Sepang

After a routine Australian Grand Prix led to a routine 1-2 finish for Mercedes, and much complaining about the fairness of F1, the circus moved on to Sepang, Malaysia, a circuit that usually offers up some good racing amid variable conditions.

Sepang is completely different to Melbourne. Whereas Melbourne is a street circuit, Sepang is designed for races and it is a stern test for the drivers. The humidity is high, there are plenty of fast corners to provide harsh G-forces, and the temperature in the cockpits can reach 50C. Only Singapore compares.

Torrential rain interrupted Saturday’s qualifying for a brief time, and led to reigning champion Hamilton narrowly avoiding missing Q3 (where he would go on to get pole), and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen only starting 11th (which must have been especially galling considering his teammate Vettel started 2nd).

I didn’t get to see the race (not that I mind, I was at a family function this weekend, and it’s always good to see family!), but a brief look at some of the highlights, as well as tracking the race via the BBC live feed, revealed that Vettel, who failed to take a single win in 2014, took a surprise victory today.

His race was well-managed, with Ferrari making a two-stop strategy work ahead of the Mercedes’ three-stop. Vettel was able to keep pace with the two Mercedes throughout the race (a surprise in itself, given the gap that had existed in Australia), and the two-stop strategy proved superior today, allowing Vettel to do longer stints and thus lose less time in the pits, almost certainly a factor in his 40th career win.

Was this because Vettel is the brilliant driver that so many (myself included) have not quite been prepared to accept him as, is this because Ferrari have taken a leap forward in the past two weeks, or was it down to a combination of the two? Could we put Vettel’s victory down to Mercedes making mistakes, or would that be unfair on Ferrari and Vettel?

Hamilton was complaining about how his car performed on the ‘prime’ tyre, and it would seem Rosberg may well have had similar issues (the Mercedes team don’t usually split their strategies).

So, perhaps the risk of a one-on-one, all-Mercedes battle for the title is not as great as people think. It’s also a marker to other teams who have been whining lately (Red Bull, I’m looking at you). The Ferrari engine is not as powerful as the Mercedes engine, but despite this, the Ferrari not only beat the Williams (which boasts a Mercedes engine) but also the Mercedes cars themselves! Some of this is down to the pit stop strategy, but some of it could well be down to the chassis – the overall design of the Ferrari car is much improved on last year, and aerodynamic gains can still have serious importance. Other teams, take note.

 

In the past week there have been several high-profile stories in the news, some of which deserve the attention – and some of which definitely don’t.

Firstly, there has been the tragic plane crash in the French Alps, a crash that killed 150 people, in what appears to have been an act of suicide, for reasons as yet unestablished. This is a very sad time for a great many families, who have suddenly had loved ones ripped away from them, in horrific circumstances, and my heart goes out to them. It’s impossible to imagine what must have been going through the mind of the co-pilot as he deliberately set the plane on a crash course – we will probably never know the truth of the matter.

Also in the news is the news that, after much wrangling, the BBC has sacked Jeremy Clarkson. Now, even a cursory glance at the BBC comments pages (not to mention Facebook and Twitter) reveals that Clarkson has a huge following who believe he should keep his job. Now, I dare say he certainly brings flair to Top Gear – there’s no doubt he’s entertaining and he helps pull in the viewers – but in any other (well, nearly any other) line of work, if you assault a colleague, you’re gone, regardless of past achievements. I could be the best salesperson for my employers that has ever lived, but if I punch another member of staff, that’s curtains for my career, and rightly so. What makes Clarkson so special that he should avoid that fate?

Finally, we come to the news that Zayn Malik has left One Direction. Now, to me, this is a story that belongs closer to the bottom of the list, but if you are even vaguely near Twitter or any sites that track this sort of stuff, you will have seen an explosion from fangirls who are behaving like the world has just fallen out from underneath them.

Grow up. I don’t care how close to the band or Zayn you feel, I don’t care if you feel heartbroken, there are far more important things happening in the world. People are dying the world over for so many different, avoidable reasons. We have had the tragic plane crash I referred to earlier. Lives are being seriously affected by serious issues around the world, and you’re acting like a guy leaving a boy band (who won’t be remembered twenty years from now) is the be-all and end-all of existence. It isn’t.

So it would seem that the 2015 German Grand Prix – originally slated for the 17-19 July – is on rocky ground. For the past few years the race has alternated between Hockenheim and the Nurburgring, with the Nurburgring slated to host the race this year, but, as often seems to be the case in Formula 1, financial problems are threatening to hurt the sport.

The Nurburgring should host the event this year, but the venue is not in a fit state to host the race and the owners of Hockenheim are not prepared to pay the fee demanded by F1 boss Bernie Eccelstone, which leaves us in the unfortunate position of not having a German Grand Prix, unless someone bends.

It’s a bloody shame that Formula 1 is riddled with so many political games and problems. I have fond memories of German Grands Prix down the years, and losing a classic race because of monetary arguments would be ridiculous. Sadly, that is modern F1 for you.

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So we are only one race in and already Formula 1 is grappling with some pretty serious stuff. After an Australian Grand Prix that saw only eleven of twenty cars finish (and only fifteen cars even start), there were rumbles of discontent surrounding the lack of on-track action, a race once again dominated by Mercedes, and little sign that 2015 will be any different to 2014.

There is a brewing argument between Red Bull and Mercedes over equalising engine performance (which would of course wipe out the considerable advantage Mercedes have), and such is the extent of the bitterness over Mercedes and their mighty engines that Red Bull have even suggested they could quit F1 in the near future.

It is of course only my humble opinion, but I cannot help but suspect, if Red Bull were the team dominating the sport (as they did with four consecutive driver and constructor titles from 2010 – 2013), there would be no complaining. One of Red Bull’s ‘issues’ is that the emphasis of the cars has shifted away from aerodynamics (which was where Red Bull’s advantage came from) to engine power (and the Renault power units have never been the most powerful).

However, Formula 1 has always been a balance between engine power and aerodynamics. In fact, last season served to demonstrate that a good design can overcome limitations of engine power – the Red Bull was the only car other than Mercedes to win any races in 2014, and they finished second in the constructor’s championship, ahead of Mercedes-powered teams such as Williams, McLaren and Force India. How did they achieve this? With a superior chassis! It is hardly the fault of Mercedes or the rule-makers that Renault have gone backward in 2015, and Red Bull seem to be throwing their toys out of the pram with their threat to quit. I am not impressed, and I doubt anyone else is.

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Having taken an unlikely win at Monaco last time out, I was pretty confident of winning here again, but this time it was not to be. An easy pole was converted into an early lead, but I would fail to concentrate properly, with the consequence being I lost my front wing (twice) and lost out twice in terms of time and position.

That said, with everyone else being error strewn, I was able to regain the lead for a short time, until lap 20, when my engine blew.

So that was that. Vettel won, and Button could only manage fourth, reducing my advantage to 8 points.

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It would be fair to say that Spain is a circuit I thoroughly enjoy. It was the scene of my first win in the 2009 season and with a year’s worth of experience, not to mention the strategy of three stops and most stints on softs, this was an easy pole and easy pole and an easy race. I lapped everyone at least once, and as Button could only manage fourth, I opened a 13-point lead – more than a race win – over him.

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I’ll be honest, it’s been a few days since this race and I don’t have all the details of this race stored in my head. I do know that this was not an especially good race for me in the 2009 season, so I was hoping for better things here.

Qualifying wasn’t great, though I managed fifth, which was a definite improvement on 09 (13th if I recall). At the start I was able to jump to third and pursued Trulli and Button. It took me a couple of laps but I was eventually able to catch Trulli and jump Button at the pit stops. From that point on Button and I would trade places at pit stops but I would take a fourth straight win, eventually some 16 seconds clear, having once more used the three stop strategy, with all but one stint on the soft tyre. Four out of four gave me an eight point lead in the title race.

So after a qualifying session that confirmed what we all suspected – that Mercedes were much quicker than everyone else – the majority of the action in today’s race was largely happening off the track, with Bottas ruled out due to a back injury, Kvyat not able to start owing to technical trouble and Magussen also losing out due to engine failure. Couple this with the two Manor cars not running and this meant five cars were out before the race even started!

Within a couple of laps of the start we’d lost both the Lotuses too. Maldonaldo was taken out through no fault of his own at the second corner whilst Grosjean retired thanks to mechanical issues, something that would trouble other drivers as well.

Max Verstappen, making his debut, was acquitting himself quite well until his Toro Rosso gave up on him, whilst pit stop nightmares would prove very costly for Kimi Raikkonen, who was forced to retire after his mechanics failed to properly secure his rear-left tyre.

It’s fair to say the race was not especially entertaining. The two Mercedes of Hamilton and Rosberg raced off into the sunset, with Hamilton leading Rosberg reasonably comfortably throughout, and the pair would finish 30 seconds ahead of third-placed man Sebastian Vettel.

Vettel put in a solid, reliable shift on his Ferrari debut, getting onto the podium and doing so without too much trouble from the Williams of Felipe Massa, who will nonetheless be quite happy with fourth and some solid points in round 1. The star of the day though, as far as I’m concerned, was fifth-placed man Felipe Nasr, who gave a very strong performance for Sauber, pushing hard and looking sharp on his debut. He raced cleanly, was not overawed by the occasion and did very well.

Force India scored points, but this is probably a reflection of the number of retirements rather than the car’s performance. Carlos Sainz took points, and given the fine showing of Toro Rosso in testing, this wasn’t surprising.

Jensen Button was able to complete race distance, albeit coming in last, but the ability of the car to go the distance is at least vaguely promising.

Red Bull laboured in practice with unreliable Renault engines, and the lack of power today meant Daniel Ricciardo could only manage sixth, having been out muscled by Nasr’s more powerful Sauber. There can be little question that Red Bull and Renault have a lot of work to do.

So it’s as you were, with Hamilton picking up where he left off last time, and Mercedes simply crushing the field. Next up – Malaysia!

So F1 is back and it’s time to fire up those engines and spin those wheels! The first venue? Melbourne, Australia!

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This popular circuit will be hosting its 20th Formula race when the racing proper starts on the 15th of March. Since the Grand Prix moved from Adelaide to Melbourne the man with the most wins here is seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher (four wins) and last year Nico Rosberg won here for Mercedes.

Damon Hill won the first ever F1 win here, for Williams in 1996.

So what is the track like? It’s a street circuit, and a pretty fast one at that. Rosberg completed 58 laps in just over an hour and a half last season, and set the fastest lap of 1.32.478. There are several fast curves and corners you can attack harder than you might think at first glance. Turn 2 is pretty quick and Turn 5 are quick, as are turns 10, 11, 12 and 14. You can either apply the brakes only a little or even not at all, if you’re feeling brave. However, beware Turn 1 (which comes very suddenly after the start/finish straight), which does require some firm braking, and Turn 3 as well, which is a beast of a right-hander. Turn 15 is also pretty meaty.

This is one of my favourite tracks on F1 games. Fast, but with corners you can sink your teeth into. I look forward to the race!

Last time out I previewed the teams that would be competing in the 2015 Formula 1 season. This time around I’m taking a look at the drivers.

Lewis Hamilton

Team – Mercedes

Last year’s position – 1st

As reigning champion Lewis Hamilton will head in 2015 no doubt confident – something buoyed by once again having what appears to be the best car by a country mile – and he demonstrated on several occasions last year that he could out-race teammate and closest challenger Nico Rosberg on the track. The question is whether he will remain as focused and driven this year – a recent split from his long-term partner Nicole Scherzinger might play on his mind – and Lewis does have previous form for letting off-track matters interfere with his racing (see his diasterous 2011 season). Rosberg will be his closest challenger on the track once again – but perhaps the only person who can stop Hamilton is Hamilton himself.

I have a feeling that he will not let that happen though. He is in sight of replicating the achievement of his idol, Ayrton Senna, and he won’t let that slip.

Prediction: 1st

Nico Rosberg

Team: Mercedes

Last year’s position – 2nd

Despite winning only five races to Hamilton’s 11 last year, Nico Rosberg kept himself firmly in title contention right throughout the year with consistent performances and good management of his car, finishing on the podium in every race he finished bar one. He is arguably the Prost to Hamilton’s Senna – a thinker, a strategist, and if he can add some punch to that, he will mount a supreme challenge to Hamilton. However, he needs to beat Hamilton on the track, in a straight fight, more often than he did last year, to gain any sort of psychological edge. I suspect it will be close, but I think Hamilton will want it more.

Prediction: 2nd

Daniel Ricciardo

Team: Red Bull

Last year’s position: 3rd

2014 was a landmark year for the young Australian Ricciardo. Paired with then-reignng world champion and team favourite Sebastian Vettel, no one would have believed that he would finish ahead of Vettel in 11 of the races they both completed (14 races in total). Ricciardo was the only non-Mercedes man to win any races (three) and his aggressive, bold overtakes were both crowd-pleasing and a sign that he was prepared to fight for points. It’s unclear as to how good the new Red Bull is and whether it is competitive, but if it is remotely as strong as last year, Ricciardo could get more podiums and even the odd win.

Prediction: 4th

Daniil Kyvat

Team: Red Bull

Last year’s position: 15th

Promoted quite suddenly from junior team Toro Rosso, Kyvat will have a chance to make a serious statement on his future if he can put in good performances in a car that will be looking for podiums and even the odd win. His main aim though, and biggest chance to make a point, will be to beat Ricciardo consistently. Ricciardo has the extra year at Red Bull and therefore experience of fighting for serious points, and Kyvat was beaten in the standings by his teammate Jean-Eric Vergne last season, so his promotion is something of a surprise, and I expect Ricciardo to beat him.

Prediction: 6th

Felipe Massa

Team: Williams

Last year’s position: 7th

Experienced hand Massa is entering his 13th season in Formula 1 and after a miserable time at Ferrari as Alonso’s teammate, he underwent something of a transformation in 2014 at Williams, scoring three podium finishes and helping Williams to third in the constructor’s championship. He could yet add to his career win tally if the conditions are right – Williams are seen as the best of the rest behind Mercedes and if there’s a mistake from Hamilton or Rosberg, he could put himself in a winning position. It won’t be easy, as Mercedes look reliable, but so do Williams, and Massa has regained some of his old spark.

Prediction: 5th

Valtteri Bottas

Team: Williams

Last year’s position: 4th

With six podiums to his name in 2014, Bottas scored points in every race he finished except one, and has laid down a serious marker as a future champion. A series of strong performances have helped to paint him as a good driver and hard competitor – and I suspect he will finish ahead of Massa again in the standings. The Williams is shaping up to be a good car and I also suspect Bottas will beat the Red Bulls more often than he doesn’t.

Prediction: 3rd

Sebastian Vettel

Team: Ferrari

Last year’s position: 5th

Vettel’s move to Ferrari was, if he is to be believed, motivated by a desire for a fresh start and a new challenge – well, he will certainly have that, with Ferrari not expected to make significant waves in 2015. The team is recovering from a poor 2014, that saw them fail to record a single win, with Fernando Alonso getting the only two podium finishes the team could manage.

Vettel is also looking to bounce back after a 2014 in which he was overshadowed by his new teammate Ricciardo – beaten far more often than not, Vettel did not get to grips with new regulations that altered the handling of the cars, and came unstuck. He already has doubters as to his true ability, despite winning four consecutive world championships, and last year did nothing to dispel those doubters. 2015 must therefore be the year he proves himself, outside of his comfort zone, with a car that, whilst much improved over last year, is not regarded as a serious contender.

I dare say we will see Vettel’s true colours and I think he will do reasonably well, but I can’t see him winning.

Prediction: 7th

Kimi Raikkonen

Team: Ferrari

Last year’s position: 12th

Although the iceman finished every race bar one in 2014, Raikkonen was never particularly happy with the car and finished no higher than 4th all season. The 2007 champion was comfortably outperformed by Alonso and he is once again partnered by a multiple world champion. Easily quick in the right circumstances, Raikkonen will nevertheless need the car to be adjusted to suit his style, rather than the other way around, if he is to be remotely successful in 2015. He has already spoken favourably of the new car, so perhaps he will enjoy a better season.

Prediction: 10th

Fernando Alonso

Team: McLaren

Last year’s position: 6th

There is an old saying about never going back. Well, Alonso, who raced for McLaren in 2007 (not exactly a happy experience for him) has done exactly that, returning to take part in the new partnership between McLaren and Honda.

Testing has not gone well for both team and driver – Alonso was injured in somewhat mysterious circumstances during the final test, resulting in a three-day hospital stay despite what were apparently only minor concerns about concussion, and he will miss the first race of the season as well. He might be glad that he did – it seems unlikely McLaren will even complete the race, given their issues in testing!

Given Alonso’s status as arguably the most talented driver on the grid, it seems unfortunate that he has not had a good car for a number of years, and with what is shaping up to be an unreliable one this year, I do not predict much joy for him.

Prediction: 8th

Jenson Button

Team: McLaren

Last year’s position: 8th

Toward the end of 2014 there was much debate around who would be Alonso’s teammate for 2015 – newcomer Kevin Magussen, or experienced 2009 champion Button. For a time it seemed that Magussen would get the nod, despite being comfortably outperformed by Button throughout the season, but in the end McLaren resigned Button (requiring him to take a pay cut mind) for 2015, giving the team one of the most experienced line-ups on the grid.

As mentioned above, the car is proving to be unreliable and this will sadly hamper Button’s hopes. The eternally optimistic Button has expressed some positive thoughts about the new car, but he will lose too much ground at the start of the year.

Prediction: 9th

Romain Grosjean

Team: Lotus

Last year’s position: 14th

Grosjean’s F1 career has been peculiar so far. 2012 brought glimpses of pace but also a lot of erratic performances (including a ban-earning collision at Spa that wiped out Hamilton, Alonso and Perez at the first corner). 2013 was better but 2014 was a backwards step for Grosjean – down to the car this time though – and he endured a miserable season, finishing no higher than 8th and not scoring any points after the Monaco Grand Prix.

With the new car apparently full of promise (and with a much better engine) it seems that things might be better for him this year.

Prediction: 11th

Pastor Maldonado

Team: Lotus

Last year’s position: 16th

Maldonado’s critics would argue he is only in F1 because he brings good sponsorship money, and after three years spent having contributed to a number of incidents/accidents, it’s a label he is finding hard to shake. He was not helped last year by a poorly designed car, but this year he needs to recapture the ability that saw him actually take a win in 2012 – and lose the crash-happy performances. The car is better, so he will have no excuses. Ideally, another year of crashing off every other race would kill his career – but the income he brings might just save him, if he can provide a few good, points-scoring finishes.

Prediction: 15th

Nico Hulkenberg

Team: Force India

Last year’s position: 9th

Having given a good account of himself throughout his career so far, Hulkenberg was pretty consistent last year, finishing 5th several times, and he helped Force India push McLaren quite hard. Arriving late to testing has seemingly hurt his team’s chances of repeating the strong performances of last year, but he might just do well in the second half of the year.

Prediction: 12th

Sergio Perez

Team: Force India

Last year’s position: 10th

Perez has had a decidedly up-and-down experience in F1 so far. Some fine performances and some bold overtaking have been tempered by what some would argue is overly aggressive racing, leading to crashes and retirements on several occasions. He has gained some unlikely podiums and also failed to score any points from positions where he might be expected to get a few.

This will be his fifth year in F1 and it is time for Perez to deliver. He was beaten by his teammate Hulkenberg last season, and now Perez needs to pick his game up and push on. He has the ability, and now he has some experience under his belt, hopefully he will put in a good shift. Lack of testing for the Force India will potentially hamper him, but at the very least he should be scrapping for the low-points scoring places.

Prediction: 14th

Max Verstappen

Team: Toro Rosso

Last year’s position: N/A

The first of our newcomers to Formula 1, Verstappen (the son of former Benetton driver Jos Verstappen) will become the youngest ever F1 driver when he makes his proper debut in Australia. At just 17, some have questioned the wisdom of giving such a young man a drive (indeed, the FIA have since amended the terms and conditions needed to get a superlicence), but the view of his team is that he has bags of ability and will surprise people. It’s entirely possible, but I can’t help but feel a lack of experience with the cars and opponents will not help him reach that potential in his first year, despite having a reasonable car.

Prediction: 16th

Carlos Sainz Jr

Team: Toro Rosso

Last year’s position: N/A

Another debutant, Sainz Jr is another youngster at just twenty years of age. He has a little more experience in other forms of racing, which I feel will serve him in good stead versus Verstappen, but as before, a lack of experience will see 2015 be a learning year, rather than a revolutionary one, for the Spaniard.

Prediction: 15th

Marcus Ericsson

Team: Sauber

Last year’s position: 19th

Driving for the now defunct Caterham team last year, Ericsson was never going to challenge seriously for points – his best finish was a pretty good 11th at Monaco – but he has done enough – either through performances or sponsorship, or both – to get himself a drive for Sauber in 2015. I don’t think we should expect too much from Sauber and therefore not too much from Ericsson.

Prediction: 18th

Felipe Nasr

Team: Sauber

Last year’s position: N/A

Another new driver for 2015, Nasr is someone who has grown increasingly competitive in GP2, making a name for himself, enough so as (along with bringing good sponsor money) to earn an F1 drive, albeit not with an especially great team. Whilst his teammate Ericsson has the edge in F1 experience, it’s only by one season, and I have a sneaky suspicion that Nasr will be quicker than Ericsson.

Prediction: 17th

Giedo van der Garde

Team: Sauber

Last year’s position: N/A

Yes, I listed three drivers for a two-racer team. At the time of writing this, Garde has just successfully won a court fight with Sauber forcing them to honour a contract he has with them to drive for them in 2015. It remains to be seen which of the other two drivers will lose their seat, assuming that Sauber don’t simply choose to ignore the ruling and stick to their guns. I would honestly be surprised if Garde does start in Australia, but the whole affair has been damaging for the Sauber team, who are not in the best position financially and certainly don’t need court proceedings being dragged out against them. If Garde does race, I imagine he will not beat Nasr (despite having raced for Caterham in 2013).

Prediction (if he races): 18th

Will Stevens

Team: Manor-Marussia

Last year’s position: N/A

I have to be upfront and say I know nothing of Stevens, save for him making one appearance last year, at the final race, for Caterham. He is in what will almost certainly be the slowest car on the grid and I don’t think we should expect anything sensational from him.

Prediction: 19th

Roberto Merhi

Team: Manor-Marussia

Last year’s position: N/A

Another guy I know nothing about, and I have to echo my comments above – I don’t think we can expect to see anything special from Merhi, given the car.

Prediction: 20th

 

So there you have it! My lowdown on the 2015 season. I’ve made my predictions, I’ll stick to them, and it will be fascinating to see if I get any of this right, come the final race!

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