Mercedes engines from Renault power more perfectly. With Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas they have an experienced lead driver with a new lease of life and a youngster seen as a world champion in waiting. The team has the strongest technical department it has known for many a year. It has a raft of new and lucrative sponsors, including the worst kept secret of 2014, the return of Martini and their iconic livery as title partner (to be unveiled in London on Thursday.)

Its car is reliable. It is fast. There is every reason to think Williams could be the dark horse not just for race wins, but possibly even the title in 2014. In a season in which focus will be placed on the Power Unit and the recovery and use of energy, Williams Engineering’s offshoot Williams Hybrid Power looks set to be a tremendous feather in the team’s cap.

While Force India and McLaren also look strong, Williams is by far the strongest Mercedes customer team. But if Williams is to take the plaudits in 2014, it must take on and beat the factory Mercedes squad and this will be no easy feat. As we depart for Australia there are no two ways about it: for the first time since 2009 and its former guise as BrawnGP, the boys from Brackley are the dialed-in favourites.

It is all smoke and mirrors right now, but in Bahrain I heard talk that the team was nowhere near running at 100% and had a second and a half in hand. I had a brief word with a source at the team before I left testing. He laughed, winked and replied, “A second and a half? Not quite that much.”

Merc are undoubted favourites c/o James Moy Photography

Merc are undoubted favourites
c/o James Moy Photography

While the team won’t be drawn on exactly how big their advantage is, there are some who believe it could be even greater than the 1.5 seconds bandied around at testing.

From what I understand from a high level independent source after testing had finished, the reality could be even more astonishing. If the data adds up as he believes and the factory Mercedes team was able to run their cars at 100%, right now they would win every Grand Prix not by a few seconds but by two clear laps.

Two. Laps.

So long as their reliability holds up, his feeling was that Mercedes AMG won’t need to go anywhere near showing their hand in the early races. They should be able to use the season to slowly build confidence and reliability and just as everyone thinks they’ve caught up, Mercedes can turn it up and blow everyone away again.

The reason for this is the team’s superior grasp not only of the engine but, just as with Williams, an incredible handle on energy recovery and its usage. This will be the key in 2014, and right now Mercedes has the edge.

So does Mercedes AMG really have such a huge advantage? Can Williams truly fight for wins? Is Red Bull really in trouble? I honestly don’t know.

Next week we will learn who stands where at the start of one of the most eagerly anticipated F1 seasons in a generation.

Who will be smiling in Melbourne? c/o James Moy Photography

Who will be smiling in Melbourne?
c/o James Moy Photography

Jacques, Juan Pablo & the future of Indycar

I am a spotty, squeaky voiced 14-year old pupil at Lord Wandsworth College boarding school in Hampshire, England. As we count down the days to the under 18s disco at Harpers nightclub in Guildford and our best and pretty much only chance to awkwardly kiss a girl, our days are filled with new, seemingly life changing music. Oasis’ “What’s The Story Morning Glory”, Pulp’s ”Different Class” and Radiohead’s seminal “The Bends” are on constant rotation. I have a poster of Drew Barrymore on my wall. Windows ’95 has just been released and the Encarta CD ROM has blown our minds. A whole encyclopedia… on a disc. Forrest Gump wins the Oscar for Best Picture. Bill Clinton is in his first term as US President. OJ Simpson goes on trial for murder.

The 49ers win the Super Bowl. Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras win Wimbledon.

And Jacques Villeneuve wins the Indy 500.

1995 was 19 years ago. That’s a hell of a long time. An awful lot has changed. And so, when it was announced earlier this week that JV would be contesting the 2014 Indianapolis 500 after an almost two decade break, it was rightfully seen as a pretty big deal.

He will be racing a third entry from Schmidt Peterson, and made all the right noises in the PR blurb.

“To have the opportunity to return to IndyCar racing and the Indianapolis 500 is something I never thought possible,” Villeneuve said. “The memories I have there will stay with me for the rest of my life, and I’m excited to create new memories in 2014.”

Villeneuve, never one to shy away from a decent soundbite, hasn’t exactly been Indycar’s biggest fan over recent years. But he admitted that the new direction the championship had taken was pivotal to his desire to return.

“I guess it started when they started going back to road racing, going back to a mix of tracks, going back to the IndyCar that I knew, basically. Then came this new car, which was quite a surprise with the spoilers and everything.

“I was dubious until the first time I saw it racing, then I realised how amazing it was, how close the racing was for open-wheel racing. It’s never heard of anymore in modern days. That’s how racing used to be.

“When I started seeing that last year, I started getting excited again, just because the racing was amazing, the cars looked fast and aggressive, it looked hard on the drivers, and the battles were fierce, which is all what I love about racing.”

Not Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins. Actually Jacques Villeneuve.  c/o James Moy Photography

Not Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins. Actually Jacques Villeneuve.
c/o James Moy Photography

For Indycar, this is hugely positive PR. A champion who had become disillusioned with the series sees a bright new path being forged by the sport and wants to be part of it. The fact that this comes in the year when another mighty champion in Juan Pablo Montoya returns, should only add weight to the Indycar PR machine.

I do question, however, whether at 42 and with a lack of running in the DW12, Jacques will be ready. Sure, people will point to the fact that Al Unser won Indy 500s 17 years apart. They’ll remind us all that Emmo came back in his 40s and that this is the wonder of the 500. I get that, really I do. I love the history and the unique nature of the event and that, in the right car and with luck, anything can happen.

Jacques himself might argue that the last time he raced the Indy 500 the cars were faster and thus his task in 2014 is not so grand. Pole was set at 231.604 mph in 1995. Last season, Ed Carpenter’s pole speed was 228.762 mph. That’s only a 2.9 mph deficit. Not a huge difference. Factor in also the immensely physical nature of the DW12 and that lack of testing and it becomes clear that JV will have a huge challenge in May and will have to make the most of the practice week before Pole Day. If it rains like it did in 2013, his challenge will be greater still.

Juan Pablo Montoya is training his guts out to be ready for 2014. He cannot afford for his season to be a failure. And ultimately, that is the risk for both drivers here. Villeneuve talks of the desire to write a new chapter, to make new memories. But what if those memories are miserable?

Montoya hitting the gym - hard c/o @jpmontoya Twitter

Montoya hitting the gym – hard
c/o @jpmontoya Twitter

Kimi Raikkonen returned to Formula 1 and made a huge success of it, rejuvenating a career on the skids. Michael Schumacher made an F1 comeback and failed to win, scraped a solitary podium and for the first time in his F1 career, couldn’t beat his team-mate. Three years running. So which will the JV and JPM comebacks prove to be? Will it add to the legend, or take the shine off something that glistened so perfectly?

In Villeneuve’s case, I fear it may be an ego-driven folly destined to lead only to disappointment. I say this purely from the standpoint that his focus is on Rallycross, as it should be. And that, after 20 years, if he’s not coming back to win the Indy 500, why even bother?

Then there’s the other question… should Indycar be promoting its past glories over its potential future stars?

While it is easy to claim Villeneuve is denying others an opportunity to race, the simple fact is that Jacques Villeneuve is not taking anyone’s seat. This third entry for Schmidt Peterson has been lined up specifically for him, although it was interesting to note the omission of mention of any solid funding for the drive at the announcement.

Villeneuve Vs Montoya Vs the Indycar gang we’ve come to know and love over the past few years is a huge selling point. The only way you could improve on that is to bring Little Al, Paul Tracy, Gil de Ferran, Bobby Rahal and Mario or Michael Andretti back into the fold. But then you’re bordering on the old GP Masters concept and Indycar already has enough detractors claiming it is a retirement series.

There remains, however, a question over who will fill the empty slots to make up the 33 car field for Indy as at present the grid sits way under quota. And this is by far the larger issue here.

While my first impression of Villeneuve’s return to the Indy 500 was negative in that I didn’t see the point in him risking his reputation for a vanity project, he’s a grown man and can take responsibility for his own choices, no matter how stupid we may think they are. On reflection I have come to see that the positive aspect is that in 2014, alongside Montoya, we will have the only two drivers in history who have competed at the Indianapolis 500, Brickyard 400 and United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis lining up to go head to head for the Borg Warner.

As such there has perhaps never been a greater opportunity for driver managers and the money men to get funding for their driver for the 500. And, who knows, if these folks do their jobs properly, perhaps we’ll even see 35 cars or more and a Bump Day that actually means something. Because the 2014 Indy 500 is going to be a huge draw.

Hand on heart, I’d rather be at Indy than Monaco for the Grand Prix this year.

Who fills those seats is the big question now, and I hope that the return of Villeneuve and Montoya starts to help Indycar promote itself better, something in which it has been woefully ineffective in recent years. With Dario Franchitti hanging up his helmet for 2014, there are some real stars waiting to shine. But one questions whether Indycar is marketed well enough to allow them to do so.

Half the grid are ageing to a point that they will not, or should not, be in a position to carry on for much longer. But there is, as yet, a lack of an influx of hungry and talented youngsters to make the older guard fear for their positions or feel challenged on track. Sure we’ve seen some great new talent enter the fold over the past few seasons, but not enough. So where is the future of the sport?

Where does America's future lie for single seaters? c/o James Moy Photography

Where does America’s future lie for single seaters?
c/o James Moy Photography

I put this question to Randy Bernard a few years ago before he got the chop. There is no denying that the man got some things wrong during his tenure at Indycar, but in his vision for the future I believe he was spot on.

He wanted Indycar to become a driver’s first choice, not second or third on the list of where they wanted to be. His focus, he told me, was on GP2. His reasoning was simple. In GP2 you had some of the world’s greatest young racing talent, but their chances of getting to F1 relied solely on bringing enough money to the table and if you didn’t have $10 million you weren’t going to get a chance. Indycar budgets, by comparison, were and are comparable to GP2 budgets at closer to $2 million. Bring in the talent, watch the racing shine, draw in the sponsors and all of a sudden you have more funded drives and a full field of quality racers… those very same racing talents that F1 should have been nurturing instead of financially screwing.

I agreed with him completely. I still do. But even if you get these talented youngsters over to the US, Indycar has a problem. It can’t market itself. Because it doesn’t know what it is or what it wants to be.

If I have learned one thing since starting in American television, it is that the US fanbase is fiercely loyal to what it loves. We see that with the F1 broadcast and how many fans tune in at insane hours of the day. But if there is one thing that US sports fans are loyal towards, it is their country. It’s no surprise that the biggest sports are all national sports. The great rivalries are town against town, State against State, University against University. The most successful championships are those that play their seasons exclusively within the USA. Fans will watch because they want to, not because you tell them to.

This is one of the reasons why Formula 1 has struggled to get a foothold. It thinks it is the big player, the most important championship in the world, and so from the outset that causes resentment. No band ever broke America by saying they were the best. The Beatles didn’t turn up and tell everyone they were better than anyone else. They played the Ed Sullivan show, were announced as a popular beat combo from Liverpool, and showed everyone they were the best. They changed the world.

In Formula 1’s case, a bit of humility would go a long way. It would never do such a thing, but I’ve always thought F1 would do itself no harm in acting as a support event at a NASCAR race to draw in new fans, by providing a different show to what the main players were selling.

But by far Formula 1’s biggest issue in America is that it dips its toe into the US market just once a year. Formula 1 will never have the same bedrock of support as NASCAR because NASCAR races so often and so widely across America that it is possible for most of the populous to see a race with their own eyes. NASCAR promotes American heroes to American fans from one coast to the other. Formula 1, as a World Championship, will never be able to do that.

But Indycar could. And yet it doesn’t.

When Ryan Hunter-Reay won the Indycar Series in 2013, the championship’s marketing department should have PR’d the hell out of him. A good looking, wholesome, American family man had just taken on the world and won in an American–based racing championship. But what did they do? Next to nothing.

And it’s sad. I love Indycar. It is proper racing, hard racing, populated by a paddock full of talented people and incredible racing drivers who don’t get the international credit they deserve. It isn’t a B championship to F1. It stands on its own and should be promoted as such. It can cross the boundaries of being a racing series which races almost exclusively stateside and yet boasts an international cast of some of the finest racing drivers from around the world.

In order to do that, however, it needs to figure out that this is precisely its USP to American fans and advertisers. And then it needs to promote itself as such.

When we look at this year’s Indy 500, we are presented with an example of how this championship can get itself back on the offensive. If, by some monumental failure by the sport, the 33 spots at Indy fail to be filled, I would propose that Indycar does the following: field the cars itself. Slap Indycar logos all over them, dedicate the liveries to charities, do whatever they want to with the cars. But field the cars themselves. Take the financial hit. And open it up. Run a three-day shootout in which you invite the best talent from around the world to come to Indianapolis and compete.

Left behind. F1's next generation could be Indycar's. c/o James Moy Photography

Left behind. F1′s next generation could be Indycar’s.
c/o James Moy Photography

Bring over the Conor Dalys, Sam Birds and James Calados, Fabio Leimers and Stefano Colettis, Antonio Felix da Costas and Luca Filippis. Get Robin Frijns and Geido Van de Garde, and ask Simona to jump in one last time. Ask Bruno Senna to give it a go, draw Nelson Piquet Jr in from NASCAR. Don’t limit it. Bring the talent and the names and the next generation, run them against each other in a controlled practice environment and pick the best five or six to run in Indycar funded seats.

If one of them wins or even comes close to winning, it’s a huge story.

Just look at what Carlos Munoz did last year. He very nearly Montoya’d it and won on his debut. It can be done.

Take the financial hit, promote the hell out of it, and give new talent in Indycar a shot. Show them that America really is the land of opportunity and that Indycar really is a championship that can stand on its own feet. Give the established order a kick up the backside, reinvigorate the fanbase, and give people something to talk about.

Most importantly, give the sport a vision of its future.

While I love the idea of JPM and Jacques going wheel to the wheel for the win at Indy, it’s not the future, is it?

In the past 19 years, a lot has changed. Some things, though, have not. I still love Oasis and have a thing for Drew Barrymore. And the Indy 500 is still one of the biggest races in the world.

Nineteen years ago a young guy turned up, took the race by the throat and from two laps down, won it. This year he returns no longer a kid but a champion, a man, and, to some degrees, the embodiment of the establishment he took on and beat two decades ago. If his return is to mean anything, then it must be because the flame of hope is being passed from one generation to the next. If that new generation isn’t there to do to Jacques, Juan Pablo and all the others, what they once did as kids themselves, and more importantly if nobody feels the desire to watch, then their presence means nothing, they are proving nothing, and the series has no hope left at all.

JV wins the 500 in 1995 c/o @Indycar Twitter

JV wins the 500 in 1995
c/o @Indycar Twitter