Monday, March 29, 2010

Received Wisdom

There was a fair bit of overtaking at the Australian Grand Prix last weekend, wasn't there? Among the front-runners, there were more moves, quite possibly, than in the whole of the first half of last season. After the soporific anti-climax of the opening race at Bahrain a fortnight ago, it was a much-needed shot in the arm for Formula 1.

But wait a minute... Why was it so? The Albert Park circuit is hardly one particularly conducive to overtaking. The two corners that present half an opportunity, turns 4 and 13, are both preceded by fast 4th and 5th gear corners. Aren't F1 cars supposed to be all but impossible to follow at close range through such corners? Isn't the aerodynamic turbulence coming off the leading car supposed to rob those following of all front downforce, leaving them fighting hopelessly against deathly understeer and unable to get close enough to try a move under braking? Wasn't that why Bahrain, a circuit which for all its flaws, presents rather more of an obvious passing place, at the first turn, than Albert Park does, produced such a deathly procession?

Ah, but of course, the Australian Grand Prix was a wet/dry race, with constantly changing conditions and low grip for all. We all know that wet races provide for much more in the way of action and excitement than dry ones. At the end of the race, I suggested on Facebook that there is really nothing wrong with modern Grand Prix racing that couldn't be fixed by the introduction of trackside water-sprinklers, only to find that over on the BBC's 'F1 Forum', Jake Humphries and Eddie Jordan had been discussing exactly the same thing, with Martin Brundle observing wryly that in the spirit of the X-Factor, they could perhaps be turned on and off by fan phone polls.

It sounds like an idea from the same madhouse that produced such ideas as 'overtaking lanes' and needless compulsory pit-stops, but at the risk of irking the purists, I reckon this is an idea whose time has come. Well, maybe not the phone polls, but bear with me... Unlike the great majority of schemes for 'spicing up the show', it doesn't fundamentally alter the competitive nature of the sport. There's no penalisation of success by forcing winning drivers to start from the back or carry ballast. And no forcing drivers to pit when they know the quickest way round is actually to stay out on the same set of tyres. If someone is absolutely inspired on the day, and able to lap a second quicker than anyone else, then they can get on with it, see if they can beat Jackie Stewart's 4 minute winning margin in the 1968 German Grand Prix (which, by the by, was a wet race.) But if things are closely matched, if the cars are running closely, drivers would at least stand half a chance of finding a way past each other.

And as someone who's always thought the ability to be quick on a wet or half-dry track is the ultimate test of a driver's capabilities it seems to me that it would add to, rather than detract from, the notion of F1 as a contest between the greatest driving talents in the world. The superhuman car control of Hamilton versus the calculating intelligence of Alonso and the silky smooth calmness of Button, and oh, a seven time world champion with a reputation as a Regenmeister, a couple of young kids little more than half his age keen to usurp said man's claim to be Germany's fastest racing driver and an incredibly quick Polish guy pushing a recalcitrant bumble-bee with 'Lada' on the flanks faster than it has any right to be going? On a wet track, every fortnight? People would tune in...

It'll never happen. Not least because F1 seems so keen to go to places where water is in rather short supply, regardless of the utter disinterest of the locals (or at least those locals not paying CVC/FOM's bills). Although I doubt CVC would be keen to fork out for the sprinkler systems either. But it did get me thinking. In the last couple of weeks, the one thing I keep hearing time and time again, is that if the racing is to be improved, something needs to be done to change the balance between aerodynamic downforce and mechanical grip of modern F1 cars. That they have too much of the former, and too little of the latter. I've said as much before myself, but I wonder if we're missing something that's right under our noses.

I'm not a physicist, but it strikes me that there's something obviously wrong with this assertion. Last weekend, the rain ensured that the cars had a whole lot less mechanical grip, but they had exactly as much aerodynamic downforce as they did in Bahrain two weeks earlier. So is the problem of overtaking really all about the downforce the cars can produce, or has it got more to do with mechanical grip? A wet track lessens the amount of mechanical grip the tyres are able to obtain from the tarmac, but it doesn't of itself reduce the amount of downforce generated by the cars' wings. And the drivers could run close to each other, they could pass each other, the racing was some of the best I have seen in 25 years of watching Grands Prix.

I know it's a bit more complicated than that. Yes, the cars are actually producing less downforce because it squares with speed, and the lack of mechanical grip afforded by a wet track meant that the cars were cornering more slowly, and hence generating less downforce, and so were less affected by the turbulence of any car they were following. But the point stands - wet races demonstrate that the problem of cars being unable to follow each other closely, and consequently unable to pass, can be dealt with by massively cutting the mechanical grip produced by the cars. The other advantage is that, by use of a control tyre, it might be rather easier to achieve than cutting downforce. The FIA have been trying that for years, and it appears they are engaged in a battle with the car designers reminiscent of nothing so much as the Lewis Carroll's Red Queen - It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.

Do something to successfully limit mechanical grip, and all the downforce in the world will buy only a relatively limited advantage. And short of my water-sprinkers idea (about which I am only being partially facetious) it strikes me that the obvious way to do this would be through producing much less grippy, more primitive rubber. The 'exhibition' tyres Bridgestone provide the teams for street demos and television work might be just the trick, but really the idea should be to move tyre technology back thirty years or so, to produce cars which have about as much grip in the dry as they currently do in the wet.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Made for Television

After the disappointingly soporific opener to the F1 World Championship at Bahrain last weekend, there has been a lot of talk about what can or should be done to improve the show. And when people talk about the show, what they really mean is the television show. In the flesh, the sight and sound of F1 cars have such a dramatic impact that it doesn't really matter than the racing is processional and the result not in any doubt.

While F1 might be utterly reliant on TV viewing figures to maintain its income stream, the rules are not ultimately written by the sport's promoter, and FOM is not a television company. There are, however, two major world championships which are run by a television company. Both the Intercontinental Rally Challenge and the World Touring Car Championship are run by satellite television broadcaster Eurosport. But does being run by a television company actually improve the quality of the show?

Watching the opening round of the IRC at Monte Carlo at the beginning of the year, I have to say that the answer is, at the very least, a qualified positive. Eurosport, being a specialist sports channel (and a minority interest sports channel at that) can justify broadcasting rally stages live, and this gives much more of a real sense of what rallying is about than the edited highlights packages for the WRC which ITV and Dave have put out over the last few years (I don't have Motors TV, so I don't know if they are doing any better a job of the WRC coverage).

By contrast, their coverage of the latest round in Argentina last weekend was rather more pedestrian. I suppose it is inevitable that, while it may be possible to justify broadcasting the Monte Carlo rally in full, there is rather less appetite for watching an ordinary, common or garden gravel round of the IRC. And to be fair, I was at something of a loose end last weekend, and even then, I doubt I'd have sat through it if they had. Unfortunately, their coverage of the event wasn't even as good as what North One Television used to manage with the WRC. Yes, there were a few brief, quite watchable 'in car' clips, but there was no real attempt to tell the story of the rally. And, while I can perhaps sympathise with the difficulty of commentating from a small room somewhere in London on pre-edited TV footage beamed from the other side of the world, I simply cannot warm to Carlton Kirby. Can't help thinking (quite probably wrongly) that I could hardly do a worse job myself.

It's a shame, because the Argentinian rally, like the Brazilian event which preceded it, looked to have some really fantastic rally stages. It is not only the Monte Carlo rally which leaves me wondering quite how the IRC have pulled off the coup of stealing some of the best rallies from under the WRC's nose, while the premier series goes to such uninspired sounding locations as Jordan, Turkey and Bulgaria (it is of course entirely possible that the Bulgarian Rally will prove to be a classic - I know absolutely nothing about the place as a motorsporting country, though I can't believe there's a huge rallying fanbase waiting eagerly for the event).

What Eurosport and partners KSO have achieved with the IRC, though, is to create a second-tier rally series that has manufacturer support, and which, while it may lack absolute stars, has rather more depth of talent than, say, the old European Rally Championship used to have. In Juho Hanninen and Kris Meeke, winners of the last two rallies, it has two drivers who, if there was any justice, would be in the WRC by now. And it's just possible that, with three different winners from the first three rallies (even if one was a guest-appearance from WRC star Mikko Hirvonen) that will exceed the total for the WRC for the whole season, if as last year, it turns out once more to be a straight fight between Hirvonen and Loeb with nobody else getting so much as a look in. And if Guy Wilks or Jan Kopecky get their act together in their Skodas, or if Stephane Sarrazin or Nicolas Vouilloz reappear for the later European tarmac rounds, there could be more winners.

Certainly, there were far more serious contenders for victory in the field for the opening round of the IRC than there have been in the WRC for many years. A rule-set which allows a well-run privateer with an off-the-shelf car

It's a shame really that Ford aren't running a squad of Fiesta S2000s, and that Fiat abandoned their programme with the Punto Abarth after last year's lacklustre showing with Giandomenico Basso and Anton Alen, because it leaves the IRC with just two serious manufacturer outfits, which is the same problem which has afflicted the WRC in recent years.

Nonetheless, if KSO/Eurosport are really interested in creating a rally series which captures the imagination of television viewers, I can't help but think they've missed a trick. Why not insist on rear wheel drive cars? Inherently much more spectacular to watch than 4WD cars, think back to the early days of the old Group A formula when there were so few 4WD rally cars that a number of rear wheel drive cars were campaigned with some success on the world stage. To my mind, a BMW M3 or Sierra Cosworth rally car was inherently much more exciting to watch than a Lancia Delta or a Mazda 323. Why not do it again? Yes, Skoda, Peugeot and Ford do not market rear wheel drive 207s, Fabias and Fiestas, but chances are, you'd have difficulty getting your local car dealer to supply you with a 4 wheel drive one too. Yes, 4WD is inherently faster than rear wheel drive, but then an unrestricted 3.5 litre turbo rally car is inherently faster than a 2 litre turbo. Doesn't mean that you're allowed to run one in the IRC, or anywhere else in international rallying, for that matter. And besides, if Sebastien Loeb is perhaps getting a little bored of winning everything in sight in the World Rally Championship, the chance to show what he can do in a 280BHP rear wheel drive rally car just might be the thing to persuade him to hang around a while longer...

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I've said before that the secret of happiness, or at least contentment, is low expectations. So perhaps that's why I found the opening round of the 2010 Formula 1 Championship last weekend such a disappointment. I had been expecting a close battle between four world champions, with Red Bull, Ferrari, Mclaren and Mercedes all in the hunt for victory. I had expected Renault, Williams and Sauber to surprise. There was the return of Michael Schumacher after three years away. And I had hoped that the ban on refueling might finally force drivers to fight it out on the track.

As it was, the opening race was pretty dreary. There was, to be fair, the threat of a battle for the lead between Alonso's Ferrari and Vettel's Red Bull, but Vettel's Renault engine gave out before battle was really joined, and the experiences of others, further down the field, suggests that even if Alonso's Ferrari was considerably quicker, he almost certainly wouldn't have been able to find a way past.

To be fair, there have not been many close fought races with plenty overtaking between the leading drivers at Bahrain. With the exception of the first turn, there isn't really anywhere on the Sakhir circuit where a modern F1 car is going to find a way past a healthy rival able to lap within a second or two of the chasing car. It's a problem with the design of modern F1 cars (there was plenty of passing in the supporting GP2 Asia race) and I'm not sure there's an obvious solution to it. Those who talk of banning wings or similar such ideas miss the point that, no matter how you write the rulebook, designers and engineers will always find another way of clawing back the downforce, and quite possibly that new way will involve even more turbulence and dirty air than the current one (although James Allen has an interesting article on his blog questioning whether aerodynamic downforce is the problem anyway). The solution is a rule-set which forces teams to run cars much like the first-generation GP2 cars, but for the reasons above, that's far easier said than done.

All that said, I'm not convinced the new rules, or at least the combination of the new rules and the tyres Bridgedstone provided at Bahrain, have exactly helped matters. The tyres appear durable enough to cope with a one-stop strategy, but only provided the driver is pretty careful with them, doesn't push the rubber too hard, doesn't run too close to the car ahead and, certainly only provided the driver doesn't risk flat-spotting them with a late-braking passing move.

Predictably, there have been calls to address this by adding yet more artifice to the rules - a mandatory two pit-stop rule (as if that had added in any way to the DTM where it has been tried) or even, heaven forfend, introducing wacky-races style short-cuts to the circuit which a driver may use a certain number of times a race to overtake (because such moves would really rank alongside Hakkinen vs Schumacher at Spa in 2000 or Mansell on Senna at Hungary in 1989 as great overtaking manoeuvres...) It strikes me that the answer lies in the other direction - fewer rules rather than more. In particular, let's get rid of the rule that a driver has to stop to change tyres at least once. Imagine how Bahrain might have turned out if Hamilton or Rosberg, mindful of the difficulty of overtaking, decided to gamble on running the whole race on one set of tyres. And imagine how determined a freshly-tyred Alonso might have been to find a way past in the closing laps, after his stop. The one rule change which has really produced closer racing in recent years was the one-set-of-tyres-a-race rule of 2005, where we even had passing at Monaco.

Unfortunately, the new rules were not the only thing that left me feeling a little downheartened, watching the GP on Iplayer on Sunday evening (having just returned from spending the afternoon in A&E, but that needn't detain us here). There were disturbing signs that, far from being the eight-way title fight we might have hoped for, we could be looking at a Ferrari runaway on the scale of 2004. Yes, Vettel got pole, perhaps because Red Bull had mastered the art of running a car on empty tanks for a banzai qualifying run while set up to run on a full tank of fuel at the start, but Alonso's fastest race lap was a whole second quicker than anyone else's.

Certainly, it doesn't appear that Alonso will be under any immediate threat from the man behind nearly half of all Maranello's race victories, Michael Schumacher. His return was another minor disappointment. Dieter Rencken this week ran an article on how age should be no barrier to the German, but something, either age or race-rustiness, must be behind his inability to match team mate Nico Rosberg last weekend. In Martin Brundle's words, he appeared a tenth of a second behind the car, and while he put a brave face on when talking to the press, he must surely be wondering whether, at 41, he isn't getting a bit old for all this now. Perhaps it will be completely different in Australia, but if it isn't, I wonder how long he'll stick around. He didn't come back to F1 to be No. 2 to Nico Rosberg, after all.

More generally, qualifying demonstrated that, after several years in which the gap between the fastest and slowest cars has been steadily narrowing, it appears to have opened right back out again this year. Not only the new teams, which we all knew would be miles from the pace, but the midfield appear to have slipped back. There were no surprises from Williams or Renault, while the only thing that was unexpected about Sauber's performance was how woefully slow they were, after showing promising form in winter testing. Shades of Prost in 2001, one wonders whether they were running light to attract sponsors.

Down at the back, it was amateur hour. The new teams are vastly professional organisations when compared to such past embarassments as Life, Forti and Andrea Moda but nonetheless Karun Chandhok's experience with the new HRT brought back memories of such past disastrous efforts. Turning up to the first race with a car which had literally never turned a wheel, and having Chandhok use qualifying to shake down the second car was desperate, and bordering on dangerous.

As was Virgin's seeming inability to bolt all four wheels to their wagon. To be fair, it's something which has afflicted a number of teams down the years, but it doesn't exactly bode well for a new team. The CFD-designed car did at least appear to be the quickest of the new machines, but it remains every bit as fragile as it looked in testing, and by one-third distance, both Di Grassi and Glock were done for the day.

Mike Gascoygne's Litespeed, sorry, Proton, cough, Lotus, was the best put together and most professionally run of the new cars. That said, it is going to require some serious development work if Tony Fernandes' new team is to do anything more than trundle around at the back of the field, getting lapped a couple of times an afternoon. Certainly, if these three new teams are the brave new face of F1, then I find myself in the rather strange position of feeling nostalgic for Toyota, who may have been soulless but could at least build a half-way competitive F1 car.

So, Australia next. A circuit where overtaking was always something of a rarity anyway....

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Monday, March 08, 2010

F1 2010: A Golden Age?

Another new season is almost upon us. It's always a time of excitement and anticipation, when the racing season's big questions remain unanswered, when nobody knows for sure who will be right on the pace, and it is possible to believe that a uniquely close-fought, competitive season awaits us. Sometimes the spell is broken the moment the cars hit the track at the first race, when the dreary reality that somebody, in the first half of the decade it tended to be Ferrari, has built a car which is a second a lap faster than anyone else, and a summer of boring Sunday processions awaits us. But, at the risk of sounding like a screaming Autosport headline, this year just might be very special indeed. Forgive me the lapse into hyperbole, but we just might be right in the middle of a golden age of Formula 1 racing. Hear me out...

The Return of the King

Firstly there's the decision of 7 times World Champion Michael Schumacher to throw his hat into the ring for one last time. Unquestionably one of the sport's all time greats, I still wonder whether his reach might at last exceed his grasp. He's been three years out of the cockpit, he's still nursing a neck injury from a motorbike crash last year, he's the far side of forty, and, dare I say it, he'll be facing a much stronger field of drivers than he did for most of his career. Even if he does have all, or almost all, of his old pace, whether the 2010 Mercedes will be quite quick enough to enable him to fight with Alonso and Hamilton remains open to question. The 2010 car was developed while the team was Brawn GP, running without significant sponsorship, and it's unlikely they'll be able to repeat the double-diffuser trick that helped them to the 2009 driver's and team's titles.

At the very least, though, Schumacher will have to beat team mate Nico Rosberg. Quite how difficult a task that will be is hard to judge. I've never been entirely sure whether Rosberg was a middling driver flattered by a Williams which was far quicker than anyone realised, or whether the Williams was a pretty mediocre car, flattered by a lead driver who is much faster than we realise. If Schumacher isn't quicker than his team-mate, I wouldn't be surprised to see him walk out before the season's end. Though he might cite the lingering after-effects of his neck injury rather than admit he simply no longer quite has it. And nobody will be hoping harder that Schumacher's comeback falls flat than Mr Heidfeld, sitting in the reserve seat at Mercedes.

The Big Guns

Even if Schumacher's return proves a disappointment, we might scarcely notice, because there seems to be so much else to hold our attention. For starters, after a year spent licking their wounds after the bruising 2008 title fight, testing suggests Mclaren and Ferrari have regrouped and will be right at the front of the field this year. And so we have the mouth-watering prospect of the two best drivers of the post-Schumacher era continuing the battle they began as team mates at Mclaren in 2007, this time as the presumed leaders of the two most successful teams on the grid. If, as Mark Twain said, history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes, it's tempting to draw parallels with the intense battle between Mclaren's Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, who had left Mclaren for Ferrari, in 1990. Though there are many differences between them, on track at least, it's not too much of a stretch to cast Hamilton, yellow helmet and all, in the Senna role, and Alonso as the new Prost. One only hopes it doesn't end in such an ignominious fashion.

Battles of the team mates

Except, of course, it might not be so simple as Alonso versus Hamilton, because each faces a fight with a team mate much more able to take the fight to them than either Kovalainen could at Mclaren or Piquet Jr or Romain Grosjean could while Alonso was at Renault. Hamilton, after all, is paired up with no less a man than the reigning World Champion, Jenson Button. Now I'll be honest, I can't help but remember his trouncing at the hands of Giancarlo Fisichella at Renault in 2001, and his inability to get the better of Jarno Trulli there the following year, and I know he's good, but he's not convinced me he's quite in the same league as the other World Champions in the field. But on the other hand, he's undoubtedly pretty quick, and his smooth, unfussed, economical style might pay dividends now that refuelling has been banned and drivers will have to look after their tyres in the early laps. Certainly compared with the aggressive Hamilton, who has had trouble in the past making his tyres last even without the car being filled with 160kgs of fuel.

Then there's Felipe Massa, recovered from the serious head injury he sustained in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix last year. Another driver I can't quite make my mind up about. Just how good is he? Was Kimi Raikkonen never quite as fast as his early years at Mclaren made him look? Or has Felipe Massa developed into a truly first rate driver, one who deserved more credit for getting the better of Raikkonen than he has so far been given. I don't know, but when he goes up against Alonso this year, that question will be answered, one way or the other. If, as seems possible, the Ferrari F10 is the class of the field, let's hope that Massa is able to give Alonso pause for thought.

Where we left off

If we could be sure that this year would be all about Schumacher vs. Hamilton vs. Alonso vs. Button vs. Massa, that would be quite a prospect. But at the end of last season, the fastest car in the field was not the Mclaren, the Brawn or the Ferrari, but Adrian Newey's Red Bull. The last two races were won by Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, and the team retain this drive line-up going into 2010. Early indications from testing suggest their advantage might have been wiped out over the winter, and that the new car is too hard on its tyres, but it would be a brave man who discounted Adrian Newey. As for the drivers, last year Vettel had the upper hand, but then Webber was nursing a leg injury for much of the season, and it's hard to know just how much that affected him. Now fully recovered, can he re-establish himself as the team leader? Or with another year under his belt, will Vettel underline his dominance to a greater extent than ever before? My money's on Vettel, and he's got to be at least an outside bet for the World Title - the new Schumacher usurping the old Schumacher, but it's far from a foregone conclusion.

Bubbling under

If that's the likely race winners dealt with, then what of the rest? There are, I think, three teams that could spring a surprise this year, and each has their strengths and weaknesses. Let's start with Williams. The pairing of experienced Rubens Barrichello with GP2 champion and rising young star, Nico Hulkenberg looks a strong one. Of course it does rather depend on exactly how quick Hulkenberg is, but if Barrichello is perhaps not quite as quick as he was, he was still a decently quick performer at Brawn last year, and outside of the big four teams, Williams strikes me as having the best driver line-up. They're also a team which still contains that core which challenged for the title back in 2003. If I have doubts about their potential, then it's simply that I'm not sure quite what they have going for them this year that they didn't last season. Perhaps the new Cosworth engine will be better than last year's Toyota (not such an outlandish possibility, it was ex-Cosworth men moving to Mercedes' engine team that made the Mercedes V8 the class of the field) but they didn't capitalise properly on the advantage of running a double diffuser from the start, And they didn't really figure in 2009. We'll see whether 2010 is any different, I hope it is, having always had a soft-spot for the Grove team.

If Williams have the best driver line-up, then it is the other former championship winning team in the group which, to my mind, has the best driver. It is hard to know quite what to make of Renault right now. I suspect that the extent of their decline was masked to a degree by the efforts of Fernando Alonso last year, just as the beginning of the old Lotus team's slide into oblivion was hidden for a time by Senna's genius at the wheel. If that's the case, then the decision to hire BMW-refugee, Robert Kubica might prove to be a very smart one. Certainly, a talented young driver with everything to prove, who's prepared to drive the team forward, just might help them recapture the team's glory years of 2005 and 2006 when, together with Fernando Alonso, they took two World Titles. The team have been 75% sold to a Luxembourg venture capital outfit, have had their former chief designer and team principal barred from Formula 1 for their part in the Singapore crash scandal, have lost most of their sponsors, and are reduced to hiring an unproven Russian with bags of money to fill the second seat. Like Williams, though, they have shown in the past that they are capable of winning races, given the funding and a fair wind. If they don't get their act together, though, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw Kubica in a Red Bull, a Ferrari or a Mercedes in the year ahead.

If Williams and Renault's strengths lie with their drivers but there are doubts about their cars, the reverse may be true of Sauber. The team formerly known as BMW Sauber (and for the minute, now called, somewhat paradoxically, BMW Sauber Ferrari) will have been able to call on the full resources of the BMW car company in designing this year's car, just as Brawn were able to make full use of Honda's largesse to build the car that enabled Ross Brawn's eponymous team to win the title at its only attempt. As a result, it's possible the new Sauber might be very quick indeed, though it's sponsor-less state means it's hard to know quite how much stock to put by its impressive testing times. The trouble is, I'm just not convinced by the driver line-up of newcomer Kamui Kobayashi and 38-year old former Mclaren test driver Pedro De La Rosa. I'm glad Kobayashi has got a slot on the grid. He may not have done much in GP2 (though he was GP2 Asia champion last year) but he showed an impressive combativeness when he was given his late-season cameo at Toyota at the end of last year, in notable contrast with others plunged into the field mid-season. De La Rosa's signing, by contrast, I find harder to understand, unless he's either paying for the ride himself or bringing sponsors with him. During his time at Arrows, and latterly with his occasional appearances for Mclaren, he appeared a competent journeyman, but it would surely have made more sense to keep hold of Nick Heidfeld. A repeat of Brawn's achievements is unlikely, but providing the money doesn't dry up entirely and the drivers are quick enough, they could be regular point-scorers.

Snapping at the heels of the midfield

It's perhaps a little unfair of me not to include Force India in the group above. After all, they very nearly won the Belgian Grand Prix fair and square last year, and both Sutil and last-minute stand-in Vitantonio Liuzzi were right on the pace at Monza too. I can't see them repeating that kind of performance this year, but on the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if, while they don't trouble Ferrari, Mercedes, Mclaren or Red Bull, they do cause headaches for Sauber, Renault and Williams from time to time. Last year, I think they capitalised on the failure of some of the bigger teams to get fully to grips with the new regulations and that advantage will probably be gone in 2010. On the other hand, they have had plenty time to fully adapt the car to the Mercedes engine, after having to hurriedly hack away at a car originally designed around the Ferrari V8 last year, so who knows, more points, at least, should be on the cards, and Liuzzi and Sutil looks a pretty solid line-up for a team which is at best a midfield runner.

The same, I'm afraid, cannot be said of Toro Rosso. With a car based on a development of last year's Red Bull, they should be in a position to make a nuisance of themselves from time to time, but I just can't wo0rk up much enthusiasm for the driver pairing of Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari. It's not that they're particularly bad drivers, but equally I see no sign that either is particularly special although Buemi, at least, had his moments last year. In the long run, provided Red Bull remain involved, I would expect to see one or the other of them given the boot to make way for British F3 champion Daniel Ricciardo, who was rather quick .

And Finally...

The Horse Whisperer might have been going a little far, but I'd be surprised if any of the new teams do more than fight amongst themselves this year. Of the two teams which got a car to the pre-season tests, the revivified Lotus team looks to have a much more reliable, and perhaps slightly quicker car than Virgin Racing. But both look to be the best part of five seconds a lap off the pace of the front-runners at the moment, and no team, even one with the biggest development budget in the world, has ever found five seconds over a single season. In the long term, to judge at least by their choice of drivers and the hiring of Mike Gascoygne, Lotus, despite its origins in the no-mark F3 squad Litespeed, looks like it is the more serious prospect, but I suspect that 2010 could be a trying year for all concerned.

It's harder to know what to make of the team formerly known as Campos (and now going by the rather unfortunate moniker of HRT). It's rather ominous that they were unable to make any of the pre-season tests and their decision as a brand new team to run two newcomers, Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok , is, as Sir Humphrey might have said to Jim Hacker, 'brave'. On the other hand, the car is designed and built by Dallara, who know a thing or two about making racing cars and might be better placed to build an F1 car from scratch than either Virgin or Lotus. If the money's there to do the whole season, they just might surprise us all.

All will become clear next weekend, and, for all that I care little for the tedious, soulless Bahrain Autodrome, one plus side of starting the season in the Middle East is that, in contrast with the more usual Melbourne opener, my sleep patterns won't be disturbed for a second week running after staying up to watch the Oscars last Sunday...

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Monday, March 01, 2010

Motorsport on the web

Just over three years ago, I wrote a quite long piece here on the subject of motorsports journalism. I bemoaned at some length the seemingly inexorable trend towards shrinking word-counts, needlessly sensationalist news reporting seemingly borrowed from the red-tops and, my pet bug-bear, the obsession with breaking up coherent narrative into irritating 'fact-boxes' that get in the way of reading an article. At the end, I added that, if you looked hard enough, there was some surprisingly good writing to be found on the internet.

Things have changed considerably in the intervening years. Last week, I found myself following F1 testing more or less live and as it happened, thanks to Twitter. For a long time I was something of a sceptic about Twitter, doubting that a medium that limits users to 144 characters could possibly communicate anything of real worth. In recent weeks, though, and especially when I've been wanting to find out who was doing what at Jerez and Barcelona, whether through journalists who were there, such as Mark Glendenning, Edd Straw and Jonathan Noble, F1 personnel, including the very prolific Claire Williams (Williams' PR woman) or Lotus designer Mike Gascoygne. Then there's the official team accounts, with everyone from Ferrari and Red Bull to Virgin and USF1 getting in on the act. These may be essentially corporate PR channels, but the very instant, informal nature of twitter is such that they can sometimes be a bit more revealing than might be expected.

Twitter, though, is not the only new development in the world of internet motorsport reporting. The last few years has also seen the arrival of the motorsports podcast. Leading the way with this has been the appropriately named Sidepodcast. There aren't the hours in the day for me to listen to everything they put out (at least not when I'm subscribed to quite so many Radio 4 podcasts, anyway) but I do always make a point of catching their informative and entertaining chats with F1 journalist Joe Saward, in their 'An aside with Joe' feature. Last year, during or after most of the season's Grands Prix, Saward gave an interesting 'behind the scenes' insight into what was going on in the paddock and what F1 insiders were thinking.

My favourite regular motorsport podcast, though, has been the Motorsport Magazine podcast, which first broadcast in the summer of last year. A gathering of four or five middle-aged men, none of whom are any longer active as day-to-day race journalists as far as I know, might not sound like the most enthralling prospect, but I could happily listen all day to Rob Widdows, Ed Foster and Nigel Roebuck chatting through the issues of the day. If nothing else, you should seek out Roebuck's uncanny impersonations of Niki Lauda and Jackie Stewart. They've had a number of high-profile ex-racing drivers join them over the months since they began the podcast. John Watson was trenchant on the subject of Kimi Raikkonen back in Autumn of last year, but for me the real highlight was 72 year old former sportscar ace Brian Redman's appearance on the show this month. I particularly liked his blackly humorous response to the question of why he carried on after so many horrendous accidents "Having been through these three accidents, two of which I was completely conscious through, I know now that if something like that happens, you don't feel anything at the time. So why not, if anything happens, you don't feel anything."

Neither Twitter nor audio-podcasts has been the most fundamental change over the last four years though. My inspiration for starting this blog, at the beginning of 2006, came not from reading online blogs but from reading Tim Parks excellent A Season with Verona, a fan's eye account of following the struggling Italian football squad across a season which left me wondering if I couldn't do something similar with Formula 1. Weblogs existed, of course, but they were relatively new, and still largely associated in my own mind with histrionic teenagers complaining about how nobody understood them on Livejournal.

Four years on, and there are an awful lot of professional motorsport writers keeping their own blogs. Amongst the ones I read regularly are those run by Joe Saward, Adam Cooper and James Allen. The writing is often as good as, if not better than, anything which can be found in the specialist print press. And it's not only blogs. From running basic news websites, professional motorsports journalists have increased considerably their web presence. There's the GP+ magazine (I'm a subscriber, and I recommend it highly) and Autosport's online subscription service has often produced a better quality of writing than can be found in the magazine (not least, I suspect, because writers don't seem constrained to write to such limited wordcounts as they do on the print edition). Tony Dodgins' piece, this week, on what is driving Michael Schumacher to return to the cockpit in his forties is as fine a piece of writing about sport as I have seen in a long time (and an illustration of why he's a professional writer and I'm not - I made similar observations much less well back in December). The news that the print version of Autosport will itself be available in a digital edition perhaps marks a watershed moment in the way that the specialist motorsport press will be going in the years ahead.

All of which begs the question, is there any longer a place for Motorsports Ramblings? Certainly, reader numbers are not what they were in the days before the professional writers began blogging in significant numbers. And certainly the internet is not exactly short of commentary on motorsports. What I have always intended to offer is a fan's perspective, as opposed to that of a journalist or an insider, a sort of Fifth Column or MPH from the sidelines. Of course, anyone could do this, but still not all that many people are doing. This isn't intended as the site's obituary, and I plan to blog at least one more season of racing before I pack it in... I hope it's a good one and I have something worthwhile to say about it.

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