Sunday, 14 September 2014

Formula One Fans

As usual, it's been a while since I've posted. Hey, I'm a postgrad student (well, now I am anyway), not a journalist. Anyway, tonight I feel compelled to get back to writing about F1 (and motorsport in general). In particular, I want to focus on the lunacy surrounding Formula One Management's strategies of late, and look to the future of the sport. I suspect I may be sued at some point for posting this, but what's life without a little risk?

Tonight, while wasting time on a boring Sunday evening, I was browsing the amusing WTF1 website, looking at various motorsport videos - Nascar, Narain Karthikeyen crashing into something in another formula, that sort of thing - when I came across what I thought would be an amusing video of Russian commentators going mental over Dani Kvyat's save at Monza, when the familiar YouTube error of 'This video contains content from Formula One Management, who has blocked it on copyright grounds' popped up. I've seen this so many times - and it's becoming infuriating.

If you've been following F1 related news in recent months, you may have noticed that many people are starting to worry that the sport is losing fans, one reason being F1, and FOM's reluctance to engage with social media. Many team managers have also expressed concerns that F1 is losing a large audience by not engaging with anything other than TV. Niki Lauda in particular stated that younger people (a demographic I suppose I would be part of, being 22 years old) don't want to spend a Sunday afternoon in front of the living room TV, but are more likely to consume their media on the move, or from sites like Twitter, YouTube or Facebook. It's a reasonable proposition - while I am one of those people who will give up at weekend to watch motorsport on TV (assuming I can't get outside to a circuit and watch it instead), I can see where Niki and all the others are coming from, and can understand that teenagers and kids (and even older people on the move, for example) want new ways of seeing motorsport.

Engagement with social media has worked extremely well for other forms of motorsport. The British Touring Car Championship has its own Twitter feed, full of qualifying coverage and race commentary. In addition, BTCC is shown on free-to-air TV all season (including all the support races all day - my Mum loves it when ITV4 is on for six hours). MotoGP has similar, with a Twitter page and YouTube feed. While this is no longer on free-to-air TV, there's a whole host of ways to follow the sport from its official website, albeit with a subscription fee. Contrast this with F1 - no official, central social media pages (although teams and some drivers do have their own pages), fan-made videos removed because of FOM's copyright, and only half a season available to those who don't wish to pay for a whole Sky Sports TV package. Why? That's easy to answer - money. There's no way of monetising social media at present, and Bernie Ecclestone has stated that until there is, there's no interaction with social media. Huh. What happened to doing things for the love of the sport?

The recent stirrings over the lack of fan engagement have reached a point where Tata Communications have launched the F1 Connectivity Innovation Prize, a series of challenges based around communicating more with fans, and engaging people more with the sport. A $50,000 prize is available for someone who comes up with a good idea. Well, here's an idea for you, Formula One Management (you don't even need to give me the prize money), how about dropping the profiteering for a second, and allowing people to follow the sport away from subscription-based TV?

It seems that F1 in particular is more concerned about what the sponsors think, and if ideas don't make money, they don't happen, even if they could do wonders for viewing figures and engagement in general. There are a huge amount of things that could be done to help F1 through this strange patch of its life - we could get away from mad rules (standing safety car restarts next year, anyone?), and back to proper racing. This, however, is another issue. What could be done now though is remembering that motorsport is built on the support from fans. If we don't engage people - dare I say, 'the youth of today' - through something so simple as a Facebook or Twitter page, they're not likely to pay for a Sky Sports subscription later. Sure, Bernie won't make his millions through chucking a tweet out now and again, but in a multimillion industry, does this matter? What we need to remember is that motorsport - of all forms - started not because people wanted to make buckets of cash, but because people had an inherent love for what they were doing. People were passionate about the sport: fans, drivers and officials alike. There was admiration for what people could achieve in a car or on a bike. Instead of focusing on bank balances, perhaps FOM would do well to remember this fact, and start to give something back to the fans, without whom the sport wouldn't exist in the first place.

Monday, 7 July 2014

The British Grand Prix

Hello all! It's been a shockingly long time since I've posted on my blog - university exams, work, there are plenty of reasons - but at long last I've decided to revive the old thing and get back to writing about motorsport. As you're all very aware, I am a huge F1 fan (the blog is testament to this), but this year I have to admit that my interest is waning somewhat. No, it's not because Red Bull aren't winning everything, but I've found that the races are mostly lacklustre this year, aside from the final 10 laps which are pretty good if the two Mercedes cars are near to each other. The British grand prix though was a gem of a race, despite an hour's delay after one lap when Kimi Raikkonen's crash led to a barrier repair. I'm not going to recap the race in detail - those of you reading the blog have probably already seen the race, and there are thousands of blogs that write race recaps - but I wanted to talk about attending F1 races, the state of the sport in general, and why Silverstone completely shocked me today.

I've attended two F1 races - Germany in 2011 and Belgium in 2012. Both were amazing experiences, and in my opinion the tickets were quite reasonably priced. The Nurburgring cost in the region of £85 per ticket, and Spa was 125€ (so around £100). Of course, you have to add on the price of camping, fuel and crossing the channel, but I think on the whole both trips were around £400. Not bad for a whole weekend of entertainment outside of the UK!

So far, both my F1 experiences have been at classic circuits, rather than the modern circuits. I hope that in time I'll visit all of the main circuits - with Monaco, Monza and Silverstone (to name but a few) highest on the list at the moment. Today, Silverstone released their 2015 tickets, and I was surprised to see yet another price rise. Now, a general admission ticket for the weekend will cost you £175. Let that sink in. For me to go and watch my home race with another person, I will have to pay £350. I know Silverstone is a classic track, and the atmosphere is reportedly amazing, but £350 for two tickets seems a little steep (putting it lightly). Let's also remember that to watch a weekend of motorsport, the costs of camping will have to be added on. During my last two GP trips, we stayed at the circuits' official campsites. To do so at Silverstone would cost £158 (two people over the weekend staying in a tent - with no electric hookup either by the way). So, £508 for a weekend in the UK. Is it really worth that much, considering you could go to other races for less? I'm not convinced.

The price hike seems to me to be an indicator of how the sport is progressing. To watch a whole season of F1 now, you have to pay for a Sky Sports subscription. Alright, the coverage is great, but considering everything used to be free, it's not ideal. I wonder how many potential new fans have been put off because of the cost of watching the sport? Bernie Ecclestone has also come under fire recently for refusing to engage in social media and internet coverage. The main argument? It doesn't generate any cash. That's all well and good, but the world has moved on from TV being the sole source of information, and now people follow sports from a number of media outlets. MotoGP manages all of these things very well (although that too has since moved to pay TV), with Facebook and Twitter coverage, plus endless videos on the website and regular email updates. You can't help but think that F1 is really missing a trick here.

As well as the huge price tags and lack of coverage away from TV, F1 and the FIA seem to be losing their touch a little bit. This year saw massive rule changes to try as reduce the dominance of Red Bull, and create closer racing. Instead, Mercedes have had greater dominance than Red Bull ever had (2011 excepted, perhaps), and most of the battles are between team-mates, rather than between all drivers. Granted, now and again you have some exceptional racing between teams (look at Alonso and Vettel this weekend), but it's now and again and not all the time. I don't think that the racing is as good as it has been in previous years, I still don't like the sound (or lack thereof), and the cars look ridiculous.

In order to tackle some of these problems (admittedly, my views aren't universally shared across F1 fans), the FIA recently announced some further rule changes for next year - followed by collective groans across Twitter, as the changes were completely out of touch. Standing starts following a safety car period (although we were deprived of a standing start yesterday when the race was stopped - go figure) was one of the rule changes, and it seems completely and utterly unnecessary.

Many F1 races now feature a lengthy middle stint where drivers are concerned with fuel consumption and tyre wear. The 2014 rules about carrying less fuel were introduced to cut costs and appear more 'green'. I have previously voiced my views about F1 being eco-friendly, and I find it ridiculous that limiting the fuel of 22 cars on the race track for two hours will make any difference in the face of the hundreds of lorries, planes, private helicopters and such used to transport everything to each individual circuit. Something having more impact in my eyes would be to hold races in a logical order - heading from Austria from Germany, for example, and moving Canada before or after the US race, rather than the madness we have presently. Still, F1 is all about image, and as long as it appears to be doing something, that will be enough.  

Overall, F1 is moving more and more towards obsession with money, and away from the love of the sport itself. Consider the recent virtual ads saying 'F1 - the world's fastest brand'. Personally, I think of F1 as a sport, not a brand. Unless F1 moves with the times, I wonder for how long the 'brand' will last. 

Monday, 7 April 2014

The New F1

It's been a while again since I last wrote. You'll have to forgive me - I've been very, very busy with the other side of my life as an academic. Well, academic in training anyway.

So, what's happened in the mean time? We've had a few races and a lot of controversy arising from the new F1 rules. At the moment, it feels like a lot of unrest surrounds F1. There were fears that the new formula wasn't as much of a spectacle as it has been in recent years. I have to say, I am inclined to agree with these fears. However, last weekend's race in Bahrain proved that F1 is anything but boring, and if you think this you are, to use the wise words of Niki Lauda, an idiot. The race saw lots of battles between team-mates, and provided a thrilling final 10 laps once the safety car got off the track. However, brilliant racing aside, I still think F1 is facing a few problems.

Let's start with the obvious: the sound. It seems that the F1 fans are pretty divided on this issue: some like it, some hate it. I don't particularly dislike the sound, but I think it's far, far too quiet. A popular motorsport journalist wrote rather a scathing piece basically calling everyone that thinks F1 isn't loud enough an idiot, but I protest. In the article, it was stated that 'nobody likes coming away from a race having been deafened'. Well, no, being deaf isn't nice, but when you can feel the noise of the cars, it's hard to be in anything but awe. Another reporter also said that nobody leaves an F1 race commenting on the noise. This I can directly refute: when I left the Nurburgring in 2011 and Spa in 2012, the main thing I remembered was the sound. To be honest, when you go and see an F1 race you can't see a whole lot of racing compared to the television, but what you do get is the whole atmosphere. At the Nurburgring, my prevailing memory (apart from the frostbite) is standing a few feet away from the track, cars at head height, being completely blasted with sound from Schumacher's Mercedes. It was fantastic! Similarly, at Goodwood in 2012 one of the best moments was standing in the paddock, two feet away from Vettel suddenly doing a burnout. It was completely irresponsible of him, and I think my ears are still ringing from it, but it was amazing! We humans rely on all of our senses to experience the world. While F1 looks fantastic, you also need the sound. It's part and parcel of the racing and it contributes hugely to the atmosphere and spectacle. Admittedly, I haven't attended a race this year, but when watching on the television I feel that something has been lost. When the safety car in Bahrain was louder than the cars, something is wrong. Like it or not, the sound is part of F1, and this is something that should come back. The noise itself is alright (the turbo whistle sends my pet budgie absolutely insane), but it needs turning up to 11.

Another issue I feel could get bigger over the season is the racing. You're going to call me crazy given what we saw in Bahrain, but bear with me. The racing was fantastic at the last race. However, most of that was between team-mates. I love seeing team-mates racing, and I want to see more of it. I also want to see more racing between different teams. Red Bull in previous years have been utterly dominant, and the new rules were supposed to stop one team from dominating and improve the racing. What we seem to have at the moment is dominance falling to Mercedes and only team-mates racing one another. Well, ok, Bottas seems to overtake everyone bar Mercedes, but we need much, much more of this. In Bahrain, there wasn't the scare over fuel-saving over racing, but I'm worried that this will happen more often as the season progresses. Let's hope the Bahrain entertainment continues at other circuits.

Recently, there have been reports of health concerns for many drivers. Apparently, Jean-Eric Vergne was hospitalised due to the extreme weight-loss programme he was required to follow in order to maximise his performance and weight distribution in the car. When drivers are hospitalised, or pull out of other events due to health issues directly related to the new F1 rules, something is very wrong. It's not right that 'heavier' drivers are worse off than 'lighter' drivers due to absurd weight rules. I believe that this is something that will change next year, but I don't understand why this has to take so long. These drivers are at the peak of their physical fitness, and it shouldn't be compromised for the sake of regulations.

Speaking of regulations and rules, I think the stewards this year have gone crazy. In Malaysia, Daniel Ricciardo's race was ruined by an unsafe release in the pits when a wheel wasn't attached properly. Thankfully, nobody was hurt (think about Webber's unsafe release when the tyre hit a cameraman - horrifying), but Ricciardo's race was ruined. Once the problem had been fixed, Ricciardo headed back out onto the circuit, and was given a penalty. This is fair enough - the team have done something unsafe (not intentionally I will hazard to say), and the rules are clear that they should receive punishment. The madness sets in after the race when Ricciardo is also given a 10-place grid drop for the next race. In my mind, this is ridiculous. Ricciardo was punished once during the race, after having his race already destroyed by a mistake by the team, so why should he suffer even more at the next race? Apparently, the reasoning for this is that it will deter teams from unsafe releases even more. Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I don't think teams set out to send their drivers off without wheels attached properly. Also, the mistake in Ricciardo's case didn't harm anyone but Ricciardo. It wasn't even his fault that the wheel wasn't secure - he stopped and was wheeled back to the pit for the problem to be fixed. So, what was wrong with fining the team? I don't get it.

The madness of this situation was further inflated this weekend, when Maldonado received a penalty. In Maldonado's case, a penalty wasn't given for an unsafe release, but for causing a collision (any surprises?). In the collision, Guttierez's Sauber was launched upside-down in quite an horrific manner - thankfully, he was unhurt, but it was a nasty situation that nobody wishes to see repeated. Rightfully, Maldonado received an in-race penalty. He also, like Ricciardo, received a grid drop for the next race. However, unlike Ricciardo, Maldonado's drop was only of 5 places. Let's just think this over: both Maldonado and Ricciardo receive in-race penalties. Fair enough. Ricciardo gets a 10 place drop for something he didn't do, and something that didn't hurt anyone. Maldonado causes a serious collision and gets away with only a 5 place drop. Nope, I don't get it either. Honestly, things like this are crazy, and detract from the racing. For F1 to improve, I think this is something that should be addressed.

Another thing I noticed this weekend was the return of GP2, F1's feeder series. GP2 has always had some spectacular racing, and I'm sure this will continue throughout 2014. The problem is, the GP2 cars all lapped within the 107% time of F1. This is worrying, as F1 is supposed to be the ultimate formula. I wonder whether in all the haste to be more environmentally friendly (ignoring the lights during the night races, the lorries, planes and helicopters that all go to the circuit) we've lost some of the notion of F1 as the highest level of motorsport. Also, it seems that the field is now spread out very, very far. The Mercedes-powered cars are much, much faster than Ferrari and Renault-powered cars. While it's great to see Williams and Force India near the top (indeed, Hulkenberg is now third in the driver's championship!), it's not so great that the others are so far behind. Think of the BTCC where 24 cars are separated by less than a second, and you're approaching something more interesting. If F1 can get like this, we'll be on to a winner.

One final issue that, to be honest, I don't really feel is an issue is the look of the cars. Before the season started, everyone was up in arms over the look of the cars. They are ugly (that hasn't changed), but I think that we've all got used to them. Cars always tend to differ year on year - look back to 2007 and the cars were like spaceships! I think that there are regulations coming into force in the years to come that will reduce the ugliness of the cars, but frankly, there are more pressing issues.

Overall, I think this new F1 needs some tweaking. The cars need to be louder, and the stewards need to sort things out and be more consistent. However, as long as we get some exciting racing, I think we'll be alright. Although, speaking as a slightly biased Red Bull fan, I hope the Renault-powered cars can overtake Mercedes by the end of the year!

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Start (and repair) Your Engines!

I have to say, it's been a very long winter break. The last F1 race was back in November - the last time we'll hear the screaming V8 engines in F1. This weekend, a new season, and indeed a new era of F1 begins.

Pre-season testing has been very interesting - and not so good from the perspective of a Red Bull fan. We all knew the regulations would shake things up, but seeing the four-time champion team spending most of the testing season in the garage was more of a shake-up than anyone had anticipated. The key problems of Red Bull have been mostly concerned with the Renault engine. In fact, most of the Renault powered teams have seemingly suffered. Red Bull didn't complete a race distance during testing. This is very unsettling news. While everyone noticed the problems straight away during the first test session, everyone figured that it was a blip, and Red Bull would have things sorted for the second and third tests. Not so. The problems were rife throughout all of the tests, and we go to the first race of the season none the wiser as to whether the car will actually work. All we can do is hope. Who knows, maybe it was all a bluff and Vettel will win the race as per usual? Well, I can dream anyway!

While the Renault teams have suffered, the Mercedes-powered teams seem to have done fantastically well, and Mercedes go into the season as favourites. A particularly noteworthy team during testing was Williams. I'm sure you won't find a single F1 fan who doesn't want Williams to do well, so let's hope that their form stays throughout the season.

There are mere hours before the practice session begins tomorrow, and I've already decided that F1 takes precedence over sleep this weekend. Given all the rule changes, I think this will be one of the most technically interesting seasons we've seen. One thing I do fear for is the spectacle. The past few seasons have seen some incredible races, and watching these it was difficult to comprehend why anyone would want to change the rules so drastically. There's no doubt that this year the cars are ugly. Really ugly. There are only a few that have managed to disguise the awful 'anteater' noses, and don't even get me started on the Ferrari. So, without the looks of the cars, what else is there? The sound. If you've never been to an F1 race in person, then it's difficult to describe the sound, and you won't have much of an idea of how loud these cars were. It would be a huge shame if the cars sounded unremarkable - and the fact that many people during testing were able to stand near the track without headphones is worrying. Still, when we see all 22 cars on track, maybe things will sound better.

Hopefully, Melbourne will give us the answers to all of our questions. Now we just have to wait and see who will be on the podium - assuming that anyone finishes the race, of course!

Friday, 24 January 2014

Neuroscience and the Nature of Brain Injury

As I reported in yesterday's post, over Christmas we heard the news that Michael Schumacher had been involved in a skiing accident, and had suffered a serious brain injury. To date, Schumacher is still in a medically induced coma - prompting some media speculation that Schumacher might be in a 'vegetative state'.

During my year on placement, I had the chance to learn a lot about disorders of consciousness, and I worked with a few patients. As neuroscience and motorsport are two of my interests, I feel I should provide more information about why Schumacher is not in a vegetative state, and why this situation is different from the common media 'knowledge' being bandied around recently. At this point I should state that I will not be speculating about Schumacher's condition - the only people who are in any position to comment are those directly involved in Schumacher's care. Any news that you hear from anywhere other than Schumacher's medical team, his manager or his family is just speculation. Unfortunately, the media does like to jump over things like this, and so I feel compelled to give a brief overview of the science behind Schumacher's condition.

First off, let's be clear, Schumacher has suffered a serious head injury. Brain injuries of any sort are bad news, and we simply don't know enough about the brain and how it recovers to say how long and how much Schumacher will recover. As I stated before, this information is only going to come from Schumacher's medical team, and may not come for some time.

Despite Schumacher wearing a helmet, the impact caused a bleed in and around his brain. To understand why this is serious, it is important to realise how the brain sits inside the skull. The brain is an incredibly soft organ, surrounded by membranes and fluid. It also sits on the brainstem and spinal cord, meaning that despite the 'packaging' around it, the brain is subject to movements. On heavy impacts, the brain can bounce forwards and backwards, hitting the inside of the skull (these are called 'cou' and 'contra-cou' movements for those of you with a technical mind). The inside of the skull is remarkably rough, causing tears and, ultimately, bleeds.

You may recall that initially, Schumacher was reported to be conscious and lucid at the scene of the accident. It was a surprise, then, when it was later reported that he was in a critical condition. The reason this was the case was due to the increase of pressure inside the skull. As the bleeding inside the brain increases, the pressure on the brain also increases. The fluid can't move fast enough, and eventually presses down on the brain, and it is this that can cause the loss of consciousness and symptoms of brain injury. Don't forget that the brain is remarkably soft, and is very sensitive to pressure and damage of this kind.

So, Schumacher underwent surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain, an operation known as a craniectomy. Once the pressure came down, some sort of stability could be approached. However, Schumacher had to be placed in a medically induced coma, and he has remained in this state for some weeks now.

This medically induced coma is perhaps the source of the speculation that I read today, that Schumacher is in a vegetative state. So, to dispel this idea, let me explain in simple terms what consciousness means (well, I shall do my best at any rate).

Alright, I'll admit at the start that neuroscientists still aren't entirely sure why we have consciousness or what it is precisely. However, there is an easy way of classifying consciousness which can be used in clinical contexts, and it is this definition to which I will stick. In these terms, consciousness is made up of two concepts: wakefulness and awareness. Wakefulness is pretty much what it says it is: the extent to which someone is alert and able to respond to stimuli. Awareness is more linked to content: the subjective experience of things around us, being aware of who we are and what is around us. While wakefulness is necessary for awareness, the levels of each may vary. Thus, we can be wakeful without awareness, unawake and unaware, or wakeful and aware. It is in these terms that different disorders of consciousness may be defined.

In normal, healthy individuals we are both wakeful and aware (well, when we're not asleep anyway). The same applies to individuals who have locked-in syndrome (a condition in which individuals are unable to respond to stimuli due to paralysis, but nonetheless awake and aware of their surroundings).

By contrast, individuals in a coma are unawake and unaware. This goes beyond normal sleep, in which individuals can be woken. No stimuli can wake someone in a coma, they may only show reflex movements and their brain activity is generally depressed (although this may vary). Comas can last any amount of time, and may have different outcomes. What we must remember though is that Schumacher is in a medically-induced coma. While the same features are present - unawake, unaware etc. - this is more linked to anaesthesia, rather than a result of problems within the brain. Individuals in a medically-induced coma are placed in this state deliberately, to slow brain functioning and allow the brain some time to recover. The healthy, waking brain requires a huge amount of energy, and by slowing its function in a medically-induced coma it is hoped that recovery may be more successful. These medically-induced comas are controlled, unlike a normal coma. Physicians are able to lighten the sedation and test the brain's functioning when they deem it necessary. However, the amount of time this takes does still vary, from a few weeks to upwards of six months. Currently, Schumacher has been in this condition for almost a month, so it's definitely not the time to start losing hope.

Now, when coming round from a 'true' coma, it is impossible to say how complete this recovery will be. Some patients are lucky enough to gradually return to a normal level of consciousness, recovering their wakefulness and awareness. Others may linger somewhere in between. These conditions are disorders of consciousness and include vegetative states (now also termed 'wakefulness without awareness' or 'unresponsive wakefulness syndrome') and minimally conscious states.

When people think of vegetative states, they think of individuals in a coma for an extended period of time. These states are not the same as comas, and patients who are in this state are not 'vegetables' (hence the shift away from this term in the scientific literature). For those in vegetative state (herewith called VS), sleep-wake cycles may be present. Thus, they possess wakefulness. However, awareness is limited. Patients may respond to some stimuli, beyond simple reflexes, but they are not completely aware of their surroundings or sense of self. After one month of being in this state, patients are said to be in a persistent VS - something which Schumacher has not yet approached. After three months, if there has still been no change in this state following a traumatic brain injury (Schumacher's injury type), patients are then deemed to be in a permanent VS (although this term is too being debated, as patients have been found to recover months or even years after this).

For those patients who regain more of their awareness, a minimally conscious state may follow. Wakefulness is intact, as with healthy individuals, however awareness is still patchy. In some cases, patients may be able to respond to questions or simple commands, however this response is inconsistent and thus individuals may not have complete awareness. Like VS, this state may continue for years, and there is no predicting how much someone may subsequently recover.

So, the upshot of all this is that Schumacher is not possibly in a VS at this point. He is still in a medically-induced coma. While it can be argued that the longer someone is in a coma, the worse the prognosis, it's also good to remember that this is still a medically-induced coma, and this is different from a disorder of consciousness per se.

What we do have to remember over the course of Schumacher's recovery is that brain injuries are difficult things. Individuals with brain damage are, unfortunately, subject to a number of conditions and changes, and this often depends on the sites and the extent of the damage. As I stated before, I am in no position to make predictions. In all likelihood, neither are the medical team in this case. Brain injuries are a waiting game, and it takes an enormous amount of time to make progress. Aside from all the cognitive conditions which may arise from a brain injury, it's not unusual for individuals to experience changes in personality and demeanour. A recent article citing Dr Richard Greenwood at UCL stated that Schumacher may not be Schumacher if and when he recovers. Life will be profoundly different for Michael, even if he makes an apparent 'full' recovery. The brain is a remarkable thing, and I don't believe it's ever impossible for individuals to recover. However, changes are normal, and this is something that Schumacher and those close to him will have to adapt to. All the F1 community and media have to do now is let the medics work in peace. Uninformed speculation about permanent vegetative states and chances of recovery are useless and unhelpful, and I hope by writing this I can dispel some of the latest nonsense. Now all we can do is wait.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Updates and Upgrades

It's been two months since I've written anything on here. I feel terrible! I shall start by saying happy new year to all of you! I know, we're almost a whole month into 2014, but what can I say? I've been busy. Luckily, we're moving ever closer to the start of a new season of motorsport, and things are finally getting more interesting in the F1 winter break.

Today, we saw the new Williams car. Well, we saw a 'preview' image, anyway. Force India also revealed their new livery, but neglected to show us the front of the car. There had been a lot of speculation that the new cars would be pretty ugly due to the plethora of changes coming this season. Having seen the Williams, well, I have to agree. The 'anteater' nose (as it's being termed) is definitely a lot harder to love than the stepped noses of last year (which, to be honest, I didn't mind as much as many people), although I'm sure it's something that won't be that big of a deal once the cars actually take to the track. Tomorrow, McLaren launch their new car - hopefully this time we'll see a real car, rather than a computerised image. That way, we might get more of an idea of what they will really be like. In addition, rumours were abound that McLaren might return to the old orange livery - that will certainly be a change from the past couple of years!

So what else is new in the world of F1? There's currently speculation that Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren's team principal, is going to be off, as Ron Dennis has now taken over as CEO. Whether this happens or not, time will tell. Lotus had, up until recently, been under threat due to financial difficulty (although they were constantly reassuring us that this wasn't the case), however now this seems to have been resolved through a new partnership. Sighs of relief all around.

As we all know, 2014 is bringing considerable change to F1. First off, the technical regulation changes - new engines, for a start. I won't go into details, because everyone has written about this considerably everywhere else. However, what I will reiterate is that this change will bring huge upheaval to F1. Issues of reliability may become apparent, and nobody's entirely sure how things will unfold. As with every F1 season, the only hint of certainty will come in March once the Australian race is over.

Something else new for 2014 is drivers having a number for their career. Previously, driver numbers were based on championship position. However, this year only the current world champion has the option of using the number of their position in the previous year. Vettel has indeed opted for number 1 (he must be used to it after these years), and number 5 should he lose the championship. Raikkonen chose the number 7 because 'it was my number last year and I saw no reason to change it'. Ah, drivers and their superstitions indeed.

Speaking of drivers, we'll have some great line-ups on the grid this year. Ferrari have arguably the strongest drivers in Raikkonen and Alonso - you can be sure that Kimi won't be moving out of Fernando's way this year. Ricciardo pairs with Vettel at Red Bull, while Jenson Button will be driving alongside a rookie of Kevin Magnussen. Massa has managed to secure a drive at Williams, Kobayashi will be driving for Caterham, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief when Hulkenberg secured a drive with Force India.

One final note of news came just after Christmas, when Michael Schumacher was involved in a skiing accident. While early reports suggested that he only had minor injuries, it was later found out that he had suffered a brain haemorrhage and had been placed in an induced coma, a condition in which he remains now. This is of course terrible news, but the fact that we haven't heard anything new for a number of weeks may actually be a good thing given the extent of Michael's brain injury. Brain injuries take a huge amount of time to recover from, and even then it's unclear how much progress Schumacher will make. Sadly, we just don't know enough about the brain to make such predictions - and this is a reason why I would like to go into clinical neuroscience research. In any case, the world of F1 has united to support Michael, and will likely do so throughout his recovery.