Five things we learned from the Bahrain GP 2014

Last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix was a cracker, won by Lewis Hamilton after a race-long battle with his team mate Nico Rosberg. But what can F1 fans take from the desert as the dust settles after the first skirmish of the season?

1) The sport ain’t in that bad a shape
Naysayers, quieten yourselves. This column, in the company of some illustrious figures, has been critical of the spectacle of F1 2014. In tandem with the lack of piercing whine, some had felt that the racing hadn’t been exactly riveting. Well, Bahrain shut us up. It was an old-fashioned thriller that had it all – inter-team battling, overtaking, skill and daring and even Esteban Gutierrez going on his head. Which is worth the Sky subscription fee alone, right?

2) Hamilton is only a nose ahead of Rosberg now
Unlike Malaysia, where he was a country mile down the road. There have been reports surfacing in the last few days that Rosberg had studied a dossier on Hamilton in the wake of Sepang, in order to better comprehend the trouncing that the Briton meted out to him there. And comprehend he did. Much has been made of Rosberg’s intellect and it was in evidence as his strategy execution was arguably superior in Bahrain. What was given less credit and exposure was his forbearance in the heat of battle in not taking Hamilton out. It’s probably fair to say bringing the cars home intact – as in Paddy Lowe’s exhortation – was Rosberg’s greatest achievement in Sakhir, especially when you consider Hamilton was driving defensively to the outer limit of propriety. Will there be further fireworks? You bet. The parallels with Prost and Senna are there to be tweeted.

3) Ferrari – and McLaren – have work to do
Luca di Montezemolo chose the wrong race to come to if he was looking for a Ferrari resurgence. He and his old mucker Ron Dennis may be taking a more hands-on role in the day-to-day management of their respective squads if things don’t improve quickly. In Ferrari’s case, what’s the point of having two roosters if you can’t build them a functional henhouse? (Stretching the metaphor somewhat, but there you are). Over at McLaren, it’s probably fair to argue that initial confidence in the car resulted in a lack of a catalyst for rapid development, and as such they’ve been left in the pecking order behind Mercedes, Red Bull, Force India and Williams.

4) New (and some old) talent needs recognising
Daniel Ricciardo has been a revelation, not only taking the battle to Vettel but looking every inch his equal. A number of us, Vettel included, didn’t see that coming. Also due hat-tips are Sergio Perez, who beat Nico Hulkenberg fair and square (though we’ll see if that is the case only on tracks Checo likes); Felipe Massa, who’s no longer ham-strung by either Ferrari nor his new team and is showing his speed of old; Daniil Kvyat, who seems to be mature beyond his baby face; and Kamui Kobayashi is trying his damnedest, as ever.

5) Uncertainty over governance does not breed confidence
Another weekend, another rumour about the future governance of the sport – this time that the teams are considering mounting a bid to buy the commercial rights to the sport. If that were true, I can’t see how it would have made sense to disband FOTA, because that surely would be a good vehicle for any such effort. Anyway, all the uncertainty over engine size, engine noise, fan attendance, double points and Bernie’s ongoing legal wrangles make for both an uneasy paddock and restive viewing billions. Ecclestone’s thinly-veiled denial that he is trying to wrest back control of the sport doesn’t help matters. It might be that the teams’ bid wouldn’t be such a terrible thing, but for most people, the history and the racing are the most important things. And if everyone in the F1 circus could remember that, please…?

Massa’s intransigence shows up wider woes at Williams

Yesterday’s Malaysian Grand Prix was won in sterling fashion by Lewis Hamilton, a real return to form. The racing did not have a great deal of spice, however, and the meat on which to chew was to be found in seventh and eighth places in the form of the Williams duo Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas respectively.

The issue was as follows. Early on in the race they were line astern, Massa followed by his Finnish junior. Then Bottas apparently made an unseemly attempt to purloin the position from Massa, unseen by the TV cameras. Massa’s ire which followed was caught on the team radio – ‘Did you see what he did? He tried to attack me!’ Williams promptly radioed Bottas to request that he hold position. ‘Tell him to go faster then,’ riposted Bottas.

Onto the denouement of the afternoon. The two gorgeous Martini-liveried machines again find themselves in close proximity, the order as before. This time the magisterial stick insect Jenson Button is pootling round in front, apparently on ailing tyres and attempting to conserve fuel. Though Massa in the foremost machine cannot mount a sortie, for his tyres are similarly worn, the team reckon that Bottas might. The Finn is on tyres two laps younger than his team mate. ‘Felipe, Valtteri is faster than you,’ comes the message. Yield please, Felipe. There is no audible or physical response. Again, Massa is asked to let his team mate have a go at Button. Again, he does not. They finish in the same order.

Post-race, Felipe is combative – full of adrenaline and ready to argue his case. ‘I’m sure the result would not have changed even if I had let him by,’ he asserts. Bottas is unwilling to get into a war of words. On Sky, to Ted Kravitz, Claire Williams makes a somewhat mealy-mouthed attempt to deny Massa had ignored a direct team order. Everyone else is sure he did. A lot of pundits (mainly ex-drivers, for there are precious few of the other sort these days) immediately side with Massa and trot out the line that he’s a racing driver and will not give up a position just like that. It transpires that Williams had a switch-back plan to ask Bottas to let Massa back past in the event that the Finn couldn’t pass Button.

Well. Two things. Firstly, it’s clear that 2014-spec Massa has evolved a personal selfishness behind the wheel that although long overdue, cannot be justified by his talent. Despite being lauded in some quarters for making the decision unilaterally that Bottas wouldn’t have been able to pass Button, this call is of no merit because the driver is simply not in possession of the full facts. The team are. They know that Bottas is on fresher tyres, that he is going faster, that he might be able to have a good go at Button. Massa doesn’t and can’t know those things.

The team’s mistake was to be insensitive with the wording of their message, which were an unfortunate echo of the Ferrari call for Massa to move over for Alonso at Hockenheim in 2010. But that doesn’t mean Massa should ignore it. He has to do what they ask. He’s an employee of the team, just like any other, and if there’s a chance the team can do better by his surrender of a seventh place, then he must make that sacrifice.

This leads onto why the team later backtrack and bemuse by denying there was a problem. Obviously it’s hugely embarrassing that a driver would publicly fly in the face of the team’s wishes, so the line should be: ‘this will be dealt with behind closed doors, and it won’t happen again’ (which seems to be more the tone deployed this morning by press releases). But that wasn’t what happened in Claire Williams’ interview, where we all squirmed as she denied Massa had ignored the message.

So what is going on? This, I think. Massa is at Williams partly because of a sponsorship deal or two that brought much-needed cash to the Grove purse. Rumours swirl of the historic team’s pecuniary difficulties, and whatever the truth of the matter, empty side pods don’t get balanced out even when there’s a legendary title sponsor. So Massa must be kept happy, to an extent. The trouble is, this is a false economy, because they might, just might, have nicked sixth place yesterday. They’ve built a nippy car and should do well this season.

But it would be deleterious to the sport if lacklustre drivers, unable to overtake because of their own shortcomings, could brazenly ignore inter-team stipulations because they knew the team would bow to them. Selfishness? Blackmail? Call it what you will, but it ain’t racing.

Five things we learned from the Australian GP 2014

Yesterday’s Australian Grand Prix was won by Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes, at a canter. Here presents a run-down of five things we learned in Melbourne!

1) Mercedes are just as quick as we thought – and just as vulnerable…
Rosberg’s dominant win (for it was such – he disappeared off and then no-one saw him all day) made good on the pervasive pre-season perception that Brixworth and Brackley had knocked out a fast ‘un. Fears of Vettel-like dominance may be assuaged though by Hamilton’s car’s abject failure to complete even a few laps. They are at least as brittle as anyone else…

2) Some parts of F1 2014-spec aren’t exactly fan-friendly
Like: Ricciardo’s disqualification, the subsequent ridiculously over-complicated technical explanation, the stupid and pathetic noise the cars make (like a grandmothers’ Hoovering competition), fuel conservation, dull racing, cars grinding to a halt for no apparent reason et cetera et cetera ad nauseam. Needs to be addressed.

3) The next generation are already stepping up
See Ricciardo, Magnussen, Bottas, Kvyat for details. Much as toddlers are automatically au fait with iPads and leave their elders and betters looking clumsy and Luddite. I’d still back the old horses – Alonso and Button had characteristically consistent afternoons – or maybe the horses in the mid-range like Hamilton and Raikkonen once they get their stuff sorted.

4) Vettel doesn’t like losing
Not that we didn’t know that already. There were rumours of an extremely displeased four-time world champ after his Australian weekend went from bad to worse to abject. Even if you feel you’ve achieved a huge amount, being slapped in the face by an unreliable car and a decisively dangerous-looking team mate doesn’t seem to be on Vettel’s list of favoured activities.

5) The cars and the new regs can’t mask talent, or paper over cracks…
talent like Nico Hulkenberg, cracks like lunacy from Kamui at the first corner. A season to reward those who are unsung? Possibly.

F1 2014…who will win…?

With only one test remaining before the start of the 2014 F1 season, excitement is building to a pitch unimaginable from a V6 engine! The season kicks off in Australia on March 16th, and here, brings you the latest stories and our predictions. At the risk of red faces all round come lights out, we stick out our necks and present our categories for how it will all pan out: Winners And Championships, Podiums and Points, Needle and Intrigue and Just Plain Slow.

Winners and Championships
The word following the tests is that anything with a Mercedes power plant is seriously quick. That means Mercedes in the box seat as the works team, and with a driver line-up like Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg as one of the best in the business, this is their best chance in years. For my money, and it’s only a hunch, McLaren look to have built a slightly niftier car than their rivals. Their weaknesses – namely lack of access to cutting edge engine data and developments, and a rookie in one of the seats – outweigh those at Mercedes in this season where reliability and consistency may well win titles.

Meanwhile, Ferrari are dark (prancing) horses. There was pressure to get it right this season and I’ve a suspicion it will have borne fruit. Their driver line-up is mouthwatering and I don’t think they’ll have lost too much in Rob Smedley’s departure as most of his time at the team was taken up looking after Felipe Massa.

Elsewhere, in this most gloriously unpredictable of years, I reckon we’ll see a ‘different’ winner. By which I mean that someone in a Force India (Nico Hulkenberg, here’s looking at you) or even a Williams (Valterri Bottas, heads up) could take advantage of an attritional race and come through to triumph.

Podiums and points
Lotus would also be in the above category if you were going on 2012-2013 form alone, but they find themselves projected podium contenders only because they are the team with the most winter disadvantages. Firstly the ongoing financial instability, then the departure of key figures like James Allison, Kimi Raikkonen and Eric Boullier in that order, and finally missing the first test – it must have hurt the plucky Enstone concern. We can’t expect much of Maldonado but it’s a fair bet Grosjean will show speed and resourcefulness even when the odds are stacked against.

The elephant in the room is Red Bull Racing. Their testing woes have been well-documented: it seems quite clear that the tight packaging of Adrian Newey’s RB10’s rear end, coupled with the Renault engine’s tendency to strop, has had quite an unfortunate effect on their development. It may be quick, the machine, but as fragile as a butterfly, and the lack of track time they’ve had will have hurt them. It must be hard for the team to find motivation too, after having won at a canter last season. I can’t believe at the moment, though, that it’s suddenly dropped them to the back of the grid. They’ll recover somehow to be on the podium at the very least by the end of the year.

Williams and Sauber are good bets for points if nothing more, and it wouldn’t at all be a surprise to see STR trouncing their stablemates on one or two occasions, particularly given they have a different power plant. Kvyat excites me and JEV is in the last chance saloon.

Needle and intrigue
Will the cars go? Will they stop? Will they complete a race in between? Those are the questions on everybody’s lips. Everyone seems to reckon the bulletproof reliability of recent years will have vanished for this year, and that could lead to fascinating, unpredictable races. No one has any idea what will transpire except the tech boffins within the teams, and they are keeping schtum. I wouldn’t like to be a driver either, with fuel load, tyres, ERS and a bucketload of torque to deal with into the bargain.

How will Kevin Magnussen do? He’ll be quick.

Penalty points are on the menu in 2014 for errant driving. Stewards can apportion points for an incident to a maximum of 12, which would result in a one-race ban. The usual suspects had better watch out! Having said that, we really wouldn’t want a fear of sanction resulting in a lack of daring on track. Let’s hope the stewards dish it out sensibly.

Much has been made of the look of the cars and some anteater-style noses. Front on, I have seen more beautiful beasts. Side on, though, they look awesome, with the McLaren, the Force India and the Ferrari my favourites. I love the sloping noses, even if I can’t really see the point of them for the safety reasons cited, as you could just as easily get a gearbox in your face if you rear-ended another chap. Hey-ho. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen.

Oh Bernard. You didn’t get sent down this time, as you weren’t guilty, but the judge did remark on your character. What that’s got to do with anything I don’t know. However, you’re still very much the Don Corleone of the whole shebang and just recently you’ve rubbed a fair few chaps up the wrong way. Double points are clearly cheap and nasty, but we’re willing to see how it works out, not that we can do anything about it. The chap who runs the Austin GP wants to see you though. He’s not best pleased. Did you check when the US GP is scheduled? 2 November, is it? The same date as the NASCAR Texas 500? Oh dear. How many people do you think will be coming to the F1?

And we say welcome back to the Austrian GP, at the once Osterreichring, then the A1 ring, now (rather inevitably I suppose) the Red Bull Ring. More enchanting scenery there could not be. The racing I remember as dull. We also say hello to Sochi and the Russian GP on 12 October. They’ve just finished the sliding about on ice competition in Sochi I’ve heard. Clear it all up and get ready for F1.

Just plain slow
will be Caterham, says the returning giant Kamui Kobayashi. He’s endeared himself to his new employers by saying that he’d be better off in a GP2 car. Not great, Kamui, and it’s common knowledge that Tony Fernandes’ patience is running out. Marussia could spring a surprise but I doubt they will. Here’s to a great season though. Enjoy!

F1 2014: season preview

Happy New Year all. F1 2014 is already under way testing in rainy southern Spain, but as there ain’t much that can be read into those times, here’s a season preview instead! So what has been happening behind the scenes in the off season? Who are the movers and shakers? Who are the men to watch? What effect will the new rules have?

Off season stories
Michael Schumacher
Everyone at this website wishes the seven-time champion a full and speedy recovery after his dreadful skiing accident.
John Button
RIP. A man who looked as though he very much enjoyed his racing, his wine and his son’s championship glory. A life impeccably well-lived.
Bernie Ecclestone
Is this the beginning of the end for the great dictator? He has voluntarily loosened his grip on the sport as he undergoes charges in a German court relating to the sale of F1’s commercial rights to CVC Capital Partners. Of course, those who know him well suggest he’s as canny as ever and he will be back, but I’d submit that in future we’ll look back and pinpoint the winter 2013/2014 as the start of the denouement of the Bernie era.
Double points at the final race
See above. What a cack-handed, shallow, ill-thought-through indictment of modern money-obsessed motorsport, cooked up to please a few important people. It’s precisely this time of muddle-headedness, brazenly defended and passed off as a cogent response to Vettel’s recent dominance, that indicates the sport is not being particularly well-managed at this point in time.

Movers and shakers
Eric Boullier
is off to McLaren, everyone thinks. The former Lotus man has handed in his notice at Enstone and is presumably tootling down the road to Woking, stopping at a motorway pub or two on the way I suppose which must be what is taking him so long. Oh no! Stop press! He’s arrived! A ludicrous question from a rival hack asked recently whether Boullier’s Frenchness would be an issue at McLaren. He’ll be far too busy trying to drag the team back to the front of the grid to worry about their perception of his nationality!
Gerard Lopez
is taking the rudder at the good ship Lotus, a hardy vessel which has seen more than its fair share of its storms, with a crew that are battle-hardened with a forged-in-the-fire siege mentality. Never having met Lopez, I can’t judge him, but he will have to nevertheless prove himself an astute leader and racer if he is to command the team’s respect.
Daniel Ricciardo
is in at Red Bull. On first glance most would say ‘oh dear, opposite Vettel, this can’t end well’, but actually I don’t think the grinning Aussie can lose in 2014. Beat the wunderkind and everyone will spit out their tea; lose and it will be what is expected, possibly even weirdly benefitting his career prospects.
Kimi Raikkonen
is now in the Massa comfy chair at Ferrari. But if it is Kimi Mk II (the Lotus years) who climbs into that red machine, instead of the flatulent ice-cream swilling 2008-spec version, we will have one of the head-to-heads of all time on our hands. Regardless of car performance, I want to spend 2014 just watching the two Ferraris race each other.
Kevin Magnussen
is Jan’s son, and will drive a McLaren race car this season. Do we think he’s ready? Do we think he has the talent? Do we think he’s significantly better than Sergio Perez might have been? Whatever your answer to those questions, there’s no doubting Magnussen’s speed, intelligence and media training. He has pointed out that it might be a good year for a rookie with all the reg changes, so let’s hope he fires alongside JB.
Pastor Maldonado
has taken a Lotus seat, the PdVSA backing heralding his arrival on the publicity shots of the E22. Maldonado commands a great deal of respect but, truth be told, it seems mainly to come from his committed fans rather than impartial observers. There’s no doubt he drove brilliantly well in Spain in 2012 to win his maiden race. Observers will require him to do that rather more regularly to shake off that pesky pay driver tag.
Felipe Massa
is in at Williams, where the sun is setting. Or is it? Is the gutsy, back-to-the-wall Felipe still with us? Can he motivate and rejuvenate the ailing team? As with Maldonado, he’ll need to confound expectations to succeed. Unless the Grove concern have nailed the rule changes…
Sergio Perez
has found refuge at Force India, after the blood-letting at McLaren (that is increasingly looking as if it was a futile final night-of-the-long-knives act from a CEO under pressure) claimed him as a victim. Perez’s ability to bounce back from such a setback will be a measure of the man, and he has a considerable challenge in the shape of
Nico Hulkenberg
who must be wondering what he needs to do to get a top drive. Plug away, that’s what. Dispose of Perez, regularly outperform the machinery and other drivers in better cars, points and podiums. Result: Ferrari/McLaren/Mercedes in 2015?
Daniil Kvyat
is a tantalising prospect. He looks to continue the recent Red Bull tradition of not picking turkeys, unlike they used to (Scott Speed, Seb Bourdais, Tonio Liuzzi). He will be measured by the Vettel yardstick, as all are, and must not be found wanting, lest Tost and his masters bung another fresh-faced ingenue in.
Marcus Ericsson
will drive for Caterham this year. I’ve never noticed this chap before, watching the lower formulae. But we must wish him the best of luck in his rookie year – he’ll have to go some to beat the Japanese fellow in the other seat!

Farewell for the time being to
Ross Brawn
who’s off to fish some more, as people are fond of saying. Too many cooks at Merc, goes the story. Now his rumoured link with McLaren has gone off the boil, I sense he may be angling (no pun intended) for an FIA job either now or in the near future. He’s an addition to the scene, is Ross. Come back soon.
Martin Whitmarsh
The last time I saw Whitmarsh he was contemplating a pot plant in his office at the MTC. He didn’t look very much like a man with a plan, and it seems that Mumtalakat or Ron Dennis or Mansour Ojjeh or any combination of the above agreed. I don’t know enough about the inner workings of McLaren to be able to point the finger of blame at Whitmarsh, who always seemed competent enough, and there might also have been other issues within the organisation. But the upshot is that he isn’t the face of the team any more.
Mark Webber
is off to sportscars. By his own recent admission, he wasn’t as sharp as he used to be, so it was the right time.
Paul di Resta
seems more to be the victim of circumstance than his own failure to impress. Much is written in the blogosphere about his perceived aloofness, and his unwillingness to connect on a human level with his team. I think it didn’t help, but money and speed speak volumes in this sport nowadays, and di Resta didn’t apparently have enough of either.
Giedo van der Garde
Yet further evidence of the cut throat world of F1. Van der Garde impressed last season, and yet he’s out of a job. A pity.
Charles Pic
Yet further evidence of the cut throat world of F1.

Men to watch
Sebastian Vettel
is just today at Jerez saying that he is not particularly enamoured of the new Red Bull, but be not fooled: this man is lethal. He will be there or thereabouts regardless of the car’s performance.
Fernando Alonso
is on a mission in 2014, which could be his last year at Ferrari. He has to pass a stern test in the shape of Raikkonen and he will.
Lewis Hamilton
may well have a great year, his first day testing mishap notwithstanding. Mercedes are the insider’s tip for this season and Hamilton, now settled and in a comfort zone of sorts, looks a good bet for the title. He will be run close by
Nico Rosberg
who is rapidly turning into the real deal.
Romain Grosjean
also improved drastically towards the end of last season, and despite the lack of testing or machinery shortcomings, will outdrive his team mate comfortably and occasionally the competition. His upward trajectory may be in the balance so he’ll be hoping he doesn’t suffer too many setbacks.

The new rules
So we lose normally aspirated V8s and gain turbocharged V6s. No great loss to anybody except the engine nerds, and in the year I was born they raced turbos, so I have a soft spot for them. No particular emotional breakdown over the lower pitch noise here at towers either. But what it will mean is eight-speed gearboxes as engineers try to rein in and modulate the torque, and twitchy right feet for drivers as they attempt to minimise wheelspin. Jenson Button among others has requested a longer throttle pedal to cope! Could be interesting, especially in the wet.
is a new name for KERS as far as I understand it. Road-relevant, so will keep the manufacturers happy and maybe attract VW/Porsche or others. Safety concerns have cropped up from none other than Adrian Newey, who thinks the new battery may be a fire hazard. He also thinks changes to the
Nose and wings
which primarily consist of a lower, more sculpted nose, might be hazardous if drivers run square into the back of each other. They could be, but high noses pose their own risks. I love the look of lower noses anyway. Newey might also be sore that blown diffusers and the Coanda effect, which he made sing to his own tune, are outlawed this season.

Last chance for…
says their boss Tony Fernandes, who quite understandably has got a bit grumpy that he hasn’t seen any return on his frankly sizeable investment. It always surprises me that more people who invest bucketloads in underperforming teams don’t get similarly mardy. Their recall of Kobayashi is inspired. If he can’t work wonders, no one can.
Stefano Domenicali
must have watched goings-on at McLaren with a dry mouth. All his avuncular bonhomie won’t save him if he can’t – with all the resources, Pat Fry and James Allison, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen at his disposal – produce the goods.
whose car looks a bit bare without a title sponsor. They do have a long list of enviable partners, it’s true, but Vodafone were slinging £30m at them according to some reports, and that isn’t small fry even to McLaren. Performance and money are both required, but without one it can be ruthlessly hard to get the other.

So here’s to a fantastic season in prospect!

F1 2013 review: the good, the bad and the ugly

2013 was a year in which Sebastian Vettel won his fourth straight world title in his all-conquering Red Bull Racing RB9. It was also a season of other wondrous and laudable achievements by some less heralded names; a time of maverick, episodic demonstration of talent from others; and a period of head-scratching lack of competitiveness amongst some of the rest. Here, presents its review of the year in five categories – Highly Commended, Commended, Good Job, Could Have Done Better and the dreaded What Went Wrong?!

Highly Commended
-> Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing
It would be churlish not to put Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing into this top category just because they’d bored everyone to tears by the end of the season. As has been noted on this website, Vettel’s brilliance deserves loud and long recognition. The man himself remarked over the radio in Austin that these days won’t last for ever, and it will be a thankful fan of the sport that agrees with him. Vettel and Newey, though, together with Rocquelin and Horner, are four names that are now engraved on the sport in a way that few others have ever been. See the nine wins on the trot from Spa to Interlagos; remember too the three hat tricks of win, pole and fastest lap in Singapore, Korea and the US. Driver and team, we salute you.
-> Nico Hulkenberg
Difficult as it may be to put anyone else alongside the world champion in terms of performance this year, Hulkenberg may just merit it. He produced miracle after miracle, particularly after Pirelli’s reversion to the Kevlar-belted tyre that suited his Sauber rather better than its early 2013 incarnation. The German’s run at the end of the season – scarcely credible finishes in fourth in Korea, fifth in Italy (after qualifying an astounding third) and sixth in the US (after qualifying fourth) might well have been the result of a fire lit under his seat by the current climate of pay-driver-gets-good-seat-and-talented-other-German-gets-sweet-fanny-adams. They are no less brilliant for it, though.
-> Romain Grosjean
A competitor whose very name had become a byword for incident and catastrophe, Grosjean takes the award for Most Improved this season. Some said it was fatherhood; others hazarded at his increased standing in the team as it became clearer that the Raikkonen relationship was souring. Whatever the cause, by season’s end Grosjean was the second best driver in the game on the basis of form (this might be because Raikkonen wasn’t there and Hamilton and Alonso were bored rigid). Of the Frenchman’s six podiums, four came in the last six races. A talent that is just beginning to sparkle.

-> Fernando Alonso
Not a stellar year for Alonso, though that is admittedly measured by his stratospheric standards. On the plus side, he again virtually single-handedly took Ferrari into a world championship tussle in which it had no business being. He won beautifully in China; he produced the overtake of the year around the outside of no less than the likes of Hamilton and Raikkonen in his habitually turbocharged home race; he manfully, heroically and repeatedly finished as high as he could to take the futile battle to Vettel as far as it would go. Why not Highly Commended, then, Podmore? Because of four words: ‘La macchina degli altri’ – ‘the others’ car’, when asked what he wanted for his July birthday. Fernando, you can’t really say that as a Ferrari driver, old man. It doesn’t go down well.
-> Mercedes – Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton too
A vast improvement on 2012, the Anglo-German concern will be relieved to say. Three wins in Monaco, Britain and Hungary, and a respectable stab at the title, even if two things were obvious by, say, Monza; firstly that Vettel was going to win the title and secondly that the Silver Arrows were very much aimed over the horizon, pointing not in the direction of the elusive energy drink billboard but at 2014. Rosberg could have panicked with the glamour boy coming in, and he didn’t, though he’ll be disappointed finishing two spots down on him in the final standings. Hamilton adjusted fairly well to the new environment and was consistent if occasionally distressingly slower than we’re used to seeing. An interim year of which they can be quietly proud.
-> Kimi Raikkonen
As perhaps befits the man, there really isn’t much to say about this Finnish chap. He’s very fast, he is one of the best in the business, but he doesn’t like not being paid. Fair enough. He would have finished higher up the standings had it not been for back trouble.
-> Lotus
But his team, meanwhile, deserve just as much credit. They did an outstanding job in what Ron Dennis might have called a minimal resource era, never more pressing than when their star driver wasn’t getting his emoluments and all of their futures were looking uncertain. That E21 was a neat car and they worked solidly at improving and servicing it, providing their drivers with excellent tools in the meantime. In another year they might have been world champions.

Good Job
-> Mark Webber
In his valedictory year, a decent support act from the Australian that helped his team walk away with the constructors’ trophy. Malaysia seemed to break his spirit and fans’ desire to see him throw caution to the wind and put the wind up Vettel was shown, by mid-season, to be a forlorn hope rather than a realistic expectation. Despite his weaknesses (set-up, qualifying, starts) he has been a solid performer, Mark; a driver blessed on his day with the ability to stun his opposition. This year didn’t see too much of that, but it did see an honourable man, a credit to the pit lane. Adieu, Aussie Grit.
-> Jules Bianchi
It’s not often that you see Jules Bianchi, watching F1 either at the racetrack or on television. He isn’t what you might call noteworthy, as drivers in his position usually aren’t, sadly enough. What he is, though, is quick, and regularly at the top of that mini-league of drivers at the back of the grid. Ferrari must have an option on him for 2015 when the Raikkonen-Alonso time bomb goes boom, you’d have thought.
-> Force India
A team with the opposite problem to Sauber – they and their orange and green machine really liked the steel-belted Pirellis and as they were replaced the team’s competitiveness accordingly dropped. Nevertheless, to come top of the midfield (i.e. outside the big four) is a worthy feat in a very hostile environment.
-> Valterri Bottas
In his rookie year in the sport, young Bottas has already shown us what a good driver he is. A crap car notwithstanding, he produced a miraculous third on the grid in the qualifying session in Canada and was doggedly consistent in all the races, habitually finishing just outside the points (which is pretty much what his machinery would permit), driving to a great eighth in America and frequently having the better of his highly-rated (by the Venezuelan government) team mate.

Could Have Done Better
-> Felipe Massa and Ferrari
The former is in this category because based on his performances when he was sacked by Ferrari, he manifestly can (do better, that is). A very frustrating thing to see, that, when fans and journos alike believe that you are giving your utmost and then you suddenly find another two or three-tenths of performance when your future doesn’t look quite so secure. As for his team, despite the biggest budget in the game and the best driver, they have again failed to win the world title. Next year will have to be an improvement because on the basis of 2013, heads should roll in Maranello.
-> Pirelli
They fall into this damned category because of their British GP horror show, which thankfully did not result in any injury. But in mitigation it may be said that the poor tyre manufacturer is operating in an environment in which there are various forces pulling this way and that, hither and yon, not least of which the rights’ holder’s demand that their product be flimsy (not a great advertising message, that). Somewhere in the middle for next year, please, Pirelli.
-> Jenson Button (yup) and Sergio Perez (apparently)
Button’s sad face (a long-missed relic from his Benetton, BAR and Honda days) returned early in 2013 when it became clear that he would be effectively driving a Lada for the year. Rather than knuckling down and grinding out the odd amazing result (as you could imagine a Lewis, for example, doing), he had a season of Button mediocrity, a sole fourth in Brazil the only really recognisable performance. It might be his name on the cull list for 2015 if he doesn’t watch out. Meanwhile, the other side of the garage, Perez has been put into this category by virtue of his sacking from the team. Curiously, the Woking concern obviously feel that he wasn’t trashing their lead driver convincingly enough. Although they may be made to eat their words, there certainly weren’t many edifying spectacles from the Mexican.
-> Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil
Slightly unlucky, in football parlance – which means not feasting at the top table, drinking from the golden goblet, nor singing the catchy refrain. They both flattered to deceive in 2013 at a time when a year of anonymity can very easily spell the end of one’s F1 career. A pity, because neither is your everyday journeyman.
-> Giedo van der Garde and the other Marussia and Caterham chauffeurs
Van der Garde did actually look at times this year to be half-decent. The others – who can tell? Given their budgets and constraints, twould be unfair – no, downright mean – to wallop them into the What Went Wrong?! group of doom. No doubt improvement is an earnestly-desired concept amongst these teams and their helmeted charges, however.
-> Toro Rosso and their two earnest caffeine-and-sugar-promoting proteges
Yes, could have done better, and here’s why: Sebastian Vettel won a race in a Toro Rosso once. So they could have done better, if they were Sebastian Vettel and it rained a lot and things went their way. In all seriousness, this is a team that is often presented as a project by its affable team principal Franz Tost and others, but in reality they are a small team whose purpose is to evaluate food for the beast. As such it would be very nice if they did better, but one isn’t terribly surprised when they don’t do very well and it doesn’t matter very much.
-> Governance
Is Mr Ecclestone as bulletproof as he seemed even a year ago? The sport needs focus and direction from someone.
-> The spectacle
Nuff said, but Jesus God sometimes it was eye-bleedingly yawn.
-> Heikki Kovalainen
No super-sub, he.

What Went Wrong?!
-> The avowedly British teams – McLaren and Williams
Here is a miserable tale of woe//One with some money, the other with no//Both made machines, built here, to go fast//But both of their cars left the grid with no chance! The rhyme could go on, but the reason doesn’t extend as far. McLaren should cop the brunt of the criticism as they are the ones with the better facilities, funding and brainpower (yes, even the last, even with sacking a virtual rookie for another untried rookie), but as was admitted when I visited the MTC in the summer, once they’ve gone down the one road so far, they’ve lost so much ground that catching up is virtually impossible. Then it becomes all about the following year, a luxury which Williams literally cannot afford. Many more seasons like this one could see the end of the illustrious concern, an eventuality which is earnestly to be prayed against.
-> Most South American racing drivers
Not a total annus horribilis for our friends Perez and Massa above, as has been said. But their lights shine very bright when compared to Esteban Gutierrez and Pastor Maldonado. Neither talentless, both come across very well as pleasant young men. They are merely symptomatic of the post-financial crisis malaise. Rarely can it have been so obvious in F1’s history, though, that their chequebooks say more than their performances can.

Machinations and moves in the market: Magnussen, Massa, Maldonado and more…

Ahead of Sunday’s US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, which will be won by Sebastian Vettel, the F1 driver market has gone into overdrive. There have been moves galore – some positive, some questionable, and no doubt some heartache to boot. Here’s’s analysis of the state of play.

Magnussen in, Perez out at McLaren
On Thursday McLaren announced what had strongly been rumoured for the last couple of weeks – that they would replace Sergio Perez with their protege Kevin Magnussen, son of former McLaren driver Jan. While on the face of it this was a bold move from a team unsatisfied with the input of a driver in a very competitive market, there remain some serious questions for the Woking team. Is Magnussen’s Formula Renault 3.5 experience sufficient? How does long-time McLaren reserve Gary Paffett feel about this? Why not keep one young driver for at least another year and then kick him out if Alonso became available for 2015? Meanwhile, Perez can feel a little hard done by. The car was a dog and he gave Button a good run, usually in qualifying if not always in races. McLaren must have felt that his feedback and setup (and perhaps ‘elbows’) were not at the level of sharpness they required, but from a neutral point of view it’s hard to believe that Magnussen will top his predecessor. Especially if he’s inherited his father’s genes!

Massa to Williams
Felipe Massa has decamped to Williams, in a move which many see as a valedictory farewell before the oblivion of sportscars, NASCAR or retirement. However, it could be quite astute. Massa still has something in him, as he has shown in the previous few races, unshackled as he has been from Ferrari serfdom. Even if the car is not competitive (which is by no means a given – the Grove concern have form at micro-engineering and could well pull one out the bag in 2014) Massa can still put in dogged drives and retire with his head held high, perceived as the unfortunate but talented rather than the erratic and damned. Where it doesn’t make sense is from the team’s perspective. Maldonado has gone, taking his £30m or so of Venezuelan oil money. Either Williams have found a generous sponsor for next year, or Massa has, or the Brazilian is driving for virtually nothing. It will be interesting to see what emerges from this story.

Maldonado to…?
Lotus, would be the obvious answer. They seem to be plucky and ambitious enough to match the Venezuelan’s lofty goals, and evidently need his cash to boot. They also have a spare seat alongside Romain Grosjean after the departure of Kimi Raikkonen for Ferrari. The other candidate for the seat would be Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg, who many think is the most talented driver currently outside a top berth. The state of play seems to be that if Lotus’ funding comes through from Quantum motorsports, they will prefer Hulkenberg, but if it doesn’t (which is seeming the more likely), they will be forced to take on Maldonado. The latter would be a shame, not because Maldonado is untalented, but because he will have effectively bought a drive that might have gone to a better driver. (As an aside, I was talking to a fan this week and he was lamenting that F1 is entering an era where great driving talent is being frittered away firstly by teams’ need for money and secondly by regulations – an extreme viewpoint, but entirely arguable). If Maldonado goes to Lotus, then, Hulkenberg will be hotfooting it to Force India, which will mean either di Resta or Sutil turfed out there (probably, it seems, the Scot). Perez will take refuge at his alma mater Sauber to replace Hulkenberg and partner Gutierrez.

A word on Raikkonen, and the weekend’s action
Kimi Raikkonen has had successful back surgery according to Autosport this morning, which lays to rest the rumours that he was just on the beach. The situation at Lotus with the Finn, according to my sources, was that he was paid his salary, but not his emoluments or bonuses. My sources could not confirm or deny the rumour that his bonuses amounted to something in the region of £40k per point, which would by my calculation have them owing him £7.3m. Which is a lot. If someone owed me £7.3m, I would probably not do a jot more work for them until they paid me. But it seems Raikkonen’s back trouble was legit, and we wish him a speedy recovery.
This weekend’s US Grand Prix is a welcome prospect after the neutered Abu Dhabi race (which, David Coulthard, is a bland, flashy, corporate, soulless orgy). We go to real motorsport country, and the passion of the Mexican fans for Sergio Perez is a joy to behold. He’ll need all the support he can get after the week he’s had. At the sharp end it will as I’ve said be won by Vettel because that’s the way things are. Elsewhere it will be interesting to see what Heikki Kovalainen can do in a half decent machine as he replaces his compatriot for the final races of the season. Bring it on, Austin.

Vettel’s fourth title puts him in pantheon of greats

Sebastian Vettel’s fourth world title came last weekend in a race which required him to drive from the back of the grid. This is usually unnecessary for the German, and although there are many arguing now about Vettel’s true worth in a historical context, his Indian performance adds more lustre to his already glowing reputation. The allegation dogs him, however; it’s Newey the genius.

The case for the defence. To paraphrase a famous evaluator of Shakespeare: in what area of our sport has Vettel not shown himself worthy? In what situation has he faltered? How has he not proven himself? The detractors must answer convincingly.

It is to be conceded that usually (mark it, not always) he has enjoyed the benefit of the most dynamic and effective machinery. In F1 as perhaps in few other top level sports, this confers a significant advantage and with it comes suspicion. Regardless of the effort or talent of the driver, his competitors and their fans carp in the first instance and then mutter. Glib as their conclusion may be, pitch sticks. And Vettel is tainted.

But it is in looking more closely at these rivals that we find redemption for the young German. Then: while Schumacher had Hill, Villeneuve and Hakkinen, Senna had Prost, Mansell, Piquet and Schumacher. While Ferrari had Williams and McLaren, now: Red Bull have McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes and effectively Renault. And Vettel has Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton and Webber, to say nothing of Rosberg or Massa or pre-2011, Kubica.

Arguments to this end are often rendered null and void by the assertion that it is impossible to compare and contrast sportsmen from vastly different eras. That holds true, and it is not this column’s intention to contend that Vettel is better in any obvious sense than were the aforementioned greats. But as sport evolves, so too do sportsmen: one only has to look at the swiftness of movement, deftness of touch and preternatural understanding of today’s Bayern Munich or Barcelona to see that it constitutes a significant step up from yesteryear.

It is in this category that Vettel belongs. He has taken the game and absorbed it, processed it, spat it out with such nonchalance that is almost disdain. He has evolved the nasty, too, as Mark Webber knows. From his initial promise when he entered the sport in 2007, his regular showing is now simply a masterful performance that embarrasses the opposition. For that reason alone he must be among the greats, but it is very easy to argue he must be very high among the greats. We shall see this weekend in Abu Dhabi what type of Vettel fits into this new dawn where he really is the best.

And because that whiff of Newey still lingers, Vettel will have something to prove in 2014 and onwards. He won’t be giving up just because he has ground the opposition into the dirt. That’s yet another characteristic of the very great. Watch and see just how good he will get.

Vettel dominance boring? Perspective, please

And so to Japan, where it is mathematically possible for Sebastian Vettel, of Red Bull Racing, to wrap up the 2013 F1 world title. Such is his margin of dominance that with five rounds still to go, Vettel will win it if his closest challenger, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, finishes no higher than ninth. Even if Alonso does manage to score well, there is a distinct sense that he would only be delaying the inevitable.

Cue much navel-gazing and gnashing of teeth. Gadzooks, they cry, how dull is this? Vettel waltzes into the distance, pulverising at will, and comfortable enough in his superiority to make wisecracks about his car having illegal traction control. Hamilton feels sorry for the fans, writers feel sorry for the fans and the fans feel sorry for themselves, particularly when they get up disagreeably early on a Sunday morning to watch the denouement of the championship in far flung lands.

It is boring to watch, frankly. The last two races have only been made vaguely palatable (even to hardened F1 nuts) by battles for fourth place and thereabouts, and in Korea’s case by Felipe Massa, Adrian Sutil and the chap behind the wheel of that fire truck. Otherwise there hasn’t been much to say, and those whose job it is to comment and bring insight inwardly curse, because their job gets quite a bit more difficult. The temptation to bleat ‘something must be done!’ is almost irresistible. Bernie’s artificial rain showers, anyone? Strategically deployed fire trucks? Added time multi-ball?

No, no, no. As Vettel reminds us as if to excuse himself, Schumacher was much worse. He was. Senna and Prost swept all before them in 1988-9. Mansell was yawningly crushing in 1992. It’s not unprecedented, and it has been more mundane. Doff your cap to Vettel (because it’s not just Newey’s brilliance that is on display here). Salute the German wunderkind and his Red Bull team. Tolerate a couple more races where your instinct is to go back to bed.

Because it would be incredibly surprising if this is the case come March 2014. The rule changes are the principal saving grace, but also the teams whose 2013 efforts have been conspicuously hampered when they realised that this season was probably a lost cause. McLaren, you say – but also Mercedes and possibly even Ferrari. There are a number of teams for whom it is imperative – in some cases for the sake of their own survival – to be competitive in 2014. And that’s quite apart from what Dietrich Mateschitz might do when he catches on that his brand is under a great big BORING headline.

Vettel will win this championship, here in Japan or in India, and at an outside shot in Abu Dhabi. He utterly deserves it and plaudits that haven’t yet come his way will certainly do so when he is crowned with a fourth straight title. And his brilliance is enhanced rather than created by the talent around him, both in terms of his team and of his rival drivers. And so any criticism of him, or booing, or whatever, is definitely lacking in perspective.

*Perspective, too, for it was this morning that we received news of the death of Maria de Villota, the erstwhile Marussia test and reserve driver. Although I never met her, she was well-known for her lovely character in the paddock and her passing is as untimely as it is tragic. It is most sincerely to be hoped that some good, particularly for the Women in Motorsport foundation, will come from this sad day.

Rush: review

Last week’s Hugh Podmore was invited to a screening of Rush, the Ron Howard film based on the story of the rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt. Here is his review.

The overriding sensation going into this film was one of dread. Having been warned by various F1 folk that Rush would play havoc with history, deploying the cop-out of artistic licence wherever it could, I thought I’d be staring frostily at the screen and furiously jotting down each blatant falsehood. The story was good enough, I’d thought; tell it how it was, because by God was it an epic tale.

And yes. There were numerous instances where Hollywood (or not Hollywood, or whatever) served up factual inaccuracy, brazenly in some cases. But it didn’t bother me as much as I’d thought. The story began with Niki Lauda’s narration, which then faded out throughout the film, to return at the end as some sort of valedictory salute to its original intention to tell it from Lauda’s perspective. It documented Lauda’s inexorable rise and 1975 championship win, while Hunt languished in a charismatic but ultimately unsuccessful Hesketh team. Hunt and Lauda’s 1976 battle was the central focus of the film, the ins and outs of which were relatively accurately rendered, including Lauda’s fiery Nurburgring crash and his rehabilitation. The climax of Rush was at the final grand prix of the 1976 season in which Hunt triumphed by coming third once Lauda had retired.

There were lots of good things about this movie. The colours and ambience of the seventies was usually impressive and glorious at best. The characterisation of the protagonists seemed accurate – after all, Hunt and Lauda had very different approaches to life in general and the racetrack specifically. They were both, however, blisteringly quick, and the film paid appropriate tribute to the foolish glory of grand prix racing in an era when death was an ever-present companion. Lauda’s graphically painful recovery from his crash evoked that particularly well. Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) was confident and brash and convincing; for Lauda, Daniel Bruhl gave a beautiful and wonderful performance which lived and breathed the Rat.

Some absurdities, however, could not be forgiven. The starkest was the cars’ movement. While close-ups were thrillingly loud and fast, long shots gave the unfortunate impression of having been sped up at edit. At times, it really did look as though it must have been filmed – with drivers pootling round, anxious not to damage the historic machines. Brands Hatch unconvincingly and frequently doubled for other more exotic locations. Rush’s attempts to show realistic overtaking were derisory. F1 cars racing each other on the limit in reality is a ballet. In Rush it was more an old people’s home Christmas ball.

Secondly, Simon Taylor (redoubtable and estimable pundit that he doubtless is) ain’t Murray Walker, and so anyone – anyone – with the slightest knowledge of F1 would be immediately conscious that this was a reproduction. How much, Mr Howard, would it have cost to buy the rights to Murray’s commentary? Or even pay the great man to say the same things again? Or even cast someone who sounded like him?

Thirdly, and most heinously, the script was eye-bleedingly awful. It was trite, cliché-ridden, tell-rather-than-show, limp rubbish. A hugely talented cast, including the criminally underused Julian Rhind-Tutt as Bubbles Horsley and Stephen Mangan as (I think) Alistair Caldwell, were seriously let down by the writing. Allusions to the ‘will to win’ would have been overkill – the context is entirely sufficient – but the film’s creators felt it necessary constantly to invoke it in dialogue. The scene where Hunt and Lauda chat when signing autographs is the worst – the script demands they fill each other in on what has been happening in the film. Note to American filmmakers in general – European or any audience with a brain does not need a recap every two bloody minutes.

Having vented all that, I did still enjoy the film. It was truly a joy to see the decade I just missed out on brought so beautifully and carefully to life. And it was, it will be, good for F1 insofar as it glorifies the romance of the sport. The only problem is, when they then tune into F1 2013-spec, they’ll be bored to tears and go back to thinking that it isn’t how it used to be. Which is true – it isn’t. But all-too-rare films like Rush do make an admirable effort to bring it all back for us. As long as you don’t mind listening to a crap script.