Monday, 21 April 2014

Bahrain + Shanghai - "Daniel Is Faster Than You"

Watching the Bahrain and Chinese GPs - watching Lewis Hamilton take one easy win and one hard-fought one, listening to Vettel get the call to "move over and let Daniel by please," twice - I felt a bit like Beavis & Butthead watching an arthouse movie: "This MEANS something."

Image via

It's not just the relief that my favourite driver is on track for his second World Championship - it's waaaay too early to be making calls like that. The F1 World Championship is a three-stage thing, like a good trigger sequence. First there's the early fly-away rounds that are run with the same machinery each time, purely because it's too hard to get upgrades made and flown out to whatever up-and-coming national economy Bernie's decided to grace next in a timely manner. So all the early rounds are usually won by the same people representing whichever team built the best car in the off-season. At the moment that's Mercedes, who did a Brawn and sacrificed last year's dead-end car to steal a march on this year, not that surprising when Mercedes IS the old Brawn team under new management. They've now laid the foundation for a run at the title, but that's in no way the same as clinching the thing for real because the next phase is the hard part - the long European summer, eight races run only hours from the team factories churning out new windtunnel data and upgrade gubbins 24/7. The real season, in other words, the bit that makes it Formula 1 and not just GP1. That's where titles are won and lost. So all credit to Nico and Lewis for taking four-from-four, but it's not done yet. They've only taken the safety catch off.

So the real interest is over at Red Bull, especially the RB10 driven by Daniel Ricciardo, which seems to be much faster than the one on the other side of the garage. Let's be honest, did any of us ever expect to hear Vettel get the call, "Sebastian, Daniel's faster than you, move over and let him by please"? No way. This was supposed to be Sebastian's team, wasn't it? The one where he'd spend his whole career raking in titles as Red Bull's golden boy? It's come as a very welcome proof of how F1 teams operate, that there really are no favourites, that fast is fast.
It doesn’t matter if the guy has got number one written on his forehead or tattooed over his whole body. If he’s second fastest, he’s number two. Period. - Alastair Caldwell, former McLaren engineering chief

You cannot make someone slower by contract... If he’s faster he’s faster. And whoever is faster is going to be the number one. – Michael Schumacher

The Schumacher quote is chosen deliberately. It was originally said when Rubens Barrichello joined him at Ferrari, and although it's finally starting to fade into history, the modern sport of Formula 1 is still run under the shadow of those days. We never got to see Schumi get his comeuppance for dominating so completely (and we're not sick enough to see a severe coma as any kind of justice - #KeepFightingMichael) so I have to wonder how much of the glee at Sebastian being shown up by his junior teammate is leftover from the red days a decade ago.

Image via CNN

But why is the lad with the hips from WA suddenly on top at Red Bull in the first place? Well, I'm a bit annoyed that Crofty and Brundle said it on the telly first and I won't get any credit, but I'm guessing Seb just doesn't have a feel for this new car. It's certainly not because he's suddenly revealed as an average driver (that would amount to saying the same of Mark Webber, and no true Aussie is going to say that). Seb really came into his own with the arrival of Pirelli's tyres - he won two championships easily by sprinting away at the start and controlling the race from there. What's interesting is he was able to be light years faster than anyone else without ruining his rear tyres, which speaks of some truly phenomenal throttle control. He drives with an amazingly soft touch, like a classical violinist, pushing the car right to the edge of its grip but not a bit beyond. Throw in blown- or double-diffusers sticking the rear of the car to the track, and you get a driver that's probably found a lot of his speed since 2009 by getting on the throttle early and modulating it to the contours of each corner just right.

Beautiful. Now put him in a car with turbo lag.

Image via

These aren't the big-boost turbo cars of the 80's, of course, more like the old Lola-Fords of CART's glory days, engines with a fantastic stack of torque up to 11,000rpm and then a brief whack of turbo at the top. Seeing the onboard shots of drivers getting caught by surprise and correcting it mid-corner looks startlingly like Alex Zanardi back when he still had his legs. Fun to watch, and fun for the driver who doesn't mind getting sideways, but for a softy like Seb it's bam, advantage gone. The car's always kicking sideways just when you don't want it to, no matter how carefully you apply the power. Contrast that with roughly-hewn mastery of Lewis Hamilton, the metal guitarist to Seb's concert violinist, equally precise but much more comfortable with some on-the-spot improv. Lewis is at his best arriving at the apex in a four-wheel drift, and he spent some years in McLarens that handled like dogs, he's not especially worried about turbo lag kicking out the rear end every so often.

And on the other side of the Red Bull garage? A young man hardened by a few years in awful backmarkers with no power, no grip and almost no crash testing - Red Bull bought him a seat at HRT, remember. A man with no experience of the RB9, 8, 7 or 6. A man who doesn't know what he's been missing.

*Kssh* "Sebastian, vamos Daniel través por favor... Daniel es más rápido que tú... Déjalo por favor..."

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Winton Wrap-Up: Celebrations with Fine Print

What a fantastic weekend! The breaks might not have all gone as the fans wanted, but the important stuff - the on-track mayhem - came thick and fast, with some very popular wins.

(Image via

Huge congrats are in order for Lee Holdsworth, Betty Klimenko and the whole Erebus Mercedes team for their breakthrough win in the second 100km race on Saturday. Somebody had to end Holden's winning streak, and it couldn't have happened to a more deserving team. We're used to team bosses being very hard-nosed bastards, the emotions just barely seeping through the cracks in their stoney faces, but Betty seems to be an entirely different breed. The live feed of the Erebus garage in those last few laps made some of the tensest, most emotional television I've ever seen, and after all the hard slog and frustration of last year, no wonder.

And she still looks like P!nk's mum. (Image via

Racing is a zero-sum game though, and making a winner requires a corresponding loser. To me, though, the big losers at Winton weren't Russell "the Enforced" Ingall and anyone caught out by the pit lane radar trap (and it really was a radar trap like the police use, right down to giving inflated speeds (amirite?). However low-budget it looked, it was all pretty typical of this sport's DIY ethic, and rather clever - point it at a car entering pit lane and the readings were all clearly visible to the TV cameras...). They get no sympathy because the readings were fine once they had the limiters on, they just got too ambitious diving for the line and paid for it.

Much as I'm delighted for Erebus, their breakthrough win came on a weird day when tyre wear was off the scale and throwing a wrench into everyone's carefully-planned race strategies. Everyone looks forward to a rainy F1 race because you might see something different, and it was the same principle here. Ergo, although Lee Holdsworth says they'll have upgrades on the car before the next race at Pukekohe, I still say they'd better be ready for a return to normal service when they get to East Bondi - if they want to win again, they'll have to outrun that #33 Volvo.

So to me, the big losers to me were Scott McLaughlin and Mark Winterbottom, for whom all three races were up for grabs. For the first time in his V8 career poor Scotty couldn't get a break - qualified on pole for one race, but didn't even get to start thanks to engine troubles. Led on Sunday for a third of the race, only to fall afoul of more engine gremlins and park it yet again. Clearly the speed was in the car, but he never got to use it.

More's the pity, we never got to see him late in the 200km Sunday race, with his rear tyres ratshit and Frosty playing the Jaws theme right behind him. What a race that could've been. Winterbottom finished all three races despite the high attrition, and more to the point, finished well ahead of where he started: for the first race of the weekend, he managed to come 7th despite starting from 23rd! And it looked like he could keep up that speed without lunching his tyres too, so if he'd started higher up it seems pretty clear he could have gone three-for-three and made the Winton 400 a sky-blue whitewash.

Image via

I'll be delighted if this is a portent of things to come, but let's not get excited. If they moved the Italian GP to Fiorano (and with Ferrari's pace this year, they might), would anybody really be unable to predict the result? That's kind of the situation for Ford Performance Racing at Winton. FPR has a bigger testing budget than anyone except maybe HRT, and Winton is only an hour and a half from their factory in Campbellfield. FPR all but owns that track. It would be a bit premature to read much into Frosty's performance on a track where he's turned so many laps and recorded so much data.

So overall, there was plenty to celebrate at the Winton 400 - but in all cases the cheering comes with a definite asterisk.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Bahrain Preview + Winton Claustrophobia

A Bahrain/Winton double-header this weekend, and only seven days after a Malaysia/Symmons Plains double header too. Busy, busy...

Via Getty Images

First things first: the Kingdom of Bahrain is a postage stamp of an island in the Persian Gulf. To their credit, the Bahrainis were the first people in the region to have moved their economy away from oil, having converted to banking and tourism around the same time they decided to be a kingdom instead of a state. Overall a smart move - we all remember that this was the same race cancelled in 2011 thanks to protests, and run under a dark cloud in 2012 because of the "excessive force and torture" being used to keep the former protestors in line. The fact is the ruling Sunnis sit nervously on a majority Shia population, which is a bit like an Islamic version of Northern Ireland, where the people at the top were Protestant but most of the people under them were Catholic (if you're too young to have heard anything about that, do some Googling already). I'm not sure how much tourism a Gulf kingdom expects to get, but sun, sand and palm trees do make for nice beaches, even if it's a faux pas to swill margaritas while enjoying them. Unlike tourism, oil doesn't create many jobs where it leaves the ground, so I imagine we'd have seen a lot more races cancelled if the Shia plebs didn't have service jobs bringing glasses of fruit juice with umbrellas in them to disappointed tourists.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying, if you're wondering why the Bahrain Grand Prix is still run in front of empty grandstands, there's your answer: bankers aren't interested in motor racing, because money is boring, and waiters can't afford it. Ticket prices keep a surprising number of Aussie fans away from Albert Park, let alone despised Shia underlings. If they're not afraid to torture these people to stop them Taking It To The Streets, I doubt they'll be in a mood to raise their wages to Formula 1 levels any time soon.

Anyway, the track. My favourite detail about the Sakhir International Circuit is that they've glued down the sand to keep it from blowing across the track and burying it, without spoiling those authentic dashing-through-the-dunes visuals. I'll give them credit, it's a unique aspect and it looks pretty good on TV, and that should go double with this weekend's evening race, but the special effects can't hide the chronic shortage of plot.  There's never been a very interesting race here, and no wonder. Have a look at this layout:

There's really not a lot going on, just long straights and tight corners that make for some brutal braking zones. The only fun parts are Turn 12, which is a bit like Lukey Heights at Phillip Island where you can feel the car get light as it crests the hill, and diving into Turn 9, because braking and turning at the same time is always a bit exciting. With the desert heat this is the toughest race of the year for brakes, which means look for someone using tough but kinda-numb Carbon Industrie brakes to win, rather than talkative-but-soft Brembos.

Apart from that, it's sometimes true that anyone who does well in Bahrain isn't going to be fighting for the championship. The long straights prioritise cars with low drag and lots of power rather than the tonnes of downforce you need to clean up the rest of the calendar, so occasionally you see the grid get turned upside-down. Best example, the Toyotas (remember them?) in 2009, when they qualified first and second in Bahrain... then 19th and 20th (meaning last) in Monaco. Explaining that to head office in Aichi couldn't have been fun.

Anyway, my pick to win would be one of the Mercs, because they seem to have the legs on the rest of the field at the moment, and of them, I'll go with Britney Nico Rosberg. Nico seems to have a knack for the place ever since he set the fastest lap in his debut year in an unfancied Williams (and much as I love Lewis Hamilton, there isn't really anywhere for him to show his chops at this place. Lewis shines when the others get nervous about the tail letting go on entry to the corner. Since Bahrain never really makes them nervous that way, he's kind of just another driver here).


Anyway, now Winton, my least favourite track in a V8 Supercar, but one of my very favourites in just about anything else (and not just because my only rFactor version is buggy as hell). Winton is a tiny little town in the Hume wasteland between Albury-Wodonga and Melbourne, only a stone's throw from Glenrowan, where Ned Kelly finally got his legs shot out from under him. It's the opposite of Bahrain, being short with tight, twisting corners, including a complex named with typical Aussie grace and subtlety, "The Tits". See if you can spot it here:

Winton is a fantastic club circuit, and I can't think of many places I'd rather drive in the Commodore or Excel Cup or those hilarious Aussie Racing Cars, but a V8 Supercar is a different beast. They might have less power than NASCAR, but it's still a lot more than anything with a roof in Europe, and on a track this short they never really build up a full head of steam. It's about as fun as swinging a sledgehammer in a backyard dunny, or locking a tiger in the cage you use to take your tabby to the vet. The winner will be whoever can maintain their focus and be precise without getting frustrated - meaning, in my opinion, Whincup or Lowndes. As we speak though my Facebook feed is showing Fabian Coulthard and Scott McLaughlin qualifying at the top, and if the Holden Racing Team can put a decent car together I'd say Garth Tander as well.

But let's be honest, if they could put a decent car together, they wouldn't be Holden. would they?

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Race Relations 02/04/14

More opinions I am not qualified to have.


Apparently the feng shui in the heart of the RB10 is all wrong - no wonder it kept breaking down. It's also remarkable how closely the controversy over Daniel Ricciardo's disqualification at Albert Park followed the pattern set in 1987.

Image via Today Online

Essentially Daniel's DSQ was inflicted for failing to comply with the FIA's orders. The rules limit the fuel flow to a maximum 100 kilos per hour (although since they're limited to 100 kilos for the whole 90-minute race, they mostly have to run it at a lot less). The hassle was, Daniel's car had been fitted with a faulty flow meter. Christian Horner and all the crew at Red Bull knew that, and so did the FIA, so the FIA told them to adjust the readings to compensate. They did this, but using their own telemetry found the FIA's adjustment was a bit harsh - Daniel could run a bit more flow than they said and still be under the 100kg/h limit, just not according to the FIA's meter.

So although I hate siding with the FIA, it's pretty clear to me that Red Bull are the ones in the wrong here. It reminds me of that line from A Few Good Men, "It doesn't matter what I believe, it only matters what I can prove!" The rules say from the outset that the FIA's homologated flow meter will be the one they use to judge fuel flow, not your own, so protesting that you complied with the regulations according to your own telemetry isn't going to save you. Let that by and the standardised fuel flow meter will become irrelevant, the F1 version of an appendix, hanging around in the guts of the machine but long since engineered out of the loop. Everyone will switch to their own monitoring systems instead and when it squeals they've gone over the fuel limit they'll just shrug and say, "Gosh, another faulty one? What are the odds!"

Or to put it another way, you can swear until you're blue in the face that your new laser-cut metre rule is a more accurate one-metre length than the one in SI vaults in Paris, but it won't matter. The one in the vaults is the one everyone's agreed to use.

But the shape of the drama reminds me of the introduction of pop-off valves in 1987. Fitted to the monstrous turbo cars of the 80's, they were designed  to limit the cars to 4.0 bar (about 59 psi) of boost to keep power outputs manageable. Like the fuel flow meter, they were standardised pieces of hardware handed out by the FIA, and like the fuel flow meter, they proved faulty right away.

"Don’t talk to me about bleeding pop-off valves," said Arrows driver Derek Warwick after his first Friday session. "Most of the time mine was cutting in at 3.5 [bar] or thereabouts, and some of the time it was at 2.6! The whole thing’s a joke.” Benetton's Thierry Boutsen confirmed: "One turbo was cutting at 3.7, and the other at 2.7." But at the second race? Nothing. Not a peep. The bellyaching about the pop-off valves had completely disappeared: the teams realised that you really only ran into trouble if you actually used the valves, which tended to weaken them. Work around them and most of the problems just disappeared.

How much complaining about fuel meters did you hear in Malaysia?

None of this is to say the FIA doesn't have a responsibility to provide working equipment. But maybe someone should take Red Bull to a cricket match some time this week, and whisper that old truism in their ear: "No, the umpire isn't always right, but he's always the umpire." Or if that can't happen, would it at least be possible to see Charlie Whiting mouthing off like Jack Nicholson in the court of appeal? "Horner, I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Ricciardo, and you curse the FIA. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know - that Ricciardo's DSQ, while tragic, probably saved the sport. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves the sport. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a team who rise to become World Champions under the blanket of the very regulations that I provide, and then question the manner in which I provide them. You want the truth? You can't HANDLE the truth!"


Next problem: the new F1 engines sound awful. It's true, here's a fantastic video that shows the difference from 2013 to 2014 (and also gives a fantastic impression of how they sounded when you were actually there).

Be sure to watch the video soon before they take it down again: for such a high-tech sport, Formula 1's guardians are amazingly reticent about letting us experience it online.

Anyway, there's no denying it: last year the sound of an F1 car at full speed was pure aural sex; now they sound like a Kenworth got frisky with a Victa. So it seems to me the clear solution - the ONLY solution - is to record each race without the sounds, and then let each viewer to dub in whatever engine note they'd prefer to hear. The possibilities are endless: Matra V12, Ferrari Breadvan, M1 Procar, or hell, why not the Renault that won the very first Grand Prix back in 1906? If we're going to stick with the principle of older = better, then surely that's the oldest, bestest GP car of them all? Mmm, just think of that old monster chugging along at 1,600rpm like a a vintage tractor... No?

Image via Wikipedia

Look, I miss the old engine note too. It was glorious. But I wouldn't have it stick around at the price of becoming a mere special effect. As I've said before, a huge part of the appeal of F1 is that it's real. From 2006 to 2013 the cars were really glorified karts, and that undercut the whole programme in many peoples' eyes (including mine). Formula 1 is not the WWF, where everyone knows it's just a show and the competitors in the ring know you know. Formula 1 is reality TV. The director might have to interfere to shake things up occasionally, but on the whole the appeal is watching real people have real meltdowns over the achievement of real goals.

If you want something shallow but entertaining, NASCAR's a-waitin'. Meanwhile, the real irony of the noise complaints is that F1's glorious soundtrack didn't vanish at the end of 2013, it vanished at the end of 2005. I was once at Albert Park when they were giving rides in the 2-seater Minardi, fitted with the last of the 3-litre V10 monsters. On one pass I tried it without ear plugs, and never did that again. The V10 was just on another level, as far above the V8s as the V8s were above this year's turbo sixes. Sweet, singing, piercing, eardrum-shredding magnificence.

And dead as the Nazi Empire. The past is great and worth celebrating. But it's also the past. Remember that.