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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Brawn GP Part of the Leading Group

Have Brawn GP Staked a Claim to Be Part of this Leading Group?

Brawn GP have been one of the stories of testing this week. The car has been extremely fast straight out of the box. Even better, the car has proved to be very reliable. Ross Brawn and his two drivers, Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, must be feeling pretty ecstatic right now.

On Wednesday, Button set a low 1:19 and Barrichello on Thursdays managed to sneak into the 1:18s. Even if these laps are glory/sponsor seeking laps, these times are fast by anyone’s standards. They are quicker than the time set in Q2 of the Spanish GP last season. It’s obvious that Brawn GP have a very quick car on their hands. Not only do they look good in low fuel trim, but their long runs have been mighty as well.

Remember that this is the car Honda started building all the way back in 2007. They gave up completely on 2008 before the season even started. Ross Brawn focused entirely—and put a lot of Honda’s cash—into building this car. They have still been developing the car during the winter, even with all the uncertainty of the team’s future. Therefore, there was always a good chance this was going to be a very fast car, and it most certainly is.

A question mark will hang over whether they can keep up the development pace over the whole season. I think they have a good chance. Honda has given Ross Brawn 100 million pounds to keep the team alive, as opposed to having to pay that amount to make all the staff redundant. The team has also been around 40 to 50 million pounds in commercial, and TV revenue money from Bernie Ecclestone.

So for this season at least, Brawn GP have a very healthy budget on which to operate. I am sure Ross Brawn will make use of every penny. He is very talented and will run a very efficient operation. It will be very much like the Renault operation, who, despite having less funds than Mclaren and Ferrari, beat them both to consecutive championships back in 2005 and 2006.

Paul Murtagh and I said in our preview of Brawn GP that podiums and points were possible. I think that will definitely happen now. Not only that, but they have now got a genuine chance of winning in Melbourne. Some experts believe the Brawn GP car is the class of the field; even Felipe Massa admitted his Ferrari couldn’t do lap times as fast as Brawn has been producing. For Felipe Massa to actually come out and say that is quite a statement. Fernando Alonso has also come out, and said that Brawn GP’s pace is for real.

Brawn GP has most certainly been the biggest story in Barcelona this week. Whether they perform in Melbourne is an entirely different matter, but the signs look as if they could be on for a great start to the season. And as already touched on, it’s not as if they don’t have the funds this season, with the team still getting Honda money.

Just think: Not so long ago Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello’s careers were in grave danger. Now they both have a car, which has the potential to be at the front of the grid. It’s strange how quickly things can change in the world of Formula One.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Who Are Looking Like the Current Front Runners

This is promising to be a fantastic season. Going to Melbourne, there are three or four teams who will be starting the weekend thinking they have a decent chance of winning the race.

Throughout testing, Ferrari, BMW, and Toyota have been extremely closely matched at the top of the timesheets. When they have been doing similar runs in testing this week, their times have evenly matched. They all look like fast, consistent cars.

In the Bahrain test, these three teams were always covered by just a couple of tenths. When they joined the other teams in Jerez and Barcelona, that theme continued. Except they have also been ahead of the other teams, too (with the possible exception of Brawn GP, which is explained in the next section).

Toyota has impressed me most in testing. They have clocked up a huge amount of mileage, and the car is extremely reliable. Jarno Trulli is very bullish about his chances in Melbourne. I think this could be Toyota’s big long last. They look as if they are finally realising what it takes to be successful in Formula One.

Their team members have become more passionate about racing, rather than acting all corporate. I am sure this has made a substantial difference. If Toyota doesn’t win races this season, then they will be very disappointed. It could be a big year for Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock.

Ferrari, again, have built another fast car. However, their testing hasn’t been without reliability problems. They have had a couple of scares with their KERs (Kinetic Energy Recovery system) device. Ferrari has seemed pretty intent on using their device from the start, but they may have second thoughts about that before Melbourne. Leading 1-2 in Melbourne and then having a double car failure (like Mclaren suffered in the 1999 season opener) would be seriously gut wrenching.

Their other issue is that it still takes a long time to warm up the tyres. This is at its worst in cooler conditions. This means that like the last couple of seasons, they will be at a disadvantage to their main rivals in qualifying. As things stand, that could be very critical. With the front runners so closely packed, not having a great qualifying car could cost them far more than it did last season. They need to work on this. Historically, Ferrari’s race pace has always been their strong point compared with qualifying pace. This isn’t just a recent trend.

BMW also looked to have made the step forward to regular race win contenders. BMW gave up full development on their 2008 car pretty early on, and started to focus much more on the 2009 contender. They recognised that 2009 was a unique opportunity to gain on the front runners.

It looks like BMW Sauber may well have made the right decision here, despite Robert Kubica being unhappy that BMW didn’t focus more on his 2008 title challenge. Since BMW took over Sauber back in 2006, they have made a big step every year since then. They look set to take another big step forward for the fourth year running, which is deeply impressive. They are set to be championship contenders this season. The team have often sandbagged in the past in testing, so there is a chance they are even quicker than they're letting on.

Overall, out of these three leading teams, I would estimate that Ferrari has a tiny edge in terms of race pace. When it comes to qualifying trim, BMW and Toyota are probably ahead. Toyota won’t be using the KERs system until later in the season. We will see whether this proves to be an advantage or a disadvantage to them. It could swing either way.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Surprisingly Close At The First Tests

The Grid Is Surprisingly Close!!

This has been one of the main stories of testing this season. All the rule changes have effectively meant that each team has started from a new sheet of paper. Many figures expected this would spread the grid out. Last season, the field spread came down to about two seconds. This is the closest it had been for many season, attributed to the fact that the rules had been stable for a few seasons up to that point.

Amazingly, despite the changes, the grid looks set to close up even more. During the tests, the field has been separated on average by 2.0 to 2.5 seconds. When you take into account that some teams would have been running high fuel programmes, and others low fuel programmes, then the field is likely to be even closer than that.

We won’t see how much time covers the entire field until we start qualifying in Melbourne. I would guess the field spread could well be as low as 1.5 seconds. This would be pretty astonishing.

So why is it so close?

Simply put, many teams have adapted to the rules well and created great cars. We also have to remember that there are a huge number of large manufacturer teams compared to years' past. These teams are extremely well-funded, and have top-range facilities in place. There are more teams with the power and capabilities to build a great F1 car.

Out of the current teams, Toro Rosso and Force India are the ones most likely to be classed as minnows. Toro Rosso is, technically speaking, a customer team of Red Bull, (who look as if they have a great car), and Force India has formed a technical collaboration with Mclaren. Thanks to this, both these teams are going to improve significantly as well, despite not being as well off as the teams above them.

Compare this to the last set of major rule changes in 1998. The field spread out then—which perhaps is why many expected the same to happen this time around—but the difference was there were far more lower funded teams with nowhere near the level of facilities that many teams have now. These teams included the likes of Minardi, Arrows, Stewart Ford, Tyrell, Prost, and Sauber.

Adapting to huge new rules stretched these small teams to the absolute limit. This is a big reason why the field of 1998 spread out. The situation in 2009 is very different with many more big teams on the grid, and the minnows well supported with partnerships with other teams. I bet Minardi and Arrows would have loved a technical collaboration with Mclaren or Ferrari back in their day.

This season, a bunch of very talented and well developed teams have had the chance to start fresh. Every team started the 2009 development at the same place: on the starting line.

In the last couple of seasons, most of the teams have matched each other in terms of development rate. The main problem for the likes of Red Bull and Toyota was that they started the season over a second behind Ferrari and Mclaren. With stable rule changes, it was always an impossible task to make big inroads into that lead. Starting from scratch, and at the same level as Ferrari and Mclaren, they have a chance to edge ahead if they adapt better to the 2009 rules.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Analysing Testing in Barcelona 2009 package

This week, all the F1 teams have been in Barcelona for the last major F1 test of the year. For many, it was their final chance to put miles on the car and learn about their 2009 package.

The Difficulty of Analysing Testing

When studying testing times, you have to take them with a pinch of salt; we won’t know until Melbourne what the real pecking order is. There are many different variables in testing, which can give a misleading picture of who is where.

For example, we don’t know what programmes the teams are working on. They might be working on a particular area of setup. They could just be testing the reliability of the car. They could be getting used to the tyres’ behaviour over a single lap or a race distance. They are learning as much as they can about their cars, as opposed to chasing that outright quick lap.

Importantly, we don’t know how much fuel the teams are carrying. This alone can make a huge difference to the lap times. Some teams opt to run light, whereas others always tend to run heavy in testing.

Track conditions also contribute to lap times. The track conditions change throughout the day. The race track is a living creature; it will normally get more rubber on it as the test day goes on. However, any precipitation will wash all that rubber away. The track will become “green,” and therefore much slower than it was previously.

Despite all of these variables, it’s still possible to see patterns that are forming. You can spot which teams look like they are in good shape and who may indeed struggle.

By the end of testing, you can get a rough idea of how the pecking order is looking. In the last test session, in particular, a clearer picture begins to emerge. At this point teams need to assess how fast their cars really are.

Also in this final week many teams will do simulations of the race weekend. This offers the best chance of comparing their performances.

Each season, though, there is always at least one team that doesn’t end up where testing suggests they should have.

Teams may run ultra light to attract sponsors or may run extremely heavy to hide their true speed. This is a term often referred to as “sandbagging.”

In 2001, Prost were setting very fast lap times, and even broke a lap record! Once the season started, they were nowhere near the front of the grid. At the time, Alain Prost’s team were struggling for funds, so they ran their car under the minimum required weight to set fast times and attract sponsors.

Quite a devious little plan!

Last season, BMW Sauber didn’t look too good for much of preseason testing. However, they caused a big shock when Robert Kubica came from nowhere to almost snatch pole position from Lewis Hamilton in Melbourne.

So the big question on every F1 fan’s lips is how is the current order looking as things currently stand?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

FOTA strategy amid financial crisis; stability, sustainability, substance and spectacle!

Formula One team leaders met Wednesday to finalize their strategy, in Geneva, for the sport, amid the global financial crisis.

The Formula One Teams Association (FOTA), led by Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, will hold a news conference Thursday to unveil their plans as the sport faces heavy cost-cutting and difficulties in attracting new sponsors and teams.

FOTA said in a statement that its proposals "are aimed at increasing the stability, sustainability, substance and spectacle of the sport."

The blueprint — to be unveiled less than four weeks before the new season starts March 29 in Australia — will draw on market research which asked F1 fans and television audiences in 17 countries what changes they wanted to see.

Teams and fans have been told by the FIA, auto racing's governing body, that F1 must cut its spending drastically in order to survive.

FIA president Max Mosley has said he wants teams to limit their budgets to €50 million ($64 million), instead of the spiraling annual spending of €224 million ($283 million) that saw Japanese car giant Honda drop out in December.

Former Honda team principal Ross Brawn was at Wednesday's meeting as he seeks to put together a management buyout that would keep the team on the grid under a new name.

Also joining FOTA president Montezemolo at the meeting were team leaders Mario Theissen (BMW Sauber), Ron Dennis and Martin Whitmarsh (McLaren), Flavio Briatore (Renault), Stefano Domenicali (Ferrari), John Howett (Toyota), Franz Tost (Toro Rosso), Christian Horner (Red Bull Racing) and Alex Burns (Williams).

Force India team owner Vijay Mallya is expected to join his colleagues for Thursday's launch.

They joined together to create FOTA last September to unite in negotiations with the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone, whose Formula One Management controls the lucrative commercial and media rights.

At a meeting in Monaco last December, FIA and the teams agreed to a series of changes which include longer-lasting engines, limits on expensive testing and cheaper, off-the-shelf engines for smaller teams.

Mosley and FIA are preparing further proposals later this month which could take effect in the 2010 season, when a United States-based team is expected to join the circuit.

The USF1 operation hopes to be based in Charlotte, North Carolina, with American drivers and meet Mosley's €50 million budget target.

Their arrival would inject new capital into F1, which has seen major sponsors back away since the financial downturn hit.

BMW Sauber lost Swiss bank Credit Suisse while Renault's title sponsor, ING, will not renew at the end of this season. Troubled British bank RBS will end its deal with Williams after 2010.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Toro Rosso will launch their new STR4 next week

Toro Rosso will launch their new STR4 Formula One car at a test in Barcelona on Monday, the race-winning team said on Wednesday.

Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais and Swiss newcomer Sebastien Buemi will be the drivers this year, with the latter likely to be the only rookie on the starting grid when the season starts in Australia on March 29.

Ferrari-powered Toro Rosso, who started last season with the previous year's car, won the 2008 Italian Grand Prix with 21-year-old German Sebastian Vettel who has since left for sister team Red Bull.

Apart from the former Honda team, whose future has yet to be confirmed after the Japanese manufacturer's decision to pull out of the sport, Toro Rosso will be the last to unveil their new-look car.

The car is based on the RB5 one used by Red Bull and has already had a brief shakedown test at the Adria circuit in Italy.

Honda could also be testing at the Circuit de Catalunya on Monday, although a management buyout led by team principal Ross Brawn has still to be confirmed.

Bruno Senna upset on Honda, Barrichello

Rubens Barrichello has indicated he is set to prolong his record holding Formula 1 career for at least one more year, while countryman Bruno Senna admits his hopes for the vacant Honda seat have faded.

It has been reported this week that, despite rookie Senna's strong links with the Brackley based team throughout the winter, the soon to be renamed outfit has plumped instead for an unchanged driver lineup.

"My faith says that next week I'll be driving a competitive car in the tests in Barcelona, although I have no document in my hands that assures me of that," 36-year-old Barrichello, already in Britain awaiting developments, told Sao Paulo's O Estado newspaper.

25-year-old Senna, meanwhile, the nephew of Barrichello's late mentor Ayrton Senna, admits he met with team boss Ross Brawn on Wednesday "and he cancelled" their prospective collaboration for 2009.

"I'm kind of resigned to trying something else," he told the same newspaper, amid speculation the 2008 GP2 Series runner up might switch to the German touring car series DTM.

Senna said: "I'm just a little upset because this situation has dragged on for so long, making me lose better professional possibilities."

"Now I'm going to get together with my family, with my advisors, and decide what way to take."

An announcement about Honda's plans for 2009 is possible on Friday, when it is expected the newly Mercedes powered car may be debuted at Silverstone.

The team, likely to be known as Brawn Racing in 2009, did not comment.

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