F1 – the sponsorship ‘problem’

There is a perception that these days it is impossible for a young driver going on talent – as opposed to sponsorship – to get into Formula One. If you’re returning from retirement, or you have bags of cash, then it’s easy to get in. But is this really the case?

Today, companies don’t have money they can throw at racing teams – whether in F1 or other series – to sponsor them. Most of the companies who do sponsor teams seem to be out of reach for the average fan, or they are companies belonging to the team owner. The other sponsors on cars tend to come from drivers, who carry the names with them as they change teams and series. Racing is horribly expensive, and with a cost of several hundred thousand pounds even for Formula Renault UK, most drivers have no choice but to seek sponsorship in order to get into the series. Drivers who struggle to find sponsors may be left without a seat, and in recent days – starting with Dan Wells – we have seen many turn to the public via Twitter to get funding.

But is there really a dilemma between sponsorship and talent? Is it really true that good drivers miss out while worse drivers get all the funding?

The truth is, companies aren’t going to sponsor bad drivers. They want to sponsor good drivers so that they will get noticed! Some drivers can use their name to get sponsorship – Bruno Senna, for example – yet nobody thinks of him as a ‘pay driver’. There was great delight when Senna got into Williams, though at Barrichello’s expense. And though Vitaly Petrov brings in Russian sponsorship, his ability has also been proven. His displacement of Trulli might cause disgruntlement, but in truth he will be good competition for Kovalainen.

The list goes on: Jerome d’Ambrosio, replaced at Virgin/Marussia by Charles Pic, but he also brought in sponsorship which now features on Lotus’s cars. Di Resta has help from Mercedes, Perez has help from Escuderia Telmex. These are all fantastic drivers. And though Hulkenberg isn’t regarded as a pay driver, it doesn’t say ‘Katjes’ on his cap for no reason. As for drivers in the top teams, they have had some help to get to where they are – Hamilton through his young bravery with Ron Dennis, Alonso indirectly brings in Santander sponsorship to Ferrari (and it stayed at McLaren though the Abbey connection). There are very few, if any, drivers on the grid now who are there purely by talent.

As for the age of F1 drivers, 11 on the grid this year are 25 or younger. Four of those are GP2 champions (Rosberg, Maldonado, Hulkenberg and Grosjean); one is DTM champion (Di Resta); one is a world champion (Vettel) and the others all have good records in Formula Renault or GP2. All but six drivers are 30 or younger. So F1 does not have an age problem.

I believe F1 has one of the most talented lineups of all time. If we put them in equally-matched cars, we would have some incredible racing. I think the few drivers regarded as ‘bad’ are severely underrated (Maldonado might be good at disobeying rules but you need talent to win in GP2; Karthikeyan has done brilliantly outside F1). Yes, some talented drivers have been left out of F1 – Luca Filippi is a prime example – but many others who are just as talented have made it. So stop complaining and enjoy the racing. And hope that somewhere out there is a team to match Red Bull!

2011 review part 7 – Monaco

The Monaco Grand Prix of 2011 will probably be remembered for a while. Not for any of the racing, but for the events on the day preceeding the race.

The first two practice sessions were on the Thursday, with the first session interrupted as a water leak spilled onto the pit straight. Several drivers spun, including Tonio Liuzzi and Michael Schumacher. One driver who has always done well at Monaco is Pastor Maldonado, and he was seventh-fastest. Paul di Resta, who had never raced before in Monaco due to driving it DTM not GP2, took it slowly and was nineteenth-fastest. Vettel led the times in the morning, but Alonso did in the afternoon.
Friday was left for the support races, and on the Saturday it was final practice before afternoon qualifying. The session saw Nico Rosberg lose control of his car coming out of the tunnel and go flying, just missing the barriers as he flew into the air off the sleeping policemen at the chicane. This caused Charlie Whiting to decide to remove the sleeping policemen, which in the afternoon would prove to be a wise decision.

Qualifying, and the usual suspects were joined by Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari. The Spaniard would start behind both Lotuses, with Kovalainen barely beating Trulli. Neither HRT set a time, but both were allowed to race.
In Q2, Sergio Perez shone – like Maldonado he has done well at Monaco in GP2 – and made it to the final session. Neither Renault, Barrichello, Kobayashi and the slow Force Indias did not make it, however.
The final session, and some of the drivers headed out to set times, including Sauber’s Perez. As he was coming out of the tunnel, the Sauber spun and shunted sideways into the barriers. The session was immediately red-flagged. Anxious fans watched the TV screens as an ambulance, marshalls and medical staff surrounded the car. The minutes ticked by, until the ambulance drove slowly off. Slowly, meaning he wasn’t in any serious danger. The session continued, and Vettel took pole. Hamilton’s lap was discounted as he cut the chicane, though his lap time on cold tyres had not been very good anyway.

The race was filled with mishaps, and DRS was only just effective. Hamilton had a couple of incidents with Felipe Massa, the second of which put the Ferrari driver out of the race. He also spun Maldonado, who was on target for points, and the Venezuelan was out as well – but late enough to be classified. The Brit would get a lot of penalties from this race. So would Paul di Resta, as he got in the way of a Ferrari at the hairpin and had a drive-through. Schumacher managed to ‘park’ his Mercedes at the pit lane entry with a mechanical problem; but the main bunch of retirees came as the race leaders – Vettel, Alonso and Button – met drivers one and two laps behind, all coming together at the same point in the circuit. Alguersuari and Petrov were forced to retire, and the race was red-flagged as medical help was required for Petrov. The Russian was okay, however. The red-flagged allowed repairs to Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren – whose rear wing was broken – and the three frontrunners to change tyres. This completely altered the dynamic of the race, as there had been hopes Vettel’s tyres would wear too much and Alonso or Button could win.

The evening of the Monaco Grand Prix was the Indianapolis 500, one of the greatest races in the world. Alongside the IndyCar regulars was British driver Dan Wheldon. An IndyCar champion, he had been left without a full-time drive in 2011. But he was there for the Indy 500. On the final corner of the final lap, the race leader James Hinchcliffe had a decent lead but crashed into the wall. Wheldon, running second, took the advantage and crossed the line to win the race for the second time.

The next stop for F1 was Canada. Always a good race, what would the track throw up this year? And with Vettel having won all but one race so far, could anyone stop him?

[To be continued]

Maldonado still in F1

Williams announced today that Pastor Maldonado will continue to drive for them in 2012. The Venezuelan had flashes of brilliance in Monaco and Belgium but otherwise did not impress fans, receiving two penalties in Abu Dhabi for ignoring blue flags and suffering more crashes in practice and the race than can be accounted for by Williams’ unreliability.
Third driver for the team will be GP3 champion Valtteri Bottas. What the Finn will be doing besides his reserve position remains unclear, as ART have already signed up Esteban Gutierrez and James Calado to their GP2 team. A vast number of spaces in GP2 remain open, and he could also take his chances in Formula Renault 3.5.

The question remains over who will take the second Williams seat. Current speculation sees Barrichello losing his seat to Sutil, with Petrov, Bianchi and Senna the other options.

More to come over the next few weeks! The 2012 lineup under the F1 tab reflects the FIA entry list plus De La Rosa and Maldonado.

d’Ambrosio gets Pic-axe

(I stole the title from someone else!)

It was an emotional Brazilian Grand Prix. For Jerome d’Ambrosio, it will most likely be his final F1 race unless he can go somewhere next season. He has been replaced at Marussia by excellent French GP2 driver Charles Pic. D’Ambrosio competed well against his German teammate, helped a bit by the car being more reliable. He finished 14th twice, with Glock’s best being 15th.

The race today was full of tension, but despite attempts by Jessica Michibata to perform the McLaren Rain Dance, none fell. Taking the lead from the start was polesitter Sebastian Vettel, with Mark Webber close behind. Alonso got between the two McLarens, but nobody could keep up with the Red Bulls. Early on, Vettel had gearbox problems, and though he held on, he lost some time to Webber. The Aussie took the lead, making it the first time both Red Bulls have led in the same race for the entirety of 2011.
Behind, Alonso overtook Button with a daring move arund the outside that will definitely go down as one of the best overtakes of the season. Towards the end of the race, the situation reversed itself as DRS and KERS brought Button back to third. The gap to Vettel was too far for the Brit to catch up in the remaining laps, and he settled for the bottom step of the podium.
In fifth came Felipe Massa. He had been having an okay race, not getting into trouble. Stopping later than most other drivers, he even led for a lap or two. Towards the final laps, the out-of-position McLarens came to overtaken the Brazilian. Jenson Button succeeded easily, but Lewis was struggling with gearbox problems. He tried hard to get past, and tension was in the air. But it was the McLaren gearbox that gave way first and Lewis parked up by the side of the track. At the end of the race, Felipe did some spectacular doughnuts before entering the pit lane. He was the final driver to finish on the lead lap.
Coming home sixth was a special treat for Force India’s Adrian Sutil. Despite driving well this season, the German seems likely to be replaced at the team by test driver Nico Hulkenberg. Sutil brilliantly overtook Nico Rosberg mid-race, and was definitely the driver of the race. In eighth was Sutil’s teammate Paul di Resta. The Scottish rookie has had a great first season, racking up 27 points to beat Jaime Alguersuari in the points. Sutil finishes with 42 points, placing him 9th in the championship.
In ninth was Kamui Kobayashi, making sure Sauber beat Toro Rosso, and in tenth was Vitaly Petrov. Kovalainen made sure Team Lotus secured 10th in the championship by finishing 16th and best of the new teams, ahead of Bruno Senna. Retirements came from Tonio Liuzzi, Lewis Hamilton, Pastor Maldonado and Timo Glock.

Maldonado has retired from seven races this season – more than any other driver – yet looks set to secure a drive for next season. By contrast, rookie Paul di Resta has led more laps than any other driver; the Scot has completed seven more than Fernando Alonso despite retiring in Turkey and Canada. He had late retirements in both races, however, whereas Alonso’s came earlier in the Canadian race.

From tomorrow, I will be figuring out season statistics and posting the most interesting ones here and on Twitter. I hope you have a great winter break!

Practice report – India

F1
It was certainly an eventful first day for the Indian Grand Prix. There was a red flag in each session, plenty of off-track excursions by the drivers as they learned their way around, and a couple of grid penalties as well.
Session one was the most dramatic. Dusty and hazy, the first drivers on track were the Indians – Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok (replacing Heikki Kovalainen for the session) – and the two Force India drivers. The first flying lap was a 1:52.148 by Chandhok, but before he could really get going the session was red-flagged due to a dog on the circuit. That will have brought back memories for Bruno Senna, who was taken out of a GP2 race in Turkey in 2008 after he hit a dog.
Once the session resumed, things were rather quiet until the Hispanias began their work. Narain Karthikeyan moved into P1. But he was soon overtaken, and half-way through the session it was Jenson Button’s McLaren fastest with the Toro Rossos close behind. The times were tumbling for most, but not for Fernando Alonso whose car broke down as he was attempting his second timed lap. He pulled off on the escape road, so the session was not interrupted. He ended up sitting looking rather glum under the big screen.
The session continued with times falling. But it was still dusty in the pit lane, and as Karun Chandhok attempted to lay down some rubber the car spun rather dramatically and almost went too far into the path of Pastor Maldonado. The Venezuelan managed to avoid the accident, which allowed him to continue.
The Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguersuari crashed in the final minutes of the session, causing waved yellow flags. Then Pastor Maldonado had a firey mechanical failure. As marshalls cleared the cars and track, Sergio Perez and Lewis Hamilton set their fastest laps – Perez first then Hamilton right at the end to beat Sebastian Vettel. Both have been given 3-place grid penalties for qualifying tomorrow. Hamilton’s lap was the fastest of the session.

Practice two saw Pastor Maldonado crash, though Williams were able to get him out again. The story of the day was Ferrari’s flexible front wing. Especially for Felipe Massa, it was noticably scraping the ground. But it was clearly working for the team, as Massa set the fastest lap of the session. It is the first time he has topped a session since second practice in Silverstone. Fernando Alonso hit traffic as he was attempting to beat that time.
The red flag came mid-way through the session, when Jerome d’Ambrosio spun dramatically and hit the wall. Most drivers were getting used to the track, however, and apart from a spin for Petrov and a few off-track moments for Heikki Kovalainen and Sebastien Buemi, things went smoothly.

F2
A small field for a wet Barcelona. Spaniard Miki Monras was fastest in the first session, and German Tobias Hegewald was fastest in the second. Parthiva Sureshwaren set a top-ten time in FP2, perhaps inspired by the Grand Prix in his home country. Champion Mirko Bortolotti remained consistent, setting the second-fastest time in both sessions, but there is going to be an almighty scrap for second and third in the championship over the next two days.

Practice makes perfect – Friday in Japan

Formula One practice at stupidly early hours really takes it out of you! I watched both sessions, with a small nap before FP1, between the sessions, and then a longer sleep afterwards.

The McLarens were fastest in both sessions, with first Hamilton then Button leading. But Vettel was always close behind, and I suspect he will still be on pole come qualifying, especially as his fastest FP2 lap was set under yellow flag conditions.
The first session was almost incident free, apart from a wander by Maldonado across the grass. The Venezuelan hit the kerb rather hard coming back on track, causing an oil spike that was misinterpreted by Williams. The team told him to pull over as a precaution, losing a lot of their session. In the final minute of FP1, Sebastian Vettel went wide at the first Degner, and slid along to hit his car into the wall – not too heavily, mind you.
FP2 was slightly more incident-filled. Tonio Liuzzi was the first driver to go out, after some kind of problem saw him pull over. Rubens Barrichello later lost control before Degner 1 and slammed his car rather more thouroughly than Vettel into the wall. A few minutes later, Pastor Maldonado had to pull over at the same spot with electrical problems, leading to Martin Brundle posting a picture of the two cars parked up side-by-side.
As drivers attempted to get through 130R with their DRS wide open – most successfully completed by the Red Bulls, but also by McLaren – this caused some hair rasing moments. Kamui Kobayashi almost lost control of his car, but somehow got it back into his hands and was able to continue. Bruno Senna also spun off the track and was beached in the gravel, but with his engine still running he was able to get some help from the marshalls and keep going (which I’m sure Renault were relieved about). Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock also suffered problems.

In the news:
Lotus/Renault name change – Tony Fernandes and Dany Bahar were all set to arrange a name change, with Lotus becoming Caterham, and Renault becoming Lotus. This was initially agreed upon by the FOTA members, but now several teams have asked the FIA Commission to look into the issue as they are concerned that it will damage F1’s brand image if teams change names too often. It will also cause confusion in the future, if people look back and see one Lotus team in 2010 and 2011, then another for 2012 and beyond.
Unusual prime/option designation for India – Pirelli have switched the usual harder=prime, softer=option rule around for the inaugural Indian GP. The soft compound has been designated prime, while the hard compound will be the option. This means less wastage for teams, who typically end up returning an unusued set of primes (which Pirelli must destroy) at the end of a weekend. Teams get six sets of prime and five of option, though they always go into qualifying with four sets of each to be used then and in the race, so I am not sure it will help. It had been thought that Pirelli would no longer use the hard tyres, but they are being cautious for this first race. Abu dhabi and Brazil will have soft options and medium primes.

Summer day 7 – Pastor Maldonado

Pastor Maldonado – 21
Rookie Williams driver Pastor Maldonado began his season badly when through no fault of his own he retired from both the Australian and Malaysian Grands Prix. He was not well-received by fans at first because of his displacement of Brazil polesitter Nico Hulkenberg, and he also has a reputation for crashing. This reputation isn’t really deserved; though he’s had some spins and smashes in practice, recently his driving style has improved.
A good qualifier, Pastor has been able to push the Williams better than Barrichello on Saturdays and has managed to get the car into Q3 on three occasions. However, he has also sometimes had trouble – probably more because of the car than himself – to get out of Q1. He was the fall guy in Malaysia, and in China and Hungary he has qualified 17th.
In the races, however, Pastor has struggled. The Hungarian Grand Prix was the first time the Venezuelan has finished in a better position that when he started – 16th from 17th. But in Monaco he was on course for a points finish until a close call with Lewis Hamilton put him in the wall. Lewis got a penalty for that, which irritated the Brit somewhat.
Apart from his Monaco problems, however, Pastor has not finished higher than 14th in a race. He has achieved that twice, and also has a fifteenth place finish and a sixteenth which puts him ahead of d’Ambrosio. Apart from Monaco, Australia and China, Pastor has also caused himself one retirement. This was at the Canadian Grand Prix, when he spun off.
He’s been unlucky in that the car that doesn’t meet the performance of 2010’s Williams. But he’s set to continue into 2012 with the team, and probably with Rubens Barrichello the most experienced F1 driver ever. Hopefully the new engine deal should help make the guys work harder to build a better car.

Worst qualifying: 18
Best qualifying: 7
Worst finish: 18 (China, Monaco, Valencia)
Best finish: 14 (Britain, Germany)
Average difference: -4.36
Laps completed: 562/681 (83%)
Average race position: 14.33 (Best: 7.6 Monaco; Worst: 18.7 Valencia)