The Inside Line

The Inside Line #130: The finish line

TILI Logo PrintYes, the 2015 Formula One season has finished – and not a moment too soon unless you happen to be driving a Mercedes.

Compared to 2014, this season hasn’t been as memorable, but there have been bright spots. Max Verstappen’s arrival onto the scene and knowing that we have a decade or more of him up the front to come. Sebastian Vettel’s recovery after an anomalous year in 2014 and leading a Ferrari resurgence in a way that his great mentor Michael Schumacher would approve. Kimi Raikkonen’s management continuing to get Kimi employed by Ferrari for reasons that don’t appear to be entirely clear. And the afore-mentioned Mercedes, who came as close to perfection as any team in F1 history.

While the monotony of another Silver Arrows 1-2 finish tested everyone’s patience towards the end of the season, Mercedes shouldn’t be criticised for what they’ve achieved, more celebrated for it. It’s up to the rest to do better, catch up, work harder and smarter. They will in time – stability in the rulebook will help to narrow the gap between the best and the rest – and the spectacle will improve. Formula One has peaks and valleys of seasons, and next year should be better.

Me? I won’t be around, at least not on The Inside Line, to write about it. After two years, 90 episodes, prequels good and bad, a million uses of ‘penultimate’ and ‘back to the front’ and various other go-to lines and at least 50 ham and cheese toasties, this week’s episode (number 130) of the show reviews the 2015 season, and is my last. It’s been a mostly enjoyable journey for the past two years and I’ve learned a lot, and I think it’s been a relationship that has been mutually beneficial for all parties.

Thanks to Tim for the patience and passion for those prequels, Pete for taking a shot on someone who had barely written for TV before, Paul for his voice of gold, Andrew and Peter downstairs for their constant enthusiasm, and plenty of others who I’ve forgotten. And thanks for watching.

I have new pastures to go to/new challenges ahead/insert your favourite ‘moving on’ cliché here – and I’ll be at liberty to reveal them in due course.

So, for now. The Inside Line. Episode 130. Check it out.

The Inside Line #129: All’s well that ends …

TILI Logo PrintSome years, you get to the final race of an F1 season and are sure that it was only five minutes ago that everyone was gathering in Melbourne full of energy and optimism; other years, like this one, the end of the season can’t come soon enough for most.

An endless stream of Mercedes 1-2 finishes, the British media not covering itself in glory when it reports on races that Lewis Hamilton doesn’t actually win (the boys at Box of Neutrals didn’t miss them last week), the second-best car on the grid being driven hard by one driver and like an indifferent superannuant by another (my weekly Raikkonen whack), and no local interest for Australian fans at the front of proceedings … it hasn’t been a banner year for F1, which was always likely after last-season’s tension-filled finale under lights in Abu Dhabi.

If it’s been a long season for many F1 fans in Australia, you can only imagine how Daniel Ricciardo must feel. Abu Dhabi last year might have produced the best drive of his F1 career, even in a year where he won three races and stood on the podium eight times. After Red Bull had both of its cars excluded from qualifying for running an illegal front wing last year, Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel both started from the pit lane, and Ricciardo finished an incredible fourth – and even more incredibly, 35 seconds ahead of the four-time world champion in the sister car. Ricciardo felt it was his most complete effort of the season, and it made for riveting TV at a track that’s never going to set pulses racing (insert your favourite variation on the ‘lipstick on a pig’ joke here). Ah, those were the days …

In some ways, Ricciardo’s 2015 season is the campaign I expected him to have last year, where the Red Bull was slow and fragile in pre-season testing before unexpectedly coming to life when it mattered most. That such a compromised season has come so soon after his breakout campaign has been a test of character, and he’s passed that with flying colours despite the massive frustration hidden beneath that perma-grin. As a leader, he’s grown immeasurably in the past 12 months, and at some stage that’ll come back to benefit him. It didn’t happen last weekend in Abu Dhabi, and might not happen next year either. One wonders whether he’ll still be driving a Red Bull by the time the team is ready to fight for something meaningful again, but that’s another story.

The final race review of the season is the focus of Episode 129 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, and it’ll be right up your street if you like silver-liveried cars that win a lot. Check it out.

The Inside Line #128: Defining progress

TILI Logo PrintSo what are we to make of Williams’ 2015 season? In the standings, it seems like a solid enough campaign, a repeat of the third place that received so much positive press this time last year after the team’s first double podium for nine years in Abu Dhabi. But dig a little deeper, and it becomes harder to gauge.

After a season that featured 320 points and nine podiums a year ago, Williams has 253 points and just four top-three finishes between Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa this year. Part of that is because there are few podiums available for anyone not driving a Mercedes this year; another 1-2 finish in Abu Dhabi will set a record for world championship points for a Silver Arrows team that just seems to get better and better. And what makes it even harder to assess is that Ferrari has left Williams behind this year, while Red Bull has, remarkably, become an afterthought. It feels like a team finishing third in the constructors’ race should be challenging for occasional wins and fighting harder with the team in front of it, but how often has Sebastian Vettel had many problems with a Williams this year? The Ferrari driven by Kimi Raikkonen is, of course (and again), another matter.

Speaking of Kimi, his drive to fourth in the most recent race at Interlagos – where he finished 33 seconds behind Vettel in the same car – wasn’t all that exciting, according to the man himself. “Boring”, he called it. He was right on that front – the Brazilian GP will go down as one of the most dire spectacles of the season, made even more tedious by the 3am start time for much of Australia – but perhaps Kimi could have raised his heart rate a touch by, you know, driving a tad faster? With one race to go, he’s scored more than half – but only just – of Vettel’s points tally this year. A season after scoring barely one-third of the points of then-teammate Fernando Alonso. That’s progress for you. And he gets to stay on next year. Good, good times.

The processional race at Interlagos doesn’t bode well for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, held at a circuit aptly described by Mark Webber as akin to a Tesco’s car park, and where memorable races are, well, hard to remember. Sure, 2010 was tense before it started with four drivers still in the title fight (and will be forever remembered by this writer as a turning point in his career), and last year had the all-Mercedes battle to settle as double points hung uncomfortably overhead, threatening to ruin everything. The question will be whether Mercedes can score the 43 points they need to set a new teams’ title benchmark. To answer one question with another, who or what stops them?

A preview of the final race of the year features on Episode 128 of ‘The Inside Line’ – check it out. And for a serious read on a light-hearted moment that highlighted the good and bad of F1 in equal measure, check out this analysis by Jonny Noble, one of the best in the business.

The Inside Line #127: Hamilton’s hoodoo

TILI Logo PrintIt’s a statistical curiosity that continues to baffle. It seemed impossible when I was trawling through the history books to research our Brazilian Grand Prix preview for last week’s show that Lewis Hamilton had never won at Interlagos; perhaps it was his title win there in 2008 that confused me, or perhaps that he’d been there in so many race-winning cars and never delivered the goods. He never could win there in a McLaren (you remember, when McLaren were a race-winning team), and despite largely wiping the floor with Nico Rosberg after their controversial coming-together in Belgium last year, Brazil was the one race in the final seven of the 2014 that he didn’t win. Last Sunday merely extended that unlikely streak.

The Brazilian Grand Prix for Australians is always a strange experience – watching in the middle of the night as Sunday turns to Monday at a time that’s too late to stay up for on Sunday and too early to get up and stay up for on Monday (unless you’re working on it) means you’re watching after a catnap, or resisting the urge for one, in the dead of night. Contrast that to the (usually) sun-drenched stands, water cannons dispensing their contents over the boisterous and boiling fans in the packed Interlagos stands, the ramshackle nature of the place (one veteran scribe refers to the weekend as “the race around the garbage dump”), and it’s always good viewing, if only for the complete contrast to the environment you’re usually watching in back home. Sure, it’s not Abu Dhabi slick and pristine, and can be a bit on the half-arsed side when you consider the rivers that run across the track at various points when it hoses down, or advertising hoardings that fall on the track, but we need circuits like Brazil to give us some respite from the cookie-cutter blandness of so many of the Tilke-dromes and races in places where nobody cares, bothers to turn up or can’t afford to be there. Makes my top five Grands Prix of the year (note to self: write that circuit rankings piece pronto …).

A review of the penultimate race of the season features on Episode 127 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week – check it out.

The Inside Line #126: Tough times, terrible timing

TILI Logo PrintHe had the world at his feet, didn’t he? Fernando Alonso stood atop his Renault after finishing second at the Brazilian Grand Prix of 2006, securing his second world title in the process. He’d done the unthinkable, stopping the Schumi steamroller and loosening Ferrari’s stranglehold on the sport, on-track at least. He had a three-year McLaren contract in his pocket, and a third, fourth, fifth world title seemed a realistic prospect. And then it all went horribly wrong.

In researching and trawling back through the archives to write the preview for the Brazilian Grand Prix that anchors Episode 126 of ‘The Inside Line’ (check local guides and all of that), it’s jarring that it’s now nine years – nine years! – since Alonso ruled the world. His first McLaren stint was a disaster, and the five seasons at Ferrari were punctuated by brilliant years in mostly bad cars, often spectacular starts (remember Barcelona 2011*?), and agonising championship near-misses (to think that Vitaly Petrov cost him the 2010 title …). This year was when things were going to get better, but the move back to McLaren has – so far – been worse than even the gloomiest pessimist could have imagined.

It’s sad to see one of the sport’s foremost talents resorting to doing one lap “for the fans” in Mexico last time out, knowing his car was crippled and that he’d be on the first flight home. F1 is a much better place when Alonso is fighting at the front, and while his talent is undeniable, his penchant for being in the right team at the wrong time is beginning to define his career. It’s clearly the wrong time to be at McLaren – its 55-race run without a victory comes into greater focus this weekend when you realise Jenson Button took the team’s most recent win at Interlagos way back in 2012 – and you wonder, at 34, how much time Alonso has to turn it around, and how much fight one of the most combative drivers the sport has ever seen has left in his tank.

The three A-listers on the grid (Alonso, Hamilton, Vettel, and not Maldonado) and where Brazil fits into their career journeys features on our preview of Interlagos and the penultimate round of the season this week – it was an enjoyable and insightful preview to write, so hope you enjoy it.

(* – so, so much better with Spanish commentary. Worth considering after watching this: Alonso finished fifth in this race, a full lap down on race-winner Sebastian Vettel. The same Vettel who beat pole-sitter Mark Webber by 47secs in the same car. Yes, 2011 was a tough year to be an Australian working in F1 …).

The Inside Line #125: A point of difference

TILI Logo PrintIt was hardly Red Bull-funded Austria slick, but who cares? It was good that F1 rediscovered a link to its past last weekend as it did last year in Austria, venturing back to Mexico City after a 23-year absence. When 150,000 people turn out for a showcar run in the city four months before the event as was the case when Daniel Ricciardo and Carlos Sainz Jr. turned up in July, you knew the new addition to the 2015 calendar was going to be a good one. It’s great when F1 goes to new places where people really care like Austria, Mexico and, er, Azerbaijan, right?

Kudos too to Sergio Perez as the sport’s unofficial ambassador and tour guide for the weekend. Perez has become infinitely better to deal with as he’s become more humble – he was arrogantly insufferable the first time I did a proper interview with him, the week after he’d been named as a McLaren driver while still at Sauber back in 2013 – but since heading back to the midfield teams with his tail between his legs, he’s become a more rounded driver. For all of Max Verstappen’s swashbuckling overtaking and Pastor Maldonado’s sheer unpredictability (is it just me, or do others sit up taller in their seats and bite their bottom lip any time Maldonado and, in this market, Ricciardo ever have to dispute the same piece of tarmac?), Perez’s approach – not caning his tyres, sitting patiently and making the best of what he has when he’s on form – is a nice counterpoint. He’s not a driver likely to beat himself these days, which is good for a podium every 15-20 races or so, and it’s surprising he’s beaten Nico Hulkenberg on Sundays this year given his one-lap deficiency in pace to the German on Saturdays. To be in with a sniff of the Red Bull drivers in the standings hints at a job well done, as well as a sign of how far the Bulls have fallen this season.

A review of the antepenultimate (sorry, had to do it) round of the season in Mexico takes pride of place in Episode 125 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week. Check it out.

The Inside Line #124: Behind the news

TILI Logo PrintAhead of the fourth-last race of 2015 last weekend in Austin, an interesting little snippet of news emerged in a media cycle saturated with details of enormously important things like Lewis Hamilton’s latest back tattoos, assorted ramblings between a pair of old F1 stagers with a combined age of 160-odd, and wondering why Haas wouldn’t use an American driver in an American team next year.

Just quietly, Daniel Ricciardo signed with an external management company, Areté doing most of its previous work with English football stars, and diving into motorsport for the first time. Ricciardo has never had the need for a manager; as he said himself earlier this year, “up until this point of my career, Red Bull’s dominated a lot of the moves I’ve made and pretty much picked where I go”. But what if it’s Red Bull that’s doing the going at the end of 2015, actually going through with months of seemingly empty threats of quitting the sport because it doesn’t have a competitive engine and hasn’t won a Grand Prix for (gasp) 23 races?

I’m still of the opinion that the repeated quit threats are little more than petulant posturing wrapped inside a tantrum, but maybe Ricciardo is taking a pre-emptive stance by branching out on his own, considering life outside the Red Bull family he’s been cocooned in since he first had a foothold in Europe. With three races left this year, we still don’t know if Red Bull will be in the sport next season, what engine they’ll be running if they are, and how much later they can leave any decision to carry on or take their bat and ball and go home. If it’s the latter, then Ricciardo is a man every team will want. What better way to flag your possible availability than announce you have a new crew looking after your affairs?

The Areté announcement is surely to make the most of the affable Australian’s marketability – how does he not have a toothpaste sponsor yet? – but at 26, Ricciardo has clearly been giving the future some thought this year. The birth of Ricciardo Kart told us that much; taking greater control of your own destiny simply confirms it. Perhaps I’m adding one and one together and coming up with five. Perhaps it’s a sign that the leg rope to the only F1 team he’s ever known is being ever-so-slightly loosened. The next few weeks will be very, very interesting …

Ricciardo’s future will be dealt with however it breaks on future episodes of ‘The Inside Line’; this week in Episode 124, we review the US GP and talk rather too much about rain, with some justification. Check it out.