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

Another own goal…

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On Saturday in Melbourne, Lewis Hamilton became only the third man in Formula One history to take 50 pole positions.

The prodigiously talented Max Verstappen continued to show just why it is only a matter of time until he earns the right to sit in a car capable of challenging for the title with a stunning lap to put himself a stunning fifth on the grid in Albert Park.

McLaren and Honda showed that they have made real progress over the winter, with Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button qualifying 12th and 13th respectively and looking serious contenders for a points finish in tomorrow’s season opener, while further down the grid rookies Jolyon Palmer and Rio Haryanto defied expectation by outqualifying highly-rated teammates in Kevin Magnussen and Pascal Wehrlein.

These should have been the main talking points from the first qualifying session of the new season, but instead what we got was almost universal derision of a convoluted system that both baffled and failed to produce excitement in equal measure.

An estimated 100,000 fans were at Albert Park – notwithstanding the millions across the world who arose from their slumber at an ungodly hour of the morning to watch on television – to witness the culmination of a pre-season that had so many questions to answer.

What they deserved was a thrilling qualifying session that gradually built to a crescendo across all three segments and a full hour in which the drivers that they had shelled out hundreds of Australian dollars to see entertained them in uninterrupted fashion.

Instead, what they got was a shambles in which the teams appeared just as flummoxed by the new format as the fans themselves. All the meaningful running was done at the beginning of the sessions, countless drivers – hamstrung by a lack of tyres – were unable to react when on the brink of elimination and the final minutes of each segment were so quiet that the collective sounds of pins dropping could doubtless be heard across the Victorian landscape.

The sight of Lewis Hamilton wrapping up pole with four minutes of Q3 remaining, followed later with the appearance of Sebastian Vettel in the post-session presser in team jacket and jeans, would have been comical had it not been such a farcical PR disaster for the sport.

Worse still were the reports from Albert Park itself that the fans that had paid good money to watch the metaphorical car-crash unfold were unable – thanks to big screens devoid of any timing graphics – to follow the action, with many leaving their seats while the session was technically still in progress.

Yet the saddest part of all was the fact that those inside the sport had seen this coming a mile off. Drivers and engineers had warned that changing the format would result in confusion and a lack of action towards the end of the session, yet in spite of their pleas, the F1 Commission voted this system through regardless.

Fans at Albert Park reportedly left their seats while Saturday’s qualifying session was still in progress (Credit: Twitter user @chrisraynesf1)

What resulted after the session was the equally farcical sight of those same team bosses – chief culprits among them Toto Wolff, Christian Horner and Niki Lauda – rushing to condemn the very system that they had been partly responsible for pushing through in the first place.

Regardless of the apologies of the aforementioned trio, or the description of the new system by none other than Bernie Ecclestone himself as “crap”, all of this could have been avoided by simply not touching qualifying in the first place.

Martin Brundle summed it up perfectly in commentary when he said that if he was asked to change ten things about Formula One, qualifying would not be on his list. The old system that had been in place since 2006 ensured that cars were on track for the vast majority of the session, but also had the ability to catch out a big name and invariably led to an exciting conclusion.

Almost no one was calling for it to be changed, and now on the evidence of this sorry mess, even fewer people can see why it was.

The fact that an urgent meeting at which the new elimination-style format is almost certain to be ditched will be held tomorrow is proof, if ever it were needed, that those responsible for rushing through this system are now nursing self-inflicted gunshot wounds to their feet.

The only logical solution to this mess is to go back to the system that has served the sport so well over the last decade and ensure that it is in place in time for the next race in Bahrain.

What we got in Melbourne was an ill-conceived experiment that did nothing but attract a deluge of negative headlines and further embarrass the sport on a global stage. Many more debacle of this nature, and the very credibility of Formula One as a serious competition is in grave peril of exceeding tipping point.

Saturday should have been the day that we celebrated the return of Formula One following the end of the winter famine. Instead, it will be remembered for its latest own goal.

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.