McLaren’s 2015 Line-Up

2015 already promised to be an intriguing Formula 1 season for McLaren and is even more so now they have confirmed their driver line-up.


www.sidepodcast.com

This post is in part a response to Sidepodcast’s recent F1 Debrief podcast on the subject which you can listen to here.
They wanted to hear everyone’s opinions and I thought it would be a good opportunity to use this space here. Let them know your thoughts, too.


Honda Are Back

Until now the return of Honda was clearly the major talking point for the team. Not only are Honda back in F1 but they are exclusively supplying McLaren in a works deal. McLaren are accustomed to being the lead partner with an engine supplier, getting all the good parts first and dictating the direction of development.

The team being knocked down to customer status, funnily enough because Mercedes bought the ex-Honda team, wasn’t a situation that was going to last especially once Ron Dennis got back in control. Now their works status is restored. I’m sure Honda will pick up customer teams later but even if they do their focus will surely be on McLaren.

The lack of other teams is a short-term problem of course. Not only are Honda 12 months behind Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari but with only one team Honda will have fewer cars to test with than their rivals, less mileage in the ‘Winter Grand Prix’ on the Spanish and Bahraini test tracks. The already tough challenge is a lot harder in that situation.

It isn’t a given that Honda will immediately produce a good power unit, remember the troubles in 2007/2008 before they pulled out. Then for 2009 they piled a ton of money and development into the car before pulling out and leaving the great car to BrawnGP to reap the rewards… with the help of a Mercedes engine which was more powerful. Had Honda stayed in 2009 with the same good car but the less good Honda engine would the team have won the title? That is one of the great imponderables of motor racing.

I certainly hope the Honda that turns up this time is the one pushing to win.

Head To Head – The Incumbent

I’m very relieved Jenson Button has another year or two with the team and I hope the time isn’t squandered waiting for Honda and McLaren to gel. Hopefully his time with Honda in the past will help, it surely must?

JB has always had his doubters and in my view has always been underrated. He may not be the ultimate best but he is not far off it. Most agree the fastest in F1 is Lewis Hamilton, across their three years together at McLaren Button outscored him. Now admittedly Hamilton was struggling with his head towards the end of his McLaren stint but it is still an accomplishment.

How will he handle Alonso? I don’t think it’ll be as some are suggesting. I think Alonso will have the edge but I don’t think it will be a walkover by any means.

Mark Hughes of Motor Sport, formerly of Autosport and one of the finest F1 writers, wrote this must-read piece analysing the strengths and weaknesses of Button’s game.

Interestingly, perhaps tellingly, he says Button doesn’t focus on erasing his weaknesses or manhandling a car he doesn’t like, as Alonso might. Instead he develops his strengths so they are even stronger and works with the team to remove weaknesses from the car, rather than himself. When it comes to the car he’s a perfectionist so you can see why McLaren like him!

Anyway it is a brilliant piece of explanation and you should read it.

Head To Head – The Returnee

Fernando Alonso is the best all-round racer in F1. On the track it is as if he has no weaknesses, even on a bad day he is still at his top level and drags the best out of any bad car.

Surely this will be a tougher challenge for Button than even Hamilton, because Alonso isn’t merely fast he’s uncompromising, he never gives up and can drive almost anything. You rarely go head to head with Alonso in the same team and come out on the other side looking good.

He is also decidedly fed up with not winning Championships. An interesting statistic from Mark Hughes, this time in the current edition of Motor Sport magazine, is that had Alonso scored just 8 more points in his career, at the right times, he’d be a 5-time champion not a 2-time one. And he’d be worthy of it. Trouble is… he knows it!

It is slightly different behind the scenes, he does like to get his own way and isn’t the best at pulling a team together. If the car isn’t up to scratch he’ll get frustrated and when he’s frustrated he runs his mouth to the press or to Twitter.

Alonso has seen off Kimi Raikkonen, albeit a Kimi who just can not get on with the cars Ferrari are producing. I have to imagine if the Ferrari wasn’t so recalcitrant, if the traits of it were more to Kimi’s liking, then the fierce battle between the two we were all expecting would’ve materialised. Will the same happen at McLaren?

He gambled on spaces opening up elsewhere but found none, so now he has done the unthinkable and rejoined McLaren of all places! Not only that but a McLaren run by Ron Dennis. You can imagine if Martin Whitmarsh were still there that’s one thing, but Ron? After the failed blackmail attempt, the loss of the Constructors’ points, the $100m fine, the espionage case..? Remarkable.

That’s why I think Fernando 2015 may not be the same as the Fernando throwing his weight around inside the team, demanding his own way. He could be a much more humble, docile creature. For a year, anyway.

My bet? Alonso will find his feet, Button will match or even surpass him. Alonso will ultimately score more points.. but not that many more. Year 2, that might be different.

The Best Drivers In F1?

Equally as fascinating will be the Kimi vs Seb match-up at Ferrari. Kimi has the chance to get his head back in the game after a beating from Alonso. Vettel can say the exact same thing after meeting Ricciardo. Both have a point to prove.

Then of course there’s the bunfight at Mercedes, round two!

The resurgent Williams pair. You don’t take a title run against Hamilton to the final round if are a fool, Massa is no fool he’s underated too. That Bottas had such a year against him was as much a reflection of his talent.

Red Bull have the excellent Ricciardo and the promising Kvyat.. but is it too soon for him?

I think McLaren just about shades it. On the whole, over a season I’d pick a combo of Alonso and Button.

We’re already in for a hell of a year and we aren’t even close to testing starting yet to know who might be quick. Yet you have people saying F1 is boring..!

Links

F1 Debrief / Sidepodcast

Mark Hughes / Motor Sport

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2012 IndyCar Preview – Pt 1. All Change

The 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season promises to be the most exciting in years. The reintroduction of engine competition alongside a brand new chassis will shake things up, even if the cream rises to the top as it surely will, these added variables will make the racing unpredictable. Add in shaken-up driver line-ups throughout the field (save the top runners) and the series has plenty of what racing fans crave: Unknowns.

A New Car

Much has been written about the Dallara DW12 IndyCar.

From the negatives (and my, IndyCar fans are the best in the world at being negative): It is too heavy at the rear. The sidepods are too big. It looks ugly from several angles. It isn’t different enough to the old car. It is too different to the old car. The engines sound more dull and are too quiet.

To the positives: From different angles it looks very good. The teams have done a fantastic job creating liveries and attracting sponsors. Despite fears of a 17 or 18 car grid we have an entry of 26 cars at St. Pete with more promised later. The engine isn’t as piercingly loud as the last one.

Both are part and parcel of a new chassis and engine package. You will never please everyone. And frankly some of the complaints are those you SHOULD hear when a new car comes in. Not everyone will like it straight away: I didn’t. Yet after weeks of winter testing I really do think it looks more like an IndyCar than the previous chassis did. Okay so yes, it is quite big for an open-wheel car. If it races well nobody will care.

That is the real question. Will it race well? Or will the car be too aero-dependent as most modern open wheel series cars around the world are these days? We hope to find out this Sunday, but we won’t have all the answers as St. Pete is as much a reflection of IndyCar pace as Albert Park is to F1 – in that it isn’t, really. We can get an idea but we won’t really know until the 2nd round.

Engines

At last! Engine competition! And a real shake-up in power plants this season. The last-gen Honda engine was built by Ilmor, but they’ve moved over to welcome-returnees Chevrolet. As a result the Chevys have been pace-setters in winter testing and in St. Pete practice sessions, aided significantly by being the engine of choice of Team Penske.

Honda are still present but this time are built in-house by HPD in California, you’ll recognise the name if you follow sportscar racing as they put together some of the quickest LMP1 and LMP2 car/engine combos at last week’s 12 Hours of Sebring . They also built the Honda engines in the CART era. These people know what they are doing. Honda have been just as competitive in testing as Chevy, again helped by having the series’ other top team, Chip Ganassi Racing, in their camp.

The third manufacturer is Lotus, with engines built by Engine Developments Ltd (known by everyone as Judd, after their founder). Lotus joined the party some months after Honda and Chevy and so have struggled to keep pace with their competitors, releasing their first engine some time later, taking to the track later, and having far fewer cars testing as they worked to build enough engines in time for the first race. One thing that has been reported is the good reliability of the engine, if true this could help them massively. What hasn’t helped was the complete radio silence from Lotus and Judd over the off-season, added to money troubles attributed to the Lotus Group. Will they still be around by the end of 2012, beginning 2013? Quite honestly so many people expected them not to appear in testing let alone show up supplying 5 cars at race 1 as they have, I think they’ll still be here.

Tracks

16 races make up this year’s schedule compared to 17 last year, yet there are several changes to note.

Gone are New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Twin-Ring Motegi, Kentucky Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Controversially these are all oval tracks (however Motegi was switched to the road course last year after earthquake damage) and there are concerns that the replacements are not all ovals – the schedule is no longer balanced as a true test of versatility. There is truth to that and I hope the balance tips back again, even if only slightly. New Hampshire and Kentucky are great IndyCar tracks but drew abysmal ‘crowds’. Motegi has been replaced by an event in China (again controversially). Las Vegas is gone for reasons which should be obvious.

Add in the return of two tracks of old:  Detroit Belle Isle, Auto Club Speedway (a.k.a. Fontana). I’m no fan of Belle Isle, I think I’ve yet to see a good IndyCar/CART race there. ALMS managed to put on a good show but only because the mix of faster and slower classes affected the race. Fontana is a modern classic but there will always be concerns about it after the death of Greg Moore in 1999 (albeit the issue that killed him has long been resolved) but more particularly after Dan Wheldon last year – if the pack racing still exists this year should the series return to a big, fast oval? If the cars are more spread out, yet crucially are still able to pass, then let’s see it.

The retention of two troubled events should be celebrated by everybody. The Milwaukee Mile is a storied racetrack with a history stretching back a hundred years, not to mention it always puts on a great race – a personal favourite. Baltimore’s inaugural race alongside ALMS drew a huge crowd and both races were tense yet fun throughout, it really deserves another shot. It could easily be the ‘Long Beach of the Eastern US’.

* *

The first race is this weekend at St Petersburg, Florida. It starts at about 6pm BST – IndyCar is never exact with starts – but do tune in from 5.30pm to see the pre-race show as there will surely be tributes to Dan Wheldon, who lived in this city. The green flag will be waved by Holly Wheldon, sister of Dan.

See Part 2 of this preview for a run-down of the teams and drivers who will start the season.

Honda out of F1 with immediate effect?

A few of the F1 news websites are abuzz with talk of Honda pulling out of Formula 1 with almost immediate effect. I must stress at this stage: this is just a rumour.
However, this looks to be more than the frequent will they / won’t they rumours we usually see about Renault. From the tone of the reports it looks as though SOMETHING is up at Honda. Whether that is a budget cut, a sale, or a shut down we just don’t know yet. Anyway, to the reports:

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GrandPrix.com is reporting that their US car sales are down 32% (and so was Toyota’s) compared to last year. They are scaling back on production and their plans to build more factories are on ice.
In terms of the F1 team the story includes this note:

On Thursday afternoon we received a flurry of reports that Honda F1 personnel have suddenly started applying for jobs in large numbers. We have been trying to contact Honda Racing F1 this afternoon but have thus far been unable to reach anyone.

The very next story on the site suggests that they are looking to sell the team by Christmas. Pitpass.com reports that a sale must be made before March 2009. I would suggest either date to be a very tall order although the Pitpass story suggests they have two potential buyers lined up already. Pitpass also says that Honda won’t supply engines to the new owners.

Again that second GrandPrix.com story notes of much higher than usual staff movement:

There is no confirmation from any Honda company officials, but teams across Europe are reporting that they have received a rush of applications from Honda F1 personnel in the course of the day. The fact that the team is not responding to requests for statements is a bad sign, as if the rumours are not correct they would need to be killed as quickly as possible.

It should be noted at this point that there is always a fairly big amount of movement between the F1 teams at this time of year among all levels of staff. GrandPrix.com knows this too, so it must be an unusual pattern for them to comment on it, and a ‘flurry’ in one day is certainly unusual.

The lack of activity from the PR / communications department is highly unusual too, as Honda (along with Renault) usually appear to be among the best at supplying info to the specialist press or TV, at least to my layman eyes.
As GrandPrix.com says, it may be best to wait a few hours and see what the parent company in Japan says after their business day begins.

My thoughts….

This was a complete surprise to me. That this is supposedly a full pull-out is also a surprise as after seeing the news, I thought they’d at least supply engines to the new owners, even if only for a year or two.

While this might not be big in terms of where the team is on the grid at the moment, this is absolutely huge in terms of a major manufacturer leaving Formula 1 – if indeed they are. I hope that they aren’t because, well, this is Honda! If any car company can turn around the fortunes of a badly performing F1 team then surely that company is Honda.

I also feel for the people at Brackley and other sites. I’ve been through a redundancy, it isn’t a nice experience. I hope this is either a) budget cuts, or b) a sale – and I hope it is not c) a shut down of the team.

The other consideration is this: If this is true and they are pulling out, what does this mean for the IRL and ALMS programmes? Are Honda looking at other savings, or are the costs sufficiently smaller that they are able to continue? ALMS can live without Acura/Honda, the series would be weaker (combined with Penske/Porsche out) but long-term it would get over it. IndyCar would be a different story. That would be a world of hurt.

Anyway. This is all conjecture. Let’s see what the Japanese parent company says on Friday.

Just to be clear, I must stress that these ARE just rumours at this point. I hope the websites aren’t putting 2 + 2 together to get 5. Both are known names in the F1 world and both have sources within it. I trust GrandPrix.com because they keep their ear to the ground when it comes to the business side of F1. I also know that Pitpass does some fact-checking before posting stories like this.
I strongly advise checking both. Autosport.com also fact-checks but they don’t have anything on this as I type – keep an eye out for something soon.

If it had been a lesser site I wouldn’t have pointed it out. I wasn’t going to post anything at all today as I have an exam in the morning and need to cram like crazy, but this couldn’t wait!

UPDATE @ 23.38 UK – an announcement is due in Japan at 4.30am UK time. The BBC now has a report up citing Reuters, it seems Fry and Brawn told the other teams at the FOTA meeting earlier this week. I’ll post more tomorrow.