Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The mid season review.

Right then, Let’s have a look back at the first half of the 2014 F1 season. There are two ways to look at it really, in summary.
If you’re a Ferrari fan – it’s been an awful season with rubbish cars that sound awful and dull racing.
If you’re an actual fan of F1 – it’s been a great season with some superb racing with an exciting second half in prospect.

Ranged in that Ferrari – it’s been rubbish – camp, is Luca Montezemolo, obviously, the chairman of Ferrari and self appointed (in his head) “voice of the people”. Bernie Ecclestone the president and CEO of F1 who was recently the successful defender in a case of bribery and corruption regarding some money resting in someone else’s bank account.  And finally Flavio Briatore, a disgraced former team owner, insurance salesman and owner of QPR football club.
These people have bleated on all year about how the cars “don’t sound right”, the drivers are just “racing to save fuel” and how the car manufacturers are just interested in making engines for road cars and not the racing for the fans.
The fans, however, mubbled about the sound being “A bit quiter then we were used too” then realised they could talk to the person next to them, hear the commentary and hear the sound of the drivers working the cars through the corners now.
But mostly, the fans, have been provided with fantastic racing this year. Mercedes have turned up with a championship winning car and two drivers capable of doing the job. The team in a moment of PR brilliance said, “yeah sure, they can race each other ... who else are they going to race ?” and let them get on with it.
But not just at the front, the racing throughout the field has been exceptional this year. Redbull and Ferrari are continuing where they left off in 2013, Whilst Willimas has got their act together and were making Mercedes work for the glory. McLaren after a cracking start faded fast and look to have once again lost a directional focus. Force India have picked up points and a podium but haven’t quite delivered on the promise. The back end of the grid is a sorry tale of woe though, Torro Rosso look fragile, Lotus hamstrung with a Venezuelan lunatic.  Sauber have gone backwards and Caterham can’t be far off receivership. Only Marussia have anything to smile about back there.

This season has been exciting and interesting thus far and I think the second half will be just as fantastic. The Ferrari camp can complain all it likes, but those old farts have their own agendas and care not a jot for you and I sat at home. We’re just numbers and wallets to be raided, not heart and minds to be won.  

So, in reverse constructor’s championship order, let’s start at the back with the dross

Caterham: Zero points, 9 retirements and a best place of 11th for Marcus Ericsson at Monaco.

 Well what can you say really, It’s all gone to rat shit for these boys. They fired their two previous drivers hired Kobayshi with his crowd sourced chequebook and death or glory attitude. Then signed up Ericsson as a favour to his mum I think.
Pre season testing suggested they had a car capable of more lap than the dodgy Redbull car. A quizzical eyebrow or two was cocked and the merest hint of point or two was mooted at by the team. Having pretty much sacked off last year to concentrate on the new 2014 rules, they looked like they’d got it right for a change and brought a car worthy of being described as a Formula One machine. Then the cloth covering the ramshackle facade was ripped off in front of the world as both cars failed to finish in Australia.  They finished in Malaysia just beating Max, then last in China and the pattern was set.
Their owner, Fernandez, tired of throwing good money after bad finally called it a day at Monaco where they become the record holder for the team with the most race starts without scoring a single point. He flounced off without even a backwards glance and sold the lot to a consortium of Swiss and Middle Eastern investors. They promptly fired half the work force to improve the efficiency and more importantly, their bottom line.  Those ex team personnel then promptly began legal proceedings for unfair dismissal.
So the future for Caterham racing looks shaky to say the least. I can’t see the car getting any better this year and the drivers whilst not quite hopeless are flogging a dead horse and they know it.

Edit: and then to cap it all, they’ve let Crazy Koby off for a weekend and given Andre Lotterer a drive this weekend in Spa. Now some of you will have no idea who Andre is, well he’s one of the lead drivers for Audi in their WEC program, a three times winner of Le Mans and a front runner in the Japanese Super Formula series. He’s got the chops, but why he would choose to waste his considerable talent in this dog of a car is anyone’s guess. Where this leaves Kobayashi is also anyone’s guess, apparently his seat was a bit iffy when Fernandez sold up, the team assure the press that he’s still part of the team, just making the tea instead maybe.

Sauber: Zero points, 10 retirements, two 11th place results for Sutil.

If Caterham have failed to live up to the expectation, then Sauber have failed to live up to their pedigree.  Last year they were a bit rubbish but managed 57 points, this year just finishing a race has been a struggle. Even if the car hangs together for the whole weekend, they’re relying on others to fall by the wayside to get any points. Clearly they have money issues with virtually no sponsors on the car, the Russian money seems to have dried up and Sirotkin (the Russian child prodigy) doesn’t look to be getting any seat time this year.
There was an ungly rumour going round recently that Sutil had been unceremoniously fired from unknown reasons, there was a slight pause long enough to make people think, ”maybe it is true!”. Then the team turned up with all its drivers and bluffed it out in front of the cameras, “Its all fine, no really, everyone is really happy ... for sure”.
As with Caterham, I can’t see them getting any points in the second half of the year either.

Marussia: 2 points, three retirements and a best of 9th for Bianchi in Monaco.

And those two points were well deserved. Marussia have really worked hard this year so far, with good solid driving from Bianchi, whilst Max has done what Max does best. The fact Bianchi is 16th to Max’s 21st in the championship, doesn’t really tell the whole story. Max hasn’t been blown away, well okay he has, but he’s not going to win a championship anytime soon. And he’s kept Bianchi honest at least and when the planets have aligned and the Lady luck waved her champagne glass in his direction he’s almost been passable as an F1 driver.  
The team haven’t tried to be too clever with the design of the car and have set realistic goals for the year. Caterham are comfortable beaten and Sauber don’t look like challenging them for anything. So the ninth they currently hold in the championship looks safe and it’s worth a whole shed load of cash to them. I doubt they’ll get anymore points, but you never know.

Lotus: 8 points, 8 retirements and one DNS with two 8th places for Grosjean.

The writing was on the wall last year, not paying a driver like Raikkonen after he’d got them a hatful of points and delivered a win with just stupid, it was to no one’s surprise that he walked away. Then the mastermind and team principle, Eric Boullier, was kidnapped in a dawn raid by McLaren and you just knew things couldn’t get much worse. But remarkably they did ! They signed Maldonado, despite actually knowing who he was, then quite blatantly said it was because he had a shed load of cash and that’s what they needed.
I have very, very little sympathy for Lotus, who screwed Caterham over the name of Lotus, painted the car Black and Gold in a cynical attempt to appeal to the likes of me. Then hired a driver that shouldn’t even be allowed to operate a little tikes cosy coupe unsupervised, let alone be given the keys to an F1 car.  They had it all there, a team of professional engineers and with ideas, drive and determination. They had history and pedigree to draw on and Gerard Lopez came along and prostituted the whole lot out to increase his personal portfolio and business interests. Yeah, sure, Chapman was no saint in the business department, but at least he made sure the drivers and mechanics got paid .... i think.
Anyway. Grosjean is doing what he can and Maldonado is still doing what he does. The two 8th places in Spain and Monaco for Grosjean where mostly fortuitous, and they’re going to need more luck to get any more points. The car is fragile, underpowered and needs a delicate touch. With so little money and talent left on the pitwall I can’t see too many more forays into the top ten, certainly not from Maldonado anyway.

Next the midfield

Torro Rosso: 17 point, 9 retirements with eights, nines and 10th places

Vergne and Kvyat have sort of bounced around the bottom of the top ten so far. They’ve scored 8 times between them, Vergne with those two eighth places a ninth and a tenth just edging Kvyat with his two ninths and two tenth. The car has looked fast if a touch fragile, it’ll either score or retire.
Kvyat has been something of a revelation, another driver from the Redbull driver program stable, who hasn’t disgraced himself and has appeared confident and cocksure when in front of the camera. Vergne, who I still couldn’t pick out of a line up, has done alright and according to the team, “Just needs a big result to validate his progress this year”. Which is a bit of a kick in the teeth I think, “Yeah you’ve got points and all, but they were all lucky ones, man up buddy”. He’s picked himself back up after being passed over in favour of Danny boy for the hot seat at Redbull, Kvyat has turned up and made him work for those points. I'm not sure they can move up much further than eighth place though, because they’re chasing that reliability there isn’t a chance to develop the car into anything resembling a top five car.
Then after writing all that, they go and fire the French guy. Mr Vergne is now on the side lines for 2015 as the incredible young Max Verstappen has been signed up. I didn't know he was on the Redbull development program if I'm honest (and now having read his Wikipedia page it turns out he only joined the program at the start of August ... six days later Vergne was fired and Max V was in –such is the state of F1 today). Currently in Euro F3 he looks to be doing it alright with a hand full of wins and plenty of podiums.

McLaren: 97 points, 1 retirement but a double podium in Australia is the only highlight.

It started so well; Big Ron was back on the pit wall, the preseason test started with lots of fastest laps and a car that looked like it could take the fight to the Mercedes boys. Then in Australia with a result that rather flatted the true nature of the car, they got a double podium after Danny’s Redbull was disqualified. But once again, just like last year, they lost their way and struggled to focus on making the car faster.  Eric Boullier, the new team boss after Martin Whitmarsh was “disappeared”, has talked about wading in and cracking some head together to get that focus back.
This year is a bit of a holding pattern for the team from Woking as Honda gear up in the wings to bring their new engine to the track in 2015. The Last time Honda were playing as an engine only supplier they were pretty much unbeatable, so lots of drivers are looking at McLaren and weighing up their options.
Jenson want to keep the seat, but the results and his enthusiasm have waned this year so the thinking is he’ll walk away at the end of the year, though he insists he staying for 2015. Kevin is on a one year contract and was groomed by the team to be the next Lewis, that hasn’t really worked out so his place is a little uncertain at the moment.   
There is a feeling that the Perez debacle of last year has led to picking up Kev before he was ready, as the year has gone on the team have cooled somewhat in their press releases about him. I think if Alonso was to throw his hands up in the air and walk out on Ferrari right now, McLaren would crush several team principles in the rush to sign him up. The only question would which driver they fired to make a seat available.
When a driver doesn’t feel his future is safe, he usually starts over driving things and making basic mistakes. Just look at Massa’s last few years with Ferrari, he was so paranoid about getting fired from race to race he couldn’t build up any sort of momentum. Each race was dissected and the bad bits pulled out to be waved around for all to see. McLaren are treading water at the moment, both drivers are worried about their race performance and no one is standing there and telling the team the direction the development needs to go. Though to be fair any development on the car would be wasted as it won’t really carry over to next year’s Honda powered car.
So apart from the money a championship position brings, McLaren aren’t really chasing anything this year, pride maybe, but not a lot else. They’re still a good top ten bet, but I think a top 5 or podium is maybe wishful thinking.

Force India: 98 points, 3 retirements a DNS and one podium for Perez.

Force India look to have put their off track problems behind them and have built a car that is fast on all the tracks, not just the power circuit. Perez has put that horrendous year with McLaren behind him and picked up third place in Bahrain.  And he had to work for that, whilst everyone was watching the merc boys trade paint, Perez was in a real dog fight for that last podium spot. But he’s not really replicated that result a 6th in Austria and couple of 9th. He has qualified well but failed to turn it into points, he’s just not as consistent as Hulkenberg is. Although the hulk is struggling this year when Perez is on form, there have been a couple of shaky races for the German with missed set ups and poor decision.  Not enough to drop him out of the top ten, but enough to keep him off the podium.  In fact Nico is the first driver you pretty much have to have in to top ten each race with only one retirement. Like Max, he’s should be a banker point for you. 

The Front runners.

Williams:  135 points, 4 retirements and two 2nd places for Bottas so far

Talk about a return to form, Last year they couldn’t buy points the car was so bad, not helped by having a Venezuelan hooligan drive the car into the scenery/solid objects/Perez. The car was a total dog and if it wasn’t parked up on the side of the track gentle smoking away, it was tooling around at the back of the field making the Caterhams and Marussias look respectable. It was I think their worst ever year in Formula 1 managing a total of just 5 points.
Having dumped the Renault engine at just the right moment, they’ve emerged as the second best Mercedes powered car, the teams ahead of them are the official works teams, so to be just behind them and latterly, pushing for wins is a pretty terrific job. It’s not quite a revival of Lazarus proportions, but throw a shroud over the car and you could start a cult with it.
They’ve made a few mistakes this year though, telling Massa to get out of Valtteri’s way at the second race was a bit of an own goal, and needed Rob Smedley to calm things down back at the factory. Talking of Massa, he seems to be having a bit of a renaissance with his move away from Ferrari, years of playing second fiddle to Alonso and being verbally slapped when he got in the way are now forgotten. He looks like he’s enjoying the racing again. Canada should have been a high point, but Perez weaving around the track put paid to an impressive dice rolling strategy call.

They have a zip and vim about them now, they look handy and they look like they’re taking the fight to Mercedes. They aren’t quite confident enough to go for the wins just yet, maybe by the end of the season when they’re safely ahead of McLaren and Force India they might hang it out a bit. But for now you could do worse than predict a Williams driver on the third step each race. Massa isn’t having much luck but Bottas looks like he’s coming of age.  I think they’ll really push Bottas for that first win in Rio.

Ferrari: 142 points, 1 retirement with two podiums for Fernando

I don’t suppose you remember the good old days of the 70’s and 80’s when you could almost guarantee some random Italian madness from the boys in red each season. In those days before the old man died, no driver would ever dare complain about the car, it would be career suicide. No the car was never a problem the engine the heart of the car was strong and resilient, just like the heart of a true Italian. Any problems were always due to the driver, the team personal the mechanics and pitwall team. NEVER the car, NEVER, EVER the car. That was always perfect.
Then Ross and Mickey shoes turned up and the who thing was suddenly the epitome of efficiency and military precision. If you want to win the championship, first you had to have a Ferrari and be called Michael Schumacher, if not, give up now.
But it couldn’t last forever and with the passing of the dream team into retirement and other teams, the good old days of arm waving, not communicating with each other and basic errors has crept back in. AND as Alonso demonstrated recently, you still can’t complain about the car in front of the media. 

Drivers always get misty eyed and stare off into the distance when they talk about driving for the Scuderia, that chance to say they’re driven for the oldest F1 team on the grid, with all that history and passion, apparently none of them can resist the chance. A place where these proper racing drivers are revered and admired, adored by the Tifosi. The reality is usually very different though, they like to put their eggs in just the one hot seat at Ferrari, just ask Massa, Barrichello or Eddie Irvine. If you’re not the lead driver your just there to play tail gunner an dget out of the way when told too.

Alonso is wasting his talents at Ferrari and they all know it. He missed the top seat at Redbull and he’s now missed the seat at Mercedes. There is talk of him staying at Ferrari for a couple more years, but why the hell would he want to do that? They just aren’t going to improve and they are a team in desperate need of ground up personnel rebuild. Kimi is just kicking his heals, he doesn’t like the car an di think the team have remembered why they fired him in the first place.  Oh they’ll be in the top ten, and ahead of Force India and probably Vettel. But it’s just embarrassing now.

Redbull:  219 points, 4 retirements 1 DSQ and 2 wins for Danny boy.

Who saw this then? After winter testing everyone and their dog had written off Redbull and their Renault engine as dead in the water. It was slow, thirsty and more worryingly for Redbull couldn’t complete more than a handful of laps. But in Australia, Ricciardo took the thing to the podium, and then the FIA slapped the ban hammer down on them for burning the petrol too quickly. But still no one expected a podium. Danny retired in Malaysia , then hit a rich form of podiums and top five finishes before rounding it all off with a fortuitous win in Canada.   He won in Canada because the Merc’s hit trouble, but he win in Hungary was a top draw full on well deserved victory.  He has absolutely blossomed this year as his team mate, the current F1 world champions of the last four years, has had a torrid year.
For whatever reason, Vettel has struggled this year. He clearly doesn’t like the car now it has no off throttle blown diffuser, the loss of grip to something around what the Torro Rosso had last year has knocked his confidence in the fast corners. He doesn’t commit the car the way he did for the last few years, where before he would have a clear grip advantage over the other drivers, now its more of a level playing field he’s not quite so shiny and untouchable.
To be fair to him he doesn’t have a lot more to prove, he took four championships in succession, some of them he even deserved. The last one is a bit iffy seeing as how everyone else gave up when Pirelli changed their tyres to suit the Redbull. There have been a few grumpy comments to the pit wall and a petulant “I'm not letting him past me buddy” hissy fit. But really i think he’s realised there’s no point farting against thunder and is letting Danny get on with looking ace. I think he knows he can’t catch the Mercs to there’s little point trying to race for pride, pick up the paycheck and wait for Adrian to work it all out.
Except Adrian is off to build boats and isn’t going to build a car for the German anytime soon. I will be amazed if Vettel ever wins another world championship again. In fact, baring a multiple accident, I don’t think he’ll ever win another race. His time is over.  Danny is clearly now his replacement and Verstappen or Kvyat are going to be in a Redbull in a year or two. Vettel is yesterdays news and it only took 11 races !

Mercedes:  a gazillion points, 3 retirements and nothing but wins.

Lewis or Nico are going to win the championship, that much is a given. The car is 2 seconds a lap faster than anything else. It has a bit of a brake calliper issue that can cause the KERS unit to fail at the really hot tracks. But it’s a known problem now and Mercedes will have a solution for Spa and the rest of the season. But other than that the only thing that will stop the two team mates winning every race left is human error.
To date Lewis has had all the problems; a broken spark plug in Australia, the rear brake failure in Canada and an engine fire in Hungary.   But despite that he’s still second in the championship to Nico by only 11 points. And in Hungary he went from the pit lane at the start, had an accident and still beat Nico who had been on pole, when the car is firing on all cylinders he is just unstoppable.
And its fantastic to watch, years of Vettel being handed the wins dulled the thrill of F! For many, but now two team mates have been given carte blanch to “have at it” and prove who is the best. Thi sis how championships should be won, fighting for the points, saving it when things for haywire in qualifying. Changing the way the car is driven when something goes wrong.  It’s so refreshing to have a contested championship for  a change and I have no idea who is going to win it in the end. Both of them have brought their A game to the table and either of them will deserve it at the end.
Nico, because he saved that race in Canada, when the KERS brake harvesting unit failed, he had to change his driving stile with only a laps notice. Suddenly he was something like 150BHP down and a sitting duck. Yet he brought it home second. It was, i think, his best drive to date.
And Lewis, for the drive in Hungary where it all went so wrong, the car sitting in the pit lane merrily ablaze could well have ended the title chase there and then. But the boys rebuilt the car in time for him to start the race, he spun and almost crashed on the second corner after everyone else had gone past, but then he absolutely flew round that track, he got the luck sure, but he made passes where you shouldn’t be able to pass. He attacked the circuit lap after lap and dragged himself onto the podium and stuck one to his team mate at the same time. It was possible the greatest drive I’ve ever seen. (After Nigel beating Piquet at Silverstone .. obviously).

Right, so its been a pretty spectacular year really, the Mercedes fight at the front, Ricciardo grabbing his chance with both hands, Alonso dragging yet another dog to the podium. Williams rising from the dead back to the front. The Lotus boys failing spectacularly and Force India finally joining the big boys. There has been something to watch throughout the field and plenty of positive stories to follow.
So whilst the Ferrari “it’s all crap” camp tell you it’s rubbish and boring and it all needs to change, watch Hungary and Bahrain and Canada and Austria again and tell me those weren’t classic races. This year will be remembered for the racing, for the on track action and that should be applauded for a change.  I’ve not even touched on the fact that these races are being run with a third less fuel and a greater reliance on efficiency and new power recovery technology.  That these cars are a step change in the way F1 has gone racing in the past.  

This is the start of a new golden era.  Go on, enjoy it.

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