Dan’s the man in Montreal

Mercedes dominated qualifying yet again, with Nico Rosberg surprisingly beating Lewis Hamilton to pole position. With the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve seemingly designed to suit the strengths of the Mercedes W05, it looked like the Canadian grand prix would be another straight fight between the two Mercedes team-mates.

The Mercedes cars battle into turn one

The Mercedes cars battle into turn one

And so it proved, but only for the first 37 laps or so of the race. Rosberg was actually beaten off the line by Hamilton, but managed to squeeze the Briton into turn one and maintain the lead. As it turned out Sebastian Vettel managed to manoeuvre his Red Bull ahead of Hamilton, too, as the Mercedes driver was forced onto the grass by his team-mate as he took action to avoid a collision.

Bianchi's wrecked Marussia following his 1st lap crash with Chilton

Bianchi’s wrecked Marussia
following his 1st lap crash with Chilton

Hamilton had to wait a while to re-pass Vettel, until lap 10 in fact.  The reason for that was a lengthy safety car period caused after the Marussias of Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton collided on the opening lap, putting both out of the race. It was a swift return to earth for the team after they’d been on a high after scoring their first formula 1 points with Bianchi’s ninth place finish in Monaco.

It proved to be a return to earth for Mercedes, too. With Hamilton trailing Rosberg we suddenly heard reports of a loss of power on Hamilton’s car, swiftly followed with team radio indicating an identical issue on Rosberg’s car. The rest of the field were suddenly catching both Mercedes cars hand over fist.

Even before we got to that point there was controversy as Rosberg escaped a penalty, despite gaining an advantage, by cutting the final chicane when under pressure from a charging Hamilton. It proved to be immaterial however. While the Mercedes toiled the rest of the pack continued to close in. It was time for the second stops for Mercedes, and a slow stop for Rosberg allowed Hamilton to overtake him, although both were now behind the Williams of Felipe Massa.

Hamilton pulls into the pits to retire

Hamilton pulls into the pits to retire

Hamilton, finally had the advantage over his team-mate, but it wasn’t to last. The Englishman emerged from the pits on lap 46 just ahead of his German team-mate, but later the same lap he ran wide at the hairpin allowing Rosberg through. Hamilton then himself cut the final chicane as we saw his right rear wheel smoking. It turned out that in addition to the loss of power his brakes had failed, forcing him into his second retirement of the reason.

It soon emerged that Rosberg had trouble with his brakes, too. As Massa made his second pit stop on lap 49 the remaining Mercedes retook the lead of the race, but was being chased down by a pack of three cars led by the Force India of Sergio Perez, with the two Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Vettel close behind. Amazingly, though, Rosberg was able to hold on with Perez closing rapidly down the straights, but unable to make his move as Rosberg kept pulling out enough of a gap through the corners.

The Force India just wasn’t going to get the job done, but as it turned out a Red Bull could. Perez started suffering from brake issues himself allowing Ricciardo to pass on lap 66, just five laps from home. Even though the Red Bull isn’t as quick in a straight line as the Mercedes powered Force India, it was quicker through the corners, meaning that Rosberg was unable to pull away from Ricciardo through the first and second sectors.

Ricciardo takes the chequered flag to win his first Formula 1 race

Ricciardo takes the chequered
flag to win his first Formula 1 race

On the penultimate lap of the race Ricciardo made his move and took the lead. There was no opportunity for Rosberg to fight back as Massa and Perez crashed very heavily at the start of the final lap, bringing out the second safety car of the race. The race finished under the safety car, with victory for Ricciardo – his first in Formula 1 – with his team-mate Vettel in third and Rosberg in second.

It’s a massive achievement for Ricciardo and thoroughly deserved after a stellar start to his career at Red Bull Racing. You can’t help but feel, though, that despite not taking the race win, the biggest winner was Rosberg. A retirement for Hamilton and a second place finish means that the German’s world drivers’ championship lead has ballooned to a daunting 22 points over his team-mate.

Hamilton will be hoping for a change in fortunes next time out in Austria. It’s Red Bull’s home race, though, and they’ll certainly be heading there in high spirits.

Marussia: Ahead of Caterham by a nose?

Thanks to  Express Insurance for sponsoring this post.

So, the new 2014 formula 1 cars have been launched and the first test has been completed.  As always, the focus is on the teams expected to be at the front of the grid – Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Red Bull – and their perceived successes and failures at this very early stage of the year.  But what about the teams at the back of the pack?

Marussia and Caterham are now entering their fifth year at the pinnacle of motorsport and the massive regulation change this year offers both teams their best opportunity to start moving up the pecking order.  Even if outright pace is still lacking, the expected reliability issues and higher rates of attrition in races will mean that those elusive points scoring finishes are finally a real possibility for both teams.  Which of these two, back of the grid teams stands the best chance of delivering in 2014, though?

The Caterham CT05 certainly can't be descibed as a 'looker'!

The Caterham CT05 certainly
can’t be descibed as a ‘looker’!

Let’s start by looking briefly at Caterham.  The Leafield based team certainly generated a massive amount of interest when their 2014 challenger – the CT05 – was revealed to fans and media at Jerez.  We expected some odd-looking cars this year thanks to the regulation change that requires the nose of the cars to be lower, the aim being that they are less likely to launch into the air in accidents.  The Caterham, though, is perhaps the oddest looking of all of the 2014 F1 cars, with an extremely aggressive nose solution that looks, frankly, hideously ugly.  The team won’t be too worried about that if their car proves to be quick, though.

As I’ve already alluded to, however, outright speed may not be enough to deliver a winning package in the brave new world of Formula 1.  Reliability is expected to be a major issue.  Formula 1 has turned its back on the 2.4 litre V8 engines used in recent years and moved to new 1.6 litre turbocharged V6 units paired with Energy Recovery Systems – ERS – which are more relevant to modern road cars.  This is a huge change for the sport, and making these packages work reliably is, on the basis of the first test proving challenging for one manufacturer in particular.

Renault's 2014 F1 Engine

Renault’s 2014 F1 Engine

Unfortunately for Caterham, that manufacturer is Renault, who supply the team’s powertrain.  Renault engine cars suffered badly at Jerez.  Over the course of the four-day test, Renault engines completed a paltry 151 laps, with world champions Red Bull Racing struggling the most with just 21 laps completed.  Admittedly, it’s much too early to write off Renault, but this doesn’t bode well for teams that use their power units.

This is where, perhaps, Marussia might have the upper hand on their rivals.  The Anglo-Russian team, based in Banbury in the UK, had used Cosworth engines in their first four years in F1.  However, the British engine manufacturer decided to drop out of the sport at the end of 2013, choosing not to produce one of the new breed of 1.6 litre V6 turbocharged units.  Marussia therefore were forced to switch suppliers and opted for Ferrari engines and ERS systems.  On the basis of Jerez testing, this looks like it will give Marussia an advantage over Caterham.  Despite Marussia missing the first couple of days of testing, with the new MR03 turning up on day three of the four day test, Ferrari engined cars completed 444 laps, nearly three times the number of laps completed by cars running Renault engines.

The Marussia MR03 is, at least, more aesthetically pleasing than the Caterham CT05

The Marussia MR03 is, at least, more aesthetically pleasing than the Caterham CT05

Marussia have also opted for a more conservative approach to the nose of their car.  If this is an indication of their general approach this, paired with a seemingly more robust power unit, might indicate that Marussia might have the edge in terms of reliability over Caterham.  With both teams unlikely to set the lap time charts alight, this might prove critical in 2014.  But, of course, that’s not the full story in terms of reliability.

As it turned out, Caterham proved to be the most reliable of the three Renault powered teams – Lotus were absent – at Jerez.  The CT05 completed 76 laps over its four days of running.  That’s just over half of the total number of laps completed by Renault cars at the entire test.  While that’s only just over half of the number of laps completed by Force India – the Mercedes powered car that competed the fewest number of laps at Jerez – it does at least indicate that the Caterham itself is probably pretty reliable.

In contrast, in comparison to the two other Ferrari powered teams, Marussia completed the fewest number of laps – just 30.  Granted, the team did (as I mentioned earlier) only run for half of the test, so that might not be significant, but it does indicate that reliability is something that Marussia won’t necessarily be able to count on to give them the advantage over Caterham, particularly as the former have to adapt to a new engine supplier while the latter does, at least have stability with Renault.

Caterham's 2014 driver line-up: Kobayashi (L) and Ericsson (R), either side of third driver Robin Frijns

Caterham’s 2014 driver line-up: Kobayashi (L) and Ericsson (R), either side of third driver Robin Frijns

While Caterham have stability in terms of their engine supplier where their rivals don’t, it’s Marussia that have stability in terms of their driver line up, while it’s all change at Caterham.  Marussia have retained Frenchman Jules Bianchi – an undoubted talent – and Englishman Max Chilton in 2014, while Caterham have gone for an all new pairing of Japanese driver Kamui Kobayashi – making a welcome return to F1 after a year out of the sport in 2013 – and rookie Marcus Ericsson, who makes the step up from GP2.  The pairings are probably fairly evenly matched, but because Marussia know their two drivers pretty well this might afford them a slim advantage, at least to begin with.

It is, though, unlikely that we’ll see either Marussia or Caterham making big steps forward.  Williams, who struggled in 2013 and were the team most under threat of being overtaken by Marussia or Caterham in the constructors standings, look to have made an inspired move by switching from Renault engines to Mercedes power units, meaning that the target for the two ‘newcomer’ teams is likely to be the Red Bull junior team, Toro Rosso.

A Minardi at Monaco in 2001, driven by future double world champion Fernando Alonso

A Minardi at Monaco in 2001, driven by future double world champion Fernando Alonso

Toro Rosso, the team that was formerly Minardi, one of F1s great minnows, have also swapped engines, but it looks like they’ve made the wrong choice in switching from Ferrari engines to the same Renault units used by ‘big brother’ Red Bull Racing.  Still, though, Toro Rosso probably has a bigger budget than either Marussia or Caterham, and let’s not forget that they are also grand prix winners, albeit at the hands of now four-time world drivers’ champion, Sebastian Vettel, way back in 2008.  They’re likely to retain the advantage over the new boys.

So, while 2014 presents a huge opportunity for Marussia and Caterham, their prospects don’t look all that promising.  If it proves to be the case that Marussia and Caterham are still battling it out between themselves at the back of the pack it’s a worrying situation for F1.  Indeed, unless the long mooted budget cap is agreed, the only opportunity for either team to make big strides forward might be to follow the Minardi example and sell up to someone able to inject a significant amount of cash.

Caterham Boss Tony Fernandes has threatened to pull out of F1

Caterham Boss Tony Fernandes
has threatened to pull out of F1

Caterham owner Tony Fernandes has already threatened to pull out at the end of the year if results do not improve for his team, and you have to wonder whether Marussia might be in a similar position.  It would be sad to see either team go the same ways as the other 2010 new entry, HRT, but unless either can take advantage of the opportunity afforded to them by the regulation change this season, that may well happen.

What do you think about Marussia and Caterham’s prospects for 2014 and beyond?  Will either team score points?  Will Marussia be ahead of Caterham by a nose?  Comment below!

Rosberg plays his cards right to win in Monaco

Well, it’s the race that everyone wants to win. The one Formula 1 race of the year that sees the glitz and glamour of the sport brought absolutely to the forefront amid the gleaming yachts in a gambler’s paradise: Monaco. As it turned out, the result of the race was never really in doubt, despite plenty of thrills and spills in the Principality – Nico Rosberg, 30 years since his father Keke tasted victory at the same track, led from lights to flag to take a dominant and well deserved victory.

As ever in Monaco, track position was crucial. As all Formula 1 fans know, overtaking around the tight, twisty street circuit is incredibly difficult, which makes qualifying vitally important. Qualifying, of course, has been the great strength of Rosberg’s Mercedes car, and it was no great surprise to see the team take their fourth straight pole position on Saturday. Indeed, it was another front row lock out for Mercedes, with Lewis Hamilton under a tenth of a second slower than his German team-mate.

Rosberg leads the field into Sainte Devote

Rosberg leads the field into Sainte Devote

The big question was whether Mercedes had the race pace to compete, given the extreme difficulties that they experienced with tyre degradation in the last race at Barcelona. If Mercedes could lead into the first corner, and successfully manage their tyres, it was odds on that they would win the race. The fact that Rosberg started well, and beat his team-mate Hamilton off the line and into turn one, set his race up perfectly. As it turned out, tyre management was never an issue for Mercedes and Rosberg never relinquished the lead at any point in the race to take a brilliant second career race victory.

Massa's crash in the race was almost identical to his crash in practice a day earlier

Massa’s crash in the race was almost identical
to his crash in practice a day earlier

That might make the race sound a little more straightforward than it actually was. The result could have been even better for Mercedes had they not had a bad roll of the dice with the first safety car period. Surprisingly, and unlike their immediate competitors, lap 31 of the race arrived and neither of the Mercedes cars had pitted. That meant that when the safety car came out following a heavy crash for Felipe Massa on lap 30 – a carbon copy of the one that he experienced in Saturday morning free practice – Mercedes were forced to pit both cars on the same lap. This allowed the Red Bulls, both of which had been released by the safety car, to jump ahead of the unfortunate Lewis Hamilton, who missed out on the opportunity to challenge his team-mate for victory and take his third podium of the season.

Hamilton put Webber under heavy pressure as the race restarted, even drawing alongside him at Rascasse, but was unable to get ahead of the Red Bull. Indeed, despite further chaos later in the race the top four of Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and Hamilton remained in that order for the remaining 48 laps. Behind them, though, there was plenty of action with McLaren’s Sergio Perez and Force India’s Adrian Sutil putting in some great overtaking manoeuvres at the chicane and at Lowe’s hairpin respectively.

monaco_grosjean2It was at Perez’s favourite overtaking place, coming out of the tunnel into the chicane, that we saw the incident that resulted in the second safety car period on lap 63. Lotus’s Romain Grosjean had his fourth crash of the season, ramming into the back of, and mounting, Daniel Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso, leaving debris strewn across the track and putting both cars out of the race. Grosjean definitely had a weekend to forget, and that incident resulted in an investigation by the stewards after the race, who handed the Frenchman a 10 place grid penalty for the next race in Canada.

Maldonado before the incident with Chilton

Maldonado before the incident with Chilton

Perhaps even worse, though, was the incident that resulted in a red flag on lap 46. Williams driver Pastor Maldonado pulled alongside Marussia’s Max Chilton on the approach to turn 16. Chilton inexplicably moved across on Maldonado, pushing the Venezuelan’s car into the barriers and momentarily into the air before it speared head on into the barriers. Maldonado said afterwards “I didn’t expect Chilton to cross my line. It is very dangerous”. Certainly the stewards agreed, handing the Englishman a drive through penalty for the incident.

Indeed, that incident might have had a big impact on the result of the race. With the red flag, the teams were able to make changes to their cars and, crucially, change tyres. That benefitted Red Bull Racing, and Mark Webber in particular. The Australian had pitted to change tyres on lap 25, six laps earlier than both of the Mercedes cars and his team-mate Sebastian Vettel. It seemed that it was Red Bull, rather than Mercedes that seemed to be struggling a little with tyre wear and without the free tyre change afforded to the teams by the red flag period, we might have seen Webber struggle with degradation in the closing laps of the race. That’s all speculation, though.

Vettel led home Webber and Hamilton to take second place

Vettel led home Webber and
Hamilton to take second place

Rosberg and Mercedes will certainly have been delighted by victory around the streets of Monaco. Not even a pre-race protest by Ferrari and Red Bull about a tyre test following the race in Barcelona could spoil their party, although we’ve certainly not heard the last of that particular controversy. Despite not taking victory in Monaco, the big winner in terms of the championship was second placed Sebastian Vettel, though. The German saw his world driver’s championship lead over Kimi Raikkonen balloon to 21 points after the Finn could only manage 10th place after a puncture on lap 69 following an incident with Sergio Perez at the chicane. After only managing seventh place in Monaco, Fernando Alonso is a further eight points adrift n third place in the standings.

We head next to Canada in two weeks; a track with similar characteristics to Monaco, but many more overtaking opportunities. It’ll be interesting to see whether Mercedes can maintain their momentum there, or whether degradation will prove damaging to them once again.

The class of 2013

As always, now that the first winter test has been and gone we’re none the wiser about the respective pace of the 11 teams on the Formula 1 grid. However, now that 10 of those 11 teams have confirmed their driver line ups – the exception being Force India, who have yet to announce who will race for them alongside Paul di Resta – we can be much more certain about who will actually be on the grid come the opening race in Australia in about a month’s time. Unusually, of the 21 seats that have been filled, nearly a quarter are filled with rookies.

Indeed, once Force India confirm their driver line up, the number of rookies on the grid may well increase to six – more than a quarter of the field – if, as seems quite likely, Jules Bianchi gets the nod. For now, though, I’m going to ignore Bianchi and instead look at the five confirmed Formula 1 rookies for 2013. Let’s focus on these F1 novices and assess their chances.

Valtteri Bottas, Williams FW34 , Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary, 27th July 2012. Copyright:Glenn Dunbar/LAT

Valtteri Bottas, Williams FW34 , Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary, 27th July 2012. Copyright:Glenn Dunbar/LAT

I’ll start with Williams’ young Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas. Bottas is unique among this year’s crop of rookies as he has never competed in Formula 1 feeder series GP2. The Finn was, though, crowned GP3 champion in 2011 and makes up for his lack of racing in GP2 with three years spent with Williams as a test driver. This will mean that Bottas will have had some considerable input into the design and development of the Williams FW35 – the only 2013 car still to be unveiled – and will know exactly what to expect from a car that, because of his input into its design and development, is likely to suit him.

Despite his lack of recent racing experience, GP3 aside, let’s not forget that Bottas does have a fair amount of Formula 1 experience. The 23 year old took part in 15 Friday free practice sessions in 2012, on top of his other duties as a test driver, and was impressively faster than race driver Pastor Maldonado in six of these free practice appearances. The Finn is certainly rated very highly by Williams and it will be interesting to see how he fairs against former GP2 champion, and Formula 1 race winner, Maldonado. I expect that the two will be closely matched and that Bottas may even outpace his more experienced Venezuelan team mate. I would be far from surprised if Bottas ends the season as top rookie.

Esteban Gutierrez testing the Sauber C32 at JerezBy Leo Hidalgo, via Wikimedia Commons

Esteban Gutierrez testing the Sauber C32 at Jerez
By Leo Hidalgo, via Wikimedia Commons

I expect that the other contender for the top rookie crown come the end of the 2013 Formula 1 season will be Esteban Gutierrez. Sauber’s new race driver, like Bottas, has been with his current employers for quite some time. The 21 year old Mexican first tested for Sauber, in their former guise as BMW Sauber, in 2009 and, again like Bottas, has been with his team as a reserve and test driver for the last three seasons.

Unlike Bottas, though, Gutierrez has not had much Formula 1 free practice experience, appearing only once in FP1 in 2012, deputising for his unwell compatriot, Sergio Perez, in India. Gutierrez does, though, have the edge on Bottas in terms of recent race experience, having come home third in last season’s GP2 championship, ahead of his team-mate James Calado, the same team-mate that Bottas beat to the GP3 championship a year earlier. Gutierrez has big shoes to fill at Sauber, though. His fellow Mexican Perez was outstanding in 2012 and was rewarded with a move to McLaren to replace Lewis Hamilton. It remains to be seen whether Gutierrez can rise to the challenge. He was inconsistent in GP2, and I expect that 2013 may well be a tough year for him, especially alongside Nico Hulkenberg – a former GP2 champion and a Formula 1 pole sitter.

luiz-razia.n

Luiz Razia at Moscow City Racing 2011
By RusRayden, via Wikimedia Commons

The remaining three 2013 rookies fill three of the four seats at the two remaining ‘new’ Formula 1 teams – Caterham and Marussia. The first of these is Luiz Razia, who was only confirmed as the second Marussia race driver last week. Like Gutierrez, Razia competed in GP2 last season, finishing runner up in the championship with four race victories. The Brazilian also has some Formula 1 experience as a test driver, first with his current team in their former guise of Virgin racing and, more recently, with Team Lotus, which has now become Caterham. Like Gutierrez, his only experience of Formula 1, other than a young driver test, was a single free practice outing. For Razia, this came at the 2011 Chinese grand prix.

Max Chilton

Max Chilton testing the Marussia MR02 at Jerez
By Leo Hidalgo, via Wikimedia Commons

Going head to head with Razia at Marussia is another rookie, Englishman Max Chilton. Chilton, at 21 years of age, is a couple of years younger than his Brazilian team-mate, who he competed alongside in last year’s GP2 series finishing the championship in fourth place at the end of the season. Chilton has been with Marussia as their test and reserve driver since last year’s Japanese GP and, like both Gutierrez and Razia, he took part in a single Friday free practice session – for Chilton, this came at the Abu Dhabi GP. It should be an interesting battle between the two rookies at Marussia and it’s pretty tough to predict who will come out on top. It may well be the case that the one who loses out may also lose out on an F1 drive in 2014. One thing’s for sure, though, we’re highly unlikely to see either Razia or Chilton, battling with Bottas and Gutierrez to be the top rookie.

Guido van der Garde driving for Caterham in FP1 at the 2012 Japanese GPBy Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Guido van der Garde driving for Caterham in FP1 at the 2012 Japanese GP
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

That leaves us with one more F1 novice to assess; Caterham new boy Guido van der Garde. Van der Garde is the fourth of our five rookies to have graduated from GP2 and, at 27 years of age, the Dutchman is the oldest and most experienced of the bunch, with Formula 1 experience as a test and reserve driver as long ago as 2007, with Spyker (now known as Force India). It is perhaps telling that van der Garde has not made his Formula 1 breakthrough before now. Despite his experience as Caterham’s test and reserve driver last season, the Dutchman did not take part in any Friday free practice sessions, which places him at a slight disadvantage in comparison to his peers. I doubt that this will prove crucial though, and it will be interesting to see how well van der Garde does in comparison to 2012 F1 rookie Charles Pic.

Of the five rookies, I feel that van der Garde is the one that’s most likely to struggle. Much will depend, of course, on how competitive his Caterham CT03 is in comparison to its rivals. Despite now entering their fourth year in the sport Caterham, and the other remaining new team Marussia, have failed to break through to challenge the more established teams. This places their drivers, and especially the rookies, at a distinct disadvantage. Unless one of these teams has made huge strides forward, I imagine that we’ll see van der Garde, Chilton and Razia competing for the wooden spoon at the end of the season.

As I’ve indicated, though, I expect more from the two rookies driving for more established teams. On ultimate pace I think that Bottas has the edge over Gutierrez, but it’s very tough to tell. We have to go back to 2009 to see when these two last went head-to-head for a full season and it was Bottas that came out on top in the Formula Three Euroseries. Whether it’s Bottas or Gutierrez that takes the rookie crown will depend largely on how good their cars are. The Sauber C32 certainly looks to be the most innovative of this year’s crop of F1 cars, but Williams have yet to show their hand. As always, though, nothing is certain in the unpredictable world of F1.