F1’s best and worst mid-season replacements

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

Michael Schumacher (Jordan and Benetton, 1991)


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

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

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

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

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

The rest, as they say, is history…

Mika Hakkinen (McLaren, 1993)


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

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

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

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

Sebastian Vettel (Toro Rosso, 2007)


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

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

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

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

Robert Kubica (BMW Sauber, 2006)


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

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

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

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

Mika Salo (BAR and Ferrari, 1999)


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

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

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

And three that didn’t fare so well…

Luca Badoer (Ferrari, 2009)


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

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

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

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

Romain Grosjean (Renault, 2009)


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

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

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

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

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

Jacques Villeneuve (Renault, 2004)


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

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

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

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

Stephen D’Albiac

Can Ferrari challenge Mercedes for the title this season?


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

Driver Ratings: 2016 Australian Grand Prix


Credit: Formula1.com

In the first of what is planned to be a recurring feature throughout the 2016 season, I will give a brief summary of each driver’s race and give them a score out of ten. The scores will be added up throughout the season and will be used to calculate both mid-season and end of season driver rankings.

44) Lewis Hamilton (7/10) – Strong recovery following an awful start that left the polesitter sixth at the end of the first lap. Good use of strategy by his Mercedes team to help him back to second.

6) Nico Rosberg (7/10) – A fully deserved fourth win in a row for Rosberg. Kept calm after a poor start to jump Raikkonen in the pits before calmly staying within reach of Vettel to allow himself to take the lead when the German pitted.

5) Sebastian Vettel (7/10) – Strong drive from the four-time champion. Only deprived of victory through a poor call on strategy by Ferrari under the red flag. Mistake when chasing Hamilton towards the end the only blip in an otherwise fine performance.

7) Kimi Raikkonen (6/10) – Engine failure cost Raikkonen the chance of a podium finish after a strong first stint that saw him run second to teammate Vettel.

77) Valtteri Bottas (5/10) – An underwhelming first weekend of the season for the highly rated Finn. A poor showing in qualifying was followed by a low key run in the race that deserved little more than his eighth place finish.

19) Felipe Massa (6/10) – A solid start to the season for the veteran Brazilian, whose fifth place was the most that could have been achieved with a car that was lacking in ultimate pace.

3) Daniel Ricciardo (7/10) – The home favourite gave the locals plenty to cheer with a battling drive that saw him pull off several overtakes and set fastest lap en route to a charging fourth place.

26) Daniil Kvyat (5/10) – An inauspicious start to the season for the Russian, who failed to get underway after stopping short of his grid box and forcing the first start to be abandoned. Had already suffered a difficult Saturday after qualifying a disappointing 18th.

11) Sergio Perez (5/10) – Perez had looked like picking up where he left off in 2015 by outqualifying teammate Hulkenberg, but slipped behind the German at the start before late race brake troubles left him 13th.

27) Nico Hulkenberg (6/10) – A decent showing for Hulkenberg who, while lacking in race pace, started his season with a decent haul of points by coming home seventh.

20) Kevin Magnussen (6/10) – A strong recovery by Magnussen to fight back to 12th after an opening lap puncture, but the Dane struggled to assert himself in Melbourne having been outqualified by rookie teammate Palmer on Saturday.

30) Jolyon Palmer (7/10) – Britain’s latest Grand Prix driver enjoyed a strong debut, surprisingly outqualifying Renault teammate Magnussen before showing fine racecraft to make life difficult for several faster cars who came up behind him.

33) Max Verstappen (6/10) – The 18-year-old showed his petulance after a poor pit stop dropped him behind teammate Sainz Jr. Having qualified a stunning fifth, the Dutchman will be disappointed with tenth place after a spin late in the race.

55) Carlos Sainz Jr (6/10) – A solid drive by the Spanish youngster to make the most of a well-balanced Toro Rosso. A questionable strategy choice following the red flag gave him a ninth place finish which was less than he deserved.

12) Felipe Nasr (5/10) – On the evidence of Melbourne, Sauber have a lot of work to do to compete in the midfield this year, with Nasr enjoying an almost anonymous run to 15th place.

9) Marcus Ericsson (5/10) – A day to forget for the second Sauber driver, who was handed a drive-through penalty after his mechanics carried working on his car too late during the red flag before the Swede retired with driveshaft failure.

14) Fernando Alonso (6/10) – The main thing is that Alonso walked out of Albert Park in one piece after a terrifying collision with Gutierrez that sent him rolling through the gravel and cost him a possible points finished.

22) Jenson Button (6/10) – A 14th place finish was poor reward for Button who was close to Alonso’s pace all weekend before a wrong call by McLaren to fit his car with super-soft tyres after the red flag dropped him out of contention.

93) Pascal Wehrlein (7/10) – DTM champion Wehrlein proved why he was given his F1 bow by Manor with a highly impressive first stint that saw him running in the midfield and keeping pace with stronger packages.

88) Rio Haryanto (6/10) – A decent debut for the Indonesian rookie who outqualified Wehrlein on Saturday before mechanical problems during the red flag brought his first Grand Prix to a premature end.

8) Romain Grosjean (8/10) – Driver of the Day. Grosjean produced a masterful display to run non-stop from the red flag and keep a train of cars at bay to finish a remarkable sixth on Haas’ debut.

21) Esteban Gutierrez (5/10) – Gutierrez’s return to the Formula One grid with Haas will be remembered more for his role in Alonso’s horrifying crash than for his performance, which saw him languishing behind Grosjean all weekend.

Stephen D’Albiac

Another own goal…


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

Jerez testing – Day four analysis

Friday brought the curtain down on four days of running at the first pre-season test in Jerez.

Kimi Raikkonen’s time of 1:18.148 ensured that Lotus topped the timesheets for the second time this week, but Sebastian Vettel’s time of 1:18.565 on the hard tyres this morning was extremely impressive and looks to have sent out an ominous message to the rest of field.

Splitting Raikkonen and Vettel was the still miraculously non-confirmed Jules Bianchi in the Force India, who followed up strong runs from Paul di Resta and James Rossiter earlier on this week with a time less than a tenth of a second slower than the Lotus. All indications at this stage seem to point towards the Silverstone-based outfit having a much stronger car this year than last.

Lewis Hamilton almost matched Nico Rosberg’s impressive lap tally from yesterday by lapping the Jerez circuit 145 times, which signals a good recovery by Mercedes over the last couple of days having seen the first two days of running blighted by mechanical failures.

Ferrari had their first major setback of pre-season after Pedro de la Rosa broke down with a gearbox problem after just two laps. Helped by a delay of almost an hour when a pothole was discovered on the circuit, leading to today’s session being extended by half an hour, the Scuderia recovered and de la Rosa managed to do a respectable 50 laps in the three hours running it had before the end of the day.

Although de la Rosa finished down in eighth in the time sheets, his job was simply to gain an understanding of the car to enable him to carry out his simulator duties with more ease so he was never going to be chasing the lap times.

Now for a quick stab at a pecking order from the first test, which could well be wildly off the mark given there’s only been four days of running but is the best indication there’s been from the action we’ve had.

It looks like Red Bull are looking strongest once again. The RB9 has shown great long run pace so far and according to BBC technical analyst Gary Anderson has “10% more downforce than anything else I’ve seen”. Lotus, Ferrari and McLaren look very closely matched behind them, with Lotus perhaps having a slight edge on their two rivals.

Mercedes look to be in a similar position to last year, but Force India and Toro Rosso have shown good pace and look like they may well have leapfrogged Sauber in the pecking order, although a lot can change before the first race. Marussia and Caterham predictably bring up the rear, with Marussia perhaps having a slight advantage. Williams haven’t been included due to them not running their new car in Jerez.

With Barcelona being a better indicator of all-round car performance and coming off the back of four strong days of running in Jerez, we will have a much clearer idea of the pecking order in a couple of weeks.

The Pecking Order (My – probably wrong – prediction)
1) Red Bull
2) Lotus
3) McLaren and Ferrari
5) Mercedes
6) Force India
7) Sauber and Toro Rosso
9) Marussia
10) Caterham
* Williams not included

1) Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus-Renault – 1m18.148s (83 laps)
2) Jules Bianchi (Fra) Force India-Mercedes – 1m18.175s (56 laps)
3) Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Red Bull-Renault – 1m18.565s (96 laps)
4) Esteban Gutierrez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari – 1m18.669s (142 laps)
5) Jean-Eric Vergne (Fra) Toro Rosso-Ferrari – 1m18.760s (92 laps)
6) Lewis Hamilton (GB) Mercedes – 1m18.905s (145 laps)
7) Sergio Perez (Mex) McLaren-Mercedes – 1m18.944s (98 laps)
8) Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Williams-Renault – 1m19.851s (91 laps)
9) Pedro de la Rosa (Esp) Ferrari – 1m20.316s (50 laps)
10) Charles Pic (Fra) Caterham-Renault – 1m21.105s (109 laps)
11) Luiz Razia (Bra) Marussia-Cosworth – 1m21.226s (82 laps)
12) Paul di Resta (GB) Force India-Mercedes – 1m23.435s (49 laps)

Stephen D’Albiac

The top ten of 2012: Part Two

With the first part of the top ten yesterday revealing the drivers who ranked from sixth to tenth over the 2012 season, here is the second and final part which reveals the top five drivers over the course of the year.

5) Nico Hulkenberg

Nico Hulkenberg showed everyone what he was made of in 2012 with a series of good drives and performances that marked him out as one of the stars of the future. Having been forced to sit 2011 out, the Force India driver was both fast and consistent all year and comfortably got the better of teammate Paul di Resta.

Hulkenberg drove well all year, with fourth at Spa being his best result. But it was the German’s end to the season that really caught the eye, with five points finishes in the last six races, including possibly the overtake of the season when he passed both Romain Grosjean and Lewis Hamilton in Korea, and a stunning drive in Brazil where he challenged for victory before colliding with Hamilton and putting himself out of contention.

With a move to Sauber on the cards in 2013, Hulkenberg will be looking to repeat his impressive season as he looks to secure a top drive in the future.

4) Sebastian Vettel

Sebastian Vettel became a triple world champion in 2012, but there is no doubting that he took advantage of a vastly improved Red Bull to achieve the feat. When his car wasn’t as strong at the beginning of the year Vettel struggled, winning only one of the first 13 races, although he did lose almost certain victory in Valencia when his alternator failed.

It was only when Red Bull’s upgrades made it the class of the field that Vettel truly began to shine. He inherited victory from Lewis Hamilton in Singapore, before wins in Japan, Korea and India put him in control of the championship. Vettel then produced arguably the best drive of his career to come from last to third in Abu Dhabi, before another recovery drive to sixth in Brazil sealed the title.

Although Vettel became only the third driver in F1 history to win three straight titles, the question still remains as to how good he is when not in the fastest car.

3) Kimi Raikkonen

There were fears before the start of the season as to whether Kimi Raikkonen would be the same driver that wowed the sport in his first career. We needn’t have worried, as the Finn proved to be just as good as before, with great race pace and remarkable consistency helping the Lotus driver to an impressive third in the championship.

After the first couple of races were spent getting back up to speed, Raikkonen looked as though he’d never been away as he challenged Sebastian Vettel for victory in Bahrain, before further podiums throughout the year followed. Although the Lotus lost some pace towards the end of the year, Raikkonen continued to push hard and then produced a phenomenal drive to take his first win in three years at Abu Dhabi.

With the Iceman showing to everyone that he did ‘know what he was doing’ by returning to the sport, hopes will be high in 2013 as Raikkonen looks to build on a strong first year back.

2) Lewis Hamilton

Although he only came fourth in the championship, Lewis Hamilton drove as well as he ever has in 2012, with a series of team errors and mechanical failures preventing him from challenging for the title. After a disappointing 2011, the Hamilton of old was back with a vengeance, taking four victories and more pole positions than anyone else.

With a huge amount of bad luck hitting him throughout the season, costing him likely wins in Singapore, Abu Dhabi and Brazil and probable podiums in Valencia and Spa, it would’ve been easy for Hamilton to let his head drop. But fighting wins in Montreal and Austin, as well as dominant triumphs in Hungary and Monza showed the McLaren driver was back to his best, reaffirming his status amongst the sport’s elite.

With Hamilton moving to Mercedes in 2013, the Englishman has a chance to show he can build a team around him and become one of the best of his generation.

1) Fernando Alonso

In a Ferrari that started the season over a second off the pace, 2012 should have been a write-off for Fernando Alonso. But not only did the Spaniard launch a title challenge, he incredibly sustained it until the final race and lost out to Sebastian Vettel by just three points.

Alonso confirmed his status as the most complete driver on the grid with brilliant wins in Malaysia, Valencia and Hockenheim, and when the car wasn’t quick enough for him to challenge for victory he was always there picking up the points and keeping the pressure on. Had it not been for first lap retirements in Belgium and Japan, neither of which were his fault, it could well have been Alonso rather than Vettel celebrating his third title.

With Alonso producing probably the best season for a non-champion since Ayrton Senna in 1993, he will be right in the hunt in 2013, and if Ferrari give him a quicker car next year it will be difficult to bet against him winning his third world championship.

Stephen D’Albiac