Alonso, Vettel and the emerging driver market

Aside

Mercedes AMG has been the dominant force of 2014 © James Moy Photography

Mercedes AMG has been the dominant force of 2014
© James Moy Photography

Given the dominance of Mercedes AMG and the comparative struggles of the teams we would normally expect to be their closest rivals, it is perhaps unsurprising that as we reach the mid-point of the season we should start to see reports of driver dissatisfaction and teams actively courting some of the biggest names in Formula 1.

Mercedes are sorted. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg love the team and the team loves them. Both have long term deals. They’re not going anywhere. But what of their rivals?

The big story today is McLaren’s alleged interest in a pair of drivers with six world championships between them. Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel would create a monstrously strong pairing for the Woking team, but is there any chance that such a swoop might actually occur?

The timing of talk that contact has been made between McLaren and Vettel fits both agendas. For McLaren, or indeed for any team, to have made an approach at this specific moment is a no-brainer. Sebastian has just endured his third retirement of the season. The Renault Power Unit is underpowered and unreliable. The RB10 does not suit his driving style. He is being dominated by his new team-mate. The team has told him to up his game. Adrian Newey, the architect of Red Bull’s success, has been confirmed to be stepping back from F1.

Seb's had one too many early baths in 2014 © James Moy Photography

Seb’s had one too many early baths in 2014
© James Moy Photography

It was in a moment of such uncertainty and disappointment, at Singapore in 2012, that Mercedes and Niki Lauda swooped in and convinced Lewis Hamilton to leave McLaren and move to Brackley. The smart F1 team boss will be trying to convince Vettel to do precisely the same thing right now.

Of course, for Vettel, such leaked stories don’t hurt either. It shows Red Bull that other people are after him and might well illicit a “buck your ideas up” to the team if they wish to hold onto his services.

Vettel has a contract with Red Bull until the end of 2015. At the time of his last extension it was described by Christian Horner as “a formality more than anything else.” Such a formality no longer exists. Vettel’s future is no longer a guarantee at the team that has brought him 38 Grand Prix wins and four World Championships. Whether at the end of 2015, or sooner should somebody stump up the cash to pay him out of the year remaining on his deal, there is a chance that Sebastian Vettel could move. And McLaren, with its Honda tie up next season, just as the magic of Ferrari, will surely be an attractive prospect.

Alonso's Ferrari years have gone by in a blur © James Moy Photography

Alonso’s Ferrari years have gone by in a blur
© James Moy Photography

The Alonso question is more complicated.

For years, the Spaniard has been vocal in his belief that he would spend the rest of his days racing for Ferrari. But recently the focus has shifted.

Back in 2011, Alonso extended his contract with Ferrari until the end of 2016. At the time, there seemed no reason not to believe that the momentum would carry him to a title he had narrowly missed out on in his first season with Ferrari in 2010. But in his four and a half years at the squad he has taken just 11 victories and this season just one podium. Questions have long been asked of his will to stay put.

At the start of last season, he was questioned if he would see out his deal.

“Yes, that’s what I’m going to do. It’s the best team in the world, there’s nothing above Ferrari.”

With the new regulations for 2014 expected to see Ferrari back to their highest levels of competitiveness, by September last year the Spaniard was even talking about extending his time at the team.

“I still have three and a half more years with Ferrari that I intend to respect and hopefully to increase a little bit.

“I want to finish my career in the best team in the world, which is Ferrari. At the moment we are not achieving the results that we want but we are working very hard. Next year we will have completely new rules that will open the door to many teams to stop the domination of Red Bull seems to have. We have high hopes for next year’s challenge.”

Those high hopes have been unfulfilled.

The car is not competitive. The Power Unit is not competitive. And the team itself is in turmoil as Luca di Montezemolo has, to all intents and purposes, taken back over at the top. Gone is Stefano Domenicali, replaced by Marco Mattiacci whom many in the paddock feel is little more than a front man for the big boss.

Alonso waves off the 2014 24 Heures du Mans © James Moy Photography

Alonso waves off the 2014 24 Heures du Mans
© James Moy Photography

For the first time, Alonso’s vision of the future is not of Formula 1, but elsewhere. His talk is not of finishing Formula 1 with Ferrari, but of where he finishes his career. And, having seen colleagues and compatriots Marc Gene and Pedro de la Rosa and now his good friend Mark Webber move to endurance racing, it is Le Mans that seems to have piqued his interest.

“I will [race at Le Mans], that’s 100%,” he told me in Austria. “I need to wait until I finish Formula 1 probably because it requires some tests, some training, some dedication.

“I’m a person that if I do something, I do 100%, I don’t do 50-50, so first I will try to do some more years in Formula 1, try to win championships, try to help Ferrari, and then one day, of course, I cannot be seated at home in the sofa, so endurance is a category that you can race when you’re a bit older with not big problems, and that will be my intention.”

He also admitted that such a move could even be with Ferrari.

“Maybe, to be honest, with President Montezemolo, we talk about it many times about this matter because he is very enthusiastic about the Le Mans race. He enjoyed a lot the win of the 458 with Fisichella, with Bruni this year.

“I know that there is some thinking about coming back with a big car, but the same as me, it’s not in the short term, because now we need to put in place the F1 project and we need to win here.”

To my mind, then, Alonso seems set on his future. Yes the frustration is there, but he is looking longer term. If he can help turn the team around in F1 over the next two seasons then he will. He wants to win and he wants another championship. Afterall, he always said he wouldn’t quit until he had three titles. His hope, I am sure, is that this title will come with Ferrari, possibly in his final year, before he moves with the Scuderia to Le Mans.

While I’m sure McLaren, just as any team, would love to have Alonso back, I don’t think it will happen. This has nothing to do with what happened back in 2007, but everything to do with the fact that I don’t believe Fernando Alonso is a man who likes to leave things unfinished. I think he regrets the manner in which his relationship with McLaren broke down, and I believe he now realises that if he had just accepted the team’s position he would by now have amassed three, possibly four or more titles and could still have finished his Formula 1 career at Ferrari. Older and more mature, the frustration of seeing some of his best years wash past him in uncompetitive machinery are somehow assuaged by the desire and the need to turn things around and succeed. Not least because there is nowhere else for him to go.

So Alonso stays put.

But will there be driver movement at the end of this year? Yes. I have few doubts.

Does Button still have the drive to go on? © James Moy Photography

Does Button still have the drive to go on?
© James Moy Photography

McLaren has long said it is not in a position of being able to confirm its drivers for next year, although with a huge shift to Honda power the team might wish to continue with the parity of its current drivers. Kevin Magnussen is not doing a bad job at all in his rookie season, and he has been a part of the team for many years as a junior driver. He was at the factory in Woking this morning, and gave a rousing speech to the entire staff, dedicating himself to them and impressing upon them his desire to help get the team back to the front.

As for Jenson Button, to be honest I’m just not sure he’s enjoying it anymore. This will be one of the hardest seasons Jenson has ever had to endure. The car is not as competitive as he would like, and whereas in years gone-by he and his beloved Dad would shrug their shoulders and look to the future, dear Papa Smurf is sadly no longer here to be the voice of solace and reason. Part of me thinks the joy is quickly fading for Jenson, and if he walks away at the end of the season I would not be at all surprised. Even with Honda coming back, I just don’t know if Jenson will.

Is McLaren an attractive enough proposition to lure a Vettel or an Alonso though? Mercedes has the fastest engine but McLaren currently lags behind the factory team, Williams and Force India. The team has clear deficiencies in its aero division, but it is believed some of this is down to systems, processes and a culture at McLaren which is in the midst of a shift under Boullier and Dennis. Some might also point the finger at Button, whom it has long been argued can develop an engine, but has never been that adept at pushing the correct avenue on aero and a car’s overall philosophy.

Perhaps an Alonso or, more realistically (…debatably) a Vettel, might help give the team that final kick towards a different culture and approach.

Is the party winding up for Raikkonen? © James Moy Photography

Is the party is winding up for Raikkonen?
© James Moy Photography

I also have major doubts over Kimi Raikkonen. To put it simply, he is being blown away by Fernando Alonso. Everyone expected fireworks between the two, but while Fernando continues to provide explosive performances in an off the pace machine, Raikkonen’s blue touch paper appears to have been so dampened that it simply won’t ignite. Right now, it is looking like Ferrari’s gamble has failed. Whether Kimi walks away or whether Ferrari pay him off, right now I can’t see the Finn returning in red next season.

So we’ve potentially got a seat at McLaren. If Vettel moves we’ve potentially got a seat at Red Bull (Kvyat to move up from Toro Rosso? Alex Lynn and Carlos Sainz Jr to race for Toro Rosso? I’d say so if Vettel really does leave). We’ve potentially got a seat at Ferrari. Whither Nico Hulkenberg? Whither Sergio Perez?

Talk is happening. It always happens. What people outside the sport probably don’t realise is that everybody talks to everybody, all the time… on the off chance they just so happen to talk at that one moment of doubt, and get the driver of their dreams signed up. Just as Niki Lauda did back in 2012, and within the space of dinner you’ve convinced one of the most sought after sportsmen in the world to join your team.

This year, perhaps more so than ever, it seems that some drivers have developed very itchy feet. The new engine formula has done more than shake up the competitive order. It’s shaking up the driver market too.

Hey, you, what’s that sound?

megaphone

OK kids…

Noise, or lack of it. Frankly I really didn’t want to have to write another article about this but here we go.

Toot Toot Mercedes tests its new "Megaphone" c/o James Moy Photography

Toot Toot
Mercedes tests its new “Megaphone”
c/o James Moy Photography

Today in Spain, Mercedes is testing a new “megaphone” exhaust outlet on the W05. Some are saying it looks ridiculous. Some are saying it sounds the same but a little bit louder. Some are saying it makes no difference at all. I’m not there so I can’t tell you one way or another.

But long before I was a motorsport journalist, I was a musician. Classically trained at Worcester Cathedral, I grew up not only using my voice as a Chorister but I was also a brass player, starting with the Cornet at the age of 6, moving up to the Trumpet when my lungs got a little larger, before taking on what is widely seen as the most majestic and hardest brass instrument of all, the French Horn.

So I’m going to come at this predominantly from a musical perspective, not an F1 tech angle.

The Megaphone c/o Mercedes AMG twitter

The Megaphone
c/o Mercedes AMG twitter

From the looks of things, what Mercedes has put onto the back of its car is fairly simple. I made the comment yesterday that it appeared rudimentary. The team said of course it was, it was just a development part. And, not wishing to jump the gun, I’m not sure from a musical perspective it was ever going to do much.

A megaphone at the 1908 Olympics

A megaphone at the 1908 Olympics

If we look at megaphones in their simplest form, their intention is to magnify noise. In a basic instance their construction is easy enough to replicate as all we need is a conical device… think about being at school and rolling up a piece of paper to amplify your voice, or being on a boozy night out and using a traffic cone to do the same. We’ve all done it.

In this regard, Mercedes was right to dub its development part a megaphone rather than adopt a name with any relation to a brass instrument… and here’s why.

The Brass Family

The Brass Family

The Brass family all have flared bells. This maximises the reach of the sound, whilst also creating a clean, smoother exit for the note. In the past, it is a design concept which has been adopted in Public Address systems at sporting venues around the world for that very reason.

PA Systems

PA Systems

But on the back of a car you are going to start pushing the exhaust gasses out in a far wider and less controlled arc, thus creating instability to the rear wing… thus I would imagine the decision to go with a straight cone, rather than a flared bell. Such a flared bell however would push the sound more to the extremities of the track where the microphones are positioned, as this megaphone will simply keep pushing the sound rearwards.

While the flared bell would produce a clearer and richer note, however, even that would not solve the issue.

Brass Mouthpieces

Brass Mouthpieces

The reason for this, stems from the point of input. What makes the note in a brass instrument, long before the air passes through the many feet of tubing, the valves and finally exits through the bell, is that initial entry through the mouthpiece. You’d be amazed at the sheer range and design differences in brass mouthpieces, all of which require the player to use a different embouchure. The embouchure, in layman’s terms, is how you pucker up your lips and blow.

Then we have the mouthpiece itself. A shallow cup would be used for an instrument in a high key, while a deep cup improves the tone for lower register instruments. The larger the cup, the larger the volume (think Tuba), while a small cup requires less strength but can limit the tone. Then there’s the shape itself and the internal construction, with a French Horn, for example, using a more tapered mouthpiece than almost every other brass instrument to create a rich tone.

The point is, if the sound at the entry point isn’t right, the sound on exit isn’t going to sound right either. No matter what type of outlet you have and no matter how loud you make it.

Fart down a trumpet, fart down a megaphone, ultimately all you’re going to get at the other end is a loud fart. Your arse is not going to magically create Mozart’s horn concerto.

Arse Trumpets c/o Monty Python

Arse Trumpets c/o Monty Python

A video has leaked out of testing today, and already people are saying the engine note is unimpressive, sounds worse, whatever. But the video is misleading. It features poor sound reproduction at a part of the track where the car is mid corner and not under constant acceleration and so it is impossible to determine what the true sound is. Factor in also that the film is taken from the side and the exhaust is only shooting the sound backwards, not flaring it outwards.

The FIA has taken sound experts along to Barcelona today and of course they are far better placed than any of us to decide whether the “megaphone” has made a difference and needs to be written into the rules. Of course it is Bernie who has pushed for this, so it’ll be interesting to note what FOM will be doing in terms of microphone positioning etc regardless of the outcome, because of course this will need to be tested further and then the teams will have be sure it won’t be causing them to lose performance et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

All of which just seems a bit daft.

The complaint that led to this development being tested is that the current engines are not loud enough, but such a complaint has come from a misplaced and uninformed position. What people actually miss is the pitch and the tone of the old engines. The problem with the sound has nothing to do with volume which can always be sorted in the mix.

These engines sound as they do. Amplifying them isn’t going to change that. At all.

Frankly, the only really sensible comment I’ve seen all day has been from my colleague Roberto Chinchero.

“My personal feeling: motorsport is a story of men fighting each other on the track. The rest are tools to do it.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Senna

I never met Ayrton Senna. I never even saw him drive in the flesh. And so I’m afraid that this article will give you no amazing new insight into him as a person or as a racing driver on the 20th anniversary of his passing. But May 1st 1994 changed my life forever, and would come to influence every day of my life that followed.

In 1994 I was a 13 year old chorister at Worcester Cathedral. As such, Sundays were always busy; Eucharist in the morning, home for Sunday lunch, then back to the Cathedral for Evensong. I sung so many times and for so many years in that magnificent place of worship that, over 20 years later, it has all pretty much merged into one. Except for that one Mayday.

I remember leaving the house to go and sing Evensong, wondering whether my hero was alive or dead. I asked the Precentor to say a prayer for him that evening, as I had that morning at Eucharist in memory of Roland. But walking through the front door at home that evening, my Father turned on the television just as the evening news was starting.

I ran to my room, slammed the door and cried.

Nobody at school the next day understood why I was so upset. I was pretty much the only kid in my class that loved Formula 1. Most of the other boys liked football and footballers simply didn’t just drop down dead. There was no reference point. To some, it was just a joke.

“What’s the difference between Ryan Giggs and Ayrton Senna?”

“Ryan Giggs can take a corner.”

I was a small, skinny, weedy child. Well behaved. In the choir. Never got into fights.

It was the only time in my life I ever punched anyone in the face.

That week, Dad bought me Motoring News and Autosport. My first copies of both publications. In their pages I found the solace for which I had searched so desperately. In the journalists and their writing, I found people just like me, people trying to make sense of the tragedy, people grieving. It helped me come to terms with the mortality of a man I had always seen as immortal. And it made me certain of what I wanted to do with my life.

I wanted to write those words. I wanted to let the geeky kid at school whose friends didn’t understand why he loved racing cars and racing drivers know that he wasn’t alone. I wanted to tell kids just like me why racing was cool. I wanted to help them understand, as those journalists had done for me.

Ayrton’s death, while devastating for me as a 13 year old, had given me purpose and a dream.

It was a dream I was to realise eight years later, whilst still at University, when I got my first gig writing for Joe Saward at GrandPrix.com. On graduation, David Tremayne employed me at Formula 1 Magazine. When the magazine was closed down with a few days to go until the start of the 2004 season, my parents lent me some money to buy a campervan, and I embarked on the European tour as a freelancer.

The first race was Imola.

Ten years on from that fateful weekend, and ten years on from the birth of my own personal dream, I was at my first race as an independent journalist. The fact it was Imola simply seemed like fate. Before I had even visited the media centre, I walked to the Senna memorial to pay my respects. Every race weekend I attended in 2004, I wore a red and white striped shirt on the Saturday and a yellow shirt with green and blue pin stripes on Sunday. One for Roland and one for Ayrton.

That helmet and that livery... Senna tests for ART at Jerez in 2006 c/o GP2 Series Media Service

That helmet and that livery…
Bruno Senna tests for ART at Jerez in 2006
c/o GP2 Series Media Service

As the years went on, my job role in motorsport changed and I moved to GP2 as press officer. And it was in that job, one evening of a winter test session at Jerez, that I got talking to a confident and beautiful brunette in the hotel bar. She had an eerily familiar face and the most incredibly magnetic personality. We consumed a bottle of 18 year old malt and talked about her Uncle Ayrton until the early hours of the morning and the hotel kicked us out.

Bianca and Bruno Senna are two of the nicest people I’ve ever met in racing. With so much expectation and pressure on them, so many people wanting a piece of them, their time, their history, I have always been staggered by their humility. They’re never too busy to stop and talk. Bruno, even on the way to the grid or to qualify, would always stop for a photo, to sign autographs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him turn away a request.

But of course, this was a career which Viviane, Bruno’s mother, never wanted for her son. I vividly remember Bruno explaining how he would creep downstairs in the middle of the night to watch F1 races with the sound turned down. After her brother, and tragically her husband, Bruno’s father, just a few years later had passed, Viviane couldn’t bear the thought of her son going and doing something dangerous. But racing was in his blood. When he broke his ribs karting in secret, Viviane phoned her old friend Gerhard Berger and begged him to do something about it.

He did.

And so it was that Bruno was to get his first test in single seaters.

Not what Viviane had meant at all. And Gerhard knew it.

Istanbul 2008 c/o GP2 Series Media Service

Istanbul 2008
c/o GP2 Series Media Service

I will never forget her face after Bruno had retired after hitting a dog at speed in the 2008 Turkish GP2 race. Freakish misfortune, obliterated right front wheel bouncing back towards the cockpit thankfully now held on by the very tethers brought in post-94… it was all too much. She sat at the back of the garage all alone, eyes fixed on an imaginary point far in the distance… trancelike, dazed… lost. A few idiot journalists were trying to get her to talk. They knew where her mind was taking her and the vultures wanted that Red Top headline quote. Her face was haunting. And haunted.

Of course, Bruno had always raced with the spectre of Ayrton hanging over him. That famous quote from his Uncle about how if we thought he was good we should see his nephew, only served to make things harder. How could he ever live up to that kind of billing? But Ayrton believed in Bruno, and he had good reason to, because it was Ayrton who had taught Bruno to race. On his own private go-kart track.

When Bruno finally graduated to Formula 1, he, Bianca and I talked about doing a book. Sadly, nobody was commissioning anything back then. Even a book on Jenson, who’d just won the championship, was a hard enough sell. In the end, we decided to do a feature story for F1 Racing magazine. And so it was that, in January 2010, I visited Sao Paulo as a guest of the Sennas. We drove for hours, to the outskirts of the city of Tatui and turned off down dirt tracks and through farmland to a place I had only ever seen in photographs. The number of journalists to have visited this place before could be counted on one hand. This wasn’t just anywhere. This was Ayrton’s home.

Bruno and I at Tatui c/o Luca Bassani

Bruno and I at Tatui
c/o Luca Bassani

The day will stay with me forever, and there were some immensely special moments. A few of which I’ll share.

We found an old bag, a mustard coloured holdall with maroon trim sitting on a shelf, its zips rusted shut, the colours dulled by a thick layer of dust. Stuck to the centre panel was a blue and white Japan Airways label, whose edges had curled over time. Its ownership was still visible, scrawled in blue ballpoint: “A. Senna – Suzuka International Hotel.”

“Shall we see what’s inside?” Bruno grinned. “I bet it hasn’t been opened since…”

He paused, suddenly realising the words he’d need to finish that sentence. We both knew the bag probably hadn’t been opened since its owner closed it himself for the last time 16 years previously.

“Typical Ayrton,” Bruno laughed, pulling it open. “It’s full of go-kart engines!”

Ayrton’s home today still operates as a working farm. But the part Bruno and I had come to see and reminisce over, hadn’t been used in almost two decades.

The go kart track

The go kart track

The go-kart track is covered with a thick layer of dirt. It would take a lot of cleaning up to get it ready for competition today, but you can get the gist of what made Ayrton tick as a racer from its layout. Every corner is different, tricky cambers, and all incredibly fast. We walked the track and then got to drive it, albeit in a minivan.

This was where Bruno received tutelage from arguably the greatest racing driver that ever lived… but to Bruno, he was just Uncle Ayrton. As we stood around chatting, we receive word there was something in one of the warehouses used primarily for storing tractors. We headed over and Bruno bounded up the stairs to the top level.

Upstairs was a small room, crammed full of go-karts behind a mini Lotus 99T pedal car. There were six karts, stacked two deep, stood against the wall, covered in a thick layer of dust. The white number 42 was Ayrton’s famous kart, and behind it the machine in which Bruno had taken his first win, tyre marks all up the sidepod. It was quite something, finding those karts and being in that place in the days before Bruno was to make his F1 debut. It was an honour to be a part of it.

Bruno and the karts

Bruno and the karts

That day was like visiting Graceland for me. Looking back now, I can still barely believe it happened. Being in the house, by the pool, looking through Ayrton’s things with Bruno, walking the go-kart track… it is one of the most incredible highlights of my career, and helped take me one step closer to the man I still thank everyday for inspiring me to follow my dreams in this sport.

Twenty years on from his death, Ayrton Senna continues to inspire. It seems amazing that so many young karters who never saw him race, still claim Senna to be their inspiration and their hero. He has become an almost mythical figure, deified within our sport. But why does his legend transcend? What puts him on that level?

Perhaps it is because he was taken too soon. Perhaps it is because of the tragedy that we never truly got to witness the passing of the baton from him to the next generation, at a time when we all believed motorsport had left its darkest days behind. His battles with Schumacher were only just beginning when Senna left us. What incredible heights those two might have pushed each other to achieve.

To me they were, and to some degrees still are, Formula 1’s Lennon and McCartney. I say this because Lennon wrote some awful crap as a solo artist, and yet is sanctified as the songwriter’s songwriter due, I believe in no small part to the fact he was torn from the world too soon. His death brought about a mythical status, whilst also serving to not permit him time to make too many musical faux pas. McCartney however lived to write The Frog Chorus and pen some pretty horrible duets with Michael Jackson.

Ayrton was ruthless, and he often pushed over the limit in his on-track battles. But he is revered as a hard-nosed battler. Michael was equally as ruthless, but in driving into Damon and Jacques, parking his car at Rascasse and trying to put Rubens in the pitwall at Hungary, he was afforded the opportunity of penning his own Frog Chorus.

Lennon and McCartney.

Michael never spoke much of Ayrton. The only real insight we ever truly got were his tears on equalling Senna’s win record at Monza in 2000. To many, this moment was a reflection of Michael’s true self, his true emotion and true feelings of loss over that mystical “what might have been.” But to a few within the Formula 1 paddock, there remains a belief that Michael had long carried a regret, some claim an unresolved feeling of guilt, over Ayrton’s death, knowing that at the time of the crash Senna had been trying to beat a Benetton which was, in the recent words of Ron Dennis, “absolutely black-and-white illegal in the sense of traction control” via the use of what has become known as Option 13.

I couldn’t tell you which it was. I wasn’t around the sport in 1994, and in my time in the sport since the early 2000s I was never close enough to Michael to be able to give any real insight into his true character.

Perhaps, on this the 20th Anniversary of Ayrton’s passing, Michael might finally have broken his silence. Perhaps we might finally have learned his true feelings. Perhaps not. Either way, it is utterly tragic that our daily concern for Michael is now far deeper and far more meaningful than what his thoughts on a given topic or his emotions about Ayrton might be.

It was Michael that won on that dark day in Imola, and with that victory began a new era in Formula 1. It has been an era of unprecedented safety, of pioneering technology which has made not only the sport but the world around us better and less hazardous. Would that have happened had the greatest driver in the world not been ripped from us? It is impossible to say, but certainly the impetus would never have been so great.

Similarly, without Ayrton’s passing I do not know if the cogs would have been set in motion that led me to where I am today. Without that chain of events, It is almost certain that I would not have had the fortune of doing this incredible job. And more importantly, I certainly would not have met the woman with whom I had the most precious and wonderful gift on this earth: my little girl.

Out of darkness, comes light.

Saudade. E obrigado Ayrton.

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.