Month: June 2013

Ricciardo’s chance to atone

Sunday at Silverstone is Daniel Ricciardo’s time to make amends. Ever since the Bahrain Grand Prix of 2012, when a career-best sixth on the grid quickly became an afterthought following a tentative first lap that saw him elbowed all the way back to 16th, the Australian has been, in his words, “hanging out” for a chance to mix it with the big guns at the pointy end of a Formula One grid once again.

Thanks to a grid penalty for unlucky Scot Paul di Resta that sent the Force India driver to the back of the grid for Sunday’s British Grand Prix, Ricciardo will start from a career-best fifth at Silverstone, one place behind compatriot Mark Webber and mere metres behind the all-Red Bull second row of Webber and Sebastian Vettel. Within touching distance of the cars entered by the team he so desperately wants to drive for in 2014 and beyond. And with Webber, on announcing he was vacating his seat at the three-time reigning constructors’ champions, endorsing his countryman as being ready to take the next step and join a team competing for race wins and titles.

Ricciardo has replayed that first lap from Bahrain 14 months ago over and over in his head since. Tortured himself with it. He’s vowed to never be that tentative again should be find himself close to the front when the five red lights go out. With world champions such as Raikkonen, Alonso and Button behind him on Sunday’s grid, not to mention the ever-present danger posed by the king of carbon fibre carnage, Romain Grosjean, the first 10 seconds at Silverstone will tell us much about Ricciardo’s mindset and the ability to right past wrongs.

For Australia’s Inside Sport magazine earlier this year, I asked Ricciardo about that first lap in Bahrain – and rather than play down its significance or avoid the question, he tackled the question head-on. The trademark toothy grin appeared at first before he became, by his easy-going standards, atypically serious and reflective.

“It can be quite easy to lose momentum – you get a poor start off the line, you brake too early for turn one, and it snowballs,” he said.

“Maybe that can come down to being a little tense and not grabbing it by the horns.

“The aggression is something every driver has got, and each of us is a bit of an animal. Whether we show it 90 per cent of the time or 10 per cent of the time, it’s in us. We’re at the top level of the sport, and all of us have had to make some pretty ballsy passes to get here.

“It’s not something I need to find from somewhere, because it is in me and I know it is. As much as I smile outside, there’s definitely some fire in this belly.

“Last year I probably didn’t use the aggression inside of me as often as I should have. If I didn’t have any aggression, I’d be struggling and I don’t think I would have got here.

“I want to prove to any people who think I’m a bit soft that I’m actually a racer.”

Fighting words. Just watch that third row on Sunday.


Memories of Aussie Grit

In the wake of Mark Webber’s retirement, a look back to a race weekend I’ll always remember; Abu Dhabi 2010, and he’d just missed out on the world championship.

I was the only Aussie journalist to get one-on-one interview time with him that night at the Yas Marina Circuit, and it was Mark at his most raw: brutally honest, unscripted and unedited, and nothing was off-limits.

For those of us who work in an industry with so much spin, he’ll be missed.

From The Age newspaper:

When home isn’t so sweet

Nigel Mansell was in no doubt whatsoever. The adrenaline still pulsing through his veins following his stunning pursuit and pass of Williams teammate Nelson Piquet to win the 1987 British Grand Prix, the Englishman knew what had powered him to one of the most memorable Formula One victories of the last 30 years. Yes, the Honda powerplant in the back of the FW11B played its part, but Mansell had another explanation for how he’d overcome a 29-second deficit to Piquet in just 28 laps, lowering the Silverstone lap record a stunning 11 times en route before passing the Brazilian on the penultimate lap.

“As soon as I knew I was catching Nelson, the crowd all around the circuit for the last 15 laps … they were waving to me through all the corners and down the straights,” he said.

“It was willing me on. It helped tremendously, and I’ve got to thank them for the win.”

Mansell later commented that the home crowd was worth “a second a lap” in his pursuit of Piquet, something he’d clearly convinced himself of in his relentless chase. But is there really something to be gained from racing at home? Recent history would suggest, despite the fan support, circuit familiarity and numerous other factors that should make racing at home a positive, that “home ground” advantage in F1 is largely irrelevant.

Looking back over the last 10 years of F1 Grands Prix, from the opening round of 2003 in Australia up to and including the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal a fortnight ago, there have been 188 races contested – and home drivers have won just 10 times. Of course, having more than one race in your home country helps in that regard, perhaps explaining why Michael Schumacher (four wins at home) is the most successful driver in his own backyard in the last decade. In 2004 and again in 2006, the German won his home race at Hockenheim and the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.

The only driver to win at home in the last five years is Fernando Alonso, who took this year’s Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya to go with his memorable win at Valencia in the European GP of 2012. Other than that, home hasn’t exactly been sweet for those drivers with a true home race, with 12 of this year’s 22-driver field having a race scheduled in the country of their birth.

In Australia, the subject of a home Grand Prix win and Mark Webber’s chances of saluting at Albert Park comes up year after year, particularly in the context of the success two-wheel compatriot Casey Stoner has enjoyed at his home race in recent years. Stoner and Phillip Island seem perfect for one another, with the Australian’s run of six consecutive MotoGP wins at home only to be broken this year by his premature retirement.

Webber at home, even after his stunning fifth place on debut for Minardi way back in 2002, doesn’t have such a glittering record. The Australian has started just once from the front row (2010) in 12 Albert Park outings, and finished no better than fourth (2012). Some 13 of the 17 circuits that featured in Webber’s first F1 season of 2002 are still on today’s calendar, and it’s only Melbourne and Monza where he’s never stepped onto the podium, an extraordinary stat.

Alonso excepted, there are plenty of other drivers who struggle at home. Who can forget poor Rubens Barrichello’s 11 retirements – in 19 races – at Interlagos? Webber’s own teammate Sebastian Vettel, who has seemingly won everywhere else in his last three world championship-winning campaigns, hasn’t stood on the top step of the podium in Germany in five attempts.

Which brings us to next weekend’s British Grand Prix, back in Mansell’s playground of Silverstone, and the prospects of one Jenson Alexander Lyons Button. The Briton’s home record at Silverstone is even worse than Webber’s at Albert Park, with Button failing to even record a podium finish in 13 previous home appearances. What could have gone wrong generally has for Button at Silverstone, even when he finally had a race-winning car in 2009, his world championship season. Having won six of the first seven races of the season in the all-conquering Brawn machine, Button could only qualify and finish sixth on the sweeps of Silverstone.

Back-to-back second-row starts for BAR in 2004-05 saw him slip backwards, his three appearances for Honda in the years following are best not spoken about, and on the one occasion he’s qualified near the front in his three British outings for McLaren, a wheel fell off the car after a pit stop in 2011.

What would Button, a three-time Australian GP winner, and Webber, twice a victor in the British Grand Prix in the last three years, give to swap some of their success in one another’s home race?

Unfortunately for British fans (and perhaps British GP organisers hoping for bumper attendance figures), we shouldn’t expect much to change next weekend. McLaren’s 2013 season has been little short of a disaster, with Button languishing in 10th place in the world championship, already more than 100 points adrift of Vettel after just seven races. In Montreal last time out, neither Button nor teammate Sergio Perez finished inside the points, the first time McLaren has had both cars not score in 64 races.

For Button next weekend, a top-10 finish would be a must, a podium an unexpected (and seemingly unrealistic) bonus. And a win, despite the support he’ll get from the Silverstone crowd that urged Mansell to that memorable success a generation ago, sadly appears to be little more than a pipedream.

The 10* home Grand Prix wins in the last 10 years

2004 European Grand Prix: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari)
2004 German Grand Prix: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari)
2006 Spanish Grand Prix: Fernando Alonso (Renault)
2006 European Grand Prix: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari)
2006 German Grand Prix: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari)
2006 Brazilian Grand Prix: Felipe Massa (Ferrari)
2008 British Grand Prix: Lewis Hamilton (McLaren)
2008 Brazilian Grand Prix: Felipe Massa (Ferrari)
2012 European Grand Prix: Fernando Alonso (Ferrari)
2013 Spanish Grand Prix: Fernando Alonso (Ferrari)

(* – Kimi Raikkonen’s 2005 Hungarian Grand Prix win for McLaren, given the number of Finnish fans in Budapest that weekend, almost counts as a ‘home’ win …).

Daniel in the lions’ den

With F1 teams constantly on the lookout for the next big thing, the average age of the drivers on modern-day grids keeps falling. To wit: Mark Webber was 25 years old when he made his F1 debut in 2002. Just 11 years later, Daniel Ricciardo will start his 38th race at Silverstone at the end of June, which takes place the day before his 24th birthday.

Young in real life terms as Ricciardo is, eight of the 21 other drivers on this year’s F1 grid are younger than the West Australian, and most bring considerably more commercial muscle to their team. While 24 is not exactly ancient these days, the increasingly youthful face of F1 means the clock is ticking, and what’s worrying for fans of the Perth product is that his results appear to be going the wrong way just as a big prize could be presenting itself.

A drive with Red Bull Racing is one of the most coveted in the sport, and for the time being, Webber is in it. Many of those in the know are adamant this year will be Webber’s last hurrah, a thought aired even before the disgrace of Malaysia, where teammate Sebastian Vettel so openly flouted a team instruction and was, in Webber’s own words, “protected by the team as usual” when it was revealed that he’d put himself ahead of his employer (as an aside, would Webber have made it as far as Kuala Lumpur airport after the race at Sepang before being told he’d been relieved of his duties had the roles been reversed?).

For a bloke who was a grown-up before he made it to F1, and one with a strong moral compass in life generally, not just his sport, Vettel’s brazen betrayal cut Webber to his very core – and, perhaps, erased what few doubts there were remaining about what he would want to do next year.

The general consensus is that there’ll be a seat available at the team that has won the last three constructors’ championships (and seems well on the way to a fourth) for 2014, and if Red Bull (the company, not the race team) is serious about Scuderia Toro Rosso being used as a proving ground for the young driving talent on its F1 books, then Kimi Raikkonen couldn’t – shouldn’t – be an option to fill it. Given Vettel’s, shall we say, standing within the team, perhaps we won’t be surprised if the current Lotus driver (and Vettel’s badminton partner in Switzerland, no less) reluctantly appears before the sport’s photographers in Red Bull overalls for the official portrait pics in Melbourne (or, more likely, Bahrain) next March. But if Red Bull is to promote from within, current Toro Rosso drivers Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne are the two drivers in the box seat – and while Ricciardo looked to have the wood over his French teammate as this season began, Vergne has started to turn the tables in recent races.

With Webber’s future to be revealed by the (northern hemisphere) summer break in August, Ricciardo needs to strike back – and quickly – in the next three races before the good and great of F1 head to the nightclubs, befriend supermodels or do whatever else wealthy racing drivers on holiday do.

Two years ago, Ricciardo made his F1 debut at Silverstone, driving the twitchy HRT machine after being loaned to the back-of-the grid Spanish squad by Red Bull. Simply being in the sport was enough – Ricciardo’s wide grin, accentuated by his braces, showed you how happy he was simply to be there at first. Last year, things got more serious and, despite being out-scored by Vergne for the season (16-10), Ricciardo was generally the more convincing of the pair, annihilating his teammate 16-4 in qualifying in a consistent demonstration of his one-lap speed.

This year, things haven’t gone so smoothly for the Australian. Ricciardo leads Vergne 4-3 in qualifying and laid down an early marker with a strong seventh place in China, but in a sport where you’re only as good as your last race, Vergne has gained the ascendancy, finishing eighth in Monaco (after qualifying a career-best 10th) and backing that up with a sixth place on merit in Montreal last time out, the best result from his 27 races to date.

What do we know about Ricciardo in those two years since he made his F1 start? One, he can consistently transcend the capabilities of a car over one lap when everything’s on the line. Two, he’s a smooth driver who doesn’t over-stress his machinery. Three, he hasn’t allowed the somewhat surreal lifestyle and job requirements that come with being in such an elite group of sportspeople to change him one iota. Admirable traits, all three. But has he shown enough yet to be considered a lock for the Red Bull seat should it come up? Has Vergne, by dint of his recent form and because of the potential commercial benefits of his nationality by comparison, stolen the Australian’s thunder? And what of Antonio Felix da Costa, the 21-year-old Red Bull-backed ‘next big thing’ from Portugal who is tracking along nicely in the Formula Renault 3.5 series and is thought by many in the know to have more upside than either Ricciardo or Vergne when he eventually gets to F1?

The upcoming British Grand Prix is one of three races scheduled before F1’s now-standard mid-season break – and with the intrigue on the second Red Bull seat only set to intensify as we edge closer to August, there’s never been a better – and more crucial – time for Ricciardo to remind the sport of everything he has to offer, and why he was parachuted onto the grid two years ago at the same famed venue. His dreams of one day becoming Formula One world champion – and being able to take the next step towards achieving that end – may well come down to what he’s able to do in the next trio of races. Fair? Probably not. Reality? Perhaps.

Ricciardo’s talent is evident, but can he will himself to show what an Australian would call “enough mongrel” to capitalise on it? As every driver not named Sebastian Vettel has shown, there’s one way of leaving the Red Bull F1 program that doesn’t bear thinking about.

Canada review: Vettel’s perfect day


There’s not much Red Bull hasn’t achieved in its last three years of Formula One dominance, but the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal has long been a thorn in the side of the British-run, Austrian-owned team. With its mixture of long straights interrupted by tight hairpins and big braking zones, the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve hasn’t played into the hands of the Adrian Newey-designed Red Bull machines, which are typically at their best on the free-flowing circuits that characterise the majority of the rest of the calendar.

On Sunday, Sebastian Vettel ticked one of the few boxes that had remained unchecked over his three world championship seasons, starting from pole and obliterating the rest of the field to take his 29th career victory and his first in North America, one that exorcised the mental demons of losing the Montreal race in 2011 with a mistake on the final lap that handed the win to McLaren’s Jenson Button.

This was Vettel at his imperious best: qualify on pole, deliver a scorching pace over the opening laps and relentlessly crush the opposition. Such was his dominance, the German lapped every other car up to fifth place, but that wasn’t the focus of his thoughts immediately after the race. Two years ago – and making amends for an error that has played on his mind since – was foremost in his thoughts.

Read more:

Stepping back, moving forward

Moving backwards in Formula One isn’t typically a good thing, but discussions about the 2014 F1 calendar at last weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix got me thinking about an event closer to home, and one that might need to take a step or two back in order to go forwards.

As an Australian (by residence at least), I’ve been somewhat pessimistic for several years now about the future of the Australian Grand Prix, and whether it would be priced out of the calendar and go the way of so many other venues from F1’s past that have made way for its (cashed up) successors.

While Australia remains one of the favourite spots for many in F1’s travelling circus, the fact remains that eight races on this year’s calendar (Malaysia, China, Bahrain, Singapore, Korea, India, Abu Dhabi and Austin) have debuted since Melbourne came on stream in 1996 – and as much as the paddock and pit buildings at Albert Park have improved beyond belief in the 17 years since, the facilities aren’t in the same stratosphere as the money-is-no-object Yas Marina Circuit, or the state-of-the-art Circuit of the Americas in Texas.

Without naming names, there are several tracks that don’t stack up to Melbourne in terms of attendance or infrastructure, but that doesn’t guarantee Melbourne a place on the ever-expending calendar from 2015 onwards, which is when the current contract runs out. The debate over what is paid to host the race in Melbourne – and who it’s paid to – has been and will continue to be discussed ad nauseum each March when the majority of the local media remember Australia has a global sporting event on its shores, but putting that to one side, it seems that if Australia is to remain on the calendar, giving up the coveted ‘first race of the season’ status might be the key.

Think of the main discussion points in recent years. F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone would prefer Australia becomes a night race, but the chances of that are, realistically, nil. Despite that, Ecclestone is keen for the race to stay in Australia, telling the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast earlier this year that he’d “be happy to sign a 50-year contract” with Melbourne, which generated plenty of local discussion on the eve of the 2013 season-opener. Both parties seem keen to continue if the price and terms are right, and one way this could happen is if Melbourne vacates the calendar slot it has enjoyed for 16 of its 18 Grands Prix to date.

There’s a big push for the 2014 season to start in Bahrain, with teams potentially testing there and leaving their equipment trackside to start the new season. Testing in warmer climates makes sense after this year’s Spanish “summer” made meaningful pre-season running in the sun as elusive as a race where Mark Webber nails the start. As Daniel Ricciardo told me in March: “I get the feeling that if we went to places like Abu Dhabi or even somewhere in Oz or Malaysia, testing would be much more relevant.” Bahrain isn’t a bad compromise.

Of course, holding the much-anticipated first race of the season at the Sakhir Circuit isn’t ideal for the F1 fan, be they hard-core enthusiast or someone who tunes in occasionally, especially when there’s something new to watch. We know from previous events there that very few people attend, there’ll be plenty of people working in the sport that wish they weren’t there, and that the circuit might be the dullest of the cookie-cutter Tilke tracks (Abu Dhabi at least looks prettier, but the racing in Bahrain is typically uninspiring). But I digress.

Walking away from the first race isn’t an easy thing for Australia to do. There’s something special about the new liveries, new beginnings and sense of anticipation that comes with that opening practice in Melbourne. Almost every driver worth their salt on the current grid debuted in Australia. But isn’t it better to have a horse in the race than none at all? If stepping back gives Australia some continuity and security after 2015, then it should – must – happen.