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Testing in Jerez

Just as I waver in my prediction of Button for champion in 2007, the Honda team get it all together in testing at Jerez, with Barrichello fastest and test driver James Rossiter very close behind him. Clearly the team have got the measure of the Bridgestone tires and that bodes well for the coming season.

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Rubens Barrichello in testing with a black Honda

Autosport magazine has a full list of the times from the final day and they make interesting reading, even though they should be taken with the usual pinch of salt. These are not next years cars, after all, and each team is trying out different things, not necessarily competing for the quickest time.

But they are racing teams and I refuse to believe that they can ignore the times completely. Competition is in their blood.

Mark Webber and David Coulthard must be a little disappointed to be down in 12th and 14th places, even though they are still running the RB2 with Ferrari engines. How they must long for the introduction of Adrian Newey’s RB3. Scott Speed must be looking forward to the new Toro Rosso as well, especially as there are suspicions that it will be an RB3 too, albeit with a Ferrari rather than a Renault engine. And that’s if the other teams do not manage to put a halt on Toro Rosso’s plans – the protests against their using what amounts to a customer car are beginning to gather.

Lewis Hamilton was third fastest although de la Rosa wasn’t far behind him this time. The young Brit looks as convincing in testing as did Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel.

Toyota and Renault make quiet and confident progress, going fast enough yet without setting the world alight. Steady is the word that springs to mind and that is just what is needed at this stage. The Ferrari times can be ignored – they had a bad day, that’s all.

Note the speed of Anthony Davidson in the Super Aguri, however; he was only half a second slower than Barrichello. That’s not bad considering that Aguri were the bottom team of 2006. I guess it shows one of two things: either Aguri are really getting it together and could be looking at the mid-field next season, or testing times don’t matter at all!

Away from the track, the World Motor Sport Council have issued their take on the changes to come in F1 according to Max Mosley and Burkhard Goeschel. Essentially they agree completely and have added a few tweaks of their own. For instance, for the first time “standardized aerodynamics” has been mentioned. Couple this with the intent that any new technology introduced will be for sale to everyone, and you have a standardized formula. Lola are good at that – why not just get them to make all the cars for the teams?

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Hopes for Next Season

One thing that never varies between seasons is the optimistic outlook of every team in F1. Looking at the possibilities and listening to the reported statements, it is easy to think that everyone is going to do well next year.

Yet we know life isn’t like that; always there are losers as well as winners. Some amongst the teams will find their hopes dashed and have to transfer their optimism to 2008. And part of the game in the off season is in guessing who will fail to achieve their objectives.

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David Coulthard in the Red Bull RB2

The big disappointment this year was the Honda team – everyone expected them to be pushing for race wins but they came good only at the end of the year. Red Bull, too, had a poor season and are now admitting that they gave up on the RB2 from its first race, deciding that it was a lost cause and they would be better employed preparing for 2007. David Coulthard had an even tougher year than we knew about, it seems. But, having put so much work into Adrian Newey’s RB3, Red Bull are expecting great things in the coming season. We shall see.

Anthony Davidson has been talking about his reaction to being taken on as a race driver by Super Aguri and his optimism is a little more guarded than others, understandably so. To aim for points and to be pushing Takuma Sato hard by the end of the year are both realistic ambitions. There are always a few chaotic races in the year when small teams can gather a point or two. But I hope he does better than “push Taku hard”!

Over at Toro Rosso, Gerhard Berger has said that their driver line-up will be unchanged for 2007, although no official announcement has been made as yet. Which is good news for Scott Speed, in view of all the rumors that Robert Doornbos was being considered as a replacement for him. The American has been talking of his hopes for the season, perhaps more confident now that his place seems assured, and he, too, expects to score points for the team.

So who is going to lose out after all this talk? It would be easy to pick the losers from previous seasons but, ever a supporter of underdogs, I hope they all do as well as they expect to. The one I would really like to see fall flat on its face is Ferrari – which is not exactly likely, I know. But when Luca di Montezemolo “promises” the fans the 2007 championships, my natural reaction is to wish fervently for him to have to eat his words.

Optimism is one thing, a promise another thing entirely.

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Gerhard Berger and Toro Rosso

I like Gerhard Berger’s style. He was a great racer in his driving days, perhaps one of the few whose ego could survive being teammate to Ayrton Senna, even beating the great man on rare occasions. The stories of practical jokes played on each other are the perfect illustration of the mutual respect between them.

So it is good to see Gerhard running the Toro Rosso team in the same way – cheerfully independent and determined to succeed. The struggle with parent team, Red Bull, over Vitantonio Liuzzi’s services (which Toro Rosso won) shows that Gerhard is quite prepared to fight Toro Rosso’s corner against the guys who supply the money. I can imagine, too, the smile on Gerhard’s face at those races in 2006 where his cars embarrased Red Bull’s by being quicker.

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Vitantonio Liuzzi in the Toro Rosso STR-01

It is no surprise, therefore, to read of Gerhard’s insistence that Toro Rosso will design and build their own car for next season. There may have been suspicions that they would run the same chassis as Red Bull in 2007 (and some teams were getting ready to protest this) but that is not Gerhard’s style. I know what he’d like to do – beat Red Bull. It stands to reason that the man who spent most of his driving career trying to beat the best should continue that habit as a manager.

He might well have the tools to do it, too. If his team can produce an effective chassis, they are in with a chance, even though Red Bull’s engineering team is now very strong with the addition of Adrian Newey and others. Minardi demonstrated on several occasions that it is possible to design a good car on a shoestring budget – their problem was always that they never had as powerful an engine as other teams. Toro Rosso could get it right in the same way.

There is nothing wrong with their power plant as well. The Ferrari engine is at least as powerful and reliable as the Renault – the trick is in mating it effectively to the chassis so as to make best use of its characteristics. Admittedly, no-one has managed to do this as well as the Ferrari team so far but it has to happen sooner or later, even if by accident.

Then there is the matter of drivers – and here it’s youth against experience. Red Bull have two proven warriors in Webber and Coulthard, both of them capable of winning races and with enormous depth of experience. Toro Rosso’s Liuzzi and Speed are young, enthusiastic and have a learning year behind them. All other things being equal, you would expect the veterans to beat the newbies – but things are never equal. If the Toro Rosso is good, the drivers could do the job.

Next season is shaping up to be one of the most interesting for years. And the struggle between Red Bull and Toro Rosso could be one of the talking points. Red Bull insist that Toro Rosso is a part of their empire but independent of their control – if Gerhard’s boys start beating their sister team regularly, Red Bull might just have to grin and bear it.

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An American in F1 – Scott Speed

A while back there was a rumor that Scott Speed was going to be replaced in the Toro Rosso team for 2007. This was denied very quickly by the team and since then there have been no further rumblings. However, it does highlight the fact that Scott is not generally given much credit for his performance this year, whereas the brief tussle between Toro Rosso and Red Bull over which team should have Vitantonio Liuzzi’s services next year would indicate that the Italian is pretty highly regarded.

In view of this, you would think that Liuzzi had comprehensively trounced his American teammate in 2006. Yet a study of their results for the season shows a somewhat different picture.

In qualifying, Liuzzi grabbed a higher grid slot at twelve races, Speed managed to outpace him six times. Which looks bad for Scott until we separate the year into two halves. In the first half, Liuzzi outqualified Speed eight times and Speed managed to get the drop on him only once. But, in the second half, the figures are Liuzzi 4, Speed 5. That speaks of a remarkable improvement in Scott’s speed (if you’ll pardon the pun) – suddenly he is at least on a par with his supposedly-quick teammate.

If we then turn to the races, disregarding DNFs (Did Not Finish) as they are not always the driver’s fault (and anyway they had the same number of retirements – 4 each), we find that Liuzzi finished higher than Speed at five races and Speed beat him the same number of times. The same swing of the pendulum that we noted in qualifying is also apparent here – Scott finished higher than Liuzzi only once in the first half of the season but notched up four thereafter.

Of course, we should remember that you can prove anything with statistics, but these figures make it pretty clear that, judged by results, there is little to choose between the two drivers. In fact, you would be wiser to put your money on Speed since he exhibits a learning process and is likely to get better with time. Yes, he made a few mistakes in his first season but so does any driver new to F1. The point is that he is learning.

Liuzzi may be learning too. But, if he is, he isn’t doing it as fast as Scott. And my conclusion has to be that, of the two, Scott Speed has the greater potential. It is no wonder that Toro Rosso laughed at the idea that they would drop him.

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Scott Speed in the Toro Rosso STR-01

Next year Toro Rosso will have Ferrari V8 engines and will no longer suffer from running a limited V10. Then will the true performance of the car become apparent and the abilities of the drivers be easier to assess. It is just possible that Scott will surprise us all and become one of the hot properties of 2007.

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