Month: May 2015

The Inside Line #102: In a rich man’s world

TILI Logo PrintSo it finally happened. Lewis Hamilton’s contract extension – was he ever really going anywhere else? – has had the British F1 press in a tizz for most of 2015; almost as soon as his three-year deal with Mercedes was announced last Wednesday, some elements of the redtop pack were already speculating IN FULL CAPS that he’ll be free to go to Ferrari – when he’s 34 – in 2018. That’s a story for another day, but in sensibly making the only decision that was worth making, Hamilton has put himself in the box seat to run roughshod over the rest of the field for the next few years. The biggest obstacle to that happening? Probably Hamilton himself. And that looks increasingly unlikely, even after Mercedes’ tactical howler that cost Hamilton the Monaco Grand Prix last Sunday.

Should Formula One’s rules stay as they are for the foreseeable future – at least next year – can anyone lay a glove on Hamilton and stop him making it four world titles? Mercedes clearly has the best car – it’s hard to see Sebastian Vettel’s win in Malaysia as anything other than a one-off, a car using its tyres better in Kuala Lumpur’s crazy heat and a driver who rarely drops the ball when given half a chance – and Hamilton looks to have Nico Rosberg’s measure after a large percentage of last season was so close. Hamilton’s uncharacteristically big-picture response in Monaco last Sunday was in line with the strange calmness to his demeanour this season, a demeanour that we haven’t before seen; perhaps turning 30 and having the weight of that long-overdue second title off his shoulders has seen him relax and become the driver he always threatened to be, off-track distractions that have derailed previous seasons be damned. Could he have four titles by the end of 2016? To answer one question with another, who or what stops him?

That’s for the future; what of Formula One’s past? It escaped most people two weeks ago that Formula One celebrated the 65th anniversary of its maiden world championship race at Silverstone on May 13 in 1950; the reason few people realised is that Formula One must be the only sport in the world where marketing and promotion remain dirty words, the controlling parties (a) being arrogant enough to think Formula One needs no promotion in an ever-crowded sporting calendar consumed by a time-poor populace (it does), and (b) being stuck in the dark ages when it comes to actually tapping into a market that might not wear Rolexes or be south of 65 years old. Can you imagine the date of the first Test cricket match, the first World Cup football final, the date of the first Olympic Games et al being completely ignored by those now in charge? No, me neither. There’s been so much talk about the future of Formula One in the past fortnight (with, amusingly, a lot of the ideas reverting to things F1 once did and had discarded), that it’s little wonder that the past is shunned. You can’t make any more money out of what has already happened, after all.

Speaking of money … the race around the world’s most picturesque tax haven took centre-stage last weekend, and a review of round six of the season on the Monte Carlo streets features on Episode 102 of The Inside Line this week; check your inexpensive timepiece and your program guides for when to watch in whatever tax-paying location you reside.

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The Inside Line #101: A question of common sense

TILI Logo PrintThey wouldn’t do it again, would they? Ferrari wouldn’t re-sign a driver who showed so little interest in driving for the most famous team in Formula One in 2009 that they came to a financial agreement to let him walk early, only to welcome him back on a multi-year deal in 2014, only for him to turn in the worst year by a Ferrari driver in three decades? The resurgence of Kimi Raikkonen – a resurgence that has been somewhat suspicious in a contract year – has been a story bubbling under the radar in 2015, lost in the headlines of more Mercedes dominance, Lewis Hamilton’s protracted contract negotiations with the Silver Arrows, and endless moaning by Red Bull now they aren’t winning [1]. But very soon, Ferrari need to make a call on whether they re-up with their most recent world champion, or move towards the future by snapping up the brightest young(er) thing currently driving elsewhere. Under the old Ferrari regime, Raikkonen would probably get to stay as long as he wants. But Maurizio Arrivabene [2] has a different view, one he made crystal-clear after Raikkonen finished second in Bahrain last month.

“I am really happy for Kimi … but that doesn’t mean I am going to sign tomorrow with Kimi,” Arrivabene said.

“If I’m going to say yes, I do not want the driver to fall asleep. This is a psychological approach.”

It’s also an entirely sensible one given who Ferrari might get to replace him, such as Valtteri Bottas. The Spanish Grand Prix a fortnight ago gave new oxygen to the ‘Bottas-to-Ferrari’ stories that have been bubbling around for a while, and while all interested parties were predictably saying little, it’s a move that would make a lot of sense. Unfortunately for Williams, Bottas is probably too good to stay there for the money he’ll be offered; the team has always had a policy of building a good car so it attracts the best drivers rather than throwing money at a driver just to secure their signature [3], and Bottas will probably make more money with Ferrari in one year than he would at Williams in three, meaning Williams won’t match. Fortunately for Ferrari, Bottas has ‘future world champion’ written all over him, and you could imagine that a Sebastian Vettel/Bottas partnership would soon prove itself to be the best in F1. Which means Ferrari have to bite the bullet and wave Kimi goodbye at the end of 2015. Even if it means he mails it in for the rest of the year after he’s told mid-season that his services are no longer required [4].

I’ve never quite got the fascination with Raikkonen (although I’ve never quite savaged him like Darren Heath does here, where he basically calls Raikkonen a fraud), despite being enthralled by arguably his most famous victory, in Japan in 2005, from trackside. Media centres full of (mostly) underpaid overworked cynical journos aren’t easily impressed, which made the thunderous applause from the world’s hacks as Raikkonen passed Giancarlo Fisichella for the lead at Suzuka on the final lap all the more memorable. It was a brilliant drive by a man who lacks nothing in talent compared to anyone over the past 20 years; that Raikkonen’s name is never mentioned in any discussions of Formula One’s ‘big three’ drivers of the modern era tells you that it’s not all about talent. That talent can only take you so far, and the natural end to that journey has to be Abu Dhabi this November. Ferrari, if it’s being sensible, can make no other choice. That said, when did common sense have anything to do with Formula One? [5]

Speaking of things non-sensical, the Monaco Grand Prix this weekend still makes me shake my head at the sheer absurdity of it all in this day and age. You’d never contemplate racing today’s cars on a circuit as crazily cramped as the streets of Monte Carlo anywhere else, but there’s a part of me that’s glad it still happens. Yes, the race will be a snorefest with virtually no overtaking, and in this modern age of tyre conservation and heavy fuel, the first stint of the race will be positively pedestrian. But how can you not like the run up the hill on lap one from Ste. Devote, the first blast through the tunnel with the cars nose-to-tail, the fixed camera on the outside of the entry to the Swimming Pool complex and the cars pitching and rolling as they belt the inside kerb, and so on and so forth? It never produces much of a race and I’m glad there aren’t 19 tracks like it, but Monaco is still one of the year’s highlights. Give me that over a Tilke-drome any day of the week.

We preview the sixth round of the season in Monaco on Episode 101 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, a preview where Raikkonen gets as much airtime as Manor undoubtedly will on the FOM-controlled world TV feed. A dog-slow car with no sponsor logos tooling around a racetrack watched by Europe’s rich and famous who are positively dripping with money? Yep, sounds like F1 to me …

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on Fox Sports 5 and ESPN in Australia this week, and elsewhere in the world if you live in one of these countries.

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[1] Mark Webber’s barely-concealed disdain for Helmut Marko, seen most recently on our TV screens in Barcelona last time out, still make me laugh. Never gets old.

[2] He’s a strong candidate to make my unofficial ‘Top 5 Most Interesting People in F1’ list that I need to write at some stage. A walking soundbite.

[3] Which I agree with.

[4] Which will 100 per cent happen.

[5] As discussed in our look at the 2016 calendar this week, Formula One will host a European Grand Prix in Azerbaijan next season, which is geographically ridiculous. That’s by the by; this, on the other hand, is a very interesting read for those of you not familiar with how to spell the name of the place, let alone what it’s like.

The Inside Line #100: Money doesn’t buy everything

TILI Logo PrintDaniel Ricciardo was pretty happy to be back in Europe. Sure, the shorter commute to work was one thing, but the Australian felt having some more time back at base would only be of benefit to Red Bull after its stuttering start to 2015.

“The European season will help us, the big teams,” he said in a tone that was more adamant than hopeful. “More efficiency will start to take place with more time spent at the factory and the updates will start to be a bit more significant. We should at least gap the guys behind us, and hopefully put more pressure on Williams. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.” [1]

If it’s a start, it’s a slow one: once again, Ricciardo was reduced to the supporting role of bit-part player this season, finishing seventh at the Circuit de Catalunya last weekend in a race where Red Bull seemed just as far from the podium as it was in the first four flyaways. But in the circumstances, it’s hard to see how he could be doing more.

It’s been a tricky second season at Red Bull for Ricciardo, especially after he trounced reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel in identical machinery in 2014 [2]. Red Bull’s results have been fairly pedestrian, yet Ricciardo already feels like he’s growing this season, and that downturn in performance is actually rounding out his apprenticeship as a team leader.

“I feel as though I have a bit more of a role this year in trying to keep the guys together,” he explains, sounding more like 35 than 25.

“I can have a bit more of an influence on everyone’s mood, and reiterate that ‘you guys are four-time champions, we’ll get back to the top’. It’s a fine line, because at times you want to want to have a bit of a tantrum to let the guys know that work has to be done, but I’m aware what that looks like, and it wouldn’t help even if it made you feel better for a while. Everyone knows the situation so there’s no point me putting fuel on that fire.”

Red Bull certainly didn’t hold back with its upgrades for the Spanish GP – reports out of the UK had the new nose the team brought to the Circuit de Catalunya only passing the FIA mandatory crash test at its 60th attempt and being worth $5 million – but the team that was the benchmark for most of the past five years doesn’t look like it’ll win a race this season. It looks less likely that anyone other than Mercedes will win a race for the rest of 2015 based on Barcelona, and it’ll be interesting to see if the British press report Lewis Hamilton’s seemingly inexorable march to his third world title with the same undercurrent of disdain that permeated through its coverage of world title romps by the likes of Schumacher and Vettel in the past 15 years … [3]

A review of the fifth round of the season in Spain is the focus of Episode 100 [4] of ‘The Inside Line’ this week – see it on Fox Sports and ESPN in Australia, and check your local guides elsewhere.

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[1] I look forward to these quotes being reproduced word-for-word without attribution by the bottom-feeding elements of the British F1 press pack in the next seven days. Possibly claimed as an ‘exclusive’, perhaps in full caps. Theft, I think it’s called. In a related story, it’s good morning/evening to Peter FitzSimons. Nice to have you on board.

[2] Interesting to hear (nine-time Grand Prix winner) Mark Webber opine during the week that Vettel was more than likely affected by Michael Schumacher’s horrific skiing accident last year while being distracted by being a dad. He’s almost certainly right; he’s also getting his name in the press quite a bit for a bloke who doesn’t claim to watch much F1 (check this clip at 23:40), and shit-cans it after he’s been paid handsomely to analyse it for Australian TV. I don’t begrudge MW from making some extra dollars for having an opinion on something he always understood better than most; the whole dismissive attitude to the sport that made his fortune is a bit much though. Just own it and count the cash. There’s plenty of drivers who didn’t achieve half of what he did who are making a very lucrative living out of talking about F1. In a related story, it’s good morning/evening to (no-time Grand Prix winner) Martin Brundle. Brundle is terrific at his job and has made the transition from cockpit to commentary box arguably better than anyone in sport, but the history books don’t lie.

[3] A reminder: both Schumacher and Vettel are German. So that’ll be a ‘no’ then.

[4] Props to Tim Nelson for making it to the century in fine form. Getting better all the time. I’ll raise a bat when we get to Ep 141.

The Inside Line #99: The good old days

TILI Logo PrintI should have known – I did know – but it jarred all the same. To most observers, Fernando Alonso is one of Formula One’s three kingpins along with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel in whatever order you prefer [1]; that one of those kingpins is about to mark two years since his most recent Grand Prix victory is quite staggering. As we preview this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix on Episode 99 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, it’s amazing to think the great Spaniard’s most recent victory came at the wheel of a Ferrari at the Circuit de Catalunya in 2013.

It was a trademark Alonso drive – a jack-rabbit start, two brilliant overtakes (on the same corner) to dispatch Kimi Raikkonen and Hamilton on lap one – and then a flawless display from the front. Formula One is a better sport for having Alonso at the front – his grit, relentless nature and never-say-die attitude is a combination no other driver possesses, and makes for great viewing. For the spectacle, it’s sad to see what has happened since that sunny Sunday in Barcelona two years ago.

There’s not much Alonso doesn’t have besides a sense of timing. After leaving McLaren at the end of 2007, the team won the title with Hamilton the next year. In five years in Ferrari, in red cars good and (mostly) bad, Alonso finished runner-up in the title race three times. He left Ferrari after the team produced a dog of a car last year only for the Prancing Horse to get its gallop back this season – worse still, with Vettel slotting straight into a car that has made the podium three times in four races, once more than Alonso managed for all of 2014. Meanwhile, McLaren is ahead of only Manor in the constructors’ championship despite employing two world champions to drive its cars [2].

Will he ever win another title? Jacques Villeneuve, who was Alonso’s teammate at Renault for about 10 minutes in 2004 [3], wonders if he’ll win another race. JV has a point; that Alonso comes to his home Grand Prix without a single point to his name this season beggars belief. He remains adamant, even strangely confident, that McLaren will get it right. From this weekend in Spain? It’s a long shot, but things could hardly get any worse.

Alonso is the centrepiece of our Spanish Grand Prix preview on ‘The Inside Line’ this week; check it out on ESPN and Fox Sports in Australia, and in (I’m told) 134 other countries, meaning on a TV near you.

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[1] One man’s opinion: Alonso-Hamilton-Vettel.

[2] Why aren’t McLaren getting more heat about this? Is it because we read (mostly) the British press in this country? Why hasn’t someone called McLaren out on the ridiculous quotes they attribute to Eric Boullier in their flowery, useless press releases? Does anyone other than me care?

[3] Not that being a teammate for any longer would have stopped Villeneuve from getting his name in the press. He’s brilliant at it.

Ricciardo keeps upbeat amid Red Bull struggles

THIS STORY APPEARED IN THE SUNDAY AGE NEWSPAPER ON MAY 3

It was Daniel Ricciardo’s Formula One season in a nutshell. On the final corner of the final lap of last month’s Bahrain Grand Prix, a race where the Australian toiled in anonymity in an unremarkable sixth place, Ricciardo planted his right foot on the throttle of his Red Bull-Renault for the run to the finish line. The pedal went flat to the floor; the car didn’t respond. He tried it again. Nothing. And then came the realisation of why.

A thick plume of smoke spewed from the back of the car, Ricciardo’s Renault engine blowing itself to smithereens within jogging distance of the chequered flag. Bits of discarded engine shrapnel littered the track as Ricciardo’s momentum slowly carried him past the finish line in an eerie silence. Sixth place was still his; as the car rolled to a halt, Ricciardo could only shake his head. It was an apt snapshot of a season that has, quite literally, gone up in smoke.

“I was racing by myself on the last lap and I thought I might cruise to the line and save fuel, but I was lucky I didn’t go much slower than I did because I wouldn’t have made it,” Ricciardo tells The Sunday Age.

“Even when the engine blew, it didn’t make a big noise; it was more a big puff of smoke, and then it went silent. There were no signs beforehand. When I crossed the line, I had to laugh a little bit …”

However rueful that smile was, it was a rare chance for Ricciardo’s signature grin to break through in what has, to date, been a wretched season for Red Bull. After three breakthrough victories and finishing third in last year’s world championship, 2015 was supposed to be the year the 25-year-old West Australian made the leap from multiple race-winner to title contender. But the unreliable Renault engine in Ricciardo’s Red Bull has left him fighting with one hand tied behind his back.

In the first four races of the season, Ricciardo has finished no better than seventh; twice, in Australia and Malaysia, he’s suffered the ignominy of being lapped. And while Ricciardo was able to minimise the damage from his Bahrain blow-up, he’s already used three of the four engines allocated to each driver for the season, meaning he’ll use his final power plant for the year at next week’s Spanish Grand Prix, one of 15 remaining races. Any subsequent engine changes will incur a 10-place grid penalty for the following race. It’s not a prospect the Australian is relishing.

“It’s not too, um, riveting at the moment,” Ricciardo says, searching for a diplomatic summation of his season.

“Bahrain was our best weekend so far, but even when things are running well, we seem to be quick enough to keep the guys behind us pretty easily, but not quick enough to catch the others. I’m racing by myself mostly; it’s been pretty lonely out there.”

Unlike the front-running Mercedes and Ferrari outfits, which produce their cars and engines in-house under one roof, Red Bull is a customer of Renault, meaning they’re effectively buying power plants off the shelf. When F1 switched to 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid engines for 2014, Renault was clearly the weakest of the three engine manufacturers in the sport, its lack of grunt regularly seeing Ricciardo 20km/h slower than the Mercedes and Ferrari-powered cars on the straights.

In an attempt to fix that horsepower deficit, Renault made significant changes to its engine in the off-season, but they’ve backfired spectacularly. Ricciardo’s first engine detonated itself after just nine laps in opening practice at Albert Park, and when the power plants have managed to hold together, Red Bull’s drivers have complained of its lack of driveability, the engine providing little response on an initial application of the throttle before applying all the power in seemingly one hit, akin to an on-off switch. The result is a vicious circle: coming out of slow-speed corners, the brutal power input spins the rear wheels, which causes excessive tyre degradation, which makes the car slower while stressing the engine to breaking point.

“Last year we came in with less expectations, so this year we expected more after 12 months’ running with the car,” Ricciardo admits.

“We’re much worse off than where we were this time last year, which is what’s made it hard to take.”

While Mercedes and Ferrari fight among themselves for victories and Williams has been a constant podium threat, Red Bull has been little more than an afterthought this season. In Bahrain, Ricciardo finished 19 seconds behind the Williams of Valtteri Bottas in sixth, but 23 seconds clear of seventh-placed Lotus driver Romain Grosjean. He could do little more.

“It’s not how I want to go racing, but it’s what I’ve got at the moment,” he says.

“I’m not kidding myself in that I know I won’t be fighting for a win, but it doesn’t change the approach. If you see a car in front of you, you try to pass or stay with him and create an opportunity. Even if they’re quicker, maybe something happens in their pit stop, or his tyres degrade faster than yours. It’s more difficult when you’re not fighting right up the front, but you need to keep a bit of hope.”

It’s a pragmatic and mature mindset, arguably one Ricciardo wouldn’t have been capable of adopting even 12 months ago when he joined Red Bull as a driver big on potential, but short on proof that he could actually mix it with the best. While his results from 2014 changed all of that, it’s the wisdom he’s gained since moving his European base to Monaco a year earlier that has been his greatest area of growth. And for that, in part at least, he has an unlikely mentor to thank.

David Coulthard won 13 Grands Prix in a lengthy career that wrapped up at Red Bull in 2008, and as a long-time resident of Monaco, helped Ricciardo settle into the principality of the rich and famous when he shifted from the British town of Milton Keynes. Their ties with Red Bull Racing gave them a common background, but Ricciardo was struck by Coulthard’s willingness to share the wisdom he’d acquired in 15 years as an F1 driver. In a sport where seeking external assistance is often done on the quiet lest it be interpreted as a sign of weakness, Ricciardo has been a sponge, absorbing the 44-year-old’s advice and taking heed of lessons learned. For a bravado-fuelled F1 driver to acknowledge they don’t have all the answers is rare; finding someone with Coulthard’s respect and relevance rarer still. It’s a developing friendship that has been invaluable.

“‘DC’ is a wise guy, and since I’ve been in Monaco, he’s been there for me for a bit of advice,” Ricciardo says.

“At the end of last year, I’d finish on the podium and I’d be thinking ‘it’s just a podium’. Now, I’d kill for a podium. The biggest thing he’s taught me is that after a season like last year, you’re inevitably going to get frustrated at a time like now. You’ve got to be able to turn that around, and he’s told me how important it is to think long-term.

“I plan on having a long career, so I’ve got to perform at a high level no matter whether the car is good enough to win or good enough for fifth. Whatever its limit is, I have to make sure I get to that and make sure I still get recognised as a top driver. There’s not as much excitement over a fifth compared to a victory, but you have to play the long game.

“I’ve always enjoyed talking to people like ‘DC’ who have been around the sport because you can learn so much. You can’t think you know everything. You don’t have to take on every little thing they say, but you’re only going to increase your experience faster by learning from theirs.”

Part of acquiring experience is assuming more responsibility, and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has praised Ricciardo for “not letting his head drop” in difficult circumstances. With Coulthard’s words perhaps ringing in his ears, Ricciardo has made a concerted effort to keep morale high within the team as it labours through its worst season in eight years.

“I feel as though I have a bit more of a role this year in trying to keep the guys together,” he says.

“I can have more influence on everyone’s mood, and reiterate that ‘you guys are four-time champions, we’ll get back to the top’. It’s a fine line, because at times you want to have a bit of a tantrum. But I’m aware what that would look like, and it wouldn’t help. Everyone knows the situation we’re in, so there’s no point me putting fuel on that fire.”

In years to come, Ricciardo will undoubtedly look back at 2015 as the character-building campaign he had to have, one he skipped last season as he went from a prospect with promise to a potential world champion in one fell swoop. While he’s unlikely to be sitting pretty in the championship standings by the end of it, 2015 shapes as the year that rounds out Ricciardo off the track, a season that will only make him more formidable on it when he again has a car commensurate with his talent.

Ricciardo on Red Bull’s future
Would Red Bull really call off a stampede that has seen it set the standard in Formula One for much of the past five years? From its early days as a team seemingly more concerned with partying than performing in the mid-2000s, Red Bull became the sport’s benchmark in the early part of this decade. But could the energy drinks company turn its back on the sport as quickly as it ascended to its summit?

In early April, Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz made it clear that he wouldn’t hesitate to pull Red Bull Racing and sister team Scuderia Toro Rosso out of F1 unless Renault produced an engine that would allow the squads to be competitive, while at the Australian Grand Prix, Mateschitz’s motorsport advisor and right-hand man Dr Helmut Marko claimed the current engine regulations would “kill the sport”. Red Bull has a signed commitment to the sport until 2020, but at the Malaysian Grand Prix in March, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone conceded “if they decide to leave, there is nothing we could do”.

While the Red Bull quit threats have been dismissed by many of the sport’s insiders as posturing by a team struggling to accept a downturn in results, Daniel Ricciardo admits he’s been following the story with interest.

Any Red Bull withdrawal would see the Australian become the hottest property on the driver market, with high-profile teams like Ferrari – which employs the oldest driver in the sport in 35-year-old Kimi Raikkonen, who is out of contract at the end of 2015 – just one potential destination.

Ricciardo says he’s “not blind” to the tension behind the scenes at Red Bull.

“When I hear about it and the frustrations with Mateschitz, I completely understand as he’s not in this sport to make up the numbers,” he says.

“If we as drivers are frustrated, I’m sure he’s just as if not more frustrated, because it’s his brand, his money and his image. Whether these exit threats are real or directly coming from him, I don’t know. But I do hear them; it’s hard not to.

“For me, what he chooses to do in the future is not in my control. What is in my control is to make sure I do all I can to keep this team successful and give it the best chance to have it return to the top.”