Monday, 2 March 2015

So all in all, it’s the same as last year ... but different.

I always like this bit of the season, winter testing has finished, the development paths are in full swing and the teams are packing their bags for Australia. It’s all shiny and new, freshly scented with hope and expectation.
 The new boys have been shown the ropes and have a feel for what’s expected of them this year, whilst the old hands have kicked the tyres and cast a wary eye over their PR commitments, All the teams are complaining about not having enough time to sort this or that problem, as finance managers fly from point to point trying to drum up that last Euro and Chinese Yuan.  The long dark winter months are over and with the brightening spring days the sound of Redbull complaining about their Renault engines can be heard gently wafting through the golden haze. 

The suppliers are in  .. lets go!

Welcome to the 2015 Formula One season.

So how has the winter series gone this year then?

Well mostly it’s a case of where they left off in 2014; The rich boys of the upper 6th are swanking around in their new overalls and freshly built cars, at the same time as the oiks from the lower 4th are sewing on new name patches to old race suits and fixing the worst bits of last year’s car. The potential divide between rich and poor could possibly be the starkest we’ve ever seen in F1 history.

 Caterham have defiantly gone and will selling off what remains of the assets in a few weeks time. No one feels like bailing them out after all.

But Marussia have changed their name to Manor Marussia F1 and are planning to raise, Lazarus like, to join the season with an updated 2014 car for round three in Bahrain. 

The mid table boys have been trying to look as professional as possible all winter, whilst not quite at the level of standing on the street corner next to a sign saying “looking for a good time ?” there has been a lot of parading around in short skirts and casting flirtatious looks at any passing trade. All the Russian sugar daddies suddenly being persona non grata on European soil means an unseemly scramble for Chinese and Middle Eastern playboys.

Lotus have switched engine and caused an internet storm by hiring a girl. Force India had a whip round of the staff and found the money to pay the suppliers to finish the car before the first race. Sauber have built a car that is so boring and bland is makes grey paint look even more exciting than it did last year. And Torro Rosso are officially a crèche service for Redbull now.   

At the front of the grid Ferrari have found some speed, Redbull have whined about Renault a lot and McLaren have had nothing but trouble. To no one’s surprise, Mercedes have continued pretty much where they left off from in 2014, they’ve not been making any fastest lap headlines, but as they don’t need any extra money, they don’t have too.

So all in all, it’s the same as last year ... but different.

Okay then, team by team in last year’s championship winning order.
Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

All during winter testing the Merc boys have pounded round the Spanish tracks racking up the miles and occasionally grinding to halt. There have been very few dramas over the weeks. The most eyebrow raising moment was Lewis going home with a sick note after 20 minutes in the car one morning.  Oh and Nico got the early drop on the team mate rivalry by announcing he’s “knocked up the misses, unlike Lewis who doesn’t even have a girlfriend hahahahaha”. *Ahem* Anyway congratulations to the Rosbergs. Yeah other than that, they were pretty much happy to let the likes of Lotus and Ferrari, grab all the headlines. That was until the last day when Nico bolted on a set of sticky tyres and went 1.5 seconds faster than anyone else. They are still the Benchmark and I’ll put money on Merc taking the constructors with ease again this year.
As for the two boys, well Nico would like to prove he is a champion and Lewis would like to underline how much of a champion he is by winning two titles back to back. But Lewis didn’t go well the last time he was a single man, and his social media output of late has been winsome looks on beaches at sunset and much imploring of #teamLH so “stay strong”. Conversely the recently married Nico has announced he’s to become a father for the first time in August. This year the off track action could be the deciding factor in who wins the drivers’ championship.

Redbull:  Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat

Redbull, after a shaky start last season with the underpowered Renault, turned it around and were the only team to stop Mercedes clean sweeping the whole thing. Danny  surfaced as an Australian it was alright to like with plenty of feisty racing moves and officially the biggest grin in the paddock. But Vettel was being all grumpy about not being given an easy ride by the FIA and wasn’t really trying very hard. Then he announced out of the blue (except I’d been saying he’s do it for years) that he was off to Ferrari and screw the lot of you. Redbull caught rather on the hop, Told Kvyat to throw on the Redbull team shirt and come and be introduced to the media as the new replacement.  After that he failed to look anything other than ordinary in the Torro Rosso.
So Danny will continue to grin and be quite impressive, he’s now the team leader with all the advantages that brings at Redbull and he’s got the media on his side. He’s a nice bloke from what I’ve seen of him and I think he’s got the making of a champion one day. Kvyat is still wet behind the ears and didn’t impress me all that much at Torro Rosso. He’s alright, but he got beaten by that other bloke all year and no one even remembers who he was now.
The big question is Renault, who have been putting out feelers into buying one of the back row teams and renaming them Renault F1. They’re a bit tired of playing second fiddle at Redbulls podium celebrations and really rather annoyed when Redbull throw their hands in the air and flounce around blaming Renault when it all goes wrong. It’s not always their fault when Newey shoehorns their pint sized engine into a half pint space. There are limits, and Redbull always seemed to find them. So Renault has cooled the relationship somewhat after Horner started 2015 by complaining to anyone who would listen that “Yet again the Renault engine is a pile of French merde! Not long after that, suggestion started to appear that Renault would be starting their very own team soon. In testing the cars done more miles than it managed last year, but it’s not been out there making headlines. The thinking is they’re still behind Mercedes, and not much closer than they were six months ago. Ferrari might also be back on form and could give Redbull a run for its money.

Williams: Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa.

Last year was a real renaissance for the lads and lass of Didcot. The car worked like a dream after the nightmare of 2013, it was fast and slippery and made the Merc work for the points at numerous events. But they didn’t quite have the courage to roll the dice and try to pinch a win. Understandably I suppose, the previous year had been one of no points and humiliation, Maldonardo spent a year smearing the car down the wall and walking back the pits with bits of car rather than bottles of fizz. They needed a confidence building year and they got it, thank in no small part to the Massa and Bottas in the cars and Smedly and Symonds on the pit wall. The car was innovative but sensible and the pit wall didn’t try to out think itself. They knew they couldn’t touch the Mercedes, so why bother? Plan to get third and see what happened, yes it was a bit predictable, but it got results.
This year, there’ll be more of the same I imagine. Testing would suggest that Ferrari have got their act together and have overtaken the plucky garagistas. But Williams are still ahead of McLaren and the mid field teams. The car is slippery again but now has more front downforce for those low speed circuits. The final test saw a slew of fastest laps so they could be tilting for poles again this year and if they’re on pole I think they’ll go for the win this time.

Ferrari: Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.

Well I was all ready to write Ferrari off at the end of last year. Alonso was to all intense and purposes unceremoniously fired after flogging yet another dead pony for a year and telling the media just how much of a dead pony it was. Monty had been fired by the Fiat board of directors and at the end of the season they fired they’re second race director, I didn’t even have time to learn his name. In came Maurizio Arrivabene a man from the marketing department of Marlboro ciggies and would you believe it, turned it all around.
What should have been a spectacular firework of Mediterranean tantrums and covert media briefings. Turned into a restructuring, with clear lines of responsibility for managers and an engine that wasn’t made of iron girders! Then the car turned up for the first test with new boy Vettel and it didn’t fall apart of run out of petrol 200 yards up the pit lane.  It was fast and so far pretty reliable.  
Vettel looked all smug and “I told you it would work”, as Alonso kicked the broken down McLaren-Honda yet again parked at the side of the road.
Even Kimi looked like he was interested for a change; he smiled at least once when asked if he liked the car.
They still have to deliver of course, but I think they go into the 2015 with a bit more vim and vigour about them now. How much that has to do with Alonso’s departure, well I couldn’t possible comment on that.

McLaren-Honda: Fernando Alonso and Jenson button.

Well he turned up at McLaren then. After giving everyone the run around for 6 months last year, Alonso rocked up at McLaren and promptly had Kev fired in preference to Jenson. Start as you mean to go on aye mate!
Things than started to go bad as soon as the McLaren with its brand spanking new Honda engine rolled out for the end of season young drivers test the Monday morning after the final race of 2014 in Abu Dhabi. The car did approximately 100 yards and stopped dead. They wheeled it back in, all smiles and “oh it’s just a simple software error .. ahhhhah don’t worry”. They sent it out again and it stopped 300 smoky yards later... ohh dear.
This year’s winter testing season has seen the new McLaren-Honda mostly parked up as Vettel has cheerily driven past in his brand spanking new reliable Ferrari that Alonso wished he could be driving. Then to cap it all, it tried to kill Alonso when it unexpectedly speared into the wall as according to the McLaren PR squad, “A gust of wind caught it”.  Yeah right, these things are designed by more computing power than NASA used to get man to the moon. Alonso was pulled from the car unconscious and spent the next three days eating hospital food. Magnussen got a call up to drive the car at the final test in a classic “Here’s what you could have won” moment.
But don’t start planning the McLaren funeral just yet, no, because if you recall a year ago Redbull did exactly the same thing. Go out, tool round slowly for a lap or two, and then expire in a smoky conflagration.  But they came back and won three races in 2014 didn’t they. Yes they did, because they have more money than most tin pot African dictatorships can spend on illegal weaponry. They bought themselves out of the problem, and put Adrian Newey on a caffeine drip till he worked out what he’s done wrong.
McLaren aren’t short of a bob or two, but they don’t have a star designer of the Neweys calibre. They have a faceless grey cell of nameless individuals designing methodically and according to the grey hive mind. They don’t really do flare do they? Individualism is sort of frown upon.
So it might be some time before we see the boys from Woking back up the front.

Force India: Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg.

Well we have no idea how they did in winter testing as they didn’t bring their 2015 car to anything but the last test.  According to the team this was because they were still honing the design and making sure it was perfect before they got it all messy on the track. The less technical reason is they didn’t have enough money to pay their suppliers for the 2015 bits they ordered three months ago and said suppliers, having been burnt by Caterham and Marrussia, refused to hand over the bits until cold hard cash was handed over in return.
Lotus tried this same trick last year, hang around the back of the pits smoking ciggies and looking shifty for two tests then tune up to the last one with a cobbled together mess of a car and expect it to hit the track running. It didn’t work for them and it won’t work for Force India. Engineers need to understand what they’re designed and how to set it up. Rocking up day one of the new season and expecting it to pick up where the previous car did, is a fools mission. Last year the Force India team seemed to finally get the idea of racing. They stopped making bizarre pit wall calls and let the drivers get on with it. Nico kind of fumbled it and Sergio rebuilt his confidence. Yes, they were always 10 minutes away from collapsing into administration and bailiffs kicking the front door in but they looked like a bona fide race team for once. Now it looks like they’re back to scraping around for loose change to pay the suppliers.

Torro Rosso: Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr.

Right off the bat, I like Carlos for no other reason that when Ted Kravitz interviewed him during the second test, he was an absolutely nice chap. He was honest, charming and didn’t feel the need to big himself up. I have no idea if he’s got the chops to succeed in F1, but he’s got a personality and that gets my vote.
I’ve not seen anything from Max so I have no idea what he’s like. He’s been aaaaalright in testing, he’s not nailed the wall or annoyed anyone, and so reports he’s the second coming will have to wait. He’s from that Lewis Hamilton mould of being groomed for this sport from the moment he pushed his first corgi hot wheels car across the table top. His dad was a bit of a cock back in the day with the mistaken belief that he was somehow better then Schumacher, hopefully Max hasn’t inherited his father’s puffed up ego.
Then again do you remember what you were doing when you were 17? I think I was still trying to work out if having a third can of woodpeckers cider was going to end in praying to the porcelain God once more. I certainly wasn’t looking at my first season in an F1 car ... Is Max too young? It’s going to be the talking point of the season until he either has his first big accident, or gets a hatful or points.

Lotus:  Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonardo.

Well, you all know what I think about Pastor and he did nothing to change that view last year. Romain I have a bit more time for, he survived a tough initiation into the sport and I think he’s matured into a handy, if unremarkable drive.
As for Lotus, well it’s all change for them this year. They ditched the unreliable Renault unit and managed to convince Mercedes that they could really pay for some of their engines. When they rocked up to the first test the thing went like a rocket and Pastor was the star of the week with fastest laps all over the place. The car was suddenly reliable and predictable and drivable, everything a team wants from a car. As the testing went on they sort of dropped back to mid table respectability, but they got the miles they missed last year and could be set for a bit of a solid year. Just as long as Pastor can keep his murderous death wish under control of course!
I'm not going to get in to the debate about them hiring Carmen Jorda to be their team development driver. I’ll accept that she probably isn’t the greatest driver out there. But I don’t think she has deserved any of the downright bullying she has received since the announcement. No one put a gun to the head of Lopez and made him sign Ms Jorda. And they are perfectly at liberty to sign whoever waves a big enough cheque at them. No one has said she was going to do any racing, so why have the Red faced loons gone into meltdown over this. Give it up, you loons it’s not the end of day!

Marussia: well .. errrrr Will Stevens i think and errrrrr someone

Right, well okay Marussia or Manor as we are now supposed to call them. Well they sold off half the factory to HAAS motor sport and his American F1 vapourware. Lots of expensive looking mills, work stations , monitors, hats, mock up cars and general stuff got auctioned off and we thought we’d seen the end of them.
But then the administrators knocked on the FIA’s doors and said,
“That wad of cash we are owed for the point we got in Monaco .. what’s happing to that? “
The FIA shrugged and said, “Well if you pay your entry fee and bring a team to the table, it’s yours”. The team went away, had a bit of a think then came back and asked, “can we race our 2014 car if we put this year’s sticker on it?” The FIA asked the other team if that would be okay and Force India quite rightly said, “Errr why do they get to race last year’s car and we don’t ???? Screw them!”
So the FIA told Marussia to build a car that was mostly last year’s car and looked quite a lot like this year’s car and have it ready before the fourth race of the season, oh and pay the entry fee ... and they were in.
Force India grumbled a bit and then realised they’d still be ahead of the Marussia whatever happened and let it past. So, having paid for and got a receipt for their entry, Marussia are in.  They’ve been given a dispensation to miss the first three races whilst they buy back all the equipment they sold and knock up a car that will pass inspection. The team are saying they’ll rock up to Australia with something that most pundits assume will be at least seven seconds off the pace of the Merc and will fail the 107%. If that happens the stewards will refuse to let them race (probably, you never know with the FIA) and we’ll move on to the next race. Just how long they can be outside the 107% and denied entry is anyone’s guess. I think it’ll last as long as it take to get the  TV money cheque.
But whatever, good luck to Will and whoever else they sign up. I hope they like F! because they’re going to be watching a lot of it from the stands this year.

Sauber: Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson

So, last year was an utter disaster. No points, no credibility and they got beaten by Marussia at times, notably in Monaco where the plucky back markers snaffled a point. Peter Sauber is no mug and he didn't really deserve the kicking he got last year, after bailing the team out when BMW flounced off he should have been given more support by the FIA. Instead they seemed happy to let the likes of Sauber, Caterham and Force India go to the wall to protect some manufactures interests.
With Caterham gone and Manor fielding an updated 2014 car, Sauber should at least be guaranteed ninth place in the constructors’ championship this year. The car they wheeled out for testing certainly didn’t look like it was going to be pushing the front of the grid at all.  They have elevated the word ‘dull’ to a whole new interstellar level of dullness, with a car that actually makes you think a stag weekend in Rotherham would be a brilliant idea. Don’t let the blue and yellow paint scheme fool you, this car is the racing equivalent of waiting at the doctors for a prostrate examination.   You just know it’s going to be bad news.

So we have lots to look forward to this year. Yes the Merc will be on top, but the inter team rivalry will be fascinating.
Ferrari and Redbull look like locking horns once more and Williams is punching above its weight as the best of the customer Merc engine runners.
The fight to be the team that doesn’t go into administration will be between Sauber and Force India.  Force India will also have the added fun of wondering when VJ will finally run out of companies with pension funds he can raid then sell off
Lotus looks to have put last year’s woes behind them and might finish a race in the points again. Whilst Torro Rosso will continue to look after the kids for Redbull and insist they are an independent team.
Over it all Bernie will make random wacky statements, do dodgy deal and continue to grow his own personal wealth.

But mostly the racing will be a lot closer this year and more unpredictable in the mid field.
I'm certainly looking forward to it.

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