COTA: F1’s Modern Success Story

When the Circuit of the Americas held its inaugural Grand Prix in 2012, it was half expected to amount to nothing more than an addition to the long list of unsuccessful attempts at establishing a permanent home for F1 in America.

I explained the interesting love/hate nature of America’s involvement in F1 in a blog for American Independence Day in 2013, which you can read here.

With that backdrop considered, the Austin Grand Prix was expected to be yet another venue which tried and failed to attract an American audience.

In contemporary Formula One, that is to say the years since Ayrton Senna’s death twenty years ago, circuits tend to feature dull uninspiring and uniform sections and long straights, surrounded by large run-off areas – a trademark of F1’s resident designer Hermann Tilke.

In the 21st century, F1 has had ten new tracks added to the calendar. Of these ten, only six remain – and judging by the forgettable showing at the Russian Grand Prix a week ago, that number threatens to fall to five in the foreseeable future.

The older, classic circuits – such as the Nurburgring, Monza, Silverstone, Suzuka and Spa – prove to be fan favourites and usually host enthralling racing in legendary backgrounds. Meanwhile, the newer circuits tend to hold pretty basic races. In 2014, Bahrain opted to run a race under floodlights and the resulting race was arguably one of the best in the sport’s history, albeit at a track which rarely excites. I would suggest, however, that this year’s success was due solely to the pairing of two equally able Mercedes drivers to provide wheel-to-wheel fights, and not to the fact that the race time was delayed by several hours.

Taking the Russian GP as an example, it is formulaic and can be taken section-by-section as cut-and-paste copies of other tracks – namely Valencia, Istanbul, Yeongam and Yas Marina – which debuted in 2008, 2005, 2010 and 2008 respectively. As if to prove the unpopularity of modern circuits, three of the four listed Grand Prix venues no longer host a race. Also, Russia’s completely forgettable debut race, although playing host to a hugely important race recovery by Nico Rosberg, who drove from last to second after a first lap lock-up and pitstop, serves to show how dull the newer circuits can be.

Why do these new circuits, with lots of money but little audience, consistently fall down in comparison with the legendary tracks, which boast full crowds but have relatively little money to throw at hosting the F1 circus?

Perhaps it is exclusively down to the fact the newer circuits are indeed less interesting and leave a lot to be desired. Perhaps there is also a fear that the new circuits will buy the classics off the calendar, thus smashing through F1’s history and distancing ourselves from the romantic past.

For whatever reason, though, there is little expected of newer circuits. This, combined with the troubled past our sport has had in the USA, only went to shock us when the inaugural running of the Austin Grand Prix went down a storm – with it’s second showing meeting a similar positive reception.

The track layout sounds like yet another typical Tilke template, with its triple left-right sequence in Sector 1 and its 1km straight dominating sector 2. And, indeed, Tilke served as an advisory designer during COTA’s construction. But fortunately, COTA did not produce the same run-of-the-mill racing as some of its sister tracks.

The triple left-right section is inspired by the tricky first sector of Suzuka and is almost as popular. And in the era of DRS, where straights tend to provide far too easy an overtake –take the long straights at Korea, India and China, for example – COTA has perfected the construction of its straight so that time and time again we are treated with wheel-to-wheel racing in the braking zone of, and out of, the straight – rather than halfway down the straight seeing a driver breezing coolly past a colleague.

Amid a myriad of modern and largely unexciting venues, COTA stands tall above them, as its trademark observation tower stands above the track. Although too early to claim unreservedly that COTA is here to stay, its instant positive reaction from fans, media and drivers signals a bright future for Formula One – both at COTA and in America.

Image courtesy of Red Bull/Getty Images. 

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Marussia Enter Rossi For Russian Grand Prix

Marussia F1 Team have entered Alexander Rossi as their second driver for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix.

Although entering Rossi in the official entry list, the team say they are yet to make a decision on if they will run a second car, alongside Max Chilton, to replace Jules Bianchi.

Bianchi, who has raced with Marussia since his debut in 2013, is in a critical condition in hospital after a freak accident at the Japanese Grand Prix last weekend. Rossi, who signed as the Marussia reserve driver in August, may be called on step in to replace his injured colleague. Rossi raced with Caterham’s GP2 team and served as Caterham’s reserve driver until this July, when Caterham changed ownership.

Marussia say they will announce their decision on Friday morning, before Free Practice One.

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Back To Reality

More than 48 hours have passed since Jules’ accident on Sunday and I’m still effectively speechless. Whenever I try to talk to someone about the accident, I find myself repeating the same words: “horrific”, “freak accident”, “tragedy”, and so on, before my voice trails off and I find that I’m incapable of expressing myself.

Similarly, I struggled to put my thought into writing here. On Sunday, I wanted to write something but, after loading WordPress, I found myself staring vacantly at the screen, my hand hovering over the keyboard waiting for direction, but my thoughts instead focused on how shocking the crash was for me and the F1 community in general.

In 2014 we marked the twentieth year since the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at the San Marino Grand Prix. You’ll know, I’m sure, that they were the last drivers to lose their lives at a Formula One race meeting. This year we also patted ourselves on the back for the very fact that no driver has died on a race weekend in over twenty years.

Granted, we’ve come close. In the months after Senna’s death, F1 witnessed the crashes of Karl Wendlinger, Andrea Montermini and Pedro Lamy: three crashes which could very easily have been fatal, and which left Wendlinger in a coma for several weeks after his shunt at the chicane in Monaco. In 2001, Luciano Burti suffered a near-fatal crash when he collided with Eddie Irvine at the Belgian Grand Prix and hit an unprotected tyre barrier. In 2009, Felipe Massa was hit by the spring of Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn GP car, which hit and penetrated his helmet at a weak point, knocking him unconscious and sending him into tyre barriers.

I began watching Formula One a year later. Since then, we’ve seen several titanic crashes, all of which have had no serious outcome, except perhaps to give a driver a bad name. Mark Webber’s flip in Valencia 2010 saw a lucky yet easy escape for the Aussie. In 2012 Alonso came within millimetres from death when Romain Grosjean’s Lotus flew over his head. In 2014, Esteban Gutierrez flipped several times following contract with Pastor Maldonado. In the case of Alonso and Gutierrez, as both drivers sat motionless in their cars and the cameras panned out, for fear of showing the gruesome details of what could prove to be a tragedy, I sat in fear of witnessing my first serious on-screen crash. But the racing gods spared both men, and they quickly reacted suitably, giving a thumbs-up, or looking around in confusion to figure out what the hell had just happened.

These events trained me to become comfortable in the fact that Formula One is a safe sport.

I’ve written articles in the past about dangers in the sport pre-1994, or dangerous behaviour by teams or drivers in contemporary Formula One. I’ve also written about changes in Formula One safety since ’94, and how, although our sport is far safer now, it is still dangerous. After last weekend’s events, I’ve realised how loosely I typed the words. Although acknowledging the ever-present danger in Motorsport, I had never put major thought into the realities. I was talking with near levity. The Bianchi incident has brought me kicking and screaming back to reality.

We have become too complacent in F1. Max Verstappen, who made his debut at the Japanese Grand Prix last weekend, wasn’t even alive when the last driver was killed. It’s a new generation, and – or so many thought – a whole new ball game.

Although what happened to Jules Bianchi was just the most unfortunate series of isolated incidents coming together, it showed that there are loopholes in the safety of our sport. A tyre explosion, as happened several times last year, could kill a driver. Indeed Kimi Raikkonen was very fortunate to avoid the carcass of Jean-Eric Vergne’s tyre when it exploded in front of him in Silverstone last year. Again this year, Kimi was lucky to survive a crash when he went off track at Silverstone and rejoined in the middle of the pack, causing Felipe Massa to slam into him. A tyre – this one intact – bounced away from the collision and missed Max Chilton by inches. This too would have likely seriously injured, if not killed, Chilton on impact with his helmet. Chilton was also hit by a missile launched by Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus at the 2013 German Grand Prix. It hit the zylon strip above his helmet visor, which was implemented following Massa’s aforementioned crash. Although it would not have killed him without the zylon strip’s development, it could easily have caused a big head injury.

Had Romain Grosjean’s car travelled two centimetres lower over Alonso’s car in Belgium 2012, Alonso could have suffered severe head trauma. Had Rosberg’s car rolled when it was launched over the back of Narain Karthikeyan’s HRT in Abu Dhabi 2012, it would have hit the barriers upside down and rendered the roll bar useless as his head would bear the brunt of the impact. As you can see, the only exposed part of the driver, the head, is coming into danger more than we realise. Nowadays we laugh off crashes and show them to our friends to demonstrate how crazy F1 can be. Risk is a big part of the show and one of the reasons both drivers and fans alike are drawn to it.

But steps must be made in the wake of this incident. The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association has already warned against knee-jerk reactions, but yet advances in safety that exclude coating the drivers in bubble wrap must fully be encouraged. For example, the use of JCBs must be reviewed. In Ireland, trucks have a barrier running underneath the back of them to stop drivers accidentally driving under them. Perhaps a similar device could be fitted to JCBs, or perhaps a shock-absorbing material running along the bottom of the JCB, meaning that: a) cars can’t drive under them and b) if a car does hit one, some energy will be dispersed. Had such a barrier existed on the back of the JCB on Sunday, Bianchi would not have been able to go under the JCB at head level, with such force that it launched the back of the tractor off the ground. Obviously this is what some would call a knee-jerk reaction, but something must be changed about the recovery vehicles if we are to keep using them.

Another system which could be used simultaneously is to implement speed limiters, as exist in Le Mans. This limits a driver to a top speed – say 60kph – in a yellow flag zone. As speeding is being discussed as a possible cause for Bianchi’s crash, this is definitely something which should be considered. Jacques Villeneuve has called for Safety Car periods every time a car is to be cleared away, but this is simply not realistic. This would lead to far too many stops and starts – especially with the new safety car re-start rule being implemented. The speed limit is a much more feasible option.

Another possible solution being thrown about even more is the introduction of cockpit canopies. I’m opposed to these for a number of reasons. To start with Bianchi’s example, the extensive damage to rear of the Marussia and the super-strong roll bar means a canopy would probably have been obliterated. Perhaps, depending on the design, it could even have collapsed inward into the cockpit, squashing Bianchi and adding to his already severe injuries. In other situations, such as when Kovalainen went underneath crash barriers at Catalunya in 2008, it could hamper rescue efforts. Then there are situations revolving around the electric ERS pack in the car, or fires in the cockpit. The regulations make it mandatory to be able to conduct a cockpit evacuation in a maximum of 7 seconds. A canopy would hamper a quick exit, and – in the case of a fire or electrical failure – could in fact trap drivers in the cockpit. All-in-all, these are not a viable solution.

I’m not a safety expert – and don’t wish to appear as such. I trust that the people in F1 whose job it is to be experts are experts though, so I will leave it to them. But to return to my point, Formula One needs to do as much as it can to close the apparent loopholes. Without the aid of cockpit canopies to deflect flying objects, perhaps a drivers head cannot be protected any further. The helmets, as Bianchi’s intact helmet proves, are incredibly tough. The cars are also very safe: they are always destroyed in big impacts, taking energy out of the crash and leaving only the important survival cell completely impact. They are perfectly designed (and rigorously tested) to ensure that when landing upside down, hitting one another, or having high impact collisions with barriers, they do their job incredibly well. Therefore, the safety weaknesses I see are only in the procedure of removing cars that have left the race, or trying to further protect the head.

We know F1 will do it’s best to protect it’s drivers, which is perhaps the thing that F1 is best at organising. But, for now, our thoughts lie with Jules Bianchi who lies in a critical condition in hospital. We should continue to hope and pray for his successful recovery and keep his family, friends and colleagues in our thoughts today.

Image courtesy of Marussia F1 Team. 

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Hamilton Takes Victory In Suzuka

Lewis Hamilton took victory at a shortened Japanese Grand Prix today, overtaking team-mate Nico Rosberg mid-way through the Grand Prix to extend his lead in the World Championship fight.

The race began behind the Safety Car as Typhoon Phanfone hit the circuit, as was expected, and made it too dangerous to complete a standing start. However, there were but a lap and a half completed before the race was red flagged due to the rain getting heavier. The FIA had twice asked Honda, the organisers, to start the race four hours earlier to avoid the rain, but Honda twice refused, hence the unnecessary problems in the race.

Finally the race restarted, albeit still behind the Safety Car. Race control left the Safety Car out until lap 9, although drivers were insisting that the track was completely driveable by lap 6. Hamilton, in second, was the main man trying to get the race underway, directly radioing Race Director Charlie Whiting to plead for the race start. Meanwhile, Alonso was trying to warm himself in the garage after retiring on lap three with a car electrics failure.

The Safety Car came in on lap nine and Rosberg led the pack across the start/finish line to begin lap 10, and start the race proper. Hamilton, who was so keen on getting the race started, looked at passing his team-mate, but was unsuccessful and slotted back behind into turn 1. Sebastian Vettel was also on the move and pulled an ambitious overtake on McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen, which the Dane managed to fend off. Undeterred, Vettel tried again down the straight into 130R and was successful, moving up the order.

Button was the first man to come into the pits and take on the intermediate tyre compounds, returning to the track far down the order. Although he struggled in the conditions, he soon proved to be faster overall and when a cavalcade of drivers came into the pits at the same time, Button passed them all and moved himself up to third, behind the two Mercedes drivers.

It was Rosberg’s turn to box from the lead next, but as the team tweaked with his front wing, it cost him a small amount of time in the battle to rejoin ahead of Hamilton. It was up to Lewis then to optimise on the delay, but he himself went wide at Spoon corner and lost some time. When he rejoined the track after his pitstop, he was 2.4s behind Rosberg.

As Hamilton began to slowly close the gap to his team-mate in the lead, the two Red Bulls were battling the two Williams’. Vettel was the first to make a move, diving up the inside of Massa’s Williams into the hairpin and getting past. Ricciardo tried to follow his team-mate in the following corners, but the Brazilian was proving to be good competition. Instead, Ricciardo waited until the Dunlop curve, sliding past on the inside in one of the overtakes of the season. In fact, he mirrored it a lap later when he followed Vettel past Valtteri Bottas at the same spot. Impressive racing from all four drivers.

In the meantime, Hamilton had been closing the gap and finally made it within the DRS 1-second gap. His first few attempts at passing Rosberg on the start/finish straight were unsuccessful, but on lap 29 he had a powerful run from the final chicane and pulled an impressive move on the outside of turn 1 and took the lead of the Grand Prix.

Soon afterwards, the rain began to get heavier. Kevin Magnussen, for example, was caught out and spun an impressive 360 before continuing as if nothing had happened, albeit now a place down. Sebastian Vettel was also caught out through the S-curves, skipping across the run-off area before rejoining. Although the rain was coming down harder now, and the DRS was disabled, Ricciardo was still on the charge and moved up the order after a move past Button at the hairpin.

Yellow flags came out during the overtake, as the rain became increasingly heavy, and the threat of a red flag drew nearer. Adrian Sutil had aquaplaned off the track into the barriers at the Dunlop curve, but was unhurt in the collision. However, when the JCB came out to clear the Sauber, Jules Bianchi slid straight off the track and hit the JCB sideways. Bianchi had been hurt. He was unresponsive to the team’s calls on the radio, and the medical car was deployed.

An ambulance was called to the scene and Bianchi was taken to the medical centre before being forwarded to the hospital. He was unconscious leaving the track and was sent by road ambulance, as opposed to the medical helicopter which is kept on scene for this purpose. There are no further details as to his condition, but, of course, we all hope he’s okay.

The race was red flagged as a result and meant that Lewis Hamilton won the race, with 7 laps remaining. Nico Rosberg finished behind in second, meaning the Championship gap increases to second, while Sebastian Vettel finished in third. The subdued celebrations on the podium, on which no champagne was sprayed, showed the concern of drivers for Bianchi’s condition.

Japanese Grand Prix Race Results:

  1. Lewis Hamilton
  2. Nico Rosberg
  3. Sebastian Vettel
  4. Daniel Ricciardo
  5. Jenson Button
  6. Nico Hulkenberg
  7. Valtteri Bottas
  8. Felipe Massa
  9. Sergio Perez
  10. Jean-Eric Vergne
  11. Kimi Raikkonen
  12. Daniil Kvyat
  13. Esteban Gutierrez
  14. Romain Grosjean
  15. Pastor Maldonado
  16. Kevin Magnussen
  17. Jules Bianchi
  18. Marcus Ericsson
  19. Max Chilton
  20. Adrian Sutil
  21. Kamui Kobayashi
  • Fernando Alonso

Image courtesy of Mercedes F1 Team. 

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Rosberg Leads Mercedes Front-Row Lockout

Nico Rosberg took his eighth pole of the season at the Japanese Grand Prix today, qualifying two tenths ahead of team-mate Lewis Hamilton. The two had swapped fastest times in the first two sessions, but when it came to the all important Q3, it was Rosberg who came out on top. Although making a mistake at the hairpin, he outperformed Hamilton who had to fight to keep his car under control in the final sector.

Williams had looked promising in the practice sessions, and they followed this up with a second row lockout; Bottas qualifying ahead of Massa. Fernando Alonso, who insists he has not made a decision about 2015, qualified an impressive fifth compared to Kimi Raikkonen’s tenth in the sister car. Ironically, Sebastian Vettel, who announced this morning that he would be leaving Red Bull at the end of the season, qualified in ninth, just ahead of who is expected to be his team-mate in 2015. Ricciardo qualified in sixth, but Red Bull say that both of their cars are set up to optimise performance in the wet conditions tomorrow, so a strong showing from both Vettel and Ricciardo should be expected.

The McLaren men lined up in formation, with Kevin Magnussen ahead of Jenson Button, the latter now eager to impress in order to secure a seat next season. Jean-Eric Vergne was the first man to miss the Q3 session and qualified eleventh, but due to his sixth ICE change this season, he was handed a ten-place grid penalty and will subsequently start from twentieth. Therefore, Perez, who qualified twelfth, will start from eleventh. Daniil Kvyat could breathe a sigh of relief today with a seat in Red Bull confirmed for next season, and qualified thirteenth, ahead of Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and Sauber’s Adrian Sutil and Esteban Gutierrez.

Pastor Maldonado and Romain Grosjean were both eliminated during the first Qualifying session, an embarrassing situation for Lotus. Maldonado will not start from seventeenth, however, due to a ten-place engine change penalty he will take, meaning he will start from the very back of the grid. Ahead of him will be Max Chilton and local hero Kamui Kobayashi, in twenty-first and twentieth respectively. Jules Bianchi qualified behind Marcus Ericsson, but explained that a call to the FIA weigh-bridge meant he could not set another flying lap, possibly costing him a higher grid spot.

The FIA has locked in tomorrow at 3pm local time as the race start time, despite the certainty of heavy rain at Suzuka thanks to Typhoon Phanfone. The race is not expected to be called off, however, as the brunt of the storm shouldn’t hit the area until after the race. Nonetheless, tomorrow promises to be a tough race. Jenson Button  and Valtteri Bottas are two men to pay particular attention to, as they tend to excel in wet conditions. Tomorrow also offers the opportunity for a back-marker team to score a few points, as wet races often have chaotic results.

Japanese Grand Prix Qualifying Results:

  1. Nico Rosberg
  2. Lewis Hamilton
  3. Valtteri Bottas
  4. Felipe Massa
  5. Fernando Alonso
  6. Daniel Ricciardo
  7. Kevin Magnussen
  8. Jenson Button
  9. Sebastian Vettel
  10. Kimi Raikkonen
  11. Jean-Eric Vergne
  12. Sergio Perez
  13. Daniil Kvyat
  14. Nico Hulkenberg
  15. Adrian Sutil
  16. Esteban Gutierrez
  17. Pastor Maldonado
  18. Romain Grosjean
  19. Marcus Ericsson
  20. Jules Bianchi
  21. Kamui Kobayashi
  22. Max Chilton

Image courtesy of Mercedes F1 Team. 

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Vettel Leaving Red Bull, Joining Ferrari

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Sebastian Vettel will drive for Scuderia Ferrari in 2015.

The Red Bull star’s departure was announced at a press conference ahead of Free Practice Three this morning at the Japanese Grand Prix. Vettel broke the news to Team Principal Christian Horner last night.

Of his motivation to leave the team, Horner said: “Obviously Ferrari have made him a very attractive offer. I think the lure of Ferrari, a window has opened there with whatever is going on and he has decided the timing is right for him.

“That is his choice, and he has been around long enough to know his own mind. He doesn’t have a manager and doesn’t have people that surround him. He has made this decision and we respect that.”

Vettel brought Red Bull to the front and helped them secure a string of World Championships since 2010. But this season he has been overshadowed by Daniel Ricciardo who was promoted from sister team Red Bull to fill Mark Webber’s seat after the veteran racer moved to the World Endurance Championship.

Red Bull also announced today that Toro Rosso rookie Daniil Kvyat would follow in Ricciardo’s footsteps and join him in the senior team in 2015. This leaves a vacant seat at Toro Rosso beside Max Verstappen, which looks likely to be filled by Carlos Sainz Jr.

Vettel is expected to partner Kimi Raikkonen at the Prancing Horse next season, with Alonso reportedly returning to McLaren, where he famously fell out with Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh while team-mates with Lewis Hamilton. If Alonso does indeed return to McLaren, Jenson Button will likely get the boot, leaving Alonso to partner impressive rookie Kevin Magnussen.

As of yet, however, Ferrari have yet to comment on the rumours, instead shooting down queries about the morning’s news.

Alonso has been a driver with Ferrari since 2010 but has failed to secure a Championship with the historic team, and he is reportedly dissatisfied with the changes made by new Team Principal Marco Mattiacci. Although Alonso has a contract with Ferrari until the end of 2016, he allegedly asked former Ferrari President, Luca di Montezemolo, to release him as a departing gift.

Another theory floated, although unlikely, is that Alonso will stay at the team, and will partner Vettel and Raikkonen in a three car team, should the three car system be introduced for 2015.

Image courtesy of Red Bull/Getty Images. 

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Japanese Grand Prix Under Threat From Typhoon Phanfone

A Red Bull mechanic sails a makeshift Red Bull boat down the paddock during Qualifying at the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix. The session was eventually called off and held on Sunday morning instead. Photo: Red Bull/Getty Images

There are doubts over this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix taking place due to a typhoon which is set to hit the area this Sunday.

Typhoon Phanfone is expected to arrive on race day, bringing heavy rain which would disrupt racing due to safety concerns. Each of a Formula One car’s four Pirelli wet tyres can expel 65 litres per second, but particularly wet conditions can render these ineffective and a driver will lose control – a situation called ‘aquaplaning’, where the car simply slides along the surface water.

Therefore, heavy rain this weekend could see the race postponed and eventually cancelled.

The last time Formula One abandoned a session due to heavy rain was the 2013 Australian Grand Prix where Qualifying was delayed until Sunday morning, when it was dry.

With the uncertainty of Sunday hanging over F1, one suggestion being proposed is to hold the race on Saturday afternoon instead. In this scenario Qualifying would replace Saturday morning’s FP3 session, with FP1 and FP2 possibly being extended by half an hour each. The race cannot be moved to Monday due to the rush to the Russian Grand Prix for the following weekend.

There has been no comment from Formula One Management on the threat of a race cancellation, or the possibility of rescheduling the race, but waiting until Sunday to make a decision could lead to a write-off round.

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