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“WRC’s Shifting Sands”


Sebastien Ogier testing the Citroen C3 WRC pre-season. © Aurelien Vialatte / Red Bull Content Pool

There was a point during last year’s World Rally Championship when it appeared as if Thierry Neuville and Nicolas Gilsoul were finally going to break Sebastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia’s run of titles.

It came to a spectacular head come the final stage of Rally Sardinia, when Neuville overcame Ogier during the final stage to win by just 0.7s. Neuville, so confident in his resplendent Hyundai i20 WRC machine, drew a twenty-seven-point lead and was beginning to make such circumstances look easy.

Behind the leading pair, after some small errors, misfortune and unreliability, Toyota’s Ott Tänak had dropped 72 behind the leading Neuville. No way back surely…

Fast forward five months and in his final rally at the wheel of his Ford-powered M-Sport contender and Ogier and co-driver Ingrassia were celebrating title number six.

Neuville’s rally had ended prematurely, as at Hyundai heads had dropped somewhat, just as they had in Finland (9th), Turkey (16th) and Spain (4th), where a podium was lost on the final stage. A retirement on the final day in Australia merely rubbed salt into what was already a wounded weekend. Indeed, a solitary 2nd place – coming in Germany during mid-August – would prove to be the Belgian’s sole visit to the podium in the latter half of the season.

At times, Neuville made his i20 sing on the stages, but too often following Sardinia mistakes and a difficult road position got the better of him. Had he lost his lead in one-foul swoop because of an accident, that would have been one thing, but the reality was far more demoralising. Neuville’s lead was whittled down gradually over five gruelling months, piece-by-piece, point-by-point until Ogier edged ahead at the penultimate round. By year end, Neuville had fallen eighteen points adrift of a triumphant Ogier.

The gap between the leading two might have been greater had it not been for Tänak’s near dominant form through the Finland-Germany-Turkey events, that brought stoic Estonian into the title fight late on. He was also leading with ease during both Wales Rally GB and Rally Spain when a couple of mistakes coupled with a rather frail Toyota Yaris dropped him down the order.
Ogier seizing the day ensured Neuville took the runner-up spot in the championship for the third year in a row and the fourth time in six years. It is a statistic that will gnaw at him, but also kicks life into the questions as to whether he truly has the strength to beat Ogier over a whole season, rather than a portion of year.

Whatever the final result, the three-way battle for ultimate rallying honours marked 2018 a standout year for the championship, helped too by the introduction of WRC All-Live format.

Rally Australia does not actually seem that long ago. The season ended in mid-November, just a week before Formula One wrapped things up for the year, but whereas F1 will wait until March before that revs up once again, the WRC hits the roads in a few days having launched at the Autosport International Show at the NEC in Birmingham last week.
There are expectations that this year could produce a repeat of 2018, and while it might to a degree, I cannot help but feel that the field may spread slightly once again, although that is not to say there will be a repeat champion, nor does it forecast an easy run to the crown.


Neuville lost out in the latter half of 2018. He will need consistent form to win the title this year. © Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

While his efforts to overhaul Ogier were valiant last year, it is possible that Neuville may have missed his best opportunity to take the WRC crown, but situations change.

The Frenchman has moved back to Citroën and where that settling-in period and a tricky C3 could hamper Ogier’s immediate challenge. However the oft-criticised C3 was still a winner in 2018, albeit at the hands of the legendary Sebastien Loeb, himself on the move following a decision to take a part-time season with Hyundai.
Over at Toyota, Tänak will need no such bedding-in period. In his first year with the Japanese manufacturer, Tänak showed plenty of pace in the early part of last season, taking an impressive win in Argentina, despite an early mistake in the event. However, while the Yaris was designed with a nimble, but delicate front end – particularly the around suspension system – it failed too often from seemingly minor hits and bumps, costing the Tänak / Toyota pairing victories and points.

Looking at the form over the course of 2018, it is not unreasonable to think that Tänak could have taken the title with a reasonably handsome margin had some silly errors and repeated mechanical failures not got in the way.
But Toyota are constantly improving, and in the second half of 2018, it was clearly the fastest car. If they continue to strengthen the front-end of the Yaris, while maintaining its nimble response and without adding undue weight and shifting the weight distribution significantly, then it could place the Estonian in an enviable position come Australia this November.

Tänak is maturing as a driver. The fast, but crash-prone driver of 2011-2015 has had the rougher edges smoothed down and now the 31-year-old is looking more like a driver who can take the challenge to Ogier and maybe jump ahead of Neuville in the process.
Alongside their driver, the Toyota team continues to mature, and this could prove problematic for Neuville and Hyundai, particularly if the former’s resources outstrip that of the latter. If Ogier and Citroën gel, could he prove a potent mixture in the fight too..?

These are all questions that must wait and while there is little doubt that we will see this trio fighting it out again, I have a niggling feeling that maybe Neuville’s best chance for the WRC title may have just passed him by.


Could Ott Tanak leave the field in his dust? © Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool


‘When No News is News’

Just remember this thing for today; this is December the 26th.

Any motorsport “news” you see today was most likely jotted by a desperate or bored peddler trying to keep their site’s hit rate up, while meekly discarding context and intelligent framing.‬

A large number of these stories will probably have been clawed from interviews conducted toward the end of the traditional racing season, in order to safeguard against an empty winter.

Others will be pulled from poorly translated stories, often of questionable source.

All one can ask would be use one’s judgement and absorb these tales with a pinch of salt.

Such is the way of the world.

“Defining Valtteri”

Valtteri Bottas finished 5th in this year’s Formula 1 Driver’s Championship, a long way distant of team leader and champion Lewis Hamilton.

Has the highly rated Finn been broken or is something else holding him back?

2018 Bahrain Grand Prix, Sunday - Steve Etherington

© Steve Etherington / Mercedes AMG F1


“When it’s so close, you start to think about every lap and every corner after the race, trying to figure out if there is something you could have done better. But I feel like I did a good race, I didn’t make any mistakes and I gave it everything I had.”

It was close. Valtteri Bottas’ efforts to catch and pass Sebastian Vettel in the closing laps of this year’s Bahrain Grand Prix were certainly tense, but in the end, the Mercedes driver could not finish the deal and in doing so, probably cast the die for his 2018 season.

Admittedly, I saw all of the Bahrain Grand Prix from my living room {note 1}. It was an interesting race, that only really came to life in the final fifteen laps, as Bottas chased down race leader Vettel in his Ferrari SF71H machine.
Truth be told, the fight between began silently, earlier in the race. Following the opening stint on used super-softs, Vettel was made his stop on lap 18, changing to new softs, while Bottas pitted two tours later, but took on fresh medium Pirelli’s. In between their respective stops, the race’s other major story came to be when Kimi Raikkonen received an early signal to leave the pits during his tyre change. In the brief confusion, a poorly positioned Francesco Cigorini {note 2} had his left leg trapped under the rear tyre of Raikkonen’s moving Ferrari, leaving the mechanic with a horrific break.

For a seemingly long time, the gap between Vettel and Bottas hung at around five-to-eight seconds, particularly as lapped cars began to intervene. Yet in this area Vettel showed his aggression, whereas Bottas took slightly longer to force his way through. It was not until lap 45 of the 57 did Bottas’ charge begin. Crucially for the leading Ferrari, Vettel maintained a solid pace – first in the mid-1’34s, before wear dragged him into the early-to-mid 1’35s. Bottas’ pace, meanwhile, was erratic, although the fluctuating traffic did not help his cause.

2018 Bahrain Grand Prix, Friday - Steve Etherington

2018 Bahrain Grand Prix, Friday – Steve Etherington

With the laps counting down, urgency gained momentum and the Finn found more pace, as Vettel’s continued to fall away. Despite closing to less than a second in the final few laps and despite the available of a quicker car and DRS, Bottas could not make the move for the lead. If anything, there almost seemed to be a touch of hesitancy that just gave Vettel the vital tenths. In following the Ferrari, Bottas did not show enough of a threatening hand, particularly on the run into turn one on lap 56 and a slight mistake in turn ten later that tour ensured the race was gone.
It is true that overtaking is difficult in modern Formula One – when has it not? – but sometimes it is not just the passing that counts, but rather the aggression and the threat to overtake that places you in the category. Max Verstappen is wonderful example of a driver whose threat to overtake can sometimes destabilise an opponent – in 2018, Bottas rarely displayed such attacking vigour.

Bottas repeatedly does well at circuits like Sochi, Montreal and Red Bull Ring, but there needs to be more. To be world champions, it is necessary to get the best results possible at every track.
But when your teammate wins eleven Grand Prix in twenty-one, taking takes his 5th championship in the process, then scoring eight podiums and 5th in the championship by comparison is not enough.

The question becomes ‘Does Bottas have that fighting, killer spirit to overcome his opponents and teammate?’ If Bahrain is an example, then the answer may sadly be no. Although he gave up a certain victory in Sochi to aid Hamilton’s title run-in, that is simply the position the Finn finds himself in at Brackley.
As long as he is that far off of Hamilton in results and the time sheets, his job will be to aid his British teammate , while also delivering the maximum possible score for Mercedes.

{note 1}
A confession. I did not attend this year’s Bahrain Grand Prix, nor have I attended any other Bahrain Grand Prix that have taken place. This is nothing to do with any political or moral stance or anything along those lines; it is simply everything to do with business. Or the occasional lack thereof. It is unfortunate that this particular race has a habit of falling into a period where the headlines for the early season Grand Prix have subsided somewhat and no particular storyline has been defined, while also occurring too early in the season for there to be major technical upgrades worth writing about.
Financially, it can be a bit of a dead end. Others make it work, particularly if on full season deals, but opportunities are limited. It’s not a complaint, merely a reality of my position in life and everything else right now. Long ago, it became necessary to enter the phase of having to pick races and events that would best be able to pay my bills. That is life – and work.

{note 2}
For some reason, Word wants to correct the spelling of Cigorini to figurine. Go figure…

2018 Bahrain Grand Prix, Sunday - Steve Etherington

© Steve Etherington / Mercedes AMG F1

“DTM: Rast takes record sixth straight win, but Paffett claims title”

Rene Rast remarkable end-of-season run continued at the Hockenheimring today when he took his sixth consecutive victory, but it was not enough to wrestle the title from Gary Paffett.

BMW’s Marco Wittmann came home 2nd, with Paffett securing 3rd to ensure all three marques appeared on the podium – an ideal result for Mercedes, who depart the series following eighteen years in the category.
Paul di Resta – the final championship challenger – struggled in the pack after qualifying 11th.

Rast made a dream start from 2nd to jump poleman Wittmann, with Paffett keeping 3rd ahead BMW pairing Bruno Spengler and Augusto Farfus.

Behind the leading group, Edo Mortara lined up 6th, ahead of Joel Eriksson (7th), Nico Müller (8th), the quick starting Di Resta and Philip Eng (10th). Di Resta was unable to keep Eng at bay, however, and he fell behind Eng on lap three.
With the most to gamble, the Scot was the first stop for his mandatory pit maintenance lap seven, but upon returning to the track in clear air, his times proved no quicker than those battling at the front.

Meanwhile, Rast held a small but confident lead ahead of Wittmann and Paffett and the Audi man seemed content to extend the gap by small tenths in the opening stint, rather than unnecessarily pushing his Hankook’s over the edge.

Although 3rd place would be good enough for Paffett to win his 2nd DTM title, Mercedes elected to bring the Englishman in on lap twelve in an effort to undercut the leading pair. Rast came in two laps later, but if anything the gap to Paffett extended in the early stages out of the pits; however Paffett did enough to get ahead of Wittmann, once the BMW man came in on lap 18.

It would not last, however, as Witmann on fresher tyres and Paffett taking things relatively easily passed the Mercedes racer to regain 2nd place on lap 25. It mattered little though, the fifteen points for 3rd place was enough to give Paffett the crown by four points.

Out front, Rast – hardly seen on screen for the most part – built a 3.7s gap to claim his sixth consecutive win, but just fell short of retaining his DTM crown; however it was valiant effort by the Audi man.
Wittmann’s 2nd place in the race was enough for him to secure 4th in the championship and while the former-champion will be reasonably happy with that, he knows BMW can come back stronger.

Nico Müller took 4th at the flag and drew quite close to Paffett in the later laps, thanks to a stellar stint in the 1’35s – running between 0.5s and 1.5s per lap quicker than Paffett, but the gap was just too big to bridge.
Robin Frijns secured 5th to end his rookie year as a DTM racer. The Dutchman took the flag ahead of Spengler, who lost time in the pits), Farfus, Eng, Eriksson, while Timo Glock rounded out the top ten.

Mike Rockenfeller ended the day a muted 11th, just ahead of Audi Loïc Duval. Mortara and Spengler stopped on lap 13, with Mortara earning a drive through penalty for an unsafe release, as he was launched right into the path of Spengler, as the BMW ran down the pitlane exit, leaving Mortara 13th at the end.

Di Resta finished a disappointing 14th, having not featured at all through the final Sunday. Dani Juncadella came home 15th, heading the rearguard of Lucas Auer (16th), Jamie Green (17th) and Pascal Wehrlein (18th).
There were no retirements and relatively few incidents on track, beyond the occasional track limits notification.

“Thoughts on The Peter Principle and Ferrari”

Sebastian Vettel’s and Ferrari’s descent from Formula One championship contenders to also-rans since July has been painful to watch. But is this form truly a surprise or the reality of a team and driver combination having reached their Level of Incompetence?

There is a concept known as The Peter Principle, more commonly known today as the Level of Incompetence. Written in 1969 by Raymond Hull from research by Laurence Peter, The Peter Principle relates to employees promoted to roles based on previous successes, until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent.

At this point the employee hits a ceiling of ability, as skills in one position do not necessarily translate to another and their incompetence become apparent. Some bumble along struggling to manage, while others are often moved sideways or to a similar, but less challenging role in another department or organisation, where their limitations better suit their professional qualities.

In the case of Formula One, this applied not only to designers, team managers, engineers, PRs and catering staff, but also to drivers and in this, Ferrari may have a problem.

Admittedly considering the roll they were on come the end of 2017 and the driver line-up in their roster, it is unlikely that one would have received particularly high odds of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes claiming another brace of titles this year.
They have been the strongest package in the sport for nearly half-a-decade and even within that, it took an almost superhuman effort from Nico Rosberg to wrestle the Driver’s crown from Hamilton two years ago. So overwhelmed was he by the experience, Rosberg retired a few weeks after taking the crown. Beyond that, Hamilton has excelled and has added three titles to the one he earned with McLaren back in 2008.

Yet Ferrari had shown signs of closing in on the silver cars. Last season, Ferrari were clearly getting more from their power unit than in previous years, but their challenge fell apart during the Italy-Singapore-Malaysia-Japan batch of races from September to early-October, when a mixture of mistakes and component failures killed the title run-in. In the end, Lewis cruised to his fourth championship with races to spare and Ferrari were made to lick their wounds and contemplate how they would come back stronger.

Initially they did.

Despite a jaw-dropping “qualifying” mode used during Saturday’s grid-forming session in Melbourne, Vettel took wins in both Australia and Bahrain. A safety car miscalculation in the former and five-place penalty in the latter for Hamilton eased the path to victory for Vettel, but even when one takes these into account, the initial signs were that Ferrari had the race pace.

The pack leader pushed and pulled through the year, with Ferrari enjoying the quicker package during the summer, with the red and silver cars offering up the battle that Formula One had been waiting for, for so long, such was the anticipation of a Hamilton vs Vettel battle. But like 2017, it just fizzled out… so disappointingly.

Without a car, and one may dare say regulations, that play to his strengths, Vettel has far too often driven like a racer wringing 9/10s out of a machine, but then falling into desperation and disarray for that final one-tenth. And when mistakes come – and they have so readily this year – he has been punished in the strongest possible way.

From hitting the rear of Bottas in France, to sliding off the track in the damp while leading in Germany, an ill-advised defence in the Roggia chicane against Hamilton at Monza, to a and a poor qualifying in Japan, followed by another ill-advised and poorly timed overtake, this time on Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. Of the races listed above, Vettel has taken the following results: 5th, retirement, 4th and 6th. Hamilton, meanwhile, has won them all.

Since the British Grand Prix in mid-July, Vettel and Ferrari have only won once – at Spa-Francorchamps, in Belgium – and it was one of Vettel’s few fearless and determined drives of late. Now even that tide has turned and it appears as if the strength of pace once again lies with Mercedes, but the German squad are not making mistakes and Hamilton is crushing the opposition. Even when Ferrari perform well, they now fall some way distant of the lead.

On their behalf, Ferrari must share the blame for what appeared to be a confused and headless qualifying strategy at Suzuka, coming only two Grand Prix after they incorrectly positioned their drivers during qualifying at Monza, which resulted in the other Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen taking pole position. Ferrari too have struggled to find a way to properly use Raikkonen during Grand Prix, often resulting in a poor result for the Finn and a half-baked strategy for Vettel.

So has the combination of Vettel and Ferrari reached its level of incompetence? Is their erratic form a sign of The Peter Principle at work? Possibly. During his Red Bull years, Vettel did face pressure from speedy opponents – particularly in 2010 and 2012, but in hindsight maybe it wasn’t quite as intense as the pressure applied by the Hamilton/Mercedes combination.
With opponents ramping up the competition to a level he has never quite experienced, it is not inconceivable that Vettel and Ferrari will just fall short, no matter what they attempt and that the only way to change the result may be to change the building blocks that make the team.

There has been some conversation from the Formula One media that the hiring of Charles Leclerc for 2019 onward has less to do with Raikkonen’s performance and more to do with the Scuderia losing faith in Vettel. If that is the case, then it could soon signal the end for the German racer who so effortlessly secured four titles with Red Bull Racing at the beginning of this decade. But that seems so long ago now.

True champions – the ones so often recalled by fans – rarely make so many mistakes so readily and when history looks back at this period of Formula One, it will be curious to see how Vettel is judged in the reckoning.

There is little doubt that Sebastian Vettel is a an excellent driver with immense speed and intelligence, while Ferrari a high achieving team with the loftiest of goals. But against the Mercedes juggernaut, both have been found wanting and come Abu Dhabi, it seems certain that the combination of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes will have pummelled them – again.

“FIA F3: Schumacher wins again as title rival crashes out”

Mick Schumacher took his 5th consecutive FIA F3 race win this morning in dominant fashion, despite repeated safety car interventions.

Schumacher led an all-Prema Powerteam podium, with Marcus Armstrong and Robert Shwartzman taking 2nd and 3rd positions.

Despite overnight rain casting a damp (but drying) patch around his grid box, the German teen led from start, swatting Armstrong’s initial temptation for the lead, offering Shwartzman a shot at 2nd place.

Their brief fight for an early lead was halted Keyvan Soori Andres clattered into the rear of Sebastian Fernandez, ending both their days. Stranded, a safety car was required to clear the circuit.

Following the restart on lap five, Schumacher cleared away from Armstrong, setting four fastest laps in a row in the process and eventually extended his lead to 1.8s when the safety car was called for a second time.

This time the incident involved Artem Petrov and Alex Palou, with Petrov colliding with  Palou in an attempt to take the Spaniard around the outside of turn three right-hander.

The race would restart for a final time on lap 21 with Schumacher continuing to lead from Armstrong and Shwartzman, only to be neutralised again a lap later when Sacha Fenestraz (returning to the track following a turn two off) went side-by-side with title protagonist Dan Ticktum and Carlin’s Jehan Daruvala.

Creating a carbon sandwich on the long run to turn three, Ticktum touched the right rear of Fenestraz, sending both into a spin, while Daruvala spun on his own attempting to avoid the melee, only to collect an styrofoam advertising board before touching the barrier.

The race would continue under the safety car, with Schumacher tamely rolling his Mercedes-powered machine to the flag, extending his lead over Ticktum to a mighty 43 points, with only 100 still on the table.

With each restart, Schumacher truly looked under pressure and the German calmly and serenely went about its business.

Armstrong drove a strong race to claim his first podium since Misano Race 1. It is a result that allows the Kiwi to close to with 18 points of Ticktum at a track where Prema are showing some astonishing strength.

It was no easy feat however. Armstrong was forced to defend hard from Shwartzman during the race, particularly following the lap 19 restart, when the Russian attempted a move around the outside of his Prema stablemate, but it was not to be.

Jüri Vips secured 4th place, despite falling to 5th at the start. Overtaken by Jonathan Aberdein, Vips surprised his Motopark teammate on the first restart to steal 4th place back. Thereafter Aberdein challenged Vips for the position again, only to fall behind as he faced a late threat from Ralf Aron.

Having followed Fenestraz for much of the race, Aron capitalised when Fenestraz ran wide at turn two from the final restart. Thereafter, the Estonian made quick work of Aberdein to secure 5th place, with the latter settling for 6th.

The late Fenestraz/Ticktum/Daruvala debacle promoted Fabio Scherer to 7th, while Ferdinand Habsburg took 8th at his home race. Guanyu Zhou made a seemingly rarer visit to the top ten by ending the day 9th, while Sophia Flörsch finally scored a point for van Amersfoort, following her series debut at Zandvoort in a July.

Schumacher has another pole position for race 3 later today and on current form of seven wins in eight races, it is looking increasingly unlikely that the Schumacher train will be stopped.

“FIA F3: Schumacher wins again to take points lead”

Mick Schumacher’s rich vein of form continued at a wet Red Bull Ring this morning when the German soared to a fourth FIA European F3 win in a row.

The Prema racer finished ahead of teammate Robert Shwartzman and Hitech’s Alex Palou.

Schumacher led from the start, but had to defend hard on the opening pair of laps to keep Shwartzman at bay, with the latter switching focus to defend from Ferdinand Habsburg.

Amidst the thick spray, the gap between the leading pair draw out to just over a second by lap four, until Shwartzman clawed four-tenths back thanks to three successful purple laps.

Showing supreme confidence, Schumacher once again built the gap to Shwartzman and then began to extend it to approximately two seconds, defeating his teammate’s charge in the process.

There was still plenty of pace in Shwartzman with the Russian registering a brace of fastest laps in the final two tours, but the leader at this stage was content to bring things home.

It proved a far more eventful race for Palou. Starting 13th, the Spaniard navigated his way around the melee caused by the slow starting Dan Ticktum and Jehan Daruvala to rise to 7th on the opening lap.

From there, Palou swept by Jonathan Aberdein (lap 2), Jüri Vips (lap 3), Habsburg (lap 5) before assuming a very hard fought place from Marcus Armstrong on lap 9. It was a position he would not surrender.

Armstrong had a late battle with Habsburg to hold 4th. Having deemed to have passed Armstrong for 3rd illegally on lap 2, Habsburg allowed the Kiwi to retake his position on lap 4, only to also allow Palou and Vips through in the process.

Now 6th, Habsburg repassed Vips one tour later and set about chasing the Armstrong/Palou battle, registering a blistering pace in the process. Once Palou had moved to the podium spot, Palou closed in on Armstrong and took 4th on lap 12. But having taken too much from his wet Hankook’s, Habsburg faded in the later laps, allowing Armstrong to catch and retake 4th position three laps from the end, with Habsburg settling for 5th.

Vips secured 6th after a tussle with Aberdein. The Estonian fell under pressure from Aberdein immediately after losing 5th to Habsburg and Aberdein wasted little time doing the same again to Vips. Despite initially pulling away from Vips, Aberdein fell back toward the Motopark racer, with Vips snatching the position back from the South African on the last lap.

Former championship leader Ticktum’s poor start dropped him from 6th to 10th by turn one and there was slow progress from there. The Briton spent several attacking Daruvala for 9th, before Daruvala made a brief escape by passing Fabio Scherer on lap nine.

Ticktum followed through two laps later and quickly restarted his attack on Daruvala, finally grabbing place with an audacious move on lap 16 to snatch 8th. Once taken, Daruvala fell under pressure from a resurgent Scherer, but was unable to hold off the Motopark man with Scherer assuming 9th on lap 17, relegating Daruvala to 10th place the final point.

The result was more than enough to gift Schumacher an 18-point lead over Ticktum with five races to go; however following race one, Schumacher claimed a further two poles for races two and three. While Schumacher cannot win the title this weekend – it will be decided at Hockenheim – he can certainly do a great deal of damage to Ticktum’s chances tomorrow.

“DTM: Rast takes spoils after Juncadella penalty”

Rene Rast scored his third consecutive DTM victory to close in on new points leader Paul di Resta at the Red Bull Ring this afternoon.

His Audi stablemates Mike Rockenfeller and Nico Müller played the team game on the final lap to allow Rast to take full points in the race.

Starting 9th, Rast avoided a spun Robin Frijns to move to 8th staying there for the first third of the race when pit stops began in earnest. With the track relatively slow to dry, Rast stayed out until lap 17, emerging behind former champion Marco Wittmann (BMW), all the while maintaining a solid pace.

He rose to 4th as the varied strategies played out, surrounded this time by a pack that included Wittmann, Müller and Mercedes trio di Rest, Lucas Ayer and Edo Mortara.

Rast fell to 6th just before the second safety car period, when an aggressive Wittmann pushed him out wide on the back end of the circuit.

Following a brief stoppage to clear Timothy Glock’s broken BMW, Rast jumped past Wittmann and di Resta on the restart and was then gifted two further positions when Rockenfeller and Müller stepped aside in the final corners.

Initially Mercedes racer Dani Juncadella looked to have taken the main prize, only for a late race penalty to drop him to the rear of the field. The Spaniard was adjudged to have impeded Rockenfeller during a late safety car restart, giving himself an easier run into the first corner. The penalty demoted Juncadella to 14th in the final standing and promoted Rast, Rockenfeller and Müller, securing an all-Audi podium.

Di Resta took 4th and the series lead after Juncadella’s penalty, while a late off by Wittmann also gifted the Scot additional scores. Along with Wittmann, the Mercedes racer had also chased Augusta Farfus and Müller, before disposing of the former; however di Resta fell just three-tenths shy of the podium come race end.

Jamie Green made it four Audi’s in the top five, thanks to a stunning final restart during which he climbed from 10th to 6th, later becoming 5th with Juncadella’s penalty. Green has a fairly anonymous first half of the race, when he mostly ran 14th, but the Briton cleared Pascal Wehrlein (Mercedes) and Philipp Eng (BMW) during the stops and then 12th as the late pitters peeled off for new Hankook tyres.

Lucas Auer (Mercedes) followed Green home to take 6th, but he enjoyed a comfortable gap to Wittmann who lost five seconds to the leading pack in the final few tours. Eng (8th) crossed the line almost door-to-door with Wittmann and Mortara.

Like Juncadella, Mortara received a 30s post race penalty that dropped him to 16th, promoting Farfus to 9th and former points leader Paffett to 10th

It was a surprising score for Paffett who took damage to the front and rear following a first lap incident with Robin Frijns, Eng and Duval that caused the latter to retire with heavy damage.

Frijns also stopped but rejoined toward the rear and eventually climbed to 11th. Guest driver Sebastien Ogier scored a respectable 12th place on his DTM debut, ahead of Wehrlein, the penalised Juncadella, Joel Eriksson (who suffered an early off).

Timo Glock retired with six laps to go and the placement of his stricken BMW initiated the second safety car. After an anonymous weekend, Bruno Spengler retired seven laps from the end.

“Impressions of Youth (or “The Variables that Deposit Themselves Upon the Youth of Today in a Manner Unlikely to Win Friends, Enemies or Influencers”)”

Yesterday’s announcement that Stoffel Vandoorne is to split with McLaren at the end of this season was inevitable given the results on offer in 2018.

However that does not make it any less sad for a driver whose career seemed so promising, yet has turned sour.

The downturn for Stoffel Vandoorne’s reputation has been sharp. The Belgian has rarely looked at ease with McLaren’s uncooperative MCL33 machine, but while the news of his dismissal emerged this week, one can’t help but wonder if the decision was delivered to him much earlier, coinciding with his decline in results, particularly in qualifying.

Like all other things in sport, life and everything else, so much of success in motorsport is about confidence and belief and it was Vandoorne’s quiet confidence and belief in his abilities that made him such a potent threat on the long ladder to Formula One.

While the true value of championships that use spec cars must be always questioned, the fact is Vandoorne has pace and intelligent racecraft. Making his Formula One and McLaren debut at Bahrain in 2016, when he substituted for a sidelined Fernando Alonso, the Belgian looked comfortable in a McLaren that was enjoying a quicker and more efficient Honda power unit package. That weekend, Vandoorne scored a point (the first McLaren driver to do so in 2016), yet apart from some peaks last year, he has rarely looked quite a sharp as he did that weekend and even then, his and McLaren’s almost drunken stumble since June of this year has been rather startling.

Yet there is a part of that analysis which paints Vandoorne rather unfairly. Whereas Alonso has roundly beaten his younger teammate in the near two seasons they have had together, Vandoorne’s deficit has not been so significant as many would think. Certainly he has closer to Alonso than Kimi Raikkonen has been to Sebastian Vettel or Valtteri Bottas to Lewis Hamilton, but that quartet regularly occupy the top four, where interlopers – even Red Bull coloured ones – don’t often penetrate.
That three-tenths that covers Alonso and Vandoorne could cover the front two rows on a Grand Prix qualifying Saturday, but it can also cover a large portion of an intense midfield fight that also includes Sauber, Toro Rosso and – circuit depending – variations of Renault, Force India and Haas. It is true that the first person one must beat in motorsport is your teammate and Alonso has may sure of that, but that gap is not obvious as it might initially seem.

There is another angle though, albeit one filled with cynicism and suspicion. In the same way Kevin Magnussen – a Martin Whitmarsh protégé – was eventually ejected in late 2014 by the returning Ron Dennis, so Vandoorne – a Dennis protégé – has been let drop by Zak Brown, currently McLaren Racing’s CEO. Vandoorne’s place, meanwhile, is going to talented British racer Lando Norris – a Brown protégé no less, although there is a touch base covering in Brown’s move to promote Norris.
If what I have heard is correct, then McLaren’s 2019 option on Norris was fast running out and Toro Rosso have repeatedly signalled their interest in the young Englishman. Coming from an almost entirely spec-series background, it will be interesting to see how Norris takes to a category that is ever changing. Although Norris did compete in Formula 3 last year, by then it was almost largely spec cars in all but name.

There are those who will claim that spec series make for a level playing field for drivers, but I am yet to be convinced. Indeed if I am to be brutal about, anyone who believes that they produce a level playing field is, quite frankly, living in la-la land. As has been witnessed in recent seasons, when monied drivers enter the cauldron, buying up the best of everything, then it no longer become a level playing field – particularly when it comes to testing, data acquisition and access, part maintenance (think engines) and spares. It was always thus, but now regulations have been created a situation that drives this aspect even harder.
In fact, the situation reminded me of a piece I wrote last November.

“It is not inconceivable that one will occasionally be sought out, in order to have a very deliberate conversation [in the paddock]. Recently during a meeting with two very senior members of the European Formula 3 paddock, I was informed that during a conference, a very senior individual in the Formula One community mentioned that “Formula 3 should be about entertainment and low costs” and that “driver development is not a key priority.” Upon contacting the office of the individual, his communications officer informed me that this comment was “made during a private chat and extrapolated out of its proper context, therefore […] cannot attribute it on the record…” Not exactly the strongest of rebuttals admittedly. Alas the message from the Formula 3 personnel was delivered, digested and coded and my return query was – to a degree – responded too as well.

“As a philosophical aside, this raises the question as to whether the very concept of junior categories in their original sense is now null and void, instead limiting the likes of Formula 3 to be merely support categories for your entertainment and drivers bish, bash, bosh and DRS-pass their way up reverse grid orders. This meeting in the paddock served to remind me of a rather tongue-in-cheek comment from a former colleague a few years ago as we pulled into the car park at Rockingham to cover a British F3 round. “If these championships were serious about driver development, then these races would be taking place on a Tuesday afternoon behind closed doors and without television cameras, followed by some sort of tuition…”

“The conversation with Formula 3 members also turned to disappointing news that Formula 3 will officially become a spec category from 2019, when it more or less replaces GP3 in all but name and car. The pairing lamented how drivers are learning less and less in these junior categories, while Formula One continues to accelerate development at a rate never before witnessed. There were mentions of how the spec cars become more expensive due to the part restrictions placed in the regulations.
“It was cited, for example, the cost of a new carbon fibre front wing, should even an endplate become damaged; the purchase of which could only be made from the manufacturer, as per the regulations. In theory, a new front wing could come to over £1,000, whereas the team have in their factory the people, tools and materials to construct the spare part for approximately one-quarter of the price, albeit from aluminium.”

“Defining the Message” (Nov 17th, 2017)

Meanwhile, back on topic (ish), for 2019, the benchmark has completely changed for McLaren. With Vandoorne’s ousting and Fernando Alonso’s departure, McLaren will field a whole new driver line-up, as Carlos Sainz will take the seat vacated by Alonso. There are changes in the background too, after the departures of Tim Goss (Technical Director) and Eric Boullier (Racing Director), followed by the import of Gil de Ferran (Sporting Director), Pat Fry (Engineering Director) and – eventually – James Key (Technical Director). Considering Goss departed back in April, one wonders just how far the team are into their 2019 car.
Both Sainz and Norris will be hoping there is an upturn soon and that McLaren can provide them with the machinery to be successful. As Brown noted in a recent McLaren press release, “It’s clear we haven’t provided Stoffel with the tools to show his true talent, but throughout our relationship he’s proved to be a fantastic team player.” So many changes rarely make for an easy time and McLaren may feel it is 2020 before things start to truly come together. By then, they will be in the third year of their deal with power unit supplier Renault in what could be the final year of the current PU regulations – although that too has yet to be confirmed, as the FIA umm and ahhh as to whether new regulations should now be introduced at all.

Meanwhile Sainz – along with Magnussen, Vandoorne, Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly and Williams racer Sergei Sirotkin – is one of the last remaining graduates from the Formula Renault 3.5 Series, before its own sharp descent into hell. At the time, I was greatly interested by the fact that Red Bull allowed Sainz to develop, both as a driver and a person, something unheard of in previous years, as the Austrian team seemingly rifled through juniors too young and immature to know what day it was.
Despite years in Formula 3 and GP3 that were peppered with as many wins as there spins, I was told on a few occasions that Sainz’ retention in the Red Bull Junior Programme for 2014 also had something to do with pressure from the Spanish wing, particularly as Carlos’ father – the original Spanish legend – was still seen as a significantly influential member of the motorsport. By year end, Sainz (then Jr) had taken the title, despite a minor mid-season slump when he was derailed by the “Max Verstappen-to-F1” thunderbolt.
But Sainz’ reputation, which had been so impressively built at Toro Rosso alongside Verstappen and Daniil Kvyat, has taken a significant knock at Renault. Although performing well and scoring some occasional points, Sainz has not been able to match Nico Hülkenberg’s level of performance on a regular basis and it has stunted the Spaniard’s position amongst the movers and the shakers.

In hindsight, it should not have been too unexpected for Hülkenberg to have made this step up – he had to in order to keep his own career afloat. But there is a suspicion that “The Hulk” is doing just enough to get the job done and that if he applied himself as he had in his earlier years, then maybe Ferrari’s interest may not have wandered. Let’s not forget, this was a racer who was expected to one day deliver championships and Grand Prix victories, yet after 149 starts, he has still not scored even a podium and his highest World Championship position is 9th.
His decimation of Jolyon Palmer aside – an entirely expected result – previous experience has seen the former GP2 champion ensure that his level of performance is just good enough that he ends seasons either just ahead of or level with the driver on the other side of the garage, and his marker with Sainz is another indication of that.
With each new teammate, Hülkenberg’s level appears to adjust and thus Sainz should not feel too bad following his Renault experience, as it appears the German had to raise his game when Sainz joined the team. Partnered alongside Daniel Ricciardo next year, Hülkenberg will need to step things up significantly, for he will be finally up against a proven Grand Prix winner who happens to be at the top of his game.

If nothing else, Renault swooping in to sign Ricciardo may be a sign of real input from the French manufacturer. Having spent the past two years apparently reassessing and rebuilding the team from the ground up, things may finally be moving at Enstone and Viry-Châtillon, with both sites having received plenty of renewed investment. Should this be the case and this investment pay off, Renault might in the next few seasons join the battle at or near the front, but probably not as long as the current power unit regulations remain in place.

We’ll see, I suppose.

“Juncadella takes first DTM win at Brands Hatch”

Mercedes racer Dani Juncadella took his maiden DTM win at Brands Hatch this afternoon, but had to come from behind to do it.

Augusto Farfus secured his first podium of the season, ahead of Lucas Auer (Mercedes).

From pole, the Spaniard Juncadella initially lost the lead to teammate Auer and Audi man Rene Rast, dropping to 3rd just ahead of BMW duo Philipp Eng and Farfus.

Juncadella didn’t need to wait long to claim 2nd spot, when Rast pulled into the pits immediately at the end of lap one, as did Timo Glock, Bruno Spengler (both BMW), the Mercedes of Paul di Resta and Robin Frijns and Loïc Duval (more Audi’s).

An off for Duval exiting the pits (see below), meant a slow zone through sector one, allowing Juncadella to keep Auer in sight; however when 3rd place Farfus pitted on lap six, Juncadella pushed hard to stay ahead of his Brazilian rival, before he too stopped on the eighth tour.

Juncadella made the best of his outlaps from the pits, reducing the gap to Auer – so much so that the Spaniard was right on the tail of his Mercedes stablemate.
A dive down the inside of Auer into Paddock Hill Bend destabilised the Austrian, allowing Juncadella to slide by and solidify the effective lead. With Auer wrong-footed, Farfus too pushed by the Mercedes exiting Graham Hill Bend.

Juncadella would eventually retake the lead once Edo Mortara and Pascal Wehrlein pitted on laps twelve and sixteen respectively, with Farfus and Auer moving up to 2nd and 3rd respectively.

From there, the Mercedes racer controlled the pace and the race to secure not just first DTM victory, but also his first win of any kind on British soil.

After passing Auer exiting the pits, Farfus slotted into a relatively unchallenged 2nd place and brought his BMW machine home 7.8s adrift of the winning pilot. Once settled into a rhythm, Auer held steady in the face of pressure from Rast and began to close in on Farfus to challenge the Brazilian, but Auer’s charge halted once he was within three seconds of Farfus.

Rast also dropped some 4.8s off of the podium, but finished well ahead of Eng who pressed the 4th placed man for a short time, before also dropping away. Indeed Eng spent the final quarter of the race keeping championship leader Gary Paffett behind. While on paper only 6th position, it was a result that allowed the Briton to extend his lead over Paul di Resta – a non-scorer today.

Wehrlein suffered a slow stop thanks to a stuck right rear tyre, losing the former champion several positions. He too would close in on Paffett, but ran out of laps to press Paffett in any significant way.
Mortara took 8th place ahead of double champion Marco Wittmann, but there was real fight for the final points position. With Glock losing pace in the latter part of the race, Robin Frijns went wheel-to-wheel with the ex-Formula One driver in Paddock Hill Bend for 10th. Then as the field poured around the back end of the circuit, Jamie Green got a run on Glock down Pilgrim’s Drop, only for Mike Rockenfeller to draft both and take 11th place.

On the final lap, Rocky stole the final points spot from Frijns, with the destabilised Frijns then also falling behind Green.
Glock ended the day a disappointing 13th, ahead of Joel Eriksson (BMW), Nico Müller (Audi), di Resta (Mercedes) and Spengler (BMW).
The race lasted only a lap and two corners for Duval, whose poor season continued in embarrassing fashion when he went off at Druids on his first tour from the pits.

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