Saturday, March 13, 2010

F1: Behold the March of the Pregnant Elephants

The much anticipated Formula One Season kicks off this weekend in Bahrain. The rather melodramatic headline is taken from something former driver and now ace tv commentator Martin Brundle said at the end of last season. This year, there is no in race re-fuelling, which means that drivers will have to get used to a car which is much longer to accommodate a fuel tank which contains around 170kg of fuel - around 3 times as much as last year's. Brundle said that handling a car with that much fuel on board was like trying to manoeuvre a pregnant elephant.

I was pretty ecstatic this time last year and the 2009 season completely exceeded even the high expectations at its opening race. It had everything from on track drama to off track scandal and skulduggery. For me it was one of the best seasons ever. This one has even more to offer for all sorts of reasons.

First, there is the return of the almighty Michael Schumacher, unarguably one of the best if not the best driver of all time. With seven world championships to his name and a reputation for excellence in team building and motivation, he is reunited with Ross Brawn, one of the best F1 strategists of all time.

He will square up to another three former world champions on the grid - Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, now team mates at McLaren and Fernando Alonso, at his old team, the mighty Ferrari.

Along with the old guard, there is the young Pretender, Sebastian Vettel, in a Red Bull which had failed to excite through practice and the Winter testing, but in the last 1 minute and 50 ish seconds of the qualifying session this morning got him onto an unexpected pole position.

I am going to whinge now, because the first race of the season should take place in Australia with lots of fans excitedly watching the race on the streets. Nah. The Crown Prince of Bahrain pays Bernie Ecclestone loadsamoney and secures the season opener at a place where there's hardly any fans.

This is probably a good point to mention that I am now a proper F1 geek. I didn't realise that you could get, for free, here, he live timing screens that the commentators have access to. So, you can know, for example, that Sebastian Vettel is on a flier because you can see his sector times go purple. I love my new toy and I am so happy that I can do this level of geekery without needing to spend £20 on an iPhone application (not to mention actually getting an iPhone).

I want to have a little look at the 2010 grid team by team, driver by driver. The links take you not to teams' and drivers' websites but to their associated Twitter feeds. This is the year when the teams are really starting to get the hang of engagement with fans. Brawn GP, McLaren and Rubens Barrichello in particular twigged that this was a good thing to do last year and it's caught on for 2010.

We could do this in numerical order, but that would mean that I couldn't put my favourite teams first and that would never do.

Let's start, unsurprisingly, with Mercedes GP Petronas. Mercedes may have bought the Brawn Team, but the heart that beats within it is that of plucky Brackley outfit and Ross Brawn remains its team principal. This year they have a bit more financial security and there car has in testing been just a wee bit off the pace of the McLarens and Ferraris. However, their place in the top 4 is assured. They have, however, the best driver ever in Michael Schumacher and the newly entwittered Nico Rosberg.

Now, I got a bit exercised when the normally brilliant BBC F1 team did its best to hand out as much pain as possible to Schumacher. For some reason, they seem to be trying to put the idea about that if Schumacher doesn't win every race, then somehow he's failed, and if he doesn't qualify ahead of his team-mate, then it's a disaster. Now, if he came last in every single race this season, he will still have won more than a third of the races he's ever taken part in. Even in the unlikely event that he doesn't win a single point all season, he'll still have an average of over 5 points per race. That's a good average and deserves respect. I don't expect him to win the world championship, but I know that he'll give everything he has and he'll be worth watching. That genius is still there, but I expect it'll take him a few races to get back up to speed. He wasn't that far from Nico this morning - the half second gap from Q1 was halved by the end of Q3 and they are only two places apart on the grid. That compares favourably to the 4 places between Hamilton and Button, and five between Vettel and Webber. I don't expect that Rosberg will maintain that advantage for long, though, so he should enjoy it while it lasts.

Over at the mighty Ferrari, (yes, even royalty can learn to tweet), I was overjoyed to see Felipe Massa come back and qualify ahead of his new team mate Fernando Alonso. I would have no problem at all if Massa became world champion at the end of this year. He came so close in 2008 and would be a worthy winner. It's not easy to recover from a serious head injury and his bravery and determination to get back in the car after his horrible accident in Hungary last year is incredibly inspiring. Alonso is a talented driver, but he behaved like a brat when he was at McLaren with Lewis Hamilton in 2007. To be fair, neither of them covered themselves in glory, but still, he was shocking.

The Ferrari does seem to be a bit of a diamond of a car this year, so there's every possibility that they could do very well - let's just hope it's with Massa, though.

We'll see whether Lewis Hamilton has mellowed once the season really gets under way. At the moment, there's an air of bromance around the McLaren garage as he and new team mate Jenson Button tell the world how happy they are to be together. At the moment they both have no points to their name, so let's see if it's still so cosy later in the season.

McLaren has been responsible for the first off track controversy of the idea. They've come up with a wee air vent thing that's controlled by the driver from inside the car with his knee that gives them 6 mph more down the straights, presumably to make up for the lack of a magic KERS button. The FIA has cleared it but Renault F1's Bob Bell had a right go at it on Radio 5 Live yesterday. It's one of those ideas I expect designers up and down the pitlane are cursing themselves for not thinking of first. It's a bit like the double diffuser controversy from last year.

I was a bit bemused to see my Twitter feed fill up with abuse to Michael Schumacher who went over to the McLaren car in Parc Ferme after qualification and take a brief, but good look at it. It's not as if it were locked in a cupboard and he'd broken in. It was on public display, for goodness sake. Part of the reason he's so good is because he understands the technical and strategic stuff and it's fantastic from the engineers' point of view to have someone who gives them such complete feedback.

Red Bull had kept its light under a bushel until Vettel grabbed pole in his car, this year called "Luscious Liz" but they've shown that they are competitive. Mark Webber had a rotten day yesterday when he missed loads of practice due to a problem with his car but he can be pleased with his 6th on the grid. David Coulthard is adamant that they can win the title this year, but they're paying him. However, to take what he says entirely with a pinch of salt is probably unwise.

Then we have Williams, a team I hold long term grudges against because of their treatment of DC and Damon Hill. I am trying so hard to learn to love them because my other favourite driver is there. Frank Williams had better be nice to him, that's all I'm saying. Actually Rubens is another driver who really gives to a team and does as much as possible to be helpful to his team mate. He is a very nice man. Even after losing out to Jenson in the World Championship last year, he lent him his private plane so he could stay and party on a while and still make an engagement in the UK on the Tuesday. Nico Hulkenberg, who's excelled in GP2, is very lucky to have Rubens to support and guide him in his first season in F1.

The BBC's man in the pit lane, Ted Kravitz, who knows everything, tips Rubens for a podium tomorrow, the reason being that all the top ten will have to use their skanky tyres from today to start the race while he'll be there, immediately behind them, with a lovely, new, clean pair. It would be fantastic if he could bring Williams their first GP win in 6 years this season. The team not only has a complete change in driver line up this year, it also has a change in engine supplier, now being powered by Cosworth.

I should say that a major part of my heart softening towards Williams is their Twitter Feed from Claire Williams which has been the best of the pre-season testing. If she keeps this up, they'll knock Mercedes off their perch as the undisputed king of the F1 twitterverse.

Renault has done its best to put its scandal ridden 2009 behind it. It's a good bit more sober and serious now that the flamboyant Flavio Briatore has been banished from F1 completely and the car manufacturers now only retain a 25% share of the team. They've done the rookie teamed up with an experienced driver as Russian Vitaly Petrov teams up with competent but recently uninspiring Robert Kubica.

Now onto Force India . This time last year, they could barely get out of Q1 and now we have Adrian Sutil today confidently getting into Q3 and Tonio Liuzzi in Q2. It's all very good stuff. They are certainly pulling themselves from the bottom to the midfield. There's a West Lothian interest here too as Paul Di Resta from Bathgate is their test driver who'll be doing all the Friday practices at future races.

I still haven't forgiven Toro Rosso for the way in which they dispensed with Sebastien Bourdais' services last season. They seem to be on a backward slide this year with Jaime Alguesuari being the only one of the "old team" drivers to go out in Q1. They've had to build their own car this year without inheriting a chassis from Red Bull so I'm not optimistic about the prospects for Jaime and his partner Sebastian Buemi.

And now for the new teams. Sauber is the phoenix risen from the ashes of the BMW Sauber team which exited last year. It's called BMW Sauber Ferrari this year and they've also paired up a virtual rookie, the fearless and talented Kamui Kobayashi who pulled some audacious overtaking moves in his first two races for Toyota last year and Pedro de la Rosa, who's been around forever but hasn't graced the grid since 2006.

Then there's the return of Lotus, with their green and gold livery. It's not the Lotus we all know and love and their car is so, so, so, slow. Luca Badoer could probably beat it. It's been built and designed by Mike Gascoyne. Gascoyne has worked for Eddie Jordan's team, Toyota and Force India in the past. He's managed to sign some decent drivers, though - Jarno Trulli from Toyota and Heikki Kovalainen from McLaren.

Having dabbled his toe with sponsorship of Brawn last year, Richard Branson now has his own team, Virgin F1. This car is interesting because it was developed without a wind tunnel, using computer technology. A kind of cyber car if you like. Cyber, unfortunately, does not mean fast as it's languishing almost at the bottom of the grid. Drivers Lucas Di Grassi and Timo Glock have the job of pushing it to the limit.

Finally, we have the stunningly inappriately named HRT Racing. HRT stands for Hispania Racing Team, not Hormone Replacement Therapy, and you'd think there would be a woman somewhere in the organisation who could point out the error of their ways, but, sadly, not. Their journey to the grid has been somewhat torrid. As of this morning, only Bruno Senna had seen any track time at all. His Korean team-mate Karun Chandhok only managed to get out for a few laps in qualifying - and actually managed to be not that far behind his team mate despite telling the BBC that his seat was too low and his backside was almost dragging along the ground. His attitude has been spot on and he's earned himself a lot of fans this weekend for being so calm and collected in the face of adversity. I hope he sticks around.

This has been a monster of a post. I won't be doing that too often, you can be assured. I think I should have split it into 3 and done it earlier in the week, but this has been a bit of a nightmare run up. If you've got this far, thanks for your perseverance.

The reason I've put so many Twitter feeds on here is that they do really enhance my enjoyment of the racing. I've "met" some really nice people on there. If you want to come and ooin us, here is my F1 Twitter list.

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