Rosberg more than prepared for the title battle

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Credit: 163.com

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

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

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

The last thing F1 needs is yet another rules overhaul

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Those following testing in Barcelona this week only have to look at the lap times to see that there has been a clear step forward in speed.

We are still nowhere near seeing the true potential of any of this year’s cars, but that has not stopped Sebastian Vettel and Nico Hulkenberg lapping already more than a second under Nico Rosberg’s pole time for last year’s Spanish Grand Prix.

Just three weeks remain until the start of the third season of the current hybrid era, a period that has been crying out for stability while the teams continue to conquer an array of new technology that, once properly honed, should naturally provide us with the fastest cars that have ever graced the sport.

Yet while the need for time and patience is staring the rulemakers in the face, it seems as though we are about to have another handful of changes thrown our way.

News that plans to rip up the rulebook and introduce yet another set of regulations aimed at producing high-performance cars and make them seconds faster will most likely get the go ahead for the 2017 season is disappointing, but not unsurprising, given the manner in which we have seen the F1 Strategy Group and F1 Commission work in recent years.

These, after all, are the same bodies that brought us double points, the thankfully never introduced standing restarts and are now attempting to have a new “elimination” style qualifying system – a part of the Grand Prix weekend that did not need changing – rubberstamped in time for Melbourne.

Once we see the class of 2016 truly unleashed, those already improved times will only tumble further. A step forward of between two and three seconds looks more than achievable. Take into account the inevitable development of the cars over the course of this season and into next, and come 2017 they will be faster still.

This would be more than achievable by sticking to the set of regulations that exist now, not by forcing teams that are already strapped for cash to spend millions building new cars that, while likely to increase speeds, will be more aero-dependant and almost certain to harm the quality of the racing.

Formula One is far from in rude health. Fans are being turned off for a number of reasons, chief among them the domination of the Mercedes team that, at first glance, is likely to continue into 2016.

Yet the fact remains that when naturally aspirated V10 engines made way for hybrid power in 2014, the Silver Arrows simply did the best job with the set of rules that each person in the paddock was given.

Single team superiority has always existed in F1. Each decade is underpinned by an era in which one manufacturer was better than the rest.

It started with Alfa Romeo in the 1950s, before Lotus took over in the sixties and again in the seventies. The late 1980s saw McLaren in a class of their own, before Williams dominated the nineties and Ferrari ruled the early 2000s. Entertaining it may not always be when we are in the midst of such a spell, but history dictates that a dominant team is always caught.

Mercedes may not be beaten this year, but they will be eventually. If the current rules remain, the laws of diminishing returns will take over and they will be caught. Completely overhaul the regulations, and what’s to say that they won’t simply steal another march on the opposition, aided by their vast reserves of wealth, and pull even further ahead of everyone else?

Formula One is crying out for changes that encourage more competition, but by going after the technical regulations, it is its own product that is being harmed.

One idea would be a complete overhaul on the way in which prize money is distributed, scrapping payments to constructors just for being there longer than everyone else and ensuring that all teams receive a fair slice of the cake for their efforts.

Testing is another aspect that requires urgent attention, with an increase in pre-season running needed so that teams no longer turn up in Melbourne still battling to get to grips with their new cars.

The number of engines available to each driver over a season is also in need of reassessment, as are the senseless grid penalties handed down to anyone who dares go over their allotted amount.

These are changes that would be pure and easy to implement with the right people in charge. It would result in a more competitive sport as the gulf in class closes up, and in turn would get people watching again, but instead a combination of yet another aerodynamic revolution and laborious gimmicks such as a Driver of the Day award appear set to win the day.

If those at the top remained sensible and focused on promoting the fact that the current hybrid powerplants are some of the most impressive innovations seen in the history of the motor car, did not use the media to publicly lambast their own product and stopped suggesting laughable ideas in a futile bid to “improve the show”, maybe, just maybe, the sport would not be in its current predicament.

Someone just needs to hand them the memo.

Stephen D’Albiac

NOTE: I will be writing a series of follow-up blogs in the coming days about the changes that I would make to Formula One. Stay tuned!

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.

Hamilton takes Nurburgring pole

Lewis Hamilton will start on pole for the second race running as he pipped Sebastian Vettel to the top spot in qualifying for tomorrow’s German Grand Prix.

The Mercedes driver had been off the pace in the morning’s practice session, but found the sweet spot in his car when it mattered to beat Vettel’s Red Bull by just 0.103 seconds.

Mark Webber will start third tomorrow, just ahead of the Lotus pair of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean, whilst Daniel Ricciardo continued his impressive run of strong Saturdays to qualify his Toro Rosso sixth.

The Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso lock out the fourth row of the grid after opting to qualify on the medium tyres in order to optimise its race strategy, whilst Jenson Button and Nico Hulkenberg complete the top ten.

The big shock of qualifying was Nico Rosberg’s failure to make it through to the final part of qualifying. The victor at Silverstone last week was kept in the pits by Mercedes, the team thinking they had done enough to make it through to Q3, but a flurry of late improvements left him down in 11th and with an uphill struggle to fight for the podium tomorrow.

Rosberg was joined on the sidelines in Q3 by Paul di Resta, Sergio Perez, Esteban Gutierrez, Adrian Sutil and Jean-Eric Vergne.

Williams celebrates its 600th Grand Prix this weekend, but the team marked the milestone in the worst possible way as both cars fell at the first hurdle. Valtteri Bottas will start 17th and shares the ninth row with Pastor Maldonado.

Charles Pic starts 19th, with Jules Bianchi, Giedo van der Garde and Max Chilton completing the grid.

Qualifying Results
1) Lewis Hamilton (GB) Mercedes
2) Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Red Bull-Renault
3) Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault
4) Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus-Renault
5) Romain Grosjean (Fra) Lotus-Renault
6) Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Toro Rosso-Ferrari
7) Felipe Massa (Bra) Ferrari
8) Fernando Alonso (Esp) Ferrari
9) Jenson Button (GB) McLaren-Mercedes
10) Nico Hulkenberg (Ger) Sauber-Ferrari
11) Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes
12) Paul di Resta (GB) Force India-Mercedes
13) Sergio Perez (Mex) McLaren-Mercedes
14) Esteban Gutierrez (Mex) McLaren-Mercedes
15) Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India-Mercedes
16) Jean-Eric Vergne (Fra) Toro Rosso-Ferrari
17) Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Williams-Renault
18) Pastor Maldonado (Ven) Williams-Renault
19) Charles Pic (Fra) Caterham-Renault
20) Jules Bianchi (Fra) Marussia-Cosworth
21) Giedo van der Garde (Ned) Caterham-Renault
22) Max Chilton (GB) Marussia-Cosworth

Stephen D’Albiac

Brilliant Alonso storms to Shanghai victory

Fernando Alonso took his first win of the season with a scintillating drive at the Chinese Grand Prix.

Alonso passed poleman Lewis Hamilton for the lead at the start of the fifth lap and never looked back, the only thing troubling him from then on being the negotiation of those on different strategies after his pit stops.

Kimi Raikkonen finished second after getting the jump on Hamilton at the final round of pit stops, with the Lotus driver having an eventful race which included him damaging his front wing when Sergio Perez forced him off the track on lap 16.

Hamilton finished third, although he only just held off a charging Sebastian Vettel on the final lap, with the Red Bull driver’s mistake coming onto the back straight costing him the chance to launch an attack on the Mercedes in the DRS zone.

Jenson Button came home fifth after making a two-stop strategy work better than anyone else, with Felipe Massa following him home sixth.

Daniel Ricciardo produced a very impressive drive on his way to a career-best seventh, with Paul di Resta, Romain Grosjean and Nico Hulkenberg completing the points.

Eight drivers, including both Raikkonen and Vettel, were investigated for illegal use of the DRS under yellow flags after the race, but the stewards took no further action against them, meaning the result of the race stands as completed.

There were a number of other incidents throughout the race, with the most spectacular coming on the sixth lap when Esteban Gutierrez misjudged his braking point on the back straight and slammed into the back of Adrian Sutil, ending both their races. The Mexican’s mistake has earned him a five-place grid penalty for next week’s race in Bahrain.

It was also a race to forget for Webber, who after starting from the pit lane, stopped on the first lap of the race to get rid of the soft tyres, and jumped more than half the grid to move himself solidly into the points.

However, it all unravelled for the Australian when he collided with Jean-Eric Vergne, and then retired after his second pit stop went wrong and his right-rear wheel came loose, eventually parting company with his Red Bull on the exit of turn 14. To compound Webber’s misery, he has been handed a three-place grid penalty for the Bahrain Grand Prix for causing the incident.

Nico Rosberg’s stunning run of form at Shanghai is also at an end after the Mercedes driver retired on the 22nd lap with a mechanical problem.

The result of today’s race means Vettel leaves Shanghai as the championship leader with 52 points, three points ahead of Raikkonen on 49, with Alonso’s win moving him up into the top three with 43 points.

Classification
1) Fernando Alonso (Esp) Ferrari – 1h36:26.945
2) Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus-Renault – + 10.100s
3) Lewis  Hamilton (GB) Mercedes – + 12.300s
4) Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Red Bull-Renault – + 12.500s
5) Jenson Button (GB) McLaren-Mercedes – + 35.200s
6) Felipe Massa (Bra) Ferrari – + 40.800s
7) Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Toro Rosso-Ferrari – + 42.600s
8) Paul di Resta (GB) Force India-Mercedes – + 51.000s
9) Romain Grosjean (Fra) Lotus-Renault – + 53.400s
10) Nico Hulkenberg (Ger) Sauber-Ferrari – + 56.500s
11) Sergio Perez (Mex) McLaren-Mercedes – + 1m03.800s
12) Jean-Eric Vergne (Fra) Toro Rosso-Ferrari – + 1m12.600s
13) Pastor Maldonado (Ven) Williams-Renault – + 1m33.800s
14) Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Williams-Renault – + 1m35.400s
15) Jules Bianchi (Fra) Marussia-Cosworth – + 1 lap
16) Charles Pic (Fra) Caterham-Renault – + 1 lap
17) Max Chilton (GB) Marussia-Cosworth + 1 lap
18) Giedo van der Garde (Ned) Caterham-Renault – + 1 lap

Not Classified
19) Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes
20) Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault21) Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India-Mercedes
22) Esteban Gutierrez (Mex) – Sauber-Ferrari

Stephen D’Albiac

Hamilton storms to Shanghai pole

Lewis Hamilton has his first pole position as a Mercedes driver after blitzing the field in qualifying for tomorrow’s Chinese Grand Prix.

Hamilton topped all three sessions in Shanghai, and his time of 1:34.484 in the final shoot-out was enough to secure top spot by three tenths of a second.

Kimi Raikkonen will start second after a stunning lap in Q3, which gives the Lotus driver his first front row start in nearly four years.

Fernando Alonso completed the top three after going fastest in practice this morning, and with Ferrari’s pace on the longer runs looking ominous this weekend, he will be right on the top two’s heels tomorrow.

The other Mercedes of Nico Rosberg starts fourth, a mistake in the final corner of his hot lap potentially costing him the chance to join his teammate on the front row, while Felipe Massa qualified fifth and missed out on the chance to outqualify Alonso for a record fifth race on the bounce.

Romain Grosjean will line up sixth, ahead of the Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo, who produced a stunning lap to give the Australian his highest grid position since Bahrain last year.

Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel and Nico Hulkenberg rounded out the top ten, although none of them made a serious attempt to challenge for pole and the trio will start the race on the medium tyre, a gamble that may well see them rise through the field in the opening stages tomorrow.

It hasn’t been the happiest three weeks of Mark Webber’s Formula One career, and that trend continued during qualifying as the Australian’s Red Bull ran out of fuel partway through Q2. Webber had qualified 14th, but his misery was compounded by being sent to the back of the grid for not providing a big enough fuel sample to the FIA.

Paul di Resta qualified 11th, and shares the sixth row of the grid with Sergio Perez, whose already difficult weekend didn’t get any better. Adrian Sutil will start 13th, with Maldonado the first beneficiary of Webber’s penalty as he moves up to 14th. Jean-Eric Vergne completes the runners who made it through the first part of qualifying and will line up 15th.

Q1 was a hurdle that Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Gutierrez failed to clear, with both being knocked out at the first stage for the second time this season. The ever impressive Jules Bianchi starts 18th, seven tenths ahead of his teammate Max Chilton, while the Caterhams of Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde, and the luckless Webber complete the grid.

The Grid
1) Lewis Hamilton (GB) Mercedes – 1:34.484
2) Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus-Renault – 1:34.761
3) Fernando Alonso (Esp) Ferrari – 1:34.788
4) Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes – 1:34.861
5) Felipe Massa (Bra) Ferrari – 1:34.933
6) Romain Grosjean (Fra) Lotus-Renault – 1:35.364
7) Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Toro Rosso-Ferrari – 1:35.988
8) Jenson Button (GB) McLaren-Mercedes – 2:05.673
9) Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Red Bull-Renault – no time set (Q3)
10) Nico Hulkenberg (Ger) Sauber-Ferrari – no time set (Q3)
11) Paul di Resta (GB) Force India-Mercedes – 1:36.287 (Q2)
12) Sergio Perez (Mex) McLaren-Mercedes – 1:36.314 (Q2)
13) Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India-Mercedes – 1:36.405 (Q2)
14) Pastor Maldonado (Ven) Williams-Renault – 1:37.139 (Q2)
15) Jean-Eric Vergne (Fra) Toro Rosso-Ferrari – 1:37.199 (Q2)
16) Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Williams-Renault – 1:37.769 (Q1)
17) Esteban Gutierrez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari – 1:37.990 (Q1)
18) Jules Bianchi (Fra) Marussia-Cosworth – 1:38.780 (Q1)
19) Max Chilton (GB) Marussia-Cosworth – 1:39.537 (Q1)
20) Charles Pic (Fra) Caterham-Renault – 1:39.614 (Q1)
21) Giedo van der Garde (Ned) Caterham-Renault – 1:39.660 (Q1)
EX) Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault

Stephen D’Albiac