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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Grab your tin foil hat

The Malaysian Grand Prix offered up all the variables that make for a classic race. Weather, underdogs and heroic drives by Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez.

But despite the brilliance of Alonso's ability to muscle a poor car around the circuit and put himself at the top step of the podium, the focus for a vocal bunch out there is on a radio message Sauber sent to its young driver to be conservative.

Could Sauber have thrown the race for Ferrari?

No team polarizes the fan base like Ferrari. You either love or hate the Prancing Horse -- it is usually passionate. Doubtless, fans are going to come down on either side of the issue.

More importantly, however, it highlights the qualities of news sources involved in the sport.

For one thing, in the United States, we have a (somewhat) unique view of journalism. We expect objectivity. As a professional journalist (though not part of the F1 media circus), I have been lectured on objectivity by anyone I have ever worked for and in every course I took in college. Sure, there are folks on the right and left who claim bias, but it truly is an integral part of our education.

Not every country has the same standard, however. For example, there is a widely used agency in the F1 world, which translates and rewrites pretty much any story on the sport from any news source in the world. Sometimes there are nuggets of truth in there, but boy, you don't want to make it the gospel.

Additionally, the news world has become crowded by citizen journalists. Blogs and other sites, which may have been set up by experts or armchair quarterbacks. Take your pick -- some feel this is revolutionary, some feel it is dangerous. Reality is somewhere in between.

Journalists on the ground called foul on this conspiracy business. One went so far as to say it was fueled by the sofa crowd. Though he has apologized to readers who misread and took it personally (a sign of his own integrity), he has not backed off from his core argument, which is they are not there. They don't know the personalities of the players. They haven't put in the time.

The fact of the matter is, there are some very good F1 blogs out there. Many are run by folks in the paddock. They are based on years of knowledge and relationships with personalities in the sport. Some are run by knowledgeable and committed fans that are clear about where they are coming from, have done their homework, and rely on knowledgeable sources. And some are purely passionate, uninformed opinion. It is up to you, as the consumer, to choose your news wisely. Look at the backgrounds of the writers. Read their writings and judge.

Despite my background as a journalist, this is a blog of personal opinion. I am, first and foremost, a fan. My background influences my approach, and lord knows, has done little to boost my readership numbers. I read all the news I can get my hands on and follow certain journalists religiously, but my opinion should not be confused with authority.

I can't be in the paddock, much as I would love to fulfill that dream. So I base my opinions on the voices I value, and I link to those "people in the know below." I let them handle the hard news. Do they sometimes get it wrong? Sure. That's part of being a journalist, too. But they approach their work with integrity, and are open about any potential conflicts, or when they are simply voicing their (informed) opinion.

Being a member of the working press in F1 is an incredible sacrifice of time and effort. That doesn't make every working journalist an ace, but it does reveal hard work and dedication. And in many cases, a credibility that puts them above those of us on the sidelines.

So -- since it begs a response -- an opinion on said controversy...

This isn't the first time the word "conspiracy" has raised its head between Sauber and Ferrari, due in no small part to some claims going back to the late 90s and Sauber's status as a Ferrari engine customer. In fairness, Perez is a product of the Ferrari young drivers program, as well.

Still, a call from the pitwall to consolidate your position and not take stupid risks is not abnormal. Are you listening, Pastor Maldonado? We have heard such calls in the past from McLaren and Red Bull.

Sauber asking Perez to be careful of the position, its best in years and worth whole bunches of money to the team, would be par for the course. The last thing you want your young driver to do is decide in the final laps he can take a Fernando Alonso under those conditions and take himself (or both cars) out.

If Sauber could have won that race, there is no doubt the team would have taken it. To ask your driver to be smart is a no-brainer. Keep in mind the team didn't say "don't pass," it simply said "we need these points." Some will say that's code, but it just doesn't jive with what happened. Perez made a mistake and ran wide. If you want to lose a few seconds there are much safer ways to do it. Fuel concerns would be a good one. A lost gear is another.

As it was, Fernando Alonso pulled out a stunning win in a "difficult" car, and a young driver put a midfield outfit second on the podium, probably making his replacing Felipe Massa at the Scuderia sometime in the next 12 months a foregone conclusion. This wasn't DC or Rubinho pulling over for their teammates or that Mickey Mouse business Ferrari pulled at Indy a few years back. It's a shame two such beautiful drives, and a wonderful race, should be tainted by faux-controversy.

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

On to Malaysia

Put one in the books, the 2012 F1 season is off and running.

Just a quick recap if you weren't paying attention: McLaren declared their presence with authority in Australia, locking up the front row, and firing a shot across Red Bull's bows. The troubles at Ferrari proved to be more than a myth, while Lotus, Mercedes, Force India, Sauber and, dare I say, Williams all came away from Albert Park with high hopes for the new season.

Some of the big storylines of the past week:

The weather looks to hold a few surprises for this weekend in Sepang, and it should be interesting to see what lies in store. It should also prove interesting to see who really is in the hunt for 2012 and who simply had a lucky race in Australia.

Can Red Bull answer back? Will Lewis Hamilton take the fight to Jenson Button, or is he, as some have questioned, already a beaten man? Can Fernando Alonso wring points out of the Ferrari? Can Felipe Massa do... something? Is this the beginning of a Williams resurgence?

Of note: Heikki Kovalainen will receive a grid penalty for passing under the safety car. And there will be one DRS zone this weekend.

Questions abound, and the action kicks off in just a few hours. Stay tuned...

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

You race or you do not

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A fan's view: Time to put up or shut up

Testing is over. Speculation is finished. In a little over a day F1 gets back to business in Melbourne. Will this be the year Caterham breaks into the midfield? Are Ferrari as off as it seems? Can anyone stop Red Bull?

The offseason was shorter than it has been in quite some time, but the beginning of the season comes not a moment too soon. 2012 has all the makings of something special. New rules. Champions galore. Vettel aiming for the hat trick. And for those of us on the neglected side of the pond, a US grand prix (please, please, please, please, please, don't screw this up).

So, heading into the first race of the season, here are five things I'm keeping an eye on:

  1. Can Ferrari be that bad? For a while, I was arguing the team was sandbagging, but enough pundits who have the benefit of being on the scene are saying this new car has its issues. Could the team have shot too high, overreacting to the conservative approach of the last few years? If so, we know Fernando Alonso can get more out of a car than the average driver, but is he good enough to keep the team in the title hunt until it can get things back into shape?

  2. How much of an edge does Red Bull have? Red Bull blew away the field most of last season. Have McLaren closed the gap? Is Mercedes ready to join the big boys? Can Lotus maintain a challenge over the course of a full season? Or are Red Bull's challengers in enough disarray to allow Vettel and Webber to run away with it again?

  3. Can Lewis rebound? Quite simply, Jenson Button was the man at McLaren last season. Lewis Hamilton suffered a terrible campaign, with mistakes and controversy following him all year. Has Hamilton put that behind him, and has the break recharged his batteries enough to take the challenge not only to Vettel, but Button, as well?

  4. Can Williams bounce back? Last year was perhaps the worst on record for Frank Williams' team. Can a return to Renault power, turnover in the hierarchy of the team and Bruno Senna help put Williams on the road to recovery? For the sake of the sport's romantics (self included), I hope so.

  5. Can Austin succeed where so many others have failed? Like many in the US, I met the news of a race in Austin with a certain amount of skepticism. But time proved the promoter was well connected to Bernie and looked to have pulled a coup in getting the state of Texas to help fund the race. Suddenly, last fall, it all looked revealed itself to be too good to be true as a power struggle erupted between the people with the money and the promoter. Now the promoter is out, Texas pulled its money, but somehow the race is on the schedule. Now another race is on, to build the circuit on time. It's a Hermann Tilke project, so it is the "right" guy for the job, and in many ways it looks to be one of his better designs. But eight months out, and no word on tickets for those of us who can't afford seat licenses. Most hotels are booked (at incredibly high rates). Fans are being asked to commit a lot of money in dire economic times on faith, and the good ol' boys have done little so far to inspire that kind of confidence. The prospect of two US races in 2013 is a salivating one, but as is often the case with anything involving F1 in the US, call me after the checkered flag drops and I'll let you know if it actually happened. Incredibly burned fingers crossed.

OK. Enough pontificating. Let's get this show on the road. As the great man would say, GO! GO! GO!

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