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Nick Heidfeld on the Nordschleife

On Friday, Nick Heidfeld took the BMW Sauber F1.06 around the Nordschleife circuit at Nurburgring, as promised. You can see the video on the BMW Sauber website or (naturally) on YouTube.

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The car was shod with demonstration Bridgestones, which are slower than racing tires, and Nick had strict orders to take it easy but, even so, he looked to be trying pretty hard at some points. Not at the Karousel, however – he rounded that very carefully, understandably since it is very bumpy by modern F1 standards and the car would bottom out even with the ride height jacked up as far as it would go, as it was.

But there was a story a few days ago that he would not be allowed to take the Karousel at all so we should be grateful that he went round it at all. In the end, it was a fantastic sight and gave us a glimpse of how things might have been had F1 continued racing at the track through the intervening years.

Safety reasons have been the excuse for dropping so many circuits off the calendar but, in the Nordschleife’s case, there is no doubt that this was true. Even with the amount of money floating around in the sport today, it would be impossible to provide adequate marshaling and emergency coverage for the full 14 miles of the track. But that doesn’t mean we can’t dream.

Perhaps there should be an annual event of this type at the circuit, one to include the other teams as well; just demonstration runs by each car on its own, so that we could be reminded once again of the great circuit and its famous history combined with the sound and speed of modern F1.

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But, whatever happens, thank you to BMW for making this happen and for the video – a wonderful sight.

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What’s Wrong With Renault?

The world champions are in trouble so far this season, their car apparently not as good as they had hoped, their drivers unconvincing and team boss Briatore already talking about next year’s car. Things could be worse, as demonstrated by McLaren and Williams last year, but not much; when you’ve been used to winning, it hurts to know that you are no longer in the running.

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Giancarlo Fisichella

All this was fairly predictable (in fact, I did so in November last year), although we may not have expected the car to be as poor as it has turned out. Much of that drop in performance can be attributed to the change to Bridgestone tires, Renault having experienced more problems in this area than most teams, but there seem to be design weaknesses too. Otherwise Briatore would not be mumbling about next year’s car already.

The big question is how much Alonso’s departure has contributed to Renault’s fall from grace. That it has had some effect is undoubted – Alonso is so strong a driver that he would have hauled the car into higher positions than Fisichella has managed to; but it is doubtful that even he could have turned it into a race winner.

I think that little blame can be heaped on the shoulders of the Renault drivers. Fisichella is doing his best with the machinery he has been given and Kovalainen has made the usual rookie mistakes but should get better with experience. Unfortunately for Fisichella, the failings of the car will be blamed on him to some extent at least; this is his make-or-break year and it grows ever more likely that he will find himself out of a job at the end of the season. No doubt Briatore is already looking for a replacement.

And he will want a proven driver to lead the team although, with the sudden influx of new talent, there aren’t that many of the old guard left to choose from. I have seen Webber suggested but the Australian will have learned the lesson of patience from his time at Williams; Red Bull’s RB3 may not be as competitive as Webber had hoped but it does show that the team are heading in the right direction, perhaps to make a big breakthrough next year. Mark will stay with them, I think.

So who else is there? Raikkonen is pretty securely contracted to Ferrari and Alonso to McLaren – not much hope there. Heidfeld will stick with BMW if he has any sense at all, Ralf and Trulli are in their make-or-break years too and will probably break. Of the experienced drivers, there is just one possibility left and, although it may seem utterly ridiculous, it may be forced upon both parties.

Jenson Button could be the one that Briatore’s eye alights upon. He is contracted to Honda but, as we have seen in the past, neither Button nor Flavio take much notice of contracts. The Briton’s talent is doubted now but he has never had a decent opportunity to prove himself; he is quick and just might come good in the right car. It’s a chance that Briatore might be prepared to take.

As for Button himself, he must have realized by now that he made a bad mistake in going to Honda. The fact that they have had persistent problems with the front of their cars and been unable to solve them is worrying, to say the least. He could be open to an approach, despite recent assertions to the contrary.

All speculation, of course, and things may happen this season that make such an eventuality impossible. It is very early in the season still and one cannot discount the possibility of Renault solving their problems and returning to competitiveness in the coming races. It just doesn’t look likely, with Briatore becoming so desperate that his public pronouncements get wilder and wilder…

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VisionF1 – A Priceless Resource

Yesterday I stumbled upon a really interesting website: Vision F1. It gives replays of GPs in graphic form, little labeled dots representing the drivers going around the circuit.

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That sounds a bit primitive and, the site having been in existence a while, it does have a retro look and feel, but in practice it is nothing short of brilliant. By looking down on the track one can get a much better understanding of what is happening throughout the field. Say a battle develops between two midfield runners – you’re not bound by some TV director’s need to slavishly follow the leader; you can watch the fight exclusively until resolved.

It is also an excellent way of examining a driver’s performance throughout the race. I watched Speed’s drive at Istanbul 2006 and was surprised at how fast he was going; did you realize he spent the entire race passing Kubica and then having to pass him again after pit stops?

A very important factor is that you can increase the speed of the replay, thereby avoiding having to watch for over an hour and a half. I took it as high as 20x, searching for the maximum, but things are happening so fast at that speed that it’s useless for practical purposes. Six times actual speed is a good compromise, cutting the time element quite drastically but still allowing you to see what is happening.

There are several other options available and various statistical information on other pages. But the preservation of races going back as far as the German GP of 2005 is the most important factor. It is such a useful facility for the history of F1 and I hope it continues for as long as GP racing does. YouTube is great but video can only record what the camera happens to be looking at; Vision F1 is a full account of the whole race.

Have a look at the site and play a bit. If you love F1, I’m sure you’ll agree that this is an excellent resource.

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BMW Sauber and the Nordschliefe

There is some irony in the fact that Sauber arrived in F1 after having achieved success in sportscar racing with Mercedes yet now are BMW’s effort in the sport. From the first, the team looked effective and produced some pretty good cars over the years; in BMW’s hands, however, they begin to look like winners.

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Nick Heidfeld in Bahrain

The progress made last year was excellent and it has continued this season with Nick Heidfeld surely ready to bring them their first victory soon. Robert Kubica has had some bad luck so far but will be in there punching with Nick before long. At the very least, BMW should achieve third in the constructor’s championship this year.

I have not had a favorite team since the sad demise of Brabham several years ago, but I think BMW can claim that spot now. Everything about the team is so darn impressive. Progress has been steady and unrelenting, without drama or fanfare, the cars are beautifully finished and perform beyond expectations, the drivers excel, with quick Nick proving me completely wrong in thinking his motivation lacking. What more could one ask for?

Yet there is more; have a look at the team’s website – it is as slick, professional and effective as their cars. And you will see that, on April 28, Nick Heidfeld will be driving the BMW F1.07 around the Nordschliefe at Nurburgring – the first time an F1 car has lapped the circuit in 31 years.

That alone is enough to make an F1 fan grateful to BMW, surely. Yes, it’s an exercise in public relations but what an effective one! To see how a modern F1 car handles the greatest of all circuits is the stuff of dreams.

Everything looks good at BMW now – they are almost certain to join Ferrari and McLaren as the leaders in 2007 and, if the champion does not emerge from one of those two teams, he will be driving a BMW. Here’s hoping that the team exceed Mario Theissen’s careful expectations and win many more than one GP this year.

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