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The greatest drivers in Formula 1 are able to achieve great things with cars that are deemed to be uncompetitive. They understand the problems and adapt to them. Admittedly, it is not possible these days for a great driver to win in a bad car. The car must be at least vaguely competitive. And this is where one must take off one’s hat to Fernando Alonso. He is already considered by many to be the best driver in F1, but this year he is adding to that reputation. He pedals the Ferrari F14T with verve and ability. He never gives up, rarely makes mistakes and he has scored in every race this year, an achievement that only Nico Hulkenberg can match.

Fernando’s best finish is third, his worst ninth and his average around fifth. If you asked people to rate the three best cars in F1 this year (thus the cars that should fill the top six finishing positions) I have no doubt that the Mercedes would top the list and that Williams and Red Bull would be next, with the challengers behind them being McLaren, Ferrari and Force India. This being the case, how it is that Alonso is fourth in the standings with an average finish of fifth and a points total of 97?

By the same token why is Kimi Raikkonen languishing in 12th with just 19 points, despite having had only one retirement? It’s not pretty when you look closely at the results. So what is the problem with Raikkonen? Does he get the same equipment as Alonso? Is he lacking confidence in the car? Is he simply past his best and not really interested? The official argument is that the car does not suit his driving style and that he is working to make it better and when he does that and feels confident then he will fly again.

Some say that Alonso has the emotional support of the team and that makes it tough for Kimi to do well. That is not very convincing when one considers Kimi’s apparently impervious nature. Is he secretly a little flower that needs to be loved and nurtured? Other more cynical folk argue that Kimi came back to F1 and found himself in an exceptional F1 car in the Lotus and was thus able to produce some astonishing results, which revived his career. The car also allowed Romain Grosjean to get close to victories, so perhaps this flattered Kimi somewhat.

I don’t claim to know the answer to this question, but Ferrari boss Marco Mattiacci says that Kimi is the driver that Ferrari needs. Quite how he knows this after 12 minutes in the sport is an interesting question. How does he know that Raikkonen is doing a better job than Nico Hulkenberg or Jenson Button would do in the same car, or Felipe Massa come to that? The word is that the choice of Raikkonen was made by Luca Montezemolo at a moment last year when he thought that Alonso was going to leave and Ferrari needed a star name. The big guns behind Ferrari would not be satisfied with a Nico Hulkenberg or a Jules Bianchi. So Kimi it was…

The big question now is what happens next? Ferrari has not managed to give Alonso a title in five seasons of trying and the Spaniard is frustrated. He will be 33 next week and it is fairly clear that his next career decision will probably be his last in F1 terms. He is also in demand. Ferrari wants to keep him. McLaren wants to sign him. Williams would love to have him. Fernando can pretty much name his price at the moment and, as I hear it, last weekend in Germany was pretty significant as Fernando’s contract has a clause in it that says that he is free to leave his team if it is not in the top three in the Constructors’ Championship. In Hockenheim Williams overtook Ferrari for third place… What we do not know is the date at which this proviso kicks in, but normally these things must be decided by September 1 and announced at the Italian GP.

Thus, Ferrari is now exposed and Fernando can make his own arrangements without needing to worry about contracts. The question for Alonso is really very simple: what engine does he think will be the best one next season? If the answer is not Ferrari then there is no point in staying on in Maranello. If the answer is Mercedes, he has only one choice if he is serious about winning. With Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton locked in at Mercedes AMG Petronas, the best available seat for Fernando would have to be one of the two Williams drives. Niki Lauda remarked the other day that he was happy that Alonso was not in a Williams, an indication that the old charger has spotted that possibility. Sir Frank Williams, who has been around the F1 block more times than Lauda, has almost certainly spotted that as well.

If Alonso’s answer is Honda, or he feels that Honda can win the title in the course of the next three years, then he should go to Woking. The past is irrelevant.

McLaren and Honda can afford Fernando, Williams cannot, but there is little doubt that if he did do a deal to go to Grove, then Santander would probably follow as soon as it possibly could. Martini could be convinced to double, treble or quadruple its sponsorship of Williams in such a circumstance, but that’s not very likely. It was a cheap deal and is giving the firm fabulous return on its investment. However, if Williams had a competitive car and Alonso, money would arrive.

Ferrari understands that it must now fight for his services. It can give him as much money as it likes. It is a rich team, but Fernando is so wealthy these days that he lives in Spain and does not care about having to pay tax. The key question is whether or not he is hungry enough to risk a move, or would rather settle for a big Ferrari cheque and hope that the arrival of some of his old muckers from Lotus will turn the team around. That is a big gamble. Ferrari has often been a battleground between the Italians and imported helpers. The only time when this stopped was when Jean Todt ring-fenced the team against all interference and ran things as he felt was necessary. That worked. Could Mattiacci do the same or would Luca Montezemolo still call a crisis meeting every six weeks and try to run the team from on high?

The decision that Alonso makes will start the market moving, or freeze it. If he stays at Ferrari perhaps Raikkonen would be paid off. Perhaps the team would hire a youngster to build up into a star so that they have a star when Alonso does eventually go. If that happens then a Hulkenberg or a Bianchi is worth a flutter. If Alonso goes then things will get lively in Maranello. The need for a star name and the underperformance of Raikkonen would create a problem. The team could change both drivers but who would you hire? Jenson Button might stay at McLaren alongside Alonso, creating a nice super team for Honda. That would move the spotlight to Sebastian Vettel, who is not having an enjoyable time at Red Bull. The Milton Keynes team has a conveyor belt of talent in waiting with Daniil Kvyat ready to jump up if required and Carlos Sainz Jr ready to leap into Toro Rosso.

If Alonso is not available for McLaren, Jenson Button would be likely be secure and logically the team would keep Kevin Magnussen for another year. If it was a choice between Button and Magnussen as Alonso’s team-mate, the folk in Woking would probably go for Jenson… at least at the moment. If Kevin becomes more consistent he will strengthen his position.

If Alonso were to take a risk and head off to Williams, a move that would allow him to revive his relationship with Pat Symonds, with whom he won the titles at Renault back in 2005 and 2006, would the team choose Felipe Massa, who knows how to work with Alonso, or would it go for Valtteri Bottas? Perhaps Team Willy would look at selling its Finnish rising star to another well-heeled team, thus raising cash to pay for Fernando…

That’s possible too…

Yesterday was a rainy drive home from Germany with a silly “umleitung” (diversion) in the Pfalz forest which resulted in nearly an hour of rally stages either behind chugging trucks or (more dangerously) swerving around on wildly twisting roads amid trees, cliffs and ravines. We climbed so high that we were in the clouds which added to the feeling that I had turned right and arrived in Wales. Once across the French border it was cruise control all the way to avoid speeding fines – while people from Slovakia/Slovenia hurtle past you, knowing that no French fonctionnaire will ever bother to follow up on a speeding offence. It is enough to make you buy cars in Slovakia/Slovenia! The only excitement was in a rainstorm when a bird that had ventured out without its sou’wester tried to use the same airspace as my automobile and I fear came off worst.

As it was not touring weather I skipped a lunch stop and used the phone (hands-free) to catch up on some of the news that never made it into the paddock, while dodging puddles in the spray. Watch out for changes at Marussia and more at Caterham. Keep an eye too on F1 and Russia as sponsors are beginning to grumble that going to have tea with Vladimir Putin would not be the smartest thing for F1 to do. Maybe the celebrated Strategy Group will finally do something sensible and involve itself in real strategic thinking, rather than doing daft things that don’t help anyone.

The big talking point at Hockenheim was the size of the crowd, with a number of angst-ridden German reporters trying to understand why der Mann auf der Strasse is no longer coming to the German GP, preferring to stay home with flat screen TV, his beer and his wurst rather than dealing with the hassles and costs of “being there”. The conclusions were confused. Some blamed the sport (usually those with an agenda), some blamed Mercedes, some blamed the weather, some blamed the World Cup. The most likely explanation I heard (admittedly a little bit more sociological than others) was that when Germany discovered F1 it was around the same era as Reunification. This was an unsettling time for everybody and the working classes found security, pride and unity in a successful simple lad called Michael. The fans had mullets and few skills with cutlery, but they loved their Schumi with a passion and battalions of camper vans would surge across the border to nearby races, while Hockenheim was a wild festival of beer and nationalism. The new generation of German drivers don’t do it for the retired mullet-wearers. The current F1 crop are all middle class, they are half-this and half-that when it comes to nationality, and as the working class fans have faded away they have not been replaced by der bourgeoisie. No-one engages with Sebastian Vettel because he “vants to be alone” with his anonymous family at the end of a farm track at a secret location in Switzerland and refuses to talk about life away from the race track. He is an interesting guy, but his PR bodyguards won’t let him out. For the Rembrandts in the F1 media, this is like being given a white canvas and some pale yellow paint.

Nico tries hard to engage but he’s almost too perfect, speaks too many languages, looks like a Monaco beach bum and does not excite the average machine operator in Dortmund. They now idolize soccer players. The Hulk is never in the right car and Adrian Sutil is half-Uruguayan, plays the piano and does strange things with champagne glasses.

The key point is that other races are still getting big crowds so F1 should leave the angst to the Germans.

Germany coverThe German Grand Prix was dominated but Nico Rosberg, but most of the focus was not on the World Championship leader, but rather on his team-mate Lewis Hamilton as he fought his way from the back of the grid to third place, just behind second-placed Valtteri Bottas. It was a masterful drive.

- We look at the FRIC suspension controversy
– Pirelli tests 18-inch wheels
– Britain to allow racing on the roads
– A chat with Susie Wolff
– JS looks at the future of F1
– DT wonders what happened to the crowd at Hockenheim
– The Hack remembers the old days at Hockenheim
– Peter Nygaard and his team of snappers capture all the action

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It’s a beautiful day in France and being in no great hurry to get to Hockenheim I decided to stop of in a village called Vadelaincourt, just off the autoroute near Verdun, to find the grave of Georges Boillot, the great French Grand Prix driver before World War 1. He won the Grand Prix de l’ACF in 1912 and 1913 and battled valiantly in 1914, only to be beaten by the mighty Mercedes team. When war came he talked his way into the French Armée de l’Air and became a fighter pilot, he was good at it too and duly stacked up victories and medals, but in May 1916 his Nieuport was shot down at Vadelaincourt. I remember seeing photographs of his funeral on the Web, and (logically) his grave was listed as being there on various website. The only problem was that there is only one cemetery at Vadelaincourt – and no Boillots is in it! Hmmm. So it was back to the Web again to discover that, yes, Boillot was buried in Vadelaincourt, but later was exhumed and reinterred in the celebrated Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris… as befits a national hero. I’ll have to find him there one day. Hopefully, he’s not going to be on the move again.

I headed onward and was surprised to see my first NASCAR racing car in Europe…

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Years ago there was an Italian racer called Felice Tedeschi, who we used to call Happy Germans, with appropriate artistic licence. I am sure to find a few gleeful Goths and happy Hun today as I am off to the Federal Republic this morning, down that well-beaten path known as the A4 autoroute, by way of Meaux (of mustard fame), Reims (the land of champagne), the Argonne, Verdun (today called “la ville de la paix”, the town of peace) where generations of French and Germans were slaughtered a century ago, and on from there to Metz (pronounced “mess”) and on to the border at Saarbrucken. I’ll probably turn off there and send my way through the Pfälzerwald forest until I get to the Rhine at Speyer, a place that is easy to find thanks to it having a Jumbo Jet on stilts overlooking the town (strange but true). From there Hockenheim is just minutes away, smuggled in its flat forest, with the fans no doubt already ensconced in their tents, with a few dozen beers for company. It will be a happy place this weekend: Germany is celebrating its soccer victories and will be willing Nico Rosberg to win. Lewis Hamilton will be there to spoil the party. Fun, fun.

Schnitzel for dinner!

Mercedes AMG Petronas has announced “a multi-year contract extension” with Nico Rosberg. Rosberg has been with the team since 2010 and in recent years has scored six victories. He currently leads the Formula ! World Championship, although his team-mate Lewis Hamilton is in hot pursuit.

“I am very proud to drive the Formula One Silver Arrow of the modern era,” Rosberg said. “As a German, the heritage of Mercedes-Benz is very special for me, and I am proud to be able to represent the best car brand around the world. It has been a difficult road to get to where we are now – but everybody kept believing and, thanks to the fantastic support from Mercedes-Benz, we are now leading the way in F1. There has been big progress during the past year, building up our structure, management and capability for the future. We have an awesome team and I am confident that we have the right people in place at every level. I’m looking forward to the next years together, when we will keep pushing to win even more races – and, hopefully, championships.”

Team boss Toto Wolff says that the new deal will bring the team “important stability and continuity for the future”.

Improving Caterham

Amid stories of big changes at Caterham F1, with dozens of staff having been let go in recent days, work is now going on to change the aerodynamics of the car as quickly as possible in order to try to snatch 10th place in the Constructors’ Championship from Sauber, or even ninth from Marussia, which would require a ninth place finish. Finishing in the top 10 would guarantee that Caterham would win around $50 million in prize money, which would go a long way towards setting the team on the right path for the future. This is sure to knock noses out of joint but it is clear that the new owners and management know that change was necessary, rather than letting the team go on underachieving as before.

One problem that will not go away, however, is the fact that the team is owned by a Malaysian company. The team can change its licence to whatever nationality it so desires and the name can also change, albeit with rather more difficulty, but the entry cannot be transferred to a different company because it is linked to the company number. The team could try to get the other signatories to agree to change the terms of the deal but this is unlikely to succeed because of the trouble such a precedent could set. That means that for now the team needs to have at least one Malaysian resident national on its board of directors and has to go through the necessary corporate processes in Malaysia. This complicates matters but is not the end of the world. It is conceivable that an arrangement can be found before the next Concorde Agreement (or equivalent) in 2020.

In the interim, it is down to what F1 is all about: producing a better car and scoring points. If the team can do that, everything else will follow.

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