Month: April 2014

The Inside Line #53: A matter of timing

TILI Logo PrintI’ve never had too many regrets about the time I’ve spent in and around Formula One [1], but one of them is that I didn’t get into it sooner. The opportunities were right in front of me – my father’s first race meeting in the flesh was Goodwood in 1962 and there were always F1 books in the house that I occasionally flicked through – but once I made it to Australia as a kid, Formula One was something that I occasionally tuned into on TV, perhaps to see the Monaco Grand Prix or maybe watch a bit of the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide [2]. Which meant that by the time I was into F1 more and began a career that saw me work in it, Ayrton Senna had come and gone.

As time went by, I began to discover – after the event – just who this man was and why he was revered the way he was. Later, annual trips to Suzuka, where fans sporting Senna and Honda merchandise still frequent the stands in big numbers today, brought the presence he had in the sport into sharper focus. Plenty of reading later, I ‘got’ it. The brilliant ‘Senna’ documentary three years ago has been watched plenty of times since, and it still hits me (pointing to heart) right there. [3]

This week marks the 20th anniversary since the fateful afternoon of May 1 1994 that brought a tragic end to a story that had so many more chapters to be written. It’s a day where anyone associated with F1 stops to pause, remembering the impact he had on the sport. To think he would have been 54 years old this year is almost unfathomable, and to think he was the last driver fatality at a F1 race weekend is something we should all be thankful for.

This week’s episode of ‘The Inside Line’ reflects on Senna two decades on from that Imola day and the legacy he left on Formula One. Also in this week’s show, we look at the changing face of Ferrari with Stefano Domenicali’s departure, be it voluntary or forced, and examine the latest career turnaround for Sergio Perez, this time at Force India. Being dumped by McLaren seems to have sparked some (much-needed, in my experience) humility in Perez’s approach this year, and perhaps he can make good on his promise after all. A Mexican Grand Prix, which hasn’t happened since Senna was still in the sport in 1992, can’t be far away.

Check out Episode 53 of ‘The Inside Line’: it’s on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm AEST on Wednesday April 30, and on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 9.30pm AEST on Thursday May 1, the latter a date that any true F1 fan understands the significance of.


[1] At some point, I will come down from the moral high ground and write about one particular regret. But not yet.

[2] I remember being disappointed when Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits got punted out of the celebrity race in Adelaide one year. My priorities were perhaps a little skewed …

[3] One of the absolute highlights of the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast I co-host was interviewing Manish Pandey about ‘Senna’ for our first-ever episode back in 2010; some of his tales about how the film was made were fascinating.


Chinese GP review: The man for all seasons


Wet, dry, day or night – no matter the weather, no matter the time of day, no matter the venue, Lewis Hamilton is a man in control. Engine problems may have prompted an early retirement from the F1 season-opener in Australia, but since then, he’s been all-but untouchable.

While Melbourne may have ended in disappointment, Hamilton’s response since has been emphatic: three races, two pole positions, and three wins after taking last Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix for Mercedes in Shanghai. But even after winning three races in succession for the first time in his eight-year F1 career, Hamilton remains second on the one list that matters – the drivers’ championship standings. The reason? His team has produced a car as bulletproof as it is fast, a combination that has allowed teammate Nico Rosberg to retain the championship lead despite finishing second to Hamilton for the third race weekend in a row. But on the Briton’s current form, it won’t be an advantage Rosberg enjoys for long.

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The Inside Line #52: A familiar tale

TILI Logo PrintThere’s a certain irony that the biggest rule changes to F1 in two decades to make things less predictable have turned out to make things even more predictable than before. Sometimes, that predictability can produce a brilliant race – Bahrain 2014 has already gone in the history books in close proximity to Japan 2005 [1] as one of the best Grands Prix of the modern era. Following hot on the heels of that stunning race in Sakhir, China was always going to struggle to capture the same attention last weekend – but if what we saw in Shanghai was nowhere near as enthralling as the race that preceded it, at least it produced a tale we’re all accustomed to.

Lewis Hamilton winning? Check. Nico Rosberg finishing second and maintaining his championship lead? Check. Fernando Alonso taking any half-chance offered to him to score decent points? Check? And Christian Horner blindly playing lead apologist for his petulant lead driver? Bingo.

While Hamilton sailed to a third straight win for the first time in his career, Rosberg battled any number of distractions to finish behind him and Alonso made the best of a bad lot, Horner once again bypassed the opportunity to show some real leadership. Sebastian Vettel blatantly ignoring a team order is hardly news, but the way Horner “dealt” with it wasn’t either, unfortunately. On a weekend where chief technical officer Adrian Newey curiously elected to attend Silverstone to see how ex-Red Bull driver Mark Webber got on in his World Endurance Championship debut, Horner was in Shanghai as his four-time world champion again showed the side of his character that sends bulletin boards and blogs into meltdown, and again wasn’t rebuked for it. Vettel hasn’t achieved what he has in F1 with a complete absence of talent, as some outraged types on Sunday would have you believe [2], but his refusal to play the team game and the inability of Red Bull’s management to stand up to him when he throws his toys out of the pram has become tiresome to say the least.

Speaking of all things familiar … it wouldn’t be an episode of ‘The Inside Line’ without a comprehensive review of the most recent race, and our China debrief is the headline act of Episode 52. We also look at the fallout from the appeal into the Australian Grand Prix exclusion of Red Bull’s new No. 1 driver Daniel Ricciardo [3].

‘The Inside Line’ is on at the same time every week, be it SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm AEDT on Wednesday April 23, and on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 9.30pm AEDT Thursday April 24. You can set your watch by it.


[1] Suzuka ’05 was my second visit to Japan, and set a fairly unrealistic benchmark for all the years I’ve been back since …

[2] A factor in Vettel’s performances this year that hasn’t been discussed anywhere nearly enough; he’s not had to drive anything but the best car in the field for more than a few races at a time since midway through 2009, where he was the form driver in the second half of the championship and finished second to Jenson Button. He’s not accustomed to driving around cars not at their optimum; Daniel Ricciardo, by dint of his background before this year, is. He’s too good to not adjust, but it won’t be the work of a moment. It doesn’t excuse his petulance, but does partially explain his performances.

[3] I couldn’t help myself there.

The Inside Line #51: A Shanghai surprise

TILI Logo PrintRubens Barrichello wasn’t often lost for words – and the Brazilian was always a favourite of the Formula One media as a result – but this time he was forced to pause. It was the Friday press conference of the first F1 weekend in Shanghai back in 2004, and the man who would win the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix two days later was asked about some of the best driving he’d seen that weekend. And as anyone who has been a passenger in certain parts of China would understand, it wasn’t on Hermann Tilke’s brand-new race track.

“They say Brazilian drivers are good because of the traffic – they should have many drivers here. They should be all in Formula One! Unbelievable,” he eventually said, prompting much laughter in the press room. My own first journey back and forth to the Shanghai International Circuit that weekend had taken around three hours, as my driver [1] had no idea where it was, had no idea how to get there, and was wondering why the freeways linking the sprawling metropolis with the circuit 40km away were still being built a day before F1 cars were set to take to the track for the first time. Once I got there, I still vividly remember hundreds of locals sitting alongside the start-finish straight at intervals of five metres, trimming the trackside grass to be dead-level with the edge of the tarmac with kitchen scissors.

While the locals have never really embraced (or can’t afford to go to) Formula One in Shanghai after the first couple of years produced decent crowds keen to see what this ‘new’ sport was, the travelling F1 troupe has come to enjoy the track layout at the first of the ‘mega-circuits’ that has been followed by the likes of those in Abu Dhabi, Austin, Istanbul [2] and many others. Yes, the visa process to get into China as a foreign journalist is best described as labour-intensive; yes, the traffic is a nightmare, and yes, the air quality thanks to the many concrete factories in the industrial area near the track is pretty average. But Shanghai always produces a good spectacle, and this year’s Chinese GP comes with plenty to live up to after the last race in Bahrain.

A preview of the likely storylines set to emerge in Shanghai is the focus of Episode 51 of ‘The Inside Line’, while the ongoing noise debate surrounding the new-for-2014 cars gets the going-over. Everyone and their dog seems to have an opinion on the sound produced by this year’s 1.6-litre V6 turbos, and we’ve canvassed a wide selection of views from those inside and on the periphery of the sport, choosing to avoid others who test the wind for the prevailing sentiment on any issue to do with F1 and then vehemently argue the complete opposite in order to appear controversial. [3]

There’s plenty more on this week’s edition of ‘The Inside Line’, so make like a Shanghai motorist and hurry home to see it. Catch it on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm AEDT on Wednesday April 16, and on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 9.30pm AEDT Thursday April 17.


[1] This guy was clearly the best driver I’ve had at any event I’ve ever been to. Patient, enthusiastic, slightly amused by my lack of intelligible directions and beside himself when I offered him a $10 tip after he was forced to drive aimlessly for most of the afternoon.

[2] Clearly the best of Hermann Tilke’s circuits, and (of course) one F1 doesn’t go to any more. Such a waste.

[3] One website this week, in its summation of what others were saying about the Bahrain GP, referred to the blog produced by one senior member of the F1 press pack who hasn’t written a story in years where he hasn’t plagiarised someone else’s copy as a “bog”. Mistakenly. I think.

Bahrain GP review: Lighting up the night


Take two very closely-matched drivers in equal machinery, free them from the blight of team orders that have so often spoiled Formula One, and let them race as hard as they can. Add diametrically-opposed tyre strategies, throw in a late-race safety car, and then hold on for a thrilling 10-lap ride until the chequered flag. If you think that sounds like a good recipe for an F1 race, you’d be right. And it’s what Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Mercedes produced last Sunday in Bahrain as the new-look Formula One, which spluttered to a start with two processional races in Australia and Malaysia, showed what it could look like. It’s a look that produced one of the more enthralling races in recent years.

After Rosberg won the season-opener in Melbourne and Hamilton evened the score in Kuala Lumpur, all eyes were on Mercedes in Bahrain to see which of its drivers could hold sway under the floodlights in the desert. The pace advantage over the rest Mercedes demonstrated in the first two Grands Prix was only magnified by the 5.4-kilometre Sakhir circuit, its succession of long straights playing perfectly to the strengths of the Mercedes package. While Rosberg took pole after Hamilton made a mistake in qualifying and ran wide at the first corner on Saturday, a fight loomed large on Sunday given Hamilton had topped all three practice sessions leading into qualifying and looked to have the stronger race pace. And after Hamilton made the best of the start and emerged from the first corner in the lead, it was game on. And what a game the teammates and childhood friends played.

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The Inside Line #50: The greater good

TILI Logo PrintPerson of the day at last Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix? No, it wasn’t Lewis Hamilton, nor was it Nico Rosberg. It wasn’t Sergio Perez for taking Force India’s second-ever podium. It wasn’t Daniel Ricciardo for his career-best result. And it certainly wasn’t Pastor Maldonado [1].

No, person of the day at Sakhir last weekend was none other than Mercedes executive director (technical) Paddy Lowe, and I’ll even excuse the brackets in his job title. It was because Lowe, and by association, the Mercedes pit wall, let their drivers race to the flag. Miles ahead of anyone else, much to lose, little to gain. But let them race they did.

We’ve seen all sorts of team orders in F1 in recent times – the team order that masks a pre-determined plan (“Fernando is faster than you”), the team order that was blatantly ignored by one of the two people it was directed towards (“Multi-21”), and the team order that’s delivered unnecessarily and without consideration of consequence (as in Williams at Sepang a week ago) [2].

And then there was Lowe’s response when asked about allowing Hamilton and Rosberg to produce one of the most thrilling battles we’ve seen for the lead of any Grand Prix – let alone one between teammates – in recent memory. Think ‘Multi-21’ but with both drivers actually racing, not one driving with one hand while trying to remove a knife from his back with the other hand. And for most of the race, not a few laps.

After the race, Lowe held court – and it was hard to be anything other than impressed with the way he spoke.

“Imagine if we had imposed team orders from lap two or something; what a terrible thing that would be for F1 and for the philosophy of Mercedes in motorsport,” he began. “It is something that we owe to ourselves; we owe to the sport and owe to the drivers. They are professionals and you want to give them the opportunity to race, which is what they do. They are experienced drivers, they know what it takes. I gave them a little bit of a reminder during the safety car that it is all about bringing the car home, but that didn’t mean don’t race – it just meant there is a line not to cross which is if you endanger the car. They did a perfect job of that.”

The fight at the front in Bahrain – and plenty of others right through the field – is front and centre on this week’s episode of ‘The Inside Line’. It’s a race that will surely be talked about for a long time to come, and if driving in modern-day Formula One is like “taxi-cab driving” as Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo suggests [3], I’d take Lewis or Nico to get me home pronto from a late night out any time …

Fortunately, you won’t need to stay up to the early hours to be able to watch Episode 50 of ‘The Inside Line’, which you can catch on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm AEDT on Wednesday April 9, and on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 9.30pm AEDT Thursday April 10.


[1] Hands-up anyone who was surprised that the reason for Esteban Gutierrez ending up with an interesting view of Bahrain’s floodlights was Maldonado? Yep, thought so.

[2] Speaking of hands … full credit to Williams for putting theirs up to apologise to its drivers for the cack-handed way the Malaysia team orders request was handled. Not many teams would have done that.

[3] I was once driven to the airport after the race in Abu Dhabi by a cabbie who (a) smoked using one hand (b) was sending txts with the other and (c) was travelling faster than anyone steering the F14-T in Bahrain last Sunday. Fernando Alonso’s frustration levels must be off the charts. And how long until Kimi Raikkonen decides it’s all too hard and starts making noises about the World Rally Championship again? In a related story, Nico Hulkenberg is now third in the drivers’ championship.

Malaysian GP review: Back in the fight


Patience is a trait typically in short supply for any Formula One driver, let alone one as brilliantly improvisational as Lewis Hamilton. But after an engine glitch saw his pole position at the Australian Grand Prix count for little in the opening race of the season, the Mercedes driver had to bide his time to make amends for his Melbourne malaise. On Sunday in Malaysia, that patience was rewarded handsomely.

As he did in Australia, Hamilton started from pole at a typically steamy Sepang circuit, but unlike the season-opener, this Grand Prix had a happy ending. The Briton’s 23rd career win came after a faultless performance, a solid start and a tight line into the tricky first corner preceding a three-stop strategy where he led for 55 of the 56 laps. As recoveries went, it was as impressive as it was emphatic. In winning by 17.3 seconds, Hamilton snapped a run of nine races without a podium dating back to last year, and put himself right back in the title fight.

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