Wednesday, 15 January 2014

First Post of the New Year!

Happy New Year to you all! I hope everyone had an amazing Christmas break. I'll begin 2014 with... 2013. I missed a lot of the main talking points surrounding Formula 1 in December, so I begin the new year by closing the last.

There was a tragic end to December when news emerged of Michael Schumacher's skiing accident, which caused serious brain trauma to the seven times world champion as he fell and hit his head on a rock. He is still recovering in hospital, and is currently in an induced coma and in a "stable but critical" status. The world has been united in wishing a speedy recovery to him and sending support to his family in a very distraught period.

On January 13th, the sports world was again shocked to learn of the passing of John Button, aged 70. Jenson's Button father has been his most devoted fan from his karting days, and was a well liked and respected figure within the paddock who will be missed sorely. My thoughts are with both the Schumacher and Button families and friends in this difficult time.

Rule changes introduced by the FIA on the 9th of December caused a mass of talk amongst the F1 community and through all of the sports sites. They are quoted below for anyone that missed them

Following a meeting of the F1 Strategy Group and the Formula One Commission in Paris today, the following items have been unanimously approved: 
Cost cap
The principle of a global cost cap has been adopted. The limit will be applied from January 2015. A working group will be established within the coming days comprising the FIA, representatives of the Commercial Rights Holder and Team representatives.
The objective of the working group will be to have regulations approved by the end of June 2014.
Pirelli Tyre test – Bahrain, 17-19 December, 2013
The F1 Commission agreed to a change to the 2013 Sporting Regulations, on safety grounds, allowing the Formula One tyre supplier to carry out a three-day test in Bahrain from 17-19 December, 2013. All Formula One teams have been invited to take part in the test and six have accepted: Red Bull Racing, Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren, Force India and Toro Rosso.
Driver numbers
Drivers will be asked to choose their race number, between 2 and 99, for the duration of their career in the FIA Formula One World Championship. Number 1 will be reserved for the current World Champion, should he choose to use it.
If more than one driver choses the same number, priority will be given to the driver who finished highest in the previous year’s championship. 
New penalties
The principle of a five-second penalty for minor infringements was agreed. In what form such a penalty will be applied will be discussed with Formula One’s teams in order that a new regulation be introduced for 2014 season. 
Points for the last race
Double drivers’ and constructors’ points will be awarded at the final race of the Formula One season in order to maximise focus on the Championship until the end of the campaign. 
These changes are immediately applicable, given the mandate assigned to the FIA President at the last World Motor Sport Council meeting, held on 4 December in Paris.

Each point affects different areas of the sport, and each has been viewed very differently by the fans since these amendments were announced. The first, a cost cap, has been a long debated issue and one which must be given high priority with so many teams struggling to keep afloat financially. Without yet specifying the cap amount, the affect on the sport will not be fully understood but the smaller teams will be very glad that a cap is being introduced at all. The top teams will of course fight to raise the cap up as close to their current expenditure in the hope of reducing its affects on their title efforts, and the tipping point for both ends of the field will be key to its success.

The Pirelli tyre test took place with only a handful of the teams present, and without any test data available it is unknown what was tested or what the outcome will be on the 2014 tyre construction. It is pleasing to see Pirelli get some mileage on their tyres with the Brazil practice having failed due to the Friday rain. The main reaction however was negative once again to the manufacturer due to news of a high speed tyre failure on Nico Rosberg's Mercedes.

The tweet was quickly removed after but by then it was too late and once again Paul Hembreywas required to defend the Pirelli tyres whilst still in development. No outcome from Pirelli's investigations has been revealed following the test, but Pirelli did say this in Bahrain.
"The tyre tests in Bahrain regarded a number of prototypes, which were completely innovative in terms of structure and compounds, with the aim of developing the most suitable solutions for the next season. This morning Nico Rosberg's Mercedes was fitted with one of these prototypes, a tyre which had only been tested in the laboratory and which will not be proposed again. Thus, the safety of the tyres which will be supplied for the next championship is not in question. The accident which happened to Rosberg's car is being investigated and the findings will be communicated to the FIA and the teams."

The anouncement that drivers would now select a number to use for their Formula 1 careers was something I hadn't heard about before December last year, and it's introduction has sparked interest in the drivers choices rather than the decision itself of the FIA. The numbers were revealed on Friday and are as follows (in numerical order).

1   Sebastian Vettel   Red Bull-Renault
3   Daniel Ricciardo   Red Bull-Renault
6   Nico Rosberg       Mercedes
7   Kimi Raikkonen     Ferrari
8   Romain Grosjean    Lotus-Renault
11  Sergio Perez       Force India-Mercedes
13  Pastor Maldonado   Lotus-Renault
14  Fernando Alonso    Ferrari
17  Jules Bianchi      Marussia-Ferrari
19  Felipe Massa       Williams-Mercedes
20  Kevin Magnussen    McLaren-Mercedes
21  Esteban Gutierrez  Sauber-Ferrari
22  Jenson Button      McLaren-Mercedes
25  Jean-Eric Vergne   Toro Rosso-Renault
26  Daniil Kvyat       Toro Rosso-Renault
27  Nico Hulkenberg    Force India-Mercedes
44  Lewis Hamilton     Mercedes
77  Valtteri Bottas    Williams-Mercedes
99  Adrian Sutil       Sauber-Ferrari
Most of the drivers have gone for the number they used when karting at the start of their careers or in a championship winning year. Sebastian Vettel as reigning champion has taken the number 1, but has chosen the number 5 (his number in 2010, and from his karting years, see picture below) for his career number should he be beaten. This rule introduction will be welcomed by all of the drivers marketing teams, who will now be able to build a brand incorporating a number for their career rather than just the one season. This is known to work for other sports, for instance 46 for Valentino Rossi, and 23 for David Beckham.


The press release of these driver numbers also listed Max Chilton as the second driver at Marussia with his number to be decided. The anouncement was then made official on Saturday by the team and driver at Autosport International. I am glad about this decision from both the driver and teams perspectives, with Marussia recognising continuity is important in 2014 and with Max Chilton given a second year besides a Ferrari academy driver. Jules Bianchi's margin over the Brit shrank over the year as Max Chilton steadily improved, plus his record breaking 100% finish rate in his debut year showed a level of consistency that will again be welcomed in a year when reliability may mean points for Marussia and Caterham.

Of the new rules, the principal introduction of a new 5 second penalty was least discussed. Though not officially added into the 2014 rules at this FIA meeting, I can't see the teams having any issues with so long as it's use are made clear. Consistency within the rules is vital to a fair and unbiased system, but there were also decisions questions as the size of the penalty exceeded that of the offence. Felipe Massa's penalty in the 2013 Brazilian Grand Prix is one such instance, whereby he gained fractions of a second by cutting the pitlane entry line but lost all hopes of challenging for a podium having to serve a drive through penalty. The only question over this rule is why it hasn't come about sooner, which I would guess as being due to ensuring the viewer is clear on who is positioned where in the standings prior to the official results being printed. No doubt that graphics and the on screen information is being looked over now with a view to keeping the spectators informed of actual positions.

The final rule change caught the most attention from the press release, and almost all of that attention was negative. From 2014, the last race of the year will award double points to the Top 10 finishers. The reasoning behind the rule is to stop the championship being over before the final race of the season, with Sebastian Vettel securing the championship as early as the Indian Grand Prix in late October. The problem with this rule change is that it does not actually resolve the issue it set out to remove, since had the rule been in place in 2013, Vettel would have still won the world championship at the Indian Grand Prix.

The historical statistics stand that with double points available for the final race of the previous 64 F1 world championships, the number of title deciding finales would rise from 27 to 46 (ignoring dropped result systems used). In 10 cases though, we would have also seen a different driver crowned world champion which is a concern to me. The champion should be the best driver over the entire season, without emphasis on any 1 race in particular. The best example of this is the first championship affected, the 1953 showdown between Alberto Ascari in the Ferrari and Juan Manuel Fangio's Maserati. Remembering that the season was a lot shorter then, the Ascari - Ferrari combination were superior throughout the season, winning 6 of the 9 races and deserving of the championship at the end. Juan Manuel Fangio managed just 1 victory all year due the fragility of his Maserati, but it was the last race at Monza. This victory along with the fact that Alberto Ascari retired from that race means that Fangio would have been crowned the champion in 1953 as well.

Although the reasoning behind the decision has been aimed at spicing up the F1 season and the drama, it is much more likely this was about money and the deal between Bernie Ecclestone and Abu Dhabi to pay the larger race fee for hosting the last race of the season. It is unlikely to be reversed as a result, even with the teams meeting the FIA on January 20th to discuss the new rules. The fans all hate the idea, most of the drivers don't see the point and team owners are calling for it to be removed as the constant modifying of the rules is damaging the sports reputation already.

Many suggestions have been made by fans for how this double points rule could have been done better (if not just scrapped entirely) with the popular / historic tracks (Monaco, Spa) gaining the double points rounds instead. The countries vying to gain or to keep their spot may see it as a way for the FIA to pick favourites however, so the decision over those tracks would be best kept separate from the FIA's jurisdiction - something which won't happen.

If we are definitely going to see double points introduced for drama, then my call would be to allow the drivers choose 1 race a season to be awarded double their points tally. The decision would have to be made the Thursday before the Grand Prix weekend (in the case of Monaco where Friday practice occurs on Thursday instead, either Wednesday or anytime before Practice session 1) so no one was able to play their double points card because they are on pole position. It would mean though that drivers could choose to save their double points race for the point in the season where they need a championship boost, or to extend a championship lead as momentum is slipping for example. Team orders would gain even more importance as well though with teams potentially gaining a handful of points by swapping their drivers on the racetrack. And just imagine how Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen or Lewis Hamilton would take that news when leading a race...