Never say never.

The Intro

Well I seem to be emerging from a long hibernation. I read my old blogs with a sense of wonder, almost as if they were written by somebody else. I have to admit that I like the writing and warm to the author. But, rather alarmingly, I read them as if for the first time. Is this what the ageing process does to us, or has my life been so full in the last few years that I no longer clearly remember the excitement of the days when McLaren F1 was running a criminal enterprise and cuddling close to the most dubious Russian-dissident oligarchs? A bit of both perhaps.

So lets make a fresh start. I abandoned the blog for several years because it had taken me into a dark place where I was a little concerned for my physical well-being, but more rationally worried about legal action against me. All in the past. But, dear reader, please feel free to delve through the archives to see how a commentary which was initially aimed simply and modestly at the desire to explain the technical elements of Formula One, gradually became a haunted and angry descent into paranoid territory of the sort so vividly portrayed in the movie “All The President’s Men”. But now, Hoffman and Redford part two.

The Italian GP Qualifying 2015

Mercedes have a stranglehold on F1 at present. Their dominance is perhaps even greater than that enjoyed by Honda when, in partnership with McLaren, they utterly dominated the sport and no other team could expect to win a single race.

My closest friend in the sport is often asked how his team later came to dominate almost as completely as McLaren-Honda. He always says: “because of a technical advantage”. This covers a lot of ground. The advantage can come from ingenuity, breathtaking inspiration, and sheer hard work by the design team. Mercedes rely on all these things, which continue to lie at the centre of the challenging competitive aspect of formula one engineering. Which I love.

But Mercedes have another advantage. They enjoy a very blunt weapon with which they presently club every other team into the ground. Their budget exceeds everyone else’s by a huge margin. More of everything with which to exploit those small but glorious sparks of genius which make the sport so fascinating. Wind tunnels, computers, personnel; all sorts of resources which are almost beyond imagining.

So what’s going on at Monza? Mercedes’ new engine iteration has hit a problem. Rosberg has had to revert to the old unit which is now revealed as being quite a bit slower than the new one. Hamilton set his pole lap without any planned slipstreaming and is comfortably fastest. The Sky commentary team spotted Williams slipstreaming tactic, which almost boosted the favoured car up the grid. Apart from an aside which was not thought through, they missed the fact that Ferrari employed the same slipstreaming strategy, just as they have at Monza many times in recent years.

This boosted Raikkonen into second spot. Why not Vettel?   Well, the following car which has the benefit of the tow is also vulnerable to a host of risks. Arriving at every corner faster than usual can lead to errors and loss of time, while getting too close to the lead car can, of course, result in loss of downforce and a moment which undoes all of the time gained and more. But Ferrari’s strategy worked out perfectly.

Lewis must be sweating to find Kimi behind him in a faster starting car. Kimi is a very fair driver, but Lewis has to bear in mind that the Finn has nothing to lose if the two of them arrive at the first chicane alongside each other. After all, Kimi has a 2016 contract in his pocket and Sebastian would love a clear road in front of him at the Royal Park. And the Ferraris may be very quick on the long runs tomorrow if they are in clear air.

Ciao

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Intense Frustration

Must I transport everything to a Google platform? Probably, as WordPress.com seems to be fairly belly up when it comes to allowing loyal old users to post anything at all on their own Blogsites. Never mind; there is much to say about this fascinating 2012 F1 season. I am provoked to make a comment by Gary Anderson’s latest posting on the BBC F1 site. Now Gary is not a stupid man in any sense of the expression but I believe that he is demonstrating several incorrect ways of thinking that are holding back many current F1 teams. What arrogance I am displaying here! Now, if only Gary and I could work together with a new young team, who knows what we would achieve? See Gary’s comments on Mercedes F1 here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/formula1/19064856

To see my own thoughts about Gary’s thoughts watch this space. 

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The Grand Prix at Yas Marina: the final showdown in Abu Dhabi

To call this race the final showdown in a cliff-hanger of a season would be to underestimate the tension in the warm air of Abu Dhabi tonight. The greatest strain will be felt in the Ferrari garage where a big helping of luck is needed if Fernando Alonso is going to become World Champion on Sunday. Despite his amazing strength of character and heroic late-season run of success he cannot be viewed as the favourite for the title. The series of wins and podiums that have put him in the lead of the championship perhaps obscures the simple fact that the Red Bull cars are comfortably the fastest this season, with an advantage of the same magnitude as that which the Brawn team enjoyed at the start of last year, but in this case without any sign of their rivals catching up and matching their speed.

Ferrari, just like McLaren, will be hoping that their final development push will have given them more pace. But there will be nobody in any garage tonight who thinks that the two Red Bull drivers will fail to secure the first two positions on the grid tomorrow. But they will still be hoping. Perhaps Alonso will put together a single perfect lap and split the two Red Bulls? Or if he is third it could be that he will launch well and muscle past one of them at the start? Either way, so long as it is Vettel on pole, Fernando and Ferrari have a chance to control the race and Red Bull will be unable to exercise a team decision to favour Webber. Then, you might argue, even if the two Red Bulls are lying first and second, there is no certainty that Vettel would let Webber past even if that is what his team expect of him. A third place for Alonso might be enough if Vettel has sufficient dislike for Webber to refuse to forego victory for the sake of a team-mate who he feels behaved outrageously and robbed him of a win in Turkey. And perhaps it might rain. In which case a chaotic race would reduce the chance of a simple lockout of the first two spots by the Red Bull team. And, in spite of the high track and air temperatures in Abu Dhabi, tyre temperature issues were haunting the teams today. So Ferrari must have some small hope that, if they can manage this issue better than Red Bull: an appropriate pit stop strategy might allow a less compromised out lap and get Fernando ahead of whichever of the Bulls is immediately in front of him during the race.

Against this must be weighed the reality of the situation. Even with a fast and well-balanced Ferrari in the hands of a confident and inspired Alonso, the Red Bulls are odds-on favourites to dominate a dry qualifying session. A determined Lewis Hamilton with a faster McLaren this weekend would be more likely to qualify ahead of the Ferrari than ahead of the Red Bulls as well. Robert Kubica might step up again and have a great qualifying run, which again could push Alonso down the grid but would be unlikely to trouble either Vettel or Webber. What a situation. I am aware of the various permutations of the points of course but, as I prefer the simple logic of a championship table based purely on results, I will not discuss all the possibilities here. Suffice to say that, although he leads the World championship on points, Alonso faces another steeply uphill task to beat two rivals who enjoy the benefit of a much faster car in qualifying at least. If he can win the race it is mission accomplished. To do so he has to beat two top drivers in faster cars….

Another outbreak of Red Bull unreliability is another straw at which Ferrari can clutch. Sebastian Vettel would be well ahead in the championship if his car had not been so fragile earlier in the year, and Mark Webber’s own mistakes have prevented him from clinching the title already. But while Ferrari say that they are going into the last race with their emotions in check to avoid mistakes, it may be significant that the team made a pit-stop error in the last race. The problem with Massa’s loose wheel is ominous, as was the occurrence that stranded him on the track today. Whether it was literally running out of fuel, or some issue with the fuel feed, the Scuderia must be crossing their fingers and hoping that no similar problem hits Alonso’s car.

I find that I have little support when I promote the ‘medals’ system of scoring the World Championship. But the interesting thing is that on this occasion it has produced an equally tense situation in the last race. Both Hamilton and Button are out of contention already under this hypothetical scoring system. If Webber wins, Alonso cannot equal the four second place finishes of the Australian so Mark will be champion. If Vettel wins, Fernando would be champion so long as he is second or third. If none of the three contenders win, Alonso would be champion as he has more victories already. So, under this system (see: Medal-System Championship) both Red Bull drivers have to go for victory. A purer situation, and no less tense than the one that is real.

Motor racing is a nerve-wracking game. This race will test the three contenders to the maximum degree. I only leave Lewis out of my reckoning because his is only a mathematical chance of gaining the necessary points on Sunday. Whatever he does he must rely on disaster striking all three of his rivals. A very unlikely possibility.

I had one of the most unpleasant road trips of my life yesterday. Unexpected snow on the Col de Balme and the Forclaz left me struggling to keep a grip-less BMW 3 series on the road. Hard compound summer tyres have virtually no grip in this situation. Getting up the mountains was tough, but coming back down them was lethally dangerous without winter tyres. The dynamic stability control had to be switched off as it was fighting me, and the ABS was equally unhelpful and could not be disabled without delving into the electrics and pulling the fuse. Which is hard to do as you skate sideways downhill unable to slow the car much or at all. On one occasion I had to take a full line through a blind corner and simply hope that nobody was coming the other way. I seemed to have even less grip than Jensen Button’s McLaren has enjoyed recently (and Jensen must be wondering why his own car has plumbed such depths of poor set-up just at the time his team-mate has needed a clear run in the races). Later, torrential night-time rain on the Belgian motorways, with the spray hanging in the air between the trees which line them, was an illustration of the appalling visibility the F1 drivers experience when it is wet. And some say that rain is forecast in Abu Dhabi this Sunday. I thought that my drive from the Alps to the Eurotunnel was a bit too much of an adventure for one day. Three men will start this weekend anticipating that their long journey around the Yas Marina will be even more testing. On Sunday evening one of them will have the consolation of knowing that it was well worth the danger and the stress.

Ciao

PS: I had intended to post some thoughts on the technical aspects of this season’s cars. But how could I do that on the eve of such a dramatic weekend? Next time. Oh, and did I forget to say that I had the pleasure of watching the first Grand Prix of the year in the media room of a top McLaren executive? I was shocked by the raw hatred of Alonso that was expressed during the race (although the spontaneous outburst was immediately and rather unconvincingly withdrawn). So Ferrari are racing a Red Bull team intent on winning because they are tough competitors and a McLaren team perhaps intent on spoiling their slim chance of victory out of sheer malice.

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The 2010 Championship has two races left

There is something special about F1 racing. I saw my first F1 race in 1956 and it is undeniable that the sport has changed  immensely since then. Some of the changes have been technological of course, and for setting the development of the current cars in motion I would credit four inspired pioneers. The Cooper brothers, working in their little factory in Surbiton were not the first to build rear engined cars but they developed a basic approach to the configuration that has remained unchanged to this day, and were the first to see the full benefits of a rearward weight distribution. Jim Hall, the genius behind the Chaparral cars, first suggested the significance of downforce, which is now the biggest single contribution to the almost unbelievable performance of the current machines. Colin Chapman’s team at Lotus also have to be given an honourable mention for making the first effective application of underbody aerodynamics. The first venturi car was so unreliable, because of other weaknesses, that few of the rival F1 teams saw it as a breakthrough concept. But after Mario Andretti strolled to the championship the following season the writing was quite clearly on the wall. Currently it seems inconceivable that anyone would attempt to utilise anything but a rear-engine layout. Downforce is pursued almost blindly to improve performance. And the underbody configuration of the car is the main focus of both the designers and the FIA rule makers.

At the start of this season I was driving back to the UK from the French Alps. I caught and overtook a large truck as I headed South West out of Geneva. The huge rig was pure white with no major sign-writing or logos. And yet it was so imposing, and had such a palpable presence, that it seemed clear that this was no mere haulage machine. Looking in my mirror as we swept past I saw a small red badge. It was the Sauber transporter, and the scale and expensive nature of this transporter speaks of the other huge change in F1 over the last 50 years: it is now awash with money. Bernie Ecclestone has been the inspired impresario who seized the moment as spectator sports went global thanks to the development of satellite communication and the world TV networking it made possible. The Sauber truck displayed no major sponsorship at the start of the year, but in every other way it epitomised the wealth of the modern sport. There was a time when half the Grand Prix field arrived on open trailers, converted second-hand coaches, or inside large vans. But that was long ago.

The sheer strength of this sport, now grown into an industry, can be judged by the arrival of four new teams this season despite the tremendous economic crisis that has pushed the whole world to the brink of recession. Moto GP was seen as an appealing commercial model by those FOTA members who wanted to break away from the FIA and Formula One to run their own “super series”. This year Moto GP has seen significantly shrinking grids and even the most arrogant of the top F1 teams must thank their lucky stars that they were persuaded by Max Mosley to remain inside the big tent.

The race engineer rides with the driver
What a season it has been. I thought that last year would have been hard to beat for excitement but this season is moving towards an amazing finish. I suppose that if there was any problem last year it was that Jensen Button won six races early on. From then on it was simply the agony of tension that remained as he and Brawn failed to clinch the big prize until the penultimate race. It is almost impossible to lose a world championship after six victories and the possibility really only occurs because of the wretched points system. Nonetheless Button was nearly undone by Brawn F1’s slow pace of development in mid season , triggered by the lack of big-money sponsorship during the year, which was in stark contrast to the massive funding that Honda had poured into the development of the design before the season started. He also suffered some bad luck now and then, but I think it was significant that his main rival was his team-mate. Rubens Barrichello was engineered by Jock Clear, and it has always seemed to me that Clear is not only a very clever race engineer but also one who is prepared to fully engage in a contest with his opposite number on the other side of the garage. It also seems significant to me that Michael Schumacher has struggled this season to match the pace of Nico Rosberg who has been engineered by Clear. I am certain that one of the reasons that Button chose to leave Brawn just as it became Mercedes was that he felt he had been let down by the team in the latter half of last year. Whether that move out of the frying pan was to a better or a worse place remains to be seen…

They primary moral of this observation is that, being harnessed together like the team of a tandem bicycle, the driver has a tremendous dependence on his race engineer, and mistakes or misjudgements by the latter will cost more time than any driver can regain. Some engineers will inevitably be less inspired than others and nothing can alter this. However, if there is any significant gap between the abilities of the two team race engineers it should have minimal affect on the relative performance of the two team cars if all data is shared and all decisions are discussed openly.  But if the race engineers begin to identify with their drivers rather than with the team things can turn ugly. Uglier still if the team should choose to manipulate (or “control” as Ron Dennis used to say) the drivers through choice of engineer or secret orders given to them.

Secrecy and suspicion can weaken teams
This is an explosive issue for only one reason. Many teams have chosen not to impose any reasonable discipline or logic in the way they handle their drivers as they attempt to win the world drivers’ championship. The drivers’ crown is the only worthwhile goal for the top teams as all the big sponsorship flows from this gold ribbon. In spite of what Eddie Jordan says, it is only the tail-enders who struggle for manufacturers points in an attempt to maximise their income. Having two drivers race each other in a serious way is always going to risk manufacturers points, and as Williams proved during the Piquet v Mansell era it can lose you drivers’ championships as well. Come to think of it McLaren demonstrated the same thing only three years ago. Red Bull may be about to give us another vivid demonstration of this truth.

Back in the day things were always clear within F1 teams. There would be a number one driver. The number two, unless capricious fortune placed him in a much better points position towards the end of the season, was expected to follow the leader as closely as possible without compromising his race. Thus Giles Villeneuve would dutifully follow Jody Scheckter and Francois Cevert would follow Jackie Stewart. This understanding maximised the team result and avoided risking lives and machines. Nowadays F1 is as potentially dangerous as ever, but luck, circuit design, and car construction has protected the sport from serious injuries for many years. But allowing two closely matched drivers compete flat-out in the same machinery remains a recipe for disaster. It can do nothing but reduce the chances of winning anything.

Now clearly something sometimes has to be done, but because of ill-considered rules, shallow PR concerns, and perhaps the destructive presence of the gambling industry, it now has to be done in an underhand way and remain a secret. Perhaps the team could manipulate things: tyre pressures (as Alonso said McLaren were using to slow him), strategy (as Ron Dennis even admitted on TV that the team was using to stop their drivers racing), or simply inequality of engineering leading to good or bad set-up, to keep the unacknowledged number two behind the secretly chosen team leader?

What is more damaging is that even if this is not being done, the drivers themselves may suspect that it is. Thus first Webber and more recently Vettel have accused their team of deliberately sabotaging them. Button has stepped from his car recently saying that he was “wondering” why he had been told to adopt the tactics during the race that seemed to have cost him places. And Button has also been left incredulous that his car has been set up so badly and been so much slower than Hamilton’s. Whether or not there is any truth behind the drivers’ suspicions, neither Button nor Vettel are happy at the moment with the teams they are contracted to for next year. And Vettel must still be upset by the events in Hungary. I am sure that his own team must have told him to open up the gap to Webber just before the safety car came in. The strategy was designed to maximise Webber’s chance of jumping Alonso but the resulting drive-through penalty cost Sebastien yet another win.

Although everyone now starts with full-distance fuel the timing of the tyre stops remains tactically significant and only one team car can pit on any given lap if they are running close together. Thus there is no way a team can give an unequivocal “equal opportunity” (to use the McLaren team’s phrase) to both drivers. It is madness to allow the relationships within the team to fester and sour. The very least that I would expect as a team manager would be an agreement that, if one car caught the other the faster car would be let through. An understanding as to who is regarded as the lead driver might not produce the fireworks that we enjoy, but it would serve the best interests of both the team and the drivers themselves.

Team mates can race each other to destruction
It took several races where Alonso, for one reason or another, ended up stuck behind Massa for the situation at Ferrari to boil over. Alonso’s robust move on Massa in the pit lane signalled his refusal to endure this ambiguous situation any longer. Explicit team orders were eventually applied at the Hockenheimring, but only after Alonso had tried to overtake Massa earlier and the resulting wheel banging as Massa defended had almost taken both cars out. The two Ferraris have touched heavily in at least four races this year, and Alonso has been lucky that none of these incidents cost him a finish.

I have every sympathy for Felipe Massa. Using the medals system that I favour he won the World Championship two years ago. But he is not yet as fast as he was before his accident. From the pressure he put on Kimi Raikkonen before his injury I would have expected him to be only a couple of tenths adrift of Alonso. But this season he has usually been much slower. The decision to allow the faster Ferrari to overtake was correct, especially in light of the earlier wheel banging, but Rob Smedley made the team decision obvious to the world in his radio call to Felipe. His lack of diplomacy cost the team a substantial fine and I see no way that Rob can remain with the Scuderia next year. Fine engineer though he is I think he will probably leave with Fernando.

The McLarens have also collided. When team orders were given to Button to allow Hamilton to retake the place he had lost in Turkey,  the two cars touched very dangerously at the first corner as Lewis dived aggressively inside Jensen. Given that Button was responding to team orders there was no reason for Lewis to have made this lunge, unless he wanted to make it look like a genuine overtaking manoeuvre rather than a team-controlled switch, but he slid into Button who did well to avoid an accident and to keep quiet about it after the race.

But of course the most dramatic and notorious intra-team incident was the clash between the two Red Bulls. This was preceded by an exchange on the radio in which hints were dropped but no orders given to Webber, who had been caught by Vettel who was himself fending off a hard-charging Hamilton. Vettel had a clear run on Webber who was slow out of the previous corner. Webber moved to the right to block Sebastian, who then darted to the left. Mark then moved back to the left even as his team-mate’s front wheels entered the gap. Sebastian held his nerve to thread through the smallest of gaps but even then Mark did not give any more room. Seb reacted by trying to push Webber to the right as soon as he was three-quarters of the way past, and as Webber simply refused to budge they made contact. In the circumstances the majority of young drivers would have done exactly what Vettel did. In the heat of the moment and after being squeezed so robustly a move to push the culprit back across the track is almost a reflex for most. But only a very small subset of drivers would have done what Webber did and continued to hold the squeeze on such a fast straight. That says it all for me; and Webber was immensely lucky to survive to the finish after the collision. It is a robustness of style that is perhaps more common among ‘hard’ Australian sportsmen than among others. It was the way the late Ayrton Senna raced of course.

Webber showed an equal stubbornness when he collided with Hamilton in Singapore. Lewis was blameless in that incident, but again Mark survived with his championship hopes still alive. With a comfortable championship lead he had nothing to gain by taking a risk; his was the error of judgement, but again he was the lucky one. At least he wasn’t racing a team-mate that time. But the tension and stress within Red Bull must be intense. The self-destructive atmosphere that has been allowed to build up within the team is perhaps reflected by events in Korea. Webber made an unexpected unforced error, perhaps in his desperation to keep in touch with Vettel. When he then allowed his car to spin back across the track without any attempt to lock the brakes I was immediately suspicious. Frankly, when you are having an accident in front of the pack you do everything you can to avoid swinging back onto the racing line. But I dismissed my suspicions until they were voiced by Gerhard Berger on German TV. Gerhard said he thought that Mark deliberately allowed his car to spin back onto the racing line in the knowledge that two of his closest rivals were close behind him. This was exactly what had I had thought as the accident happened. If it is true his luck ran out this time and it was a non-contender who was speared into retirement.

This weekend’s race should be every bit as tense as the last few. What a season. My next posting will be concerned with the technical issues. And the results from Brazil where I have to remind myself that only one man stands a chance of securing this year’s title. A man who seemed to have no chance all a couple of months ago: Fernando Alonso.

To get a pre-race flavour of Sao Paulo see my previous postings:
October 31, 2008
October 20, 2007

And to see how the World Championship looks using the “medals” system (which I much prefer) look here: Brian Jordan
It is interesting to observe that the only way the ‘medal-system’ table differs from the current points situation is that Jensen is already out of contention for the top spot, and that if any other contender for the crown is to displace Fernando they will have to win races to do so. I find this so much more satisfactory than the points table on a philosophical level, and every bit as exciting as the Grand Prix season enters its last laps………Ciao

Posted in Formula One & Moto GP, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Hello world!

Well I have no idea whether my loyal reader will ever find me again but this is entirely my own fault for posting nothing at all for over one year. My old website became impossible to edit as it was under a sustained spam attack. Hopefully this WordPress blogsite will prove more robust. This has been a classic Formula One season and is heading for a cliff-hanger of a finish. I’m sure that I will soon find something to say….

Posted in Formula One & Moto GP | 3 Comments

The Renault Conspiracy brings down Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds

As I begin to write this the members of the World Motorsport Council are already hearing the case against the Renault Formula One team in Paris. By the time I finish writing they may well have reached their decision. Such is the pace of life, and most of the gentlemen of the press type much faster than I ever could. But this is no time for defeatism: I will press on.

Two years ago when stories began to leak from Maranello that Nigel Stepney was suspected of theft and sabotage I felt that they could not be true. I thought that the affair must be some sort of histrionic tiff within the team and mainly hot air. I made no comment until the police raid on McLaren’s chief designer not only took me by surprise, but threw a new light on the earlier rumours I had ignored.

Another lost scoop
Several months ago I was told by a friend, who is a key figure in the Ferrari design department, that he was "sure” that Nelsinho Piquet’s crash in Singapore had been deliberate. I have known this man for 35 years and have always trusted him completely, and have been given countless insights into very secret matters which I am honour bound to keep private. But this talk of Renault deliberately organising a safety-car period to open up the opportunity of winning the race seemed like wild fantasy. Rather than taking it seriously I filed it away alongside other conspiracy-theory nonsense. I wondered if it merely reflected a growing atmosphere of paranoia that might have taken root in Maranello as a result of the difficulty of a season in which other teams had ignored what had seemed to be perfectly clear technical regulations, and had then defeated the challenge to their cars at the FIA’s International Court of Appeal. But I was wrong.

I still don’t know what evidence had led Ferrari people to this conclusion about Singapore. It must have been very solid to have created such certainty. But either not solid enough for the team itself to have complained to the FIA or obtained by them in a way that they could not make public…..

But now this is not a scoop. It is history. Nelsinho was increasingly worn down by his relationship with Flavio Briatore, who was both his team boss and his manager. I suspect that Nelsinho had been subjected to what can best be called ‘bullying’ from a man who is unaccustomed to being constrained by the norms of behaviour and courtesy that most ordinary mortals accept as a given.

Nelsinho told his father about the events in Singapore. Nelson Piquet approached Charlie Whiting ‘off the record’ to find out how Nelsinho would be treated if the facts became known. Whiting told him that the FIA could not react to mere rumour but would only investigate if they received evidence. I am sure that Whiting would have told Piquet that his son would be given immunity if he made a statement of what he knew. If any other evidence came to light and an FIA investigation was triggered Nelsinho would be certain to suffer penalties if he remained silent.

As the first half of this season unfolded Nelsinho seemed to be a haunted young man. Gone was the appropriate self-confidence of a young charger who had come into F1 after a very impressive run through the junior categories. There was also a press campaign against Nelsinho, asking when he would be dropped from the team. The question was being asked by the journalists who were close to the FOTA teams and supported their threat to start a breakaway series. Flavio Briatore was going to be the commercial director of the FOTA championship.

When Nelsinho was dropped by Renault, but still presumably paying a percentage to Flav’s management company, his prospects of another F1 drive were poor. Worse still his super-licence was at risk should the Singapore conspiracy become known. He made a statement to the FIA. His account of events has not been challenged by Renault, and we now simply wait for the WMC to rule on penalties.

A little bit of spin
It has been widely reported that Flavio and Pat Symmonds have left Renault to escape sanctions from the FIA. This is nonsense and it has to be said very clearly, so that everyone can understand, that the FIA has no power to impose any direct punishment on these two individuals. The FIA is not a Court of Law and can only punish those who hold FIA licences. Drivers hold licences, marshals and race officials hold licences, and the teams themselves hold licences. Team principals, designers, engineers, and mechanics do not.

Briatore and Symmonds have left Renault because the team know them to be guilty of organising this offence. It is the team that must be punished and they have ejected the individuals responsible to show that they have taken appropriate action to avoid any future misdemeanour’s. They hope to mitigate the punishment by being open about this.

The punishment
It has been widely assumed that Renault is going to leave F1 at the end of this season. Briatore was said to be searching desperately for an engine contract to allow the team to continue. Whether this is true or not the WMC must impose an appropriate and proportionate penalty. It is totally dishonest for anyone to suggest that they should be motivated by any concern about Renault’s future in F1.

McLaren was fined a huge amount of money for sporting-corruption which had probably involved costly espionage. The sum was related to the market value of the material that was stolen from Ferrari. The WMC also took into consideration the fact that the team had denied everything and resisted the investigation throughout. Ron Dennis had behaved like an idiotic gangster in front of the hearings and had lied quite blatantly to the FIA president in an effort to avoid an enquiry. A single figure took the drop although most McLaren managers were probably aware of the offence. Dennis remained unrepentantly at the helm of the team until another infraction at the start of this season finally forced his departure.

Renault has admitted the offence and cleaned its house before the enquiry. The penalty will have to reflect the commercial gain that the team had won. I would expect the fine to equal the prize money gained from the win in Singapore and from the boosted end of season championship position gained as a result. That is simple economic justice. An additional penalty should be imposed as part of sporting justice and to indicate the seriousness of the crime. I would find it hard to accept that these should add up to anything like the total penalties that were correctly given to McLaren in 2007.

The drivers
There is no evidence whatsoever that Fernando Alonso knew of the plan. Contrary to speculation, the light-fuel strategy would not have surprised him either. Renault was in the habit of starting Fernando on very little fuel in 2008. They were aware that, until Singapore, they did not have a car that could run at the front. I think it was Pat Symmonds’ habit to run Fernando light for three reasons. Firstly, Fernando himself is fiercely competitive and proud. He would rather show a great turn of speed than plod towards a midfield position. Next, Renault had to be kept on board. Their not-so-young Turk had to be convinced of the value of the race team. As he knew nothing about the sport he was most likely to be convinced by the sight of one of the cars running at the front or running fast at the back even if the podium was not finally reached. Finally, however hopeless this strategy seemed (and many times it dropped Fernando behind Nelsinho, who was always started on heavy fuel), there was always a chance that a lucky safety-car period would allow a brief glory-run to bring the car home at the front. Race after race the team waited for this lucky event. They came to Singapore with a transformed car capable of finishing near the front. When engine failure consigned Alonso to the tail end of the grid they would have been even more desperate for a good result. Start light again and pray for a safety car at the right moment was their usual approach. But this time why not make sure of that stroke of luck?

There was no need for Alonso to be told and his happy acknowledgement of the lucky timing of the safety car after the race spoke to me of his innocence.

As for Piquet it is enough to say that he was pressured by his boss until he reached breaking point. I had expected him to do well in F1. Before joining Renault he had seemed aloof to the point of arrogance, but I think now that this was a mask worn by a shy young man. He suffered the customary difficulty experienced by all Renault number two drivers. By the middle of last season he was scared of Briatore’s moods and tantrums and quite desperate to please. Finally he provided evidence against his team, and openly acknowledged his own part in the plot.

Nelsinho deserves the immunity he has been granted. Just as Alonso deserved the immunity he was given in 2007 when he was the only person within McLaren to provide evidence of the flow of stolen data, after the FIA wrote to all the team members requesting everyone to co-operate with the investigation. The drivers were the only team members who could receive sanctions from the FIA but Fernando was the only driver to reply honestly. Nelsinho has looked increasingly unsettled since last season. Like Alonso within McLaren he must have feared that the truth he knew would become public and destroy him. Like Fernando he finally took the only course open to him: honesty.

Flavio Briatore
Flav is a businessman, but he came to motorsport from the world of fashion. This is a business where exaggerated personality and behaviour is perhaps the norm. He has never understood the technical aspects of the sport but has run his team as a business and has been very successful at doing just that. He speaks a very broken form of English and makes an effort to be outrageous and entertaining. Lack of clarity perhaps, but never a lack of words or an absence snappy quotes. This was a man who enjoyed life in the limelight. I have never met Flav but I have often referred to him as a clown, although he probably saw himself as half clown-entertainer and half Machiavellian ring-master. I saw no malice in the man. I was impressed when he managed to quit smoking after years of blatant disregard for the smoking ban that has long existed in the pits and pit-lane.

Flavio stopped smoking because he was concerned for his health after a cancer scare. It was probably as a result of this that his weight ballooned over the last three years. He has always been an effective but a difficult boss. He had the habit of employing two people for every key job and then letting them fight it out among themselves for supremacy. This must have made many of his staff uneasy much of the time. Perhaps it was something he learned from reading ‘The Art of War’ or some such work currently fashionable in management circles.

Anyway, without cigarettes and with health worries Flavio entered the economic downturn also lacking any certainty that Renault would continue to support his team. Probably they were demanding results. All this stress led to bullying of junior staff, and who more junior in Flav’s eyes than young Nelsinho? In Singapore the team expected to do well before the engine blew. The pressure led to the temptation to help their luck along. And that led to a sporting deceit that almost everyone in motorsport finds almost impossible to believe.

I think that the most telling story about Flav is one that I have told before. When Benetton were investigated for using launch-control, during the period when it was banned, the team was visited by the FIA while Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne were on holiday. Launch software existed in the cars. Like almost all the teams Benetton were still developing the system in testing as they were correctly confident that it would be an important technology in the future. I have been assured that it was never activated in the races.

Flav probably did not understand any of the technical issues but began horse-trading. He said that the team would never use the system again and reached an agreement with the FIA. Leaks of this meeting as well as tensions within the team led to the conclusion that the system had been used in races. Briatore’s approximate English and loquaciousness had scored this own-goal. The slur still lingers over the team’s first championship win and Byrne in particular is bitter about this. I am certain that Benetton was innocent of any wrong-doing but Flav talked himself into a hole even as he thought he was talking himself out of a corner. But this time he seems to have done more than simply talk his way to trouble.

Pat Symonds
It is hard for me to say anything about Pat. I knew him and worked with him 30 years ago. I liked him and enjoyed working with him although we were never close friends. He was certainly ambitious and projected this by being very protective of his image. As the design-engineer he would sit in his directors’ chair and never actually work on the car. That was the mechanic’s job. As the development driver I would help the mechanic myself and Pat’s refusal to compromise the dignity of his position was something of a puzzle to me. This was not Monaco but Snetterton on a cold winter morning, after all. There were only the three of us there and a lot of work to get through. Whatever this said about Pat, he did well, and followed his predecessor from Royale Racing into Formula One.

At Silverstone this summer I bumped into Pat in the paddock, very nearly literally. Pat seemed to be in a world of his own, looking drawn and stressed as he hurried into the Renault hospitality unit. We have not met for several years but I was surprised that he failed to speak to me, or even notice me standing there. On television Flavio has had the same rather haunted look for some time. I think that the breakaway series was the only possible escape. When that failed both these men knew that the sword which they had hung above themselves in Singapore was suspended by the merest thread. It showed in their faces and in their behaviour.

I regret to say that this whole plan was probably Pat Symmonds’ idea. Flavio Briatore would have applied the direct pressure to bring young Piquet on board just as Ron Dennis seems likely to have pressured Lewis Hamilton into withholding information in 2007 and dishonesty early this year. I just wish that none of these things had happened. But life goes on.
Ciao

Posted in Formula One & Moto GP | 2 Comments

How things stand at Ferrari: after Spa and before Monza

We are all creatures of habit. Writing had become a habit of mine over the last couple of years, though blogging itself is rather a self-indulgence and might be viewed as a rather bad habit. Anyway, I almost managed to kick the addiction but the sheer interest and excitement of this year’s races has drawn me back. I hope that everyone who reads this blog feels the same way about this fascinating season.

The real problem is deciding where to begin. So much has happened since my last commentary that I find that I want to comment on many issues and there cannot be a central theme to this posting: which is something I always used to strive towards. So here goes. I will comment on each issue as it occurs to me, but today I have time to discuss only one team and its drivers.

The Ferrari Renaissance
Most of the British journalists seem to have rather underplayed the way that Ferrari has bounced back from its uncompetitive start to the season, but this really is the big technical story of the last three races, eclipsing even McLaren’s return to winning form. Over the last three races Kimi Raikkonen has never been off the podium and has scored comfortably more points than the next most successful driver in these three events. Who is Lewis Hamilton.

Heikki Kovalainen lies third in this recent battle, albeit having scored only half the points that Kimi has in the last three races. It is obvious that the teams that are threatening to dominate the final races are the two big guns who started the season by building cars that complied with rules that were later re-interpreted to their disadvantage. You may think that it a rather arbitrary choice to look at these three races in isolation. But I think that Hamilton’s unexpected win in Hungary, and Raikkonen’s equally fine drive into second place marked a sea-change in the pecking order.

McLaren and Ferrari have been working flat out to catch up with the teams that got the jump on them at the start of the year. Both teams have more than adequate budgets, and a wealth of engineering talent. The fact is that it took until the Hungarian weekend for these experienced outfits to catch up. McLaren had introduced more interim modifications in the earlier races than had Ferrari, who spent more time gathering data before deciding what direction to take, but both bounced back to the sharp end of the field at the same moment.

The nightmare sensitivity of the tyre temperatures is still a challenge for everyone, and can produce surprises race by race. McLaren are back to race winning form but are still struggling with the issue as we saw at Spa. Brawn are on a frustrating knife edge with the tyres. Toyota bounce from the front to the back of the grid depending on the way their car responds to the track and the temperature on the day, BMW yo-yo in the same way, and Force India amazed us all at Spa as their car hit the sweet spot and ran right at the front. But Ferrari seem to have achieved a more consistently fast set-up than anyone else and my feeling is that Raikkonen will be a major force in all the remaining races.

The Development Path
How has this been achieved? Obviously if I had been told what had been done it would be impossible for me to leak the information. But I can say that way back before the Silverstone race there was a robust debate within the design department of the Scuderia. When Bridgestone introduced slicks for this season they did so in a simple way. The same moulds were used to produce the slicks as had been used with the grooved tyres. Because of the different ratio of grooves to width the area of rubber that was in contact with the road grew by a greater percentage at the front than at the rear, and few. if any, teams realised how significant this would be. The grip of the tyre is determined by the compound of the rubber. It is not affected by the width. The wider the tyre the greater the cooling of the tread and this will only give more grip if this is exploited by running a softer compound. Thus the front tyres have more cooling this year than last, and it is now even more of a problem to bring them up into the working temperature range. Tyre temperature is proportional to the work done. The only way of increasing the total work shared by the two front tyres is to move the car’s centre of mass forwards. Nothing else will have the same affect.

Adjustment of the centre of gravity has become routine in F1 by moving ballast weight forwards or backwards within the wheelbase (or even beyond it by mounting ballast on the front wing, despite secondary disadvantages). This year the additional weight of KERS has meant that teams running the system, which offers a real performance advantage, have less ballast is available for c of g adjustment. The additional weight of the KERS components also moves the centre of mass rearwards. A double disadvantage. So tyre changes have made it imperative to move weight further forwards and the scale of the required change is hard for anyone to achieve and even harder for teams that run KERS.

This is why the drivers now struggle to shed weight rather like jockeys. Even though the driver’s weight is well forward of the centre of gravity, the lighter he is the more ballast that can be placed even nearer the front of the chassis. A small but important contribution that must have changed the dietary habits of many people.

As I said in an earlier discussion of these issues, the most elegant way to shift the c of g is to re-position the sprung elements of the car relative to the wheels. Basically, if you can move the front and rear wheels backwards by several millimetres you will then have a centre of mass that is nearer the front. This seems simple but involves a total re-design of the suspension components and then a re-working of the aerodynamic elements as the wheels are now in a different relative position and they have a big affect on the flow. Effectively you will have to design a new car, which is a much bigger task than the usuall progressive mid-season development. Ferrari was unable to move the rear wheels further to the rear because they had no more angularity left in the driveshaft constant velocity joints. McLaren was probably in the same situation which is why they referred to Hamilton’s winning car in Hungary as a “short-wheelbase” chassis. Unable to move the rear wheels backwards they had been forced to move the fronts only, resulting in a shortened overall wheelbase. It seems that they were reluctant to run this set-up at Spa, and their performance was disappointing in Belgium as they were presumably failing to work the front tyres hard enough. Though do bear in mind that it is inconceivable that the full engineering story will be revealed to the press by any of the teams. Anyway, Ferrari needed to shift weight forwards and had experimented with c of g position at earlier events when they knew that they were uncompetitive and might as well treat the weekends as test sessions.

The next big issue is stability. Basic instability not only prevents a driver from driving the car at its theoretical limit (which no driver can actually exceed, and the best simply approach more closely than the others), but it also results in him stepping from the car complaining bitterly not simply about “lack of grip” but about the car “not working at all” or being “completely impossible”. Kubica has been saying this sort of thing about the BMW fairly frequently. Ferrari don’t just rely on feedback from frustrated drivers, but have a stability-program which is run by their computers from the data logged at the circuits. The stability level that this program computes has proved to be a very good match with the pace of the cars in race stints, though the drivers can sometimes set surprisingly good single-lap times even when the stability-program numbers are poor. Stability in this sense means that the c of g position with regard to the tyre dimensions (as discussed above) must be correct and the centre of total downforce must be very close to the same point. If this can be achieved the car can be tuned to whatever mechanical balance the driver prefers by small adjustments to relative roll stiffness front to rear, and into aerodynamic balance by small changes to the wing settings. When on the move the driver will find that the car will respond in the corners to every small steering input and throttle adjustment. And as Jack Brabham said about driving racing cars many decades ago: “It’s all about balance”.

So within the Scuderia there were two points of view. Factions if you like. There was the group who argued that the crucial thing was to achieve stability by matching the optimum and real c of g positions and trimming the centre of downforce into the same place. Then there was the argument coming mainly from the aerodynamicists themselves that the push should be directed at gaining the raw downforce that the newly liberated interpretation of the bodywork rules had made possible. Bear in mind that, despite what you hear on TV about the teams struggling to claw back a little of the 20% reduction in downforce that the new Overtaking Working Group inspired regulations had achieved, the abandonment of the simple single-panel underbody rules has made possible an even greater increase in downforce. From the evidence of the pace of the cars at Spa it is possible that they are already generating more downforce than last year and overtaking is consequently no easier at all.

The development of any racing car is all about compromise. Just as the drivers strive for balance on the track the design team has to strike its own balance between conflicting requirements. However fiercely opposed were the proponents of the two different approaches to development, back in those dark days when the red cars were mired in mid-field and worse, the correct compromise position must have been reached. Now from within the team comes the confident assertion that “We’ve had the fastest car for the last three races”. Certainly as early as Silverstone no less a team than Red Bull were paying very close attention to the new parts that were appearing on the Ferraris. It even strikes me that if Kimi’s final run in Q3 had not been started late by a mere 8 seconds (probably because he had to be held for a gap in the traffic) he would have been able to run a second lap as had been planned, and would probably have started at the front of the grid. With a little more good fortune this win could have been even easier.

The Ferrari Drivers
For almost a year I have found it hard to know what to say about Kimi. In his first year with Ferrari he was clearly faster than Felipe and hung on with superb determination to win the World Championship. Last year he no longer seemed to have the upper hand within the team and it was Felipe who made a run at the championship, only being thwarted by the crazy points system. Raikkonen didn’t really look convincing after Singapore and this year he has struggled with an uncompetitive car which made his own performance difficult to assess. From within the team I heard doubts. And also the view that it was difficult to believe that someone could binge-drink at the reported levels of Kimi’s partying and still be competitive in an F1 car (even if he was Finnish). I didn’t pass on any of this negativity at the time because I was so pleased when Kimi won his first championship in 2008 and want him to do well. I also felt that many of his poorer races had been destroyed by a single piece of bad luck, much the way Button has been suffering recently.

The word now from within the team is that Kimi has driven really well in the last three races. This is not simply a journalist or a pundit talking: this sort of praise does not come lightly from within an F1 team. Whether because the car feels so much better, or because he has a better rapport with his new engineer, Kimi seems to be back at the very top of his game. With any luck he will continue to score more points than anyone else for the rest of the season, and I think that Ferrari are expecting further wins.

Looking towards next season it is far from clear what is going to happen. I never even ask people whether Alonso is going to join the team. Even if they knew the answer they would be duty bound to deny any knowledge. Putting pressure on friends to give answers on subjects that they are forbidden to discuss makes everyone uncomfortable and is a good way to force people to avoid you. To me it certainly seems that Ferrari have at least three drivers for two race seats in 2010. The rumour of Fernando’s arrival at Maranello is persistent and convincing. After Massa’s accident it seems obvious that the team would want Kimi in the second car. But could it be that Kimi actually wants to retire at the end of this year? I have no idea, but it is a plausible hypothesis, and his pleasure in the sport would have been at a low ebb after the struggles in the latter half of last year and the first half of this season. Before Felipe’s accident you would have to say that it was more likely that the younger man would have wanted to stay on alongside Fernando, should he arrive. But now things are different. Kimi is driving superbly and enjoying himself in the car again. My suspicion is that he has yet to decide what he wants to do next year and his decision may not be made until well after Monza.

Luca Badoer
Luca is a charming man, an excellent driver, and has made a tremendous contribution to Ferrari’s success over the years. How many miles must he have driven around Fiorano testing new developments as well as shaking down the race cars before each race? I used to think that he had the best job in the world. He probably did until the teams introduced the testing ban that meant that people like Luca never again drove the cars around a circuit. Naturally, he would always have wanted to race one of the cars. It seems a cruel irony that Luca got his opportunity when he was least prepared for the challenge. I felt for him as he struggled around Valencia and Spa and I hope that he will look back on this experience with satisfaction. He is one of the handful of men who have had the opportunity to race an F1 car for Ferrari. He should focus an this rather than be overwhelmed with disappointment that he struggled so badly.

There is one bright side to this story. Luca might still have been contributing to the team by bringing his long experience of development driving to the races. My sources have denied that any such thing went on. But I was particularly struck by the speed-trap data from Spa. Badoer’s car was very fast indeed. Could it be that Luca was running Monza levels of downforce last weekend in what was in effect another test session? I like to think that this was not so much Luca struggling and failing to perform in two races, but rather his last contribution to the team as a test driver. Perhaps the Scuderia go forward to Monza in better shape than would have been possible without the efforts of their senior test-driver?

Whatever the truth of this Badoer was the best available driver to step into the breach at short notice when Schumacher had to withdraw. The problem mid-season is that you cannot simply pop a driver into the vacant seat who will not be on your payroll for the following year. To do so simply reveals your operating procedures and gives an insight into the technology of your car to someone who will take the information to another team at the end of the season. Luca would have been prepared to step aside again as soon as another driver was available.

Giancarlo Fisichella
And Giancarlo is that very man. Fisichella is still a very quick driver as his second place at Spa demonstrated. I am sure that he has always wanted to drive for Ferrari just as many Italians longed to see the Commendatore’s long-standing refusal to risk having another Italian killed in one of his cars come to an end. I suspect that Giancarlo was resigned to losing his Force India seat at the end of this year and would have jumped at the chance of ending his career with five races with Ferrari. The test-driver contract for 2010 means that he will not be taking Ferrari’s secrets away to another team, and there is a chance that he may have a race seat if Kimi does choose to retire. Imagine the atmosphere at Monza as he makes his début with the team.

Michael Schumacher
Now on to darker subjects. I was really disappointed that Michael was unable to race the Ferrari. If I was disappointed Michael himself must have been heartbroken. The team lost a great opportunity, Raikkonen lost the certain improvement that Michael’s input would have brought to the team, and we all lost the opportunity to see history being made. If Michael had been able to rejoin the team he would have done whatever they required, whether driving as Kimi’s rear-gunner to boost the Finn up the drivers’ table, or simply to gain as many points as he could for the constructor. Absolute competitiveness after such a lay-off was not a given, but I think Michael might have been able to run right at the front by the end of the season. Watching him cope with an unknown track like Singapore would have been fascinating.

I speak to Michael whenever I get the opportunity and it says something for his style that he is always receptive and polite. But I think I pushed the limit of his tolerance the last time I saw him at the Ferrari Finals day at Mugello last year. I said that I thought he should not be racing motorcycles and I got the impression that he was weary hearing this. When I said it was dangerous he said “Life is dangerous”. It was a fair point as far as it goes, but how much I wish he had listened to all the voices urging caution. And how much he must wish himself that he had stopped before suffering the neck injury that made his return to Ferrari impossible. All you can say about this is that Michael’s motorcycle injury could have been much worse.

Felipe Massa
I have studiously avoided using the word ‘tragedy’ with regard to Michaels’ situation. I have to reserve that for Massa’s accident and its aftermath. I still do not think that many people have understood how seriously he was injured in that freak accident in Hungary. I must be blunt. I think that it is very unlikely that Felipe will race in Formula One again. We should all be hoping for him to recover fully enough to enjoy a completely normal life. To expect his return to Ferrari is probably not reasonable.

Felipe was hit by a two kilogram spring shed from Barrichello’s Brawn. This was the ‘heave’ spring; which means the vertical ride spring. It was coiled over one of the damper-like inerters. Bumping over a runoff area the inerter failed catastrophically. The heavy spinning elements blew the casing apart and the coil-over spring was released as well as other heavy pieces of debris. This was unprecedented. A damper would have merely blown its seals. I understand that at least one other team had destroyed their inerters at this point of the track. So long as this component is liable to fail in this way it should perhaps be contained in some way. Or care will have to be taken that the runoffs do not have any dangerously big bumps.

That really is all for now. I will have to discuss the other teams some other time.

Ciao

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