Sunday, 27 January 2013

Lewis Hamilton: Freedom to create success at Mercedes

On 28th September 2012 the world of Formula One received the much awaited news regarding Lewis Hamilton’s switch to Mercedes for the 2013 season.  The announcement of his liberation from the team he grew up with, McLaren, sparked much discussion and opinion about whether the correct decision had been made. 

Lewis starts work at Mercedes

Four months later, having started work for his new team, Lewis seems like a reformed character, demonstrating renewed vigour and motivation for his driving.  The road to advancement seemed to commence with immediate effect once the decision to unchain himself from McLaren was made.  His qualifying performances at the end of the season provided tangible evidence of this as he clocked up two Pole Positions, two second, and one third place.  In addition to this, he took the inaugural win in Austin, and although he suffered disappointing retirements in Abu Dhabi and Brazil, he could have won both.  No longer constrained by McLaren, Lewis was able to express himself fully on the race track.

Win in Austin

Exuding positivity about his move and fresh challenge at Mercedes, Lewis has expressed his aspiration to be part of their transformation from mediocre to Top Dog.  He told the Sun newspaper,

"To be great is turning something that is not particularly good into something special.  Such as working with this team and turning them into the most successful team in the sport."

"To turn it into the most successful team of it's era is a prospect that is exciting.  If we are able to do that it will be quite special."

At McLaren, Lewis was part of a team with a history of success.  His role was to maintain that success by delivering the goods at the end of the chain.  After six seasons of delivering to the best of his ability, elements of feeling 'stuck in a rut' appeared to start creeping in.  Joining Mercedes on the journey to success, with more freedom at his fingertips, he can go from the end of the chain to being an integral link.  

During an interview on the Sky Sports season review, Martin Whitmarsh admitted that McLaren could be over controlling.  This creates an atmosphere that is conducive to nurturing young drivers but can inhibit talents and skills as they grow.   Lewis Hamilton needed to make this move to avoid just 'being'.  Freeing himself from the shackles at McLaren has given him the optimism and motivation to prove himself at a different level.  Maybe Sebastian Vettel should take notes...

Friday, 25 January 2013

Formula's One War With Wealth: Driver Managers

It is the final Saturday of the 2010 Formula One season.    Qualifying for the Brazilian Grand Prix sees Nico Hulkenberg clinching Pole position for Williams, revealing an important  glimpse into the talent he has continued to show since.  The reward for his efforts; being dropped in favour of Venezuelan ‘pay’ driver, Pastor Maldonado.  I first wrote about how detrimental the growing trend of money over talent was becoming for the sport following that race in 2010.  Since then, this growing trend has become a worrying escalation. 

Hulkenberg celebrates his Pole in 2010 at Interlagos

Timo Glock has become the latest driver to befall the perils of this engulfing money monster.  Admitting the reason for the German leaving the team was financial, John Booth, Team Principal of Marussia commented,

“The ongoing challenges facing the industry mean that we have had to take steps to secure our long term future.  Tough economic conditions prevail and commercial landscape is difficult, for everyone, Formula 1 teams included.”

Drivers and teams are obviously affected by the economic climate, but the capital cannibal has further reaching implications.  Earlier this month, prior to the announcement that he would fill the hole left by Norbert Haug at Mercedes, Toto Wolff cited the increasing need to have significant funding in order to enter F1 as the reason why he will not be managing another driver.  Talking to Switzerland’s Motorsport Aktuell he described his success with Valterri Bottas as, “More of exception rather than a rule.”  He added,

“If you have to put 2 million on the table for GP2, then driver management makes little sense.”

Wolff and Bottas at Williams

Other drivers managed by Toto Wolff include Bruno Spengler, winner of the 2012 DTM Championship.  Talk regarding a possibility of a Formula One seat was prevalent due to the talent shown over the course of the 2012 season;  an idea not made tangible due to lack of funding.
Wolff is not the only manager to be enveloped by the cash cloud.  Nicholas Todt, son of FIA President Jean Todt and manager of Felipe Massa, currently has Frenchman, Jules Bianchi on his books.  Bianchi, who showed promise as reserve driver for Force India during the 2012 season, is also a Ferrari Young driver and has the team supporting him in his quest for an F1 drive.  Despite having the most famous team in the sport behind him, he is still yet to secure a seat for 2013.  If Bianchi could supply the capital Force India seek, Nicholas Todt’s job would no doubt be made a lot easier.  

Nicholas Todt and Jules Bianchi

Although currently hitting its absolute heights, money and the concept of paying for a drive in Formula One is not a new one.  In 1971, seeking victory in the European F2 series,  Niki Lauda rented a drive in a semi works March 712m; a rental that was followed by another to the tune of £35,000 in order to delve into the world of Formula One.  Following a successful test for Jordan at Silverstone In 1991, seven times World Champion Michael Schumacher shelled out £150,000 for the privilege of driving the car at the Belgian Grand Prix.  Michael Schumacher’s subsequent eclipse of Formula One can be attributed in part to Willi Weber, the manager who negotiated these early moves and continued to guide and nurture his career in an astute and discerning manner.

Schumacher and Willi Weber

Money may have been used as a stepping stone to Formula One stardom by two of the most successful drivers in the history of the sport, but as soon as their talent was made apparent, payment for a drive was no longer needed or considered.  Pastor Maldonado has shown, on occasions, that he is a driver of worth in terms of talent, but his substantial funding remains a dominant reason for his secure seat at Williams. 

Regretfully, possessing talent, together with smart management is no longer the key to a career at the pinnacle of motorsport.   Managers being unable to make a significant impact on the career of the drivers they are representing, is becoming increasingly normal in Formula One.   If drivers present themselves to a team with the required funds, they can buy their seat regardless of management.  Formula One’s war with wealth continues, and together with the teams and drivers, managers are swiftly losing the battle.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus: A Recipe For Success

In stark contrast to his cool, aloof nature, the comeback of Kimi Raikkonen provided an extra pinch of heat and spice to Formula One in 2012.  His return to the sport following a stint in rallying was a successful one, and one that saw him rewarded with victory in Abu Dhabi, and third place in the Driver’s Championship with a haul of two hundred and seven points. 

So what are the secrets to his recipe for success?  Lotus and Kimi Raikkonen seem to complement each other perfectly.  The relaxed flavour the Enstone team have created for him has given him the required space to season his skills without having the pressure of extra ingredients such as excessive media commitments.  Citing such pressures as the reason for exiting Formula One in favour of rallying, it was imperative that his return would be with a team who understand the essence of the Iceman. 

Lotus are able to accommodate Kimi's needs.

Ex Williams Chairman, Adam Parr, alluded to the differing levels of competitiveness between the Williams and the Lotus being the reason why Raikkonen’s pre - 2012 season talks with the team crumbled.  While being competitive and fast is important to Kimi, so is an atmosphere that supplements the essence of his personality.  Williams may not have been the perfect accompaniment, just as Ferrari weren't.   Joining the Maranello team in 2007 as a replacement for the retiring Michael Schumacher, his relaxed, terse temperament needed to be blended with the ordered, pressure cooker of an empire the German left behind as a legacy.  A blend that ultimately resulted in the mix to bubble over and ultimately burn out. 

The Ferrari 'way' didn't suit Raikkonen

Kimi Raikkonen’s racing thrives on how things ‘feel’.  Switzerland’s Speed Week quoted him as saying,

“I just think I can learn nothing in the simulator.  I learn a new track quickly, without a simulator.”

This was proved at the inaugural US Grand Prix in Austin when the Finn revealed that he hadn't driven the track in a simulator, but may ride round the circuit on a bicycle if he felt like it.  Whether he did or not is unknown, but during the first practice session he outperformed a team mate who had spent hours in the simulator.  His ability to understand and serve what is needed without conforming to the usual elements of Formula One was also evident in Abu Dhabi.  Now famously quoted, Kimi was heard dismissing the information provided over the radio by an engineer telling him to get heat into all of his tyres during a safety car stint.  A driver of his calibre, and character, doesn't need to be bothered with such basic information, a point proved with the purple lap he delivered following the exit of the safety car. 

The engineer dispensing the unnecessary information was not Raikkonen’s usual engineer, Simon Rennie.  Following the incident, Rennie explained that he knew how Kimi would react to the message, an explanation which exposed him as being an ingredient in the Finn’s comeback to enrich his performance.  Although Lotus will still be able to infuse their easy going approach with the non conformist qualities Raikkonen oozes, will the news that Simon Rennie will be switching his attentions to Mark Webber at Red Bull cause the harmonious blend to separate?  Ciaron Pilbeam, engineer to Webber for the last six seasons, will be the substitute for the missing ingredient in a straight swap.  If Kimi’s successful return to Formula One is to simmer and boil further, an engineer who understands his needs is crucial. 

Kimi showed his leanings towards the playboy lifestyle Hunt was renowned for.

Wearing a helmet as a tribute to playboy James Hunt in Monaco last season demonstrated his penchant for the maverick.  He is as close to being a playboy as is allowed in current times and as long as this is indulged he will continue to produce.  The success of Kimi Raikkonen can be attributed to NOT following a recipe.   

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Where Do Helmut Marko's Loyalties Lie?

Helmut Marko has been busy casting his spell for Red Bull achievement in 2013.  But could stirring a splash of mind games, together with a dash of negativity into his cauldron make his recipe for success go slightly awry? 

“It seems to me that Webber has on average two races per year where he is unbeatable, but he can’t maintain this form throughout the year,” Helmut Marko told Red Bull’s own publication, Red Bulletin.

He added, “As soon as his prospects start to look good in the World Championship, he has a little trouble with the pressure that this creates.  In comparison with Seb’s rising form, it seems to me that Mark’s form somehow flattens out.”

Helmut Marko and Mark Webber

The difference in performance between Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel during the first half of the season was minimal, with the lead in the World Championship bouncing back and forth between the two.   Webber’s fourth place at his home Grand Prix meant that he started the season six points behind second placed Vettel.   The German’s now infamous ‘cucumber’ incident with Narain Kartikeyan in Malaysia resulted in the tables being turned as Mark usurped the six point lead. The gap was extended to eight points in China as Webber and Vettel collected fourth and fifth places respectively.  Taking victory in Bahrain enabled Seb to recover and go five points clear of his team mate, a gap further extended to twelve points in Barcelona.  Another win for Webber in Monaco, followed by a fourth in Valencia and his second victory of the season at Silverstone, saw him shoot up to second in the table, sixteen points ahead of Vettel.  This lead was reduced to two points at Hockenhiem, a difference maintained going into the mid season break after Hungary.  Monza saw the lead bounce back in Sebastian Vettel’s favour, and from Singapore his onslaught began.  Helmut Marko remarked,

 “After the summer break, his performance curve shoots up.  That’s what happened in previous years, too.  I don’t know how he does it.” 

I wonder whether Vettel’s ‘rising form’ could have been attributable to the developments made on the car.  For Singapore, a new double DRS system was introduced resulting in the RB8 showing performance akin to the championship winning RB7.  Having similar characteristics and form to the car that facilitated the German’s runaway success in 2011, brought an inevitability that Seb would stretch and elongate his lead over his team mate during the second half of the season.  It is interesting that the rise in Vettel’s form should coincide with a significant development on the car making it the one to beat on the grid, but when the car was uncompetitive the performance between himself and Mark Webber was equally balanced.

Helmut Marko and Sebastian Vettel have a close relationship

If Webber is prone to underperforming under pressure, is the Red Bull Team Advisor airing his thoughts about his abilities publicly, the most effectual route to take in managing the situation?    The comments will be taken one of two ways, it could serve to make Mark more determined, but could equally damage confidence.  Would you run the risk of the latter happening when you are reliant on him for points in order to secure a fourth consecutive Constructors Championship?  
Where do Helmut Marko’s loyalties lie?  With Sebastian Vettel or Red Bull as a whole?  They don’t appear to be gravitating towards Red bull.  Overseeing the Red Bull development programme nurturing young drivers means he clearly has interests that don’t involve Mark Webber.  Is he trying to ensure the Australian looks elsewhere for a drive for 2014, leaving the way open to inject more home grown talent into the team alongside Vettel?  This may be his wish, but if he continues to wave his wand of negativity it could be at the cost of a fourth constructors crown. 

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Sergio Perez: Talented With Tyres?

Since the announcement that Sergio Perez would replace Lewis Hamilton at McLaren for 2013 was made, the issue of whether he is capable of delivering has been hotly contested by pundits and the media.  The abilities of the young Mexican have recently been defended by Sauber team manager, Beat Zehnder.  Talking to Auto Motor Und Sport he called Perez, 

"A natural talent in terms of tyre management." 

He added, 

"He has an incredibly good feeling for getting the best out of the tyres and at the same time keeping them alive."

Sergio Perez on soft tyres at the Canadian Grand Prix 2012

Perez was able to adopt a one stop strategy in races in 2012 notably in Canada and Monza when he was rewarded with podium places.  In Canada he was able to complete 29 laps on the supersoft tyres, an impressive amount considering Jenson Button, who is renowned for his tyre conservation, could only manage 19.  However, Sergio's tally of 29 laps was smashed by Pastor Maldonado who completed 41 in the Williams.

When you look at the statistics regarding the number of laps completed on a single set of tyres, it is the teams further down the field who perform better.  So is Perez particularly gifted at conserving tyres? Or is it that the Sauber isn't as harsh on its tyres due to the fact that the level of downforce created isn't as sophisticated as it is on the cars of the top teams?  

I wonder whether his 'natural talent' will be so apparent when he is at the wheel of an aerodynamically superior car like the McLaren.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Conspiracy Surrounding Hamilton's Move to Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton's life as a Mercedes driver has officially begun this week, a life that is set to last for at least three years.  However, certain comments made by Lewis and McLaren Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh since the announcement of the move, revealed a semblance of conspiracy. Speaking in November 2012, Whitmarsh told Sky Sports that he hoped Lewis would be taking a 'gap year' at Mercedes.  Further tinder was added to the smoldering embers of intrigue during an interview with Martin Brundle prior to the Brazilian Grand Prix.  When asked if he was sad to leave McLaren, Lewis answered. "Coming across here, this finish line for the last time with the team 'til who knows when is sad in many ways."

Martin Brundle interviews Lewis.

Neither of these responses have much finality about them.  They create a definite sense of the temporary despite the 2008 champion's three year contract at the Silver Arrows team.  Hamilton's home is at McLaren, the place where his talents were nourished and nurtured since the age of fifteen.  His switch to Mercedes will give him the opportunity to grow up, flourish and develop further, particularly in terms of leadership, away from the 'family'.  On his return, his new repertoire of talent will only be beneficial to McLaren.  

A touching moment between Hamilton and Whitmarsh in Austin shows the strong relationship between them.

So is his potential growth the reason Lewis is taking a 'gap' from McLaren or is there something else behind it?  In 2014, 2.4- litre V8 engines will be replaced by a 1.6-litre V6. Fuel economy will become paramount as the amount of fuel permissible will be lower, together with the fuel rate.  There will be more of a focus on the use of KERS, together with an extra electric machine used to recover energy from the heat of the exhausts.  Teams have already started working on this technology with Mercedes being at the forefront of the development along with Renault and Ferrari.  As McLaren will be supplied with Mercedes engines, any early information about their development would be treated like gold.  Could soon to be wise man Lewis Hamilton deliver the gold?  

Could the real reason for Lewis'  change of team be to spy for McLaren?  If so, imagine tensions that could be caused between the teams... Shaken and stirred.