Jolyon Palmer

The F1 mid-term report

Who has starred, who has slumped and who needs to step up at the halfway stage of the F1 season?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

The verdict on Formula One so far in 2017? Pretty positive. There’s genuine competition between teams for race wins and the drivers’ championship, which there hasn’t been in some time, and the new-for-2017 regulations have delivered monstrously fast and mean-looking cars that look spectacular on track (but struggle to overtake one another, as the Hungarian GP made very evident). Add to that the craziest race in recent times in Azerbaijan when Daniel Ricciardo saluted, and there’s a lot to like.

What’s more, the look and feel of an F1 weekend in the post-Ecclestone era has been a breath of fresh air. Ladies and gentlemen, social media! Actual vision from inside a drivers’ briefing! Something extra for the fans at a race weekend! It’s been quite the eye-opener.

Before we launch into our mid-season report, and before you ask, we haven’t failed maths – yes, Hungary was race 11 of the 20-race F1 season, but coming as it did before the one-month hiatus and the next race in Belgium at the end of August, it was worth waiting until school was out properly until making some mid-year grades. On that very subject …

Dux of the class

We’ve been waiting a long time for a proper championship battle between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton – since 2007 in fact, when both made their Formula One debuts in the same season (Vettel became a full-timer on the grid a year later). And at the halfway stage of the season, it’s Vettel who has shone brightest. But only just.

Both drivers have four wins, but the German has led the title chase since taking the opening round in Australia, and has been his consistent self since – 11 races, 11 finishes, eight podiums, and a worst finish of seventh at the British Grand Prix, when he suffered a puncture in sight of the flag. It’s hard to see how he could have done much more.

The intrigue in this battle is how both protagonists go about achieving the same goal in different ways – Vettel’s metronomic approach contrasts sharply with Hamilton’s peaks and troughs. When the Mercedes W08 isn’t in the set-up sweet spot, Hamilton has been outshone by new teammate Valtteri Bottas, who seems better equipped to cope with a car that’s not quite there. But when the Mercedes is dialled in, Hamilton has been brilliant in qualifying (he has six poles in 11 races), and occasionally utterly dominant in races – his Silverstone weekend was as emphatic as it gets.

Both drivers have their emotional frailties – again, which manifest themselves in different ways – which makes the second half of the season and their likely first head-to-head battle for the title so mouth-watering in prospect. You can’t help but wonder if the three points Hamilton relinquished in Hungary after pulling over to let Bottas finish third to honour an in-race agreement will come back to bite him later in the season, though. The in-house tension at the Silver Arrows since the apolitical Bottas replaced the cunning Nico Rosberg has dissipated almost completely, but what if that new-found harmony comes at the cost of a title?

Encouragement award

We’re not going with the ‘every child wins a prize’ philosophy here, but this one could be split four ways.

Bottas, firstly: after coming across to Mercedes in the wake of Rosberg’s shock decision to walk after winning the 2016 crown, the Finn has made every post a winner in what is essentially a make-good contract; nail 2017, and his future should be rosy. He’s won twice (Russia and Austria), matched Vettel for the most podiums in 11 races (eight) and proven to be the consummate team player. Mercedes would be mad not to keep him in 2018 – he’s clearly fast enough and apolitical enough.

Ricciardo deserves a mention here too. Whenever an opportunity presents itself, he’s always there, pressing on relentlessly like a honey badger attacking a hive of bees. His Azerbaijan win – when all looked lost early in the race when an unscheduled pit stop had him at the back of the field – was almost unsurprising in that he made the best of what was on offer on a crazy day, and that ‘best’ was good enough for a fifth career win. Is there a driver better or cleaner in wheel-to-wheel combat?

As a team, Force India deserve a pat on the back here. Fourth in last year’s constructors’ championship, the Indian-owned British-run team has consolidated that in 2017, with Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon both finishing in the points nine times in 11 races. The pink-liveried team has clearly established itself as the best squad outside F1’s ‘big three’; now, all it needs is for its drivers to stop tripping over one another in races …

Finally, a nod to Nico Hulkenberg, who is now an uncomfortable two races away from equalling compatriot Adrian Sutil’s unwanted record of most F1 starts without a top-three finish (128). You can’t do much more in a Renault than Hulkenberg has this year, the German scoring points in five races and qualifying in the top 10 six times.

Could do better

Reasons Ferrari shouldn’t retain Kimi Raikkonen next year: in 70 races since he re-joined Ferrari for the 2014 season, he’s been beaten by teammates Fernando Alonso (2014) and Vettel (since) 49-21 in qualifying, 7-0 in race wins (he hasn’t won a race since Australia 2013 for Lotus, 86 Grands Prix ago), 30-11 in podium finishes, and has scored 37 per cent of his team’s points in that time, explaining why the team with this year’s drivers’ championship leader trails Mercedes by 39 points in the constructors’ race.

Reason Ferrari will keep Kimi Raikkonen next year. Hungary.

You can understand Ferrari’s logic here; while Raikkonen is a long, long way from his 2007 world championship-winning heyday, he doesn’t play politics, has a wealth of experience, gets on with Vettel and doesn’t rock the boat. When Ferrari orchestrated races in Monaco (unofficially) and Hungary (officially) to ensure the Finn stayed behind a race-leading Vettel, he expressed his disappointment, sighed and moved on. It would have been so easy for Raikkonen to push an ailing Vettel hard in Hungary to stand on the top step of the podium for the first time in an age, but, out of contract and with (arguably) no other team likely to offer him one, that wouldn’t have been the brightest idea.

Expect Raikkonen to be renewed at or before the Italian Grand Prix next month – and expect plenty of F1 fans to wonder just what another driver could do in a car that Vettel has proven is a genuine race-winner. Raikkonen is clearly worthy of being in F1 for his name and pedigree alone, but with a top team?

Needs a strong second semester

Both Toro Rosso drivers could use a good end to 2017, but for entirely different reasons.

Carlos Sainz must wonder what he needs to do to get a break; the Spaniard has scored 35 of his team’s 39 points this year alongside Daniil Kvyat, and amassed 77 points to the Russian’s eight since the pair became teammates at last year’s Spanish Grand Prix, when Max Verstappen took Kvyat’s place in Red Bull’s ‘A’ team. Sainz is good enough to drive further up the grid, but won’t be going anywhere as Red Bull’s insurance policy in case Verstappen or Ricciardo bolt one day.

As for Kvyat? Considering he has more penalty points on his FIA super licence (10) than he’s scored points (eight) in the past 28 races, the end for the driver derisively referred to as ‘the torpedo’ must surely be nigh, with 2016 GP2 champion Pierre Gasly waiting impatiently in the (Red) Bull pen.

Extra detention

One driver and one team get the unwanted nomination here. Jolyon Palmer hasn’t made much of a case to be retained by Renault, being out-scored 26-0 and out-qualified in all 11 races by Hulkenberg this season. He couldn’t have come much closer to a top-10 finish – Palmer was 11th in Monaco, Canada and Austria – but with Renault in a tight fight for places 5-8 in the constructors’ championship, it needs more than one car to make a contribution.

As for McLaren – or more pertinently, McLaren-Honda – the less said the better. Sixth for Alonso and 10th for Stoffel Vandoorne in Hungary gave the team that has won 182 Grands Prix and 12 drivers’ championships nine points in one race – compared to the combined two points from the opening 10 races this year …

Can the team extract itself from the Honda engine deal to go elsewhere (Mercedes?) while covering the financial shortfall an early divorce with the Japanese manufacturer would create? That’s uncertain, but what we do know if that while Vandoorne has time and talent on his side, it’s a crying shame to see a 36-year-old Alonso struggling like this. F1 is undoubtedly in a better place when the Spaniard is mixing it up the front of the field.

What we learned from F1 testing in Spain

The new cars look the goods, lap times aren’t everything, and there’s nowhere to hide as a rookie when the eyes of the world are watching …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Formula One arose from its off-season slumber in Spain this week, where the 10 teams gathered for the first of two four-day tests at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya to prepare for the season ahead.

New drivers were unveiled, revamped liveries (both good and bad) were seen in action for the first time, and the usual pre-season secrecy and subterfuge were on show as teams kept a wary eye on the opposition while running through lengthy job lists ahead of the Australian Grand Prix in just three weeks’ time.

Concrete conclusions are notoriously difficult to ascertain after four days of testing (‘Ferrari faster than Mercedes!’ screamed one headline on an F1 website that should know better after day two), but we did learn plenty in Spain over the four days that sets the scene for what’s to come.

They’re the fastest F1 cars ever …
Compared to their predecessors, this year’s F1 machines look mean, fast and awesome, the unsightly shark fins employed to maximise the new aerodynamic regulations notwithstanding. But how do they perform? The changes in speed through Barcelona’s two signature corners – the never-ending right-hander of Turn 3 and the sharp right of Turn 9 heading onto the back straight – were noticeable, and while the drivers were far from “destroyed” physically as Force India’s Sergio Perez predicted before the test, they were worked hard, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton noting the “bumps and bruises where I’ve never really had them before” after the second day of running.

The fastest lap time of the test (a 1min 19.705secs by Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas on day three) was significantly quicker than Hamilton’s pole position time (1:22.000) at the same circuit for last year’s Spanish Grand Prix, and tyre supplier Pirelli reckons a 1min 18secs lap could be possible at next week’s second pre-season test as teams turn up the wick ahead of Australia.

World champion Nico Rosberg, who retired from the sport after winning last year’s title, was licking his lips over the challenges awaiting his former colleagues. “They look absolutely monstrous, very, very aggressive,” he said of the new cars after watching the action on day three. “The drivers are loving it, and I think this year they will be proper gladiators out there, with these cars, because the cars will take them to their physical limits. We might even see drivers losing race wins because of just being ‘game over’ physically – and that’s what we need.

But can they pass one another?
Er … This has the potential to be the elephant in the room. F1 pessimists would warn with all the extra downforce provided by the wider 2017 cars, plus stronger, more durable tyres from Pirelli, races could turn into one-stop precessions where the car behind will never be able to mount a serious challenge on a rival in front. Higher downforce makes it harder for a car to follow a rival in high-speed corners, as the trailing car loses front grip in the wake of the car in front.

After two days on track in Spain, both Hamilton and Williams veteran Felipe Massa commented that the new aerodynamic regulations may have created a problem, Massa adding that the extra downforce was nice “for the drivers, but for the show, I don’t know.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who set an overtaking record in F1 last year with 78 passes in 21 races, was less concerned, as you might expect. “It’s alright. I think it’s the same as last year,” he said after his first outing on track on day two. “It’s felt really similar. You have more downforce, you are going a bit faster through corners, so that cancels out a bit. I think it should be pretty similar, but we just have to wait and see. Hopefully we won’t need to overtake …”

The stopwatch isn’t everything …
Verstappen’s comment was made in jest, but while Red Bull didn’t look to be the outright leader in terms of lap time in Barcelona, they’ll certainly be in the conversation from Melbourne and beyond.

Labelling teams as ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ after four days of running, including the final day on an artificially-soaked track for Pirelli to test its wet-weather rubber, is foolish in the extreme, but what we can ascertain is that Mercedes aren’t going anywhere, and that Ferrari have started 2017 strongly, a year after the red team was left red-faced when very public predictions of being in the championship fight fell flat.

Mercedes and Ferrari were the only two teams to rack up 2000km-plus of track time across the four days, which left Renault driver Jolyon Palmer slightly envious. “I can’t understand how they’re doing so many laps,” the Briton said. “That’s impressive, especially when not only us but you look at the rest of the field, really, and everyone’s doing 50 or 60 laps in a day.”

Mercedes may have topped the times overall, but Ferrari’s workload – its drivers managed over 100 laps on three of the four days – definitely raised eyebrows.

But some are in trouble
Who’s at the other end of the scale, and who has a mountain of work to do before the second and final pre-season test next week? McLaren endured a rough run in Spain, the team losing the best part of the opening two days with engine gremlins, leaving a grumpy Fernando Alonso to comment “I have three days to prepare for a world championship, it’s not an ideal situation,” after his first day was compromised. Also filed under ‘tough start’, Williams – and more specifically, rookie Lance Stroll, who crashed on his opening day of running. The 18-year-old Canadian then binned it twice on day three, damaging the team’s chassis to such an extent that it couldn’t be rebuilt overnight, which deprived Williams of any wet-track running on the final day.

F1 emerges from the dark ages
For those of us who remember seeing vision of pre-season testing was a matter of scouring YouTube for badly-shot fan videos the next day before the sport’s gatekeepers had them removed, the first test of 2017 was quite jarring. F1’s official channels were dragged kicking and screaming into the social media age last year, with (gasp) actual on-track vision and paddock access available digitally for those who couldn’t be trackside or in the closely-guarded inner sanctum.

With Liberty Media taking over the running of the sport and Bernie Ecclestone being edged into the background, it was no surprise to see the restrictions of the past loosened, but seeing teams being able to post vision of the test on their social media accounts was quite the revelation, and very well received. What’s more, that the change came about because the commercial rights holder contacted the teams to encourage them to shoot short-form video for their own purposes represented a seismic shift to the norm. Will it continue? That remains to be seen, but the sport’s new marketing chief, ex-ESPN marketing guru Sean Bratches, flagged the changes that are afoot in an interview with Autosport.

“Every single thing that we’re doing has to pivot around the fan,” Bratches said. “The fan is at the centre of all our theses in terms of driving this sport because if we’re doing the best job we can serving fans, both the existing fans and the new fans, that’s a win. We have big events 20 times every single year in 20 different countries and there’s an extraordinary opportunity to detonate the fan experience in a very positive way.”

The F1 rookie class

For a trio of drivers, Australia marks the first stop on what they hope will be lengthy F1 careers.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

As host of the season-opening race in 18 of its 20 years on the Formula One calendar, the Australian Grand Prix is where most of the 2016 grid took their first tentative steps on motorsport’s biggest stage – and where some marked themselves as men to watch for the future.

Of the five world champions on this year’s grid, just one – Sebastian Vettel (USA 2007) – didn’t take their bow in Melbourne, and while this year’s trio of rookies don’t look to immediately have world champion potential, they’ll always remember next week’s Albert Park outing as what could be the start of something big.

With eight of the 11 teams electing to retain their 2015 driver line-ups this season, change up and down the pit lane is minimal – but the three new boys in the traditional F1 school photo on Sunday afternoon in Australia will be looking to muscle in on the established order before too long.

So who, then, are Jolyon Palmer, Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto? Read on.

Jolyon Palmer (GBR) Renault Sport F1 Team RS16. Formula One Testing, Day 3, Thursday 3rd March 2016. Barcelona, Spain.

Jolyon Palmer
Age/nationality:
25, British
Team: Renault
Last raced: GP2 2014, won title
Racing number: 30
Twitter:
@JolyonPalmer
Fast fact: Lists his favourite food as gazpacho

It’s all change at Renault this year, both in ownership behind the scenes and with the team’s drivers. Out go Romain Grosjean (to new team Haas) and the often-derided Pastor Maldonado; in come ex-McLaren racer Kevin Magnussen and Palmer, who becomes an F1 debutant at 25. The dramatic arrival of Max Verstappen at 17 last season at Toro Rosso makes any rookie older than 20 seem relatively ancient, but Palmer has always been a gradual bloomer – he didn’t begin karting until age 13, and won the 2014 GP2 title in his fourth year in the category. The intra-team intrigue at a reset Renault will make for compelling viewing – the all-action reflexive style of Magnussen contrasts sharply with the cerebral, calm approach of F1’s newest Brit. The son of ex-racer Jonathan Palmer (who had 83 F1 starts in the 1980s) appeared in 13 free practice sessions for Lotus last year; Australia, where he’ll start his journey next week, wasn’t one of those outings. Renault’s pre-season testing campaign has been beset with reliability gremlins, but Palmer feels last year holds him in good stead. “It’s important I have the experience to fall back on given the lack of running,” he said after the final test in Barcelona. “I don’t feel too far behind. I’m quite confident I can turn up at Melbourne and everything will be OK.” We’re about to find out if he’s right.

Palmer in his own words: “I’m looking forward to going toe-to-toe with the best drivers in the world. My strength has always been going wheel-to-wheel. That’s what I missed in the test driving last year.”

Pascal Wehrlein (GER) Manor Racing. 24.02.2016. Formula One Testing, Day Three, Barcelona, Spain. Wednesday.

Pascal Wehrlein
Age/nationality:
21, German
Team:
Manor
Last raced:
DTM 2015, won title
Racing number:
94
Twitter:
@PWehrlein
Fast fact:
Races under the German flag, but mother is from Mauritius

Of the three newbies on this year’s F1 grid, Wehrlein projects as the best of the bunch. But don’t just take our word for it. “He definitely has the ability to be in Formula One – to be one of the very successful ones,” said Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff last year, and with the three-pointed star supplying engines to the backmarker Manor team from this season, there was always a strong possibility that the 21-year-old would make his F1 debut in Melbourne. For someone so young, Wehrlein’s CV is overflowing with achievements – he’s won at least one race per year since making his car racing debut back in 2010, and took out last year’s DTM championship for Mercedes against a host of former F1 racers and test drivers. He’s been a simulator and then test/reserve driver for the best team in F1 for the past two years, and his can-do attitude – he routinely made the best of a good car in the DTM while maximising his results on the rare down days – makes him a good fit at the Manor outfit. “It’s a small and totally focused team and I soon hope to know everyone,” he said when announced as Manor’s first driver for 2016 in February. Results may be slow to come by this season for Wehrlein, but expect that to change as he starts the first steps of what should be a lengthy F1 tenure.

Wehrlein in his own words: “It will be a tough challenge, but I think we should be able to challenge for points along the way. It’s going to be good fun.”

Rio Haryanto (IDN) Manor Racing MRT05. 01.03.2016. Formula One Testing, Day One, Barcelona, Spain. Tuesday.

Rio Haryanto
Age/nationality:
23, Indonesian
Team:
Manor
Last raced:
GP2 2015, fourth overall
Racing number:
88
Twitter:
@RHaryantoracing
Fast fact:
Began his single-seater career in 2008 at the age of just 15

If you avert your gaze towards the rear of the Melbourne grid on Sunday week, you’ll be watching a man who’ll have more eyes on him than most. Haryanto is Indonesia’s first Formula One driver, and the extent of the interest in the 23-year-old from a nation of over 250 million people hit home with veteran F1 journalist Peter Windsor in pre-season testing. Working for the official F1 website, Windsor was staggered at the response to a seemingly innocuous clip. “We put out an eight-second video of Rio just driving out of the garage at testing with no commentary or nothing, and it did 200,000 hits in nine minutes,” Windsor marvelled. “So there’s going to be a lot of pressure.” Haryanto has been around the periphery of F1 from as far back as 2010, when he tested for the then Virgin (now Manor) team in Abu Dhabi. Last year was his coming of age, taking three GP2 sprint race wins, securing two other podiums and finishing fourth overall in the championship. Yes, money has helped Haryanto make his way to the F1 grid – the Indonesian government has provided tax breaks for local companies to get behind him – but he’s shown an admirable appetite to learn from a few early mistakes in pre-season testing in Spain. With the four-hour time deficit between Indonesia and the east coast of Australia, expect plenty of televisions to be showing Haryanto’s every move early on a Sunday afternoon when the lights go out on F1 2016 at Albert Park.

Haryanto in his own words: “Melbourne will be a huge moment for me, my country, supporters and fans.”