Month: June 2014

Is this the future of F1?

TVgraphicAustriaAfter the latest round of highly contentious rule and procedural changes that edge F1 ever-closer to WWE, flatchat took a trip into the future to bring you this race report …

Daniel Ricciardo has won the inaugural Grand Prix of Inner Mongolia after a race where not a single lap at racing speed was completed before the two-hour time limit.

The Australian took his third career win after starting from pole at the Inner Mongolia Tilkedrome in a race where there was no overtaking and finished after just six laps in front of a race-day crowd of seven people, three of whom stayed until the end.

Ricciardo made a good start from pole and led into the first corner, a tight right-hander that continually turns back on itself 360 degrees and feeds the cars back across the entry to the corner on the way to turn two.

While the Australian was able to avoid the backmarkers as he held position, Lewis Hamilton wasn’t so lucky, his Mercedes collecting teammate Nico Rosberg, who was slow to get away from the start after wrapping up his pre-race interviews in six languages while attending to his hair. While Ricciardo managed to avoid the recovering Rosberg, Hamilton wasn’t so fortunate, his attention perhaps distracted by the three new tattoos he’d acquired since the previous race in Brunei.

While both drivers escaped injury, the race was neutralised behind a safety car for the first two laps, after which the 20 remaining drivers lined up for a standing restart. The cars got as far as the first corner before Kimi Raikkonen was the next casualty, the Finn wrecking the suspension of his Ferrari after collecting an enormous sack of money that he’d misplaced after falling asleep during the pre-race drivers’ parade. Raikkonen’s post-race debrief shed little light on the incident, with 12 seconds of incoherent and disinterested mumbling being turned into an elaborately-worded eight-paragraph press release penned by Ferrari’s Department of Creative Writing.

After the track was cleared for a second standing restart following a 17-minute delay, Sauber withdrew both of its cars as they didn’t have the funds to complete a racing lap at full speed.

Fernando Alonso made the best of the second restart, the Spaniard recovering after Ferrari had mistakenly given him an old school bus with three wheels to drive for qualifying on Saturday. An internal investigation at Ferrari saw everyone sacked in the lead-up to the race, but Alonso prepared his own car with assistance from the Department of Creative Writing and stormed to second behind Ricciardo after the restart before being taken out by the Lotus of Pastor Maldonado, sending both cars into retirement.

Maldonado’s accident was his 16th incident of the weekend, but he was spared a mandatory five-race ban as the series next moves to Venezuela for the third PDVSA Grand Prix of the season, this year’s calendar dictated by the drivers who bring the most sponsorship money to the sport.

As the track was being cleared for a third restart, Caterham withdrew from the race, but nobody noticed until after the post-race podium ceremony.

Sergio Perez was also forced to retire after being voted out of the race by text message, part of the sport’s 2015 initiative to engage new audiences while infuriating its existing fans.

The third restart was calamitous, with sparks from the titanium skid block beneath the Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne igniting some trackside tumbleweed and causing a fire, and McLaren’s Jenson Button running into an on-track TV graphic on the start-finish straight that had been installed after the widespread internal praise the sport’s organisers had given themselves for a similar graphic at the 2014 Austrian Grand Prix.

A planned fourth standing restart was scheduled, but the track wasn’t able to be cleared of debris before the two-hour time limit, which saw the result declared in Ricciardo’s favour. Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat and Marussia’s Jules Bianchi rounded out a most unlikely podium.

With F1 fans taking to social media to voice their displeasure with the race, the post-podium interviews conducted by a local celebrity with no links to F1 were scrapped, and the sport’s organisers announced they were establishing a working group to look into whether or not social media was a fad, with an announcement of its findings scheduled for June 2023.

Hamilton continues to lead the championship by 106 points with three races remaining, but can ill-afford another slip-up given quadruple points remain on offer for the final Grand Prix of the season in Outer Mongolia.

The Inside Line #61: Past glories, borrowed time

TILI Logo PrintDisclaimer: as readers of this blog would be well aware, I’m not Kimi Raikkonen’s biggest fan. Terrific driver in certain circumstances, sure, but I reckon he’s been living off past glories for the past six years. I didn’t enjoy him mailing it in when he found the 2009 Ferrari not to his taste (how can you not be motivated to drive for Ferrari?), and while I felt for him to some degree when he wasn’t being paid properly by Lotus after producing plenty of good performances in his two years at Enstone (as much as you can feel sorry for a multi-millionaire), I felt his return to Ferrari would be a disaster even before he turned a wheel in 2014.

For one, he was put there to give Fernando Alonso the hurry up, and while there may not be much between them in sheer driving talent, Alonso summons up more willpower in one race than Raikkonen seems to have exhibited for years. Unless the car was in the league of, say, a world-beating Mercedes, there was no way he’d be a match for the Spaniard, and so it has proved as the F14-T has proved to be yet another enormous disappointment coming out of Maranello. I was also no fan of giving someone who’d had their time (and had it successfully) at a top team in the autumn of their career another chance in lieu of a younger, cheaper, hungrier alternative like Nico Hulkenberg. Sure, Hulkenberg is much, much lower in profile, but he gives you what he has, will generally perform to the capabilities of the car he’s in and will be more of a team player to boot. Would Hulkenberg be so far behind Alonso if he was in the second Ferrari? I very, very much doubt it.

We look at Raikkonen’s underwhelming second stint at Ferrari and how he’s planning on turning things around in Episode 61 of ‘The Inside Line’, while we also review last weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix as F1 returned to the spectacular Styrian Mountains after an 11-year absence. Speaking of return, it was no surprise that Mercedes returned to the top step at the Red Bull Ring after their momentary blip in Canada, while Nico Rosberg’s sixth career victory saw him pass his dad Keke on the all-time winners’ list, and there’s likely to be plenty more to come given Mercedes’ dominance this season.

Catch ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday June 25, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday June 26. We’re also in more than 40 other countries, so be sure to check your local guides to see the show.

The Inside Line #60: The hills are alive …

TILI Logo PrintI always did have a soft spot for Rubens Barrichello – good guy, great to deal with from a media point of view and (IMHO) underrated as a driver – and that only increased after he won the German Grand Prix in 2000 in one of the nuttiest races I’ve ever seen (remember the protestor running at the cars on the straight leading out into the forest on the old Hockenheim layout?) It was impossible not to get caught up in the emotion he showed on the podium that day, and it was great that he didn’t feel the need to tone it down when that maiden win finally came.

But when I think of Rubens, I think immediately of Austria 2002 and Ferrari’s instruction that he move over for teammate Michael Schumacher in one of the most blatantly unnecessary examples of team orders imaginable. Ferrari (and Schumacher) were already miles ahead of the rest of the field after only a few races that season, and Barrichello had out-paced his team leader all weekend before grudgingly relinquishing first place within sight of the chequered flag. James Allen, commentating on the ITV feed we got in Australia at the time [1], picked a bizarre moment to go into rhyming slang (“Can you Adam and Eve it?”), and I remember being incensed by Ferrari’s actions like I’ve felt few times since. One more Austrian GP later, and the race was off the calendar, and with the sport moving towards races in cashed-up city states and to Tilke-dromes good and bad [2], a return to the picturesque Styrian Mountains looked to be an impossibility. Until this weekend.

A comprehensive preview of the Austrian GP features on Episode 60 of ‘The Inside Line’, and while the circuit was derided by several drivers and never captured the imagination of the truly great tracks visited by F1, I always liked it for reasons I could never quite work out. Maybe it was the elevation change, maybe because it was a race track that didn’t attract loads of corporate wankers and look-at-me types, maybe it was the backdrop – maybe my memories of the last race there in 2003 and the sound of those cars echoing through the mountains allowed me to reminisce. Regardless, it’s a welcome return to the calendar thanks to Red Bull’s mega-dollars – and speaking of Red Bull, we look at the event by focusing on their new man of the moment, race-winning Grand Prix driver Daniel Ricciardo [3].

There’s plenty more on the show this week, so be sure to tune in to ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday June 18, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday June 19.

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[1] Other than his try-too-hard Murray Walker-type race starts that always sounded forced, James was pretty good – but he had a shocker that day.

[2] Good: Sepang, Istanbul Park (such a shame), COTA. Bad: Abu Dreary.

[3] It felt quite good to write that.

 

First first – what’s for seconds?

Canadian F1 Grand PrixThe caller ID was unfamiliar, but the voice wasn’t. “G’day mate, how are ya?” asked the voice at the other end of the phone. Daniel Ricciardo had been back home for all of 24 hours and Christmas was but a week away, but there was still time to talk about the season that was and the season that would be. The next day, over pizza and beer around the kitchen table at the family home in Perth’s northern suburbs, we chatted about anything and everything – Michael Jordan, what Lewis Hamilton is really like in interviews, the upcoming Australian Open tennis tournament. And then conversation drifted, inevitably, to the coming season and his new role with Red Bull Racing. And the obvious question: what was he hoping to achieve from 2014?

“I’ve come to not really like the word ‘expectations’ because it can be a bit of a let-down sometimes …,” Ricciardo started, briefly switching back into on-message with the media mode before grinning as he changed tack.

“Let’s say I definitely have plans … Hopefully the car is competitive, but even if it isn’t, for me I’d love to give it to Seb (Sebastian Vettel), start the season hopefully in front but, being realistic, close to him.

“I’m not allowing time for myself.”

The last sentence was a throwaway line in an afternoon of talking, but as it turns out, he was right on the mark. Just seven races into his tenure at Red Bull Racing, Ricciardo is already a Grand Prix winner. It’s strange to type, stranger for him to say. Given how far back Red Bull started the year after pre-season testing could be best described as character-building, Ricciardo has exceeded every expectation, including his own. Yes, he was quietly confident that he could fight with the best if his machinery allowed him to, but that was the big question-mark. Seven races in and three podiums (well, four) later, most questions have been answered except for two: just how good is this guy, and how good could he be?

The talent has always been there. You could see it – sixth on the grid in Bahrain for Toro Rosso in 2012, holding off Michael Schumacher at Suzuka for the final points the same year, numerous top-10 qualifying efforts in a car that had no business being there the following season. But two other factors – timing and temperament – needed to align with that talent. They’ve both been on his side, and go some way towards explaining his season to date.

Joining Red Bull in a year where F1 has undergone its most significant regulatory revolution in decades has been ideal for Ricciardo. The sport went through a complete reset, meaning (amongst other things) no blown diffusers and no momentum Vettel could carry into the new season from the one that preceded it. It’s not a situation a world champion – let alone a four-time reigning one – would be used to in transitioning from one year to the next.

Red Bull’s awful pre-season (remember, they hadn’t completed a single run of more than 20 consecutive laps before the Australian Grand Prix) arguably helped Ricciardo’s cause further, as the team needed all hands on deck to get the car to work full stop, not tweak a blisteringly fast machine to the needs of its number one driver first and foremost. As the RB10 became first reliable and then quicker, Ricciardo made the most of a unique chance to get comfortable with the machinery he was in while stealing a march on his teammate. Vettel has had to unlearn a driving style that he used to devastating effect to win the final nine races of last year; his teammate was happy to have a chance to drive a car that wasn’t last year’s Toro Rosso. The timing couldn’t have been better.

What of Ricciardo’s temperament? While he shares a nationality with the man he replaced as Vettel’s teammate, Ricciardo and Mark Webber couldn’t be more different in the way they approach their racing. Assuming it stays intact, Ricciardo’s approach – that of quiet confidence, a smile in almost every situation and staying on an even keel emotionally – is better suited to negotiate the choppy political waters that can arise in the British-run, Austrian-owned team.

Webber’s tenacity, bloody-mindedness and sheer ‘Aussie Grit’ got him to F1 in the first place when all looked lost after his sports car experiences in the late 90s, and it was undoubtedly pivotal to him achieving the success he did, often manifesting itself in a (sometimes justifiable) rage against the factions within the team he felt wanted to hold him back. Has there been a more anger-fuelled win in recent F1 history than Webber’s British GP victory of 2010? Australian fans (and this Australian writer) loved and lauded Webber for his approach. But there’s no denying that it sometimes worked against him: his rant against the team in the penultimate round of 2010 in Brazil, as honest and heartfelt as it was, seemed to be ill-timed, slightly desperate and did him no favours internally, no matter what was being said publicly. By 2011, when Webber was still struggling mentally with losing the previous year’s title and Vettel had taken off, he was never the same. Yes, there were some wins in 2012, his final victory at Silverstone where he hunted down and passed Fernando Alonso one from the absolute top shelf. But by the end of his career, maintaining the intensity that had propelled him the top of the sport seemed to have worn him out. There was a certain world-weariness that partly came with age, and partly came with the mental miles he’d racked up furiously fighting his way out of corners, actual or perceived.

Ricciardo’s personality is at the complete opposite end of the scale to Webber. Yes, he can do angry – his brief expletive-laden tirade after he retired from last year’s Korean Grand Prix jars with his usual demeanour – but his way of working out that frustration – wrestling with trainer Stuart Smith back at the hotel after the race until they both collapsed with laughter – was something few other drivers would come up with. As we’ve seen, Ricciardo’s game-face tends to be one made up of a giant smile. Earlier this year on the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast, David Coulthard told me that he feels Ricciardo’s approach may have to change as the stakes are raised and things get more serious at the front, but I’m not so sure it will. For starters, he’d need to be something or someone that he’s not, and he’s adamant that won’t happen. After the leftover pizza had cooled in our December chat, the conversation drifted to fame, what it means, how real it is, and how much of a motivating factor it is for some drivers.

“I’d be very happy to race F1 but be completely anonymous,” came Ricciardo’s revealing response.

“I do this because I enjoy racing, not because I want to be on the TV, but that’s something that comes with this. Some people get to F1 because they want to drive, but when they get there they like the cameras, telling all their friends what they do, the girls … I know what I’m here for. I definitely try to be myself because I don’t plan on being anyone else, plus just so the outside world looks at me as a normal person. If I can just be me, then people aren’t going to see me in the street and be ‘whoa, that’s a Formula One driver’. It’s just me, Daniel.”

Ricciardo appears not the least bit surprised at his success so far this season. A little lost for words sometimes, perhaps – as he was in the immediate aftermath of Canada, which was probably understandable. Your first F1 win isn’t supposed to come with a pass for the lead two laps from the end and then finishing under safety car conditions with the well-being of two of your workmates unknown after a nasty shunt. How he’d achieved what he’d achieved was a surprise, sure. But shocked at what he’s doing? Not a chance. In his understated way, Ricciardo feels he belongs at the top – he’s always felt that – and now he’s proving it. But he doesn’t feel the need to gloat, talk himself up, whip himself into a frenzy or get too ahead of himself. Outwardly, this is a man who’s very much in control and comfortable with who he is and the situation he now finds himself in.

Reality will ensue, and soon. Short-term, it’s hard not to see Canada as anything but a one-off. If Mercedes don’t encounter any reliability gremlins, there’s a very strong chance they won’t lose a race for the rest of the year. Even with a crippled car, Nico Rosberg still nearly won in Canada in a clever display of adaptable driving that didn’t receive anywhere near the credit it should have afterwards. If the W05 works as it should, each Grand Prix will still be a race for third place. One of the two Mercedes drivers will win this year’s title. But what of the future? Longer-term, can Ricciardo be considered as a championship-calibre driver? To answer two questions with another: why not?

Before long, Red Bull could really become his team. With Adrian Newey effectively turning his back on F1 after being involved in next year’s RB11, you wonder if Vettel would consider a move elsewhere, perhaps to Ferrari as has been long rumoured. Vettel’s friend and mentor Michael Schumacher went to Maranello in the mid-90s when the Prancing Horse was desperate and he could name his price, and his legacy was only enhanced by what he did in red. Might a similar challenge appeal in a couple of years as Vettel approaches his 30s and the second half of his career?

It’s not hard to imagine Ricciardo as a genuine, bona fide team leader. He’s a product of Red Bull’s own driver nursery, they’re invested in him financially and emotionally in a way they never were with Webber, and the English and Austrian factions of the team would both help him push in the same direction. If he plays his cards right, by 2017 Ricciardo could become the leader at a cashed-up team with a (recent) history of success, a squad loaded with resources, and have the experience, continuity and ability to maximise the prime of his career at 28. If that’s not a recipe to become a world champion, it’s hard to know what is.

There’s no guarantees, but it’s a possibility that’s now in play, which didn’t seem likely when Ricciardo was confirmed as Webber’s successor last September, seemed less likely when Red Bull could barely put half a race distance together in 2014 pre-season testing, and seemed still a touch improbable even when he was stepping onto the podium for the first time (officially) in Spain in May. That Montreal win – however it came – has changed everything. Except Ricciardo’s willingness to work and his ambition.

As I left our late lunch last summer, he had time for a final thought, a rare moment of earnestness, and admitting he’d gained some inspiration from a young gun who was making his mark ahead of everyone’s schedule other than his own.

“I want to keep improving – I feel like I’m still improving as a driver and I haven’t hit my ceiling yet,” he said.

“I look at (2013 MotoGP world champion) Marc Marquez, and he switched categories – he didn’t just switch teams, he switched categories! – and he came out and won. Nothing’s impossible.”

The Inside Line #59: Wall of fame

TILI Logo PrintWhether it’s because of the chance to do something useful in my typical hours of insomnia, or because it usually throws up a chaotic race, or because it brings back memories of my own experiences in Montreal, the Canadian Grand Prix has always been in my top three (non-Australian) races of the year [1]. For one, it’s a GP for the purists if you’re in Australia – only fans rather than the ‘look at me’ social set will watch a race at 4am in winter [2] – and secondly, the race – on a semi-permanent street circuit in a public park within easy reach of downtown and with grandstands packed with real fans – reminds me more of the Grand Prix in Melbourne than anywhere else. And then there’s the ‘Wall of Champions’.

‘Bienvenue au Quebec’ reads the sign on the exit of Turn 14 at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve [3], but it’s one corner of the season that offers anything but a warm welcome to those who get it wrong. And it doesn’t discriminate – Jacques Villeneuve, Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher all biffed the wall there in 1999 – while Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel have ripped their cars to bits against it in subsequent years. Driving talent and – as Daniel Ricciardo alluded to in the lead-up to last Sunday’s race – plenty of courage can make the difference. “Some guys will play it safe and sacrifice half a tenth to get through there cleanly” he explained in the lead-up, “but others who will take a risk and go flat out trying to find a little bit.”

Speaking of flat out … that’s exactly how Ricciardo drove in the closing stages of a thrilling Canadian GP last weekend, taking his maiden F1 victory and ending Mercedes’ run of dominance. Ricciardo’s rousing win is the main focus of Episode 59 of ‘The Inside Line’, while we also look at why Ferrari are so far off the pace and what they plan to do about it. Have I mentioned on this blog before that Nico Hulkenberg was available when Ferrari re-hired Kimi Raikkonen? ‘The Hulk’ is now 39 points ahead of Ferrari’s (distant) number two driver after he finished fifth for Force India in Canada. Such a waste, on two fronts.

‘The Inside Line’ is on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday June 11, and also on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 7pm on Thursday June 12.

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[1] Along with Canada, and in no particular order: Japan (for obvious reasons) and Belgium, because there’s still something awesome about the cars going through Pouhon and Blanchimont even if Eau Rouge isn’t what it once was. Abu Dhabi just missed out in 19th place.

[2] The sport’s official website – you know, the one that puts together cookie-cutter GP reviews weeks after races actually happen, doesn’t allow its fans to watch online in 2014 and is generally stuck in the dark ages – had an enormous banner ad this week for Paddock Club tickets, Germany coming in as the cheapest race at just US$3950 per person for a weekend of corporate blowharding. The sort of price that attracts real F1 fans, evidently. And in an environment where half the grid is haemorrhaging money and teams are apparently too impoverished to do two 90-minute practice sessions on Fridays from 2015. Fodder for another blog soon.

[3] Did you notice the appropriate use of French there? There’s a time and place for it. And it’s not in the first paragraph of everything you write for an English-speaking audience.

7 to 1: Daniel’s day in Canada

Canadian F1 Grand Prix - PracticeIn his seventh Grand Prix for Red Bull Racing, Daniel Ricciardo took his maiden career win at the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. Here’s seven facts about Australia’s newest F1 winner.

7: Before earning his seat at Red Bull Racing, seventh at the 2013 Chinese and Italian Grands Prix was Daniel’s best F1 result.

6: Daniel’s first career F1 win came from sixth on the grid, his worst qualifying performance of the 2014 season.

5: Daniel has now finished ahead of teammate Sebastian Vettel for the past five races.

4: Daniel is one of four Australians to win a Grand Prix – Sir Jack Brabham, Alan Jones and Mark Webber are the others.

3: Daniel becomes the third driver to win their maiden race in Montreal in the past seven Canadian Grands Prix (Lewis Hamilton in 2007, Robert Kubica in 2008).

2: Daniel’s previous best F1 finish was second in Australia in this year’s season-opener, which he later lost after being excluded from the results for a fuel-flow infringement.

1: Today’s win was Daniel’s first-ever points in the Canadian Grand Prix.

The Inside Line #58: Playing the mind game

TILI Logo PrintCanada comes at a good time for Lewis Hamilton. After a Monaco weekend where he overslept, finished behind (or got shafted by, depending on your point of view) his teammate in qualifying and then had something in his eye that affected him late in the race, Hamilton will be mightily pleased that Montreal is the next stop on the F1 calendar. It’s a place he’s come to call his own in recent times, and with good reason.

Of all the drivers on the 2014 grid, Hamilton is the only one to win at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve more than once. His first F1 victory came in his sixth start in 2007, and he’s won there twice since. By contrast, Nico Rosberg has never seen the view from the Montreal podium before. It’s a slim psychological advantage for Hamilton at the latest race for a championship that’ll undoubtedly come down to the smallest detail. Oh, and the 50 points on offer in Abu Dhabi. I may have mentioned my complete despair about this absurd rule before … [1]

A comprehensive Canadian GP preview is our focus on Episode 58 of ‘The Inside Line’, while we take a look at Williams as they edge their way back towards the front of the F1 grid this season. Mercedes’ dominance in 2014 evokes memories of the 1992 Williams FW14B in the hands of Nigel Mansell, and while the striking Martini-liveried Williams isn’t at that level yet, it’s nice to see the team away from fighting with the likes of Caterham [2] and Marussia as they have in recent years. From a personal point of view, it’s also great to see Claire Williams getting some plaudits as she takes a more active role in the squad. [3]

‘The Inside Line’ is on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday June 4, and also on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 7pm on Thursday June 5.

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[1] Here. And here.

[2] What’s the percentage chance of Caterham remaining on the grid next year? 15 per cent or less? Even billionaire businessmen have their limits to accepting eternal futility.

[3] Claire makes the unofficial list of my five favourite people in F1, along with (in no order) the barista at Toro Rosso, Daniel Ricciardo, Peter Windsor, and someone else I’ve no doubt forgotten.