Archive for November, 2008

There has been a lot of chat this week about Bernie Ecclestone’s idea of handing out gold medals to race winners and awarding the world championship to the man with the most at season’s end.

This is one of a number of ideas which will be discussed at the FIA World Council meeting on December 12th. The Formula One Teams Association has been working hard on dreaming up ideas for improving the show as well and Flavio Briatore has a plan for knockout qualifying, which seems to be gathering some momentum.

The idea is simple, instead of dividing qualifying up into three sessions and guessing fuel weights at the end, all cars go out with a fixed amount of fuel and after an out-lap they start setting times, the slowest car each lap will be eliminated until only six remain, at which point they put new tyres on and fight for pole. There is talk of incentives for pole including a cash prize and a single world championship point. Ferrari favours a more conservative approach, suggesting that a return to the points system pre-2004, with points down to 6th place and only 6 points for second, will provide the same incentive to win.

The final version will be hammered out at the FOTA meeting on December 4th, in time for the World Council.

Despite putting on one of the most exciting seasons of racing in living memory, which has brought back many fans disaffected by the Schumacher dominated years in the early 2000s, F1 is seeking spectacle and entertainment and it seems prepared to go through a mini-revolution to achieve it. What do you think, how far can they go before it becomes something other than F1?

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Williams picked up their first winners’ trophy in a while on Sunday, emerging victorious in the annual F1 mechanics’ football tournament at Milton Keynes. The event is organised by Grant Mundy, who is number one mechanic on David Coulthard’s car at Red Bull.

A full compliment of sixteen teams representing most of the grid, took part in the event. Grant’s RBR team has been the one to beat in recent times, but this year the final featured two great F1 institutions, Williams and McLaren in a head to head. The weather was atrocious by the time the final kicked off, so the game was a cagey 0-0 affair, which went to penalties.

The event is backed by the Grand Prix Mechanics Charitable Trust, of which I am a trustee along with Martin Brundle, Patrick Head, David Ryan of McLaren, Jo Ramirez, Prof Watkins and Norbert Haug among others.

Sir Jackie Stewart, the founder and chairman of the GPMCT came along to watch the action. The Trust is there to help current and former mechanics in times of trouble and hardship. It has helped a lot of people with issues like eyesight loss, hip replacements and other financial problems. The Trust also provides retraining advice for mechanics who have reached the end of their time ‘on the road’.

If you would like to find out more about the Trust’s work and even make a contribution, you can visit their website.

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The new McLaren B team

The news that Force India has established a five year technical collaboration with McLaren and Mercedes comes as no surprise, indeed both sides have been talking about it for some months now. But it is quite a significant move for several reasons.

It marks the first time that Mercedes has supplied a second team with engines. They’ve considered it many times, but never actually gone through with it. Meanwhile Ferrari has had a very nice little business going for years supplying Toro Rosso, before that Red Bull, Spyker, Prost, Sauber. And that was in the good old days when they could charge $20 million per team per season.

McLaren looks like it has realised its dream of a B team, as Prodrive was going to be. The deal is attractive to McLaren for multiple reasons; as Mallya has a lot of other businesses to attend to so he will rely on advice from McLaren, which also appears to have put one of it’s own men into F.I. as CEO. It gives McLaren a commercial foot in the door in the vast new Indian market. It gives them a key political ally in the paddock and it is a revenue generator. It also gives them extra feedback from testing, especially of the new KERS system and the new slick tyres. This is significant because teams agreed to drastically limit testing next year, so McLaren will be able to learn vital extra information from Force India’s test programme, which will make them faster too. It also gives them somewhere to place drivers, in this case Paul di Resta and it shows good faith on their part in terms of being seen to help out an independent team – they are ‘doing their bit’ to ensure the health and future well-being of a small team, which is what Max Mosley has been demanding from the manufacturers. So plenty of upsides for McLaren.

The Red Bull Technologies set up has tested the boundaries of what is acceptable in terms of customer cars and as things stand, teams using customer cars will have to gravitate quickly to making their own, hence all the rumours about Toro Rosso being for sale. Force India will continue to make their own car, but they will get the drivertrain – engine and gearbox – from McLaren and Mercedes, as well as the KERS system. As McLaren has a budget of €70 million to develop KERS, compared to Williams budget of around €2.5 million, this is a great deal for Force India. The customer car situation is up for discussion at the moment in the ongoing negotiations between FOTA and the FIA. If customer cars were to become allowable then McLaren is in position to supply them with immediate effect.

The move will play well with Mallya’s audience in India, after all McLaren has just won the world championship with Lewis Hamilton – so by any standards this looks like a smart play by Mallya.

Will it move Force India up the grid? Well it’s got to help. They had to do something fast, because Toro Rosso has been getting away from them lately and Honda will take a big step forward next year, so Force India were at risk of being left behind. The departure of team principal Colin Kolles and technical boss Mike Gascoyne has been rumoured for some time. Gascoyne is a spiky character, but his track record of getting plenty of bang for a small team’s buck was well proven.

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I note that at the recent Mercedes Stars and Cars bash in Stuttgart Lewis Hamilton alluded to a visit he received from his former team mate Fernando Alonso shortly after the race in Sao Paulo last week. The Spaniard came to offer him his congratulations on winning the world title and Hamilton says that Alonso even went so far as to hug him.

By chance I was walking down the paddock ten yards behind Alonso as he left the Renault garage area in the open part of the paddock, heading down towards the tight, narrow warren which houses the ‘midfield’ teams. There was something about his stride which suggested that he had a purpose in mind and sure enough, when he arrived outside the back of the McLaren garage, he met up with Mclaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa. The pair shook hands and went inside, where the scene Hamilton described took place.

It was obviously pre-arranged between the Spanish pair, but it was curious to know whether Alonso texted De La Rosa asking him to escort him in there, perhaps when Lewis was confirmed as being there and Ron Dennis was safely out of view – or whether the initiative came from Pedro. [ more ]

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Stewarding the stewards

The FIA World Motor Sport Council made some important changes yesterday to the way stewards decisions are reached and explained to the public. This year, like previous years there were some big calls by the stewards which had an effect on the outcome of the world championship; I’m thinking in particular of the penalty Lewis Hamilton got in Spa and the one Sebastien Bourdais received in for colliding with Felipe Massa in Fuji.

One of the problems with these decisions is that they were not fully explained to the public and so many people arrived at the conclusion that there was some sort of ‘fix’ going on. Now the WMSC has approved a report by Alan Donnelly, who was the convener of the stewards this year, which makes some important recommendations. First the FIA will harness new technology to allow video replays to be analysed more quickly, so decisions can be made and penalties served, during the race. As multiple TV and CCTV pictures are generally the only means of judging an incident, the stewards need to have the best equipement available and now it seems they will have. Also, crucially, where an incident has been judged using video footage unseen by the public, this footage will now be made public on the FIA and FOM websites, together with the explanation. This is a great development and a real coup for transparency. It’s been forced on them really, by the rise of new media, in particular You Tube. It is in Bernie Ecclestone’s interest and that of the FIA, that any such footage remains in their control, not You Tube’s. [ more ]

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A question of luck

I talked a lot about luck during the broadcast on Sunday. Luck always has a role to play in big sporting events; the rub of the green, the ball hitting the crossbar, the engine failing three laps from the end.

When the hard work has been done and the results are what they are to that point, a final race will often come down to a question of luck and so it proved on Sunday, with the rain showers, Glock’s gamble on dry tyres, which almost paid off and almost handed the title to Massa. Then the crucial piece of luck, the one which handed the title to Lewis, when it started raining heavily with less than 130 seconds to go to the end of Hamilton’s season. Glock couldn’t control his car on dry tyres in this narrow sliver of time and Hamilton caught and passed him. No rain, no title.

What I didn’t get around to mentioning in the broadcast, because of all the thrills, was that the organisers at Interlagos had placed Hamilton and McLaren in garage number 13. [ more ]

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Thinking ahead to 2009

Back in the UK after the long BA flight from Sao Paulo. It was very quiet on the plane as almost everyone had a hangover and had had little or no sleep. The two parties were the big one thrown by Red Bull at a place called the Mausoleum and a McLaren celebratory bash, near the Hilton in Morumbi. There were probably 3,000 people at the Red Bull do, most of the paddock plus a lot of Brazilian lovelies.

It’s what you expect F1 to be like, but the truth is that only really Red Bull has brought that kind of thing about, probably because it is Mateschitz’s idea of what F1 should be all about!  But I hear that they are cutting back next year so no more £1 million parties. They had hired Gorillaz to play, the animated band which is a side project of Blur’s Damon Albarn. I love their music, but they were rubbish live, lots of incoherent shouting into mikes and no sign of Albarn. The other party was worth looking in on.

Next season has already started. It will be very different with completely new-looking cars, slick tyres, driver-adjustable front wings and KERS. Ross Brawn told us on Saturday evening that you can use KERS at the start of the race, once the car has reached 100km/h, which is about 2 seconds after the lights go out. The driver will be able to hit the push to pass button and this will give 2-3 car lengths advantage compared with a car not using KERS. Toyota have said that they will not run their system until mid season, so they will be left behind at the race starts. [ more ]

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The 30 second World Champion

Spare a thought for Felipe Massa. The Brazilian did everything he needed to at Interlagos, he won the race from pole position and as he crossed the line, Lewis Hamilton was in 6th place, needing fifth to take the title.

Massa had 38 seconds lead over Hamilton. He was world champion elect.

But on that final lap, Timo Glock was struggling on dry tyres and the rain began falling harder, just as McLaren expected it to. Their weatherman was under real pressure from the pit wall as he had predicted a heavy downpour and McLaren had instructed Hamilton to let Vettel, who had passed him for fifth place, go because they felt he would catch and pass Glock. It took half a lap longer than they expected but he did it.

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Going to the next level

This year’s world championship has featured some extraordinary races and great drama. The endings of the races at Spa and Interlagos were among the most dramatic ever and the standard of the driving from Massa and Hamilton has been very high. But both have had error strewn campaigns.

If you imagine what would have happened this year had Michael Schumacher been driving the Ferrari or Fernando Alonso the McLaren, you realise that the title would have been wrapped up comfortably by either man against the two title contenders we actually had. Of course Schumacher would not have been able to do anything about the engine failure Massa suffered in Hungary, or the refuelling disaster in Singapore (probably), which really robbed Massa of the title, but he’d have closed out other opportunities, where Massa came up short, like Hockenheim or Shanghai or Montreal.

The reason is that Schumacher and, to a lesser extent Alonso, are both drivers who give almost nothing away to their opposition. They are relentless and they never give a sniff of an opportunity if they can help it. Raikkonen does not fall into this category in my book, despite winning the title last year, he gave a lot of gifts to his opposition along the way.

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