One More Lap

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Have you ever had a moment so vivid, so crystal clear, so colourful and bright, so stunningly perfect, a moment born of such passion, hope and expectation that as it unfolds before your eyes you are forced to question your very lucidity and thereafter to forever wonder if you really were dreaming all along?

Shifting into seventh gear, right foot planted to the floor, heading uphill on the back straight at Circuit Paul Ricard at the wheel of the Lotus E20, the Renault R31 V8 engine screaming behind me, its every vibration sending pins and needles through my fingertips, life flying past me at almost 300kph… I hold my breath.

This isn’t really real. Is it?

GROUPE_1

It had been quite a year since I first set foot inside a single seater, at the wheel of the MSV BRDC Formula 4 car at Snetterton on a cold and rainy British summer’s afternoon, to find myself in the sunny South of France about to drive a Formula 1 car, via Florida and the Ferrari Winter Series. But there was no way I felt anywhere near ready to drive something so fast and powerful… and expensive.

It’s not as though you’re thrown straight in though. We media types had been invited down to Ricard to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the iRace programme, run by the Lotus F1 Team. It was started back in the day when the team raced under the Renault banner, but the entire concept has been overseen by Frederic Garcia, whom I have known since my days in GP2. Our paths would often cross due to our Renault connection, and also in no small part to the amount of time we both used to spend at Circuit Paul Ricard.

I spent so much time at the circuit between 2004 and 2008 that Ricard became my one true happy place and to this day there are few parts of the world that fill me with as much joy. I’ve lost count of the number of track variations, days, laps and minutes I have seen pass by over the seasons at this place, and yet for the first time I was to get the chance to drive the track myself.

This is not going to go well...

This is not going to go well…

I’d be joined by colleagues David Croft (Sky Sports F1 HD), James Roberts (F1 Racing Magazine), Juan Fosarolli (Fox Sports South America) amongst others… oh, and ex F1 racer Taki Inoue. And our first task was of course to give the circuit a quick once over. We’d be driving formation 3D (my personal favourite from the GP2 days). From there, we’d get limbered up with some massages before taking a spin in a Formula Renault 2.0.

The cockpit felt familiar, and not overly dissimilar to the Formula Abarth I’d raced in Florida. The main difference was the simplicity of the wheel and the replacement of the sequential handle with wheel mounted paddle shift. In terms of aero, power and handling though, the two were very similar.

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The first half hour is spent behind a safety car, taking things easy. Too easy. In spite of the pace picking up a little towards the end, I held back to try and find some space but on somewhat cold tyres, spun on the exit of Turn 1. I kept the rears lit and spun around to pick up the back of the pack having left a nice big black donut mark down at the first turn.

Then we are released on our own. It felt good to be back at the wheel of a single seater, even more so with the complete lack of any pressure at all. The day exists for fun, to allow anyone the chance to experience something that few think they ever could, and over the last 10 years iRace has given hundreds the opportunity to live their dreams and drive an F1 car.

iRace FRen 4

I’m hitting the Formula Renault’s steel brakes at the marker points and they’re proving way too early, so I take larger and larger chunks out each lap through. A few laps in I go way too deep and lock the rears at Turn 1. I catch it… sort of… half spinning but not exactly making the corner either. I turn around and get going again, dialling the brake bias forward. The car feels better under braking, more on its nose, but as I exit the final turn I’m called into the pits.

“You’re braking too late and too aggressively,” I’m told. “You’re spinning under braking.”

“Only once,” I reply. “I just locked the rears for Turn 1 so I’ve dialled the bias forward a bit.”

“Oh… OK.” A knowing smile. “On your way.”

We are given our telemetry after the session. I’m happy with my braking shape and strength. The guys however say I’m braking too hard. At least I am for the steel brakes on the Formula Renault. Still, it puts a seed of doubt in my mind at precisely the time when I wanted my confidence to be up. But there’s a good reason for that. I’m about to be let loose in the car that won the 2012 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. We may be at Paul Ricard, one of the most advanced racetracks in the world with mile upon mile of run off, but sending out a relative novice high on confidence is a sure-fire way to a massive repair bill.

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Pastor Maldonado arrives to give us a few final words of advice before stepping into the car. He tells us of his first laps in an F1 car when he drove a Minardi back in November 2004. Even for the hugely experienced, race and championship winning Maldonado, the experience was one he recalls in acute detail and one which he assures us for which he was nowhere near ready.

Which means we’re definitely not.

Our briefing on driving the E20 passes by in a haze of nerves. All in all though, we’re told it is not going to be as tough as we think. Wing levels are cranked up, traction control is at its maximum, there’s the blown diffuser… drive it fast or the aero won’t work. High revs. Brake hard to keep the temperatures up. Enjoy it.

And as each colleague returns, that’s the repeated phrase.

“You can go so much faster than you think. Don’t hold back, just go for it.”

The same line, almost identically, is repeated by everyone who gets out.

And then it’s my turn.

iRace seat fit

I drop myself into the car, but in order to hit the pedals I’m perhaps a touch too low in the tub. There’s no time for bespoke seats to be made, of course, so it’s the best we can do. Belts strapped tight, I’m now exceptionally nervous. I feel so silly. Why the hell am I nervous? I know the track, I’ve got my license, I’ve been racing against Marciello and Fuoco and Verstappen this season… I’m not an idiot, and the car has been set up for absolute novices.

The engine is fired up and it roars. The whole car vibrates with a beautiful, warming hum. We roll forward into the pitlane. Visor down. Hand clutch in, engage first gear, slowly release the clutch and off we go.

The E20 gently eases forward as the revs and speed increase. I lower my right foot down and we rocket forward. It’s the kind of immense response you get from the throttle on a trials bike when you’re used to a Vespa. The slightest touch on the pedal and you are thrown back in your seat. And it feels glorious.

Out of the pits and already up to fourth gear before braking for turn one and shifting down to second. Back hard on the throttle and hold it in third through the right hander, shifting up to fourth before getting on the brakes and dropping down again through the gears for the uphill, down dale esses.

I’ll be honest. By this point I already dislike the carbon brakes. There is maybe an inch and a half of feel in them. That’s it. I’d got so used to steel brakes and the relatively long brake pedal one gets to play with to modulate braking and control brake shape in the other single seaters I’d driven, that to suddenly have it all occur in a few centimetres of movement is nigh on impossible to wrap your head around so quickly.

For now though, I don’t care. I hit the right hand apex on the S, and the track opens up ahead of me. I press my right foot to the floor and hold my breath. Third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh… it’s like being in control of your own rollercoaster.

iRace F1 2

My eyes stand out on stalks, as my brain struggles to keep up with the speed of what it is having to compute. Its cogs simply won’t turn fast enough, and so what stands in front of you is a blur of colour and light and noise, rushing towards you along a strip of grey rising uphill to a vanishing point. It is the most exhilarated and yet the most terrified I have ever been.

The brake marker appears and I lift, shifting down to fifth, setting myself up for the final third of the track, a sequence of tricky turns which require quite delicate placement of the car to ensure you’re pointing as straight as possible under braking in the midst of seemingly never ending corners.

I still can’t get the braking right, but as I round the final corner I floor the throttle, and am shifting from sixth to seventh as a I cross the start line. My one flying lap has started, but inside the first 100 metres I’ve ruined it. I squeeze the brakes and run deep into Turn one. I was nowhere near hard enough on the pedal, not even close. I double back to the track and trundle through the turn, getting back on it through the fast right hander and into the S.

Back into that glorious back section, I hit the throttle early and feel the back end step out. My own reaction tells me to correct and get back on it, but the car has already reacted before me and I can feel the TC controlling the rear and pushing me on, back up the hill. The radio beeps on.

“Use the brakes harder.”

I look down at the wheel. Its like a bag of pick n mix. I can’t remember which button does what. I find the radio button, shout “COPY THAT” and look up. I have travelled practically the entire straight. In the time it took me to find the radio button.

The right hander at Signes is next. My one true challenge. I thought I’d held it flat in the Formula Renault but the telemetry said I’d lifted just a touch. Not this time though. I was going in hard and I was going in fast. Easy flat. Easy.

My brain said yes. My balls said no. Not quite as big as I’d hoped.

Into the next right, turn in, straighten up and hit the brakes. Hard. Too hard.

Having not been warmed up with my pathetic excuse for braking on my formation lap and into my flyer, the temperature has dropped and I lock up and fly off track, flat spotting the front right a touch and running over the blue high abrasion run off strips.

The lap is ruined (it was rubbish from the first corner) and so I just decide to enjoy myself, blasting the throttle a few times and trying to sort out how in the hell to get a feel for the brakes. The in lap is a blast, flying once again down that glorious back straight, this time taking in the surroundings and the speed with which they fly past me, all under my control.

And in a flash, those three laps are over and I’m back in the pits.

iRace incar

I’m instantly thinking back over the laps, which now seem to have gone past so quickly they’ve all meshed into one. I could have braked harder and later. I could have carried more speed into the corners. I could have got on the power earlier. The fact the TC only kicked in once… the car would have forgiven my inadequacies. I shouldn’t have been so cautious.

I jump out of the car and utter those same words about not holding back to the next driver. I know he won’t listen. I know he, as I, and for that matter all of us before, will hold back and emerge from those laps utterly exhilarated… and yet just that little bit gutted.

You see, driving a Formula 1 car is a drug. It is the ultimate buzz, heightening every one of your senses to levels you never realised possible. Never have I felt so alive. Never have I felt so thrilled. Never have I felt so scared.

And at the end, all you want is just one more lap. Just one. One more hit of that speed, of that adrenalin, of that immense feeling of being so joyously alive. But deep down you know that won’t be enough to assuage your thirst, your desire… your absolute need to taste that thrill once more.

You’ll always want just one more lap.

Perhaps, then, its best that the experience felt surreal at the time and as the days and weeks have passed since, seems now to be even more of a dream. How it must feel for that thrill to become the norm. How it must feel to then have it taken away. Its no wonder a driver will do anything to get to and then stay in Formula 1. Regardless of whether they’re Romain Grosjean driving that E20 to podiums, or hauling the E22 by the scruff of its neck into Q2, that thrill is what keeps every racer pushing.

For just one more lap.

iRace hero

New Coke

Team Pack Up c/o James Moy Photography

Team Pack Up
c/o James Moy Photography

The arrival of August may mean an enforced break for most of the F1 world, but not it would seem for some of the sport’s key decision makers. It emerged over the weekend of the Hungarian Grand Prix that Bernie Ecclestone intends to hold a crisis summit over the sport’s popularity. Formula 1 team bosses were made aware of this on Saturday in Budapest, along with the shock news that alongside a hand-picked selection of team chiefs and Ecclestone himself, would be media representatives and disgraced former F1 team boss Flavio Briatore.

Although it has been claimed that the meeting should not be viewed as a negative, to many it can only be deemed thus. Coming at a time when the fans of this sport, along with a growing number of dissenting voices in the paddock, are having their say on double points, standing restarts and the concept of success ballast, the time has surely come to say enough is enough.

I have been in this game now for 13 years as a professional. I have been a fan all my life. And rarely can I recall a season I have enjoyed as much.

Where now are the dissenting voices over engine noise? Where now, those who decried the ugly look of the 2014 cars? Yes, these are areas that can be improved, but the doom-mongers of the early months of this year seem now to have been silenced by some sublime exhibitions of racing on track.

Budapest is a case in point. Yes, the weather played its part, but the tricky nature of the cars created by this season’s aero regulations, the power and torque of the new hybrid engines and the 2014 construction Pirelli tyres all combined to create the circumstances in which two safety cars were deployed and a thrilling race ensued. And it wasn’t the first brilliant race of the season.

We have had three, possibly four, maybe as many as five races that I would say rank as some of the finest of this generation. A few possibly of all time. It is very easy to look back at history and complain that things used to be so much better, but often those views are born of melodrama and passionate prejudice… a view through rose tinted glasses, if you will.

Alonso leads Hamilton and Ricciardo in Hungary c/o James Moy Photography

Alonso leads Hamilton and Ricciardo
c/o James Moy Photography

Let’s take a little look through history. At Budapest in 2014 we had a wet/dry race but still saw 16 finishers and seven different teams finish in the top ten. Yes, we had multiple safety cars, but the winning margin was just 5.225 seconds, with the top four split by just 6.361.

Let’s rewind a decade to 2004. 15 cars finished the race, with seven different teams finishing in the top ten. With the Ferrari chassis a class apart, the winning margin from Schumacher to Barrichello was 4.696 seconds, but the top four was split by over a minute.

In 1994 only 14 cars were classified but again, seven teams were classified in the top ten. Michael Schumacher’s winning margin was over 20 seconds and only three cars finished on the lead lap.

The very first Hungarian Grand Prix was held in 1986. Nelson Piquet won that race by 17.673 seconds. Only he and Ayrton Senna were on the lead lap. Ten cars finished the race.

It is easy to forget that there were days when F1 races would see five cars or fewer classified at the flag. It is easy to forget there was a time when the winning car lapped the field. It is easy to forget that ten years ago, Michael Schumacher had the championship sewn up two races before we even started the August break.

It is easy to overlook just how good we’ve got it right now.

Perhaps it is because we are being given exceptional contests almost every racing weekend that we lose sight of how good these races really are. It becomes easier to remember the great races of days past, when those races were rare highlights in otherwise predictable and often dull processions. When we have wonderful races as the norm, it becomes harder to determine the epic from the merely brilliant.

Hockenheim Grandstands c/o James Moy Photography

Hockenheim Grandstands
c/o James Moy Photography

The problem, however, is that grandstand seats sit empty. Television audiences in some territories are dropping. Paddock Club struggles to sell out and has had to change its outlook. Teams struggle to attract sponsors. It is perhaps unsurprising that some might ask whether people are falling out of love with the sport.

The problem, however, is that there seems to be a belief that it is the show itself that is to blame. Some seem to believe that the sport no longer grasps the imagination as it used to. They believe that the product has to change to adapt to a new generation.

They are wrong.

We exist at a time when Formula 1 teams are struggling for financial survival because of an unfair and unworkable payment structure, penned and conceived in and by a bygone and obsolete generation. Racing circuits are charged so much to host races, that those costs have to be passed onto a public crippled by a global recession and who would rather take their family on holiday than shell out the same figure on watching a motor race and camping in a muddy field. Free to air television networks are losing the rights to broadcast Formula 1 because the only networks who can afford the high figures being demanded are those who charge to view.

To anyone with even the scantest knowledge of this sport, it is abundantly clear that it is Formula 1’s business model which is broken, not the racing spectacle itself.

The sport has failed to keep pace with its audience by embracing new media, and yet is willing to impose contrived gimmicks into the purity of its product to try and make the show more appealing to a market it no longer understands. It remains blind to the fact that it will only lose dedicated followers by doing so, and gain no new interest from a generation who strive to find something real in a sea of commercial falsity.

New Coke

New Coke

Twenty Nine years ago, Coca Cola changed the recipe of its flagship brand, launching one of the greatest flops in modern commercial memory. “New Coke” replaced its original namesake in April 1985. By May, company directors were already pushing for a reversal to the original recipe after sales took a massive hit. It only took until July for Coca Cola executives to announce the return of the original Coke. The company’s President Donald Keough announced the return with words that Formula 1’s rulers would do well to dwell on over the coming weeks:

“The simple fact is that all the time and money and skill poured into consumer research on the new Coca-Cola could not measure or reveal the deep and abiding emotional attachment to original Coca-Cola felt by so many people.”

The lesson is simple. Don’t mess with a product into which people have invested themselves emotionally. The public are not stupid. Don’t treat them like they are.

Formula 1 is in arguably the rudest racing health of its entire existence. I, as so many of my colleagues, and all the fans at home, pray that when the decisions are made that will shape the future of this sport, the decision makers keep this at the forefront of their minds. Because the only thing from which Formula 1 needs saving, is itself.

Reasoning, Responsibility and Run-off

Kimi Raikkonen - British GP 2014 James Moy Photography

Kimi Raikkonen – British GP 2014
James Moy Photography

Yesterday’s news that the FIA has rejected claims that Kimi Raikkonen should face punishment for his British Grand Prix-ending accident is, perhaps, unsurprising. I, for one, was not expecting a sudden about-face from the FIA.

That’s not to say that I think the FIA has got this one right, nor that their alleged reasoning for rejecting claims that punishment should have been forthcoming is anything other than moronic.

To begin this article, however, I’d like to make one thing clear. After my post on Monday about the role Raikkonen played in his own destiny in the British Grand Prix, I was forced to cease approving comments to the blog after reasonable and reasoned debate descended into fanatical-driven abuse and name calling. I will not stand for such a low level of discussion on this or any other post. I also want to make it clear that the focus of my piece could have been any one of the drivers on the grid. Just because I might at one time or another form an opinion that a driver has done something wrong, does not mean I have an axe to grind or that I dislike said driver. In these instances it is perhaps best to attempt to separate one’s emotional attachment, and to debate with reason rather than to close one’s eyes and thrust one’s head deep into the sand purely because you have read or heard something about your favourite driver with which you don’t agree. Not agreeing with something doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, nor the person who wrote it an idiot… or worse.

This article is not intended to press for a punishment for Raikkonen. It has been written merely to highlight where I believe the FIA has got their decision in this case worryingly wrong, and also to suggest a solution to the issue of drivers running wide. Not that I believe for a moment it will have a shred of an effect on future decisions, but anyway…

My colleague and well respected journalist Jon Noble wrote yesterday morning on this very subject, and reported the following:

“AUTOSPORT understands that while the FIA did look in to the incident, it decided that Raikkonen had not rejoined in an unsafe manner.

Telemetry data shows that, after leaving the track at 230 km/h, Raikkonen did scrub off some speed as he returned to the circuit, before his car was unsettled by a bump as it ran through a patch of grass.

Although the FIA accepted that Raikkonen would not have crashed if he had slowed down dramatically, it is understood the governing body believed that any other driver would have rejoined the track in the same manner.”

It is the final paragraph of this which I find to be of staggeringly short sight and to be verging on the asinine. For while Noble understands that the FIA has accepted that the accident would not have occurred had Raikkonen slowed, the governing body believes that everyone else would have done the same thing. And as such, it is perfectly acceptable.

Let’s come to that in a moment.

The remains of Raikkonen's F14T James Moy Photography

The remains of Raikkonen’s F14T
James Moy Photography

What seems abundantly clear to me is that Kimi Raikkonen’s first lap accident was born of several simple but key components.

1. He exceeded track limits
2. He re-entered the racing arena without the full control of his car and at a speed held by the FIA to be too high
3. The resultant accident eliminated himself and Felipe Massa from the race
4. The resultant accident caused substantial damage to the trackside barrier and the delay of the race restart by an hour

These are the facts

For the moment we can leave to one side the potential risk for the trackside workers and marshals and the potential injury to Max Chilton caused by Raikkonen’s loose wheel, as we thankfully escaped all of the above.

Article 20.2 of F1’s Sporting Regulations states that: “Should a car leave the track the driver may rejoin, however, this may only be done when it is safe to do so and without gaining any lasting advantage.”

Again, I would argue that in this case Raikkonen exceeded track limits and thus left the track. He did not join in a safe manner as he was at a speed the FIA has admitted was too high, and he was also not in control of his vehicle as the manner in which he rejoined the track resulted in an accident entirely of his making. Regardless of the existence of the gulley, Raikkonen and he alone was in control of the car and as such there can be no argument that he was suitably in control of the car at the point he re-entered the track. Critically, he also re-entered the track on the racing line. Arguably, by joining the track where and how he did, he failed to lose position, thus gaining an advantage over where he might have rejoined had he done so safely.

As such I fail to see how Raikkonen’s first lap incident did not contravene Article 20.2 of the Sporting Regulations. Furthermore, he exceeded track limits and arguably gained an advantage. His driving also caused the retirement of another driver. Neither of these points was investigated. But on point one alone (Article 20.2) it seems highly difficult to argue that he did not deserve some kind of penalty be it a grid drop, penalty points or something as harsh as I had originally mooted, a race ban.

The decision, as it stands, fails to place any responsibility with Raikkonen for an accident that was entirely of his making.

If it had been a Grosjean, Maldonado, Gutierrez or Perez, I can’t help but feel points would have been the bare minimum.

Maldonado and Gutierrez - Bahrain 2014 James Moy Photography

Maldonado and Gutierrez – Bahrain 2014
James Moy Photography

If we return to the FIA’s logic of why a penalty was not applied, then as Noble’s article has outlined we must believe that it was because the governing body believed everyone would have done the same thing. To take such a line of argument, however, is bafflingly idiotic. It is as clear a case of argumentum ad populum as I have seen. Logically it is utterly flawed. The mere fact that a practice or a belief is widely conducted or held, is not necessarily a guarantee that it is correct. Often referred to as “the bandwagon fallacy” this argument is a critically dangerous path for the FIA to tread. For where does it end?

“Everyone else was doing it,” is not a reasonable excuse for the perpetrator, and as such it cannot be held as a reasonable excuse for a ruling body to fail to uphold its own principles and regulations.

Unless, of course, this is the FIA admitting that the rule is unworkable. If everyone is doing it, why not simply scrap the rules over track limits and re-entry? Why not just make it a free for all?

Alonso Vs Vettel - British GP 2014 James Moy Photography

Alonso Vs Vettel – British GP 2014
James Moy Photography

The FIA told us it would adopt a “zero-tolerance” policy as regarded track limits in DRS detection zones in Austria and Great Britain. The Alonso/Vettel scrap at Silverstone showed us that this promise was, itself, a fallacy. Some would argue that was a good thing as it gave us a great scrap. Others would question why the FIA should have made so much noise about “zero-tolerance” and then failed to enforce it.

Perhaps this is part of the FIA’s move towards leniency. If so, fair play to them for allowing that particular race to unfold. But then don’t go so heavy on “zero-tolerance” if it isn’t to be adhered to. And if leniency allowed Raikkonen to escape without so much as a wrist slap, then I for one feel it is a step too far. It stops being leniency and starts being weakness.

When it comes down to it, though, the problem at the root of all of this is that racing drivers are racing drivers. Give them a kerb and they’ll use every inch of it, and a little bit of the grass over the edge too. Give them an asphalt run-off and they’ll use it. It’s what makes them racers. They will take every advantage and we cannot be upset with them for doing so.

Again, the FIA must take its share of responsibility here.

Reims... exists today as it did 50 years ago

Reims… exists today as it did 50 years ago

There was a time when race tracks were the width of the tarmac. A simple painted white line at the edge of the road showed you track limits… perhaps a few hay bails or some oil drums. I spent yesterday driving around the old track at Reims. If you exceeded track limits there, you were in the middle of a field.

Gravel traps became, and were for many years, the standard run-off. But then teams and drivers got upset that a small mistake would lead to a beached car and the end of the session / race. And so we saw asphalt replace gravel. To a large extent the changes have helped greatly as damage is not so great and a small mistake which would have ended a session before now simply leads to running off track and rejoining… hopefully when it is safe to do so.

But inherent in that is the fact that, right now, there is no deterrent for making such a mistake. If a driver can keep their foot stuck in and not lose position or even momentum, then track limits mean less and less. From a fan perspective, we also lose an element of wonder as the twitching car is allowed to drift wide rather than to be caught, saved and powered through on opposite lock.

Many varieties of run-off have been tried, with Astro-turf seemingly the best considered option. But as we saw in Silverstone in Friday practice, Astro-turf can still bite.

For my money, Circuit Paul Ricard has had things right for the last decade. High abrasion run-off. But take it up a notch. Coat the run-off areas in such a high abrasion surface that it will not cause punctures or deflation, but will scrub enough rubber off as to ruin that set of tyres. Put a wheel off, let alone all four, and you’ve got to come in and get them changed.

The Toyota TS040, surrounded by Paul Ricard's high abrasion run-off James Moy Photography

The Toyota TS040, surrounded by Paul Ricard’s high abrasion run-off
James Moy Photography

No more keeping your foot in. No more making up positions. No more taking just a few inches more than you should. Keep it on track, inside the white lines.

If you once again make run-off areas a part of the track that drivers don’t want to be driving, if you make them somewhere that will slow drivers down, then they won’t use them. The FIA has created a generation of drivers who know they can push the limits and go over them without penalty, be it an immediately competitive one or, as is becoming increasingly clear, without fear of Charlie’s axe over their heads either.

It is time the FIA took the power back. They created the run-off. They created the opportunity for the rules to be exploited. They created a forgiving attitude, a lenient approach and a sloppy implementation of a supposed moral racing code.

These are supposed to be the 22 greatest racing drivers in the world. It’s about time they were held to the highest standards. Not pandered to and excused because they can’t, or won’t, keep their cars within the clearly marked limits of the track.

Benching Kimi

The remains of Raikkonen's F14T James Moy Photography

The remains of Raikkonen’s F14T
James Moy Photography

Regardless of the condition of his ankle, I do not believe that Kimi Raikkonen should be on the grid for the German Grand Prix in two weeks time. The first lap incident which brought out the red flags in yesterday’s British Grand Prix was born of such staggering racing negligence, that I am truly of the opinion that the 2007 Formula 1 World Champion should be left at home to contemplate what could have been a far worse accident, resulting in far greater injuries than the bruised ankle he suffered.

Here are the facts. In the midst of a first lap battle, Kimi Raikkonen ran wide at Aintree corner. Using the vast asphalt run off, he kept his right foot planted so as not to lose too many positions. Maintaining racing speed, he drove back onto the track and into the pack on the Wellington Straight.

There was nothing strange about this. We see it every week. These men are racing drivers, the best in the world, and it is rare that one of them would chose to lift and heed position. The fact that so many modern racing circuits have replaced gravel traps with asphalt runoff only serves to promote such activity for without the asphalt, cars that run wide at such speed would, in years gone by, have ended up beached and out of the race.

In Sunday’s case, there was also the issue of a strip of grass / gravel separating the asphalt run off and the track. This gulley was at a slightly different height to both the runoff and the track, and it was this element which caused Raikkonen’s Ferrari F14T to become unsettled as it re-entered the track.

Our initial impressions were that, so fast and heavy was Raikkonen’s connection with this gulley, that it had broken his rear suspension, causing the sharp spearing to the right and launching the car into the 47G impact with the metal barrier. However in Ferrari’s official press statement, no mention is made of such damage, instead merely referencing that “a rut between the grass and the tarmac spun his F14 T around.”

Over the past few hours I have read countless arguments that we should blame this element of the track for the incident, and while I agree that perhaps this is something that needs to be looked at for next year, it does not exonerate the Finn.

Drivers conduct track walks before the race weekend to take note of precisely this type of detail. They will walk into gravel traps to see how much asphalt exists at the extremity near the barrier incase they run off and can make it through to the side to continue on their way. They look for manhole covers, changes in asphalt, kerbing, astroturf etc. Famously, Raikkonen rarely conducts such track walks. Had he done so this weekend, he might have been more aware of the safe re-entry points.

When you distill it down, it really is very simple. Raikkonen ran wide in an on-track battle. He maintained and, by continuing his acceleration, increased racing speed off-track. He re-entered the track at speed, on the racing line, and in an unsafe manner. He was not in control of his car and was responsible for a huge accident, the aftermath of which saw loose wheels and debris strewn across the track.

Raikkonen’s accident caused the retirement of Felipe Massa. The wheel, torn from the F14T in the incident, narrowly missed Marrusia’s Max Chilton as it bounced just inches wide of his head.

It was a nasty and unnecessary accident. Yes the runoff and the track played their part. But, and I have seen no mention from Ferrari that Raikkonen was experiencing any issue which would have taken control of the car or crucially throttle application away from him, it was the Finn and the Finn alone whose decisions and driving created the accident, one from which we are lucky everyone walked away.

I see no difference between this lack of judgment and the lack of judgment displayed by Romain Grosjean at the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix. Regardless of intent, the result of his actions created an unacceptable level of danger to the driver himself, his on-track rivals, and workers around the track.

For that reason I believe that Kimi Raikkonen, regardless of his achievements, victories, racing team or world championship, should face the same punishment as the Frenchman and should sit out the next race.

Bright Sparks

Real sparks courtesy of JB at Monaco 2013 James Moy Photography

Real sparks courtesy of JB at Monaco 2013
James Moy Photography

Amongst the decisions of the FIA WMSC last week was the move to mandate titanium skid plates on Formula 1 cars for 2015.

These plates were tested at the Austrian Grand Prix with some success, although as seems to be the all too frequent case in modern day Formula 1, little to no official warning or explanation was given as to the test taking place, and even less so as to its intentions.

It was thus presumed that the sole reason for titanium skid plates was to bring back sparks and to manufacture something twinkly and exciting, to elicit the golden era of Formula 1. While there is some truth to this, the real reason is perhaps far more intriguing.

Earlier this week at Silverstone, Charlie Whiting took questions from the press on a variety of topics, and his explanation of the substance and intention of the skid block regulation, when quizzed upon it by the BBC’s Andrew Benson, was fascinating.

“To explain: the plank is the long bit of wood, the skids are bits of metal within the plank. The skids have formerly been made of a heavy metal, which has been very resistant to wear, and they put the skids around the points in the plank where thickness is measured. Planks have to start off at nominally 10mm thick and they can’t be less than 9mm thick. However, we only measure them around certain holes in the plank. So they position the skids around those holes.

This metal is extremely heavy and when pieces detach they can be extremely harmful. We saw two punctures in Spa previously because of bits of this metal that lay in a kerb and caused damage. In a worst case scenario they could fly off and hit someone.

The purpose of making them out of titanium is threefold: Firstly, it’s safer, because if they do come off they are about a third of the weight of the existing ones. Secondly, the titanium wears some 2-2.5 times more quickly than the metal currently used. Thus cars will have to be run a little bit higher to manage wear and teams won’t be able to drag them on the ground quite as much as they have in the past. The third effect is that you will see a lot more sparks, which some people think will look a little more spectacular.”

It is the second of the three purposes which, I understand, was the greatest force behind this change for next season. Sources have suggested to me that only one team opposed the change to titanium skid plates next season… and it was for precisely the reason that Charlie outlined.

Fears had started to appear that at least one team was running their car excessively low to the ground, but that this practice was going either unnoticed or unpunished because the skid plate is so strong as to protect the car.

By mandating titanium and thus reducing the strength by 2 to 2.5 times, as Charlie outlined, this practice will be eliminated.

Had the FIA simply made this clear from the outset, the hullabaloo over the return of titanium skid plates as what we understood to be a purely cosmetic fix, would not have existed.

All we ask is information. This dripping tap culture of information dissemination from the governing body just casts everyone in a bad light.

Porcine Maquillage

FIA Truck © James Moy Photography

FIA Truck
© James Moy Photography

The World Motor Sport Council has today agreed changes to the Formula 1 Regulations for 2015. And they’re not likely to make many fans happy. Crucially, cost capping is not happening and cost saving initiatives are nominal at best.

But let’s start with the less controversial elements. Well, I say less controversial…

Only four Power Units will be allowed per driver next season, unless there are more than 20 races in which case there will be five. The penalty for changing an entire Power Unit will be starting from the back of the grid, rather than the pitlane.

Simple enough. Only it isn’t quite related in such simple terms, as under the header “Power Units” the FIA states that: “The number of engines permitted by each driver in a season will be four.”

The FIA, then, seems somewhat confused itself. Does it mean four Power Units, or does it mean four Internal Combustion Engines, themselves a component part of what we were informed by the FIA we should refer to as the Power Unit, from the start of 2014?

If the FIA could agree on what we are supposed to be calling what, and then refer to it as such in official communications, it might be slightly helpful.

Next… Aero testing. The number of wind tunnel runs permissable will be reduced from 80 hours per week to 65 hours per week. Wind-on hours are to be reduced from 30 hours per week to 25 hours. Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) usage is to be reduced from 30 Teraflops to 25 Teraflops. However, as a pay off, two periods of tunnel occupancy will be allowed in one day (rather than only one). However teams will only be able to nominate the use of one wind tunnel for one year.

There will be three pre-season track tests of four days each in Europe in 2015 (currently teams are able to test outside Europe). This will be reduced to two tests of four days in 2016. There will also be two in-season tests of two days each in Europe (instead of the current four). Two of these four days must be reserved for young drivers.

Todt has not been able to force through cost reduction © James Moy Photography

Todt has not been able to force through cost reduction
© James Moy Photography

That should save some money, although the larger cost savings which had been discussed were vetoed by the larger teams in the last meeting of the Strategy Group. As such no meaningful cost saving has been agreed or put into place. One might argue a stronger FIA President might have simply laid down his own, draconian and unworkable terms and told the teams they a month to come up with something better on which they all agreed. It’s what Mosley did. And it worked.

Friday night race curfew will be extended from six to seven hours in 2015 and to eight hours in 2016.

However, and it is a big however… parc fermé will now apply from the start of FP3 instead of the start of qualifying.

There had been much chatter that moves were being put in place to reduce the amount of running over a race weekend to save costs. The thought was that Friday would see the brunt of that, becoming more of a media day. Of course the race promoters were not happy with eliminating Friday running because it would reduce the numbers through the gates. But with FP3 now meaning cars are in Parc Ferme, how much realistic running does the FIA believe we will see on a Saturday morning?

FP3 was the time when teams would perfect set-up. But by eliminating the possibility to make changes to the cars after Friday night, what possible reason is there to run in FP3? With the slight exception that perhaps it has rained all day Friday and so you just want to check you’re not a million miles out on your dry set-up, why have FP3 at all?

Essentially what we’ve got is a reduction in running time, but not one that will make fans, or one imagines teams, all that happy.

But hey, the ban on tyre blankets has been rescinded. So that’s OK.

Oh, and we’ve got sparks because titanium kick plates have been mandated.

Standing starts now not just for the start © James Moy Photography

Standing starts now not just for the start
© James Moy Photography

We’ve also got standing starts after safety cars. With the exception of a safety car coming out within the first two laps or the final five laps of the race, this is what will happen. The safety car will control the field and lapped cars will unlap themselves. When the track is clear, the safety car will pull into the pits and the field will line up on the grid in current race order, just as they would at the end of the initial formation lap. Lights on, lights off, race restart.

Unless someone stalls. Then I guess we have another formation lap.

No mention has been made of what happens on a safety car start in the wet. Although I imagine that as the safety car would have been on track from before the second lap then we’ll just have a normal safety car start whereby everyone is released in a snake, as we are used to.

Safety car standing restarts are, much like double points, the answer to the question that nobody in the sport was asking. At least not seriously. If people were unhappy that the race leader still led on a restart, then perhaps they need re-education over the purpose of the safety car. It doesn’t pop out to close up the field and improve the chance of action and spectacle. This isn’t NASCAR. We don’t throw a full course yellow for a commercial break, we don’t go racing for three hours only to have the field neutralised and run to a Green, White, Chequer in the final minute and a half of competition in order to make good TV. We race. Start to finish, pausing only for an issue of safety. It’s called the safety car for a reason. Not the show car. Not the spectacular car. The safety car.

What happens to the driver who has had an amazing race, fought his way through the field but is struggling with his clutch? Safety car, standing restart, clutch goes, car stalls and he is rolled into the pitlane. All his hard work over. What about the driver who has led every lap of the race, and on the restart gets boonied out at the first corner by an overzealous move from the guy who knew that first corner was his one shot at the win?

It’s falsity. For the sake of it.

Like these kick plates. Utter falsity. Indycar’s James Hinchcliffe summed it up best on twitter last week. As he protested, sparks back in the day were cool because they were a by-product of the cars. They weren’t there to look cool. They were there because the plates were doing a job of protecting the gearbox. The sparks looked cool because they were cool.

And the worst part of it all is that these changes are being made in the name of the fans. This, apparently, is what the fans want. This will draw new fans to the sport and keep the existing fans entertained. Its all about the show. Its all about creating something big and spectacular. We’re in the entertainment business afterall. It’s all about how it looks.

But the FIA, the Strategy Group, the World Motor Sport Council, would do well to remember that Formula 1 has perhaps never been in better health. Bahrain and Canada were arguably two of the best races of the last decade. We are seeing contests decided by seconds. We are seeing minimal attrition in the earliest days of brand new ground-breaking technology.

People look back to the halcyon days of yore and protest it was so much better in the 60s or the 70s, the 80s or the 90s. It was decided that the folks at home wanted turbos and more power than grip. Well here it is and yet still people complain. Want it like the 60s? Fine. Then have races with 7 finishers and the winner lapping everyone. Twice. Want it like the early 2000s? Fine. Have it. And have the championship sewn up by mid-season.

We have got close, exciting racing. We have got brilliant new technology that the governing body has done precisely nothing to promote positively to get the fanbase excited about this new beginning for the sport. And so they panic, because they failed in their basic task to promote what they had. We have a governing body so weak that it cannot impose its will on the teams in the sport. A governing body which can see the financial ruin into which this sport is launching itself, but instead of pushing through meaningful change, concerns itself simply with how the cars look and sound. Papering over the cracks which grow ever wider.

Ecclestone and Todt in heated discussion © James Moy Photography

Ecclestone and Todt in heated discussion
© James Moy Photography

I was accused in Austria, by Christian Horner, of being overly negative and pessimistic towards regulation changes that are yet to be put in place and could yet make the sport exciting. And you know what? Maybe I am. I hope I am. I hope these things work and make the sport even better. But when I asked Horner if this vision of the future, with double points, standing safety car restarts and fake sparks were why he got involved in racing in the first place, his immediate response belied the PR line that followed. “No, but…”

This week, he said he believed the teams should no longer have any say in the regulation of the sport and it should be down solely to the governing body. I applauded his view, as the teams cannot agree on anything as their vested interest in their competitive and financial positions makes it impossible for them to give ground. The Strategy Group is a prime example of the idiocy that can result from allowing a Select Committee of teams to propose rules.

But when one looks at what the WMSC has approved today, you have to question if allowing the FIA to run the sport unguarded and unchecked is really such a smart idea after all.

Formula 1 is allegedly listening to the fans. Its most public example of this is over the engine noise debate. It is trying to assuage their fears and concerns. At least that’s the public face. Will any of the attempts make a difference? No. But if they can look like they’re trying then they’ll keep the fans onside, right? Wrong.

Because every change they make takes the sport away from what makes it so special. It takes that simplicity, that purity, and it pours in something bitter that leaves a foul stench and a bad taste.

I get people tweeting me every day saying how much they enjoy watching GP2 because there are no gimmicks. There is no push to pass, no boost button, no special wing flap to open on the straight. Its raw, basic racing and people love it. They ask what Formula 1 is doing to itself. People tell me they’ve been a fan since the 1970s, never missed a race… and now they can’t bring themselves to watch anymore. “I want racing, not wrestling.”

But the gimmicks have taken over.

Sadly, in Formula 1, overtaking no longer means anything because, with very rare exceptions, the majority of moves are now done under DRS.

With double points, the chance of a shock and perhaps undeserving result in the championship now awaits, too. Not content with throwing open the championship to a last chance lottery, now with the race result a gimmick in the form of standing safety car restarts can also replace something earned with something blagged. Hey, don’t worry folks, it’ll be great for TV.

But who will be watching?

FIFA tried to mess with football a decade or so ago by introducing the Golden Goal and Silver Goal concepts. Both, now, have thankfully been consigned to history. The game was exciting enough as it was. You didn’t need gimmicks to make it better.

There is an old adage – Keep it simple, stupid. It is one the FIA would do well to remember.

The fans are not idiots. The more this sport treats them as though they are, the more of them the sport will lose.

As Barack Obama once famously said… “You can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig.”

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.