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Shanghai Qualifying

The qualifying sessions for the Chinese Grand Prix have confirmed what we already knew: Michelin’s wet tire has an advantage over Bridgestone’s. With the track very wet from the start and then drying slowly and in patches, the Bridgestone runners were in trouble. Of them all, only Michael Schumacher managed to squeeze into Q3.

He then put the Ferrari into sixth spot on the grid, almost a superhuman feat, given the disadvantage of the tires. Whatever we think of him as a man, there is no doubting his driving skills.

Alonso

Alonso in the wet

It was Michelin’s day, however, and they made the best of it. The Renaults were the class of the field, easily grabbing the front row, Alonso on pole. Perhaps surprisingly, the Hondas were next up with Barrichello third and Button fourth. Their times were identical but the Brazilian set his before Jenson and so goes ahead.

Then came the McLarens, sandwiching Michael. Raikkonen did very little running until Q3, perhaps confident that he could get the time when he needed it. And, although Pedro de la Rosa spun his McLaren into some elegant manouvers off-track, he will be sufficiently close to his teammate to support him in the race.

The BMW Saubers were next up, Heidfeld ahead of Kubica, and tenth spot was claimed by Robert Doornbos – an excellent effort for his first race for Red Bull.

Now thoughts turn to the race, of course, and that means the weather. The meteorologists seem a little confused and some are predicting dry conditions, others opt for rain. All we can say for sure is that, if it rains, the Renaults will win. If it turns out dry, they will still be in with a very good chance but Michael and Kimi are not likely to make it easy for them.

Highlight of qualifying? That has to be Scott Speed in his Toro Rosso – for a few minutes it looked as though he would make it into Q3. And his time in Q2 would have put him in seventh spot, had he been able to repeat it. As it is, he starts from eleventh – not a bad effort at all.

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BMW and Young Drivers

At the Friday Press Conference for the Shanghai Grand Prix, some of the team managers were in the spotlight. Amongst these was Mario Theissen of BMW Sauber and he gave some interesting insights into BMW’s policy on selecting young drivers.

Theissen

BMW Sauber’s Mario Theissen

Q: Mario, we’ve seen you use young drivers this year to remarkable effect: obviously Robert Kubica but also latterly Sebastian Vettel as well. What is BMW’s policy regarding young drivers? You have a staircase of talent with Formula BMW, tell us your policy.

Mario THEISSEN: Well, the general policy with our entire Formula One project is to groom the team in-house rather than take on people from the outside. Obviously, if you want to ramp up (your personnel) by 150 people in one and a half years you have to take on people from the outside, but wherever possible, we take young people on the engineering side as well as on the driving side and develop them on our own. On the drivers’ side, there is a particular resource with Formula BMW. Guys go there at the age of 15 or 16 so we have quite a close relationship, get a very good idea of what they are capable of, and then we have them on our screen as they go up through the other formulae, so I think it’s quite a successful approach to watch young drivers and to evaluate them. That led us to taking on Sebastian Vettel which certainly is extraordinary for a 19-year old guy. Generally, I’m not proposing to take on younger and younger drivers into Formula One but in the case of Sebastian, we thought he’s there, he’s ready to take the job and apparently he’s proved that. If you are successful doing so, I think it’s the best approach you can take. You have to be careful to pick the right guys.

It is true that, in both Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel, BMW seem to have chosen two exceptionally talented new drivers. Remembering that Michael Schumacher first came to fame through the Mercedes program for young drivers in the sportscar formula, the wisdom of F1 constructors being involved in lesser formulae is apparent.

This is just a part of my increasing respect for BMW’s efforts in F1. They look like a team that is going places. Their professionalism and design strength is very apparent, they have set realistic goals (and do not become over-excited when they exceed those goals) and their car is the best-looking on the grid (well, it’s important to me – why do you think I supported Minardi from very early on?).

Much of this must be due to Theissen’s organizational skills. I particularly like his realism in admitting quite openly that one of their two podium finishes this year had a lot of luck involved. He is being cautious about the team’s chances in China, too, pointing out that it is a very different type of track from Monza, where they did so well. It’s such a sensible attitude – if they do particularly well, he can give a sly wink as if to say, “Well, you didn’t expect me to tell you we had something special awaiting, did you?” And, if the cars finish out of the points, he can always say that he told us so.

Elsewhere, Friday practice in Shanghai proved very little, as usual. The test drivers were quick, Alex Wurz (Williams) and Sebastian Vettel battling it out for quickest time. Ferrari look to be in a strong position with Renault holding their cards close to their chests. We shall see the true position tomorrow in the qualifying sessions.

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Another Form of F1 Competition

In between races the F1 teams compete in a way that we seldom think about. All of them have websites and they use these to put across the coolest, most technologically advanced and friendly impression of the team that they can muster. And all differ in style, approaching the business of client relations in various ways. After a quick browse through the sites, it occurred to me that they could be rated for design, information and news supplied, speed of loading and ease of use.

BMW site

First impressions count and, on that score, I think BMW Sauber win by a narrow margin. The design is clean and clear and loading indicators are provided so that we can see how things are progressing. Flash is everywhere but they have thoughtfully provided a means to switch off unnecessary intervening animation in case the viewer doesn’t want the twiddly bits. There is plenty of good info and their news is up to date. Videos are provided. It’s a good site with a depth that encourages you to stay and look around.

Next up has to be Renault. This is a well designed site with masses of info and even a blog (although the blog steers well clear of saying anything controversial). Where it falls down is in the quantity of flash used – the graphics are constantly changing and this slows everything down until it becomes jerky. But the overall feel is both friendly and professional. Again, a site that one can spend time on.

I put Red Bull and Toro Rosso next (they have a combined site). These guys really know about customer relations, welcoming you with a very good video that keeps you entertained. Unfortunately, it runs every time you return to the home page from elsewhere on the site and can become irritating. The design is not the best, too, having a cluttered and confusing appearance at first. It’s fast, however, and all the necessary info is there. With a bit of slimming down of the front page this one would be a winner.

After these, the sites become hard to separate, there being little to choose between them. These are my notes on them:

McLaren – Plenty of info but not updated often. Have to be a member to access some info and it costs. Design uninspired. Fast.

Williams – Some flash and a bit slow. Pretty but less info than others. Uninspired design.

Ferrari – Nice Italian design but slow. Has a blog but much in Italian and no way to scroll articles. Not F1 specific and a bit short on info.

Midland F1 – This still deals with the F1 team. Simple, straightforward, fair info. Nothing fancy. The Spyker link just leads to the company website (which is very pretty but slow thanks to flash).

Honda – Some flash but not slow. Nice but uninspired design. Good basic info, some news. Sound, no nonsense website.

Toyota – Some flash but very fast. Basic website, does the job but no excitement. Enough info but news sparse and seldom updated.

Super Aguri – Some flash but fast. Clear. Good info, news basic. Nothing special about design.

Of course, these are my own impressions and you may disagree. I have not delved deeply into more than a couple of the sites and there may well be surprises awaiting in some. It is interesting to see how differently the teams approach the business of selling themselves, however. Have a look!

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FIA Survey Results

The FIA has published the full results of its survey of F1 fans during 2006. It makes interesting reading and is certainly worth a look, if you have the time. Otherwise, F1 Racing-live has a summary of the more important points issuing from the survey.

Fans

Perhaps the most notable fact emerging from an overall view of the results is that F1 has enormous numbers of dedicated and knowledgable fans. The sport has succeeded in capturing a huge following and the fans understand the complexities of F1 to a considerable depth. As I have said before, this is inevitable where any appreciation of a sport is dependent on a knowledge of the technical, historical and political aspects. Those who cannot or will not expend the time to learn the complexities never become fans.

Because F1 is so dependent upon revenue from its media outlets, especially television, the opinion of the fans assumes great importance and it is good that the FIA conducts surveys of this kind (and takes note of the results). In general, the survey has confirmed that the fans approve of the changes made this season, particularly as regards qualifying. The FIA can congratulate itself on getting this right.

Like all surveys, however, much depends upon what questions are asked. Just as an example, it is fine to note that the improvements to qualifying are applauded but no questions are asked about what made qualifying so awful in the past. That might raise memories of bad decisions made by the FIA that have only now been rectified.

Any organization needs to learn from its mistakes and the FIA is no exception. If the fans are crying out for more overtaking and changes to the circuits (which they are), the FIA should remember that many of the problems in these areas have been caused by its introduction of changes and regulations without considering the effect they would have on the racing. There are better ways of making circuits safe than introducing chicanes into every straight, for instance.

So I am hoping that in the future the FIA will think carefully about how changes made in one area create unexpected effects in another. It’s a complicated business and the rulemakers have a very difficult job to do; but they knew that before they took it on. We have a right to complain when bad decisions are made.

There was one revealing question about the FIA’s own role that has been tucked away where it might escape notice. In the section asking “How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statements about F1?”, right down at the bottom is the option “Is well managed”. Oh dear; it seems that only 37% of the fans agree that it is and nearly as many feel strongly that it is not.

To me, that looks like the FIA needs to work on its image. And they could start by not making rule changes and dubious decisions in the middle of the season. No-one appreciates having the goal posts moved while they are playing; the time for tinkering with the rules is after the season has ended.

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