Archive: Formula 1

In just one week’s time, the Formula 1 bandwagon will be making its way towards Australia for the first grand prix of the 2012 season. Two teams will be feeling particularly unprepared.

With the test sessions finished, Marussia and HRT will head to Melbourne having done no proper running. The two teams failed to pass all of the required crash tests.

Both teams are about to embark on their third season, and you would have thought that the fundamental task of passing a crash test would be within their capabilities by now. But perhaps the fact that these two teams have struggled really only underlines just how difficult it is to start a new F1 team and become competitive.

Genuinely new teams — excluding those that just took over an existing team — are as rare as hens’ teeth. Three new teams joined in 2010. Before that, the last new team was Super Aguri — a vanity project of Honda. Even then, Super Aguri used an old Arrows chassis as the basis of its car.

Toyota was the previous most recent new team. Starting in 2002 and after enduring years of midfield mediocrity — despite apparently having one of the largest budgets in F1 — they slunk off after 2009.

Stewart Grand Prix started its first race in 1997.

Lola tried that year as well, but their car was rushed out and was so disastrously off the pace that they failed to qualify for the first race and went bust straight afterwards.

Then we come to the glut of tail-end charlies that came along in the mid-1990s: Forti, Pacific, Simtek, Larrousse, Andrea Moda. Each of these teams lasted a maximum of two years.

Of the teams that have formed in the past 20 years, only one stands out as having achieved a modicum of success: Stewart Grand Prix.

Stewart’s success

Johnny Herbert 1999 Canada

Starting in 1997, Stewart had an astonishingly successful season for a new team. Poor reliability masked the fact that the car had decent midfield pace, able to challenge for points. A 2nd place finish in Monaco — only the team’s fifth race — was the reward.

1998 was more difficult. Nevertheless, Stewart finished one place higher in the Constructors’ Championship, clinching 8th place.

But the real achievements came in 1999. The Stewart car was genuinely competitive. It finished on the podium four times. It took a pole position. But most of all, it took victory in the European Grand Prix.

Luck played a part there — the 1999 European Grand Prix was a manic race. But regular points finishes ensured that the team secured 4th place in the Constructors’ Championship. For a new team to achieve this level of success so quickly is more or less unheard of.

After 1999, the team was sold to Ford, who badged the team as Jaguar Racing. Those were consolidation years, as management problems helped ensure the team couldn’t rise above the midfield again.

Then Red Bull bought it and turned the team into the incredible success it is today. Since its earliest beginnings in 1997, the team now has four championships to its name.

Apart from Red Bull, the newest team to have won a championship is Benetton / Renault, which began life as Toleman in 1981.

Putting the new teams’ struggles in perspective

In the grand scheme of things, the troubles facing Marussia and HRT are not too surprising. If you compare them to the likes of Lola, Forti, Pacific and Simtek, just surviving the first two seasons is a major achievement.

But the success of Red Bull, which in just 15 years has become the best constructor in Formula 1, is a reminder of what could be achieved. That Red Bull would have achieved this without the solid foundations built by Stewart Grand Prix is doubtful.

Like most other Formula 1 fans, I have been spending part of this winter seriously considering whether it’s worth continuing watching every race live. With half of the races now being exclusively on Sky, for the first time in my life I need to seriously ask myself the question: I love F1, but enough to pay for it?

Early on, I decided that I would only consider buying the Sky Sports F1 channel if it would also broadcast GP2 and other support races. It is now known that the channel will broadcast GP2, GP3 and — surprisingly — IndyCar.

So it was time to crunch the numbers.

Buying the channel on Virgin Media

I am currently a Virgin Media customer. I have been ever since I moved into my current flat, in late November 2010. When I signed up, the contract was for a minimum of 18 months. This means that, no matter what, I can’t leave Virgin Media until June. By this time, six of this season’s races will already have taken place.

Thankfully, Virgin Media will be carrying Sky Sports F1. But there are a number of downsides. One is that the channel will not be broadcast in HD. But more importantly, the cost is downright prohibitive.

The only way to buy Sky Sports F1 is to buy the entire Sky Sports package. I need to buy five expensive channels just to watch one. There will probably be nothing on the other four channels that will interest me, particularly since IndyCar will now be broadcast on Sky Sports F1.

The cost of the Sky Sports package on Virgin Media is a ball-twisting £22.50 per month on top of whatever you are already paying. I already pay £38.90 per month to use Virgin Media.

There are other costs to add. There is the anticipated £1 per month hike in broadband fees. Then there is the cost of having a TiVo box. This will be necessary to make full use of the BBC’s red button options next year. The cost of having this box installed is £50 (in my calculation, I have spread this cost over 18 months). Then you must pay a further £3 per month for the privilege of using the damn thing.

All-in-all, the monthly cost of using Virgin Media would rise to £68.18 per month. This is just far too much.

When you consider that Sky Sports F1 will not be broadcast in HD on Virgin Media, therefore it would be better to watch the BBC’s ten live races. Essentially I would be paying over £20 per Sky-only race, and it won’t be in HD either. It is not even worth considering.

So it has been decided. Until at least the Canadian Grand Prix, I will have to rely on the BBC’s output alone. I will miss three live races.

Moving to Sky

When June comes, I will be able to move to Sky. I have crunched the numbers for this too. Thankfully, these numbers are significantly more promising. However, I am also wary as I have been told that Sky’s offers change quite frequently. But when I checked it out a few weeks ago, here is how the figures stacked up.

Sky Sports F1 HD is available to all Sky customers that buy the HD pack. So there is no need to buy the Sports pack. A TV package that includes Eurosport (a must, so that I can watch other motorsport events) can be bought for £25 per month. Add HD for £10.25 per month. Telephone line rental is £12.25, and you can get unlimited broadband for £7.50. An M&S voucher is also offered (again, I have spread this benefit over 18 months).

This comes to a grand total of £52.78 per month. This is an additional £13.88 per month on top of what I currently pay for Virgin Media. It’s still not ideal, but it is much more within reach.

In 2002, the F1 Digital+ venture cost £12 per race. Considering that Sky Sports F1 HD will probably offer even more than F1 Digital+ did, this actually seems like a bargain in comparison.

A side benefit is that I would also have access to channels that I currently do not on Virgin Media (such as Motors TV).

I have not yet decided if I will move to Sky in June. A lot of that depends on how I feel after the first six races.

What will I do in the meantime?

I have not yet decided if I will attempt to consume the races live. It seems to me sensible to wait for the BBC’s highlights of the Australian and Malaysian grands prix. Due to the time difference, the highlights will probably be broadcast at 2pm. So with a bit of care, it wouldn’t be too difficult to avoid spoilers. Of the first six races, the most tricky to avoid would be the Bahrain Grand Prix. But whether this race will even go ahead is under debate.

Of course, one possibility would be to listen to the excellent coverage on BBC Radio 5 Live, which will still be broadcasting all of the races live. It will be interesting to see how this year pans out for 5 Live’s F1 coverage. Their entire on-air team has been poached by Sky, so it will certainly be different.

However, 5 Live’s producer Jason Swales remains in place and is bound to do his usual great job. Commentary duties will be shared between James Allen and Jonathan Legard, two experienced commentators that know their stuff when it comes to F1.

It’s definitely a viable alternative. But whether it’s worth getting up at silly o’clock to listen to an early morning race without pictures is another matter. I will ponder it between now and Australia.

Grand Prix film poster

Have you ever wanted to meet me? Then tough, because you might have to if you are going to Badger GP’s Grand Prix pre-season F1 fan meetup!

The good people at Badger GP kindly invited me to attend as a guest. While it’s a fair trek for me to go down to London, it was in my plans to go to London this year anyway. And I would guess it would be mad to go this summer with the Olympics going on, so I might as well go in February while this event is on!

In the words of the Badger:

It’s a rather informal affair for you to come and enjoy a drink, some food and meet like-minded F1 fans.

To make it that little bit more special, we’ll be screening the classic film “Grand Prix” form 1966, arguably one of the greatest motorsport films ever made.

The tickets are £4.50, or £8 if you’re going in twos. The venue is Roxy Bar and Screen, London, SE1 1LB.

If you’re going, give me a shout and I’ll see you there!

There was excitement in the Formula 1 world today when a former World Champion made his first outing in a Formula 1 car for some time. The Renault team has turned to the ace after a turbulent period for the Enstone-based team, which has recently seen a change of ownership.

Some have questioned the choice of driver. He has been out of Formula 1 for a while, and despite his championship credentials he has produced variable results more recently. However, he showed immense pace in the early part of his career, and it is hoped that he can rekindle that form for his comeback.

Jacques Villeneuve

— Report by Jimmy Winckelsnith, September 2004

This is part 2 of 2 in the series 2011 Formula 1 constructor rankings

Unfortunately my top five is a bit predictable, but here we go nonetheless.

5. Sauber F1 Team

Sauber actually had a worryingly variable season. The start of the season was very promising, with Kamui Kobayashi stringing together seven consecutive impressive points finishes (although the first of these ended in disqualification). The Saubers were noted for being particularly kind on tyres, in a season when tyre management was so crucial thanks to the entrance of Pirelli and their high degradation tyres.

The turning point came halfway through the season when Sauber made a decision not to pursue the exhaust blown diffuser at a point when it seemed as though the FIA was going to ban the device. Points finishes were still possible, but usually in 9th or 10th rather than 5th or 7th.

Exhaust blown diffusers will be banned for 2012, which hopefully bodes well for Sauber’s chances next year.

4. Mercedes GP

A year of consolidation for Mercedes. This is a team that is definitely still punching below its weight. On occasion Mercedes will be beaten by, say, a Renault or a Force India. But at the same time, they are also capable of putting up a bit of a fight against one of the Ferrari drivers at least. In other words, Mercedes are firmly the 4th best team in F1.

Mercedes will want more, and its drivers will demand more. They should have the resources to achieve their goals. But there is a danger that the team could also succumb to a Honda-style implosion — something the Brackley-based team knows all about. There are so many big names on the technical side that it’s tempting to wonder if too many cooks spoil the broth.

3. Scuderia Ferrari

Another disappointing year for Ferrari, who expect more than one solitary victory even in the worst of seasons. It gets worse when you consider that the one win, at Silverstone, came with a temporary rule change on engine mapping, which was rescinded at the next race. So basically, to the 2011 regulations as they were for almost the whole season, Ferrari had a car that was not capable of winning a race.

Worse still, the car seemed to get worse as the season went on. The flexible front wing suggested that Ferrari were perhaps turning to desperate measures in their attempt to carve some extra speed out of the car. Both Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso seemed to struggle to keep the car under control at stages towards the end of the season.

If there’s one thing that bodes well for Ferrari, it’s that exhaust blown diffusers will be banned in 2012. Given the encouraging result at Silverstone, Ferrari could be best placed to design a car to the new regulations.

2. McLaren

Yet another ‘almost’ year for McLaren. Once again McLaren designed a car that was poor out of the box — a worryingly consistent trend. But, as usual, McLaren developed the car superbly to the point where it was capable of winning races.

But McLaren need to get out of this rut. It is an incredible 13 seasons since they last won a Constructors’ Championship. Being 2nd every year is not good enough, and it might even be preferable to perform like Ferrari, who are sometimes 3rd but sometimes 1st.

1. Red Bull Racing

It goes without saying that Red Bull Racing were the strongest team in 2011. They weren’t as dominant as some teams have been in the past. Mark Webber was not always up there. How much of that is down to the car, Vettel’s excellence, or Webber being off-colour, is not easy to know.

But the fact is that every race weekend the expectation is that Red Bull are the most likely team to win. And on almost every occasion, they met up to that expectation.

Not bad for a soft drinks company.