Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The future of Williams?

A front row lockout and finishing third and fourth at last weekend's Austrian Grand Prix was a great result from Williams whose last years have had lots of ups and downs. They fell from a top team to a midfield team once their partnership with BMW ended after the 2005 season. 2011 was their worst season in decades, ninth position in the constructors' championship with only five points. After that, one could wonder if there were any hope for a better future for Williams. That's why their good form in the 2012 season was a positive surprise. Pastor Maldonado won the Spanish Grand Prix for the team, their first win since Juan Pablo Montoya at the 2004 Brazilian GP. Yet they couldn't finish higher than eighth in the constructors' championship; Maldonado was way too inconsistent and Bruno Senna didn’t have the pace.

2013 was again a difficult season for the team. Just like in 2011, they finished ninth in the constructors championship with five points. After the season, Maldonado, with his PDVSA sponsorship, left the team for Lotus. Valtteri Bottas, who had replaced Bruno Senna after 2012, stayed in the team, and a former Ferrari driver Felipe Massa became his new teammate. The team also had to end their engine partnership with Renault and they switched to Mercedes engines.

The switch to Mercedes engines was probably the best thing that could happen to Williams. Mercedes has built the best 2014-spec engine, as shown by their own team dominating the series. That's why also Mercedes' customers have had good results this year. But you can't explain Williams' good form with only the Mercedes engines. They are ahead of McLaren, an established top team. Force India are two points ahead of Williams but they gained lots of points compared to Williams in the early season. Williams seem like the only team besides Red Bull that might have pace to challenge Mercedes, even though Williams doesn't perform everywhere as well as at Montreal and the Red Bull Ring.

But can they repeat this season's results next year and re-establish themselves as a top team? That is hard to say but I am a bit sceptical. I believe that at least some of Red Bull, Ferrari, and McLaren will be stronger next year and will be able to challenge Mercedes. This season is for Williams a bit like the 2012 season was for Williams and Sauber. Suddenly a midfield team has a car capable for podium results, yet they couldn't repeat the success in the following year. One advantage for Williams is the Mercedes engines, though. If Mercedes could retain their advantage for the next year, Williams might find themselves fighting against usual top teams like Red Bull, Ferrari, and McLaren.

The Mercedes engines may have helped Williams to become again a team that can race for podium results but if they are to become a true championship contender, they may need to have another engine partner. After all, Williams are Mercedes' customers and I am not sure they would get full support, especially if that might cost Mercedes' own team a title. McLaren could have stayed as a customer team for Mercedes who are probably the best engine manufacturer in F1. Instead they start a works engine partnership with Honda. Being a customer team isn't an ideal position if you want to race for the titles.

Williams need results like they have had this year to convince some car manufacturer to enter into a works partnership with them. What I think is good for Williams, is that they seem to be financially more stable than other midfield teams, making them more attractive for a long-term partnership. Besides, their non-F1 engineering services might make them an attractive partner for a car manufacturer. Still, at the moment there isn't much talk about potential new engine manufacturers, so having Mercedes customer engines is the best they can have at the moment. Those are the best engines available and help them to establish themselves as a strong midfield team. That is where they need to be to have a chance to become a works team for a new engine manufacturer.

To establish themselves as a strong midfield team, they need also a strong driver line-up. Bottas and Massa is a good pairing, especially Bottas has had some very impressive race performances. But Bottas has been so good that I expect him to leave Williams for a better team in few years unless Williams becomes a true top team. Having at least one excellent driver is necessary for a team. Williams' 2012 season is an example on that. The car had lots of potential, as shown by Maldonado's win in the Spanish GP. But Maldonado was very inconsistent and Bruno Senna lacked pace. With a stronger driver line-up, they might have finished a couple of positions higher in the final standings.

Finding good drivers is difficult for a midfield team, especially as they aren't able to pay much but would rather have drivers who would bring some sponsors. But Williams aren't here alone. The likes of Lotus, Force India, and Sauber have this same problem. One can hope that the good results of this year would bring some new sponsors for Williams to be able to have a strong driver line-up as well as engineering department. Unfortunately we have seen in recent years that good performances don't guarantee new sponsors for midfield teams. Lotus was strong in last two seasons and Sauber in 2012, yet those teams have had financial difficulties.

Williams are having a great season but they still have a long way to become a real top team. They need results like this to attract new sponsors and maybe some car manufacturer to enter into a works partnership. More sponsor income and works engines are in my opinion what Williams need to become a championship contender again.

Monday, June 16, 2014

My report of the 2014 24 Hours of Le Mans

This year's 24 Hours of Le Mans is now behind. For me this was the second Le Mans I really followed. I followed as much of last year's race as possible and enjoyed it, and this time I wanted to see the entire race, and it was a truly great race.

This year marked the return of the works Porsche team to Le Mans. I was happy to see Porsche going to Le Mans; they are such an iconic brand in racing and one of my favourite car brands. I really hope they will have success at Le Mans, yet this year I was actually hoping them not to win. I didn't want them to humiliate Audi and Toyota in the first year after their comeback, especially as Audi is another of my favourite brands.

Audi has dominated Le Mans since 2000 winning all but two races, 2003 and 2009. That's why it is understandable many people wanted to have a new winner. Still, my sympathies were on Audi's side, partly because of their difficult week. The #1 Audi R18 driven by Loic Duval crashed badly in Wednesday's practice session. Duval didn't injure himself badly in the accident but was he had to miss the race and was replaced by Marc Gene. The #1 Audi also couldn't participate the first qualifying session on Wednesday. The qualifying wasn't too good for other Audis, too. The three R18s occupied the starting positions 5 to 7, behind the Toyotas and the Porsches.

Early in the race, #14 Porsche had some fuel system problems that forced it to pits being repaired. Then, with just under two hours of racing, it started to rain heavily and we had some drama. The #8 Toyota driven by Nicolas Lapierre seemed to spin by itself to barriers on the wet track, and at the same a GT Ferrari, driven by Sam Bird hit the #3 Audi driven by Marco Bonanomi. The Audi had to retire whereas the Toyota was able to continue the race but lost lots of time being repaired.

At night, the #1 Audi had to pit to get the fuel injector changed. Also the #14 Porsche faced again problems, being forced to have again a long pit stop. Meanwhile the #7 Toyota was racing with a comfortable lead of almost two minutes to the second-placed #2 Audi. Then, in early morning we had the most dramatic moment of the race. The leading #7 Toyota had been reported to have stopped at Arnage and the #2 Audi took the lead. An electrical problem had forced the Toyota to retire from the lead.

Now, despite all the struggles of the week, the Audi team found themselves having a one-two lead in the race with #2 in the lead and #1 second. The #20 Porsche was on the third place in front of the #8 Toyota and #14 Porsche who had lost lots of time in pits during the race. But the race was far from over, there was still more than the duration of a regular WEC race to finish. And it wasn't a comfortable finish for Audi. The #2 R18 dropped to third position because its turbocharger had to be changed. Now the #1 Audi was leading the race, after being heavily crashed on Wednesday's practice. One of its drivers was the record-winner of Le Mans, Tom Kristensen, aiming for his tenth win.

But nothing was predictable in this race. The #1 Audi also had to get its turbocharger changed, which dropped it to the 3rd place. Now the #20 Porsche was leading the comeback race of the manufacturer in Le Mans. But the #2 Audi was coming fast from behind and it got past during the pit stops. Eventually, the #20 Porsche couldn't even make the podium as technical issues forced it to retire. Also the #14 Porsche had to pit because of technical problems but it was sent back to track at the end of the race to cross the finish line.

In the end, the race was won by the #2 Audi R18 driven by Marcel Fässler, Andre Lotterer, and Benoit Treluyer. The #1 Audi R18 driven by Tom Kristensen, Marc Gene, and Lucas Di Grassi finished second and the #8 Toyota TS040 driven by Anthony Davidson, Sebastien Buemi, and Nicolas Lapierre finished third.

Many people must have found yet another Audi win boring but I was happy for them after all the difficulties they had this week. In some ways, I can understand the joy of Rafael Nadal's fans after his maybe the worst French Open-winning performance. In both cases, the old winner was vulnerable but nobody else had what it takes to win.

At the same time, I feel gutted for Toyota. They did everything right in the race but to win a 24-hour race, you must have the reliability and they didn't have. They were the fastest car this year and I hope they can win Le Mans soon, even though Toyota doesn't raise the same passion in me as Porsche or Audi.

Porsche had an excellent comeback race even though technical issues ended it. Before those issues, they had even one car racing for the win. I hope and believe they can have success in the next years and have tight battles for wins against other teams. While I was happy that Audi could win after the difficult week, I hope to get a new winning manufacturer as soon as possible. Despite Audi's win, at least this year the battle for the win involved three teams, so you can't say Audi winning was inevitable.

Besides the LMP1 class, I enjoyed the GTE classes. Especially the battle for the win of GTE Pro was exciting with wheel-to-wheel racing. The #51 Ferrari of AF Corse, #97 Aston Martin, and #74 Chevrolet Corvette were battling for the win of GTE Pro. Unfortunately first the #74 Corvette and then the #97 Aston Martin faced technical problems, ending the battle for the win before the race ended. I wanted Aston Martin to have a good result as their last Le Mans was a sad race because of Allan Simonsen's death in the GTE Am class. That's why I was really gutted about the power steering issue that took them off from battling for the GTE Pro class win. Every cloud has a silver lining, though. My countryman Toni Vilander was driving the winning AF Corse #51 Ferrari with Gianmaria Bruni and Giancarlo Fisichella. And Aston Martin could win the GTE Am class with the #95 V8 Vantage GTE; the same number that Simonsen had at last year's Le Mans. Unfortunately their #98 V8 Vantage GTE faced some technical issues while leading the GTE Am class; otherwise they could have had one-two in the class.

I really enjoyed the race, 24 hours of great racing and drama, and no artificial gimmicks like DRS or tyres designed to degrade like in F1. Le Mans and other WEC races aren't so hard to follow for an F1 fan, as there are many F1 drivers there. My motorsport interest is definitely moving from F1 to Le Mans and the WEC.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Will Djokovic ever win the French Open? Or even another slam?

This year seemed to be the golden opportunity for Novak Djokovic to win the elusive French Open title. The biggest obstacle to win the title, Rafael Nadal, had not been too impressive after the Australian Open and he played his worst pre-French Open clay season despite being able to win the Madrid Masters and make the final at the Rome Masters. Djokovic had a wrist injury during the Monte Carlo Masters but the wrist was healthy for the Rome Masters which he won, defeating Nadal in the final. So everything seemed fine for him before the French Open.

After the early losses of potential black horses Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori, the French Open was a two-horse race between Djokovic and Nadal, like in the previous couple of years, and it ended with a Djokovic-Nadal final. Despite winning the first set, Djokovic's performance was lame. He couldn't hit through Nadal's defense often enough and Nadal could exploit it if Djokovic left the court open. And mentally his performance was poor. He lost his serve in the last games of the last three sets, being on serve in second and fourth sets. And the match ended with a double fault, just like the French Open final two years ago.

I am starting to believe that Djokovic just doesn't have what it takes to beat Nadal at Roland Garros. He can beat Nadal in Masters events on clay but Nadal will always bring his best to the French Open. Plus there is the pressure of the missing slam from the Career Grand Slam, which doesn't help him.

I think Djokovic's chances to win the French Open depend on how fast he will decline, how fast Nadal will decline, and how fast the new generation will come. Given Nadal's injury history, one can assume Djokovic will have a couple of years more on the top of the game. Plus there may be a year when Nadal has an injury, giving others a great chance to win the title. But Nadal's bad year may come too late for Djokovic. Djokovic is 27 and he can't keep his current level for many more years; next year he will already be older than Roger Federer when he won his only French Open title. Also, there will be new players coming to the top of the game. The tour has been dominated by players in their late 20s plus few in their early 30s. But recently there has been some good performances by younger players. Kei Nishikori was already close to beat the French Open champion Nadal in the Madrid Masters final before a back injury forced him to retire. If he can still develop, he will be a big challenger for the ageing Djokovic. Ernests Gulbis' semifinal run at Roland Garros was also impressive, and if he can start to live up to his potential and develop, he is another challenger. And there are young players like Grigor Dimitrov and Dominic Thiem with lots of potential. In a couple of years, Nadal may already have declined and isn't anymore Djokovic's tougest opponent even on clay but there may be other players who keep him from winning the French Open.

So what I think about Djokovic's chances to win the French Open? I think he still has years to win it. David Ferrer is 32 and still he is playing excellent clay tennis. Nadal will have issues with his body and can't keep on winning year after year. Also, I don't see another as dominant a clay-courter as Nadal emerging, so I believe Novak will still have a few more chances. But even if he didn't have to play against Nadal, he will have to play with the pressure of winning the missing Grand Slam title. One can wonder if that has been the reason why he hasn't been able to beat Nadal at Roland Garros unlike at all clay Masters.

Today's loss was Djokovic's third consecutive lost Grand Slam final. Add to that, his losses at last year's French Open and this year's Australian Open were tight five-set losses to the eventual champions. One can wonder why the player who was so dominant in 2011 cannot anymore win slams; his last slam is the Australian Open last year. I think things started to go wrong for him at last year's French Open. He lost the semifinal against the eventual champion Nadal despite leading the final set with a break. After that we saw a lame performance in the Wimbledon final. In last year's US Open final, he wasted lots of chances in the third set, eventually losing it, and played a bad fourth set after that, losing the match. And today's final didn't look like he has the mental fortitude to win.

Maybe he is starting to feel pressure to win a slam. He hasn't been able to repeat the three-slam season of 2011. If things are getting hard, he seems unable to get over those difficulties the way he did in the exhaustingly-long 2012 Australian Open final which he won despite being down a break in the final set. I definitely believe he will win more slams, he is just so good. But if he is facing trouble in the match, he may not find the way to get over it.