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Archive for October, 2008

It’s not often you can say this, but there are a couple of great drives available for next year, but no outstanding young talent to fill them

There’s a seat going at Honda and one at Toro Rosso, but a glance across the ranks of the GP2 field , at the US scene and across the other ranks below F1 yields little. It’s intensely frustrating for the team bosses. They’d love to give a talented 22 year old a try next year, especially Honda, but it’s slim pickings.

I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised; we’ve seen the arrival of three real gems recently in Hamilton, Kubica and Vettel, but it is still surprising to me that there is no-one coming up behind them who demands attention. If there were, as the teams have admitted to me, they would slide effortlessly into a seat next year. So who’s out there? [ more ]

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David Coulthard bows out this weekend after 246 Grands Prix, slightly less than Rubens Barrichello, who doesn’t know yet whether this will be his last Grand Prix.

 Rubens wants to stay at Honda and some of his performances lately have been strong as he drives home his candidacy. Jenson Button wants him to stay and says that Ross Brawn believes Rubens is driving better now than when he was at Ferrari.

 Knowing when the game is up is the classic dilemma of the ageing racing driver. DC, like Alain Prost, Mika Hakkinen, Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher has acknowledged that he cannot do this wonderful job any more and set up a dignified retirement plan. Rubens, like Nigel Mansell, is likely to be retired by the sport, despite still feeling the fire in his belly. But the faint chance that he may hold on to his seat has kept him going this year. He saw DC making his announcement at Silverstone, but opted not to follow him. If this is the end for Rubens, there is unlikely to be any send off for the driver who has started more Grands Prix than any other in history, which would be a great shame.

 DC and Rubens came through the ranks together. They have very different styles, but have made a similar contribution to the sport, both the very definition of a top class number two driver. Their longevity and results guarantee them a place in the history books, if not a seat in the pantheon of the greats.

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Darkness is falling over the main stand as I write this. It’s been an interesting Thursday, devoid of the kind of tension we’ve experienced in the past at title showdowns. It has nothing of the atmosphere of Jerez 97 or Suzuka 98, for example. I’ve seen both title contenders in the flesh and they both look remarkably relaxed. The tension will start to kick in tomorrow. Massa has every right to feel relaxed in many ways, it’s out of his hands and he has nothing to lose. He will go for the win and hope misfortune revisits Hamilton.

Hamilton has to stay out of trouble and he’ll be champion and that’s what most of the other drivers here feel will happen. I was at a press briefing with Alonso just after lunch at which he said he had ‘great respect for Hamilton’ and that they speak to each other regularly, but added a postscript that he would always prefer a team other than McLaren to win. He felt that Hamilton would close the title out on Sunday without too much trouble.

The wind is getting up, blowing the flags on top of the stands and bringing with it a squally rain shower. We have plenty of these forecast for the weekend. Will they play a significant role in the outcome?

Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali was his usual smiling self this afternoon. He said that the team had fully analysed its poor performance in China and that, just like Hockenheim, it was all about not getting the best out of the tyres. He said that it will not happen again this weekend.  We will see when the cars run tomorrow.

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Felipe Massa’s task in Brazil is clear; do what he has done the last two seasons and dominate the race. He looks like he has his head down a bit now, after being outpaced not only by Hamilton but also by Raikkonen in China. However he’s amazing at Interlagos and will no doubt be inspired by his home crowd, but there will be a bitterness about the experience too and this could really undermine his weekend. It’s a psychological issue and I’ll be watching very closely to see how he deals with it.

Massa knows that there is a very real possibility that this will be his only chance to win the world championship. You never know when a chance is going to come and you have to take it when it does. Robert Kubica has been making a similar point to BMW recently, annoyed that they didn’t pursue this year’s title.  

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The pitfalls in Brazil

The way I see it, Lewis Hamilton travels to Brazil this year in a very different frame of mind from last year, much lighter in spirit, more focussed and with a much better understanding of what it takes to close this championship out.

The most significant difference though is that he does not have to worry about  Fernando Alonso in the sister car. It was the Spaniard last year who dominated Hamilton’s thoughts at the finale after a season of bitterness and recrimination. Alonso felt that he could have won the title if McLaren had just restrained Hamilton a bit, and he’s right. Going into that last race, Hamilton was four points ahead of Alonso and seven up on Raikkonen, who went on to win in Brazil. Hamilton wasn’t really thinking about him and yet he emerged the champion.

 This year Hamilton’s mind is clear and focussed on Felipe Massa only; he knows that he will have a harmonious and serene atmosphere in his team all weekend, despite Kovalainen’s alleged complaint about being disadvantaged with heavy fuel in qualifying, and that he can focus all his attention simply on having a strong race, as he did in China.

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Will Stevens

Will Stevens

You’ve probably never heard of him, but Will Stevens is the next Lewis Hamilton. At least that is the way his backers see it and they are supporting their decision with heavy investment. The 17 year old from Essex has a contract in his pocket with Honda, which lays out in intricate detail his path from karts to Formula 1. It has been put together for him by his management team of ex F1 drivers Mark Blundell and Martin Brundle, who took him on when he was just 14 years old.

It’s only been done once before, but with spectacular success. McLaren boss Ron Dennis discovered Lewis Hamilton, backing him from the age of 13 and steering him through the ranks to Formula 1. The crucial advantage a deal like this gives to a driver is that it virtually guarantees that he will be driving competitive machinery at every level. There are only one or two top teams in each category and the seats fill up quickly each season as the cream rises to the top. The experience and judgement of Brundle and Blundell in selecting teams allied to the clout of Honda should assure Stevens a winning car at every level, as Hamilton had. The rest is down to him.

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Interview with BMW Sauber boss Dr Mario Theissen,

 The character of the Formula 1 boss is changing. The old guard were the products of the 1970s; grafters, boys-done-good, men who were passionate about racing, who pulled strokes and called in favours to keep their cars in the race. They pulled themselves up by their bootstraps from humble beginnings and then in the 1990s found themselves owning private jets once Bernie Ecclestone’s TV deals started to bring in serious money. This type of team owner, personified by McLaren’s Ron Dennis, the mechanic made good and Sir Frank Williams, the used car dealer has ruled the sport for decades.

 But now the model is changing. Dennis and Williams increasingly find themselves surrounded at team principals’ meetings by professional managers, corporate men who are in Formula 1 because the manufacturers they represent feel that they have the talents required to put together the winning formula on the race track.

 The embodiment of this new breed is Dr Mario Theissen, boss of the BMW Sauber team. Theissen is a very impressive operator. He combines the polish of a BMW trained professional with the steely determination of a Williams or a Dennis. He’s not a racing man, he’s a powertrain engineer, but he’s a racer nevertheless. He’s a winner, but can he take the next step in 2009 and become a champion?

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Hamilton loses his head

There is so much to talk about from the Japanese Grand Prix it’s hard to know where to start. We had Lewis Hamilton losing his head when all that was required was some pragmatism, Felipe Massa showing his ruthless side, Fernando Alonso and Renault again excelling and then a highly contentious penalty for Sebastian Bourdais, which gifted Massa and Ferrari an extra point reducing Hamilton’s lead to five points.

Let’s start with Hamilton. Starting from pole, he knew that Raikkonen was a threat off the start line, but he also knew that Raikkonen was no threat to his championship position. Second place here behind Kimi would have been fine, as long as Massa finished behind. Ron Dennis even made this point in his press gathering on Saturday evening. So Lewis was told by Ron, “If Raikkonen passes you at the start, let him go”. Lewis did the opposite. Once again, faced with a Ferrari in front of him he got a red mist on, just as he did when Kimi passed him in the pit lane in Canada. He lunged down the inside, his front wheels locked up and pushed Kimi wide, losing vital places himself in the process, but more importantly, putting flat spots on his front tyres which would have made the car undriveable over a 20 lap stint.

 So already he knew that he would have to stop for new tyres on lap 1. But he wasn’t thinking about tyres, he was thinking about Massa , who had got in front of him. He repassed Massa, who ran wide and then came across the chicane at him and the inevitable collision happened, which spun Hamilton around and dropped him to the back of the field.

 This was a different Massa from the one we have seen in the past, who didn’t put up much of a fight in Hockenheim, or in Malaysia last year, when Hamilton passed him. This was ruthless Massa; he’d lost the corner but he wasn’t going to let Hamilton get by so he hit him. Hamilton can have few complaints about it, after all he’s put some tasty moves on other drivers this year, but it’s definitely a marker for him that Massa will not be a soft touch in future.

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Friday in Fuji

 As I write this on Friday evening in the dark at Fuji, it is starting to rain. Only lightly, but enough to remind you that the weather here can be very unpredictable and that rain is never very far away.

 This morning the sky was blue and the view of Mount Fuji was spectacular. The two practice sessions took place in perfect conditions, but the locals are talking about rain tomorrow and a dry race on Sunday.

 McLaren and Ferrari look pretty well matched again. I was interested in Ferrari’s performance advantage in Singapore over McLaren as it looked like they had taken a big step and if that proved to be the case this might carry them through to the end of the season.

 But in fact I think Lewis wasn’t really at his best in Singapore and that masks the true performance picture. We will see this weekend. There is no doubt that after a run of races through the summer where the McLaren was the fastest car in qualifying, it now seems that the Ferrari is slightly stronger and Massa is really in the zone on the single lap qualifying run.

 McLaren as a team are working very well, much better than last year and there is a calmness about them. Ferrari have had that for ages, but it seemed to slip a bit in Singapore when they had that pit stop cock-up and I would not be surprised if they were a little edgy here as a result. They have been so successful for so long and their processes are so good that the confidence will surely return quickly.

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Off To Fuji

I’m off to Fuji tomorrow, full of anticipation. This has been a wonderful championship, where most of the races have been great and a minority dull. Last year’s Fuji race was very dramatic and had a big influence on the outcome of the championship, as Alonso lost the chance of points with an uncharacteristic crash. A couple of points that day would have made him champion at the end of the season. It just shows you that a split second error at this stage of the season is potentially disastrous, as Ferrari found in Singapore.

This year Lewis Hamilton again has the advantage going into these final races; seven points. But the McLaren team is also working far more effectively than it was at this stage last year and he is benefitting from that. The McLaren, as we have seen, is also a better car in the rain than the Ferrari and that could prove an important factor at Fuji. Against that Felipe Massa is driving with a lot of confidence at the moment and the Ferrari was half  a second quicker than the McLaren in Singapore, indicating that they’ve made some impressive steps in development. Massa was stronger than Hamilton in Singapore and was unlucky to lose another ten points (to add to those lost in Hungary) with the pit lane disaster. Massa has benefitted from the controversial penalties Hamilton has been handed this year, but there is no doubt that his bad luck has had a greater effect on the outcome. If he loses the title he will point to those two races as the cause and he’ll have plenty of justification for that.

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