Thoughts on the Baku City Circuit

Having been at Le Mans last weekend, my first impression of the Baku City Circuit came from watching a short highlights package on French TV from a budget hotel room.

The appearance of Jean Alesi as a pundit aside, the compilation did little but paint an exceptionally unflattering picture of the event in my mind. More than 90 per cent of the footage focused on the first three corners of the lap, making it seem as though the race had been held around an industrial wasteland with a feel more akin to a concrete jungle than an emerging city.

Already knowing the result and the fact that the race had not been particularly entertaining, I was fearing the worst as I sat down to watch the race in full, the recent experiences of Korea, India and Sochi still fresh in the memory.

With that in mind, the end result was a pleasant surprise. While Baku can hardly lay claim to being one of the best circuits Formula One has visited, by no means is it one of the worst.

The 23 second, full-throttle section that ends the lap proved to be a unique spectacle that spawned the opportunity for close racing, while the uncompromising nature of much of the second part of the circuit caught many drivers out over the course of the weekend.

While the first sector is an unremarkable collection of 90 degree turns, that is merely part and parcel for a street track if you want to provide a track layout suitable for racing without bulldozing an entire neighbourhood. It is easy to see why the decision was taken to bring the cars past the ancient Qosha gate, but stunning photo opportunities and tourism adverts aside, the section from turns eight to 12 was clearly unsuitable for Grand Prix racing and a potential recipe for disaster had a car crashed or stopped there. Thankfully, that risk was averted.

Once through turn 12, however, and what was until that point a thoroughly mediocre circuit becomes a quite brilliant final section that proved challenging, clearly fun to drive, and probably the best segment of a new circuit since Istanbul Park gave us the fabled turn eight in 2005. It is something that in future years should give us plenty of drama and great battles, and more importantly, is a refreshing change from the plague of identikit venues that have sprung up in increasing numbers in recent years.

The only regret about this section was the needless DRS zone on the pit straight. With the design of the final sector producing arguably the best opportunity to slipstream on the calendar – alongside the run up to Les Combes at Spa – allowing drivers to use an additional overtaking aid here was flawed and made passing into the first corner far too easy.

Not having a second detection point before the second DRS zone down to turn three was also a mistake, as it meant that more often than not, the driver which benefitted from it had already made the pass and was free to open up a gap, preventing anybody from fighting back had they lost out on the pit straight. This is something that urgently needs addressing for next year, with one DRS zone between turns two and three more than adequate for a circuit of this nature.

The race itself may have been underwhelming, but that could be put down to the fact that most of the positions at the front were settled early on rather than the circuit preventing close racing. The drama of Sergio Perez’s last pass on Kimi Raikkonen for third was tempered with the fact that the Finn already had a penalty, while Lewis Hamilton’s engine problem robbed the viewers of a charge through the field.

Anyone doubting the ability of the circuit to produce a thrilling race needs only watch both GP2 races, which threw up a mixture of barnstorming racing and disorganised chaos. In the right circumstances, a Grand Prix on this circuit could be just as exciting, it just lacked a competitive fight between any of the frontrunners.

In terms of where the circuit would rank compared to others, then it would be pushing it somewhat to place Baku alongside the likes of Spa, Suzuka and Silverstone in the pantheon of great venues, but in a sport that this year gives us Sochi, Yas Marina and Shanghai, it is more than worth its place.

Stephen D’Albiac

Why Toyota were the real heroes of Le Mans

Credit: Ker Robertson/Getty Images

Three minutes and 25 seconds.

After almost a day of non-stop racing, that was all that remained of the 84th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans when the leading #5 Toyota of Kazuki Nakajima – which had looked so destined to give the Japanese manufacturer its elusive first win in the famous endurance race – painstakingly ground to a halt on the pit straight of the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Despite the arduous nature of such a challenging race, for a car considered by many as underdogs to be driven so brilliantly for almost 24 hours by Nakajima, Sebastien Buemi and Anthony Davidson, only for a turbo failure to deprive them of the success they so richly deserved while victory was in their grasp was, quite simply, too cruel.

The tweet from the Toyota team in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s race told the story in a single word: “Heartbroken.”

The history books will tell us that the number #2 Porsche of Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb won the race, but the true heroes of the weekend were the trio who were denied what would have been the biggest win of their careers.

Toyota’s challenge for victory was borne from two key factors. Their car’s ability to run stints of 14 laps, compared to the 13 that Porsche could manage, and the consistency of its drivers, who were able to produce lap after lap at the same pace, while their German counterparts set times that while sometimes significantly quicker than their rivals, fluctuated wildly and prevented them making any significant inroads.

From the moment that Buemi passed assumed the lead from the sister #6 Toyota of Mike Conway with around seven hours of the race to go, the battle for victory turned into a two-horse race between the #5 and the #2 that looked like it would be settled in Toyota’s favour only when both had completed their final scheduled stops in the final half an hour.

From then on, the gap looked to have settled at around 30 seconds, and when the #2, at this stage with Jani at the wheel, was forced to pit due to a slow puncture with less than ten minutes remaining, Toyota, so often the bridesmaids with four previous second places in this race, looked to have matched the feats of Mazda in 1991 and become just the second Japanese winner at Le Mans.

If Nakajima, Buemi and Davidson’s defeat was the worst way to lose a motor race, then it could also be deemed the worst way for the #2 team to win it. To win at Le Mans is quite rightly considered the pinnacle of any driver’s career, yet for Jani, Dumas and Lieb, the nature of their success will forever be intangibly linked with the drivers whose hopes were dashed by a turbo failure.

Had Toyota’s heartbreak come with hours, rather than minutes, remaining, a fate suffered by the #1 Porsche of Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley, or the #2 had managed to work its way into the lead through sheer pace, then nobody would have questioned the manner of their victory. While no Le mans victory is undeserved and the winning drivers will doubtless enjoy their success as much as if they had finished ten laps clear, the fact remains that they inherited first place just when they had been well beaten.

Even more galling for Toyota was that once Nakajima had conjured his ailing machine back into life and nursed it around the final lap of the 8.5 mile circuit on hybrid power alone, he returned to the pits to find that the #5 car had been excluded for failing to complete his final tour in the maximum time of six minutes.

Rules may be rules, but given the circumstances, would anyone have begrudged the #5 team second place and a spot on the podium, particularly when third place was subsequently gifted to the #8 Audi that did little to justify its position among the frontrunners throughout the entirety of the race.

For 1,437 minutes, Nakajima, Buemi and Davidson outdrove, outfought and outmanoeuvred their way to the lead of Le Mans. That the TS050 Hybrid that had served them so well for so long could not keep going for just three more minutes makes their story one of the harshest in motorsport history.

Stephen D’Albiac

Q&A: Mark Webber


Credit: Jim Hunter

Last week, I was given an unbelievable opportunity to speak with one of the best known Formula One drivers of the last 15 years.

Mark Webber visited the Cheap Street Church in Sherborne, Dorset, on Wednesday to take part in an event to promote his autobiography Aussie Grit.

As a news reporter at the Western Gazette, which covers Sherborne, one of my editors, knowing my passion for motor racing and who had seen that Mark was to visit the town, urged me to get in touch with the event’s organiser and try to set up an interview.

Surreal as the premise seemed, I made contact and, to my surprise, was told that it would be fine to interview Mark before the event.

As someone whose ultimate dream is to become a motorsport journalist and who counts themselves as a huge Webber fan, the idea of a 1-2-1 chat with him seemed so fanciful that I only allowed myself to believe that it would happen when I ventured into the building and shook his hand.

Below is a transcript of the full, unedited eight minute chat, where we touched upon multiple topics, including Le Mans, the current state of Formula One and his work as a pundit.

Q: Mark, the main reason you are here in Sherborne this evening is to promote your book, so I’ll start with that. How much did you enjoy putting the book together and taking the opportunity to tell your story to the public?

MW: “Well it’s not a five minute job, that’s for sure. A book is a big undertaking and probably when I got into it I thought I’d definitely opened a can of worms trying to get everything right. There’s so many side alleys you can go down in terms of pulling and constructing the whole book together and all the individuals and characters you met along the way, where they all fit in and where you introduce them, but that’s why I had good people help me.

“It’s all my words, trying to put it all out there and what I really went through, so I’m happy it’s been received well because of the fact that I think it’s brought people closer to the sport. It’s given them a nice knowledge of the sport. It is my journey if you like but it’s also a very behind-the-scenes look at the sport itself and Formula One, so that seems to have gone down well.”

Q: It’s now just a couple of weeks until Le Mans. How do you feel your preparations are going and how confident are you that you can go one better than last year?

MW: “We’re as confident as we could be with that race, but there are landmines everywhere and we’re going to try and thread the needle for 24 hours and make sure the car is there at the end and in good health. We’ve got a huge, huge week coming up, or huge two weeks coming up. We’ve got a pre-test coming up at the weekend and then another big week and the build up to the race. All the drivers are in good shape.

“We’re ready to go, we’ve prepped well, we’ve practiced pit stops until we’re blue in the face, we’ve done all the preparation which you have to do because bear in mind when you’re tired that there’s little errors that can creep in at two, three, four in the morning, so it’s a tough race and that’s why we’re really keen to do the business this year.”

Q: We saw all of the major LMP1 runners hit trouble at Spa in the last race. How much will attrition be a factor at Le Mans?

MW: “You’re right, there was a lot of attrition at Spa and that will probably be there at Le Mans, but we’re really hopeful that we won’t be part of that. We want to have a very, very boring race and try to conserve everything very well and have fuel and tyres and driver changes, and keep the car out of the garage and out of the gravel, and they’re the two key things that we’ve got to do.”

Q: As someone who has vast experience of endurance racing and Formula One, what would you say are the key differences between endurance racing and Formula One?

MW: “Obviously endurance racing’s very, very long. You race at night and you have teammates, obviously you’ve got to share the car, so that’s a huge difference straight away. Formula One is, well was, probably a bit more intense in terms of pace and pushing really, really hard for two hours, but now obviously you’ve got to look out for the tyres and nurse the Pirelli situation which obviously is not the most rewarding for the drivers at the moment. The categories have probably converged as close as they’ve ever been for pace so there’s not a huge amount of difference once you get away from the obvious ones like night driving, endurance and sharing the car, it’s pretty similar.”

Q: So with that in mind, is the WEC the best category to replicate the thrill of Formula One for you?

MW: “After F1, it was very important for me to continue for a little bit longer, and this was the best category. When Porsche ring you up, that’s one of the best phone calls any racing driver can get, that they’d love you to drive one of our cars and would you be available? I was like ‘yeah, I will be, let’s have a chat and go from there’. It worked out well timing wise for me off the back of F1 and picking up a sports car career with Porsche was sensational.

I wasn’t leaving without asking for a pic!

Q: What is your take on how the 2016 F1 season has gone so far?

MW: “Well Nico’s off to a phenomenal start. He obviously got maximum points at the start and Lewis hasn’t quite hit his straps yet, but he’s shown the flashes of pace that you’d expect from him. He hasn’t been able to convert some of his poles which is unlike him, but he’s had his fair share of unreliability as well, and Nico’s been extremely reliable, finished all the races except Barcelona and without any hiccups really apart from Monaco. For Lewis, it was a big win in Monaco and got him back up there, and Red Bull are coming back as well now. Ferrari have been the most disappointing team so far, they haven’t really hit their straps at all with Sebastian and Kimi, but I predict they’ll get their season underway in Canada.”

Q: On the subject of Monaco, Daniel Ricciardo’s someone you know well. How well do you expect him to bounce back from what happened to him there, and in Barcelona?

MW: “He’ll bounce back. It’s part of the game unfortunately, and adversity comes with it. You have to take the big right hook on the chin sometimes, which is tough, and he’s had a couple of tricky weekends where he feels that he did everything he could, and that’s why it’s a bitter pill to swallow for a driver when you do everything you can and you don’t get the result that you deserve which can be frustrating, but he’ll bounce back. He’s the form driver of the year in terms of delivering and he can’t do any more than that, so he’ll be back.”

Q: You’ve enjoyed many years in the cockpit in Formula One, but this year you’re looking at things from another angle and working as a pundit for Channel 4. How have you enjoyed that so far?

MW: “Good fun. I’m enjoying it. It’s not stressful at all, racing was stressful and they were long days, and I was being a professional in that space let’s say, but with TV it’s a little bit more dynamic, also live TV is a bit of a buzz obviously because the story’s evolving while we’re there so that’s cool. I don’t class myself as a journalist. I don’t find myself getting in there and digging and getting stories, I’m just talking about what’s happening and being a pundit, I’m in a pretty good position to talk about driver attitudes, driver skills and scenarios that are happening and what the sport throws at the guys, so that’s good to give the fans at home a bit of an insight.”

Q: You mention the lack of stress involved, so in a strange way is it more enjoyable being a pundit and not having to worry about that pressure?

MW: “I enjoy my racing obviously. That was important and I did enjoy that, but I can’t do that forever so what do I do? I like my surfboard, but I can’t do that every day of the week and I can’t make any money on my surfboard either, so I’ve got to do something else, and it’s good. David Coulthard and I get on well, we’re good friends and it’s just a good team, so we can have some fun with it, but there’s also a serious side of the sport that we’ve got to try and relay back to the viewers at home as best we can. We don’t feel we have competition, we’re not arrogant with that as a crew, we just want to keep doing better ourselves and getting the most out of the coverage.”

I have written three articles for the Western Gazette using quotes from my interview with Mark, all of which can be found here.

I would also like to place on record my thanks to Wayne Winstone of Winstone’s Books in Sherborne, who organised last Wednesday’s event and who kindly allowed me to speak with Mark beforehand.

Stephen D’Albiac

F1’s best and worst mid-season replacements

Following the news earlier this week that Daniil Kvyat and Max Verstappen are to swap seats for the Spanish Grand Prix, let’s take a look back at some of Formula One’s best mid-season replacements of the last 25 years, along with some of the worst.

Michael Schumacher (Jordan and Benetton, 1991)

He may be the most successful driver in Formula One history, but back in August 1991, Michael Schumacher was a relative unknown, partway through a World Sportscar Championship campaign as a Mercedes factory driver.

At the same time, Jordan driver Bertrand Gachot was busy securing himself a stretch behind bars by spraying CS gas into the face of a London taxi driver, leaving Eddie Jordan with a vacancy to fill ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix.

Schumacher duly got the call, and despite having never driven F1 machinery in anger, turned up at Spa and qualified a remarkable seventh, nearly a second ahead of teammate Andrea de Cesaris, who had been driving the car all season.

A clutch failure prevented Schumacher from taking the start, but he had caught the eye of Benetton, who promptly signed the future seven-time world champion before the next race at Monza.

There followed an impressive fifth place, ahead of triple world champion teammate Nelson Piquet, before a pair of sixth places in the next two races secured Schumacher a full-time contract with the Enstone team.

The rest, as they say, is history…

Mika Hakkinen (McLaren, 1993)

Having started his Grand Prix career with two strong seasons at Lotus, Mika Hakkinen was supposed to race for McLaren from the start of 1993, but a last-minute decision by Ayrton Senna to race for the Woking squad and the signing of CART racer Michael Andretti left the Finn on the sidelines.

Fortunately for Hakkinen, Andretti never settled in Formula One, and with three races of the season remaining, the American was sent back across the pond to resume his career stateside. His departure gave Hakkinen his chance at the Portuguese Grand Prix, where he stunned the world by outqualifying the legendary Senna.

Hakkinen crashed out of the race the following day, but made amends by securing his maiden podium finish at the next round in Japan. The Finn had more than proved his worth at one of the sport’s most famous names.

He went onto race for McLaren for the next eight seasons, winning two world championships, 20 Grands Prix and securing 26 pole positions, earning his place among the sport’s greats.

Sebastian Vettel (Toro Rosso, 2007)

A highly touted 19-year-old that was running away with the World Series by Renault crown, Sebastian Vettel had already impressed in a one-off cameo appearance for BMW Sauber in 2007, scoring a point for eighth place in Indianapolis in place of the injured Robert Kubica.

A member of the Red Bull Young Driver Programme, a permanent break came before that year’s Hungarian Grand Prix, when Scott Speed was ousted from the Toro Rosso outfit, reportedly after a physical altercation with team boss Franz Tost at the Nurburgring.

Vettel grabbed his opportunity with both hands, and was running in an astounding third place in torrential rain in Fuji when he crashed into Mark Webber behind the safety car, eliminating both. Undeterred by heartbreak in Japan, the youngster bounced back at the next race in China and made amends with a fine drive to fourth place.

A full-time contract for 2008 followed, where an exceptional maiden win at Monza more than justified his promotion to the main Red Bull outfit in 2009. After winning four straight championships between 2010 and 2013, a move to Ferrari followed two years later.

Robert Kubica (BMW Sauber, 2006)

Robert Kubica’s debut at the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix was initially billed as a one-off in place of the injured Jacques Villeneuve, but a strong drive to seventh place – a result that was later taken away from him due to a technical infringement – gave the Pole a seat for the remainder of the season.

A low-key 12th place finish in Turkey came next, before Kubica announced as a star of the future by scoring his maiden podium finish at Monza, in just his third Grand Prix.

No more points were to follow in 2006, but Kubica had done enough to earn a full season with the Hinwil squad the following year, where he would remain until BMW’s withdrawal from F1 in 2009, having won one Grand Prix and grabbed a best championship placing of fourth in 2008.

A move to Renault in 2010 followed, with three podium finishes in an underpowered car promising much for the future, but Kubica’s career was tragically cut short after a severe rally accident shortly before the 2011 season left him with serious injuries.

Mika Salo (BAR and Ferrari, 1999)

Mika Salo had spent the latter part of the 1990s forging a reputation as a solid midfield runner, having enjoyed spells with Lotus, Tyrrell and Arrows. Without a permanent drive for 1999, Salo first found temporary solace at BAR when he replaced the injured Ricardo Zonta for three races. A seventh place finish at Imola proved to be the team’s best result in a wretched debut year.

Salo’s most notable opportunity that year came when he was drafted in to replace Michael Schumacher at Ferrari after the German suffered a broken leg in a crash at the British Grand Prix. Despite having never driven the car, Salo worked himself into the lead of his second race for the Scuderia at Hockenheim, and only missed out on the win when he was forced to concede to Eddie Irvine, who was fighting for the championship.

The rest of Salo’s six-race spell was less fruitful, but the Finn enjoyed a second podium finish when he took third place in front of the tifosi at Monza. Salo’s efforts at Maranello helped to earn him a full-time drive at Sauber in 2000.

And three that didn’t fare so well…

Luca Badoer (Ferrari, 2009)

In his defence, the odds could not have been stacked further against Luca Badoer when he was called upon to replace the injured Felipe Massa at Ferrari in 2009.

Badoer had several seasons of F1 experience with the unfancied Scuderia Italia, Forti and Minardi teams, but his most recent Grand Prix had been in 1999 and the Italian had not raced in any meaningful championship in the intervening ten years. Added to that, the Ferrari tester was tasked with racing a car he had never driven, and which, fitted with the hybrid KERS system, was notoriously difficult to drive.

He was given the drive as a “thank you” for his service to the Scuderia after Massa’s intended replacement Michael Schumacher was declared unfit to race due to a neck injury, but Badoer did little to repay his long-time employers on the track. He qualified last in Valencia – having been fined four times for speeding in the pit lane in practice – and his most notable moment during the race came when he forgot to disengage his pit lane speed limiter after a stop and was overtaken by Romain Grosjean.

Badoer was given a second chance at Spa, but after he again qualified and finished the race last, this time almost a lap behind teammate and race winner Kimi Raikkonen, he was replaced by Giancarlo Fisichella, the man who had taken pole and finished second that day. To put Badoer’s struggles into context, Fisichella also failed to score a point in his five races.

Romain Grosjean (Renault, 2009)

At 23, Romain Grosjean was embroiled in a fight with Nico Hulkenberg and Vitaly Petrov for the GP2 title when he was given his F1 break with Renault in 2009, in place of the sacked Nelson Piquet Jr.

The Frenchman made his debut in Valencia, the same race where Badoer began his temporary spell with Ferrari (above) but in his seven races, he struggled to match teammate Fernando Alonso and ended an unimpressive debut season without a point.

It was during this period that Piquet Jr, incensed by his firing, revealed all about his role in the Crashgate scandal at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix and left the Enstone outfit in tatters.

Renault sold the team at the end of 2009, and Grosjean found himself out of Formula One. Knocked back, he went on to rebuild his career in the junior categories over the next two seasons, culminating in him finally winning the GP2 title in 2011.

He earned a second chance at Enstone – now rebadged at Lotus – in 2012, where after a topsy-turvy campaign that saw a succession of first lap crashes and a one-race suspension, Grosjean is now regarded as one of the sport’s most consistent drivers.

Jacques Villeneuve (Renault, 2004)

Jacques Villeneuve was riding the crest of the wave at the end of 1997, having clinched the world championship with Williams following a now-infamous showdown with Michael Schumacher.

That day at Jerez was as good as it was ever going to get for the French-Canadian, who after a winless 1998 with Williams, moved to the all-new BAR team the following year. Five years, and just two podium finishes later, Villeneuve walked out on the Brackley squad shortly before the end of 2003 and took a sabbatical from Formula One.

Villeneuve was given the chance to drive the last three races of 2004 with Renault after Jarno Trulli was sacked following a fall out with team principal Flavio Briatore, but finished outside the points on each occasion. In comparison, Fernando Alonso scored 14 points in the same car, and Villeneuve’s failure to perform had helped the team lose second place in the constructors’ championship, ironically to BAR.

Villeneuve would join Sauber in 2005 and remained with the team when it was bought out by BMW the following year. He was released partway through the season when Robert Kubica impressed in his absence at Hungary (above), ending his Grand Prix career.

Stephen D’Albiac

Daniil Kvyat an unfortunate victim of ruthless Red Bull regime

Credit: Getty Images

Formula One can be a ruthless world, as Daniil Kvyat found out to his cost earlier this week.

No more than two weeks after a combative display earned him a podium finish in the Chinese Grand Prix, Kvyat finds himself demoted from his seat at Red Bull to Scuderia Toro Rosso, his crash-strewn performance at his home race in Sochi proving his last act at the energy drinks company’s premier outfit.

Kvyat’s unceremonious fall from grace paves the way for 18-year-old Max Verstappen to seize a chance at Red Bull that, while seemingly inevitable for 2017, comes surprisingly soon for anyone on the outside looking in.

Although Red Bull and its driver development programme chief Helmut Marko will say that there is a clear rationale behind making the switch at this stage of the season, one cannot help but think that this is a rash move, and one that is unduly harsh on the Russian.

Taken as a collective, Kvyat’s performances this season have not set the world alight. His podium in China – which nearly saw beat teammate Daniel Ricciardo by less than seven seconds despite the Australian’s puncture early in the race – aside, the 22-year-old has consistently found himself wanting in terms of speed, with early exits from qualifying in Melbourne and Bahrain an early cause for concern.

Following the race in Shanghai, for which his robust, yet fair, first corner move on Sebastian Vettel earned him his place in the headlines, the spotlight fell on the youngster as he prepared to take part in his home race. There unfolded disastrous first lap in which he hit Vettel twice, consequently ruined Ricciardo’s race and earned a stop-go penalty, restricting him to a 15th place finish in front of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

It would be naïve in the extreme to suggest that Kvyat’s performance in Sochi is the reason for his demotion to Toro Rosso. All drivers make mistakes, and even a regime as bloodthirsty in their dealings with young chargers as the Red Bull Young Driver Programme does not simply make changes off the back of one torrid afternoon.

But even a sub-standard start to the season does not justify Red Bull’s decision. With 17 races to go, there was ample time for Kvyat to raise his game and begin to perform to a consistent level. Let us not forget that he actually beat Ricciardo in the drivers’ standings and came out 7-6 ahead when both drivers made it to the chequered flag last season. Ricciardo may have suffered more than his fair share of misfortune in 2015, but Kvyat was, more often than not, there to capitalise when needed and with strong drives in Monaco, Hungary and Mexico, justified the faith Red Bull showed by signing him to replace Vettel.

If the Russian was deemed not good enough for the senior team, then why was the switch not made before the start of the season? Verstappen has begun 2016 strongly, but is yet to reach the astonishing heights of his debut campaign that may well have earned him a promotion in the off-season.

Max Verstappen will make his debut for Red Bull at the Spanish Grand Prix

There is talk that Red Bull has moved quickly to prevent potential suitors in Mercedes and Ferrari from snatching Verstappen’s signature, but was the Dutch prodigy likely to sign elsewhere with the promise of a race seat at the senior team in 2017? It would seem far-fetched, given the regulation changes that are set to come into play, giving Red Bull the chance to close the gap to the front of the field.

As things stand, the chances of Mercedes replacing Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg are extremely slim, while even if Kimi Raikkonen were to leave Ferrari at the end of the season, it would have been an extraordinarily adventurous move for a team which has been extremely cautious when it comes to signing inexperienced drivers to bolster their title assault with a teenager.

While that would not have staved off the risk of Verstappen signing a pre-agreement with another team for 2018, it is difficult to imagine that his signing of a new deal at Red Bull until 2019 to coincide with his promotion hinged solely on him leaving Toro Rosso with immediate effect.

Other reasons given for the switch include the opportunity to better evaluate all four drivers within the Red Bull stable, and the increasing friction between Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr at Toro Rosso. Both seem plausible, but with the vast reserves of data available to all teams nowadays, does a worthwhile comparison between drivers really depend on them driving the same car?

Verstappen and Sainz Jr may be at loggerheads, but is a team marshalled by such experience in the form of Franz Tost and the recently arrived John Booth really unable to control the situation?

The fundamental reasons for the move are simple. Red Bull clearly see Verstappen as the future. That is why they went to such lengths to prevent him signing for Mercedes in 2014, by offering him a drive at Toro Rosso aged just 17. Kvyat, on the other hand, is clearly not seen as someone with world championship-winning potential.

Red Bull operates like a business. As Christian Horner stated in an interview at the Chinese Grand Prix: “We have a stable of four drivers and two are on loan at Toro Rosso. All the drivers are essentially on the same contract and we have the ability at any point in time to move things round should we so wish.”

They will argue that if Verstappen jumps into the senior team and is closer to the pace, or even at the same level as Kvyat to begin with, their decision will be the right one. But that does not make the timing, or manner of this switch seem fair.

Kvyat now has the opportunity to regroup and try to rebuild his Formula One career. The chance that he will race again for Red Bull is extremely limited, and with this now being his third season, it is difficult to imagine him remaining at Toro Rosso beyond the end of 2016, especially if Pierre Gasly performs well in GP2 and shows that he is good enough to drive in F1.

Good results over the rest of the year may put him in the frame for a Renault drive, albeit with competition from Esteban Ocon and Sergey Sirotkin, while Haas could be seen as another possibility, with Romain Grosjean possibly on the shopping lists of the big teams and Esteban Gutierrez having failed to live up to expectations so far this season. Otherwise, Kvyat’s place on the grid in 2017 may well come down to whether he can muster enough sponsorship to bag a drive with one of the other, and less well off, midfield runners.

It would be a huge shame if Kvyat were to find himself without a drive next year. He may not be on the level of the very best in the sport, but at just 22 he has time on his side and has the potential to at least be a very capable asset for one of the midfield teams for many years to come.

Red Bull’s sink-or-swim strategy has cost several drivers their Grand Prix careers in the past. Just ask Sebastien Buemi, Jaime Alguersuari and Jean-Eric Vergne to name but three. Let us hope that the name of Daniil Kvyat will not soon be added to that list.

Stephen D’Albiac

Driver Ratings: Russian Grand Prix!/image/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_630/image.jpg

Credit: Mercedes-Benz

Nico Rosberg extended his lead at the top of the drivers’ standings to 43 points after a seventh straight win at Russia, but whose driving most stood out in Sochi?

44) Lewis Hamilton (8/10)*** – Relegated to tenth after power unit gremlins in qualifying, Hamilton took advantage of the first lap chaos to climb to fifth before passing Massa, Raikkonen and Bottas on track. Water pressure problems denied him a shot at the win.

6) Nico Rosberg (8/10) – Yet again left with all of the cards in his favour as his rivals fell by the wayside, Rosberg took full advantage to record a fully deserved seventh win of the season and further extend his lead at the top of the standings.

5) Sebastian Vettel (N/A) – He may have been criticised for lampooning Daniil Kvyat following the Chinese Grand Prix, but Vettel would have had every right for deploying a similar tactic against the Red Bull driver in Sochi after the Ferrari was an innocent victim of the Russian’s first lap shenanigans.

7) Kimi Raikkonen (7/10) – Raikkonen is looking like a much improved driver compared to the last two years and the Finn delivered another impressive drive in Russia to comfortably beat countryman Bottas into the final podium place.

77) Valtteri Bottas (7/10) – After three ordinary races, Bottas finally showed what he was capable of in Sochi. Drove well to keep Hamilton at bay throughout the opening stint but ultimately his Williams just lacked the speed to clinch a podium spot.

19) Felipe Massa (6/10) – A solid if unspectacular drive from the Brazilian, who lacked a couple of tenths compared to his teammate throughout the weekend en route to fifth place.

3) Daniel Ricciardo (7/10) – Innocently knocked out of contention on lap one following his teammate’s collision with Vettel, Ricciardo fought back well with a damaged car and only missed out on a point as a result of a poor call by Red Bull to fit his car with medium tyres.

26) Daniil Kvyat (3/10) – A home Grand Prix to forget for Kvyat, who clumsily hit Vettel not once, but twice, in a dreadful first lap showing. The Russian limped home in a sorry 15th place after a day that will do little to convince Red Bull bosses that he is worth keeping ahead of Max Verstappen in 2017.

11) Sergio Perez (8/10) – After suffering a first lap puncture, Perez drove two extremely strong stints on soft tyres to claw his way back into contention and take his first points of the season. Only an equally impressive drive from Grosjean in the Haas stopped him finishing higher up.

27) Nico Hulkenberg (N/A) – Hulkenberg is yet to fully get going this season, a pattern that continued after he was an innocent victim of the first lap crash caused by Gutierrez.

20) Kevin Magnussen (9/10)* – An assured and consistent drive by Magnussen to take seventh place in a Renault lacking the grip or horsepower of many of this rivals. Undoubtedly the Dane’s best performance since his debut podium in Australia in 2014. Driver of the Day.

30) Jolyon Palmer (6/10) – After running in the points early on, Palmer slipped back as he struggled to match the speed of his rivals in superior machinery. A solid enough drive, but will have to up his game if he is to remain in Renault’s thinking beyond 2016.

33) Max Verstappen (8/10) – A strong start catapulted the Toro Rosso into a sixth place position that he would undoubtedly have held had his car not given up the ghost. A mature display that will only strengthen his case to be promoted to the Red Bull team next year.

55) Carlos Sainz Jr (5/10) – A disappointing drive for the Spaniard as he struggled to match Verstappen’s speed throughout. Lost any chance of a points finish when he earned a time penalty for a clumsy chop on Palmer.

12) Felipe Nasr (5/10) – Nasr looks a shadow of the driver that impressed in his rookie season, and after finally getting the upper hand on Ericsson in qualifying after reporting feeling happier with a new chassis, he flattered to deceive once more on Sunday.

9) Marcus Ericsson (6/10) – Sauber has been reduced to fighting with the Manors as a result of the team’s struggles so far this season, but Ericsson is doing all he can on the track, and once again beat Nasr in Russia despite having to make a first lap pit stop.

14) Fernando Alonso (9/10)** – Alonso showed that he is still up there with the very best after a storming drive to sixth place. Never looked like being threatened after he benefitted from the first lap chaos and set the fifth fastest lap after deciding to “have some fun” late on. McLaren’s best race since its reunion with Honda.

22) Jenson Button (6/10) – Sochi will be a case of what might have been for Button, who could finish no higher than tenth after spending much of the race stuck behind Sainz’s Toro Rosso.

94) Pascal Wehrlein (6/10) – Wehrlein enjoyed an eventful first half of the race as he was left slugging it out with the Saubers, before a problem in the pits that left him stationary for nearly half a minute consigned him to last place.

88) Rio Haryanto (N/A) – Blameless in the first lap collision that also ended Hulkenberg’s race, an early retirement meant we will never know whether the Indonesian could have joined teammate Wehrlein in taking the race to the Sauber drivers.

8) Romain Grosjean (8/10) – After a low key race in China, Grosjean was back on form in Sochi to climb into the points as a result of the opening lap melee and calmly held off Sergio Perez on much fresher tyres in the closing stages of the race to take a deserved eighth place.

21) Esteban Gutierrez (4/10) – The sister Haas endured a wretched afternoon as he caused the collision that ended the races of Hulkenberg and Haryanto, earning him a drive-through penalty that left him unable to recover to higher than 17th place.

These scores will be added up throughout the season and will be used to calculate both mid-season and end of season driver rankings. To take into account individual performances, the driver of the day will receive an additional three points, the second best driver two points and the third best driver one bonus point. These are signifed by the number of asterisks next to their names.

After the Russian Grand Prix, my top five drivers of the season so far are as follows:
=1) Romain Grosjean (Haas-Ferrari) – 36 points
=1) Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) – 36 points
3) Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull-Tag Heuer) – 32 points
4) Kevin Magnussen (Renault) – 30 points
=5) Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) – 22 points
=5) Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 22 points
=5) Pascal Wehrlein (Manor-Mercedes) – 22 points

Rosberg more than prepared for the title battle


Nico Rosberg could not have made a better start in his quest to emulate his father Keke and win the Formula One world championship.

So often in the shadow of Lewis Hamilton over the last couple of years, Rosberg is in the form of his life. Having won the final three races of last season, he has stormed clear of the opposition to take the first three chequered flags of this to give himself a commanding lead at the head of the championship.

Some question marks remain over whether Rosberg can last the distance in a 21-race title battle. His run of wins at the end of 2015 came in the aftermath of Hamilton’s third world championship, while the Englishman has yet to enjoy a clean race weekend so far this season as he has seen his teammate surge into the distance.

But to use Hamilton’s misfortune as a tool to explain Rosberg’s current form would be doing a great disservice to the German, whose accomplished performances in 2016 have been such that it would have been easy to see him achieve his 100 per cent start even had the other Mercedes not hit trouble.

It also goes without saying that Hamilton’s woes this season have, in part, been avoidable. First lap calamities in Australia and Bahrain were brought about by poor starts, while a decision to start from the pit lane in China instead of from the grid would have kept him safe from collision in the first corner, sparing the damage that surely prevented him from finishing higher than seventh.

A fightback from Hamilton as we head into the European season has to be seen as a given, but Rosberg has all of the cards in his favour as he seeks that elusive first crown.

He arrives in Sochi next week looking for a seventh straight win, a position only three others have found themselves in before, on top of his game, and driving a Mercedes that remains the car to beat this year, even if Ferrari and Red Bull have closed up somewhat.

Rosberg has been in a similar position before. In 2014, he led Hamilton for much of the campaign as the Englishman was hamstrung by unreliability, and by as much as 29 points following their now infamous collision at Spa. But back then, there was always the sense that Hamilton would reel him in.

Rosberg is a more mature figure than two years ago. The moment where he hurled his cap towards Hamilton in the podium room in Austin last October was mocked by some, brushed off as sour grapes by others, but appears to have been a turning point in the monentum between the Mercedes teammates. Since then, he has not been beaten to the line.

Before Rosberg and Hamilton were paired at the Silver Arrows in 2013, the only time the German had been beaten by a teammate over the course of a season was by Mark Webber in his rookie year of 2006, during which the then 20-year-old Williams driver had shown glimpses of his potential by setting fastest lap on his debut in Bahrain and then qualifying an astounding third in Malaysia in his second race.

He then brushed aside the experienced Alex Wurz in 2007 and then crushed Kazuki Nakajima in the following two seasons. It was during this time that Rosberg repeatedly took a Williams car that should have been mired in the midfield and mixed it with the frontrunners.

That his move to Mercedes in 2010 saw him beat Michael Schumacher – no mean feat, even if the legendary seven-time champion was past his prime – three times cemented his status as one of the sport’s top drivers, and one that, at some point during his career, deserved a tilt at the title.

He may not be able to match Hamilton at his peak, but he has proved that it only takes a slight blip in form or fortune from his adversary for him to emerge on top.

If, come the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi, Rosberg is crowned Formula One’s 33rd world champion, he will be more than worthy of the accolade.

Stephen D’Albiac