Testing 2014

Testing for the 2014 season got underway this week at the Jerez circuit. Testing is notoriously unpredictable and any attempt to ascertain a pecking order are ultimately futile. However this week was certainly not without it’s surprises. First were the problems encountered by Renault, with the engine manufacturer seemingly behind in it’s efforts to get on top of the new “powertrain” regulations. The Renault powered teams have struggled so far, completing a total of 151 laps compared to Ferrari’s 444 and  Mercedes’ even more impressive 875. Numerous reports have flown around the paddock, ranging from energy storage problems to vibration issues, which appears to suggest the Renault engine has a number of problems, ranging in complexity. This is less than ideal, especially considering the complexity of the new engines.

Second was the abject failure of Red Bull, the dominant team of the previous regulations. Whilst they are attempting to put a brave face on their issues, I can’t help but feel that Daniel Ricciardo let more slip than he would have liked, telling the media that if Red Bull’s problems persisted he was confident that they would make up ground throughout the season- hardly bullish aspirations and essentially admitting the team were behind. Of course Adrian Newey rarely designs poor cars, his design record is testament to his brilliance. However Newey’s aggressive hunt for aerodynamic performance may be hurting Red Bull at this early stage of the season; Newey is famed for his attention to aerodynamics, pursuing tight packaging that pushes the limit of cooling. There are reports that the Red Bull is experiencing overheating issues, with rumours of burning components. At this stage of the game surely it would be prudent to take a conservative approach, putting miles on the car, getting a sound understanding of the base chassis before searching for those important performance gains. Mercedes and Ferrari, Red Bull’s principle rivals last year, have been very reliable and it would not be a stretch to say they have a substantial advantage at this moment in time with regards to understanding their package. We of course do not know if the Red Bull is quick yet, no team has any true idea as to the pecking order, but what’s better- to qualify on pole and retire, or be slower yet reliable? As usual, only time will tell and I can’t wait.

F1 and the tyre conundrum

F1 is dominated by two stories at the moment, engines and tyres; the engine situation so far is rather clear with Williams moving to a Mercedes supply and Lotus currently deciding between Renault and Mercedes (with Renault apparently edging closer to a new contract). The changes in the engine market have been set in motion by McLaren revisiting their historic partnership with Honda from 2015 and Torro Rosso joining their sister team at Renault from next year.

However the world of F1 tyre supplies and testing is a rather murkier affair. Mercedes appear to find themselves in a bit of a predicament with regards to their recent test in Barcelona on behalf of Pirelli. Both the German marque and Italian supplier feel that the FIA cleared the test, with the authority arguing that they did not adhere to the rules set out in their correspondence.

Red Bull principal Christian Horner regards the test as being “underhand” which may be a rather fitting description. The test appears to have completely bypassed the world of twitter, in many ways the truest modern litmus test of all things news in the modern world. Mercedes director Toto Wolff has argued that they did not hide the fact they were staying in Barcelona after the race but this still does not mask the fact that neither the other teams nor numerous F1 journalists covering the sport on a daily basis seemed to have no clue that a test of any kind was going on. With the criticisms levelled at Pirelli in the weeks preceding the Spanish Grand Prix I cannot help but feel that if anyone had of known of this test it would have been covered in some detail.

Helmut Marko claims that Mercedes could have gained as much as one second per lap as a result of the three day test which remains to be seen (Mercedes were favourite to win in Monaco anyway as a result of their one-lap pace and unique nature of the circuit). However it does raise questions of Pirelli’s continued involvement in the sport; I cannot help but feel that Pirelli have been made to be a scapegoat by some of the bigger teams such as Red Bull and Mercedes. Whilst Ferrari and Lotus have stuck to the task of understanding the deliberately fragile nature of the 2013 tyres, others have repeatedly bemoaned how racing in F1 is now a forgotten concept. Let us not forget that the FIA asked Pirelli to produce such tyres after repeated calls from fans that the Bridgestone tyres were reducing the spectacle of F1. Now I am not saying that I agree with drivers four stopping in races but these tyres seem little different to the last two years of Pirelli construction, with teams struggling at the beginning of the year before getting a handle on them. Why should they be changed just because the bigger boys are having a tantrum?

With the constant criticism being levelled at Pirelli for doing as they were asked, surely it is only a matter of time before they leave the sport? Pirelli are a global brand who will seek to protect their reputation as being competent tyre makers. However as the saying goes-mud sticks, and it is only sensible to assume that the constant attack of their aptitude will filter down to even those uninterested in F1. Coupled with the teams stalling over a new tyre contract, Pirelli might just decide that enough is enough and quit the sport which has turned on it. I can only hope that this is not the case and that the teams simply get on with their job on the track, rather than in the papers.

Tensions flare at Red Bull

Let’s be honest, whilst the actions of Sebastian Vettel in the Malaysian Grand Prix were incredibly short sighted, they were not exactly shocking were they? In light of Turkey 2010, Britain 2011 and Brazil 2012 it has been clear for a long time that the Red Bull pilots do not see eye to eye. What is interesting is the degree to which we were able to see how far their relationship is strained on Sunday.

Mark Webber is not a driver that minces his words or hides his feelings and on Sunday his raw anger was there for all to see; with the advent of immediate podium interviews (conducted brilliantly by a fearless Martin Brundle) F1 fans across the globe were able to see just how Webber truly felt, not only about Vettel’s highly questionable actions during the race but about the team in general.

Whilst not a fan of team orders I still feel for Mark; after having a tough couple of seasons being outpaced by a seemingly invincible Vettel, it must be said that he was fantastic on Sunday. He appeared to be comfortably managing the pace of not only Sebastian but Lewis Hamilton too, who could have been right up there until the very end had he not been under-fuelled and wasted some 5 seconds on a trip down nostalgia lane. As we all know by now, both Red Bull drivers were told to hold-station after their final round of pit-stops, turning down their engines and managing this seasons infamous tyres. However Vettel, returning to his somewhat petulant former self (think Belgium 2010), decided to ignore the team’s instructions, taking advantage of a surprised and off-guard Webber and disappearing to yet another win and extra 7 points.

Obviously Webber was fuming with Vettel, confronting him before the podium (“Multi 21, Seb!) and during one of the most awkward post-race press conferences I’ve ever seen. This will of course have huge repercussions for the Red Bull team, no matter how their PR team attempt to spin it in this 3 week break to China. There is the serious possibility that the driver dynamic will have completely broken down. There were reports of Webber impeding Vettel in Brazil last year, who needed to finish in the points to ensure his 3rd successive World Championship. Webber is known to be a good friend of Fernando Alonso, Vettel’s Championship rival at the time, and was linked with a move to Ferrari in the off-season before deciding sticking with Red Bull who he thought would give him the best chance of a World Championship of his own. Just how will Webber race now for a team that he believes are behind his team mate?

Red Bull are highly unlikely to impose any punitive measure on Vettel, seen in some circles to be their golden boy. This of course will not be an easy pill for Webber to swallow and may just be the final straw in his already strained relationship with the team. Red Bull have dominated the constructors title for the past three years with Webber being a reliable points scorer and occasional race winner. Will he now effectively give up helping a team which seems to provide little support? The pragmatist in me would say no, with 17 races still to run this year Webber of course still has a chance at a world championship in what increasingly appears to be his final year in F1, or at least at the Newey-inspired Red Bull. If however he is out of title-contention with 5 or 6 races to go it makes me wonder how long his memory is…

Of course this is all conjecture, we can never be sure of anything (especially in this sport) but it is delicious food for thought. Looks like 2013 could have more fireworks in store.

McLaren-Honda?

Speculation is running rife at the minute regarding McLaren’s engine supplier. It seems some news outlets are slightly confused as to what the team’s contractual situation is. From what I understand, McLaren have a definite contract with Mercedes up to and including the 2014 season when the new turbo engines will be introduced. McLaren also have two options, for 2015 ad 2016 to extend this arrangement. Some outlets have been reporting Mclaren’s contract with Mercedes is until 2016, but this is only the case if McLaren choose to extend, they are under no obligation to do so.

As a result, so enters Honda into the frame. McLaren’s previous relationship with the Japanese engine supplier was prolific, winning four drivers and constructors championships between 1988-1992, including all 3 of Ayrton Senna’s titles.

This could be a very sly move by McLaren. Rumour has it that since the MP4-12c road car was introduced, the relationship between the team and Mercedes was strained. A fresh start may be beneficial to the team, who apparently may be Honda’s only customer in 2015 thus getting their undivided attention (though it is likely Honda will attempt to sign further customers to justify their involvement in the sport). Historically with a change in engine regulations, Mercedes have taken a few seasons to adapt (including 2006, the introduction of the V8 unit and McLaren’s disastrous season). Can a team of McLaren’s calibre afford further seasons without a Championship? Of course not and thus you can see why they will take a punt on their former partner. It must be said that this is no statement of belief that Honda will come into the sport with the best engine, but with a year to look at Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault’s efforts and an extra year of development, their odds are not exactly shortened.

This speculation is only good for the sport, the more engine partners F1 can attract the healthier it will become, whilst also advancing research into road car efficiency. Long may it continue!

Mercedes

It has been all change at Mercedes this year with the arrival of Lewis Hamilton, widely regarded to be one of the fastest drivers on the grid. Hamilton has recently sounded a little downbeat on Mercedes performance, telling the circus that he is no aiming for race wins this year and concentrating on getting into Q3 and points scoring finishing. This seems to be in contradiction from his teammate Nico Rosberg’s comments, who appears to feel the car is stronger relatively than the start of the 2012 season where they were actually very quick but suffered from high tyre degradation.

It interests me to see wholly different views being expressed from the two drivers and whilst I could be wrong, seems to amount to gamesmanship from the team. Watching the pre-season test today Martin Brundle and Paul di Resta have both commented how impressive the Mercedes car is. With a strong technical department and two quick drivers, who’s to say Mercedes can’t have a good year? We’ll have to wait and see.

Testing

As the final pre-season test continues, more and more commentators seem to be attempting to establish a pecking order. However this seems entirely fruitless; F1 teams are renowned for playing their cards close to their chests. With the large capacity fuel tanks that have been in the cars since 2010, the teams could be running as much or as little fuel as possible. In addition testing is not about going at full pace all the time, as the teams will want to check wind-tunnel correlation and aerodynamic performance. Therefore why attempt to read into testing times? There have been countless examples of a team suffering from supposed poor form in testing, only to arrive at Melbourne in better shape than thought, à la McLaren 2011. The only thing we can do is wait until Qualifying in Australia, after all patience is a virtue.