14 September 2018

Thoughts from Singapore

Singapore is the start each year of what feels like the home stretch in Formula 1, although it's quite a long stretch, with some pretty serious hemisphere-leaping coming up. For the next nine weeks we will jumping on and off planes, hurdling through the time zones, covering the last seven races, the final third of the World Championship.

It is always exciting at this time of year because the World Championship is up for grabs and this year's title fight is more interesting than most years, with Ferrari having made a pig's ear of a very fast car in recent weeks, allowing Lewis Hamilton to scratch out a lead which he hopes to hang on to as we go into the autumn.

Lewis is driving brilliantly at the moment and I suspect that some of his performances this year will, in time, become a major part of the Hamilton legend. He is winning races that he ought not be winning, which is the sign of a truly great champion. Sebastian Vettel, on the other hand, seems to be a little destablised by the political goings-on at Ferrari, where the sands have shifted significantly in recent months, opening the way for the arrival of Charles Leclerc, and the end of Vettel's comfortable world with Kimi Raikkonen as his wing man.

Raikkonen will growl at such a description, but it is hard to view it otherwise, as when he is on the pace, the team has played strategic games that have always aided Vettel, hardly surprising when one considers the results and the unhealthy atmosphere that seems to be a part of the Ferrari experience. The team seems to be one that is ruled by fear, its bizarre strategy towards the media having been devised to try to stop the paranoia getting out of control. But Ferrari has almost always been a team that has made its own life difficult with its fear of being judged not good enough for Italy.

Ironically, the most success in the modern era came when Maranello was run by foreigners, who ring-fenced the team and allowed it to operate in a more relaxed atmosphere - and it thrived. Jean Todt may have his faults, but he understood what was needed at Ferrari and he implemented a system that allowed the team to win and lose without fearing the headlines of Gazzetta dello Sport every day. It is this volatility that has been the Achilles Heel of the prancing horse down through the ages, but trying to pretend that the media is not there is not the answer and one can only hope that now that the menacing presence of the jovial but stiletto-yielding Sergio Marchionne has gone away that Maurizio Arrivabene will finally allow the team to breathe, without feeling the need to look over its shoulder. The media is not the enemy, the enemy is fear.

Over at Mercedes the culture is very different. They understand that mistakes get made and they embrace the mistakes and try to learn from them. The recent mea culpa of strategist James Vowles live on global TV was an indication of why Mercedes is a stronger team, because people can admit mistakes without fear of being drop-kicked out of the door...

In any case, all of this has created a fascinating situation and things will be even more interesting now that Raikkonen is no longer in a position where he must play the role of domestique to Vettel. Sebastian already knows that he must step up to the mark and must not make any more mistakes. The pressure is on. Pressure, of course, is what you make of it, but with Charles Leclerc moving into Ferrari next year, Vettel must know that he is now being hunted down by men 10 years his junior. When Fernando Alonso is gone and Raikkonen is shunted into the sidings at Sauber, Lewis Hamilton becomes the oldest man in a top car, with Vettel not far behind. The latest picks from the F1 tombola have seen Leclerc moving to Ferrari, and his mate Pierre Gasly to Red Bull. They have been fortunate that seats have opened up for them when they needed them.

I am a little concerned that the third of the Francophone gang of rising stars - Esteban Ocon - is facing a future without an F1 drive in 2019. One can rant and rage about the unfairness of the situation and how Ocon's path has been blighted by the money of the Stroll Family (and it is a fair argument), which means that Esteban will lose his Force India (Racing Point, if you prefer) drive at the end of the year, to make way for the far less convincing Lance Stroll. This is not to say that Stroll Jr does not have talent. Clearly, he does have enough ability to be in Formula 1, but he has never been marked out as a special talent, which Esteban clearly is.

I feel a little the same for Stoffel Vandoorne, who has shown throughout his career that he has ability beyond the norm. And yet he has been cast aside by McLaren, despite doing a decent job when measured against Fernando Alonso, who is in the pantheon of F1 stars through the ages in terms of talent, if not in results and career decisions. Vandoorne was obviously not comfortable in the McLaren environment (not an easy place to operate at the moment) and with the team management clearly motivated to bring on young Lando Norris (a clear talent as well), Stoffel found himself backed up against the door marked "sortie" and is unlikely to find a slot next year. In part this is due to the flood of money, with drives being snaffled up by men with moderate talent but great backing, and in part because signing up to be a member of a junior team can be a restriction as much as it is an advantage.

If Ocon was not a Mercedes driver, he would be a good recruit for any of the mid-ranking teams. Mercedes and Renault were happy to work out his future between themselves but then the French marque was faced with the unexpected arrival of Daniel Ricciardo, an established winner, and there was no real choice but to sign him, leaving Ocon in the lurch. Being in the right place at the right time might be a question of positioning, but it is largely due to luck and, on this occasion, Esteban was out of luck.

The ultimate irony in all this is that Red Bull is scratching around for drivers for Scuderia Toro Rosso and looks like going into 2019 with two picks (we know not who as yet) who have already had their chances and have not made the most of them. Red Bull will not pick Ocon because he is a Mercedes driver. Are they likely to pick up Vandoorne? No, probably not.

We will see whether or not Haas will decide to stay with its current two drivers but there seems little reason to change, as long as Romain Grosjean stays away from the walls. Sauber must decide (if that decision is not already made) who to have alongside Kimi Raikkonen next year. The Swedish owner is there because of his support for Marcus Ericsson. He says the two are different projects, but without one the other would not have happened and so to drop Ericsson and keep the team makes very little sense. Did Kimi get some shares as part of the deal? Possibly, but shares are not always a good thing - if you cannot get the budgets you require and shareholders have to stump up cash.

The major focus, however, will be on Williams. The team has a wonderful history - but it is just that. It has a Mercedes engine and is at the back of the F1 grid. Things must change and taking on pay-drivers is not the right answer. That is a slippery slope. The reverse the situation you need a good car and great drivers. To have a good car you need money, but as Haas has proved, you can buy in a lot of performance if you don't encumber yourself with the belief that you should be a constructor. Right now, Williams needs to buy in as much Mercedes technology as possible, and rebuild. Once that has been achieved then the team can go back to building its own transmissions and so on, but in the interim I see no choice other than a closer alliance with Mercedes. And if that involves taking on two good young Mercedes drivers then so it must be. You cannot complain if you are getting Ocon and George Russell and a bunch of technology. This has got to be a better option than Sirotkins and Markelovs. There is an argument that the Russians will provide more money, but if Williams was performing as Williams should be performing then the prize money will more than make up for it. And, of course, there will need to be money from the Strolls to purchase Lance's freedom from his Williams contract. Normally these things are for five years and Lance has done only two, so the pay-off will need to be well into the double-digit millions.

It would be pleasant irony if this money was to open the way for Ocon to continue on his upward path and to give Russell the chance to get into F1 and give British fans another rising star to cheer.

Money talks louder than logic but when logic and lucre are aligned it is hard to argue against them.

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Raikkonen, Leclerc and the implications »

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