Watch all the behind-the-scenes, and on-track action from my weekend competing in the famous Nurburgring 24 Hours.
Watch all the behind-the-scenes, and on-track action from my weekend competing in the famous Nurburgring 24 Hours.
May has been a good month for us motor racing fans. Not only did we have F1’s Jewel in the Crown- the Monaco Grand Prix- but also the Indy 500, and the Nurburgring 24 hours- which yours truly took part in. Even more hectic was that all three events fell on the same weekend, signifying that summer is properly here.
Lets start with Fernando Alonso and his first ever attempt of the Indianapolis 500. The double world champion has never tried to hide his desire of attempting to win the triple crown of motor racing. What is that I hear you ask? Well it’s an unofficial motorsports achievement of winning the three most prestigious motor races in the world: the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500, and the LeMans 24 hours. Only one driver has ever won it: Graham Hill.
Alonso has won Monaco twice along with his two world titles in ’05 and ’06. This year’s Indy attempt was a serious look at trying to win it in his rookie year. It was only made possible because Mclaren were trying to keep their driver interested in racing with them as this year has proven to be another trying year for the Spaniard. It’s the third year in a row that he has gone racing with no hope of race wins in F1 due to the uncompetitive package Mclaren has produced with their partner, Honda.
Alonso approached the month of May with the usual intensity and professionalism he always brings to his racing and it wasn’t with too much surprise to see him qualify his Mclaren Andretti machine in seventh position.
There were question marks on whether he could race however as oval racing is very different from circuit racing. He blew those concerns out of the water on Sunday by showing a very measured race before his Honda engine failed on lap 179 of 200. He lead for many laps and battled at the front the whole race before his failure. He would definitely have been challenging for the podium and possibly the win if not for his premature exit. Everyone was universally praising his first attempt at the 500 and Alonso said it was one of the best experiences of his life: high praise indeed.
Takuma Sato, who did F1 from 2002 to 2006 managed to win the 500 and he become the first Japanese to ever do it.
Over in Monaco, we saw the first Ferrari win that race since 2001. Sebastian managed to overtake his teammate Kimi Raikkonen during the pit stops, to firmly cement his lead at the top of the driver’s championship table. Championship rival Lewis Hamilton could only recover to seventh after a poor qualifying and was left scratching his head as he found it hard to extract pace from his Mercedes.
I had a couple thoughts from that weekend; firstly I was a little disappointed that Kimi was not able to convert his first pole position in years, to a win. He had done most of the hard work in qualifying and should have taken the win. The team pulled him in early for his one pitstop, and Vettel was able to over-cut him when he pitted a few laps later by recording some quick lap times. However when you are leading the Monaco Grand Prix, you really should be able to dictate what happens. Kimi should have gone for a later stop and if his tyres were going off, my question is: why was that happening? A clever driver knows that it’s impossible to overtake in Monaco and you can drive as slow as you like until you decide to stop. By doing this you conserve tyre life and are able to be quick when you need to be. I don’t think there were team orders in play and it’s simply down to Raikkonen not putting together a whole weekend, which he hasn’t been able to in years.
My second thought was on Hamilton and why he is struggling so much. I get that this year’s Mercedes is tricky to get into the right operating window, but the fact is that his teammate Valtteri Bottas was able to qualify in third, a tenth of pole. If Hamilton had been able to out qualify Bottas, there’s a good chance he would have been on pole and likely won the Monaco GP. It’s not unreasonable to expect him to be the quicker of the Mercedes duo. First it was Russia and now it’s Monaco. Hamilton cannot afford any more poor weekends like that, if he wants to beat Vettel to this year’s title.
The third race that happened on the last week of May was the Nurburgring 24hours. It’s not considered part of the Triple Crown, because frankly it’s not prestigious enough. However as far as driver thrills go, I actually think it’s one of the best, if not the best race around. Here’s why.
The Nurburgring 24hours goes on the old north loop of, as well as on, the grand prix track that makes it 25 kilometres in length. That’s over hundred corners of up and down, and blind bends per lap. In a GT3 car you’re over 260kph seven times a lap, and often over blind crests. We go down hill so much and so fast that in one spot your ears pop every lap. There is no greater driving challenge in the world and if I were in charge, I’d add this to the Triple Crown as another of the greatest races in the world to win.
It’s kind of strange that as we go into the biggest and most glamorous weekend of the F1 calendar a lot of the eyes will be trained away from the Jewel in the Crown of the F1 calendar, to the city of Indianapolis where a certain Fernando Alonso will be racing in the Indy 500 for the very first time.
So let’s talk about Alonso and this particular Super Speedway for a little. We haven’t had a current F1 driver still at his peak do Indy Cars since Nigel Mansell in 1993 and he didn’t do so badly, winning the title in his first year. Could Alonso do that? Could he go to the largest attended race in the world and take the win as a rookie?
He’s certainly with one of the best, if not the best team in the business– Andretti Racing, who have also won the 500 last year with Alexander Rossi. Alonso’s rapid progress since he first stepped into an Indy car over a month ago has given the pundits further confidence that he might win it – in qualifying he put his car fifth on the grid for the race this Sunday.
I remember my first and only race (so far) on a super speedway. It was in Champ Car racing at the the Euro Speedway in Lausitz, Germany in 2003. The experience was completely different from anything I’d done before. You have to build up to it like a street track but at the same time you cannot attack it. On a speedway, you really have to let the car work for you. At those high speeds, trying to make a car do what it doesn’t want to will put you in the wall all the time.
The speed gets you in the beginning too with most of the lap spent above 300kph. You get used to that quite quickly as a driver although I know some who don’t. What does get you is the racing. I only did this kind of race once, but it was one of the most thrilling days of my life. Constantly drafting and being drafted, it makes MotoGp look like a snooze fest.
How did I do in the end? Not so bad, we qualified 13th and were running 7th or something like that when the drive shaft broke not far from the end. I was driving with Dale Coyne Racing and the driver that took pole that weekend and won, was Sebastian Bourdais.
Strangely enough he races for Dale Coyne now and you might have heard about him recently because he’s not doing the race this year after fracturing his pelvis and hip in qualifying. That’s the rub of this race. It is dangerous, a lot more than F1 is currently.
Alonso racing in the 500 is exciting. The biggest piece of news this year for us motorsport fans is seeing whether he can actually win it. McLaren are extremely brave for doing this, because as we saw with Bourdais, it’s not about just column inches, it’s about getting your driver back safely. And in Alonso’s case- so he can do the job he was originally being paid for- which is to drive an F1 car very fast.
As a fan and a member of the press I love that Mclaren are doing this Indy adventure. Especially because I know if I was in their position with the stakes so high I’d not risk it. For their sake I do hope they have success and when I say success I mean that their driver comes back in one piece, motivated and keen. And that they haven’t taken away from their focus, meaning they are at the very least back winning races next year.
Okay so onto Monaco.
It’s the tightest, slowest race of the year and the championship battle is nicely poised with Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) and Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) evenly matched so far.
A lot has been made about the longer wheelbase Mercedes perhaps struggling around the Monaco course compared to the Ferrari’s shorter more nimble wheelbase. There are many trade offs between long and short wheelbases and teams try for the best compromise. A longer wheel base gives the car more stability, especially in fast corners and under braking, while a short wheel base make for a more nimble car, more suitable for short tight corners such as those in Monaco.
However the differences are small- and what would have a far bigger effect- is downforce. Never forget that in a F1 car, downforce is king. From what I saw in Barcelona, Mercedes have plenty of it in hand. They didn’t just out race Ferrari to the win, they were also a lot quicker through the tight twisty third sector of the lap. Their updates worked really well in the slow to medium corners and on that bit of evidence it makes Mercedes favourites over Ferrari this weekend.
The other dark horse for the weekend will be Red Bull. They should have won here last year with Danial Ricciardo and I think they will be a lot more competitive this weekend as well. As always it will come down to qualifying and the good thing about street tracks are that drivers can make the difference. So lets not count out one or two drivers surprising this weekend.
After that eyes will definitely turn to America to see if another F1 driver might just make a difference in another rather big race in the wee hours of Monday morning.
The travelling circus that calls itself ‘Formula One’ is back in Europe this weekend. I know Russia is technically in Europe too, but for the teams, they consider European races to be the ones that can be reached by truck. This means fancy double story transporters outside the back of the pits, and there is more of a homely feel about the weekend.
Barcelona, in Catalonia Spain, hosts round 5 and it is the most used track in Formula One. Over the decades it’s been the place of choice to test at. The good weather year round and the high-speed nature of the track makes it an ideal reference point to gather data to compare progress (or lack of in some cases) in the constantly changing world of race car development. Its relevance is doubly important these days as testing is limited.
It’s an important weekend as it’s usually the first point of the year that teams target to bring big updates for their cars. Firstly, it’s a good reference point to measure progress as we do the pre-season testing there in February, but also because it’s an appropriate time from when they tested for the first time this year.
Time is a resource (or lack of) that teams are acutely aware of in their continuing hunt for more lap time. It would have been almost three months since their 2017 cars furiously blasted around in circles for the first time. That’s just enough time to identify weaknesses, find solutions, and build the fixes to get them onto cars.
This year Barcelona takes on added significance as the brand new regulations means there is a larger scope for improvement as we are still early in the development curve.
So I’m expecting to see lots of new parts and in some cases- like Red Bull- there is so much being changed that they are even referring to their chassis as a “B-spec”. If they have gotten their homework right, we should see a massive improvement from the team based in Milton Keynes- especially as Barcelona is not considered a horsepower track.
However, I think most people’s eyes will be on the two teams leading the way in the drivers and constructors championships- Ferrari and Mercedes. The battle between them is too close to call and a significant step by one of them could be a key factor in deciding this year’s championship. That shows how important this weekend is especially when you consider how early in the season it still is.
Another sub-plot will be the battle of the number two’s in Ferrari and Mercedes. I refer to them as number two’s only because they are behind their teammates in the championship and not because I think them incapable of beating their higher ranked colleagues.
Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari may have not had the results yet, but I do feel he is driving quite well. He just needs to work on bringing his whole weekend together.
Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas however has shown in Russia just how good he is when he won his first ever Formula One race. I hope he can build on that, because it would be exciting to see him join his teammate, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel in a three way fight for the driver’s title. He definitely can’t afford a moment’s rest because Hamilton will be hurting from being so much slower than Bottas in Russia and I expect the Englishman to be back stronger than ever.
The teams arrive at the Russian Grand Prix this weekend after two days of testing in Bahrain. While there were no headline-topping times, the additional Mileage would have allowed the teams to try some new upgrades and setup changes with this weekend in mind. It will also have allowed them a slight pause to take stock of where they are after a frantic first three races and pre-season testing. All of this combined should mean that most if not all will be better prepared for the weekend ahead.
The Russian GP has been held at the resort city of Sochi since its inception in 2014. At 5.8km, the circuit is one of the longest on the calendar and has a nice mixture of corners with some long straights. It’s not too dissimilar from Bahrain actually, although at this time of year it should be a lot cooler. It’s not an abrasive track, which has meant that Pirelli will be brining their ultra soft tyres for this weekend just like they did in Australia.
A Mercedes driver has only ever won it so far with Lewis Hamilton winning the first two races and Nico Rosberg last year. Could we see another team winning this year I wonder? Could perhaps Ferrari break the Mercedes domination here? Key to winning will depend on which team can use the ultra soft tyres best. We saw in Australia that Ferrari won by making better use of the softer rubber at the beginning of the race. This was also borne out in Bahrain too.
What Mercedes will have going for them is that Sochi is very low wearing and easy on the tyres. They would not have been sitting still too, and I’m sure most- if not all of their time during the two-day test- would have been spent doing setup changes to try and get their rear tyres to degrade less on the long runs. Add on the fact that they will be stronger in qualifying and it should be enough to make them slight favourites over Ferrari for the win.
The big question is which of the Silver Arrows for the win? Valtteri Bottas may have taken his first pole position at Bahrain but his performance in the race will have left more questions about whether he has the ability to win on merit over his teammate; Lewis Hamilton. Yes I know that he had problems with tyre pressures in the first stint, but that doesn’t account for his lack of pace for the rest of the race.
Bottas will be desperate to get this rectified for this weekend. It sounds brutal to say this of a driver who has just joined a team, but if he doesn’t start winning right away, he really runs the risk of becoming a no.2 driver within the team. Mercedes have not practiced this in the past (in F1 and in DTM they practice this all the time), but they didn’t have a genuine title rival then. They do now with Ferrari fighting them hard and they do not want their drivers taking points away from each other in their fight against the prancing horse.
If Bottas really wants to be considered a title rival, and be treated as one – especially by his team, then he needs to start wining now. And by now, I mean by this weekend.
Round 2 of the 2017 Formula One season is in Shanghai, China this weekend. It’s a typical purpose built F1 track, unlike Melbourne, which was a street track. This will be the 14th time it’s held the Chinese Grand Prix and it has a nice mixture of fast and slow corners. The 5.451km Hermann Tilke built circuit is reasonably liked by the drivers and is one of the better ones to have been penned by Tilke.
As a permanent track with lots of run off, it has it’s share of longer corners compared to Melbourne. This should mean that the chassis and engine side of things will come into play a bit more, which means the field should be a bit more strung out. The faster corners will suit the cars like Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull, so there will be an even bigger gap between them and the rest.
The high-speed corners- especially turn 12 and 13 with their long radius- will mean it’s going to be especially hard on the neck. The higher g-forces generated by the new generation of cars is proving tough for any of the drivers who have not done enough miles in pre season testing. There is a long back straight to rest up on, but as we know, laps under racing conditions is quite different from testing laps.
With this in mind, Pascal Wehrlein and his team Sauber have decided to bench him for this race too. He and the team still feels he needs to work on his fitness more before jumping back into the seat. While it’s a tough call to make, I still think it’s a smart strategy because it will do him more damage to run around a couple seconds off his teammate– due to him struggling in the car– than to sit out another race.
What may not work so well for Wehrlein is that it gives his replacement, Antonio Giovinazzi, another chance to shine. The Italian impressed everyone in Melbourne and another good showing may convince other teams– if not Sauber– that he may be worth giving a drive to. Who knows, even his employer Ferrari may be interested. Crazier things have happened.
While the field will be more strung out, there are a couple of interesting battles to watch out for. The midfield battle behind Williams looks interesting. I think Haas with Ferrari power looks genuinely strong and it will be interesting to see if they can improve to match Willliams with Mercedes power to win the battle of the B teams.
Just behind them is an almighty battle going on for best of the mid fielders: Torro Rosso, Renault and Force India look very close to each other and it will be worth watching to see who comes out on top there. I’d like to say McLaren would do well to be among them but now we’re at a proper track, I fear they will slip further back into the clutches where Sauber might even be able to challenge them.
However the battle everyone will have his or her eyes on will be the battle at the front. Ferrari look like they have a slight pace advantage over Mercedes and I think we will see that consolidated here in Shanghai– they look confident.
Where they will be looking to improve is on the Saturday. In pre-season testing they rarely did qualifying simulations on the softer compounds and they know they will need to work on this if they want to get both their cars on the front row.
For 2017 we saw some big regulation changes– mostly around the chassis and tyre side. There are bigger wings, floors and tyres, all with the intention of making the cars faster and more dynamic on track. From what I saw at Melbourne, this has definitely worked. The cars are significantly quicker through fast and slow corners. They also look a lot better with the chunky tyres and lower rear wing– the front wing still needs work, but more on that later.
The other purpose of making the cars faster was to also challenge the drivers more. There has been a feeling since 2011– when Pirelli became the sole supplier to F1– that the cars have been too easy to drive with young rookie’s coming into the sport and being quick straight away. Think of Kyvat, Sainz and of course Verstappen (aged 17), who just came in and was explosive from the get go. This despite testing being severely limited during this period.
The early indication is that the cars are indeed a lot tougher to drive, with all the drivers unanimous in their happiness with having cars that challenge them to their physical and mental limits.
This data is also borne out with a number of drivers struggling in Melbourne. The most famous being Pascal Wherlein who made way for Ferrari’s third driver- Antonio Giovinazzi- due to fitness concerns. Wherlein injured his back in January during the race of champions and that set back his training to such a degree that he felt he could not race flat out for the duration of the race. It was a brave decision and I commend him for it. Driving around at the back a couple of seconds off his teammate per lap would not have done his reputation any good. In fact as a Mercedes junior driver that would have damaged him irreparably.
Other drivers to not show well in Australia with the new generation of F1 car were Lance Stroll (Williams), Jolyon Palmer (Renault) and Kevin Magnussen (Haas). It’s still early days for all of them of course, and I do expect them to come good, but it’s telling when you have experienced drivers such as Palmer and Magnussen struggling.
Where the new regulations have not been good is that the field has spread out quite a bit. This is to be expected really because whenever you have such big regulation changes it’s harder for the smaller teams to adapt quickly due to their lack of resources. This is not such a big issue because teams will catch up and the field will close up. Although I do welcome Jean Todt and Ross Brawn’s comments about addressing this inequality. For the sport to really grow we need smaller teams to be able to compete on a more equal footing with the bigger teams.
My biggest bugbear with the new regulations has to be the fact that they have still not addressed the biggest problem with F1 today, and that is the lack of genuine overtaking. In fact they have made it worse by making the front wing bigger than last year, which as we know is very sensitive to dirty air when following the car in front. I’d rather they have made it smaller and tried to generate more frontal down force from the floor, which is not sensitive to dirty air that would allow for more wheel to wheel racing. It’s not really acceptable and F1 really needs to address this next year otherwise the sport will bleed more fans to other forms of racing such as MotoGP, which is currently more exciting.
Thankfully, while the field may have spread out more in 2017, at the front it has closed up big time. For the first time in three years we have a new genuine contender for “fastest f1 car in the world”. Sebastian Vettel’s win in Melbourne for Ferrari was the first time in the new hybrid era that Mercedes was beaten on pure pace. This was a race that involved no accidents or tyre issues (such as Singapore in 2014 and 2015), this was a race that Ferrari (in Vettel’s hands) out raced and out paced them to the chequered flag.
It’s a big deal for the sport to have Ferrari back. It’s genuine and we should be treated to a big battle for the championship this year between Mercedes and Ferrari. And even though Red Bull are a bit further back at the moment, do not discount them getting closer to fight for wins once we get back to Europe. If two teams being close at the top is amazing, having three teams fighting for wins would be like manna from heaven.