The Empire Strikes Back
Senior Motorsports Editor
The Auto Channel
Auto Central, Formula 1 and Grand Prix Racing Desk; 2 podiums and 1 lap lead. That's the total Scuderia Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel notched up last year. With most, including myself, watching Modena implode from massive internal management and driver changes, there was little to look forward to from the red cars in 2015. Boy, were we wrong! Vettel's passion is back with a car that by luck or extraordinary engineering 'fits my driving style', he says.
After a miserable start to the new F1 season at Melbourne, with Alonso in bed, struggling Manor Team unable to compete, Sauber driver lawsuits filling the pages, Mercedes dominating, Red Bull Renault having a lovers tiff, McLaren Honda on the last row, Williams off the pace, Bottas out and most of the F1 inner sanctum predicting a lock-out season with both championships going to the Silver Arrows in a 19 race snooze fest, there was very little to get excited about. To be honest, I was depressed by the whole show!
Then, on Saturday evening in Los Angeles, the Twitter and message apps started lighting up, my father, Andrew, fellow TACH contributor, feverishly texting into the early hours watching the race, and Ferrari was back, the season 'saved'. Well, given the unique (read oppressively hot and humid) weather in Malaysia and Ferrari's good luck at reading the safety car and managing the Pirelli tires, they performed beautifully, but one race doesn't win a championship and as new team boss, Arrivabene humbly commented, "We have much work to do". The key appears to be that not only did the medium compounds perform, they also lasted much longer on the SF15-T. Mercedes suffered with the wrong strategy and degradation, caused by too much wing, which adds downforce and grip but makes the tires work harder and wear faster, resulting in more stops and using harder, slower compounds. Adding wing angles is a luxury when you have the most power to play with but clearly won't work on all tracks and weather conditions.
Red Bull is suffering from a similar issue, using a sophisticated front suspension that applies heavy loads to both tires and brakes, which cannot be easily rectified. Christian Horner's men seem to be in a slight panic, after a poor 2014 season and the realization that Mercedes (and now Ferrari) is just as far ahead of them this year, if not more so, they have been rushing new and untested aero parts to both races causing issues with air flow and the Renault engine. Making loud statements to the media about your engine partner, whom you're in bed with for at least another 18 races, is probably not the best strategy for harmony, although I'm quite sure the possible sale of Toro Rosso to the French manufacturer could be playing a factor. Ferrari appear to have created a very well balanced car, benefitting from mechanical and aero grip and with a drivable and powerful engine, maybe only down 5% or less on Mercedes.
Qualifying showed that at least Vettel has closed some gap and he was the only one within a second of the Mercs. This was consistent in the wet, too. I feel a bit sorry for Kimi; he didn't like last year's car and this year’s doesn't seem to be suiting him either. However, in the much warranted media and fan frenzy over his team mate’s win, one should also remember that Kimi suffered a puncture, ended up last and finished 4th! Hats off to Max Verstappen, who qualified a stunning 6th in the Toro Rosso and at the ripe old age of 17 years and 180 days set a new world record as the youngest point's scorer in history. With the FIA raising the minimum age to 18, this record may stand for a long time and clearly he is someone to watch.
Don't expect too much from Ferrari at the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai. I predict more Lewis domination. He's still got the best car and has a wave of confidence that’s lacking in Nico. He also has a new contract ‘til 2018 with Stuttgart that will see him earning upwards of $75m a year. He certainly won't be missing his days at McLaren. We still cannot get to the real facts around Alonso's accident.
Was it the steering or wasn't it? Ron says no, Nando says yes, and even if the steering is working 100% the car is so slow it makes little difference. For sure as Ron said, "We have won championships together before and we will again" and I have no doubt that they will creep up the grid this year and that this is the right, long term strategy if you want to win World Championships.
The US bobsled team came to the same conclusion back in 1992 when they realized they would always get short changed using the 'customer' German DDG sleds, even if they modified them, so went looking for race car designers and found first Bodine from NASCAR and then, ironically, BMW USA to design and develop their own sleds. Honda is committed to, and famously good, at engines.
The problem is the tight packaging that’s playing havoc after limited winter testing. The other issue is the rather sparse grey car - McLaren are desperate for a major sponsor, but finding $25m-$50m a year with a 3-5 year commitment isn't as easy as it used to be in the good old tobacco days. Marlboro Ferrari knows this and that certainly gives them an advantage, probably as much as $150m, which can all be invested in the car and will help chase down Merc. "We have to be realistic," said Vettel. "They (Mercedes) had a very big gap in winter testing and in the first race, which does not just evaporate.
Our target has to be that the gap between them and us keeps getting smaller, as the gap will still be there," added the German.
Until next time
About Nicholas Frankl
Nicholas Frankl has attended more than 250 F1 Grand Prix in the past 30+ years (1st race age six weeks). He has been writing for The Auto Channel since it started in 1995/6. He managed the Asprey/Ferrari partnership from 1996-99 working closely with Todt, Irvine, Schumacher and Stefano Dominicalli. Visiting the Ferrari factory annually he has a deep insight into the inner workings of the team. He is also an three time Olympic sportsman, having qualified and driven a two-man & four-man bobsleigh in Lillehammer 1994, Nagano 1998 and Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympic Games. He has raced cars in the UK and USA, competed in the Cannonball, Gumball and Bullrun rallies, is a certified private pilot and member of both The Royal Automobile Club and Automobile Club of Monaco. Throughout his life he has visited the majority of F1 tracks and shared drinks and many fun times with many of yesterdays legends and todays heros.A Word from Nicholas:
Well, that's me. Gilles Villeneuve I may never (unfortunately) be, but the next best thing (I'm told - and in fact can vouch for) is Formula One on ice. 1994 saw me competing as driver of the first Hungarian bob team in the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, and then onto two more Olympic Winter games. Why am I telling you this? Well, if for no other reason than that you'll at least understand how I gain some insight into the sport we love. Strangely enough, the F1 boys have a real respect for their ice cousins; the speed, G' forces and exhilaration are quite similar. This, however, is only my "off season" hobby. The reason for this intro is to allow me to say HI, From here on I hope well become firm friends, as I follow the F1 circus around the world and you get to pick up all the details. Not just the results, but the gossip too and the first-hand natter you just don't get from the usual sources.Thanks to my father, whose stories you'll also be reading, I've grown up in the world of motor sport and cars - in fact instead of a birth certificate, I think I was born with a pit pass. It's the sort of life that if you enjoy our sport is tough to beat, so I thought this would be a good way of sharing the fun.