There's nothing quite like the confirmation of an open secret, is there? Honda representatives have been bimbling around the MTC for months, and the Japanese car manufacturer is in the process of developing a motorsports facility in Milton Keynes - allegedly for their WTCC efforts - and they've finally made it official.
Honda and McLaren are back together in Formula One as of 2015.
Fanbois, we'll all hang on for a second while you go and carve "H + McL 4eva <3 <3 <3" into the nearest tree. Because itâs inevitable that news of a renewal of one of the most successful partnerships in F1 history is liable to get people rather excited.
But rather than wax lyrical about days gone by, of Senna v Prost and the MP4/4, Iâm going to go out on a limb and say that I hope McLaren-Honda donât turn out to be the dominant force many fans are hoping for.
Now donât get me wrong â I love McLaren. I like their ethos, their history, and their cars. I also really like their cappuccinos. But the last thing I want is to see a return of the days where a single team rules the roost.
I donât care if weâre talking McLarenâs legendary 1988 season (their first with Honda, incidentally), where Senna and Prost won all but one race between them; Sebastian Vettelâs 2011 walkover; or any one of the Schumacher years you could care to mention: knowing the likely winner of a race before the lights go out is no use to anyone.
Honda are being quite clever by holding back until 2015 before joining the new engine fray. Not only have they given themselves extra lead time, but they will have a season in which to âobserveâ the other manufacturersâ innovations before deciding whether or not certain ideas look likely to lead them down blind alleys.
Given that McLaren will now only be using Mercedes power for one year past the spec change, itâs also possible that the brains at Woking are hoping to do a Brawn, finding what advantage they can by spending two years working on their 2015 car while carrying over as many lessons as possible from the 2014 machine.
Itâs a gamble, but one that could pay off. Letâs just hope it doesnât pay off too wellâŠ
Is a mid-season tyre change really the best thing for Formula One right now?
This week, following a Spanish Grand Prix that saw an average of four pit stops per driver, Pirelli announced that they would be revising the F1 tyre range from the Canadian Grand Prix onwards, altering the construction to improve durability and prevent the dramatic delaminations we have seen so far this season.
From a safety point of view, anything that stops tyres going bang mid-race is never a bad thing. But while a number of teams have spent the past five races using the media to launch a campaign against the 2013 rubber, other teams have been getting on with the job of trying to race using the tools theyâve been given.
Lotus have done an excellent job, building a car that â in race trim â is very light on its rubber, while not sacrificing much pace over a single qualifying lap. Force India and Ferrari also have cars that run well in race trim on the original rubber.
Red Bull and Mercedes, on the other hand, have been suffering. Well, Red Bull say theyâve been suffering, but itâs hard to feel all that sorry for a team currently top of both driversâ and constructorsâ standings. Mercedes, on the other hand, really have been having difficulties. The car is quick enough for pole on Saturday, but falls apart in the early laps come Sunday afternoon.
Itâs not much of a stretch to say that the Barcelona race counts among the worst of Lewis Hamiltonâs career, with a front row start leading to a P12 finish thanks to no grip on uncooperative rubber. Team-mate Nico Rosberg finished in the points, but was never in contention for a podium despite starting in P1.
Red Bull and Mercedes have been crying out for new rubber that will allow their drivers to push harder during the races, to demonstrate some of that qualifying pace that has been hidden on Sundays thanks to rapidly degrading tyres. Some fans are beginning to switch off, critical of the impact Pirelli have had on this seasonâs racing, while the tyre manufacturers have themselves admitted they were uncomfortable with the number of pit stops seen in Barcelona.
But by changing the rubber mid-season, those teams whose cars do appear to be working will lose their advantage. And this is a sport based on finding and manipulating the advantages your rivals didnât. Or does the show override the fact that some of the teams made this yearâs rubber work for them?
Further complicating matters is the timing of the change, which comes as many of the smaller-budgeted teams are considering moving more of their focus to their 2014 car. Different rubber will call for more test time for the 2013 cars, something that could end up crippling the championship hopes of a team like Lotus.
It must be rather unsatisfying to be RenaultSportF1 these days. Theyâre the biggest engine supplier in Formula One, and theyâve powered Red Bull to the past three constructorsâ and driversâ titles. But Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull get the bulk of the press for the wins, and the little thatâs left over seems to go to new title sponsor Infiniti.
Sure, Infiniti and Renault are linked through the Renault-Nissan Alliance headed by Carlos Ghosn, but it must gall a little to be such a vital part of the winning car yet claim such a small share of the glory.
But there are no concerns about overshadowing in Renaultâs latest venture, which sees the French manufacturer signed up as the official technical partner of Formula E, with all 42 of the single-make 2014 cars branded Spark-Renault. Renault SAS will be working with Spark Racing Technologies to optimise the Formula E powertrain, taking advantage of Renaultâs experience gleaned from its range of electric road cars.
Renault are not the only F1 brand to get involved in Formula E; it was announced late last year that McLaren would be supplying the championship with engines, transmissions, and electronics.
The involvement of two strong automotive brands, both with long racing pedigrees, is a vote of confidence in Formula Eâs potential. While it is not a racing series likely to appeal to the die-hard petrol head, existing fans of motorsport are far from the target market.
The aim of Formula E is to bring electric racing to city streets, showing likely potential customers of electric vehicles just what their G-Wiz might have been capable of in another life. In the press release announcing their involvement with the championship, Philippe Klein, Renault Groupâs executive VP of corporate planning, product planning and programs, was honest about his companyâs desire to get involved.
âWe believe that motorsport is an efficient manner to promote the efficiency of new technologies,â Klein said, âand weâre eager to use that single-seater in FIA Formula E championship to show our technology is the best.â
With such a strong vote of confidence from a major manufacturer who is already heavily involved in the electric car market, Formula E looks likely to prove its naysayers wrong.
Thereâs nothing like a bit of doom and gloom to get the F1 world all in a lather. In the Barcelona paddock this weekend, one of the bits of gossip doing the rounds was that this would be Formula Oneâs last visit to the Circuit de Catalunya.
On the one hand, the rumour makes sense. Spainâs economy is still in freefall, and the evidence of the financial crisis was writ large across the grandstands, which were far emptier than is normal for Fernando Alonsoâs home race. Even Pelouse â the general admission area â saw large swathes of vacant grass where once hordes of fans stood, waving blue Renault flags while wearing red Ferrari tops.
Not that the official crowd figures bear any relation to the evidence of our own eyeballs â apparently 30,000 more people attended the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix weekend than the 2012 edition.
And who can blame the Spanish for choosing to stay away? Unemployment figures hover around 25% nationwide, while youth unemployment continues to hover around the 50% mark.
National debt is currently running so high that they should probably start thinking about inventing a new number to describe it, and regional debt â which is counted separately in Spain, thanks to the system of autonomous provinces, or communitats â is also at sky-high levels. Catalunyaâs debts exceed $55 billion, and that is without taking their share of the national debt into account.
So looking at the Spanish Grand Prix as little more than a numbers game, it is easy to see why the paddock rumour mill is talking about a farewell to Catalunya. But thereâs a teensy-weensy problem with the theoryâŠ
The Circuit de Catalunya has a valid contract to host the race until 2016, and they are not currently in breach of that contract with the commercial rights holder.
Sure, weâve heard renewed chatter about an alternation deal with Valencia this weekend, but thatâs not going to happen. The infrastructure there has been stripped out by the locals, and the public purse is in very bad shape. Valencia has earned the reputation as the province that is home to the bulk of Spainâs white elephants, boom time ideas built when credit was plentiful, and empty ever since. The locals are angry, and theyâd rather have schools and hospitals than a motor race.
Any chatter about a renewed alternation deal will be yet another negotiating tactic aimed at making sure that Catalunya continue to pony up the goods until the end of their contract, and not a genuine proposal at keeping F1 at two different sites in Spain.
No one likes it when people in Formula One complain about their lot. After all, we live in a rarefied world of champagne and first-class travel, five-star hotels and Michelin dining. Or something.
And while the reality of life in F1 might be very different to the perception, thereâs still no denying that it beats sitting in the same office from 9-5, Monday to Friday. So I get it when people donât like to hear the downsides.
Itâs even worse for the drivers. Twenty-two men who have been blessed with a life that involves sizeable pay packets, model girlfriends, and genuine first-class travel and five star hotels arenât allowed to have bad days, bad weeks, or bad seasons. Because theyâre racing drivers, therefore their lives are charmed from dawn to dusk.
In reality, however, drivers have a tough time of it. Theyâre here to race cars â they feel they were put on this earth to race cars â but their days are filled with sponsorship commitments, media sessions, and all of the other non-racing tasks that make up a life in motorsport. Theyâre sent to bed early to prepare for the next dayâs running, which gives them hours in which to think about their good laps, their bad laps, and all of their press before they kick the jetlag and enter the land of nod.
As a journalist, it is my responsibility to report on the events of a race weekend. And that means that when a driver has a bad day, it is my job to write about it. But it is not my job to write hatchet pieces, to use my platforms as an opportunity to be vicious or scathing. Striking the balance is a fine art, and one I hope I get right most of the time.
Because the one thing it can be hard to get across to readers is the simple fact that â a lot of the time â the F1 media doesnât really know whatâs going on. Sure, we have contacts within the teams who can give us a bit of insight when it comes to strategy or run plans. And we have the information carefully curated by the team PRs, who make sure we know what they want us to know.
But weâre not in the garages, at the briefings, or sitting on the pit wall. We can see a driver appear to struggle on track, to be dramatically slower than his team-mate, and we question his talent, his place in the paddock. What we donât always know is why these struggles are happening. Differences in performance are not always down to a simple equation involving talent and experience.
The colloquial expression says that to assume makes an ass out of you and me. But in print, to assume can damage â even kill â a career. When drivers are pilloried in the press on a regular basis, it affects their confidence, which harms their performance further still. But if a driver dares to complain about their bad press, whether or not itâs justified, theyâre seen as an ingrate, or up themselves, or out of touch with reality.
Perhaps we should all just take a step back and give the drivers room to grow â which includes giving them room to screw up on occasion â without calling for their heads on a plate. Anyone want to complain about that?
Thereâs no denying that the maiden US Grand Prix in Austin was a roaring success â the event ran more smoothly than expected for a debut outing, fans were treated to an excellent example of F1 racing at its finest, and Travis County picked up income from the influx of fans and personnel who travelled to the race.
This week the state of Texas has released a financial impact study on the Austin race, and their findings are pretty impressive: three-day attendance was 265,499 (3rd highest of the season); race day attendance was 117,429 (2nd highest of the season); and the GP earned Austin brand exposure valued at $150,933,991.
But what interested me in the report was the social impact of the Austin Grand Prix.
In the run-up to the race, critics of F1âs imminent arrival filled internet fora and comment sections of local newspapers with (incorrect) complaints that the state of Texas was forking out hundreds of millions of dollars for a sport characterised as being made up of Gucci-clad Eurotrash, billionaires who had no need of public funding.
Their argument was that Formula One was a wasteful exercise, that it was shameful to spend state millions on motorsport when public servants were undergoing pay freezes, teachers were being made redundant, and the pension pot was shrinking. Several commenters cited an increase in the number of Americans reliant on food banks since the Great Financial Crisis.
It was an emotive â if ill-informed â argument.
So I hope that those commenters have since reflected on their instant F1 antipathy, and that they too have taken the time to read the full financial impact study. After the race, the Circuit of the Americas donated 4.7 tonnes of unsold food to Austinâs Capital Area Food Bank. It may be small beans in the grander scheme of human suffering, but it was a stand-out example of Austinâs thoughtful approach to race management.
The post-event report makes for fascinating reading for those interested in the planning and organisation that goes into an event of this magnitude, and serves to emphasise the importance of planning and preparation. In most instances, the worst-case scenarios that had been planned for never transpired.
There were a couple of odd bits in the report, thoughâŠ Despite an increase in call volume to the emergency services, and an increase in the number of crimes, response time improved and the number of incidents over the race weekend was identical to that the weekend before. Anyone out there get how that works?
One of my least favourite parts of an F1 weekend is the first half hour of FP1, that aeon of time on a Friday morning that sees TV cameras trained on an empty circuit as teams conserve their rubber for the weekend ahead.
The decision not to run is logical, but itâs hardly the best advert for Formula One. Come, watch our show! We can offer you a handful of outlaps and then thirty to forty minutes of absolutely nothing at all! We promise it will get more interesting in a bit.
So it is excellent news that all teams will now be furnished with an extra set of tyres for use on Friday mornings. The original idea â which I think was better â saw an extra set of tyres being allocated to those teams choosing to run a young or test driver on a Friday morning, but the teams werenât overly keen.
You might think that the teams would be all over an idea that gave additional testing and development time to upcoming talent, as from the outside it looks like a great way to ease youngsters into a race drive by giving them time to learn the car in a relatively low-pressure environment. With experience comes confidence, after all.
But when the subject was raised the team principalsâ press conference in Bahrain, representatives from the front-running teams objected, saying that fans would rather see the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, and Fernando Alonso, and not emerging talents they might never have heard of. While thatâs certainly a possibility, any fan keen enough to be trackside on a Friday morning is probably keen enough that they wouldnât mind watching the youngsters in the morning and the stars in the afternoon.
Another divisive issue was the definition of a young driver â could McLaren put the likes of Gary Paffett in the car, given his years of experience as the teamâs tester, or would they only get the tyres if they ran Kevin Magnussen, say?
In an uncompetitive arena, it wouldnât be an issue. The teams would be focussed on ensuring the longevity of the sport that they would be dedicated to giving young talent adequate room to develop, running young drivers every Friday morning.
But in a competitive environment with so much money involved the teams seize upon every advantage they can find. Those with a reasonable shot of the championship canât afford to run young drivers at the expense of bedding in their title contenders, even if such prioritizing is damaging in the long-term.
In an era of cost-cutting, these extra tyres are an inexpensive solution to the lack of time spent testing, even if all they will lead to is a full ninety minutes of track action on a Friday morning. But it would have been an equally cheap and effective way to give experience to those who need it most â the next generation of F1 stars â and itâs a shame that the opportunity was missed.
Teams and the FIA are currently debating the best way to run 2014âs pre-season tests with a view to ensuring that the engine spec change doesnât lead to all sorts of chaos at the early races.
After years of relative stability thanks to a development freeze that had rendered F1 engines roughly equal and mostly bulletproof, 2014 will be uncharted waters. And with a limited amount of track testing time available to the teams thanks to cost-cutting agreements, there is some concern that unless provisions are made for an extra winter test, the first part of the season could see a lot of failures.
One element of the forthcoming engine spec change that doesnât get a lot of attention is that of the engineâs shelf-life. Weâve become accustomed to seeing drivers restricted to eight penalty-free engines per season. As of 2014, that figure drops to five. Yup â just as an unknown element is being introduced into the sport, so too is it expected to be significantly more durable than its predecessor.
On the one hand, given the FIAâs aim to make Formula One more relevant to car manufacturers, setting significantly increased durability targets while not limiting the power by much makes sense. But on the other hand, I think weâre going to see a lot of penalties for unscheduled engine changes next year.
By introducing a late January test with a view to allowing teams to bed in their engines, to run for lap after lap so that they can establish just how many miles each element can do before showing signs of wear and tear, the FIA will better equip the teams with the data needed to plan out their 2014 engine allocation, to manage their meagre allotment.
After all, thereâs only so much that can be done on a dyno. Sometimes you need to run something into the ground in conditions as close to the real thing as possible.
Itâs hard to know what the deal is with the New Jersey Grand Prix. Thereâs definitely construction work underway, so it looks like the race is on for 2014. But thereâs increasing chatter about a race in Long Beach, and that kind of talk is often Bernie Ecclestone putting pressure on promoters.
While it would be fantastic to have three races in the States, one on each coast and one in Austin, it seems odd to be planning three races â admittedly geographically more far-flung than any European trio you could mention â on the same continent where F1 is a niche interest at best.
Sure, Long Beach has history. And yes, the IndyCar contract is up for renewal, meaning the opportunity exists. Bernie admits to having spoken to Long Beach Grand Prix, but Bernie speaks to everyone. Few conversations turn into races. Even fewer make the papers.
But when pressure needs to be applied to a promoter who is not on schedule paying his bills, or readying the track, talk of negotiations with other venues hits the headlines. In March, New Jersey race promoter Leo Hindery told Sports Business Daily that everything was back on track following the receipt of some missing consents.
Ecclestone was dismissive at the time, saying that Hinderyâs problems were financial.
Given that there has been little communication from the promoters since March â the website is both annoying to find and bereft of content â it looks like Bernieâs public pressure might be necessary.
Whatever financial matters may or may not lie unresolved between the commercial rights holder and the New Jersey race promoters, there is no denying that a little more information wouldnât hurt. Where the COTA race organisers were regularly releasing photos of construction work in progress, and time-lapse film of the circuitâs development, itâs hard to find any recent progress reports from Port Imperial.
A little self-promotion would go a long wayâŠ
Talk of floating Formula One on the Singapore stock market has started to gather pace again, with Bernie Ecclestone telling Reuters that the plan was to see a flotation by the end of 2013.
âItâs not been confirmed yet, but provided the markets are sensible, that is what is going to happen,â he said. âLast year, I thought it was the wrong time. Things are looking more positive generally.â
But the notion of floating Formula One is an odd one. While itâs an obvious exit strategy for CVC Capital Partners, who have held on to their F1 investment for longer than is typical of their portfolio, a public flotation doesnât make sense for the labyrinth of holding companies that make up a sizeable slice of the F1 pie.
Shareholders and stock markets require a certain level of transparency with regard to financial documents and corporate structures, and itâs a level of transparency rather less opaque than that weâre accustomed to seeing in F1.
Nevertheless, moves are being made towards a flotation that werenât underway at the same stage in proceedings last year. A new company has been formed, CVC Delta Topco Nominee, which the Daily Telegraph say âis understood to be part of a reorganisation of the F1 company structure in preparation for the flotation.â
And thereâs no argument with the fact that the markets are performing better at the moment, with investments on the increase as investor confidence returns. If the paperwork can be put in place, then the F1 IPO will be sailing surer seas than it would have done last autumn.
But there are still some obstacles in Bernieâs path, one of which is the as-yet-unsigned Concorde Agreement. A cynic might say that it is because of the forthcoming flotation that the F1 boss has made so much of his commercial agreements with the top ten teams, and his Mosley-era agreement that teams outside the top ten need not have an agreement in place.
After all, if thereâs no need for a commercial agreement with Marussia, the lack of an agreement doesnât indicate possible future problems, issues that might create a less than stable environment for investors and their cash.
|Kate Walker is the editor of GP Week magazine and a freelance contributor to ESPN. A member of the F1 travelling circus since 2010, her unique approach to Formula One coverage has been described as 'a collection of culinary reviews and food pictures from exotic locales that just happen to be playing host to a grand prix'.|