Invaluable lessons learned from F1 Barcelona testing


Pre-season Formula 1 testing is an impossible language to translate. Trying to figure out which team is genuinely quick is about as tricky as it must have been for intellectuals of bygone years to ascertain the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs before the discovery of the Rosetta stone.

You see, there is no solid reference. It changes each lap. Everyone runs new cars with new aerodynamic configurations beyond a daily basis, an hourly basis … or even with each run. Such is the manner in which testing is conducted and such is the exact science of data collection, that wing levels and car set-up are often changed on a lap by lap basis. Fuel levels are kept secret. A new generation of tires are reacting in unusual ways to the different track surfaces at the various testing venues in Spain, their characteristics being further altered by a single degree drop in temperature.

So what can we learn from the timing screens at the end of the day? Not a lot.

But we can learn something from being on site, and that is why NBC Sports’ visit to Barcelona last week was so useful. Because, at this time of year, there are only really two ways to learn who might turn up in Melbourne with a winning car. The first is to watch the cars out on track. Don’t look at the times, look at the way the car drives the circuit, attacks the corners … listen to how the drivers apply the throttle on corner exit, listen to the engine pitch and hear how well planted a driver can keep his right foot in the fast stuff. You will learn pretty quickly who has a responsive car, who has a dependable car and who has a fast car.

The second is to watch the drivers themselves, watch their body language, the way they relate their findings to their engineers. Watch the way they walk around the paddock, read their actions from the way they greet an old friend to the way they drink their tea. And if you can, talk to them.

Last week, as part of NBC’s “staggering” (in the words of paddock colleagues) pre-season filming shoot in Spain, I got to do just that. One on one. And the results were fascinating.

I’m not going to give away all that was said, that would sort of ruin the whole point of sending out all the Hollywood cameras and crew and I don’t think my new NBC bosses would be terribly impressed with that.

The one thing that was clear was that this season is going to be tight. Nobody was giving much away, but the theme seemed to be that with minimal changes to the regulations, almost everyone thinks they have a better car underneath them than they did at this point 12 months ago.

This is even true at McLaren. Jenson Button admitted the team was feeling somewhat confused by its new challenger, and that they were behind the curve compared to their rivals, but that the potential of his 2013 car was far greater than his 2012 ride.

Ferrari have a night and day difference from last season. The car isn’t a dog, and that has given both Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso the boost they needed after the wretched pre-season testing they endured in 2012. If Alonso could fight for the title with an awful car, imagine what he can do with a half decent one.

Red Bull’s boys were giving little away, too, but Mark Webber has an assured confidence about him. It’s going to take something massive to get one up on his now three-time world champion teammate, but he’s clearly viewed as the best choice to partner the man who is rewriting the record books.

Mercedes has much to prove with its new superstar driver Lewis Hamilton. The 2008 world champion is playing down expectations, as much to manage his own hunger for champagne as that of his fans and new bosses. There is an underlying confidence about him and Nico Rosberg. I don’t think it is a championship confidence for 2013, but perhaps the feeling that they are embarking on something special together for the long term.

The one team that really seems pumped up right now is Lotus. Both drivers were totally at ease, confident and jovial. There wasn’t a hint of pressure, nor of frustration… not even when we sat Kimi Raikkonen down for a 15-minute interview. He even cracked a smile and a few jokes. Right now, the read I get off the Lotus boys is by far the most positive of all the top challengers.

There’s an air of confidence around the Williams and Sauber teams too, and if the assured calm of their drivers is replicated with the speed of their cars, they could be ones to watch.

At the back end of the grid, I’m sorry to say that Caterham’s boys, while excited about the challenge, could not hide a tremendous challenge ahead. Marussia meanwhile may actually start the season with a slight advantage over its next-door neighbors  I was worried to see Luiz Razia not given any test mileage in Barcelona, and one can only imagine that sponsor issues would have been behind a reason to keep a rookie away from much needed cockpit time. He was my stand-out driver in last season’s F1 feeder category GP2, and I hope for his sake that things are resolved in a positive fashion. His teammate Max Chilton, meanwhile, gave some of the most mature and introspective answers I heard all week in interview. I’ve known Max a while, but my word he’s grown up fast over the last few months.

But if one interview stood out for me from the week, it was the one with a driver who may not even have a race seat in 2013. Adrian Sutil stepped into an F1 car for the first time in over a year on the third day of the test and impressed everyone. Force India has a spare race seat this season, and their former driver is favorite to land it. A year out of the sport has not dulled his hunger nor his senses, but from speaking to him I learned that it has given him that rarest of gifts: perspective. He is relaxed, rested, and has come to appreciate that there is more to life than racing. He sees the wider picture, he sees the world and all it has to offer. But still he wants to race.

I’d like to see Adrian back in a race seat. With his raw pace, combined with a new maturity and worldliness, he could be a hugely potent force in 2013.

But these are just my impressions. How good were the boys’ poker faces? We have just over two weeks left until the flag drops. I can’t wait.

Will Buxton is the F1 pit reporter for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @WillBuxton.

F1 Paddock Pass: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (VIDEO)

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP speaks at a press conference next to Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari, Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda, Romain Grosjean of France and Lotus, Daniil Kvyat of Russia and Infiniti Red Bull Racing and Roberto Merhi of Spain and Manor Marussia during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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The 2015 Formula 1 season may not have been one for the ages, but it has certainly offered some fascinating and entertaining storylines that will continue to have repercussions as we head into the new year.

Lewis Hamilton may have a third world title under his belt, but the recent good form of Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg suggests that he may face a more stringent challenge to make it a set of four in 2016.

Before we can even begin to think about next year’s championship race though, there are a number of loose ends to be tied up in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

A number of teams’ futures are still up in the air, and while the grid is largely there, questions about the futures of most racing in F1 still linger.

For the final time in 2015, NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton brings you all of the latest news, interviews and insight in the latest edition of Paddock Pass.

In part one, we catch up with three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton as he bids to stop Rosberg’s recent resurgence, while Romain Grosjean talks about his impending adventure with Haas F1 Team in 2016 ahead of his last race for Lotus.

We also talk to F1’s unofficial rookie of the year Max Verstappen ahead of his first race under the lights in Abu Dhabi.

Part two features a trio of drivers who haven’t had a year quite as impressive as those in part one. Fernando Alonso and Daniil Kvyat have both been left frustrated by engine woes, while Kimi Raikkonen’s failure to match teammate Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari has raised more than a few question marks. We hear from all three ahead of what is surely a much-welcomed last race of the year.

MotorSportsTalk’s Predictions: Abu Dhabi GP

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP speaks with Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda next to Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari at a press confernce during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton may have clinched his third Formula 1 world championship over a month ago now, but there is still plenty to play for as the paddock arrives in Abu Dhabi for the final race of the year.

Nico Rosberg’s resurgence may have been too little, too late for this year’s title fight, but the German driver is currently on a run of form that will undoubtedly make him a contender once again for the 2016 crown.

Abu Dhabi has a knack for the spectacular, running as the only twilight race on the F1 calendar and boasting the Yas Viceroy hotel as its impressive centrepiece – under the lights, the stars come out.

For the final time in 2015, here are the MST team’s picks for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Be sure to let us know in the comments section your thoughts and make your own picks.

For full TV and streaming details ahead of the Abu Dhabi GP weekend, click here.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race WinnerNico Rosberg. Two on the bounce and having finally banished the demons of 2014, I’m tipping Nico to edge Lewis again in Abu Dhabi. It’ll set things up beautifully for 2016.

Surprising FinishMax Verstappen. Abu Dhabi has a habit of producing unpredictable races, so I’m tipping F1’s unofficial rookie of the year to come through strongly once again.

Most to ProveLewis Hamilton. It may be a little harsh to say that the world champion has to prove himself at the last race of the year, but he can’t afford to lose any more ground to Rosberg heading into the winter.

Additional Storyline to Watch: Bon voyage, Romain. After ten years of association with the Enstone operation, Romain Grosjean will bid farewell to Lotus this weekend ahead of his move to Haas in 2016. Grosjean has been the on-track heartbeat of the team through some tough times, so will hopefully get the send-off he deserves.

Predict the Podium

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race Winner: Nico Rosberg. The talking point from a Mercedes standpoint going into the weekend is one of a psychological match-up. Rosberg’s lost the 2015 season long war, of course, but has firmly gained the upper edge in battle the last two races. For offseason momentum, if there is such a thing, Rosberg stands to gain the most with a third straight win, and even though this is a track Hamilton has dominated at in the past, Rosberg’s riding the hot hand of form right now.

Surprising Finish: Kimi Raikkonen. He’d never say it publicly, but Raikkonen should desperately want to finish ahead of his countryman and recent rival Bottas in the “best of the rest” category behind the top three. Third and fourth is about where the drivers should finish in the standings, given the Ferrari’s pace.

Most to Prove: McLaren Honda. At the track where the engine made its debut last year in the post-race test, I’m praying there’s a trouble free weekend for them. That’s all I ask.

Additional Storyline to Watch: The ends of eras, and the loose ends to tie up. Several eras come to an end this weekend, and there’s several items to get tied up this weekend (Red Bull engines, and more). The paddock drama may trump on the on-track drama this weekend.

Predict the Podium

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari

Rossi: A time to be thankful

2015 GP2 Series Round 10.
Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain
Friday 20 November 2015.
Alexander Rossi (USA, Racing Engineering) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _G7C0782
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It’s Thanksgiving Day back home this week, and I’m very thankful for so many good things in my life.

On the racing front, my GP2 team Racing Engineering deserve every bit of thanks and praise for preparing and delivering me a race car this year that has been an utter joy to drive, even when the fates conspire against us as they did in Bahrain last weekend.

Even on those odd weekends, we’ve been able to show incredible pace and as a true team we work through the good and bad days. My sincere thanks to them!

To the organizers of the GP2 series, I am very thankful. They have yet again staged a spectacular championship. The GP2 family is tight, friendly and competitive, and the ideal environment in which to work for drivers, engineers, mechanics and everyone involved pushing towards the highest level of motorsport. I’ve been very fortunate to be part of the GP2 family.

This past race in Bahrain, we had one of those weekends which you want to hit restart on. Practice was great – we were immediately quick and then went faster still and maintained P1 as everyone went onto their long runs. In qualifying we had some braking issues and ended up ninth, not what we had targeted at all and that meant race one would be a fight. However, it was still a decent position from which to fight for points and a good starting position for the sprint race.

Our long run race pace had been really good in practice, so we knew we had a good shot in the feature race. I was pushing hard right up to my stop, and when I came out I was within reach of second place, but then had contact with Mitch Evans and had to pit for a new nose. There wasn’t anything I could do from that point and finished up 18th. Starting ninth and being very close to second showed yet again that we had a very good race car and our strategy for the race, starting from ninth, was good.

Finishing 18th on Friday meant I started the Sprint Race in the same position. With a strong field ahead it was always going to be a challenge to finish in a high points-scoring position. I had a mega start and the car was great again and I ended up ninth – not too bad considering where we started. Obviously this was not the goal for the weekend, but we maintain a strong second position in the driver’s championship.

I’m thankful to immediately have another weekend in Abu Dhabi to cement second place in the GP2 championship. I’ve had a lot of success racing around Yas Marina Circuit and my thanks must go to the people behind the circuit. They’ve made a true racer’s paradise! The track is very flat with some extremely challenging sections – some high speed, a few heavy braking zones and a technical section under the Yas Viceroy Hotel, where traction is very important to really maximize performance.

Around the circuit you have an amazing environment, all built to put on a great show for the fans. If you haven’t been before, you should try. This is especially true in late November with mild weather and there’s always an incredibly warm reception from everyone who works or comes to the events.

Next up my sincere thanks to Manor Marussia F1 Team who helped make my 2015 F1 debut happen, and I look forward to more good things with them in 2016. I could not have asked to race with a better group of people, many of whom I know from last year, in 2014 when I first started working with them.

This year the opportunity to race with Manor F1 came up quite fast and without a lot of time to prepare. Singapore was my first F1 race and everyone at the team did everything they could to make my transition from GP2 to F1 seamless. I hope to have repaid them with my performances, as these past five F1 races were important leading into 2016. I enjoyed every second with them and am very thankful for the opportunity.

Finally, I must thank the group of people that are around me, allowing me to focus on racing and my fitness. Every driver has a similar team and 99% of the time they are not seen or mentioned. My team work tirelessly both physically and mentally to help me achieve my goals. I am very blessed to have such good people on my side.

Enjoy this weekend’s races in Abu Dhabi, the finale for both the F1 and GP2 Championships. Thank you all for your support and for everyone back home, have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day celebrating with family.

Many Blessings,


Raikkonen: 2015 an improved but “average” year

xxxx during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen has called 2015 an “average” year and said that his performances are still far from where he wants them to be.

After a miserable 2014 campaign that saw him finish 12th in the drivers’ championship, Raikkonen has enjoyed an upturn in fortunes this year partly in thanks to the improvements made to the Ferrari car.

However, the Finn has still failed to match the results of teammate Sebastian Vettel, scoring 131 fewer points and 12 fewer podium finishes than the German driver this year.

When asked ahead of this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix how he would sum up the year, Raikkonen was his usual blunt self, saying that his performances were still a far cry from where he wanted them to be.

“Pretty average, I must say,” Raikkonen said. “Better than last year but still far away from what it should be.

“But there’s life and next year we’ll try again. Obviously this year has been a lot stronger year from the team than previous year and you can easily see it from whichever way you look at it and it all comes to next year.

“Obviously that’s the aim: the aim is always to try to be in the front and Mercedes has always been very strong last years and everybody else tries to beat them. Is it going to happen? Are we going to be in a position next year? We hope so at least.”

Much has been said about a possible challenge to pace-setters Mercedes by Ferrari in 2016, but Raikkonen is waiting to reserve judgement until the 2016 car has hit the track.

“We have to wait until we put the cars on the circuit in a test and the first few races, then we really see where we are,” Raikkonen said.

“Obviously there’s a lot of work being done at the factory, number and stuff but it’s never the same until we’re really on the circuit. Then we can see it pretty well, or feel it quite quickly, after a few laps, if it’s going to a good one or not so good one.

“I’m sure we’re going to have a strong package, but is it strong enough? Time will only tell.”