Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Recovered Fernando Alonso Rejoins McLaren Team for Malaysia

Photo Credit: Pirelli Photo Service

Good news has come for the McLaren Honda team and major motor racing fans in time for the second race of the 2015 Formula 1 tour. Having missed the first race of the season, Spain's Fernando Alonso has been given a clean bill of health for the trip to the Sepang International Circuit for March 29th's Malaysian Grand Prix. Alonso will belt himself into the #14 Honda-powered McLaren MP4-30 race car amid several early season concerns.

At the end of the 2014 Formula 1 season, it was fair to say that the McLaren team was looking forward to what 2015 will bring thanks to two major components. Power their 2015 effort would result from a partnership with a resurrected Honda presence in the grand prix tour. Taking an additional year to iron-out their new gasoline/hybrid racing powertrain, Honda was placing complete attention on the single team for new year rebranded as McLaren Honda. The second element was a driver line-up for which 2009 Drivers' champion Jenson Button would be joined by two-time Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso. A Ferrari driver from 2010 to 2014, Spain's Alonso has been actively hunting for a third championship title and the move to McLaren Honda was seen as a bridge to that goal.

In open testing prior to the beginning of the new Formula 1 season, the latter ingredient to McLaren Honda's idyllic 2015 was placed in jeopardy. During the second day of testing in Barcelona on February 22nd, Fernando Alonso's McLaren collided hard with the wall in turn 3. An area where vehicle speeds were estimated at around 150 miles per hour, the driver suffered a serious concussion and resulted in the loss of consciousness. It was also confirmed that Alonso suffered temporary retrograde amnesia when the Spaniard regained consciousness leaving him unable to recall events past 1995. This 20-year memory gap appears to have been quickly recollected. Alonso has since remembered a testing crash leading to him being sidelined remembering sensing "heavy" steering before the hit.

While the biggest concern regarding the crash was Alonso's health, the McLaren Honda team also appeared to have had their pre-season preparations thrown off kilter. Judging solely from the first race of the 2015 season, the year spent preparing the Honda powerplant for competition may not have amounted to the advantage McLaren was planning to obtain. For the opening race in Australia, test driver Kevin Magnussen returned to competition as a replacement to Alonso but was unable to start the event when smoke erupted from his MP4-30 vehicle. The remaining vehicle driven by Jenson Button was better than Magnussen's but still came up short. Though Button's car finished the race (two laps down to the winning Mercedes AMG of Lewis Hamilton), its 11th place finish made it the only car to complete the Australian Grand Prix without scoring championship points.

McLaren is clearly anticipating the arrival of Fernando Alonso will represent a second chance to start the 2015 Formula 1 in their intended form.

German Grand Prix Removed from 2015 Formula 1 Schedule

Photo Credit: Andrew Hone Photographer via Pirelli

The opening race of the 2015 Formula 1 season consisted of a scene where a sizable number of drivers and team didn't even make the official start. A potential 20-car field at the beginning of the Australian Grand Prix race weekend shrank to 15 competitors even before the lights lit on the starting grid. On Friday of last week, the depleting starting field in the opening event may have proven symbolic for what else the 66th Formula 1 season had in store.

One of the most historically significant stops on the Formula 1 tour, the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring is a race with history dating back to 1927. Since 2008, the Nurburgring complex had been sharing the annual Formula 1 event with the Hockenheimring with alternating hosting duties. With this year being the Nurburgring's year for holding the German Grand Prix, Formula 1 announced the race will not happen. While the news has caused a massive disruption to the 2015 season, the announcement was not a complete surprise.

On Formula 1's official website, the announcement for the cancellation of the German Grand Prix was brief consisting of only three sentences and a revised 18-race schedule for 2015. Among the short description, there was no reason given for dropping the Formula 1 in Germany. Lacking this concrete information, it is still easy to arise to the reason why the race was dropped from the 2015 Formula 1 schedule. Simply put, it's about money.

All Formula 1 races are expected to pay a licensing fee for holding a grand prix. A fee that differs depending on the location and race, the cost for the German Grand Prix has been considerable. The expense of the grand prix and dropping event attendance has financially challenged the organizers of both the Nurburgring and Hockenhiemring. With the Nurburgring new ownership, the current Formula 1 agreement for hosting the German Grand Prix was deemed not financially viable for the track. Operators of the Nurburgring attempted to renegotiate the agreement to no avail. Following the cancellation of the grand prix in Germany, Formula 1's leader Bernie Ecclestone has been blasted for putting his greed in front of the sport.

During the weekend, reports emerged that Mercedes-Benz offered to save the German Grand Prix. Obviously wanting their Mercedes AMG Formula 1 team to be the source of national pride once again in 2015, the German automaker offered to cover half the race's losses and provide added marketing to an event held at the Hockenhiemring. Despite the best efforts by Mercedes-Benz, the alternative plan for the German Grand Prix did not materialize.

There have been only four times since the inception of Formula 1 in 1950 that a German Grand Prix was not held. Two of those occasions, 1950 and 1960, the grand prix was not part of the Formula 1 schedule. In 1955, the race in Germany was cancelled in reaction to the tragic Le Mans crash that resulted the deaths of 83 spectators and driver Pierre Levegh. In 2007, the more recent absence of the German Grand Prix prior to this year, the Formula 1 series ran at the Nurburgring under the European Grand Prix banner.

With the July 17th to 19th race weekend now deleted from the 2015 schedule, there will be a three-week gap between the British Grand Prix and the Hungarian Grand Prix.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Commanding 2015 Formula 1 Debut Win for Hamilton and Mercedes in Australia

Photo Credit: Mercedes AMG

It has come to the time of the year where the competitors of the world's premier open wheel racing tour have begun lining up for the five red lights on race track starting grids. In a globe-trotting series involving visits to many exciting locales, the 20-race 2015 Formula 1 calendar opens in Australia on the Albert Park. A race track known with a reputation for punishing race cars, the brand-new machines of 2015 are subjected to a baptism by fire. Historically, cars and teams that have survived the opening Australian Grand Prix best would move on to enjoy a solid season.

The returning constructors' champion for 2014 that totaled to win 16 of 19 grand prix events, the early speed of Mercedes AMG was a scary sight for other teams who had been working to close in on the juggernaut of last season. Pole qualifying only added to the worries of everyone intent to catch Mercedes AMG's latest W06 Hybrid race car as defending World Drivers' Champion Lewis Hamilton convincingly took the Australian Grand Prix top spot. Beside Hamilton, Nico Rosberg insured the first race would have a full Mercedes AMG front row. 

A series of bizarre occurrences led to a multitude of withdrawals before the 58-lap race even started. The first incident involved the Manor Marussia team on Saturday. Neither one of the team cars driven by Roberto Merhi or Will Stevens completed a single lap in qualifying leading to the exclusion of the Manor Marussia organization. Further actions against the team from the Formula 1 sanctioning body is possible.

Facing a 18-car field within hours of the Australian Grand Prix start, Williams Martini Racing driver Valtteri Bottas was forced to withdraw from the race. Bottas suffered back pain that required medical attention following Saturday's qualifying. On Sunday, Bottas was ruled unfit to drive by the Formula 1 medical team. Respecting the decision, the sole Williams-Mercedes starting the season opener was the #19 car of Felipe Massa.

Photo Credit: Pirelli Photo Service

The Formula 1 field dropped to 16 starters when vehicles assembled on the grid Albert Park. Kevin Magnussen driving a McLaren-Honda race car in substitute for the injured Fernando Alonso suffered a terminal failure minutes before the formation lap as smoke bellowed from his vehicle. With the 2015 season marking the latest return for Honda to Formula 1, Magnussen's early retirement was not the sight the Japanese auto company was hoping to see in the opening race. The combined incidents of participants dropping out of the 2015 Australian Grand Prix resulted in one of the smallest Formula 1 starting grids since the 2005 United States Grand Prix when all but six cars drove the garage following the race's formation lap. Another mechanical problem cost Daniil Kyvat his first race start with Red Bull Racing when a gearbox problem caused him to lose power.

With only 15 cars set on the grid, the first start of the 2015 Formula 1 season would farther thin-out the vehicle count. While the Mercedes AMG cars of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg launched away from the field immediately as the first turn approached, action behind them resulted in the early retirement of the Lotus-Mercedes cars. Suffering a depletion of power on the formation lap, Romain Grosjean's Lotus E23 Hybrid abruptly fall down the running order. Grosjean retired after completing just one lap. The second Lotus F1 Team car of Pastor Maldonado had an even shorter Australian Grand Prix. In a chain reaction incident starting with the two Ferraris touching either other on the hustle into turn one on the first lap, the end result was Maldonado being tagged by one of the Saubers and colliding with a wall. Despite promise both Lotus-Mercedes cars ended the first race of the season at the back. Maldonado's crashed car and the debris related to the accident led to a safety car period.

At the end of lap three, the safety car returned to the paddock allowing the Mercedes AMG cars to resume their flight away from the rest of the Formula 1 field. Among the Silver Arrows, it was Hamilton that immediately pulled away from his teammate Rosberg. As the Mercedes AMG team were in a league of their own, the remaining competitors fought for the point-paying 3rd to 10th place positions. Due to only 13 cars left running after the safety car, the chances of scoring championship points was in their favour.

As the race transpired through 58 laps, most teams elected for a one pit stop strategy occurring between lap 21 and lap 27. Maybe the result of early season jitters, there were a few mistakes made in belting on new Pirelli tires. The Ferrari team struggled to attach a new left-rear wheel to the car of Kimi Raikkonen costing the Finnish driver several seconds on the track. On lap 40, the problem appeared to have been repeated and ultimately ended with Raikkonen retiring his Ferrari race car in turn five for the following lap.

Photo Credit: Ferrari S.p.A.

A similar problem also occurred with the Toro Rosso car driven by Carlos Sainz Jr. Sainz rejoined the race in 12th place after entering the pits in the top-10. Several laps after the pit road problems for one car, the other Toro Rosso stopped on track just ahead of the pit entrance. Max Verstappen retired from the race when smoke began to appear from the Toro Rosso-Renault.

Through the late stage of the 2015 Australian Grand Prix, the Mercedes AMG race cars were more than 30 seconds ahead of the third place runner. Crossing the finish line 1.3 seconds ahead of Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton started his world drivers' title defense by winning the debut race of the season. "It’s quite unbelievable, really, what this team has done. It’s a great feeling to start off the season the way we finished the last and the car is just incredible, so thank you to the team." Hamilton also praised his teammate for applying a hard charge throughout the 58-lap grand prix. Last year, the Mercedes AMG team finished 1-2 on 11 occasions.

Photo Credit: Mercedes AMG

With several new drivers with new teams, the Australian Grand Prix consisted of several new relationships finding early success. Driving his first race for the Ferrari team, Sebastian Vettel finished on the podium after passing the Williams-Mercedes of Felipe Massa after mid-race pit stops. Despite Raikkonen's retirement, the new Ferrari SF15-T race car has determined much more performance for 2015 after a lot of struggles last season. The result was Ferrari's first podium since the late-July 2014 Hungarian Grand Prix.

Perhaps the best underdog story of the 2015 Australian Grand Prix was the Sauber F1 Team. Prior to the 2015 season opening race, Sauber was caught up in a legal dispute from 2014 Dutch test driver Giedo van der Garde. The driver filed legal action against the team when he was promised a spot in the 2015 driver line-up. Already committed to Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson, Sauber could have had their plans thrown for a loop as a judge found in favour of van der Garde. However, just in time for the Australian Grand Prix, the Giedo van der Garde dropped his legal challenge allowing the intended driver line-up to remain. After going all of 2014 without scoring any championship points, Sauber placed two drivers in the top-10 for the first race of the 2015 season. Felipe Nasr performed an outstanding Formula 1 driving debut to finish fifth while Ericsson brought his Sauber-Ferrari across the line eighth. The last time two Sauber cars finished in the points was at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.

Photo Credit: Sauber Motorsport AG

With the first race of the 2015 Formula 1 season in the books, it's evident many of the challengers to Mercedes AMG have upped their games. However, it's also apparent that the Silver Arrows have potentially realized a new level of mastery in grand prix competition.

Next race for the 2015 Formula 1 tour is the March 29th Grand Prix of Malaysia.

2015 Formula 1

Australian Grand Prix

Race Results

Position # Car # Driver Team Engine
1 44 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes AMG Mercedes-Benz
2 6 Nico Rosberg Mercedes AMG Mercedes-Benz
3 5 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari Ferrari
4 19 Felipe Massa Williams Mercedes-Benz
5 12 Felipe Nasr Sauber Ferrari
6 3 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull Renault
7 27 Nico Hulkenberg Force India Mercedes-Benz
8 9 Marcus Ericsson Sauber Ferrari
9 55 Carlos Sainz Jr Scuderia Toro Rosso Renault
10 11 Sergio Perez Force India Mercedes-Benz
11 22 Jenson Button McLaren Honda
12 7 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari Ferrari
13 33 Max Verstappen Scuderia Toro Rosso Renault
14 13 Pastor Maldonado Lotus Mercedes-Benz
15 26 Daniil Kvyat Red Bull Renault
16 8 Romain Grosjean Lotus Mercedes-Benz
17 20 Kevin Magnussen McLaren Honda
18 77 Valtteri Bottas Williams F1 Renault