Formula One in 2015

The start of the 2015 F1 season might two months away, but there is still plenty to discuss in the offseason.  Most of the driver lineups have been announced.  The 2015 calendar has been finalized.  Testing dates are all set.  The next big event will be the car reveals.  A list can be found on the SkySports website.

Currently, only Force India has set a date for their car reveal.  The rest of the teams should announce theirs pretty soon.  The first test in Jerez, Spain, begins on February 1.  I expect most of the teams to be there, although there is still some doubt over whether or not Caterham and Marussia, now known as Manor F1, will be racing this season.  In the long term, I worry about the longevity of some of the independent teams.  Formula 1 is unbelievably expensive.  The divide between the top spenders and the back markers is only growing.  Cost cutting policies don’t seem to be working.

Sauber had their worst season ever. The team has two new drivers who have some backing.  Hopefully these improved funds will help the team in 2015.

Lotus struggled as well, but their more experienced drivers lineup helped drag an uncompetitive car into the points on a few occasions.  The 2015 Lotus will be Mercedes powered, which at the very least should improve straight line speed.

If any team can show how quickly fortunes change, it’s Williams.  Their 2013 campaign was their worst since their first full season in 1978.  They scored a total of five points and finished in ninth place, just ahead of the back markers of Marussia and Caterham.

In 2014, the team finished third in the constructor’s championship, with one pole position and nine podiums.  The team finished 104 points ahead of Ferrari, the team Felipe Massa left at the end of 2013.  He must feel pretty good about finishing ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, the man who replaced him at Ferrari.

The are some major driver changes for 2015.  Most notably was the news that Sebastian Vettel would be leaving Red Bull to replace Fernando Alonso at Ferrari.

This was huge.  Red Bull backed Vettel all through the junior categories.  His first full time F1 drive was at Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s junior team.  Vettel won four championships in four years from 2010 through 2013 in a Red Bull car, finishing second in the championship in 2009.  Leaving the team couldn’t have been an easy decision.

He’s going to Ferrari to pair up with Raikkonen.  Ferrari’s 2014 car was a complete dog.  Alonso only managed two podiums, while Raikkonen never finished higher than fourth, obviously struggling with the handling of the car.  This was the first season since 1993 that Ferrari failed to score at least one race win.  The team finished fourth in the constructor’s championship, ahead of McLaren, another great team that seems to have lost their way.

Many people have asked why Vettel would leave the comfort of Red Bull.  He has 38 race wins and four world championships with the team, plus his first race win in 2008 at Monza in a Toro Rosso.  Yes, 2014 wasn’t the best year for him, but Red Bull still seems like a better choice than a struggling Ferrari.

I think for Vettel the lure of Ferrari was just too much to pass up.  This is the oldest, winningest team in F1.  Vettel’s idol, Michael Schumacher won five titles with the team.  Some of the greatest drivers of all time have worn red overalls.  The idea of a new challenge, the privilege of racing for Ferrari and teaming up with Raikkonen, one of Vettel’s closest friends, had to be very appealing.

Some people have speculated that Vettel left because he was beaten in 2014 by Daniel Ricciardo.  I don’t think that’s it at all.  Vettel showed a maturity that seemed to be missing during his years partnering Mark Webber.  He never showed and resentment or frustration with Ricciardo and praised him on many occasions.  The two, at least by all outward appearances, seemed to be the best of teammates: competitive, yet complementary.

There were some major changes in staff this season at Red Bull.  Adrian Newey, arguably the one greatest designers in the history of F1, announced his role within the team would be greatly reduced.  His protege, Peter Prodromou, was poached by McLaren last year, returning to a team he left in 2006.  The team’s 2014 car was well off the pace of the Mercedes cars.  This has a lot to do with the Renault engines, but with their chief designer gone, there is uncertainty whether or not the team can get back to their winning ways.

Alonso is back at McLaren, a team he left after a single season in 2007.  He left the team on less than friendly terms.  Alonso had expected to be the de facto number one.  Instead the team gave equal preference to both drivers.  Alonso’s teammate was the young rookie Lewis Hamilton.  The two were tied on points at the end of the season, but Hamilton’s better finishes meant he finished second in the championship, ahead of Alonso.  There was also the whole espionage controversy.

Although that season was seven years gone, it still surprised many to see Alonso move back to McLaren.  Once it was announced that he was leaving Ferrari, he move to McLaren became F1’s worst kept secret..  The only question was who was going to lose their seat to make room for Alonso: Jenson Button or Kevin Magnussen

Button, one of the most experienced drivers ever in F1, was the 2009 world champion and could be relied on to deliver solid performances as well as solid advice on how to develop the car.  His age is a major factor, though.  He is currently the oldest driver in the sport, and it is unclear how many more years in F1 he’s got in him.

Magnussen, just coming off his rookie season, has a lot going for him.  He’s young, which means he is much more of a long term solution for McLaren.  He’s also been groomed by McLaren for years, much the same way Lewis Hamilton was during his years in the junior categories.  Magnussen though, not surprisingly, was never as quick or as consistent as Button, but, as a rookie, no one expected him to be.

So it came down to experience versus longevity.  This couldn’t have been an easy choice for the team.  Reports say that there was disagreement among the board members, which led to a prolonged wait in the team announcing their 2015 lineup.  In the end the team chose Button, giving them a driver pairing with a combined 501 race starts, 147 podiums, 30 pole positions, 29 fastest laps, 47 wins and three world championships.  Based on stats, McLaren has one of strongest driver pairings in the history of Formula 1.

I believe there are three factors that led to Button retaining his seat.

First off, it has become clear that Alonso preferred to be paired with Button.  The two had previously worked together at Benetton in the early 2000s.  They are friends off the track and McLaren needs stability within the team.  There have been a lot of staff changes in the past year or so.  Having teammates who can’t work together would only further drag the team down.

Secondly, Button soundly beat Magnusson over the course of the season.  McLaren was coming off one of their worst seasons in their history.  Despite being the most reliable car on the grid, with 36 finishes out of a possible 38, the team finished fifth in the constructors.  Button’s results show that his talent hasn’t yet expired.

Finally, and in my opinion most importantly, Honda is coming back into the sport as an engine supplier.  In 2015, McLaren will be there sole customer.  That essentially makes the team the works Honda team.  Button raced for Honda from 2006 to 2008.  Before that he raced for BAR, a team that Honda had a 45 percent stake in.  At the end of 2005, Honda purchased the remaining 55 percent.  Button’s relationship with Honda and the fact that he has a huge following in Japan were major contributing factors.  It’s also believed that Button was Honda’s choice for the drive.

The biggest question for McLaren is how the new Honda power unit will perform.  They’ve had a full season to observe the other teams hybrid power units performed, most importantly Mercedes.  Just this past week though, the teams seemed to have found a loophole in the regulations allowing Mercedes, Renault, and Ferrari to further develop their engines.  Because Honda didn’t compete in 2014, their engine can’t be be changed once it’s homologated.  Expect further news as this situation develops.

I’m looking forward to 2015.  I want to see how Vettel and Alonso perform in their new environments.  I want to see if Hamilton can defend his championship.  I want to see how well Honda’s power unit works.  I want to see if Caterham and Manor make it to the grid.  Mostly, I just want to see some racing.

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Top 10 Favorite Formula 1 Circuits

These are my top 10 favorite Formula 1 circuits. First off, I want to point out that I’ve only been watching the sport since 2009, so I didn’t include any circuits that have not held races since then, like Imola or Paul Ricard for example.

If this goes well, I might create another map featuring non-F1 tracks like Le Mans or Laguna Seca.

Also, this is my personal list. Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments.

1. Suzuka Circuit
Home of the Japanese Grand Prix.  This used to be the final race of the season leading to some epic showdowns.  The most famous are the title deciding races between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in 1988, 1989 and 1990.

The Honda-owned track is beautifully laid out, crossing over itself and making a figure eight if viewed from above.

There are so many wonderful corners such as the S curves or the fast right-hander Degner curve, but none can match 130R, the nearly flat-out 130-meter radius turn 15.  The speed drivers pull through this corner is astounding.  One slip-up and they’ll end up in a fence, just like Allan McNish in 2002.

Watching drivers master this circuit is something else.  It amazes me when someone manages to do it so right, like Sebastian Vettel has done in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013.

I’ve played enough Gran Turismo to know this course like the back of my hand.  Of all the races on the F1 calendar, the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka is the one I want to see most.

2. Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps

Spa is home to the Belgian Grand Prix.  This is the longest circuit on the F1 calendar at 7.004km, which is down from the original 14.1 km layout.

This is also one of the fastest tracks out there.  Sebastian Vettel’s record lap of the current circuit in 2009 had an average speed of 235 kph.

The racing is almost always amazing.  With the long layout, it can be raining on one end of the course while the sun is shining on the other.  This leads to some interesting car set-ups and great overtaking.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Eau Rouge, one of the most famous and difficult corners in the world.  Drivers will take this corner flat-out, going downhill before suddenly turning right and going uphill.  If you fail to take this corner correctly, you won’t be set up for the long straight that follows.

This is a speed comparison between F1 cars and FIA GT cars at Eau Rouge.

3. Silverstone Circuit

Home of the British Grand Prix and the second longest circuit on the calendar at a distance of 5.901km.

Of historical note, in 1950 Silverstone  hosted the first race in the first Formula One World Championship.  Before that, the track was actually an RAF airfield.  The original track was essentially just marked out with barrels around the airfield that first year.

The track has changed a lot in the past 64 years, but it still produces some of the best racing out there.  The technical, high-speed corners favor drivers willing to push the limits of their car’s grip.

4. Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace – Interlagos

Interlagos, home of the Brazilian Grand Prix, sits in the middle of Sao Paulo and has been both the first and final race on the calendar.

This is a short-circuit, coming in at only 4.309km long.  The track rests on a hill, giving it a bit of an uphill/downhill feel.

Sebastian Vettel’s drive in the 2012 race led me to fall in love with this course.  Dropping down to 22 in the order and fighting the rain, Vettel came back to finish fourth and clinch his third consecutive title.  The look in Fernando Alonso’s eyes after the race are something I’ll never forget.  That season he fought tooth and nail with Vettel, only to be lose out in the end.

5. Autodromo Nazionale Monza

The land of Ferrari.

That should sum of the feel of Monza, home of the Italian Grand Prix.

This track has held an F1 race every year from 1950 to now, save 1980 when the track was being revamped.

This is the fastest track on the F1 calendar, with an average speed of 250 kph and the drivers at full throttle for 74 percent of the lap.  This leads to some clever engineering on the cars, the goal being to reduce drag and gain top speed, which is about 340 kph.

While there are only eight corners, a driver must attack each one perfectly in order to get on the power early and maximize the use of the long straights.

Rubens Barrichello’s 2004 lap record still stands 10 years on, unlikely to be broken in this age of downsized engines and focus on efficiency over outright speed.  It is a must-watch video.

6. Circuit Gilles Villeneuve

The Canadian Grand Prix takes place on a man-made island in the St. Lawrence River in Montreal, Canada.  The circuit is named after Canadian Gilles Villeneuve, widely considered one of the greatest F1 drivers to never win a championship, who passed away in an accident in 1982.

This track has produced some spectacular racing.  My personal favorite is the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix.

This race was the longest race in F1 history, due to a long rain delay.  Winner Jenson Button’s final time was 4 hours 4 minutes 39.537 seconds.

Button fought through tire punctures, five pit stops, an accident that knocked his teammate out of the race, and serving a penalty that put him in last place to make 27 on-track overtakes and win the race on the final lap.

7. Istanbul Park

While Istanbul Park and the Turkish Grand Prix are no longer part of the F1 calendar, the track made quite a mark in its short history.

The final few laps of the 2010 race were some of the most stressful both Red Bull and McLaren fans have ever experienced.  One team won out, the other ended up in a feud that didn’t end until Mark Webber retired at the end of 2013.

Istanbul Park features one of my favorite corners, the four-apex turn 8.  Drivers must hit every one, every lap in order to get around faster than the other guy.  The on-board footage here is fantastic.  I count every apex aloud as the driver flies through this sweeping left-hander.

It saddens me to know that great tracks like Istanbul are dropped in favor of newer, flashier circuits.

8. Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit – Albert Park

OK, so I know the Australian Grand Prix might not be the favorite of a lot of F1 fans, but the 2009 race  was the first grand prix I ever watched.

Late in 2008, I decided I wanted to start watching Formula 1.  I can’t recall what prompted it.  Maybe I was bored of NASCAR.  Maybe I just wanted to be that one guy who talks about that one thing that no one else is into, but doesn’t notice so he keeps on.

Well, I’ve accomplished my goal.

The 2009 Australian Grand Prix was the start of something wonderful, both for me and for F1.  Brawn GP, the team built from the ashes of the former Honda F1 outfit, made a turnaround that people still talk about to this day.

The team wasn’t even sure they could make it to the grid.  They had no money, no sponsors and no engine supplier.  Brawn essentially retrofitted a Mercedes-Benz engine in the place of the Honda motor and sent it out.

Jenson Button went on to win six of the first seven races and the 2009 World Driver’s Championship, while Brawn GP captured the World Constructor’s Championship.  At the end of the season, Button was signed by McLaren and Mercedes-Benz bought out Brawn GP and turned it into a factory works team.

Now, I don’t recall many details of the race, other than Button won, but I don’t think it matters.  It piqued my interest, and I’m still watching races today, always looking forward to the next.

9. Circuit of the Americas

This is supposed to be the race that saves F1 in the United States.  We’ll see in a few years time.  Maybe if Gene Haas’ team works out and NBC continues to give coverage, it could finally work.

While they’ve only been racing on this track since 2012, the potential is there.  The racing has been exciting, the location seems great and the drivers seem to enjoy it while still finding a challenge.

My favorite feature has to be the steep uphill climb to turn 1.

From the bottom.

From the top.

Imagine trying to judge a braking point while going uphill.  You lose speed in the climb, so you’re forced to accelerate harder to make up for it.  Your braking distance is shortened because of the speed loss, but because of the way the track widens, there is no “proper” racing line to take, making it difficult to judge when and where to brake.

Brake too early and you let the other guy pass you.  Brake too late and you’ll run off the track.

10. Marina Bay Street Circuit

Home of the Singapore Grand Prix and F1’s first night race.

This track gets a lot of flak.  It’s understandable.  The race is long, the track is hot and because it uses public roads, it can be a bit of a rough ride for the drivers.

I don’t care.  I really enjoy watching this race.  I feel it’s the closest thing I’ll get to an endurance race in F1.  Driving these cars isn’t supposed to be for the faint of heart.

This circuit is really stunning at night.  Watching the cars go around this track is like nothing else.  You can see blue flames spitting from the exhaust and the red glow of the brake discs.  The drivers’ eyes are visible through their thinly-tinted visors.  Drivers who don’t watch themselves and take too much curb pay the price.

Singapore is a race I’ll show to a friend who has never watched F1.  The sights and sounds distract from the occasionally bland racing, but if you really want to see a driver work, watch Singapore.

‘Murica

So Gene Haas was granted entry in the 2015 Formula 1 world championship today.  There hasn’t been an American F1 team since the ’80s, and the failed USF1 entry in 2010 made me wonder if one could ever compete.

Now, this is all tentative.  I’ll believe it when I see them on the grid in Australia next year, but I believe Haas Formula LLC has the best chance in a while.  Haas’ NASCAR team has won a championship, and he has the money behind him to be competitive.

The two biggest questions in my mind are who will supply the chassis/engine and where will the team be based.  As much as I would love for it to be a truly American based team, it makes sense to base their operations in Europe.

Now he just has to get some talent in the seat.

 

Slide shows

These are some slide shows from the past month that I found.  I love looking at pictures of cars, taking the time to notice the little details you can’t always see in a quick glance.  These slide shows feature some of the coolest cars from the past and present.

Porsche Museum Warehouse

According to the accompanying article, this warehouse holds hundreds of vintage Porsches that are not currently being displayed in public.  Michael Harley, West Coast editor for Autoblog, was invited to visit the museum’s warehouse in Stuttgart Germany.  Harley said he took the time to photograph the cars in natural light, adjusting the aperture and ISO so he didn’t have to use flash.

This visit was a rare opportunity for a journalist to go through and photograph and tell the story behind these vintage cars and their importance in Porsche’s heritage.

There are all types of cars stored in this warehouse, from vintage race cars to prototypes that never made it to market.  Porsche is one of the most respected names in the automotive business, and this warehouse shows how far the company has come from the days of building tanks in World War II.

What do you think is the most interesting car in the warehouse?

2014 Detroit Auto Show

The photos in this slide show were taken by Dan Neil of The Wall Street Journal.  The Detroit Auto Show last month featured some interesting debuts and concepts.  I gave my thoughts on a handful of cars in a previous post.

Neil’s photos show some cars I didn’t write about, such as the Kia Stinger GT4 concept.  He also gives his thoughts on the cars in the captions.

As a journalist, it’s important to keep up with current events in whatever field you focus on, in this case automotive news.  I hope one day to be able to go to auto shows myself to take pictures and report on the cars in person.

2014 Jerez Formula 1 Testing

Jamey Price shot these photos for the Road & Track website.  Testing for the 2014 Formula 1 season began last week at Circuito de Jerez in Spain, and price was there to take photos of all the new cars, save the new Lotus which isn’t scheduled to debut until the second test.

The 2014 regulations are a major overhaul for car design.  New safety regulations require the nose of the car to meet certain height and width standards.  The new turbo-V6 require the teams to design the car differently.

Price was able to shoot photos of all the different cars.  You can compare and contrast the different designs, most notably the noses of all the cars.  Being on site to photograph testing allowed price to photograph the cars at different angles and speeds.  It’s always interesting to see how each of the teams use the same set of regulations in different ways.

2014 Formula 1 Driver Lineup/Engine Supplier

The 2014 F1 driver lineup has finally been confirmed.  The teams and drivers are based on the finishing order of the 2013 season.  The engine supplier follows the team name.  The number next to the driver’s name is their permanent driver number, with the exception of Sebastian Vettel.  Being the reigning world champion, Vettel will race with the number 1 this season.

Infiniti Red Bull Racing – Renault

1 – Sebastian Vettel

3 – Daniel Ricciardo

Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team – Mercedes-Benz

44 – Lewis Hamilton

6 – Nico Rosberg

Scuderia Ferrari – Ferrari

14 – Fernando Alonso

7 – Kimi Räikkönen

Lotus F1 Team – Renault

8 – Romain Grosjean

13 – Pastor Maldonado

McLaren Mercedes – Mercedes-Benz

22 – Jenson Button

20 – Kevin Magnussen*

Sahara Force India F1 Team – Mercedes-Benz

27 – Nico Hülkenberg

11 – Sergio Pérez

Sauber F1 Team – Ferrari

99 – Adrian Sutil

21 – Esteban Gutiérrez

Scuderia Toro Rosso – Renault

25 – Jean-Éric Vergne

26 – Daniil Kvyat*

Williams F1 Team – Mercedes-Benz

19 – Felipe Massa

77 – Valtteri Bottas

Marussia F1 Team – Ferrari 

17 – Jules Bianchi

4 – Max Chilton

Caterham F1 Team** – Renault

9 – Marcus Ericsson*

10 – Kamui Kobayashi

*Rookie

**Neither Caterham driver competed in 2013, although Kobayashi has 60 race starts from 2009-2012 for Toyota and Sauber.