Sunday, 12 October 2014

Thoughts on Sochi, On and Off Track

So there we have it, the first Grand Prix for 100 years in Russia has drawn to an inevitable close. Lewis Hamilton ambled off into the sunset to claim an easy victory which never looked in doubt, save for the first lap where Nico Rosberg briefly took the lead, and in the process claimed Mercedes’ first ever constructors championship (as a team).

Hats off to Nico Rosberg though. While he has divided opinion this season, you cannot fail to admire his drive this afternoon, lasting pretty much race distance on a single set of tyres. Admittedly the reason for doing this was largely down to his mistake on the first lap, and while his move against Lewis smacked of a man desperately trying to cling on in the world championship fight, he should be congratulated for recovering in the best way possible. While Rosberg’s finish further highlighted the dominance of the Mercedes team this season as he fought his way from the back of the field to claim second spot, and some might argue that you could put anyone in a Mercedes and they would put it on the podium, you only need to look at Ronny Deila’s reign at Celtic so far this season to know that in sport, from the outside what may look an odds on certainty is not always the case.

In a race which started with a bang and then burnt slowly afterwards, there was little on track action and it was definitely “one for the purists”. The safety car, widely predicted by many at the start of the race never came (given the circumstances perhaps thankfully), while a conservative choice of tyre from Pirelli meant that a single pit stop was all that was needed for most, leading to a largely uneventful afternoon for all concerned.

So what did we learn in Sochi this afternoon?

Mainly that on an even playing field and all things being equal, Mercedes are still a mile ahead of the rest. Not only in terms of the team, but also in terms of the engine with Mercedes powered cars easily claiming the top five spots.

Williams in my opinion have underperformed this season. With a good podium claimed by Valtteri Bottas, they confirmed that “on their day” they are the closest team in terms of pace to challenging Mercedes. Although they have stepped forward massively from the 2013 season, I can’t help but feel that they still have more potential than their car is showing, and should easily be sat in second spot in the constructors championship. This is to take nothing away from Daniel Ricciardo who has been on the most part nothing short of sensational this season in the Red Bull.

On the subject of Red Bull, it would seem that while Sebastian Vettel has benefited hugely from team orders over the last few years, when roles are reversed he is less than happy to play the team game. Whether Red Bull engineered a move to get Ricciardo past him in the pits, or whether it was just a stronger drive only the team will truly know, however post-race, I couldn’t help but feel Christian Horner’s statement that it was unlikely that Ricciardo could catch either Mercedes driver so team orders were not invoked, seemed a little weak. If Vettel was in Ricciardo’s position at that moment, and still in with a mathematical chance of winning the championship, I suspect that Ricciardo would have been told to move.

McLaren are finally finding their feet with Mercedes engines with a continued upturn in form, right at the time where their thoughts are turning to developing a car with new engine suppliers Honda. With strong performances from Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen, both of whom are fighting for their futures at the team, I hope it will not be a case of one step forward and two back for McLaren, with what will promise to be another difficult winter of testing and developing with a new engine supplier.  As I have stated in a previous post, I do think that in the long run, a return to Honda is best for the team though.

Kevin Magnussen capitalised on a good start to move up from 11th on the grid and was fortunate to benefit from a botched Ferrari pit stop for Fernando Alonso to claim fifth, and although a podium looked achievable for Jenson Button early on, fourth was a good result and realistically the best that he could have hoped for, unless one of the top three had suffered reliability problems.

Off the track, there is maybe a little more to be learned

Pirelli overestimated the levels of tyre wear, and the choice of soft and medium tyres was too conservative. Super softs are definitely required to liven up the race for next year.

The placement of  the DRS zones potentially needs looking at, although given the relatively spread out field, and the way the race unfolded it is hard to judge their position after just one race at the circuit.

The national anthem gathering at the start of the race looks to be a serious inconvenience for drivers and teams, and although it was understandable that this afternoon all teams wanted to show unified support for Jules Bianchi, I would like to see this new development dropped and allow teams and drivers alike to focus solely on the build up to the race, especially given the proximity to “lights out” of the anthem ceremony.

Fernando Alonso won’t be at a Mercedes powered team next season, which either means he’s backtracking and staying at Ferrari or more likely that he will be at McLaren. One interesting rumour that surfaced was a potential move to Lotus, his “stop gap” team it would potentially seem, although this was quickly quashed. It would actually make a lot of sense should he return to the Enstone based team and one he knows inside out. Especially when you consider their switch to Mercedes engines next season, with Alonso at the wheel they might just be thrown into the dark horse category for next year.

Lastly whatever spin Mercedes put on it, from the outside looking in the relationship between Hamilton and Rosberg does not look good. After the race and before the podium ceremony, the two could not have tried harder to ignore each other and even on the podium there seemed only a brief moment of recognition between them. While it would seem that Hamilton has the momentum and psychological edge over Nico Rosberg that will probably see him crowned world champion, I am sure that this is a story which will provide many more twists and turns before the season is done.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Just a Couple of Points

Although the subject of rule changes in F1 is often a contentious issue, especially recently, one rule change I would like to see implemented would be that similar to the IndyCar system where points are awarded for pole position and the fastest lap in a Grand Prix.

Even if it was only three points for pole and a couple of points awarded for the fastest lap I think that there are serious merits to the system.

Firstly, if you start on Pole but for some reason or other do not finish the race it would at least mean that the weekend has not been a complete loss, particularly given for that in effect by gaining pole you have won one of the two competitive days of a race weekend. If you gain pole and win the race, then a driver / team would receive an extra reward for total dominance.

The award of points for the fastest lap I believe would help liven up races, particularly as we have seen on many occasions where at the latter stages the result is often a foregone conclusion. It would provide an extra incentive for drivers in the middle of the field to at least keep racing until the end of the race if there was a chance of gaining some additional points, while it would also provide the incentive for a team who was considering retiring a car to save parts for future races to at least stay out if they think they have a chance of achieving the fastest lap. It might even encourage a team to fix a car to get it out later in the race if points were on offer for the fastest lap.

While I’ve not done the calculations to see what the effects would have been had this system been in force for previous seasons, and ultimately I don’t think it would have a major effect on who wins the championship overall (for most seasons), I think this system could provide some extra entertainment in a Grand Prix and provide some of the mid table teams a chance to pick up some extra points during a season.

Lastly on the subject of points, I would like to see (and I know I’m not alone with this view) a rule which replaces the double points system at the last race of a season replaced with the opportunity for a driver to play a wildcard at any track during the season (before the start of the race weekend) so that they could gain double points at a track which they felt strongest at. While I’m guessing that double points for the last race was introduced to keep the championship alive for longer, in my opinion providing the driver with the opportunity to score double points where they think they would be strongest would be a much fairer system. Just a thought!

Honda to Deliver in 2015 and why Jenson Button Should be Retained

So first things first, before I get started obviously at this time all my thoughts go out to Jules Bianchi and his family after his awful crash at Suzuka. While I'm sure there will be steps to ensure that nothing like this happens again on an F1 circuit, or at any motor racing event, it seems at the time of writing that Jules was the victim of a tragic accident. There's already been much written on the subject, and I'm sure more to come once the FIA have concluded their investigation with regards to how it could have been avoided, and all I'd like to say at this point is to wish Jules a speedy recovery and a return to full health as soon as possible.

The Return of Honda to F1 and Why I'm Tipping McLaren in 2015

I'd like to start my blog instead by turning my attention to the ongoing speculation regarding the driver line up for next season at McLaren and why I'm tipping them for a return to form in 2015.

Firstly, I'm excited for McLaren. I think they could well be challenging for race victories and ultimately a championship in 2015. I say this not with any shred of evidence, only that I get the same feeling with McLaren that I had about Mercedes during the 2013 season. While the steps in Mercedes' progress were a little more obvious last season, with a number of race wins and pole positions under their belt, it was the rumour that Mercedes had devoted a vast amount of off track time to developing a car and engine in line with the new regulations, much more so it seemed than other teams. What's more, as a works team Mercedes were able to design a car to fit around the engine a long time before any other of the Mercedes powered teams were able to get their hands on it. While I'm sure other teams spent vast amounts of time developing new cars during the 2013 season, Mercedes started 2014 with an obvious advantage over the rest of the field, which they have being trying to narrow ever since.

Which brings me to McLaren and their partnership with Honda next season. Again, this is just my opinion with nothing to base it on however here goes.

As early as 2012, Honda had admitted that they were interested in a return to F1, and with an official announcement made around the May 2013 time you can bet that they haven't been sat on their hands ever since. By the time testing for the F1 2015 season will begin, they will have had conservatively at least a year and a half, but in reality a much longer period of time to develop an engine worthy of challenging for the 2015 title. Let us not forget also that this is a company with a pedigree of producing championship winning engines, as they have proved in the past with McLaren.

Unlike teams competing this season under the new engine regulations, Honda will not be coming into this cold. They will have the advantage of seeing what works and what doesn't and unlike Mercedes who will be dedicating some resource into maintaining and developing the engine for their team (s) this season, Honda will have full focus on 2015. This I believe will lead them to producing a power unit that will compete with Mercedes next season.

In addition, as McLaren will in effect be a "works" team next season, they will be able to develop a car around the engine and Honda an engine around the car, at a much earlier stage than teams who wait on delivery from a factory supply, something which I'm sure has been a major effect in the runaway success at Mercedes this season.

Furthermore, add Ron Dennis' seemingly permanent return to the pit lane, a man who has overseen a number of periods of McLaren dominance during his time at the team, and I think all the elements are there for a competitive season in 2015, at least in terms of the car. All of which brings me to the driver line up for next year.

Why Jenson Button Should be Retained

If we are to believe Eric Boullier then no decision will be made regarding the driver line up for McLaren until the end of the season, however it does appear as if Fernando Alonso is pretty nailed on if speculation is to be believed. If so, I think this would be a brilliant acquisition for McLaren, securing the services of a man who time and time again has outperformed the car beneath him. I honestly think you could give Alonso a donkey and cart and he'd still manage to somehow get it in the points. Alonso is a driver who simply knows how to win, and I can't think of a better driver to lead the team next year if the McLaren/Honda is anywhere near competitive.

Which brings me to the number two position in the team, and a position which I strongly feel should be filled by Jenson Button. As a British national it is hard not to be a little patriotic on the subject however I firmly believe that Jenson still has it in him to deliver strong results for the McLaren team next year, and more to give F1 in general before he decides to hang up his helmet. While much seems to be made of head to head qualifying performance, people seem to forget that it's where you finish at the end of the race that counts, which is something that Jenson has managed to do significantly better than Kevin Magnussen this season.

Don't get me wrong, I like Magnussen and I think he has a real future in F1, I just don't think that McLaren is the place for him next season. As previously mentioned, Honda is a team with a real pedigree in Formula 1 and if next season's car is in anyway as good as I think it will be, then there will be immense pressure for results immediately. While Magnussen has shown some raw speed and talent at times this season, he has equally "gone missing" in as many races. I think some time away at a Force India or Sauber type team where he can cut his teeth a little would do the world of good for him.

Instead, I think retaining Button, a man who has won a World Championship and additionally secured several race victories and more than a hatful of podiums for McLaren would be a better choice. Along with Alonso he is a driver who has proven that he is able to deliver when under pressure at a "big" team and also has the F1 experience that would really benefit the Honda/McLaren partnership in developing the car throughout the 2015 season. Ultimately if Alonso were to join, I think he would outperform Button over the course of the season, however should they retain Magnussen, my feeling is that this gap would be glaringly obvious quite early on.

It promises to be an interesting year in 2015, and ultimately more competitive in the drivers and constructors championships as teams get to grips with the new rules and regulations and close the gap on Mercedes. My tip is to look out for and experienced McLaren team powered by Honda, I could be horribly wrong!