Friday, 31 May 2013

Perez’s wildcat style continues to anger and unsettle world champions.

“Perez has been very polite so far this year, I think he needs to toughen up.”  Martin Whitmarsh

Never have any words been taken more literally than those spoken by the McLaren Team Principal.  Struggling to establish himself as a contender amongst the lions in the top teams following his move from Sauber, Sergio was given this advice to help him ensconce himself in the pride to ensure he scores more points.  Checo has certainly initiated himself in the hunt with the resulting spirited approach, however it has been more akin to that of a wildcat than a courageous lion. 

Perez stepped on the toes of Kimi Raikkonen in China, moving across the track in front of him resulting in a trip onto the grass and damage to the nose of the Lotus.  He also managed to anger Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton in the same race.  Daring to battle the patriarchs for top finishes in a race will always cause friction.  When Michael Schumacher roared onto the Formula One scene his sights were firmly set on taking the challenge to the leader of the pack and triple world champion, Ayrton Senna.  He was on a crusade to beat the best.  With such vigour for combat, the possibility of bloodshed is inevitable.  The inevitable happened at the French Grand Prix in 1992 when the two collided.  After the race Senna sought out the young German for a private conversation about the incident.  Schumacher admitted blame for the incident and during a recorded interview for the Tri Senna campaign revealed,

“The main reason he came to see me was to ask if we had any problems in the future, we should talk in person, not complain to the press.” 

Senna and Schumacher after the incident at Magny Cours in 1992.  Photo:

Since Bahrain, Sergio Perez has shown that he intends to fight for his place, assert his authority no matter who may be in the way starting with his ex World Champion teammate, Jenson Button.  Battling for fifth place Perez launched an onslaught on Jenson as fans were treated to lap after lap of thrilling tyre to tyre tumult.  Like Senna with Schumacher, although not privately, Jenson voiced his opinion on the situation after the race,

“I’m not used to driving down a straight and having your team mate wiggling his wheels at you and banging wheels at 300kmh.  That’s things you do in karting but grow out of it.  Not the case with Checo.”

Not content with angering the experienced lions just once, Perez continued his racier form in Monaco as he made a daring move on Fernando Alonso at the harbourside chicane causing the Ferrari driver to cut the corner to avoid contact.  Later in the race, a challenge by the Mexican on Raikkonen for fifth place resulted in contact at the chicane meaning a trip to the pits for Kimi to replace a punctured tyre.  Clearly angered, Kimi said after the race,

“He hit me from behind and that’s all there is to it.  If he thinks it’s my fault that he came into the corner too fast then he obviously has no idea what he’s talking about.”

Perez and Raikkonen in Monaco.  Photo: www.

Fernando Alonso’s views were slightly less heated but his similar displeasure can be read in the words,

“He was lucky this year in two or three incidents.  In Bahrain there was nearly contact with Jenson, with me I was off the track avoiding contact.  Here at the chicane I avoided contact, but Kimi was not lucky because he didn’t avoid the contact.  But only McLaren have to be happy with him.”

Just as Ayrton Senna was threatened by young talent challenging him, so are the numerous world Champions we are privileged to have on the grid today.  Although not having the ‘private chat’ Ayrton had with the young Schumacher, words from Jenson, Fernando and Kimi demonstrate the same principle, trying to put the young pretender in his place, but by doing so revealing a slight insecurity about what the future might hold. 

Speaking after the race in China where the Perez ‘affair’ started, Martin Whitmarsh also said,
“Afterwards I said you have to be racing and sometimes that means you’ve got elbows and you’ve got to be robust without being dirty.”

In a season where ‘real’ racing seems to have given way to careful preservation of tyres, Sergio’s spicier style has heated things up reminding us what racing and Formula One should really be about.  As long as he keeps it clean we look forward to more passes from Perez.

Monday, 27 May 2013

The Formula One rumour mill is always in motion: An early look at driver moves for 2014.

Although still early in the season, the topic of driver moves for 2014 is not off the table.  An issue clearly on Sky F1’s David Croft’s mind during the Team Principal press conference as Christian Horner was quizzed about Mark Webber’s status at Red Bull, while Franz Tost was asked about whether Ricciardo or Vergne could usurp that seat, should it become available.    The catalyst for this talk is Mark Webber, all speculation about seats for 2014 can be traced back to him as whispers have rippled around the paddock since the Multi 21 affair in Malaysia. 

Tumultous team mates Vettel and Webber.  Photo:

With events at The Malaysian Grand Prix adding to the already fractious nature of the relationship between Vettel and Webber, speculation about the Australian’s replacement has been rife ever since, with the possibility of it being Kimi Raikkonen at the forefront of the rumours.  Lotus seems like a perfect team for Kimi, they complement each other.   Eric Boullier gives him space to be himself while he delivers the goods.  The Helmet Marko factor at Red Bull makes it a far cry from the laid back Lotus atmosphere he has flourished in, and it is impossible to imagine Kimi settling for number two status; as impossible a thought as Vettel being happy about having a very fast team mate.   Over the winter Mark Webber’s race engineer Ciaron Pilbeam, and engineer to Kimi, Simon Rennie, switched teams; maybe 2014 will see driver and engineer reunited in a mirror image straight swap.   The departure from Lotus of talented technical director James Allison could also turn out to be a determining factor in any decision made. 

Kimi Raikkonen and James Allison.  Photo:

If Kimi Raikkonen does choose to remain at Lotus, the opportunity for a race seat at the team may not be closed for Webber.  Despite an atrocious years racing in 2012, Eric Boullier chose to stand by Romain Grosjean for 2013.  Although showing flashes of intense speed, this season has not shown Romain in a more positive light.  In Monaco the Frenchman completed no less than three walks of shame back to the pits over the weekend, after crashing in the second and third practice sessions;  rehearsals for the real thing when he acquainted himself with the rear of Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso on lap 63 of the race.  When given a reprieve for the 2013 season Eric Boullier made it clear that he needed to improve with haste,

“But this is an uncompromising world that does not allow many mistakes.  He still has to learn, but he must do so quickly,”

If Grosjean’s ghastly form continues, a spare seat at Lotus alongside Kimi for 2014 could be a possibility, providing the Enstone team don’t decide to replace him mid season. 

Other drivers in contention for that precious seat with triple World Champions Red Bull are Toro Rosso drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Jean Eric Vergne who are showcasing their worth and building their portfolio as the season unfolds.  Both drivers have put in strong performances; Ricciardo in China and Vergne in Monaco, with the Australian currently edging his team mate by two points in the championship.  Having left his team mate to play follow my leader in four out of six qualifying sessions, Ricciardo has also promoted his superior one lap pace.  They may need to up their game though, because hot on their heels for the seat is highly rated Red Bull young driver Antonio Felix da Costa, who stood in for Sebastian Buemi as reserve driver in China. 

Team mates in contention  for a possible Red Bull seat.  Photo:

Meanwhile, rumours about Mark going to Ferrari continue to rumble.  Reviving his form towards the end of last season, Felipe Massa rescued his seat from the clutches of scarlet hungry drivers.  His future with the Scuderia will be entirely form dependant.  Strongly starting the season with  a descending scale of fourth, fifth and sixth places at Australia, Malaysia and China respectively, followed by a podium in Spain, it changed in Monaco where his form came crashing to its knees in spectacular style.    Thumping into the barriers at Ste Devote with huge force during the third practice session meant that Massa’s car was unable to be rebuilt before qualifying later that day.  A driver error Massa will want to avoid on his quest to secure his future in the sport.  An almost identical accident on race day, although this time caused by a gremlin in the car, concluded a bad weekend for the Brazilian.  In addition to speculation about a Maranello drive for Mark Webber, whispers about a Ferrari seat for Nico Hulkenberg have not been silenced, and Jules Bianchi is also waiting in the wings.   

It is early to be thinking about which driver will be switching teams, striding around the paddock in different overalls, but the Formula One rumour mill is always in motion.  It will be interesting to see how this gathers momentum over the course of the season. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Monaco with Jackie Stewart and Roman Polanski: A Romantic and Intense 'Weekend of a Champion.'

Monaco:  Atmosphere rich.  A race with a heightened element of danger; a necessary act of juggling speed with precision. A competition won by the driver who can push to the absolute limits of speed and danger, passing walls so closely they are almost kissed. A race made enthralling by the challenge and risk involved.  Masters of Monaco are those willing to take that risk. Due to its unforgiving, claustrophobic nature, it is the ultimate test of driver skill, particularly in the modern era of large run off areas.  Comfort like this cannot be sought around the streets of Monte Carlo; there is no room for error.  Monaco continues to hold a special place in every Formula One lover’s heart, however, it is the classic races that add that tinge of nostalgia, causing that flutter in the tummy, much like being in love.

With safety standards as high as they are today, the risk factor in terms of life lost is much reduced, but in Jackie Stewart’s era, the drivers were at the mercy of the wicked walls.  Even the slightest tickle of these walls or barriers could spell disaster, sending cars spiraling out of the race.  Film maker Roman Polanski’s ‘Weekend of a Champion’ provides a unique insight into the romance and intensity of a Formula One race at Monaco during this era, by following Tyrrell driver Jackie Stewart, as he commands the 1971 weekend and achieves his second victory around the famous streets.


The film opens by conveying the glamour of Monaco as Jackie and wife Helen, having just arrived at the track, walk to the pits among pre race, on track entertainment, intermingling with majorettes and marching bands, listening to the roaring of a fervent crowd and hungry photographers.


Cutting back to earlier in the weekend after the opening scene, Polanski is given a master class in how the legendary circuit should be driven; the correct lines to take and gears to use.  As rain pelted the principality during Thursday practice, on board footage of Jackie Stewart nursing his newly rebuilt Tyrrell around the track, shifting gears manually, triggers that sense of nostalgia in the viewer.  Nostalgia that intensifies as every corner is swept past. 

Friday practice saw the Scotsman consistently fast during damp conditions and it was during this session that a touching scene between Stewart and his young team mate Francois Cevert is captured.  Jackie hands down his secrets, revealing which gear to use for each corner and how to manage fuel.  These are not secrets for any one’s ears as they briefly pause the master class to ensure they not overheard by others in the garage.   It is during this conversation with his young protégé that a hint is given about his well hidden intention to retire from racing, “I think my energy’s gone, I think it has ceased.” “It hasn't ceased, but it might be getting to cease.”
Frenchman Cevert was intended to be heir to Stewart’s talents. 

Stewart and Cevert: Photo:

Discussion with Roman over breakfast on the Saturday reveals more enchanting Monaco facets.  At that time, the race was started by Louis Chiron, an ex racing driver who stood on the track while the cars all filtered around him, fighting an age fuelled struggle to wave the flag effectively to signal the start of the race.  Stewart explains that having been dropped previously due to this, Chiron was reinstated because he was an icon of Monte Carlo, a race unsurpassed for its unique character.  Jackie’s description of effective braking in a smooth, caressing manner to protect rideheight is utterly alluring.  This is a dreamy and amorous description of how to drive a Formula One car that is matched so perfectly to the romanticism of Monaco itself. 

Despite being congratulated by Monaco Master Graham Hill on his pace during qualifying, and despite securing pole position, Jackie later reveals his worries for a wet race, “We are in no shape to compete.” 

Indeed, on Sunday, amidst race preparations including painting of grid slots and erection of barriers, he is feeling intense and uptight.  He admits to feeling more irritated than normal.  This is Monaco, the race all drivers want to win.  It is a true test of driver skill therefore carries the most prestige.  Jackie Stewart desperately wanted to win this race.  Passion like this brings a deluge of nerves and emotion. 

Everything about this film is romantic: the classic era of racing, the legendary street circuit, Stewart’s descriptions of how to caress the car around the track, and woven through all of this, his relationship with his wife Helen, her fears for his safety and his secret plan to retire in order to secure a happy future for them both.  The sparkle of Monaco is perhaps slightly jaded by the weather over the 1971 weekend, but the weather serves to symbolise Jackie’s intense, foreboding attitude caused by his passionate desire to win. 


Monaco:  A place that exudes romance; that incites passion, intensity and fervour.  With that passion comes a pressure that only the very best will overcome.  

Friday, 17 May 2013

Perez and Gutierrez begin to threaten their lead drivers.

Publicly revealing information about who the lead driver is within a Formula One team is not commonly done.  The status of Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel as team leading number one drivers is widely assumed, although never mentioned by themselves or the teams, instead left cloaked in secrecy.  However, when a driver such as Nico Hulkenberg joins a new team to be partnered by a very inexperienced rookie, a leadership role is inevitable.  Sauber Team Principal, Monisha Kaltenborn made it clear what was what was expected of Nico after he joined the team for the 2013 season.  Talking to Brazil’s Total sport in December, she said, 
“Of course we hope Nico, who is very good in certain areas, takes a lead in certain areas such as with (car) development and the relationship with the engineers.” 

Monisha Kaltenborn with her drivers.  Photo:

Similarly, the flight of Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes cleared the way for Jenson Button to take the lead at McLaren as he was joined by relatively inexperienced Sergio Perez, who was starting life with his new team on the back of a poor run of form. Again, no secret was made about his assuming a lead role.  Speaking to ITN Jenson revealed, 
“I really enjoy being the lead driver and being the guy who can really help the team improve the car and sort of mould the car around me.”

Martin Whitmarsh with his drivers.  Photo:

It has been a rocky start for Esteban Gutierrez; colliding with Adrian Sutil and blocking Kimi Raikkonen during qualifying for Spain has introduced him to the world of driver penalties.  Being relegated to nineteenth on the grid for the Spanish Grand Prix as a result of the latter incident, it looked like the erroneous start to his Formula One career was set to continue.  Under pressure from himself and the team, the young Mexican proved he can have a strong race finishing eleventh, just 0.3 seconds off claiming his first World Championship point.  Hulkenberg finished in fifteenth.  Although the German’s running was hindered by the stop go penalty issued after an unsafe release in the pit lane, Gutierrez was leading his team mate by three positions just prior to this incident.  Although not particularly inspiring, the Sauber rookie has bequeathed a glimpse of a strength and maturity that previously appeared lacking. 

Initially leading the way in a faltering McLaren, Jenson Button started the season confirming his capacity for leadership with number one driver prestige thrown in, out qualifying Sergio Perez for the first four races, and finishing above him in Australia and China.  In Bahrain however, responding to a request for livelier racing from Team Principal, Martin Whitmarsh, Perez revealed his thoughts on the matter, tussling with his team mate for position.  With the battle between them teetering on the edge of disaster for the team, Jenson could be heard over team radio telling the team to “calm him down”, rather condescendingly, as if training a puppy.   The spirited contest from Checo seemed to surprise him, causing him to stamp his authority within the team. 

Continuing his improved form in qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix, Sergio Perez pushed though into Q3, leaving team leader Jenson Button languishing in fourteenth.  In the race, the Briton put in a great performance to finish eighth having fallen back to seventeenth as the red lights were extinguished.  Running just in front of Perez in the closing stages of the race in Barcelona, an echo of events in Bahrain threatened until the Mexican received the order not to challenge.

Team leaders Jenson Button and Nico Hulkenberg are still just about keeping their performances worthy of lead driver merit, but with hungry young adversaries gaining fast, they should be keeping an eye in those rear view mirrors.  

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Will lack of foresight at McLaren harm their future and cause them to become the next Williams?

Thirty six years in Formula One.  With nine Constructor’s Championships, seven Drivers titles, and one hundred and fourteen race victories to their name, Williams are a team steeped in racing history.  After an initial settling in period, the British team took two consecutive Constructor’s titles in 1980, when Alan Jones also steered the Ford powered machine to clinch the driver’s title, and 1981.  This success was followed by two years of Ferrari control on the track, an achievement mirrored by McLaren in the ensuing two years.  Continuing the pattern, Williams took another two in 1986 and 1987 before the dominance of McLaren during the Senna and Prost years; dominance broken in 1992 by Nigel Mansell storming to capture both titles with nine race wins in the season.  Williams were to enjoy continued superiority until 1994 when they took a yearlong sabbatical, returning to the top in 1996 and 1997.

Williams domination in 1996.  Photo:

Throughout this period, when not winning titles, Williams were mounting a challenge and were within close proximity of the prize with the exception of 1988; a season in which only seventh was achieved  in the Constructors race due to their running of a Judd engine, which was unable to compete with the turbos powering rival teams.   Since their most recent title win in 1997, their presence at the front, contesting race wins and titles has been less consistent.  Slipping just behind the leaders with the resurgence of McLaren in 1998, a further drop to fifth was endured at the dawn of the Ferrari dominance in 1999.  Hanging around between 2nd and fifth became familiar until 2006 when their Cosworth powered car suffered a high percentage of retirements leaving them languishing in eighth.  Their descent down the table has continued, and following their nadir season in 2011, they have failed to rise to anywhere near the dizzy heights they were so used to experiencing.  The 2012 Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona provided the team with an injection of hope when Pastor Maldonado held off the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso to take the win.  Hope which later dissipated along with their ability to repeat the Spanish high.

Pastor Maldonado took the win at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix.  Photo:

Fifty years in Formula One.  With eight Constructor’s Championships, twelve driver’s titles and one hundred and eighty two race victories to their name, McLaren are a team steeped in racing history.  Since 1981, McLaren have rarely finished lower than fourth in the Constructor’s Championship, and like Williams are synonymous with battling at the sharp end of the grid.  2013 could be the season to herald an unwanted change.  Having made more radical modifications to the car than their rivals, McLaren are enduring a tough start to the season.  With Williams and their racing legacy already lost to the subterranean end of the grid, to lose another would be abhorrent.

McLaren's last Constructors crown was won in 1998, when Mika Hakkinen also took the Driver's title.  Photo: 

In 2006 the unreliable Williams, especially prone to handling problems, caused designer Sam Michael to watch his cars retire in twenty out of thirty six races.  In 2013, designer Sam Michael watches his more revolutionary changes cause poor performance, leaving them only sixth in the table currently.  Before their recent crumble, Williams were closely stalking the leaders following their final Championship win in 1997.  Likewise, McLaren have been tailgating the frontrunners since their most recent Constructor’s win in 1998.  A similar collapse is not beyond the realms of possibility. 

For 2010 and 2011, Williams switched back to using a Cosworth engine with an updated version of the one used during the dire 2006 season with unfavourable results.  McLaren will continue to be supplied with Mercedes engines for 2014 to kick off their campaign in the new turbo era, with a move to Honda for 2015.  Working with new regulations, McLaren, like the other teams on the grid will face an uncertain 2014, the difference being that those with long term engine deals will be consolidating the following year.  McLaren will again have to start afresh; something that could thwart their ambition and hinder performance. 

Considering the poor start to the season, it is inevitable that questions should be asked regarding switch of focus to the 2014 challenger, to help ensure a more rewarding season next year.  Martin Whitmarsh has made it clear that he isn’t going to alter focus to 2014. Speaking to France’s L’Equipe he said, 

“Maybe I’m wrong but I refuse to think about 2014.  I want us to return to the front and to go to every Grand Prix thinking that we can win.” 

Trailing top rivals, with Jenson Button sitting only tenth in the Driver’s Championship, his stance could be questioned.  With other teams heavily focused on 2014 development, McLaren could accept this as a lost opportunity and use it instead to gain a head, or equal start to their competitors.  Whitmarsh explained that he wants to see what gains they can extract from the upgrades for Barcelona,

“One of my weaknesses is that I want to be competitive.  I want to get back to the front, before thinking about making ground in the title race.” 

This evident lack of foresight could cause McLaren to emulate the demise of Williams.  This is a sobering thought, and for the sake of Formula One, one that doesn’t bear thinking about.