The stumbling horse: Have we overestimated Ferrari?

“Why are we so slow?”

“I don’t know.”

This team radio message between Sebastian Vettel and his race engineer was the general gist of what was a sobering, dejecting, and exposing weekend for Ferrari at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

After such a promising winter where Ferrari looked quicker and more reliable than Mercedes, the Italian team came to Australia with a surely ardent belief that this, after years of waiting, was finally the year they would have the upper hand over Mercedes and would have enough to win the championship. Now, we may have only had one race so far, and we certainly will not rule out Ferrari after just 58 laps of racing, but Friday was a reality check for Ferrari and Sunday has made for compounded Monday morning blues at Maranello.

Ferrari Media

Sebastian Vettel was seven tenths off Lewis Hamilton’s pole position, and Ferrari’s fastest lap of the race, set by Charles Leclerc, was just under 1.4 seconds slower than the fastest lap of the race set by race winner Valtteri Bottas. To make matters even worse, Max Verstappen and his Honda powered Red Bull looked exceedingly quick and he pushed Vettel out of the podium places, leaving a lot of head-scratching to be done at Ferrari.

So just why were Ferrari so much slower over the course of the weekend than Mercedes? Well, the heart that Ferrari fans can take from this weekend is that the gap in qualifying pace this season was similar to what we saw last year. The race this year, though, did not turn out so well. Even another Haas pit stop failure for Romain Grosjean couldn’t save Ferrari this time around.

Melbourne is a very unique circuit. Many forget that the track is actually a main road and therefore is a tricky surface, a mix between straights and twisty corners. It is, for the most part, a power track, which would suggest that Mercedes have managed to edge back ahead of Ferrari engine-wise.

Ferrari Media

Overall, however, the Albert Park circuit tends to be fairly unrepresentative of pace and performance, which will be the key source of positive thinking that Ferrari will be looking to heading into the Bahrain Grand Prix. Furthermore, Mark Webber was keen to point towards tyres, suggesting that Mercedes were able to get the tyres into an operating window and keep them there. Ferrari, meanwhile, were not, which in turn would link back again the unique nature of the Melbourne circuit.

An aspect that will concern them even more is that Red Bull looked genuinely fast. The Honda-powered car was brilliantly fast in the speed traps, split both Ferraris in qualifying, and set a faster lap than them both during the race.

It is difficult to judge whether this is a step in the wrong direction for Ferrari, or whether this was just a wacky weekend that didn’t turn out in their favour. All did not look well during the weekend and the early signs suggest that the Prancing Horse is not match for the Silver Arrows, and may even be challenged by the new-look Charging Bull.

 

[Featured image – Ferrari Media]

Ferrari team orders issued to avoid ‘any risks’ at Australian Grand Prix

Ferrari Team Principal Mattia Binotto says Ferrari issued team orders to Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc to avoid taking ‘any risks’ in the closing stages of the Australian Grand Prix.

Ferrari Media

Despite many labelling the Scuderia the favourites going into the season based on their form in testing, Ferrari struggled around the streets of Albert Park.

“Right from Friday, we didn’t feel comfortable at this track,” Binotto said. “Even though we did a lot of work on set-up, we didn’t find the right balance and even our qualifying performance demonstrated that we were struggling to adapt to the Albert Park track.”

After Vettel made a pitstop to switch onto the medium tyres, he failed to get enough grip out of them and was passed by Max Verstappen. When Leclerc then started gaining on Vettel using newly fitted hard tyres with ten laps to go, he asked the team whether he should stay behind.

“Yes, and back off to have some margin,” came the reply. Leclerc obeyed and the pair trailed home fourth and fifth, nearly a minute behind race winner Valtteri Bottas.

Ferrari Media

It was made clear in pre-season testing that Ferrari had the intentions of prioritising Vettel over Leclerc in an attempt to boost the former’s hopes in the title race. In Australia, though, it was a matter of not jeopardising either of their drivers’ results, despite the thirty second gap to Kevin Magnussen in the Haas behind.

Speaking of the decision, Binotto said, “When [Vettel] could no longer fend off Verstappen, we decided the most important thing was to get to the end, managing the tyres. When Charles caught up to him, it seemed wise not to take any risks.

“We leave Australia with a lot of data to analyse and we will use that to work out how to get back to our actual level of competitiveness for the race in Bahrain in two weeks time.”

2019 Australian Grand Prix Driver Ratings

The first round of the 2019 Formula 1 season is complete – here we look at Australian GP driver ratings:

Valtteri Bottas – 9

Sunday was near perfect, with a lightning start allowing him to jump his team mate and from then he just went off into the distance, getting an extra point for fastest lap as well. He wasn’t necessarily the winner we expected from pre-season testing but he was without a doubt the driver of the day.

2019 Australian Grand Prix, Sunday – LAT Images

Lewis Hamilton – 7

Hamilton is well known for having the Saturday pace which generally puts him in good stead for Sunday, but he was beaten fair and square during the race. Still, he’ll take the podium along with the equal record for the most poles at one circuit.

Max Verstappen – 8

Verstappen put in the best performance for Honda in the whole of the hybrid era with his podium finish. He managed his tyres well and made an easy move on Vettel. A mistake at turn one hindered a late attack on Hamilton, but he will leave Melbourne with a smile on his face.

Sebastian Vettel – 7

Vettel had a solid start and was quick in the first stint, attempting to attack with an undercut which ultimately didn’t work. You can guarantee an investigation will be underway at Ferrari to figure out how they ended up 57 seconds behind the winner.

Charles Leclerc – 6

A great start by Leclerc but he was rather ambitious to attempt a move on his team-mate which could have ended in tears. Unlike his team-mate, he was slow in the first half of the race but fast in the second, and caught up to Vettel before being told to hold position. He showed he had speed in Q2 but the Ferrari doesn’t seem to be the package everyone thought.

Ferrari Media

Kevin Magnussen – 8

Magnussen was best of the rest in Australia, with solid pace and what seems to be the fourth quickest car. It was a better result than last year with no faulty pitstops, even if he was outqualified by his team-mate.

Nico Hulkenburg – 7

It was another result in a familiar place for the German. He started 11th so had free choice of tyres, which benefitted him in the race as he got the move on a few other drivers.

Kimi Raikkonen – 8

Raikkonen did exceptionally well considering where the team was last year, with a very aggressive package seeming to suit him well. He got the car into Q3 and kept that momentum going into Sunday.

Lance Stroll – 7

Stroll always raises eyebrows due to how he got into the sport, but in the race he showed he was fully deserving of the seat at Racing Point as he was in the thick of it all weekend. He scored the team’s only point, having some great battles whilst keeping the car clean.

Danil Kvyat – 6

A good return to the sport, ignoring a mistake at turn three. He was ambitious to run the hard tyre and defended well from faster cars behind, taking his car deeper into the race and allowing him to overcut the majority of them for the last point.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Pierre Gasly – 4

Australia will be a race to forget for Gasly. A mistake on Saturday by the team cost him dearly and he spent most of the race staring at Kvyat’s rear wing, unable to get past even on the softest tyre.

Lando Norris – 7

It was a great Saturday from Norris, but an early stop in the race in reaction to others put him in traffic. He was unable to pass Giovinazzi for several laps and just missed out on the points. Expect big things from Norris this season.

Sergio Perez – 5

It was an off-day for the Mexican on Sunday as he was classified down in 13th. He got caught up in the midfield battle which let others overcut him. The car looks great though, so there will be plenty more opportunities for him.

Alex Albon – 6

Despite being the first to spin this season in similar circumstances to his incident in testing, Albon did a good job. He matched Kvyat for outright pace on Saturday but was just caught up in the ever-so-tight midfield squabble. A good Sunday debut.

Antonio Giovinazzi – 5

The returning Italian was a pain for most at Melbourne, stuck on a confusing strategy with his tyres were ruined, and becoming a replacement for the infamous ‘Trulli train’. He showed true grit in terms of defence but not a lot of outright speed, though this is only his third ever race in F1.

George Russell – 6

Russell blitzed his much more experienced team-mate, but that’s not saying much considering Kubica is really the only competition he has due to Williams being so far behind the others. He finished his debut race and hopefully get in the mix, sooner rather than later.

George Russell (GBR) Williams Racing FW42.
Australian Grand Prix, Sunday 17th March 2019. Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia.

Robert Kubica – 3

A race to forget and move on from for Kubica. He hit the wall twice on Saturday and then hit Gasly at turn one on the first lap of the race. Williams will have collected some data though, and Kubica will get quicker and quicker throughout the season.

Romain Grosjean – 7

Another pit stop failure resulted in early retirement for the Frenchman, after being on course for a good points haul. A long delay in the pits pushed him down the order, and he then had to stop the car on track due to a ill-fitted left-front tyre.

Daniel Ricciardo – 5

For the first time in Melbourne in the turbo era, Ricciardo failed to get through to Q3 on Saturday, and his race – his first for Renault – was pretty much over in a few seconds when he pushed wide onto the grass and broke his front wing. He decided to retire the car.

Carlos Sainz – 4

Sainz was beaten by his rookie team mate on Saturday comprehensively, and was the first to retire on Sunday. Because of the nature of the track he had been unable to make up much ground prior to the retirement. He is a fighter though, and will be back for Bahrain.

 

[Featured image – Wolfgang Wilhelm]

Lewis Hamilton: Qualifying “first time we’ve unleashed full potential of the car”

Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton believes that qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix was the first occasion that Mercedes were able to ‘unleash the full potential’ of the W10.

Hamilton led a Mercedes 1-2 in qualifying around the streets of Albert Park, almost a tenth of a second ahead of team-mate Valtteri Bottas and seven tenths ahead of third-placed Sebastian Vettel.

It was the Brit’s eighth pole position in Australia, equaling Michael Schumacher’s record of the most poles claimed at one circuit.

“I feel so fortunate to be in the position I’m in today,” Hamilton said. “We had no idea that we’d have this gap to the others – we thought we were behind, we thought it was going to be a push, so we gave it absolutely everything and more to arrive here with the best possible package and delivery.”

Mercedes came into the first race of the year with many saying that Ferrari held the advantage over the Silver Arrows based on their form in pre-season testing; Hamilton thus expressed his surprise at the performance of his car in qualifying.

“We haven’t massively changed the car; it’s almost the same set-up we had in Barcelona, so this gap was really surprising to see,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve unleashed the full potential of the car and I’m so happy to have a car that I can fight with. This is a really great start to the new season and it puts us in a good position for the fight tomorrow.”

 

[Featured image – Steve Etherington]

Daniel Ricciardo: Renault “have to keep a cool head” after difficult Australian GP qualifying

Daniel Ricciardo says Renault “have to keep a cool head” going into tomorrow’s Australian Grand Prix, despite a difficult qualifying that saw both of the team’s drivers fail to reach Q3.

Ricciardo missed out by the narrowest of margins and will start his home race in P12, just one position behind his team-mate Nico Hulkenberg.

“I’m clearly disappointed not to make Q3,” Ricciardo said, “especially as it was just half a tenth and that’s something I can find in myself – I lost a bit of time in the first sector on the last run. We had the potential to make Q3 so when you don’t do the perfect lap, it’s frustrating.

“As expected the midfield is really close but I’m feeling optimistic for a strong result tomorrow. I always want to do well at home, but we have to keep a cool head, have a good start and then attack when necessary.”

Renault’s Sporting Director Alan Permane added, “We thought [Ricciardo] had another couple of tenths which would have put him safely into the top ten. We therefore have a little bit of work to do tomorrow, but with the good long run pace we demonstrated yesterday, we are aiming to make up for today and get both cars well into the points.”

 

[Featured image – Renault F1 Team]

Lando Norris: “I’m not going to get carried away” with Q3 performance

McLaren rookie Lando Norris says he isn’t ‘going to get carried away’ with himself and with the performance of the car, despite a Q3 appearance on his F1 debut at the Australian Grand Prix.

Norris qualified P8 with a time of 1:22.304, putting him ahead of the likes of Kimi Raikkonen, Nico Hulkenberg and home-favourite Daniel Ricciardo. It is McLaren’s first Q3 appearance since the Monaco Grand Prix of last year.

Speaking of his performance, Norris said, “I loved it but I’m not going to get carried away! I was very nervous at the start of the session with it being my first-ever F1 quali and never having been here before. But I managed to put the laps together today – the team were fantastic.

“Our aim was to get into Q2 but it turned out to be even better, and it’s a great confidence boost for everyone. It’s going to be a long, tough race and that’s what I must concentrate on now.”

Norris’ team-mate Carlos Sainz, by comparison, will start from P18, having been forced to back off when he encountered a puncture-riddled Robert Kubica in Q1.

 

[Featured image – Steven Tee/McLaren]

Charlie Whiting: The man behind the button

Today, we woke up to the tragic news of the passing of FIA race director Charlie Whiting, aged 66. The sudden nature of his death has left those that know him shocked to the core, as well as those who saw him on F1’s world coverage. We at the Pit Crew Online would like to honour the legacy and nature of a man who kept F1 held together for over 30 years.

If there’s one word to be uttered about Charlie, is that oft-used one, ‘unique’ – but in this case, it’s a fitting description rather than a generic throwaway comment. He was a man both of principle and forgiveness, a finger that could wag if the need arose, but an arm around the shoulder if the moment required.

To say Charlie was well respected by the FIA, teams, staff and drivers is an understatement. He was as inseparable from the F1 circus as they were, and in some cases even more so. Charlie was able to command respect without seeking it. His diligence, humility and wise nature lent itself to the role of race director.

But he was also the glue that held races and rivalries together, a powerful arm inbetween sides but with a distinct human heart regulating his parity. He did it so well – the videoed briefings of the 2017 season in particular highlighted this. He was the air conditioner cooling the emotions of 20 men of intense flame. Charlie could articulate the law of the rulebook in such a way, that it never felt like a lecture but, rather, helpful advice.

Charlie also gained the respect of his peers with his humble rise to the role of race director. He would peek over fences, watching whatever motor races he could attend back in the 1960s, his unrequited admiration for racing driving his ambitions. By the 1970s, he was within the F1 paddock, working within the Hesketh and Brabham teams.

This is key to the makeup of Charlie’s apt way of handling things – he had the perspective not just of a director, but of a team staff member and an avid fan. Charlie never lost that sense of belonging of his childhood gaze upon the fastest machines, and his consideration for what the fans want to see coincided with his experience in a team infrastructure, finding a balance so many others were, and still are, unable to do to such an extent.

What we ought to remember Charlie as most, however, is a loving, attentive and passionate man who was able to enjoy the lighter side of his role in racing, and his life in general. Mark J. McArdle, the man behind the infamous Fake Charlie Whiting Twitter account, was taken to Charlie’s heart, and the two grew an incredibly close connection given Charlie’s commitments. He was always able to find the time, both within racing and outside of it.

And so we must say this: thank you Charlie. Thank you to the man who made sure red flag sessions were done by the books. Thank you to the man who could keep the drivers and teams calm before, and after, battle. Thank you to the man who kept the F1 circus rolling, for all those decades. Thank you to the man who could not be faulted for his dedication. And finally, thank you to the man behind the button – the credit to not just sport, but all those who knew him.

Rest in peace Charlie Whiting.

 

 

[Featured image – Wikimedia Commons]

Renault driver line-up ‘perhaps the strongest on the grid’ according to Abiteboul

Renault’s managing director Cyril Abiteboul has said he believes the team’s 2019 line-up of Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo to be ‘perhaps the strongest on the grid’.

Ricciardo will be making his Renault race debut at this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix alongside Hulkenberg, who starts his third year with the team, and Abiteboul is optimistic about what the pairing can deliver.

“The first race of the year, the Australian Grand Prix, is a high point of the season,” Abiteboul said, “but even more so this year as Daniel Ricciardo makes his race debut for the team. We head there united and with strong determination.

“We have a new car that has shown potential in Barcelona. The power unit has made progress and or driver line-up of Daniel and Nico is perhaps the strongest on the grid. We’re looking forward to seeing them showcasing their experience and talent on track. There is a lot of expectation for the first race, especially with Daniel’s debut for the team coming at his home Grand Prix.”

Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) Renault Sport F1 Team RS19.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Friday 1st March 2019. Barcelona, Spain.

Ricciardo announced his shock move from Red Bull – where he had been since 2014 and with whom he had won seven Grand Prix – at the Belgian Grand Prix of last year. The Australian, too, is positive about the prospect of racing for his new team, even if it is unlikely they will be at the same performance level as Red Bull immediately.

“My first impressions, on a whole, have been positive,” Ricciardo said, “and we’ll continue to learn more throughout these early races. It’s going to take some time to get used to everything, but that’s not unexpected.

“We’re realistic in our approach and we have work to do. We have a decent platform to build on now and we always strive for better. We’ve found some things during testing which we’ll dissect and see what we want to take forward, but our bigger steps will come during the next few months.”

 

[Featured image – Renault Sport F1 Team]

Silverstone Circuit to be resurfaced ahead of 2019 British Grand Prix

The Silverstone race track is to be resurfaced in June ahead of both the F1 and MotoGP races.

The news comes as bosses of both Silverstone and F1 desperately scrap to come to an agreement to keep the F1 race alive at Silverstone, and try to avoid the British GP moving to a different and perhaps less favourable home.

Situated on the site of what used to be a military airbase converted into a race track in the 1940s, Silverstone has been the sole home of the British Grand Prix since 1987, having alternated with Brands Hatch and Aintree prior to that.

Last year saw a resurfacing job completed on the track ahead of the start of the F1 season. Now, another resurfacing will be completed just a month before the Formula One race towards the end of June, and two months before the MotoGP race in August.

2018 British Grand Prix, Sunday – Wolfgang Wilhelm

So, why the same job twice in as many years? You may remember the MotoGP race that was supposed to take place in August last year, but never did. Race day brought with it typically British weather, and alleged drainage problems meant the rainwater could not be cleared. As such, the race could not be contested or even rescheduled, and travelling fans had to be reimbursed after what turned out to be a disaster of a weekend for them. The track is thus being resurfaced again to avoid the same problems from occurring this year.

The source of the funding for this year’s job is as yet, according to Silverstone managing director Stuart Pringle, uncertain. There is still an ongoing investigation as to whether Aggregate Industries – the company who surfaced the track last year – were at fault for the cancellation of the 2018 MotoGP race, and therefore should have to compensate for this year’s job, or whether the Silverstone circuit will have to fund it themselves.

If Silverstone has to pay for the job itself, it will be a huge dent in its plans to host the race beyond its current deal which expires this year. Last year’s MotoGP cancellation cost Silverstone a huge amount of money, and having to pay for a job they feel should be paid for by the company whose alleged poor drainage cost them will result in struggles to pay the F1 race hosting fees beyond this year.

The Silverstone management is not the only disgruntled party. Lewis Hamilton described the 2018 resurfacing as ‘the worst job ever,’ so all was not well even before the MotoGP disaster of August.

Ferrari Media

In terms of the racing, the change in surface will mean that the track will not be rubbered in and there will be no racing line, resulting in less grip. Therefore, the lap times over the course of the weekend will take longer to fall as the drivers try to find traction.

There is, however, another potential plot twist. Stuart Pringle was quoted as saying that he ‘hopes’ the job will be complete ahead of the F1 Grand Prix. Missing the race would be another big hit in terms of revenue, and it would mean that F1 would have to search for a new home for the race. British GT will be the last event run before the F1  race, and several club meetings have already been cancelled to accommodate the job. They will be hoping and praying the track will be ready for F1’s British Grand Prix weekend between the 12-14 July.

The race is an extremely popular one for the fans, drivers, and teams alike. The campsites along with by the ample grassland allow for fans to enjoy barbecues over the course of the weekend. The track is vastly expansive and the Maggotts, Becketts and Chapel complex is truly a sight to behold.

Because of the popularity of the track, it would be nice for F1’s British Grand Prix to stick around in Northamptonshire for a few years yet, but the resurfacing job really is just the surface of the many issues the Silverstone track faces in 2019.

 

[Featured image – Andrew Hone]

The fastest lap frenzy: what impact will it have?

Formula One’s hybrid era is known for a lot of things: the vanquishing of the V8 banshee scream, abundant engine penalties and, most importantly, the ever-widening chasm between the series’ Goliaths and Davids.

The Davids are now so hamstrung that some previously balanced stats now read as though they were handed to us as a death note. Since Williams’ brief giant-killing stage subsided in 2016, only five podiums have featured a non-top three driver – Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez (twice) in 2016, Lance Stroll in 2017 and Perez again last season.

Wins? You have to reach as far back as the 2013 Australian Grand Prix, when Kimi Raikkonen prevailed with Lotus-Renault. Even then, Lotus was arguably only slower than the Red Bull and Mercedes, making it a loose inclusion.

Teams now race in an era where clinging to within a second of sixth is the podium result itself, and the elite dangle their cash reserves in front of prospective B-teams like a carrot laced with the poison of compliance.

Liberty Media understands this is an issue. Not enough to actually re-shape F1’s tainted foundations, but enough to feel a cosy rug can hide the living room mess for the time being. Their latest idea to give a helping hand to the midfield is a point for fastest lap.

Photo by Glenn Dunbar / LAT Images

If passed, the rule can only be described as compromised and pretty exploitable.The picture that sprung to mind was of a Williams or a Toro Rosso giving up a futile chase for 16th and deciding, “to hell with it, softest tyres and a low fuel load – this point is ours”.

In an extreme case, you’d get a real two-tier series. The ones that are able to keep their noses in the standard ‘overtake to get points’ race do as planned, while the no-hopers battle it out among themselves to nab that extra point.

As a result of the alarms that started blaring in the heads of the rule-makers, it was decided that it would take a top ten finish to secure the point for fastest lap. But what might sound like an intriguing plan likely won’t pan out as hoped.

Only four races since the turn of the hybrid era have had a non-top three car take fastest lap within the top ten.  Even then, only three are truly valid—Bottas’ fastest lap in Russia 2014 was in, what was at that stage of the season, arguably the second fastest car. Perez’s in Austria 2014, Daniil Kvyat’s in Spain 2016 and Fernando Alonso’s at Britain 2017 are the only fair examples. Would they have affected their championship standings? No. The last time a fastest lap would’ve changed the midfield championship order was in 2009, when Adrian Sutil’s Italian GP fastest lap would have placed him ahead of 16th place Sebastien Buemi.

ravas51 / Wikimedia Commons

History suggests points for fastest lap are a blue moon level of useful for the midfield drivers. But let’s talk the other extreme—title fights. Of the seven showdowns decided by a solitary point or less, the one that had the potential to decide the title by way of a point for fastest lap was 2008.

Felipe Massa nailed the all-important lap of laps in the title-decider, which would have put him and Lewis Hamilton equal on points—and with six wins to Hamilton’s five, Massa would have been crowned champion on countback. So let’s take a trip through time and ask ourselves: would it have enhanced the fight?

Fans hold Brazil 2008 as one of the finest races of all time. No lap has ever threatened to break rib cages and set hearts free from the body than that final lap at Interlagos, as Hamilton chased the fifth place he needed to deny Massa the title. But if fastest lap points were on offer, they would have nullified that excitement—Massa set his fastest lap early in the race, and as the last laps were rained out there was no chance of that changing. Massa and Hamilton were fighting just to keep their chariots on the island, rather than go purple on the timing screens.

Ferrari Media

So in no case in history have we had a true fight for the title where the fastest lap rule can be used to enhance the show. We’ve also seen that for ten years now, no midfield runner has benefitted from a fastest lap in meaningful fashion. All we’re likely to be left with is low hanging fruit for sixth place, the usual 40 seconds ahead of the midfield pack.

While Liberty’s attempt to spice things up is admirable, the gatekeeping only serves to give free reign to whatever Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull finds itself in the barren wasteland between the podium fight and the midfield. History spells out irrelevance at best for this latest experiment, insult-to-injury annoyance at worst. Oh how I want it to succeed, but the results of the past only suggests it’s bound for the future’s scrap heap, along with the other well-meant distractions from F1’s real issues.