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!

Trulli out, Petrov in at Caterham

F1
After months of speculation, when people finally began to think that maybe Caterham would honour Jarno Trulli’s contract, the rumours have come true. The Italian driver, who won at Monaco with Renault and has spent two years with the back-of-the-grid team, has been fired despite taking part in the first F1 test of 2012. He has been replaced by Vitaly Petrov, and there is no doubt that the money has helped. You need money to improve your prospects.
Vitaly isn’t a bad driver, and definitely has potential with Caterham, but Trulli had potential too. It is a shame he – like Rubens Barrichello – wasn’t given the opportunity to retire gracefully. At least Barrichello’s replacement was done honestly by Williams, and the Brazilian seems likely to continue his career in IndyCar. What is there for Trulli?
What is done is done. I think Petrov will do well, and he looks alright in green. Much better than black anyway.

GP2
The SuperNova team have left the GP2 championship after seven years. The British team, who have featured such drivers as Giorgio Pantano, Adam Carroll, Luca Filippi and Mike Conway, will be replaced by Venezuela-sponsored Italian outfit Venezuela GP Lazarus. Team Lazarus took part in Auto GP, last year running with Fabrizio Crestani and Fabio Onidi. The drivers finished 6th and 5th respectively in the championship.

GP3
Two drivers have been signed today. Trident revealed their first driver, Vicky Piria. She will be the first girl to take part in GP3. Hopefully she’ll do well, though she has not scored any wins or podiums so far in her career.
Meanwhile Cypriot Tio Ellinas, who came fourth in the 2010 British FFord season and finished third in Formula Renault UK on equal points with Oli Rowland and after dropping 40 points from his total (Rowland dropped none), comes to GP3 with Marussia Manor Racing. He will partner Dmitry Suranovich and Fabiano Machado.

2011 review part 3 – Malaysia

Malaysia saw the first real running of HRT’s F111, though as expected they were slow. The Renault drivers shone in golden racing suits, to protect against the heat; their regular suits were black. It was expected that this would be the first wet race of the season, but despite bad weather in the days coming up to the race, it was dry.
Red Bull racing’s first goal was to get their KERS working. Right after the Australian Grand Prix it was revealed that their KERS had not been operating at all during the race, yet Vettel had still won. But the team would need to get the KERS working if they were to maintain their lead as other teams developed.
In first practice, Nick Heidfeld’s car suffered a serious problem as the front-right tyre locked up as he was negotiating the track. He struggled back to the pits, wearing a huge amount of rubber from the bottom of the tyre.

Qualifying saw Williams rookie Pastor Maldonado become the fall guy along with the two Lotuses, Virgins and HRTs. The Spanish outfit saw both cars easily beat the 107% rule to make their first Grand Prix of the season. Q2 saw Schumacher fail to make the third session for the second race in a row, but both Renaults survived. In the final session, it was Sebastian Vettel who again took pole, with Lewis Hamilton alongside him.

Race day, and the Williams cars were destined to retire once again as the team suffered their worst ever start to the season. Nick Heidfeld, however, was having a good day. He got his Renault into second at the start, and held back the other cars to give Vettel a good lead. Perez was unable to give another demonstration of his skill after his car was struck by debris. Meanwhile, Jarno Trulli suffered a clutch failure. Both HRTs were withdrawn from the race for ‘safety reasons’.
Vettel won the race with Button second. In third, Nick Heidfeld secured another podium to make him the driver with the most podiums without a win. Petrov was on course for a points finish when he went off track. Coming back on, his car jumped into the air, and when it hit the ground the steering column broke.
Alonso and Hamilton were both given 20s penalties after the race for their actions as they fought each other on track. Alonso’s was for contact while trying to pass Hamilton, while Hamilton’s was for weaving while trying to pass Alonso. This demoted Hamilton to eighth behind Kamui Kobayashi. And as we all know, it would not be the last time the Englishman came off badly after fighting for position with a Ferrari this season!

Los Mini Drivers – amazing!

[To be continued]

2011 review part 2 – Australia

It was worryingly close to the season start when HRT announced that Tonio Liuzzi had signed a contract with them for 2011. Sebastian Vettel signed a long-term contract with Red Bull, and Karun Chandhok became a reserve driver at Team Lotus. The circus headed across the sea to Australia, for the first race of the season. Back in England, as Team Lotus and Lotus Renault GP took to the track in F1, the court case between the two outfits over the use of the ‘Team Lotus’ name was about to go ahead.
On the 25th of March we got our first look at the post-testing cars, Pirelli tyres, and DRS. The Red Bulls were fastest in the first session, with Webber ahead of Vettel on home turf. Alonso was third, Rosberg fourth, Barrichello fifth and the two McLarens following. The fastest Renault was Petrov, with Massa slower and Heidfeld slower still. It still seemed the Williams had pace. In the second session it was the two McLarens fastest, and the top seven were separated by less than a second. Sauber’s new driver, Sergio Perez, impressed with his time. He was eighth-fastest, ahead of Barrichello and Rosberg. On the Saturday, Sauber’s pace continued to impress as Kobayashi got into the top ten again, and Petrov was fifth-fastest in the Renault. This time, Williams were nowhere to be seen. And then it was qualifying…
Taking pole position was Sebastian Vettel, with Lewis Hamilton second but much slower. Webber didn’t quite meet his teammate’s time and started third. Vitaly Petrov got into Q3, but teammate Nick Heidfeld had a dreadful qualifying, becoming the first ‘fall guy’ alongside the two Lotuses and Virgins. HRT, whose car was not ready in time, failed to qualify at all. It would be the only time the 107% rule would be applied in the season.

In the race, neither Williams nor Mercedes finished. The Williams both had mechanical issues, while Schumacher had a puncture and Rosberg was too damaged from an accident. Heikki Kovalainen had a water leak that caused the Team Lotus driver to retire as well.
Despite driving most of the race with damage on the floor of his car, Lewis Hamilton came home second behind Sebastian Vettel. Vitaly Petrov managed third to stun the crowd, coming ahead of Fernando Alonso. Jenson Button, however, had less luck. Stuck behind Felipe Massa, he struggled to overtake for a long time. Eventually he cut a corner, getting him in front but resulting in a drive-through penalty as he refused to give the position back. The Saubers also impressed, with rookie Perez managing a one-stop strategy to perfection and finishing just ahead of his teammate. But the car broke the FIA regulations and to the disappointment of everyone, the Saubers were disqualified. This allowed Force India rookie Paul di Resta to score points on his debut instead. Perez and di Resta looked set to be the star rookies of 2011.

With the Australian Grand Prix over, Vettel led the championship. But could he retain his title? Could Renault continue to challenge the top teams? And could Sauber come out leaders of the midfield?

[To be continued]

Kubica will not make the start of 2012

Sadly, Renault have confirmed today what we all suspected: Robert Kubica will not be returning to F1 for the start of the 2012 season. The Pole, who has kept out of the media spotlight since his accident, made an announcement via the team’s website to say that he would be unable to be drive-ready on time. Though he has 100% mobility in his hand and the rest of his body, getting back to race fitness and getting used to driving a race car again is hard work. It will take a long time to get there. Hopefully, Robert will be ready to return mid-season.
However, this does leave the future Lotus GP in a bit of a conundrum, with three drivers to fill two spaces. Romain Grosjean, the GP2 champion, is likely to take one of those seats. The remainder will be fought over by Petrov and Senna. Though Petrov has a contract for next year, Senna also brings good sponsorship and is in negotiations with the team. Having a Senna in a black and gold Lotus is obviously a very attractive option.

Meanwhile, F2 driver Alex Brundle will be taking part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans next season along with his father Martin. The endurance race does not fall on an F1 weekend this year, meaning that whether or not Brundle Sr is working for Sky or the BBC, he will still be able to race that weekend.

The GP3 teams have been testing in Valencia today. At midday of day one, Daniel Abt was fastest followed by Niederhauser, Guerin, Daly, Laine, Stockinger, Ellinas, Stevens, Zimin and Blomqvist.

Petrov’s career in jeopardy!

In 2010, GP2 runner-up Vitaly Petrov became the first-ever Russian F1 driver. He started slowly, retiring from his first three races before finishing seventh in China. His next points finish wasn’t until Germany, when he finished tenth, then in Hungary he managed a great fifth-place finish (helped by retirements from Hamilton and his teammate Robert Kubica). Of course, next to Kubica he was never going to look brilliant. He beat the pole in qualifying only twice: in Hungary, and at the final round in Abu Dhabi. It was on merit each time, as Kubica qualified just behind him on both occasions. Petrov’s highest moment came in Abu Dhabi, when for almost the entire Grand Prix he held off former Renault driver Fernando Alonso and prevented the Spaniard from achieving his third world championship.
Renault had high hopes for 2011, with a radical forward-facing exhaust system. After the first two races, it seemed to be a fantastic move: Petrov took his first podium in Australia (and finishing ahead of Alonso as well!), and Nick Heidfeld took third place in Malaysia. Could Renault challenge for fourth in the championship?
Petrov took Renault’s only points in China, finishing ninth, while it was another double-pointer in Turkey. Yet the Renaults had already dropped back from their initial brilliance. Canada brought the Russian ten points for fourth, but since then he has only had three points finishes. He also hasn’t been able to consistently beat Bruno Senna, who spent all of 2010 in an HRT.
What with the two big fires from Nick Heidfeld and the struggle to score over the past races (Senna was even being caught by Kovalainen at the end of both the Singapore and Abu Dhabi GPs) something has drastically gone wrong at Renault.
When interviewed by Russian media recently, Petrov decided to make it clear how he felt. He’s put his career on the line by crticising the team. It’s no surprise that he wants to do better than he has been, especially since he has been so much better as a driver in 2011. The Russian has beaten his teamate in qualifying 11 times out of 18, though only 3 out of 7 against Senna. And I wonder, with so many drivers willing to drive for Renault in 2012, whether or not this marks the curtain call for Petrov’s Renault/Lotus career, or even his F1 career…

To find out more, go to Autosport.

F1 report – Abu Dhabi

Sunday was a bad day for Sebastian Vettel. First he had trouble with his hire car when entering the circuit – specifically, locking it! And when he began the race, he made it less than two corners before getting a puncture. Lewis Hamilton cannot have believed his luck as he saw the Red Bull spin off. Though Vettel made it back to the pits, he had damaged his suspension too much to continue.
Hamilton took his chance as his teammate was overtaken by Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard pushed hard all race, and at one point he came close to the Brit, but was unable to get there in the end. Behind, Jenson Button could not keep up due to a KERS failure in the first half of the race. He took the third spot on the podium.
One driver down, Red Bull botched Webber’s first stop and ended up moving him to a three-stop strategy. He went onto soft tyres for the first three stints, then did the final lap on hard tyres. This strategy allowed him to beat Felipe Massa, but I am sure the Aussie would much rather not have been racing the Brazilian, who as usual was in a race of his own.
Rosberg came home first in the Mercedes, with Sutil eighth and di Resta ninth on a failed one-stop strategy. Unfortunately, the Force India was just too hard on its tyres.
First of the lapped drivers was Kobayashi, scoring a rare point for Sauber, and Perez was eleventh. Barrichello finished 12th having started last, and behind him was Petrov. In fourteenth and fifteenth were Maldonado and Alguersuari. Maldonado was penalised twice for ignoring blue flags, the second time resulting in a stop-and-go penalty that became 30s of added time. Alguersuari had a drive-through for the same reason. Sixteenth was Senna, who also had a drive-through for ignoring blue flags and finished three seconds ahead of Kovalainen. Just as in Singapore, the Lotus was closing on the Renault in the final lap.
Trulli, who was ill this weekend, finished over a minute behind his teammate. Glock and Liuzzi followed the Italian home. Aside from Vettel, the retirements were Jerome d’Ambrosio, Sebastien Buemi and Daniel Ricciardo. All suffered mechanical failures.

In the news, reliable journalist Joe Saward has reported that Charles Pic will be driving for Marussia next season alongside Timo Glock. The French driver had a great season in GP2, driving for team champions Addax. He won twice, also finishing second on three occasions. He took pole in Valencia, at the Nurburgring and at Monza, and had only two points less than runner-up Luca Filippi at the end of the season. The French press have also reported this, and the driver will not be testing with Team Lotus as he was initially going to. Instead, Rodolfo Gonzalez will be in the car.
Meanwhile, with Renault confirming that Robert Kubica almost certainly not going to be driving at the start of the season, it seems most likely that Vitaly Petrov and Romain Grosjean will be driving for Lotus next year. (Renault, of course, will become Lotus after the end of this season)

Qualifying in India

Five drivers will suffer grid penalties tomorow: Petrov for colliding with Schumacher in Korea (5 places), Perez and Hamilton for not being sufficiently cautious under waved yellows (3 places), Ricciardo for changing gearbox (5 places) and Karthikeyan for impeding Schumacher (5 places). Timo Glock failed to meet the 107% rule, but will be allowed to race. He will start from the back of the grid, just as Kobayashi did in Turkey – grid penalties are applied before 107% rule.

Qualifying was generally okay, though once again three drivers failed to set a timed lap in Q3. The first session saw Kovalainen once again force drivers to push to get into Q2, including the impeded Schumacher. It was the Sauber of Kobayashi who fell eventually. Suffering a gearbox problem, Glock was unable to complete a good-enough timed lap and will start 24th. The remaining HRTs both beat d’Ambrosio’s Virgin, but their penalties placed them behind him – Ricciardo first as he was penalised earlier.
In Q2, despite some determined laps, neither Senna, Petrov or Schumacher made it to the third session. Instead, both Toro Rossos and Adrian Sutil were there (they were the drivers who didn’t set a timed lap). Petrov qualified 11th so will start 16th, while Perez qualified 17th and will start 20th behind the two Lotuses and Kobayashi. Schumacher will now start 11th, with Paul di Resta beside him.
Q3 was looking close for pole, until Felipe Massa crashed right at the end. So naturally Vettel took it, giving Red Bull their sixteenth this season – a record number. It is Sebastian’s 13th of the year. Hamilton set the second-fastest time, but his penalty leaves him fifth behind Jenson Button (who was not having a good qualifying), Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber. Beside him on the grid is the man he always seems to end up fighting – Felipe Massa. Seventh is Rosberg. The Force India and Toro Rossos are in numerical order behind.

Title deciders – Formula Renault UK and F1

It was a weekend of championship deciders as the British Touring Car Championship and support races had their final weekend of 2011. This included Formula Renault UK, and with 10 wins under his belt Alex Lynn was always likely to confirm his victory today.
He did so in style, winning the first of the races and taking fastest lap. But the second race did not go so well. Though starting from pole, he had a battle with teammate Oliver Rowland which left Lynn spinning. He came back into the race further down the field. He began his comeback, but a recurring problem for all the support races came back to bite him. In almost every race, the drivers had been running wide and putting all four wheels over the white line. Race control took a hard line: three offences were okay, fourth got a warning, and the fifth got a drive-through penalty. Lynn, Alice Powell, Oscar King and Felix Serrales all had to suffer this indignity. A few others, including Jordan King, came very close.
Winner of the race was Rowland, who secured second in the championship as Tio Ellinas chose to fight for third in the race (and hence second in the championship) rather than retire. Retiring would have seen him come second under the dropped points system.
Lynn will probably be in British F3 next year, and I expect several other drivers will be looking around at their options. Alice Powell even mentioned GP3 when she was doing commentary for the Formula Renault BARC race. Some of the graduates will hopefully return to Formula Renault, and compete for the championship next season.

Another championship decided today was the Formula One constructors’ championship. Vettel was behind Hamilton at the start, but got ahead and stayed there for the rest of the race. But Hamilton had a great show of form, and his faster McLaren defended well against the Red Bull of Webber to secure second. Though Webber tried and tried, the car’s straight-line speed with DRS and KERS was not enough. At one point he overtook Hamilton just before the DRS detection point, but the McLaren had the advantage and took the place back.
In fourth was Jenson Button, who had a quiet race as Massa had held Alonso up for too long in the first half. Though Alonso had caught up to Button in the final two laps, it was too late to have a go as he was running low on fuel. Massa was sixth.
Jaime Alguersuari had a good race. Able to pit later than the other frontrunners, he was behind Nico Rosberg after his second stop. The Mercedes held on for a long time, but on the final lap his tyres fell away and the Toro Rosso driver overtook on the final corner to come home for a great seventh-place finish. This matches his best all-time finish. Rosberg took eighth. Behind, Buemi was battling with the Force Indias and won to take ninth, while Di Resta was tenth. Just outside the points, Sutil came 11th, Barrichello 12th. Senna was the first of the lapped drivers as his tyres had gone two laps before the end. A rapidly-closing Kovalainen was not quite able to beat the Renault, but took a decent fourteenth. In a strange turn of fortune, both Saubers did three stops and finished behind Kovalainen but ahead of seventeenth-placed Trulli. Ricciardo split Glock and D’Ambrosio, while Liuzzi had another torrid race.
The retirees were Maldonado (with technical problems), Petrov and Schumacher. Petrov hit Schumacher just after he had overtaken Alonso, destroying the Merc’s rear wing and causing a safety car. The Russian has a five-place grid penalty for India. HRT had a 5000 Euro fine for an unsafe release of Daniel Ricciardo.

Qualifying summary

Not much can pull me away from F1, except for Jordan King, my favourite up-and-coming driver because he’s from my home town. Jordan has been driving in the Formula Renault Northern European Cup, and was on pole for today’s race. Though overtaken, he stayed close to the winner to finish less than a second behind and taking the number two spot on the podium. It’s so far his best finish ever – matching a second place in Formula Renault UK that came after the winner was disqualified. He starts second for the next race. His 24 points have boosted him up to 12th place.
For a driver in his first full year of racing, he is doing incredibly well. He has so far had two pole positions – one in the UK series where he got taken out by Alex Lynn and today’s – and had three podium finishes. He has participated in Formula Two as well as these other series, and done himself proud there too. Jordan might not be doing brilliantly in Formula Renault UK, but he’s shown elsewhere how much talent he has.

Now F1, and qualifying today wasn’t as exciting as it could have been. Q1 began with silence before the first drivers came out on track, and the Lotuses and HRTs left it a while before making their first runs. Renault turned out to be the team on the edge, with their updates for Singapore abandoned. Heikki Kovalainen was unable to make a second good run, but still beat his teammate’s best lap. And Vitaly Petrov became the fall guy.
Q2, and a crash for Kobayashi in a bad spot caused a red flag. The Japanese will start 17th. The others dropping out were the Williams, Senna, Perez and the Toro Rosso drivers. So we had both Red Bulls, McLarens, Ferraris, Mercedes and Force Indias in Q3.
It could had been a very exciting finale, but in the end it didn’t go that way. Vettel set a hot lap quickly and Hamilton was second. The Force Indias did not attempt a lap at all. McLaren had a refuelling problem and Hamilton was unable to set another lap, while Vettel messed up on his final attempt – quite unusual for the German – but was not beaten by his nearest challenger of Webber. Button took third, while Alonso and Massa were fifth and sixth. The two Mercs were next, followed by the Force Indias in numerical order.
Hopefully the race will be better tomorrow. It’s a big challenge for the drivers to stay out of the wall and also to avoid copying Kobayashi and catching air at turn 10 – the chicane. If you get off the ground, there’s no way you’ll be able to catch yourself in time before you go into the wall. So this could be a good one, and if the backmarkers stay cautious they could be in with a chance at a good finish.

This is Red Bull’s 15th consecutive pole – they have taken every one since Abu Dhabi last year. They need ten more to beat Williams’ 1992-3 record of 24. Can they do it? Probably.