Archive for March, 2009

A Brawn insider spills the beans

Very interesting piece on the Guardian site today, quoting a Brawn team ‘insider’ talking about how much faster the car is capable of going than we saw on Sunday.

It’s interesting because Ross will not like this very much at all. He didn’t get where he is today by giving anything away and this gives a bit too much away.

That said, it does deflect attention away from the diffuser, suggesting, as they used to do in Brawn’s Ferrari days, that the thing everyone thinks is the key to speed, isn’t and that the key lies elsewhere.

“I think, basically, that if someone is two-tenths off us they can feasibly win the race but, if we’re half a second in front, which is probably where we are at the moment, although we don’t necessarily look like that, it is just foolish to just annihilate people all the time.”

I posted on this before the race and it makes sense, you never rub people’s noses in it in F1, that kind of behaviour will always come back to bite you.

“I think we have a little bit in the bag. We’ve got good stuff coming and I think we have reason to be confident.”

“The visual bits are not really the performance drivers, it’s all the surfaces you can’t see that give you the real performance.

“One of the good things about the Brawn car is that competitors will look at all of it and say, ‘That’s the bit that’s making it fast.’ But it is not necessarily one thing; they could be focusing on something that is not really a big performance driver.”

“We were looking at everybody else’s times asking why were they all so slow. Our research was telling us we would be the quickest car.”

And so it has proved.

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Hamilton says ‘Never give up’

Anyone who has read the recent biography I wrote on Michael Schumacher will know that one of his greatest qualities was that he never gave up.

It’s a vitally important quality in a sportsman; the game isn’t over until the final whistle, the chequered flag. It’s something I try to communicate to my own son, look at these guys like Schuey, they never think it’s all over, they try until the last and he’s taken it on board.

Anyway, this is by way of saying that we had a few examples of the value of never giving up on Sunday. Brawn GP wouldn’t even have been there if Ross and his management team had taken the easy option and given up at any one of the many stages during the winter, when a rescue of the team looked hopeless.

It’s become clear to me, incidentally, how vital a part Ron Dennis, Martin Whitmarsh and Norbert Haug played in saving the team. Mercedes didn’t have to come in with an engine, they already had Force India as a customer and to go from no customers to two in a matter of months is quite a logistical challenge.

Another man who didn’t give up was Lewis Hamilton. He went from 18th on the grid to 3rd and got a valuable result in a poor car. A lot of people think he’s overrated and that too much fuss was made in the last couple of years about a driver who was just privileged to be sitting in the best car. Fair enough, that might turn out to be the case so that is why it is vital to see, now that he has a poor car, whether he has Schumacher’s quality of doing the best with what he’s got.. until the bitter end.

I think Sunday was a credit to him. He was lucky that Vettel and Kubica collided, that Trulli was done by the stewards and that Ferrari messed up. Without those things he would have been seventh. But that’s precisely why you never give up, because those things do happen.

Hamilton has posted some reflections on his race on his site and I found resonances of what I’m talking about here.

“It was one of the most unexpected results of my Formula 1 career and, yeah, I think it was one of my best drives too. I’m a fighter, I’ve never given up at any stage of my motorsport career – both on and off the track – and last weekend was the same. I pushed like crazy on every single lap of the race, always looked for the gap and worked with the team over the radio to find every possible way of making us go quicker. This was a fantastic result..maybe on paper not look as strong as our victories, but to come from 18th on the grid to finish third, in a car that we admit is not as good as it should be, is a mega achievement.”

“I learnt to never, ever, ever, give up. We showed in Brazil last year that we would always fight until the very end, and we showed it again in Melbourne.”

It’s a fight now for him and his team to catch the Brawn drivers. At least he is ahead on points of his other likely title rivals, Kubica and the Ferrari drivers.

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This is Felipe Massa looking back across the wreckage of his Sunday afternoon. With a little commentary from me at the end.

Why did you start the race on the soft tyres?
“Now it looks very simple, but before the race we were looking at all the numbers, looking at the grip that there was on Friday and on Saturday, also at measurements we took of the asphalt on Sunday, as we have done in the past. It looked like the soft was the tyre to start on. Now we can see how the race turned out, it looks easy to see the tyre situation.”

What was the problem?
“Melbourne is a track where it was very hard to make the tyres work well. There was a huge difference between the soft and hard tyres. Here we had very low grip. The soft tyres didn’t work because they had good grip to start with, then after 5 laps they were destroyed. We went with them at the start, but they were just like they had been on Friday in practice. We don’t have a lot of experience with the slick tyres, they are not like grooves, where from Friday to Sunday everything changes with the track. It was very difficult also to make the hard tyre working.

How did you react when you realised that the soft tyres were the wrong choice?
“The team decided to put one car on three stops and leave one on two stops. Unfortunately I was put on three, then the safety car came out. So that wrecked my strategy. Nevertheless, I was behind Hamilton and he ended up 4th (before promoted to 3rd by the stewards) so there was something to be done there. But then I had a problem, which made the car steer to the right (turned out to be a broken upright).

How big a disappointment is the form Ferrari showed in Australia?
“It’s been a bad start, we expected to be competitive, not like the Brawn, because the Brawn has shown itself to be on another level. But we thought we were competitive. We did a qualifying lap which was close to the third fastest, so we were competitive with the others. But we need to work.”

Did Red Bull surprise you?
“Yes, they did. They surprised me a bit in qualifying, but especially in the race. They had a good pace. “

Where do you go from here?
“Last year was had one team that was competitive with us, and that was McLaren. This year you have one team that is on another planet and they will win the championship by half way through the season if it carries on like this. And then we have the others who are more or less like us, with very small margins. We can play with them, with development and so on, but not with the Brawn. “

Reading between the lines:
Felipe is pushing the Ferrari line about Brawn, hoping that the appeal against the diffuser will succeed. I think this is unlikely.

He and the team had got used to the track evolving over a Grand Prix weekend, to such an extent that grooved soft tyres, which don’t work in Friday practice, are fine on Sunday. He expresses surprise that the slicks don’t seem to work like that.

The team got the strategy call wrong, as he admits. They did a couple of times last year as well. In fact the safety car coming out for Nakajima’s accident helped the drivers who started on soft tyres, because it negated their lost time. It turned it into an advantage to have started on softs because you then had two stints on the better tyre. This is what made Kubica so competitive.

Bottom line: team mistakes and a car which struggled on the tyres are worrying, but academic in light of the fact that both cars broke down, which is perhaps even more worrying.

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Flat out on the Straits

After an overnight flight from Melbourne I arrived at the hotel in Kuala Lumpur at 8am to find that my room isn’t ready. That’s okay, there is a pool for later, a decent restaurant and a pretty good wireless signal in the main cafe area, so here I am. It’s hot here, as you’d expect, but blessedly quite overcast which takes the edge off it.

It’s a new hotel on me, Port Dickson overlooks the Malacca Straits and it’s about half an hour’s drive into the track. It’s a lot better than the place we used to stay with ITV, which was like Las Vegas. Here we are tranquil, can reflect on the events of the last few days. On the way in the car, we passed through lots of rubber tree and oil plant plantations, trees as far as the eye can see. We also passed two Chinese cemeteries and my cab driver pointed out that the Chinese tradition is to spend BIG money on a headstone. Even normal working people have a tomb to satisfy a movie star or a monarch !

We had to pass the Sepang circuit to get here and I asked him what the Malays think of the race and the track these days. He said that they are still proud of the event, of the fact that it is putting the country on the world map. Most people cannot afford to go, but they support the idea of it.

Like I said, the cafe at this hotel is the only place you can get wifi and so that’s where myself, Anthony Davidson and Radio 5 Live producer Jason Swales are working.

Judging from the comments I’ve seen on the web in the last few days, the 5 live commentary team have gone down a storm back in the UK, particularly with their work on the red button for BBC TV during the practice sessions. I’m pleased for Ant. He’d rather be driving, like any racing driver, but he’s a brilliant communicator, as I discovered when I did that 2006 Hungarian GP with him, Jenson Button’s only previous win before Sunday.

He’s got a great eye for what a car is doing and he’s able to communicate that to his audience.

There are about a dozen of us here in Port Dickson, journos, a couple of of the McLaren communications people and some photgraphers. Many of them have been coming here for years. Tonight there will be a good vibe in the bar. There is a camaraderie among people on the road. We miss our families and very much appreciate their support, but most of us share the same reasons for being here and are passionate about the sport and what we do.

We will stay here today, working, then go into the track tomorrow to see what’s new. I expect to see some new parts flown out for some of the big teams. They stick them in the hold of the passenger plane, pay the excess baggage charge and just get on with it. Many is the time I’ve helped out some poor engineer, who has three trolleys with front wings, rear wings or gearboxes in huge flight cases!

All the teams are chasing the Brawn’s performance at the moment. I was thinking back to my chat with Jenson yesterday afternoon. He now goes to a race expecting to win, rather than merely hoping to, as he did in 2004 and 2006, the only times he’s had a competitive F1 car. I’m pleased for him, because most F1 drivers never get to know that feeling, it’s only the household name who do.

Red Bull has the hardest job to copy the diffuser concept because it doesn’t fit their design at all. Ferrari too have a lot of rejigging to do.

Sepang is more of a proper race track than Albert Park and this will allow the Brawn to stretch its legs a bit more. I guess that the Red Bull will give chase again and I’m sure we’ll see more from Ferrari there. Williams and Toyota failed to take advantage of a quick car in Melbourne, we’ll see if they are similarly competitive here. You have to take your chances when they come and Rosberg fastest race lap showed that the Williams was easily capable of repeating its podium of last year, but niggly problems took that away from them. It’s so tight in the group behind Brawn that teams have to grab every chance they get.

We saw on Sunday that getting the car to look after both the hard and soft tyres is critical to success. That will be the thing to look out for on Friday in practice.

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I’m sitting in Melbourne airport in the departure lounge waiting for a 1am flight to Kuala Lumpur. I’m not alone, there are plenty of F1 people milling around, rather bleary eyed waiting for the plane. Ferrari are on the flight, along with some French and English journalists, a few photograpers and others. It’s an eight hour flight and it will be tiring, but it’s not a bad flight to catch as it gets in to KL at 6-30am, so you don’t lose a whole day travelling.

I was rather surprised at the check-in to see Ferrari team boss Stefano Domenicali with both of his drivers, travelling as a team. I was quite impressed actually, I’ve not seen that before. I don’t know whether it’s just circumstance or whether there is some kind of edict that they should be together. Ferrari as a team has always been good at sticking together to travel, not for them the private jets for the senior management, there are no obvious signs of hierarchy. But the drivers are not normally a part of it.

Felipe Massa, his wife and his manager were together, while Kimi Raikkonen had one of his Finnish mates with him, the pair with their distressed baseball caps worn at an angle, making cracks in their own private language about people they saw, laughing like teenagers.

It was a shocking weekend for Ferrari, with reliability once again the problem. They also have to catch up to Brawn or hope that the appeal against the diffuser succeeds. I’m hearing that they have two parallel development programmes going, one with a copy of the new ‘double decker’ diffuser and with a new gearbox, the other a development of the car they have. McLaren are also flat out building new parts and they will be flying out packing cases full of kit to Malaysia this weekend. Both teams are chucking money at solving the performance crisis.

I’ve also heard of teams who were about to lay off staff from the aerodynamic department, who have delayed the move so that they can accelerate the development of their own ‘double decker’. It rather makes a mockery of the whole cost-cutting mantra we were hearing over the winter! Brawn has got the big teams on the run.

I bumped into Jenson Button twice today, at lunch and dinner. The Melbourne race winner was in a very relaxed mood, hanging around near the beach, just savouring the moment and looking forward to the next. He enjoyed a long lunch with his new girlfriend Jessica.

He was saying that his main emotion before the race was excitement, rather than nerves. He struggled to control the excitement, but now that he has the win under his belt he knows he can start to build momentum. He has to capitalise while the big teams are down.

He feels that the Red Bull is the biggest threat at the moment and certainly until Vettel crashed into Kubica, he had kept Jenson honest. Jenson added that the tyres were quite tricky on Sunday, especially towards the end as the temperatures dropped, but the Red Bull seemed able to stay in touch. I wonder if it will be able to on Sunday.

It is such a graphic illustration of the fact that in F1 you really are only as good as your car. Jenson was not a tosser last year, although he struggled with motivation at times and was outperformed by Rubens Barrichello.

He has the car to get the job done and the team has developments in the pipeline for Barcelona. He should have his nose well in front by then.

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Rubens Barrichello had an unbelievable afternoon in Melbourne on Sunday, which deserves a closer look. He started and finished second, but in between it was far from plain sailing, with two collisions, both of which caused bodywork damage. It is one of those, ‘How did he get there?’ races, so I thought I’d go through the race history and try to explain it.

At the start he bogged down when the anti-stall mechanism kicked in as he left the line. He was swallowed up by the cars behind him, and entered the first corner in amongst the cars from row 5 of the grid.

In the melee at turn one, with Webber, Fisichella and Heidfeld involved, his car was hit hard from behind, which broke a chunk of the diffuser off. He also tagged his front wing, losing one of the endplates. So some pretty important parts for creating downforce were missing from the outset.

At the end of the first lap he was in 7th place, behind Nico Rosberg. The pair were lapping relatively quickly at first, until they came up behind the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen on lap 5 and from there the pace dropped off by three seconds as Raikkonen struggled with the sudden deterioration of his soft tyres. Raikkonen pitted on lap 10. By lap 14 Rubens was back to 4th place, but still lapping two seconds slower than his team mate in the lead car. Rosberg was driving away from him. Rosberg pitted on lap 16 and Rubens came in two laps later. At this point he was 45 seconds behind his team mate.

It was a long stop as they replaced the front wing and in the 14 seconds he dropped there, he was passed by Buemi, Trulli, Massa and Raikkonen, all of whom had made their first stop and Piquet who was one stopping.

So he had sacrificed a lot of track position, he was now 10th, but at least he had a functioning front wing. Up to this point his best lap was 1m 29.6, whereas Button with an intact car and no traffic had done a best of 1m 28.0 and could have gone faster still.

At this point the safety car came out after Nakajima shunted the Williams. This gave Rubens back 40 seconds of the deficit to his team mate.

At the restart he passed Buemi and Rosberg, while Piquet flew off the road, so he was up to 7th and lapping at around a second per lap slower than Button. Trulli was three seconds ahead and gently pulling away. Massa and Trulli then pitted, which brought Rubens back up to fifth place. That became third on lap 40 after Kubica and Raikkonen pitted. At this stage he was back to 23 seconds adrift of his team mate.

Brawn had quickly realised from watching Ferrari that the soft tyre was a disaster and so at the first stops they had fuelled both the cars for a long middle stint, 33 laps in Rubens’ case, which would mean he would only have to do seven laps on the soft tyres at the end.

This strategy brought him up to third place by lap 41 and by now he was lapping at the same pace as Button, in other words Button had slowed down by a second a lap, he says because the tyres were losing temperature and grip (This almost cost Button the lead to Vettel, when he had his slow pit stop on lap 47.)

Rubens was essentially racing Trulli for 5th place at this stage, with Button, Vettel, and Kubica due to finish ahead of them. Trulli had the advantage in the middle phase of the race, but what lost him time was being stuck behind Fisichella after his second stop on lap 33. The long middle stint worked very well for Rubens and when Vettel and Kubica had their collision towards the end, Rubens picked up second place, putting him back where he started the race! He was 27 seconds behind Button, but it would have been a lot more if Button had been pushing.

Interestingly neither Brawn car really registered on the fastest lap chart. Barrichello had a damaged car, but Button’s fastest race lap was that 1m 28.0, only the third fastest lap of the day, behind Rosberg and Kubica. In contrast Button had been doing consistent 1m 26s in Friday practice.

He did what he needed to, win the race at the lowest possible speed. Smoothness of style isn’t the only quality he shares with ‘The Professor’ Alain Prost.

Barrichello was always dealing with traffic and Button wasn’t on the limit, so it’s very hard to say how much that diffuser is worth to the car. But it’s a lot.

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I will never forget the feeling I had when I saw this Brawn car for the first time on the Monday morning in Barcelona on the 9th of March. It looked different, the detail on the car was so refined, and it went like stink.

Here was the most dominant F1 car we’ve seen since the Ferrari of 2004 and it was born out of the wreckage of the Honda team. Today they got a one-two finish in the first Grand Prix, making monkeys of the opposition as they went. How must Honda be feeling now? They pulled out of F1 just before Christmas, despite the assurances of Ross Brawn that the car would be a potential championship winner.

The executive who took that decision is like the man from Decca Records who turned down the Beatles. He would say it had to be done because car sales were plummeting, but the other manufacturers have stayed in and they didn’t have a car like this one.

It’s very likely that they will dominate again in Malaysia, although the heat there will test the reliability of this car, which has still not done a huge mileage in testing. They have a good 8/10ths advantage over the Ferrari and more than a second over the McLaren. Both teams are frantically working on bringing new parts to the car at the next few races, hurling money at the problem, making a bit of a mockery of the concept of cost saving. For Ferrari to do the diffuser properly it requires a new gearbox casing, so it’s a very big job. McLaren have an astonishing manufacturing capability and they will need it because they are coming from a long way back.

As for Jenson Button, he was enjoying himself this weekend, always looked relaxed and happy, not feeling pressure, revelling in the second chance that fate has given him. But behind the scenes he was very intense all weekend, apparently. He knows that this is his opportunity to do all the things he thought he was going to do in his career, before it went down the wrong path with Williams, then BAR and Honda.

I expect to see a more intense Button now, more single-minded, more ruthless even. He can take no prisoners from here, he has to translate this car advantage into results every time, keep Rubens behind him and nothing can stand in his way. If he can get far enough ahead in the points before the big teams wake up, he can win the world title. If they had stuck with the ‘winner takes all model’ of deciding a championship, he’d have had an even better chance.

This Brawn car has been very carefully prepared and has come out of the oven perfectly cooked, whereas, in comparison the grandee teams have whipped something up in the microwave. They now have to work hard to refine. It’s unlikely that the FIA appeal court will help them by upholding their appeal against the Brawn diffuser, they are going to have to do it the hard way, in the wind-tunnel.

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