Archive for January, 2009

I was interested to see that at a press conference at Portimao circuit yesterday, attended by colleagues from the ITV F1 website, Toyota’s John Howett sounded a stark warning about Toyota’s future in the sport if they do not succeed this season.

He said, ” We have a great team of people and I think we just feel it’s about time we won. We need a strong season. If we have a weak season we have no future.

“Whether we have to win is difficult to say, but I think we feel we have to win.”

This is slightly at odds with the tone of the language at the launch and represents a significant ramping up of the stakes by Toyota. Going back to that shocking week in early December when Honda announced they were pulling out of F1, the word on the street in the days leading up to Honda’s announcement was that Toyota was about to announce something. If indeed they ever were planning a withdrawal or even a phased announcement, once Honda pulled the plug, they merely said that at present they were committed.

Everyone has been looking at Toyota for some time and wondering when they will follow Honda. Now John Howett has made a comment, which will hang over them throughout the season. There is a coded message to the powers that be not to take Toyota’s participation for granted, but I think this is more of a call to arms than anything else, a calculated message to everyone in the team to dig deep, ignite the passion and find something special. The team is actually quite bullish about this season ahead, despite the fact that the word I’m hearing is that this is quite a conservative car at the moment, compared to the others.

Nevertheless Jarno Trulli reacted to Howett’s comments by saying, “Now the pressure is on the whole team, we have the structure, the means and the experience. I’m convinced that this will be the year in which Toyota will celebrate its first win and I hope it’s me who brings it.”

What we have at the moment is a phoney war, the early shots are being fired, but because of rain and teams being at different tracks it’s way too early to say who’s quick and who’s not. My hunch, from previous experience, is that someone will have found an edge with these new rules and it doesn’t have to be Ferrari and McLaren, it could easily be a Renault, a BMW or a Toyota.

Adrian Newey has a pretty fantastic track record at interpreting new rules and finding an edge, so the Red Bull will be interesting to see when it launches next month. The technical group there is now well and truly bedded in and the Renault engine has been brought up to level power with the others. Webber and Vettel will get the thing flying.. if it’s good enough to be flown..

With such massive rule changes it’s virtually certain that the pecking order will be different this year from last. Williams too has a good chance to move up. I can’t wait until the picture starts to emerge over next month’s tests.

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Can BMW do it this year?

Perhaps the most eagerly awaited launch this January was the BMW Sauber team’s new car. This is because the team has been making a steady march towards the front of the grid in the last three seasons and now it needs to make the last and most difficult step of all, to champion status.

A few teams have come along in the last twenty years or so and threatened the McLaren/Williams/Ferrari elite, including Jordan, which won a few races. But really only Benetton/Renault has been able to elbow the big boys aside and make a permanent space for itself at top table.

BMW quickly got into the winning groove as an engine builder with Williams, but broke up with them in 2005 because the progress stopped and they had in mind to do their own thing anyway, based on the old Sauber team. After three years of delivering on their goals, they now have to fight for the championship. Anything less would be a disappointment. You could argue that they fought for the championship this season, after all Robert Kubica led the points table after Montreal and was still in the title race at the penultimate round.

But I think BMW know that they have to be right in there from the first race and at every race, fighting for pole, the win and the podium. And not only that, they have to match the development rate of Ferrari and McLaren across the whole season. In many ways this is the toughest aspect of the challenge. With new rules, its possible that anyone might have lucked into the right aerodynamic package and start with a strong position, but you know that as the races grind on, Ferrari and McLaren will be developing faster than most and it will take a special effort for a BMW or even a Renault to stay in front.

Having watched the Ferraris and McLarens steadily driving away from him in the second half of 2008, Kubica realises this better than anyone and it was interesting that at the launch he highlighted failed developments last season, ones which did not deliver the expected performance gain. The message is clear – ‘Don’t do that again’. He’s keeping the team honest, keeping the pressure on. You’ve got to love his hunger and his honesty. He’s already shown he has what it takes to race Hamilton, Massa, Raikkonen and Alonso and he will be strong in Melbourne as he always is. HIs potential downside is his size. He lost some weight last year, but he’s still a big guy and the boffins are all saying that’s a penalty this year with the extra weight of KERS making weight and weight balance critical.

The first test day went well for them, over 70 laps of Valencia on day one is quite impressive and now they get down to some serious work. It looks like the weather has been kinder to them than to Ferrari over in Italy and McLaren and the rest in Portugal.

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Superfit Alonso aims high

It’s been a busy couple of days in the F1 world, with three car launches and some more rhetoric in the escalating war of words between Bernie Ecclestone and the F1 teams association, FOTA.

Let’s start with Renault. Fernando Alonso says he can win the championship with this car, he’s ecstatic about the wind tunnel figures, which say that the car should be very fast once they get it running against the opposition on a dry track.

Alonso is once again in the strange position of starting a season at Renault, with a contract in his pocket to drive for another team in the future, as he was when he won the 2006 world title. Of course many people are still denying that a Ferrari deal is done, while Alonso himself is saying, craftily, that he has been asked this question now for five years (true) so nothing changes and he is focussed on the season ahead.

It would be churlish to dwell on what happens next year or 2011, when Renault have put in a great effort to build him a winning car. He seems pretty bullish about his chances this season and why not? Renault made up a lot of ground last season as they finally got to grips with the Bridgestone tyres and with the aerodynamic problems they had built in to the car by mistake. And with the FIA and the other teams allowing them to bring their engine up to everyone else’s level (a special dispensation) they have every chance to compete this season with Ferrari, McLaren and BMW. In Alonso they have a proven champion and just to show he’s really serious he’s lost 3 kilos over the winter. Every little counts, as they say, and with extra driver weight a handicap in a car already bloated with the weight of a KERS system, those three kilos could save him a tenth of a second.

He’s also worked hard on building up his shoulder muscles because he expects a more physical challenge from the grip level of the slick tyres.

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Luca di Montezemolo turned up in Madonna di Campiglio yesterday for the end of the Ferrari shindig and had a good long session with Bernie Ecclestone, whom he embraced warmly. The pair have known each other since the 1970s and they will lock antlers many times in the next year or two as Montezemolo seeks to lead the FOTA teams to the promised land of more control and more money.

Afterwards he sat down with the Italian media and I’m grateful to them for details of what he said. The thing which caught my eye was his reminder that the commercial deal binding the teams into F1 is only until 2012, which will be here soon enough, as the London Olympic committee can tell you. Beyond that, he said, F1 needs “an authoritative sporting body” to lead it.

He sees the key to the future as being four ‘S’s; Stability, “we cannot keep changing the rules every six months or a year”; Seriousness, “because we cannot pretend nothing’s happening in a period of great economic difficulty like this”; Spectacle, “I think the new rules will help with this”; Sustainability, “which is finding the right balance between cost and income.”

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The Ron Dennis story has dominated coverage of the McLaren launch, which is probably just as well because Lewis Hamilton wasn’t on great form, suffering with a heavy cold. He looked pretty proud to see the number one on the car, however, the first time for McLaren in a decade.

Nevertheless, we had a good chance over the course of a long day in Woking, to go behind the scenes and find out more about this new car and about how it will be raced this year.

The first thing that struck me was how much more there is for a driver to do this season and for that reason, it is clear that the driver will play a more important role than for ages. I think that this season, intelligent, mechanically savvy drivers will have a huge benefit from making best use of the controls, levers and switches on the steering wheel. The drivers have had control of the clutch, gears, brake balance, differential setting, engine maps, pit lane speed limiter and so on for a while, but two new controls he will have are the adjustable front wing, which can move up or down by 6 degrees, and of course from the KERS boost button. That’s a lot of different things to deal with in addition to steering, braking and accelerating. The test drivers who’ve had a run on the new slick tyres are reporting that they have a very narrow operating window for racing, so keeping them in good shape and getting performance out of them isn’t going to be easy, another area where having spare mental capacity above what’s needed simply to drive the car, will be important.

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Today’s McLaren launch was a quietly confident affair. The team looked composed and calm ahead of what is likely to be a hard fought and chaotic season, with complex new rules and an intense development programme away from the circuit. And then just as the thing was winding to a close, Ron Dennis, the sport’s most successful entrant, goes and lets slip that he’s standing down as team principal at the end of February.

It’s no great surprise in one sense; he is 61 years old and has been discussing stepping down for some time. He was under pressure from the authorities to quit in 2007 during the Stepney spy scandal, but he toughed it out, determined to stay in charge until Lewis Hamilton had clinched the world title, which he regarded as the culmination of a project he put in place over 10 years ago.

But that success and the pleasure it gave him seemed to have given him a fresh love of the sport and renewed motivation. So it was still mildly surprising that he chose today to announce that he was finally going to allow his loyal deputy of 20 years, Martin Whitmarsh, to take the top job. As Ron said, they’ve been sharing the job for years anyway and practically speaking Martin has been the boss for a few years, with Ron the figurehead who makes his presence felt at race meetings and in the public arenas. There will not be much change in the way McLaren goes about its business, although they will probably enjoy better relations with the FIA now that Dennis is out of the way.

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A brief note to add to the comments Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali made about the new rules for penalties handed out for changing an engine during a Grand Prix weekend.

The rule now is that each driver has eight engines he can use during a season, but it’s up to him when he uses them. This means, certainly until the closing stages of the season, that if a driver sees a potential problem after qualifying and needs to change engine, he will be able to do so in parc ferme without taking a ten place penalty.

The ten place drop will come if and when he needs to use a ninth engine in the season.

The FIA issued a clarification of this on January 12th, if you care to look at their website (www.fia.com) you can see it for yourself on page 14 of the F1 sporting regulations. Take a look; there’s some interesting stuff there. If you are short of time, it says the following:

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Toyota needs a win

Amid promises of a first win being around the corner and a commitment to stay in F1 for the long term, Toyota virtually launched their new car today in an online ceremony, which saved them a lot of money. It’s important at the moment in F1 to show that you are cutting costs wherever possible. I’m hearing that job cutting programmes are starting to bite now, many posts have been shed in catering departments, while one UK based manufacturer team has imposed a 20% pay cut on management and 10% on the workforce. There will be some big job losses very soon as the pre-Christmas FIA world council decisions kick in.

Toyota, which has had a 1,000 strong workforce in Cologne will surely be among them. The company announced, shortly before Honda’s withdrawal from F1, that it expected to lose over £1 billion this year as car sales plummet around the world. And because F1 is now viewed as part of the automotive sector, rather than as as media property or an entity in itself, it will fall victim to whatever cuts are imposed in the automotive world.

The Toyota team enters it’s eighth season in Formula 1 in probably the best shape since the 2005 season, when Jarno Trulli was a regular podium visitor. But it badly needs a win to justify staying in the sport. Last year’s car was quick on smooth circuits like Magny Cours and Budapest, but was pretty inconsistent. However the team were more of a force towards the end of the season, despite McLaren, Ferrari and Renault all developing their cars right up to the end. This and the work over the winter has given Jarno Trulli and the management the confidence to talk about Toyota seeking its first win in F1.
So are they ready to win?

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It’s great that F1 and its fans can once again focus on cars and racing, rather than chew through a diet of bad news about F1’s economic crisis. The crisis hasn’t gone away of course, but we are now in the season of hope; new cars, new dreams and new expectations.

The Ferrari media-fest continues, now the protagonists have moved up to the Madonna di Campiglio ski resort for the annual press event known as “Wrooom!”

Over the next couple of days Massa and Raikkonen will elaborate on the brief comments they made at Monday’s launch, but today was the turn of the team principal Stefano Domenicali and he did not disappoint, speaking of the championship ahead and the drivers.

The most eye-catching quote regarded Kimi. ” He has the capacity to isolate himself,” he said, echoing Michael Schumacher’s comments from last season. “It’s like he lives on another planet. I’ve never seen him suffer from pressure either from the media or from other drivers. Don’t expect him to smile or speak Italian, but he will show his quality right from the outset.”

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The Ferrari team got down to business today, ironing out some glitches in the new car. I’m told that a part fell off the car on its first exploratory lap yesterday. But the KERS system worked and in the end the car did 100kms, which is less than they had hoped for, but pretty good nevertheless from a complex new car.

Ferrari’s idea in bringing the car out so early is to have plenty of time for debugging. Reliability was not perfect last season and they are painfully aware that there is only a limited amount of testing before the season and none at all once the racing starts on March 29th, so the next few weeks are critical.

This will hurt Red Bull, for example who don’t launch until February. The winning team this year will be the one which can debug its car enough to find reliability and then develop it using only the simulation tools at the factory and the Friday test days at Grands Prix. It’s a totally different way of working for the teams, especially Ferrari who invested heavily in test facilities. It makes you realise how much they have been prepared to give up as part of their commitment to FOTA.

There is a lovely story in Gazetta dello Sport from the Ferrari launch, which indicates the human dynamics among the drivers; apparently Michael Schumacher had lunch at the Mugello test track with Felipe Massa, his manager Nicolas Todt, and test drivers Luca Badoer and Marc Gene. At the time, Kimi Raikkonen was asleep in a Lancia in the car park!

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