Alejandro Agag: “This is the biggest experiment in motorsport”.

When the new FIA Extreme E (XE) World Championship begins in the desert sands of the Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia this weekend, it won’t just be simply the start of another racing series but a revolutionary concept whose on-track glammer is matched only by its lofty off-track ambitions.

Cast your minds back to January 2019, during the official announcement on the cold, rainy and wintery deck of RMS St. Helena. The motorsport world gathered in anticipation for what was to come. A new championship.

Alejandro Agag, CEO of both Formula E and Extreme E unveiled his dream, an off-road electric SUV racing series that would travel the world to draw attention to climate change through environmentally friendly racing.

The series will take place in five remote locations affected by climate change, where all the equipment and cars are transported by a ‘floating paddock’ cargo ship, which will also serve as a laboratory for scientists to conduct research and enact conservation projects.

The St Helena logistics ship. Courtesy of Colin McMaster.

Each team features a male and female driver who must take turns throughout each race, and competitors can earn a boost by performing big jumps and winning online fan votes.

Throw in a strong driver line-up including F1 champion Jenson Button , multiple-time WRC champion Sebastien Loeb and W Series champion Jamie Chadwick.

Sounds good doesn’t it?

Courtesy of Extreme E

Something that fascinates me is the incredible mixture of young and established names in motorsport with the likes of Carlos Sainz Snr, Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi involved in the series in some way. These personalities and brands are essential to providing Extreme E with a credibility amongst hardcore motorsport fans.

One the other hand you have Veloce Racing, a tech firm and esports squad taking its first step into real-world motorsport. Younger audiences will be familiar with their esports exploits but will inevitably follow with intrigue their transition into the physical world.

It carries the same energy as when ‘new money’ from the Industrial Revolution joined the ranks of the traditional aristocratic and landed gentry of Britain in the 18th century. We are seeing a blurring of the lines of what a traditional race team can look like.

Whether you are a racing ‘super-fan’, an environmentalist or a travel connoisseur, Extreme E has something for everyone.

Alejandro Agag, CEO, Extreme E, with all the drivers lined up in the background. Courtesy of Steven Tee.

But do not just take it from me, take it from the man who set up the whole series. During the official press conference Alejandro Agag spoke about his thoughts on the season opener:

“It would have been impossible to organise this race without our hosts and the teams” said Alejandro on the Friday morning before the opening qualifying session. “it’s an incredibly happy day for me. Many people did not think this was going to happen, that is true, this is quite out of the box.”

“This is the biggest experiment in motorsport”.

On the future of Extreme E Alejandro was keen to highlight that set it apart from the Formula E championship: “They are very different. Which one will be bigger? Who knows? They can both become very big, of course, I am keen on both.”

“In terms of manufacturers in season one (Formula E) we had Mahindra, Audi had support with Abt, Renault had support with DAMS. However, already here we have two in season one. We have Cupra, Hummer and Lotus which may become a full partner in the future.”

Importantly, as we have seen with Formula E manufacturers tend to come and go. This has left Alejandro with a philosophy which favours independent teams over manufacturers. With a strong independent line-up including teams owned by Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Veloce, Nico Rosberg, Carlos Sainz Snr and many others, there is certainly a freshness and originality to this grid.

“There are very significant manufacturers who are interested in Extreme E. But you have to build championships independently of manufacturers because when they go, they go. […] Manufacturers are not necessary.”

On which team are the favourites going into the inaugural season, Alejandro was coy, suggesting a competitive title battle:

“Ganassi was looking strong, even though they had a technical problem this morning. But outside of them it looks really open. If I had nine dollars I would put one dollar on each of the other nine teams.”

There have been some minor last-minute alterations to the format in response to reliability. A qualifying race will now be replaced by a series of time trials on Saturday that will form the grid for the semi-final, crazy race and final showdown on Sunday.

On reliability, Alejandro played down his concerns:  “I’m not too concerned. “

“(During testing) 18 out of 20 cars broke down. Here this morning two out of nine broke. I hope no car breaks tomorrow but that’s part of racing. I have to say if seven out of nine cars broke this morning I would be concerned.”

The problem with finding the ideal F1 reserve driver

You’ve got to feel for Stoffel Vandoorne. The former McLaren driver has had several realistic chances to return to the Formula One grid this season in his capacity as Mercedes reserve driver, but each time he’s found himself overlooked in favour of an outside contender.

It’s no reflection on Vandoorne as a driver. Leaving aside his two demoralising years driving uncompetitive McLarens, Vandoorne has been a race-winner in almost every top flight series he’s contested.

The problem is more with the concept of F1 reserve drivers in general. Or rather, with the near impossibility of finding a reserve driver who truly fits the bill of what’s asked of them.

Stoffel Vandoorne, Mercedes F1 reserve driver (Courtesy of FIA Formula E)

When it comes to the ideal F1 reserve, the most important thing teams look for is someone whose experience is as recent as possible. F1 development stops for no one, so there’s little use in fielding a stand-in whose last Grand Prix was four or five seasons ago.

Secondly, they need to be quick if they’re going to fight for the results the team expects. But the problem here is that if a driver with that kind of talent finds themselves out of F1, it’s most commonly the case that they’re either moving on to another series or retiring at the end of their career, and therefore won’t be looking for a reserve role.

(There are of course exceptions to this. Nico Hulkenberg, for example, found himself without a drive for this year but that’s not for lack of talent. And Jenson Button stepped in to deputise for Fernando Alonso at McLaren in 2017 despite bowing out of F1 the previous year. But cases like this are extremely rare.)

The final problem with finding the ideal reserve is availability.

For a reserve driver to be quick they need to keep their qualifying and race craft sharp for whenever it’s needed, even if that’s away from F1 machinery.

But at the same time, they can’t spend so much time racing in other series’ that it clashes with F1 weekends—an increasingly large problem as the F1 calendar continues to swell year by year.

Red Bull is a good example of this, as they recently had to secure a super licence for Juri Vips to act as reserve for the Turkish Grand Prix, as their usual backups Sebastien Buemi and Sergio Sette Camara were both racing elsewhere.

Juri Vips, Red Bull reserve driver (Mark Thompson, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool)

And that’s the reserve driver paradox. To be the ideal Grand Prix stand-in, one has to be fresh out of F1 and somehow keep that freshness year after year, be quick enough to compete with the current F1 grid despite being dropped from it, and keep race-sharp all year round while still being available 23 weekends out of 52 (and counting).

As a result, reserve drivers tend to be a compromise that’s not quite the best of any worlds. You have the likes of Paul di Resta, who was briefly named McLaren’s reserve this year despite not racing in F1 since 2013. Or you have Formula 2 drivers like Jack Aitken at Williams or Louis Deletraz at Haas, who race regularly on the F1 calendar but are completely unproven in a Grand Prix.

And then you have Ferrari, whose nominated reserve is Antonio Giovinazzi—somehow who has plenty of contemporary F1 experience and race-fitness, but comes with the added complication of currently driving for Alfa Romeo.

It’s all part of the reserve driver role. They’re the person a team relies on when one of their star drivers is sick or injured, but they’re often an imperfect solution at best. And so it’s not really a surprise that teams often search for a better alternative outside their pool if the need for a stand-in actually arises.

It’s a shame when that happens, especially for a driver like Vandoorne whose talent merits at least one more outing in a competitive F1 car. But when big points are on the line and a Hulkenberg or George Russell is available, it’s hard to fault the teams for taking advantage of that opportunity—even if it means their reserve driver spending Sunday playing Call of Duty.

 

The race that was…the 2013 German Grand Prix

This weekend Formula One heads to the mighty Nurburgring for the 2020 Eifel Grand Prix. As it’s been seven years since F1 last raced at the Ring, we’re throwing things back to its most recent visit—the 2013 German Grand Prix.

Taking a quick glance down the grid, 2013 doesn’t look too far removed from present-day F1. There are seven drivers from 2013 that are still racing in F1 today: Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, Valtteri Bottas, Daniel Ricciardo, Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez (or eight, if you include Racing Point stand-in Nico Hulkenberg).

Of those that aren’t, Fernando Alonso will be returning next year, and it wasn’t that long since we last saw the likes of Felipe Massa, Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg either.

But of those seven drivers still in F1 today, only Hamilton at Mercedes is still with the same team as in 2013. Back then, Vettel was still the reigning champion at Red Bull-Renault, while his future Ferrari teammate Raikkonen was in the second year of his F1 comeback partnering Grosjean at Lotus.

Meanwhile, Bottas was a rookie at Williams, Perez was enduring his ill-fated McLaren season, and Ricciardo was still cutting his teeth in a Ferrari-powered Toro Rosso before his Red Bull break a year later.

As for F1’s current crop of drivers, the likes of Carlos Sainz, Esteban Ocon and Alex Albon were all racing in Formula Renault categories in 2013. As for Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and George Russell, they were all still in karts.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes (Wolfgang Wilhelm / Mercedes AMG)

One thing that will be familiar for today’s F1 viewers is that the 2013 German Grand Prix started with Hamilton on pole for Mercedes. However, the Mercedes W04 was a far cry from the juggernauts that its turbo-hybrid successors would be.

The W04 was undoubtedly fast, and between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg had taken six of the season’s nine pole positions at that time. But a common theme of 2013 was Mercedes qualifying well only to struggle with tyre temperatures early on in the race and fall back through the field.

And that’s exactly what happened at the Nurburgring, as Vettel and Mark Webber (starting from second and third respectively) both got the jump on Hamilton into Turn 1. Meanwhile, Hamilton dropped back behind Grosjean and Raikkonen, whose James Allison-designed Lotuses were famously very gentle on their Pirelli tyres compared to the Mercedes.

With Vettel and Webber’s pace out front, Red Bull looked set for another 1–2 finish. But that fell apart when Webber came in to change tyres on lap 14 and left his pitbox with his right-rear not properly attached.

As Webber got away, the wheel detached and bounced down the pitlane—it hit FOM cameraman Paul Allen, who suffered a broken shoulder and cracked ribs and was taken to nearby Koblenz hospital for treatment. Allen later recovered fully and Red Bull were given a €30,000 fine for the incident.

Mark Webber, Red Bull (Lars Baron, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool)

Webber was able to rejoin the race, as he stopped just outside his pitbox and was promptly wheeled back and fitted with new tyres. But when he returned to the track he was a lap down on Vettel, while Grosjean and Raikkonen were closing in after setting multiple fastest laps.

On lap 23 the safety car was deployed when Jules Bianchi had to stop his Marussia with an engine fire. This allowed Webber to get back onto the lead lap. But after making initial progress when the race resumed, Webber then got stuck behind Sauber’s Esteban Gutierrez for ten laps, and was forced to make another stop after eating through his tyres trying to get by.

Raikkonen took the lead of the race on lap 41 when Vettel and Grosjean both made their third stops, and Lotus extended his stint until lap 49. This left Raikkonen with much fresher soft tyres for the final laps of the race and gave him the best chance of hunting down Vettel for the win. With this and the championship in mind (Raikkonen was then third in the standings behind Vettel and Alonso), Lotus instructed Grosjean to let the quicker Raikkonen by for second.

But despite his pace, Raikkonen was unable to stop Vettel taking his first home Grand Prix victory. The win was also the 30th of Vettel’s career, making him only the sixth driver in F1 history at the time to score more than 30 wins (the others being Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Fernando Alonso and Nigel Mansell).

Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean (Lotus) (Lars Baron, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool)

Raikkonen finished second and Grosjean third ahead of Alonso. Hamilton’s race stabilised in fifth, while Webber recovered to seventh between the McLarens of Button and Perez. Rosberg and Hulkenberg rounded out the points for Mercedes and Sauber respectively. Williams had looked set to finish in the points in what was their 600th Grand Prix, only for wheel gun problems in the pit stops to drop Pastor Maldonado and Bottas down to 15th and 16th place respectively.

The 2013 German Grand Prix was an enthralling race, but it was also a fascinating look back at F1’s recent history. It shows a Sebastian Vettel at his peak en route to a fourth consecutive World Championship. It shows the early signs of the Mercedes success to come, back when Lewis Hamilton only had one title and 21 wins to his name.

But more importantly for F1 today, it shows that the Nurburgring can provide some excellent racing and drama throughout the field, which can only bode well for the Eifel Grand Prix on Sunday.

The decade that was: F1 in the 2010s

A lot can change in a decade. This time ten years ago, Jenson Button and Brawn were the reigning F1 champions, Fernando Alonso was preparing to take on the mantle of Ferrari’s title hopes, and a 12-year-old Max Verstappen was just about to step up to international karting.

As we approach the start of another new year and a new decade, we’ve taken a look back at what’s characterised F1 throughout the 2010s and how these last ten years might be remembered.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

The decade of dominance

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first. When people look back on F1 in the 2010s, they will see one headline figure: that Red Bull and Mercedes cleaned up every available title between them, and won 149 out of the decade’s 198 races. It’s the first time in F1’s history that two teams have had such a stranglehold on the sport—and hopefully the last.

Mark Thompson, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

The decade of record-breaking

Sebastian Vettel, the youngest-ever World Champion. Lewis Hamilton, the most pole positions. Max Verstappen, the youngest-ever Grand Prix entrant and winner. Kimi Raikkonen, the fastest-ever F1 lap. Mercedes, the most consecutive Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships. The 2010s weren’t just about dominance, they were about excellence.

Mercedes AMG

The decade of comebacks

When Michael Schumacher came out of retirement to lead Mercedes in 2010, he probably had no idea he’d started a trend. Before long, Kimi Raikkonen was back in F1 with Lotus, Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan were brought out of the noughties, and Brendon Hartley, Daniil Kvyat and Alex Albon were all given second chances by Red Bull after being dropped from the junior team.

But of course, the biggest comebacks of all have to be Felipe Massa returning after being placed in an induced coma in 2009, and Robert Kubica stepping back into an F1 cockpit this year for the first time since his 2011 rally accident.

Pirelli F1 Media

The decade of rules changes

Fans of F1’s rulebook were treated to an absolute feast over the last ten seasons. After 2009’s massive aerodynamics shift, the tweaks, refinements and total overhauls kept on coming. DRS, stepped noses, the halo. V6 turbos, the virtual safety car, and the fastest lap point. And of course, knockout qualifying and 2014’s double points finale. Not all of them were popular, but they’ve certainly kept us on our toes over the years.

Foto Studio Colombo / Pirelli F1 Media

The decade of silly season

Lewis Hamilton leaving McLaren for Mercedes. Kimi Raikkonen returning to Ferrari, then to Sauber. Sebastian Vettel leaving Red Bull for Ferrari. Fernando Alonso rejoining McLaren. Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement. Red Bull’s midseason merry-go-rounds. F1’s driver market has never been tame, but the 2010s really set it alight.

Mark Sutton, LAT Images / Haas F1 Media

The decade F1 returned to the US

F1 has spent a lot of time since the disastrous 2005 US Grand Prix at Indianapolis trying to repair its relationship with the States. Things started going in the right direction with the return of the US Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas and Alexander Rossi’s brief F1 appearances with Manor in 2015. But now with Haas on the grid and Liberty Media in charge of the sport itself, F1’s standing in the US finally looks to be on the mend.

Foto Studio Colombo / Ferrari Media

The decade of farewells to old friends

Rubens Barrichello. Michael Schumacher. Mark Webber. Jenson Button. Nico Rosberg. Felipe Massa. Fernando Alonso. Robert Kubica. So many key figures of F1’s recent past hung up their helmets over the last ten years. Thank goodness we still have Kimi Raikkonen for another year at least.

What’s been your favourite moment from the last ten years of Formula One? Let us know in the comments below.

F1’s Shocking Home Records

Following the 2019 Monaco Grand Prix, Charles Leclerc has now competed in four races across two open wheeled series at his home track. His record in Monaco, however, is something that no one wants. He has yet to see the chequered flag at any of his four starts despite having some very good equipment at his disposal, albeit being classified twice due to completing 90% of the race.

We will focus on F1 after his two no scores in his F2 season winning campaign. In his rookie season last year he was close to scoring points, but complained of grip and brake problems throughout the race. Eventually, a brake failure resulted in him plowing into the back of Hartley’s Toro Rosso at the chicane coming out of the tunnel. He would still be classified, though, as 90% of the race had been completed.

We know, too, about the recent mess Ferrari got Leclerc and themselves in after taking a risk and avoiding completing a second run in Q1, resulting in Leclerc being knocked out in the first stage of qualifying. He was the entertainment early on in the race, though, with some ballsy moves, but a collision resulting in a puncture ended his day early causing too much damage to the floor.

He isn’t the only one to have a pretty poor showing at his home track – some F1 legends also never did well.

Jacques Villenueve

Jacques Villenueve started off well at Montreal. He tried to emulate his father by winning at his home rack and finished P2 in 1996 behind team-mate Damon Hill, but after that he never saw the podium, and helped to create the Wall of Champions. He crashed into the wall in 1997 and also in that famous race in 1999 along with Hill and Schumacher. He actually only ever finished the race twice more in nine attempts, both outside the points, a spell of five consecutive retirements between the year 2000 and 2004.

Wikimedia Commons

Rubens Barrichello

Rubens Barrichello currently holds the record for most ever starts in F1, having competed between 1993 and 2011 using an array of machinery including the Ferrari in the early 2000s. Despite this, he was only ever on the rostrum in Brazil once, in 2004. From 1995 to 2003 he retired from every single Brazillian GP.

In 2001 he could only manage sixth on the grid, and problems prior to the race meant he had to switch to the spare car. It was over before it began really – Hakkinen stalled on the grid, bringing out the safety car, and at the restart Barrichello went straight into the back of Ralf Schumacher at turn four, ending both of their races early.

2003 looked like it could have been his year – by lap 46 of 71 he was in the lead, but his car crawled to a halt due to a fuel pressure problem.

Leandro Neumann Ciuffo – Wikimedia Commons

Jenson Button

Jenson raced at Silverstone for 17 consecutive seasons. In that time he had some great machinery, but he never managed to stand on the podium in any of those years.

The 2006 and 2011 races demonstrated his poor showings. In 2006, whilst competing for BAR, he was knocked out in Q1 behind both Midland cars. He may have started off well in the race with some great overtakes, but it was all over by lap nine as an oil leak resulted in his Honda engine failing.

2011 was no better. Mixed conditions forced Button to pit thirteen laps from the end – the front right wheel, however, wasn’t attached properly, and he was forced to retire at the pit exit.

Wikimedia Commons

As you can see Leclerc has only raced in two home races but is well on his way to being in this category. It took team-mate Sebastian Vettel until 2013 to win the German Grand Prix despite having the dominant car three seasons prior to this, so things can only get better for Leclerc.

 

[Featured image – Ferrari Media]

Mercedes AMG: from Tyrrell to titles

The Mercedes AMG F1 Team is now the dominant force in Formula 1 after returning to the sport from which it had been absent for over half a century. How did they get there? The team has only seemed to have been in existence since 2010, but this is only a small part of a long story stretching back to the Tyrrell team. And to the Mercedes partnership with Peter Sauber and his fledgling outfit.

The Tyrrell Formula One team, established in 1970 by Ken Tyrrell, had its greatest period when Jackie Stewart drove the team to three Drivers’ crowns and one Constructors’ trophy. They were also the team that brought us the six wheeled Tyrrell P34, a car that was so radical it was banned almost immediately and now is part of Formula 1 folklore. Unfortunately they never really reached those heights again and became also-rans, eventually selling out to the BAR tobacco company.

In 1993 after partnering Sauber to success in other motor racing categories including Le Mans, Mercedes—using their Ilmor badge—supplied the Sauber F1 team with engines. In 1994 Mercedes made it official and the team became Sauber-Mercedes with the 3.5 Litre V10 C13 (all Peter Sauber cars are badged “C” after his wife Christine) At the end of the traumatic ’94 season Mercedes, tempted by an offer from Ron Dennis, moved on to  McLaren, where they went on to win three Drivers’ crowns: two for Mika Häkkinen from 1998–99 and Lewis Hamilton in 2008, and a Constructors’ trophy in 1998.

In 1999 British American Tobacco came into the sport as BAR (British American racing) with a big budget and even bigger ambitions, running the Supertec engine, the rebadged and once all-conquering Renault power plant.

In their first year and with the reigning world champion Jacques Villeneuve, and despite a move to Honda power, the project was doomed to failure, and after only six years and no wins, tobacco advertising was banned from F1 and BAR sold out to Honda in 2006.

Honda with Jenson Button as lead driver looked a much more promising prospect. They brought in Ross Brawn in 2007 from the dominant Scuderia Ferrari; a man with a proven track record of building winning teams.

Alas, once again the outfit was thrown into chaos and in 2008 with a worldwide recession Honda was unwilling to continue with its $300 million budget and announced its withdrawal from Formula 1. The team was eventually saved by a management buyout headed by Ross Brawn and Nick Fry and was renamed Brawn GP; and with help from up and down the pit lane, not least from Mercedes, they where able to run in the 2009 season. What followed was one of the greatest stories in Formula 1: a true rags to riches tale; a team on the brink of disappearing, turning into a World Championship-winning success

With the now-banned double diffuser (a clever reading of the rules to enhance the downforce effect of the rear diffuser) Brawn GP took the season by storm with Jenson Button winning six of the first seven races and winning the Drivers’ title—and along with Rubens Barrichello, landed the Constructors’ title for Brawn in their maiden and only year of competition. On the 16th of November 2009 it was announced that Daimler AG and Aabar investments had bought a 75.1% stake in Brawn GP and that they would race under the name Mercedes GP from 2010. They brought in an impressive driver pairing, bringing Michael Schumacher out of retirement to partner Nico Rosberg. After deciding to finally close the curtains on his record breaking career Schumacher was replaced with the last man to win a championship with a Mercedes engine, Lewis Hamilton.

The 2014 season had been as dominant as the Fangio–Moss days of the early 1950s. More success followed in 2015 with consecutive Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles for Lewis Hamilton followed by Nico Rosberg’s success in 2016.

This year looks like shaping up to be a battle royal between Hamilton’s Mercedes and Vettel’s Ferrari.

Mercedes have truly lived up to the legendary Silver Arrows team.

Will they conquer this term? I’m betting they will.