Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Signing Off...

When I started this blog, in January of 2006, the idea I had was to document one year in motorsport from a fan's perspective. I had recently finished Tim Park's A Season With Verona, possibly the best book about sport, and specifically, about being a sports fan, that I've ever read, and it made me think that it would be interesting to give a fan's eye account of a year in the sport. I was aiming for something along the lines of Mark Hughes' weekly column in Autosport and its equally interesting predecessor, Nigel Roebuck's Fifth Column. And as it turned out, I kept at it a little longer than I had really intended.

I'm calling it a day now, though. For one thing, there have been times over the last year or so when it has felt like a bit of a chore. Besides which, I have begun to feel like I'm repeating myself a little too often for my own good. Certainly, the experience has given me an increased appreciation for those who can turn out worthwhile content on a weekly basis year after year.

The other reason I'm calling time on the site is that it simply isn't being read as much as it once was. Perhaps people have begun to notice I'm repeating myself. But more likely, the fact that an increasing number of professional F1 journalists have taken up blogging over the last year (Joe Saward, Adam Cooper and James Allen to name but three) means that the potential readership for the ramblings of someone with no inside knowledge of what is going on, who is simply watching events on television and giving his two cents, is shrinking somewhat. After all, most of us only have time to read so many websites, and if I no longer feel that I can keep up with all those writing professionally about F1, then the readership for what is purely a fan blog is not going to be huge.

It's been fun though. And for the record, here are some of the posts I've been proudest of over the last five years.

Rossi: The Real Deal
- Wherein I refuse to be over-excited by the performance of a certain motorcycle star in a Ferrari F2005.

Monty This Seems Strange To Me
I remember writing this in a hotel room in Bordeaux just after hearing that Montoya had walked out on Mclaren to go stock car racing. Nearly 5 years later, he's still to win on an oval.

The Write Stuff
- Writing about writing about motorsport

A Dose of Unreality - Simulators were perhaps not quite so ubiquitous as they are now, but here's what I thought about them at the tail end of 2006.

The March of Time
- The long view of how F1 has changed over the last six decades.

C'est La Guerre - Some thoughts on the falling out between Alonso and Hamilton during their time together at Mclaren.

The Damage Done
- The saddest racing story of the last decade or so - the mutually assured destruction of the Champ Car/IRL war.

Being There...
- Wherein, for once, I'm not just an armchair correspondent...

A Golden Age?
- Irking the purists, by suggesting that the grid of 2008 might just have been the most talented the sport has ever seen.

Last Chance Saloon
- One or two of you may know I write fiction in my spare time. Here's a bit of writerly self-indulgence, in which I enter inside Mark Webber's skull, just before qualifying for the 2009 German GP

Received Wisdom
- I don't know how many times I've read that aerodynamic downforce is the reason F1 cars can no longer pass each other. But is it the case?

Mid Life Crisis?
- Why, exactly, did Michael Schumacher decide to get back in the ring?

Worth A Thousand Words
- Cuttings from my photo albums...

Teen Spirit
- Teenage F1 drivers down the decades.

I might not be gone for good. Motor racing takes a break over the winter, and perhaps I could learn something from that. Maybe I'll come back feeling newly enthusiastic about all this come March of next year. If you're a regular reader, I hope you've liked some of what I've written over the last few years.



Monday, November 22, 2010

The Motorsports Ramblings Top 10 - 2010

A more difficult year in which to make this assessment than many, I think. It may be less authoritative than the Autocourse list, but on the other hand, I'm getting my top ten in first. Feel free to argue...

1.Sebastian Vettel

Last year, Sebastian Vettel might have been a title contender, but errors, both his own and those of his team, meant that he was never really a serious threat to Jenson Button and Brawn. This year was not free of mistakes either: Running into the back of Button at Spa, and into the side of Webber at Istanbul; Falling asleep behind the safety car at Hungary and picking up a penalty which cost him a near certain victory. That, though, was not enough to stop Vettel from claiming the title. Even those mistakes aside, his was not a perfect year. After starting the season with a bang, (but for engine and wheel-bearing woes, he would have won all three of the opening Grands Prix) he appeared to go off the boil in the following races. At Spain and at Monaco, team mate Webber appeared to have established the upper hand. This was followed by their clash at Istanbul. With most impartial observers placing the lion's share of the blame in Vettel's quarter, and with Webber recovering to finish 3rd, this might have marked the end of Vettel's championship challenge.

Instead, however, it marked something of a positive turning point for Vettel. He chalked up his second win of the season at Valencia and in the following races at Silverstone, Hockenheim and Hungary, he appeared the quicker of the two Red Bull drivers – though misfortune and unforced errors meant that Webber won two of the three races and appeared to be heading out of Vettel's reach in the points table.

It was his drives at the end of the year which secured him the title, though. After clattering into Button at Spa, he really got his stuff together. But for an engine failure while leading in South Korea, he would have won all of the last four races that season, and established at last a clear upper hand over Mark Webber. When the team didn't order him aside for Webber in Interlagos, despite the latter's apparently much stronger position in the title fight, it seemed at the time that Red Bull were about to sacrifice the driver's title to keep their long-term number one driver on side. As it turned out, Vettel repaid their faith in spades. Where Webber crumpled under the pressure, and Ferrari were panicked into a poor pit call in Abu Dhabi, Vettel finally took the head of the driver's points table at the only point where it really mattered. A worthy addition to the pantheon of champions.

2. Fernando Alonso

Was the Ferrari F10 really a title contending car? There were times, most notably at Silverstone and at Istanbul, fast courses which put a premium on aerodynamic efficiency as the fifth gear corners require as much downforce as can be mustered, when the car looked a very long way from contention indeed. No match for Mercedes or even Renault, never mind Mclaren or Red Bull.

Whenever the Ferrari was anywhere close to being in contention though, Alonso got the most out of it. Five wins was about as much as anyone could ask from a driver in the F10 this year. At least when he was up against Red Bull's RB6. The Singapore victory, in particular, stood out on a weekend when the Red Bull was surely the quickest car on the circuit. At Monza, he was calm and error-free, not allowing himself to get spooked when Jenson Button got ahead at the start, and in tricky conditions at South Korea, he was in the pound seats when the Red Bulls ran into trouble. Remember, Felipe Massa didn't pick up a single victory all year (although one might argue that the German Grand Prix was by rights his).

That said, he does to some extent have only himself to blame for not claiming the title this year. The penalty for the uncharacteristic jump-start at Shanghai, writing off his car in a practice shunt in Monaco that forced him to start from the back, and crashing out of the Belgian Grand Prix all cost him points, although it must be said that his recovery drive to 6th from the back row at Monaco was as good a drive as any put in by the frontrunners.

In Alonso, Ferrari have perhaps found their new Schumacher. A man whom the team can unite around in a way that they were never able to do around Raikkonen. If this is unlikely to result in a period of dominance for Alonso and Ferrari in the manner that Schumacher managed in the early part of the last decade, that is, I would argue, more of a reflection on the sheer quality of the opposition than anything else.

3. Lewis Hamilton

There were times when the man who had until a fortnight ago been the sport's youngest ever champion, and who is still only 25, seemed able to conjure a magic which saw him drag a far from perfect Mclaren far further up the field than it really had any business being. Did a Mclaren, which Button could only qualify 14th, really have any business finishing up second in the British Grand Prix? And what about Hungary? Unlike recent cars from the Woking team, the MP4/25 never looked happy in the slow, twisty stuff, and yet Hamilton dragged the car up into fourth and, in the light of Vettel's penalty, might have got it on the podium had his gearbox not packed up.

His win at Istanbul might have owed much to luck - and specifically the Red Bull drivers' self-destruction, but his other two victories - at a Canadian Grand Prix where the new surface kept destroying the tyres, and at a wet Spa, making up for the travesty of the 'stolen' win of 2008, were classic Hamilton. Taking a car which was not the fastest on the day by the scruff of the neck, and keeping ahead through sheer force of will.

Unfortunately, there were classic Hamilton errors as well. He over-drove at Shanghai in the wet, and might have won had he been a touch calmer. That, though, was understandable. Spearing into the side of Felipe Massa on the opening lap at Monza was just silly, and might well have cost him a realistic chance at the title. Likewise, his move on Webber at Singapore was foolhardy. Arguably, had he left the Aussie a touch more space, he not only would have avoided a race-ending collision, but would have comfortably sailed past to boot. If the accidents at Monza and Singapore were his own fault, like all the other title contenders, he could point to instances of sheer bad fortune. The timing of his qualifying run at Sepang that left him stuck 20th on the grid. The gearbox failure in Hungary, and the exploding tyre that took him out of an impressive second in the Spanish Grand Prix.

There's a reasonable argument that Hamilton had to drive at ten tenths, to take every 50/50 chance that came his way, because his Mclaren was no match for the Red Bulls, or even, in the latter part of the season, for the Ferraris. And that being so, one fears for his rivals if Woking turn out a car the equal of their 2007 or 2008 chassis next year.

4. Robert Kubica

How good a job did Robert Kubica do for Renault this year? With rookie Vitaly Petrov, an unknown quantity, in the other car, it was hard to know for sure. In the hands of Petrov, at no time did the car ever appear the equal to those of Red Bull, Mclaren, Ferrari or even Mercedes.

On occasion, though, it was a real front-runner in Kubica's hands. No other driver had quite such a margin over his team mate. Comparing each driver's fastest lap of the weekend, Kubica was nearly a second a lap faster than his team mate over the season as a whole, and outqualified him 17-2. That, on its own, might be no more than would be expected of a man rated as a potential future champion, paired up with a rookie of uncertain provenance. Scoring three podiums with only the fifth quickest car in the field, in an intensely competitive season, however, confirmed to many of us after the blip at BMW last year, that Kubica really is something special. Is there another driver who could have got the Renault on the front row at Monaco? Perhaps, but if there is, I would hazard that said driver's name is Hamilton or Alonso, and that's compliment enough. And then there was that stunning performance in qualifying at Suzuka. Had he not lost a wheel on the opening laps, he might have caused Webber a lot of grief that afternoon. Podiums in mixed conditions at Spa and at Albert Park showed that, while the Renault might not have been competitive enough to enable him to mix it with the front-runners in normal conditions, he was ideally placed to take advantage when the weather threw a curve-ball. Time will tell, but if Renault, or Lotus, or whatever the team end up being called next year, continue their progress, Kubica could be ideally placed to 'do an Alonso' and lead the former Toleman team right back into contention.

5. Mark Webber

Has he blown the best shot at the title that he is ever likely to get? Webber, through his career, had been famous for his bad luck and seemed for a time to be following in the footsteps of fellow Antipodean Chris Amon. This year, though, fortune smiled on him. Unlike all his other title rivals, he suffered no race-ending mechanical failures, and in the Red Bull RB6, he had a car that would pass muster in the company of the Mclaren MP4/4, the Ferrari F2002 and the Williams FW14. One of the all time great racing cars.

But with fortune smiling on him for once, he didn't quite deliver. He had a scrappy start to the year, finishing an anonymous 8th in Bahrain and persistently spiking his own guns at his home race in Australia, finishing 9th after clobbering the back of Hamilton's Mclaren in the course of a scrappy, error-strewn performance. He began the fight-back with pole at Sepang, but left the door open for his team mate in a manner I expect he rued for the rest of the season.

His purple patch began in Spain, with a lights to flag victory which left Vettel wondering where he had disappeared to. He repeated the performance a fortnight later at Monaco, with a drive that was as good as any that Vettel managed all season, mastering the ultimate driver's circuit. Then came Turkey and the collision with Vettel that cost him a possible victory. To my mind, the blame for that accident must rest primarily with Vettel, but the team appeared to see things differently and that apparent vote of no confidence from his team seemed to unsettle him. The situation only worsened with the 'front wing' controversy at Silverstone when the team removed the upgraded front wing from his car and gave it to his team mate, leaving him wondering where priorities lay at Red Bull. He responded with an impressive victory that weekend but thereafter, he was rarely quite on the pace of his team mate. A Schumacher-esque drive secured victory at Hungary, but had Vettel not been penalised for failing to keep up with him under the safety car, he would have been only second. The last time he really got the upper hand on Vettel came at Spa, though on that day, he was beaten by Hamilton.

In the closing races at Singapore, Korea, Japan, Brazil and Abu Dhabi, Vettel established a decisive upper hand in terms of pace, but even that might not have been enough to secure him the title had Webber not dropped a wheel onto a damp kerb in South Korea and thrown away a certain second place. It was a mistake that may haunt him for the rest of his days. He's always seemed one of the more grounded members of the paddock, though, and watching footage of his accident at Valencia earlier in the year, he may simply be grateful to be alive and in one piece.

6. Jenson Button

I have to confess, I feared that, by leaving Brawn for Lewis Hamilton's Mclaren, Button was heading straight into the lion's den and that the 2008 champion, who had matched no lesser a man than Alonso in his first year in the sport, and who had all but killed Heikki Kovalainen's career stone dead, would make light work of Button. As it turned out, Button racked up two impressive wins in the rain at the beginning of the year before the more feted Hamilton had even got off the starting block. In both cases, his ability to perform on slick tyres on a still damp circuit helped him to victory though at Shanghai, especially, I was taken aback to see he simply appeared faster than Hamilton in the wet. Thereafter, he was never quite so quick again, and did not win another race.

Unlike his main title rivals, its hard to point to a single significant mistake on Button's part all year, but the truth is, too many times, he simply wasn't quite fast enough. Failing to break out of Q2 at Silverstone and Hungary something Hamilton was able to do without breaking a sweat indicated that an old Button shortcoming, his inability to find a way of working around a car not performing to his liking, is still there. After Shanghai, the only occasion on which he actually looked quicker than Hamilton was at Monza, where his ability to make the combination of the f-duct and a very high downforce setting (by Monza standards, he was running a barn door on his rear wing) enabled him to come very close to stealing victory from Alonso. In 2010, Button showed that his 2009 title was not solely a matter of having the good fortune to find himself in the right place at the right time at Brawn, and that there is a real talent there especially when the weather is inclement, but at the same time I don't see a driver in quite the same league as the very best of the current crop. Good, but not quite a Hamilton, a Vettel or an Alonso.

7. Nico Rosberg

I've never been able to figure out how quick Nico Rosberg really is. Was he dragging an uncompetitive Williams far further up the field than it really deserved to be, or was he flattered by team mates who had no real business being in Formula 1? 2010 provided no definitive answer to this question. Was Nico Rosberg the hitherto undiscovered superstar who became the only man ever to go up against Michael Schumacher in equal machinery and come out on top? Or was he kept honest by a race-rusty 41 year old, way past his best? I don't think we can know the answer to that question, and so one is forced to judge Rosberg solely on what he got out of the first Mercedes F1 car to grace the grid since 1955.

Three podiums was not a bad score for a man driving what was only the fourth quickest car in the field. He came within a couple of points of dislodging Felipe Massa from sixth in the drivers' points standings, and it is hard to point to a single significant mistake from the Finno-German driver all year. On the other hand, there weren't really any occasions on which he looked transcendentally quick. No equivalent of Kubica's giant-killing performances at Monaco and Spa. Probably his best drive of the year came in the wet at Shanghai, where an inspired decision to stay out on dry tyres as the track got wet allowed him to run second for much of the distance, and to pick up his first podium of the year on a day when his vastly experienced regenmeister team mate looked all at sea. On the whole, the impression was given of a good, solid professional doing a decent job rather than of a superstar and world champion in the making. Perhaps, if Schumacher aborts his come-back and Sutil or Heidfeld gets the second Mercedes seat, we will finally get an answer to the question of whether Rosberg is or is not as quick as his dad used to be.

8. Rubens Barrichello

The Brazilian driver, in his eighteenth full season in the sport, was never going to add to his total of 11 race wins in a Williams Cosworth. And a part of me wondered why, after a surprise opportunity to compete for the world title arose at Brawn last year and enabled him to win a couple of races, he didn't just call it a day. It would have been easy for him to mark time. As it was, he stepped up to the plate and led something of a resurgence for the Grove team. He out-qualified new team mate Nico Hulkenberg 13-6 and scored the lion's share of the team's points. The Williams' Cosworth engines were never the match of the Mercedes and Ferrari powered opposition, with their power units particularly prone to losing horsepower over the course of their life (19 races with 8 engines) and yet he frequently dragged the car into Q3 and had a stunning run mid-season wherein he picked up a fourth place in a topsy-turvy race at Valencia and somehow followed this up with a fifth at Silverstone, scene of the greatest drive of his career back in 2003, and a circuit on which Williams have tended to struggle in recent years. Indeed, from Valencia onwards, he only once failed to make the cut for Q3 - a slightly better record than that achieved by former team mate Button, who had the distinct advantage of a Mclaren Mercedes at his disposal. Like Riccardo Patrese nearly twenty years before, the Brazilian veteran appears to be having something of an Indian summer to his career at Williams. His calm and experience will come in especially useful next year if, as expected, the team replace Hulkenberg with the mercurial but well-funded Pastor Maldonado.

9. Kamui Kobayashi

The Japanese driver whose career looked washed up only a year ago after a lacklustre second year in GP2 took a little while to get to grips with F1 with Sauber in 2010. In his early races, there was little sign of the feisty youngster who had traded blows with Jenson Button in the two races with Toyota at the end of 2009 which had made his name. But then the Sauber, at least in the early part of the year, was really not a competitive proposition, at least on circuits requiring any significant measure of mechanical grip. When Peter Sauber's team began to extract some pace from the car, it was Kamui who took full advantage. Dragging the car into Q3 and scoring the reconstituted team's first points in Turkey, he would follow up with a particularly fine drive at Valencia, making an unusual tyre strategy pay and stealing 7th from Fernando Alonso on the very last corner. Another 7th place finish was the reward for a fighting drive at his 'home' circuit of Suzuka (though, in fact, as he'd spent almost his entire junior career in Europe, he hadn't raced there in years) at which he single handedly demonstrated that it is possible to overtake in a modern F1 car, scything through the field from 13th after his pit-stop to finish 7th and showing it is possible to overtake in a modern F1 car, providing you show enough initiative. He repeated the performance, albeit in a slightly more low-key way, at Brazil a few weeks later, passing both Toro Rossos on track to nab a point. If his race-craft was second to none, his qualifying form was rather more erratic. He was frequently bested by veteran Pedro De La Rosa in the first part of the year, and its something he'll have to address if his career is to progress, but to my mind, he did enough to establish himself as the best of the new drivers this year, in spite of having arguably the patchiest pre-F1 CV of any of them.

10. Nico Hulkenberg

Ok, if it hadn't been for that stunning pole on a drying track at Interlagos then I might have given the tenth spot to Sutil, Glock or Massa, and I'm not convinced that Willi Weber's latest young charger is in the same league as the man who established the former Hotelier as a driver manager par excellence. He struggled in the first part of the season to match Rubens Barrichello, but as the year wore on, he was increasingly able to get on terms with his more experienced team mate. A spirited drive in Monza was a highlight, although it must be said he was lucky not to be penalised given the number of times he missed the first chicane while defending his position from Mark Webber's Red Bull. And then, of course, there was that pole in Interlagos. Yes, it owed a certain amount to luck, and he was running a high-downforce set-up that would make his life difficult on race day, but still, he was able to find grip from slick tyres on a still damp circuit that eluded all his more experienced and highly feted rivals. If race day was a disappointment by comparison, he nonetheless defended his position maturely, making the likes of Alonso and Hamilton work to get past him, without doing anything stupid and taking a title contender out of the race. It's a shame that Williams' financial situation is such that they probably can't afford to keep him on next year.

The Rest...

There are a number of drivers who have had legitimate claim on the lower reaches of this list. Felipe Massa picked up five podiums for Ferrari on his return from injury and once or twice even appeared to have the upper hand on Alonso. There was little sign, though, of the driver who usurped presumed number one Kimi Raikkonen in previous years at Ferrari. After being asked to move over for his team mate at the German Grand Prix, he never really looked a match for the Spaniard. The Scuderia might reasonably have expected more than a smattering of podiums from Massa, given that his team mate went into the final race leading the world championship.

Adrian Sutil did a decent job with Force India, making the most of the team's early season form to rack up a decent points tally. Highlights included holding Hamilton off for fifth in Malaysia and keeping it on the road for another fifth place in Belgium. He pretty much did for the idea that Vitantonio Liuzzi was a great unappreciated talent.

My final contender for inclusion in this list was Virgin Racing's Timo Glock. It would have been easy for the ex-Toyota driver to have gone to sleep, faced with a season toiling away at the tail end of the grid in a car that was four or five seconds a lap off the front-running pace. Instead, he completely dominated team mate Di Grassi and got about as much as it was possible to do so from out of the Virgin. When strategy or weather conditions favoured him, he occasionally got the car a good bit further up the order than it really merited, holding back a queue of early pitters in Singapore, and threatening to become the first man from the new teams to break through into Q2 on merit in Brazil (I'm excluding the freak wet qualifying in Malaysia where anybody who wasn't able to set a time as the track dried in the final part of the session was never going to get through).

One man I haven't mentioned so far, of course, has been Michael Schumacher, whose come-back was decidedly underwhelming. There were occasions on which he had the better of team mate Rosberg, but more often than not, the man whose sportscar racing career only missed overlapping with that of Nico's father Keke by a single season looked a shadow of his former self. About the only trace of the old Schumacher was evident in his still appalling track manners. Running his former protege, Massa off the road in Canada and engaging in blocking of breathtaking stupidity while vainly trying to prevent fellow veteran Rubens Barrichello from nabbing a point for tenth from him in Hungary. After an absolute nadir in Singapore, he appeared to find something of his old mojo in the closing races of the year. It will be interesting to see whether this was a flash in the pan, or a sign that he's finally shaken off his race-rustiness.

Another veteran driver making a return to F1 after several years away was Pedro De La Rosa, who was brought in to provide some experience for the Sauber line-up. He was probably better than his results suggested, and suffered the lion's share of Sauber's mechanical woes over the course of the season, but I always thought it a little odd that he had been chosen in preference to long-time Sauber man Nick Heidfeld. It wasn't such a surprise to see him let go to make way for Heidfeld after the Belgian Grand Prix. At 39, his F1 career must surely now be over.

Of the rest, Liuzzi was inexplicably disappointing, typically half a second or so slower than team mate Sutil. I can only suppose there's some financial reason for his continued presence at Force India, as I would have been inclined by now to stick test driver Paul Di Resta in the car and see what the man who beat Sebastian Vettel to the F3 Euroseries title back in 2006 can do. Vitaly Petrov deserves some credit for occasionally besting team mate Robert Kubica at Renault, but more often than not was a very long way from the Pole's pace. The second Renault seat has seemingly never been a happy place, and again, money seems the best explanation as to why Petrov is in the car rather than, say, Glock, Heidfeld or Kovalainen.

On the subject of Kovalainen, the Finn went some way to repairing his reputation after taking a real beating in his two years as team mate to Lewis Hamilton at Mclaren. Mike Gascoyne's hurriedly put together Lotus was a deeply conventional car and was never likely to trouble the midfield, but both Kovalainen and team mate Trulli got on with the job of getting the most out of it. Assessing quite how well they were doing is rather tricky, as they were essentially in a private race with the Virgins, but both appeared surprisingly upbeat, and they usually got the better of Richard Branson's low-cost F1 team. Team boss Tony Fernandes appears serious, so there's a good chance the 2011 car, which will have a Red Bull gearbox, will be a more competitive proposition.

Toro Rosso youngsters Sebastian Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari looked to have got to grips with F1, and looked feisty on occasion, but neither did anything to persuade me he is a star in the making. Alguersuari's best drive came right at the end of the year, holding back Felipe Massa's much faster Ferrari for 9th in Abu Dhabi. Buemi usually appeared slightly the quicker of the two and scored the lion's share of the team's points, but I couldn't help but think that a team with a Red Bull chassis and a Ferrari engine ought to be achieving more. I'd be inclined to drop one of them and stick Ricciardo in the car next year.

Last, and by most accounts least, Bruno Senna, Karun Chandhok, Sakon Yamamoto and Christian Klien all found their time wasted driving the ashes of Adrian Campos' F1 dream. The HRT was frankly embarrassingly slow, given it was the work of the world's premier off-the-peg racing car manufacturer, Dallara. Assessing their relative merits is rather tricky. Bruno Senna appeared a shade quicker than Chandhok, just as he did in GP2, though Senna's failure to out-pace Yamamoto suggests to me that he's nothing special either. Christian Klien reminded us all that he existed by stepping into the car on occasion. I hope he wasn't paying for the privilege...

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Last weekend was the first time since the Formula 1 World Championship was established in 1950 that four drivers went into the final round with a mathematical chance of becoming World Champion. The title battle might have lacked the personal edge and intensity of those between Senna and Prost in the late 80s and early 90s, or even that between Schumacher and Alonso in 2006, but in terms of the sheer number of serious contenders, I can't think of another season which compares.

In the end, it was Sebastian Vettel who walked away with the title. Readers of this blog will know that personally, I had hoped that Mark Webber would win the championship. Partly because he had always struck me as someone who had established a front-line F1 career against the odds, who for years had looked like he would never get the title-contending car I was always convinced his talent merited, and, in part simply because if he were to win the title, it would probably be the last time that the F1 World Champion is older than me.

Vettel, however, was a worthy winner. On balance, the man who most deserved to come away from the desert on Sunday with the winner's trophy. He made mistakes, yes: Clattering into the back of Jenson Button at Spa, eliminating himself in Istanbul when he moved across on Mark Webber, failing to abide by the safety car rules in Hungary. But, equally, he suffered more mechanical misfortune than any of is major title rivals: The engine that lapsed onto 7 cylinders in Bahrain; the faulty wheel bearing that took him out of contention in Australia while he was in a commanding lead; and finally, the engine failure in Korea, which looked to have robbed him of any realistic chance at the title. That he was able to triumph in spite of these set-backs was down in part to the fact that the Red Bull RB6 was the class of the field, but his own prodigious pace was equally significant. The ten pole positions, the times he drove away into the distance leaving everyone else wondering where he had gone – at Albert Park before the car broke, at Suzuka and, appropriately enough, at the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi.

That speed alone, though, might not have been enough for him to have secured the title were it not the unusually high error-rate of all the title contenders this year. As teams and drivers packed up under cover of darkness at Abu Dhabi last Sunday, Hamilton, Alonso and Webber might all have been ruing mistakes made, wondering what might have been. What if... Mark Webber, especially. Unlike the other two, he does not have a championship to his name, and at the age of 34, with what appears from the outside to be a somewhat frosty relationship with his own team, one has to wonder if the best opportunity he is ever likely to have has slipped through his fingers. He may be a couple of years younger than Schumacher was when he won his seventh title at Ferrari in 2004, but Vettel, who is only five years older than Webber's step-son, is only likely to get faster. Webber has to hope that the 2011 Red Bull is every bit as competitive as this year's. And even then, that might not be enough.

The lapse of concentration that saw him crash out of the Korean Grand Prix, throwing away a near certain second place and, given Vettel's retirement, perhaps a fifth victory. Had he won that race, he might well have found the team willing to order Vettel out of his way at Interlagos, and he would now be World Champion. Nor was that his only mistake. There was his almighty accident in Valencia, after he ran into the back of Heikki Kovalainen's much slower Lotus, his scrappy early races in Bahrain and, especially, Australia, from which he really should have scored more points, given the potential of the Red Bull. And leaving the door open for Sebastian Vettel at the start in Malaysia after securing pole.

Lewis Hamilton's Mclaren was not, over the season as a whole, anything like a match for the Red Bulls, and by the end of the year, Ferrari had also appeared to have moved ahead of the Woking team on performance. As such, three wins and fourth in the points table was not a bad result. But he could have had so much more had he been a little more patient at the start at Monza, had he given Mark Webber a little more room while trying to pass at Singapore and had he taken a slightly more measured approach to the wet races in China and Australia, not been panicked into making the wrong calls on tyres. That, in spite of these errors, and notwithstanding the fact that the 2010 Mclaren was probably only the third quickest car this year, he was still in with an outside chance of the championship at the final race, is testament to Hamilton's incredible natural speed. Discussing the merits of the current F1 grid with a friend and former kart-racer earlier in the year, he expressed the view that in terms of sheer pace, Hamilton was on a different level from anyone else on the grid, even Alonso, even Kubica, even Vettel. And there were times, especially those occasions where he was running top three or four while his world champion team mate was struggling to get out of the midfield, when it was hard to disagree. 2010, though, was not to be his year, and just as with his first season, back in 2007, it was his occasional hot-headedness which prevented him claiming a second world title. If he ever learns to tame that impetuous streak, he might dominate the sport in the manner of Michael Schumacher in the first part of the last decade.

It was probably a good thing that, thanks to a rather eccentric pit strategy from Ferrari in Abu Dhabi and the near impossibility of overtaking there (tip for the track owners – get rid of the stupid fiddly bit leading up to the hairpin before the back straight), Fernando Alonso was denied a third title. Had Alonso secured the championship by less than 7 points, then it would be hard to forget the team's barely disguised order to Massa to hand victory to him at Hockenheim, which seemed about as clear a case of team orders as ever I have seen (I don't have a problem with team orders in F1, but by my reading, the rulebook does). Credit where it is due to Alonso, though. When he was nearly 50 points adrift at the mid-way point in the season, he was insistent that he would win the world title this year. At the time it seemed a most implausible claim. With Ferrari struggling to match Renault and Mercedes at Istanbul and Silverstone, never mind Mclaren or Red Bull, and with but one win to his name at that point, it seemed unlikely to say the least. And yet, he would go into the final race with an 8 point lead, knowing that a top 2 finish would secure in the title no matter what. His wins at Monza and at Singapore, under intense pressure, were a good illustration of why many consider him the most complete driver on the grid. Had he and his team not been frightened into an early pit stop that left him staring at Vitaly Petrov's gearbox all evening, his name would by now have joined those of Lauda, Stewart, Senna and Piquet as three-time champions.

Yet it would be wrong the blame the failure to bring the title back to Maranello entirely on that pit-call. Had Alonso not dropped his car into the barriers at Spa, had he not crashed out on Saturday at Monaco, forcing a back-row start at the one circuit where you really don't want to start at the back of the grid, had he handed back track position to Robert Kubica at Silverstone and avoided the drive-through penalty, he might well have had the title secured long before they got to Abu Dhabi. As with Hamilton and Webber, Alonso could not blame bad fortune alone for his eventual defeat.

Actually, the one man among the title contenders who didn't really make a mistake worthy of the name all year was reigning world champion, Jenson Button. His problem was that, not withstanding those two classy victories in the rain at Albert Park and Shanghai, he simply wasn't quite fast enough. Typically about a couple of tenths down on Hamilton over a single lap, he continued to struggle in qualifying and his race pace, while better, wasn't quite enough to compensate, given how difficult passing is in modern F1. Whether by accident or design, Mclaren appear to have hired the perfect number 2 to Lewis Hamilton. Quicker than Kovalainen ever was, any driver capable of out-pacing Hamilton in the rain, as he did at Shanghai, has a fair mastery of his art, but I expect Button may join the long list of English one-time champions. He rarely took points off the younger Briton and there didn't appear to be any of the tension evident in relations between Webber and Vettel over at Red Bull. One more season at Mclaren then off to enjoy his retirement?

It may have been book-ended by two processions in the Middle East, but the 2010 season turned out to be something of a vintage year. The most open championship battle that I can recall in a quarter century of following the sport. Some classic races along the way, and a new world champion crowned at the age of just 23. If Mercedes and Renault (or Lotus, or Lotus Renault, or whatever they end up being known as) can get their act together next year, 2011 could be even more open.

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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Looking Back - Part 2

A fortnight back, I wrote an article which looked at the changes that have taken place in the F1 world over the last 25 years. That piece focused on the changes which have taken place in the design of the cars themselves - the move from relatively aerodynamically simple, manual transmission 1.5l turbo cars with upwards of 1200BHP in qualifying trim to normally aspirated 2.4 litre cars with not much more than half the power, but which are still perhaps 8-10 seconds a lap faster.

There have however, been equally seismic changes to the sport itself - the way it is run, the shape of the Grand Prix weekend, and most obviously, where the races are held. In 1985, there was a race in every continent except Asia (it would be another couple of years before the Japanese Grand Prix emerged as a permanent fixture) but 11 of the 16 races took place in Europe. This year, there has been a race in every continent except Africa (post-apartheid South Africa might seem a much more acceptable place for international sport than was the case back in the mid 1980s, but it would seem there is not anyone wanting to pay CVC/FOM's fees) but far and away the biggest change has been that the championship is much less Euro-centric.

We've lost the Portuguese, San Marino, Dutch and Austrian Grands Prix, taking the total down from 11 to 9. A more significant change when one remembers that the calendar itself has expanded from 16 to 19 races. Asia, however, now has no less than 8 races, which perhaps reflects changes in the overall balance of economic power in the world over the last 25 years. This change, though, has not yet let to an influx of Asian drivers into the sport. There have been a smattering of Japanese drivers over the last 25 years, though none has won a race and - while some of them were quite competent - none particularly looked like they would. More recently, there have been a couple of Indian drivers - Karun Chandhok and Narain Karthikeyan, though I can't help but feel that they have been there because Bernie Ecclestone thought their presence might be helpful in bringing about an Indian Grand Prix rather than because either looked like they would achieve anything behind the wheel.

Perhaps the location of the tracks has not been the most significant change though, really. Look at the old Zeltweg or Zandvoort circuits - with their winding up hill and down dale layouts and basic facilities, and compare with the expensive architecture and wide open expanses of somewhere like the Shanghai International Circuit or Sepang. The former looked almost like they were natural features of the countryside, like tarmac rivers. The latter look very obviously designed.

There are a number of reasons for the change in the shape and design of F1 circuits over the last quarter century. For one thing, it's much harder than it used to be to get planning permission to build a racing circuit in the kind of pristine countryside in which Spa Francorchamps or the old Nordschliefe were built. Brownfield industrial sites and run down docks, on the other hand, a ten a penny. Perhaps more importantly, safety requirements have become much more stringent – run-off areas are now vastly greater than they were back in the mid 1980s. Look how close the barriers were to the circuit at some of the quicker corners at the old Zeltweg, for instance. As a result, it is much harder to build an F1-standard circuit that fits naturally into the countryside. Look, for instance, at the chicanes that were inserted into Imola following the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger in 1994. The reason for them? Extending the run-off area would have meant felling ancient trees and diverting a river. It is for similar reasons that I was never much inclined to take seriously the mid-2000s rumours that F1 would be heading back to Brands Hatch.

If you're going to build an F1-standard circuit, far and away the easiest way to do it is to buy some waste ground which gives you the freedom to do whatever you want with it. Vast tarmac run-off areas, the ability to have the track go which ever way the designer wants, without having to take account of natural features like rivers or hills. At its best, the result can be quite appealing – I still rather like the Sepang circuit with its mix of long straights, slow hairpins providing overtaking opportunities, and fast sweeping variable-radius corners that test both car and driver's balance and feel. On the other hand, Bahrain, Shanghai and Abu Dhabi do little for me, and certainly don't make up for the loss of Zeltweg, Zandvoort, or even the old Paul Ricard circuit in France. And the Dutch, in particular, were (and still are) passionate about the sport in a way that the Bahrainis and Chinese do not appear to be.

If the cars have got faster, the circuits more expansive and less dangerous, then what of the men behind the wheel? Perhaps the most significant change from the driver's point of view can be gleaned by looking at the list of drivers entered for the opening race in Rio that year. By the season's end, two were no longer with us – Germans Manfred Winkelhock and Stefan Bellof both losing their lives in sportscar races that year. A year later, Elio De Angelis would perish in a testing accident in the low-line Brabham BT55 at Paul Ricard. They would be followed, in 1994 by Ayrton Senna and, six years later, by Michele Alboreto, who died testing an Audi sportscar at the Lausitzring. I hope it is not unduly optimistic to speculate that a similar mortality rate is unlikely to befall the grid of 2010. While motorsport may never be truly safe, in the workaday sense of the word, and while by 1985, it was already much, much less dangerous than it had been in earlier times, there can be little doubting that drivers of that era were forced to contemplate their mortality in a way that their counterparts today are not.

And this, I think, is a part of the explanation for a lot of the changes we have seen in the Grand Prix driver's life over that period. 1985 marked perhaps the crossover point between the earlier, free-wheeling amateur spirit of the 1950s and 60s and the much more sterile, professional attitude of today's racers. Drivers who always knew that it could all end suddenly tomorrow might have been more independent-minded, less inclined to toe the party line for their teams, more willing to speak their minds. It is hard to imagine a James Hunt, or even a Niki Lauda or a Keke Rosberg, lasting long in today's more sanitised sport. And perhaps because of this, or perhaps because the sport was not quite so hyper-competitive as it is now, you would find drivers who would smoke, who would drink heavily, and who took the view that as long as you could get through the race in one piece, there was little reason to compromise your lifestyle with an unduly onerous fitness regime.

A number of developments came along to change this. Niki Lauda, a man who had a very methodical, professional approach to his sport from the outset, employed a fitness guru by the name of Willi Dungl to speed his way back to full health after his fiery accident at the Nurburgring in 1976, and in the years that followed, other drivers began to follow suit, seeing that there was an advantage to be had from being in better physical shape than those around you by the end of a 2 hour Grand Prix. Even without that search for the unfair advantage, the increasing cornering speeds of more modern F1 cars might have forced drivers to spend more time in the gym. When Nico Rosberg tested his father's title winning Williams last year, he remarked on how physically easy it was to drive – because while it might not have had power-steering and he might have had to physically change gear, the downforce and g-loadings through the quick corners were nothing like those which the cars of 2010 are capable of.

But the increasing importance of physical fitness was only one part of the story. Where once, drivers were very much their own bosses, the influx of really serious money, much of it from international corporations mindful of such things as 'brand image' has played an extensive part in turning drivers into salaried mouthpieces of their employers. And so it is that even highly respected journalists now find it difficult to get face-time with drivers without a PR-minder being present, and drivers are expected to be 'on message' and never to be critical of the team or engine supplier who is pouring millions into the sport – a good chunk of which is going directly to the driver's bank account.

However, the single biggest change to the sport has been not in the cars, which are essentially more refined versions of those being run 25 years earlier, nor in the drivers, who are at heart still young men in a hurry who believe themselves the fastest in the world, nor even in the circuits, which might have more run-off (and are certainly in some bloody odd places) but in the sport's place in the world as a whole. It has gone from being an essentially European minority-interest sport to a worldwide and mainstream entertainment. Thirty years ago, I wouldn't have staked my life on the man on the street knowing who Alan Jones, Didier Pironi or Gilles Villeneuve were. But I would be very surprised if that man's son wouldn't know who Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso or Michael Schumacher are now.

And what drove this was television. By 1985, the whole F1 season was being broadcast on the BBC, but this had only been the case for five to ten years, and the sport had yet to become a part of the popular consciousness in the way it is now (come to that, very often all the BBC showed was a 35 minute highlight programme, especially if the timezone in which the race was held got in the way of Eastenders, or whatever it was they were showing on a Sunday evening.) The man who would drive F1's TV revolution, of course, was Bernie Ecclestone. By 1985, he was already a significant figure within the sport, but he was, as the owner of the Brabham team (which scored its last F1 victory with Nelson Piquet at Paul Ricard that year – a circuit Ecclestone would later buy) he was only the head of the Formula One Constructors Association – the team's 'union' which had wrested control of the commercial rights to the sport from the FISA following the FISA/FOCA battle of the early 1980s.

Over the course of the following 25 years, though, Ecclestone would take control of the sport's commercial rights from the teams who were perhaps not really inclined to fight him too hard. After all, the likes of Mclaren, Williams, et al, were fundamentally in business to build racing cars, not to act as sports promoters. And Ecclestone appeared to be doing a good job for them. He might have been taking the lion's share of the vastly inflated television revenues the sport was now bringing in, but a small share of a large fortune beat a large percentage of not very much. And the men running the teams perhaps didn't much begrudge Ecclestone his fortune – thought he deserved it.

But I wonder if the likes of Ron Dennis, Frank Williams et al later came to regret this. When, thanks to a deal with the FIA's Max Mosley, who had always worked hand in glove with Ecclestone, he found himself in a position to sell the commercial rights to a third party, the sport eventually came to be owned by a venture capital fund with little intrinsic interest in the sport. Whose primary motivation was always to obtain the maximum return for its investors. And while CVC Capital Partners clearly wouldn't want to kill the goose which has laid so many golden eggs for them, I do wonder whether the sport would be gravitating towards Asia (where, Japan aside, the locals don't seem much interested) while Latin America, for example, has been ignored, aside from one race in Brazil, in spite of having produced many of the sport's leading drivers over the last half century and in spite of races in Brazil and Mexico typically drawing in crowds that promoters in Turkey or Malaysia would kill for.

I hope that, a quarter of a century on from now, we are talking about how F1 has taken off in Asia, about the great drivers from Malaysia, South Korea, India and the Middle East, rather than about how a once great sport was run into the ground in pursuit of short term profit through the hosting of races in parts of the world where nobody besides those paying the bills were really interested.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

New Shores

Regular readers will know that I'm a bit of a stick-in-the-mud purist on the question of Bernie Ecclestone's desire to always be dragging the F1 circus to new corners of the globe. OK, so I can live without Magny Cours, although it's not a bad circuit, and I don't much miss the ersatz A1-Ring (a pale imitation of the old Osterreichring which once graced that site) . But the thought of losing Spa Francorchamps because the governments of Abu Dhabi or Bahrain are willing to shovel cartloads of cash FOM's way for their white elephant Grands Prix on mickey-mouse circuits that nobody goes to watch leaves me more than a little worried for the future of the sport.

So you might expect me to despair of the latest addition to the F1 calendar - the Korean Grand Prix. And when stories circulated in the weeks leading up to the race that the track was nowhere near being ready for its debut on 24 October, a part of me secretly hoped that FOM might at last get their comeuppance, and that the brakes might be put on races in parts of the world with no motor racing tradition and no local interest. As with the recent Commonwealth Games in Delhi, though, stories that the venue was only half built turned out to be a touch exaggerated (a friend who was on the Manx shooting team tells me that the horror stories about the athlete's village can only have come from people who'd spent their entire lives in five star hotels) and the race went ahead.

And my first impression of the circuit itself? Well I don't think it's quite up there with the best of Herman Tilke's work - the Otodrom Istanbul and Sepang, which perhaps uniquely among the German architect's works, merit comparison with the classic European circuits, but it didn't look too bad. A couple of long straights followed by first/second gear corners which appear to be a necessity if passing is to occur in a modern-day F1 car, and some moderately interesting off-camber medium speed stuff in the latter part of the lap which caught out not a few drivers over the course of the weekend. The relatively gripless freshly laid asphalt and the inclement weather might have helped, but it provided a reasonably entertaining Sunday afternoon's action once things got going. Whether it will make for good racing on a dry day once the tarmac has cured properly I'm not so sure, but at the very least, it's considerably more likely to than Valencia.

The biggest contrast with other recent additions to the F1 calendar though - particularly the three races in the near and middle east, is that the locals appear to be interested. Insofar as its possible to tell from the television pictures, the grandstands - or at least those which were finished before the race - looked reasonably full and there were tales of long queues of traffic as people tried to get into the venue on the Sunday morning. Not, perhaps, what the organisers were wanting , but it strikes me as the right kind of problem for a new venue to be having. Certainly preferable to Turkey and Shanghai's headscratching around how best to hide the fact the grandstands were empty.

One reason I was a bit sceptical about the idea of a Korean Grand Prix when it first appeared on the 2010 calendar is that the country has little in the way of a real motorsports culture to speak of. Can you name a Korean racing driver? No, didn't think so. Come to that, before the Yeongam circuit opened for the business, did the country even have a race circuit? (I'm genuinely interested - if you know, do get in touch - for once, google is failing me...) There is, though, an important difference between the races in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi and the South Korean race. While those Middle Eastern States are hereditary monarchies which are at best only partially democratic, South Korea emerged from military dictatorship over 20 years ago, and is now described by the CIA world handbook is a mature democracy. It is not, in other words, a country in which those in charge are so far detached from the ordinary people that they can throw hundreds of millions at absurd vanity projects like the neon monument to bad taste that is the Yas Marina circuit. If a democratically elected government in a country with a free press is going to agree to spend significant sums of money attracting the F1 world to its shores, they will have to be sure that people will be supportive of the idea.

I'm sceptical about the whole idea of Government-funded Grands Prix. I think the sport would be well advised in the long run to stay away from the tax-payers' pockets and if FOM weren't the heavily leveraged play-thing of a private equity house, it would be quite capable of surviving, and indeed making a good profit, without the need to charge event hosting fees that no race, no matter how well attended, can hope to recoup from gate receipts alone. But a race that forms part of a broader plan to regenerate one of the more backward parts of South Korea as an automotive and technological hub makes a certain amount of sense. And for once, I found myself thinking that the idea that a Grand Prix can help promote an area as a tourist resort might not be an entirely false one. The pre-race 'local colour' segments about Bahrain, Malaysia and Abu Dhabi have never left me wanting to visit those places, but I couldn't help thinking that, while the circuit might look like a giant building site, the surrounding countryside looked pretty stunning.

Equally, I do concede that there is a strong case for F1, and motorsport more generally, breaking new ground, going to countries where the sport has not yet established itself. South Korea is now a prosperous, fast developing country, and there is no reason why, in the medium term, the sport couldn't take off there. Certainly there appeared to be a good deal more interest than in Turkey. After all, there was a time when Japan had no home-grown motor racing culture to speak of, and that's hardly something which could be said of the place today. And South Korea, unlike Turkey or Bahrain, has a significant motor industry - Hyundai have already dipped their toe in the WRC, and I wouldn't be surprised if eventually they made the leap into F1. So a qualified thumbs-up to the Yeongam circuit and the South Korean Grand Prix, I think. Provided we get to keep Spa, Monza and Silverstone.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Looking Back

I realised the other weekend that it had been exactly a quarter of a century since I went to my first Grand Prix. I've written before on the impression that that trip left on my 7 year old self and on the particular significance of that race - the day on which Alain Prost secured the first of his four world titles, and on which Nigel Mansell finally broke his duck and won his first Grand Prix. The realisation that it has been 25 years since I was sat on the banking at Pilgrim's Drop got me thinking about how the sport has changed in the intervening years.

I find it a little hard to comprehend that 1985 is now as distant as 1960 was when I went through the gates at Brands Hatch. Back in 1960, Formula 1 cars were cigar-shaped space-frame devices with less than 300 BHP on tap. Front engined designs were fast being made obsolete by the success of the Cooper and Lotus mid-engined chassis, but had not yet disappeared from the F1 grid and the cars still ran on skinny grooved tyres, much as they had done since the early days of the sport at the beginning of the century.

By 1985, Formula 1 cars were carbon-fibre monocoques with big, fat slick tyres and front and rear wings, bodywork plastered with sponsors' logos - and on a causal inspection, they really don't look so radically different from the cars which lined up on the grid at Suzuka last weekend. A bit stubby and simple, but the same basic shape.

In one way, the cars were considerably ahead of the modern F1 car. The 1.5 litre turbocharged engines provided by Honda and BMW were, in single-lap qualifying trim, capable of generating well north of 1000 BHP - a figure which today's rev-limited 2.4 litre normally aspirated V8s don't even come close to (although it must be said that an engine technician of 1985 would have found the idea of an 18,000rpm rev limit a touch unnecessary, given that nobody was pushing their engines beyond about 12,000rpm at the most, back then).

Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the changes over the last 25 years have been immense. The really game-changing technical innovations - active suspension, traction control, continuously variable transmission - have all been and gone, falling foul of the regulators desire to keep costs, and lap times, under control (the last of these - continuously variable transmission, never raced, though Williams did head a significant way down to road towards developing a race-ready system before it was banned). Only the replacement of stick-operated manual gearboxes with the steering-wheel mounted paddle-change semi-automatic boxes, debuted by Ferrari in 1989, have remained.

Instead, the over-arching story of the last quarter of a century of race car development has been one of ruthless optimisation of a basic concept that, by 1985, had just about been settled upon. And to get an idea of just how successful this has been, look at the pole times at Monaco - the only circuit in use in 1985 which is still in use today, substantially unaltered (though the walls have gotten a touch further away). In 1985, Ayrton Senna stuck his Lotus Renault on pole with a 1.20.450. Earlier this year, Mark Webber claimed the top spot for Red Bull (also Renault powered, as it happens) with a 1.13.826. Nearly 7 seconds faster. And remember, that this leap forward has come in spite of restrictions on wing size, the imposition of control tyres, rev-limited engines that must last 2-3 complete Grands Prix and a slightly raised minimum weight limit. A senior engineer interviewed for Motorsport Magazine a couple of years back reckoned that, with today's knowledge, a car built to 1985 rules would be limited mainly by the ability of its driver to remain conscious through the quicker corners given the G-loadings that it would be possible to generate. The FIA's ever more restrictive rulebook has been, at least in part, a necessary response to the advances of designers and engineers, ensuring a degree of sanity is retained.

The really big story of the last quarter of a century of F1 car design has been the phenomenal improvements made in the understanding of how to generate aerodynamic downforce. While an F1 car of 2010 might have the same basic shape as its 1985 predecessor, it is a much more intricately sculpted machine - its form dictated by the cumulative knowledge generated by hundreds of thousands of man hours of some of the most talented aerodynamicists in the world. The increased use of first wind-tunnels, and later, computer simulations of wind tunnels, to refine the flow of the air over the car, making that airflow press the car down onto the ground, has led cornering speeds to spiral far beyond that ever seen during the 'ground effect' era of the early 1980s. And the sheer number of people involved in the design of a car has mushroomed since the days when a car could meaningfully be said to be the work of a single designer - something which was, just about, sort of, still the case in the mid 1980s.

There was a time, after all, when taking Eau Rouge flat in qualifying was a mark of supreme confidence. Now, in a good car, it's flat in the rain, and in the dry, it's barely more than a kink in the road. Other technological advances - not least the evolution of data logging and telemetry equipment to give teams far more objective information about what the car is actually doing on the circuit than could ever be provided by the subjective impressions of even the most technically astute racing driver, have all helped to drive this incremental improvement forward at a truly impressive rate.

But what of the next 25 years? Assuming I'm still around to see them, what will Grand Prix cars look like by the time I near my 7th decade? Perhaps the story will be the same - an onward march of small, iterative improvements to a basic design which had been settled while I was still in primary school. Maybe... But there are reasons to think that might not be the case. For one thing, how plausible is it that the racing car of 2035 will still be running on fossil fuels? And if it is not, what kinds of technological breakthrough might we see in engine technology over the next decade and a half. It could be an interesting ride...

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Radio on the Television

The quality of television coverage of Formula 1 in Britain took a quantum leap when the BBC took over the reins from ITV at the beginning of 2009. The end of mid-race ad-breaks has been a relief. I've never forgotten ITV's decision to cut to commercials in the dying laps of the San Marino Grand Prix in 2005 while Alonso and Schumacher were fighting for all their worth for victory and am glad I no longer need to keep a radio by the telly while watching the race.

More than that, though, the BBC have really taken advantage of digital-age technologies in a way that ITV never did. We've been treated to the option of watching the whole race from a succession of in-car cameras, a choice of commentary teams - if you're not keen on Legard and Brundle, there's Croft and Davidson, though sadly, not yet the possibility of listening to Brundle and Croft - and their latest innovation (a website only feature, I think, though I don't own a television and watch everything on IPlayer, so I don't know), the real time 'car tracker' enabling you to see where everyone is on the circuit at any given point in time. OK, they've not got everything right - I could happily live without the forced banter between Eddie Jordan and David Coulthard - but on the whole I've been very impressed by the job they've done. And Lee McKenzie's much easier on the eye than Jim Rosenthal.

I was initially rather sceptical of the merit of another innovation the BBC have brought to race weekend coverage - the webcasting of free practice sessions. Now, I don't know what kind of an audience these shows get - until last weekend, even I hadn't bothered tuning in and I probably sit close to the sad obsessive fan end of the spectrum than most, but it did strike me as something which, to use the marketers' lingo, would have a 'niche audience'. After all, it's not as if drivers are competing for anything during free practice. It really is just 'watching cars go round in circles', which even I can't summon up much enthusiasm for.

Actually, though, the format worked quite well. And mainly because what is happening on track is only a minor part of the show. It is essentially an hour and a half long radio discussion programme on the subject of F1,with some passing comment on who appears to be going quickly, all in the knowledge that Friday practice times never mean very much anyway. And all with moving pictures thrown in (though it's also broadcast on 5live radio, where it probably doesn't lose much).

And so Maurice Hamilton treated us to his reminiscences about the infamous 1990 championship decider which was settled at the first corner when Senna torpedoed Prost's Ferrari (a move which his countryman Felipe Massa appeared to try to re-enact at the beginning of this year's race). This was interspersed with discussion of Red Bull's front wing - the five different versions they trialled on Webber's car during the race last year and Christian Horner's growing frustration with those accusing his team of cheating, and questions from viewers about how Spoon corner got its name. Answer: It looks like a spoon. Which prompted one of the commentary team to suggest that the series of bends leading up the hill should really be called the 'knuckledusters'. Either is preferable to 'turn 14'.

Karun Chandhok, who is often part of the commentary team since being dropped from HRT, texted in to complain about how early he had to get up to watch free practice and Maurice Hamilton shared his memories of Peter Warr, who had died during the week. The former Lotus team manager had actually won the first Japanese Grand Prix - a sportscar race in 1962 - driving a Lotus sportscar but it was the famous shot of him celebrating his young charge Ayrton Senna's first GP win in torrential rain at Portugal in 1985 that stuck in Hamilton's mind.

The more relaxed format of free practice also gives the crew a chance to speak to people behind the scenes, and so we were treated to a reasonably long interview with Virgin's John Booth on both their experience of the 2010 season and their hopes for next year and Lotus' Mike Gascoygne also dropped by for a chat.

Truth be told, I don't have the time to listen to this regularly - even I can't spare four hours every second weekend to listen to Crofty and Davidson shooting the breeze while drivers make system checks, get a feel for the relative merits of prime and option tyres and all the rest. And in all honesty, both Joe Saward's Sidepodcast-hosted An Aside With Joe and the excellent Motorsport Monthly Podcast are more interesting to listen to. But I'll probably tune in to get an early glimpse of what the new Korean GP track is like, providing that race actually happens.

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