On the comeback trail: The Lazarus blog part 1

It’s been nearly a year since I wrote anything on here, or at all really. Realising this on a meander through my various online clutter has made me quite sad, and fired me up to get back on the horse and blogging again for a new stint of posts! First up, in light of my own comeback, some of F1′s own Lazarus moments, for better or worse. Part 1 covers a late-career comeback that didn’t go too well…

Alan Jones – under pressure.

Alan Jones was the kind of rough-and-ready drive-anything-anywhere character borne of the 70′s DIY attitude to F1. He made his own breakthrough in F1 whilst making a whole team’s breakthrough at Williams and though he was unlucky not to be their first ever winner, that going to his teammate Clay Regazzoni at the 1979 British Grand Prix after Jones had retired from the race, he did kickstart a motorsport epoch for the team by winning their first world title the following year in 1980. An unsuccessful yet valiant quest for a second in 1981 saw him retire at the end of the season. A one-off appearance for Arrows in the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1983 saw him exit the race 58 laps suffering from fatigue, a consequence of the more relaxed lifestyle the already stocky Aussie had been enjoying after leaving F1 initially. He pursued more leisurely motorsport events, competing in domestic GT racing and entering a few races of the Australian Drivers Championship driving an Formula Atlantic-spec Ralt RT4, as well as 6th place finish in the 1984 Le Mans 24 Hours. He was keeping him busy, but not to the extent that he was going to have to the year after…

American racing team owner Carl Haas and ex-McLaren boss Teddy Mayer had come together to plan an American assault on Formula 1, something that had been missing since Parnelli Jones and Roger Penske’s teams of the mid-70′s. In conjunction with Beatrice Foods as title sponsor, and with Ford developing bespoke Turbo power units to take on the might of Honda, TAG-Porsche, Ferrari and Renault, things were looking reasonably serious. Haas’ design company FORCE built the THL1 cars, designed by Neil Oatley with engineering assistance from others including one Ross Brawn. The cars would be entered however as Lola’s given Haas’ position as chief American importer for the chassismaker, despite their lack of involvement in the engineering project itself.

All that was needed now was a driver. One car would be ready for the 12th round of the 1985 championship at Monza, and it would be piloted by a now 39 year old Alan Jones. The Ford Turbo V6′s were still not ready, so Haas bought some of Brian Hart’s inline 4-cylinders for use until the works engines were available. A setback but to Monza they went nonetheless. Alan was not in his prime any more, and with a car that was still in it’s early development stages he could only put the Lola 25th on the 26-car grid, 9.8 seconds away from polesitter Ayrton Senna’s Lotus (although the times were set on differing days, Jones being a mere 7.8 seconds away on the same day). The car only lasted 6 laps of the race before the engine drew it’s last turbocharged breath. The team had to skip the next round in Belgium as it was a re-arranged race from earlier in the season when the tarmac was breaking up at the Spa circuit, and as they were not on that initial entry list they couldn’t race.

The Hart inline-4 sits behind Alan Jones in the 1985 Haas THL1 whilst they waited for Cosworth to finish the Turbo V6.

The car reappeared at the next round, the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. Most British fans know that this is the same race where Nigel Mansell won his very first Grand Prix in a barnstorming performance in front of his adoring home crowd. However, things were not going so well for the chaps down at Haas-Lola. An improved qualifying performance, though still 6 seconds off pole on a relatively short, if still daunting and a test of a car’s mettle, Brands Hatch circuit put Jones 22nd and just one place behind a fellow returnee in John Watson, substituting for an absent Niki Lauda at McLaren and also being shocked at how the pace of modern F1 had rather left him behind. Their fortunes rather differed in the race, as Jones was again forced to retire early, this time 13 laps in with a broken radiator, whilst Watson recovered from a poor qualifying to finish a respectable 7th, 3 places behind his teammate Alain Prost.

Next up was the contentious race at Kyalami in South Africa. FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre had announced earlier in the year that the race was indeed going ahead despite calls for it to be boycotted due to the Apartheid issues in the country at the time. Haas-Lola turned up with the THL1, but under pressure from the French government, who had boycotted and sanctioned the Apartheid state in South Africa, Ligier and Renault did not make an appearance. Many drivers were unsure of racing at Kyalami, including title challenger Alain Prost, but all did due to contractual obligation, despite many national governments putting pressure on their drivers not to. Jones’ qualifying was again slightly more competitive than the last, putting his car 18th just behind Martin Brundle’s Tyrrell and not far off the fellow Hart-engined Toleman of Piercarlo Ghinzani. Jones and the car were not to start the race though, officially citing Jones feeling unwell enough not to be able to race, but rumours abounded that the team had elected to boycott the Grand Prix after deciding they were not happy to race in South Africa. 3 races in, and only 19 racing laps completed for the Haas-Lola boys and their ex-World Champion driver. Things were not looking good.

However, the next and final race of the 1985 season was to be a relatively happy one for proud Aussie Jones, as his home country hosted a World Championship Grand Prix for the very first time, at a street circuit in Adelaide. An important event for himself as well, being his 100th Grand Prix, Alan was the first driver to get out onto the track as well, a great moment for him and his countrymen who flocked to the circuit in their thousands. Qualifying was again an improvement, a 19th place start being validated by a laptime just 4.5 seconds off the dancing Lotus of Senna, who had put a time in that was 2 seconds faster than 3rd place Rosberg, only Mansell in the other Williams being able to get anywhere near the mesmerising Brazilian. Being only 2 seconds off the majority of the field was a boon for Jones, and he drove a measured but ignited race to reach 6th place on lap 20 before true to form the car failed him, letting Jones and the passionate Aussie crowd down with an electrical fault. It was hard to take anything truly positive from the 4 races they had competed in, but with the promise of works Ford units to come, and the improving pace of the car, hope sprang eternal for the next season.

Development was going ahead on a revised version of the FORCE chassis, with the hope that the Ford engines would be finally ready for use in 1986. The team was also expanding to a full two-car assault, with Patrick Tambay slotting in alongside Jones having lost his seat at Renault due to the team closing, having fallen behind in the Turbo revolution despite starting it just 8 years previously. Cosworth had fallen behind in development of the Ford engines, and they were again delayed for the start of the season, meaning the Hart units had to be dragged out again for the first race in Brazil. Despite this further setback, the cars were back on the promising pace of the previous season’s end, with Tambay putting his car in a improbable 13th and Jones in 19th, perhaps starting to show signs that Formula 1 might just be passing him by. Neither car would make the race finish, Jones’ car calling it quits after just 5 laps with a fuel injector fault, and Tambay’s expiring 19 laps later with battery issues. Normal service had been resumed but with double the trouble.

Jerez was next, and whilst Mansell and Senna duked it out to a nailbiting 0.014secs difference at the finish, one THL1 made the finish! It was not Jones’ however, and whilst Tambay did drag his car round to a creditable 8th place, he was the last car running and 6 laps down on the epic battle upfront. Alan did not suffer any reliability issues this time round though, instead being caught up in a first lap collision with Jonathan Palmer’s Zakspeed. Alas, onto pastures new, and Imola for the third round, where Jones would be the recipient of a brand-new THL2 with the Ford V6 sat behind him. Tambay was stuck with the old Hart-engined car, but still managed to qualify 10 places ahead of Jones in 11th. That the team was now getting some speed out of the old car whilst he was having to bed in the new one must’ve been jarring for Jones, but as Tambay could only rack up 5 laps before his engine expired Alan would get to lap 28 before his new car decided enough was enough and overheated. Alan was yet to finish a race for Haas-Lola, or even reach halfway! Jones had commented fairly on the new chassis, saying it’s handling was a big improvement on the old car, but also mentioned that he felt the Ford engine was way down on power compared to the others. At Monaco, Tambay too received a new THL2 and put it 8th on the grid, with Jones again 10 places back on his teammate in 18th. Jones retired embarrassingly just two laps in, falling victim to Monte Carlo’s penchant for marrying armco with F1 cars. Tambay was having a stormer in the second car, running well and racing with Martin Brundle’s Tyrrell before coming together in a big accident at Mirabeau just 11 laps from the finish, where the Haas-Lola flipped over the Tyrrell and nearly fell over the armco to the Portier corner some 30 feet below! The Frenchman was luckily unhurt and walked from the wrecked car shaken but not stirred.

Jones practising in Monaco 1986. His race would only last 2 laps, though he was spared the more spectacular exit from the race made by his teammate Tambay.

Qualifying was not going well for Jones, Tambay having had the measure of him quite substantially all season, and that pattern continued into Belgium. However, come race day, Jones’ car only fell 3 laps short of completing the race, falling foul to an empty fuel tank, something that was common in the turbo days where drivers were in control of the engine’s boost with little information as to how much petrol they were using. Tambay didn’t complete a single lap in either Spa or Canada, having a first lap accident in the first and a bigger one in morning warmup in Montreal, meaning his car was too damaged to take the start, plus some nasty injuries that were to keep him out of the car for the next round. Jones however finally finished a Grand Prix in the Lola, finishing 10th of 12 finishers and 3 laps down on Nigel Mansell’s Williams FW11. Progress had eventually been made, on both the car and engine fronts, however the onset of summer had seen a management change at title sponsor Beatrice, and the deal was cancelled, leaving Ford as the sole backer of the team for the rest of the season. It may have been an odd introduction, but Ford technically had a defacto works outfit in F1 for the first time, at least since the launch of the DFV-powered Lotus 49.

The circus moved onto Mo’town and with it came a temporary replacement for the stricken Tambay. Carl Haas had tried to get rising Indycar star, and son of Mario, Michael Andretti, but couldn’t manage to get the necessary Superlicence due to an apparent feud between Bernie Ecclestone, FISA and the CART sanctioning body for Indy racing. Another American, Eddie Cheever, himself an ex-Renault driver like Tambay, stepped in to drive the second THL2 round the streets of Detroit. The rigours of a full-time return to F1 racing were definitely starting to show for Alan Jones, who again was significantly outqualified by his new one-off teammate, only managing 21st on the grid to Cheever’s promising 10th. What was a return to form was the team’s reliability woes, which manifested itself this time in broken steering for both cars, causing each to retire within just 4 laps of each other, Cheever making 37 laps to Jones’ 33. 11 races into the team’s existence and they had only had a car reach the finish 3 times, never having two finish one race. It wasn’t necessarily one main issue either, as the car seemed to suffer from a new race-ending woe each week. Teething troubles are to be expected in new cars from new teams, but this was below average reliability even for the famously fragile cars of the Turbo era. For someone of Alan Jones’ success and reputation, being a genuine backmarker, alongside the recalcitrant cars of Minardi, Osella and Zakspeed can’t have been either enjoyable or dignifying. Nevertheless, to Paul Ricard and the French Grand Prix, and the return of Jones’ teammate Tambay.

Paul Ricard was and is very much a power circuit, with the long Mistral straight and the high-speed Signes corner being a real test of the muscle in your car. With the Ford engine still not being completely up to scratch the two Lola’s couldn’t pull much out of the bag in qualifying, Tambay returning to the car with his normal speed and placing the car 13th and Jones sticking his in his now usual area of 20th place. Getting used to starting in any part of the grid is dull if it’s not pole position, but having Sandro Nannini’s Motori Moderni-powered Minardi lining up ahead of the works Ford engined Lola of Jones was indicative of big problems for the Haas team. Jones spared the car any reliability blushes by crashing on lap 2, whilst Tambay pulled his usual ‘trick’ of dragging the car to within sight of the end before the brakes gave up on lap 64, 16 laps short of the finish. Again, a Lola-Ford mechanical issue and again a new one to others gone before.

The British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch was significant for a number of reasons. Frank Williams was back in the pits for the first time since his car accident which had left him paralysed, Jacques Laffite’s distinguished career ended sadly when he broke both his legs in an accident at the start of the race, and Alan Jones outqualified his teammate for only the third time in the season. Tambay continued his form and had a decent race until the car’s gearbox went bust on lap 60, again within 15 laps of the finish. Jones managing to get round 22 laps of the Grand Prix loop at Brands before throttle trouble ended his afternoon. 3 races and a hat-trick of double retirements, all for a variety of different mechanical maladies as well as driver error. At the front of the grid the survival of Frank Williams had inspired Nigel Mansell to wins in France and Britain, and a title charge was very much under way fighting alongside Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet. Alan Jones had been there before just 5 years earlier, but he was a long, long way away from anything like that kind of competitive duelling, too busy fighting to keep his car running for more than a quarter of a race distance.

Jones rounds Druids corner at Brands Hatch. One of the few events where he had the measure of teammate Tambay in qualifying.

Things improved massively at the Hockenheimring in Germany. Both cars qualified in their usual positions, Tambay 13th and Jones 19th, but in a typically attritional race at the flat out blast through the forests that is Hockenheim, both Lola’s made the finish for the first time. Patrick Tambay finished 1 lap down in 8th, with Alan Jones a further lap down but only place back in 9th. No mechanical woes at a circuit so demanding on the engine, gearbox and brakes must’ve been both a relief and a glimmer of hope for the two Haas drivers that better things were to come. The first Hungarian Grand Prix saw another finish, this time just for Tambay’s car, but a highest finish of 7th and fantastic qualifying positions of 6th for the Frenchman and 10th for Jones were even more encouraging signs that the car was improving quickly, at a bumpy twisty track where the chassis could compensate for any lack of power. The next race was to be the zenith of their season.

The Österreichring was surely one of the most beautiful and brutally fast circuits in the world. Banked turns over rolling hills, the cars never dropped below 3rd gear and easily topped 200mph at several points around the track. Horsepower and high-speed balance were the key to unlocking a fast lap time at the Österreichring, and with the Lola-Ford cars not being as refined as their rivals’, Tambay and Jones couldn’t replicate their Hungaroring speed in qualifying and lined up 13th and 16th on the grid for Sunday’s race, though having said that they were in exalted company as Ferrari could only get Stefan Johansson’s car to 14th. The massively powerful BMW 4-cylinder units had blasted the two Benetton’s to the front of the grid, with home favourite Gerhard Berger sitting in 2nd. 1400bhp in qualifying trim was nothing to be sniffed at.

On race day, the Benetton’s attempted to run away from the field but came unstuck as firstly polesitter Teo Fabi pushed his engine a little too hard trying to regain the lead from Berger, and then the Austrian himself had a long pitstop to change a transistor pack that was failing. Even the big teams weren’t having the best of days, with both Williams retiring around half-distance and Senna’s Lotus only lasting 12 laps.As usual the McLaren-TAG cars were proving more useful in race conditions, and Alain Prost was edging his way into the lead in typical fashion. For the Lola’s, nothing particularly exciting was happening on track, and that was a good thing for once. Tambay had a brief battle with Johansson’s Ferrari whilst in an impressive 5th place, but couldn’t hold on as Prost was bearing down on them to lap both cars. Jones too was having a fairly anonymous race, just keeping a consistently fast pace and not putting too much stress on himself or the car. Things were all going well. By lap 48 and with just 4 to go the top 6 contained the two McLaren’s of Prost and Rosberg, both Ferrari’s and both Lola-Ford, owing no small part to the troubles that befell both Williams and Benetton cars, who both had the pace to win the race and would’ve kept the Haas boys out of any points. Rosberg’s car pulls to a stop, his McLaren’s electrics having frazzled themselves out. Alan Jones is now just a few laps away from a podium position! Unfortunately he wasn’t to keep that place for long, as the hard charging Swede Johansson had a decent amount of fuel left in his Ferrari and was making a push for the podium to join his teammate Alboreto on the rostrum. The Rosberg retirement though had promoted Tambay to fifth, meaning that the team would score an equal amount of points to a Jones 3rd and Patrick 6th, Being two laps down each, they didn’t even need to complete the full 52 laps, just having to wait for Alain Prost to finish to confirm their own results. The Gallic genius swept home to victory and in doing so also enabled Jones and Tambay to score a quite incredible 4th and 5th place result! A race that saw just 8 cars running at the end had spared the Haas cars just this once, and they scored 5 points for their valiant effort, 3 for Jones and 2 for Tambay. A podium had been in reach, but seeing as the remaining cars ahead of them were a McLaren and two Ferrari’s, who could blame the Lola’s for falling ever so short. Was this the cusp of something bigger for the team, or merely a drop in the ocean of their season? Monza would be the test, and the first anniversary of the team’s life in Formula 1, having made their debut at the Autodromo one year earlier.

The Tifosi were out in force as usual for the annual pilgrimage to Monza’s royal park,  hoping to see their beloved red cars score the win for Maranello, il Commendatore and Italy. Their hopes were mostly dashed by a similarly poor qualifying to last time round in Austria, likewise for the Haas Lola’s who lined up 15th and 18th, slipping back slightly from the outing at the Österreichring. Power counted for more here than in Austria where the chassis mattered just as much for balance in the sweeping turns. Here was a stop-start blast through the park land, 200mph passes halted by fiddly chicanes. Jones followed his excellent 4th with another points score, this time with 6th place, two laps back from the all-conquering Williams Honda’s of Piquet and Mansell. Tambay was not so fortunate, his race ending on the second lap after coming together with Patrese’s Brabham. The solitary point for 6th was to be their last, as the Beatrice deal ending meant that money was fast draining out of the team. The progress made in reliability and speed was now slipping away again as the team couldn’t afford to keep up the development pace, Ford only being able to put so much in having already invested so much into the engines. Both cars failed to finish in Portugal, Mexico or indeed Jones’ home race in Australia, despite some encouraging pace shown by Tambay in qualifying 8th in Mexico. Just like in Hungary the car had suited the bumpy track in Mexico City, but an accident on the first tour (something Tambay had fallen foul of alarmingly often) of the circuit on race day put a halt to any progress there. Even after a full year of development and toil, Alan Jones was still over 4 seconds shy of Mansell’s pole time in Adelaide, and a bust engine on lap 16 brought his season to a close frustratingly early, especially in front of his home fans, who nevertheless were treated to an epic race with Mansell’s famous tyre explosion down the Brabham Straight, ending his title ambitions there and then. Alain Prost retained his title in typically measured fashion, and the Haas team had to look forward to next season… if they were going to be there.

Carl Haas spent the off-season frantically trying to find sponsorship to carry on into the 1987 season, but to no avail. Both Jones’ and Tambay’s contracts ended, the team was dismantled and facilities sold off. Bernie Ecclestone bought the FORCE factory, the Ford contract passed to Benetton, and designer Neil Oatley moved to McLaren, where he helped pen the dominant MP4/4 alongside Gordon Murray, taking up the mantle of Head Designer himself when Murray moved onto creating the road-going McLaren F1 supercar.

Alan Jones retired from Formula 1 for a second time, perhaps realising that he was no longer capable to keep up the pace of full time F1 racing in the late Turbo era at 40 years old. He went back to Australia to race competitively in Australian touring cars, competing at the legendary Bathurst 1000 many times. His career was a fine one, but for a season and a half he toiled away for no real reward in a team that had all the necessary parts to succeed but ended up being one of the bigger flops in 1980′s F1.

Brands Hatch photos sourced from http://www.flickr.com/people/antsphoto/

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Is the WRC on the cusp of a new great era?

Sebastien Loeb has slowly damaged rallying. There, I said it. Now there’s no doubting that he is the greatest driver the sport has known, and is also possibly one of the greatest racing drivers full stop, but his continued domination of rallying has caused a decline in the popularity of the World Championship, which can also attributed to other factors. His full-time rally retirement (he will compete part-time next year before an expected move to the WTCC with Citroen) at the end of this season (a 9th title consecutive title already sewn up) will allow others to assume his almost permanent crown. My question is, are these ‘pretenders’ worthy of the titles they could win, or was Loeb so good that he made those under him look ordinary in comparison to other eras?

We should start by looking at a period of the WRC’s history that we can all look upon fondly, the Makinen/McRae/Sainz/Burns years where great drivers did battle in great cars like the Group A Lancers, the 555 Imprezas and the winged-Escort Cosworths. Looking at the stats, with 4 titles consecutively you’d think that Tommi Makinen had the field licked like Loeb has done in his reign, but Makinen’s success was done to speed, skill and sensibility, as well as bulletproof reliability from his Mitsubishi. There was no doubt that he was one of the top drivers, but despite his titles he is not the one remembered as the prime exponent of sideways action from those years. A certain Scot from Lanarkshire, since departed from us, takes that accolade.

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A sight many miss… Colin McRae, sideways in his 555 Subaru Impreza.

Colin McRae, for his one title and 25 wins, stats that can’t compete with the likes of Loeb, Sainz and Gronholm, is still the most famous and beloved rally driver in the world. His famous quote ‘If in doubt, flat out’ is a mantra for almost every driver to have heard it, and there are endless videos on YouTube extolling the virtues of the wild style the man employed. Think of McRae and you immediately see a blue Subaru power sliding it’s way through the hills of Monte Carlo, or the forests of Britain, dancing between the curves in a way that no mortal would consider possible or safe, yet, this enthusiasm and raw skill never translated into stone cold success in the way that others with more restrained manners did.

I know what you’re thinking. If McRae was one of the greatest, how good did that make Makinen, Sainz etc.? Guys who could beat him, guys who won titles over him… especially when you compare it to Loeb, whose closest near-defeat came in 2009 when he only beat Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen by one point. These drivers must’ve been giants of any era, and they were… but I’m sure that Loeb is that bit better.

You can’t have 9 years of the rest of the world challenging you and no great rivals come through. There’s still a World Champion in the field to rival Loeb, Petter Solberg, but he hasn’t put together a consistent season in years (actually since his title in 2003). Jari-Matti Latvala is rated very highly amongst many people, but still manages to put his car out of crucial rallies at crucial times. Hirvonen himself is viewed as the most complete driver after Loeb, but could never get that extra edge over the Frenchman to beat him over a season. Are these drivers fit to be mentioned in the same tones as the 94-02 gang, or are they just the best of a poor crop from this last decade?

My opinion is that it’s a little of both. As good as Loeb is and has been, there’s no way one guy can dominate a series so completely and for so long without his rivals not being of the best quality, and that goes for cars as well as drivers. The Loeb/Citroen package has been the best in the business, with the French team’s lead driver backed up ably by workhorses like Dani Sordo (still without a WRC win) and the potentially Loeb-aping Sebastien Ogier (we’ll get onto him properly in a bit). As well prepared M-Sport’s Fords are, they’ve never been up to beating the Citroens. This just makes the other drivers jobs harder. When you see the Master serenely carve his way through a stage, not a bead of sweat on his brow, and juxtapose that with some of the blood, sweat and engine oil that goes into the runs of others, you know that the overall package is better. That’s not to slight the work Citroen and Loeb have done, they knew how to build and setup a better rally car than the others, and that’s to be commended. It’ll be interesting to see what happens once Loeb is gone, but one thinks he’ll always have a hand in the team’s rally programme as long as he’s connected to the main company.

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Is Ostberg the next Rally Superstar?

Who is best placed to rise up and take Loeb’s throne then? Outside of the drivers mentioned (Latvala, Solberg, Hirvonen) are there any up-and-comer’s ready to become a star? Well, there’s one guy who has perhaps fallen off the radar this year, and not for lack of trying… Ogier. Taking an ‘off-year’ driving VW’s S2000Skoda Fabia in waiting for the full-time debut of the Polo WRC was always going to be a hard slog, and some fantastic stage times and results (beating WRC entries in many rallies) have served him well, but when he was on the cusp of overhauling Loeb in 2010, only to have the Citroen management haul him back, we were all sure this guy was the next big star, and just to be sure, he was French, drove a Citroen and was called Sebastien…

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Is Ogier the one to take Loeb’s mantle? Will VW overhaul Citroen as rallying’s superpower?

Given VW’s investment in it’s WRC program, Ogier can look forward to a competitive start to his (proper) life with the Wolfsburg outfit, and looking at it he could probably be considered an early favourite for the title. VW are rumoured to be interested in signing Latvala, which would ensure their competitiveness for their full-time debut. Ford has some interesting talent in it’s customer stable, with Ott Tanak, Evgeny Novikov and particularly Mads Ostberg all impressing over last year or so. Ostberg is the most likely to step up to a full manufacturer drive (though Ford is pulling back on it’s support, M-Sport still design and build Ford WRC cars and will continue to do so) and given he’s the only driver outside of the big two teams to win a rally (not even Solberg could top that in his self-run Citroen) in the last few years he should be given a chance. Otherwise you’ve got Thierry Neuville serving his apprenticeship, and other great drivers scattered around various series like Andreas Mikkelsen, Kris Meeke (why isn’t this guy driving properly this year) and Juho Hanninen who could all add to and improve the WRC field. In a Loeb-less era, all these guys have the quality to win rallies, and surely once you factor in new entries from VW, Hyundai and possibly Toyota, the WRC is looking like it’s genuinely on the edge of something new and exciting.

Red Bull have stepped in as promoter of the championship, which can only be a good thing considering their success in other ventures similar to this. They are a marketing giant, and that can only serve to improve the championship and those who compete in it.

Look out for Ostberg, Ogier and Tanak to take the fight to the established stars of Latvala, Solberg, Hirvonen and Sordo next year. It’s going to be great not knowing who will win this one… and the next few years will prove whether the current stars in rallying are as good as the greats from years gone by…

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Is Prototype/Sportscar racing now the purist’s haven?

Now I should put a small ‘disclaimer’ here first: I am and always will be a Formula 1 fan, first and foremost. My love for the sport is undying. In asserting myself as a motorsport ‘purist’ I am not distancing myself from F1, or indeed distancing F1 from a ‘purist’ notion of motorsport. With that done, let’s continue…

After watching, and thoroughly enjoying, last weekend’s 6 Hours of Spa, the 2nd round of the relaunched World Endurance Championship, I had a thought. What with all the extra ‘aids’ that now go into to F1 in order to benefit what too many people (worryingly in my opinion) refer to as ‘The Show’, and the media frenzy that surrounds the championship, is the FIA’s other ‘marquee’ circuit racing series now a sanctuary for those fans who need a fix of ‘pure’ racing?

One thing that can’t be ignored when exploring this theory is the dominance of a certain manufacturer in the top category of LMP racing, that being Audi. They race their cars to prove their technology and to refine for future road use. They are also, aside from now Toyota and previously Peugeot, the only large manufacturer making LMP1 sportscars. This gives them a huge financial advantage over their privateer competition, and means that like at Spa last weekend, the amount of Audi’s that are entered usually finish in unison going from 1st to the whatever the number of Audi’s entered is (in Spa’s case, 4, 2 of which were the hybrid models, the other 2 being the regular cars). This might not seem that exciting on the face of it, basically knowing before the event that one team is going to win the race, but the key point is that aside from actually a pretty farcical diesel-vs-petrol engine balancing act being undertaken by the ACO (one that has been dragging on for far too long), there isn’t much being done to peg back the Audi’s. And why should there be, they’ve made the best car aerodynamically and mechanically. If Lola or Wirth Research had the money from their customer teams to go and build a super aero car then I’m sure they could, but their current cars are as fast as their budgets will allow. The unofficial ‘petrol class’ is actually very hard fought by very professional teams, and that in itself is worth viewing alone. They are racing for that chance that an Audi might fail, and the extra points a higher place would give them. That also doesn’t mean that they aren’t developing their cars, as Rebellion Racing showed when they turned up at Le Mans last year with a bespoke aero package developed soley for their use by their chassis manufacturer Lola.

They all run on tyres that can either be stretched out for multi-stints, or be leant on hard and used for maximum pace in one 45 minute stint. There’s no need for overtaking aids like DRS as the cars all have different power and torque curves, as well as slippery bodies that allow for good slipstreams into passing zones. The cars are mechanically and aerodynamically different, as the regulations for each category don’t pigeon-hole designers and engineers into homogeneous solutions. Audi are running a Turbo-Diesel V6, but within the same regulations Toyota have built a brand-new petrol V8 for their first tilt at Le Mans since back in 1999, and Rebellion even run a different Toyota V8 to that!

Like I’ve noted in my disclaimer, this is not me saying that I now prefer sportscar racing to F1, but I’ve grown into it a lot more over the last 3-4 years, and with the current state of F1 and it’s initially exciting, but ultimately unfulfilling, racing, it’s fast becoming a nice place to sit down and enjoy several hours of proper, unmanipulated racing. Good drivers driving good cars quickly. I hope lots of F1 guys watch the upcoming Le Mans 24 Hours and take notes, because I anticipate a corker of a race…

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Pirelli: Have they gone too far?

After the first four flyaway races, we’ve had four different winners, some excellent races and a high level of competition, but currently within F1 there seems to be a bubbling undercurrent of gripes and grumbles about the present state of the sport. Some drivers are making it publicly known (the two Mercedes drivers being the major ones) that they are not entirely happy with the way they are going racing on the tyres that Pirelli are providing to them, Michael Schumacher even comparing them to ‘raw eggs’. His teammate Nico Rosberg, despite becoming a Grand Prix winner for the first time using these same tyres, has noted that F1 is a somewhat different sport now to what it classically has been.

What is interesting about these remarks, and the other negative mentions that the drivers are sending the Italian firm’s way, is that it is probably the first instance in the near 18 months of the ‘Pirelli era’ that there is the potential for a large outcry against the intergrity of the tyres that Pirelli are producing. The main aspect that is under question is that many drivers, engineers, fans and journalists feel that the 24 F1 drivers are not able to push to their own or their car’s limits at any point during a race, as doing so will adversely affect the tyres and by default their race. They are living in fear of the tyres ‘falling off the cliff’, rather than being in control of it.

Now to my eye, putting the drivers in control of tyre wear and making teams work their strategies around their particular flaws or strengths was Pirelli’s own remit when building the control tyres for F1. We all saw how good the Canadian Grand Prix was in 2010, where Bridgestone’s normally more conservative compounds were replaced with a softer set that when combined with the more abrasive tarmac at the Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve, made for more ‘edgy’ tyre wear and accentuated differences between drivers in how they used their tyres and the strategies that were borne out of that. However, drivers were still able to push hard in the race, knowing that the tyre itself was still sturdy enough to withstand some quicker laps at the expense of ultimate grip later in the stint. Pirelli saw that race and stated they wanted to emulate that in their own compounds. The 2011 season showed that quite well. The Pirelli P-Zero’s were different in style to the Bridgestone Potenza’s they replaced, but achieved similar results to the Canada-spec tyres from 2010. Pirelli achieved this by making the tyre wear more mechanically, meaning that there was less of a chemical reaction between the rubber and the road. This also meant that the track would not ‘rubber in’ as much as before, so tyre wear would not improve as the race went on, save for the improvements that a car with less fuel than at the start would naturally have. The tyres seemed a little peaky in the first couple of races, but largely by the time the circus moved on to Europe the teams had mostly got on top of any problems they were having.

By the end of the season tyre wear and ‘the cliff’ were for the most part non-issues, and Pirelli said that this had to be addressed for the next season, despite the fact that we had still seen excellent racing in the latter half of the year when tyre wear and management was not as crucial as in the first half. This was not on, said Pirelli and they sought to make the tyres even more ‘edgy’.

We have now arrived at a point where aerodynamically, smaller diffusers and overtaking aids like KERS and DRS have made racing in close company much more attainable (I shan’t say easy as following each other at F1 speeds is something beyond most of us). This was evident through 2009 when the massive double diffusers were not fully omnipresent on the grid, and in 2011 as well when drivers were in similar phases of tyre life. So why won’t Pirelli make a tyre that is easier to lean on, that gives drivers a chance to push during a stint, like for example Michael Schumacher’s own wunder-stint of qualifying laps in Hungary 1998? Or even Mark Webber’s excellent work to secure his first win at the Nurburgring in 2009, overcoming a drive-through penalty with some incredible laps.

Lewis Hamilton’s race in Bahrain is an interesting place to look at why Pirelli should look at tougher tyres. After having two nightmare pitstops, Hamilton was further back in the top 10 that his car and pace throughout the weekend should’ve had him, but he had no chance to regain any of that lost time, because if he were to essentially go too fast, his tyres would shred to bits and he’d have to pit again. Now this ‘too fast’ is not way over the limits of either Hamilton’s talent, or his car. Both can go quicker. The tyres can’t. The tyres are now a limiting factor in a race, where they should be a liberating one. A liberating tyre allows for both good and bad usage of the tyre. A driver is able to push his car and tyres to the limits in order to exact a particular strategy or idea (ala Schumacher all those years ago at the Hungaroring), or he gets too heavy on his pedals and wears them out through driving too hard. That is down to the driver, not the tyre. The tyre is a tool for expression, whereas these current Pirelli’s are oppressive.

We may very well have visually exciting races, but under the veneer of ‘classic Grand Prix racing’ is something that’s very… deceitful. On these Pirelli tyres you will never see a classic charge from the back/from an error. You will never see a driver hounding another for lap after lap (just look at how Raikkonen only got one real shot at overtaking Vettel, because he was then forced to look after his tyres… after one chance!). You will never see a driver truly flex his muscles and go on a super stint of 110% pace and effort. But you will see pass after pass purely because the driver ahead has reached the point on the tyre where the grip just fades… just like that. Why put the effort in on Saturday for qualifying when you can aim to start 11th and get some extra sets of fresh tyres?

None of what we have currently is truly exciting. It may seem like it, but to me there’s no lasting joy after a 2012 F1 race, whatever my driver and team allegiances. And to have a tyre company have an entire championship in it’s palm like that is just plain wrong to me. There are drivers becoming gradually disillusioned because they are unable to do what they have been training to do practically their entire lives… drive at the limit.

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F1 2012 Season Preview

So, it’s less than a week away now, and with all the talk from testing, the merry-go-round of the ‘Silly Season’, the rumours, the hearsay, the hard facts and the unspoken truths, we’ve arrived at a very inconclusive picture of the competitive order come Sunday and the start of the F1 season at Albert Park, Melbourne. So with that in mind, I’m going to give you all a preview of what to expect, who the runners and riders are, and where we’re going in this highly-anticipated season. We’ll start with the drivers;

There have been a few major shifts in the driver field for this season, with a big name returnee to the sport, a few old hands we’ve said goodbye to, and some ‘interesting’ decisions made on the part of the teams. Here are the 24 drivers who’ll be lining up on the grid on Sunday;

The start of the 2012 season is nearly upon us!

I’ve included twitter links for all the drivers (except the ones not on there, website links for those) and teams as well!

#1 Sebastian Vettel (DE) – Red Bull Racing

The reigning Double World Champion is many people’s favourite for the title again this year, and he is certainly looking to join Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher as the sport’s only 3-time consecutive Champion. Fernando Alonso was a point away from doing so in 2007, but given Vettel’s form over 2011 and the backing he has from the Red Bull team, it would be foolhardy to discount him being in the running for the title at any stage of the season. The loss of the Exhaust-blown diffusers is expected to harm his advantage somewhat given his driving style, but here is a naturally-talented driver with youth and massive focus on his side.

#2 Mark Webber (AUS) – Red Bull Racing

Mark is a man who is looking to put what was a disappointing season in 2011 behind him, and trying to regain the sort of parity he had with teammate Vettel in 2009 and ’10. This will be no mean feat given Vettel’s status in the sport now, but the technical tweaks have made the cars a bit more ‘traditional’ in the way drivers can use the throttle, and that can only be good for Webber. He has stated that he believes he has got his head around the Pirelli tyres now as well, something that left him in the shade of not just his teammate last year, but many of his rivals as well. Still a question mark over whether he has the full backing of his team, and whether he can string a whole season together for a title tilt, as his 2010 effort went out with a wimper due to very poor performances in Korea and Abu Dhabi.

#3 Jenson Button (GBR) – Vodafone McLaren Mercedes

The dark horse for the title. Jenson proved his mettle against teammate Lewis Hamilton last year, a man never beaten by a teammate in F1 before, not just through Lewis’ dip in form, but through his own elevation of both speed and consistency. The ‘Pirelli era’ is designed for a driver like Button, who understands the fuller picture of a race and what is need more than some of his rivals. His economy behind the wheel has always been there, but 2011 saw an added exploration of the car’s limits not seen on such a consistent basis from Jenson before. It helped that the McLaren car had a wider setup window, as he needs a car that is totally to his liking. Once it is, he is seemingly unstoppable. Red Bull have stated this is the man to watch for the title, and Jenson has said himself that the car is to his liking already, so it could be a case of Lewis holding on to that higher-numbered car for next year as well. What’s certain is that the two drivers will be fighting tooth and nail to best each other.

#4 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) – Vodafone McLaren Mercedes

If you can’t quite call a season where he scored 3 wins an annus horribilis, it was certainly a year to forget for Lewis Hamilton. Personal issues blurred with his professional life in a way that meant for very patchy form for someone so renowned for his natural ability behind the wheel and also his amicable personality. Multiple clashes with Felipe Massa, Pastor Maldonado and others meant for tense watching for Hamilton fans and neutrals alike, seeing a driver fall so low from his undeniably lofty peaks. When he was good, like at the Nurburgring, he was VERY good, but when he let whatever problems he was having behind the scenes cloud his judgement, penalties, clashes and harsh words were coming his way. His career needs refocussing, lest he become a Jacques Villeneuve-type figure, a driver who came into F1 with such a blaze of success, but wrong decisions meant that those successes were few and far between later on. However it would be typical of Lewis for him to come out this season and just drive supremely on his way to a 2nd title, he’s that good.

#5 Fernando Alonso (ESP) – Scuderia Ferrari

For a man widely considered the most complete driver in Formula 1, Fernando Alonso has a bad habit of moving to a top team just when they’re hitting  a rough patch. Whilst he was competitive at McLaren, other circumstances and personalities meant his time there was blighted by controversy and disdain. Moving back to Renault was supposed to be a return to the ‘good old days’ of before, but a poorer set of cars, and internal turmoil once again sought to keep Alonso from fighting at the front (perhaps of his own doing also…). Signing for Ferrari (after the longest open secret of the decade) was signaled as a Schumacher-esque move, looking to build a team around a driver to create a period of sustained success, but… it hasn’t quite happened. Bar a title charge in 2010, Alonso’s valiant efforts have largely fallen short due to a car that has been firmly 3rd best overall, behind the McLaren and Red Bull. This years car was meant to be a step away from the conservative efforts of before, but has shown patchy form in testing and lots of furrowed brows back at Maranello. Already the talk is of firefighting to try and salvage something from the season, and that’s before it’s even started. But expect Alonso to drag everything he’s got from the F2012.

#6 Felipe Massa (BRA) – Scuderia Ferrari

There are many in F1 who are sure this is Massa’s last chance at the Scuderia. Even excusing for his near-fatal accident in Hungary in 2009, his form since coming back has been poor. Unable to work around two different tyre companies compounds, he followed an average campaign in 2010 with an even worse effort in 2011. Now, it is clear to all that Felipe’s role at Ferrari is to back up Alonso, be his wingman, his able companion, but so many times last season Alonso would be making a charge for the podium or a high points position, with Massa several places back trundling round not pushing the Ferrari in any way. If his job is to follow Alonso, surely he needs to be finishing just down the road from him? There are clear confidence issues with Felipe nowadays though, his steely demeanour picked up from his noble travails in 2008 replaced by a sour, sulking man who looks like he’d better off either at another team (straight swap with Sauber/Perez for 2013?) or packed off to GT’s like Fisichella et al. A big year ahead, but will he be able to live up to it?

#7 Michael Schumacher (DEU) – Mercedes AMG  Petronas

It’s the 3rd year of the great Schumacher comeback, and whilst there have been some encouraging signs, we’ve seen enough of Michael’s form to see that he’s not the force he once was. That’s not to say he’s out of his depth however, more that from being a Great F1 driver, he’s now ‘merely’ a very good F1 driver. Still needs to work on extracting maximum performance in qualifying, something his teammate Rosberg does a lot more regularly, but the points scored between doesn’t really reflect the total parity between the two Mercedes drivers. Schumacher comes alive in the races, and did so a lot more frequently in the latter half of the 2011 season than in his return so far. Canada was a prime example, with some supreme driving from the old master that thoroughly deserved a podium place he just missed out on. An improved Mercedes car and that year’s experience on the Pirelli’s should stand him in good stead for this season. Expect some fireworks in places, and if the pundits are right about Mercedes’ form, perhaps those trips to the podium we’ve all been waiting for.

#8 Nico Rosberg (DEU) – Mercedes AMG Petronas

I don’t think there are many who would suggest Nico Rosberg is not a top-line F1 driver. It has been clear for the last 2 seasons that Nico, given the machinery to do so, could win races with great aplomb. 2011 was actually a harder season than the one before for Keke’s son, as there was a much lower performance ceiling on the Mercedes W02, meaning that podiums were mostly out of reach, and being ‘best of the rest’ usually meant a 6th or 7th place. That’s not to say that Nico’s driving suffered for the performance deficit at all. He is still one of THE best drivers to watch onboard videos of, with such a nice driving that has similar economy of the wheel as Button, but with added hints of subtle flair now and then. It would be quite easy to envisage Rosberg’s career in place of Vettel’s had he joined Red Bull in 2009, but alas things don’t just happen like that to everyone. If Mercedes deliver the goods on the car as has been widely expected with this current car however, we may see a lot more of Nico Rosberg on the podium this year, and perhaps even the top step.

#9 Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) – Lotus F1 Team

He’s back. From his partly self-imposed exile to the World Rally Championship the last two years, Kimi had clearly had the racing bug burrowing into him all the time, pressing him to come back to a sport he might’ve felt he had some unfinished business in. Those NASCAR forays were just good fun for a man whose innate natural talent means he can turn his hand to anything with a degree of success. He might not have been able to command top dollar, or a top seat, anymore due to his time away, but the Lotus (neé Renault) team is one that is looking to make it’s own comeback of sorts, and looks to have produced a tidy car for their World Champion lead driver. Testing has shown Kimi has lost none of his blinding speed, pin-point accuracy, or even his polarising monotony. He does seem more relaxed than in his previous stint in F1, so perhaps the time off rallying has done some good for him. All he wants to do is drive, and for those interested in mind games and the psychology of F1 drivers, that fact is surely the most intimidating thought of all. Put Raikkonen in a decent car and watch sparks fly.

#10 Romain Grosjean (FRA) – Lotus F1 Team

The renaissance of French driving talent in F1 starts with this man. Sure, we’ve seen him before, and in 2009 he was quick but as Martin Brundle so aptly put it ‘he always wants to go back and see the corner he’s just gone through!’. This version of Grosjean is a bit different though, much more mature having gone back and won in both AutoGP and then taking the GP2 title he should’ve won a few years before. His career regained focus, and he comes into the Lotus team looking like a much more serious prospect. Testing showed him in great form, with lovely flamboyant driving (his use of induced-oversteer in chicanes was mesmeric) almost on the same level as his illustrious teammate. Romain knows that he’ll have to learn from Kimi as well before he can really best over him a season, so I’d expect some collaborative work this year, with some flair moments now and then. Australia could be one of those, and would certainly announce his return to F1 in a much better way than when he left it. Lotus have made a very bold choice in their driver lineup this year, but it looks like it might pay off handsomely.

#11 Paul Di Resta (GBR) – Sahara Force India

The 3rd Briton on the grid certainly himself worthy of his promotion to F1 from DTM last year. Almost immediately he displayed assured performances in qualifying and the races, adding new strings to his bow each time out. There were mistakes here and there as to be expected from a rookie, and more than a few new nosecones needed, but by the season’s end Paul Di Resta looked like he’d been racing in F1 for 50 races or more. His standout performance was at Singapore, where he executed his strategy to the tiniest detail with consistent speed, scoring a 6th place ahead of Rosberg in the Mercedes, Massa’s Ferrari and his own teammate Adrian Sutil. His new teammate Nico Hulkenberg is a driver touted as a future champion, so if Di Resta can prove he is on the same level as the German, then he’s on the way to the top. His smooth driving style and awareness during the race echo Jenson Button’s style, but Paul is also a mean qualifier who is very good at putting a hot lap together. Further progression and more points to be expected this season.

#12 Nico Hulkenberg (DEU) – Sahara Force India

Along with his teammate Di Resta, and Romain Grosjean at Lotus, Hulkenberg is one of those super-talents expected to move their way up to the top teams in due time. His 2010 season at Williams was a decent enough start, culminating in that glorious pole position at Brazil that reminded everyone what a bit of mixed weather does in proving the talent of the field, not just the cars. He may have had a year as a 3rd driver not racing, but his Free Practice outings stood him in good stead for his promotion to a race seat. There’s nothing peculiar about his style, he’s just plain fast, much in same mould as Sebastian Vettel or Kimi Raikkonen, and he will look to emulate these two drivers by serving an impressive ‘apprenticeship’ at Force India. The team is now a solid midfield runner, with bags of points up for grabs to their drivers. All they need to do is drive well, and you can certain that Hulkenberg will do that. He’s won everything below F1, scored a pole in F1, and he’s still only just building his career up. An exciting pairing at Force India.

#14 Kamui Kobayashi (JPN) – Sauber F1 Team

A cult hero amongst F1 fans for his daring style and overtaking prowess, Kamui’s 2011 season didn’t quite go as well as he or anyone would’ve hoped. The Sauber car’s development hit a peak early on, meaning that as the year went on it became harder for both drivers to score as many points as before. What’s so good about Kobayashi though is that his ‘banzai’ reputation doesn’t fully match up with his actual driving. He has shown great skill in following a strategy and executing it without any hinderences (using his passing skill in traffic etc.), and had a good grip on the tyres (no pun intended), using the C30′s innate kindness on it’s tyres to his advantage in races. Improvement needs to be shown in qualifying, something that was evident last year as his rookie teammate was beating him just a bit too often. Do that, and Kamui will recapture the eyes of the bosses at the bigger teams. He is becoming a fine Grand Prix driver though, and Sauber would like to hold on to him for as long as possible.

#15 Sergio Perez (MEX) – Sauber F1 Team

Another fine rookie performance from a potential star of the future (and potential Ferrari driver?) Perez. Solid for the most part all year, with flashes of excellence that were executed with such ease it was scary to think what he could do in the future. Demonstrated alongside his teammate Kobayashi a decent grasp of how to use the tyres well, and how to execute a strategy well. Not as spectacular to watch as his teammate, but looks assured and confident as an F1 driver already. Another year of the same, with the expected progress and greater experience, should be what he’s aiming for, with the carrot of a Ferrari drive that may be up for grabs for 2013. Ferrari have already tested him and are very impressed, so it wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest for Sergio to become the next in a line of Sauber drivers to make the move to Maranello.

#16 Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) – Scuderia Toro Rosso

This affable young chap was so highly rated by his paymasters at Red Bull that they took the step of placing him at HRT midway through last year, rather than waiting until now to bring him into F1 straight with Toro Rosso as has been done before. He acquitted himself well in a team that was clearly not going to make any headway into the points, so the drive was all about learning about strategy, tyre management, and other things you have to nail down before you can really go racing side-by-side confidently. He demonstrated enough of a pace advantage (at times, overall it was fairly equal) over his more experienced teammates Liuzzi and Karthikeyan for Helmut Marko to decide that Toro Rosso it would be for the Aussie this year. As is always the case at the Red Bull ‘junior’ team, the brief will be to score as many points as are presented to you, so Daniel’s experience last year should hold him in good stead for this term. He’ll certainly be expecting a stern test from his teammate, both are very highly rated though.

#17 Jean-Eric Vergne (FRA) – Scuderia Toro Rosso

Gallic talent is back on the rise in F1, and Vergne is certainly the bolshy upstart of the 3 French drivers racing this year. He (in)famously said in the off-season that if he had been put in Mark Webber’s seat last season, he would’ve done as good if not better than the vastly experienced, 7-time Grand Prix winning Australian. There will definitely be an air of ‘go on then, prove it’ as he steps up to F1 from Formula Renault 3.5, where he couldn’t win the title, losing to Red Bull Junior reject Robert Wickens. He has much the same credentials as his stablemate Ricciardo, both being British F3 champions and frontrunners in FR3.5 before being promoted to F1, so on paper there isn’t much to choose between them. Ricciardo’s experience at HRT in 2011 should give him an early headstart, but Vergne seems to be just as highly rated by Red Bull, so with the ever-advancing years of Mark Webber at Red Bull Racing, there is the chance that these two are effectively auditioning for his seat.

#18 Pastor Maldonado (VEN) – Williams F1

The stigma of being a ‘pay-driver’ (I prefer the term ‘budgeted driver’) is one that is still associated with Maldonado, despite being a GP2 champion. The insinuation was that he spent far too long in that category to be considered a serious proposition in F1, much like Giorgio Pantano. Last year didn’t do him many favours. At times he was scruffy (a Maldonado trademark), sometimes downright dangerous (his reaction to Hamilton passing him in Spa qualifying, how that didn’t earn a race ban is beyond many people), but other times as quick, if not quicker than his veteran teammate Rubens Barrichello. This season needs to see him settle down into Grand Prix racing, cutting out the mistakes, improving his race pace and becoming a more rounded driver. There were too many occasions last season where he was battling with the Virgin’s, HRT’s and Lotus’ (Caterham) early on in a race because of either a mistake or just poor pace, and that wasn’t just the car’s fault. He seems much happier with the new Williams, so perhaps progress will be made. Having a teammate of similar experience is a chance for him to capitalise on his own experience and forge a new, more mature, path.

#19 Bruno Senna (BRA) – Williams F1

That’s right. Senna in a blue-and-white Williams-Renault. That helmet and the car’s colours cannot help but remind everyone of his late Uncle Ayrton, and what might’ve been if not for the events of May 1st, 1994. But Bruno is not here for some nostalgia trip, he’s here to cement his own place in F1, after two truncated spells that have been inconsistent and short of background work. His mid-season entry into the Renault showed that he’s still got a good turn of pace under him, but that racing a HRT in 2010 without testing, and not having had a full pre-season since 2008 had blurred his racecraft somewhat. Bruno still has a lot to learn to become a full-fledged F1 driver, but you don’t get interest from Ross Brawn amongst others by being a slouch. He will benefit from a full testing program and working full-time with his engineers, meaning a better preparation for the races ahead. He could be the one to take the reins and lead the Williams team back onto a decent direction, and points need to be scored. Senna looks to be the one to do that in this team.

#20 Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) – Caterham F1 Team

The backmarker superstar. There aren’t many drivers in F1 who so routinely reached their peak performance like Heikki did in 2011. He was almost always the quickest of the ‘new teams’ and often fought with the tail of the midfield runners in the races. Hampered by a lack of KERS that left him unable to defend places gained, Heikki still got the most out of his car, and showed that he might be a different prospect to the McLaren driver who didn’t seem to be able to cut the mustard at a top team. Kovalainen has said progress needs to be made quickly at Caterham, previously Team Lotus, and he’s effectively putting himself in the shop window should they not make the progression expected by both the team themselves and the wider F1 community. If there are points to be grabbed at any time this year, Kovalainen will be there to take them.

#21 Vitaly Petrov (RUS) – Caterham F1 Team

As with fellow budgeted-driver Maldonado, there is still a question mark over the long-term prospects for the ‘Vyborg Rocket’. He is capable of both single-lap speed, and consistent race pace, as shown by his 5th in Hungary in 2010, his 3rd in Australia last year, and his 5th at the classic Canada race. However, there are too many broken wings, trips through the gravel (and air!) and carbon shards in tyre walls for many people’s liking. Of course there is the commercial attraction of a Russian in the sport, and Petrov is indeed an able driver who is both useful to F1 and deserving of a place in it currently, but he needs to prove that he’s viable for the long-term, and that will come with more consistency, less repair bills, and attempting to overcome the driver he’s next to in the garage. He paled in comparison to Kubica (he was a rookie though), so let’s see how he does alongside another Grand Prix winner.

#22 Pedro de la Rosa (ESP) – HRT F1 Team

Bloody hell, is he still around!?! 13 years, and only 87 races, after his debut in F1, Pedro makes another comeback to a race seat, this time with the small but new-staffed HRT team. Hired presumably for his knowledge acquired putting in the miles all those years for McLaren as their prime tester, de la Rosa is somewhat underrated slightly, having raced well at Sauber in 2010 (and in his cameo at Canada last year). His outright pace may not be the best, but HRT needs experience to build with, and there’s no doubting Pedro has that. He’ll get the car to the finish and have lots of feedback to give alongside the data as well. Perfect for what the team needs to do to help cement a place in F1.

#23 Narain Karthikeyan (IND) – HRT F1 Team

Narain makes no bones about why he has a seat in F1. Tata support his racing to the tune of $10million a year, and that’s enough for HRT to have him. Don’t consider him a slouch though, as he showed both last year and in his first stint in F1 in 2005 that he has a mean turn of pace, just not consistently enough to be seriously impressive. It has to rain for that to happen, and if we get any wet races this year, watch for Karthikeyan as he will fly. He’s clearly enjoying his time in F1, and his budget, experience and speed are enough for HRT.

#24 Timo Glock (DEU) – Marussia F1

Timo’s career has stagnated. Heavily. At Toyota he was seen as perhaps one of the ‘next big things’, being an able backup to Jarno Trulli and forging his own path on many occasions, with some impressive podiums along the way. Moving to Virgin (now Marussia)  was seen as move that enabled him to become a team leader, patiently waiting for competitiveness to arrive. So far it hasn’t appeared, and in the team’s troubles Glock’s driving has gone amiss also. Compared to Kovalainen, who has revelled in the chance to work on his driving and improve, Glock has used the time driving at the back to merely stagnate, actually looking worse off as a driver than in 2010 when he first joined the team. He will need to make big strides to stop the rot and become the impressive F1 driver he once was.

#25 Charles Pic (FRA) – Marussia F1

For the third time in three years, Marussia neé Virgin have dropped their budgeted rookie 2nd driver for another budgeted rookie 2nd driver. This year’s edition is the tousle-haired Charles Pic, a driver who has been good in GP2, but not quite in the leagues of Perez, Grosjean, Maldonado, Senna and Hulkenberg. An erratic driver who has a great qualifying pace, but so-so race form, he has a big ask in moving up to F1 with no meaningful testing at a backmarker team. Both his predecessors have fared badly (well, D’Ambrosio not so much, 3rd driver at Lotus) after leaving the team, so is this a poisoned chalice he’s taking. We’ll see…

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F1 2012 – First Launches and thoughts…

So as of me writing this, we’ve seen 2 of the cars that will be competing in the 2012 F1 season launched, each from teams looking to make a step up in the competitive order from last season, though they are of different ambitions. The first car we saw was the Caterham (neé Team Lotus) CT-01, ‘launched’ via the pages of F1 Racing magazine on the 26th January. The car is meant to be the final step up to points-scoring contention that the ambitious Caterham team have been looking for the last two seasons. It’s development has been aided by lots of appointments to the team, notably some from Force India including Mark Smith the new Technical Director.

The uncompromising looks of the new Caterham F1 challenger.

Now as we can see in the picture above, the new car has taken the amendments to the regulations quite literally, in that they have lowered the nose of the car to it’s 550mm limit, but kept the bulkhead of the chassis at 625mm, incorporating a large step in the nose with some sculpted ‘horns’ (seen before on previous Red Bull cars, but not with the step in the chassis/nose join). The intention of this is to retain the maximum amount of space under the nose, to allow as much airflow as possible to flow underneath and to the splitter where it then gets forced under and around the rest of the car. What the step will or won’t do for over-body aero though is not sure, though it has been commented by many that the solution looks a more CFD-based idea than a traditionally drawn-out one. Having said that this step in the nose is expected to be seen on most of the 2012 cars, as that space under the nose is highly prized by all but a few design heads within the teams. It may look disjointed at first, but I personally don’t find the renders that flattering anyway, so it may look better ‘in the flesh’.

The side profile of the new CT-01

The side profile of the car also shows the other main feature of the Regulation tweaks for the new season, which is to try and eliminate the exhaust-blown diffusers that were becoming a budget-dependent element of the car design. The new regulations mandate certain horizontal and vertical angles for the exhausts, and Caterham have chosen what could be described as a conventional approach to this. We can also see that the car ‘seems’ longer in relation to it’s predecessor the Lotus T128, but of course that’s merely conjecture. Also note how steep the step in the nose actually is, the Caterham car giving a very good example of the literal implications of the FIA’s tweaks. The aesthetes do not approve, and it’s likely to be an issue that gets further amendment in line for 2013 (most likely will be mandating a lower chassis to the same height as the nose). Everything else on the car is just what is needed for this team, further development, but along conventional F1 lines. They can’t afford to take a big risk and create a radical design when they know what works on the other cars.

One point I’d like to make though about this car (and others who follow the similar trend ) is the steep angle of the front suspension. I’m not an engineer by any stretch of the imagination, but to me this set-up leads to an aerodynamically and mechanically understeery car (hear me out….). My thinking is that both the aim of the high chassis (to steer air under the car and to the rear) and the steep suspension make this a car that is naturally going to have more grip at the back. The suspension itself is incredibly steeply angled, and that can mean having to run a softer/compromised spring/damper setup to avoid slippage when riding bumps etc. as the suspension arms have a very narrow (even for F1 cars) range of travel before the tyre is then being pushed outwards by the suspension moving up. It’s a point I’ll come back to when looking at the next car to launch, as it follows a very different design path to this one…

Otherwise I’m quietly confident about this car. I’ve got the general feeling that this is a proper contemporary F1 car built by the wonderful people at Hingham, and scoring not just one but several points should be on the agenda for this year.

The second car I’ll be looking at is the always much-anticipated new McLaren. The MP4-27 is aiming to be the car to break the Red Bull stranglehold on the F1 titles, and to bring it’s drivers Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton up to the top step of the podium a lot more than the 6 times they achieved this last year.

The new McLaren is revealed

We can see already that this is a tightly packaged and aggressive looking car, as has been the case with the last two McLaren cars also. Notably there is no step in the chassis/nose join as seen on the Caterham and expected on many other cars, as McLaren have followed their own concept and stuck with a lower chassis, enabling them to utilise a much cleaner over-body aero shape. McLaren have bucked the trend for maximum under-nose airflow, instead pursuing a concept that uses the ‘snowplough’ turning vane at the front of the nose, along with some other vanes and bits underneath, that pushes the air where they want it to go, also producing a few points of downforce itself along with it. This also ties in with what I was referring to with the suspension geometry of the Caterham compared to this car. The McLaren features visibly lower and flatter suspension arms, which allow for much more useable travel, but also allow the team to run the car a lot stiffer overall to the benefit of mechanical grip at the front. Many times over the last two seasons we’ve seen the McLaren skipping over bumps and kerbs, but the car simply doesn’t need to run as soft as the others in order to hold the road. It also creates a much more stable platform for the aerodynamics to work with, rather than having a car that rises and falls considerably depending on what corner they’re in.

Another visible feature of the MP4-27 is the return to conventional sidepods, coming from last year’s ‘U-pods’ on the -26. This was expected as the return to ‘periscope’ exhausts rather than running them along the floor of the car means that the U-shape was not as feasible as last year. This will be mainly for internal packaging reasons to do with relocating the exhausts, coupled with revised aero concepts.

Of course with every McLaren there’s inevitably some ‘out-there’ feature that generates a lot of interest. Last year it was the U-pods and the invisible exhausts (the infamous Octopus design…), this year it’s the rather bulbous exhaust outlet.

The 'interesting' exhaust outlets on the new McLaren

As we can see it’s a rather ungainly appendage, that at first glance almost looks like an afterthough that was grafted on (you never know with McLaren, of course this could be a dummy as per last years launch). It’s seated quite low on the sidepod, but is angled towards the rear wing with the presumable intention of creating a blowing effect on the rear wing similar to the effect of the exhausts on the diffuser in the last two seasons. McLaren did say in the launch Q&A that they would be testing a number of different options, so we will look with great interest as to what they will roll out with at Jerez next week!

Of course, like 2011 I will be attending the tests in Jerez next week, and will be attempting to take many pictures and videos of the action, and hope to give a daily update of goings-on, with perhaps a few surprises thrown in as well!

 

Credit for the photos should go to http://www.f1fanatic.co.uk, they always have the best high-res photos for us geeks to look at in the tiniest of detail!

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Christmas Treats…

Rather than the usual diet of Christmas TV specials and other stuff that gets rolled out every year, why not have a trip through YouTube and find some classic F1 and other motorsport videos?

I’ve chosen some good starters for you to have a good YouTube session!…

To start with, I’ve chosen the final laps of this year’s Bathurst 1000km, a fantastic touring car race that winds it way around the picturesque Mount Panorama in Australia. There have been many epic battles over the many years of racing here, but this years final tussle between the leading car of Garth Tander (sharing the car with rookie Nick Percat) and the closing Craig Lowndes, who was sharing his car with multiple Bathurst winner Mark Skaife. The tyres on the leading car are clearly fading, and Lowndes can smell blood…

Sticking with the hardtop theme, this is a highlights video from the Sugo round of the 2010 Japanese Super GT series. Again it involves a last lap battle, but there is also plenty action throughout the race to keep you happy. These cars are probably the fastest GT cars in the world, with massive downforce levels and 500bhp on tap, plus national pride at stake as the main contenders are the 3 big domestic car companies; Toyota (through Lexus), Nissan and Honda.

A collection of some of my favourite online videos wouldn’t be complete without at least one Ayrton Senna offering. Here is a tour of Suzuka Circuit with commentary from the equally missed James Hunt;

Going back to Tintops, a great childhood memory of mine is watching the 1998 BTCC round at Donington, featuring a certain Nigel Mansell in a special appearance for Ford. Nigel certainly has no qualms about getting stuck into the action with the series regulars, and classic racing ensues…

One of the best races this year (and any year come to think of it) was the Canadian Grand Prix, with the torrential rain, the (admittedly boring) red flag period, and the adventures of one Jenson Button, who after a few scrapes with his teammate and Fernando Alonso found himself at the very back of the field. Come the last lap and it becomes a very different story, as Button has charged his way up (overtaking everyone in sight and at times lapping 3-4 seconds faster than anyone) to a few tenths behind leader Sebastian Vettel. Vettel is getting scruffy with his lines, dipping his Red Bull off the ribbon of dry tarmac and onto the wet stuff….

Apologies for the music etc. on this video, it’s so hard to find F1 videos as Bernie likes to get them taken down…

Whilst it may be lacking in works LMP representation aside from the big events like Petite Le Mans and the 12hrs of Sebring, the American Le Mans Series is always good value for it’s battles in the GT category. Porsche, Chevrolet, Ferrari and BMW are all represented by works or semi-works outfits, and the racing is often quite intense, as this battle at the end of the 6 hour race at Laguna Seca shows;

Whilst it’s not every Yooropeen’s cup of tea, NASCAR can be rather good viewing, and even better when they make their visits to the ‘proper’ road circuits. Here is Aussie V8 convert Marcos Ambrose winning his first Sprint Cup race amidst some chaos further back. Boogity, boogity, boogity….

This is just a taster of what you can find out there, so if you’re bored on a weekend sometime next year, just remember that there’s any number of racing series out there that are just as exciting as each other!

Grand Prix Heroes: Damon Hill

As a 22 year old man I grew up watching Formula 1 in the early 90′s, with great drivers like Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and many more being the shining lights of the sport. I admire these drivers immensely, because of their skill and determination and rivalries amongst each other, but despite all this my favourite driver of all time is 1996 Champion Damon Hill. He is a driver who is vastly underrated by the modern F1 audience, most of whom have their memories of the 90′s coloured by pictures of Mansellmania at Silverstone 92, Senna’s bright yellow helmet darting between corners, thoroughly in control of a car that at times hardly looked like it, and Schumacher’s intensity and amazing speed. They brush off Hill’s achievements, suggesting it was purely the work of the excellent Williams cars he was afforded from his first full-time drive in 1993, and suggest that he was not a true rival to Schumacher, the leading driver after the loss of Senna in 94.

But still when you look at the all-time wins list, you will see that Damon is the 11th most-winning driver of all-time with 22 victories (granted that’s going to be beaten soon by the likes of Vettel and Hamilton), more than Mika Hakkinen (the man lauded as Schumacher’s greatest rival), more than other greats such as Mario Andretti, Alberto Ascari, his own father Graham Hill, and plenty others. He won one world title, and could’ve won another if not for a controversial incident at the last race of 1994 that still can rankour. He wowed fans in later seasons with performances in cars that were not meant to be that quick, and he did all this despite only starting car racing full-time in 1985 at 25 years old, an age where Ayrton Senna was already a race winner in F1, and where most of today’s field have already amassed a similar number of starts as Damon’s own record.

In the same way the F1 media melt over how smooth Jenson Button’s driving style is, you can look to Damon Hill for an earlier reference to that. Every steering motion was a simple arc, only adding as much lock as would get the car round the corner, minimising energy and momentum lost through extraneous steering movements. Similarly he was kind to his car, being able to get around problems by adapting in the cockpit (something admittedly other drivers might’ve been better at, Schumacher being an prime example) and most of the time he was just plain fast.

And here is my write-up of my favourite Damon Hill race (and it’s not even one he won!!):

Hungarian Grand Prix 1997

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adZD6xAFM0U

For UK readers, you can watch short highlights of the race on the BBC website here:

The drive that (nearly) surprised the world.

Hill scythes past Schumacher to take the lead on lap 11

Damon Hill, after his title winning year in 1996, had left Williams and taken what was viewed as a rather odd decision to join the midfield Arrows team. It was rumoured that he had had offers from both McLaren and possibly Ferrari, as well as interest from up-and-coming Jordan, but he took the number 1 to the Leafield team, who only scored one point the year before and had never won a race in their 20 year F1 history. The season started embarassingly for Damon and the team when he had to retire on the parade lap, having qualified a lowly 20th, some 5 seconds off his former Williams teammate Jacques Villeneuve. More reliability woes hampered Damon’s season until a breakthrough in his home race saw him take the Arrows to 6th place and a very popular point for the home crowd. It was the Hungarian race a few weeks later that really summed up Damon as a driver and put a nice bit of glory on his otherwise disappointing season.

In 1997, for the first time since 1991, there were two tyre suppliers in Formula 1. Bridgestone were the newcomers, and there were certain tracks over the course of the year that really suited the Japanese rubber over it’s American Goodyear rivals. Hungary was one of those and the weekend saw the Bridgestone-shod teams display an increase in competitiveness relative to the previous order of the grid. Hill had always been particularly good at this circuit, a slow winding track that masks deficits in horsepower and requires a smooth driving style for the constant weight transfer going on between the seemingly endless stream of corners. Aside from his debut year in the awful Brabham, Damon had never been off the podium in Hungary, and he went about keeping that record up in the best possible way in qualifying by planting his A18 Arrows-Yamaha 3rd on the grid, just 3 tenths off pole position. The next Bridgestone runner in comparison was Rubens Barrichello in 11th, and he was 2 seconds faster than his teammate Pedro Diniz. Come race day, and a hot Grand Prix beckoned.

Damon got a good start and assumed 2nd, benefitting from Villeneuve’s poor getaway from 2nd and falling to 5th. It looked like the Arrows was going to do the leading Ferrari of Schumacher a favour, holding up the cars behind on a circuit notorious of lack of overtaking opportunities, save for a chance going into Turn 1. The Ferrari was particularly heavy on it’s Goodyear tyres in the heat, and the Arrows inbetween Schumacher and his title pursuers would do him no end of good. But as the race settled, it seemed like Hill was actually catching Michael, and by lap 11 the Arrows was close enough behind going down the pit straight for the Brit to dive down the inside of the Ferrari and snatch the lead going through turn 1! Incredible!

The race then became a matter of Hill vs. the hard tyre compound-shod Williams Frentzen, whose gamble was paying off in the hot conditions. However, a broken fuel valve caused the German to retire, and left Damon with a comfortable lead over his ex-teammate Villeneuve. Schumacher was now struggling with the tyre-hungry Ferrari and had fallen back into a fight between himself, his younger brother Ralf in the Jordan, and Johnny Herbert having a great race in the Sauber. All looked very comfortable for Damon to take his first victory since Japan 1996, and the Arrows team’s first win ever. He was driving as smoothly, yet quickly, as he had done in the supreme Williams’ the previous years.

But luck wasn’t on his side. After driving serenely and pulling away from the following cars, on lap 75, with 2 to go, Damon was seen to be weaving his car erratically down straight sections, and pulling very slowing away from corners. He was losing momentum, and it was obvious that some mechanical problem had intervened and was threatening his race. There was a leak in the hydraulic system, which was now causing problems with the throttle and gearbox, both operated hydraulically. The Arrows was now crawling as it came into the last lap, and it was just a case of if Villeneuve could catch Hill before the race finished, if the Arrows could even make it that far. Villeneuve’s Williams did get past him quite early in the lap, and such was the gap to Herbert’s Sauber behind that Damon could crawl across the finish line 9 seconds adrift of the winning Williams and 11 ahead of the following Sauber. It was a very cruel end to what looked for most of the race like one of the great wins of the modern F1 era, but alas it was merely to be one of the great drives of both Hill’s career and that decade, fortune just falling short of letting Arrows win. It showed that Damon was still one of the world’s top drivers, regardless of what car he was in.

Keeping it old school…

We all know that Formula 1 is a breeding ground for new ideas and new thinking, and over it’s history we have seen many individual breakthroughs that have then quickly become the norm within the sport. Trying to find that extra edge and speed is something all F1 engineers thrive on, but some teams and cars are notable for bucking the trend and keeping old ideas around much longer than they should be. Here are just a selection:

Forti Corse FG01 – The manual gearbox

Amongst the many ‘here-today gone-tomorrow’ teams that appeared in the late 80′s and early 90′s were Forti Corse. A good F3000 (the rung below F1) squad who had aspirations to more, they secured a budget to build and race an F1 car through the wealthy father of F3000 driver Pedro Diniz, who would drive for the new team in 1995.

Now despite being effectively underwritten by Diniz Sr., the team was not as monied as it’s future rivals, and couldn’t afford to hire the top engineers or designers. In search for a chassis to use, they approached Sergio Rinland, an experienced designer, to consult their team on how to go about making their car. Rinland’s last F1 design had been the neat, if underdeveloped, Fondmetal car used in 1992, and this was reputedly the base for the FG01. A 3 year old blueprint was hastily reworked to incorporate some of the more modern trends in F1 design, such as a raised nose and updated sidepods, but there wasn’t time or money to work on having some brand new kit inside the car itself. The engine was an old Ford unit, several rungs below the standard of the equipment afforded to Sauber (the works Ford squad for that year), the monocoque was bulky and overweight, and the roll-hoop was just that, rather than including an airbox as well as per all other teams.

The frankly awful and ancient Forti FG01

But the most ‘ancient’ bit of kit on the car was the gearbox. Mated to the Ford engine because of it’s relative age (the ED Ford V8 was old back in 1992!), it was a Hewland 6-speed manual gearbox, which was completely out of touch with the modern semi-automatic paddle-shift gearboxes commonplace throughout the grid, big-budget frontrunner or not. The first semi-automatic gearbox had been introduced to F1 by Ferrari in 1989, allowing the driver clutchless shifting and removing the need to take one’s hands off the steering wheel to change gear. At first it was unreliable, though famously in it’s first race Nigel Mansell won over 61 laps when the car had previously only completed a few at a time before the gearbox expired. Mansell had booked a flight home that was due to take off in the middle of the race, though he wasn’ too sad to have missed having won the race instead… Over the next few years the technology was refined, and the systemwas now available to even the most frugal teams, for whom it was necessary just to keep up with the relentless pace of development in F1.

Forti could not afford that luxury until the middle of the 1995 season, and they had unfortunately already set the tone for their stay in F1. They were to bow out through lack of finances in mid-1996.

 

Minardi 2002-2005 – Same Chassis

Minardi were always the plucky underdog team, a team that lived at the back of the grid but were a proving ground for those destined for greater things. Giancarlo Fisichella, Jarno Trulli, Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber were all given their first F1 drives by the little team from Faenza. Many top technical staff who flourished at bigger teams also started their work at Minardi, who had a knack for always turning a neat handling car, despite it’s lack of downforce and development compared to the big spending leading teams. Living hand to mouth was part and parcel of Minardi’s existence, with pay drivers filling the seats so the young stars could race and cut-price engines not providing the kind of power needed to compete at the front, but by 2001 the team were in real trouble. Only a last minute deal cut with Australian aviation entrepeneur Paul Stoddart in early 2001 saved the team from closing down. However, Stoddart himself was a hand-to-mouth kind of guy too, and the team saw no leap in competitiveness under his stewardship. Gustav Brunner had designed the neat 2001 car, but had defected to Toyota in the middle of the 2001 season, leaving the relatively inexperience Gabriele Tredozi as lead designer. Tredozi created 2002′s PS02 car, again a neat effort from the Faenza boys, which in debutant Mark Webber’s hands scored a famous 5th place at his home Australian Grand Prix, a race of high attrition. The team would not score any other points that year, and went into 2003 with a lack of funds again.

Tredozi could do nothing but update the aerodynamics and other upgrade work to the basic monocoque of the PS02, which would be rehomologated for 2003 as the PS03. Stoddart was hoping the that revised car would be able to break into the points and become a regular scorer, but in reality with only 12 days windtunnel testing, and a row with tyre supplier Bridgestone that had left the team testing on F3000-spec Avon tyres for several days, it was going to be an uphill struggle for the team. Despite some encouraging pace at some events from drivers Justin Wilson (who left to join Jaguar mid-season, replaced by Nicolas Kiesa) and Jos Verstappen, no points were scored again.

2004′s F1 regulations were essentially static from the previous year, so again in order to reduce costs, Technical Director Tredozi used the same basic tub as he had the two years before in creating the PS04. Cosworth were now providing the team with year-old Jaguar works engines, so the power output was only moderately behind the manufacturer teams, and reliability had been improved from the 2003 car as well, which had failed several times on Wilson and Verstappen that season. The new drivers (both bringing budgets with them in order to support the team) were Italian Gianmaria Bruni (now a top GT racer for Ferrari) and Hungarian Zsolt Baumgartner, who had moved from Jordan that winter. With the newer engines and improved reliability, Minardi were able to score their first championship point since Australia 2002 when Baumgartner finished 8th in the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis. In fact, the team was not all that far off the pace of the now similarly cash-strapped Jordan team (5 points), but also the megabucks Toyota squad (9 points), who were rumoured to be spending almost as much as Ferrari. However, the regulations were changing for 2005 and Minardi would have to find some money in order to modify their cars to comply. By the opening of the season they were still using the PS04 from last year, with Stoddart threatening to withdraw the cars if they were forced to comply with the new aerodynamic regulations, something he said the team could not afford to do. The cars were eventually hastily revised in order to compete, but the chassis and basic car layout still remained the same as the one that rolled out in Melbourne 3 years earlier. A new car was to be made for the rest of the season, and Tredozi, although still working around the initial chassis layout from 3 years earlier, was able to turn out the first ‘all-new’ Minardi in several years in order to race the rest of the season. Minardi were to score their final points finishes in the controversial 2005 US Grand Prix, a race only started by 6 cars (all on Bridgestone tyres) as the Michelin-shod runners withdrew after safety issues with the french supplier’s rubber. In late 2005 the team was sold by Paul Stoddart to Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz, who renamed the team Scuderia Toro Rosso (to the dismay of many F1 fans who wanted the Minardi name to stay) but kept the team based at Faenza. In 2008 at the Italian Grand Prix, the team formerly known as Minardi were to score their first Grand Prix victory with Sebastian Vettel winning at a wet Monza to the shock and delight of F1 fans around the world.

The first Tredozi-designed Minardi, note the shape of the nose and chassis around the driver...

The final Minardi, the PS05... this car was brand new, but the chassis lines still look rather familiar...

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Italy’s Garagistes

The word garagiste refers to the great Enzo Ferrari’s hatred of the multitude of talented, but small, Formula 1 teams that were emerging out of Britain in the late 50′s and early 60′s. The term meant that the likes of Lotus, Cooper and the reborn BRM were basically garage workers (grease monkeys in less formal parlance) compared to the engineering might of his Scuderia Ferrari. These teams didn’t produce their own engines or other ancillaries (aside from BRM), specialising mostly in light, nimble chassis.

With the success of the ‘British way’ of going F1 racing proven by the early 60′s, it became the template for others around the world to do so as well, even in Italy, where Ferrari were sacred and Maserati and Alfa Romeo were big presences in motorsport overall, despite no longer being in Formula 1 itself.

ATS – Automobili Turismo e Sport (1963)

ATS

The underwhelming ATS car

The first kind of example of a garagiste Grand Prix team emerging from Italy was actually born from a revolutionary group of engineers who had become frustrated at Scuderia Ferrari. Automobili Turismo e Sport (ATS) was formed by 8 disgruntled members of the sacred Maranello squad, including the designers of the all-conquering ‘Sharknose’ Ferrari 156 of 1961, which had been the first rear-engined car (though somewhat outdated in other areas) to be made by the team and clinched both Drivers and Constructors championships in 61 with relative ease, the money and power of Ferrari fighting back against the British upstarts. The ATS company had been formed to take on Old Man Ferrari at his own game, with a road car in the works to support their Grand Prix efforts in the same manner their previous employers used to such success. They were backed by the Italian Count Giovanni di Volpi, and had lured ex-Ferrari drivers Phil Hill and Giancarlo Baghetti to their stable, both having had a disappointing 1962 campaign due to the loss of the top engineers that were now at ATS. Things seemed to be looking good…

Carlo Chiti had designed a car and V8 engine (unlike most garagistes, the Italians still sought to build their own units at this time), and had claimed that the team could even take on Ferrari in it’s first season! They missed the first race of the 1963 season at Monaco, but appeared at Spa with their car looking rather small and rather simple compared to the finely polished machinery both Ferrari and the British teams were turning up with. The car’s body was particularly petite, with a large wind deflector fitted to accomodate a driver properly, and the chassis itself had to be sawn and re-welded if an engine change were needed. This didn’t seem like the work of ex-Ferrari men like Chiti, Bizzarini and others. Phil Hill, the 1961 champion, couldn’t muster better than 17th place on the grid at Spa, 12.5 seconds (even on the old Spa this was a large time gap) off Graham Hill’s BRM on pole. Both cars retired with gearbox problems in the race. Each race afterwards was a litany of embarrassments and problems, the cars either finishing miles behind the leaders, or not finishing at all. The team gave up the struggle after the season ended, aided by the withdrawal of Count Volpi’s cash earlier in the year. The team had two finishes to it’s name, an 11th and 15th at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

Tecno Racing Team (1972-73)

Tecno

The Tecno PA123 of Nanni Galli

The Tecno team was another early foray into non-manufacturer Italian F1 efforts. The Pederzani brothers had started their motorsport business building karts in Bologna in the early 60′s, and had progressed through the decade onto building single-seater cars, mainly for Formula 3 (with some success) and Formula 2 (their chassis was good enough for Clay Regazzoni to win the 1970 Formula 2 championship in one). The next step was clearly Formula 1, and Count Gregorio Rossi (of the Martini & Rossi drinks label) approached the brothers with a sponsorship package to enter F1 with. Luciano Pederzani designed both the chassis and the Flat-12 engine (still keeping the all-under-one-roof philosophy of the big Italian stables), which was based on the Ferrari units, ready for the 1972 season. Driving would be Italian Nanni Galli, sharing his drive with Brit Derek Bell. The car first appeared at the 5th race of the 72 season, at Nivelles in Belgium. Galli qualified the car 24th (alongside one Niki Lauda in a March), but retired with 30 laps to go after an accident. The 1972 season then continued with either retirements or non-qualification for Galli and Bell, with the car not proving terribly reliable either on the chassis or the engine side. Even Ron Tauranac, the famous Brabham owner/engineer now freelancing after selling the team, couldn’t make any significant improvements to the car.

The Pederzani brothers set about hiring an outside designer, Alan McCall, to work on the 1973 car. However, in a very strange situation even for F1 standards, so did the team’s sponsor Count Rossi, who commissioned a car from Gordon Fowell, along with hiring Chris Amon to drive and David Yorke to manage the team. This left the team with two distinctly different cars being developed for the coming season, and a rift in the management structure, between the founding Pederzani brothers, and their sponsor/sponsor-appointed staff. Both cars were used to little effect over the 1973 season, with Amon collecting the team’s only championship point in the McCall-designed car at the Belgian Grand Prix. By Austria Amon had had enough and left the tea, which subsequently folded afterwards. The Martini sponsorship went to Brabham, and Amon then setup his own team for 1974, which went about as well as the Tecno effort!

Osella Squadra Corse (1980-90)

The 1983 Osella FA1D

Now Osella are a true garagiste team, never building their own engines (though in 1988 they bought Alfa’s old engines and badged them Osellas), and were a perennial struggler in Formula 1 despite earlier successes in sportscar racing. They went from rubbish sponsor to rubbish sponsor, were always a candidate for not qualifying, and ran some of the poorer drivers to make it to F1 in the 80′s. In 132 entries they scored points but twice, and I’ll document those races for you.

The first of Osella’s points-scoring races came under a cloud of political tension within Formula 1. FOCA (Formula One Constructors Association), an organisation run by Bernie Ecclestone and mainly representing the British privateer teams such as Williams, Brabham, Lotus and McLaren, was in a battle against the governing body FISA (now the FIA) and the teams loyal to them (Ferrari, Renault, Alfa Romeo… the manufacturer teams) over percieved bias towards the works squads by FISA over the independent teams. This war came to a head over a decision made in the 1982 Brazilian Grand Prix to disqualify the Brabham of Nelson Piquet and the Williams of Keke Rosberg for their cunning (but not illegal by the letter of the law) use of water tanks as disposable ballast in the race, meaning that they could fill the tanks at the start and end of races to pass the weight rules, but empty the tanks when the car was actually racing. This decision wasn’t actually past until the next race in the US had finished, so in their outcry over the percieved wrongdoing done to the FOCA teams, Ecclestone called for a FOCA boycott of the next race in Imola.

By the race weekend itself, the only teams confirmed as started were Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo. However, the smaller teams within FOCA: Osella, Toleman, ATS (not THAT ATS from above, a German team with the same initials) and Tyrrell, saw an opportunity to score some vital points in a depleted field race (in a time where unreliablilty was common), and broke the boycott to start the race. Naturally the Renault’s and Ferrari’s led the race at the start, with only Alboreto’s Tyrrell as real company (the Alfa’s retired early on with car troubles). But first Prost’s Renault expired with engine trouble, and then polesitter Arnoux retired on lap 44. Out of the manufacturer teams, only the Ferraris remained, along with one Tyrrell (Alboreto), one Osella (Jean-Pierre Jarier), one ATS (Eliseo Salazar) and one Toleman (Teo Fabi). The high attrition of a hot San Marino Grand Prix had taken it’s toll on the small field, and left those remaining with a great shot at points provided they could finish within a classified time. A lap down, but crucially two laps ahead of his nearest rival, Jarier managed to get his Osella over the line in 4th place, scoring his team a not inconsiderable 3 points.

Naturally, the team’s second and last points finish also came in a race of high attrition, though at least in this case it was starting with a full compliment of cars. This race was the infamous Dallas Grand Prix of 1984, so known for it’s searing heat causing cars and drivers to retire over the course of it’s 67 laps. The circuit was a temporary concoction set in Dallas’ Fair Park, creating a fiery combination of concrete and Texas heat, yet the race went as normal despite the 40 degree heat. Throughout the whole weekend the newly-laid, but poor quality, track had been breaking up due to the heat and the cars dragging it up with their big turbo engines. The race would see this worsen.

Mansell led at the start in his Lotus, as cars behind him were either spinning off on the rough track that was changing lap-by-lap, or encountering mechanical maladies because of the heat. For a while 5 cars were running as a leading group (Mansell, De Angelis, Lauda, Rosberg, Prost), each waiting for a mistake or drop in performance. Rosberg had invested in a special skull-cap cooling system and was considerably more hydrated than his rivals, and made his way gradually past the drivers infront along with Prost, who then assumed the lead and attempted to build a lead with 20 or so laps to go, in the hope that anyone trying to close down the gap afterwards would be too tired or their car too ill to do so, but in doing so he clipped a wall on lap 57 of 67 and damaged a wheel rim, conceding the lead to Rosberg, who went on the win the race. Amidst all the action upfront, the Osella of Piercarlo Ghinzani had been steadily making his way through the race, keeping his car on the crumbly road and passing the stricken cars of rivals wasting away in the heat. In 6th place, 2 laps down and with the leaders coming on to finish their last tour of the circuit, Ghinzani passed the Lotus of Mansell, who had resorted to pushing his car towards the line after experiencing late gearbox troubles, to finish 5th and score 2 points for his team. Mansell would then famously collapse in heat exhaustion after pushing his Lotus over the finish line, in 40 degree heat whilst wearing all his fireproof clothing and his helmet. Meanwhile Rosberg had literally kept his head cool and scored his only win of 1984.

Here is a link to the Dallas race: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKvWNiOvtiM

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