Category Archives: Opinon

2013 half-way driver rankings: 4th – 1st

In the last of 3 articles, I rank this year’s F1 drivers based on their performances in the first 10 races.

We are left with 4 drivers, each driving for a different team, which shows just how spoiled we are for driving talent these days. Without delay, here’s the driver in 4th place:

4th – Fernando Alonso

Previous ranking: 1st

Previous quote: “In 9 years of watching F1, this [2012 season] was the closest thing to perfection I’ve ever seen.”

Had Fernando Alonso reached his peak in late 2012? It’s a question I refused to believe at the start of this season, but slowly I can see why this may be the case.

Flawless victories in China and Spain demonstrate what he can do when the car is on form. Spirited drives in Australia and Canada earned him praise as well. But we’ve also seen uncharacteristic errors from the Spaniard – a bizarre decision to stay out with a broken front wing in Malaysia cost him a potential podium finish.

Making the error of activating his broken DRS wing in Bahrain forced a second unscheduled stop, ruining any chance of a good result. As well as this, we have seen Alonso become more visibly flustered by Ferrari’s incompetence at building a consistently competitive car. A rift in the team grew over the summer break, fuelled by comments from Luca di Montezemelo, criticising Fernando for turning on his team.

None of this has helped his 2013 challenge in the slightest. It also puts him under pressure as to his drive for the 2014 season – should he switch to Red Bull or Lotus, or continue to try with a team that can’t fix a wind tunnel after 3 years of failure?

At this point, there’s no correct decision. All he can do for now is push on track, and try to close the gap to Sebastian Vettel as much as possible. But the title may already be out of reach, thanks to his early-season errors.

3rd – Lewis Hamilton

Previous ranking: 2nd

Previous quote: “If Hamilton can transform Mercedes like Schumacher did to Ferrari, he will go down as one of the best drivers of the modern era.”

3rd place in qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix confirmed what many had hoped over the winter – Hamilton’s switch to Mercedes was indeed the right call. More than that, we are seeing inspired, confident drives from the Brit more than ever.

Coping with a car that proved erratic under braking and suicidal when it came to tyre wear, two podiums in Malaysia and China were also very impressive, with his first Mercedes pole position to boot. Losing out in the pit stops in Monaco cost him another excellent finish.

Once he got to grips with the W04, wins were just around the corner. To everyone’s surprise, he calmly converted a pole in Hungary into a win, and I feel he could have done it even with Vettel unhindered by backmarkers. More superb victories in 2013 are expected, naturally.

Any poor finishes were the fault of the car, not the driver. The two Pirelli tyre massacres – Barcelona and Silverstone – threw him out of podium-finishing places. If it weren’t for these, he would have finished in the top 5 at every single race. With himself and Kimi Raikkonen both on form, there could still be a surprise winner to the 2013 season.

2nd – Sebastian Vettel

Previous ranking: 4th

Previous quote: “I still think that he was out-performed by other drivers on the grid.”

His unsporting antics in Malaysia earned him criticism, but in my mind it has cemented Vettel as a true racing driver. No triple world champion would throw away a victory like that – drivers like Hakkinen, Senna and Gilles Villeneuve have done the exact same.

His 2013 campaign is already shaping up to be one of his best – flawless performances are a standard for him these days. Of course, he is assisted by the Red Bull RB9’s stellar pace, but what world champion won their title in a Minardi? Sebastian has proven himself, once again, to be more calculating, more tactical and overall faster than his disillusioned teammate.

If it wasn’t for a gearbox failure in Silverstone, he would have finished in the top 4 at every single race. Such consistency is what we’ve come to expect from the triple world champion, and we’ve seen so much of it that perhaps we’re used to it. Perhaps that’s a good and a bad thing, but at the end of the day, Vettel is as ferocious a racing driver as ever.

1st – Kimi Raikkonen

Previous ranking: 3rd

Previous quote: “Raikkonen did a hugely impressive job this year, establishing himself as one of the sport’s finest drivers.”

It’s easy to appreciate Vettel’s stellar streak of wins across multiple seasons. But Raikkonen’s string of second-placed finishes is perhaps even more impressive, considering the speed difference in the cars they drive.

This year’s Lotus is reliable and consistent on the tyres, but lacks overall pace. The fact that such a car can be dragged to 5 2nd-placed finishes in 8 races is proof of Kimi’s impeccable racecraft. A win in Melbourne was earned with supreme tactical finesse, surprising many inside and outside the paddock.

Where the E21 has failed, it has tended to drag Raikkonen down with it, but I doubt any other driver could do much better. But even where his car was clearly off the pace, we still saw tremendous racecraft from the Finn, with Monaco being the prime example. After falling to 13th, Kimi pulled off three impressive passes on the final lap to snatch 10th place.

Such consistency has earned him the record for most points finishes in a row, with 27 being his current streak. It’s impossible not to recognise this kind of racecraft, and that’s why I’m tipping Raikkonen to be the surprise victor of the 2013 championship.

2013 half-way driver rankings: 13th – 5th

In the second of 3 articles, I rank this season’s drivers according to how I felt they performed so far this year.

This section deals with drivers from teams like Toro Rosso all the way up to Red Bull. Let’s start with driver #13…

13th – Mark Webber

Previous ranking: 12th

Previous quote: “Despite his protests, he is the perfect number 2 driver to partner Vettel.”

Another disappointing season for Mark Webber looks to be on the cards, although this one will certainly be his last. After the events of Malaysia, I doubt he will ever win another race again.

It’s true that he has faced his usual share of bad luck. Issues like two botched pit stops in China and Germany have been well documented, but at the end of the day, at no point has Mark ever challenged for victory this year. His two podiums in Monaco and Silverstone came only because of the misfortune of others, particularly in the latter case.

Even more worryingly, he hasn’t finished in front of Sebastian Vettel at any point in 2013 – in qualifying or the race. There is a point where you cannot keep blaming bad luck or a rogue teammate, but it seems as if the message was lost on Webber.

Mark’s regular post-race whinge will be absent next year, to be replaced by infrequent sniping at the state of F1, and how it was so much better in the good old days, etc etc. I can’t say that I’m looking forward to it.

12th – Jean-Eric Vergne

Previous ranking: 21st

Previous quote: “Toro Rosso will now overlook him while they search for Mark Webber’s eventual replacement in the future.”

While I correctly called that Vergne would be overlooked for the Red Bull seat, I didn’t predict the improvement that we’d see in the Toro Rosso teammates. Like Riccardo, Jean-Eric has grown into a rather solid and dependable driver, without any loss in speed.

While he has been annihilated in qualifying by an embarrassing margin, Vergne has made up for it in the races, never finishing any lower than 12th, excluding DNFs. Compare this to Daniel Ricciardo, who has finished lower than 12th 4 times already, and the Frenchman’s consistency is clear to see.

A fantastic race weekend in Canada is undoubtedly the highlight of his year so far, out-pacing most of the field apart from the top 3 teams. However, his Webber-esque qualifying performances do him no good whatsoever, and tends to blight his race weekends before they’ve gotten properly underway.

I’m disappointed that he’s been passed over for being Webber’s replacement, but I’m confident that Vergne will be able to improve with Toro Rosso for years to come.

11th – Sergio Perez

Previous ranking: 10th

Previous quote: “A poor end to 2012 signals that Perez may not be completely ready for his big break.”

At the start of the 2013 season, it seemed as though my fears were confirmed. Struggling to get to grips with the car, Perez only broke into Q3 once in the first 4 races. However, an impressive turnaround has shown a vast improvement by Checo, much to the displeasure of his teammate.

I mention this because as the season continues, we are treated to more and more inter-McLaren duels, most of which end with Perez in front and Button fuming over the radio. Enjoyable as it is to watch, it also shows that Sergio is threatening to out-pace Jenson after only 10 races in the team – not a bad feat at all.

But his season has already taken some downturns, not least at Monaco. Despite some rather ambitious and impressive overtakes, Perez soon got over-enthusiastic, and clashed with Kimi Raikkonen as a result. That aside though, with the midfield machinery at his disposal, it’s been a relatively impressive start to his McLaren career.

10th – Adrian Sutil

Previous ranking: N/A

Previous quote: N/A

A year’s absence has surely hurt Sutil’s hopes of progressing up the grid, but he’s still doing a respectable job in the Force India in 2013.

Superb drives in Australia and Monaco have been his highlights so far, and out-pacing Sebastian Vettel in the middle stint at Melbourne was no mean feat either. There’s little to choose between the two Force India drivers in general, but where Sutil seems to excel at is qualifying. He has broken into Q3 5 times already this year, compared to just 2 for Paul di Resta.

Unfortunately, the VJM06 is proving to be extremely difficult to handle on the new Kevlar-belted tyres, and this could hurt Sutil’s chances badly going into the second half of 2013.

9th – Paul di Resta

Previous ranking: 13th

Previous quote: “He has the talent to push for podiums in a midfield car.”

Barely missing out on a podium in Bahrain, Di Resta has certainly had good moments this season. Unfortunately, an apparently deteriorating relationship between him and his team isn’t helping matters.

Three ruined qualifying sessions in 4 race weekends was the focal point of this issue, where Paul blasted Force India’s strategies and criticised the team heavily. He and his race engineer have had their fair share of spats, with several team radio clips highlighting the issues within the team.

All of which has overshadowed Di Resta’s impressive streak of points-scoring finishes in 2013. Between China and Britain, he finished in the points 6 times in a row, even after being dropped to the back of the grid in some occasions.

But a worrying drop-off in pace in Hungary spells what may be a drastic loss in form going into the second half of the season for Di Resta.

8th – Jenson Button

Previous ranking: 7th

Previous quote: “It will be interesting to see how he fares as a team leader at McLaren – it can go either brilliantly or disastrously.”

An embarassing loss of form after 2012 has dropped McLaren to competing with Force India for 5th place in the constructor’s championship. But Button has appeared to be unfazed by this change of fortunes, and has driven well in such poor circumstances.

Twice this season he has competed for podiums amongst clearly superior cars, in both Malaysia and Germany. A botched pit stop foiled the former, while backmarkers ruined the latter. Nevertheless, Jenson has dealt with 2013 remarkably well, taking consistent points for the team in most races.

His feud with Sergio Perez has been entertaining, but he seems to have the upper hands in terms of overall points and consistency. With McLaren on a slow mend, a podium this year certainly isn’t out of the question.

7th – Daniel Ricciardo

Previous ranking: 20th

Previous quote: “Another mundane season in the lower midfield will effectively end his career.”

After what I felt was a disappointing 2012, Riccardo has evolved into one of the most promising drivers in recent years, threatening to take the Red Bull seat over Kimi Raikkonen, of all drivers.

As well as domination over his teammate in qualifying, Daniel has often out-performed most of the grid on Saturdays. Breaking into Q3 5 times out of 10 races, he has struggled to turn most of these into points-scoring finishes, but his raw pace is certainly notable.

7th in both qualifying and the race in China put him ahead of Romain Grosjean, and he missed out on a fantastic result at Silverstone after his team made the wrong strategy call. Ricciardo has been stellar in the Toro Rosso, but the question is whether he can perform well enough to take the Red Bull spot for 2014.

It would be almost impossible to score a win in his current car – to replicate Vettel’s Monza 2008 victory – but more consistent points-scoring finishes should seal the deal for 2014.

6th – Nico Hulkenberg

Previous ranking: 5th

Previous quote: “Hulkenberg has done his career the best possible boost. A switch to Sauber may be viewed as a move sideways, but I think it might just pay off.”

Despite an ill-timed switch, Hulkenberg has still proven that he is one of the most exciting talents on the Formula 1 grid.

After the first 4 races, he had led the most laps out of any driver, a stellar achievement given what a poor car the Sauber C32 is. In terms of race finishes, all Nico has been able to do is drag his car into the points, but this is still head and shoulders above what Esteban Gutierrez has managed.

It is clear that he has excelled in situations where other cars have chewed their tyres up. He started on the medium tyres in China, picking off Red Bulls and McLarens before later dropping back. However, when the Sauber burns out his tyres, he is completely helpless, like in Monaco.

The switch to Kevlar-belted tyres seems to have given Sauber a little boost, so I expect to see Hulkenberg continue to impress throughout 2013.

5th – Nico Rosberg

Previous ranking: 6th

Previous quote: “A disastrous end to the season for Mercedes has held back Nico from performing better.”

After 3 seasons of beating Michael Schumacher, Rosberg was still treated with suspicion as to the extent of his driving talent. The fact that he has squared up to – and sometimes beaten – Lewis Hamilton has surely alleviated these worries.

Two emphatic wins are his highlights so far, but both came with plenty of luck. In Monaco, he was able to back up the entire grid throughout the race without being passed – a feat impossible anywhere else. And the win in Silverstone dropped into his lap after Hamilton’s tyres exploded and Vettel retired.

Still, he has been rather impressive this year, almost always on Hamilton’s pace, but he has taken the brunt of Mercedes’ poor reliability so far. He was instructed to hold off passing Lewis in Malaysia, which didn’t help his points tally, but surely improved his standing within the team.

However, as Hamilton becomes increasingly comfortable in the W04, we may see Rosberg being outperformed more and more often.

Who can catch Sebastian Vettel in 2013?

We are now halfway through the 2013 season, and Sebastian Vettel again holds a commanding lead in the championship – a sizeable 38 points over nearest rival Kimi Raikkonen.

But if the form of the first half of 2013 is anything to go by, we’re in for an unpredictable battle all the way to the end. Let’s have a look at the drivers who will take the fight to the Red Bull:

Kimi Raikkonen

Gap to Vettel: 38 points

Finishing form in 2013: 1-7-2-2-2-10-9-5-2-2

To say that his return to F1 has been a success would be a massive understatement. Kimi has been on the pace from the get-go, and has shown nothing but sheer determination and speed every time he’s out on track.

What holds him back though is the team itself. Lotus is bearing the brunt of severe overspending in recent years, and they have shown to be unpredictable when it comes to car development. A temporary slump from Monaco to Silverstone hurt Raikkonen’s chances of making steady progress, and it remains unclear whether Lotus can keep up to Red Bull in the development race.

The E21 can be described as “erratic” when it comes to performance between races – track temperature impacts on their car moreso than others, and this tends to make or break their race weekends before they even begin.

But when the car is on the pace, so is Kimi, every single time. The emergence of Romain Grosjean as a more reliable teammate may also come in handy, as the team may opt to use him as a tactial tool to delay his rivals. If Raikkonen is to win the championship, it won’t be by out-pacing the Red Bull, rather by clever tactics and strategy.

Fernando Alonso

Gap to Vettel: 39 points

Finishing form: 2-DNF-1-8-1-7-2-3-4-5

Rumours of a rift in the Ferrari garage wouldn’t be unrealistic – Alonso has been unhappy with the pace of his Ferrari for some time now, and he can only do so much with the 3rd fastest car.

Like Raikkonen, Alonso is being forced to put more pressure on his team to achieve results, but Ferrari’s leadership has struck back, claiming Fernando should put the team before himself. This has produced a rather worrying situation where Fernando may lack the support from Ferrari in order to win the title.

To make matters worse, Alonso is not the faultless driver he was last year. A bizarre decision to stay out with a broken front wing cost him a Malaysian Grand Prix finish, and Fernando made the mistake of accidentally activating his broken DRS wing in Bahrain, despite having just pitted to have it fixed down.

It’s clear that he has been rattled by years of chasing the apparently unassailable Vettel, and it is now a case of whether Alonso will jump ship altogether, or continue to fight with Ferrari. Despite being a fan, I can’t see any realistic chance of the Ferrari/Alonso combination catching Sebastian in this form.

The next 2 races are expected to suit the F138 though, so if we are to see any late-season charge, we will have to see Fernando perform well in Spa and Monza.

Lewis Hamilton

Gap to Vettel: 48 points

Finishing form: 5-3-3-5-12-4-3-5-1

Only a week ago, I assumed that the 2013 title battle was a 3-horse race. It seemed impossible that the tyre-melting Mercedes could possibly mount a charge. But mount a charge it did, in the searing heat of Hungary no less. Lewis Hamilton is now equipped with the best car to take down Sebastian Vettel, but is it too late?

A 48-point gap is by no means unassailable – look at what Fernando Alonso managed after Silverstone 2010. But the fact that Red Bull are so strong in the second half of the year is the biggest issue. Tackling Vettel at the power circuits – Spa, Suzuka and Austin – will be Hamilton’s biggest test.

Another factor will be Lewis’ reliability – we know all too well what happens when Hamilton goes off the rails, and to do so in 2013 would be catastrophic. I feel that he still lacks the precision driving that Raikkonen excels in, and this could be the difference between becoming the champion and crashing out at the decisive moment.

Lewis has progressed in leaps and bounds in the last 2 years, but it remains to be seen whether he can tackle his major weakness in 2013.

Where now for Formula 1 and Pirelli?

It’s obvious that the tyres failures that marred today’s British Grand Prix were extremely dangerous, and preventive measures must be put in place for the future. Although today’s debacle was not entirely their fault, the fact that the tyres have been delaminating in previous races as well proves that Pirelli needs to put in some serious work if it is to survive in this sport.

In both the Malaysian and Bahrain Grands Prix, Lewis Hamilton suffered tyre blowouts at high speed. Seeing as how the Mercedes is known to impose heavy wear on their tyres, it wouldn’t be out of the question to assume that degradation – a feature intentionally implemented by Pirelli – is contributing to these incidents.

However, the high degradation was requested by the FIA, in order to shift racing to a Canada 2010-style of tyre strategy. While this has worked (mostly), the consequences of high-fragility tyres are now clearly visible.

Pirelli are unlikely to revert to “concrete” tyres, as it would hurt their brand imaging to do such a u-turn in the public eye. However, it is completely unfeasible to keep the tyres the way they are, with such huge safety concerns having arisen this weekend.

Motorsport director Paul Hembery has already stated that the company’s new bonding method to construct the tyres is not the fault, so there is something more fundamental to blame. It is possible that the Turn 4 kerbs contributed to these incidents, but they are no different to any other kerbs on the calendar.

Therefore, it is likely that the 2013-spec tyres are reacting poorly to high levels of wear at demanding tracks like Silverstone. If this is the case, there wouldn’t have been a problem this weekend if Pirelli had originally had their way – the teams vetoed their suggestion to race more conservative constructs from early on this year.

In desperation, they turned to in-season testing, which I’m sure you’ve heard all about. Two tests were completed after Bahrain – one with Ferrari at the Sakhir circuit, and the infamous one with Mercedes in Barcelona. This only resulted in even more negative PR for the company that was only trying to fix a mess they were forced into.

If the drivers and teams are looking to ensure their safety on track, then they must be more willing to allow Pirelli to introduce changes. It is widely believed that Ferrari and Lotus vetoed Pirelli’s plans in order to gain an advantage over their rivals – and this must be stopped if the drivers’ safety is to be ensured.

At the very least, the next race at the Nurburgring will be much easier on the tyres than in Silverstone, as will the Hungaroring. Hopefully this will allow the teams, the FIA and Pirelli to work out a safe solution, not one that is manipulated in order to gain speed advantages at the cost of safety.

Webber’s departure is disappointing but inevitable – and the WEC suits him perfectly

Mark Webber’s departure from Formula 1 will leave many fans disappointed. His honesty and frankness are rarely seen by drivers these days, and he will leave big shoes to fill in the Red Bull garage. But it would be naive to say we didn’t see this coming – Webber’s growing animosity towards Red Bull, and F1 as a whole, has been steadily growing for several years now.

While he can occasionally decimate the entire field, in far too many races this year has Mark been lacklustre and generally poor compared to teammate Sebastian Vettel. He has been the subject of favouritism arguments with both team boss Christian Horner and Helmut Marko across the years, often stemming from him and Sebastian’s on-track antics. This year’s Malaysian Grand Prix debacle only distanced himself further from management, who the Ausssie has always felt has shown more support towards the other side of the garage.

It is clear that Webber dislikes Vettel as a teammate – overlooking the pace issue, Mark must be psychologically hurt from the preferential treatment that Sebastian has received over the years. With this, departure from Red Bull was always a certainty, it was just a matter of when.

Unfortunately, it is also apparent that the current formula of F1 does not cater to the 35-year-old. Strategic, tactical racing and planning has been the name of the game in recent years, which is a huge contrast compared to fuel-dependent power runs when Webber first entered the sport. One style of racing isn’t intrinsically better than the other, but we all know which suits him better.

To make matters worse, even if next year’s tech changes suit Mark’s style of driving more, there would be little purpose to it. After 13 years in the sport, it is likely that he has grown tired of playing second fiddle – intentionally or by sheer pace – and there would be no point to spending another year doing exactly what he did in the previous seasons.

Moving to another team for a single team was out of the question as well. Mercedes, McLaren and probably Ferrari are full up for next year, so Webber would have had to take a huge drop down the grid to keep racing. After so many seasons, what would have been the point?

With this in mind, the World Endurance Championship seems right down his street. Racing stints are decided not by tyre degradation or tactical positioning, they are decided by raw pace and sheer bravery. Not to say that F1 doesn’t have these qualities, but it’s reflected more in modern endurance racing.

Webber will be joining a team with massive historical presence in endurance racing, not least 16 victories in the glorious Le Mans race. Porsche will suit Mark to the bone – no inter-team squabbles, just clean, proper racing like he’s always wanted. I’ll be watching the WEC next year with huge interest next year, knowing that we might just see the Mark Webber of old.

Honda’s comeback proves F1’s new engine formula is working already

The return of Honda as an engine supplier to Formula 1 is very welcome news. Even better is the expectation that more suppliers will follow, and cause a greater variety of engine combinations on the grid.

In recent years, we have seen the number of companies supplying power units drop all the way down to 4 – Mercedes, Renault, Ferrari and Cosworth. The latter of these is reducing its involvement with the sport, with Caterham and Williams having switched to Renault power in the last few seasons. Now only supplying Marussia, it is very clear that they will most likely not survive the switch to the V6 engines next year. To have only 3 different types of engine on the grid for too long would be a disaster for the sport.

However, this Honda deal has revitalised the engine market. With Renault upping the prices for their turbocharged units next year, teams like Lotus, Williams and Caterham might be encouraged to switch to the Japanese company from 2015 onwards.

Other manufacturers such as Audi and Volkswagen have previously expressed interest in returning to F1, and it’s always possible that we’ll see more suppliers arrive in the next few years. All of these signs clearly indicate that the FIA’s new engine formula is already proving to be successful.

The FIA’s aim was to encourage large manufacturing corporations back into the world of F1, while also presenting a new technical challenge that keeps the teams on their toes. While it remains to be seen how the on-track racing is affected by these new changes, I believe that the new engine suppliers will provide a huge boost to Formula 1’s credibility and excitement in the coming years.

Pirelli tyres don’t need changing – the rules do

This weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix saw much criticism for the way the teams held back for much of qualifying, almost afraid to put any type of wear on their tyres.

This continued through to race day, where drivers’ strategies revolved solely around getting rid of the troublesome option tyres as quickly as possible, then managing the primes for the rest of the race.

It’s a worrying scene, and only fuels many arguments that Formula 1 is only racing at 90% power, what with the increased emphasis on tyre conservation in recent years. From the teams’ points of view, there is nothing else they can do – if staying in the pits for the first 5 minutes of Q3 is the best tactical option (or all of Q3), then they must make that call, unpopular as it might be.

Pirelli have therefore come under fire for their high-degradation soft compound tyres, which only allow a handful of flat-out racing laps. However, this is exactly what they were instructed to create when they entered the sport. I feel that the adjustments necessary to fix the current tyre problem must be made by the FIA.

Obviously we can’t just revert to the days of rock-hard tyres and “cruise control” races – that would completely undermine all the improvements that have been made to the racing in recent years. However, in my opinion, changing the regulation on the Q3 tyres would encourage drivers to get out on track more. The rule that states that drivers must start on the tyre they qualified on, for example, is completely detrimental to the racing, and should be scrapped.

If this were to be removed, drivers would be more willing to push for the absolute best lap times on their Q3 laps, and it would also introduce more strategic options on race day – starting on the prime tyre would be much more feasible.

Similarly, it might also be worth having a look at the dual compound rule, which states that both the option and prime compounds must be used during a dry race. Again, this would diversify tyre strategies and reduce emphasis on conserving the option tyres.

I still think that F1 is currently in a fantastic position at the moment, with a massively talented grid of drivers, closely-fought title battles and plenty of on-track excitement, but there’s always improvements to be made. Improving the regulations behind the Pirellis would be a welcome boost to both the drivers and fans.

How has F1 changed in the last 10 years?

I started watching Formula 1 in 2003, which is as fine a season to start with as you can get. Since then and the end of the 2012 season, legends have come and gone, and the sport has undergone massive changes – some for good, some not.

So how exactly has the sport evolved over time, and how does it compare to the widely-regarded classic season of 2003?

Positives

Amplified Racing

The 2012 season saw an astounding 1,135 overtakes across the entire year, compared to a measly 303 in 2003. This can be partially attributed to the refuelling ban 3 years ago, which eliminated many “overtaking in the pit lane” scenarios. In 2010, overtaking figures doubled from the previous year, when huge aerodynamic changes failed to make passing any easier.

However, the rest is down to the controversial DRS system. It has divided fans since its introduction, but the one thing about it that cannot be debated about it is its effectiveness, doubling once again the number of overtakes from 2010.

But how much does this impact on F1’s “purity”? Diehard fans will argue that DRS removes any challenge for the chasing car, and any opportunity to defend for the car in front. This is true in situations where the DRS zone is oversized (see Canada), but I still feel that DRS overall has improved the racing in recent seasons. Despite a notable amount of easy overtakes, it has removed the risk of being stuck behind a slower opponent for an entire race.

Horrendously boring races, particularly in Hungary a few years back, are a thing of the past. The loss of fuel-dependent qualifying means that the racing on Sundays isn’t correlated to how much fuel you ran with on Saturday. Compared to my first season, I can safely say that better overtaking is a huge positive today.

Better steward transparency

The best example of poor stewarding in the past was Spa 2008, where Lewis Hamilton saw a brilliant victory snatched away because of a questionably illegal overtake. Juan Pablo Montoya famously fell foul of the stewards in his years at Williams, coincidentally when Ferrari had a rather firm influence in the FIA department.

This hasn’t been totally fixed, but is much better than it used to be. The addition of a retired driver to each stewards’ panel has added more appropriate punishments to driver infringements than before. Consistency is also more visible, with standard drive-through penalties being dealt out as a “one size fits most” policy. The re-introduction (or re-use) of the stop/go penalty has been used as extra punishment for more serious offences.

Race Control isn’t perfect, but I’m much happier with stewards’ decisions now than I was 10 years ago.

More top-notch drivers

Back in my day, we had one great driver – Michael Schumacher. The mere mortals within McLaren and Williams would try their futile best to beat him, but victory for the scarlet red was an inevitability for a few seasons.

Put simply, we have none of that these days, which is only a good thing for the sport. Total domination like what we saw in 2004 was threatening to drive F1 into the ground, and the turnaround from this danger has been more than impressive.

Up to 2012, we had no less than 6 world champions battling it out on track at any given time, a first in F1 history. Now that the formerly mighty Schumacher has retired, we are left with 5 champions, as well as 5 other race winners, and another 4 or 5 drivers raring to take the top spot of the podium.

Of our current roster of drivers, Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton can all be considered to be top-class drivers. Even in different cars, their brilliance continually shines through, and has led to some wonderful championship battles in recent years.

Last year, we had an astounding 8 different race winners, compared to only 5 in 2004. Unpredictability has boosted Formula 1 hugely over the past decade.

Negatives

Car beauty

The spate of rule changes over the past few years have come at a price. Poster-grade F1 cars are in short supply these days, with out-of-proportion front and rear wings, and unsightly nose steps.

2003 is a great reference for this point, because the Ferrari F2003-GA is a perfect example of how an F1 car should look – a flawless balance of aerodynamic and mechanical artistry.

Today’s cars aren’t all a horrific bunch, but they’re a far cry from works of art. Liveries are less clean than the past, with a vast array of sponsor’s logos used to keep the team financially afloat.

I’m struggling to see how it would be possible to clean up F1 cars’ image with impending rule changes for 2014, so perhaps we’ll be kept waiting for another truly beautiful F1 car a while longer.

Cookie-cutter race tracks

Without trying to get lost in the nostalgia-fueled argument 0f “old racetracks are better than the new ones”, there’s a lot to be said for poor-quality racetracks that were built in the past few years.

Take Bahrain as a classic example. Derided by fans, drivers and journalists alike for being generic, uncreative and overall boring, it fails year after year to produce edge-of-the-seat racing, and the fact that the race was used as a propaganda tool for the Bahraini government (UniF1ed campaign) is just icing on the cake.

Abu Dhabi is no better, and Valencia is just a generally poor racetrack. Other new circuits in China and Korea have failed to gather much praise either, leading to claims that new F1 tracks are generic and lack originality.

There is some truth to these claims, and the FIA would be smart to avoid over-reliance on a certain Mr. Tilke’s input on future racetracks.

In conclusion…

I’m not going to sit on the fence for this one – I much prefer F1 today than to what it was 10 years ago. I can sit down next Sunday without having a single clue who’s going to win, and that’s the single best thing I can imagine for the sport. Cookie-cutter circuits I can get over, and an F1 car’s beauty is irrelevant at 350km/h.

I’m confident that F1 is in a great period right now – not quite a golden age, but not too far off. We can only hope that the 2013 season can in any way match up to 2012…

Bizarre driver market reveals F1’s growing struggle

The ousting of Luiz Razia at Marussia came as a surprise to me, as I had distanced myself from the mostly baseless rumours going round the paddock. However, it still wasn’t a total shock, as the strange driver market we have seen this year has shown that Formula 1 has a huge problem with its finances.

In the past, it would be unheard of to see a competent midfield team – Force India – take until February to announce their driver line-up, in the middle of testing season no less. But that’s exactly what they did, and the decision was made with money in mind. Granted, Sutil’s a good driver on merit, but he was clearly bringing more money to the table than Jules Bianchi.

HRT have folded, with even the prospect of two pay drivers failing to hold up their sinking ship. Sauber have dropped fan favourite Kamui Kobayashi in favour of sponsor-laden Esteban Gutierrez, who surely can’t contribute to the team as well as Kamui had done.

All of this makes it abundantly clear: the majority of F1’s teams are struggling financially. Only the “Big 5″ appear to be comfortable, in particular Mercedes, who have been offering “telephone number salaries” in order to steal talented engineers from other leading teams.

I’m no expert on Formula 1’s complex financial workings, but even I can tell something’s badly wrong when half the grid are turning to pay drivers to keep afloat. As well as making F1 look bad in the press, it’s also a warning that the sport may fail to bring forward some of tomorrow’s best talent, if so many teams are focusing on survival only.

There are fixes, of course, but the vast majority of them stem from Bernie Ecclestone, who will of course be unwilling to budge an inch when it comes to finance. The 82-year-old built his fortune on tough negotiations and maximising revenues, and he isn’t going to stop now just because one driver got replaced over another.

But where does it stop? At what point will Ecclestone realise that the sport and its lower-tiered teams are being very slowly drained of its financial future? I fear that Formula 1 is heading towards a pivotal point in its future, where the needs of the many will go up against the wants of the few. Which way it’ll go is of course anyone’s guess, of course.

What to look forward to in 2013

Unfortunate as it is, but it is now time to consign the brilliant 2012 season to the history books, and look forward to the next. Will the 2013 season deliver as many thrills and spills?

Let’s have a look at some of the things that could make the 2013 season great:

Continued competitiveness at the front

As Sebastian Vettel searches for his fourth world title on the trot, double world champion Fernando Alonso attempts to win his first title since 2006.

Meanwhile, Jenson Button will try his best to lead a reshuffled McLaren team to glory, while Lewis Hamilton will settle into Mercedes and attempt to push the team to the front of the grid.

Ferrari, despite their vocality on every single issue in F1, have struggled in recent years, and look to a resurging Felipe Massa to improve the team’s chances at a constructor’s championship.

The 2012 season saw one of the closest and most competitive grids ever seen in the sport, and with little change in the rulebooks for 2013, most of the teams at the front should be able to continue racing for wins. It is likely that Red Bull will continue to have one of – if not the – most competitive cars on the grid, and it will be fascinating to see who will try to topple them.

I estimate that up to 5 teams will have a shot at the title for next year, and that’s good news for F1.

An ever-improving Lotus team

Despite a huge increase in fans and supporters in 2012, Lotus’ actual season was a disappointment. They lost out on opportunities for victory in early races, and only an inherited win for Kimi Raikkonen in Abu Dhabi spared their blushes.

To put it simply, the team too often failed to exploit the fantastic race pace of the E20, and single lap pace was lacking. This must improve for 2013 if the team wishes to challenge for the title.

Romain Grosjean will be looking to recover from a terrible second half of last year, and will be doing his best to turn excellent pace into actual finishing results. Meanwhile, Kimi Raikkonen will presumably continue as the team leader, and should be able to reap rewards from the Lotus’ fantastic reliability and (hopefully) improved pace.

Considering how close Raikkonen got to the title this year, even before his win in Abu Dhabi, then Lotus are a serious force to be reckoned with this year.

Can Hamilton’s move reap rewards?

One of the most controversial news stories of last year was Lewis Hamilton’s surprise move to a struggling Mercedes team. There will be massive pressure on the Brit to transform the team into a title-winning squad.

That’s an odd statement though, as the team won their previous title only back in 2009. A slump in form in 2010, coupled with a series of underperforming cars, has held them back since. So what does Hamilton bring to the table? Awesome speed and a newfound maturity certainly helps.

Partnered with karting teammate Nico Rosberg, Mercedes now has one of the most exciting driver duos in the sport. Which driver ends up on top is anyone’s guess, but either way, 2013 will be a defining season for both drivers.

A more unpredictable Q1

The exit of HRT will either come as a disappointment or a relief to fans, but their demise has resulted in a much more exciting prospect for Q1 in qualifying.

With the 3 new teams taking up 6 of the 7 drop zones up to 2012, Q1 has been one of the few uneventful parts of an F1 weekend. However, with one less team at the back of the grid, the midfield teams now have a much bigger risk of being knocked out in the first part of qualifying. This also applies to the frontrunners, who will have to push harder to avoid being caught out.

Overall this will result in better competitiveness and more exciting racing in Q1. It also raises the prospects of slower cars being caught out by the 107% rule, as the frontrunners may be forced to take on the option tyre in this session, raising the bar for the teams behind.

Small DRS rule change – big consequences

A minor change to the technical rulebook in 2013 has stated that the DRS device can only be used in its designated zone during practice and qualifying. While it seems unnecessary, looking closer into the matter will show what consequences this has.

By lowering emphasis on DRS in qualifying, teams will no longer give their cars longer gears to benefit from the DRS, only to see that benefit slide away in the race.

This will also provide a boost to Ferrari, whose F2012 struggled in regards to rear stability when braking and disengaging DRS at the same time. For some reason, when the DRS flap deactivated, it failed to provide sufficient downforce for a split second, meaning the car would lose grip when braking for corners in qualifying.

This problem dogged the Ferrari team for all of last year, but it will no longer be an issue in 2013. Hopefully this means that they can improve on their poor qualifying form, and actually challenge Red Bull and McLaren on Saturdays.

Goodbye to stepped noses?

Stepped noses proved to be a flop with fans in 2012, many of whom engaged 100% nostalgic capacity and bemoaned the look of the current generation of cars.

Thankfully, the FIA has introduced an optional panel, to be fitted to the cars’ nosecones to eliminate these controversial steps. Before 2012, a safety measure meant that the front of the nosecone was to be lowered – but the rear was to remain the same height. This is what caused the controversy in 2012, and it’s good to see the matter finally come to a close.

For the record, I didn’t actually mind the stepped noses – the initial surprise is the only thing bad about them.

Hulkenberg and Sauber – a step up or sideways?

Force India described Nico Hulkenberg’s switch to rival team Sauber as a “step sideways”, an opinion shared by more than a few in the paddock. Can Hulkenberg prove them wrong?

Nico is one of the finest talents in F1, finishing off the 2012 season with a series of brilliant drives. In only his second season, he has taken a pole position, and nearly took a shock win in last year’s season finale. However, his performances in 2013 may be limited by what Sauber can produce.

But we’ll have to wait until March to see how the Hulkenberg/Sauber combination works. Nico has the potential to be a race winner and world champion in the future, so this is a hugely important moment in his career.

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