March 2007

It would seem that there is a strange epidemic currently sweeping the F1 paddock. Once rational logical human beings are undergoing dramatic personality changes, suffering identity crises and becoming gibbering idiots. This strange medical condition seems to be very selective, for the most part it is leaving alone the team bosses and engineers of the F1 world. (Flavio Briatore and Ron Dennis seem to be immune, possibly because they are barking mad already) This epidemic seems to be solely going straight for the juggular of the F1 drivers.

lunaticinacape.jpgIt all began fairly innocuously last year at the Monaco Grand Prix, where the Red Bull boys DC and Christian Klien decided to raid the dressing up box and try to convince us all they were in fact Superman incarnate.

This supposedly harmless ‘costume’ drama was apparently a publicity stunt, but on reflection was this the first subtle sign that something was amiss in the sport? What man in his right mind would willing wear an ensemble that consisted of red Y fronts over a pair of blue shiny tights and a cape? Any “normal” man would be sectioned under the mental health act for going out thus dressed in daylight.

Then in September, Niki Lauda began to resemble the dog of Stephen King fame, Cujo. Frothing at the mouth, appearing slightly rabid, looking like he was going to bite someone and spouting all sorts of delusional rubbish. “Ferrari would fall apart”, “Kimi would get stoned to death by the Italian mob unless he became German and changed his name to Schumacher”, “the Moon revolves around Mars” and “the end of the world is nigh”.

Then it all went quiet over the winter period. The cold weather holding the epidemic frozen in stasis, until the warm weather came to bring it out strong and bolder than before, where it would begin its assault in earnest.

The first noticeable victim this season was Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen. The poor little Finn seemed to be suffering from some strange form of confusion, not only was he smiling against his will non-stop like the Joker from Batman, but he was taking part in races claiming to be ex-Formula 1 driver James Hunt. No amount of pointing out that he in fact did not possess a pair of mutton-chop sideburns, any brown corduroy trousers, a chest-rug and medallion and a bevy of buxom beauties on his arm could convince him he was not the afore mentioned personage.

Shortly after Fernando Alonso became the second official victim; by going on the record and testifying that was in fact his childhood dream to drive for McLaren and Ron Dennis. Prompting all sorts of child support groups to wonder if the poor Spaniard had in fact been dropped on his head during infancy, or if madness was in fact a hereditary thing in the Nando family.

Before long Rubens Barrichello joined in. The ex-Ferrari driver telling anyone who would care to listen that he was in fact better than his previous team mate Michael Schumacher, despite having considerably less shiny-pots and championship titles to show for it. Rubens went on to bemoan the fact that he was invisible when he was at Ferrari and got completely ignored. Well you can’t expect people to know you are there if your transparent Rubens!

heidfeld.jpgEven BMW-Sauber’s two drivers have not been spared. Throughout the winter a strange growth has been developing on the face of Nick Heidfeld, week by week he has been morphing from that quiet little German driver into Star War’s and Han Solo’s side kick Chewbacca. We are to understand his strange facial growth is now half way down his chest and is expected to be coming out his shorts at any point.

Robert Kubica (that’s Mr. Potato Head to you and I) seems to have also been sucked into this strange inter-galactic fantasy and has been going around telling the F1 journalists that Ferrari are in fact from another planet (I suppose Luca Baldisserri could double for an ewok), and reportedly naming his car the Millennium Falcon. I just hope he doesn’t start wielding the BMW garage’s strip lighting as a light sabre or someone could have an eye poked out. One has to wonder who gets to play Jabba the Hut now that Mr.Montoya has left the sport?

But by far the worst case of this strange affliction that seems to have befallen the F1 community, is that of ex-Formula 1 driver turned pop-diva Jacques Villeneuve. Renowned for his forthright opinions on any given subject and his non stop lambasting of his arch-nemesis Michael Schumacher, Jacques this week has announced he is no longer to make any comment regarding the sportsmen of F1 because he doesn’t want to be seen as criticising anyone. Yep, he needs urgent medical treatment right away…send in the men in white coats! (armed with earplugs obviously in case Jacques starts warbling at them).

Another Clozapine please doctor, thanks.

massa5.jpgJenson Button is not feeling particularly chirpy or optimistic these days, and you cannot really blame him. It’s never very nice to find out that one’s team (after all the effort during the off-season, not to mention a few hundred million dollars in expenditure) has produced a car that is slower than that of the previous year. Somehow that doesn’t inspire confidence. Further, it looks like replacing Geoff Willis with Shuhei Nakamoto as technical director isn’t paying rich dividends, especially considering Honda’s strong performance in the latter half of 2006 has been reduced to this. According to Ross Brawn, a new technical director takes around 3 years to start producing results, and Jense is obviously not thrilled to bits about waiting 3 more years. One gets the distinct feeling that the next juorno to ask Jense about Lewis Hamilton’s supposed genius is going to get plugged in the eye for his troubles, and deservedly so. So what does Button have to say about Nick Fry’s proclamation that “The RA107 can be right up there with Renault and BMW in a month’s time”? “It is a small improvement” he says after testing the new parts flown into Sepang, “We are not getting excited about it”. That’s that then.

Felipe Massa got a shade philosophical when asked about Kubica hinting at the possibility of the new Ferrari having alien origins. “We are all on the same planet” he confirms much to our relief, “You too, and me as well”. That’s good then, very less probability of McLaren accusing Ferrari of employing Martians in car development – though it is not clearly forbidden in the FIA rules I am sure. So is Norbert Haug’s practice of waking up in the morning, standing in front of the mirror and repeating “Everyday in every way we get closer to the Ferrari” 10 times helping? “Yes” concurs Massa, “McLaren is also difficult to beat, and BMW is strong as well. We just need to approach racing in the same way as them”. Massa was also asked about the difference between the two tyre compounds, and while this might have led Kimi to remark “Who cares? Just give me a car with four tyres on it” or more accurately a cryptic “There is a difference but they are similar, so I don’t think it is a massive one”, Massa was a little more eloquent. He feels soft tyres are better suited to the beginning of the race if one is stuck in traffic and can’t push too much, what with the possibility of safety cars as well. Apparently Luca Baldisserri was banking on Takumo Sato causing a few safety car periods when he framed the strategy, and was disappointed about Sato’s rather uncharacteristic drive.

“With Montoya now gone, we are all looking to Sato to provide the occasional crash fest” says a disapproving Ferrari insider, “And his performance in the first race in this regard left a lot to be desired. Montoya could have knocked out at least five cars given the same opportunity”. It is not known if Flavio thinks this is the same Takumo Sato or perhaps indeed his brother who drove the race instead.

schumifootball.jpgThe final piece of news for the day – we are beginning to strongly suspect that Michael Schumacher (Former Ferrari driver and all that) cannot keep still for a few moments without embarking on the next grand endeavor. If you were wondering what Schumi has been up to, apart from holding secret team boss meetings in Maranello or purchasing F1 teams by the dozen that is…not to mention super-assisting Jean Todt, testing Tony Karts in Italy or attending photography exhibitions or golf tournaments all over the globe, he has taken on the challenge of rescuing local football team FC Echichens II from dropping out of the Swiss regional league. “Michael trains twice a week with us” says coach Maric Grujica (or so I could decipher from Alta Vista), “He is very ambitious (Really? Well, that’s news to us) and wants to absolutely prevent the team from dropping out”. And this is thought to be a tall order as the team is currently in last place or something along those lines. So good luck to Schumi on that, and while he deals with his latest ‘Mission Impossible’ (as he calls it), just a week left for the Malaysian grand prix to kick off. Forza Ferrari.

The 4th and final of day of testing prior to the Malaysian Grand Prix on April 8th, took place at the Sepang International Circuit yesterday. The weather was marginally improved on the previous day, with only one rain shower taking place in the afternoon to interfere with proceedings.

heikkikov2.jpgRenault Rookie Heikki Kovaleinen topped the time sheets with a best time of 1m35.757s despite suffering some reliability gremlins, which is not a bad effort considering this week has been his first visit to the Sepang Circuit.

Heikki managed to post a time just half a second short of the fastest time of the week, which was set by vodka-swilling, karoake-warbling and cow-stealing Kimi Raikkonen. The Renault rookie managed to just marginally beat Ferrari’s Felipe Massa by 0.05 of a second, who was testing new components and the electric’s on the F2007.

Super Aguri driver Ant Davidson pulled a surprise out of the hat by posting the third quickest time of the day, beating the likes of Honda, Toyota, McLaren, Red Bull and Torro Rosso. It was probably a good job Spyker-Ferrari were not present, otherwise one suspects they would really be getting their undergarments in a twist about the ‘repackaged Honda’. What is a repackaged car anyway? Does it come in a different box or something?

Nothing particularly notable happened during the final day of testing prior to the Malaysian Grand Prix, although the session was red flagged five times, two of those occasions caused by Heikki’s Renault suffering a fit of the technical gremlins. (Those gremlins do get about, don’t they?).

BMW-Sauber’s Nick Heidfeld suffered yet more engine trouble, which must be giving Kimi great cause for concern that he is going to lose his title as F1’s most prolific car-breaker.

heikkovsexcurs2.jpgIn other news, it was revealed yesterday that from 2008, the FIA are banning traction control in Formula 1. Coupled with the fact there will be no return to slick tyres, and the current engine freeze, we are wondering if any cars will be heading in a forward direction next year at all.

Still it will sort the men from the boys (so I’m told) and no doubt we will be having a few drivers suffering from a ‘Heikki’ weekend or doing a ‘Montoya’ on the way to the grid during the course of next season.

Additionally there seems to be little point to Bridgestone trying to come up with a sensible solution to differentiate tyre types for spectators next year, as the lack of traction control will no doubt see a great deal of wheel-spin and not alot else.

Wacky races anyone?

rubenskimi.jpgIt is always very distressing when a F1 driver begins to act all strange and appears to be distinctly loony, and especially so when the said F1 driver formerly drove for Ferrari and is someone whom you actively supported barely a few years back. Apparently the dotty behavior is not just confined to full moon nights. Rubens Barrichello, former Ferrari driver who currently drives for Honda, is urging Kimi Raikkonen to galvanize the Italian team, though what there is to galvanize about a team that is already so charged up is not known. And you have to admit it is a bit rich coming from someone who is driving an ‘earth’ car and offering stiff competition to the Super Aguiris and STRs of the F1 world. Perhaps he would be better off ‘galvanizing’ his own team instead? We have to remember not to judge him too harshly though, the poor chap is clearly not himself.

But still when Rubens talks about an impending ‘collapse’ and subsequent ‘implosion’, you can’t help but wonder what a cheery and optimistic pair he and Niki Lauda would make. “Ferrari will be competitive for a couple of seasons yet, because they haven’t lost momentum, they still know how to win” says Rubens, and then he predicts it will be the end of the Ferrari as we know it…or something close to it at least. All very intriguing stuff you have to admit. Is there any hope left for us then, Mr. Nostradamus? “Yes, if Kimi goes out and gets a solid grip on the first quarter of the season, he’ll be loved by the Italians, and there’s a whole new world that can be worked without Michael. If not, the pressure will build, big time, and the team could implode”. Oh darn, now it is up to Kimi to save the world then. And that would be the vodka-swishing Karaoke king who spends his spare time racing snowmobiles pretending to be James Hunt. Uh oh.

What convinces us that Rubens is talking through the back of his neck though, is when he suddenly starts to jabber about Ross and Michael and their telephone conversations. “You know, almost like I would call a friend, Michael would call Ross, or Ross would call Michael, and they’d chat about improving the car. When I called Ross, it wasn’t that it went in vain, but he was waiting for somebody else’s call. So those two will be a big loss [to Ferrari]”. We don’t see how ‘those two will be a big loss’ just because Ross always hung up on Barrichello pretending to be waiting for Michael’s call, but oh well.

Then the delusions of grandeur begin. “Could I, on equal terms, be champion against Michael Schumacher? I am pretty sure I could” says Rubens. This is quite hilarious coming from someone who scored about half the number of championship points that his teammate Jenson Button did last season. So what else is it that poor Rubens thinks he can do? “I’ll never be as good as Michael on the out lap” concedes Rubens after a while. We can but nod our heads sympathetically. “Michael didn’t have bad days, and I did have some – I still do, so I have to overcome them” he adds after some more thought. Maybe the insanity doesn’t run as deep as we thought? Sadly Rubens gets all glassy-eyed again – “For Michael it didn’t matter about strategy. He was just going fast, pushing all the time. And why did it work so often? Because he was very good at sorting the car out for himself. He wasn’t a thinker, he wanted to go fast. I thought I could work out the situation a bit better. So there were times when the car wasn’t as good, when I could come out better”. Now let’s see Rubens driving a car stuck in fifth gear to a podium finish then. Unfortunately for him, his theories fall quite flat considering Michael made his name really in the 90s driving cars that were never quite as good but winning 2 championships, and coming close to winning a few more. I fear all this pressure of being referred to as ‘Rubinho the Tortoise’ by his own countrymen has taken its toll.

nando.jpgBy the way, here’s a hilarious must-read for the day taken from ITV-F1…James Allen thinks being an espionage agent is to have deeply held beliefs about right and wrong, blowing things up and speaking in many languages while doing it.

I’ve just read Joe Saward’s new book Grand Prix Saboteurs. It’s amazing that two pre-war grand prix stars risked their lives to sabotage the Nazis in France during World War II. Have you read it and which of today’s racing drivers do you think would have the bottle to do what they did?
As for who among the current crop would volunteer to go behind enemy lines if there was a war in a few years time…Raikkonen strikes me as the kind of bloke who lives life on the edge, but I’m not sure he’d care enough about the cause. Webber would get stuck in, no doubt, blowing things up, as would Alex Wurz. I don’t know whether Nico Rosberg is brave enough, but he speaks several languages like a native and would slip easily in and out of places, so I think he’d make a good secret agent. Alonso seems to have deeply held beliefs about right and wrong and is not afraid of anything, so he’d be an obvious candidate.

I don’t know what’s so obvious about Alonso being a candidate, I believe you could get court-martial’ed if you accuse your superiors of assisting the enemy. Though the thought of Webber blowing things up and Rosberg slipping in and out of places speaking several languages is quite an entertaining one. Ciao.

Today’s Formula 1 testing at the Sepang International Circuit was marred by bad weather conditions.

An overnight downpour meant the track was effectively unusable until it had dried out around 11am, then just as the teams were getting into the swing of things in the afternoon another downpour took place and effectively put an end to testing for the day.

feliperain3.JPGPoor Felipe Massa must be wondering what he has to do to get some luck, while his team mate Kimi Raikkonen enjoyed glorious sunshine throughout his testing on Tuesday and Wednesday, the minute the diminutive Brazilian gets near the car the heavens open.

This has prompted rumours that the Kimster was seen smuggling a large object out of the circuit under his coat. Eye witnesses outside the track have confirmed Kimi disappeared off in a taxi to his hotel in the presence of the lucky talisman that is the red Ferrari good luck weather cow.

On track Formula 1’s new golden boy Lewis Hamilton topped the timesheets with a best time of 1:35.918 in the limited window of opportunity that presented itself. Red Bull’s Mark Webber came in second and Ralf Schumacher finally proved he is in the top 3 drivers in Formula 1 after all by posting the third best time of the day (despite only 10 cars running in the first place) well done Ralf you must be pleased.

Felipe Massa managed the 5th fastest time of the day marginally ahead of Nico Rosberg for Williams in 6th and Jenson Button for Honda in 7th.

heidfeldpod.JPGThe local children were happily entertained to see their hero Star War’s character Chewbacca (aka Nick Heidfeld) stop in the morning with an oil leak, which promptly set fire to his race pod causing damage to the bodywork (the only thing missing was the odd Bantha and a selection of sand-people with rifles to complete the scene).

Another downpour began again in the afternoon putting an end to any effective dry weather running, with the teams all agreeing to run again tomorrow with the exception of Scuderia Torro Rosso. The weather today has been a cause of much frustration to the teams, and none more so than to Renault’s team boss Flavio Briatore. The feisty Italian was seen heading into the Renault Garage ranting and raving because he could no longer sit on the pit-wall and go to work on improving his orange tan.

In other news, it is rumoured that F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone has been hard at work axing traditional grand prix left, right and centre. The current rumour is that Magny-Cours is going to be dropped from the 2008 Formula 1 calendar and that an imminent announcement is to be made on whether it will be replaced by a grand prix instead in Singapore.

According to the rumour mill, the official announcement will be made tomorrow…one can’t help but think that the French Formula 1 fans will not be happy about having to trek all the way to Singapore instead to see some action.

Tune in tomorrow for more action from Sepang.

kimischumi.jpgOne of the many things that Ferrari and Michael Schumacher had in common that kind of stood out was their ability to kick up a hell of a controversy at a moment’s notice and then to calmly go about their business like nothing had changed while everything around them was in a swirl. Seldom in the past decade has the sport (or non-sport according to Nando) seen any controversy, major or minor, that didn’t involve Ferrari or Michael Schumacher or both – they were invariably surprised to be caught up in the eye of the storm but seldom disturbed by it. It is perhaps this that Jean Todt was referring to when he said Ferrari chose Kimi because of his suitable attitude. Kimi Raikkonen’s unperturbed demeanor and care-a-damn existence are in stark contrast to some members of the paddock who constantly look like they are about to pop a vein. Add to this a blatant disregard for what the F1 community as a whole thinks or talks about him, and what do we have? A perfect fit for the new Ferrari dream team in making.

A point best illustrated by the 2002 season. Despite the roasting Ferrari got in the press for Austria 2002 and a million dollar fine from FIA to boot, Michael deliberately slowed down near the finish line in Indy 2002 to coordinate a photo finish with Rubens, handing the win to Rubens by mistake instead. What makes the situation especially funny in retrospect was that he had asked to gift the win to Rubens but had been denied permission, with Jean Todt warning him to just lie low for the rest of the season and not stir up any more trouble. And we all know how difficult that is for Michael. There is something so intrinsically ‘cool’ about the rogue attitude, as morally dubious as it sounds.

Q: Michael, are you looking forward to seeing and talking to Jean Todt and the Ferrari president when you finish this press conference? Do you think there will be any – are they going to give you a hard time, you think?
MS: Maybe I have to keep my helmet on when I get back (laughs).

And Kimi demonstrated very early in his career that he was cast in the same mould. The same reluctance to explain his behavior or justify his actions, the same indifference to outside perception and the same impatience with stupid questions. Of course Kimi is a lot less controversial than his predecessor was (at least till now), but that I believe stems from Michael’s innate tendency to get into trouble, it just came as naturally to him as driving a F1 car did. Honestly, which other driver would think of setting up a photo-finish on the verge of a grand prix win?

Q. Kimi, have you ever got angry about anything, and jumped up and down and shouted?
A: Yeah, many times but of course you’re not happy if you retire or something but I guess it mostly happens more in normal life than in racing.
Q. Can you give us examples?
A: No, not really.
Q. What are the kind of things that make you angry in normal life, as you say?
A: If you keep asking questions like those.

rossschumi.jpgMichael’s attitude towards controversy has always been that of surprise (“Why, what am I supposed to have done now?!”) – he was perpetually at a loss to understand why something he considered perfectly sensible and particularly smart would cause people to look at him askance (“You mean you don’t think that was brilliant?!”). The drivers were never short of things to discuss during GPDA meetings, and it kept the journos on their toes. Just about when a particular topic got too stale and cliched, Michael would always step up and give everyone something new to talk about – everything about him was just as consistent as his brilliance on track. We know the conventional excuse – maybe when you are straining every fiber of your being trying to win, when your profession is driving a racing car at insane velocities every second week and making split-second decisions…and most importantly when you are tremendously good at what you do, your sense of what is permissible and what is not might be different from that of the average driver or an arm-chair critic. Or maybe not…maybe Michael just reveled in the image of someone who would stop at nothing in going for a win. “I did it my way” he quietly announced at the end of a most prolific racing career, and what a way it was! Give me a combination of brilliance and rebellion any day over mediocrity and political correctness. As Kimi Raikkonen demonstrated in Hungary 2005 when he appeared to deliberately drive off the track to bring sand onto the track during qualifying, resulting in Nando losing some time in the first sector of the lap owing to lack of grip and giving Flavio an excuse to raise cain. Clever driving? Gamesmanship? Unsporting? It is all in the perception really.

The main difference between Kimi and Michael comes from Michael’s legendary attention to detail and perfectionism as opposed to Kimi’s impatience to just get on with the racing. A fact well demonstrated by this.

Q. To the drivers. In the drivers’ briefing were you allowed to cross the line at the pit-exit because some of the drivers crossed the white line and nothing happened?
Kimi: I don’t know even what line you are saying. There is some line but it goes over the exit and you need to drive over it otherwise you are never going to get on the circuit. (Laughter from the assembled journos).

coolkimi.jpgAnd now with the latest controversy raging on, and Ron Dennis doing an Ancient Mariner as in buttonholing innocent bystanders and waxing on and on about moving floors and what not, and the harried FIA perpetually coming up with new rules to cover loopholes exploited in old ones, not to mention Flavio Briatore launching scathing attacks on all and sundry from his grandmother to the cleaning lady in his impatience to find the next best driver, Kimi Raikkonen is like a breath of fresh air with his simple attitude to racing.

Q. Any thoughts on the new tests the FIA will do on the floor?
KR: I do not know if they changed the rules or not. If someone complains the FIA will tell us what to do.

After setting blistering pace in Sepang today and topping the timesheets, causing Kubica to remark “The performance of the Ferrari cars is like a machine from another planet”, does Kimi think Ferrari are the favorites? “I don’t know, I think so…but you never know…let’s see how it goes”. Yes, let’s. “Everyone knows that Kimi never goes flat out just for testing” says Peter Sauber, adding to the palpitations in the paddock amongst rival teams. Their anxiety is understandable – if this is Kimi taking it easy, the mind boggles at what he can do on race day with this ‘alien’ car. Forza Ferrari.

sepangday1.jpgFirst day of testing started off today in Malaysia with 10 of the 11 teams on track, all except Spyker. In keeping with the 2007 testing agreement, each team ran only one car. Following BMW’s strong performance in testing today after Robert Kubica topped the timing sheets, it is rumored that McLaren is thinking of launching a protest against BMW Sauber for hiring Nick Heidfeld as racing driver. This apparently violates a hidden clause in the rulebook that stipulates that no driver under the height of 5 ft. will be allowed to drive a F1 racing car. Mercedes Motorsport Director Norbert Haug says “Our package is certainly a good one, but we have identified room for improvement”. He is speaking relatively of course, given the current performance of McLaren’s ‘Rival Team Scrutineering and Protesting’ department, it will not be long before theirs are the only cars capable of moving in the forward direction without violating any rules – and this you have to admit is an easy way to dispense with all the nuisance of competing with 10 other teams on track. With McLaren questioning the legality of just about everything starting from seatbelts, it will at least waste a lot of FIA’s time and resources if nothing else, and that is always a pleasant prospect. Who was it who said “If you can’t match them, hobble them”? Not Ron Dennis? Hmm….well, here’s thought anyway. Maybe Ferrari should haul the new super-assistant off his supposed young driver development program (or whatever else it is that Michael is supposed to be doing, bless him), arm him with the rulebook and a vernier caliper instead and set him loose in the paddock. Given Michael’s general astuteness, it is a cheaper alternative to wasting resources on car development. What say?

Kimi Raikkonen arrived at the race track fresh from his vacation in Thailand, and finished second in the timing sheets, just a tenth of a second off the BMW pace. This looks promising for Ferrari, given Kimi’s usual tendency to drive around in a stupor during testing, only springing to life on race days. Kimi is a strong believer in maximum conservation of energy, his own that is. Alex Wurz of Williams finished third, taking care to maintain a safe distance from David Coulthard on track just in case DC jumped at him with the car again and tried to take his head off. Barrichello finished fourth in what looks like an improved version of the Honda (well, after the last race, there is only one way to go), while De la Rosa finished fifth in the McLaren. He will be replaced by Lewis Hamilton tomorrow.

 Meanwhile, Renault has denied starting work on a ‘B’ version of the R27. “There is no plan for a B version of the R27” says the Renault spokesman, “But we are working hard on new components that will appear on the car soon (and hopefully stay on the car, with McLaren around you never know)”.  If there is no plan for a B version, maybe they should seriously consider it. The car continued to be plagued by mechanical issues that limited the amount of testing they could carry out, with Nelson Piquet Jr. finished ninth on the timing sheets. Only Scott Speed of STR finished lower than him, and that is hardly reassuring for Renault.

Bridgestone continues to experiment with tyre markings, and after the fiasco at Albert Park, their latest idea is to replace the one white dot with a multitude of red ones. They also tried white coloration of the outside groove of the tyre – using either paint or alternatively chalk. It is not known if any of these proved effective.

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