So the seasons are over and the winter is setting in, and while the teams knuckle down on preparation for the 2014 season, the final calendar for which has just been released, I thought I’d just jot down my thoughts on a few of the stories doing the rounds as most of us start to wind down for Christmas.
The driver merry-go-round
The last week has provided clarification on two of the empty seats in Formula 1, with Lotus announcing Pastor Maldonado alongside Romain Grosjean for next year, and Nico Hulkenberg returning to Force India. What was perhaps most interesting in the Hulkenberg case was that his announcement was also, although it didn’t state as such, confirmation that at least one of Force India’s 2013 drivers will need to find a new ride. With rumours circulating that the team’s second seat could fall to Sergio Perez, perhaps both Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta will be racing elsewhere in 2014.
There remains a chance for Perez to land back with his former team Sauber, so too for both of Force India’s 2013 drivers. Perez remains the key player in the mix right now, as his combination of speed, tenacity and backing make him an attractive prospect. There remains a big question over where Esteban Gutierrez will wind up. I believe the young Mexican did a fabulous job in his rookie season, and the romantic side of me would love to see he and Perez shape up as an all Mexican line-up with increased backing at Sauber.
The problem for Perez seems to be that his split with his former manager Adrian Fernandes did not go down well with Carlos Slim. Fernandes is Slim’s motorsport man, and so there is talk that the split has created a rift between Perez and Slim. Many of us in the F1 paddock feel that Perez exceeded expectations at McLaren in what was a difficult year for team and driver, and it would be a shame to see him leave the sport. \
Paul di Resta, meanwhile, has admitted that he may have to do just that as his 2014 options now look slim. There has been much talk that he might be interested in a move to Indycar, possibly even to take over his cousin Dario Franchitti’s now vacant #10 Ganassi. Despite some positive noises, I understand that Paul, privately, isn’t terribly keen on such a move. So where does that leave him? A return to DTM? Maybe WEC?
Indycar, DTM and WEC right now hold some of the most attractive seats for racing drivers, and in that list we must include those talented drivers in junior formulas who simply do not have the budget to continue into F1. Nicolas Todt was seen in discussions with Mercedes bosses in Brazil, and with the futures of Maldonado, Bianchi and Massa all confirmed, could it be that a Mercedes AMG F1 reserve role for James Calado is in the offing, potentially with some DTM thrown in? Calado tested DTM a few weeks ago, so it isn’t out of the realms of possibility. Antonio Felix da Costa has also been linked to a move to DTM.
Sam Bird’s name has been linked with Indycar, after the Briton was conspicuous by his absence from the final two F1 races for Mercedes AMG. It is understood that he turned down the opportunity to test DTM, preferring instead to repay the faith shown in him by Russian Time to help them create a baseline with their new GP3 car. If an Indycar move doesn’t come off however, such a decision to repay Russian rather than German confidence may prove costly in his relationship with Mercedes for a future DTM drive.
There have also ben rumours surrounding Carlin and an Indycar foray. How realistic such a move would be is debatable, but personally I’d love to see Red Bull put some money into the venture, and see the likes of da Costa move stateside with Carlin.
With space in F1 limited, money really does talk… which brings us back around to Maldonado…
Lotus and Maldonado
OK, let’s start at the start with this one. With three races to go in F1 2013, Lotus had a shot at second in the constructors’ championship. When the issues with Raikkonen surfaced and it became clear that the Finn’s heart was no longer in the fight, I argued at the time and I stand by this even more so now, that Lotus should have sidelined him and taken on their reserve driver Davide Valsecchi.
The reasoning was simple. Valsecchi, going into the 2013 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix had the best record of any driver on the grid at the track. He had won in Abu Dhabi three times in GP2 and GP2 Asia. He had a wealth of experience at the track testing F1 machinery. He had tested and was at home in the E21 and was a loved part of the team. Give him Abu Dhabi. If he didn’t shine there he wouldn’t shine anywhere. So if he didn’t come up to scratch, take the opportunity to put someone else in the car for the final two.
As it was the team stuck with Kimi for Abu Dhabi and went for Heikki Kovalainen for the final two. Kimi got involved in the most un-Raikkonen-esque first corner incident in Abu Dhabi. You can make up your own mind on that one. And then it was up to Heikki to step into a team with which, although he had a past, would have still been fairly unfamiliar. He had to step into a car he had never driven, on tyres he had never raced, and score points.
Heikki Kovalainen’s objective was clear: score points. The results do not lie. He failed to achieve the objectives the team had set out for him. And so, I ask again… three races in which Romain Grosjean’s team-mate failed to score a point. How much worse would it have been had the team taken the option many in the paddock felt it should have done and taken a punt on Valsecchi?
Let’s not even get started on the debate over the worth of a reserve driver, and what Lotus’ decision has done for that role. The fact is that they overlooked their man, and the option they took failed to achieve the results he had ben brought in to ensure.
The team’s focus at this time, of course, was hugely on 2014. The higher up the table the team finished, the more money they would get. As it is they lost out on second and finished fourth. Yes, that matched their 2012 finishing position, but it isn’t where they could and arguably should have finished the year in a car which, over the final quarter of the season, was the only one which could regularly compete with Red Bull.
The focus was also shifting away from the track in the protracted financial discussions with Quantum. I will not go into the details here, as they remain sketchy at best, but in talking with Eric Boullier on the record in the final rounds of 2013 he was at pains to point out that the financial future of his team was in the hands of Genii. So too the driver decisions. So whatever your take on Quantum, and whatever your take on the driver decisions the team has made, ultimately Boullier is an employee of Genii and is doing his best with the hand he is given.
It seems utterly incredible that after two years of exceeding expectations, of Kimi Raikkonen’s return and Romain Grosjean’s validation, of winning races and scoring podiums, that the team could not secure solid funding for its future. Does that responsibility rest with Enstone or further up the chain at Genii? Whoever is responsible for securing such funding has a lot to answer for, because it is their failure that has led to the team hanging on to the promises of an outfit which, with each passing day, looks less and less likely to deliver.
In such circumstances, Maldonado was the team’s only option. He comes with money. A lot of money. As Eric Boullier said many, many months ago when it first became clear that Raikkonen was not being paid, his responsibility first and foremost is to the employees at Enstone. In failing to secure second in the constructors’ championship, in failing to secure solid funding for the future, Maldonado’s money was the only route left to the team to secure it can still go racing. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but having Lotus racing is surely better than it slipping off the grid.
And just how bad is Maldonado? He is a multiple champion. He is a Grand Prix winner. And on his day he can be blisteringly fast. But he remains a loose cannon, a hot head, and his attitude towards Williams in the final races of 2013 was utterly disgusting. But looking at how Lotus has created a man out of Romain Grosjean, could the guiding hand of Eric Boullier hone the scintillating pace of Pastor Maldonado and turn him into a genuine prospect? Nicolas Todt told me a long time ago in our discussions about racing drivers that it was impossible to make a slow driver fast, but that you could always calm down a rapid but aggressive talent. Perhaps this is all Maldonado needs.
One thing is sure however. While Williams will miss Maldonado’s millions, they will not miss the man. He made many enemies in his final few races, and it has long been known that his technical feedback and intelligence have always been questioned by those at the very top of the technical food chain at the team.
So is Maldonado a simple cash cow to allow Lotus more time to carry on racing and find future budget? Perhaps. But if the team couldn’t make the most of the marketing opportunity afforded to it by Raikkonen, how the hell are they going to put a positive spin on Maldonado? Perhaps it is time to put less effort into creating horrendously labored hashtags, and more into selling the squad to investors.
Changes at the top?
How long can Martin Whitmarsh, Stefano Domenicali et al stay at the helm of their respective ships. It is a tough question. And with Ross Brawn now in open play after he takes a year off fishing in 2014, team bosses up and down the pitlane have every reason to be fearful.
If F1 was as cut throat as soccer, Whitmarsh and Domenicali would likely have been moved aside a long time ago. Let’s take the example of Whitmarsh. Under his watch, McLaren has gone from winning world championships to having the fifth (only just) best team in Formula 1. He lost their star striker (Hamilton) and the replacement he pitched the team’s future hopes on has been dumped after one season.
I’m not saying anyone’s job in this industry is easy. And personally I think Martin is doing a good job, so too Stefano. It’s almost impossible to compete with the budget and resources that Red Bull is throwing at Formula 1. But ultimately the days when team bosses were also team owners are essentially over. At what point will the ultimate owners decide enough is enough? It happens in every other sport… so how long until it happens in F1? As I said, I don’t believe these guys are doing a bad job, but if 2014 turns into a failure for any team, will we start to see changes at the top?
Things next year are going to be different. Very different. If the video released last week of what is claimed to be a Ferrari V6 Turbo mule doing the rounds at Fiorano is accurate, the cars are going to sound very different indeed. In terms of pace, there are already claims that F1 will struggle to match or even beat GP2.
Pirelli, the scapegoat for so much in F1, has still not tested 2014 tyres. If we thought they went conservative in 2013, just think about the slabs of concrete they’ll have to produce in 2014. Development drivers are reporting wheelspin up to third, some say fourth gear in the new cars on the sim. Pirelli are going to have to create incredibly strong tyres if we aren’t going to see rubber disintegrating next season.
And so, a proposal has been made to introduce two mandatory pitstops for next season. Cue the traditional negativity and the argument that the racing is being ruined by gimmicks. I can see those arguments, and the idea of initiating a maximum percentage of a race to be run on a certain type of tyre holds absolutely no interest for me. I’d go beyond that actually and say I find it abhorrent, for in this instance we would fall into the concept of pit windows, which does nobody any favours at all. By imposing mandatory pitstops you are creating guaranteed excitement with strategy. But by introducing pit windows you then ruin that very same strategic element.
GP2 has seen mandatory pitstops every since its creation, and these have always added a fascinating element to the racing. The only pit window is that you have to wait for six laps until your first stop. That’s it. And it works.
The interesting thing here is how many people complained that Austin 2013 was boring because it was a one stop race. Well, if you think Austin was boring, with overly conservative tyres leading to a race all about tyre preservation, then welcome to 2014. By mandating a compulsory second stop you make it more exciting. Why? Because rather than sitting on tyres and trying to race to a delta, you can actually start to push a bit more.
Think about that. Drivers get to push. It’s truly incredible how many people this year have complained that Formula 1 has become a sport about tyre preservation. And yet, when a rule change is suggested that would allow drivers to push harder because a one stopper is outlawed, all of a sudden those same people decry the notion because it hurts teams and drivers who are able to look after their tyres.
You can’t have it both ways.
Either you want a sport where drivers are able to push, or you want a sport where drivers have to be a little bit smarter, look after their tyres and use their brains as well as their right foot to ensure victory. I’m not saying that either version is better, but I think the first option may make racing juices flow a little faster.
There’s a long way to go until the 2014 season starts, but that’s just my take on a few little things bubbling around at the moment.