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Archive for December, 2008

Formula 1 is setting itself up for a great on-track rivalry to match the classic Senna-Prost duel of the early 1990s.

My good friend and colleague Pino Allievi is writing in La Gazetta dello Sport in Italy that Fernando Alonso has a four year contract with Ferrari starting 2011, but with clauses which allow that contract to be brought forward one year to 2010. This will bring Alonso into a head-to-head duel with his nemesis, Lewis Hamilton, with blood red Ferraris and Silver Arrows the weapons of choice.

I have known Pino for almost 20 years and in that time I’m struggling to think of a single occasion on which he has wrongly called a move by Ferrari. He has excellent connections there, going back to Enzo Ferrari’s time.

So you can take it as read that this story is true. And it will really shake things up in F1.

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My Festive Top Ten

Apologies for the radio silence in the last week, a combination of a short holiday and a few technical problems while I was away.

I’ve enjoyed this season of racing as much as any I can recall. There were many fantastic races and some strong performances. As always there are more drivers disappointed with their season than delighted but we had some breakthrough performances and a new elite has been established. Here is my choice for the Top ten of the year

1. Fernando Alonso – never gave up even when the Renault wasn’t working well. Always wrung the maximum from the car and his mistakes were through trying hard, rather than sloppiness. He’s a class act.
2. Robert Kubica – only one mistake I can think of, in the rain at Silverstone. Hurt by BMW working hard to save his team mate’s season. Some sublime performances throughout the year, dropped off a bit at the end.
3. Lewis Hamilton - deserved his drivers title because his best performances this year were better than anyone else’s and he is set to be the best out there. He’s not quite there yet, though.
4.Felipe Massa – OK, hands up, I admit it, he’s better than I thought he was and he’s still improving. Only poor luck robbed him of the title he would have deserved. Showed great sporting dignity in Brazil. Respect.
5. Sebastian Vettel – what a year for the young man. Stunning win from pole at soggy Monza and was always quick once Toro Rosso got the car going fast in July.
6. Mark Webber – some great drives earlier in the year, he found consistency and showed that he’s got the credentials, but the Red Bull package went off the boil after Silverstone. Fingers crossed for the broken leg.
7. Timo Glock – his performance in Hungary was brilliant. Showed very well against Jarno Trulli this year.
8. Kimi Raikkonen – not one of his better years, in fact probably his worst in F1, but his standards are so high. The car went away from him as it developed. Needs a big year next year.
9. Sebastien Bourdais – he was overshadowed by his team mate pretty much all year and poor luck robbed him of some big results. Finsished the season well.
10. Heikki Kovalainen – A difficult first year at McLaren, where he was often quite close to Lewis in qualifying pace but not in race pace, which meant not enough podiums.

I hope you all have a great Christmas. Thanks for reading the blogs and please be sure to spread the word. I’ve got some exciting plans for this space in 2009.

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Being Heikki

One of the enigmas of 2008 was the performance of Heikki Kovalainen. Hired by McLaren as a diplomatic team mate for Lewis Hamilton, he fitted in quickly and struck up an excellent rapport with the team, especially the boss Martin Whitmarsh. His contribution and team ethic surprised many people at McLaren and made them ask for more from Lewis. Heikki thinks of things many other drivers don’t think about, not for selfish reasons, like a Schumacher or a Senna, but trying to be helpful to the team. They love him.

But in being unselfish he didn’t get the balance right in his own performance this season. He’s definitely quick and when you adjust for the fuel loads in qualifying, was often as fast as Lewis, but by carrying a bit more fuel than his team mate, he then found himself behind BMWs and the off Renault on the grid and then couldn’t exploit the pace of the McLaren in the opening stint. So he often fell behind.

However he still have fast enough car to deal with that problem and the fact that more often than not he failed to deal with it, indicates a lack of killer instinct, which ties in with this unselfish team player mentality. Even when running in clear air his race pace could be strangely weak, so that is the key area he will be working on for next season. Renault engineers say he’s definitely got it, but he’s struggled to deliver it consistently.

He did his job this year, he backed up Lewis, didn’t make waves and got himself a win. I expect him to have a much stronger year next year and be consistently on the podium, but that streak of unselfishness is always going to count against him when up against the warriors at the front, like Hamilton, Raikkonen, Alonso and Kubica.

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Today could turn out to be a day, which will stand out in the history books of Formula 1. At the FIA World Council meeting in Monaco some huge decisions will be taken, which reflect a sea change in attitude within the F1 teams compared to recent years and which will herald the start of a move towards a totally new F1 concept, certainly as far as engines are concerned.

Following the surprise withdrawal of Honda a week ago, a fresh mood of realism has finally crept in and the remaining nine teams met with FIA president Max Mosley on Wednesday and presented a package of proposals to drastically cut costs. All parties described the meeting as a ‘breakthrough’ and we wait with baited breath to see what shape our sport will take in the future.

The cornerstone of the proposal is a standard engine and drivetrain. Currently the costs of developing and producing the engine and gearbox are considered to be roughly half a Formula One operating budget for some teams, or £30 million per year. The FIA wants to remove the drivetrain as an area in which teams compete with each other, thus eliminating the need to spend such sums on it.

Under the plans before the World Council today, the standard engine will be supplied by Cosworth and the gearbox by Xtrac/Ricardo, costing around £5 million per season. It remains to be seen how many teams will sign up for this in 2010. Teams have the option of building their own engine but it must be to the exact Cosworth design and therefore equivalent in performance. I fancy that many of the big names will do this, including Ferrari. However, I’m told that one of the breakthroughs at the meeting on Wednesday was that this option has been made ‘sexier’, hence why the top names were happy to agree to it. We’ll see what that entails later today.

The idea behind the standard engine is simple – to calm down the excessive spending of recent times and get things under control. But the intention thereafter is to reintroduce competitive engines to a completely new design in 2013. These are likely to be turbocharged, probably V6 and the competition element will be reintroduced, probably based on fuel efficiency, rather than outright performance.

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Just arrived in a rainy and chilly Monaco for what will be a momentous couple of days for the sport.

It’s weirdly appropriate that this humbling of F1, the death knell of the era of decadence and excess, should happen in Monaco, which has long symbolised the wealth and glamour, with which F1 is synonymous.

This will be a strange journey for all of us, coming to terms with the new ‘austerity F1′, but here are a few notes at this early stage.

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Does Jenson have a future?

buttonJenson Button was out on Sunday night at the Autosport Awards. He tried to look relaxed about his predicament, but it was not easy and there was a fair bit of sympathy around the room for him.

He renewed his contract with the Honda team in October and must now wait anxiously to see whether the team will be sold in time to take its place on the grid for the Australian Grand Prix on March 29th 2009, whether the new owner will want him in the car or whether another team offers him a ride.

It is another setback in a career, which has not fulfilled the immense promise he showed when he made his debut in 2000, aged 20, with the Williams team.

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A night at the Oscars

Glenn Dunbar/LAT

Glenn Dunbar/LAT

At the Autosport Awards last night, otherwise known as the Oscars of motorsport, Martin Brundle and I were presented with an award for our commentary on the final laps of the Brazilian Grand Prix, the “Moment of the year”. It was a great honour, made all the more special because they chose Murray to present it to us.

They played the video of the final few corners on the big screen and my heart was thumping in my chest all over again – it really was the most extraordinary moment of sport.

I’m absolutely delighted with this gong as it provides such a perfect full stop to the whole 12 year ITV project.

Martin also took the opportunity to set the record straight on his feelings about working with me in the commentary box for the past seven years.

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The human side of the Honda story

Today’s papers are full of the story of Honda’s withdrawal from F1 and the efforts to sell the team and save some of the 670 jobs at Brackley. It’s just a number, like the figure Woolworths and Citibank are shedding. But, as Jenson Button highlighted in his statement yesterday, there are real people behind these numbers, people he feels very close to.

Although this is potentially a disaster for Button’s career, he has a huge amount of money in the bank and will be alright. The same is true of Ross Brawn. But the rest of the team are not so lucky. Even if the sale is successful the team will be streamlined and probably only about a third of them will keep their posts. The rest will be out looking for highly specialised work in a hostile economic climate.

This is a team which has been put together over the last nine years, based on the BAR team. The front men you know; Ross Brawn needs no introduction and has only been with the team 12 months. Nick Fry has been with the team since the David Richards days and is one of the most affable people in the pit lane. But he’s also teflon coated and very determined. He has got his way many times over the years in the highly political atmosphere of Honda, against the odds. You can blame him for Honda not hitting the heights in F1, because ultimately he is in charge of putting the right people in the key places, but the technical people have to shoulder the blame for failing to deliver.

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F1 moves on

Amazing day today. Been flat out writing about the Honda withdrawal and where it leaves F1. Took part in the Max Mosley teleconference this afternoon and spoke to many figures within the sport. The main points I’ve come across are these:

Honda is very serious about selling the team but it will be a streamlined outfit they sell, with no more than 200 employees ( current figure is over 650) and capable of running on £40-50 million per year (current figure more like three times that)

There is no engine supply in the package because next year F1 moves to three race engines and Honda doesn’t have enough of these ready yet, so it is likely to be a customer supply of Ferraris and the car will have to be re-optimised around this, which will take a bit of work.

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Honda announced this morning that it is withdrawing from Formula 1. It is putting its team up for sale and will continue to fund the team for three months, but if no buyer is found by March then the team will be closed down.

There is a sense of shock in Japan about this. Apparently there have been rumours out there during the last week that Toyota was building up to make an announcement of this kind, but not Honda. All eyes are now on Toyota to see what their next move will be.

Honda president Fukui made the announcement in the early hours of this morning. My sources suggest that this was quite a sudden decision, despite rumours that all was not well at Honda. This is all about trade, or lack of it.

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