Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Step Into The Unknown - F1 2009 Preview

Anyone's game?

In the more than 20 years I've been following Formula 1, I honestly can't remember there being so much uncertainty as to who would be at the front going into the first race of the season. For the last couple of years, it has been pretty clear from Winter testing that the battle at the sharp end would be fought out between Ferrari and Mclaren, and so it proved to be. This year, though, there is no such certainty.

Through the Winter,, Ferrari, Toyota, Williams, Red Bull, BMW, the new Brawn GP team, Renault, and even, right at the last gasp at Jerez last week, the seemingly troubled Mclaren, have shown flashes of real pace. The trouble is, it's hard to read too much in testing times. Without knowing who has been running what fuel loads, who have been concentrating on simply getting miles on the new car, and which teams, if any, have been running low-fuel qualifying-simulation 'glory runs' in order to attract headlines and sponsors, it is hard to know what the times tell us.

A real upset?

Perhaps the biggest question left unanswered by the winter tests has been just how real the apparently scintillating pace of the new Brawn-Mercedes is. If the stopwatch is to be believed, then they've got a car which is kind to its tyres, and about half a second quicker than anyone else round Jerez and Barcelona. But are they running underweight to attract backers? Ross Brawn says they're not, and to be sure, it doesn't seem the sort of thing that an old hand like Brawn would be doing, but, of course, if they were running light, there would be little sense in admitting as much. And if the car isn't underweight, is it legal. Red Bull have already indicated their intention to protest the team's diffuser and if as Helmut Marko claims, it is really worth half a second a lap, Brawn's chances this year are going to hinge on the outcome of that appeal.

But assuming, for a moment, that Brawn really are the team to beat going into 2009, the battle between Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button could be rather intriguing. Barrichello had six years in a Ferrari, so it can hardly be said he's never been given a chance in a title-winning car. However, throughout that time, he had Michael Schumacher as a team mate, and, leaving aside the fact that Schumacher was probably the single most consummate driver of the last 20 years, it's not clear whether Barrichello was often even allowed to race him. So in a sense, this might be his first real run at the F1 title, in his 17th season in the sport.

When he was first paired up with Jenson Button in 2006, it was the younger Button who had the edge and won Honda's only Grand Prix win (in that incarnation, the previous works Honda team, too, also scored a single GP win with John Surtees back in 1967) but last year, it was Barrichello who, in what we had assumed to be the autumn of his career, generally had the edge in the awful RA108. Truth be told, that's of a piece with Button's career as a whole. Given a good car, he's tended to be quick, but in a bad one, like the 2001 Benetton or last year's Honda, and he tends to lose interest.

If the Brawn really is as quick as it looks, then, aside from being a final ironic coda to the disaster that was Honda's return to F1 as a factory team, the battle between two men who, just a couple of months back looked to be out of work, and who must surely have thought their time at the top of F1 was over could be hard fought indeed.

Massa vs. Raikkonen - the Rematch

It is usually fairly safe to assume that Ferrari will be somewhere towards the front of the pack. Neither the loss of Rory Byrne, Jean Todt and Ross Brawn nor the departure of Schumacher appears to have affected that. The winter testing times have been promising too, and it is probably a fair assumption that they will be somewhere near the front this weekend. What will be interesting to see is whether Felipe Massa will be able to retain the upper hand over his better paid team mate into 2009. He certainly had the edge for much of last year, but then Raikkonen was clearly never entirely at home with the understeery 2008 Ferrari. The reckoning is that the 2009 slick tyres will leave the cars more prone to oversteer, with the rear tyres wearing faster than the fronts, and that could give Kimi the upper hand. The only remaining question is that of whether his motivation is quite what it once was, with a world title in the bag and untold millions in the bank. All said, for all that this year looks very open, I think over the season as a whole, with Mclaren seemingly in trouble, Ferrari stand a good chance of seeing off the pretenders to their crown. Which of their drivers will have the edge, though, is another question entirely.

All according to plan at BMW?

Mario Thiessen, BMW’s master planner, had always pencilled in 2009 as the year that the team formerly known Sauber would make a serious bid for the world title. There were moments last year when it seemed they might hit their target a year early, but Kubica’s brief period at the top of the driver’s table notwithstanding, the team abandoned development of the 2008 machine to concentrate on this year’s car. Will that pay off? It’s too early to tell. On the plus side, they are reputed to be further ahead in the development of KERS than any other team, and have had their 2009 car up and running very early on.

On the other hand, though, the car hasn’t stood out in testing – it’s been decently quick, but not on the same pace as the Ferrari. And if they’re going to lodge a title bid, it’s surely going to have to be with Kubica, which might pose a problem on two fronts. Firstly, as one of the sport’s tallest and heaviest drivers, he’ll be more heavily penalised by the extra weight of KERS than most. Secondly, his lacklustre 2007 season was put down in part to a car too oversteery for his liking – and, of course, received wisdom is that the 2009 cars will tend to oversteer. In spite of all this, I still see Kubica as a dark horse for the world title, especially if the other front-runners run into reliability troubles.

The car in front…at last?

Toyota have spent a lot of time and money in F1 since the turn of the decade without achieving much in the way of anything. There are signs that this might be about to change this year. The team appear cautiously confident that the TF109 will be right at the front, and Timo Glock hinted in a recent interview that he thought victory in Melbourne not beyond the bounds of possibility. The team will have benefited more than most from the ‘reset’ provided by the rules changes, and despite budget cuts, they still have more resources than more or less anyone else on the grid.

After an uncertain start, Timo Glock has matured quickly into a very solid F1 performer – about the only team mate Jarno Trulli has ever had who has troubled him as a qualifier on occasion. Trulli, meanwhile, remains the master of the single quick lap. If the latest rules don’t make overtaking easier than it has been in recent years, then given a half-way quick Toyota, that might be enough to secure Trulli Toyota’s first win.

The Renault-powered quartet

None of this year’s F1 cars would win beauty contests, but nothing else is quite so downright ugly as the stubby-nosed Renault R29. Early pace in testing suggested the car might be as bad as it looked, too. Since then, though, Flavio’s team appear to have sorted out the car’s rumoured lack of downforce and Fernando Alonso has been sounding a lot more positive with regards his chances than he did at the same time last year. Certainly if the Renault is anywhere approaching competitive, Alonso can be relied upon to get the most out of it. His troubled year at Mclaren notwithstanding, anyone who can win two races with last year’s R28 can be relied upon to get the job done.

Nelson Piquet Jr’s retention I can only guess is down to the team not being confident that Di Grassi or Grosjean were likely to be any better. There was little indication in 2008 that he will follow in his father’s footsteps though unlike Hamilton, he is at least unlikely to unsettle team mate Alonso to the detriment of the team as a whole.

Renault will also benefit from having been allowed to update their engine to achieve parity with the other engine-makers after they took the engine-freeze regulations a little more literally than anyone else last year. It’s reckoned that alone might give them another couple of tenths of a second, and that will be good news not only for Renault, but for the Renault-powered Red Bulls.

If the Renault is the ugliest car on the grid, then a strong case can be made for the Adrian Newey-designed Red Bull RB5 being the prettiest. After flying in the hands of Sebastian Vettel soon after being unveiled at Jerez, they haven’t really stood out since but all the same, surely it’s time for Adrian Newey to build another world-beater. Perhaps they’re just taking a little longer than others to get on top of their car. However fast the Red Bull does or doesn’t turn out to be, though, the battle between team mates Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel is going to be one to watch. Neither man can afford to be outpaced by the other. Both are clearly quick, but questions remain as to whether either is absolutely first-rate. Webber, the 21st Century Chris Amon, lost much of the winter to a broken leg picked up in a cycling accident – not what he needs as he faces the sternest challenge of his career. On the other hand, Vettel wouldn’t be the first highly rated youngster to come off second best to the Aussie. Ask Pizzonia. Or Wilson, Or even perhaps Rosberg. As I say, one to watch…

Woking in trouble?

It doesn’t matter how much money you have, or how long your pedigree, building a racing car is a tricky business, and the scope to get it horribly wrong is considerable. Early indications are that the 2009 Mclaren is simply not working as it should – that it has fundamental aerodynamic flaws. With the in-season testing ban, it’s going to be very difficult for the team to make up for lost time and ground, though if anyone has the resources to do it, it is Mclaren.

That said, those 1.17 laps at Jerez right at the end of winter testing – are they a sign that the team have got their problems licked? Or just a glory run on a day when the circuit was particularly quick?

If the car is as bad as it seems it might be, it will be an interesting test of Lewis Hamilton’s character. There’s no doubt that the young Briton is outstanding in a good car, but in his whole career, he’s never really experienced the dispiriting feeling of being in an uncompetitive car. If he rises to the occasion, and transcends the limitations of his equipment, as say, Schumacher did at Ferrari in 1996, his reputation will be well and truly sealed. If his head goes down, and he allows himself to be outpaced by Kovalainen, or if he begins to take his frustrations out on the team, his reputation might be destroyed as quickly as it was made.

The pressure is on for his team mate, Kovalainen too. Last year, he seemed to be within reach of Hamilton over a single lap, but could not stay with him over a race distance and Mclaren’s failure to capture the constructor’s title from Ferrari could be said to be down in part to their number 2 driver’s lack of race pace. If he’s to remain with Mclaren, or another front running team beyond the end of the season, he’s going to have to be a lot closer to Hamilton than he was in 2008. That said, he does have more experience with bad cars. Perhaps his troubled debut year with the difficult Renault R27 might turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

More of the same for Frank’s boys?

Williams seem to go well every winter, and every season since they fell away from the leading teams around 2004, they have suggested that this time it will be different, and the team will be back at the front. It never seems to work out that way. Recent Williams have tended to be quick out of the box, and with their good mechanical grip, they usually run well on the streets of Melbourne, but the team have been behind the curve when it comes to aerodynamic efficiency, and it’s not clear whether the rules changes will help. The testing times have been encouraging, but then they always are. The team abandoned development of the 2008 car early to concentrate on the 2009 machine, but that would be more likely to pay dividends if it weren’t for the fact that Mclaren and Ferrari aside, pretty much everyone else did the same thing.

On the driver front, it’s crunch time for Nico Rosberg. After a promising couple of years in 2006 and 2007, he struggled to rise above the limitations of his car last year, and with the emergence of Kubica, Hamilton and Vettel, no longer looks like he’s necessarily one of the stars of the future. Kazuki Nakajima acquitted himself well last year, but unless he ups his game this season, he’ll only be in the sport as long as engine-suppliers Toyota think its worth paying to have him drum up interest in the sport in Japan.

Supporting cast

Toro Rosso are unlikely to match the highs of last season, which saw them beating parent-team Red Bull and winning their first race. Whatever happens this year is likely to be something of a come-down. Which is a shame, because there is real potential here. They will still be running a Ferrari-engined Red Bull, which with Giorgio Ascanelli heading up the engineering side, should provide the team’s latest pair of Sebastiens with the means to embarrass the front-runners on occasion. Bourdais has been retained for another year, which was probably the right decision. Armchair enthusiasts might have been keen to see the return of Takuma Sato, but in all honesty, the Japanese driver has had more than his fair share of chances in the sport already, and failed to make the most of them.

The choice of Sebastien Buemi to partner Bourdais seems rather odd, and the only way it makes sense is that he was the only driver on the Red Bull junior ladder with the experience needed to make the switch to F1. He was unexceptional in his time in GP2, and if he doesn’t deliver quickly, the likes of Brandon Hartley and Jaime Alguesuari will be knocking at the door. That said, if he excels in F1, he wouldn’t be the first driver to prove quicker in F1 than in his junior career.

It’s hard to believe that a Mercedes powered Force India is going to be any quicker than a Ferrari powered one, really. Team owner Vijay Mallya has been making optimistic noises which leave me wondering whether he really understands the sport and the sheer scale of the task facing the former Jordan outfit. Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrian Sutil are back for another year. Both are competent enough, but I must confess to feeling a little disappointed that the team aren’t bringing on another promising youngster. Sutil no longer entirely convinces me – a driver who’s really going places shouldn’t struggle to beat Fisichella, and it would have been interesting to see what Grosjean or Di Resta could have done in the car. Expect them to bring up the rear again.

So who’s going to win it?

Pretty much the whole thrust of this piece has been to admit that for once, I really don’t have a clue (not that I’ve got a brilliant track record of picking driver’s champions anyway). At the risk of putting a curse on the Maranello team my hunch is that Ferrari will have the edge over the season as a whole. Brawn might appear to be the quickest of the bunch right now, but there have to be question marks both over the legality of the car, and over whether they have the money to fund the kind of development needed to keep them at the front over the whole season. Toyota have looked promising, but even if the Toyota can match the Ferrari on pace, are Trulli and Glock really able to take the fight to Raikkonen and Massa? Kubica, Alonso and Hamilton all certainly can, but with the possible exception of Kubica, I’m not convinced that any of those three will have the car they need to make a bid for the title. So, forced to choose, I’d tip Ferrari, and forced to pick one of Massa and Raikkonen, I’d back Raikkonen to secure a second driver’s crown. But I can rarely remember feeling less sure….

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Loeb's Half-Century and the state of rallying

Last weekend's Cyprus Rally was a bit of a novelty. It was a mixed-surface event - with the first day taking place on the asphalt of the island's roads, and the second two days switching to gravel. And though it's been described as a a cost-cutting measure, watching the first day of the Cyprus Rally on the telly last weekend, I think the people behind the World Rally Championship have just stumbled upon a great way of improving the spectacle of the sport.

The WRC teams were forced to run the same tyres on the first day's tarmac stages as they would later run on the rest of the event's gravel tests. And the result? The cars were much more wildly sideways, more spectacular than rally cars have been on tarmac for a very long time. Watching Sebastien Loeb, who was, as ever, untouchable on asphalt, throwing his C4 around with abandon, it was like being transported back to the mid-1990s where much more primitive cars in the hands of such as McRae, Kankunnen and Sainz were chucking their Subarus and Toyotas around such places as Corsica and Catalunya, almost constantly sideways.

In recent times, improvements to rally car technology have resulted in the cars having much more grip on tarmac than was the case, say, ten years ago, and wild power-sliding is simpl no longer the fastest way to drive a rally car on tarmac. Except, put them on gravel-spec tyres, and suddenly, it is again. The fundamental truth is that too much traction and grip relative to power dilutes rallying as a spectacle. And today's cars have no more power than the early WRC cars (though they probably have a bit more torque) and a lot more grip. Never mind saving money on mixed surface events, now the cars run on a control Pirelli tyre, why not insist on gravel tyres at all the tarmac rounds of the series?

Because, truth be told, something needs to be done to enliven the spectacle of the World Rally Championship. Last weekend, Sebastien Loeb took the fiftieth win of his career. That's twenty more victories than the next most successful driver in the history of the sport, the recently retired Marcus Gronholm, and is all the more impressive that he only began competing full-time in a WRC machine in 2003 (though he did a few events for Citroen in the 'toe in the water' season in 2002). Truth be told, though, the man has made the sport his own to such an extent that people are simply switching off.

You can't possibly blame Loeb himself for that. He's just a sportsman who's incredibly good at what he does, giving his all. There's no doubt that he's one of the sport's greats - but is he the best of all time? Is he really so much better than Makinen, or Gronholm, Sainz or McRae? Or has he simply faced less competition? Does he look so good because the likes of Hirvonen, Sordo and Latvala simply aren't in the same class as the greats of the past? Or do the rest look mediocre because Loeb is so good?

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. I can't help but feel that Citroen have employed Sordo because they have him down as a man who is good enough to pick up manufacturer points, without being so quick as to take points off of team mate Loeb. And I still see the Ford team as essentially having two number-2 drivers. Hirvonen has come on in leaps and bounds over the last couple of years, but I'm still not entirely convinced by him, and Latvala? I had him down as a diamond in the rough, but after 82 rallies, it's really time that he started finishing on a regular basis.

The trouble is, unless you're in one of the works cars, then barring acts of god, you are not going to win a rally. And when there are just four works seats, and it is not even clear that the best four drivers are in those seats, the result is that the championship is all but a foregone conclusion. Petter Solberg did an impressive job in his old privately entered Citroen Xsara, and even beat Dani Sordo's works C4, but there was never any danger that he would beat Loeb in such a car (though he was closer to the pace than he had been in a works Subaru over the last couple of years, which suggests that the Japanese manufacturer really had lost the plot with its later Imprezas).

Sure, there are the satellite 'junior' teams, but with the honourable exception of Citroen's entry for Sebastien Ogier, these are running drivers with money or connections, rather than the most promising young talent. Nobody is going to persuade me that Conrad Rautenbach, Matthew Wilson or Henning Solberg deserve a place in the WRC more than, say, Per-Gunnar Andersen or Kris Meeke.

The switch to the Super 2000 regulations currently being used by the Intercontinental Rally Challenge looks like it might provide the solution to this problem. The opening round of that championship, in Monte Carlo, was very hotly contested, and even the recent rally in far-flung Brazil had, on balance, more potential winners than last weekend's Cyprus Rally. The key to that series' success appears to be that S2000 rally cars, unlike their more highly developed WRC brethren, are cheap enough to be a serious option for national dealer teams, such as Meeke's Peugeot UK entry, or Freddy Loix and Nicolas Voullioz Peugeot Benelux cars.

The IRC, despite having a much lower public profile, is also attracting more manufacturers than the WRC is capable of doing these days. Peugeot, Fiat/Abarth and Skoda look set to be joined by Proton, whose Satria looked devastatingly quick in the hands of Niall McShea when it made its debut on the Rally Ireland last month. It is widely assumed that Ford and Citroen will join the party when the rules switch is made, and there is even talk of Volkswagen running a diesel-powered Scirocco.

The reason why, as a fan, I'm nonetheless in two minds about the forthcoming switch to S2000 rules is that, if a WRC car on tarmac doesn't exactly thrill any more, then an S2000 car, which its' much lower torque looks decidedly tame. Sebastien Loeb has said that if the sport switches to S2000, he would rather retire than rally cars which he sees as unchallenging and dull to drive.

Thinking about this, in the light of watching the effects of the 'one tyre' rule in Cyprus, a solution struck me. All that is needed to make Super 2000 cars a challenge to drive, and to make them worth watching, is to stipulate that the cars must be rear-wheel drive. Sure, rallying is about car manufacturers advertising their wares, and yes, almost no modern family cars are rear-wheel drive, but to be blunt, show me where you can buy a four wheel drive Citroen C4 or Skoda Fabia? Rally cars are 4 wheel drive because four wheel drive cars are quicker than 2 wheel drive cars, and the rules allow it. With the exception of Subaru, and perhaps Mitsubishi, neither of which are any longer involved in the sport, the manufacturers are not in the sport in order to sell 4WD road cars. Rear wheel drive cars may not be much like what you can get in the showroom either, but at least they would be worth watching. And what's the point of using rallying to promote your cars if nobody is watching?


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Sunday, March 08, 2009


How much to read into testing times? Truth be told, it's probably not wise to make too many assumptions on the basis of fastest laps alone. Remember when, through the winter, the 2005 Honda looked like it was a couple of seconds a lap quicker round Barcelona than anything else? Or when the 2001 Prost was topping the time sheets after an abysmal 2000? In neither case did this turn out to be a reliable guide to what would happen come the season proper. Quite why Honda was so quick in the early months of 2005 I've never been sure, while in 2001, Prost were probably running their car underweight to attract sponsors.

Nonetheless, there's something tantalising and intriguing about the fact that Sebastien Vettel's Red Bull has lapped Jerez nearly a second quicker than anyone else (Hamilton's time can safely be ignored, as it was set using a 2008-spec rear wing). The chances are it was only a single particularly well hooked-up qualifying lap when track conditions happened to be just right. Word has it that it is actually Ferrari and Renault who are quickest right now, with Williams, BMW, Red Bull and Toyota clustered together and snapping at their heels. A big question mark remains over where Mclaren fit into this picture. The fact that they had not until recently been able to run their 2009 rear wing leaves open the question of whether there are fundamental problems with their 2009 car, or whether, as with the early problems with the Renault, too much is being made of too little.

All that said, the radical changes to the F1 rulebook have the potential to rewrite the form book to a degree not seen in recent years. No longer are teams chasing incremental performance gains on well-tested concepts. They are, in a sense, starting from scratch. For all that the technical rules are far more restrictive than was once the case, it is probably still just about possible to find that 'unfair advantage'. The introduction of KERS, in particular, just might allow one team to make a leap which results in a car substantially quicker than anyone else's. I hope this doesn't happen because F1 seasons in which only two cars stand any realistic chance of winning races don't tend to be very interesting. Think 1992, 2002, or 2004.

That said, though, it does depend to some extent on which team finds that unfair advantage. The 1988 F1 season remains to my mind one of the classics because, although there were only two cars in the field with any realistic chance of winning races, they were being driven by Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost - and Ron Dennis was happy to let them race. In a reversal of the situation in recent years, I'd rather it were Ferrari than Mclaren or Renault. In the Schumacher era, a dominant Ferrari meant the race was a foregone conclusion. It is not entirely clear that Barrichello or Massa were often allowed to race the German, but even if they were, neither was capable of beating him on a regular basis. These days, though, the team have no clear number one and provided that management don't impose one, a battle between Massa and Raikkonen would be most intriguing. By contrast, I can't see Kovalainen putting up a serious fight against Hamilton over a whole season, and as for the idea of Piquet Jr. giving Alonso anything to worry about....

Vettel's testing times got me thinking though.... If one team turns out to be head-and-shoulders above the rest this year, wouldn't it be interesting if it were Red Bull? They've certainly produced one of the prettiest cars on the grid this year (it's a relative thing, they've all got stupidly proportioned wings, but you can't pin the blame on Adrian Newey for that...) but is it just possible that they've also produced the quickest?

Who knows, probably it's nothing more than an idle daydream. But if they have, the battle between F1's long-time nearly man Mark Webber and Grand Prix racing's new golden boy Sebastien Vettel could be as fascinating as the battle which ensued when Fernando Alonso went off to Mclaren as a double champion and suddenly found himself having to work very hard indeed to deal with his rookie team mate Lewis Hamilton.

Mark Webber is perhaps the single great unknown quantity in the sport. He's going into his eighth season now, and still I don't think we know for sure quite how good he is. We know he's quick, but there have been odd hints that he's more than merely quick. That he's one of the sport's true greats - a man who could go mano a mano with Kubica, Hamilton, Alonso or Raikkonen if he only had the equipment worthy of his talents.

After all, he put a Jaguar on the front row at Malaysia in 2003, and this in the days before teams had the option of playing with fuel loads and going for Saturday afternoon glory. At Monaco, in 2006, he looked like for a while like a serious challenger for victory in a Williams Cosworth before the engine let go. Over the last two years, he's outqualified his former title-contending team mate David Coulthard 31-4 at Red Bull. And the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji in 2007 might be best remembered for Hamilton's great drive in the wet, but Mark Webber was actually catching him in second before he was punted off the road by... Sebastien Vettel.

For all that, it remains open to question whether Webber is really in quite the same class as, say, Hamilton, Alonso or Kubica. Way back when Renault tested both Alonso and Webber, Pat Symonds reckoned that the Spaniard was the quicker driver. His first year at Williams, was rather disappointing too. Yes, the Grove team's relationship with BMW was on the rocks by then, but he didn't really appear to be any quicker than Nick Heidfeld that year. And Heidfeld may be a solid, professional racer, but after 9 seasons in the sport, I've not seen anything to suggest he's from the very top drawer. Added to that is the question of whether the broken leg he sustained in a cycling accident over the winter might have a more lasting impact. It has often been said that no racing driver is ever quite the same after sustaining a serious leg injury, although it didn't seem to stop Michael Schumacher winning five titles after his leg-breaking crash at Silverstone in 1999.

Up against him is the sport's youngest ever winner, Sebastien Vettel. A man whose career has, in some ways, been the very opposite of Webber's. Where Webber has had to fight hard for every opportunity - not usually getting the best cars in his junior formula days, and not making it to Formula One until he was 25, Vettel's path was eased by backing from both Red Bull and BMW, and he made his F1 debut at the age of just 19, standing in for the injured Kubica at Indianapolis. He did a sensible job, came home 8th and in so doing became the youngest man ever to score an F1 point. A tug of love between BMW and Red Bull was resolved in the latter's favour and by the time of the Hungarian Grand Prix, he was a full-time F1 driver for Toro Rosso.

In the second half of 2008, the Toro Rosso proved to be a rather effective weapon, embarrassing the 'works' Red Bull squad, and when the big boys screwed up in the rain in Monza, Vettel seized the opportunity he was presented with both hands and became the youngest Grand Prix winner in the sport's history. It might have relied a little on luck, but Vettel was consistently there or thereabouts in the latter part of the season - only once finishing out of the points in the last seven races.

But how special is he? On the one hand, Toro Rosso is built around the shell of the old Minardi team - and in that light, his haul of one win, one pole and 35 points looks very impressive indeed. But another way of looking at it is that he had, at his disposal, a Ferrari-powered, Adrian Newey designed car, engineered by the hugely experienced Giorgio Ascanelli. Put that way, the Toro Rosso sounds like an impressive package indeed. Sure, he scored an awful lot more points than his team mate Bourdais, but the midfield pack was so tightly bunched last year, that this did not always equate to a significant difference in pace between the two - especially in race conditions. It is worth remembering that, at Monza, Bourdais, after being delayed at the start, was lapping just as quickly as Vettel in the rain.

Both Vettel and Webber have their reputations on the line this year. Each really has to be quicker than the other, or at least as quick as the other. Vettel need to blow away Webber to maintain his status as the sport's coming man, while Webber needs to get the better of his young new team mate if he's not to become yesterday's man before he was ever really today's. Regardless of how competitive this year's Red Bull is, it's going to be an intriguing rivalry between two seemingly apolitical, straightforward men which much at stake. But if Adrian Newey, Geoff Willis and co. have found something special, then it just might turn out to be one of the most fascinating battles the sport has seen. Roll on Australia.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Catching up with A1GP

In my memory, the new Kyalami, which played host to a couple of Grands Prix in the early 1990s, was a dull, anaemic race track, with little to recommend it. Watching the last round of the A1GP series there the other weekend, I wonder if perhaps my impression of the place was a little unfair. As with the new Nurburgring, it suffers by comparison with the legendary old circuit it replaced. And unlike the old Nordschliefe, there was nothing so inherently dangerous or impractical about the old Kyalami as to render it unsuitable for modern motor racing. A few run-off areas might have required to be extended, but it was, at 2.54, a sensible length, and in Crowthorne, Barbecue and the Jukskei Sweep, featured some fantastic corners.

Nonetheless, the new circuit is in fact not without its appeal. It retains some of the best features of the old circuit and contains enough fast corners and undulation to make it a challenge. It isn’t a bad place to watch racing cars. It is not, in other words, a featureless wasteland of the kind which have been springing up in the United Arab Emirates in recent years, and which make up the bulk of the other Winter Series for big open single seaters, the GP2 Asia Championship. The most significant problem with Kyalami – one which ironically helped to ensure that the last F1 race to be held there was rather more exciting than it might otherwise have been, is that it lacks much in the way of real passing places.

In the 1993 South African Grand Prix, this resulted in a fantastic 20 lap dogfight as Ayrton Senna, having got the jump on pole-man Alain Prost’s much quicker Williams Renault at the start, tried every trick in the book to keep his old nemesis behind. On a track where passing was a touch easier, I suspect Prost would have been away into the distance by lap 2.

By contrast, the tight confines of the circuit, and in particular the absence of what I have to come to think of as a necessary feature of any great racing circuit, a long straight followed by a slow corner, resulted in a pair of races which were by turns processional and scrappy. Processional, where, in the second race, opting to protect their points, Jeroen Bleekemolen, Filipe Guimaraes and Clivio Piccione held station a couple of seconds apart in the closing stages, knowing that any passing manoeuvre was as likely to end in the gravel trap as not. Scrappy where, on several occasions in both races, drivers ended up banging wheels or running each other off the road in frustration at the sheer difficulty of passing. Malaysia’s Fairuz Fauzy seemed to be a serial offender on this score, running both Adam Carroll and Earl Bamber off the road, before succumbing to the damage done to his car from the collisions. I don’t want to be too harsh on the place though. Kyalami is much more of a real racing circuit than the absurdly tight, tortuous Durban street course which played host to the series’ previous visits to the country.

What, though, of the series itself? Before the A1GP Championship became a reality, I have to admit to having been highly sceptical about the whole venture. I suspected that, like Premier 1 before it, it would turn out to be the motorsports equivalent of vapourware and would collapse in ignominy before the first race. Even after that opening event at Brands Hatch in the autumn of 2005, I was far from convinced that the championship would run the whole season. It seemed to be built on remarkably flimsy foundations – an expensive single seater series without an obvious source of revenue, and unable to attract the kind of ‘big name’ drivers (and no, whatever his fervent internet fanbase might claim, I’m afraid that Jos Verstappen doesn’t count) which might generate interest from the outside the specialist press, and hence attract major sponsors.

With that said, the A1GP series organisers deserve some credit simply for the fact that in early 2009, the championship is not only still running, but has ditched the ersatz Lolas (which it is thought are lightly modified old Lola F3000 machines) and replaced them with very purposeful looking Ferrari-built racers that look more than a little like simplified versions of the F2004 F1 car which was the last really dominant car to emerge from Maranello. As with the Panoz Champ Car, the A1GP Ferrari looks like a proper bit of kit.

That, however, wasn’t enough to save Champ Car from oblivion, and I can’t help but think that A1GP is as likely as not to go the same way. The car may be a big improvement over the 2005 edition, but other than that, the fundamental weaknesses of the series remain. At the moment, the title battle is being fought out between Team Ireland’s Adam Carroll and Switzerland’s Neel Jani. While others have been competitive at individual races, only Carroll and Jani have been consistently on the pace through the whole championship. And when you look at the driver line-ups that the other teams have been running, that is hardly a surprise really.

Carroll and Jani were regular GP2 winners, and as such have a much more credible single-seater CV than the majority of the other drivers in the series. Brazil’s Guimaraes, who surprised with his pace the other weekend, but has looked lost elsewhere, is a 17 year old kid fresh out of karting. Jeroen Bleekemolen is a star in GT racing, but not previously known as much of a single-seater racer. Team GB has alternated between Danny Watts, a man who perhaps never got the breaks he deserved, but who has surely been too long out of a single seater to be the best choice, and former Champ Car racer Dan Clarke who, like Watts, is rather race-rusty, and who often looked out of his depth in Champ Cars. Drivers like John Martin (Australia) Ho-Pin Tung (China), Edoardo Piscopo (Italy) and Fairuz Fauzy (Malaysia) are second-string guys at best. Perhaps the biggest mystery has been the failure of the series’ only other major ‘name’, IRL racer Marco Andretti, to do better than he has in the Team USA machine. I can only guess he has been flattered by driving for one of the best IRL teams on the grid, and is no real match for his father, let alone his grandfather.

In summary, the series is not attracting drivers who could really be said to be amongst the best in the world. Never mind the comparison with F1, the line-up lacks the strength in depth of GP2. Given the sheer number of aspiring professional racing drivers about these days, I’m not quite sure why this is. While it has always been clear that GP2 requires that drivers bring a budget, A1GP teams have tended to be more than a little cagey about whether drivers ‘representing their nation’ are buying their ride. Perhaps because it would rather undermine the credibility of the series if that were known to be the case. Nonetheless, Autosport estimated last week that running an A1GP team for a season costs upwards of £3m and that money has got to be coming from somewhere.

It certainly isn’t coming from external sponsors. Few of the cars carry much in the way of sponsorship – certainly not enough to cover the cost of competing. That’s not surprising really. While the series got some press attention when it first began in 2005, outside of the specialist motorsport press, it is all but completely ignored now. In the UK, at least, TV coverage is restricted to pay-channel Sky Sports, and as I’ve explained above, the drivers are hardly household names. Sponsorship isn’t charity, and whatever Mark Gallagher, of Team Ireland might say, I can’t help but think that A1GP doesn’t offer a very impressive shop window for commercial partners.

While the battle between Carroll and Jani is quite diverting, I doubt it will be enough to save the series. Already, several races have been canned – the latest being the Mexican round, which, it is claimed, has been cancelled owing to a clash with a Radiohead concert. That sounds like clutching at straws to me. Rock concerts happen in the evening, motor races in the afternoon. More likely, there’s been a financial hitch somewhere along the line. Combined with the farce whereby the planned first round at Mugello had to be cancelled and the actual first round at Zandvoort took place with a depleted field because the cars weren't ready on time and it begins to look like this series is operating on a wing and a prayer. Still, the final two rounds, at the rather impressive looking new Algarve circuit in Portugal and Brands Hatch, should be worth tuning in for. And as someone who has always admired Adam Carroll's aggressive, no-holds-barred racing style, I'll be interested to see if he can finally win a major motorsport championship. Just don't necessarily count on him, or Team Ireland, having another chance in 2010...

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