Wednesday, March 26, 2008

An interesting deal

It has been announced today that the Tata Group has completed a £1.15 billion (US$2.3 billion) purchase of the Jaguar Land Rover group from the Ford Motor Company. I'm just speculating here, quickly and on the spur of the moment, but given the current growth in F1 investment from the Indian sub-continent and given Tata's track record of involvement in the sport as a team sponsor and technology partner, could they be another potential buyer for the Toro Rosso team now that they have a premium sports-car brand to promote?

Out of the frying pan and into the fire

Perhaps I spoke too soon on Saturday. Following a majestic run to pole position, Felipe Massa made yet another elementary error whilst attempting to peg the gap back to his team-mate Kimi Raikonnen, who took the lead at the first round of pit-stops with a blistering series of laps - at the time the fastest of the race. Perhaps he let his frustration get to him. Perhaps, as Martin Brundle rather neatly pointed out, he simply let 'ambition get the better of adhesion'. Whatever the case, it seems apparent that there was no mechanical problem on which Massa could pin the blame and that this was another high-profile pressure error. He now faces a 14 point mountain two championship leader Hamilton after two races. Psychologically, the climb he faces could be even tougher than that.

Despite that, Massa remains defiant and sanguine about his prospects for the rest of the season, as reported by At the same time as admitting that the absence of electronic driver aids have made the cars more critical and difficult to drive on the limit he maintains that his race-ending spin was down to 'different problems, not linked to traction control'. Whatever the truth of the matter, Massa now faces an uphill battle. Not only to get himself back into contention for the 2008 title, but also to ensure that the Ferrari team does not begin to gravitate around Raikonnen. And, attempt to pour cold water on the rumours that have begun to circulate though they may - see here - the speculation that Massa is driving to save his Ferrari seat from perhaps Sebastian Vettel (unlikely though this maybe due to the complexity of his contractual situation) or, more plausibly, Fernando Alonso, will only continue to grow if the little Brazillian cannot post some big results in the next few races.

Interestingly, Alonso has signally refused to defuse any rumours regarding for whom he will drive in 2009. What impact any continued refusal to dedicate himself to Renault's cause for the long-haul will have on the morale of his team remains to be seen. With regard to their current lack of pace, one might be tempted - mischievously and perhaps uncharitably - to wonder how slow their car might be this year if Alonso really has brought the same, infamous 'six tenths' to the team that took to McLaren.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

What a difference a week makes...

Having visibly struggled to get to grips with both the car and the track and succumbing to two pressure errors in wheel-to-wheel combat in Australia, Felipe Massa has, it seems, brought his 'A' game with him to Malaysia.

There was no evidence at all of the brittle, tense body language at the wheel that was so evident only a few days ago - the Massa that has just taken pole position for tomorrow's race was smooth, fluid, relaxed and visibly very quick indeed. The onboard camera footage showed a driver putting far less energy into his steering inputs than last weekend - his light grip on the wheel and loose arms and shoulders a stark contrast to the shots from Melbourne. Not even Raikonnen had an answer to him today and whilst a difference in fuel loads between the two Ferrari drivers could explain away the time between them, Rob Smedley, Massa's race engineer, seemed very confident that his boy had simply produced a stunning lap when quizzed by ITV as the dust settled.

Massa's performance today was from the top-drawer and gave a firm retort to the criticisms and doubts that have been thrown in his direction by commentators - including myself - after his less than convincing display in Australia. Less than seven days later he has demonstrated once again his enormous strength of character. He may appear boyish, almost cherubic at times, but make no mistake about it, the Brazillian is a tough competitor. One of the most impressive facets in his make-up is his ability to learn and learn quickly. This is what turned him from a ragged, accident-prone rookie, to the smooth, quick and confident race-winner that we saw emerge last season. And, I am quite sure that it is this, coupled with an enormous reserve of quiet determination, that has seen him bounce back from the disappointments of a few days ago.

As for his team, well, it was clear that Ferrari had simply failed to 'extract the maximum potential from their package' - as the saying goes - last weekend. This weekend, so far, they have demonstrated the formidable pace they showed throughout the winter and seem to have a definite edge over the McLarens. The silver cars not only lacked a little for pace today, but seem less stable at the rear than their main opposition. This is a definite disadvantage at Sepang, which calls for so many rapid changes of direction in quick succession. Lewis Hamilton seemed slightly less at ease than his team-mate Heikki Kovalainen and much less confident in the car, not only since last weekend, but since Friday afternoon when he topped the timesheets. In the aftermath of qualifying he mused that perhaps they had gone the wrong way on set-up on his side of the garage today. He must hope that they can overcome this tomorrow. What a difference a week makes...

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Toro Rosso, up for sale

Yesterday Dietrich Mateschitz went public on the sale of his second team, Toro Rosso, although F1 insiders have been aware that it was on the market for about the last six months. Speculation is now going to be rife as to who might purchase the team now that Red Bull have - and understandably so - no further use for it. In an article on, Joe Saward speculates on a number of possibilities. The benefits of buying into an existing team are clear, but the sums of money needed are, of course, accessible to a very few people and organisations. In addition to the points that Joe makes, I'd ponder the following.

Would David Richards be prepared to change his mind? He very firmly ruled out bringing Prodrive into F1 in January, once it was finally clear that the customer car route - to my mind foolishly opened in the first place - was being definitively closed off. He is an ambitious man who still 'firmly believes' that Prodrive should be contesting the F1 World Championship. However, he is a pragmatist and is not prepared, it seems, to risk everything he has to simply be in the game. In an interview with in January he noted that 'so many people have lost their shirts on Formula One and just got lost in the mists of enthusiasm'. It is clear that he does not intend to be one of those. The fact remains though that Richards wants to be in the game and, if it doesn't look like the rules of the game are going to change in the medium to long-term then perhaps he might alter his views before 2010, by which time Mateschitz really must have closed a deal.

Might Paul Stoddart be tempted to make a bid? He admitted last week that he had investigated any opportunities that might have surrounded the beleaguered Super Aguri team. When quizzed on the matter by in Melbourne he expanded on this, by explaining that 'if a team were to come onto the market at a sensible price that I felt I could do something with, then yes I would be interested'. Much more interested, he added, than in the prospect of starting a new team from scratch, at least whilst Max Mosley remains in post as the President of the FIA. The apparent decimation of Champ Car in the wake of its so-called 'peace deal' with the Indy Racing League may well only serve to encourage Stoddart - it is now clear that his Minardi Team USA will not be switching to the IRL. Not everyone would welcome Stoddart back to Formula 1 with open arms, but it would certainly serve to add a little colour to the sport and his time with Minardi certainly showed he has the ability to do quite a bit with very little.

Finally, the other question hanging in the air is would another major motor manufacturer be interested in taking on Mercedes, BMW, Toyota, Honda, Ferrari and Renault to 'prove their worth'? There have been rumours for many years that Audi have been interested in making the move into Formula One - could this be the opportunity that they are looking for, possibly to bring to fruition a project that is already being developed behind the scenes? It is well known that Mosley and the FIA have been attempting to court additional manufacturers into the sport in the last few years, including Peugeot-Citroen, Hyundai and GM.

Whatever the outcome, it will have a significant effect on the make-up of the Formula One grid in the next decade.

A wobbly start...

It was an inauspicious beginning to what many are calling a new era at Ferrari. One of the most impressive aspects of the Scuderia's performance over the past few years is that their continuing success has been achieved against a backdrop of change, as the key architects of their recent unprecedented run of success one by one began to move on. Having effortlessly absorbed the departures of Rory Byrne, Nigel Stepney, Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher, Ferrari faced up to one final change over the winter. The Australian Grand Prix was the first since Magny-Cours 1993 not to be overseen by the diminutive, fastidious, some say Napoleonic presence of Jean Todt - the man who brought together and moulded Ferrari's 'super-team' in the first place. Let us not forget that the Scuderia were on their knees when Todt was appointed, a shadow of their former greatness and that no-one, simply no-one, could have predicted the extent to which he would reforge them and return them to the very front-line of Formula One competition.

It was indeed a shaky start for Stefano Domenicali, recently promoted from his role as Sporting Director to fill Todt's literally small and metaphorically large shoes. However, before we get too carried away with this talk of
sea-changes and eras ending and beginning, let us not forget quite how long Domenicali has been groomed for his current position, and think instead of the incredible continuity that Messrs Todt, Brawn and company embedded in the once chaotic Italian team. Domenicali has been with Ferrari in one way, shape or form since 1991, initially responsible for internal administrative issues, gradually working his way through a number of high-profile positions within the team, before reaching his current role. Domenicali is not some wide-eyed newcomer, but the result of a system that has been developed over the last 15 years to nurture a real strength in depth. What is more, he has Ferrari in his bloodstream. You can count on it that somewhere within the Ferrari hierarchy Domenicali's eventual replacement is lurking, learning his trade.

Others have speculated whether or not the operational errors that hampered performance this weekend would have occurred with Todt at the helm. Would, for example, Raikkonen have been sent out in qualifying with a miscalibrated fuel pump? And, just as crucially, would he have bizarrely been left out on track during the second saftey car, missing a perfect opportunity to use a free pit-stop to move him up the order? It is easy to join the dots a certain way and produce such a picture. But let's not forget that whilst Domenicali is the Team Prinicipal and that the buck stops with him, the man responsible for 'trackside operations', including all technical issues and race strategy, is Luca Baldisseri, who filled that same role last season, after years of preparation under the tutelage of Ross Brawn. Baldisseri is good, no question, but there have been a couple of wobbles under pressure since he stepped up to the plate - the confusion in Fuji which saw Raikonnen start on the wet tyres springs to mind as an example, as does Massa being left high and dry in qualifying at the Hungaroring without enough fuel in the car. You'd still say that he calls it right more often than he calls it wrong and you'd have to add that following in the footsteps of Brawn is a tough comparison for anyone.

I'd fall a long way short of calling this a team in crisis.

However, it is a world championship winning team with a few problems to iron out if it is going to maximise its undoubted potential in the early part of this season. Having spent a winter pounding around the test circuits of the world, posting lap-times that sent collective shivers down the spines of their opponents, Ferrari were confidently expected to control the Australian Grand Prix weekend from the very beginning. It didn't work out that way. They lost their way with set-up from Friday afternoon and never really recovered - Raikonnen in particular being unhappy with the balance of the car. Most worrying, of course, are the reliability problems that suddenly seemed to appear out of nowhere, after a winter of faultless running. Not only did engine problems halt Raikonnen and Massa's Sunday afternoon drives, but that of Sebastien Bourdais, in the similarly powered Toro Rosso. That has to be a concern. In response to this Ferrari have flown the engines back to Maranello in order to properly isolate the cause of the failures. They will have fresh, replacement engines in Malaysia, where they will hope that a solution has been found. And, once again, before we talk of a team in crisis, let's remember that Ferrari's engines were not bullet-proof last year and that, of all teams, they have the resources to solve these issues quickly.

Finally, what of the drivers?

Kimi was relaxed, calm and totally confident in the run-up to Australia - he seemed to exude an air that said that when the games commenced, he would be the man to beat. Was it this thwarted expectation - the frustration of being unable to get the car to work to his liking, coupled to the disappointment of qualifying, added to the difficulties of the race itself that led him to make the two high-profile driver errors that he did? I'd say that it was, and I wouldn't bank on Kimi having too many weekends like this in the season to come. A blip, rather than the beginning of a trend.

Felipe Massa came to Melbourne off the back of a slightly troubling winter for those who have observed closely. From the minute they began running without traction control he has struggled to come to terms with it, having a number of spins and 'offs'. Massa, who has improved enormously in recent seasons, finished 2007 looking like a well-rounded and quick championship contender - a surprise indeed to those who remember him as a wayward, erratic and sometimes downright terrifying novice in his early days at Sauber. By contrast, his performance across the three days in Melbourne was skittish and inconsistent. The onboard footage clearly showed a tension in his driving, and reactive, over-compensative steering inputs. The body language of the car out on the circuit was similar. Despite that, he was quick enough and qualified well, raising hopes of a good, strong race. This didn't last longer than the first corner, where Massa seemed, in the heat of the moment, to completely forget that traction control no longer restrained his right foot, and oversteered into a spin before the season was even 30 seconds old. As he fought his way back through the field there was an edge of desperation and jerkiness to his driving which, regardless of whose fault it actually was, no doubt contributed to his collision with Coulthard. For Massa's sake, I hope he bounces back - he is one of F1's good guys, a hard worker, a tremendous competitor, and a real character - but it seems that, on the back of this performance, he is one of the drivers who is truly not comfortable in a Grand Prix car devoid of traction control. If it is indeed that case that Massa fills the role of Schumacher's protégé and that he has, in the past, benefited from the advice and coaching of the seven-times world champion, I would imagine that he has already punched Michael up on speed-dial.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Apprentice to sorceror?

Lewis Hamilton returned to the site of his F1 debut twelve months on in the kind of devastating form that simply must cause his rivals the odd sleepless night. This time last year Lewis arrived in Melbourne with a watching world wondering what he might achieve. This time, as Lewis himself admitted in the run-up to qualifying, the stakes were immensely higher. There were questions hanging in the air: would the benefit of a year's experience see him step up to another level or would he now falter under the pressure of expectation? Could he provide a level of technical leadership that, for all the problems that came with him, Fernando Alonso, as a double world champion, clearly brought to McLaren? Could McLaren provide him with a genuine title-challenger or would the fall-out from the 'Stepneygate' saga and its impact upon their technical development be clearly revealed for all to see? In short, was 2007 simply a flash in the pan?

Lewis' answer to all of those questions was a simply devastating, controlled pace of a like that is only demonstrated by the very greatest of racing drivers at the peak of their powers. For all the paddock certainty that Ferrari would hold the advantage at this racetrack, perhaps with McLaren snapping at their heels, Lewis was on it from the moment first practice began on Friday. In the afternoon session, as the Ferraris began to lose their way with their race set-up and struggle to get the best out of their hard tyres in the sky-high temperatures, Lewis kept his cool and his confidence began to grow. On one of his quickest laps he held the car in a simply breathtaking slide through Turn 13, aggressive but controlled, utterly relaxed at the limit. The precision and suppleness of his steering inputs viewed from the onboard camera were in stark opposition to the visible tension in the shoulders and arms and hence the comparative jerkiness in those of say, Felipe Massa.

In the first part of the race, he simply drove away from the opposition with a ruthless speed that took one's breath away. Sector after sector, lap after lap he turned the timing screens purple as he set yet another fastest time. And yet, afterwards, he reckoned he had not been pushing too hard - that he had time in hand if he'd needed it. You didn't doubt it.

In answer to those other questions that were hanging in the air before Friday practice, it appears that McLaren have built a quick and reliable racing car. It also appears that Hamilton's input into the development process has ensured that he has a car in which he has complete confidence - he knows where he can put it and how it will react on the limit. Very few drivers up and down the pitlane will have the benefit of that right now. Maybe we can start to draw some more conclusions from that

I don't think for a second that Lewis will have too many Sunday afternoons as easy as this over the balance of the season, but it is certainly clear that with a year's experience under his belt, we are now watching him step up his already formidable game to another level.

As the dust settles...

No sooner had the flag descended on the season-opening grand prix in Australia on Sunday than the teams were packing up and heading to Malaysia, post-haste, for the second round of the new championship that takes place this very next weekend. After months of preparation on behalf of the teams and anticipation on the part of the watching world the season gets underway with two races within seven days of each other.

This potentially presents a tremendous opportunity for those teams that hit the ground running in Australia to hit home an early advantage, leaving those teams that didn't facing a potential double-whammy of early season chaos and misfortune, which will see them punch drunk and on the back foot as the young season then heads to Bahrain in the first week of April with barely a pause for breath. Then, and only then, will they get the chance to take stock and address their problems before the European season begins in earnest on April 27.

As the dust settles on a chaotic opening race what can we glean about the current balance of power, if anything at all?