In the second part of this Summer Q&A with James Allen we will address questions including: F1 drivers, manufacturer engines, the thin end of the wedge opened up by the Halo, what would have happened if Mercedes had stuck with McLaren, SKY F1 and why the F1 teams didn’t take up the offer to buy shares in F1?
Brendan: “In the current climate (and realistically in the near future) is it possible for a non works team to win the championship? Was Ron Dennis right about this? Should Red Bull push for a Honda team up or really push to get the VW group involved? What would encourage more manufacturers to get involved in F1?”
Well, Brendan, in the current climate the answer is no. Clearly the change to hybrid turbo engines gave the manufacturer backed teams a real grip on the sport and only Red Bull, as a customer, has managed to win six races since 2014, with all their mighty resources.
However the next step will be interesting as the new F1 management is committed to improving the competition and simplifying the engines. This will be delicate and is all tied up with cost control measures and an attempt to attract an independent engine maker in, like we used to have with Cosworth. It’s a long way from where we are now to something like we had in the 70s, as well as at times in the 80s and 90s, but if the journey is carried out successfully then at that point it might be possible for a team to win a title with a non-works engine.
As for Red Bull, they were close to a deal with VW/Audi group before the US emissions scandal broke. Porsche is certainly looking closely at F1 and the political barriers to entry have gone now with Bernie Ecclestone no longer running F1. I would see them partnering with Red Bull as a common sense approach on both sides, especially given all the history of talks between the two groups and the fact that no other team could give them a chance to win straight away and Red Bull could get out of its Renault deal easily.
You have the younger drivers who are still developing, the mature ones who still have some areas they can improve on and then drivers like Raikkonen, who is having a better season because the Ferrari is a good car and the handling suits him better than in other years.
Carlos Sainz looks to be continuing on his linear progression, but I’d be looking at two drivers in particular: Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Ocon.
Bottas started slowly; he was quite a bit off Lewis Hamilton in race pace in testing and at the start of the season, but since late April he seems to have got a pretty good handle on a tricky Mercedes car. He still has the odd race like Bahrain and Hungary where his race pace isn’t quite there, but his qualifying performances have been strong and he certainly has proved to himself now that he can do it at the highest level. He just needs a bit more consistency of race pace.
Ocon has been a revelation when you consider that he is still basically a rookie. He did half a season with Manor last year (Spa was his debut) and from the outset of this season he has been right with Sergio Perez on qualifying and race pace. Perez has the edge; he’s scored more points and has qualified ahead, but the Mexican is also driving the best he has in F1 and these 2017 cars are not easy for inexperienced drivers. Ocon has also learned from mistakes he made early in the season.
I have a little tester I do in Montreal, where I go out to the first chicane in the woods and stand by the side of the corner entry. It’s a great place to show a driver’s commitment and technique and Ocon stood out there, as have other drivers who have gone on to do do great things.
I’m not saying he will do that, but he has shown me he has the talent and the commitment and from my conversations with him I see a sportsman who is here to learn and to improve. He’s in exactly the right team for that; with a car fast enough to be able to mix it in the Top ten and score points and with chief engineer Tom McCullogh to guide him, who is one of the very best guys for helping F1 drivers to understand what they are trying to do and for bringing them on.
And to answer Bob Dubery’s related question about how Force India evaluated Ocon and Pascal Wehlein , the answer is that they were able to give young driver day tests to both of them over 2015 and 2016 and saw more potential in Ocon. The simulators tell them something too, but in this case it was track days and debriefs in factory etc that told them which way to go.
Paul: “James, now that there’s no going back on the halo, do you see it as the start of a slippery slope? Maybe to fully enclosed canopies and maybe even enclosed wheels?
I have to say I’m no fan of the Halo. I understand the problem of drivers’ heads being exposed and I understand the FIA wanting to do something about it. They have a duty of care, they take it very seriously and I respect that.
In terms of the push-back, I guess it’s a but like the 1970s when Jackie Stewart was trying to bring in safety measures and the old guard all said he was soft and should just get on with it as motor racing has always been dangerous.
I don’t think my age has anything to do with my feelings; my two sons are teenagers and they both hate the Halo, as do their F1-following friends at school.
I’m sympathetic to the need to protect the driver but the Halo cuts the driver off from the fans and is pig ugly.
I’ve just made two films for the Motorsport Network, one on the legendary technical journalist Giorgio Piola and another on Amalgam Collection that makes those exquisite 1/8 scale models. I was thinking as I edited it, ‘How would an F1 car with a halo spoil how great this all looks?’ and the answer is ‘a lot’.
As for the second part of your question, I’ve learned over the years that in F1 everything matters and also that everything that gets introduced has unintended consequences. So yes, there is a risk that we will be starting down a certain pathway here.
F1HERO: James, given the high profile takeover of F1 by Liberty Media and the ongoing discussions with the teams about the sport’s future why haven’t any of the current F1 teams taken up the offer of shares in the business? It seems a little at odds with all the positive public statements made by both ‘sides’ regarding future mutual support and recognition of which direction the sport should be going i.e. fan engagement, engines, etc. Is there something else in the background that we don’t know about? Why would the teams turn down an opportunity to own and potentially profit from F1’s future?”
The new owners offered F1 teams the opportunity to buy discounted shares in its new parent company; the idea was to give teams added financial incentive to support the sport and to stay in it. Team owners were quite luke warm on the proposals and in particular were wary of the 10-year lock-up period for shareholdings.
While it would be good for stability to have the teams holding some shares, you must never get to a situation like with CART in the USA in the 1990s, where things became too democratic. Motorsport doesnt work unless you have a benevolent dictator, who acts in the best interests of the sport. Teams will always act out of self interest. Liberty have a very hard negotiation ahead with the top teams like Ferrari and Mercedes and it was perhaps ambitious to think that teams would undermine their own negotiating position by taking a shareholding with a 10 year lock up, which would mean that they couldn’t threaten to walk away if the deal on the table from F1 wasn’t right.
But one team principal told me it was also naive to believe that the hard-up midfield teams had the cash required to take up the offer. The share sale was taken more seriously by some teams, such as Williams, which are focussed solely on F1. But they didn’t have the money spare.
And as we have over 200 questions that have come in, here are some shorter answers..
Anand R: “Hello James, Do you think if the whole Spygate scandal in 2007 hadn’t occured, Mercedes would have not had a separate team – thereby making the McLaren-Mercedes combo the most potent team in 2014-onwards?
Possibly, the mess over the Spy scandal and the $100m fine certainly didn’t help the relationship. There was also tension over the road car programme, I believe. But I think what pushed Mercedes into doing it was the chance to buy Brawn in 2009, having slimmed down the workforce after Honda pulled out. It was in the teeth of the credit crunch and F1 had taken a reality pill (didn’t last long) and Norbert Haug persuaded the board that F1 could be done more cheaply in future.
Fulveo Ballabeo: “I think most fans who love the sport yearn to see beautiful open-wheel/open-cockpit F1 cars, that sound awesome, allow for racing/passing, and are a handful to drive (so we can see driver talent make a difference).
Instead we repeatedly get garbage like the Halo, tipped noses, shark fins, T-wings, vacuum-cleaner PU’s, and elimination qualifying. How can so many smart people, get it so wrong, so often, for so long?
That’s a great question and almost exactly the same wording that one of the top F1 team technical directors posed rhetorically, in a chat we had a couple of years back.
It’s a very long story but I think it has to do with the divide and rule methods of Bernie Ecclestone and some of the moves he made to stay at the centre of power in the last few years of his reign. The teams, as always, were disunited and the FIA didn’t want confrontation, playing the long game, which seems to be working out for them now with Liberty coming in.
That’s what F1 was, we now have new leaders, new thinking and a once in a generation chance to get it back on track with well considered rules, fairly applied. Let’s hope they take that chance.
Sarsippious: “James whats the magical number that Sky has to give you to be the face of their F1 coverage?”
Ha! I’m really happy with the plans I have with Motorsport Network, which is digital-first company that is building up a very strong position in this sport. I have a chance to play my part in shaping that and in pursuing the content production ideas I’m most interested in, as well as developing this blog on a global platform.
I still do some linear broadcasting, but I’ve commentated on over 300 Grands Prix for ITV and BBC with big audiences, so I don’t have a burning need to keep doing the same thing over and over again. I’m more fascinated by the challenge of the digital transformation of F1.
I have respect for the SKY team, of course including my old team mates Ted Kravitz and Martin Brundle, but I’m a little concerned about the backlash that will come when F1 goes exclusively behind a paywall in the UK and hope that Liberty can find a way to avoid disenfranchising millions of F1 fans here.
James will answer more burning questions from readers tomorrow