Formula One - On And Off Track Week 10

Berthold Bouman, F1 correspondent

Story Highlights

  • Ferrari struggling to get up to speed
  • Who can beat Vettel this season?
  • Ecclestone ready to ditch Australian GP

Ferrari struggling to get up to speed

Fernando Alonso’s remark that Ferrari will “suffer” at the start of the season has now finally reached the ears of Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo, who understandably was not really happy with the Spaniards prediction. Both drivers Felipe Massa and Alonso were not allowed to talk with the media, a typical Ferrari knee-jerk reaction when things go haywire.

Alonso nevertheless broke the media silence imposed by his team as he reckons Ferrari is in trouble and not up to speed to be fighting with the top three teams, and the top three no longer includes Ferrari, as it is expected Mercedes will be fighting with McLaren and Red Bull for podium positions at the start of the season.

The Ferrari F2012 - Not a success at all
The Ferrari F2012 - Not a success at all

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Ferrari’s performance during pre-season testing was especially worrying for Alonso, who has signed a long term deal with the Reds, and for the second successive season it now looks the man from Oviedo, Spain has to enter the championship with a car that is not up to speed. Of course Alonso is not a fool and he is trying to get all the Ferrari noses pointed in the same direction in a bid to improve the performance of the F2012.

At the start of the 2011 season Ferrari dismissed Technical Director Aldo Costa -- who now works for Mercedes! -- and replaced him by Pat Fry who left McLaren. To deal with the tyre problems this season Ferrari hired former Bridgestone engineer Hirohide Hamashima as Tyre Director, while another man from McLaren, Steve Clark was hired as Trackside Engineer.

Despite their best efforts it soon became apparent Ferrari again had problems finding the right speed, reason for Alonso to raise the alarm and he told Spanish Television, “In the first races we will suffer -- we are not yet at 100 per cent.” Montezemolo had to respond and from the Geneva Motor Show he commented, “I hope that it is not true that we are going to suffer at the beginning, although Alonso is always very objective.” And he added, “I would like to understand why and above all understand how we can very quickly make the necessary changes.”

Alonso blamed the complexity of the 2012 cars, and Montezemolo agreed, “I don't like this F1, the aerodynamics count for 90 per cent and only the KERS makes developments possible that can be used in the production of road cars.” Niki Lauda, who won the title in 1975 and 1977 for Ferrari, also agrees Ferrari is way behind their rivals. “They're behind, no doubt about it," said Lauda. "The car is pretty unstable, slipping at the front as well -- I think they could be two or three tenths behind the top three. At the beginning of this year, that's quite a lot," added Lauda.

Felipe Massa, Scuderia Ferrari
Felipe Massa, Scuderia Ferrari

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Fry also has his doubts after completing thousands of test kilometers. He admitted they already had ditched the new exhaust system, “We started off with an exhaust system configuration that was particularly aggressive, but after last week's test, it was clear this solution still required a lot of development before it could be used in a race. We opted for a more conventional configuration.” Fry was even more outspoken last week, when he said he was very disappointed with the performance of the F2012.

Asked whether Ferrari will be fighting for a podium in Melbourne he answered, "In the hunt for the podium in Melbourne? At the moment I'd say no.” And Fry explained, "We are disappointed with the performance level seen at these tests and I think we have a lot of work ahead of us. Clearly the decision relating to the exhausts that we took last week meant we took a few steps backwards in terms of development.”

The problem for Ferrari seems to be the exhaust system configuration and they are indirectly pointing the finger at the FIA for changing the regulations once more. “We have been working on the current [exhaust] configuration for really just two weeks. We found a bit of performance but there's no doubt that the original solution is the one that gives the most,” said Fry.

“I think we can claw back, at best, at least 25% of the downforce we had last year, even if we need to see what that costs us in fuel consumption and corner turn-in stability. At the moment it's still causing us problems, but it's the most obvious way to try and improve performance and increase aerodynamic downforce.”

Ferrari have decided to adapt the current car to the new exhaust configuration for the first four races of the season, and are planning a major chassis modification, which means they also have to pass the mandatory FIA crash tests for the second time this season.

Ferrari has problems with exhaust layout
Ferrari has problems with exhaust layout

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But not everyone is pessimistic about Ferrari’s chances in 2012, Bernie Ecclestone commented, ‘"I am convinced they will rise again soon and that a preliminary assessment can only be made after the first two or three races.” Jenson Button is also adamant Ferrari will get up to speed, and at the same time raised some doubts whether Ferrari is indeed in a bad position, "I'm sure Ferrari can find their way out of a sticky situation -- if they're in a sticky situation. We're all trying new things at the start of the year. One of us will get it right and I'm sure the others will follow suit in the end.”

And no better way to end this topic than with the wise words of Alonso, “The new single-seater has some characteristics, which are difficult to understand and maybe we're not where we want to be yet. But we've all lived through many Formula One seasons and we all know very well that until we're in Australia, we don't really know where we stand regarding to the others.”

Who can beat Vettel this season?

Sebastian Vettel is the man to beat this season is the general consensus of the Formula One fraternity, but after winning two successive titles, this season will not be a walk in the park for the German, as the competition is closer than ever.

Testing in Jerez and Barcelona has revealed Red Bull is no longer the sole contender for the 2012 title, the Red Bull RB08 did have a few flaws, and especially last week the team lost very valuable track time when Webber and Vettel were sidelined for the major part of the day by technical problems.

Red Bull did try a new exhaust layout which was inspired by Sauber’s exhaust configuration, but according to Webber it didn’t make the car much faster. “The thing that everyone's obviously asking about is the changes we made to the car but I have to say the car was not massively different to the one I drove on Thursday,” the Australian admitted.

Mark Webber is also a title contender
Mark Webber is also a title contender

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Webber, who is without a doubt also a contender for the title himself, is convinced that Red Bull’s rival Lewis Hamilton will bounce back this year, “It's normal for a sportsman or woman to go through some headwinds in their career -- particularly someone like him who had so much success so early.” But said Webber with his typical Australian sense of humor, “Let's hope he's strong but not too strong. As a competitor you hope he can realize his potential but clearly we still want to beat him!”

Hamilton himself believes he is in excellent shape to challenge Red Bull, ”I feel great. I'm trying to take all the right steps towards keeping myself focused on the main goal, which is winning the world championship,” he said to the BBC. And he optimistically added, “As long as we have the car, there is no reason why we can't do that.” And he concluded, “I feel like I'm in a good place. I've made some good choices over the last few months and hopefully that will reflect on the season.”

Ecclestone is convinced Webber is in the race for the title as well, “I just hope, I really, really, genuinely hope that Mark has a good crack at the title this year because it would be nice to see. I think Mark will be the guy who will threaten him [Vettel] if anybody. The last time I spoke to him about it ... he's really motivated now!”

All Formula one pundits agree about one thing: they all believe Mercedes has now become a potential threat for Red Bull and McLaren, and by the looks of it, also for Ferrari, and they expect the German Silver Arrows team will finally score that much sought after first victory. For Ross Brawn there is no doubt, 2012 will be a heck of a s season.

“I'm expecting the tightest start to a season we've seen for a number of years. I think we're going to have a really exciting season,” he predicted. Brawn doesn’t think Red Bull really stands out at the moment, and he thinks McLaren is very close now, “They look as though they have a good car -- and I don't think we're too far off [either].”

Kimi Raikkonen - Fast as ever
Kimi Raikkonen - Fast as ever

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Lotus and their star driver returnee Kimi Raikkonen have also been named as rivals for Red Bull. Raikkonen seems to thrive at the Lotus family, he scored the quickest time twice during pre-season testing, as did his French team mate Romain Grosjean. Lotus is also looking strong, or are they showboating a little to make the most of Raikkonen’s return?

Difficult to tell but both drivers were equally fast, which generally means they both got the best out of the car, if Grosjean can go as fast as Raikkonen it also means it is a easy car to handle as both have completely different driving styles. The problem they had with the chassis was inexcusable, but with the problem now solved there is nothing that can stop the Iceman, who is always attacking and driving on the limit.

Whether Lotus can fight for the title remains to be seen, but it is certain they can take away a lot of points from Red Bull, McLaren, Mercedes and Ferrari. But the name that is most often mentioned is the name Of McLaren’s Button, who was Vettel’s main rival to win races right until the end of the season. When Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner was asked to name Vettel’s main rival for 2012 he replied without hesitation, “Probably Jenson.”

And let’s not forget the man in question himself, Vettel already warned his rivals he will be even better this year. “The idea was to get away in the winter, take time to reflect and hopefully come back stronger, more prepared and more organized.” Although the 24-year old driver dominated the past two seasons, he would “much prefer a fight for the world title right to the end of the season.”

Jenson Button, McLaren Mercedes
Jenson Button, McLaren Mercedes

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But it will be difficult to repeat a season like 2011 Vettel said, “We know how hard it is to be that consistent, to always be there and finishing nearly every race on the podium. The target is obviously to try to do it again, to get everything out of ourselves, so we'll see how we get on with the new car.” And he added, “"I think it will be very, very tight this year. Anything else would be a surprise. Looking at the cars there's not much room left for the designers to play with.”

Horner explained it like this, “Of course, when you've achieved what we have, particularly in 2011, we've set a very high standard for ourselves. But we're always looking to improve, we're always looking, in all areas, to try and do better.” And what about this season? “For Sebastian, he's still evolving, still getting stronger. We saw that in 2011 and I think we're only going to see that again in 2012. As he gains experience, knowledge and he matures, he's getting stronger and stronger!”

Ecclestone ready to ditch Australian GP

With new races in far flung places like Sochi in Russia on the future Formula One calendar, FOM CEO Ecclestone has to free a few slots to accommodate those races. According to the Concorde agreement, only 20 races are allowed on the calendar, and it is not very likely teams would agree to more than 20 races for the post 2013 Concorde Agreement, which yet has to be signed, as they already feel their resources are stretched to the limit with the current 20-race schedule.

So Ecclestone has set several plans in motion, first one was to get rid of the European Grand Prix, as it is the second race on Spanish soil, and that is not fair according to Ecclestone. The solution is simple, Ecclestone wants Barcelona and Valencia to alternate races, and hey presto, problem solved. Rather then assigning the European Grand Prix to an European country the free slot will now go to Sochi or the second United States Grand Prix to be held near New York.

It is also unthinkable to ban the Bahrain Grand Prix, the more human rights organizations call for a ban, the more Ecclestone keeps his foot down. After all the Crown Prince of Bahrain, or should we say the heir of the Kingdom of Bahrain, Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, also the chairman of the Bahrain Supreme Council for Youth and Sports, and the Honorary President of the Bahrain Motor Federation, and as it happens also the promoter of the race, is a personal friend of the FOM boss, and to no surprise, good old Bernie already has cashed the 40 million Euro race fee, so there is no way back, the race must go on, whatever it takes.

Australian GP least viable says Ecclestone
Australian GP least viable says Ecclestone

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Alternating has been Ecclestone favorite word recently, as the new French Grand Prix will have to alternate with the Belgium Grand Prix, while Hockenheim and the Nurnburgring take turns hosting the German Grand Prix. On other Grand Prix on Ecclestone’s ditch-list was the Australian Grand Prix at the Albert Park circuit, which traditionally hosts the season opener. But Australia is in a different time zone and Ecclestone is worried fans don’t like to get up at 6:00am in the morning and therefore now came up with the plan the Oz Grand Prix should become a night race, which is more convenient for the European fans.

Well that is of course Ecclestone’s claim, as we all know he has tried to axe the race down under several times, but never succeeded. The Australian organizers are understandably not happy with this brilliant plan as they fear Australian spectators will stay home instead of going to the beautiful Albert Park circuit in the middle of the night, which could mean they lose a lot of money and the circuit and organizers would go broke, and that would make the Australian fans very sad, but would make Ecclestone very happy.

So Melbourne says “no” to the plan, and Ecclestone has now announced he would be more than happy to renegotiate the terms for the Australian Grand Prix, and has warned the promoters the race is the least viable on the calendar. And we all know what ‘viable’ means in Ecclestone’ s dictionary.

“We have a contract which we will respect - so up until 2015 we are in good shape,” Ecclestone said. “After then, we really don’t know. If we were to have a divorce from our friends in Melbourne we would probably be walking away from Australia,” very well knowing that other cities like Adelaide would not be able or prepared to take over the race.

Ecclestone claims he is prepared to reduce the race fee if the Australians would agree to turn it into a night event, the current license fee is estimated at A$20-30 million. To get the message across, Ecclestone last year skipped the season opener in Melbourne and went to New York and secured a deal for a second US race, and it is of course not a problem to have two races in America.

Now that Australia keeps its foot down, Ecclestone has given a whole new meaning to the word ‘renegotiating’ and has in fact offered to end the contract. “If the government wanted to, we could certainly come to some terms, I suppose. It would just be nice for somebody to say to me 'Bernie, definitely, 100 per cent, we don't want to renew our contract', Ecclestone said.

According to the Australian Herald Sun, a premier’s spokesman said they will talk with Ecclestone, but said the government will not 'take an open chequebook' to the negotiations, which probably means the end of the Australian Grand Prix is imminent.

Join us again next week for another episode of “Formula One - On and Off Track”

Formula One - On and Off Track week 9

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Jenson Button , Mark Webber , Kimi Raikkonen , Fernando Alonso , Luca di Montezemolo , Ross Brawn , Lewis Hamilton , Felipe Massa , Niki Lauda , Sebastian Vettel , Romain Grosjean , Bernie Ecclestone , Steve Clark
Teams Ferrari , Mercedes , Sauber , McLaren
Tags albert park, bouman, button, ecclestone, featured, ferrari, montezemolo, red bull, vettel