Game over for Vitantonio Liuzzi in Formula 1?

Since Daniel Ricciardo has joined HRT, he and his team mate Vitantonio Liuzzi have both seen the finish line at 5 races. Of those, Liuzzi was only in front in Silverstone, his young team mate’s first Formula One race. After that, the Australian has beaten the Italian each time.

While at first Liuzzi was able to take the better starting position thanks to faster qualification laps, this trend also has turner in favour of the Red Bull junior driver. This not only shows that Ricciardo is a fast learner and his performances in lower series are no coincidence. It also shows that Liuzzi is definitely past his prime, and maybe also his time.

Some may argue that it has been the case for some time now, at the latest when he lost his Force India drive to Paul Di Resta. But the severance money he got for letting go a his 2011 contract allowed him to buy himself this year’s HRT car.

His problem will be that the Force India money was spent for the current season and his results don’t help him claiming a drive on performance alone (if such was even available at the Spanish team, which I doubt). Even if Colin Kolles, HRT’s team manager, seems to have a rather high opinion of his driver, that won’t suffice to keep him in the car.

The new HRT owners have already stated several times that they want to have a Spanish driver on board, so Jaime Alguersuari would be a prime candidate should he lose his Toro Rosso gig. And GP2 racer Dani Clos is also on the list, at the latest for 2013.

No money and not enough performance is a combination that doesn’t bode well for a future in Formula 1. My guess would be we will see Liuzzi driving in Le Mans in 2012. Arrivederci Tonio, you had fun but now it’s over.

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2012 Renault Drive – the Race is On

We don’t know yet how the team based in Enstone and currently named Lotus Renault GP Limited will be called next year. We really don’t know much about the team in fact. One thing is certain though, they have the best seat still available, since Massa, Webber and Button have been confirmed for next season (and more in Button’s case) and Schumacher has repeatedly stated he would fulfill his Mercedes contract to the end.

Vitaly Petrov seems quite secure, mainly due to deals with Russian companies, chief among those being car manufacturer Lada. As to the other car, team principal Eric Bouillier has been cited many times as wanting to wait for Robert Kubica as long as possible. This is understandable, as the Pole is arguably the best driver outside the top 3 teams. Or maybe I should say that he was, as this is the big question: Will Kubica ever be able to drive as well as he once did, taking the car to its limits and further? And when would that be?

At first it was understood Kubica would have a test in the simulator in September, but that month has come and gone. Then Bouiller wanted a clear message by the middle to the end of October, which he seems not to have gotten yet. The last information is that a decision has to be taken in November, which is not too far away by now. Unfortunately, this adjournment makes me believe we won’t see Kubica drive a Formula One car in 2012.

So what are the options for Renault in that case? Well, we can safely assume that Nick Heidfeld won’t make a return to the team, even if the Gillette sponsorship agreement was signed only for the 2011 season. Another possibility is current driver Bruno Senna, who has surprised some by holding his own against Petrov. But being an equal to (or even sligihtly better than) Petrov is not enough to ensure a drive at Renault, as Nick Heidfeld will confirm. If Senna wants to keep driving a F1 car, he will need to up his game in the last races of the season. His has a few things speaking for him, though, mainly his last name and a large amount of Brazilian sponsorship.

The next name on the list is Senna’s most serious rival for the drive, current GP2 champion and former Renault racing driver Romain Grosjean. As I wrote in a previous post, there is only a limited choice for Grosjean in 2012. If he doesn’t find a race drive in F1, he might as well go back to his day job as a bank clerk in Geneva. The good news for him is that he will be given a chance to show his skills in Friday practice at the last two Grand Prix of this year. I’m sure he has the talent to be in Formula One, but can he show it under pressure? And nearly as important as talent is sponsorship (it would be more important if Renault didn’t have the Petrov rubles). Grosjean might get some support from Renault who certainly would certainly like having a Swiss French driver back in F1. And of course he is part of Bouillier’s Gravity Sports Management.

Which brings us to the other young drivers managed by Gravity. While some of their drivers are not (yet) ready for F1 (current GP3 driver Alexander Sims, US-bound Petri Suvanto, Formula Renault 2.0 driver Javier Tarancon and F3 Euro Series runner-up Marco Wittmann) and others will never be ( Buemi’s cousin Natacha Gachnang, former F3 Euro Series hopeful Jim Pla, Adrien Tambay son of former Renault F1 driver Patrick and Dutch-Chinese not-so-youngster-any-more Ho-Pin Tung), a few names remain.

Marussia Virgin driver D’Ambrosio is the first. His engagement with the Russio-British team could be seen as a training ground for a future at Renault, but the Belgian has failed to impress. After looking good in the beginning of the season, he is now not only clearly lagging his (admittedly experienced) team mate Timo Glock, but also often under pressure from the HRTs of Liuzzi and particularly Ricciardo. I think D’Ambrosio will be hard-pressed to keep his Virgin drive, let alone be in line for a better drive.

The last name on the Gravity managed drivers list is German Christian Vietoris. Even if his 7th place overall in the 2011 GP2 season can be seen as disappointing for his second season in the series, a few factors have to be considered. First, he has beaten his highly rated team mate Dani Clos. Second, he missed two events, i.e. four races. And third, in parallel to his open wheel racing, he was racing tin-tops in DTM. While I still believe Vietoris could benefit from a third year in GP2, he has shown as much or more in feeder series than some current F1 drivers and could be the one to be given a chance if Renault wants a truly fresh driver.

Also we should not forget drivers who are not currently associated with Renault and/or Gravity. Kimi Räikkönen seems to have seen enough of WRC, but his relation with Bouillier has suffered from last year’s public statements on how he wasn’t interested in a Renault drive. Rubens Barrichello could try to sell his experience if he loses his Williams seat as expected. Adrian Sutil may well be looking for a job next year. Another potential newcomer from GP2 is Frenchman Charles Pic, whose family apparently has ties with Renault and could be preferred to Grosjean for that reason.

So in the end, my guess is the drive will go to one of these drivers, ordered by probability: Romain Grosjean, Bruno Senna, Charles Pic or Rubens Barrichello.

What do you think? Did I forget someone?

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Youngest Formula One Double World Champion – Check. What’s Next Sebastian Vettel?

It is a surprise for no one, and it couldn’t be doubted since Vettel continued his winning ways after the summer break, he is the youngest double World Champion. And the youngest champion with consecutive championships too, obviously.

Of course he had the records for youngest pole-setter, youngest race winner and youngest World Champion before the season started, but let’s have a look at what he can still get this year and in the course of his driving career.

Vettel has 7 years to get himself another crown and beat the current youngest triple World Champion (and F1 legend) Ayrton Senna. After that, the records are all in German hand already, Schumi was 32 when he got championship number 4, and took it consecutively up to 7.

In terms of total wins, the best Vettel can hope for this season is entering the top ten by winning all remaining races and bringing his total to 23, equaling Nelson Piquet. In any case, he will be far away from Schumacher’s 91 career wins. A 2012 season about as successful as this one would fast get him past the current joint number 5 on the list, Jackie Stewart and Fernando Alonso. Although the latter might advance his total, too, depending on Ferrari’s form. There is little doubt that Vettel can get the fourth spot, Nigel Mansell’s 31 wins, eventually. The length of his career and the quality of his cars will decide whether he can have a go at Senna (41), Prost (51) and even Schumacher. If this seems far away, just bear in mind the number of wins Schumi had to his name at Vettel’s current age: 1.

The old master should be able to keep his record for most wins in a season though, as Vettel would again have to win all remaining 2011 races to catch him with 13. It seems more realistic to aim for second spot with 11 wins, unsurprisingly also held by Schumacher.

Despite his current and last seasons, Vettel is still far from the top 10 in total podium finishes (33 vs. 10th position holder Lauda with 54). The record for podiums in one season seems reachable, though, as the four remaining races could lead him to 18 podiums, one more than Schumi (who else?) had in his near perfect 2002 season which admittedly had only 17 races. With the current reliability of the Red Bull cars, this record could be threatened again next season with its 20 races (if they all take place).

I won’t discuss the number of points records, as this category was completely screwed messed up by the new points system. The  number of pole positions is more interesting, particularly as the new champion has been doing very well in the one lap competition. His current total of 27 already put him past Häkkinen, Lauda and Piquet, and might allow him to overtake another legend, Juan-Manuel Fangio (29), before the season is ended. The number 3 spot held by Clark and Prost with 33 could fall in 2012. Senna (65) and Schumacher (68) seem far away, until one remembers we have up to 20 races per season nowadays so Vettel could theoretically be up there in two years. Especially if he does as well as this year, where his present total of 12 poles puts him only 2 top qualifyings away of Mansell’s record.

As a conclusion, one has to recognize that none of the current Formula One records are safe from this young guy from Heppenheim. And that those Autobahns without speed limit seem to be a breeding ground for fast drivers.

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Formula One – A Country for Old Men

At the beginning of Formula One in the 1950’s, it was not unusual to see drivers 50 years old and over. In the last decade, though, we were used to having the records for youngest driver to achieve some feat tumble. The record for youngest World Champion stayed with Michael Schumacher for over ten years, but then successively was beaten by Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel in just 5 years. The youth experience culminated with Jaime Alguersuari, who became the youngest driver ever to start a race.

Since then, the direction seems to have been reversed. Two years later, Alguersuari is still the youngest driver on the grid, with only Sergio Pérez coming even near him. The other new drivers of the last seasons are more in or over their mid-twenties. Even the drivers who have the best chances of coming into F1 next season are in that same age range.

On the other side of the age range, we see Schumacher (age 42), Barrichello (39), Trulli (37) or Webber (35) who are confirmed or at least hopeful (in Rubens’ case) for the 2012 season. While there is an argument for a 7-times World Champion who has shown he still knows how to race, what about the others?

Mark Webber had his shot at the title in 2010, but seems unable to recover from the miss. As Alguersuari put it, if he was so consistently beaten by his team mate, he wouldn’t be driving F1 any more. For some reason Webber keeps his seat at the best team of the moment, and anyone who follows the sport knows it can be just because he is a nice guy (which I think he is) or for his deep friendship with Sebastian Vettel.

Jarno Trulli’s persistence as a F1 driver is another mystery. He has been regularly beaten by his team mates in the last 10 years. He had a reputation for qualifying, but has been beaten by Kovalainen most of the time. He was impossible to overtake, hence the expression ‘Trulli train’, but hasn’t shown any of that even in his late Toyota years. He certainly doesn’t bring great amounts of sponsorship money and keeps whining complaining about his car, do is probably not a morale booster for the team. I can only guess he knows something embarrassing about Tony Fernandes or Mike Gascoyne.

Rubens Barrichello is the one whose drive is still uncertain. Unlike 2010 when he could outrace his rookie team mate Hulk, Pastor Maldonado is giving him lots of trouble, plus brings a lot of money his team needs. Now that Williams will be using a Renault engine next season, the French supplier might want to place one the drivers they have under contract at their new customer, in exchange for a rebate.

Alonso, Massa, Button, Liuzzi, even Kovalainen and Glock will be 30 or more when the 2012 season starts (in fact Glock will be celebrating his B-Day on race day in Melbourne). So yes, there is a tendency for F1 drivers to be older than a few years ago. It is also more difficult for new drivers to emerge from the feeder series and find durable employment in the top series, ask Hülkenberg, Di Grassi, Chandhok or even Senna.

The main reason is that experience is needed more than ever, since teams can not conduct tests during the season and have to rely on their drivers information from practice, quali and race to improve their car. We can only hope the loosening of the testing ban will give some teams the courage to try a younger driver, not for money but also for simple talent.

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Romain Grosjean to be a new Giorgio Pantano?

All winners of the F1 feeder series GP2 have gone on to become Formula One drivers the following year, with one exception. 2008 champion Giorgio Pantano, who spent his year as GP2 title holder driving for A.C. Milan in the Superleague Formula.

There are many reasons Pantano did not drive Formula One in 2009. He took the title in his 4th year of GP2, plus the 3 years he had in the predecessor series, F3000. He didn’t have a particularly big amount of sponsoring money available. Mainly, he had already had a chance in 2004 with Jordan, when he was replaced by Timo Glock with 3 races to go, after having failed to impress and being sorely beaten by team mate Nick Heidfeld.

Romain Grosjean has yet to win GP2, but he has a good mid-season lead and has won the Asian spin-off (twice, in fact). So it’s time to look at his options for next season, provided he keeps his lead and becomes GP2 champion.

One thing is certain, he won’t be driving GP2, as champions are not allowed to go on in the series. And even if they where, he could only lose, so he wouldn’t do it. What about a step (back) up to F1? Well, he’d have to find a team with an open drive.

The obvious first choice would be Renault, as he is (one of five) reserve driver for the French team. But they already have more than enough candidates, above all Robert Kubica who is expected to make his comeback for the winter tests at the latest. And as long as Petrov doesn’t make any enormous mistake, his rubles guarantee his seat. With the other 4 top teams set to keep their current line-up, he has to look to the middle and bottom of the grid, in particular to the Renault-powered teams who might want a French man at the wheel. Since he is managed by Gravity, owned by the same people as Renault F1, he isn’t likely to be allowed to drive for Team Lotus. And Williams’ Adam Parr has stated he would probably keep his drivers for 2012.

The other mid-pack teams, namely Sauber, Force India and Toro Rosso, already have enough or too many potential drivers (unless Ferrari decides to give Massa the boot and hire Perez instead, but even then Gutierrez would probably take the open seat). So that leaves HRT and Virgin. Not the first choices for a would-be F1 driver. And even those drives are overbooked, with Liuzzi, Ricciardo and Karthikeyan, plus a few Spanish drivers including Javier Villa competing for two HRT seats, and Glock and D’Ambrosio firmly in their Virgin cars, with Robert Wickens only waiting for a chance to step in.

Would Grosjean take a job as reserve/test driver (which he in fact already has), perhaps with guaranteed Friday runs, as a filler until a seat opens up in 2013? That would be a risky move, as a new crop of talents will come up from WSR and GP2 at the end of 2012, making cars even more sparse.

Unfortunately, there are not many other alternatives. Grosjean has already won the AutoGP series and won races in GT1, no point going back there. So if he wants to stay in open-wheel racing, he might have to follow Pantano’s path and drive in the Superleague Formula. Or he could go across the pond and try to find fresh momentum in IndyCars.

However it goes, we wish Romain good luck and success in his future career. Hang in there.

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1976 Formula One Season as Movie

Maybe you have heard about this, too. Peter Morgan, an Englishman who wrote the screenplays for big movies like The Last King of Scotland, The Queen and Frost/Nixon, is said to be interested in making a movie about the 1976 Formula One season. In fact, it seems the script is done already.

Now, for those of you who were not watching F1 back then (be it because of lack of interest or because you were not born yet), that was the season in which Niki Lauda had his life-threatening accident, and in which the last real F1 playboy, James Hunt, won the championship. Major factors in that win were the two races Lauda missed after his accident, as well as the Austrian’s retirement at the last race of the year in Japan, due to catastrophic weather conditions.

So this is my first question mark about the movie. In every major Hollywood motion picture, the public wants to see the underdog win, the guy who had to fight to even be there. In this case, it’s pretty clear the guy who comes from behind is Lauda, even if he was the reigning World Champion, driving a Ferrari, and his rival looks more the part of the young lead. And had the Nürburgring accident not happened, Hunt would certainly have been cast in the role of the young hopeful (although he was older then Lauda by 2 years). But then he wouldn’t have won the championship, being 25 points behind Lauda at that point of the championship.

Nevertheless, nothing makes an impression in the hearts of the public as having a horrific accident, being in a coma and given extreme unction, and then coming back after only 6 weeks to race Formula One again, despite many injuries being far from healed. Now we would have had the perfect scenario had Lauda managed to keep his lead by heroically winning the last race, or at least being in front of his competitor. Unfortunately (for Hollywood) that didn’t happen, Lauda realized that his life was worth more to him than another title and retired from the race on Fuji circuit, effectively handing over the championship to Hunt. Just as an aside here, it has to be noted that Lauda was not lacking courage, and that other drivers like Emerson Fittipaldi and Carlos Pace took the same decision.

So what can the movie makers do? Alter history (probably calling it romanticizing) to have Lauda win the title would anger the millions of racing fans around the world and lessen the value of the movie to the same level as Sylvester Stallone’s Driven. The option being to stay with the real story and not having the public’s favorite win in the end, thereby risking a failure at the box office. I fear that the movie will never be made for that reason.

Still, if it does get made, the next question is raised, namely which actors could be casted to fill the two main roles? 20 years ago, Gary Oldman would have been a strong contender for the Lauda part, but none of the current younger actors fit the part. Can you imagine Robert “Twilight Vampire” Pattinson or Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe racing through the Green Hell? There might be more hope to find a Hunt-lookalike (my personal favorite would be Brendon Hartley, don’t know if he has any desire to go into acting). Of course it would have to be actors from Europe or Australia, since we couldn’t count on American youngsters to understand F1 racing.

Well, I don’t think it is going to happen, so I’ll go and find comfort by watching the 1966 cult movie “Grand Prix”. Meanwhile, feel free to comment and tell me what young actors you see fitting the roles of two of F1’s most charismatic champions.

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Formula One 2011 – an assessment of the top teams after three races

In my last post I started an assessment of the performances of the teams so far in the 2011 season. Having gone from the bottom up, we now go to the top 6 teams, starting with current number 6 Sauber.

First, it has to be noted that Sauber would be even further up the standings had not a rather stupid mistake robbed them of their points for the Australian GP. On that occasion, Sergio Perez showed not only that the Sauber car is very good to the tyres by going the whole distance with only 1 pit stop. He also proved to his detractors that he is not (only) in Formula One thanks to the Telmex money. Some bad luck in Malaysia and mistakes due to inexperience in China have cost him other opportunities for points. Still, he has shown some very mature driving and should continue developing, while not threatening Kamui Kobayashi‘s position as team leader. The popular Japanese goes on with his spectacular driving style, not afraid to battle the sports greatest names. If Sauber can keep the pace of technical advances during the season, they are set to battle for 5th place in the constructors championship.

Their competitor for that place will be disappointed to have to fight that battle. Mercedes was envisioning race victories and hoping for a shot at the championship this season, but those hopes have not materialized. The German team seems to have taken a few wrong turns while developing the new car. The fact they had both drivers in the points in China shows they are not giving up, though. Rosberg has qualified in the top 10 in all races, demonstrating he is not willing to let Schumacher take predominance in the team. This could be the final nail in the coffin for the record champion’s career. I don’t see him continuing to drive in the shadow of his team mate past the end of the season.

Renault is another team that could be further up the standings were it not for stupid mistakes. One of those can be attributed to a driver, when Petrov tried to honour his surname of ‘Vyborg Rocket’ as well as the Soviet space program. Mistakes in qualifying strategy, when Nick Heidfeld was released for his fast lap behind a Virgin and a HRT, or he missed a lap because of a red flag caused by his team mate, can only be attributed to the team strategist. Petrov and Heidfeld both showed what Renault can do from a place in the front of the grid. Heidfeld now needs to align several good races to hush the last skeptics as to his competence as a team leader. Unfortunately, we will never know where Renault would be if Robert Kubica had not had his accident.

Ferrari has established themselves as the third force in the field. Sadly it is not what they aspired to, and neither is it what could be expected after the pre-season testing. Ferrari seems to have produced a reliable, reasonably fast car, but can not take the fight to the very top teams. Already the situation is alarming for the Maranello bosses who can’t again count on other teams to make mistakes, so they can have a go at the championship. Felipe Massa seems to have recovered from his lack of performance of last year and is willing to take the fight to Alonso for number one driver. He needs to get his qualifying performance on par with the Spaniard’s, though, the race pace seems to be there. If he gets that done, we could see some additional spectacle due to a frustrated Fernando Alonso who doesn’t like competition from inside the team.

McLaren on the opposite have made a stunning return after their disappointing pre-season performance. The two British former World Champions are still on pretty equal footing and competition inside the team doesn’t seem to bother them. The car is very fast, certainly supported by the Mercedes engine and a working KERS. There may be a problem with tyre wear, but that is one reason they have drivers with different styles. If Hamilton can’t make his tyres last to the end of the race, Jenson Button will be there to collect the points.

Finally, Red Bull and especially Sebastian Vettel have shocked the competition in the qualifying for the Australian GP. Such a dominance could have us worried and fearful of a boring season, with the next champion known by the August break. But it seems Adrian Newey, being a genius in aerodynamics, doesn’t give quite the same importance to other aspects of the car, such as the implementation of KERS. The Austrian team could get away without the system in the first race, and just snatch the victory with it functioning part-time in the second, but the results in China have shown that they can’t stay ahead durably if they can’t fix it. From difficult qualifying to disadvantages at the start, in addition to being sitting ducks when their competitors can use KERS and DRS simultaneously, it is too much of a handicap. Let us hope for them that they can fix it without taking losses in aerodynamics. Sebastian Vettel has shown a race can be won with malfunctioning KERS, as he has matured a lot since his many mistakes at the beginning of last year. This made Mark Webber look badly beaten in the first races, but his great performance getting through the field after the disastrous Chinese qualifying has made up for much, and those who saw him replaced during the season have had to revise their copy. The real question is whether the Aussie is capable of challenging Vettel for the team leader position. It will be more difficult than last season.

That’s it for now, as the season will see a new start with the arrival of F1 in Europe. Hopefully the races will all be as exciting as in Shanghai. As usual, please feel free to comment.

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Formula One 2011 – an assessment of the bottom teams after three races

So we have now seen the first three races of the new Formula One season. Sure, it’s still really not much, and many things can and will change in the next races when F1 comes back to Europe. Still, there is enough material for a first analysis of the teams and drivers.

Starting from the back of the standings, the first team is HRT. The only positive thing that can be said about them is they are steadily improving. From a non-qualification, through a double retirement, to a double finish is a feat in a way. Seeing them not too far from Virgin is a surprise, too, but doesn’t tell as much about HRT as about Virgin. No surprise as to the drivers, Liuzzi is much faster than Karthikeyan. It remains to be seen if the Spanish team can bring improvements to Turkey, as will all other teams, and how long sponsors will be willing to pay to make up the rear of the field, a few laps down.

Virgin, then, is seeing HRT just behind them. As Team Lotus on the other hand has increased their advance, we can say that the Russian-backed team has not been advancing as they should have and wanted to. With someone as used to success as Richard Branson, it is doubtful this situation will be tolerated for long. Nick Wirth will have to abandon his CFD-only approach or take it to another team. Young Belgian Jerôme d’Ambrosio has been holding his head up against Glock, even beating him in the Chinese qualifying as well as the race. It will not be enough to secure a spot on the grid for many years, but it is a good start.

It comes as a bit of a surprise to see Williams as the next team on the way up the standings. Double retirements in the first two races of the year has not help their classification, and it seems the reliability is a major issue with the team that recently went through an IPO. As a result of poor performance, the share has already lost a third of its value. There seems to be more value in the long-term performance of F1 veteran Rubens Barrichello, who is clear ahead of the second GP2 winner in a row. Maldonado will have to step up his game if the Petro-Bolivars are to keep flowing, instead of going to help the careers of young Venezualian drivers in North American racing. Losing out to Team Lotus simply won’t do.

Speaking of Team Lotus, the Malasian team has made true on their ambition to catch up with the back of the mid-field. After some tyre warming difficulties in Australia, their performance in the last 2 races has meant that established teams can not any more expect to make mistakes and still be ahead of them. While some would have expected them to be more competitive now that they race with Red Bull parts and a Renault engine, they are still only 18 months old, as Tony Fernandes keeps repeating on Twitter. Meanwhile, Kovalainen clearly has the lead over Trulli, who makes it appear like he is slowly letting F1 his career come to an end. Maybe this lack of future ambition will make it easier for him to give over his car to Karun Chandhok for the Indian Grand Prix.

After the first race, Toro Rosso looked like they would be able to take the fight to the likes of Mercedes, perhaps even Renault and Ferrari. This hope has been crushed by disastrous performances in Malaysia and China. The pressure put on the drivers seems to only make them nervous, crashing into each other and hoping the team mate trips, instead of getting them to help each other keep their seats until the end of the season. This bad atmosphere seems to hold on the entire team, with badly set-up cars and lost wheel nuts. Buemi currently has a slight advantage over Alguersuari, but it could change within one race.

Force India is the home of the rookie I have the most hope for, as elaborated upon in a previous post. And up to now, Paul Di Resta has delivered. With a 3:0 in qualifying battles and even a top 10 qualifying in China, the Scot is shaking Sutil out of the complacency that was enough to beat Liuzzi last year. And the rookie has confirmed his performance in the race by making points on two occasions, finishing 11th the third time. While the car Force India has given his drivers seems no more (but also no less) than adequate, the German has to show an improvement soon, as Vijay Mallya is not known for his patience and Nico Hülkenberg is waiting in the wings for a chance racing again.

That’s it for the second half of the standings, next post will detail performances and driver comparisons for the (current) top 6 teams. As always, comments are very welcome.

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Where are the Italian Formula One hopefuls?

In the history of Formula One, few nations have been as influential as the Italians. Imola, Monza, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Minardi, Maserati (but also Life, Forti), Ascari, Farina, Alboreto, Patrese, de Angelis, Bandini, even Fisichella and Trulli, all these are names that have put their mark in the history of the sport.

While Imola has been removed from the calendar in F1’s worldwide expansion scheme, Monza still holds the Italian colours high for circuits. Ferrari is still there, and still at the top, while Toro Rosso has replaced Minardi. But where are the drivers? In all of Formula One history, Italy has had the second or third most drivers in the sports (depending if one considers the USA with a lot of drivers who only took part in the Indy 500, which was part of the F1 calendar back in the 1950’s).

The two Italian drivers currently present on the grid are certainly not the future of Italian Formula One. Trulli is past his prime and has a horde of Team Lotus Juniors (Chandhok, Razia, Valsecchi, Teixeira) knocking at Fernandes’ door to take over his cockpit. He has been consistently outperformed by his team mate last year and the chances of that changing this season are small, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he announced his retirement for the end of the season.

Liuzzi is not any more the up and coming young driver he once was. At nearly 30 years, his main accomplishment since the 2004 Formula 3000 championship is that he was booted out of two teams to make place for other drivers. Given HRT’s track record, he will be lucky to drive all races this season, and I don’t see him finding a seat in a top or even middle-tier team any more.

So the hopes of Italy to again have a winning driver in Formula One, and perhaps find similar success as in the beginnings of F1, when 3 or more Italian drivers were able to win, rely on finding worthy drivers coming up the ranks. Unfortunately, a quick survey of the main feeder series doesn’t show many Italians.

Sure, many promising drivers have Italian-sounding names, but they all drive for other countries. Jules Bianchi is French (and his grand-father and grand-uncle Mauro and Lucien were racing as Belgians), Daniel Ricciardo is Australian, Alexander Rossi from the USA, and Coletti and Richelmi are Monegasque. The same holds true for two of this years F1 rookies, di Resta (UK) and d’Ambrosio (Belgium). If it sounds like Italian exports do quite well in motorsports, this is nothing new. Fangio’s parents were Italians, as was Emerson Fittipaldi’s grandfather, and of course Mario Andretti was born in Italy.

The ‘real’ Italian newcomers, though, are few and far between.  In GP2, there are only two drivers under an Italian licence. One is Juliàn Leal, of whom I am not sure why he doesn’t race under the flag of his home country Columbia. He has not impressed in his two years of WSR3.5, or in his recent GP2 Asia participation. I don’t know if he will ever make it into F1, but certainly not anytime soon.

Davide Valsecchi has an interesting background in that he made it into GP2 despite winning only one race in his 5 years of lower series up to that point. He has taken a few wins in his 3 years of GP2, in particular 3 on his way to a dominating performance in the 2009-10 GP2 Asia championship. Still, he is now in his 4th GP2 year, and it doesn’t seem like his Team AirAsia can give him a top car. It will be tough for him to find a place in F1, his only chance might be in replacing an ill Lotus driver this year and showing a remarkable performance in the style of Kamui Kobayashi.

The situation is even worse in WSR3.5, where no Italian driver is currently announced. While this could be changed, as Italian team Target Racing has not yet nominated their drivers but has been running Daniel Zampieri at test sessions. The driver has not impressed either in the tests or in his rookie season last year.

In Formula 2, we see only Austrian-Italian Mirko Bortolotti, who is best known for being dropped by both the Red Bull Junior Team and the Ferrari Driver Academy. He rejoins Formula 2 after a disastrous year in GP3. He needs to win this championship if he wants to even have a chance at a GP2 drive next year.

Even GP3 has only 2 Italians entered in the 2011 season. Vittorio Ghirelli was last of the regular drivers in the series last year. This might be justified by the fact that going straight from karting into GP3 is too big a step, and we will have to see how he does this year. Andrea Caldarelli is new in the series, stepping up after finishing 3rd in the Italian F3 championship.

So there won’t be any new Italian F1 driver under normal circumstances in at least the next 3 to 5 years. What has Italy done wrong? Well certainly the promotion of young talents from a young age seems to be lacking. Ferrari can not be made the culprit there, they gave Italian drivers their chance in their Academy, but they did not take it, so the Scuderia went looking all the way to Canada to find a worthy 12-year old.

Italian Formula 3 has lost out to the British and the Euro series and don’t seem to attract as many international young talents as they did in the past. The competition in the series is not high enough for even the champions to hold their ground on the international level.

I believe it is the role of Ferrari to take Italian drivers the last step to the top categories, but there is a need for more work by the Italian federation on the lower levels. They have been content with the situation, blinded by the successes of the Italian Auto Sport Commission, and not seeing that only 4 GP wins for Italian drivers in the 2000’s are not enough to generate the necessary enthusiasm among the youth.

If nothing is done, Italy can only hope one of those few talents comes unexpectedly and causes a boom similar to what Schumacher did for Germany in the 1990’s, making it the nation with most drivers on the grid in 2011 and paving the way for future champions.

What do you think, did I miss a young Italian talent ready to explode on the international motorsports scene? Or did I misjudge one of the drivers mentioned? Or do you just disagree with my views on the reasons and possible solutions? Let me know in the comments!

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Formula One and the 107% rule

The 107% rule has been reinstated for the 2011 Formula One season. For those who don’t know, this rule excludes all cars from racing that could not reach a fast enough time in qualifying. The limit is defined by adding 7 percent to the time of the fastest car in the first part of qualifying, hence 107% rule. Taking the fastest time in the first part of quali insures all cars and drivers have the same conditions, or at least the chance to have those. In fact the top time is normally done by one of the leading cars who are not in that phase on the fastest tyres yet.  This leads to cars being qualified although they have set a time slower than 107% of the pole position time.

In exceptional circumstances, the rule can be relaxed to let drivers take part in the race, although they have not lapped fast enough in qualifying. These circumstances include climatic changes, for example if a driver sets a time during rain, but is subsequently unable to improve it in dry conditions because his car breaks down. Other exceptions are at the discretion of the race stewards, but the driver should have demonstrated his ability to reach the time limit, for instance by beating it in free practice.

The rule made two victims in the first race of the year already. It wasn’t a big surprise to anyone, except maybe the team’s sponsors, that the HRT drivers were not able to lap fast enough to enter the race. There is simply no way a new car can make the grid without having done a single lap in testing and only very few laps in practice. In fact, the same fate would have met the team in 2010, had the 107% rule already been in force then.

Vitantonio Liuzzi joined quite of few of his countrymen on the list of drivers evicted from the race because they were too slow. This is due partly to the Italian team Forti, who was one of the reasons the rule was instated in the first place. It had 4 double non-qualifications out of 10 races it participated in before folding. One of its drivers was Luca Badoer, who has the dubious honour of being one of only two drivers to fail to qualify with two different teams. Of course Badoer’s career was spent mostly with teams that fill up the end of the grid (or a good team with a bad car). The second team with which he failed to qualify is Minardi, now racing as Scuderia Toro Rosso. This is the team which accounts for a third of the drivers failing to reach the 107%.

At least the HRT drivers can comfort themselves by the names of a few other victims of the 107% rule. Names such as Fernando Alonso, who went on to become double World Champion with Renault, or Damon Hill, whose World Championship was already 3 years past at the time, are not those we expect to find in such a list.

Of course, the full 3 seconds that Karthikeyan was off the mark have not been reached under normal circumstances since the MasterCard Lola debacle. That team took part in only one qualifying (interestingly also in Melbourne), failed to qualify and folded before the next race.

While I doubt HRT will fold before the Grand Prix of Malaysia, failing to qualify for one or two more races will certainly disappoint the few sponsors the team has. And with its home Grand Prix approaching, Tata Group will surely reassess its engagement before risking the national shame of seeing the sole Indian driver fail to qualify for the Indian Grand Prix.

What do you think, is the 107% rule legitimate? And will HRT continue to fail qualifying? Let me know in the comments.

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