Month: June 2015

An open letter to Maurizio Arrivabene

Ciao Maurizio. Firstly, I hope your heart rate has come back to normal after that incident with Felipe Massa in the pits in Austria a couple of weeks ago. Must have been quite a shock to be wandering across to the garage from the pit wall to see a former Ferrari driver bearing down on you. Wasn’t far being off the ultimate payback for Hockenheim 2010, was it? Before your time, I know.

Speaking of things in the past, did you hear about the pasting another (unofficial) number two driver gave his old team last week? Mark Webber was pretty punchy when describing Red Bull’s management and how it failed to show any, um, testicular fortitude when it came to managing his relationship with your new driver, Sebastian Vettel. His views weren’t anything we didn’t already know, but he has a book to sell, you see. I know, it was a bit strange to see this all coming out three years after he’d won his last Grands Prix and two years since he announced his retirement, but those Australian publishing deadlines must be a bitch.

All that talk about Australia made me think of the man who stepped into Webber’s shoes at Red Bull, Daniel Ricciardo, and then of Kimi Raikkonen. You know Kimi, he’s the one trailing your other driver by a mile in the championship, making needless mistakes, leaving you vulnerable to Williams in the constructors’ race despite one Williams driver missing a Grand Prix through injury and the team having a race where they didn’t even score a point in Monaco. I did wonder if you’d forgotten about him in Austria, as you seemed to mention everyone else that works for Ferrari in your post-race comments other than Kimi. A coincidental oversight, I’m sure.

It’s all gone a bit wrong for Kimi, hasn’t it? What about Canada, where he finished five seconds ahead of his teammate after starting at the other end (as in the good end) of the field? Or that first-lap crash in Austria where he lit up the rear wheels like someone who has done nine races, not 219, slid off and clouted Fernando Alonso? It all looks a bit amateurish, even more so when he blames the equipment, the tyres, the way the team communicates with him and so on rather than occasionally putting his hand up. Can’t be good for morale in the team, can it?

Look, Kimi has had a really good career and has won a title, loads of Grands Prix, made heaps of cash, has been topping up his super for the past two years. There were a couple of wins in the Lotus years, sure, but it’s almost a decade since he won the title and he’s 36 in October. At some point you need to look towards the future. Seb says he wants him to stay, but if you’re Seb, of course you would. Sure, they might get along, but it’s easy to be matey with someone when you’re beating the daylights out of them every weekend and they appear outwardly not to care less.

Nico Hulkenberg wouldn’t be a bad option, and in hindsight your team probably should have signed him in late 2013 to replace Felipe as was rumoured rather than re-sign Kimi again. Again, before your time, I know. Valtteri Bottas represents the future too, but he’s not exactly blowing Felipe away this year, is he? It seems the best Kimi replacement is a driver who has actually won races, who by any measure is a star and is already a known quantity. Why not reunite the 2014 Red Bull pairing and grab Daniel, his contract at Milton Keynes be damned? After all, with all of the money you’d save from not paying Kimi, you could always hand over some folding stuff for Ricciardo’s services. Or perhaps give Red Bull a discount on some Ferrari engines if you can take their leading driver? Sounds like they could use a new engine partner, and they must be desperate to get that Max Verstappen chap into the senior team.

OK, I know it didn’t go all that well or to expectations when Ricciardo and Vettel were teammates a year ago. They didn’t despise one another despite the massive gulf in their results driving the same car – it’s hard for anyone to despise Ricciardo, isn’t it? Seb was a bit off last year, perhaps exhausted from four straight world title runs, perhaps distracted by the terrible accident that befell Michael Schumacher, perhaps with his eye off the ball a touch after becoming a father. All completely understandable factors if they were factors. We know he’s been back to his best this year, and surely he’d love a chance to correct that one anomaly in his career by having another crack at the one driver to beat him in a head-to-head inter-team fight. He wouldn’t be scared of that challenge, surely not.

As for Ricciardo, think of the benefits for your team. One, he’d try, or at least give the impression that he’s trying, unlike Vettel’s current teammate. The team would almost certainly move forward with Ricciardo’s technical feedback, an underrated part of the package that gets lost behind the soundbites, that Honey Badger thing and his grinning. He’s only just turned 26, meaning time is on his side and you have a succession plan. As I touched on, he’d be cheaper than Kimi. And can you imagine how the tifosi would embrace ‘Ree-chee-ardo’ as one of their own as he breaks out his Australian-accented Italian on the team radio? Il Canguro! Il Canguro!

What’s to lose, other than another season or two of a driver who represents links to Ferrari’s successful past, even if that success seems an eternity ago now? I read with some amusement last week that you said, somewhat disingenuously, that Ricciardo hasn’t been in touch as “perhaps he does not have my number”; you know where he works, so perhaps pay him a (or another?) visit on the quiet. It’s a small gesture that could have a big payoff. And means you could have two of the best five drivers in the sport locked down for the next three years at least. Sounds good to me.

Yours in pit lane safety,

Matt

The Inside Line #107: Massa makes it last

 

TILI Logo PrintI still vividly remember my first weekend watching Felipe Massa at work, and how jarring it was. There was a spot inside the fence at the final corner at Albert Park that you could only get to with a media pass and an ability to bluff the security guards, and back in 2002, the fences weren’t all that high compared to today. So it was there that myself and few photographers stood to watch the cars coming out the slow-speed Turn 15, where you get a good idea of the different driving styles on show. And Massa, on his Grand Prix debut weekend, certainly was different in the Sauber that day. There was absolutely no subtlety to his application of the throttle – it was either on or off – and the violent jarring of his head, low-down in the cockpit on account of his diminutive stature – was the biggest takeaway. He was pretty wild and never seemed to take the same line twice, but he was quick. Even so, with such a raw style, I wondered how long he would last.

Fast-forward to 2015, and Massa has lasted very well indeed. His drive in Austria last time out, when he held off Sebastian Vettel in a plainly faster Ferrari in the closing stages to take his 40th career podium – was one of an experienced head who has seen it all before, wasn’t spooked by the moment, and was never likely to beat himself. With Vettel on your tail – who rarely makes mistakes – it would have been easy to drop the ball. It was a third place that was somewhat overshadowed by the latest Mercedes 1-2 finish, and one that arguably deserved more publicity.

Where does Massa sit in the sport’s history? Statistically he has 11 victories – the same as another long-time Ferrari second banana and compatriot in Rubens Barrichello, a former world champion and teammate in Jacques Villeneuve, and the man who won in Austria last time out, Nico Rosberg. He has Barrichello’s longevity, Villeneuve’s occasional penchant for unhelpful emotion over the radio, and Rosberg’s ability to take a title fight down to the wire as the (unofficial) second driver in a team, as he did at Ferrari in 2008. Better than some of that list, any of that list, all of them? It’s an interesting debate. At a pinch, I’d go Villeneuve-Barrichello-Massa-Rosberg in order of best to worst, but if I has a chance to employ one of them to drive for my team, it’d be Massa every time.

Massa and Williams come to this weekend’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone in the mix for the one podium spot that seems to be on offer this year given Mercedes have had both its drivers in the top three at every Grand Prix so far – off back-to-back podium finishes in Canada (Valtteri Bottas) and Austria (Massa), there’s a very strong chance Williams will have something to celebrate at a circuit where it won its first GP 36 years ago. Bottas is clearly the future as the younger man, but few would begrudge Massa another strong result as his career winds down to a dignified conclusion after years of being beaten down politically at Ferrari.

Episode 107 of ‘The Inside Line’ looks ahead to Silverstone this weekend with a focus on Williams – check local guides, and check it out.

10 observations: Mark Webber/Australian Story

In no particular order:

(1) How much do media types miss Mark’s straight down the line delivery, no BS and the trademark shrug of the shoulders he likes to do when contemplating an answer to a rubbish question? A lot.

(2) Speaking of missing people, Alan Webber in the F1 paddock was a beauty to have around. He was also the one person in the paddock with a handshake more ferocious than his son.

(3) Red Bull threw its weight behind a German driver it had piled loads of money into rather than a veteran who, in his own words, once said his pace had been “inconvenient” for team management. It’s not ‘fair’ or ‘just’ or any of those things, but as much as most Australians (me included) hated it at the time, it was understandable. This is not news.

(4) Mark Webber has a book coming out; this isn’t news either.

(5) Since when did the ABC do cross-promotions for new books anyway?

(6) Having no actual race vision is horrible for those making F1 shows who aren’t rights holders (believe me, I know), but Tom Cruise? Surely there was more footage around than that.

(7) Ann Neal remains as tough, fair and unwavering from the path set by her moral compass as she was when I first had dealings with her a million years ago, and anyone who enjoyed MW’s career should be forever grateful. As determined as they come.

(8) Anyone else find it strange seeing Rusty being interviewed rather than doing the interviewing? I was waiting for a Zeebox cross-promotion (sorry mate, had to get that in).

(9) Reliving Mark’s radio call after winning at the Nurburgring in ’09 was loads of fun. Journos aren’t supposed to lose all composure while at work, but I happily did that day.

(10) I’m still not buying the book.

The Inside Line #106: The box set

TILI Logo PrintOne whole season. An entire season. The extent of Mercedes’ dominance over F1 came with its 19th straight pole position at last weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix; it was in Austria last year that Mercedes last didn’t take pole, thanks to Williams and Felipe Massa. It’s also a run that doesn’t figure to end anytime soon.

If last year’s performance by Mercedes – all but one pole and 16 of 19 race wins – was considered one of the most dominant campaigns ever, where does that leave us this year? Williams are quick on certain tracks and nowhere on others (Monaco, anyone?), Red Bull doesn’t have a chassis this year to overcome the same lack of power from its engine that it had in 2014, and Ferrari continues to employ Kimi Raikkonen, although for how much longer remains to be seen. Inconsistency, finger-pointing and high-profile superannuation schemes are holding Mercedes’ potential rivals back, and while it’s not all gold medal performances for the Silver Arrows (Monaco, anyone?), there’s little to worry about for the remainder of the season, or so it seems.

Rather than handicapping Mercedes to bring them back to the field as has been suggested by those pushing for change from many different angles, it’s up to the rest to do a better job. Sounds simple, but isn’t. And nor should it be. F1 should be difficult, and it will change. People seem to have forgotten that not even two years ago, another driver and another team won the final nine races of the season and 13 for the year. The world was nearing an end then too, if you recall …

Episode 106 of ‘The Inside Line’ looks back at last weekend at the Red Bull Ring, surely one of the sport’s best settings; catch our wrap in any one of the following countries or check your local guides.

The Inside Line #105: They just don’t get it

 

TILI Logo PrintNiki Lauda was right, completely right. Formula One is a sport, and if someone is keeping score, then there is one winner, and a bunch of losers. In the aftermath of the Canadian Grand Prix, where Mercedes converted another 1-2 on the grid into another 1-2 result, the team’s non-executive chairman wasn’t about to apologise for the race being more dull than what we’ve become accustomed to in Montreal over the years.

“Together with (team principal) Toto (Wolff) I can only run the team in the best possible and most professional way and win every bloody race,” the ever-quotable Lauda said.

“That’s what I’m here for, and the rest I don’t know. It was a perfect result, nothing wrong, we couldn’t have done a better job.”

Niki Lauda was wrong, completely wrong. Formula One is entertainment, and the Canadian Grand Prix was a snorefest. The team with the dominant car in F1 cruised to victory – literally, as concerns over fuel consumption and tyre wear saw the Mercedes pit wall ask their drivers to go slower, brake earlier, not be aggressive, lift off the throttle and all but crawl into corners. Short of a mechanical breakdown, nobody was close to beating them anyway, so why stress the cars? At the end of 70 laps, the team bagged 43 constructors’ championship points, two more trophies and showed that it has more of an advantage over the rest than we perhaps thought. And, quite frankly, they were the only winners.

Formula One finds itself at a crossroads at the moment, with too much arguing about the future and what it wants to be, and too little being done about what it is, or what it has become. Several teams are struggling to stay afloat, others are trying to use those financial concerns to pick at the carcasses of the weak and fatten their own bottom lines under the guise of ‘what is good for the sport’, others are embarrassingly bitching and moaning now things have gone bad for five minutes after running roughshod over the opposition for the best part of five years. The sport doesn’t promote itself, an inaction of madness in an ever-crowded sporting and entertainment market, and those at the top covet power, money or both, to hell with how it comes and who it comes from. A glance at the news generated out of Montreal showed that 80 per cent of the stories were about things that haven’t happened yet, might never happen and probably should never happen. Improving the on-track product and getting that message across seems to be lost on those on the inside. What’s the point in manoeuvring yourself to be best placed for the future when the present is such a bloody mess? Particularly a future when you don’t know who will be watching, and in what numbers.

Last season was, considering one team won 16 of the 19 races, gripping. New technology that was intriguing even if the benefits of it were horrendously ‘promoted’, a first-time Grand Prix winner who punched above his weight, a new force emerging, several flashpoints between the key players in said powerhouse team, and a championship that went down to the final race, double points not needed. This season? Lewis Hamilton looks stronger than ever after his second title, Nico Rosberg looks like someone who knows he’s not quite as good in a superb car, Daniel Ricciardo’s smile has occasionally waned [1], and nobody looks like getting a shot at the podium’s top step again unless we get some freak hot weather than allows Ferrari to repeat Sebastian Vettel’s win in Malaysia somewhere else. You wouldn’t be surprised if Mercedes took each of the final 12 races, and Hamilton around 10 of those. Who’ll be watching then? Even the British broadcasters might be tired of cheerleading for Hamilton by Abu Dhabi. [2]

Of course, there’s always been politics, grubby money-grabbing, power-hording and the like in Formula One. Goes with the territory. But have we ever been in a place where the future of the sport appeared more cloudy? As other motor racing series’ around the world gain traction (hello, WEC) and the potential ways for people to spend their increasingly hard-earned money in a smaller window of time only increase, Formula One seems stuck in the dark ages by comparison. Many of the suggestions to “improve the sport” are little more than throwbacks to the past, when several of the key players were just old and wealthy rather than being old, wealthy and completely out of touch [3]. Will someone or a group of someones take charge of Formula One and steer the ship in a sustainable direction and not be influenced by power, cash, legacy or short-term gain? Are we simply in a holding pattern until one of life’s unbeatables – Father Time – does its work? [4] I fear the answers to those two questions are ‘no’ and ‘yes’, in that order.

Formula One goes to Austria this weekend, and Red Bull’s promotional arm should see that the event is well publicised almost in spite of those on the inside of the paddock gates. The return of the picturesque circuit nestled in the Styrian Mountains last year was a highlight of the season, with a surprise pole-sitter and an intriguing race coming against a backdrop of packed stands, knowledgeable and appreciative fans, and plenty going on elsewhere around the facility. Amazing what can be achieved when something is promoted and marketed positively, isn’t it? Canada was little more than a cure for insomnia, but this should be much, much better – and some welcome good news for a sport that desperately needs it.

An Austrian GP preview is the focus of Episode 105 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week; my rant above is not. Might save that for another week …

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[1] Perhaps the biggest shock of all.

[2] Who am I kidding?

[3] I read a story over the Canadian GP weekend about ‘the future’ where the combined age of the interviewer and interviewee was around 140. Which would have been fine if it wasn’t complete dross. But Zandvoort in 1968 was great, wasn’t it?

[4] The other? Gravity. Hat tip to Jalen Rose.

The Inside Line #104: Perceptions, realities

TILI Logo PrintDaniel Ricciardo; good at driving F1 cars, rubbish at celebrating driving them faster than anyone else. The Australian had broken through for the F1 win he always dreamed about in Canada last year, and the clichéd response to a maiden victory would have been to spend the night out on the town in Montreal, wake up with a screaming hangover and with a wallet lighter than when he left his hotel, and with stories best kept to the people who were there. The reality was somewhat different.

Ricciardo had actually booked his own flight out of Canada for a few hours after the chequered flag, figuring like everyone else that it would be Mercedes with something to celebrate – after all, the Silver Arrows had won the previous six Grands Prix. When circumstances conspired to see Ricciardo on the top step of the Canada podium and not Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg, the mad dash to the airport was hastily scrapped. Red Bull found a downtown venue, the drinks flowed freely and the backslaps came from all angles, but Ricciardo felt strangely detached from the whole thing. Happy, yes. But a bit numb.

“Leaving the track in the hire car with Stu (trainer Stuart Smith), that was when it hit me,” he remembers.

“Eight or so hours earlier I’d turned up all pumped for the race like I usually am, and then leaving as the winner … The next day, on the plane on the way home when I had some time to myself and some time to just think, that was pretty special. The night of the race, you always wonder how massive of a party you’d have if you ever won a Grand Prix, but the funny thing was that I was just exhausted. I had a couple of drinks, but once the adrenaline wore off, I wasn’t full of energy.

“Mentally, I was shattered.”

Ricciardo improved at celebrating Grand Prix wins as the 2014 season wore on – the timing of finishing first in Hungary just before the mid-season break and having a few mates in Budapest to watch the race was fortuitous given the partying that followed – but he’s unlikely to have too many chances to do the same this season. There’ll be times this year where someone other than Hamilton or Rosberg gets to spray the champagne of victory – as Sebastian Vettel demonstrated in Malaysia – but as last weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix showed, they’ll be few and far between. Ricciardo might have to hope the memories of Montreal 2014 don’t fade for a good while yet, but he remains as relevant as ever for Australian F1 fans as the man who came to Vettel’s team and did in seven races what Mark Webber didn’t in five years – put the German in his place.

Webber’s legacy was an interesting footnote to Ricciardo’s stunning season in 2014. Ricciardo undoubtedly partnered Vettel in a rare down year last year, but the casual sports fan only sees the headlines and the results, and then starts to ask questions. I lost count of the number of times last year I was told “see, Webber really was no good” or variations thereof by people with limited knowledge of the sport after another Ricciardo race where he’d made Vettel look pedestrian [1]; it’s a simplistic and harsh assessment and one that I did my best to correct, but it was out there nonetheless. The hardcore F1 fan (and F1 media who miss his brutal honesty) remembers Webber for what he was with fondness, a proper fighter with no shortage of bravery, someone who scrapped and scraped his way into F1 and managed to win races when he finally got hold of a decent car, and unfortunately a driver who forever seemed to be in the right place at the wrong time, or make the wrong call when it really mattered (choosing Williams over Renault, alienating his team when he needed them most in 2010 in Brazil, not getting to Ferrari when the opportunity presented itself). The casual sports fan? Most of them are surprised to know he’s still racing in the World Endurance Championship, some were surprised he popped up on Australian TV for the season-opener in Melbourne again, and others wondered why he’d choose to release a book in the middle of the F1 season in Australia when the sport has little mainstream cut-through and two years after he’d pulled the pin. There are reasons, trust me [2], but the timing does seem a little off. As someone cruelly remarked to be during the week, it’s at least consistent with his starts to F1 races … [3]

Now that I’ve managed to get off-topic, back to the task at hand. The Inside Line, episode 104 this week, looks back at the weekend that was in Montreal and a race that, until this year at least, is usually one of the more entertaining of the season. At least it was well timed for those on the east coast of Australia with a public holiday Monday to roll into after the 4am start. It’s almost enough to make me a monarchist, for one day at least …

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[1] When uninformed footy bozos masquerading as sports (note use of plural, even though in parts of Australia there’s only one) radio hosts peddle a certain line for years based on nothing and enough people hear it, it becomes fact, apparently. Sigh.

[2] How do I fit this into a footnote? Impossible. When will I read the book? Never. Don’t need to. When will I elaborate on this? In good time, in good time … In the meantime, is that the sound of the karma bus I hear?

[3] Harsh, very harsh. Not wholly untrue, but harsh nonetheless.

The Inside Line #103: A suspension of belief

TILI Logo PrintAny Grand Prix would suffer in the glamour stakes coming after Monaco, but the Canadian Grand Prix is a proper motor race without the slightest hint of A-list celebrity that anyone outside of North America would recognise [1]. And for that, we should be thankful.

Montreal is a gruelling weekend for Australians watching at home – stay up for the 3am start and crash through, or run a two-stop sleep strategy either side of the race – but it’s almost always worth it. Other than the Japanese Grand Prix, it’s hard to come up with another race where something unusual happens every single year. Which makes Canada compelling viewing, no matter the time of day.

When Michael Schumacher was running red rings around the rest in the early 2000s, Montreal was as predictable as somewhere like Hungary for knowing the result well in advance of the lights going out. But since Schumi’s first retirement, it’s been dramatic, a lottery, and a place where people break through. It’s even been a game-changer for F1 as we know it now.

Remember Robert Kubica’s ghastly accident in 2007, one that paved the way for a young floppy-haired German named Sebastian Vettel to deputise for him at the next race? The same ’07 race was won by Lewis Hamilton for his maiden GP victory; the following year Kubica [2] took his first (and sadly only) win at the same circuit, while last year, Daniel Ricciardo enjoyed the view from the top step of an F1 podium for the first time at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Nowhere else can boast a list of first-time winners in the past decade. And then there’s 2011.

Jenson Button’s victory in Canada four years ago was, quite frankly, preposterous. Hit his teammate Hamilton on track. Ran into Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari. Damaged his front wing. Had a puncture. Dropped to last. Endured a two-hour rain delay, the last time that will ever happen as races are now shoehorned into a two-hour window, rain or shine. Didn’t lead a single lap until the last one. And then capitalised on Vettel’s rare error to see ‘P1’ next to his name with eight corners to go for the first time. Unfolding as night turned to day on the east coast of Australia, watching it on TV was almost surreal. Close to unbelievable.

Speaking of which … Bernie Ecclestone’s assertion last week that Nico Rosberg and Vettel are “bad for business” was as head-scratching as anything he’s said all year that could be filed in that category, and there’s been a fair bit of that. What was he trying to achieve? Embarrass the two drivers into being people that they aren’t? Divert attention from himself on a weekend where reports suggested he faced a £1billion tax bill? Get a cheap headline? It’s always hard to tell with Bernie and the real reason will inevitably be something nobody has thought of yet, but to intimate the cancellation of this year’s German Grand Prix has more to do with the lack of popularity of Rosberg and Vettel in their homeland than financial considerations was, frankly, a bit rich. Readers of this blog will know that I’m never backwards in getting stuck into Rosberg, but he deserves praise for calling Bernie out on his comments in the interview – and while I’m at it, the way he handled the British media trying to inflame the situation after he lucked into his Monaco win last time out. Some of the coverage (was old mate Theodore close to tears, or was that just me?) was well out of order, but Rosberg handled it like a pro. Credit where it’s due [3].

Right, back on topic. This week’s episode of The Inside Line, episode 103 for those of you keeping score, features a look ahead to Montreal this weekend through the eyes of Button and a McLaren team that’s finally off the mark in 2015, while Rosberg shows us a different side of Monaco in a chat with David Coulthard. Check local guides and all of that.

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[1] Although I did enjoy Ice-T’s video inside the McLaren pits when Hamilton was still driving there, and imagining Ron Dennis’ response when he saw it. Shame it got removed from YouTube.

[2] Fascinating to wonder where Kubica would be these days if fate hadn’t intervened. How many Grands Prix would he have won? Was he as good as Alonso felt he was? Always a shame to see genuine top-line talent not realise its potential through ill-fortune.

[3] I can’t believe I wrote that either, but fair’s fair.