Saturday, May 30, 2009

Formula 2: The way ahead, or a dead end?

After a break of a quarter of a century, the Formula 2 Championship sprung back into life last weekend at Valencia. The new formula doesn't really bear much resemblance to the old Formula 2. Where the old F2 was an open chassis and engine formula, in essence, Formula 1 with less horsepower, the new Formula 2 takes the 'spec formula' concept further than it has been pushed before and is the first serious 'arrive and drive' racing formula.

Gp2, which it is fair to say is the 'real' spiritual successor to the old F2, as the single seater formula sitting immediately below F1, has a spec chassis and engine, with individual teams having little freedom to modify the basic Dallara-Mecachrome design. Nonetheless, it is a competition between independent teams and the technical know-how required to run a GP2 car competitively is considerable. Even the most cursory comparison of the results of established front-runners like Barwa-Campos, ISport, ART and Racing Engineering with backmarkers like DPR, Durango and Trident shows that for all that they are all running the same basic car, there is a considerable role is played by the team.

The FIA's new F2 concept, heavily pushed by Max Mosley (much to the irritation of his supposed ally, Bernie Ecclestone, who part-owns GP2) does away with the concept of independent teams altogether. All the cars are prepared and run centrally by Jonathan Palmer's Motorsport Vision operation - the people behind the 'Formula Palmer Audi' category, which runs along similar lines. In this it differs, from virtually every other serious junior single-seater category in existence. GP2 and the Renault World Series might have standardised engines and chassis, but the cars are run by independent teams with dedicated race engineers. F3 is perhaps the formula most directly comparable with F2. The lap times of the cars are very similar - the F2 cars having a bit more power and the F3 cars being aerodynamically superior, but F3 is an open chassis and engine formula. For all that Dallara have all but cornered the market, it is open to anyone to try, and Mygale and Lola have both built cars which have won the odd race. Within an admittedly tight rule book, it is also open to the teams to develop their cars independently, too.

So is the Formula 2 concept a good or bad thing? The future of sub-F1 level single seater racing or a a dilution of the very essence of what the sport is meant to be about? I'm in two minds myself. Let's look first at the case for the new Formula 2. The first big mark in its favour is that, by running the cars centrally and doing away with the arms-race between independent teams, costs have been brought down dramatically. While a season of GP2 costs as much as £1m, and even a year in F3 is reckoned to set a driver back more than £500k these days, a season in F2 costs around £200k.

That's still an awful lot of money - vastly more than the average early 20-something is likely to be able to lay his hands on, it is at least a slightly less daunting figure for a promising youngster to attempt to raise from sponsors and backers. Still more than an awful lot of very promising youngsters in karting are ever going to be able to lay their hands on, but probably less than the cost of running competitively in, for example, the British Touring Car Championship. It should to help to open up the sport to a few more people who don't have the backing of lavish driver development schemes, vast family wealth, or the ability to call favours in the business world.

For the money, a driver knows he's getting the same equipment, prepared to the same standard, as everyone else. And that's good news for the driver, or at least for any young driver with the self-confidence to believe that he needs only a level playing field to emerge on top. My hunch is that most aspiring would-be F1 drivers believe they have what it takes and they need no unfair advantage, even if, almost by definition, most of them must be wrong. Compare that with GP2. Is Romain Grosjean the stand-out driver in that championship right now? Certainly he appears to be doing a good job, but it's hard to know for sure. Perhaps Barwa-Addax-Campos, or whatever they're called this week, are just making their driver look quicker than he is. Maybe Nico Hulkenberg, or Lucas Di Grassi, or who knows who else, might have won in the Barwa car. All we really know for sure is that Grosjean is quicker than Vitaly Petrov... The same is true, to a greater or lesser extent in all the junior formulae. Try to recall the last time that anyone won the F3 Euroseries in anything other than an ASM/ART car...

In one important way, Formula 2 promises to be much more interesting than its rival series. Thanks to the way it is run, we should know with reasonable certainty that the guys at the front reallty are the quickest drivers in the field, and not simply those with the best prepared cars, the smartest race engineers and the cheque books to procure access to them.

And yet there's a part of me that really doesn't like what the new F2 represents, an insistent voice in the back of my head telling me that it is the logical end-point of what is said to be Max Mosley's desire to turn F1 into a single-chassis formula. Motorsport, for me, has only ever been partly about the drivers. It's about the teams, about the cars, too.

The old F2 gave teams considerably scope to develop their cars. Some teams went so far as to build their own chassis. It was a valuable training ground, not only for drivers, but for designers, engineers, mechanics and team managers wanting to make the step into F1. A number of F2 teams went on to F1 having begun building their own cars in F2. AGS, Minardi, Osella and Toleman all started out as F2 constructor-teams (though of those, only Toleman, which would eventually become today's Renault F1 team, found any long-term success).

By contrast, the latter-day F3000 series with it's single chassis and engine (the uninspiring Lola Zytek) and the current GP2 championship simply don't provide the kind of technical challenge required to enable teams to progress on to F1, and with the teams solely concerned with running, and not designing, the cars, it doesn't provide an opportunity for budding designers and engineers either. To be fair, there's an argument that F1 is in any case now so expensive and so far removed from any junior category that it wouldn't matter what the rules are for GP2 - the last team to make the leap from F3000 to F1 were the Italian Forti team, and their experience appears to have deterred anyone else from having a go in the last 10 years, but a more technically free formula might at least have served as a place in which individual engineers and designers could gain experience which could prove useful in F1.
To some extent, that is still the case, at least for race engineers and mechanics. It's far less clear how the new F2 will do any of this.

There is a related problem - one F3 team bosses were keen to emphasise in a recent Autosport article. The new series, with its' pooled race engineers, limited scope for set-up changes and centrally-run cars provides little opportunity for a driver to learn the art of developing a car - of working with engineers to identify and solve handling and set-up problems and work as part of a team to optimise a car's performance. Motorsport, at the top level, is about more than simply the ability to take a well-honed car and lap quicker than anyone else can - a driver needs to be able to work with a team to develop a car over a season. How interesting will F1 or Indycar teams be in drivers who have never learned this black art? To be fair, F2 is unlikely to be anyone's last stop before F1 anyway, but if that is the case, then to what extent does the reduced budget really help young drivers?

In the end, the question of whether the new Formula 2 championship will prove to be a success will depend much on where the champion and other front-runners go in 2010. Will it prove to be a launch-pad for those seeking to establish a professional racing career, or is it little more really than a slightly faster Formula Master with only the cachet of the F2 name to recommend it? I don't know whether it will succeed, and I can't even make up my mind whether it would be a good thing if it did. I've seen what appear to me to be talented drivers whose careers have stalled for lack of funds to get a seat in a top team in GP2 or similar, and it will be good to see who comes out on top in a championship where the equipment really is equal. On the other hand though, motorsport for me has always been about more than just the drivers - and that certainly isn't true of the new F2. I suppose we'll see how it turns out...

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Street Fighting Men

Normally, a race at a circuit where overtaking is all but impossible is hardly a mouth-watering prospect. I wasn’t exactly eagerly awaiting the Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona last weekend. Yes, I was hoping that the new rules – the introduction of KERS, for example, might make it a little less processional. But not expecting much. Which was for the best, as it would appear that the main effect of KERS is to prevent overtaking (see Massa and Vettel or Hamilton and Vettel in Bahrain) rather than to promote it. Writing ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix this weekend, I already know that, barring an act of god, on track passes are out of the question, at least after the cars have rounded the Mirabeau on lap one. Yet, in spite of that, it’s a race I look forward to, one I’d be sad to see leave the calendar, no matter how much of an anachronism it may now be.

Why? In part it’s simply the novelty of seeing brutally powerful racing cars being threaded along the narrow roads that wind through the immensely built-up Principality. In 25 years of following the sport, it’s still not entirely worn off. It’s no longer exactly picturesque. Yes, the harbour looks a little more impressive on TV than the docks at the Valencia street circuit which F1 visited for the first time last year, but densely packed tower blocks, whose sole purpose appears to be to maximise the ratio of tax exiles to square feet hve long ago replaced most of the Belle Époque French architecture which provided the charming backdrop to the races which took place there in the 50s and 60s.

More important than that, though, is that it’s a circuit where the driver can make more of a difference than perhaps anywhere else on the calendar. As Mark Hughes put it in Autosport last week, it’s a place where the art of driving a racing car on the limit can still count for more than the science of aerodynamics. Nelson Piquet might have compared it to riding a bicycle in your living room, but still, threading an 800BHP racing car round Casino Square and the Massanet is a stern test of a driver’s feel and nerve.

Partly because the races can be so processional, Saturday afternoon qualifying is never more crucial – the ability to wring a single lap on the absolute limit without going over it never counts for more.

It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that the race has been dominated by the acknowledged greats of their era. When I first started following the sport in the mid 1980s, Alain Prost was the generally acknowledged master of Monaco.

Already though, a young Brazilian by the name of Ayrton Senna was serving notice of his talents, coming remarkably close to winning the rain-shorted 1984 race in a Toleman Hart. Not, in all truth, a car which normally troubled the podium. Senna would go on to make the place his own, winning 6 times between 1987 and 1993 – the only gap in that record being the 1988 race, which he had absolutely dominated. He lapped nearly two seconds quicker than his team mate Prost in qualifying, and talked of experiencing something approaching a transcendental experience that year – of no longer consciously driving the car. Then he went off into the wall 12 laps from the end as a result of a trivial lapse of concentration, while leading by nearly a minute. Monaco is a harsh mistress that way.

Michael Schumacher, in turn, made the world stand up and pay attention when he outpaced Senna in the 1993 race before his Benetton expired around mid-distance, enabling Senna to beat Graham Hill’s all time record of 5 wins around the streets. Schumacher would go on to win the race 5 times himself and while, like Senna, he threw away wins through silly errors (crashing on the formation lap in the rain in 1998 for example…) the truth is that Schumacher was a devastating combination of the particular talents of Senna and Prost, it’s only a shame that Senna’s death in 1994 robbed us of further contests between the two men around the streets of Monaco. For many, it was Lewis Hamilton’s sheer pace at Monaco in 2007 and 2008 which confirmed the arrival of another of the sport’s outstanding talents. Writing on Friday afternoon, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see him on the podium come Sunday, and no matter how uncompetitive the Mclaren may be right now, I wouldn’t be completely taken aback if he’s spraying the champagne from the top step. Not the way I’d bet, but not beyond the bounds of possibility…

In some ways more fascinating is the way in which certain drivers not generally considered to be from the very top drawer have shown themselves capable of incredible feats at there. Alex Caffi is not a name which would figure prominently in any history of the sport, and yet in sundry Dallaras and Footworks, and even the awful 1987 Osella, the Italian driver could be relied upon to perform well round the streets of the Principality. In 1987, he got the Osella as high as 15th on the grid and would go on to score points there both in the 1989 Dallara and the 1990 Footwork. A sign of a sadly overlooked, under-rated talent? On balance, probably not, although it’s always very hard to know for sure. If that were the case, he ought to have been quicker relative to his team mates elsewhere. More likely, his driving style just happened to gel with the tight, low-speed confines of the circuit – he ran very quickly at Phoenix in 1989 too, only to be run off the road by his (lapped) team mate. Perhaps the absolute requirement for concentration forced him to focus in a way that other circuits did not.

The same was surely even truer of his compatriot Stefano Modena. The wealthy Italian had starred in F3000 in 1987, but never entirely succeeded in convincing the F1 world of his talents. In his first race, for Brabham in Australia that year, he retired before half distance, suffering from exhaustion. As Keke Rosberg observed at the time, a driver who gave up so easily was unlikely ever to make it to the top of a sport as fiercely competitive as F1.

And yet, the man always starred at Monaco, a circuit as demanding as they come. He scored his only podium finish there with the temporarily reanimated Brabham team in 1989, and stuck his unwieldy Tyrrell Honda on the front row two years later. The 1990 Tyrrell 019 might have been a fantastically balanced car, but the consensus is that it’s successor, the 020 was ruined by the overweight Honda V10 engine it ran, and the results seem to bear this out –other than at Monaco, the car was never near the front. A possible career-best 2nd place slipped through his hands when the Honda engine went bang at around half distance.

Modena, I think, was a classic example of a driver who had the natural talent, the fundamental car control to be a great Grand Prix driver, but who lacked something, perhaps the motivation, perhaps the discipline, perhaps the ability to consistently unlock that talent. You could argue that he simply never got himself into a top car, but to my mind, he never quite did enough to suggest he was deserving of a ride in one of the top teams. As Martina Navratilova once observed after one of her countless Wimbledon victories, “What matters”, she said, “isn’t how well you play when you’re playing well. What matters is how well you play when you’re playing badly.” When Modena was good, he was very good indeed, but when he was bad....

In recent years, perhaps the standout ‘Monaco specialist’ has been another Italian, Jarno Trulli. The comparison is not entirely apt, Trulli is a much more consistent front-running driver than either Modena or Caffi ever were, and, I think, not only because he has more often had the car with which to do the job. Nonetheless, his standout performances have come at Monte Carlo – most notably his sole win, in 2004, in a car that was not truly the equal of, say, the Ferraris or perhaps even the Williams and against no less a team mate than Fernando Alonso. Why? It’s hard to say – his qualifying pace is certainly a help.

Again, though, I wonder if it comes down to the fact that the circuit rewards concentration and precision – something which Trulli’s one lap abilities indicate he has in spades when the occasion requires.

So, anachronism it may be, and certainly it never produces much in the way of racing - in the wheel-to-wheel sense, as opposed to Max Mosley's favoured "high speed chess", but as a test of a driver's art, there's nothing and nowhere quite like it.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Ghost of ProCar

At any time, hundred of young racing drivers are plugging away in categories like Formula Renault, Formula BMW and Formula Ford, taking the first steps towards becoming professional racing drivers. In their early years, at least, most will be dreaming of F1 stardom. Most of them will fail. Despite the economic recession, there were 29 drivers on the grid at the last round of the Formula Renault championship at Donington. The odds are that, at most, maybe one of those 29 will ever make it as far as F1. Of the 20 champions that the British series has produced since 1989, just four have gone on to become Grand Prix drivers.

What, then, are the options for those convinced they have what it takes to pursue a life as a paid professional racing driver, but who has found the road to F1 closed off to them? While Formula 1 may be far and away the best paid field of motorsport apart, perhaps, from NASCAR, it is not the only way a racing driver can hope to be paid for plying his trade. There's the Indy Racing League, though it remains predominantly an oval series which perhaps isn't best suited to drivers who learned their craft on the road courses of Europe. There's sports car racing, but with the bulk of the field in both the European and American series made up of private teams backed by wealthy individuals, many of whom are to be found behind the wheel, the scope to find paid drives is limited. Audi, Peugeot and, probably Acura, will most likely be paying their drivers, but the vast majority of entrants in, for example, last weekend's Spa 1000kms, were probably paying for the privilege of being there.

There's always touring cars, although the days when the British Touring Car Championship consisted of major car manufacturers paying F1 veterans substantial money are now long gone. The World Touring Car Championship has a number of works teams and both longtime tintop specialists like Rickard Rydell, Alain Menu and Yvan Muller and ex-F1 men like Nicola Larini, Gabriele Tarquini and Tiago Monteiro. In the end, though, racing 270BHP Super2000 spec touring cars seems a terrible waste of a professional racing driver's talents. The cars have too much grip, too little power, and the results are often determined by a hideously overcomplicated equivalency formula designed to enable petrol and diesel, front wheel drive and rear wheel drive cars to compete on an equal footing.

A far more appealing option, surely, must be the DTM series, which kicked off at Hockenheim last year. Big 4 litre V8 Audis and Mercedes with nearly 500BHP on tap, which can lap a shade quicker than an F3 car, these are proper racing cars. Ex-F1 men, Mika Hakkinen, Jean Alesi and Heinz-Harald Frentzen all found a lucrative second career here, and while they have all now left, the younger Schumacher brother, Ralf, is plying his trade in a year-old Mercedes.

Among the front-runners in the series are a number of former single-seater stars whose path to F1 ran up against the buffers. Paul Di Resta, who nearly took the title last year, was the man who beat Sebastian Vettel to the F3 Euroseries Crown in 2006. Jamie Green is another former Euroseries champion who never quite managed to line up a GP2 drive. Alexandre Premat wound up at Audi after winning in GP2 while Gary Paffett is yet another former F3 champion who couldn't get the backing together to carry on in single seaters. Reigning champion Timo Scheider has been a touring car man for a long time, but he too started out as a race winner in F3 and Formula Renault in the late 1990s. Compared to any other national touring car series in the world, both the quality and international flavour of the driver lineup is remarkable (there are almost as many British drivers in the series as Germans!) Tom Kristensen, who won on Sunday, has had a sportscar career which rivals that of Jackie Ickx.

And why? Because, in a way, it's not really a touring car championship at all. The series owes more than a little to the old ProCar concept. ProCar was originally a Grand Prix support-event which ran in 1979 and 1980. A single-make series for a grid full of BMW's M1s which attracted a grid full of current and recently retired F1 drivers. It is the later, stillborn late 1980s which the DTM most closely resembles, however. Bernie Ecclestone's brainchild, it involved 'silhouette' racers, with F1-derived V10 3.5l engines and carbon fibre chassis with saloon car bodywork. A single Alfa Romeo 164 Procar was built and lapped Monza very quickly, but the championship never saw the light of day.

The modern DTM race cars are, according to those who drive them, more like single seaters than conventional touring cars. As with the old ProCar concept, the saloon-car bodyshape masks a carbon fibre chassis and brakes, suspension and transmission which is much more thoroughbred racing car than modified saloon car. The championship is even, to a fair degree, international, with races in the UK, Italy, Spain and France. How much that has to do with the lack of decent racetracks in Germany is a matter for speculation...

The DTM has all the ingredients for a great race series and yet, watching the opening race at Hockenheim last weekend, I was not convinced. Yes, it didn't help that it happened to be a rather processional race. That can happen in any series, at least any where the rules are not deliberately manipulated to keep things artificially close. There was more to it than that, though. I couldn't help thinking I was watching, in essence, a high speed car advert for Mercedes and Audi.

The teams are all ultimately funded by, and operating at the behest of, these two manufacturers. When the race turned out to be something of an Audi benefit, one wondered whether the Audi drivers would really race each other as hard as they might race their Mercedes rivals. Timo Scheider tailed Tom Kristensen all race long (though Matthias Ekstrom had the race in the bag until the last moment) but never really looked like he would get past. Had Kristensen been a Mercedes man, might he have tried a little harder? Drivers with an eye on their long-term employment prospects don't risk taking their team mates off the road, and that's true across the racing world. In a series which consists, essentially, of two teams of 10 drivers, however, that can significantly stifle the racing.

My other problemwith the DTM is its use of mandatory pit stips. I know I'm beginning to sound like a stuck record on this subject, but pit stops are not, in and of themselves, interesting to watch. They break up the flow of races, make it difficult for those watching track-side to work out quite what is going on, and throw an unnecessary random element into proceedings. In A1GP, in particular, too many races have been decided by a botched wheel-change or a car that wouldn't fire up again. DTM seems not to have quite such problems on this score, but on the other hand, insisting on two mandatory pit stops over the course of a race of not much over an hour is absurd.

The problem of the racing being subservient to the interests of the manufacturers entering the cars can't easily be dealt with - he who pays the piper calls the tune after all. The pit stops, on the other hand.... Why not dump them. And howabout two half an hour races instead of a single hour long race?

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Young Pretenders

It can't have escaped the many young drivers aspiring to make the breakthrough into Formula 1 next year that there could be a number of seats available in the near future. Nelson Piquet Jr, Sebastien Bourdais and Kazuki Nakajima have all underperformed thus far this year and questions have to be asked as to whether they will last the season let alone retain their seats into next. One wonders, too, whether Giancarlo Fisichella and perhaps even Rubens Barrichello are now into their final season of racing now. If all of the above go, that's five seats opening up, compared to the one this year, and of course there is always the possibility that the FIA's efforts to bring new teams into the sport will come off and USGPE, or ISport or whoever, could be looking for drivers too.

In recent years, the vast majority of F1 debutants have come up through GP2. There have been exceptions - most notably Sebastian Vettel and Robert Kubica, but all the same, if you are looking to get a Grand Prix drive, then the FOM-owned feeder series appears to be the place to be. All of which begs the question, with the series kicking off in Barcelona last weekend, who might be near the top of the F1 bosses' shopping lists?

Even ahead of a dominant display at the weekend, Renault development driver Romain Grosjean, who won the previous year's GP2 Asia series, had to be one of the title favourites. A pole, an error-free victory in the feature race and a second place in the sprint which perhaps ought to have been a win (Edoardo Mortara on one occasion at least played very fast and loose with the 'one move' rule in defending his lead) - it was a marked contrast to his performance at the opening round last year, where he looked the fastest man on the track most of the time, but threw away a possible sprint race win in a moment of impetuousness.

I've said before that, for a driver to really stand out, he needs to win the GP2 series at his first attempt, especially if he's with one of the top teams as Grosjean was last year. But I wouldn't write him off just yet. Last year, he had the pace, but made too many errors - if he can demonstrate this year that this was down to youthful inexperience rather than a fundamental character flaw, he could yet be in for a race seat at Renault in 2010. Perhaps the one thing casting doubt on his performance was that the hitherto rather unremarkable Vitaly Petrov was able to finish second in the feature race in the sister-Barwa car, suggesting that, for all that GP2 is supposedly a spec-formula, the team may have played as big a part as the driver in their success last weekend.

For Lucas Di Grassi, it may already be too late. He's now going into his fourth season in GP2, and his failure to win the title for ART in 2007 was probably enough to lead many of F1's movers and shakers to write him off as not quite the real deal. That said, he's not quite in the same boat as Giorgio Pantano, who took nearly a decade to win the title (he first arrived in F3000 in 2000...) If there are enough seats available at the end of the year, then a good run at the title in his amusingly-named 'Fat Burner Racing Engineering' machine (and to think, last year, the Repsol liveried Racing Engineering cars were the prettiest on the grid...) just might be enough to secure him a drive.

In GP2, you can never write off Frederic Vasseur's ART squad and it will be interesting to see what the highly rated F3 Euroseries Champion Nico Hulkenberg can do with them this year. He had an oddly anonymous weekend in Barcelona, though he was hamstrung by his failure to get off the line on Saturday afternoon. Still, it's hard to ignore the fact that in the Sunday morning sprint race, his team mate Pastor Maldonado looked a good deal more racy, climbing back up to 6th after falling to 10th away from the start, in spite of the fact that passing at the Circuit di Catalunya is notoriously difficult.

That though, may be a reflection as much of Maldonado's potential as any shortcomings on Hulkenberg's part. The Venezuelan driver has looked intermittently quick ever since arriving in GP2 in 2007 - he's particularly quick at Monaco and showed increasingly impressive pace through last year at Piquet Sports - his performance in the wet at Spa standing out in my mind. He's never been talked about before as an F1 prospect though, perhaps because of an erratic, wild side. If he can put all that behind him and win the title, it's possible the GP team principals will sit up and take notice, but now he's with ART and into his third season, he has no excuses.

What of the rest? Who else will be worth watching? The DAMS squad won the GP2 Asia series comfortably over the winter and while series champion Kamui Kobayashi looked rather anonymous all weekend, Belgian Jerome D'Ambrosio, the former Formula Master champion, looked a good deal more impressive. He may not quite have had the pace of the Barwa-Campos-Addax cars, but two podium finishes in the opening two races suggests that he could be a factor as the season goes on. Whether or not he's really quite F1 material I'm not sure, but he came on increasingly strong as the GP2 Asia series progressed earlier in the year...

What of 2007 Champions and rumoured F1 aspirants, ISport? For the second year running, I'm not entirely convinced by their driver line-up. Giedo Van Der Garde won last year's Renault World Series title, but has thus far looked all at sea in GP2, something I find hard to understand. Was last year's WSR field second rate? Were P1 Motorsport putting together a much quicker car than their rivals? Have ISport gone dramatically backwards since last year? Or is it simple a case of car and driver failing to gel? Sometimes it is hard to understand why a driver can be so quick in one series and so lost in another....

Diego Nunes looks a shade quicker thus far.He sometimes impressed last year in the unfancied DPR entry and was in a points-scoring position before becoming an innocent victim of the Di Grassi/Parente collision in the feature race. He looks like someone who can win races, but I wonder if a title might be beyond him....

Arden were once the kings of F3000, and with Heikki Kovalainen, they had a serious run at the very first GP2 title in 2005. Since then, the team appear to have fallen from their perch. Perhaps it's because owner Christian Horner has other things on his mind these days. Perhaps they've just not had the drivers to get the job done - although that Sebastien Buemi has looked pretty handy in an F1 car. This year, they've got Euroseries runner-up Edoardo Mortara and British F3 front-runner Sergio Perezat the wheel. And while Perez had a torrid time last weekend, Mortara was able to hold off Grosjean and win the reverse grid event in his first GP2 weekend (if you discount the GP2 Asia series anyway). I'd be surprised if he mounts a serious title bid, but he might just get the best of his old F3 rival, Hulkenberg.

Of the rest? There are a fair few race winners in the field. Andi Zuber is back for yet another year, but after failing to make a serious impression with Piquet Sports last year and never quite matching Timo Glock at ISport the year before I can't now see his career going anywhere. Luca Filippi was back on form at SuperNova last weekend, running near the front after a miserable and lacklustre year spent at ART and Arden in 2008, and he's teamed up with Javier Villa, who seems to have been around forever despite only being 21 years old. Karun Chanhok, having failed to get the measure of Bruno Senna last year at ISport, is unlikely to do any better teamed up with Alvaro Parente at Ocean Racing, the team that as BCN generally brought up the rear last year. Parente I once had a higher opinion of - British F3 Champion, Renault World Series Champion and winner of his first race in GP2. Since then, though, he hasn't really made an impression and his SuperNova team mate Andy Soucek usually got the better of him as the season wore on.

The bottom half of the GP2 series seems to me to be made up of those with few qualifications to race at this level beyond the connections or family wealth to pay for the drive. What Ricardo Texeira, Nelson Panciatici, Alberto Valerio or Michael Herck have done to suggest they have a future as professional racing drivers is beyond me. Come to that, even some of the aforementioned former race winners are probably still on the grid only because they have money and connections - does anyone really still believe Javier Villa is the next Fernando Alonso? Or that Andi Zuber will be picked up by an F1 team?

The shame of it is that while the bottom half of the GP2 grid is made up of makeweights, a number of potentially seriously quick drivers can't, or have chosen not to, join GP2 at all. Jaime Alguesuari, Oliver Turvey and Brendon Hartley, the three stand out drivers from British F3 last year, have all gone to WSR instead. And when one looks at the sheer cost of GP2, it's hardly any surprise. Why would Red Bull or Racing Steps Foundation (who pay the bills for the above three) pay perhaps three quarters of a million to place their driver in one of the weaker teams in the GP2 field? How much could any of them really do with a seat at DPR or Durango? How serious a measure of future up and coming talents is GP2 if it is restricted to the very best-funded young single seater racers?

To go back to the question I started the article with, I wouldn't be surprised to see Romain Grosjean make the move up to F1, and if Nico Hulkenberg lives up to the promise he has shown in F3, he too might find an F1 berth. But it wouldn't surprise me if, after a few years in which GP2 has been de rigeuer for would-be F1 drivers, we revert once more to the situation which had prevailed in the dying years of F3000, where the best drivers skip the category altogether and are plucked straight from F3, from the Renault World Series, and perhaps even from the new Formula 2 category.

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Monday, May 04, 2009

Fantasy Formula One...

The opening rounds of the Formula 1 Championship are out of the way. After starting in Albert Park in Australia, the circus moved on to Malaysia, China and Bahrain. Three countries not known for their rich racing history, and, it has to be said, three races where large swathes of the grandstands seemed to be mostly empty.

Meanwhile, the British Grand Prix, which was a sell-out last year, and looks to be again in 2009, appears in danger of disappearing as Bernie Ecclestone continues to reiterate that he won’t do business with Silverstone and Donington appears to be in financial trouble. The French Grand Prix, an annual fixture ever since the F1 championship began in 1950, is missing from the calendar, while the vultures continue to circle over the German Grand Prix. As Joe Saward pointed out in a radio chat with the guys from Sidepodcast the other week, for all that FOM talk of how races in such far-flung places as Abu Dhabi and Malaysia, and in the future, Korea and India might help justify the ‘World’ Championship tag, can a series which has just one race in South America, and none at all in North America, really call itself a World Championship? Mark Hughes nightmare vision for his Autosport column last year of a sport in which spec-cars do battle on identikit tracks at races paid for by authoritarian regimes desperate for a bit of positive PR seems to edge ever closer…

But putting that aside for a moment, what would a proper F1 calendar look like? Where should the Grand Prix circus be going? I’ve sat down and had a think and come up with the following calendar. It pays no attention to the suitability of the facilities, or whether the infrastructure is in place or the pit garages are of the kind of standard to be found in Shanghai or Bahrain, but these are, or should be, secondary considerations. If I’m absolutely honest, a couple of the suggestions are perhaps a bit marginal in terms of circuit safety too, but I’m not suggesting that F1 goes back to the Nordschliefe – every one of these circuits has been used in recent years to host major races – and in all but a couple of cases, major single-seater races.

The South American leg

For years, the F1 Championship started in Brazil, at Jacerapagua. For some reason, when the race moved to Interlagos, it got shuffled around and has been used to host the final round in recent seasons. I rather like Interlagos. At any rate, it’s a more interesting circuit than Jacerapagua ever was, and I’d keep it on the calendar. Let’s have the F1 championship start among the passionate and partisan Brazilian fans on a circuit where cars can actually pass…

To my mind, one race in South America simply isn’t enough. Unlike many of the more far-flung places that F1 visits, there is a real history and enthusiasm for the sport in this part of the world. So let’s go on from Brazil to Mexico. Up until the early 1990s, F1 used to make an annual trip to the Circuit Hermanos Rodriguez near Mexico City. It’s a great race circuit, and it’s still in use – both Champ Car and A1GP have been there in recent years. The final corner, the Peraltada should sit alongside such legendary corners as Monza’s Parabolica and Spa Francorchamps’ Eau Rouge, and there’s a few really good passing place to boot.

Another South American country with a long racing tradition is Argentina, home of Juan Manuel Fangio. F1 last visited in the late 1990s, though I have to say that the ersatz Circuit Oscar Alfredo Galvez near Buenos Aires makes even the dullest of Hermann Tilke’s efforts seem thrilling by comparison. But how about a race around the inside of a volcano on a circuit described by those who have been there as ‘Latin America’s Spa Francorchamps’? That’s how competitors in the final round of last year’s FIA GT series described the Potrero de los Funes circuit near San Luis. It’s fast, flowing, and even if nothing else, it would look absolutely fantastic on television.

The European season begins

At one time, there were probably too many European races on the calendar. Did we really need two Grands Prix in Germany and Italy? There is no denying, though, that F1 remains a predominantly European phenomenon, and that the vast majority of its fanbase lives. It’s something FOM tacitly admits when it insists on flyaway races in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore being scheduled for the convenience of European TV viewers, even where this results in races being held in near-twilight as in Australia or at a the time of day when storms are most likely to render the circuit unusable, as happened in Malaysia. For all that I’m not hugely enthused by Barcelona as a circuit, it’s a better circuit than the Valencia street track, draws huge crowds, and given the enthusiasm for the sport in Spain right now, in the wake of Fernando Alonso’s two world titles, I’d keep it on the calendar.

Next, I’d want to go back to Portugal. The old Estoril circuit was not wildly exciting, especially once it had been butchered by chicanes in the mid-1990s, but the new Portimao circuit on the Algarve looks like a fantastic place – a real rollercoaster of a race track with some challenging blind apex corners. The last round of the A1GP series proved that passing is possible here, and it’s a track that meets F1 standards – and was used for winter testing by several teams over the winter.

Then there’s Monaco. It’s an anachronism, not much of a racing circuit. Passing is all but impossible there, and if anyone suggested holding a Grand Prix round the streets of the principality now, they would be laughed at. But it’s been a part of the sport for eighty years, and as a pure driving challenge, it is quite unlike anywhere else on the F1 calendar. Qualifying at Monte Carlo is one of the highlights of the year. Ir would be nice if the walls could be put back where they were though.

Back to North America

It is a travesty that there are now no Grands Prix in North America.. Formula 1 may not have such a high profile in the US, though the weakness of its surviving open-wheel series suggests that there’s a gap there. However, the USA remains one of the countries with the deepest racing culture in the world. Part of the reason F1 has never really caught the imagination there, I think has been that it has always gone to the wrong tracks. The uninspiring Indianapolis infield circuit and, before that, the deathly dull Phoenix and Detroit street circuits . Think of motor racing in the US and the great oval races – the Daytona 500 and Indianpolis 500, might be the first to come to mind, but the country has some great road circuits. It’s tough to choose just one – Mid Ohio, Road Atlanta and Laguna Seca are amongst my favourites, but all are probably a bit too narrow for modern F1. In the end, I think it just has to be Road America. Yes, it’s in the middle of nowhere, but the fantastic 4 and a bit mile circuit in Wisconsin would finally enable the American public to see an F1 car in its natural habitat – and perhaps, to understand what all the fuss is really about.

We need a race in Canada too. I quite like Montreal, but I reckon that the rebuilt Mont Tremblant circuit, which hosted a Champ Car race a couple of years back, and was used for the Grand Prix back in the early 1970s, is by some way a more interesting race circuit, at least as long as the silly temporary chicane after the start-line is done away with.

The classic European races

Four countries which should absolutely always have a Grand Prix: France, Great Britain, Germany and Italy. France, sadly, lacks an absolutely stand-out race track these days. Magny Cours would do, I suppose, but I reckon Dijon-Prenois, which held the race back in the early 1980s and is still in use today, is marginally more interesting. Sadly I’m not sure that modern F1 cars could really pass each other there, but if it really doesn’t work, we could always go back to Magny Cours – or else wait and see what comes of the new track in Paris. Any which way, there has to be a French Grand Prix – the sport was all but born there.

Same goes for the UK. Seven of the ten teams are based here. The world champion and the current championship leader are both British, and the British Grand Prix is one of the few races on the calendar to sell out last year. Brands Hatch is a great circuit, but if F3 cars struggle to pass each other there, F1 cars wouldn’t have a chance. Donington might be great when and if it’s ever finished, but, while this might be an exercise in wishful thinking, I’m sticking to tracks which actually exist. So it has to be Silverstone – and that’s no bad thing. The Maggots/Becketts sequence of corners is one of the best in the world, and however primitive the facilities may be, the circuit is still a better place to watch an F1 car being driven on the limit than almost anywhere else on the current F1 calendar.

Germany, like France, lacks any absolute stand-out race tracks. I’d love to see F1 cars round the old Nordschliefe, but that’s not a realistic prospect. With little to choose between the new Hockenheim and the new Nurburgring, I’d alternate between the two venues. Italy, on the other hand, is easy. Imola’s been ruined by chicanes, and it simply has to be Monza. There is absolutely no reason to have a Grand Prix in Belgium, apart of course, from the fact that they happen to have the finest race track in Europe tucked away in the Ardennes. It’s the one overseas Grand Prix I’ve been to (twice now – I hitch-hiked down in 1999 and returned last year) Whether or not the race survives in reality, Spa is certainly staying on my calendar.

The best of Hermann Tilke

Hermann Tilke may be no John Hugenholtz, but for all that his name has become a byword for anonymous, cookie-cutter race tracks, he has been behind a couple of circuits which compare well with the best from the last thirty years. The first of these, the Otodrom Istanbul, in Turkey, has something seemingly absent from every new F1 track of the last 30 years, proper gradient changes. The track has the fantastic quadruple apex turn eight, several blind apex corners and is certainly more interesting than Bahrain, which joined the calendar the year before.

The other track I’d keep on the calendar is Malaysia’s Sepang circuit. It doesn’t attract much in the way of a crowd (a work colleague tells me that when he went a few years ago, it was all but deserted away from the main grandstand, even on race day) which is a shame, because it’s a circuit that is very well suited to modern Grand Prix cars. Two long straights with big stops at the end provide overtaking opportunities, while the turn 13/14 sequence of corners towards the end of the lap provide a real challenge to drivers, starting out very fast, and, as the corner tightens, forcing the driver to brake heavily and turn at the same time. It’s a corner where different drivers can be seen taking radically different lines – not something you see often.

The flyaway finale

From Tilke, to Hugenholtz, and from Malaysia to what I would say is John Hugenholtz’s finest piece of work, the Honda-owned Suzuka circuit in Japan. It may not be the easiest track for F1 cars to pass each other in (though it’s not impossible – remember Raikkonen’s run from the back of the grid to win in 2005 – perhaps the finest drive of the Finn’s career.) As with Sepang, it also features some very difficult corners that separate the great from the merely good, particularly the sequence of bends from the first corner all the way up to underpass. For years, it was the place where the world title was decided, and as the penultimate circuit on my fantasy F1 season calendar, there’s a fair chance it may do so again.

The final race? I’d give the Australians that one. The Australian Grand Prix has always taken place on street circuits – first in the supposedly sleepy city of Adelaide, and more recently in Albert Park in Melbourne. As street circuits go, they’re alright, but neither is a real classic. Unlike Mount Panorama circuit that plays host to Australia’s most famous touring car race, the Bathurst 1000. Of all the circuits on my list, it’s probably the one which is most marginal in its suitability for F1 cars – perhaps too bumpy and maybe too dangerous (ialong with Potrero De Los Funes, it's one of two circuits on my list which have not, to my knowledge, hosted a major single-seater series in recent years). It is an absolutely classic, challenging race circuit though. The twisting run up and down the mountain would test car and driver, and the long blast down to the finish-straight would provide excellent slipstreaming possibilities. All in all, it would be a wonderful place to bring down the curtain on a year of Fantasy Formula One...

The Calendar in Full

Round 1 - Interlagos - Brazil

Round 2 - Circuit Hermanos Rodriguez - Mexico

Round 3 - Potrero De Los Funes - Argentina

Round 4 - Barcelona - Spain

Round 5 - Portimao - Portugal

Round 6 - Monte Carlo - Monaco

Round 7 - Road America - Wisconsin, USA

Round 8 - Mont Tremblant - Canada

Round 9 - Dijon Prenois - France

Round 10 - Silverstone - UK

Round 11 - Alternate between Hockenheim and Nurburgring - Germany

Round 12 - Monza - Italy

Round 13 - Spa Francorchamps - Belgium

Round 14 - Istanbul Park - Turkey

Round 15 - Sepang - Malaysia

Round 16 - Suzuka - Japan

Round 17 - Mount Panorama, Bathurst - Australia

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