Archive: Adrian Newey

It’s time to eat humble pie. Before the season began I wrote a couple of posts outlining my pessimism for the prospects of Force India and their new driver Paul di Resta. I think it’s now fair to say that I was wrong on this!

The “midfield battle” for sixth place in the Constructors’ Championship looks like being one of the tastiest of the year. Force India have shown themselves to be one of three strong contenders for this “best of the rest” position.

Each of the five teams above this sixth place battle have won at least one Championship in the previous five seasons. So the sixth place finisher can genuinely be proud of their achievement.

Although Williams have disappointingly — but quite comprehensively — dropped out of this battle (at least for the time being), each of Sauber, Toro Rosso and Force India have plenty of cause to be optimistic for the year ahead.

Sauber

Sauber’s success is as a result of a tasty mixture of a decent chassis, combined with two punchy drivers and a willingness to take strategic risks.

Who can fail to have been impressed by Sergio Pérez? In Australia he outsmarted everyone by managing to make the Pirelli tyres last much longer than everyone else. With a brave one stop strategy, Pérez took a hugely commendable seventh place. Never mind that the Saubers were disqualified due to a technical infringement. Pérez had put himself well and truly on the map.

His scrappy Chinese Grand Prix, in which he earned two drive-through penalties, demonstrated that he still has plenty to learn. I wouldn’t say he’s a star of the future in the Vettel mould. But as a Kobayashi-style midfield wunderkind, Pérez surely has a promising future ahead of him.

Meanwhile, Kamui Kobayashi has been his usual feisty self. He collects a handful of points at a time while wowing the crowds with his audacious overtaking moves.

With James Key in place at Sauber, the team has come a long way since the darkness of winter 2009-2010. And you can only see that situation improving over time.

Toro Rosso

Toro Rosso have perplexed many by opting to retain its two drivers Sébastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari. Particularly when you consider that the talented Daniel Ricciardo is waiting in the wings, it is odd to offer Buemi a third season.

Neither Buemi nor Alguersuari have been particularly impressive so far. Retaining them goes against the supposed concept of Toro Rosso has a driver development team, the final link in the Red Bull Junior Team sausage factory before being rubber-stamped to drive a bona fide Adrian Newey machine.

However, it has to be said they have done a commendable job so far this season. Toro Rosso clearly have a car with promise, with its radical sidepods paying dividends. When you consider that Toro Rosso weren’t even designing their own chassis a few years ago, this is pretty impressive.

A strong qualifying in China underlined the potential of the car, even if they didn’t quite have the race pace to keep grasp of the top ten positions. I thought Toro Rosso would run out of steam. In fact, if anything, they are getting stronger.

Force India

But I thought Force India would be even further behind. I thought they were a spent force. They started the 2010 season in a strong position, but after losing technical staff throughout the season they slipped further and further down the grid. I struggled to see where an upswing would come from.

Well, wherever it has come from, it is there for sure. OK, so their points finishes in Australia were inherited as a result of Sauber’s disqualifications. And the Chinese Grand Prix failed to yield any points.

But what is striking about Force India’s first three races is the sheer consistency of their performances. A ninth place finish, two 10ths and two 11ths bode well. They look like being strong contenders to grab a few points in every race.

Most impressively of all, their faith in Paul di Resta has been generously rewarded. While I poo-pooed the idea of a DTM driver coming into F1, there is no denying that di Resta has done the business.

The greatest thing is that di Resta has achieved this with great maturity and consistency. He is certainly showing the relatively plain Adrian Sutil — now entering his fifth year in F1 — just how it is done.

Exciting battle in prospect

It is too early to say if Force India can continue to challenge for sixth place in the Constructors’ Championship. To my eyes, it seems as though Sauber have the upper hand here, although Force India can well expect to beat Toro Rosso.

What Force India can certainly take heart from is the fact that they definitely have not dropped out of the midfield. They are not being caught by, for instance, Lotus.

That is certainly a lot more than can be said for Williams, the team that narrowly beat Force India to sixth last year. That Force India have managed to avoid Williams’s fate is evidence enough that they are still a force to be reckoned with.

Over the past week or so, rumours that big changes are afoot at Williams have been ramping up.

Last week when I saw that a German website had written about this, I prepared a simple but telling graph looking at the form of Williams over the years. But I refrained from publishing it in case my conclusions were overly harsh.

But today the team’s technical director Sam Michael has come out and said for himself that the recent performance of Williams is not good enough.

What I would not be happy with doing would be not changing anything – even myself. Even if everyone said everything is perfect, I know it is not. So, I am not happy with the job that we have done as a group. I would review that anyway – including myself. I don’t exclude myself from any of that.

I, as technical director, have chosen the technical team that works for me… They are all people that I have chosen to put in those positions, so if it doesn’t work then it is my responsibility.

This is refreshing honesty. It is no secret that Williams’s form has been disappointing in the last few years. But it has never been properly confronted.

In the light of Sam Michael’s comments, here is the graph. It tracks the Constructors’ Championship positions of Williams throughout its 32 years in Formula 1. Alongside the annual positions, I have added a five-year rolling average to allow us to see the longer term trends.

Williams Constructors's Championship positions

It is well-known that Williams has always been a highly successful grand prix team. The 1980s were a bit of a rollercoaster. The team mixed hugely successful years with a few more disappointing years. Overall, the trend has been for the team to hover around 3rd place on average.

Then came the mid-1990s, when Williams were truly dominant. This was the period where Adrian Newey was on board. It is almost impossible for the five-year trend to get any higher, as the team strung together an incredible seven consecutive top-two finishes.

It is no secret that Williams have never dominated in this way ever since Adrian Newey left in 1997. But looking at the trend, Williams continued to average around 3rd place in the Constructors’ Championship — if anything, still slightly better than the pre-Adrian Newey years. But in the middle of the 2000s, it begins to change for the worse — dramatically.

In fact, if you look at the trendline, with no other knowledge I think you could actually guess when Sam Michael became technical director. In case you haven’t spotted it, I have added a subtle hint that pinpoints the year.

Williams Constructors's Championship positions (with arrow indicating when Sam Michael became technical director)

This could well be a harsh assessment. Sam Michael seems to be well respected among his colleagues at Williams. But from the outside, it has long perplexed me why there hasn’t been more of a question mark over Sam Michael’s role.

The team has made many changes in recent years. They have switched engine manufacturers from BMW to Cosworth via Toyota. They have brought on board hugely experienced drivers (Alexander Wurz, Rubens Barrichello) along with promising rookies (Nico Rosberg, Nico Hülkenberg). And there have been lots of changes behind the scenes with the operation of the business. None of these changes have done the trick.

Now, with Williams enduring their worst start to an F1 season since their very first one in 1978, it is crunch time. They need to face up to their issues properly.

We know the problem is not money. After all, the team keeps telling us they have no money worries whatsoever!

Currently the team languishes in 10th place in the Constructors’ Championship, behind Lotus, a team that is not yet two years old. Indeed, in China, Pastor Maldonado was beaten fair and square by Heikki Kovalainen in the Lotus.

Amazingly, this position is up from the situation after Malaysia, when the team was also behind Virgin in the Constructors’ Championship. Virgin is another team looking carefully at its technical set-up, as Nick Wirth’s CFD-only approach fails to prove its worth.

Here, just for fun, is the graph of Williams’s Constructors’ Championship positions with their current 10th place for 2011 added.

Williams Constructors's Championship positions (including 2011 up to the Chinese Grand Prix)

This is a post that I should have written at the end of last season, but didn’t get round to before deciding to go on hiatus. Many of these points will have been made before, and it may be a bit past its sell-by date — but here it is anyway.

I am in awe of what Red Bull Racing achieved last season. In one sense, it should all be so easy. They have the best designer in Adrian Newey. And they have one of the best drivers in Sebastian Vettel — and Mark Webber is pretty handy too.

But those elements were in place in previous years too. Plus, it is easy to forget that Adrian Newey has not been involved in a championship victory since 1999.

Vettel, too, was by no means a shoo-in for the championship. It took a fairly bizarre set of circumstances for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to go his way. And it was a tall order for him to become the youngest ever world champion.

The truth is that the achievements of Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel are massive. Red Bull is a soft drink company. Yet they have shown world-class car manufacturers and experienced grand prix teams how to do it.

When I grew up watching Formula 1 in the 1990s, the talk was of F1′s “big four”. These were the dominant teams: Benetton, Ferrari, McLaren and Williams. Between 1979 and 2008, no-one outside of the big four won the Constructors’ Championship (if you account for the fact that Benetton became Renault).

In the past two years, there has been a breakthrough. The stranglehold was broken, first by the Brawn team in its first — and only — year in F1; an unprecedented achievement. But, impressive though its achievements were, the Brawn team could trace its history in F1 back to Tyrrell’s first grand prix in 1968.

In a way, therefore, Red Bull’s achievements are even more extraordinary. Although Red Bull (much like the Brackley-based Tyrrell-BAR-Honda-Brawn-Mercedes squad), bought an existing team, this team in much younger. Originally set up as Stewart Grand Prix in 1997, it took 14 years for this team to win a Championship having been set up from scratch.

Red Bull truly is part of a new generation of championship winners. The next-youngest championship-winning team is Benetton / Renault, originally set up as Toleman in 1981.

A hat must go off to Paul and Jackie Stewart for their roles in this. I have heard it mentioned in passing once or twice, but I am surprised that more has not been made of it.

The Stewarts expended great efforts to set up their grand prix team, and against all the odds they achieved great things in the short three year lifespan of the team. Despite the best efforts of Ford to run the team into the ground with its misguided Jaguar Racing venture, the team has since gone on to achieve even greater things as Red Bull.

So hats off to Paul and Jackie Stewart. And hats off to Dietrich Mateschitz, Adrian Newey, Christian Horner, Sebastian Vettel and everyone else inolved in Red Bull Racing’s amazing achievement.

I’ll be upfront here. While many like Williams, with their “plucky underdog” status and stridently independent approach, they have never been my among my favourite teams. To the extent that I have ever liked them, it has been as the anti-Ferrari. In other words, I like them about as much as I like McLaren, which is not very much — but hey, at least they can beat Ferrari.

Today, Williams can’t beat Ferrari, so I am rather indifferent about them. But at a time where the majority of the grid is made up of manufacturers — of cars and drinks — even I can see that there is something romantic about Williams. I think it would be good to see them at the front again.

But if I was a fan of the team, I would probably have well and truly lost patience by now. Every year the team says, “just wait — next year we’ll be back”. They spend all winter making positive noises. And then when it comes to the big day itself? They are even slower than they were before.

One of the most successful teams in history

When they last won a Constructors’ Championship in 1997, Williams had won more of them than Ferrari. The record was staggering — nine Constructors’ and seven Drivers’ Championships in just 20 seasons. It was an utterly fearsome record.

At that stage, Williams had won races in all but two of its seasons — its very first in 1978, and a brief drought in 1988 when the team had to make do with inferior Judd engines after Honda jumped ship to McLaren. Even then, Nigel Mansell managed to wring a couple of second place finishes out of it, which is more than can be said for what came after 1997.

Once again, Williams was left in the lurch after the departure of the front-running engine manufacturer — this time Renault. To make matters worse, chief designer Adrian Newey left Williams to join McLaren. 1998 was a year of continuity for Williams, in all the wrong ways — using what were effectively year-old Renault engines and what some said was the 1997 chassis adapted for 1998 regulations.

In 1999 the team faced further difficulties with Alex Zanardi struggling to adapt to F1 after a successful time in ChampCars. While the wins dried up, this difficult spell was thankfully short lived, as in 2000 Williams forged a new partnership with BMW.

2000 was a learning year for all concerned, but successes came between 2001 and 2003, when Williams returned to winning ways. Williams were even strong title contenders in 2003, with four victories and nine podiums, Williams were a strong player in a tight three-way battle for the championship. As unlikely as it seems today, Juan Pablo Montoya was almost a World Champion!

The slide from the top

Unfortunately, things started to go pear-shaped again in 2004. A radical “walrus nose” concept brought little in the way of performance, and a more conventional design was brought out midway through the season. Montoya managed to win the final race in Brazil, but this race remains the team’s last taste of success.

Almost every year since then has seemingly seen Williams slip back a bit further, with the successes of the old days becoming an ever more distant memory. In the past five years, the team has had just four podium finishes. (Barring success in Turkey, that number will reduce to three this weekend!)

The brightest spot has been 2007, when a consistent set of results from Nico Rosberg helped the team bag a commendable fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship (although that was after McLaren’s disqualification from the Championship). Apart from that, Williams have become a fixture at the back of the midfield — if you can call 8th out of 10 teams the “midfield”.

Arrogant enough to believe their own excuses

All the while, the excuses came, and fans were reassured: “next year is our year”. And next year comes and everything is all the same. Even if they trick people into thinking they’re fast by topping Friday Practice times, as Williams did in the first half of last season, people soon become wise to the fact that the car is not truly capable of it.

Before, there was always a positive spin to put on the situation. In 2009, Williams were bad — but at least Renault were worse and BMW weren’t much better. In 2008 people were more concerned with the alarming lack of pace in the Honda. 2006 was regarded as a tough deal for Williams, struggling with apparently sluggish and unreliable Cosworth engines.

It’s difficult to sugar-coat this year’s results in the same way. Although seventh doesn’t sound too bad, in effect the only teams that are behind them are either new (in the case of Virgin, Hispania and Lotus), facing hugely difficult political and financial constraints (Sauber) or have designed their own car for the first time (Toro Rosso). The shocker is that Williams are even being compared to teams like this.

Meanwhile, Force India look a great deal more convincing, and Renault have again leapfrogged Williams and look like potential challengers to the top four teams. Indeed, Toro Rosso even look like they can realistically challenge Williams on the racetrack, particularly with a couple of feisty young drivers who are stepping up to the plate in style, particularly in the case of Jaime Alguersuari. Meanwhile, in China Nico Hülkenberg finished behind the Lotus of Heikki Kovalainen.

It seems as though Williams allowed arrogance to get the better of them. It was always someone else’s fault. But increasingly, Williams have been made to eat humble pie.

Williams lay the blame for their early-2000s dip at the door of BMW. This ended in an acrimonious split in 2005, by which time each party had become convinced that the other side was not pulling its weight. But BMW did a pretty good job when they joined forces with Sauber, the disappointment of 2009 notwithstanding. Meanwhile, Williams became inert — a permanent fixture of the midfield.

Of course, if it wasn’t the engine’s fault, it was the drivers’ fault. I was very interested to see Frank Williams admitting that, in the light of Mark Webber’s recent successes, the team was too hasty to lay the blame at the door of its driver for their average spell in 2005 and 2006.

When we had him obviously our car was a disappointment and we felt he was part of the problem. He probably wasn’t actually, with hindsight. The major point was that the car had problems.

Is there a way back?

I think the Williams of today is a great deal less arrogant than the Williams of four or five years ago. But now the damage has been done. Is there a way back to the top for this proud team? 13 years on from its last Championship success, it’s difficult to see.

Already, there are rumours that Williams are unhappy with Cosworth (just like in 2006). Rumours are linking them to a partnership with Renault. Williams were linked to Renault last year too, and Frank Williams confessed that the prospect of “Williams Renault”, a reminder of the team’s most dominant period in the 1990s, was exciting.

Other rumours link Williams to a partnership with Porsche, with whom they have collaborated on kers. But the problems run deeper than the matter of their engine supply, as surely the lessons of the BMW split show.

Two proud championshipsDespite all of its history and past successes, Williams have tried and failed to recover for too long now. Sadly, it seems as though this year Williams have to make do with racing against the likes of Sauber, a zombie team that is on emergency life support, and Lotus, a team that didn’t even exist a few months ago.

I hope they can make it. I was privileged enough to be invited to the Williams factory and museum last year. The museum is a wonderful place, brimful of some of the most successful grand prix cars there have ever been. The team only goes back just over 30 years, but it is such a huge part of Formula 1′s history. It would be such a shame if Williams were stuck at the back of the grid forever.

It has to be said that the writing was on the wall for the Bahrain Grand Prix before the teams even arrived there. And it’s not due to the refuelling ban. There are arguments for and against refuelling, but on balance I think banning refuelling is a good idea.

The legacy of refuelling

Some people had decided in advance that scrapping it was a bad idea, and have used the relatively pedestrian Bahrain Grand Prix as definitive evidence that they’re right. But one race is far too soon to judge. And as I pointed out in the previous article, there was actually more overtaking than normal.

It is no secret that F1 has a bit of an overtaking problem. The amount of overtaking has declined steadily throughout its history, and nose-dived in 1994 when refuelling was introduced in the modern era. In the intervening decade-and-a-half, the amount of overtaking has been relatively stable at this low level.

For me, the biggest legacy of refuelling has been to gift seven World Championships to a driver who isn’t particularly good at wheel-to-wheel racing, but transformed “overtaking into the pit lane” (i.e. gaining positions just by being in the pit lane at the right time) into the most important aspect of modern-day grand prix racing.

It is often argued that this “strategy” element adds an important dimension to the racing. The argument goes that what is lost in terms of on-track action is gained in terms of strategic intrigue.

This may have been true in the early days of refuelling, when strategists were still finding their feet with the new rules. But over time, it became clear what worked and what didn’t.

Armed with 15 years’ worth of data, teams had their strategies worked out by computers to the extent that there was one clear optimal strategy, and the race was won or lost on whether your first stop was made on lap 17 or made on lap 18. More often than not, after the first stop, it was clear how the rest of the race would play out, and the whole spectacle usually settled down.

The powers that be concocted increasingly contrived ways to re-inject a strategic element into the racing, but it stopped working. We reached the ridiculous situation where cars were qualifying on race fuel loads, which still did little to avoid the harsh reality that there is one optimal strategy.

How to re-introduce strategy while keeping purists happy

For me, there is far too much talk about “the show”. F1 is not a show. It is a sport. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to see a show, you should go to the pantomime. Todd on the latest Formula 1 Blog podcast said it best: “Jim Clark didn’t take part in a show. He took part in a race.”

Yet, with the obsession with making F1 more entertaining, the rules have constantly been tinkered with. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and the powers that be have to tread a fine line. They must make the sport more appealing to people who, truth be told, aren’t really interested in F1, while keeping the purists happy.

F1 is special because it is, at its core, about finding the fastest driver in the fastest car. Everything else is tinsel. Some of the new rules actively go against this attempt to find the fastest.

Look at the obsession with strategy. Look at attempts at mixing up the grid. The current tyre rules are among the most unpure in F1 today.

Forcing drivers to use two different types of compounds achieves nothing for anyone except Bridgestone. And I am yet to work out what is achieved by the new rule forcing drivers to start the race on the same tyres they qualified on. What does it prove? Do we tie one hand behind the back of footballers to “spice up the show” there? It is ridiculous.

Yet, all the talk is to introduce a mandatory two stops. That is certainly what Martin Whitmarsh implied on the BBC’s coverage last weekend. The idea sends a shiver down my spine. And quite how it is supposed to spice up the action is beyond me. Just now the optimal strategy appears to be a one-stop. Now they want to enforce a two-stop strategy? It’s difficult to see the scope for spiced-up strategy action here.

But I can think of a way of re-introducing the strategy element while keeping the purists happy: get rid of the mandatory tyre change. This would blow wide open the possibility of a no-stop strategy, thereby potentially reducing the predictability of the current situation. Sure, Bridgestone will be unhappy — but they are leaving the sport anyway so there is no point in making them happy.

Aerodynamics

The decline in overtaking pre-dates 1994. It has been clear for years that it is not as easy for F1 drivers in F1 cars to overtake as it perhaps should be. There are plenty of pet theories as to why this might be. The ones that get the most attention are the ones that are put forward by Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA, as they are the most powerful people in F1. But of course, they have their own agendas.

The FIA and Bernie Ecclestone have long blamed modern aerodynamics for the lack of overtaking. The received wisdom has become that aerodynamic grip is bad news if you want overtaking, and that the emphasis should be more on mechanical grip.

I was very interested to see James Allen write about what Frank Dernie thinks about this — that’s it’s a load of old cobblers. I have felt for a while that the argument that aerodynamics damage the racing does not hold water. On a Renault podcast a couple of years ago, Pat Symonds pointed out that the races that have the most overtaking, as everyone knows, are wet races. In the wet, aerodynamic grip is ramped up, and mechanical grip plummets.

When you think about it, it’s so right. It does amaze me that, in the face of so much hard evidence to the contrary, people still blame aerodynamics for the poor racing. I have come to the conclusion that many people’s views on the overtaking problem are shaped largely by fashion and spin rather than the evidence.

Speaking personally, I love seeing what sorts of devices teams come up with. We have all been fascinated by McLaren’s “F-duct” (even though it seems to have done them “F-all” good). Neutering these sorts of areas is the first step on the slippery slope towards spec chassis. And then it just wouldn’t be F1 any more.

I am not totally averse to restricting the cars though. Formula 1 is, after all, a formula — it always has been.

I am no engineer, but it strikes me that F1 cars are simply too fast to allow for much overtaking. In particular, the brakes on F1 cars are so good today that there is little opportunity for a driver to perform an outbraking manoeuvre. With such small braking zones, the scope just isn’t there in the same way it might have been in the past. Is somehow reducing the power of the brakes a viable option?

The points system

Bernie Ecclestone has also sought to blame the points system for the lack of overtaking, and the system has accordingly been tweaked. I personally think there is something in this. The points system rewards conservatism.

Think about instances where a driver attempting to overtake faces a 50-50 situation (or, more accurately, a ⅓-⅓-⅓ situation). By this I mean that there is a ⅓ chance that a clean pass will be made and a position will be gained, a ⅓ chance that an attempt will be made but will fail, and a ⅓ that the move will go wrong and end in a crash. (Obviously this is a major simplification of the real-life scenario, but I think this “50-50″ thought experiment still underlines an interesting point.)

Under last year’s scoring system, for a driver in second place trying to overtake the leader, this “⅓-⅓-⅓” situation would lead to an expected gain of… -2 points. Under the new points system, the expectation is -3⅔ (although as a percentage of the winner’s points haul, this is better). No wonder drivers can’t overtake. It’s not in their interests to even try unless they are practically left an open door.

This was the core reason why I was in fact, contrary to the fashion, in favour of Bernie’s proposed “medals” system. Then, attempting to gain a position would be unambiguously advantageous.

The circuits

However, I think there would be much more to be gained in ensuring that circuits are more challenging and provide more in the way of opportunities to overtake. Nothing is certain. After all, Suzuka is normally entertaining, but produced a bit of a stinker last year. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

But we all know that certain circuits, in general, produce better racing than others. I really do struggle to think of any grand prix held at Interlagos that was boring. But I know not to expect much action at, say, Valencia or Shanghai. Or Bahrain for that matter.

We know this because teams and drivers will often turn up a circuit and say, “there is only a certain place you can overtake, and it’s here”. Adrian Newey, Sam Michael and Martin Whitmarsh are all in agreement. As the Williams technical director said:

You’ve got to ask yourself, why do you go to a race such as Barcelona where no one overtakes, and then take exactly the same cars to Monza, Montreal or Hockenheim and you get lots of overtaking.

And the McLaren team principal said:

You only need to do simple statistical analysis and look at where the overtaking moves are If, say, we race on 18 circuits with 350 corners, then 90 per cent of overtaking moves in a year would happen at just 10 corners… The fact that overtaking is focused on such a small number of corners clearly demonstrates that it’s circuit-dependent.

Ferrari and Renault went to Valencia in 2008 proclaiming that they know from their simulators that there would be little in the way of overtaking. Ferrari even based a fundamental decision about their engine on this prediction. And they were right.

But Bernie will not entertain the suggestion that the circuits are to blame. This is because, unlike the effort made by drivers or the aerodynamics or the strategy, this is the area that he is responsible for. And he doesn’t want to take responsibility for it.

The effect of adding a new slow, narrow, bumpy, twisty section that looks as though it was almost designed to prevent overtaking was predicted before the race began. Quite why the organisers of the grand prix thought it would be a good idea is beyond me.

GP2 world feed commentator Will Buxton saw the writing on the wall, and was left exasperated by the negative effect this different circuit configuration had on the GP2 racing. He predicted a similar negative effect on F1, and it transpired that he was right.

What else is Bernie to blame for?

While I confess that it is a bit too easy to lay the blame on Bernie Ecclestone for the boring race in Bahrain, there is another core part of F1 that he is responsible for, which led to a dull spectacle being played out in our living rooms last Sunday. But that is what I will deal with in another article in the near future.

Earlier this year I wrote about the great job the BBC were doing covering Formula 1. It was the Corporation’s first time broadcasting Formula 1 since the sport left for ITV in 1997.

When ITV got the rights, it was widely accepted that they raised the bar of F1 coverage. The challenge for the BBC was to raise the bar further. And I think we can all agree that they haven’t disappointed. The team have had half a year to bed in, so it is a good opportunity to assess just how well the BBC is doing.

However, I have ended up gabbing on about it for far too long — so I have split it up into four articles, of which this is the first.

The pre-race build-up

The quality of the pre-race show was probably ITV’s greatest accomplishment. In this respect, the BBC had a lot to live up to. But unquestionably the BBC has succeeded in vastly improving the show.

On ITV, almost an hour’s worth of build-up felt too long, and frequently they reverted to a steady template of Lewisteria. Frankly, a lot of it was missable.

Now, the BBC has ensured that the build-up hour is almost as unmissable as the race itself. They do a great job of bringing the fans to the heart of the action. You can tell that a lot of effort is put into the features, although one problem is that "the formula" features have been repeated from time to time.

The biggest difference between ITV’s and the BBC’s pre-race show is that the BBC’s is clearly more dynamic. ITV just stood outside the McLaren garage and yapped on for an hour, only ever interviewing the usual suspects. The BBC will actively explore the pitlane, and they will interview a much wider variety of people than ITV ever did. I can think of interesting live chats with the likes of Adrian Newey, Stefano Domenicali, Pat Symonds — the sort of people who would seldom be seen on ITV. The fact that the BBC will regularly talk to people even more obscure than the likes of Pat Symonds says it all.

Perhaps my favourite moment was in the build-up to the qualifying session for the Turkish Grand Prix. They were interviewing Giancarlo Fisichella live, and absolutely ripped into him about his record at the race, complete with action replays of all his first-corner failures. It was a hugely entertaining piece of television that you would have never seen on ITV. It was a risk, but it paid off because luckily Fisi took it in good humour.

Post-race and analysis

Despite his role as talking head of choice on the news channels, Eddie Jordan did not seem very comfortable in front of the camera at the start of the season. He didn’t exactly come across as nervous, but he did seem uneasy and generally looked out of place.

The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that he is not particularly articulate. While he may sometimes have interesting points to make, he seems to start his sentences without having first thought about what his point is going to be. So he just meanders on and on going down several alleys until he stumbles upon a conclusion.

Ironically for someone who has such trouble reaching a conclusion, EJ is a total motormouth. The points he does make are often contradictory, and you get the sense that he says most of what he says just to make a big splash and get a reaction.

The good news is that this was almost certainly all the BBC wanted him for anyway. David Coulthard is a tad wooden, but his debates with EJ have already gone down in legend. Even though they supposedly have a lot of respect for each other, they are constantly tweaking each others’ tails. It might not always make for great analysis, but it does make for great entertaining television.

Now, halfway through the season, I think I would probably miss the EJ–DC partnership. The thing about the BBC’s coverage is that it immediately felt like a breath of fresh air compared to ITV’s stale coverage. It is not difficult to see that one of the biggest differences is in the post-race chats. Mark Blundell was as bland as they come, seldom had any interesting points to make, and perhaps worst of all he had no other pundit to bounce off. The BBC’s pundits completely reverse all of these bad points of ITV’s post-race segment.

Whether the second pundit needs to be someone quite as obnoxious and inarticulate — but entertaining — as Eddie Jordan is not clear. He was absent for the Chinese Grand Prix so instead we got Mike Gascoyne, who in my view was a revelation. He came across as surprisingly comfortable on camera, and I very much valued his contribution on technical matters, particularly his explanation of diffusers. Maybe he could be the BBC’s Steve Matchett — let’s hope so.

James Allen suggested on his blog recently that Gasscoyne is interested in pursuing media work if F1 work dries up for him. Even after just that one race as a pundit, I do hope he finds a role. A bit like Anthony Davidson, I would love to see him get a regular role on television if he is unable to participate in F1 itself.

As for the anchor, Jake Humphrey, what a guy. A lot of people questioned whether he would be up to the role, but I always found him very personable whenever I saw him on television before. What surprised me was just how comfortable he was at talking about F1 straight out of the box. Either he is a very passionate F1 fan like the rest of us, or he spent his winter doing serious amounts of research.

Jake Humphrey is a lot less stale than Steve Rider and Jim Rosenthal. Although (perhaps unusually) I quite liked both of ITV’s anchors, there is no question in my mind that Humphrey is even better. He asks all the right questions to the pundits, and his interviews with other F1 figures are equally good.

A recent blog post of his highlighted just how difficult his job is when he posted a video of a post-race show including his talkback. Of course, it was the same on ITV. But the BBC’s programme is noticeably more complex than ITV’s, so I would assume that Humphrey’s job is more stressful than that of the ITV anchors. Plus, Humphrey’s job isn’t over when the BBC One programme finishes…

It’s difficult to know what to think of this season. Although there is a novelty in the fact that the big teams are all floundering, the racing hasn’t exactly been top-notch all season — certainly not at the front. Even with Button neutered, it just left the door open for someone else to put in a dominant performance at the front.

Incidentally, my brother made a good point that I hadn’t thought about before. There isn’t really anything novel about the people at the front at all. He noted that since the early 1990s, the vast majority of championships have been won by two men: Adrian Newey and Ross Brawn. From 1992 until 2004, these two men hoovered up every title going. Look whose cars are battling for the Championship this year.

It is still nice to see a couple of small(-ish) teams showing the big names how it’s done, but it doesn’t make the racing any better. The British Grand Prix continued the trend. There was not much overtaking, and we saw a noticeably sluggish Nick Heidfeld, lapping at around 1.5s slower than those in front of him, have very little trouble keeping the pacier Alonso behind, and an orderly queue duly formed.

From lap 2 onwards, everyone’s first stint was interminably dull. It doesn’t say much for the new aero regulations. It’s tempting to blame the FIA, but you may as well blame the Overtaking Working Group, mostly made up of people who today represent Fota.

I sensed everyone becoming bemused at just how little overtaking there was. At one point during the BBC’s coverage the FOM World Feed cut to an onboard of Lewis Hamilton when he should have been lining someone up when Martin Brundle suddenly blurted: “He’s on the rev limit!” like a lightbulb went off in his head. The FIA’s engine regulations prevent overtaking.

In fairness, Silverstone doesn’t particularly lend itself to overtaking anyway, being mostly made up of high-speed corners. It is more the sort of place where drivers will get caught out by the difficult high-speed sections and the sharper drivers can take advantage in these moments.

So we saw a half-decent battle between Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton as first the Spaniard made a mistake at Woodcote. Then Hamilton got caught out at Becketts to allow Alonso to re-take the position. But Alonso was totally powerless in the first stint to do anything about the slow but steady Heidfeld. We had to rely on drivers making unforced errors for any position changes to be made.

Apart from the lack of overtaking, what are the major talking points of the race?

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the weekend was the fact that Button never got to grips with the situation. I always suspected that Barrichello would have the upper hand at Silverstone. It is effectively his second “home” race, he knows the place like the back of his hand and he has always gone well there. But I wasn’t prepared for the scale of Button’s struggles.

We have seen time and again this season Button struggle through Friday Practice and only get to grips with his car on Saturday, sometimes just in time to set his final flying lap. This weekend it was as if it never happened. The Brawn doesn’t like cold temperatures, and the British Grand Prix will be among the coolest of the season. There were also no heavy braking areas, which is apparently the Brawn’s strong point. Meanwhile, the high-speed corners played to Red Bull’s advantage.

But look at who Button was beaten by. Ahead of him on the grid were Jarno Trulli and, of all people, Kazuki Nakajima. Ahead of him in the race were Massa and Rosberg — and even that was mainly due to a Brawn strategy. It is true that Button was heavily disadvantaged at the start by Trulli’s sluggish getaway, but it was Button who qualified behind Trulli in the first place.

Meanwhile, Sebastian Vettel, who must be the favourite to challenge Button for the title, put in a flawless performance. In stark contrast to Turkey, where Button was majestic and Vettel floundered, the young German star didn’t put a foot wrong all race. He pulled out a lead of over a second per lap in the first stint, which you don’t see too often these days. As the cars passed the chequered flag, Vettel’s advantage over Button was 46 seconds.

Nakajima had a career-best 5th position on the grid, but was unable to take advantage. In fact, he mysteriously dropped down the order after his first pit stop, and afterwards Nakajima was at a loss, saying, There weren’t any particular reasons for it. The good qualifying performance is encouraging, but it means nothing if the driver can’t make the most of it during the race.

Nakajima even ended up behind Giancarlo Fisichella’s Force India. But in fairness, it was a stellar effort from Fisi, helped largely by an awesome start which saw him gain five places in the first lap. He is, at last, beginning to turn in some head-turning performances in that car, and they surely deserve to score a point with him soon. 10th place is excellent, especially considering there were only two retirements, and they were both behind him anyway.

Then there is the collision between Heikki Kovalainen and Sébastien Bourdais. I think you have to blame Kovalainen for that one. He didn’t seem to know what he was doing, and was weaving about like a drunk driver. Bourdais did very little to aggravate the situation and I don’t know what else he could have been expected to do.

So for the first time in a while we have seen Brawn on the back foot, and Red Bull have been given wings. We sit effectively at the half-way point of the season, and you wonder if this sets the scene for the rest of the season. But with a three week break until the next race in Germany there is a lot of time for the teams to improve their cars and for everyone to reflect on the situation.

There is a bit of politics to get out of the way first though, and I fear that the intervening three weeks will be dominated by non-racing matters.

How exciting! In just seven days’ time the F1 season will be under way. It is high time, therefore, that I cast my eye towards it.

Of course, to assess where the teams stand we must look back over winter testing. This year’s winter testing action has been fascinating and deserving of a post in its own right. I can’t remember winter testing being so closely followed by so many people on the internet.

Of course, part of that is just with the nature of internet coverage which is expanding, with more contributors getting involved all of the time. But even taking that into account, there has been a lot to chew over.

For one thing, there are the new regulations. This year sees what is by all accounts the biggest change to the rules in at least 25 years. It has been fascinating to see not just the general shape of the new cars, but the different approaches of the teams.

Almost inevitably, this means that there is a new hierarchy, and it is fascinating to watch it emerge. The Honda saga provided a gripping side-story to the on-track action, and the apparent supremacy of the fledgling Brawn team seems too good to be true. At the same time, one of F1′s biggest teams seems to be in big trouble.

This post will outline how I think the teams will measure up throughout the season. Suffice it to say, though, that it is proving very difficult to truly tell which teams have the advantage. It is worth reading Autosport’s analysis of the winter testing times. With kers in the mix, this year we could see cars suiting certain circuits more than others.

But here is my attempt to work out how each team’s overall performance throughout the season will measure up.

10. Force India-Mercedes

Despite Force India’s new partnership with McLaren and Mercedes, I fear that they do not yet have the resources to make much headway up the grid. Matters cannot have been helped by the late change of engine supplier, and the need to integrate various McLaren parts into the car. The car launched late and has had comparatively little testing.

But on paper Force India should have a handy package. As long as the aerodynamic package isn’t a complete dud, the Mercedes lump should give the car plenty of grunt. Vijay Mallya himself says that the team, which seemed slightly ramshackle last year amid reports of infighting, has been improved by the presence of the man from McLaren, Simon Roberts.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Force India challenging for points from time to time. But I don’t see them establishing themselves even as regular midfield runners. The driver line-up is easily the least exciting on the grid. Meanwhile, the car has not set the world alight during testing. No doubt Force India will spend another year constantly targeting Q2 and never reaching it.

9. Toro Rosso-Ferrari

Toro Rosso amazed the world last year by winning a race and showing its bigger sibling team how it’s done. Sadly, even the most optimistic observer does not expect Toro Rosso to come close to matching its 2008 form. Toro Rosso’s best asset, its star driver Sebastian Vettel, has now graduated to the main Red Bull team.

Sébastien Bourdais is a competent driver, but this year is make or break for his F1 career. One positive is that he will probably prefer the slick tyres. His team-mate Sébastien Buemi is the season’s only rookie, so will be allowed a bit of breathing space by observers. Buemi seems handy, and showed flashes of talent in GP2 this year. He also seems to have impressed the Red Bull guys as a test driver. How he will measure up as an F1 race driver is obviously yet to be seen.

Toro Rosso may be in a position to challenge for a few points here and there. But with the Renault having been the only one to have been improved over winter, it is unlikely that Toro Rosso will so easily make the Red Bull team look silly. All the while, the team will have to ready itself for the probably outlawing of customer cars which may be a distraction.

8. Williams-Toyota

The Williams has looked quite handy in pre-season testing. Autosport’s analysis shows that it has set the second-fastest time at Barcelona this winter, although its long run pace doesn’t seem quite so hot.

I would also doubt whether Williams will be in a position to develop the car as well as other teams will be able to. Let’s not forget that in 2008 Williams looked like they were going to be the third-best car, and it didn’t turn out that way.

The ace up Williams’s sleeve will be its flywheel kers system, which sounds like quite an impressive system. But with a fair degree of paddock scepticism over the benefits of kers, this could turn out to be a case of something that works better in a brochure than on the racetrack.

7. Red Bull-Renault

I would like to think that Red Bull are in a position to become a front-running team. I do have a soft spot for them, and the car is probably the most beautiful on the grid. Adrian Newey is also usually pretty handy at adapting to new technical regulations.

But their testing form, while not being particularly poor, has not exactly suggested that this is a team on the verge of regularly challenging at the front. The odd win is probably not out of the question though, and in Sebastian Vettel they have one of F1′s hottest properties.

6. Renault

After a troubled start to the testing season, when the car appeared to be beset by aerodynamic problems, Renault appear to have put aside their woes. It seems similar to last year, when Renault started the season with a poor car, but managed to turn it into a double race winner by the end of the season. Except this time Renault have improved the car before the season has begun.

Renault will also have been advantaged by the fact that they have been allowed to improve their engine over winter — the only power-plant to be granted such an upgrade. And you can never underestimate their lead driver Fernando Alonso, whom I consider to be the best driver on the grid.

Part 2 will be published tomorrow

Among the final cars to launch was the Red Bull Racing RB5, which was launched yesterday. We can safely assume that the Toro Rosso will be very similar, while we are led to believe that the Force India will be in large part a McLaren customer car. Everything has gone all quiet on the Honda front in recent days, so who knows if that car will ever break cover.

So this is it then. And good things come to those who wait. The RB5 is a real beauty, though you wouldn’t expect anything else from the pencil of Adrian Newey.

Of course, we are now used to the strange new wings so the RB5 doesn’t have that shock factor to it. But the RB5 has all the sleek style you would expect from a Newey design. The pointy, narrow front nose has become something of a Newey trademark over the past five years or so. It’s very interesting to see that he has stuck to this principle, while other teams appear to be adopting wider, chunkier nose designs.

F1 Technical describes the front wing as “the most advanced out there”. You can’t fail to be struck by the detail in the front wing which doesn’t seem present in most of the other teams’ designs.

History shows that Adrian Newey adapts well to radical regulation changes, as James Allen recently noted. The 1996 Williams was about as dominant as a car gets. I have strong memories of that season. It was my first full year of watching F1, and the Williams car was awesome. I still remember to this day that they had the Constructors’ Championship wrapped up in Hungary. Amazing when you consider that their two drivers were hardly the greatest ever to grace a race track.

By the time the regulations radically changed again in 1998, Newey had moved to McLaren and he nailed it right away again. The McLarens were utterly dominant in Australia, and they clinched both Championships that season, ending a seven year long drought.

But beware Adrian Newey’s Achilles’ heel. The RB5 is among the last cars to be unveiled because Red Bull have made the decision to forego track time in order to give Newey more time to perfect his design. This may result in the RB5 being a fast car with possibly the best aerodynamics. But you have to hope that it works.

It’s the opposite approach to Ferrari’s. Ferrari launched their car a month ago, deciding that they would like plenty of time to “debug” the car. But if something is wrong with the RB5, they won’t have long to debug it. That is even more of a worry this year when in-season testing is banned.

You get the sense that Adrian Newey likes things to be “just right” from his perspective, even if that is at the expense of other things — even things as basic as fitting the driver into the car (hello, Alex Wurz and Juan Pablo Montoya!). It is not a pragmatic approach. Newey’s cars look the best on paper, but he has developed a reputation for being involved with unreliable cars.

In 2008 Red Bull had a fairly solid year reliability-wise. But the fact that the RB5 had to be stopped with gearbox issues just 14 laps into its first run does not bode well. Red Bull’s 2007 season was notorious for gearbox problems. Let us hope for Red Bull’s sake that they will not make a return.

The Brazilian Grand Prix heralded the end of David Coulthard’s career. Unfortunately, the race ended in a turn 1 smash. It deprived David Coulthard of a dignified send-off to his career, as well as depriving us of the awesome helmet cam, used by FOM for the first time since 1994.

In most ways it sums up David Coulthard’s 2008 season, which has seen him become a magnet for crashes. It was a most unfortunate season for the Scot with only one or two highlights — most notably 3rd place in the Canadian Grand Prix. Overall, though, the impression left is that DC may have been better off retiring one year earlier.

It is going too far to say that the first corner crash sums up DC’s career. Even though he could never count himself among F1′s very most talented, the statistics of his career make for pleasant reading. With 246 grand prix starts under his belt, he is the fourth most experienced Formula 1 driver of all time.

He is arguably the most successful British driver of all time. His tally of 13 race wins is relatively modest compared to other British drivers, particularly Nigel Mansell, Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark. But he has scored more points than any other British driver — 535. By this measure, he is the 5th most successful driver of all time.

For the majority of his career, David Coulthard has been lucky enough to have the best machinery. His race début came in the saddest of circumstances, as he was chosen to replace Ayrton Senna when the Brazilian died in 1994. But he raced for a Williams team that was just entering a phase of true dominance.

When he moved to McLaren just a few years later, it was in time for the Woking squad to make its own major resurgence. Ace designer Adrian Newey had moved across to McLaren from Williams at roughly the same time.

But at both Williams and McLaren, his team mate usually made much more of the opportunities the best car provided them. Damon Hill was a major contender for the 1995 World Championship. Meanwhile, Mika Häkkinen strung together two World Championships in a row in 1998 and 1999.

It is too easy to say that Häkkinen got favourable treatment at McLaren. DC may have moved over for the Finn in two successive races, in Jerez 1997 and Melbourne 1998. Critics point out that nice guys never win, and that DC’s apparent happiness to let his team mate past was evidence that DC did not have what it really takes. But the fact is that Coulthard struggled to get to grips with his McLaren car from 1998 onwards. That may have been due to the introduction of grooved tyres or whatever.

DC was to be further thwarted by another rule change a few years later. The Scot never could get to grips with one-lap qualifying. When the pressure was on him to deliver at the first time of asking, he more often than not found himself unable to deliver. Things did not improve much when the knock-out format was introduced.

Despite the patchy record, though, DC has had some great highlights during his career. When Häkkinen lost his motivation, DC was in prime position to challenge Schumacher for the title in 2001. He did, admittedly, finish up a long way behind Schumacher, having scored just 65 points. But he was definitely best of the rest that season, and the only person who could seriously claim to have given Schumacher any bother that season.

And a tally of 13 wins, no matter how good his machinery was, is fairly impressive stuff. David Coulthard was no fool.

Just when it looked as though DC’s career was coming to a halt, he moved from McLaren to Red Bull. It breathed new life into his career. He was reinvented as Formula 1′s elder statesman, a role he adapted well to. In his first season at the midfield Red Bull team in 2005, he scored as many points as he had at McLaren in 2004.

Since then he has been reunited with the chassis designer that has accompanied him throughout his career, Adrian Newey. He scooped up a clutch of great results, including two podiums along the way.

Overall, throughout his many many seasons, David Coulthard has driven for just three teams in his entire career. That demonstrates just how valuable every team felt he was to the package.

All the while, David Coulthard was great entertainment off the circuit as well as on it. Even though some nicknamed him ‘David Cardboard’ at first, he quickly developed a strong personality and was unafraid to use colourful language in his interviews.

Now his career has fizzled out. And even though DC never achieved the status of true greatness, and the World Championship eluded him, I think he has a lot to be proud of.

Thankfully, this colourful character promises not to go away for good. He will remain at Red Bull in an advisory role, proving yet again that teams invariably appreciate his input. Furthermore, it looks almost certain that DC will form part of the BBC’s team covering F1 from 2009 onwards. At least it looks like he will be entertaining us for years to come.

And here is one of the most entertaining moments in F1, provided by David Coulthard himself: