The Formula 1 world is bracing itself in anticipation of the unexpected when the travelling circus makes its next stop at Yeongam in Korea. The saga of the troubled construction of this new venue has been well documented. The latest setback came last week when newly published images appeared to show that a construction crane had toppled into the main grandstand.
After months of uncertainty, it now appears as though the Korean Grand Prix will go ahead, albeit in a facility that is not yet finished. The latest images seem to show that the circuit is finished, but the surroundings are far from perfect.
But as long as the circuit is there, a race can go ahead. The top layer of asphalt has only just gone down though, meaning that the F1 cars will have to cope with a very slippery circuit indeed next weekend. I can see it descending into farce, but it could be just the recipe for an exciting race weekend.
But what if there are still serious problems with the venue? It is unprecedented for F1 to head to a half-finished venue. You can think of Circuit de Catalunya, which held its first race in 1991 with its surroundings not looking in great nick — even though the circuit itself was perfectly usable.
The 1986 Hungarian Grand Prix also had a close shave. There are some incredible pictures of the warm-up races that clearly show the circuit still being worked on just weeks before the first Formula 1 grand prix was due to be held.
The problem is that the Korea International Circuit has not held anything in the way of proper racing yet. The circuit was “opened” on 4 September, with a demonstration run from Karun Chandhok in a Red Bull.
All of these deadlines have sailed past. An inspection due on 28 September was apparently cancelled by the FIA because there was nothing new to inspect.
Today, just ten days before F1 cars are due to go onto the track, the inspection is taking place. Now all indications are that the race will go ahead come what may. That seems to be because Bernie Ecclestone has decided it will do. To cancel the race now would be a disaster for everyone involved. It probably means cancelling next year’s race too, unless the FIA wants to overlook another of its rules.
I have no doubt that the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone know what they are doing. But surely all of those safety rules exist for a reason. Why have 90-day limits if, come crunch time, the money man decides a 10-day inspection will do the job?
What if something goes horribly wrong? I only ask because Bernie Ecclestone has gone on record during an interview with the BBC saying, “It’s quite dangerous what we’ve done, actually.”
It is true that this was Bernie Ecclestone’s way of giving the grand prix organisers the hurry-up in a public fashion. But to hear him describe “what we’ve done” as “dangerous” was surprising to me. It is a strong word that can be used against him and the FIA.
I know it says on the back of the ticket that motorsport is dangerous. But the FIA is supposed to ensure that dangers are eliminated wherever possible. It has apparently decided that this doesn’t matter in this instance. This is a precedent that surely shouldn’t be set.
What do viewers at home love about F1? It is great wheel-to-wheel racing? Lots of overtaking? Strategy calls? Or the venues? Looking at the polarised reactions to this past weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix got me wondering.
I saw that this drew a few hoots of derision, including from me! Because from the comments made by other fans watching at home was that… well… it was a bit dull really.
It wasn’t a stinker by any means. There was some good action and a fair few talking points. But large stretches of the race were rather processional. Hardly epic.
The epic race without the racing
Will Buxton justified his comments:
No sarcasm. Epic race. ALO VET lap trading, WEB early stop and brill drive, HAM / WEB moment, GLO driving arse off. KUB amazing.
There is some truth in what he says. While Webber and Kubica provided some entertainment, this was only because they were out of phase with the surrounding cars strategy-wise, so were not on an equal footing with the drivers they were battling with.
As for the battle at the front, the problem was that Alonso’s victory was never truly in doubt. He commanded the track all weekend, and always even looked like he might have a bit extra left in the tank too.
During the first phase of the race, Vettel drifted back to 3.5s behind Alonso. After the pitstops, the gap eventually grew to over 2s before slowly decreasing again. Vettel did get mighty close to the end of the race, but this was typical Alonso driving conservatively.
Renault engineers always talked about how conservative Alonso was as a driver. They never had to tell him to turn the engine down; he had already done it.
So it was in Singapore. Alonso had done just enough to establish himself as the certain winner of the Singapore Grand Prix and had the whole situation under control.
It may have looked good on the timing screens. I did indeed get excited when purple sectors were being set and Vettel started to decrease the gap. But the “lap battle” was partly down to the street circuit becoming cleaner and faster towards the end of the race.
I’m sure they were playing with each other, but neither looked to be pushing particularly hard. Alonso was always in control, and Vettel never looked interested in truly pressurising.
At the start of the race, Vettel had ceded the first corner, setting the tone for his race. It did not look like he was particularly interested in winning — a suspicion confirmed by Vettel’s comments that passing Alonso would have been too risky. And why bother? Alonso is the ultimate defensive driver, as his amazing battle with Michael Schumacher at the 2005 San Marino Grand Prix demonstrated.
The bottom line is that if you hold a race on a street circuit with one overtaking spot — two at a push — then the racing isn’t epic. There might be stuff surrounding the racing — strategy, crashes, pretty buildings… But not much overtaking.
Interesting, yes. Epic, no. The ingredients simply weren’t there.
Epic racing or epic facilities?
There is a trend for certain venues to be talked up a lot by the F1 circus, no matter how good the racing is. I particularly remember Valencia Street Circuit — which has served up three of the most turgid grands prix seen in the last decade — was universally praised by the teams as being a great venue for grand prix racing.
Scratch the surface of the headlines, though, and you see that they are not so interested in the racing itself. Ron Dennis said that the 2008 European Grand Prix at Valencia was so great that it made him “ashamed to be English”. But it left most others ashamed to be F1 fans, it was so bereft of racing.
Of course, Ron Dennis was thinking about the facilities. Facilities are apparently the only thing that matter in F1 these days. Never mind what the viewers at home make of the track. As long as the venue is equipped with a shiny silver throne for the McLaren chief to do his golden business in, who cares about the people at home?
Similarly, the journalists have clear favourite places to visit and places they can’t stand. China? Don’t talk to them about it. And spare a thought for poor, poor Magny-Cours. It was so awful — not because of the circuit, of course, but because it was in the middle of nowhere, as the journalists never missed the chance to remind us!
Meanwhile, Melbourne is always the “great place for a race” — is that code for a booze-up? And Singapore is now “epic”.
The scenario was not helped by some rather lacklustre television coverage from FOM this weekend. It looked to me like the director was more used to directing pop music videos than motorsport.
Coverage at night races is always dominated by shots of the lit-up buildings and the scenery surrounding the circuit. It feels more like the Singapore Grand Prix is more like an advert for Singapore than a motor race. Who was going to bed last weekend without seeing that flashing “Your Singapore” banner in their sleep?
When it comes to races like this, Bernie Ecclestone’s priorities are clear. Why else would the bland coverage of last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix have won an FIA award for best coverage of the season? Much of the race action was missed. Anyone not paying full attention would have thought that the race was won by a hotel that looks like a giant flashing lady-toy, so fixated were the cameras on anything but the cars.
Those in the inner circle in F1 should remember that the fans at home are looking for epic racing — not epic Holywood movies, epic nightlife or epic superloos.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is the official lap chart for this year’s Belgian Grand Prix, as published by the FIA. Do you spot anything unusual about it?
Despite the fact that he was last of the classified runners, Badoer was only 102.1 seconds behind the race winner, Kimi Räikkönen. “Only?”, I hear you say. But he was still on the lead lap. In fact, the lap chart reveals that there was no lapped traffic for the entire race.
I wonder if this is a first. There are a few things that lead me to believe this is the case. First of all, it is commonly believed that Formula 1 cars have never been as close in terms of performance. Surely the amazing speed of the Force India in Belgium is testament to the idea that there are no longer backmarkers in F1 like there used to be.
Luca Badoer, the slowest man in qualifying, was around 2.5 seconds off the quickest time. Although in F1-2009 style this invites derision, even five years ago this would have been a creditable performance. Read a grid from the 1990s, and it is routine to see cars a dozen seconds or more off the pace.
Furthermore, Spa-Francorchamps also has the longest laptime of any circuit currently in use in F1, which in itself makes it less likely that cars will be lapped during the race. I have checked some previous Belgian Grands Prix to check, but all have had lapped cars, apart from this year’s. For this reason, it is also possible that some races at longer circuits used in history (notably the Nordschleife) may not have seen any lapped traffic, but with more reliability problems and poorer driving standards back then, I wouldn’t count on it.
(Update: I have checked all Formula 1 Grands Prix to have been held at the Nordschleife, and each race had classified runners not on the lead lap according to Wikipedia.)
Against that argument is the fact that since 2007, lapped cars have been able to join the lead lap behind the Safety Car. This makes it much less likely that there will be lapped cars at the end of the race — but there will still have been lapped cars during the race.
However, this was one instance where a Safety Car allowed lapped cars to join the lead lap. The official lap chart (PDF) reminds us that there was indeed lapped traffic during the race.
So it looks like I may be right in my hunch that Badoer is the only person ever to finish in last place, yet not have been lapped during the race. So does anyone know if Badoer’s achievement truly is a first? I would love to know.
The final part of the factory tour was the chance to see the simulator. It is an impressive piece of kit. The driver sits in a cockpit, surrounded by a massive screen that curves round to take up his entire field of vision.
Little wonder it has been known to induce sickness. Drivers are advised that they may want to close eyes if they spin in order to avoid reacquainting themselves with their lunch. Apparently drivers have been known to be sick all over the place while driving the simulator. Come to think of it, I’m slightly suspicious because I remember that the cleaner was leaving the room just as we were entering it. We were told, though, that Kazuki Nakajima is amazing in the simulator and can spend all day in it with no ill effects.
The circuit models are said to be very accurate indeed, albeit some more accurate than others. For instance, someone else has exclusive rights to the best map of the Nürburgring. The maps are constructed using lasers. A van drives slowly around the circuit emitting laser beams at multiple angles, creating a map of millions of dots. This means that every bump on the circuit is accounted for.
An aerial image of the circuit is then overlaid on top of these dots to create the environment. But if you look at the circuit, some of the landmarks are not very accurately reproduced. In fact, some of it looks like bad virtual reality graphics. The idea is to reduce any confusion that might be caused by too many cues. If they don’t think something will give a driver an accurate cue, they won’t implement it.
Some teams have more sophisticated simulators. In some simulators the car will be on a moving platform to give the impression of movement — something clearly lacking from the still Williams cockpit. It is said that some simulators even have belts that tighten up to give you some impression of g-forces. Williams shun such devices, which they regard as off-putting.
I have to confess that I have been slightly sceptical about the Williams simulator in the past. McLaren’s is said to be amazing, but it is jealously kept under wraps from outsiders. Williams have no such qualms however. It is the only simulator that I have seen on television. See, for instance, this ITV video with Mark Blundell and this BBC video.
We were lucky enough to be in the room when occasional Williams tester Daniel Clos was driving it. He was there to acquaint himself with the Hungaroring in preparation for the GP2 races which were being held just a few days later. I have to say he didn’t look very good while we were there, and he even spun at one point. But those must have been his very first laps round the circuit and of course I am in no position to pass comment. In the real thing, he finished 11th in both races.
It is presumably a service that Williams are happy to offer young drivers in the hope of developing them into a Formula 1 star of the future. Whether Daniel Clos is one remains to be seen. But surely on his way to F1 stardom is another Williams tester, Nico Hülkenberg. Simulator Engineer Jeff Calam is adamant that the simulator is a worthwhile piece of equipment to invest in, pointing at Hülkenberg’s highly impressive GP2 results at circuits he hasn’t driven at before. This fact puts to bed my doubts about the quality of the Williams simulator.
Once the factory tour was over, we had a Q&A with Sam Michael. He was largely very open in his responses, and came across very well to me. I was impressed that he took the time out of his schedule to talk to a bunch of bloggers. You can hear audio of the Q&A session over at Brits on Pole once again.
After that, we went for a tour of the fabulous Williams museum. Here, we were expertly guided by Scott Garrett from Synergy, the company that arranged our visit on behalf of Philips. Although he now works for Synergy, he was previously Head of Marketing at Williams and now has links with a number of F1 teams. This makes him a highly knowledgeable speaker on Formula 1, and Williams in particular. It was a real pleasure to have this sort of insight.
For obvious reasons, photography was strictly forbidden in the factory, but we were free to take as many photographs as we wanted in the museum. And boy did we take the opportunity!
All-in-all, the museum contains over forty cars. We are told that Frank Williams is a hoarder. The team still owns 106 chassis, while it only makes around six per year. Most of these cars are well looked after and can theoretically still be driven. The main exception is the Honda-powered cars, because they asked for the engines back!
For the most part, the cars are laid out in chronological order, and as you make your way through the museum videos are played telling us about Williams during the period of the cars in the vicinity. The relevant cars are lit up while the video is playing.
Unfortunately, this means that they are plunged into darkness once the video is finished, and you are supposed to move along to the next section. It is a pretty clever device to get us to keep moving and get rid of us quickly, but quite annoying for those of us who would have liked to have done it at our own pace. One person sarcastically remarked under his breath, “you have a lot of great cars, then put them in the dark.” It is for this reason that the lighting is not very good in some of the photographs.
Despite the chronological layout of the museum, there is still a fairly clear centrepiece. Two cars in particular are displayed on a higher plinth — the FW18 and the FW19, the team’s latest two championship-winning cars from 1996 and 1997 driven by Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve.
A great moment of F1 geekery occurred when Mr Garrett pointed out that the FW19 on display is the actual car which Michael Schumacher famously crashed into at Jerez in 1997. Everyone went “oooh” and inquisitively gathered to look at this particularly historic Williams F1 car. The damage is still evident. I had heard that Patrick Head liked the car to be displayed with the tyre mark still there, but it has since been restored and now just looks like a couple of holes have been punched in the corner of the sidepod.
“We never got on very well with Michael Schumacher,” Scott Garrett noted, just in case we didn’t get the clue. This prompted a cheeky question from someone else, “How did you get on with Ralf?”
There is a notable omission. The most distinctive F1 car in the team’s history, the FW26 with the “walrus nose” is nowhere to be seen. It is perhaps not the team’s proudest design.
One unusual design does proudly feature though. Williams were never able to race with their FW08B six-wheeler. It was banned by the FIA before the season started over fears that it would be too dominant.
Go up the stairs, and you will see two cars that are clearly very special to the team. One is Ayrton Senna’s test car from 1994. The other is the record-breaking FW10, in which Keke Rosberg was the first person ever to set a lap at a speed of 160mph in 1985. The record was set at Silverstone and remarkably stayed in place until 2002!
All-in-all, it was an absolutely fantastic day. Although Williams are not among my favourite teams, they have got to be admired for being so accommodating to us. If you ever get the chance to attend such an event, I would highly recommend it. A massive thank you to those who organised it and invited me.
Below is the full slideshow of photographs from my visit to Williams.
Yes, yes, I know. This is a race that happened almost two weeks ago. Sorry. You should see the list of articles I still haven’t written yet but need to get round to!
In the intervening period I have received an email asking me what I think of Renault’s ban from the European Grand Prix. Now I have been accosted in the comments by Becken for failing to review the Hungarian Grand Prix. So I’d better do it then!
First of all, you have to give massive amounts of praise to McLaren for their stunning comeback. It was clear at the Nürburgring that this was a team very much on the comeback trail. At the time I said that they could be challenging for wins in the second half of the season. But I didn’t expect it to be so soon, or so emphatic when it happened.
I am not Lewis Hamilton’s biggest fan, but I was delighted to see him winning in Hungary. It is a testament to the huge amount of effort that the McLaren team has put into developing their car — what quite frankly looked like a hopeless task just a couple of months ago. The achievement is all the more incredible when you consider that testing is banned, removing a vital tool to track how the car is developing.
Hamilton’s run at the front was not down to luck. Nor was it with someone climbing all over his gearbox. Indeed, who could even have predicted that the second-placed car running 11.5s behind would be the Ferrari of Kimi Räikkönen? Are McLaren and Ferrari now once again the front-runners? It could be that kers has come of age.
At times, the grand prix had a very retro feel about it. This season has been all about a new order. But for the first phase of the race the leaders were Alonso and Hamilton, with Räikkönen in 4th. Three names we should be familiar with seeing at the front, but it was most bizarre to see it happening this year.
I can’t help but notice at the same time that the unusual stewards’ decisions have come back just as the old guard have returned to the front. During the first half of this season, the stewards were noticeably quiet (with the exception, of course, of Australia). Not now. Is there something about McLaren, Ferrari and Renault that makes the stewards just lose their minds?
As you might be able to tell, I am not very impressed with the decision to ban Renault from the European Grand Prix for Fernando Alonso’s wheel coming off. On one hand, you can understand why they did it. In the week which saw the awful death of Henry Surtees in a Formula Two race after he was hit by a wheel, and a day after Felipe Massa was hospitalised after driving into a piece of debris, seeing a wheel bouncing around the track was absolutely the last thing anyone wanted to see.
But the decision to ban the entire team from the next race feels like a complete overreaction, leading to the suspicion that it was a knee-jerk reaction. I could have understood a heavy fine, or some kind of suspended ban. But the FIA’s justification for the ban seems quite odd to me. They say that the Renault team “knowingly” released Alonso from his pit box with the wheel not securely in place. Seems a bit odd to me. Which would deliberately release their car in such a state?
Nonetheless, the fact is that the team apparently took no action after that. They neglected to inform Alonso — who thought he had a puncture — what the problem was. That seems pretty incompetent to me, if not downright negligent.
That is why I think a fine would be justified. But to ban them from the race, when we have seen countless instances of wheels falling off cars going unpunished (including a similar incident involving Alonso driving a Renault in Hungary in 2006!), is over the top in my view. That’s especially the case when you consider that the next race is in Valencia, where much of the crowd will be wanting to see Fernando Alonso in action. Sometimes you think Formula 1 likes to shoot itself in the foot.
Meanwhile, both of the teams that are battling for this season’s championship will be worried for different reasons. Brawn must now be worried about the drop in their car’s performance. There is no hiding behind explanations about the temperature. Jenson Button’s bewildered radio transmission, “How — HOW? — can this car be so BAD?” sums it up. Brawn have put something on their car to destabilise what was an awesome package.
It is not a complete disaster situation. Jenson Button finished 7th. But it now looks like Brawn are behind at least five teams: McLaren, Ferrari, Red Bull, Williams and Toyota. Their journey is the opposite to McLaren’s, and their challenge will be all the more difficult with testing banned.
Button actually only lost four points of his lead, which is still 18.5 points. And that is the reason why Red Bull should be worried. Because if they are to have a hope of challenging for the Championship, they need to stay at the sharp end, and they can’t afford to have the third fastest car. They need to be at the front, collecting 18, 16, 15 points when they can. Their tally from Budapest was just six.
It must be remembered that Hungaroring is a rather unique circuit, and many of the following circuits are very different indeed. But if McLaren and Ferrari are able to leapfrog Red Bull in the long run, Red Bull need to rely on staying ahead of Williams, Toyota and Brawn if their championship battle is to come to anything.
In this sense, despite only scoring two points, Jenson Button now looks like even more of a shoe-in for the championship. I’m sure he doesn’t feel like it. I can’t wait to find out how the rest of the season unfolds.
A deal has been struck between Max Mosley, Fota and Bernie Ecclestone, and the threat of a breakaway series has been averted. I think there were a lot of people out there who quite liked the idea of a breakaway series. Indeed, given the choice between Max Mosley’s rotten vision and a Fota-run series, I would have gone for the Fota series every time.
But a split would have been a calamitous situation. The new series, despite having all the big names and probably some decent circuits, would still have taken some time to find its feet. Plus, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Fota series would have got good television coverage. Don’t forget that for the vast majority of fans, television is the only way we can consume the sport that we love, so this is an essential element.
In a lot of ways, the roots of the current problem in Formula 1 lie with Bernie Ecclestone. Or, to be more precise, CVC. They are the ones who suck the money out of the sport in order to pay the interest on their debts. That is why F1 ends up visiting sterile circuits with minuscule crowds — because those governments will pay huge sums of money for the privilege of holding an F1 race. That is probably also the reason for the fervour over cost cutting. If the teams spend less, Bernie can get away with giving the teams less of the sport’s revenues, and giving CVC more of them.
But despite that problem with CVC, I can’t find it in myself to be too angry with Bernie Ecclestone. In truth, he has done a great job of promoting the sport, and F1 may never have appealed to me were it not for Bernie’s efforts. Sure, there are a lot of areas where he can improve, particularly on the dire online offering.
But under Bernie Ecclestone, the television coverage of Formula 1 has been revolutionised. He got his fingers burnt with the adventurous F1 Digital+ endeavour. But while those innovatory days may be no more (and it is notable that F1 is still not broadcast in HD), today’s FOM-produced World Feed (used for all races except Monaco and Japan) is based on many of those innovations and television coverage has improved immeasurably over the past fifteen or so years.
We seldom have to deal with relatively amateurish efforts from the host broadcasters. Just compare these two videos of the same incident as it unfolded live. One is from the FOM F1 Digital+ World Feed, and the other was from the host broadcaster. (To view them side-by-side ‘as live’, start the second video when the first video reaches 17 seconds.)
The difference in quality is massive. F1 Digital+ caught the accident live so viewers knew immediately what happened. This was no coincidence. It happened because a system of sensors around the circuit could detect when cars were running close together, and coverage automatically switched to those cars in the expectation of some kind of incident unfolding. Later, replays from multiple angles enhanced the viewer’s understanding of the incident.
Meanwhile, the host broadcaster cut to Ralf Schumacher climbing out of his car ten seconds after the incident originally started. And it was a long time until viewers found out that the accident also involved Jacques Villeneuve — and there was only one angle of the incident. Note also how Martin Brundle had to rely on the superior coverage which he could see outside his commentary box window to tell viewers that Villeneuve was unhurt.
The Australian host broadcasters were not dummies. They just did the best job they could with the resources they had at their disposal. “Bernievision” was only good because of heavy investment and years of experimentation.
Bernie’s television operation was pretty impressive even in 2001, though not all of the innovations remain in today’s coverage. But it is thanks to Bernie Ecclestone that today’s coverage is more like the first video than the second one. A Fota-run championship would not have had such a slick operation going from day one, and the fans would have been worse off for it.
Then there is the question of whether it would have had any coverage at all. The BBC would have been scared off, and television executives would have been confused. They want the World Championship, whether or not an alternative series is better in the eyes of the fans. Take, for instance, the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, which I hear is better than the FIA’s World Rally Championship. Not that I’d know, because the former is ghettoised on Eurosport while the FIA’s weak WRC gets terrestrial coverage.
No matter if it has all the current teams and good circuits — signing up to show a new series is a risk which television executives wouldn’t want to take. The prospect of the best F1 series being on some pay channel and having no terrestrial coverage was a real one. That aspect of the breakaway scared me.
On the other hand, the proposed breakaway presented the opportunity to create a great new version of Formula 1, unshackled from the financial needs of CVC or the warped politics of Max Mosley. Fota had some crazy ideas, but they carried out market research and were far more receptive to the views of fans than the FIA have ever been.
I particularly liked the idea that the new series could have been particularly focussed on attracting an American audience. The FIA Formula 1 Championship has dumped on US fans time and again, and today there is no race in North America even though it is a major market for the manufacturers.
There would also have been a careful look at ticket prices and the fees circuits have to pay to hold an F1 race. No-one (apart from Bernie apparently) likes to arrive at sterile circuits with a dozen people in the grandstand. It comes across on television too, whether or not FOM’s cameramen are instructed to avoid shots of empty grandstands.
I could feel the atmosphere of the passionate British crowd on the television. The difference could hardly be more stark from the previous race at Turkey, where the crowd was around 10% of the size. And Silverstone is a circuit that Bernie wants to move away from.
Even the little things that are wrong with F1 could have had the magnifying glass applied to them. Such as, why can’t a driver keep the same number for his whole career. In other categories such as Nascar or MotoGP, a driver’s number becomes part of his legend, every bit as important as, say, his helmet design. Even in the history of Formula 1, the number 27 car is almost synonymous with Gilles Villeneuve. Imagine the marketing potential too. But in the clinical world of Formula 1, driver numbers are determined by the positions of last year’s Constructors’ Championship.
In short, the breakaway could have been a great opportunity to fix everything that is broken with F1. I doubt the breakaway would have been a true ‘split’, and it probably wouldn’t have had the same consequences as the Cart / IRL split. It was pretty clear from the fact that the FIA never released a finalised 2010 entry list that the FIA didn’t have a 2010 F1 Championship to speak of, and Fota’s would have been the only show in town.
That, I think, is why the deal must be seen as a victory for Fota. It has turned out to be a powerful organisation that did after all have the ability to at last stand up to Max Mosley’s dictatorial authority.
There is a part of me that suspects that the FIA as an organisation simply isn’t fit for the purpose of overseeing motorsports. We will eventually see how things develop with Max Mosley’s successor. I think today is just the starting point though, and we will see some more loose ends being tied up in the coming months. There will be power struggles there too, I am sure.
It looks like these negotiations will in fact be handled by Michel Boeri. That in itself is interesting because he is the promoter of the Monaco Grand Prix. It was reported that he would take the Monaco GP with him to the Fota camp if the breakaway went ahead.
What we need now, most of all, is someone in charge of the FIA who is not a glorified politician, constantly interfering. I remember Maurice Hamilton making the point once that everyone knows who Max Mosley is, and many people can tell you that Jean-Marie Balestre was his predecessor. But not many can tell you who Balestre’s predecessor was (for you history buffs, on the Fisa side it was Pierre Ugeux, and in the FIA it was Paul Metternich). Yet the sport still ran.
It sounds like from now on there will be more checks and balances in place, with the F1 Commission being given more of a say from now on. No doubt Fota will continue to play its role too, and I think it would be best for everyone if Williams and Force India re-joined and USF1, Campos and Manor all joined too. That way the teams, who create the sport, can have a say in its governance too.
Speaking of the new teams, I think as we sit here today, with much of the damage repaired, the biggest shame of this episode is that two capable teams have been denied a place on the entry list as a result of Max Mosley’s petty politicking. I think many of us can’t wait to see Prodrive finally get a chance to enter F1, and Lola were a promising prospect too.
No doubt the FIA actually had a tough choice to make, as according to Joe Saward at least the Manor Grand Prix team is actually a seriously strong prospect. With costs set to be cut and a more stable future for F1 promised, and with that troublesome Max fellow out of the way, at least we know there are capable teams that are ready to fill any potential gaps that appear.
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.
I always find it such a shame that the most famous race on the Formula 1 calendar is also often one of the most boring. This is the nature of the twisty streets of Monte Carlo, where overtaking is a rarity. It is the place where people say, “If they thought of holding the first race today, they’d laugh at you.” You sense that they have been saying that ever since the second race was held in 1930.
Still, nothing beats the spectacle of watching beautiful grand prix machines charge their way through this picturesque but intimidating circuit. It makes for a great practice or qualifying session, albeit often not a great race.
A Monaco with rain is always great fun. But it was bone dry last weekend which meant that we had to make do with a procession. Not only that, but the magic dust is fast fading away from the fairytale Brawn story and for the sake of the championship we must all hope that a major contender emerges.
Looking first at Brawn though, far from losing their advantage, they only seem to be increasing it. The cars gained a reputation for their sluggish starts after the first few races. But Rubens Barrichello got the jump on Kimi Räikkönen, despite the Ferrari being equipped with kers.
From then on, Brawn were never going to face any real difficulties. Jenson Button’s victory was further eased by the fact that Barrichello (accidentally, but usefully for Button) held up the Ferraris in 3rd and 4th due to his fading super-soft tyres.
Jenson Button was superb. Once again, from absolutely nowhere he pulled an excellent qualifying lap out of the top drawer. I confess that I thought Räikkönen had it in the bag. Button’s lap certainly confused Barrichello.
Hearing the things that Ross Brawn has to say about Jenson Button, it seems as though he is becoming an absolutely top-notch driver in front of our eyes. Stepping up to the plate, the Brit is clearly applying himself far more than he has ever done before. He says he has become “a right boring bastard“, but that is a small price to pay to become the World Champion.
For years, the potential he showed in his first year back in 2000 was not realised. In his tenth year at motorsport’s top level, we are seeing what was merely a good driver become a true great. What a pleasure to watch!
Credit, as always, must also go to the Brawn team and Mercedes. They made history at the Monaco Grand Prix, as it was the first time the same engine had won three races. An amazing statistic.
But who can we turn to in the search for a rival to this stunning team? At the start of the season it looked like it might have been Red Bull. Their Monaco form left a lot to be desired though. Their new diffuser showed little benefit in its first race, though in fairness you wouldn’t expect the new part to be all that advantageous at Monaco.
But the Red Bulls generally lacked the pace required if they want to challenge Brawn at the front. Sebastian Vettel qualified a disappointing 4th on a very low fuel level, and his first stint during the race was nothing short of a disaster. The super-soft tyres were wearing out too quickly in the first part of the race, and for some reason Vettel seemed to struggle in particular, at one point losing a massive 4.5s to Button in just one lap.
In the attempt to make up for lost time, Vettel binned it early on in his second stint. The performance rounds off a hat-trick of highly disappointing races for the hotly-tipped youngster. Vettel remains 3rd in the Championship, but with less than half the number of points that Button has accumulated.
It was again left to Mark Webber to salvage something from the race, finishing 5th. The Circuit de Monaco is a unique circuit, so this could have been a one-off for Red Bull. Surely they can’t rely on wet races to grab all their best results?
If they are not careful, the Prancing Horse will gallop past the Red Bull in the Championship. Ferrari’s performance in Monaco was very strong. The car was quick, the drivers seemed confident (with the exception of a ragged Massa during qualifying) and the reliability issues that have dogged the car were nowhere to be found. Stefano Domenicali was beaming after the race, and they must be confident that they can now rise to the challenge.
You cannot have a more contrasting fortune than that of Toyota. After snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in Bahrain, a mere two races later in Monaco they turned up with arguably the slowest car. Such radical changes in fortune do happen when the grid is as tight as it has been for the past couple of years, but John Howett will want to find the cause of the new problem if he wants the team to stay in contention.
It is quite a similar story with BMW. I can scarcely believe how bad their season is turning out to be. The only saving grace was that Toyota were even slower. BMW ran with a special message on the car marking the Mini’s 50th birthday. But their performance was no way to celebrate it, and the only time TV viewers got a good glimpse of the message was when Kubica’s sick car was unceremoniously being wheeled into the garage.
I am reluctant to say that BMW need to return to the drawing board. They turned up in Spain with practically a new car, and if anything it has made the situation worse. What a disaster from the team that sacrificed the 2008 Championship campaign in order to focus on this year.
Finally, congratulations to Giancarlo Fisichella for finishing in 9th place. I am no fan, but his performance in Monaco was stellar. For once, his experience shone through. It is particularly notable in the light of Adrian Sutil’s inability to repeat last year’s charge to the points paying positions.
It’s sad to say, but it’s true. The Spanish Grand Prix is now one of the most important events on the calendar since the emergence of Fernando Alonso. But the circuit that hosts it simply does not produce a good F1 race. I can’t remember the last time there was an exciting Spanish Grand Prix, and 2009 won’t exactly stick in the memory for long either. But while the on-track action left something to be desired, there were still a few interesting aspects of the grand prix, and there are a few talking points to be considered.
First of all there is the controversy surrounding the strategy of the two Brawn cars. According to Ross Brawn, Rubens Barrichello’s three-stop strategy was the optimal one. But the driver just couldn’t put in the laps. It’s strange because one of the things that leapt out at me while watching the live timing during the race was the fact that at one point he was lapping around a second faster than anyone else on the circuit.
Jenson Button was always going to be favourite for the win since he grabbed pole position in spectacular fashion on Saturday. But that all changed when Barrichello had an amazing start, and passed his team mate on the outside going into turn 1. Barrichello’s race unravelled during his third stint though, and it became clear that the strategy just wasn’t working for him. I wonder why it was expected to. No-one else opted for a three-stop strategy apart from Kazuki Nakajima way back in 13th place.
Putting that aside, you have to applaud Jenson Button for putting in the good lap times when it counted. Brawn were dominant in this race, and this circuit was always expected to suit their car. I sense that Brawn’s advantage will not be so large in Monaco, where I feel Red Bull will have the edge. It is certainly a circuit that Red Bull have tended to do well at in the past.
As for this race, the Red Bull team must have mixed emotions. Mark Webber pulled off the surprise of the race by managing to climb to third largely through pitstop strategy. In the end he was very close to Barrichello at the finish line, so he did a great job.
Sebastian Vettel was more disappointing. For the second race in a row, Vettel’s race has been ruined by being stuck behind a slower car. In Bahrain it was Hamilton, but just for the first stint. His luck worsened further in Spain when he was stuck behind Massa. It transpired that both drivers had identical strategies, so Vettel had no chance to “overtake him in the pitlane”.
Does the fact that this has happened two races in a row raise a question mark over Vettel’s abilities? I certainly find it disappointing that Vettel has been unable to overtake these drivers for two races in a row. It is true that both of these cars were kers-equipped, making it particularly difficult to overtake. But Button managed it in Bahrain. Perhaps Vettel needs to work on this aspect of his racing, and certainly he could do with starting a bit better because in both cases he qualified ahead only to get “kersed” (as Anthony Davidson put it during this weekend’s Chequered Flag podcast) at the start.
It must have been all the more bitter for Sebastian Vettel when it ended up that he was being held up for nothing. Felipe Massa’s fuel rig was seemingly faulty, and he didn’t get enough fuel in his car. The Brazilian had nothing to do but lift off and wait to be overtaken first be Vettel and then by Alonso.
At least Massa was running well in 3rd or 4th for the majority of the race. Räikkönen, hindered by his poor decision to stay in the garage at the end of Q1, never made much progress through the midfield and eventually had to retire with a hydraulics problem. Yet more reliability woes for the Scuderia. I find it difficult to imagine how Ferrari’s season can get worse in any more ways.
Congratulations to Fernando Alonso for driving a good home race and finishing 5th. His fans will be hoping that this is a sign of more to come from the Renault package, and I have no doubt that the team will be able to develop that car well, just as they did last season.
Toyota, who came close to winning in Bahrain, seemed well off the pace in Spain. Jarno Trulli wasn’t helped by his awful start, which left him in the midfield cluster which resulted in him going onto the grass and starting a collision that ended the race of four cars. Timo Glock also got bogged down at the start and never looked close to being that high up the order again.
BMW have improved a little, but not enough. Their car now looks radically different to the one that finished last in Bahrain. Two points for Nick Heidfeld is undoubtedly an improvement. But increasingly BMW’s decision to divert their focus from 2008 seems like the wrong one. Robert Kubica remains pointless.
It’s a similar story for Williams. Although we have become accustomed to seeing them stuck in the lower midfield over the past few years, they appeared to promise a lot during pre-season testing. Nico Rosberg must be disappointed to only be scoring a point in what was actually a pretty good race for him.
McLaren were expected to do badly here, and so it proved to be. Lewis Hamilton finished in 9th. That is not good. For the first few races, Hamilton impressed me with his ability to squeeze good results out of what is undoubtedly a poor car, including a fabulous fourth in Bahrain. He was unable to do that in Spain, and seemed pretty tetchy in the post-race interviews. Heikki Kovalainen retired with gearbox issues. Another one to add to McLaren’s reliability problems, but at least their list is not as long as Ferrari’s.
So another race passes, and Brawn look more dominant than they have done since Australia. But as I say, I have a feeling that Monaco will be a rather different matter, and I look forward to seeing how the teams perform there.