F1 December News Roundup: Prepping For 2013

During the off-season, we’ll be doing periodic updates of the goings on in Formula One. With the recent announcement of F1’s rules for 2013 and 2014 and the ongoing discussion as to what, if anything, will replace the postponed New Jersey Grand Prix, there hasn’t been a shortage of news. Bernie has also been talking about the current team lineup and decided that F1 doesn’t need 13 teams. He thinks ten is enough.

First, though, I’ve been giving some thought to the McLaren driver situation. At first, I thought signing Sergio Perez was swapping Hamilton with someone aggressive and fast enough to be Hamilton-esque. After some thought, I think Perez’s driving style could mesh enough with Jenson Button that he could be a bigger threat to win the title than his more experienced teammate.

Sergio Perez recently said that his goal for 2013 was to win the World Drivers’ Championship. My first two thoughts were: 1) Are you insane? You haven’t even won a race. Start with that. And 2) Well, everyone’s goal should be winning the championship, especially if you’re driving one of the top four cars on the grid. Last week, Jenson essentially said in an interview that the 2013 McLaren would be built around him so it would be a neutral handling car rather than the oversteering car that’s favoured by Lewis Hamilton (and Alonso, Vettel, Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, Gilles Villeneuve and so on through the great drivers in history).

So how does a car built around Button help Perez? It’s likely to mean that the car is designed to be easy on the Pirelli tyres. McLaren sporting director has publicly lobbied Pirelli to make aggressive tyres with high degradation. That says to me that McLaren is building a car that will save tyres and be faster over longer runs and require fewer pit stops. If there’s one place that both Button and Perez excel, it’s extending the life of their tyres and using fewer pit stop strategy to move up the field.

f1-2012-hungary-perezThere is one massive difference between Button and Perez in my eyes. Button is a race manager while Perez is a race driver. Button can wheel a fast car but he’s never really been a guy who has extracted more speed out of a slower car. Look at his time pre-2009 and how he did in 2009 after Red Bull closed the performance gap. Meanwhile, Sauber had a fast car this year but I don’t think you’d rate it better than 5th fastest on the grid. Yet Perez extracted three podiums from it. Sure, tyre management played a part but Perez is able to catch, pressure and pass other drivers. That’s a part of Jenson’s playbook that I find sorely lacking.

While the end of Perez’s 2012 season may have people questioning why McLaren would take a chance on him, I think there is a very real possibility that he is McLaren’s best chance to win a World Championship. Speed won’t stop Perez from contending. He has that in spades. It’s inexperience and overaggressive driving that is more likely to stop Perez’s championship charge than Perez’s skill behind the wheel. Okay, McLaren team orders could get in the way too.

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Speaking of designing a car around a driver, it will be interesting to see who the 2013 Mercedes favours. Over the last three years, it looked like Mercedes struggled to find a car that suited the driving styles of Schumacher and Rosberg. With Hamilton replacing Schumacher, Mercedes has simply swapped one driver who likes oversteer for another. Maybe Hamilton would have found himself in a better circumstance if Schumacher was his teammate rather than understeer-favouring Rosberg.

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With Marussia and Lotus confirming their second drivers for 2013, we’re down to effectively two seats still unoccupied in Formula One next season. Marussia confirmed test driver Max Chilton as their 2013 race driver alongside Timo Glock. Romain Grosjean was confirmed to return to Lotus after a successful, if slightly controversial, first full season in F1.

The two remaining seats are at Caterham (alongside Charles Pic) and Force India (alongside Paul di Resta). Both teams are believed to consider the funding a driver brings as a criterion for signing someone to a race seat. That’s why Bruno Senna’s name has been attached to that Force India seat ahead of test driver Jules Bianchi. Other drivers believed to be under consideration are Adrian Sutil, whose assault conviction after the 2011 Chinese Grand Prix might cause him some international travel issues, and Jaime Alguersuari, who said on Twitter over the summer that he signed with a team for 2013.

Over at Caterham, the rumour mill is much quieter. A report out of America suggested that Caterham was interested in signing Rubens Barrichello but he didn’t have enough sponsorship to fund an IndyCar campaign let alone an F1 season. Incumbant driver Vitaly Petrov is more likely to return than Heikki Kovalainen because of his Russian sponsorship backing. The name most often attached to the second seat is test driver Giedo van der Garde who drove in free practice for Caterham in five of the final six races of the season. It sure seemed like an audition to everyone. Bruno Senna’s sponsorship money is also on the Caterham shortlist.

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When the FIA approved the 2013 F1 calendar and the 2013 and 2014 technical regulations, they approved a calendar that left July 21, 2013 open for what was described as a European event date. The problem is that the actual event hasn’t been confirmed yet. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a single frontrunner to replace the postponed Grand Prix of America at New Jersey that was supposed to be the 20th race of the season.

f1-2008-france-magny-cours-trackThe two countries that are mentioned the most as a replacement are France and Turkey. The return of the French GP has been talked about for a couple of years but seems to have been put on the back burner without space on the calendar for the race. Both Magny Cours, which hosted a Young Drivers’ test this summer and is the former home of the French, and Paul Ricard, which is partially owned by one Bernie Ecclestone, are in the running for hosting the race. I’d give the edge to Paul Ricard because of its proximity to populated centres and the Bernie connection. Turkey is unlikely to be able to afford to host a race at Istanbul Park unless they get a massive discount on sanctioning fees which is highly unlikely to happen.

One rumoured dark horse is Austria. Red Bull has completely rebuilt the circuit and rebranded the A1 Ring into the Red Bull Ring. The Red Bull influence has already landed a preliminary agreement between the Formula One Group and promoters in Thailand to hold a Thai Grand Prix starting in 2015. Red Bull would certainly be willing to front the cash to host a race in its home country, even if it’s only for one race. Like Magny Cours, accessibility of the track is the biggest drawback.

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Bernie Ecclestone isn’t even slightly heartbroken that Formula One is going to have only 11 teams next season after HRT’s departure. In fact, Bernie says he would be even happier if Formula One dropped to 10 teams. (He’s quick to point out that one of the remaining ten teams has to be Ferrari.)

Why would Bernie think that less would be better for Formula One? It’s because that 11th place team in the Constructors’ Standings costs the Formula One Group money. Reporter Joe Saward says that the current Concorde Agreement only allows for the top ten teams to be paid out of the prize fund. The teams outside the top ten are paid their prize money (about $20 million just for showing up) out of the commercial rights holder’s share of F1 revenue. As such, if Marussia goes away, for example, it’s more money in Bernie’s pocket.

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