Wednesday, February 21, 2007

What about McLaren?

We are less than a month away from the beginning of the 2007 Formula One Season. Still, I doubt anyone can be sure where McLaren stands.

Although the team finished 3rd on the 2006 championship, it did not show much speed and did not win any races. After what can be called a bad season, there are many changes to McLaren. The most noticeable is that the race driver line-up has changed. Current F1 champion Fernando Alonso and current GP2 champion Lewis Hamilton will take the responsibility of changing the team’s fate.

Although Kimi Raikkonen is gone, I believe that McLaren did not lose anything. Alonso is a great driver who can drive fast and win when possible. But he can also save the car and get points when the situation allows. Some say that he is the same ‘breed’ as the ’72 and ’74 title winner Emerson Fittipaldi. In my opinion, Raikkonen and Alonso are equally balanced, but the fact that Alonso has proven that he can be a champion makes him the best option for McLaren. If they don’t win races in 2007, everyone can be sure the problem is not the driver.

Team principal Ron Dennis has shown an aggressive attitude – which I applaud – by giving the second race seat to young Hamilton. So what that he is 22 years old? He is fast and very, very smart. I am sure he will learn what takes to fight for the world championship pretty quickly. Having Alonso by his side will remove some of the pressure from his shoulders and he may even win a race or two.

All this can only be true if McLaren has a winning car, though. That is a big ‘if’. Some of the changes on the team involve the departure of many engineers and technicians. Many have gone to RBR, including former lead engineer Adrian Newey. I think that the 2006 bad results were already a reflex of Newey’s departure in the beginning of last season. Although he had designed the car in 2005, he was not there to get that extra speed that comes with engineering improvements after the testing sessions or the races. If the current engineering body cannot improve on a design they did not make, how good are they to make a new car and keep improving it?

There is also the engine question. The Mercedes-Benz engine seemed reliable. Of 36 race starts – 2 cars, 18 races – the McLaren cars did not finish 11. That is not a good number. But if we breakdown by category, we get: 6 accidents, 2 engine failures, 1 electrical failure, 1 fuel pump failure, and 1 heat shield fire. In today’s F1, teams usually report engine failure as something else, unless it comes with a gigantic puff of smoke. This is done to protect the image of the engine’s brand. In the worst case scenario, even if we add up the electrical and fuel pump failures to the engine category, we get 4 engine failures. This is not perfect, but not that bad.

The problem was that McLaren could not match Ferrari and Renault in terms of speed, especially during races. Sometimes even BMW was ahead of them -as they seem to be during the 2007 pre-season testing. Since they showed some speed during qualifying, maybe the engine did have enough power, but they could not use 100% during the races, in order to avoid braking down. If this is the case, the new 19,000 rpm limit for 2007 will help them. But again we are speaking of too many ‘maybes’ and ‘ifs’...

To sum up, McLaren needs to overcome 3 big issues to become number 1 again: 1) new drivers getting used to the car, 2) car design and improvement under new responsibility, 3) lack of engine power during races. I do not think they can overcome them all. I think they will lose the constructor’s championship to Ferrari. The fight with Renault and BMW will also be very close. So they may end up anywhere between 2nd and 4th.

As for the driver’s championship, I do not think Alonso will make it as well. He will certainly score a lot of points. Hamilton will probably make many rookie mistakes, so Alonso will win this battle. At this time, though, it seems not possible for him to finish better than both Ferrari drivers: Massa and Raikkonen. Maybe one of them, but not both.

Still, if I knew what was going on with McLaren, I would change the title of this post.

--Andre N.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Inheriting the King’s Seat – Heikki Kovalainen

The King is gone. Since this a Formula One blog, the first thing that comes to your mind is probably the fact that Schumacher has retired. This is not referring to Schumacher, as he is more than a king; he is an entity to say the least.

Let’s define ‘king’ first. One who is very powerful indeed, considered as the leader of a given group of people. Although Schumacher is one of the greatest – if not the greatest – F-1 drivers of all time, he was not the ultimate leader of the 2006 championship. That was Alonso. He is currently the King of F-1. He is the man to beat.

In one aspect, the world of F-1 is more complex than any kingdom we have heard of, in reality or fiction. No king would ever give away all his knights to somebody else. Alonso has left a seat at the mighty Renault open for Heikki Kovalainen to fill. No war was necessary, he simply left.

Is Kovalainen worthy of taking the King’s seat? He certainly is a great driver. If we consider the drivers who have driven an F-1 car but have not yet won a race, he is up there with the top drivers of the new generation: Lewis Hamilton, Nelson Piquet Jr., Sebastian Vettel, Robert Kubica, and Nico Rosberg.

Some may say he is a more complete driver than Nico Rosberg. I am one of them. When Kovalainen lost the 2005 GP2 championship to Rosberg, you could not tell by the final results how many great races he had. If you only read the final standings, you will see no mention of the epic race at the Nürburgring, in which he won after starting 17th on the grid. Or about his ability to be constantly fast while conserving tyres, which allowed his team to define many race winning tactics that no one else would dare to risk – Something similar to what Ross Brawn used to design for Schumacher.

I also have to point out that Nico Rosberg only won the title in the final four races. And the last two were wins, in Bahrain. They were a clear example of the great track engineers ART Grand Prix (Rosberg’s team) had for that season. I am not saying that Nico Rosberg is not a great driver – he is on my list two paragraphs above. But ART found something in their setup that no one else found. It was clear that both their drivers – Rosberg and Alexandre Prémat - had that extra edge on speed, especially on the second part of the season. That made Rosberg’s job a little easier.

Kovalainen is much more than the driver who was the 2005 GP2 runner-up. As in many professions today, a racing driver’s résumé must contain much more than the ability to perform on the track. The driver must know how to work in – and for – a team. He must communicate well with the people around him, making sure he gets what is needed to be faster. He must adapt his driving style to the circumstances. He must admit his own mistakes. This is the greatest thing about the Renault Driver Development programme, of which Kovalainen is part of since 2002. It teaches young kids what it takes to be a racing driver outside the car. Kovalainen is its best alumnus to date.

As a Renault F-1 test driver in 2006, Kovalainen has not only been constantly fast, but also confirmed his potential to fit within the team. This is the main reason why all title hopes for Renault in 2007 rely on him. This is not an exaggeration. If Fisichella were the main driver for 2007, even Flavio Briattore would bet all his money on Ferrari. They would not even need Raikkonen, Massa alone could handle the task as he has already beaten him in 2006. Renault believes in Kovalainen. So do I.

Heikki Kovalainen is not the King of F-1 yet, but chances are he will be one day.

--Andre N.

Welcome to Formula One Monday!

Welcome! Formula One Monday is a blog just as simple as its name. The subject is Formula One and I will post after each race on Sunday, so that on Monday there is something new to read.

I may also post on any other day of the week, especially during the off-season or weeks without races. So check out this blog any day you want for new posts, and be sure that there will be posts every Monday after the races!

The idea is to post comments on what happened over the race weekend. I am tired of reading Formula One articles without a clear opinion about a driver or a team. Sometimes journalists write in a politically correct form, and in the process they forget to criticize or praise who deserves. Sometimes they simply cannot say bad things about a team sponsored by a company which pays a lot of money to advertise on his or her newspaper, magazine or website...

This is not the case of this blog. I am not a journalist. I am an auto racing fan. I like watching great drivers. I am also a mechanical engineer who works on the automotive industry. Therefore, I also like to see nicely engineered cars. Besides writing about what I like, this blog is about praising, criticizing, speculating, predicting, or analysing anything related to Formula One.

This blog will express my points of view and you may or may not agree with me! This is the fun about a blog, isn’t it? So feel free to add your own comments anytime you want!

--Andre N.