Austrian Grand Prix Preview: F1 is back, but not as we know it

112 days after the opener in Melbourne was supposed to get underway, the Formula One season will finally begin in Austria this Sunday.

As with the return of most sport during the COVID-19 pandemic however, things will work a little differently in the F1 paddock. Media presence will be lower, the freedom of the drivers to roam around the surrounding area during race week will decrease and, perhaps most prominently, there will be a complete absence of fans.

The Austrian Grand Prix will mark the first of two races at the 4.3-kilometre Red Bull Ring, with the Styrian Grand Prix following just a week later. This is all part of the FIA’s plan to satiate the year with as many races as possible so as to create as exhaustive a calendar as possible for the world championship season, which needs to be at least eight races long to classify as such.

Normally by this point of the year, we would know who is competitive and who is not, but the cars have not run since testing in Barcelona at the beginning of the year and, as we learned last year especially, testing pace is little to go by.

It is therefore quite difficult to determine who the favourites are going to be, but the same could generally be said in Spielberg last year. Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari were all competitive last season, with Max Verstappen narrowly beating Charles Leclerc to victory following a controversial overtake at the end of the race, the investigation for which was not concluded until hours after the drivers had stepped off the podium.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

One of the major points of interest is the perennially fascinating midfield battle. The Racing Point, designed on last year’s Mercedes, is tipped to be one of the major challengers to fourth place in the Constructors’ as they look to knock McLaren off their perch as best of the rest. Renault’s inconsistencies over the past couple of seasons will need to be rectified by their new driver-pairing of Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon, as the French team consider their future involvement in the sport they have failed to re-master since their return in 2016. Alpha Tauri – rebranded from Toro Rosso – and Alfa Romeo will also have an eye on challenging for the best of the midfield teams.

Haas are understood to be the only constructor not bringing upgrades to this race, as uncertainty looms about their interest in F1 too. Their upgrades last year affected them adversely rather than helping them progress after the first race, and they will look to avoid further regression this year. They managed a fourth and fifth-placed finish in Spielberg in 2018, while Kevin Magnussen qualified an impressive fifth last season. A gearbox penalty and the Haas car’s ghastly race pace saw him finish behind both the Williams cars.

Speaking of which, Williams’ car was three seconds quicker in testing in Spain than it was in the 2019 Spanish Grand Prix, which will lead the British team to believe they can climb off the bottom of the championship table and relieve some of the immense pressure currently on Claire Williams’ shoulders.

One of the shortest tracks on the calendar follows the longest wait for a Formula One season since the World Championship’s inception. The Styrian mountains will not be alive with the sound of fans, but they will still be alive with the sound of Formula One cars.

 

[Featured image – Matthias Heschl/Red Bull Content Pool]

Andy Cowell leaves Mercedes: Why this news is bigger than we may think.

Image courtesy of Daimler Media

89 Not the most significant number of them all, but certainly one of the most prevalent in Formula One as the latest news hits the press.

Why? Because that is the amount of races Mercedes have won since the beginning of the V6 hybrid era in 2014. The Brackley-based team had already been on the rise in 2013, but the arrival of the turbo-charged era paved the way for six of the most utterly dominant seasons in sporting history. With those 89 wins have come 12 championships – six drivers’ and six constructors’ and, particularly last season, themselves and now six time world champion Lewis Hamilton looked unmatchable.

It does not take a genius to figure out what the key to this almost unprecedented success was. New engines means a completely different way of thinking, a different way of working; a different way of racing.

The V6 hybrid department has been led from the start by Andy Cowell – the brilliant mind that helped power Stewart Ford to their maiden victory in 1999. That team’s name now? Four time Constructors’ champions Red Bull.

He has been part of the Mercedes family since 2004, working on the Mercedes Ilmor engines – originally designed for IndyCar, but later used by McLaren and Sauber (now Alfa Romeo) in Formula One.

As his career progressed, he worked his indispensable magic on the V10s and then the V8s. His work on the brand new for 2009 KERS system, in which the kinetic energy from the brakes provided an electric speed boost at the drivers’ command, was revolutionary. Although Brawn GP did not use KERS that season, they did use Mercedes engines, and Cowell’s brilliance had slyly guided another team to glory in the pinnacle of motorsport.

Throughout nearly the entirety of the V8 era, Cowell was responsible for building the Mercedes drivetrains. These engines also helped Lewis Hamilton to championship success in 2008, and powered Michael Schumacher in his three-year return to the sport with the Mercedes factory team.

Then came 2014. Cowell’s almost unparalleled genius produced one of the finest, fastest and the all-conquering hybrid engine that has brought copious race wins for Mercedes, as well as helping to temporarily lift Williams out of their slump, pushing them to 14 podiums between 2014 and 2017.

Cowell’s work and engineering excellence has been one of the defining factors of Mercedes’ relentless success during the hybrid era, so just how big a loss will his departure be?

Well, another brilliant brain in the Formula One paddock, Jock Clear – formerly of Mercedes and now of Ferrari, gave a veracious account in 2016 of just how different these current cars are compared to their V8 predecessors. He remarked on the way that the engine and the chassis need to work as one package, rather than as two separate entities.

This means to say that there is a phenomenal and integral spine to the Mercedes team that has produced an incredible chassis, and incredible engine, and made them work in perfect harmony for six tremendous years.

With that being said, one person leaving from the engine department may not be such an issue – particularly with exceptional talents like Lewis Hamilton and his team mate Valtteri Bottas, who succeeded 2016 champion Nico Rosberg at this now dominant, highly decorated presence in Formula One.

But we saw what happened to Red Bull and Renault. Having achieved 68 wins in the nine seasons prior to 2014, Renault power was one of the most dominant forces in the sport. Since the arrival of the hybrids, Renault power has achieved 12. This pales into insignificance compared to Mercedes’ remarkable 89.

This, of course, is not strictly down to the engine. The aforementioned harmony between driver, engine and chassis is more vital now than ever before, so the lion’s share of the responsibility has to fall to the teams themselves, but it is certainly no secret that Mercedes power has blown away its competition since 2014, and this is down in no small part to Cowell.

So with McLaren moving to Mercedes engines for the 2021 season, Cowell’s departure leaves a void that needs filling, as well as a huge question mark as to who takes the reigns now, and what direction Mercedes decide to take in the engine department in the wake of Cowell’s absence.

Ferrari swoop up Sainz and Ricciardo moves to McLaren

In a blockbuster morning of Formula 1 news, Carlos Sainz has been confirmed as a Ferrari driver for the 2021 season, while Daniel Ricciardo will partner Lando Norris at McLaren for the new year.

Sebastian Vettel’s announcement earlier in the week that he is going to leave Ferrari at the end of the current season blew the driver market wide open, and the confirmed news today was swiftly followed as teams already look to complete their line-ups for the 2021 season.

Sainz has signed a two year deal with Ferrari, and will partner Charles Leclerc, who had a hugely impressive debut season with the Scuderia last year, winning two races and finishing third in the championship ahead of team-mate Vettel. Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto showed his satisfaction at the move, saying, “We believe that a driver pairing with the talent and personality of Charles and Carlos, the youngest of the past 50 years of the Scuderia, will be the best possible combination to help us reach the goals we have set ourselves.”

Sainz began his career in F1 with Red Bull junior team Toro Rosso, but his frustration at a lack of opportunity at the main Red Bull team led to him joining Renault on loan for the 2018 season, having replaced Jolyon Palmer at the end of 2017. The news of Daniel Ricciardo jumping the Red Bull ship and joining Renault pushed Sainz out of the team, who then joined McLaren in 2019.

His relationship with team-mate Lando Norris was one of the more cheerful sides of the 2019 season, and the two transcended expectations for a team that is embarking on an impressive rebuilding process, which is what has enticed Daniel Ricciardo.

Ricciardo joined Renault from Red Bull for the 2019 season, but has quickly grown impatient at the team’s lack of performance, having seen a slump in pace. They finished fifth in 2019 compared to fourth in 2018, 54 points behind McLaren.

It is unknown the length of the contract Ricciardo has signed at the Woking-based team, but signing a prove race winner and a highly talented racing driver is a revolution in the recovery of the British outfit, and has been described by Racing Chief Executive Zak Brown as “an exciting new dimension to the team”.

Ricciardo and Sainz did, however, seem content enough to stay put at their respective teams, but the domino effect from Vettel’s departure has had a substantial knock-on effect on the rest of the grid.

There is now an vacant seat at Renault, for which the French team have an abundance of options. Sebastian Vettel may or may not retire at the end of the year, and former champion Fernando Alonso has been tipped for a return to partner Esteban Ocon for the new year. F2 stars Guanyu Zhou and Christian Lundgaard, who are part of the Renault programme, will also be vying for the seat, while Nico Hulkenberg has been name-dropped for a return. Hulkenberg was forced out of F1 after a contractual agreement between Toto Wolff and Renault saw Esteban Ocon take his seat for the 2020 season, which is expected to start in Austria in July amid the coronavirus crisis.

Depending on who does take the seat, the 2021 season could see the youngest grid in the 70 year history of the sport.

 

[Featured image courtesy of McLaren Media Centre]

Michael Schumacher Week – The Return of The King

After 268 races, 91 wins, and most coveted, seven world championships, Michael Schumacher retired in 2006 as the most decorated Formula One driver in the history of the sport. He had achieved the pinnacle of success, experienced the highest of the highs, and endured the lowest of the lows. Such is the rollercoaster of emotions that is Formula One, but Schumacher had mastered it with a mix of immense talent, fitness and, at times, deviousness.

He therefore left F1, not just as a winner, but as one of the most intense competitors the world of motor racing has ever seen. He is truly the definition of doing whatever was necessary to win.

With that being said, it was perhaps easily foreseeable that he would make his return at some stage – and he did.

Having spent the last 11 years of his first F1 tenure with Ferrari, he worked closely with the team after his retirement, and all eyes were on him making his sensational return with the Scuderia for the start of the new decade in 2010. But Fernando Alonso was chosen as Kimi Raikkonen’s successor, and Schumacher was destined for a greater test.

Having managed the astonishingly dominant Ferrari team during Schumacher’s spell with them, Ross Brawn would help steer the Brawn team to the most inconceivable championship success in 2009, but a lack of funding meant he needed a buyer to sustain a place on the grid for 2010. Good job then, that Mercedes saw their opportunity to make their own sensational return to Formula One with Brawn at the helm.

Having maintained a strong relationship with him at Ferrari, Brawn was able to entice Schumacher into the long-term vision of returning Mercedes to past glory.

And so it was that Schumacher had secured his comeback to the sport he had conquered and mastered before, but was it time to add championship number eight to the tally?

Before the commencement of the 2010 championship, Schumacher stated his intent not to solely make up the numbers, but to win another championship. Partnered with Mercedes new boy Nico Rosberg, it was an all-German line-up for the German team going into their new époque.

It was clear that he had not lost his passion for the sport, and his raw desire to win. He was penalised in Monaco in his first year back for audaciously overtaking Fernando Alonso tantalisingly close to the safety car line at the end of the Grand Prix, but he had displayed the wily nature, extravagance and opportunism that had earned him so much success previously.

He finally earned his first podium since his return at the European Grand Prix in 2012, the same year he set the pole lap in Monte Carlo – although a penalty from the previous race in Spain denied him the front row start.

The on-track supremacy were not the only factor, however. His racing pre-eminence was also defined by his intelligent and cunning mind games. Nico Rosberg described how Schumacher would wait in the toilet during qualifying before the final run to make the eventual 2016 champion wait and effect his mentality and performance – with age had certainly come an abundance of wisdom.

These flashes of brilliance were not the only side of Schumacher’s enigmatic character though. The less alluring and more dangerous side came back with him. It was the same brutal nature that saw him wipe out Damon Hill in Adelaide to claim the 1994 crown in his Benetton days, and that saw him try, in many fans’ eyes, try to end Jacques Villeneuve’s race in Jerez in 1997. This particular attempt was futile however, as Schumacher took himself out of the race and left Villeneuve to take the title.

In many ways, his occasional on-track enmity was as a result of his excellence. His sheer will to win naturally came with an occasionally nasty overtone of jeopardy for those around him, as was discovered by Rubens Barrichello in Hungary when Schumacher very nearly sent him into the wall at speed down the pit straight. Lewis Hamilton was also less than impressed with the German’s antics at the Italian Grand Prix of 2011 – just two examples of Schumacher’s mentality leading him to uncompromising positions, and he overstepped the line on occasion.

It was evident, though, as he got deeper into his forties, that lapses of concentration and perhaps a drop in physical capacity had crept into his game.

Barrichello and Hamilton could argue that their incidents with him were a product of such, but more notable incidents of ungainliness come to mind. He misjudged his braking points in Singapore in 2011 and 2012, spectacularly wiping out Sergio Perez and Jean Eric Vergne respectively, and mych the same happened when trying to overtake Bruno Senna in Barcelona in 2012. And a very clumsy incident with Felipe Massa in 2010 affirms what, if he were a rookie, would probably be described as relative ineptitude. But this is a seven-time world champion, and in reality these moments were perhaps signs that the return may have been misjudged and ill-timed.

He finished ninth, eighth and 13th in the three years he had spent back, and was beaten by team mate Rosberg in all three seasons. He was, however, only an average of 0.2 seconds slower than him in 2010 and 2012, and was actually two tenths quicker in his final season. He had proven that, whilst he did not have the same magic and brilliant race-craft that he had before, he still possessed raw pace.

But ultimately he did not achieve what he set out to upon his return to the sport. He came back and gave it a go, demonstrating the qualities, some more discerning than others, that had made him the most successful of all time. But it was that unrelenting success in his prime that will be remembered, and not the return.

Images courtesy of Mercedes AMG / Wolfgang Wilhelm

Australian Grand Prix Preview: The start of a new decade in Formula One, but not in happy circumstances

Usually joyful and vibrant, the start of a new season in Australia would ordinarily bring a sense of positivity to Formula One fans around the world. This year, however, it is overshadowed by the seemingly omnipotent threat of Coronavirus.

And, indeed, three members of the paddock – two from Haas and one from McLaren – have already self-isolated after being tested for the illness.

However, the focus is not all on the doom and gloom side. Melbourne remains as picturesque and atmospheric as ever, and it is ready to play proud first host to what will hopefully be an enthralling season of racing.

Although, the likelihood of such seems fairly low. Mercedes dominated pre-season testing, and Ferrari looked average at best, with team boss Mattia Binotto playing down any chances of success for the Scuderia this year. Notwithstanding, Mercedes looked a way off Ferrari in Barcelona last year, and ended up dominating the season, so the true performance of the top three teams – including the resurgent Red Bull – remains to be seen.

Speaking of the former champions, they were given some degree of promise from their outings in testing, with potential championship contender Max Verstappen finding the limits – and falling foul of them – on a few occasions,. They also appeared to leave a few engineers in red scratching their heads as the enigmatic Dutchman looks to challenge Lewis Hamilton for the championship crown.

The enticing prospect of the fresh and finally integrated Alex Albon is also something we can look forward to, as well as the inter-team battle between Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc at the Maranello outfit. Valtteri Bottas, meanwhile, will have had no shortage of awareness of the effort and quality needed to defeat team-mate Hamilton this season.

Indeed, it was a positive start to 2019 for the Finn. He won last year at the 5.3-kilometre Albert Park circuit, and would win two of the first four races, but a frustrating barren spell of form would see Hamilton’s irresistible class shine through again.

It was, interestingly, only the fourth time that the driver starting from second had made to the first corner first at the track, so pole is inherently important there.

The newly-crowned six time world champion is certainly not resting on his laurels either. He comes into this season feeling ‘on another level’ – a stark proposition for those looking to knock him off his perch.

As always though, it is not all about the big guns up top. The vast majority of the competitive, intriguing racing came from the mid-pack and, provided the TV directors choose to give them some attention this time, there is a lot of action to look forward to.

Williams are at least a second quicker than last year, and have a distinct, tenacious habit of overcoming the several adversities they have been faced with in recent years, making them a good fit for a battle that will surely include everyone from McLaren down.

Well, maybe not everyone.

Racing Point – or the “Pink Mercedes”, as coined by Carlos Sainz – have copied Mercedes’ chassis design from last year to almost every meticulous detail, and as their resources incrementally rise to impressive extents year on year, they could challenge McLaren and re-take fourth spot in the Constructors’ dogfight – potentially even laying a stake on a top-three involvement as times this season. There would have to be a degree of fortuity however.

Another team in doubt for the midfield fight is Haas. After numerous problems both on and off track in 2019, the American outfit looked both slow and lacking in longevity, as Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean look to return their cars to points contention, and hopefully return them to the finish line without making contact this year.

As we say, though, testing is often little to go by, resulting in the discovery of many variables yet to be seen as the season goes on, and it all starts this weekend in Melbourne.

 

[Featured image – Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool]

F1 2020 Season Preview

After a winter of anticipation and expectation heading into a new season, will the new decade bring in a new era for Formula One?

2021 will certainly deliver on that premise, but the big question heading into the 2020 season is just how competitive Red Bull and Ferrari will be as they try to finally knock the dominant Mercedes off their steep perch.

Testing gave us the sensation that 2020 will be largely the same as 2019, with Mercedes dominating the time-sheets and giving their rivals little to shout about. But truthfully, the focus has been almost exclusively on the battle further down.

At the Circuit de Catalunya for testing, Williams beat their, last year’s qualifying time by a second, while the midfield, asides from Haas, all solidly made it to the 1:16s. Haas, seldom aimed for qualifying runs, instead opting for runs largely on the C4 tyre but, inauspiciously for the American outfit, they only managed 649 laps over the six days in Barcelona.

Racing Point have essentially copied the Mercedes chassis, and they looked rapid as they attempt to recover back towards the top, accumulating experience and financial resources following the team’s takeover in 2018. McLaren’s Carlos Sainz even referred to the car as a “pink Mercedes.”

But the silver Mercedes, as they so often do, have made sure the headlines do not drift far away from Brackley heading into the new year.

Their controversial DAS system –  a steering device which pulls in the front wheels and reduces toe-out, making them quicker on the straights – has been known by the FIA since the end of last year, but has only been banned from 2021 onward. Mercedes were not as quick as Ferrari in the speed traps last year, but with the exquisite downforce possessed by their wonderful chassis, this is expected to be another imperious season for the six-time champions.

Ferrari’s chassis changes do not look as though they will be throwing the gauntlet down to Mercedes, while Red Bull’s change to the front nose, the sidepods, and the rear wing mean that they will be vying to topple the Scuderia in second in the Constructors’ championship.

In order to achieve that feat, however, Red Bull needs a second driver who is able to back up Max Verstappen. These were shoes which proved too big for Pierre Gasly to fill last year, while current driver Alex Albon, after half a season of learning and experience alongside the flying Dutchman, now needs to step up and display his capabilities of being a prominent part of Red Bull’s project towards returning to the top.

And, indeed, Albon simply could not be judged based on his first season in F1, at one of the biggest teams, and moving teams midway through the year. This is now the season of truth in a fledgling career.

We have already seen Verstappen’s innate and delightful ability to maximise car performance and take a slower car to the top of the timesheets, and a few more tenths in the Austrian team’s car, despite their deficit to Mercedes, could yet see the brilliant young star competing for the world championship.

But chassis and drivers have not been the only talk of the winter – even DAS has been dethroned as the talk of the town in the F1 paddock. The endemic that appeared last year over Ferrari’s 2019 PU has resurfaced, and this time it has been discovered that the FIA actually came to their settlement with the Scuderia last year, despite acknowledging the illegalities that lay within. This revelation has sparked numerous complaints and scathing press releases from rival teams, and it is a debate, and an arduous investigation, that will very probably rage on for much of the forthcoming season.

But looking at the aforementioned midfield tussle, just how close will it be?

Well, traditionally, testing has been very little to go by in terms of performance, but Racing Point, AlphaTauri – the rebranded Toro Rosso team – Renault, Williams and Alfa Romeo all made it past the 700-lap mark, while McLaren managed 804.

There were eight tenths between Renault, who had the fastest midfield lap, and Haas, who has the slowest. However, with the alternation between the C2, C3, C4 and C5 tyre, as well as vastly different set-ups and engine settings, it is so tough to judge just how close it is.

However, from the outset, it looks as though Haas’ struggles from last year are set to continue, while Renault and Williams may stage a resurgence back up the field. Those two have Esteban Ocon and Nicholas Latifi joining them respectively, and this could be a turnaround season for two historic teams who suffered a dreadful 2019.

At the start of a new decade and of a new season, is this the start of the changing of the guard in the pinnacle of motorsport? We will find out in just over two weeks when F1 heads to Australia for the opening round of the Formula One season.

(Pictures courtesy of Pirelli)

Mercedes unveil 2020 challenger

Mercedes gave their fans a Valentine’s gift of their own on Friday morning, as they unveiled the car they are hoping will take them to a seventh consecutive title sweep.

Following the unveiling of the 2020 livery on the 2019 season’s car on Monday, the new car features red hints on the end-plates of the front and rear wings and on the front of the engine cover. This is part of their brand new partnership with sponsor INEOS.

Sporting a unique wing intake on the sides of the front nose, Mercedes have predominantly stuck with their imperious winning formula, opting to keep the car largely the same as last year.

Mercedes-AMG F1 W11 EQ Performance – Render

They will run their car today for a shakedown session at Silverstone, as Red Bull did yesterday with Max Verstappen when they released the RB16. World Champion Lewis Hamilton and team-mate Valtteri Bottas will both run the car.

Hamilton is chasing more records this season, as are his team. Mercedes look to extend their record of consecutive constructors’ championship successes, while Hamilton will attempt to equal Michael Schumacher’s record of seven drivers’ championships, as well as beating his staggering record of 91 race wins. He needs eight more victories to achieve the latter.

Hamilton feels well equipped to do this, saying that he feels ‘on another level’, both in terms of fitness and focus heading into what could be a very pertinent year in the illustrious career of the 35-year-old.

Alpha Tauri, the renamed Toro Rosso, will also reveal their car later today.

“I’m still trying to be involved in sim racing”. A chat with Martin Stefanko

Rarely has a Czech made it to the pinnacle of Formula One, be it on the asphalt or in the gaming chair, but a distant dream came true for 21-year-old Czech star Martin Stefanko in 2018, when he was drafted to Haas F1 E-sports team for season two of the incrementally popular championship. “Getting drafted was a dream come true”, he said. “Being part of a Formula One team was something I’ve wanted to have since I was a child, so that was great.”

He finished 15th in the championship in 2018, scoring 23 points, but due to work was only able to compete in one race in 2019, thus finishing 23rd in the championship with no points to his name, while the team only managed eight points throughout the twelve rounds. “The first two seasons weren’t what we were expecting”, he recalls. “The first season, me and Michael [Smidl] were never really Codemasters F1 drivers, we are more simulator drivers, so it was a new experience for us and we were mostly just learning in our first year. The first two events weren’t what we were expecting but at last we got some pretty good results, with a top five finish as well, and we managed to finish ahead of Renault.”

This year, however, was a completely different story. Life changes meant that Stefanko was not able to be anywhere near as involved as he would have liked, and at the end of a tough year for him, he decided to hang up his race suit. “This year I got my own real job, which takes a lot of free time. I was just at home during the evenings so I didn’t really have time to practise, so that’s why I only did one race in the end. This year, in terms of results, again wasn’t what we were expecting, but next year I think the team can do better.”

Martin Stefanko. Image courtesy of VGP

En route to F1, 2015, 2016 and 2017 proved massive years for Stefanko. He claimed two Czech rFactor F1 titles in 2015, as well an endurance championship, and achieved similar success in 2016, which he describes as the year he realised the dream of F1 E-Sports was possible. 2017 saw him earn a race win in Formula Sim Racing – the first in his team’s history – and the Virtual GP title. The latter came after a “personal” rivalry with countryman Smidl. “There were times in the year when I thought I couldn’t win it. We got to the last race, in the last corner, and I overtook him to win the championship.”

It was an intense, thrilling race held at the FOR GAMES video games expedition in Prague, and it was a career defining moment that led to another illustrious accomplishment – testing a Formula Renault 2.0 car. He laughs as he fondly remembers the test. “It was wet. I came out of the garage on wet tyres, and I could see the boss rolling his eyes thinking ‘he’s going to crash into the wall wall within two laps’!”

Lack of financial backing ultimately halted Stefanko from making it in the motor racing scene, which is a shame given his natural pace and talent, but E-Sports gave him the opportunity he and many others have craved – competing professionally in the top genre of racing. It’s a chance he and his peers would only have dreamed of a few years back before the rapid rise of E-Sports, and this is not lost on Stefanko. “The stuff that has been happening for E-Sports – especially sim racing – it’s just been absolutely insane since 2017. It’s just grown so massively. When I started in 2008, I never would have thought it would get this big. I was always dreaming of racing in a real F1 E-Sports championship, but I never thought that this would actually be possible. When I started, it was mostly about friendly leagues and half-serious championships, it was nothing major.” The scene remained somewhat catatonic until just a few years ago. “In 2017 it just blew up, and it’s kept moving up as well, and it’s just getting so massive. In the next couple of years I think it’s just going to keep growing and growing. There’s going to be even more involvement from the real teams and stuff like that, so I think it’s just going to keep growing more and more.”

Martin Stefanko. Image courtesy of VGP

The next chapter of F1 E-sport’s development could now consist of E-sports drivers being held in the same regard as F1 drivers themselves, and Stefanko sees this as very foreseeable. “You already see with Gran Turismo the drivers get awarded at the FIA prize-giving [ceremony], so I think in the future we could see something similar with F1 E-Sports as well.”

Another of its goals is to catch up with other E-Sports such as Fortnite, which is perennially growing in popularity, and does not fall into the same niche category that F1 E-Sports does. “My whole life has been surrounded by racing”, Stafenko remarks, “so I’ve never really looked too much into other E-Sports. I’ve been watching a lot of CSGO and things like that, but I’ve never really looked too much into it.” However, he does admit that sim racing has some way to go to be considered on the same level as other types of E-Sports. “For sim racing it’s still a little bit difficult because it’s not mainstream. As of now it still isn’t as popular as other E-Sports, but as it keeps growing I think the gap between sim racing and other E-Sports will get a little but smaller. I’m not sure if it’s ever going to catch up because as I said, it’s not a mainstream E-Sports, but with the way it’s growing it’s got a good future as it is.”

In terms of what Stefanko will do next, he continues to keep his cards close to his chest, but does reveal that there are some exciting plans in the works at the moment. “Right now, it’s a little bit of a secret. I have something going on right now, not in terms of the driving side because I’m currently not planning to race in 2020 as I announced on Twitter that I’m retiring. I’m not saying that I will never come back, because you just can’t say that, you never know. Maybe in two or three years I will get the motivation back and the love for it back to practise for hours a day, you never know. But right now as it is, I don’t want to come back as a driver, but I still want to be involved in sim racing somehow, and that’s what I’m trying to do.” He remains coy, however, on what these plans are. “I can’t really say anything at this point because nothing is sure for 2020. But if it goes through it will be very exciting, and I will surely announce it maybe in the next month or so.”

After an enthralling and exciting career in E-Sports, the journey may be at its end now for Martin Stefanko, but as he said you just never know. Maybe we will see the magical Czech racer back in the big time once more in years to come.

Featured image courtesy of VGP

Vettel vs Leclerc: The making of the most explosive partnership ever?

It was coming, wasn’t it?

In the dying laps of the Brazilian Grand Prix, following a safety car,  Ferrari’s talented Monegasque upstart Charles Leclerc dived down the inside of team-mate Sebastian Vettel going into turn one. Nothing wrong with that move. On the exit of turn three, however, came a moment that epitomised what has been a long and painful struggle for Ferrari over recent years.

Attempting to gain his position back, Vettel re-created his 2010 drama with then-Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber, and moved across on Leclerc, terminally damaging Leclerc’s wheel, and giving himself a race-ending puncture.

I know we can’t use one incident to suggest that this is already the most controversial team-mate battle in F1 history. It doesn’t come close to Senna vs Prost or even Hamilton vs Rosberg, but what happened in Brazil was the culmination of an incredibly tense season at the Scuderia. It was a volcano that wasn’t going to stay dormant for long.

Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

Vettel has a history of being more than a little incident-prone. Even during his spell of dominance at Red Bull, there were cracks under pressure, clashes with rivals, and an almost permanent sense of volatility. Then, after his move to Ferrari, there were incidents in Baku and Singapore in 2017, and multiple errors in 2018.

This year, his rivalry with Leclerc has seen a stark contrast with Vettel’s placid and comfortable relationship with Kimi Raikkonen. This year saw him come up against a young, quick, aggressive, motivated and extremely talented Leclerc. This pressure has in some ways pushed Vettel to become a better version of himself, but the mistakes have always been there, as has the flare that comes with competitive team-mates who simply will not accept number two status at the most historic and successful team in F1.

Success may seem distant for Ferrari at the moment, but as a team that dominates all of the papers in Italy and is the biggest talking point of a proud racing nation, the headlines are never far away. In typical Ferrari fashion, they have occupied them at every opportunity this year, but mainly for the wrong reasons.

On multiple occasions at the start of the year, Ferrari opted to swap their drivers over when chasing the quicker Mercedes cars, despite their cars being equal in pace. These decisions were puzzling to put it kindly, and led to friction that would dominate the rest of the season.

Singapore saw one of the most contentious incidents yet between the two. Leclerc was leading from pole, but Ferrari decided to give Vettel the undercut and inadvertently gave the German the lead of the race in the pit stops. Vettel won the race, ahead of a furious Leclerc.

At this point, tempers were sizzling, but Ferrari insisted that they had the situation under control.

Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

They came close to blows on the first lap of the US Grand Prix, and as soon as they went side-by-side in Brazil, you knew what was coming.

Ferrari have worked themselves into a situation that they cannot control. As in many races over the last couple of years, they have cost themselves valuable points with a combination of nonsense strategies and driver errors.

Regarding Vettel and Leclerc, there’s no need to explore specific points during races when Ferrari mishandled their driver situation. Forget China, forget Spain, forget Singapore, and forget Brazil. Ferrari were in trouble before the season even began.

Mattia Binotto started his role in the worst way possible. Before Melbourne, the new team principal stated that Ferrari would favour Vettel in the first part of the season and perhaps give Leclerc equal standing if he proved his worth as the year progressed.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a team boss make such a foreboding start to a reign as team boss. These comments will have created a lack of trust and a polarising divide between Vettel and Leclerc, because how are they supposed to race if they know they constantly have a team decision hanging over their heads? How does Leclerc hope to prove himself as a Ferrari race winner if the team will swap him and Vettel over anyway?

It gave the perception that Vettel had become Ferrari’s darling, and that Leclerc would have to be the bridesmaid. Binotto’s comments made it a personal battle between his drivers and they hadn’t even hit the streets of Melbourne for the weekend yet.

Would the tale have been different had Binotto been a bit more considerate in his comments? It’s difficult to tell, but I certainly feel there would be less animosity in Ferrari.

However, if you’re a neutral looking for exciting headlines every race, then Binotto’s a genius!

Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

Let’s face it, F1 has often felt stagnant in the last few years, because intense rivalries have been hard to come by. Lewis Hamilton’s battle with Valtteri Bottas has always been quite passive and amiable, despite Mercedes’ favouring the six-time champion.

Max Verstappen has had a grudge with Esteban Ocon, who will race for Renault next year, since their junior days.

Those rivalries aside, we are yet to see a battle to the extent of Hamilton and Rosberg. Looking back over the years, there has always been friction in such an emotionally-fuelled sport. The aforementioned battle of egos between Senna and Prost springs to mind, as does Mansell vs Piquet. Jacques Villeneuve wants to fight with everyone he meets, and who can forget Fernando Alonso’s beef with both Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel?

This friction gives us talking points other than Mercedes and Ferrari winning, with Max Verstappen, to his credit, often helping to spice up the action at the top of the field.

However, it almost seems like F1 doesn’t have room for mind games and antagonism any more, despite other racing series proving it can still be done.

MotoGP riders do a good job of getting into each other’s heads, and the same applies to Formula E. Jean Eric Vergne, Sebastien Buemi and Lucas di Grassi don’t exactly have soft spots for each other.

And that doesn’t come down to snide remarks and below-the-belt comments in the media like we often see in F1, this is about drivers passionately confronting each other about incidents and making sure everyone knows where they stand on conflicts. Remember Sebastien Buemi going round screaming at every driver he saw after race one of the 2017 season finale in Montreal?

This is what F1 needs more of and hopefully the new 2021 regulations will bring the field closer together and we can see more on-track fights and debates between drivers every race.

Of course, we’re not asking drivers to get the boxing gloves out. All we want is drivers racing closely and entertaining us, giving us something to talk about. Is that so much to ask of a sport that has given us so many jaw-dropping moments over the years?

So, could Vettel vs Leclerc become a rivalry for the ages? Quite possibly, but let’s hope it’s not the only one we have to talk about in years to come.

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Preview: The curtain falls on 2019

Abu Dhabi sees the curtain drop on another Formula One season. However, it is a slightly tatted curtain and, much like the Greatest Showman – sorry to anyone who thought it was good – it is the end of a somewhat dull and monotonous year.

Of course, it has not been all doom and gloom. There have been some stunning races in 2019, like Austria, Silverstone, Germany and Brazil. However, the exciting and scintillating moments we associate so strongly with F1 have been few and far between.

With that said, the F1 bandwagon arrives at the 5.5-kilometre Abu Dhabi circuit – an excellent and enjoyable track for the drivers, not so much for the fans.

(Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Abu Dhabi first appeared on the calendar in 2009, with Sebastian Vettel winning the race, and has played host to the last race on the calendar for eight of the last ten years.

However, the races have not always captured the eye for wheel-to-wheel magnificence. The circuit is rather clumsy to look at, especially the underground pit exit – which I am sure seemed a good idea to begin with – where it is difficult to mount cameras and no-one can actually see.

What rescues the track is the setting. The backdrop of the exhilarating Ferrari World, the grandstands and the pit complexes, and of course the pristine hotel with the LED lit roof, make the Abu Dhabi track quite the spectacle, and gives it a real feel of an end-of-season race. Speaking of which, this is the first time that the Formula One championship will have ever ended in December – hopefully the teams have remembered to pack their advent calendars.

Lewis Hamilton is a four-time winner in Abu Dhabi, and having wrapped up his sixth title already, he would love to see out the year in style with another victory.

As form has it, Mercedes have a good chance of another one-two finish under the lights. Abu Dhabi is predominantly a power track, but this has been a surprising area of inconsistency for both Mercedes and Ferrari all throughout the year, with the Honda power impressive in the back of the Red Bull and Toro Rosso cars. This was exemplified when Pierre Gasly out-dragged Lewis Hamilton to the line for a second placed finish in Brazil, so this race could yet be an interesting one.

2019 Brazilian Grand Prix, Sunday – LAT Images

2020 will likely not include Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, and will definitely not include Williams’ Robert Kubica, and so these two drivers will probably make their F1 farewells this weekend. Although, the return of Esteban Ocon, mixed with Hulkenberg’s impressive consistency, could lead the German to believe that he has a shot at a seat in the future. Kubica’s seat at Williams seat is still up for grabs though.

Following Carlos Sainz’s remarkable podium finish in Brazil – McLaren’s first since Melbourne 2014 – he and Lando Norris, who has excelled in his first season in F1, have sealed fourth in the constructors’ in what has been a superb improvement on the last six years for the British team. 2020 could see them propel themselves even further in the right direction, but they are still a way off third best team Red Bull at the moment.

The real battle is for fifth in the Constructors’ between Renault, who currently occupy the spot, and Toro Rosso, who are just eight points behind. The midfield battle has been extraordinary this year, and Racing Point and Alfa Romeo are still mathematically in with a shot, but they are extreme outsiders. Haas are set to stay ninth in what has been an abysmal year for Grosjean and team-mate Kevin Magnussen, who managed to get both cars into Q3 in Brazil, only to fail to score points in the race.

All eyes are on the midfield then, but there are plenty of other places to look around the beautiful setting at the Yas Marina Circuit as Formula One heads into the final race of the decade.

(Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

And at the end of what has been a tumultuous year, let’s not forget those we have lost.

Charlie Whiting passed in his sleep just before the Australian Grand Prix at the start of the year. The race director was one of the most influential pioneers in F1’s pursuit of safety. He was forever on the side of the drivers and the fans, had a human side that simply could not be matched, and he had an infectious smile that warmed the heart. What he did for Formula One is the reason we are able to watch races in the way that we do today. He will be missed.

We also said goodbye to Niki Lauda. The Austrian was a three-time world champion who drove for both Ferrari and McLaren, and even continued to achieve great success after his horrific accident at the Nurburgring in 1976. In his later years, he worked as non-executive chairman of Mercedes, but he was so much more. He played a part in race weekends, strategies and was a phenomenal mentor to their drivers. Lewis Hamilton was so affected by his passing that he was excused media obligations before the Monaco Grand Prix, demonstrating the effect that Lauda had on the entire paddock, both on a racing level and on a personal level.

And finally, we lost promising French star Anthoine Hubert, whose crash at Spa in the summer claimed his life and left Juan Manuel Correa in hospital. Correa is now recovering at home. Hubert was a ray of sunshine in the F2 paddock, and had the racing prowess to match. His death rocked motorsport, and a minute’s silence was respectfully held on race day in both F1 and F3 on the Sunday – F2 chose not to race that day. He was a brightly shining star taken from us far too soon.

Though we will move on from 2019, we, as a motorsport family, will never forget them.

 

[Featured image – Wolfgang Wilhelm]