Monday, December 10, 2007

Alonso returns to Renault

So my last post has been answered... Alonso has moved back to Renault. But what will this mean...

... for 2009

Alonso is unlikely to have a contract at Ferrari for 2009 and if he does it's by no means bullet-proof. If the Ferrari contract does exist it is likely that the new Renault contract is largely condition based ie: he may have an option to leave if Renault under-perform but otherwise he's stuck. Briatore would never agree to Alonso taking a simple one year tenancy and then handing him over to the Scuderia.

... for the Renault team

The introduction of Nelson Piquet Jnr is also quite telling. This, I should imagine, was a bargaining tool to get Alonso in on a small(ish) wage package. By putting a rookie in the number 2 car Alonso can dominate the team. Now I know your thinking that Hamilton was a rookie and that Piquet only finished 12 points adrift of him in the 2006 GP2 championship blah blah blah... but this is entirely different. Alonso is Mr Renault - the team loves him as he's a proven winner, he can get a great set-up with the mechanics, and Briatore has no qualms about running Alonso as a clear number 1 - especially over a rookie. Alonso will get preferential treatment over Piquet.

... for Heikki Kovalainen

Well possibly a McLaren drive. Yet De la Rosa is a serious contender for the McLaren seat as he would allow the team to focus on Hamilton and keep the Spanish sponsors happy. To me the move to oust Kovalainen was a bargaining tool for Renault to lure Alonso back. By dropping Heikki they eliminate any immediate challenge from an established team-mate (something Alonso genuinely fears) and can more easily exercise team tactics over a very grateful Piquet (making Alonso number 1). I desperately hope Kovalainen can secure the McLaren seat and after his performances toward the end of last season he certainly deserves it.

... for the WMSC decision and the sport as a whole

Both Alonso and Renault were waiting for the World Motorsport Council's (WMSC) verdict before confirming a decision. It seems as though Renault weren't entirely ready to commit to their future in F1 without knowing that their bank balance would go untouched by the FIA. I think Renault would have pulled the plug if they were handed a McLaren sized fine and what's most worrying is that I think the WMSC knew that and acted accordingly. Essentially the FIA set a precedent that it could not maintain and that is a very dangerous thing for any governing body to do.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Decision Time

I'm starting to get a little bit tired of waiting for Alonso to make his mind up. He needs to stay in F1 to learn about losing traction control and lick his wounds from 2007 but, at the same time, a likely Ferrari contract in 2009 means he doesn't want to go anywhere for the long haul. And what's more his options are narrowing:

Ferrari out (at least till 2009)
McLaren out (obviously)
BMW out (can't see it)
Red Bull out
Williams out (never had the funding)
It's not worth mentioning the bottom three.
So who's left?

Toyota have allegedly offered Fernando $56 million for 2008 but the very fact that we know that suggests they are being used as pawn to push Alonso into the Raikkonen price bracket. Timo Glock has signed as a race driver and Trulli is waiting to see if he will be usurped. But does Alonso want to risk taking on another promising rookie? Number 1 status would probably be assured but driving an uncompetitive car (assuming Toyota remain the perennial underachievers) may take its toll.

Renault don't want Alonso just for the short term. The fact he hasn't already resigned seems to me to prove that they can't figure out two fairly major parts of the contract: Wage and length. I have to say it's looking less and less likely. Renault want Alonso but not for one year and not at the cost of $56 million. Fisichella (although he has gone testing at Force India and is probably out), Kovalianen and Piquet are all on the Renault books, all good drivers and the latter two have the potential to be great given time. Add to this the recent spy scandal and you have to wonder if Renault, a manufacturer long sceptical about the value of a F1 project, will be able to afford Alonso or in in the worst case (read McLaren case) scenario be able to afford F1.

So that leaves Honda and to be honest that would make perfect sense for Alonso. When you look at the above Alonso's position is by no means rosy for 2008 and the chances are he'll be at Ferrari in 2009 so all he needs a big pay packet and a get out clause in a year. Both of which Honda can offer. Given Ross Brawn's new position at Honda and the ban on traction control the future may even be quite bright for the Japanese mega-marque. Honda can only improve and now that their windtunnel is correctly calibrated (unlike last year) I fully expect them to. Aero was the main problem for Honda in 2007, their mechanical grip, gearbox and engine were in fact all very, very good. In slow corners Honda recorded some of the highest speeds their solid, if not spectacular, performance at Monaco is testament to that. All of which bodes well for the loss of TC that will ultimately only effect low downforce corners. By the end of the season I would not be surprised to see them competing against the likes of Renault and Toyota.

So if Alonso wants a year learning about how to live without TC I can think of much worse places to go than Honda especially with super-smooth Jenson Button in the garage next door. And if the Ferrari contract does fall through (or worse doesn't exist) Honda, in a year's time, have the potential to be sitting very pretty indeed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

We Have a Winner

Kimi Raikkonen has taken the 2007 Formula 1 World Drivers Championship and I can't think of a more deserving winner.

I've long been a fan of Raikkonen, his effortless yet devastatingly fast style, his unflappable calmness under pressure, and most of all his constant middle finger to the F1 establishment. It's often said that he is monosyllabic, dull and lacking charisma but nothing is further from the truth. The most telling example of Kimi's lively character in recent years was his response to Martin Brundle on the grid of the 2006 Brazilian Grand Prix. Now it might not seem like much, maybe slightly immature, but in F1s current world of PR domination such comments are like gold dust. The truth is he really couldn't give two shits as to what anybody thinks.

And it is this somewhat callous attitude to Formula 1 that stands Kimi in such good stead. Talking about his chances of winning the championship after qualifying in Brazil Kimi simply said "I am confident that I will be able to keep my chances alive right to the end." compare this to Alonso who said "Unfortunately, one of the possibilities to win the championship was to win the race. Now, it's unlikely to happen." The difference is clear. Alonso had resigned himself to losing but Raikonnen gave a stock answer but an optimistic one none the less. Raikkonen doesn't get involved in team politics, he just shuts up and drives.

Qualifying in Brazil was a perfect example. Hamilton had got in Raikkonen's way during the Finn's final flying lap and probably caused Kimi up to 3 tenths in the second sector. Yet there wasn't so much as an utter of appeal from Raikkonen. Hamilton even admitted, after a grilling from a French journalist, that he had apologised to Kimi - essentially admitting his guilt. Any response from Kimi? None at all. When you consider what a fuss Massa and Ferrari made of Alonso's actions in Monza last year you realise quite how easy Lewis got off. Instead Raikkonen rolled up to P3 on the grid, made the start of the season and put Hamilton in a position that he couldn't recover from. It was probably some of the most aggressive defensive driving all year. Yet it was incredibly subtle and devastatingly effective. When you can do that on the track then there is no need to go crying to the stewards when another car gets in the way on a flyer.

I've been reading a lot about James Hunt recently, and I know the comparison has been made before (not least by Kimi himself), but the two really are alike. The stories of wild nights, dressing as gorillas and general laddish behaviour are attributed to both. What's more when James Hunt was at his prime (circa 1976) he would be equally obnoxious towards the press and just as rapid on the track. I'm looking forward to the moment when Kimi turns up wearing a overalls emblaoned with "Sex, a Champions Breakfast" ... probably wishful thinking.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Fernando Alonso

It's Hard Being a Double World Champion

At the time of writing Fernando Alonso is the only World Champion in Formula 1. With that comes certain pressures, certain expectations and certain stresses. And at McLaren these factors have been amplified tenfold by a certain Lewis Hamilton. So difficult has the situation at McLaren become, that right now the only World Champion in F1 has no certain future. But how did it come to this? How did the laid back, quiet and superquick Spaniard, end up as a hate figure ousted by his own team?

Cast your mind back to 20th December 2005. News broke that Ron Dennis had snapped up the recently crowned World Champion to drive for McLaren. An incredible story, genius on Ron's part, but why had Alonso turned his back on Renault and more importantly on his manager and mentor, Flavio Briatore? At the time it was actually a no-brainer from Fernando's perspective. Renault's F1 future was looking decidedly shaky and Alonso's stock was high (much higher than his Renault pay-cheque would suggest), McLaren had just signed a deal with Vodafone to enter the new non-tobacco F1 world in a very comfortable position, and what's more McLaren had produced the fastest car of 2005. The decision was easy, even if it meant betraying Flavio (something Alonso is lucky not to have to regret). The short of it is that in December 2005 the future looked bright for Fernando.

Come the end of 2006 and the decision looked a little more dubious. McLaren had endured a torrid season struggling to come to terms with changing tyre and engine regulations. However, it wasn't as bad as it seemed. Both Raikkonen and Montoya had left the team thus paving the way for Alonso to take up the number 1 post. Now, this is important Alonso was coming to a new team where there was no obvious rival, in his mind he was number 1. Potential team-mates were Pedro de la Rosa, Lewis Hamilton and possibly Mika Hakkinen. On the 24th November 2006 the speculation ended as Lewis Hamilton was confirmed McLaren's '2nd driver'. From Alonso's perspective that was fine, a rookie team-mate - no problem. The team was his and with some hard work over the winter McLaren had every chance of being competitive in 2007.

And so we finally reach 2007 and everything was set up for Fernando to succeed at McLaren. Two races in and on the surface it looked like the potential was being fulfilled, 2nd place in Australia and 1st in Malaysia. But dig a little deeper and it was clear that all was not right. From the Spaniard's perspective his start to the season should have cemented his role as number one at McLaren yet all the buzz remained around his younger team-mate. The team was offering equal support to both drivers but with all the Hamilton hype it was easy to look past the achievements of Fernando. And when those achievements are analysed they were really rather incredible.

The McLaren MP4-22 is a car far removed from the Renault R26 Alonso had become at one with the year before. The weight distribution and centre of aero pressure on the McLaren is forward biased essentially the opposite to what Alonso was used to at Renault. This posed some major problems for Fernando who had become accustomed to inducing a huge amount of understeer in the Renault when approaching mid-speed and slower corners. The rearward biased R26 would dutifully comply waiting for the Michellins to load up before rocketing towards the apex allowing Alonso to get back on the power early with minimum oversteer or need for correction. This simply didn't work in the McLaren. Alonso was constantly struggling with front tyre graining in the first half of the season, the McLaren shod Bridgestones simply couldn't cope with Alonso's aggressive style. The 2007 Bridgestones require a softer touch, a more delicate turn in and essentially a car with forward bias in weight and aero pressure. Renault's struggle this year is testimony to that fact.

Something had to give and McLaren weren't about to change their car dynamics to suit Alonso's style. The previous year Montoya had complained about the McLaren's handling characteristics and demanded a new development path - the result was messy and McLaren lost all sense of direction. Instead Alonso had to change and that was cause for contention. As early as Bahrain Ron Dennis was having to mollycoddle his new driver into settling in at McLaren. The first sign was when Dennis and Fernando sat open to the world's press in the middle of the Bahrain Paddock deep in conversation. This was of course a meticulously staged piece 'Ronspeak'. The objective was to present an image of solidarity and openness between driver and team, the reality was much more sinister.

Fernando wasn't entirely at home in the MP4-22 and the publicity surrounding Hamilton was worrying him that he might not get the vital support he needed from the team. The subsequent 5th place in Bahrain was the proof in the pudding. The frustration levels rose for Fernando and mistakes began to appear. The first corner at Spain was the earliest on track sign that Alonso was starting to crack. It was these early trials and disappointments that created the problems that eventually snowballed into the Alonso we have today. The first five races or so with McLaren were the foundations for Alonso's season - they set the tone. At first glance everything seemed fine, two wins in Malaysia and Monte Carlo and a share in the championship lead. Look closer though and the foundations weren't set on solid ground. The relationship is now falling like a house of cards leaving both Alonso and McLaren in a very awkward position.

Yet what is remarkable is Alonso's ability to come throiugh all this and remain on track for a third consecutive title. Sure he's been overly paranoid and at times made major errors of judgement but he's also achieved more this year than any other driver on the grid. Alonso's driving has been sensational. In the past two years he's been super quick by developing the aforementioned driving style, but this year that's all gone out the window and he's still super quick. Alonso has completely changed his driving style to accomodate the new car and tyres - to be frank his achievements have been miraculous. Contrast the steering inputs of 2005 - to his more recent efforts - It's unrecognisable and still he's been stupidly fast. Add to that the tension he's endured at the team and that, essentially, he has done it all by himself. Raikkonen has had similar problems this season but now Ferrari has found a set-up to suit him - Ferrari have supported him. Alonso hasn't had the same support yet he is getting the same results. It's incredible.

Now that's not to say Alonso has done it the right way. To go the Raikkonen route and work with the team (something that is not attributed to Raikkonen very often - and unfairly so) would have made more sense. But it hasn't been that easy for Alonso and McLaren as we know. Instead he has relied on sheer dertermination and effort. The result is sensational self-improvement, uncomaparble with any other driver this year. To put it simply, asking a racing driver to change the way they approach a corner is the same as asking Simon Cowell to lower his waistline - it ain't gonna happen until he gets desperate. Alonso's ability to redress his style then is quite remarkable, espiecially as he's done it in such a hostile environment and to such magnificent effect.

So, that brings us to Interlagos. Can Alonso do it? Well it all rests on what Hamilton doesn't do. If Hamilton doesn't finish in the top three you can guarantee Alonso will be doing everything he can to win. What's more Alonso has nothin to lose. If we have a repeat of the Eau Rouge incident in the Interlagos's Senna S you can gaurantee Alonso won't lift. That is for certain.

The Showdown in Sao Paolo

The 2007 season has not been easy. It's been a veritable soap opera of sensationalism, suspense and stupidity. One's attention has been drawn away from the track more often than the sport might desire - but it's nothing new and what's more it's captivated a whole new audience. Essentially this means come October 21st eyes from every corner of the globe will be trained on Sao Paolo, lets hope F1 doesn't disappoint.

I don't have the will to go into the 'off track' background of the 2007 season at the moment (I'm saving that for a more reflective piece at the end of the season). Instead I'm going to focus on the three men that make up the championship chase: Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen. The intention is to analyse each, looking at, character, driving style and how they've arrived at a position to challenge for the 2007 Drivers Championship. Ultimately rating their chances at Interlagos.

Foe no particular reason I'll start with Alonso...


I understand that if you're reading this blog you a) probably love F1 but don't care what I feel about it b) probably don't care about F1 but was wanting to know how I feel, or c) clicked on the wrong link. Well I'm sorry to disappoint, but in the off chance you are interested in my opinion on F1 please read on and enjoy - your comment is strongly encouraged.

I also realise that starting a blog on F1 at the end of the greatest season this millennium is also not ideal. But I can assure you that this isn't just a result of the Hamilton love-in of recent months. I've long been a fan of the sport and now that I'm a training journalist I've been encouraged to vent my opinions through this medium. Anyhow, whilst the timing is not ideal I do intend to maintain this blog through the closed (testing) season when many people's interest wanes somewhat.

My Aim:
The name of the blog should be a giveaway that, as yet, I have very few contacts or sources from the closely private world of F1. This means that I am unlikely to break news but rather comment on it. I intend to take news stories and offer comment that is original or, at least, an amalgamation of views I agree with. It will be my opinion but one that is wide open to criticism - I would prefer this to be an open platform on which I can shape my views rather than an autocratic rant. Oh, and if I ever make it into Bernie's kingdom I will try and maintain this blog as best I can offering deeper insight - although the name may have to change.

That's the groundwork done. If you've read this much I thank you and hope to offer up my first post proper later this afternoon. It should be of more interest.