Long Read: Thoughts on Fernando Alonso entering the Indianapolis 500

Wow.

That’s all I could think when I saw the news. Wow.

This never happens any more! It is a big enough story when a former Formula 1 driver contests the Indianapolis 500 or IndyCar Series. It is a huge story when an active F1 driver competes in another series in the same year. It is incredible that two-time champion Fernando Alonso, widely regarded as one of the best drivers in the world, let alone on the F1 grid, a man many say is ‘owed’ three more championship titles, would choose to do this while still racing in F1.

Crossovers

F1 drivers are supposed to be ‘out of touch corporate machines’ with bland personalities. They aren’t ‘supposed’ to race in anything else, the thinking goes, there are untouchable.

This is why I love crossovers. Through the 1990s and 2000s it was rare to see. It was a big deal when Juan Montoya and Jeff Gordon did their ‘Tradin Paint’ car swap and that was a sponsor promotion. Same for Lewis Hamilton and Tony Stewart.

In the 2010s the trend changed. Kimi Raikkönen tried NASCAR and Rally during a F1 sabbatical, Robert Kubica famously injured himself in a lesser-ranked rally, Kurt Busch raced the Indy 500, Jeff Gordon the Daytona 24 Hours, Nico Hulkenberg won the 24 Hours of Le Mans as an active F1 driver. Now it is common for half the Formula E field to also compete in World Endurance. It seems the restrictions of the last 20 years are melting away.

Triple Crown

Fernando Alonso is a racer. He just wants to win. He also has an appreciation for the sport. He waved the French tricolore to start the 24 Hours of Le Mans, I thought he might take the start the following year with Porsche. I never thought he’d try Indy.

It is Juan Pablo Montoya I thought would be the next to attempt the Triple Crown, of Monaco GP, Indy 500 and Le Mans 24. He has already won Indy and Monaco, the only still-active driver to have won two legs of the three. He has won the 24 Hours of Daytona three times and the buzz ramped up when he tested a Porsche LMP1 in 2015. Surely he would be the next to attempt it? Perhaps the chase of Alonso will spur him on!

The Triple Crown is an unofficial honour, there are no prizes. It is a mark of talent to take on three specialist disciplines and win. Few even attempt it. The events have been run for decades (Indy 1911, Le Mans 1923, Monaco 1929) yet only Graham Hill has won the Triple Crown. Only seven drivers, including Hill, have even won two of the three – Montoya was the first since the 1970s to get that far.

Some definitions replace Monaco with the World Drivers’ / F1 Championship, but I don’t buy that, you can’t mix events with championships in that way, to my mind.

Boat Anchor

There is context of course. The F1 Honda engine is visibly slower than the competition. At first it seems fine but you only need to watch a long straight to see the hybrid deployment runs out 300 metres before the Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault. It is like Fernando threw an anchor over the side.

The car doesn’t seem bad, in the twisty bits at Bahrain Alonso was more than able to hold his own against the Toro Rosso and the Renault yet two laps later they were ahead again.

The irony is at Monaco top end power is less relevant. No long straights here. A well-driven lower-powered car is able to hang on at this track. Ask Enrique Bernoldi and David Coulthard. If they can nurse the powertrain home, Monaco may present McLaren-Honda with their best opportunity for points so far this season.

Yet there is nothing to lose. Alonso is not throwing away a potential win. He might at best be throwing away points for 7th place. Fernando Alonso is a championship contender, he does not care about being 7th or 13th.

More likely, he is throwing away the opportunity to drive near the back for half the race before something breaks.

Going to Indy will be much more fun.

Super-Sub

From the team side, they DO care about being 7th or 13th because they badly need those points. The difference in Constructors’ Championship positions is worth millions of dollars. Thankfully they have Jenson Button, a hell of a super-sub. The sticking point – he will not drive before FP1 other than in the simulator. His first real world experience of wide-track 2017 F1 cars will be in free practice in Monaco. Yikes. Don’t be too harsh on him if he hits the wall in practice. Despite how cool the ’17 machines are, I don’t think JB wanted to race this particular car. I can’t say I blame him.

And obviously they have another entry, not that we’ve seen a lot of it. Poor Stoffel Vandoorne. Highly talented, McLaren was meant to be his big break. It could ruin his career. At the time of writing, after Bahrain but before Russia, he’d recorded one finish (2 laps down), one Did Not Finish (after 17 laps), and one Did Not Start. He is owed better.

How Does This Benefit IndyCar?

It cements IndyCar as being back on the map, or more exactly, the Indy 500.

The sport of IndyCar racing was dying a decade ago. ChampCar, itself a rescue of the old CART, folded after the 2007 season. The rival IRL, of which the Indy 500 was part, was propped up by handouts. In 2008 teams and drivers merged into the IRL, rebranded later to what we now call the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The echoes of the poisonous CART/IRL war lingered for years after. It has only been in last 3 or 4 years we’ve seen some real positivity. The poison is now gone. Everyone is looking forward. Growth, momentum, new talent, retained talent, increased viewership, events with date equity and an end to the line of badly-executed street races. The series itself really is on an upswing.

As for the Indy 500, in the early 2000s it was a faded star. Internationally it was nothing. Domestically it was struggling. That’s now changed. The merger and growth in IndyCar has prompted a resurgence in the great race. The 100th Edition last year saw full stands and a buzz like I’ve never seen, the sort of buzz the old timers always said the race used to have. It is now a landmark event, like it always was.

Landmark events draw big name drivers. And now a globally-recognised superstar! This is the biggest news on an international level, for IndyCar, since Nigel Mansell. A big NASCAR star would bring attention in the US and the US alone. A global star like Alonso may have less effect within the US, but it’ll be huge outside it. This is what the Indy 500 needs now.

Juan Pablo Montoya helped get them there. His rejoining the series helped boost the profile massively. To some extent Rubens Barrichello and Takuma Sato also played their roles, but only a little. Getting Fernando Alonso, Formula 1 World Champion and ex-Ferrari F1 driver, now that’s a big one.

IndyCar fans are divided. Some love the attention. Others say the series should worry instead about promoting the other races and promoting internal talent from the ladder series, such as Stefan Wilson, who’s seat Alonso has taken. I agree, they should do these things. But that doesn’t mean they can’t continue to push the profile of the biggest race ever forward. There’s been enough inward consolidation, now is the time to look outward.

North American fans can be fooled into thinking the 500 is as big outside the US as it is inside. This is not true. Most of the world doesn’t give two shits about the Indy 500 any more, hasn’t for a long time. This is gradually changing again. It needed a shock to push it along. It got one.

This isn’t aimed at the domestic audience. This will put this race back where it once was, as one of the pillars of world motor sport, a place where drivers from around the world aspire to race.

And in doing so it might even raise the level of the whole series.

The Right People

The Andretti Curse. Mario raced at Indy for eons and only won once. Michael raced several times, won championships, and is regarded as one of the best to have raced at the venue, but he never won it. And Marco, well his debut was fantastic but he can’t seem to get there either – even though Indy is his forté.

Andretti Autosport therefore is built around winning this damned race. They have four cars for the full season and routinely enter a 5th or 6th at Indy. This is a huge commitment but they’ve been doing it for over a decade either in current name or as Andretti-Green. And it works.

And they are a true team, evolved from the buddy club of Dario Franchitti, Bryan Herta, Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan who were the teams’ quartet in the mid-2000s. A true collegiate atmosphere where all data is shared, all help one another.

Herta went on to form his own team, a giant-killing one-car entry, which has since merged with Andretti Autosport and together last year it was his car which won the Indy 500. Herta may not have the most famous name, but you never counted him out as a driver, nor owner.

In 2016 all Andretti/Herta cars were fast and ran up front. Only pit fumbles sent some of them a couple of laps down, but those ran race-leading pace afterwards. And at the end the race came down to two team cars running different strategies:  Rossi on a fuel save, Munoz going full power trying to catch him.

AA has won the 500 on four occasions, including two with the current specification of car:  2005, 2007, 2014, 2016. As a car owner, Michael Andretti smashed The Curse to pieces.

NASCAR star Kurt Busch raced for Andretti in 2014 and finished 6th. They may race the same ovals but the difference between NASCAR and IndyCar is huge. This will be a tremendous confidence boost to Alonso, to Zak Brown, and to the Andretti Autosport team. These are the right people.

Alonso’s team-mates will be de facto team leader, 2012 series champion & 2014 Indy winner Ryan Hunter-Reay. Marco Andretti, whose head has been down for a few years but is a talented driver rebooting his career this season. Former F1 driver Takuma Sato is new to the team, fiendishly fast at the 500 and nearly finished 2nd had he not crashed trying to pass Dario Franchitti for the lead on the last lap. Alexander Rossi had enough of standing at the back of F1 garages and went and won the Indy 500 last year. And rookie Jack Harvey drives the Michael Shank Racing car, after finishing 2nd in Indy Lights points for two consecutive years. This is a high calibre squad.

Chances?
Honestly Alonso does have a great chance to win. Realistically I would expect a top ten. Equally I wouldn’t be surprised to see him a lap down or in the wall. For Alonso, a top ten on debut in a new discipline would be a great result, much better than the equivalent placing in Monaco.

The Challenge

200 laps of a 2.5 mile oval at speeds of 240mph on the straights and 200+ through the four turns, with 32 other drivers.

The race can be between 2hrs30mins and 3 hours long. The sun and the crosswinds change the track. The draft (slipstream) is strong in traffic and you need to be able to read it well, an art honed by practice.

And qualifying means running negative rear wing, making the car skittish and nervy and very, very fast. Ranked by a four-lap average based on speed, if there are enough entries you might not even make the race.

Indianapolis is not a high-banked oval such as Daytona. It doesn’t offer multiple lines. The four corners really are four distinct unique corners. You can’t cruise around turning left. You have to drive this course.

Turn 1 follows a blast through the canyon between grandstands and pitlane, you can only see a concrete wall ahead of you, have to turn in before you see the exit and trust the track will be there. Requires commitment.

Turn 2 should be easy as it opens out on to the back straight, but coming off the banking the crosswinds easily send the tail into a spin. Careful, steady hands, no heroics here.

Turn 3 is the opposite of 2, a fast run into a gradually tightening turn.

Turn 4 tightens some more, the sheer speeds dictating a single line. Get off ‘the groove’, the darker rubbered-in track, and you’ll find yourself heading to the outside wall.

This place is fearsome. It must be shown respect at all times.

Don’t be too harsh on him if he hits the wall in practice.

Greatest Spectacle In Racing

That’s what they call it. For the longest while I didn’t believe them. The old cars promoted single-file racing, waiting for pitstops which were often under Safety Car conditions. Familiar? It led some to say it is a ‘road course oval’, ‘like an F1 race’. A big event, a great sight, but not a spectacle. I would always argue 55 cars on the Mulsanne Straight was the greater spectacle.

That changed in 2012 with the Dallara DW12. The drivers now race incredibly hard. There is an art to it. Not just passing for the sake of it, but judging when to go and when to hold back, using the draft, knowing when to go inside to defend. This car makes it all possible. It certainly isn’t single file any more!

The first 150 laps is about positioning and fuel strategy, working the yellows, climbing through the field, tailoring your car to the conditions or to work in traffic or not. The last 20 or 30 laps it all goes haywire, the elbows go out and you fight. Some years it is a fuel mileage race, some years it is a flat out thrash. You have to be ready for anything.

In my opinion the Indy 500 now genuinely is the greatest race on the planet. Here’s why:

2014 Race Finish

A crash near the end caused officials to throw a red flag race suspension. At the restart with 6 laps to go, Helio Castroneves (Penske) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti) and team-mate Marco Andretti fight it out. This is real edge-of-your-seat racing. Worth watching on to see the traditional celebration.

2015 Race Finish

Two years ago it was a straight battle between Penske team-mates Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya, with two chasing Ganassi drivers Charlie Kimball and Scott Dixon on their tails.

2016 Race Finish

And of course last year. This was a nail-biter for very different reasons. The timing of previous stops meant teams were trying to get the cars to last 4 or 5 laps longer than their fuel stint, it was never going to work, so they all started to pit. All except one man. Surely he would come in? Surely he would run out of fuel?

 

Remember, you do not go out and win the Indianapolis 500, you can only do your best to put yourself in position.

The Speedway, she chooses who wins.

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Quote of the Day: A Classic Piece of Ronspeak

“You’ll notice that we have optimised the lateral optical interface of this building.”
I turned to McLaren’s then PR lady Ellen Kolby, and asked nervously:
“Er, does that mean it has a lot of windows?”

“You’ll notice that we have optimised the lateral optical interface of this building.”
I turned to McLaren’s then PR lady Ellen Kolby, and asked nervously:
“Er, does that mean it has a lot of windows?”

Alan Henry being given a tour of ‘Paragon’, later to be renamed the McLaren Technology Centre, by Ron Dennis in the later phases of construction.

For the last couple of years the respected and long-standing motor sport journalist Alan Henry has been writing blogs for McLaren and they are well worth going back through and reading.

This quote is from “In search of McLaren’s true roots” from August 2014, which runs through the team’s moves from factory to factory before settling in the MTC. It becomes even more interesting if you open up Google Maps and Streetview!

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

Tooned – Episode 1: Wheel Nuts

This is a brilliant idea. If you are a team with a reputation as being staid, distant, corporate and boring, what do you do to change that external perception and let people know what thteam is really like? There’s little better than starting a cartoon!

These great little shorts are from a new division called McLaren Animation, a partnership with Framestore who I’d honestly never heard of before. They sound like one of those companies who do work you’d recognise but is branded by someone else for their promo so you never really know it is them.

Over the last couple of years we’ve learned of the dynamic between Jenson and Lewis in other videos over the last couple of years, it’s good to see the team get a bit of love too.

Here is the first episode which debuted during the British GP weekend two weeks ago:

[ McLaren Animation / Vodafone McLaren Mercedes (McLaren Racing) ]

This isn’t just a great idea, it is also well-executed. It shows the humour of the team whilst also being sponsor friendly (perhaps still a little too clean and corporate – every team ‘partner’ is clearly on show) and perhaps most importantly it gets across the message that McLaren is a high tech company… even if some of the gadgets are a bit ‘out there’!

Secondly, a quick word for the Lotus F1 Team. Keep an eye on their Twitter account (@Lotus_F1Team) during races, as for some weeks now they’ve been tweeting live drawings produced as the race progresses! Here is an example posted on lap 33 during Sunday’s German GP. Theirs is also one of the most active and funny accounts among all the F1 teams so do give them a follow.

[I’ve not been contacted by anyone from either team so this isn’t a promo piece, I just thought they were cool ideas worth sharing]

2012 Formula 1 Preview Part 2

The second part of my 2012 F1 season preview is a look at the likely top half of the order. A selection of these thoughts appeared in Sidepodcast’s Season Preview Megamix podcast which you can listen to here.

As always in F1 the teams can be divided into groups. These are broadly: title-contenders, ‘best of the rest’, midfielders, and backmarkers. This post looks at this year’s championship contenders and those I like to call the ‘best of the rest’. Ignoring the PR fluff, I’ll note a realistic objective for each team – if they don’t acheive it they’ll have had a poor season, if they exceed it they’ve had a good one!

This is post 2 of 2: Read about the Backmarkers here.

Frontrunners

Red Bull

Drivers: Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber;
Engine: Renault;

Undeniable favourites. Their car was so superior over the last two years it is hard to imagine it being different now – but every streak comes to an end, will it be this year? I don’t think they will have quite the advantage they had before, at least not over McLaren – Ferrari and the rest may be another story.

Vettel has to be favourite for the drivers’ title, he’s been driving superbly and will be tough to beat – unless the revisions to the tyres for 2012 upset his rhythym. Webber didn’t put up as much of a fight in 2011 as he did in 2010. Both he and the team need that to change in case McLaren have found something for them.

Objective: Win both championships. I think they’ll ‘only’ win one of the two, McLaren will get the other.

McLaren

Drivers: Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton;
Engine: Mercedes;

For me McLaren are still the team to take the fight to Red Bull and I think a lot of people will want them to win if only because they don’t have a stupid nose on their car! The only problem I see is the drivers taking points from one another.

Button and Hamilton will surely remain equally matched, depending on how the tyres play out and what changes Pirelli has made this year. Button had the edge last year because Hamilton was getting penalties making mistakes under pressure. If Lewis can step his game back up to where it used to be, lose the errors, this will be a fun inter-team battle to watch – particularly since they seem to get on really well. My prediction is that Button will again edge it, but it’ll be closer than last year.

Objective: Win both championships. As I said above, I think they’ll ‘only’ win one.. but I can’t call which.

Ferrari

Drivers: Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa;
Engine: Ferrari;

Ferrari don’t like it when they stop winning titles, will they revert to type and start chopping and changing management? Or will Pat Fry joining the team start them in the right direction again? From the mumblings coming 0ut of pre-season testing it sounds like the car isn’t anything to write home about. They key will be how they fix the problem.

Whatever happens I don’t think Alonso will stop trying, whatever speed the car has, he’ll find it. There is also the now annual question: Is this Massa’s last year? He keeps hanging in there doesn’t he. I don’t believe the suggestion that Webber could replace Felipe, but I can easily see Perez slotting in next season.

Objective: They’ll say their aim is the championship (or both). Realistically I think they’ll even struggle for race wins, but their aim should be at least one win if not two or three. If the car is as bad as feared their only objective will be to beat Mercedes, Lotus, etc.

Best of the Rest

Mercedes

Drivers: Michael Schumacher, Nico Rosberg;
Engine: Mercedes;

The same assessment I gave one year ago: this has to be Nico Rosberg’s breakout season. He had a decent season last year, we need to see a bit more though. Part of that relies on the car of course and it didn’t seem as competitive last year. They seem to have kept themselves quiet over the winter so it’s hard to get a read on them. Interesting choice to start testing later than the others, sometimes this strategy works but with so many teams opting for early track time you have to imagine that’s the optimum strategy under this year’s rules. Yet of all the teams in the upper midfield I still think this is the one to take the fight to the guys up front.

I don’t really have anything to say about Schumacher. As long he and Rosberg are fairly evenly matched, as they have been, there’s no real reason for Schumacher to leave other than boredom. MS has improved a lot since his comeback year, he’s not on his old form but he’s good enough.

Objective: They’ve got to go for 4th AND be an annoyance to the top three teams. Score frequent podiums. Stay clear of the main midfield.

Lotus

Drivers: Kimi Räikkönen, Romain Grosjean;
Engine: Renault;

It’s been weird seeing this team fall down the order, at times recently they’ve been much too far back in the pack in races. Regardless of the name above the door you just don’t expect the team at Enstone to be running outside the top ten. I expect that to change this year as they seem to have got themselves into order. If they aren’t back in business, racing Mercedes and worrying the frontrunners, I’ll be very surprised indeed.
Kimi is an interesting hire. When he was announced he was considered past it, and there’s an element which makes me wonder if he’ll have lost his edge. But unlike Schumacher when he returned, Kimi has been actively competing in other categories, indeed the precision of the WRC may even have sharpened his skills. He’ll lack recent race experience but as a champion I expect him to have knocked out the rust even before we reach Melbourne. Do not underestimate Romain Grosjean. He is not the driver who was plunged into the deep end in F1 in 2009, and the team’s changed too. He may not quite match Kimi but I don’t think he’ll be miles behind him. This is a strong line-up. The real questions arise over the car, and the team leadership.

Objective: They say their target is 4th and I think that’s a good target: beat Mercedes and Force India, both of which worried them recently. A realistic objective is 5th in WCC – but they are quite right to aim for 4th.

Force India

Drivers: Paul di Resta, Nico Hülkenberg;
Engine: Mercedes;

This is an exciting year for Force India, I think they have one of the best driver line-ups on the grid. Added to what seems to be an improving technical dept producing better cars and they could really fight Mercedes and Lotus hard this year. The car looks tidy too, it’ll be fast. The question mark here is about Vijay Mallya – if the Kingfisher empire hits the rocks, as it well might, what will become of the team? Surely that’s a distraction.

Di Resta waited far too long to get into F1 and now he’s proving why. To have a rookie season with results like that was just what he needed, though of course with as many DTM races as he had he wasn’t a total rookie (DTM cars almost being singleseaters with bodies). The Hulk really didn’t deserve to sit out for a season after his debut year, I really can’t wait to see what he does this year. This season is almost a head-to-head to see who takes any vacancy which may appear at Mercedes (or even McLaren) for 2013.

Objective: Mix it with Lotus and Mercedes. Score podiums. The drivers are solid, let’s see the team surprise people – they still have some of that old Jordan underdog fighting spirit, let’s see it!

Not Simply Going Around In Circles

On Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron visited the McLaren Group in Woking to launch the new McLaren Production Centre, where the McLaren MP4-12C sportscar will be constructed. I’m not one for PR stunts and especially not political PR stunts, but this one is really worth looking at.

The speeches from both Cameron and Ron Dennis, whilst also filled with the usual political guff we can largely ignore for the purposes of a racing blog, served as a timely reminder that motorsport solutions developed within the normally insular world of racing can be developed into real world applications.

As always the excellent Joe Saward was on the case, driving over from France  especially for the event, and provides the transcripts of both the McLaren CEO and the follow-up speech from the PM. Also see this other post.

Do read the full text at Joe’s site if you have the time. Here are some interesting excerpts about these technologies which caught my eye, some of which we knew about before but are worth revisiting. There’s also a fair amount of crowing which I’m not really a fan of, but at least with stats like these it is justifiable.

“McLaren [..] has won 20 Formula 1 world championships and 175 Formula 1 races – a total which equates to one in every four races that we’ve contested since 1966. We’ve also won the famous Indianapolis 500 race three times and the iconic Le Mans 24 Hours race at our first attempt.”
Ron Dennis

That’s astonishing. I’ll reiterate that because it is amazing to me. A quarter of all F1 races they’ve entered since 1966, they’ve won.

“[In 2012] McLaren Electronic Systems will be in a unique position. Because every single car in the world’s three premier motor racing series – in other words every single car in Formula 1, every single car in the IndyCar series and every single car in the most popular and successful racing series in the United States, NASCAR – will all be using engine control units made here in Woking.”
Ron Dennis

I’d include the World Endurance Championship as a premier world motorsport series but I’ll let him off as that’s new, and 3 out of 4 ain’t bad. This is quite the acheivement.

“The British cyclist Mark Cavendish, who’s here today, became a world champion this year on a Specialized road bike that was developed by McLaren Applied Technologies.”
Ron Dennis

I find this to be very cool. This isn’t the first F1-developed racing bike because in the 90s Chris Boardman rode one developed by the original Team Lotus. It is nice to see others following on with that work.

We’re working with the British Olympic Association on a number of sports and a number of British Olympians will therefore benefit from McLaren Applied Technologies during London 2012.
Ron Dennis

We’re gonna win medals, don’t you forget it.

It’s engineering so groundbreaking that when space scientists are looking for ideas they come to the brains of Formula 1. You remember Beagle 2? It was cased in a lightweight plastic first developed for Formula 1 exhaust systems.
David Cameron

You heard that right: space engineers come to F1 for ideas. This blows my tiny little mind.

Great Ormond Street [Children’s Hospital] saw how efficiently car wheels were changed in the pits so they worked with Formula 1 experts to streamline the transfer of patients into intensive care.
David Cameron

This isn’t so much about technology as about processes, this is about medical personnel learning from pit crews, the way in the pits the mechanics are timed to tenths of a second just to get that pitstop right. Everyone has to be positioned in the right place at exactly the right time – much like they do in intensive care. Put the right person in the right place at the right time and lives can be saved.

There are plenty of other examples both in these speeches and by looking around the web, and if you want to read about apprenticeships and schemes to help young engineers do go and read the full speeches. I have a lot to things to be critical about with the current political administration (and I do mean a lot of things), but science and engineering funding is not one of them.

In closing, I never used to be a fan of McLaren as a Formula 1 team and to this day they do make it hard sometimes, however these days I like them enough to own a couple of bright red ‘Victory Shirts’.

When they start expanding into different areas like this and using their knowledge for the better good (making a nice profit along the way – and why not?), it is difficult not to admire them for it. And they’ve re-entered sportscar racing with their shiny new MP4-12C which looks the business in GT3 race trim – almost good as the Audi R8 LMS!
The same applies to teams – or ‘businesses’, as the word ‘teams’ is a hangover from simpler times – such as WilliamsF1 who are doing similar work on non-F1 projects.

People say McLaren are grey, faceless and boring. Do you still think that now? I certainly don’t.

So there you go, motor racing isn’t just about cars following each other around in circles for a few hours every other Sunday.

Mercedes Grand Prix

Yet more big changes among the F1 teams for 2010! Not only do we get get a raft of new teams, the departure of BMW (who may yet come back in a new form) and Toyota, now we also have Mercedes completely restructuring their involvement after a long unbroken run with McLaren.

McLaren
Mercedes presently own 40% of the McLaren F1 team (not the group as a whole though). The problem Mercedes faced is that while they are the largest single shareholder, the others hold an agreement by which they vote as a single block, thus having the power to veto Mercedes. There is also the new supercar which is the first McLaren-built road car in years not to feature a Mercedes engine.

Plan: The 40% shareholding will be reduced gradually over the next 18 months or so and for the 2010 season (and beyond??) the team will still be called Vodafone McLaren Mercedes. The engine supply agreement remains and, for now, so does the colour scheme.

BrawnGP
After Honda departed F1 the team has had to cut back somewhat in personnel, and it still seemed to suffer the same problem as it always had under every incarnation, that of not being able to attract long-term sponsors. With benefactors like BAT and Honda it was never necessary only desired, indeed Honda effectively bankrolled the 2009 season. It was anyone’s guess what would happen in 2010 and beyond. Yet amazingly the came from nowhere to dominate the first half of the season, and while it went south after that they managed to battle on to secure both championships.

Plan: Mercedes have bought 75.1% of the team in an agreement with a Middle Eastern investment company. The team will henceforth be known as Mercedes GP and the cars branded as ‘Silver Arrows’, harking back to the famous cars of the 1930s and 1950s. Ross Brawn remains in charge but will liaise with Norbert Haug.

Drivers:
Rubens Barrichello left Brawn last month and had already signed for Williams to replace Nico Rosberg, who was looking to leave that team. Nico had therefore been linked with the vacant Brawn seat in a straight swap and now Mercedes have a greater involvement the deal appears as good as done.

The big question is over the future of Jenson Button. There are strong reports placing him at McLaren with a pay rise, doing nothing to quell his reputation as a money-chaser. At least this time he’s earned it. I am not sure what placing himself in what is Lewis Hamilton’s personal team is going to acheive for Button other than damaging his career, he must be confident in his ablility to beat him. It will be interesting to see him try!
At this stage it could still be an elaborate bluff and Kimi Raikkonen could still get that seat, though you have to say that possibility is shrinking daily. In fact just this evening Kimi’s manager has stated any chance with McLaren has now disappeared.

That leaves a space at MercGP. Will Kimi end up there? Are the Heidfeld rumours a ploy by the Kimi or Jenson to get more money (either take us for mega $$ or end up with Nick), and is that how he gets himself hired? What is the fate of Heikki Kovalainen?

Lots of questions still need answering. One thing’s for sure, this is a much bigger deal for the ex-Brawn team than the Virgin deal suggested a while back and perhaps that’s why Virgin are now hooking up with Manor.

One final point I saw mentioned:
Among entrants this makes BrawnGP the most successful team in history, in terms of strike rate.
Years entered: 1
Drivers titles: 1
Constructors titles: 1
Maximum score.