Indy Lights and the future for young racing talent

The GP2-05 c/o GP2 Media Service

The GP2-05
c/o GP2 Media Service

Ten years ago, the path to Formula 1 for young drivers was crowded and confused. The FIA International Formula 3000 championship was supposed to be the final rung on the ladder, but with an ageing car that sat way off the pace of the F1 cars of the time, lacked the technology of the main championship and had lost its lustre and marketability, the time had come for a change.

In the January of 2004, the death of F3000 was heralded by the announcement of the formation of the GP2 Series. By July of that year, the technical details of the first GP2 car had been made public, and series boss Bruno Michel outlined his hopes for the new championship.

“Our ambition is to create a compelling single-seater series that is the final stepping stone to Formula 1. We want on-track action, talented drivers and close competition. In order to achieve this, we launched an ambitious technical programme that has produced an extremely fast car. Our initial simulations indicate that a GP2 series car should be capable of running roughly six seconds slower than
a mid-grid 2003 Formula 1 car.

“The investment required for a start-up season is not insignificant, but we have made a three-year commitment and will guarantee minimal operating costs. Close attention will be paid to costs and the quantities of spare parts ordered by the participating teams.”

Looking back, ten years on, the GP2 Series can rightly consider itself a success. Its first two champions Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton sit first and second in the 2014 Formula 1 World Championship. It has launched the Formula 1 careers of numerous talented, Grand Prix winning and podium finishing drivers, and today GP2 stands on its own feet as one of the most exciting single make championships in the world.

Hamilton and Rosberg Mercedes AMG Petronas c/o James Moy Photography

Hamilton and Rosberg
Mercedes AMG Petronas
c/o James Moy Photography

Over the pond, GP2’s American cousin Indy Lights today finds itself in a similar spot to the F3000 of old. The current Indy Lights car is in its 12th season of service. Grids are not what they once were, the level of competition has slipped and the championship’s relevance and ability to promote talent to the main Indycar Series lies in serious doubt.

Just as the route to Formula 1 was given a major, meaningful and lasting shakeup a decade ago, so the Road to Indy now faces a revolution at year’s end. Indy Lights will premiere a brand new car, the IL-15, and its introduction to the championship next season is set to breathe new life not only into Indy Lights, but to Indycar itself.

The Dallara IL-15 will feature a carbon composite chassis, constructed to the latest FIA and IndyCar safety standards and will be powered by a 2.0 litre turbocharged AER engine producing 450 HP. Additional features include a six-speed, paddle-shift transmission, a 50 HP push-to-pass feature, drive-by-wire throttle and advanced engine management electronics. Initial targets were to be able to hit speeds of 200 mph. And, bravely, the car’s development is being conducted in full public view.

The Dallara IL-15

The Dallara IL-15

Conor Daly is an Indy Lights race winner. He’s a Star Mazda champion. Last season he drove almost every single seater you could imagine. He won races in GP3 and scored points on his GP2 debut. He raced the Indy 500. He tested a Formula 1 car. It should come as little surprise, then, that Indy Lights have put their faith in him, alongside 2012 Lights champion Tristan Vautier, to conduct the initial testing of IL-15 before handing it over to Indycar stars James Hinchcliffe and reigning champion Scott Dixon.

“It’s definitely powerful and its got a good technology package with Cosworth and the guys from AER,”
Daly told me in Spa.

“I think they’ve done a really good job to prepare the engine. We did a lot of miles and considering it was the first time the car had run, it was impressive how much we were able to run. I did the first day at Putnam Park but that was mostly just trouble shooting, so the first real day I did was on the oval. It was pretty sketchy at first with not a lot of rear grip, but the front was very positive. We took the full day to sort that out, which we did. And that in itself was also very positive. Every change we made was good. We went in the right direction and by the end of the day we ran our fastest lap on the last run so that showed good progress. It was quicker than the pole speed from this year and there is still so much time to be found in gear ratios, trimming the car out… a lot of stuff. I saw 199mph legitimately on the wheel entering Turn 1, and that’s without trimming it out or using sixth gear so I think it has the potential to be really fast.

“That was the oval… but it was a really different story on the road course. We spent a whole day unable to get much grip into it. That was a bit of a struggle. But we did a lot of miles and so we got a lot of data on what worked and what didn’t. Testing is carrying on as we speak and they’re finding more and more grip. And you know, even though I say we had trouble finding grip, we were still faster than the pole this year so that’s really positive.”

So where would Daly say it sits in the pantheon of the cars he’s driven in the last 12 months?

Tristan Vautier takes IL-15 out for a spin Photo c/o Marshall Pruett

Tristan Vautier takes IL-15 out for a spin
Photo c/o Marshall Pruett

“I think it will slot right in between GP3 and GP2. It doesn’t have enough power to compete with GP2 but it definitely has more power than GP3. And it’s got the fancy bits and bobs that produce downforce! The brakes are nice too. Performance friction has done a really nice job of putting a package together specifically for that car. They’re not carbon brakes but they are really good and that’s cool to see how much work they have put in just for that car.

“As for the engine, GP3’s single turbo was terrible. But this? People LOVE the sound of this thing. It is loud, it screams, it’s got turbo whizzes and all sorts and it really pulls. I think it should provide great racing. I think there is a very high probability of that. When the boost comes on there’s a kick, but AER has done a really good job to mask it. I ran an anti-lag system on the road course and it was really interesting. It’s something that we had to fine tune. Also there’s push to pass which will be awesome. Overall, everything is good.”

The IL-15 is the car Indy Lights desperately needs. But more than that, it could yet be that IL-15 proves itself to be the car that global motorsport needs.

The Indy Lights field is notably dated c/o Indy Lights

The Indy Lights field is notably dated
c/o Indy Lights

Ten years on from GP2’s launch, promotion to the top tier as a result of success in F1’s feeder category is no longer a certainty. Talent alone is not enough. Budget in the tens of millions of dollars is an increasing requirement to oil the cogs for even the most talented GP2 driver to gain his place at the top table. The promotion of Max Verstappen from Formula 3 to Formula 1 is the exception, not the rule, but even so the promotion of Bottas and Kvyat from GP3 and the likes of Vergne and Bianchi from WSR show that GP2 no longer holds the position of absolute arbiter of F1 merit that it once did.

Regardless of GP2’s position, it is clear that chances in the F1 paddock are few and far between. More and more of Europe’s most talented young drivers are thus shifting their attention away from Formula 1 and towards alternate championships. Formula E is flooded with talent, many of whom never got that F1 shot. Endurance racing is benefitting from the roster of talent left on the sidelines. But it is Stateside and towards Indycar that the focus of many young racers is now switching.

Talented GP3 racer Jack Harvey realised the futility of following the ladder to F1 and switched to Indy Lights this season, as did long time GP2 racer Luiz Razia. They have blazed a trail which others look set to follow. And IL-15 could be the deal-breaker.

With few routes out of GP3, WSR and GP2 into F1, Indycar is becoming a focus, not a fallback. This weekend, many of GP2 and GP3’s star drivers have been locked in discussions over the best route to fly to Fontana in the week between Spa and Monza. They want to visit the Indycar paddock at its championship finale, show their faces, talk to the influential and make their intentions known. Just as the launch of GP2 in 2005 gave the path to F1 a much needed revamp, so the birth of IL-15 could mark Indy Lights out as a genuine feeder category of choice for aspiring racers the world over.

Vautier in IL-15 c/o Marshall Pruett

Vautier in IL-15
c/o Marshall Pruett

“The launch of IL-15 is important because the series is struggling right now and what it needs is something new,” Daly confirms. “There’s only really three teams that you can run with in Lights at the moment and have a chance of winning. That limits you immediately. I think now if you get an even playing field with a new car, then you’ll have more interest from teams and drivers because it opens things up again. Everyone will have a chance. That’s why you go to GP3 and GP2, because theoretically you have the same chance as everyone else. That’s what Indy Lights needs.”

In order to do that, however, Indy Lights needs the one thing that GP2 lacks. And that is a guaranteed route via established top tier teams. Yes, the Indy Lights champion will be guaranteed three races including the Indy 500 as a prize for taking the crown, but what the series desperately requires is existing Indycar teams to become involved, be it via an official association with a Lights team or by running their own squad.

Andretti has already shown the benefit of such a system, when it took a gamble on young Carlos Munoz and ran their Indy Lights star at last season’s Indy500. Few rookies have made such a sensational debut at the Brickyard, with Munoz’s style, speed and bravery calling to mind another young Colombian on his IMS debut, Juan Pablo Montoya. It came as little surprise that Munoz was plucked from the Lights team and moved up to Indycar by Andretti for 2014. But Munoz is the exception.

Of course, IL-15 as a new car will not be cheap. But with seasonal budgets expected to top out at between $900,000 and $1.1m the required finances for a prospective 2015 Indy Lights driver are not so different to current levels and are still highly favourable when compared to the money required to run in GP3, WSR or GP2.

IL-15 c/o Indy Lights

IL-15
c/o Indy Lights

Series boss Dan Andersen has said he already has nine teams committed for 2015. “They’ve signed on and paid their registration fees. And we have more that I expect to sign up in coming days, including two of the top current Indy Lights teams. Plus, we have IndyCar teams, such as Rahal and Foyt who are seriously considering it, along with some former Atlantic teams that are pretty far down the road in making a decision. A lot of credit goes to Dallara and AER for producing something here that everyone wants to play with.”

For Daly, the inclusion in the championship of existing Indycar teams is vital.

“I think in America, if an Indycar team really embraces the junior team and sees a driver that has done well and hasn’t just brought money, then there’s more of a chance that they will take a chance on youth. Certainly more than in F1. I’ve seen so many young drivers in the F1 world not get that chance, but I think that in the Indycar world, embracing Indy Lights and the new IL-15 should allow talented racers more of a chance.”

As young drivers across the world allow their frustrations to fester and begin to question how realistic their F1 dream truly is as the European feeder championships bottleneck at the F1 gates, IL-15 could be the spark for Indy Lights which the launch of GP2 gave F1 hopefuls a decade ago. Time will tell, but Andersen and Indy Lights may be embarking upon a path that leads not only to the rejuvenation of their own championship but which may also, by attracting the greatest young talent from around the world to a more open and accessible ladder to the top table, form the basis of a new golden era for Indycar itself.

Taking it to the Max

Palm Beach Race 1 Podium Florida Winter Series 2014

Palm Beach Race 1 Podium
Florida Winter Series 2014

Max Verstappen does not own the first trophy he won in single seaters. It sits, instead, in the trophy cabinet at Prema Powerteam, signed and dedicated to the boys who worked on his car in the Ferrari Florida Winter Series. A driver error had put him out of the second race of the opening weekend at Sebring, but his crew (of two) had worked tirelessly to repair the damage and get him back onto the grid for the final race later that day. A week later, in the first race at Palm Beach, Verstappen finished second. The 16 year old could think of no other meaningful way to repay his boys’ hard work than to hand over the glass vase, which represented so much for him as he took his first steps out of karts. But the day after handing over his first trophy, he would take his first ever single seater victory.

He stepped off the podium, smiled and said, “This one, I’ll keep.”

I know this because I had the honour of sharing the track with him for both landmarks.

c/o FIA.com

c/o FIA.com

It’s astonishing to think that just six months after his first win in single seaters, Max Verstappen has been confirmed as a Formula 1 driver for the 2015 season. But Max Verstappen is quite an astonishing talent. So astonishing in fact that a few poorly worded questions on my part to a few sources made me believe he’d actually got the jump on Vergne and would be replacing him from this weekend! To me, he’s that good that it actually seemed possible.

Even so, to many a debut for Verstappen even in 2015 seems premature. I’ve long been an advocate of taking time with drivers, putting them through various junior formulae and allowing the best to rise to the surface. Age, I always thought, was an advantage in this game as it came along with experience and having ironed out the creases one should not be wrestling with in the world’s highest perceived echelon of racing.

When Red Bull rushed Jaime Alguersuari into Formula 1 at the age of 19, straight out of World Series, he was unfairly dubbed “the most dangerous man in motor racing,” over his relative inexperience.

When Max Verstappen makes his Formula 1 debut, he will be too young to drive a car in his native Holland without someone over the age of 18 present, and too young to drink champagne outside the podium. Is he thus too young? Is he a danger? Is it too soon?

There is an old adage that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. And so in 2015, at the age of 17, Max Verstappen will become the youngest Formula 1 driver in the history of our sport. It is a decision which will polarise opinion.

That Verstappen is talented is in no doubt. From those early races in Florida he was getting up the noses of drivers far more experienced and established than himself. The likes of Antonio Fuoco, already part of the Ferrari Driver Academy, had beef with him by the time practice began in Palm Beach. This young hotshot was making immediate waves and putting noses out of joint.

He did it in Florida, and he’s done it all season in Formula 3. The decision to make his full competitive debut at that level was a surprise in itself as the standard route in would normally have been a few rungs further down the ladder. But as is becoming the way with young Verstappen, normal just doesn’t suffice.

c/o FIA.com

c/o FIA.com

At the time of writing this article Max Verstappen sits second in European F3 in his debut season with 8 wins, 13 podiums, 5 pole positions and 5 fastest laps. He won the F3 Masters at Zandvoort. Yes, fellow rookie Esteban Ocon is leading the title chase, but Ocon is part of the Lotus junior programme already. Up until seven days ago, Max Verstappen was a free agent.

Rumour was that Mercedes was interested in securing his services and indeed had made him a very nice offer. Mercedes no doubt would have taken their time with him, nurtured him through the ranks and prepared him for a Formula 1 seat… or DTM if the single seater route hadn’t worked out. It would have taken something massive to convince him not to sign with the manufacturer who is dominating modern Formula 1.

An immediate race seat in Formula 1 seems to have been that deal breaker.

Seven days ago he signed on with Red Bull. At last weekend’s Nurburgring round he romped to a Race 1 win, was leading Race 2 with ease when his engine let go and needed to be changed. He incurred a 10 place grid drop as a result (and will for the next two races), but having started 12th he avoided the melee at Turn 1 and was running 5th by the end of the first lap. He would finish third. It was a frankly brilliant drive and set up the platform from which he has been launched into F1.

Red Bull, however, is not known for its warm, nurturing environment. The tale of Formula 1’s last “youngest ever” is a cautionary one for Verstappen. If he is given as long to grow within the sport as was Alguersuari, he’ll be out of Formula 1 before he’s out of his teens. But Verstappen and Alguersuari are very different personalities.

Max and father Jos c/o James Moy Photography

Max and father Jos
c/o James Moy Photography

Max Verstappen isn’t the first driver to have made such a fast ascent to Formula 1 and I doubt he will be the last. His father ascended quickly, too. So quick will Verstappen’s rise be though, that he will even line up for his debut alongside drivers who raced against his father… Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button.

Fascinatingly, both Raikkonen and Button had similarly quick climbs to Formula 1. For Raikkonen, it was such a quick climb that he opened his F1 career on a provisional Superlicense. As we know, however, both Raikkonen and Button went on to become champions, but while Raikkonen was nurtured first by Sauber and then by McLaren, Button was ejected from Williams after a year and then went through the school of hard knocks that was Benetton. In today’s Formula 1, one wonders if Button would have survived and given long enough to mature into the driver who won the 2009 world championship. Frankly, it is debateable.

As for Verstappen, jokes will be made about his age. People will say he’s not ready, that the sport needs to take a hard look at itself. What has it become etc? Justifiable questions will be asked of the Red Bull programme and what happens now to the likes of da Costa (already moved to DTM), WSR’s Sainz Jr and Gasly, and GP3’s mega talented Alex Lynn. Questions again will be asked of WSR and GP2. Questions will be asked of what happens to Vergne, but frankly when he was overlooked for Ricciardo at Red Bull, it was obvious he was on borrowed time.

c/o FIA.com

c/o FIA.com

I swore last year that Helmut Marko had made a mistake in promoting Dany Kvyat at such a young age. I have been proven spectacularly wrong and I am happy to admit it. As such, in this case, I am more than happy to stand back and watch with interest.

The arrival of a talent such as Verstappen to the sport at a remarkably tender age is the exception, not the norm. Such an exception should make us all stand back and watch. It should make us take enormous interest in how he fares. It should make us all incredibly excited. For the doom mongers and nay sayers, it won’t of course. It’ll just add to the impending sense of doom and pessimism.

But this news should get our juices flowing in anticipation of the debut of someone who could prove to be exceptional.

I like Max. I love watching him race. I loved trying to keep up with him on track.

And I can’t wait to see how long it takes before the established order in Formula 1 are left as awestruck as I was, staring at his gearbox.

1F4A0951

One More Lap

IMG_7078

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.

IMG_7085

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.

IMG_7098

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.