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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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

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New generation of F1 power units really coming of age

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It would have been scarcely when several damaged Formula One cars exited the first corner of the Chinese Grand Prix earlier this morning, but Sunday’s race marked just the third time this century that a whole field of cars made it to the chequered flag.

Barring the infamous Indianapolis 2005 debacle, the only two other occasions on which this has happened since 1961 was at Monza in 2005 and Valencia in 2011, and both prior examples of bulletproof reliability came under regulations that had been in force for many years.

That, just over two years into the current hybrid era, we have seen a race in which all 22 cars that started a Grand Prix finished it, is a glowing testament to the work done by all of the teams to improve the reliability of this generation of power units.

Considering that just two years ago, there were serious concerns raised over whether anyone would finish the Australian Grand Prix after numerous teams reported difficulties completing more than a few laps with what was then completely new technology.

While those fears were quickly laid to rest as 14 cars made it to the finish that day in Melbourne – with just four retirements from power unit-related trouble – the engine manufacturers quickly set about making the powerplants more reliable. They were successful, to the extent that by the end of 2014, it was becoming increasingly common to see just one or two mechanical retirements per race.

All of this had been achieved with a reduction in the number of power units that each driver could use throughout the season from eight to five – somewhat counter-intuitive given the scale of the changes that had occurred – and in the midst of a new era of efficiency that saw drivers making to the end of Grands Prix on just 100kg of fuel.

In total, the unit of power unit-related retirements from races in 2014 was 29, but in 2015, this dropped to just 19, of which seven affected newcomers Honda.

The golden figure of 100 per cent reliability was nearly reached on two occasions last season, with only Felipe Nasr’s late retirement in Japan and Pastor Maldonado’s early exit from the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix following a collision with Fernando Alonso preventing everyone from making it to the end.

It would only be a few more months before we saw a race in which everybody saw the chequered flag.

This increase in reliability comes amidst a huge increase in horsepower from the V8 era that now sees engines capable of producing more than 900bhp in qualifying trim, while Mercedes have reportedly achieved more than 50 per cent thermal efficiency in their 2016 power unit. To compare, the 2013 normally aspirated eight cylinder engines were said to achieve 29 per cent.

The cars remain some way off the lap times achieved by the gold standard of 2004 in race trim, but in the right conditions they are now breaking lap records in qualifying, with Lewis Hamilton’s pole lap in Bahrain the fastest ever seen at the Sakhir circuit.

As time goes on, these speeds will only climb further still, calling into question why there is a need for the mooted plans to make cars several seconds quicker in 2017 through increasing the amount of aerodynamic and mechanical grip.

All the time, the gap between the power units is closing. Ferrari has made clear steps towards the all-conquering Mercedes, while Renault has promised significant performance gains later in the season and Honda now has a power unit that, while not yet in the same league as the others, at least looks like it belongs on the Formula One grid.

This has resulted in close racing throughout the field and this year has mixed up the pecking order to contribute to a trio of fine races.

These power units have been unfairly derided since they were introduced in 2014. Now, with ever growing speed and reliability, they appear to be really coming of age.

Stephen D’Albiac

Solving Formula One’s prize money problem

 

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Credit: Bleacher Report

Last week, Autosport revealed that Formula One teams had been awarded a prize pot of some $965m for their performances last season.

The money was given by Formula One Management (FOM) to the ten teams that competed in the 2015 world championship, with newcomers Haas not yet eligible for a share of the pot.

While the teams were all awarded some part of the cash for participating in the series, as well as for performance, a staggering $295m of prize money was awarded not on merit, but to a select few teams as a result of pre-signed agreements with Bernie Ecclestone.

It means that Ferrari – which benefits from a $35m constructors’ championship bonus as well as a controversial $70m payday for its status as Formula One’s most historic team – took home $192m for its 2015 efforts, while runaway champions Mercedes – which enjoys $74m in bonus payments – earned just $171m.

A further $74m in bonuses for Red Bull meant that the Austrian concern was given $144m, while Williams – which is entitled to just $10m in added payments and beat them to third place in the constructors’ standings – earned just $87m.

McLaren – which endured a wretched 2015 and placed a disastrous ninth – were the fifth most successful team in the earning stakes, with a generous $32m bonus handout netting the Woking outfit $82m.

Beneath McLaren are the teams not deemed eligible for these funds in the eyes of the sport’s elite. Force India earned $67m, while Lotus (now Renault) took home $64m. Toro Rosso was rewarded with a $57m piece of the pie, while Sauber benefitted to the tune of $57m. Manor, the only team not to score a point in 2015, earned $47m.

A full breakdown of the prize fund for 2015 can be seen here:

Pot 1 ($335m) Pot 2 ($335m) Pot 3 ($295m) Total Prize Money ($965m)
Ferrari $33.5m $53.5m $105m $192m
Mercedes $33.5m $63.5m $74m $171m
Red Bull $33.5m $36.5m $74m $144m
Williams $33.5m $43.5m $10m $87m
McLaren $33.5m $16.5m $32m $82m
Force India $33.5m $33.5m N/A $67m
Lotus $33.5m $30.5m N/A $64m
Toro Rosso $33.5m $23.5m N/A $57m
Sauber $33.5m $20.5m N/A $54m
Manor $33.5m $13.5m N/A $47m

Thanks to gift-wrapped bonus payments, what these figures create is a huge disparity between the teams fortunate enough to have been around long enough or been successful enough in the past, and those whose efforts have not been rewarded on the track.

That Formula One currently finds itself in a situation where teams at the back of the grid are struggling to make ends meet while the sport’s coffers are being divided in such an unfair manner is a damning indictment of those at the top.

Ferrari may be the longest serving and most successful team in Formula One history, but what gives a team that has won nothing in the way of championships since 2008 the right to a healthy bonus of more than $100m, while teams like Sauber and Manor earn nothing as they face a desperate struggle for survival?

Mercedes may be the team of the moment, and Red Bull, McLaren and Williams have certainly enjoyed many a day in the now firmly set suns of yesteryear, but in the here and now, prize money should be what it says on the tin. It needs to be distributed in a fair way, based on performance, and not as a note of thanks for their contributions to the sport.

That a team like Force India has produced such fine cars in the face of such a raw deal from the sport’s kingmakers is a glowing testament to the talents of their workforce back at Silverstone. With a fairer share of the prize pot, their potential to achieve would only be greater still.

A redistribution of funds

F1 Grand Prix of Italy

Credit: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Now, armed with a calculator and with my Bernie Ecclestone-styled wig firmly donned, I have devised an alternative prize pot with the aim of rewarding teams on performance rather than prestige.

To make this a fair experiment, I will be playing with the $965m that the teams were given in the real world, but I have changed the way in which it is handed out.

I have split the total prize fund into three distinct pots, the first two worth $432.5m apiece, with the third pot containing $100m.

Pot one will be given to teams for their participation in the sport, ensuring that, straight out of the box, everyone earns a nice starter of $43.25m.

Pot two is a tiered performance bonus, with Mercedes, as champions, earning 14.5 per cent, with Ferrari netting 13.5 per cent for coming second and so on until you get to Manor, which gets 5.5 per cent of the pot. This ensures that each team earns a minimum of $67.05m, more than Force India got in real life for finishing fifth.

This brings us to pot three, which is a pure $100m performance bonus, and is shared between teams based simply on how many points they scored in the previous season.

Mercedes finished with 703 points in 2015 – 36.6 per cent of those available, and therefore, they take away $36.6m, with Ferrari – who amassed 22.3 per cent of the possible points on offer – bagging $22.3m. This filters down to McLaren, which earned just 1.4 per cent of the points last season. Manor, which failed to score in 2015, gets nothing from this pot.

This leaves us with the following breakdown:

Pot 1 ($432.5m) Pot 2 ($432.5m) Pot 3 ($100m) Total Prize Money ($965m)
Mercedes $43.25m $62.7m $36.6m $142.55m
Ferrari $43.25m $58.4m $22.3m $123.95m
Williams $43.25m $54.1m $13.4m $110.75m
Red Bull $43.25m $49.7m $9.7m $102.65m
Force India $43.25m $45.4m $7.1m $95.75m
Lotus $43.25m $41.1m $4.1m $88.45m
Toro Rosso $43.25m $36.8m $3.5m $83.55m
Sauber $43.25m $32.4m $1.9m $77.55m
McLaren $43.25m $28.1m $1.4m $72.75m
Manor $43.25m $23.8m $0 $67.05m

As a result, the amount of prize money that each team earns reflects fairly their on-track performance during the 2015 season.

While in real life, the difference between the amount of money awarded to the highest-earning team and the lowest was $145m. Under my system, this disparity falls to $75.5m. Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren all find themselves worse off, but the four richest teams in the sport aside, every other constructor benefits to the tune of at least $20m.

This boost in revenue would give the midfield teams more funds, which could be used to invest in better personnel and facilities, increasing the chances of added competition on the grid. Teams would be less likely to need to procure the services of pay drivers, opening up more room for the most talented youngsters to progress to Formula One.

At present, teams only begin to earn prize money at the end of their second season, and only the top ten in the championship benefit from the system. I would change both of these factors, which would allow the Haas team to immediately reap the fruits of their vast investment into the sport and prevent the risk of any one team being cut adrift as a result of a lack of money.

With a formula in place that rewards teams on current endeavours rather than past glories, the message would be simple: if you want more money, do your talking on the track.

Stephen D’Albiac

Can Ferrari challenge Mercedes for the title this season?

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Credit: Mercedes-Benz

Hopes that Ferrari could take the fight to Mercedes in 2016 were raised from the moment the lights went out at Albert Park, even if the race ended with the familiarly predictable sight of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton atop the first two steps of the podium.

Most of the proceedings in Melbourne were led by Sebastian Vettel, whose barnstorming start sprung him to from third on the grid to the lead by the first corner, and with Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen – who was to retire from third place with engine failure – acting as his rear gunner in the first stint, the German found himself on course for victory in the opening Grand Prix of the year.

That Vettel did not emerge victorious at Albert Park was down more to the ultimately wrong decision by Ferrari not to fit his car with the same medium tyres as the Mercedes during the red flag – brought out by the terrifying crash of Fernando Alonso and Esteban Gutierrez on lap 19 – than any wrongdoing on his part.

The super-soft tyres that had served Vettel so well in the opening stages never looked likely to build him enough of a gap to come out ahead of Rosberg or the recovering Hamilton, meaning that the third place that he has become so accustomed to in this era of Mercedes domination was his once again.

What Australia did not tell us, though, is the true speed of the Ferrari in race trim compared to the Mercedes. The only period of the race where both teams were on the same tyre was following the start, when Rosberg and Hamilton were bottled up behind Raikkonen and the Toro Rosso of Max Verstappen respectively, there unable to properly show their hand.

The straightforward manner with which Rosberg held onto the lead once Vettel stopped, and the way that Hamilton began lapping more than a second faster than the Ferrari once he had rid himself of the Toro Rossos, was a fairly conclusive indication that Mercedes still holds the upper hand, if not to the same extent as 2015.

Ultimately, there are two ways of looking at this.

Last year, Australia was one of Mercedes’ most dominant performances of the season. Hamilton and Rosberg were streets ahead of the rest and crossed the line together without breaking sweat, more than half a minute clear of Vettel, leading to fears that Mercedes would once again be as untouchable as they had been in 2014.

However, it was at the very next race in Malaysia that Vettel took full advantage of a strategy error by Mercedes following a safety car period to jump into the lead and take an astounding victory.

Given how hard Mercedes were made to work for victory at one of their strongest tracks from last year, once we hit the more conventional circuits of Bahrain and China, few people will discount the possibility Ferrari may just be able to take the fight to them, particularly in race conditions.

On the other hand, Ferrari were handed an open goal by the poor starts of Rosberg and Hamilton, and yet Vettel was still unable to translate that into victory.

Had the Mercedes drivers got off the line as well as their Italian counterparts, would they have been left scrambling to fend off Vettel, or would they instead have calmly built a gap over the rest of the field and taken a comfortable 1-2 finish? Nobody knows the answer, but Ferrari are unlikely to be handed an opportunity so golden next time out.

The Australian Grand Prix was a tale of missed opportunity for Ferrari, but only time will tell whether they truly have the speed to make this a real battle for the title, or if circumstance came together on Sunday to create a false dawn.

Stephen D’Albiac

Six reasons to look forward to F1 2015

With the start of the 2015 Formula One season just ten weeks away, here are just six of the many reasons to get excited ahead of the new campaign.

The revival of the McLaren-Honda partnership

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Undoubtedly the most talked about change for 2015 is the return of the legendary McLaren-Honda partnership that was made so famous in the days of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.

An iconic partnership that stirs memories and emotions among motorsport fans across the world, McLaren has returned to the engine supplier that served it so well between 1988 and 1992 as it looks to make its way back to the very pinnacle of the sport after two disappointing and winless years.

While the relationship with Mercedes that spanned two decades brought much success to Woking, the marriage between the two had fizzled out over recent years following the Silver Arrows’ decision to take over its own team, making a change of scenery a wise move for all concerned.

Much has changed since the partnership’s previous incarnation, but with the return of Fernando Alonso from Ferrari to join the vastly experienced Jenson Button, allied with the increased contribution of Peter Prodromou – the aerodynamicist that was so influential in Red Bull’s success – and the marked signs of improvement towards the end of last season, if Honda can produce a turbo unit worthy of its legendary efforts of the past, few would bet against the team challenging at the sharp end.

Hamilton v Rosberg: Part II

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Despite Mercedes’ systematic obliteration of the field throughout 2014, sweeping all before them on their way to a record 16 wins, the title race reached a thrilling climax in Abu Dhabi thanks to the titanic duel between eventual champion Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

With a refreshing policy from the pit wall allowing the two to fight it out on track, there was precious little between the pair on race days, leading to thrilling scraps for victory on several occasions, most notably when Hamilton just edged out Rosberg following a mammoth race-long tussle in Bahrain.

While Hamilton emerged ahead more often than not on race day, Rosberg’s superior qualifying pace and consistency ensured he was always a threat to his teammate, and with the experience of having fought for a championship now firmly under his belt, the scene is set for the pair to resume her personal scrap in the new season.

Williams’ renaissance

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Without question the feel-good story of 2014, the return to form of the Williams team after several years in the doldrums was much welcomed by all.

Through a combination of a strong driver pairing in Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa, the pure grunt of Mercedes horsepower behind them and a substantial boost in prize money owing to their third place finish in the championship, Williams now has a perfect platform on which to build an even better challenger in 2015, and if the team can continue its steady rise back to the front, they look well placed for a return to the top step of the podium in the near future.

Mexico’s return

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One of the highlights of the 2015 calendar is the return of the Mexican Grand Prix at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez after a 23-year absence.

With the success of Sergio Perez having reignited interest in the sport in the country – borne out by the hordes of Mexican fans who make the trip to Austin each year – the race looks set to be a welcome return to a classic venue that looks set to pose a significant challenge to the drivers.

Although the circuit will have undergone a facelift to bring it up to the standards of modern F1 by the time the Grand Prix circus arrives in town – including the unfortunate loss of the legendary Peraltada corner – as the successful return of Austria last year shows, when you take the sport back to areas with vast history and strong support, the rewards are plentiful.

Fresh blood at Ferrari

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Embarrassing isn’t a strong enough word to describe Ferrari’s 2014 campaign.

Whichever way you analyse the Prancing Horse’s fortunes of last year, failure lurks around every corner, be it the inability to provide a star-studded line-up of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen with a car worthy of their talents, its pitiful attempt at building a power unit even vaguely competitive in comparison with Mercedes or the constant hiring and firing behind the scenes, it was the Scuderia’s first winless season since 1993 and a blot in the vast history books of the team from Maranello.

Now, with Alonso leaving to be replaced by Sebastian Vettel, the first car overseen by James Allison, who brings with him a great pedigree from his Lotus days and a whole raft of new team personnel, 2015 heralds a new era for Ferrari, and whether a clean slate can spark the return of the sport’s most famous team to the sharp end or see fortunes continue to decline will be one of the big talking points as the year progresses.

And…more great racing

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Despite the deafening criticism of the new power units that overshadowed the start of last season, once the initial cries of discontent had settled down, F1 showed that it had lost none of its ability to throw up a feast of on-track action, with Bahrain, Canada and Hungary in particular producing three of the most memorable races of recent times.

With the turbo era now entering its second year, there seems no reason to believe that the on-track product won’t continue to go from strength to strength, and if any of the frontrunners is able to pose a credible threat to the dominance of Mercedes, the wheel-to-wheel action should be as good as ever.

Why the title race is far from over

Sebastian Vettel leads the world championship, but Fernando Alonso is lurking behind him

Sebastian Vettel’s dominant drive to victory in Canada last weekend has prompted many to conclude that the title race is already as good as over.

The world champion’s seemingly effortless charge to the chequered flag in Montreal was the most convincing win of the year so far, and helped the Red Bull driver increase his lead over Fernando Alonso in the drivers’ standings to a comfortable 36 points with just seven races gone.

The nature of the win means that Vettel is now odds-on favourite to claim a fourth successive title, with the 25-year-old’s price amongst the bookies being slashed as low as 2/5, indicating a fairly sizeable amount of confidence as to the final destination of the 2013 world championship.

But is the title race really over at this still early stage of the season?

There can be no disputing that Vettel is the clear favourite to make it title number four at this stage. He has a lead larger than at any point since his stroll to the championship in 2011, and his Red Bull is looking stronger than it has at any point over the season. If your life depended on choosing a champion this year, you would plump for the German.

But take a closer look at the race in Canada and the season as a whole, and things don’t look quite as clear-cut.

Focusing solely on the last race for the moment, and the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve looks custom made for the RB9. With no high-speed corners to speak of, the track is far easier on its tyres than the likes of Barcelona and Sepang, meaning that everyone, even the notorious, rubber-wrecking Mercedes, had a relatively easy time of things during the race. This was borne out by the fact that the Force India of Paul di Resta was able to complete a marathon 57-lap stint on a set of mediums without any significant drop-off in performance.

Therefore Vettel’s Red Bull, one of several cars to suffer with high wear on the 2013-spec Pirellis, was rid of its main Achilles heel, and the tyre advantage of its rivals, particularly Ferrari and Lotus, was effectively gone before lights out, meaning he was able to push his car to the limit without any fear of having to conserve his rubber.

Not only that, but the RB9 is a clear step ahead of its rivals when it comes to generating traction, a characteristic that Montreal tests like perhaps no other venue on the calendar. The traction of the Red Bull is such that it makes the car capable of gaining at least a tenth through each acceleration zone, giving it a huge advantage throughout the lap and more than making up for what it loses through its relative lack of straight line speed. It’s also no coincidence that Vettel’s other convincing win this season came in Bahrain, another circuit which is heavily reliant on traction.

It so happens that traction is a weakness of the Red Bull’s closest challenger, the Ferrari. There is no doubt that the Scuderia have a cracking car on their hands this year, but its pace on circuits where good acceleration is a must has been noticeably lacking. Alonso was losing time to not only the Red Bulls through the traction zones, but the Mercedes as well, which delayed his charge through to second to the closing stages, and meant that even if he’d had a clear run at Vettel throughout the race, it’s unlikely he’d have ruffled many feathers upfront.

These factors created the perfect recipe for Vettel, and he took full advantage of it to produce the perfect dish for his team.

So what can we expect going into the next few races?

Focusing on the four tracks coming up, we have Silverstone, the Nurburgring, the Hungaroring and Spa.

They all have their unique challenges, but the quartet that makes up the next chapter of this season share some fundamental elements. All four have significant sections of long corners, plenty of which are medium to high-speed bends, all four should provide a bigger test of the Pirelli tyres than Canada, and traction is much less of an issue at each of these venues compared to Montreal.

This spells good news for Ferrari. Its car thrives on circuits with long, sweeping bends and its abundance of front-end grip means it can carry more speed through these corners than the Red Bull, and do it whilst being kinder on the tyres. Of the three tracks raced on this year that fit this profile, Alonso has won comfortably at two of them (China and Barcelona), and his spectacular front wing failure and premature exit from the Malaysian Grand Prix left an open goal for Messrs Vettel and Webber to squabble it out for the win, with explosive results.

If they get it right on the pit wall side of things, and luck goes their way with the weather, they have a very realistic chance of winning all four of those races.

And with the benefit of a driver with the relentless consistency and determination of Alonso to unleash on the field, if he gets a sniff of victory, he will be there every time to tough it out for the win.

Kimi Raikkonen is a potential third title contender, but his Lotus team appears to have taken a step backwards in recent races, and with the Enstone team overly reliant on tyre wear and hot weather – something far from guaranteed in the paradise of uncertainty that is the European summer – it looks as if his hopes may be starting to fade.

This leaves us with a probable repeat of the 2012 title battle; Vettel v Alonso.

Alonso trails Vettel by 36 points, but a win at Silverstone, coupled with a retirement for his rival, would cut the deficit to just 11, and with three tracks that should theoretically suit the Ferrari over the Red Bull to follow next, the title race would be well and truly back on again.

That’s not to say that Vettel doesn’t have a chance over the summer months. The Red Bull will undoubtedly still be right up at the sharp end challenging for podiums at the very least, and with the brain of Adrian Newey at its disposal, the team is only ever one upgrade away from taking a giant leap forward.

But if Ferrari does take the upper hand over the next few races, consistency will be key for Vettel. Even with a 36-point lead in his pocket, if Alonso can string a sequence of wins together, a sizeable advantage can evaporate fast for the championship leader if he’s not there picking up the points. It’s something these two men will know only too well after last year, when a run of four straight wins at the back end of the season helped Vettel overhaul a 39-point deficit to the Ferrari driver and take a lead he was never to lose in the title battle.

Things change so quickly in Formula One that it would be unwise to jump to any conclusions at this stage. What may look comfortable one day suddenly looks decidedly uncomfortable the next, and it is far too early to proclaim that there is only one outcome in this year’s title battle. The next four races will tell us much more, and only then will a clearer picture begin to emerge as to who will be crowned world champion in Brazil at the end of November.

For, to borrow a phrase from the legendary Murray Walker: “Anything can happen in Formula One and it usually does.”

And as the opening salvo of the 2013 season begins to take its final bow, a new chapter of uncertainty may be just around the corner.

Stephen D’Albiac

Performance Podium: Bahrain

The Bahrain Grand Prix turned out to be a race in which some rather unexpected names stood out, making this the Performance Podium of the ‘unusual suspects’.

But in which order did the stars of Sakhir end up in performance terms? Keep reading, and you’ll find the answer.

1) Sergio Perez

Sergio Perez answered his critics in fine fashion in Bahrain with a highly impressive drive to sixth place.

The McLaren driver had been criticised for not defending hard enough when battling with other cars in China, but Perez came back brilliantly in Bahrain, getting stuck into fights with other drivers throughout the race, most notably with teammate Jenson Button, with whom the Mexican tussled in a thrilling duel that lasted many laps.

Perez got the better of his McLaren sparring partner late on in the race, before passing Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber in the closing laps and also demonstrating his renowned tyre management by getting to the end on three stops, in a race where Button was forced to make four visits to the pit lane.

The challenge now is for Perez to continue to produce drives of this nature, and if he manages to do so, he will more than begin to repay the faith McLaren showed in signing him to replace Lewis Hamilton.

2) Romain Grosjean

Romain Grosjean was another man slightly under the cosh before this weekend. The Frenchman hadn’t driven particularly badly, but had failed to show the speed he had often demonstrated in 2012.

It was perhaps apt, then, that Grosjean produced by far his best performance of the season so far in Bahrain, the scene of his maiden Formula One podium last year, making best use of a three-stop strategy to take third place.

Having spent the first part of the race mired in a battle with the McLarens, Grosjean came alive in the second half, using his fresher medium tyres at the end to pass Paul di Resta in the closing stages and claim his first podium finish since Hungary last year.

Grosjean has managed to keep his nose clean so far this season, and if he can build on the speed he found this weekend, then the Frenchman could well become a regular podium challenger throughout the year.

3) Paul di Resta

Paul di Resta made best use of an extremely quick Force India to match his career best finish of fourth in Bahrain.

di Resta moved up to fourth on the opening lap, and when Fernando Alonso and Nico Rosberg began to drop back, for a time was running in an incredible second place on merit.

The Scot lost out to Kimi Raikkonen on lap 34, but then ran solidly in third place, and looked set for a maiden F1 podium before Romain Grosjean’s charge bumped him down to fourth in the closing stages.

Despite missing out on the podium, di Resta will be delighted with his weekend’s work, and with Force India fighting it out at the front on merit so far this season, a top three finish may not be too far away.

HM) Sebastian Vettel

It would be hard not to find a place in this Performance Podium for Sebastian Vettel, who even by his standards produced a storming drive in Bahrain.

A stunning overtake on Fernando Alonso on the first lap put him second, before his swift pass on Nico Rosberg gave him an early lead which allowed him to streak clear at the front.

From that point Vettel never looked like being beaten, and comfortably drove out the rest of the race to take his second win of the season and cement his place at the top of the drivers standings.

HM) Fernando Alonso

It’s a testament to Fernando Alonso’s driving ability that he recovered from two DRS failures to secure eighth, and a good haul of points from today’s Grand Prix.

Two unscheduled stops in the early part of the race, put him on a compromised pit strategy, and with no DRS to make his way through the field, he was forced to make up lost ground with a significant speed disadvantage.

Despite the lack of DRS making him defenceless against Sergio Perez in the closing stages, Alonso will be happy to have salvaged some points from this race and minimise the ground lost in the title battle ahead of F1’s return to Europe.

2013 Performance Podium Rankings
1) Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) – 13pts
2) Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus-Renault) – 10pts
2) Mark Webber (Red Bull-Renault) – 10pts
2) Sergio Perez (McLaren-Mercedes) – 10pts
5) Adrian Sutil (Force India-Mercedes) – 5pts
5) Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) – 5pts
5) Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso-Ferrari) – 5pts
5) Romain Grosjean (Lotus-Renault) – 5pts
9) Jenson Button (McLaren-Mercedes) – 2pts
9) Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 2pts
9) Paul di Resta (Force India-Mercedes) – 2pts
12) Jules Bianchi (Marussia-Cosworth) – 2pts
13) Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull-Renault) – 1pt

The Performance Podium rankings are calculated depending on where each driver places in each race. 1st place receives 10 points, 2nd place = 5pts, 3rd place = 2pts and an Honourable Mention = 1pt

Stephen D’Albiac