Tag Archives: F1

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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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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I’m back baby: Fresh start!

With the F1 ‘Summer Hols’ upon us, and frankly not much for me to do in the interim(!), I’ve dusted off my post-testing blog project and have been thinking of slightly different things to do with it.

I’m looking at doing some Classic Race reports, though that’ll involve trying to find enough ones on Youtube for me to watch the whole thing. If not that then certainly some Top 10’s and lists are always good discussion points.

I’ve also thought about giving ‘Idiot’s driving guides’ to some of the upcoming tracks, using F1 2010 and my unmatched talent. Certainly pictures, maybe video of laps and a guide to them would be interesting, and would give a good comparison to how the layman goes about driving an F1 car, albeit virtually.

The F1 season always seems to go so quickly, but with this break there’s a real chance for drivers and teams to take stock of their work so far and see where they can improve in the latter half of the year. I do feel McLaren are emerging as the leading team, but perhaps at too late a point to do anything about Sebastian Vettel’s championship lead. The fact they’ve got both Button and Hamilton racing at the front is both a positive and negative for them. The team letting two highly rated (and frantically discussed and compared) drivers race wheel-to-wheel is commendable, but it has caused both drivers to drop points at the expense of a growing championship lead by Vettel. Seb is the Red Bull driver taking the lion’s share of points, podiums and wins, and that puts him in a better position immediately for the 2nd half of the year, as the calling rank on Mark Webber by the team in Silverstone showed was evident already.

I’ve got a feeling Vettel’s title will be wrapped up by Japan, if not at Suzuka itself where Red Bull are pretty much guaranteed to win.

Away from the track, the break also sees all the rumours and initial deals start to emerge about driver contracts, and the whole ‘Silly Season’ gets going in earnest not long after Spa. Again my initial reaction is that this year will not see much movement, partly because it’s so competitive at the moment, and also because for part of it we’re relying on an ‘external influence’ in the shape of Kubica. If he is going to race again, we’re not going to know for a while, and all that time there’s a potential Renault seat that’s had all sorts of names linked to it. We’ve had Webber to Ferrari, Button to Ferrari, Kobayashi to Red Bull, Grosjean to Renault as a mid-season replacement for Heidfeld (like that went well last time!?!) and countless others. Most of these are just bored journos and internet junkies trying to twist people’s words in something they can talk about. It’s fun but all speculation, at least until the summer break is over. After then, if something does come out, at least it’s been mentioned in a relevant time, and thus might have a smidgen of truth to it (despite the Silly Season moniker).

Both Sauber drivers are staying put for next year, but that’s about all we know ‘for sure’. I may do a piece on what I think the 2012 grid will look like, but only based on my own thoughts and preferences.

Anyway I think I’ve rambled on enough… I’ll start thinking of new things to put up and once I’ve done that… well… they’ll start appearing here!

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Welcome

Welcome to Ranting and Racing, a small F1 blog that will cover the pre-, current-, and post-season in my ‘different’ way. I am British, and thus am slightly in favour of Messyrs Button and Hamilton, sailing on the good ship McLaren, but I am also a Team Lotus fan. Bear these caveats in mind when you read on!

I have recently been to the Virgin Racing MVR-02 Launch, as well as the Team Lotus factory, and the flew off to Jerez for three of the four days of the 2nd Testing Session. As you will see on youtube, there is the classic grainy mobile phone footage as well as some better stuff, and I will upload some of the photos we (me and my girlfriend) took there too.

I will be keeping my eye on the rest of testing, trying to fathom if any team has stolen a march on the others, or whether the status quo will be retained from 2010. We’re also still to see the final F1 car fully launched, the Hispania F111, and recent political events in Bahrain could mean the start of the 2011 season could be delayed a further week. We’ve also had Nick Heidfeld confirmed as the sadly missing Robert Kubica’s substitute for the year, and the first allocation of race tyres announced by Pirelli.

There’s certainly a lot of meat to chew at the moment… sounds about right for F1.

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