Month: July 2015

The Inside Line #111: A better tribute?

TILI Logo PrintIt was a nice gesture, a touching one, but ultimately one that felt a little bit empty. The FIA’s decision to permanently retire the number 17 in Formula One as a tribute to Jules Bianchi was poignant and appropriate, but perhaps some fact-checking would have been in order first.

When the drivers were asked to choose their preferred race numbers for the 2014 season as F1 moved to system of permanent numbers for drivers, any claims on a number by more than one driver would be settled by which driver finished higher in the 2013 championship. Bianchi wanted number 7, which Kimi Raikkonen grabbed first. Next choice was 27, but that wasn’t an option thanks to Nico Hulkenberg. And finally he wanted 77, which Valtteri Bottas had already laid claims on. And so he was left, as a fourth choice, with 17 – and that’ll be the number forever associated with him. The sentiment was right, but did 17 really mean that much to Bianchi?

My preference would have been to see the corner where Bianchi crashed at Suzuka last year, the Dunlop Curve, renamed in his honour. What better tribute could be made than a name as a permanent reminder at one of the world’s most revered racetracks, a circuit with such iconic corner names as 130R, Spoon, the Degners and so on? It would be a circuit-specific acknowledgement to a man who died at that very track doing what he loved. Something more meaningful. One man’s opinion, that’s all. And besides, in the grand scheme of things, any way to remember Jules Bianchi is better than not doing something permanent at all.

The F1 grid arrived in Hungary with heavy hearts for round 10 of the season last weekend – with so many of the current drivers attending Bianchi’s funeral the Tuesday prior, it was always going to be a sombre, emotional affair.

On Episode 111 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, we look back at the final race before the mid-season break, and the sport’s tribute to one of its own who was taken from it and all of us far too early.

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The Inside Line #110: Curiosities and big calls

 

TILI Logo PrintI had to do a double-take. Yes, Sebastian Vettel has won 40 Grands Prix, but quite remarkably, none of them have come in Hungary. Zero. Even in years when he won 11 races (2011) and 13 races (2013), he left Budapest without the winner’s trophy. In 2013, it was the only time in the last 11 races of that season – think about that for a second – that he didn’t win. It’s something he has to change this weekend if the outside chance he has of a fifth world title lasts through the mid-season break.

A big part for that drought in Hungary is Lewis Hamilton – the Hungaroring’s non-stop twists and turns theoretically shouldn’t suit the reigning world champion, but he’s always been amazing around there, even in 2007 as rookie for McLaren when he won for the first time. Three subsequent wins (one of them coming when he briefly interrupted the Vettel steamroller in ’13) have him tied with Michael Schumacher as the most successful driver in Hungarian GP history. Again, surprising.

This weekend’s race in Budapest comes not before time, as the season inexplicably has just one race in seven weeks through the middle of the European summer. Way to go, guys – nothing like staying in the news cycle while the sporting world keeps spinning, is there?

But for the sake of the championship and its box-office value moving into a packed second half of the year, we could use a Vettel win, perhaps a Mercedes DNF (or a double DNF), and a podium for Daniel Ricciardo. Especially the latter, as he probably has next to no chance of one anywhere else. If Adrian Newey believes that, who are we to argue?

A year after Ricciardo’s dramatic victory there, anything resembling a good result would go down well for the Australian after scoring just one point in the last three races. And if you were hedging a bet on which of those three results might just happen, Red Bull showing well at a track that will mask its straight-line speed deficit might be the one most on the cards. I still wouldn’t be running to the TAB though …

Episode 110 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week previews the Hungarian GP through the eyes of three of the main protagonists, while we also discover who is the most popular driver in F1 according to the fans. Spoiler: I don’t concur. At least he won’t be taking up space on the grid next year … And we also remember the cruelly short life of Jules Bianchi, in what will be a week F1 fans and everyone who works in the sport will approach with misty eyes and heavy hearts.

Why, why, why?

Why?

Why is motor racing so horribly cruel?

Why do the good guys die young?

Why did the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix not get brought forward when everyone knew for days that a typhoon was on the cards?

Why was a safety car not deployed when there was a recovery vehicle on the inside of the fence at a circuit with narrow run-offs even in the dry?

How must Adrian Sutil be feeling right now?

Why can’t I get the one replay of the accident I saw while at the circuit out of my head?

Why do I wonder if the sport will learn anything from this?

Why can’t I stop thinking that this whole sorry situation was so easily preventable?

Why, even after years covering motorsport and having to report on death, do I and my journalist colleagues still try to find the right words at times like this when there are clearly no such thing?

Why?

The Inside Line #109: Paying dollars, earning respect

 

TILI Logo PrintLike you, I dismissed Felipe Nasr as being yet another pay driver when his name was announced alongside Marcus Ericsson’s on the F1 entry list for this season. Perhaps unfairly, but the striking new blue and yellow livery for the team that sported the most conservatively boring car on the grid for the previous two years was all due to Nasr’s bank dollars and not a sudden departure from the Swiss team’s usual palette. And then came Australia, where Nasr finished fifth for a team that hadn’t scored a single point all of last year, and ahead of Daniel Ricciardo in a Red Bull. It still seems almost impossible to write that sentence …

As time has gone on, perhaps Nasr’s result that day says more about Red Bull’s 2015 as it says about Sauber, but Nasr has proved worthy of a seat at F1’s top table. That he’s scored more points to the halfway stage of the season than fellow rookies Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz comes as a surprise – being ahead of the two Toro Rosso tyros will be a tough ask by the end of the year given the teams’ disparity in budgets, but it’s a commendable achievement nonetheless. And along the way, the affable Nasr has made history, doing something no Brazilian driver has done before him. Not Senna, not Piquet, not Fittipaldi, and not Tarso Marques. Especially not him.

What, I hear you ask? Ah, that would be telling. You’ll need to watch Episode 109 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week to find out – check your local guides here, here and here. Also this week: why Fernando Alonso isn’t doing backflips over finally scoring a point, who will likely be driving alongside Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari next year (hint: not Kimi), and a look at how Mercedes are turning this season into a Silver Arrows’ stampede. Check it out.

The Inside Line #108: New races, old favourites

TILI Logo PrintIn my cobbled-together career of making a living out of writing about what are essentially games played by grown-ups, there’s been some interesting days for reasons good and bad – covering the death of Marco Simoncelli at Sepang in 2011, being 30 minutes from deadline on the official program for Bathurst in 2006 when news emerged of Peter Brock’s fatal accident, and Daniel Ricciardo’s disqualification from the Australian Grand Prix in 2014 and the hasty re-filing of four news stories, a feature and a video blog at 3am. All one-off events. But few people/organisations have caused me to have as many lengthy and frustrating days at work over the past few years than James Hird [1] and Essendon. As someone who only dips in and out of working in Australian Rules football during the season, I can’t imagine how some of the journos covering that story full-time for years must feel, especially when it continues to have a pulse.

What does this have to do with F1? Well, Hird’s name popped into my head this week when I read The Age’s story that the Australian Grand Prix Corporation’s leadership was being plunged into uncertainty (their words) because of the Victorian government’s preference to have Essendon AFL chairman Paul Little installed into the AGPC chairman’s role over acting chairman John Harnden, who took over when Ron Walker stepped aside after the AGP this March. Could be true, might not be, I have no additional information one way or the other. But the line that made me sit up was that an unnamed source claimed Bernie Ecclestone was “very jumpy” (their quotation marks, not mine) over the leadership position, making me wonder if the relationship between Bernie and the AGPC will ever be what it was in Walker’s tenure. Yes, Australia signed a five-year extension to host F1 until 2020, but the date of next year’s race – April 3, the latest start to a season since 1988 – left the door open for a race to be installed before Melbourne to bump Albert Park out of its traditional season-opening slot. How much of that is a coincidence, would that have happened had Walker still been there, and what does it all mean?

And then comes a report a few days later quoting the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF) saying all it needed were “a few more meetings” with Ecclestone to sign an agreement to host an F1 race. It’s only July after all, so why couldn’t that race happen in 2016? And in March 2016? It was very unusual for next year’s calendar to be released as early as April, as it was this year – as Jonny Noble mentioned in a column back then, does the length of the season (21 races with the addition of the European GP [2]), no fewer than seven back-to-back race weekends and the later start create room at the beginning of the season for more events? There’s a set of circumstances at play here that all appear independent of one another, but a line can easily be drawn to link them. And when there’s reportedly this sort of money involved, who says more races can’t be added, or existing races moved? Makes the $2 million Essendon was fined in 2013 for its supplements scandal look like small fry in comparison …

Qatar may or may not be on next year’s calendar; one race that has stood the test of time on F1 calendars from day dot is the British Grand Prix, which celebrated its 70th running last Sunday at Silverstone. The old circuit still looks brilliant [3] when the world’s best drivers are giving it all they have (if only in qualifying, but it’s better than nothing), and the atmosphere when the country has a reigning world champion to cheer remains one of the best in the sport. If the weather is good (and that’s a big ‘if’ in England as last weekend proved), there are few better venues.

Our wrap of an enthralling British Grand Prix is the focus of Episode 108 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week – check it out.

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[1] I promise this name will never be used here again, and my apologies.

[2] In Baku, remember. You know, Baku in, er, Europe.

[3] Despite gushing TV commentary to the contrary, it still ranks behind Suzuka and Spa for me. Still have to write that circuit rankings piece …

What F1 fans really want

FerrariCrowdMore competition, greater fan engagement, a relaxed rulebook and a return to a tyre ‘war’; they’re just some of the key recommendations from an extensive fan survey into Formula One conducted by the group that represents the men behind the wheel, the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association.

At the Monaco Grand Prix in May, the GPDA launched an online survey to discover what F1 fans want for the future, proving a rare opportunity for a representative voice to be heard for those who follow the sport.

The survey was completed by more than 217,000 fans, with participants coming from 194 countries. The highest number came from the United Kingdom; Australia ranked seventh in participation and ahead of Japan, Italy and Brazil, key F1 markets with significantly larger populations.

Who are Formula One’s fans?
If you’re 37 years old and have been following F1 for more than a decade, then you’re an average fan based on the results of the survey. Half of the respondents were between the ages of 25-44, while 25 per cent of those surveyed said F1 was their favourite sport.

One in five fans have been to a Grand Prix in the past 12 months, while away from the track, the increasing trend of F1 moving to pay-TV in several key markets has changed the way people consume it. Approximately 90 per cent of fans watch races on TV, but more than 50 per cent haven’t watched races live since they moved away from free-to-air.

The TV trends are also reflected in an increased online following; more fans (55 per cent to 50) say websites are now their primary source of information rather than TV, and approximately 45 per cent watch races online, 30 per cent watching on demand at a time of their choosing.

How do fans feel about F1?
While the appreciation for the technology arms race that has always typified F1 remains, F1 fans aren’t as positive about the sport as they were in 2010, when the now-defunct Formula One Teams Association embarked on the most recent comparable global survey. Less than 10 per cent of those surveyed feel F1 is healthier now than it was in 2010, with cost and predictable racing cited as two of the three key factors.

With Mercedes winning 23 of the 27 Grands Prix ahead of this weekend’s race at Silverstone since the advent of the V6 1.6-litre turbo hybrid era, 89 per cent of fans say F1 needs to be more competitive; on a related point, 85 per cent believe the sport needs to do more to obtain and retain new fans to counter Mercedes’ domination and a saturated sports market featuring more choice for the armchair viewer than ever.

Six in 10 respondents still see F1 as the “pinnacle of motorsport”, but the perception that today’s grid doesn’t feature the best drivers is increasing; 88 per cent believe F1 should feature the best 20 drivers in the world, but less than half (45 per cent) believe it actually does. More than half (56 per cent) of those surveyed feel today’s Formula One cars appear too easy to drive.

Who are the star attractions?
Kimi Raikkonen has been roundly thrashed since his return to Ferrari by Fernando Alonso and now Sebastian Vettel, but the survey revealed the Finn to be the most popular driver in F1. The oldest driver in the sport at 35, Raikkonen rated ahead of Alonso (second) and another 30-something in his McLaren teammate Jenson Button (third); neither reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton, nor the driver who won the four titles before Hamilton, Vettel, could crack the popularity podium.

Ferrari hasn’t won a title since Raikkonen’s 2007 success, but remains the most popular team; the Prancing Horse topped the ‘favourite teams’ tally ahead of British duo McLaren and Williams. Just one in 10 respondents follow only one team, while one-third of those surveyed support more than one team and driver.

Cars from Michael Schumacher’s red reign at Ferrari in the 2000s were considered the best-looking F1 machines of all; 32 per cent of respondents rated the cars from the ‘noughties’ as their favourite. The current iteration of F1 cars ranked just fifth on the list of seven decades of machinery (10 per cent), ahead of only the 1960s and ’50s.

What of the future?
F1 fans gave a resounding thumbs-down to gimmicky solutions to what are seen as deep-rooted problems. Radical suggestions like reverse-grid races (advocated by just 18 per cent of those surveyed), success ballast as a handicap system to add extra weight to front-running cars to slow them down (26 per cent) and calls for three-car teams or fewer teams running more cars (14 per cent) received a lukewarm response. The Drag Reduction System (DRS), in place since 2011 as an aid to promote overtaking, has lost favour, just 40 per cent believing it improves racing.

Eight in 10 respondents were keen on a return to competing tyre companies in F1, last seen with Bridgestone and Michelin in 2006, while 60 per cent want in-race refuelling reinstated for the first time since 2009.

Skyrocketing budgets also have the fans concerned; 54 per cent believe a budget cap should be introduced and policed, with 68 per cent believing running costs are too high and are a threat to F1’s future.

A majority of fans (74 per cent) also believe F1’s rulebook should be relaxed to promote greater diversity between the cars.

The sound of Formula One engines, the subject of much debate since the normally-aspirated V8 powerplants were shelved at the end of 2013, remains a talking point, with nearly three-quarters of respondents saying the tune of F1 is important to them.

What happens next?
Alex Wurz, the chairman of the GPDA, said the drivers’ group would analyse the results from the survey before approaching F1 chiefs with their recommendations.

In the executive summary of the survey, Wurz wrote: “More than ever, F1 needs to feature the best drivers, and you (the fans) are looking to drivers to take a lead in engaging with fans to revitalise the sport; drive technical and sporting change to improve the spectacle and appeal of F1.”

Originally published as ‘The fans have spoken; GPDA survey results’ here