Welcome to your 2015 F1 Season: Your armchair guide to the good stuff

We’re off to the races again! Thank goodness. While the temperatures are still freezing in Eastern Canada in our imaginations we can bake in the sun at the Australian Grand Prix on the weekend. For those of you who haven’t been paying too much attention since I wrote my F1 season wrap-up in November, don’t worry! Click here for a refresher. I’ve cobbled together some of what I’m going to be looking out for in the first couple of races and during the season (on and off the track) There’s no shortage of gossip in Formula 1 so let’s get started.

What’s up with Fernando Alonso?

He is arguably the best driver in F1. Yet, the two-time champ has spent the last few years in cars that Lewis Hamilton would have flounced around the paddock declaring “undriveable.”

His return to McLaren with Jenson Button and the new Honda power unit were meant to herald the re-vitalization of the team. Then a seemingly unexplainable crash during pre-season testing at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya on February 22, the three days he spent in hospital and the decision that he would not drive in the season’s opening race, coupled with team principal Ron Dennis’s insistence, until yesterday, Alonso wasn’t concussed, has created an epic F1 mystery.

One dominant theory is that the car gave Alonso an electric shock, which rendered him unconscious prior to the incident. McLaren itself laid the blame on “gusty winds.” There’s a rumour that when Alonso came to after the incident, he thought it was 1995 and he was in karting. Yesterday Ron Dennis decried his own previous comments about Alonso not having a concussion, saying, “It was not the best performance by me.”

BBC TV race announcer, David Coulthard, is saying, “something doesn’t add up.” BBC Radio 5 F1 analyst, Jennie Gow said, “nobody is really buying it.”

Maybe he’s just tired of driving crummy cars. The consensus is that if Alonso also sits out the Malaysian Grand Prix, then something is really happening. It will be worth tuning into the practice (TSN5 on Friday 1:55 EST) and qualifying (TSN 1,2,3,4,5 on Saturday 1:55 EST) broadcasts just to get the most up to date theories and see if Ron Dennis’ mea culpa is believable.

Regardless– if, as Jennie Gow put it, “the [Honda] power unit is not yet talking to the car” is true, the likelihood of Jenson Button and Alonso’s replacement, Kevin Magnussen, even finishing the race is less than 50-50. Is it worth it for Alonso to fly all the way to Australia for that? Would you?

Who will be driving for Sauber?

Generally speaking, teams know who will be in the driver’s seats well before the first race of the season. Not so at Sauber. The team’s third driver in 2014, Geido van der Garde, is insisting that one of the 2015 seats belongs to him. And he’s telling it to the judge.

Apparently, van der Garde’s backers paid a “substantial” sum of money to Sauber in 2014 to have him as third driver last year so he’d graduate to a race seat in 2015. But Team Principal, Monisha Kaltenborn, got a couple of better offers when Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr “came on the scene with bigger sponsorship deals,” according to Motorsport magazine. And Sauber, a team clinging to this side of bankruptcy (See “Can we talk turkey?” below) by the thinnest of margins chose the drivers who brought the most money with them. No fair says van der Garde. A court in Switzerland agreed saying on Monday that failing to race van der Garde is “an intention to breach, if not an actual breach of the Award by the Respondent.”

As I am writing this, Sauber lost the appeal at the Australian court to whom van der Garde turned to for “enforcement” of the Swiss decision. If Sauber is “forced” to give up one of those more lucrative seats for van der Garde, Monisha Kaltenborn’s financial headache just got worse. Kaltenborn, a lawyer by trade, has said she always felt her legal grounds were strong. Maybe. There is the technicality of van der Garde needing to get his super license before the race—a technicality that just may prevent him from taking his lawful place in the car. In terms of finishing the race on Sunday, Sauber will be lucky indeed if they come in last and second last regardless of who is in the driver’s seat.

After winning the driver’s and constructor’s championship last year, what does Mercedes, with drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, have to say for itself?

We’re one second faster than everyone else.

Podium? High likelihood of a one-two finish. Some are saying they could possibly win every race on the 2015 calendar.

Can Ferrari really go from its worse year in 25 years to being a challenger in 2015, even with four-time champion Sebastian Vettel?

I’ve got to say, I think Sebastian Vettel looks good in red. His resting face doesn’t look so pouty when he’s wearing red. It’s definitely his colour—the blue drained him. Working in a challenging car will bring out the best in Sebastian Vettel. He’s a good communicator and able to articulate what’s going on inside the car for the mechanics and the engineers. It’s hard to imagine he’s still only 27 years old. And the car was fast in Jerez during testing, no doubt, the fastest three out of four days.

Yet, there are two big IFs with Ferrari. (IF being F1 backwards according to Murray Walker) One: Is the car reliable? Can it run fast for all the laps of the race? There’s no evidence to feel overconfident on that point. Two: Kimi Raikkonen. I know there’s a big contingent of fans who like the cold fish Finn vibe of Kimi. To me, since even before he had his back surgery, Kimi’s been out of sorts and while the presence of Vettel might light a fire under him for a little while, it will more than likely annoy him by the time they get to Barcelona in May. He’s burnt out on the politics of F1 and this year the politics and money talk are flying thick and fast.

Forget the podium, it would be a very big accomplishment, indeed, if both Ferraris finished. It would be great if they did.

And the plucky Force India?

Sadly after a great showing last year, Force India’s money woes delayed the production of their car and the drivers haven’t had much time in it. Somewhat inconsistent, Sergio Perez has shown flashes of brilliance. Nico Hülkenberg is an enjoyable driver to watch and did a great job for Force India last year. These guys are likely to get better as the season goes on. And they have the Mercedes power unit.

Will they finish on Sunday? Hopefully.

Lotus?

Struggling. Hoping to get in the top 10.

Will either Grosjean or Maldonado finish the race on Sunday? Probably not

Have you heard a peep from Williams?

No? Me either. They have been so quiet all winter—no distractions. You have to think that’s a good sign, right?

Finish the race? Yes. Possible podium? Yes

Is it just me or has Red Bull become a bit of a bore?

We have two Toro Rosso graduates, Daniel and Dany (Ricciardo and Kyvat) in the drivers’ seats, both good, even exciting drivers, but RB is carrying on like everything is so hard all the time, not winning is such a struggle. The real question I have for Red Bull is this: Will Christian Horner and Geri Halliwell’s relationship last the season?

The chattering classes were blown up in 2014 when Christian Horner (a handsome, if pre-occupied, team principal), took up with the former “Ginger” Spice six months after his partner of 14 years, Beverley Allen, had given birth to their first child together, Olivia. Little Olivia was born just after the 2013 Korean Grand Prix, but proud papa Horner didn’t make it home to see the baby until after the Japanese Grand Prix. The Halliwell-Horner’s engagement was announced in an advert they’d taken out in The Times just before the season ended in November 2014 although no date has been set for a wedding. According to the Daily Mail, Christian Horner’s parents, Gary and Sara, have said they are flat out not going to the wedding. Christian Horner co-founded the racing team Arden with his father, Gary, but according to The Mirror, “he has since resigned from the four directorships he shared with his dad – including Arden Motorsport Limited.” For her part, Geri Halliwell has something of a reputation for short “intense” relationships with high profile men. Click here for the full story on that.

Will Red Bull finish the race? Yes

Possible podium? Yes

Christian and Geri? No comment

What’s happened to Marussia?

A new team has been formed in the place of Marussia and re-named Manor Grand Prix. Gone is the Russian investor. In comes Stephen Fitzpatrick a 37-year-old energy executive from Northern Ireland who is a huge F1 fan and spent $39 million to basically jump the fence and hang out with the people inside the paddock. He will be fun to watch. The Manor cars, however, haven’t run since the Russian Grand Prix last October and they may not be ready to be on the grid because of software problems. They’ve signed Roberto Merhi and Will Stevens as drivers for this season. Marussia owes 39 creditors a combined $48.5 million, including $9.6 to McLaren for providing wind tunnel and simulator services according to Forbes magazine.

Will they start in Melbourne? Very iffy

Will they finish? Unlikely

 How is Jules Bianchi doing?

I’m sorry to say that Jules is not doing great. There has been no change in his condition in the past five months. He is still in a coma and his father says it’s difficult for the family because they could get a “terrible call” from the hospital at any moment. The FIA has concluded its investigation. Click here to read it. According to Autoweek, the Bianchi family has hired a lawyer and is considering a taking legal action against those responsible for the race in Suzuka. So sad.

 

Are there any new women if F1 this year?

In February, Lotus announced they were hiring a new female development driver, Carmen Jorda, a Spaniard who has competed in GP3 for ten years but has never won much of anything. You’re not likely to hear anything good about Carmen Jorda (Click here for background.) who has been accused of “buying a ride” with her sponsorship and good looks. Jorda’s former GP3 teammate, Rob Cregan, was less than chivalrous in his congratulations.

On Twitter he announced,

“Carmen Jorda couldn’t develop a roll of film let alone a hybrid F1 car.”

 Tsk. Tsk.

Danica Patrick’s fellow drivers used to talk trash about her all the time too even though she was a successful mid-pack driver who led the Indy 500 and came 4th in that iconic race because she lost places on account of a conservative fuel strategy. Frankly, no one, with the exception of Dario Franchetti maybe, did more to get bums in the grandstands of that bedraggled Champ Car Series than she did. No wonder she buggered off to NASCAR.

But perhaps we can think about all that when reflecting on the fact that, when Russian business man Andrei Cheglakov pulled out of Marussia, the team was still receiving the $10.5 million they had been getting annually from Grahame Chilton, the former chairman of British reinsurer Aon Benfield and father of Marussia driver, Max Chilton.

 

Can we talk turkey?

I’ve saved the best for last (and I’m only half kidding!). We need to talk about money because, generally speaking, when a race season starts, the money talk gets dialed down. But this year is different for a couple of reasons. The action on the track is going to be fairly predictable and F1 is awash with more money than ever before in its history. Hopefully having a few basics in your back pocket will prevent you from being bored out of your mind and contribute to the substance of your F1 race fan chatter.

Despite the whopping revenues made by the conglomerate of F1 owners in the past few years, the costs of fielding a team, which are born by the team, have gone through the roof and Bernie Ecclestone is worried. You need teams to have a series. The bigger teams (Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari) can afford to spend the money. The smaller teams can’t. Two teams—Catherham and Marussia faced bankruptcy in 2014. Catherham didn’t make it. Marussia (now Manor Grand Prix) was saved by white knight, Stephen Fitzpatrick. With Bernie Ecclestone’s support, an F1 strategy group presented cost control regulations to make F1 more affordable for smaller teams. But the big guys didn’t buy into it although in recent days Christian Horner has made the suggestion to save money by abolishing wind tunnel testing. As of this moment no one is agreeing with him (or is it that it’s hard to take Christian Horner seriously anymore?)

To help ease the situation, three teams—Sauber, Lotus and Force India—were given $10 million advances against their prize money. Don’t worry. It wasn’t because Bernie’s heart grew two sizes. It was because F1 promises a grid minimum to promoters. Bernie – the face of the F1 conglomerate – has to make sure at least 10 teams show up.

Here’s some basic points of F1 financing that come from Forbes magazine’s Christian Sylt, author of Formula Money.

  •  Developing nations are lining up to tap into the power of F1 to boost tourism revenue. Argentina, Hong Kong, Poland, South Africa, Thailand, Greece are said to be on the waiting list.
  •  The current host fee for a race is more than $60 million, up from $15.7 million in the past 10 years. The average host fee is $27 million. Older races pay less. Montreal pays $18 million to host, for example, while newcomers like Abu Dhabi pay $66 million.
  •  Here is a breakdown of where F1 got its revenue in 2013:

Total Revenue

$1,550,000,000

Trackside Ads + sponsorship

$232,500,000

15%

Corporate hospitality, F1 Junior series (GP2 and GP3)

$310,000,000

20%

Broadcasting rights

$496,000,000

32%

Host racing fees

$511,500,000

33%

  •  The average annual team budget is $211 million. Some teams have a $100 million budget. Some have $400 million.
  •  The amount of prize money divided between all teams by a pre-set formula was $750 million in 2013.
  •  The television viewership of F1 racing was 425 million in 2014, down 25 million because of the introduction of pay per view television. Sponsors are not worried. Pay per view has delivered them the committed fans, the ones they want to reach.
  •  F1 is the most watched annual sporting event in the world.
  •  F1 revenues are growing by 15% a year.

There are many layers to an F1 season—the derring-do of the race driver, the competence of his legal team, their lives behind the scenes, the business of the sport and, of course, the race on the track during which all those other things fade to the background. For the fan, it’s tons of fun whatever way you look at it.

I’ll be live blogging from the Canadian Grand Prix in June 5, 6, 7—my first time doing a blog during a live race weekend. I’ll give you lots of notice and keep you posted!

Here’s to a safe season.

 

Author Photo 01 Sandy Tam PhotographyGail Picco is a strategist who has worked in the nonprofit sector for 25 years. She is the author of What the Enemy Thinks, a recent novel set in the nonprofit sector, and is Chair of the Board of the Regent Park Film Festival. She also writes about baseball and F1 racing.

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