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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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A Few Malaysian Points

Apart from the first lap, there was not a great deal of overtaking in this Grand Prix. And yet it was very interesting. Perhaps most importantly, it illustrated that McLaren have closed the gap to Ferrari. Even had the McLarens not got the jump on Massa and Raikkonen at the start, they clearly were as quick and would not have been left behind if the Ferraris had grabbed the lead. When the Italian cars had nothing in front of them, they went no faster than they had been going behind Alonso and Hamilton.

Alonso

Alonso’s race

Naturally, Jean Todt denied that this had anything to do with the tightening of the test for flexible floors, that it was merely that McLaren had found more improvements since Melbourne than Ferrari had, but I think there is more to it than that. The BMWs were able to run at Ferrari pace, as shown by Heidfeld keeping Massa at bay, and there was a string of cars just behind this pair; did everyone improve more than Ferrari?

Some of the loss of Ferrari’s advantage can be explained by Kimi’s reliability worries. He was obviously content to hold station rather than risk the engine and would have been better advised to take the penalty and show us the true pace of the Ferrari with a fresh engine, I think. In spite of his determination to pamper the engine for points rather than a win, he was able to stay with the McLarens; with a new engine, he could have bullied his way through to fight for the lead.

The Finn’s face in the post race press conference spoke volumes – he is with Ferrari to win the championship and, if that means sometimes he has to go a little slower and let Massa have the glory, he is prepared to do it. And the glow around Felipe is beginning to fade; this was a race that he expected to win but threw away in frustration when he lost his lead at the first corner. It is Raikkonen, not Massa, that Alonso will have to fight for his third championship in a row.

A little further back, Williams entertained us with a great drive from Rosberg that deserved better than retirement and a charge through the field from Wurz. Hopefully, the car will get even better and we can enjoy the sight of a Williams battling for the lead again.

The performance of the Renaults and Hondas was interesting, both racing much better than they qualified. This would indicate that their main problem is in adjusting to the Bridgestones, rather than fundamental flaws in the design of the cars. If they can get on top of the tire problem, they will leapfrog into the top ten, I think.

And give Fisichella his due: he is doing a far better job than his much-hyped Finnish teammate, driving the car as fast as it will go without drama and taking the points on offer.

Toyota performed their usual disappearing act, Trulli circulating anonymously in the final points positions while Ralf managed to find his way back to keep the tailenders company. If anyone drives like Fisichella’s reputation, it is the Toyota team!

Note that Super Aguri were not so impressive in Malaysia – they have slipped a little and now run with their natural competitors, the Toro Rossos. This is a trend that is likely to continue, since their car becomes ever more out of date as others develop their later designs and get them to work with the tires. Expect Toro Rosso to get better and better, however, as Red Bull get the RB3 sorted out and drop a few hints to their second team.

Finally, I have to say it: Scott Speed finished well ahead of Liuzzi. Yes, tell me that Vitantonio had a little argument with Sato that spoiled his race – the point is, Scott didn’t. He ran consistently with a gaggle of allegedly better cars throughout the race and brought it home in the end. Staying out of trouble is part of racecraft too, Gerhard…

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Decisions From the FIA

The good news is that the FIA has been able to ban traction control in F1 from 2008, thanks to the introduction of the standardized Microsoft/McLaren ECU. Anything that removes driver aids from the cars and puts more emphasis on the skill of the driver has to be applauded; it remains to be seen whether the ECU will have other unexpected effects such as our screens suddenly freezing with 404 errors and teams having to phone Redmond to register their software after an engine change.

Tyre

To prevent us getting too excited, however, the FIA has balanced this by not approving other proposed rule changes – slick tyres will remain a no-no, the width of the cars will not be increased and there will be no reduction in the minimum weight limit. Ah well, I guess we’d become spoiled if allowed to have everything we wanted.

Some surprise has been expressed amongst F1 watchers at the failure to implement these changes. It all makes perfect sense if you look at it from the FIA’s point of view, however. Take the survival of the awful grooved tires, for instance – now that Bridgestone seems to have settled for using one of the grooves for its painted indication of the softer tire, it would be unfair to take that away from them so soon. They might have to do the obvious and paint a ring around the sidewall otherwise and that would be following the lead of Champ Cars (oh, horrors!).

But seriously, there is one thing all the rejected proposals have in common – they would make the cars faster in the corners. And we know that is anathema to the FIA with their determination to keep speeds within manageable limits. After all, we all know (don’t we?) that speed is what causes accidents. Perhaps we could end up with a scenario rather like California’s car chases, where the cops follow dutifully along behind the getaway car as it cruises the freeway at the speed limit. Now there would be a spectacle to delight nannies all around the world!

Formula 1 is a sport of balances – balance between car performance and driver skill, balance between technological advance and spectacle, balance between speed and safety. Concentrate too much on one aspect and another will suffer. And safety needs to be put in its rightful place – important but not the be-all and end-all.

The current generation of cars is about as safe as it is possible to make them but there will always be a chance of something completely unexpected happening (like David Coulthard deciding to park his RB3 on your head). That is the definition of accident – something occurring that has not been foreseen and therefore not guarded against. We can chase our tails for eternity trying to think of the most unlikely events and then making sure that cars have defenses against such things, but we will never beat Murphy’s Law – whatever can go wrong will go wrong.

It is time to accept the very high standard of safety already achieved and allow racing to have its turn. Give us back the slicks and let the cars be wider and lighter – let’s see some racing, for Pete’s sake!

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Compound Confusion

So far, I have said nothing about the plan to make Bridgestone identify the two tire compounds to be used in races this year by having a blob of paint smeared on one or other of them. This is mainly because I really don’t understand the whole business.

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Best of buddies – Mansell and Piquet

For a start, what is the point of forcing the teams to use both compounds in each race? Since everyone must do this, it seems like a pathetic attempt to introduce more artificial strategy into racing – as if we didn’t have enough already. And it will very quickly become clear whether it is best to use the soft tires at the beginning of the race or the end and all the teams will react accordingly. Not much room for nail-biting stuff there.

Then there is the silly business of whether there should be visual indication of which compound each car is using. I am told that this will make things more exciting for the fans since they will be able to see at a glance which cars are on softs and which on hards. And everyone seems to agree that this is a great idea – or it appeared so until until this morning, when I read a post on Formula 1 Linksheaven that questions the motivation behind the sorry business. I particularly liked the following statement:

The casual fan does not give a damn what compound a driver is using. The CASUAL fan can’t tell whether it’s Liuzzi or Speed gone by in the Toro Rosso. So this wont enhance their enjoyment of a race. And the hardcore fans will likely not want their beloved sport to take a further step away from being the cut-throat world that it is.

I would go even farther and suggest that the dedicated fans too will not care once it comes down to it. They understand that these things even themselves out in the race and that any excitement created by them is artificial and temporary only. What really matters to us is that there be as little interference by regulation in the races as possible – the attraction of F1 is competition between the best drivers and cars in the world and there is no need to “spice up” the show with idiotic and pointless requirements inserted by a governing body obsessed with TV ratings and convinced that we are all so moronic that only a circus will keep us amused.

As an example of just how much we care about tires, consider the British GP of 1987. Everyone remembers it as the race in which Nigel Mansell passed Nelson Piquet to win after having been twenty seconds down; some even consider it to be Mansell’s greatest race. The fact that Mansell was so far behind because he had changed his tires late in the race and that Piquet’s tires were shot is quietly forgotten. In fact, all that race proved was that a car on new tires is quicker than one on worn ones – big revelation.

No, we don’t care about tires and any attempt to re-introduce interest after having ensured that there will be no competition between tire manufacturers is a matter of wanting to have your cake and eat it. There are arguments for and against tire wars in F1 but, having decided to standardize on one manufacturer, the FIA should leave it at that, instead of monkeying about with details in the hope of preserving a vestigial interest in tires.

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