Friday, 15 November 2013

The Problem of Young Drivers

As you may be aware, Kimi Raikkonen has ended his 2013 season early. A bad back has required an operation, and thus the final two races will proceed without the Ice Man. This has sparked quite a debate within the F1 community, and it centres on who has replaced Raikkonen for the final two races.

The third driver for Lotus is GP2 champion Davide Valsecchi. GP2 is traditionally regarded as the stepping stone for F1, but in the past few years this hasn't been the case. Valsecchi won the championship in 2012, and was drafted to Lotus to undertake testing sessions in 2013. Now, the premise of having a third driver was to have a reserve, or at least someone to test and develop the car. It seems that Valsecchi however has had very limited running - and indeed was overlooked as Kimi's replacement for the final two races of the season, instead being replaced by Heikki Kovalainen.

Now, I take no issue with Heikki coming back to F1 - even if it's just for these few races. It's great to have him back and in a car that is right at the front, and Lotus do need a proven talent to grab them the points. However, I think the whole situation makes a mockery of the third driver system, and more generally of GP2's role in bringing the next generation forwards into F1.

I think that this goes right back to the start of the year. As soon as Valsecchi got the third driver role, he should have been given free practice sessions to prepare him for F1. Instead, he has completed very limited testing in young driver days and filmwork. For someone who grabbed a brilliant GP2 championship, this isn't acceptable.

The way GP2 works means that the champion for each year is prevented from returning to that particular championship. Instead, it used to be thought that these winners would progress to F1 - as was the case with Romain Grosjean (after his second spell in GP2 and following his GP2 championship win). However, I wouldn't call Valsecchi's place in F1 'progress'. He seems to have spent the entire year waiting for his chance, and now that it has arrived he is not experienced enough to take the opportunity. As I said, I completely understand Lotus's reasons for this - they are still fighting for points. But, without the chance to test and practice, how are young drivers expected to get into F1?

Next year, we do have a couple of young drivers coming into the sport. McLaren have recently dropped Sergio Perez in favour of Kevin Magnussen - a Formula Renault driver. Toro Rosso also confirmed Danny Kvyat as their replacement for Daniel Ricciardo - a move that received wide criticism, as Kvyat has competed only GP3, and was picked over Antonio Felix da Costa, Red Bull's Formula Renault driver. However, we currently have no new GP2 drivers for 2014. The only 2012 GP2 driver to enter the 2013 F1 season was Esteban Gutierrez. The winner (Valsecchi) and runner up (Luis Razia) from 2012 instead missing out on opportunities.

In fairness, a good many of these drivers do get the reserve/third driver positions. However, they often do not get the race drives, or even practice sessions. Despite this, even younger and more inexperienced drivers (but with a lot of cash) get the drives. Ok, they will probably have a lot of talent as well, but why are these drivers immediately expected to do well, while third drivers such as Valsecchi are not?

I think a lot of the problem comes from the lack of testing. If we had more in-season tests, the drivers would get the experience, and could be utilised appropriately if one of the main drivers drops out. What has happened to Valsecchi is disappointing. He should have been given more opportunity throughout the year, and you have to question why Lotus even hire him if they won't give him any chances. Instead, perhaps Valsecchi would have been better going off into another championship for this year, rather than being forced to sit in the garage and watch opportunities as they pass by. There has to be a change in this system, and talent should be rewarded.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Quadruple World Champion

I couldn't really miss the opportunity to announce that Sebastian Vettel is now a quadruple world champion! He's joined the likes of Prost, Fangio and Schumacher, and should now hopefully be considered one of the greats (as if he wasn't after championship number three last year). The championship itself is rightly deserved - as is the fourth constructor's title for his Red Bull team.

Naturally, success always brings the naysayers - if people don't object, you're doing it wrong. However, Seb has been in a class of his own, and he should be applauded for all of his achievements. Sure, in the second half of the season he's been completely dominant, but this isn't all down to the car. You don't win four world championships with a car alone, you need huge talent and control. A combination of the best driver with the best car and the best team behind it all is what's caused these victories.

Of course, I am completely biased towards Sebastian. He is a thoroughly nice man - staying behind to have his picture taken with me at Goodwood, despite being urged away by officials. While we don't always see this on the track (the Multi 21 scenario etched into the memories of many), this is because he's a racing driver. Away from the circuit, Vettel is reluctant to show too much of his private life - and rightly so - thus leading to further criticism. However, today in the post-race celebrations we saw the real Seb. He was overcome with emotion and completely humbled by his achievements. Far from the arrogant picture painted by many.

With the regulation changes next year, there's no knowing where Seb will end up. The field could be much closer and the championship may go to the wire (as in 2012, when my adrenaline level was through the roof while watching the last race in Brazil). It could be that Red Bull's brilliance disappears, and other teams become the front runners. Maybe reliability will hamper everyone. It's impossible to tell. So, Red Bull and Sebastian should enjoy this victory. I'm sure that nobody within the F1 world takes anything like this for granted. The final few races of the season will be a chance to enjoy the racing without the pressure, and I'm sure it will still be a joy to watch.

So, congratulations once again, Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel! Quadruple world champions - the stuff of legend.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Thrilling or Boring

I'm typing this at 1:30pm, and already it's been a fair few hours after this weekend's F1 race. This really means only one thing: we're nearing the close of the season, and thus, early starts. Like many people, I work and study during the week. Unlike many students however, I tend to get up before 8am, and often before 7am. So, the weekends are a great opportunity to catch up on sleep. Unfortunately, I'm a die-hard F1 fan, and so we're nearing the part of the year when sleep at all times of the week is sacrificed. Honestly, I don't mind (although I probably look a little zombie-like during the days now) - that is, if I'm treated to an exciting race.

Today's race in Korea was stunning, I thought. One of the best races of the year. Yeah, alright, I'm a Vettel fan, and so I'm likely to say that. However, the entertainment value of today's race wasn't provided by Vettel's win today, but rather the battles that went on behind him. For the first stint of the race, many fans were worried that it would be a walkover for Vettel, and thus a boring race. Sure, it was a walkover for him, but the race was thrilling.

Nico Hulkenberg was undoubtedly my driver of the day - you have to give credit to a guy who runs in a mid-field team and can hold up Hamilton's Mercedes, Alonso's Ferrari, Raikkonen's Lotus (albeit not until the end of the race) and Webber's Red Bull. I have to say that I'm also one of the many people asking why he isn't in a better car, and I'm hoping that he'll take up the spare seat at Lotus next year.

Aside from the Hulkenberg drive, there were many more battles to be seen (Massa, Maldonado et al., anyone?). In addition, the drama provided by the misfortune of Rosberg losing his front wing and Webber's car catching fire (again) meant that the race was anything but boring.

So, I'm left wondering why people believe that a Vettel win equals a boring race? It's not as if the TV only follows the lead driver around the circuit - we do get to see the racing behind him. Sure, I get that people don't want a return to the Schumacher days, when the result was a foregone conclusion. And yes, I understand that Vettel does appear to dominate every season. However, when you look at the facts most of this isn't true.

2011 aside, Vettel's championships have been far from easy. In 2010, he won at the last race. In 2012, we were treated to the most exciting race I've ever seen in Brazil. In 2013 so far, there have been very close battles with Mercedes, Lotus and Ferrari - it's only towards the end of the season that Vettel has 'run away' with the championship lead. Red Bull have also had their fair share of reliability issues this year, and thus the 2013 F1 season is far from over.

While you could say that Vettel's leads in the races make things less unpredictable, I don't believe this is true. Sure, it might be that Vettel wins, but we can still see thrilling races. F1 is more than just one guy leading the championship - there are smaller teams fighting for points, young drivers fighting for a seat and there are still championship contenders chasing Vettel, all of which leads to a spectacle on track.

If you use results to determine how exciting a race is, you could also argue that MotoGP is boring on the strength of Marquez's performances. However, when you actually watch the races, you'll see nothing of the sort (and in fact, I doubt there is anyone out there claiming that it's boring anyway). So why the case with F1?

I honestly think that the problem lies not with what happens on track, but rather our perception of the champions themselves. It's no secret that many people dislike Vettel - the boos every time he's on the podium show this. Lots claim that this is because of Malaysia, however I believe it runs far deeper than that. I think that in general, we dislike sweeping success. We want underdogs to win - not former champions. At least, not multiple championships in a row. When this happens, we tend to detract from success: how many times have we heard the argument 'Well, he has the best car'? How many times has Vettel been accused of cheating (including the recent 'traction control' nonsense)? I think this is wrong - it's up to those behind to catch up, not for the champion to slow down something echoed by Fernando Alonso, Vettel's closest rival.

Recently, F1 pundits have become fed up of the boos on the podium, culminating in Martin Brundle telling the perpetrators 'Please don't do that. That's not correct'. Thankfully, Korea appeared absent of boos (although, this could be to do with the absence of crowds as well). We should remember that an individual's success doesn't detract from the performances of others. Being repeatedly successful doesn't make someone arrogant, a cheater or unworthy. We should celebrate everyone's achievements - whether that's one of the greats (Vettel, Alonso, Hamilton or Raikkonen), or one of the lesser known drivers (Hulkenberg being a classic example I'm sure). Whoever wins the championship this year, we've certainly seen thrilling races and we'd do well to remember this.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Rumour Mill and Podium Boos

Well, the European F1 season is over for another year. Last weekend's race in Monza wasn't the most thrilling I must admit, although towards the end there was plenty to see. The Monza race is always a special one: one of only four circuits to have featured in the original 1950 grand prix series (the others being Silverstone, Spa and Monaco), the fastest race on the calendar, and of course the home of the tifosi (Ferrari fanatics). Given the strong links with Ferrari, of course most fans will be rooting for the guys in red overalls, and in particular, Fernando Alonso. As always, I'm a die-hard Vettel fan and so I was cheering on the guys in blue overalls. However, the high speed circuit of Monza is not normally a Red Bull strength (instead, the team is more suited to high-downforce tracks), therefore I never expect too much from this race.

This year, Red Bull must have done something right. On Friday afternoon, Vettel managed to top the timesheets during second practice. He did the same during all three qualifying sessions, giving him another pole position on the 5 year anniversary of his first at Toro Rosso. Right behind him was Mark Webber - a nice end to his final European F1 qualifying session I think. The surprise during qualifying was Nico Hulkenberg, who took third position on the grid (prompting a resurrection of the rumours that he'll be a man in red next year for the tifosi to cheer on - I'll come to that later). Right behind were the Ferraris, although not in the order you'd expect. It was Massa, not Alonso who took fourth position. So, with the scene set for Sunday, it was interesting to see whether the Red Bulls could hold their advantage, or whether the Ferrari fans would have something to celebrate.

Luckily for me, both Red Bulls had a great start, and pulled off into the lead. Massa however had an amazing start, and overtook Mark Webber early on. Alonso wasn't far behind, and once he passed Mark it was only a matter of time before Massa had to give up his second place. Of course, the Ferrari masses were thrilled with Alonso in second, although by this point Vettel was so far down the road that nobody could get anywhere near him. Eventually, Webber managed to regain his third position, and the podium finished with two Red Bulls and one Ferrari on its steps.

Now, Vettel is rarely a popular winner at the best of times - less so when he's beaten the fans' beloved Alonso at Ferrari's home race, so boos were to be expected. However, the lack of celebration at Vettel's wins is becoming a bit of a trend now, and frankly there are a lot of us who are fed up with this. A couple of weeks ago, I participated in Sky F1's 'Ask Crofty' feature and was overwhelmed by responses from Twitter fans (if you'd like your input by the way, find me @MooEvilBoffin). Among these responses, there seemed to be two main camps: those who disliked the booing of Vettel, and those who think he deserves every bit of hatred he gets (I, of course, fall into the former).

The reasoning behind the hatred goes at least all the way back to Malaysia - although I suspect that this may originate with Vettel's championships. The infamous 'Multi 21' incident has left a lot of fans very angry at Vettel's 'arrogance', however I'm sensing a lot of hypocrisy (as many of the same fans were annoyed that Rosberg didn't get past Hamilton in a similar situation in the same race!). Whether the incident was right or wrong in Malaysia will probably be debated forever. Personally, the whole team orders thing is wrong in my opinion, and teammates should be allowed to race - it's not the fault of an individual driver if they do not obey these orders (they're doing their job). Many fans aren't so forgiving, and so the Vettel hatred seems to be growing.

Booing on the podium is now a regular feature, and the F1 fandom is again divided on the issue. Half of us are fed up with it now - all of those guys on the circuit are great drivers. You can't be in F1 without at least a modicum of talent. Whether you're in the best car or the worse, you deserve to be there and I think that you should be respected. A lot of people keep harping on about Vettel only winning championships because he's in the best car - that's simply not true. The only year Vettel had a truly dominant car was in 2011 - and even then his own teammate couldn't match him. The fact that Vettel has broken so many records at such a young age should go to show that we're seeing a legend in the making - like Schumacher (also hated during his first time around), Senna and Fangio. Of course, you can't compare the achievements of these drivers directly due to the changing nature of the sport, but I'd certainly say that Vettel will go on to be one of the best drivers of this era. Whether you like him or not, that's got to be respected, not booed! Luckily, Vettel himself seems to be taking the hatred in his stride, remarking that 'the louder the boos, the better the job we're doing'. Long may that attitude continue.

Now, onto another recent feature of F1 - silly season. We were somewhat deprived of the rumours over the summer break (disappointingly, I thought), however now the rumour mill is in full swing and concerning Ferrari. Massa's seat is up at the end of the year, it seems, and a lot of thought is going in to who is his potential replacement. Many people thought that Nico Hulkenberg would be a great contender - Fernando Alonso wants a number two driver, who'll not get in his way should he be close to a win, and a younger driver like Nico would be a good choice. However, Ferrari now want a driver who'll push Alonso to get everything out of the car, rather than relying on his teammate to protect him. So, who should step into the frame, but Kimi Raikkonen. Recently, the rumour on Twitter that Kimi has signed has been doing the rounds, with an announcement supposedly set for Wednesday. An Alonso-Raikkonen pairing would arguably be the best in the whole grid, however nobody really knows how the two would work together. Alonso would arguably lose his number 1 status in favour of an equal pairing - I suspect Kimi wouldn't care either way. It'll be fascinating to see how the two cope - look at Alonso and Hamilton at McLaren.

A related rumour on Twitter was that Kimi has indeed signed for Ferrari - as Alonso's replacement. Personally, I can't really see Alonso leaving, but Dad had a great theory if that was the case. With Kimi out of Lotus and into Ferrari, there would be a free seat. Flavio Briatore was spotted at the Italian race - a former boss at Renault until the incident with Nelson Piquet Jr. at Singapore a couple of years ago. Briatore and Alonso worked fantastically well together, and it would be feasible to see the two working together once more. Lotus (formerly Renault) have had financial difficulties - something that could easily be solved with the return of Briatore. So, it might just be the case that Alonso and Briatore would be united at Lotus-Renault once more, and who knows where that might lead. It's a million to one chance, but it might just work...

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

It's Been A While...

Ok, I have no excuses. It's been a ridiculously long time since I updated my blog. There are many contributing factors, none of which are linked to motorsport (rather, work, university and life in general), however now I'm hoping that I can get back into the swing of things - especially given the weekend's forthcoming Spa grand prix.

So what's been happening over the past couple of months? Well, recently not that much to tell you the truth. We should be well into 'Silly Season', the part of the F1 calendar when we hear lots of rumours and speculation about who's moving to which team and so on. This year, it hasn't happened, despite a free seat at Red Bull for 2014. In fact, the only real news we've had over the summer break is that Kimi Raikkonen won't be going to Red Bull. I have to say, I'm slightly disappointed with the dearth of speculation - we all like a bit of gossip now and again, but the summer F1 break hasn't really delivered. Hopefully, we'll have some more exciting news when the season gets back underway this weekend, although I suspect all that will happen is the predictable announcement that Daniel Ricciardo will go to partner Vettel. Still, there's still an outside chance that Kimi might go to Ferrari - I doubt it, but we have to get our gossip where we can!

The 2013 F1 season has been exciting - arguably, not as much as in 2012, but still a complete joy to watch. A lot of people are unhappy that Vettel is seemingly running away with the championship once again (I'll admit that I'm not part of that crew), but given that we're only just halfway through the season, I think everything's still to play for - Lotus in particular are looking strong, and so there's every chance Kimi could get another championship. We'll see, come race 19.

With the lack of news in F1 so far, all I really have to talk about is past events that I've seen. A while ago Dad and I ventured up to Silverstone for the F1 young driver's test (YDT). This year was a little bit different: the FIA had bent the rules slightly to allow teams to use their race drivers during the test in order to get used to the new and (supposedly) improved Pirelli tyres following the horrific problems that had been occurring previously. While this didn't mean that the drivers would be racing, it was good news for us as we could see the current F1 drivers in the flesh for another year running, albeit at a 10th of the price of Silverstone proper. In an unexpected bonus, Red Bull announced that Vettel would be driving on Friday - the day we had planned to go and watch! Overall it was a pretty cool sight to see: Silverstone is one of the legendary tracks, but most fans are priced out of going to the race and so watching F1 cars in my own country has thus far been a bit of an elusive sight. However, at £15 per ticket the YDT was a great day out!

The only other news I can really report on isn't related to F1 at all, but rather MotoGP. Motorbike racing is something that I've never really been into - I've always preferred watching 4 wheels going round a track. Last year I started to watch MotoGP off and on, but was put off a little after Simoncelli's accident. However, this year I've gotten back into the swing of things - partly because I'm completely in awe of the new guy on the circuit, Marc Marquez. This guy is completely insane and completely brilliant at the same time. He's leading the championship in his rookie year, and he's a marvel to watch. Admittedly, it's hard to say whether he'd be leading the championship if Lorenzo and Pedrosa hadn't broken their collar bones, but Marquez's performances so far have been stunning. Winning all three American races, a podium in every race this year bar one... You've got to be amazed. Now all I hope is that he finishes the season without injuring himself - having worked in a neurorehabilitation unit over a year, MotoGP does worry me immensely, but with entertainment like this, I can't help but watch.

So, onto the F1 at Spa this weekend. It's scary to think that it's almost a year since Dad and I were there in person. I know that the race will be fantastic - Spa always is - so here's to the season restart (and hopefully more gossip)!

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Tyres, Tests and Tribunals

Over the past few weeks there has been the traditional mid-season controversy among the F1 community. This time, the drama was centred around the Mercedes team and tyre suppliers Pirelli. Over the course of the season, tyres have played a large role in the outcome of the races. Drivers are reporting that they can't drive their cars to their full potential because the tyres tend to give up very quickly. Several teams are reporting that they simply can't make the tyres work properly over the course of a race. While tyres have always played a role in racing, a lot of fans and officials believe that they are now impacting far too much, and something has to change.

However, as ever in F1, nothing is straightforward. Some of the teams tend to be better of their tyres than others - Lotus, for example, tend to be pretty good - and so are largely opposed to any changes. By contrast, other teams are calling for reviews of the tyres - Red Bull being chief among these, as they feel they simply can't run the car flat out. One team that has been suffering quite heavily in the races because of the tyres is Mercedes. While they tend to be very good in qualifying, during the races they tend to fall away and lose pace.

With the ban on in-season testing, ultimately all of the teams are in the same boat. The tyres will remain the same, and it's up to individual teams to solve the problems however they can. Of course, it would be better if the teams had some way of testing the tyres outside of a race weekend, but the rules clearly stipulate that such testing is banned.

Or so you'd think. It turns out that Mercedes had been approached by Pirelli to conduct a 1,000 kilometre tyre test following the Spanish grand prix. The news of this test, however, only broke before the Monaco grand prix race day. Naturally, many teams were unhappy with the opportunity given to Mercedes, and were even unhappier with the fact that the test was conducted apparently in secret. The leaders of the complaints were the leading teams - Red Bull and Ferrari, who called for an enquiry to find out the details of the test. As the details emerged, it was discovered that Mercedes had not only had 1,000km of running, they did so with the 2013 car and with both current drivers (rather than a test driver).

Mercedes naturally defended the test, and stated that they did not get any data from the running as they did not know which tyres were being used. However, I find this a little suspicious, given the choice to use a current car and current drivers. With the usual F1 waving of fingers came counter-accusations by Mercedes - Ferrari had also ran a Pirelli test, and thus they should also be implicated in the apparently illegal activity.

Following the Monaco race, the case was referred to the stewards. On investigation, it emerged that yes, Ferrari had also taken part in a tyre test. However, the critical difference was that Ferrari had used a 2011 car - a two-year-old car being permissible within the sporting regulations. So, it was only the activities of Mercedes that were called into question, and the case was referred to an international tribunal which sat last Thursday.

During the tribunal, Mercedes defended the test, stating that it was a legal test, as it was undertaken by Pirelli, rather than Mercedes. This seemed to be a weak defence in my view - if a team is running a current car with current drivers, then it's clearly not completely down to Pirelli. Pirelli further argued that as a third-party supplier, they were able to do whatever they liked (in essence), as they were not subject to the FIA regulations. This argument was (thankfully) rejected - surely everyone involved in F1 should be subject to the regulations, or else all teams would be queueing up to help Pirelli test their tyres.

A further point raised by the tribunal was the secrecy of the test. Mercedes claimed to have permission from the FIA to conduct the test. The FIA responded by stating that Mercedes had phoned Charlie Whiting to ask in 'general terms' whether a tyre test with a current car would be legal. Whiting had responded by stating that in theory, yes, it would be possible, but only on the condition that all of the other teams had been informed and offered the same opportunity - hardly a resounding 'yes, go ahead'. Following these phone calls, Mercedes went ahead with the test, without informing the FIA of their intentions.

Perhaps one of the more amusing points of the tribunal surrounded the secrecy of the drivers. Mercedes had given Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton black helmets to disguise their identities. This was apparently for 'security reasons', given the lack of bodyguards at the circuit for the test. However, this begs the question of what the drivers did when they were out of the cars - did they wander around like Top Gear's Stig in full race gear until they could get away from the clearly hostile and dangerous environment of the circuit? I doubt it.

Once all the evidence had been heard, the verdict was announced the following day. Given that Mercedes had used a current car (rather than an old car, as in the case of Ferrari), had not gained explicit permission from the FIA and had kept the test secret from the other teams, the obvious decision was a guilty verdict. As with other scandals of F1 in the past, we were all expecting harsh penalties - points being taken away from the team, fines, possibly race bans. But no. Mercedes simply gained a reprimand, and were prevented from taking part in the young driver's test later in the year. Now, in my opinion, the only people that this 'punishment' will hurt will be the young drivers. Mercedes have at least potentially gained an advantage from the test, and have 1,000km more experience under their belts than the other teams. A clear breach of the rules was seen, and this was unpunished.

I wonder now whether other big teams will get in on tyre testing. It appears as though the only sacrifice will be running in the young drivers test - something that the big teams really do not need to worry about if their big name drivers stay on for 2014. Often in F1 teams tend to try and copy one another following investigations and tribunals - look at the number of investigations of Red Bull's aerodynamics over the previous years. While people complained that sporting regulations had been breached, the subsequent approval of the aerodynamics led to the other teams adopting the same technology. Thus, with the 'punishment' for 1,000 km tyre tests set, will this be a case of 'if you can't beat them, join them'?  

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Updates, Upgrades and a Two Year Anniversary

It's been a while since I last wrote, and a lot has happened in the mean time.

Last week was a bit of a bumper week for motorsport - for me at least. On Wednesday the 8th of May in particular a lot of special stuff happened. Firstly, it was my 21st birthday. I'm now officially in the adult world - although having lived away from home (well, sort of!) since I started university three years ago means I can't really tell the difference between being 21 and 18! For the past two years my birthday has also been a bit of a celebration of my blog, as I started it on my 19th birthday. I've had a lot of feedback since I started, from all areas of motorsport - journalists, teams and drivers - and it's been a pleasure writing and reaching out to people I might never have spoken to without the blog. So, happy belated 2nd birthday, Musings of a Motorsport Geek!

Now, your 21st birthday is meant to be a special one, and my did this year live up to that! Originally I'd planned to do, well, nothing to be honest. I figured that as it was the middle of the week I'd just spend the day working, and spend the following weekend catching up on the Spanish grand prix (more on that later, I promise). Well, that wasn't to be, and I'm glad my Dad's plan trumped mine! A couple of weeks ago I got a phone call from Dad, saying he needed to 'take me somewhere' on my birthday, and I had to keep the afternoon free. It was all pretty mysterious to be honest, and trust me the surprise was worth it!

On the morning of my birthday I did the usual routine nonsense of work and charging about on the bus (ah, public transport!), and then my Dad came down to uni to take me back home. In the car, he told me that there was a present that had presented (ha, see what I did there?! Oh dear...) a bit of a mystery for everyone. So, when I arrived back home I was greeted with a multitude of presents, one of which was a parcel that had been unopened - bearing the logo of the Red Bull Racing team.

Before anyone asks, no the parcel wasn't sent from a family member posing as the team, it was genuinely sent from the Milton Keynes factory of my favourite team. Those of you who are regular readers might recall that on my 20th birthday the team sent me a fantastic message and photo on Twitter:

Well, this year they trumped that, and posted me a present:

Yep, a signed cap, signed autograph cards and a message from one of the members of the team wishing me a happy birthday! So, thanks to Red Bull Racing - I think you've secured a life-long fan... Same time next year?

So, with the mystery present solved, I moved on to the presents my parents got me. First off, this mystery day out. Dad gave me a letter - I was going to Brands Hatch to drive Caterhams for the afternoon! I've had a few driving experience days, but never one like this, so needless to say I was pretty excited.

Next, my Mum handed me a rather fancy box, inside which was the most amazing dress that my Mum had made with her own fair hands! Yeah, ok, not very motorsport related you might think, but on the fabric was printed some pretty cool classic American cars. I can safely say that nobody else will have anything like it, and I feel it's a pretty good bet that if I go to the Goodwood Revival one day I'll be wandering around in the appropriate attire now all thanks to my Mum! So, with the presents opened, we headed off to Brands for my Caterham experience day.

When we arrived, we went through the usual safety briefings and warnings, before being shown how a professional would drive. The course was a slalom, with lots of opportunities for driving sideways! Once we'd seen how to do it, we got straight in the cars (with no instructor sat beside us, unusually) to practice and have timed runs.

I have to say, I don't think I've ever driven anything as fast as a Caterham. On my 18th birthday, I drove a Subaru rally car, which felt pretty powerful, however the Caterhams were completely different. Once I'd learnt the course, I decided to put my foot down, and I can safely say it was a whole heap of fun! The runs in the cars were short and sweet, but I got to have plenty of goes and the whole day was organised brilliantly. With all of the runs complete at the end of the day, we all gathered for the prize giving. During this part of the day, the instructors there asked anyone who had a 21st birthday to step forward. On being identified as the birthday girl, I was told to grab a crash helmet and get into the Caterham. Yep, I was given a surprise birthday passenger ride around the course with one of the professionals - I've never been in a car doing so many donuts! Overall, the whole day was absolutely fantastic, and I've just about recovered from the dizziness of the passenger ride! So thanks go to the Caterham Drive Experience and, of course, my Dad.

Traditionally, my birthday signals the start of the European F1 season. This year was no different, with F1 returning to Spain. I have to say, having watched the race on Sunday, that I think we had our first boring race of the year. While the start was pretty exciting as usual (Mercedes cars on the front row, followed by Vettel and Alonso - bound to be a thriller), the whole race itself turned into some strange strategy game dictated by the tyre wear.

I last blogged about how technology and tyres had made the races more of a challenge. People had argued that racing was entirely artificial due to DRS, KERS and tyre wear, however I argued that instead it gave drivers more to consider, and now intelligence was rewarded in the races. I still stand by this, but I think the impact of the tyres has now gone too far over the limit - once we start getting boring races because of the 'technical' aspects, it's time to do something. Each radio broadcast we heard was simply 'look after your tyres'. When a driver can't make the most of one of the most technologically developed cars in the world because the tyres are degrading too much, I rather feel that something has to change.

Luckily, today Pirelli announced that they're going to change the tyres for the rest of the season from the Canadian race onwards. This is somewhat of a turnaround for them, as they had previously argued that they would not 'bend to the pressure of Red Bull' (Red Bull being perhaps more vocal than a lot of teams), however I think they'd have been a little mad to not listen to the opinions following Spain. When the teams, drivers, fans and Bernie Ecclestone call for something different, I think you have to do something. So, with any luck we won't have to endure calls to save the tyres much longer. Alright, nothing will change immediately, but given the next race is Monaco, I'm sure F1 will get back to its inspiring ways soon enough

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Real Racing

Just recently on Twitter I've noticed a lot of debate over whether F1 is worth watching. A lot of people seem to think that F1 isn't real racing - quite a surprise considering that this is now considered the pinnacle of motorsport. A lot of this view is based on the fact that F1 revolves around technology, with some people arguing that the driving isn't really 'real' any more.

I agree that F1 is dependent on its technology. This is precisely why the cars are so quick, and this is one of the most impressive forms of motorsport out there. However, I'm not sure that I agree with the point that technological advances come at the cost of racing. Sure, there is a lot of distance between teams such as Red Bull and Caterham. There is a definite top class, mid-field and back-marker divide. However, does this now mean that we don't see 'real' racing? I'm not so sure.

The drivers in F1 do have to work out more than just driving alone in modern F1. They have to manage the tyres, figure out when to use DRS and KERS, and feedback to engineers about the car's set-up. All of this at incredibly high speed under the pressure of a race. Yes, sometimes the set-up that you get will influence your result. However, I don't think this detracts from the racing. Rather, it's extended the skills that the drivers need, and rewards the teams much more than some other sports where technology is less crucial. The mark of a good driver now is one who can manage the technology while still winning races. You can have drivers who are great at developing technology, but who lack the skills needed for racing (ref. Luca Badoer). Similarly, you can see moments where great racing drivers struggle with the technology (Jenson Button for example is notorious for struggling unless the car is perfect). The fact that you need to be able to balance the two doesn't mean you don't need a competitive driver.

Adversaries to F1 will argue that it is no longer a 'pure' form of racing. The drivers are unimportant, it's all about the cars. To see 'real' racing, you have to look to touring cars or Moto GP. Sure, I like those forms of motorsport too, and technology has a smaller role than in F1, but I'd never say that F1 isn't racing. I think F1 is racing in another form. You still get the on-track battles, where the drivers are competing against the other drivers, rather than against the other car - the controversial Vettel/Webber overtake in Malaysia was a perfect example of this. Alright, you're never going to have a straight fight between a Lotus and a Marussia this year, but you can see the evolution of the smaller teams bringing them closer to the mid-field.

I've written before how F1 appeals to me due to its record of rewarding intelligence. In so many sports it's just about the one guy in the competition, not about the people behind him developing the techniques. In F1 it's different. If an aerodynamicist comes up with a great design, then their efforts are rewarded when a car wins a race. The team effort of putting the car together before the driver gets near it is vital, yes. However, winning a race isn't dependent on the aerodynamics alone - it's still dependent on the driver's racing ability. You couldn't design the fastest F1 car in the world, stick me in there and get me to win races. I don't have the skill, no matter how good the car is.

Overall, I can't claim to understand why people believe that F1 isn't racing simply because of the technology involved. Sure, racing is now about tyres and aerodynamics and strategy. However, without that spark of racing, you wouldn't have a sport.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Dust has Settled

It's been a week since the last race in Malaysia, and I think we've seen the first big controversy of 2013. F1 is famous for its drama, and let's face it, it wouldn't be the same sport without it. For those of you wondering why it's taken me so long to blog about the latest drama, it's partly because I've been busy with work, partly because I think it's a good think to wait for the dust to settle around these things before chucking my opinion into the fray.

For those of you who have missed the race and have no clue what I'm writing about, Malaysia saw the first 'team orders' incident of the year. Mark Webber had been leading the race for some time, and at the final round of pit stops was set to take the win. However, Sebastian Vettel came out less than a second behind Mark, and saw his chance for victory. It gave us a thrilling lap or two of racing - the two came within inches of each other, and many thought it was Turkey 2010 all over again. However, both Sebastian and Mark are experienced racers, and Vettel overtook without incident.

Now, all of this would have been fine if it was say, Vettel overtaking Hamilton, Alonso or Raikkonen. However, because he overtook Webber he went against team orders. Lots of people are now very unhappy with Vettel - journalists, fans and F1 insiders alike. Most feel that he should have held station behind Webber, and should not have overtaken. Vettel himself has apologised. He stated that he made a mistake, and should have stayed behind. Although he heard the order, he didn't follow it - perhaps an example of racing instincts taking over. There are a lot of different aspects to this whole situation, and I personally think the outrage against the move says a lot about F1 in general, rather than Vettel as a person.

Vettel has been under fire for many years now. He is an incredibly talented racer - his three world championships are surely testament to this. However, most people consider him to be arrogant, and only able to win because of the speed of the car. I, of course, take a different view. His 2010 championship was completely unexpected, and although the season wasn't without incident, he secured the victory against all the odds. His 2011 championship was dominant. He grabbed pole at most of the races, and took maximum points wherever he could. Last year, 2012, was more of a fierce competition, and I think we saw Vettel at his best this year. The race in Brazil - coming through the back of the field (twice!) - was the best race I have ever watched, and surely put pay to all notions that the guy can't race. With Red Bull and Vettel looking for championship number four this year, we have to expect a fight, and this is what we saw in Malaysia last weekend. As for Vettel being considered arrogant, I disagree. He seems to still have what a lot of champions lose after their first victory: he still enjoys the racing. He always makes the best out of a bad situation, and we rarely see him blaming anyone when he makes a mistake. When he had a DNF in 2011, he didn't disappear off into the motor home, but apparently stayed on the pit wall and helped Mark to take a victory. I doubt this is the sign of arrogance. Plus, having met him at Goodwood last year, I can honestly say that he was a thoroughly lovely guy (staying behind to make sure I had a good picture, even when his minder was trying to get him to hurry away).

Personally, I think a lot of the anger against Sebastian comes from his success. A lot of the time, we don't really like runaway victories. We like the underdog to take the win. Look at the Michael Schumacher era - people hated Schumacher because it was a foregone conclusion that he would win. With F1 today, we don't have this predictability, so I see no reason to treat Vettel in the same way. When the overtaking incident happened last week and the backlash began, I wondered whether people would have reacted the same way if it was Mark overtaking Sebastian. Food for thought.

Overall, I think the overtake between Seb and Mark was a case of racing instincts. Webber could have fought back and gone against the team's wishes as well, but he chose not to. This was his decision, and I've got nothing against either driver for what happened. Contrast this with the team orders given down at Mercedes. Hamilton was in third place and was told to turn down his engine and save fuel. Rosberg was much faster, but held station behind Hamilton. Arguably, we were denied racing at this point. Rosberg tried to argue against the decision, however ultimately he obeyed Ross Brawn and stayed behind. As a fan of racing, I'm disappointed by this. I'm not blaming Rosberg, but I think this is something fundamentally wrong with F1 today.

In Hockenheim 2010, Massa was leading the race. Then, we heard the infamous call 'Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?'. After a few laps, Massa moved out of Alonso's way, and he was handed the victory. Rob Smedly, Massa's race engineer was heard on the radio at this point saying 'sorry'. Everyone was, understandably, outraged. Massa was leading, he was racing, and he was forced to give up the place without a fight. If Alonso was truly faster, then why did the team have to tell Massa to move? This was the era in which team orders were banned, and racing was racing, whether it was your team-mate or a rival.

In 2011, team orders were made legal once again, however this wasn't something that many of us were particularly pleased about. As a fan of F1, I want to see who is the best driver. This is something that we can see with overtaking, and what better a test of driver against driver than racing against someone in the same car as you? It's up to the drivers to avoid hitting one another, and no overtake is without risk. I understand that teams want to maximise their points for the constructors' championship, however to do this at the expense of racing is, in my opinion, wrong.

While I get that Vettel directly disobeyed what his team said, and that many people view this is arrogance, I feel differently about this than most people. I'm much more disappointed by the fact that we were denied a fight between Rosberg and Hamilton, and I think that the Vettel/Webber pass was one of the most exciting parts of the race. Ultimately, it's not my job to define the rules. However, I think we need to get away from team orders in F1. We need F1 to remain a show, and not a procession. Team orders don't facilitate this. Whatever happens though, this drama will blow over and be replaced by another soon enough. That's the only thing we can be certain of in modern F1. Bring on the next race!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Australian Opener

Now while most people consider the 1st of January to be the start of a new year, for those of us into Formula 1 the new year starts somewhat later than this, in mid March. It's a long wait, considering the end of the F1 season is typically in November, and thus we have nearly four months of 'no man's land'. Thankfully, we've made it through the winter (although for us fans in the UK, we still seems to be in the middle of an ice age) and last weekend the new F1 season began.

2012 was an amazing year for F1. We didn't have a single boring race - even though we only had one race in the wet (I guess that kills Bernie's ideas about sprinklers on the side of the track). The first seven races saw seven different winners, and towards the end of the year we had an amazing battle between Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, with the latter clinching the title after the most exciting race I've ever watched. So, with this in mind, we were all waiting to see what 2013 had to offer.

Pre-season testing was the usual affair: F1 journalists tried to tease out little details to give us an indication of things to come, teams were tight-lipped over just what they'd done to the cars, and F1 nerds (like me) realised that there was little point in paying much notice to the times that were posted. Really, the first indication we got of who was placed where came in the first qualifying session of the year.

Australia is a great opening race, however it does have the downside that European fans have to sacrifice a weekend's sleep to watch it. This was fine, if a little painful. So, on Saturday I woke up at 4:45 ready for the hour programme before qualifying and the 6:00 start. Unfortunately, what greeted me was a screen saying 'We apologise for the technical difficulties that we are experiencing'... That's right. A four month wait, to be met with technical difficulties. This wasn't the fault of the broadcaster - a quick delve into the F1 Twitter community informed me that there was a worldwide outage of F1 because of a powercut caused by heavy rain. Thankfully, things were fixed in time for the start of qualifying, and finally we were ready to see the 2013 pecking order.

Well, that's what we thought anyway. Turns out, the rain was so heavy in Albert Park that qualifying was postponed. After a bit of a wait, Q1 was underway, with the six slowest cars eliminated. Then, it rained again. And again. And again. Q2 was postponed by 10 minutes, 20 minutes, restart at 6:50 GMT, cancelled until Sunday morning. Yep. A four month wait, a 4:45am start, and no idea which team was quickest.

So, on Saturday night/Sunday morning, when most students would still be out partying, I got up at 11:45pm to resume qualifying. Thankfully, this time there were no problems, and we discovered that Sebastian Vettel was the fastest man on the F1 grid. Again. Being a die-hard Red Bull/Vettel fan, I was rather pleased at this, however I couldn't celebrate for long as I needed to get a few more hours sleep before the race.

Four hours after qualifying, I was up again (4:30am for those of you wondering just how insane I am). The build up to the race was heightening the tension, and at 6:00 we got going with the 2013 season. Luckily, the race itself showed that we were most likely going to have another thriller of a season. Overtakes, many different race leaders (including the Force India of Adrian Sutil - pretty good comeback from him!), and an unexpected race winner - Kimi Raikkonen. What more could you ask for?

Annoyingly, I've noticed a trend for F1 journalists to predict who is going to win the championship as soon as the chequered flag falls. While Kimi undoubtedly has had the best start (25 points all in all), let's not forget that Alonso and Vettel are right behind. With 18 races left to go, it seems to me that anyone from the top three teams (which are apparently Lotus, Red Bull and Ferrari) has a great shot, although I would expect that Mercedes are chasing hard, and McLaren will sort out whatever problems are plaguing them in order to give Button (or even Perez) a chance. So, 18 races, 9(ish) months... It's going to be an interesting one!

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

2013 Here We Come

So, it's been quite a while since I last wrote a post. I don't have many excuses to be honest, just a shed load of university work and frankly, not really that much happening in the world of F1. However, today the final 2013 contender was unveiled, and now I'm taking the opportune moment to catch up on blogging with a 2013 season preview, and a bit of a recap on 2012.

The end of the year brought Vettel his third world championship, and Red Bull their third constructor's championship. Throughout 2012, Red Bull had their fair share of ups and downs - despite the popular claim the Vettel only won because he had the best car. Reliability issues that were all but absent in 2011 came to Red Bull in the races held in hot climates, and at the start of the season there was none of the 2011 dominance that we were so used to. However, Vettel's mastery of the Asian tracks and the genius of Adrian Newey pulled their season around, and ultimately the team and driver triumphed once more - despite Vettel driving through the back of the field more times than I care to mention!

The runner up to Vettel was Fernando Alonso. His spate of good luck came much earlier in the season, and many believed that for some time it was Alonso's to lose. However, it transpired that Ferrari had no answer to Red Bull towards the end of the year, and Alonso lost out by three points only.

With 2012 proving a close season with some of the best races I've ever seen (Brazil 2012 will be a classic F1 race I'm sure, and one which I still watch from behind the sofa!), 2013 has a lot to live up to. Pre-season testing is underway in Barcelona this week, two weeks after the initial test in Jerez. For those of you new to the sport this year, let me warn you now that pre-season testing tells us NOTHING of what will occur through the rest of the season. While we still see times being posted, these actually reveal very little about any particular car's performance - at least for the fans. For the teams, pre-season testing is a great opportunity to learn about the car; how it feels, its potential and sorting out the tiny issues which could make or break a race when the time comes.

In addition to learning about the car, testing gives teams the chance to test out their drivers too. Usually at this time of year we know our driver line-up. However, this year it seems to have taken a lot longer, and we're still waiting on the final driver for Force India - presumably this will either be Adrian Sutil, their previous contender, or Jules Bianchi, their third driver. Both are driving in Barcelona this week, and so with any luck soon the entire field will be lining up ready to race.

One thing that you will notice in 2013 is the lack of two cars. Hispania unfortunately pulled out of F1, owing to the huge financial pressures of the sport. This year I'm also noticing that good drivers are being dropped in favour of drivers who bring sponsorship. The issue of 'pay drivers' is a thorny one among fans. Personally, I take no issue with those who bring sponsorship, providing that they are capable drivers with a lot of potential. One such driver is Marussia's Luiz Razia. He replaced Timo Glock this year, even after Glock had obtained a contract. Luiz is, however, an amazing driver. The runner up in GP2 last year, he has been an incredibly talented and entertaining racer - someone who actually made the Valencia circuit interesting. I'm thrilled that he has the drive, and expect him to do well next year.

Other than the chopping and changing of drivers, F1 2013 has remained much like F1 2012. There are small, but hopefully significant, changes to the appearance of the cars, however these changes are miniscule compared to the changes we will presumably see in 2014. Stepped noses (a source of yet more division among fans) are here to stay, although teams are permitted to cover the step with a plate - called a modesty plate, vanity plate, the list goes on. Lots of the cars also seem to have been designed with a ruler - the Ferrari in particular looks incredibly nice because of this. Whether these changes will make much difference in terms of performance will only be seen in the inaugral race in Australia.

So, with 23 days to go, the teams and drivers look like this (*denotes a newcomer to F1, +denotes new member of the team):

  • Red Bull Racing
    • Sebastian Vettel
    • Mark Webber
  • Ferrari
    • Fernando Alonso
    • Felipe Massa
  • McLaren
    • Jenson Button
    • Sergio Perez+
  • Lotus
    • Kimi Raikkonen
    • Romain Grosjean
  • Mercedes
    • Nico Rosberg
    • Lewis Hamilton+
  • Sauber
    • Nico Hulkenberg+
    • Esteban Gutierrez*
  • Force India
    • Paul Di Resta
    • TBA (Probably Adrian Sutil or Jules Bianchi)
  • Williams
    • Pastor Maldonado
    • Valtteri Bottas*
  • Toro Rosso
    • Jean-Eric Vergne
    • Daniel Ricciardo
  • Caterham
    • Charles Pic+
    • Giedo van der Garde*
  • Marussia
    • Max Chilton*
    • Luiz Razia*
With five new drivers in F1 (potentially six depending on the Force India driver), and four change of teams, it will be interesting to see how everyone gets on this year. The countdown begins...

Race Calendar

Australia - 17th March
Malaysia - 24th March
China - 14th April
Bahrain - 21st April
Spain 12th May
Monaco - 26th May
Canada - 9th June
Britian - 30th June
Germany - 7th July
TBA - 21st July
Hungary - 28th July
Belgium - 25th August
Italy - 8th September
Singapore - 22nd September
Korea - 6th October
Japan - 13th October
India - 27th October
Abu Dhabi - 3rd November
America - 17th November
Brazil - 24th November