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Friday, December 27, 2013

SpeedRead's ten takeaways from 2013

We are in the waning days of 2013, and barring a driver announcement from Caterham or Marussia, the year in F1 has faded down to Luca's annual complaints about all the things that are wrong with the sport that prevent Ferrari from winning. That seems like an ideal time to put together my list of thoughts on the year, so here goes...

1. Tires
Obviously the biggest story of the year. In the latest attempt by the sport to make things more exciting, Pirelli was asked to supply tires, well, crappy tires. It did as asked. A couple of teams figured out how to use the tires to their advantage, while others, notably, a struggling Red Bull, chose to play it their way and complain about things. Loudly and often. Things came to a head at Silverstone, where multiple blowouts forced Pirelli to go back to 2012 spec tires for safety reasons. From then on, Red Bull dominated, and that was that.

2. Engines
2013 marked the end of the V-8 era. despite Bernie's protestations, 2014 will introduce turbo sixes. This will be terrible for the sport, which has always raced with loud V-8s. Er, what? Oh... Seriously, though. I'm sure it will all be fine. The cars will be fast. You'll still need earplugs. We may have some failures, but not for long, as the rules are strict regarding engine allowances. Plus, it was enough to entice Honda to return (2015, with McLaren). Mission accomplished. It will be expensive, though...

3. Money
What a lead in, right? Money is a HUGE problem in F1. Or lack of, anyway. Reports have a majority of the grid hemorrhaging money, drivers aren't getting paid, and if you have aspirations to drive in the sport, you'd best bring a large portfolio of sponsors. Teams with storied histories like Sauber are on the ropes, and others at the sharp end of the grid are taking on the likes of Pastor Maldonado over Nico Hulkenberg. It's enough for serious talk again of a spending cap by everyone who isn't sitting on a large pile of cash.

4. Ferrari
I mentioned in the lead that Luca was complaining again. That was because the only reason Ferrari was within (extremely loud) shouting distance of post-Silverstone Red Bull was due to the talents of Fernando Alonso. And that relationship is deteriorating. Once again Ferrari hasn't gotten it right. Once more, Adrian Newey, armed with loads of Red Bull resources, has made the Prancing Horse look like total amateurs. The Scuderia keep adding engineering talent, but can't make it pay off. Again, it's the wind tunnel. Gone are the days of 24-hour testing around Fiorano. Adapt. Mercedes and Lotus are beating you. One has no money and the other Niki Lauda. How long does Stefano Domenicali survive this?

That leads us into the driver part of this list...

5. Vettel
It would be easy to say the only reason Sebastian Vettel wins is the team. Sure, that's part of it. Schumacher dominated when everything clicked. All champions do. But why is he in that seat? Not chance. He scored points in his debut for BMW. He won in a Toro Rosso. Scott Speed didn't. Sebastien Bourdais didn't. So there are skills there. And ruthlessness. Good guys don't often win. So we hated Multi-21. It was unsporting. But our true anger was in letting ourselves to be duped into thing he was that fun-loving boy who named his cars. Now we know. Right now, he is at the top of his game, with a team that is at the top of its game. He makes very few mistakes. Right now, he's the best. How would Fernando do in a Red Bull. I think he'd win the championship. He's probably thought about that. Now, we can hate the domination, the way many did Schumacher's. But it won't last forever. Ask Willams. Or McLaren. Or so many other teams that dominated for so long that you look up in the record books. By not being a spec series, F1 breeds domination. Enjoy it, or watch something else. And revel when someone beats Red Bull, for it will happen.

6. Grojean
A year ago, it looked like the Frenchman's short time in the sport would be done. The inability to rein in his vast talents would be his undoing. A little counselling, and suddenly he looks like championship material. Lotus will not miss a beat losing Kimi to Ferrari. Now, whether he will have a car next year to exploit his talent is an unknown. But easily, Romain Grosjean's turnaround from a guy who couldn't get out of his own way to one who looked destined to win this season is easily one of the feel-good stories of 2013. You're never sure when the next generation of drivers are going to make themselves known. The Kimis and Fernandos are now in their 30s. Grosjean will be one of them. First lap nut case no more.

7. Bottas
Valtteri Bottas gets the nod as the best rookie out there. His quali in Canada was very good, his performance in Austin sealed the deal. He was so good he had his teammate, the greatest F1 driver in the world, Pastor Maldonado, complaining of sabotage. Barring economics, it is hard not to see great things in the young Finn's future. If Williams can capture a bit of its former glory, take advantage of the rules changes and produce one of those tidy cars of old, he could well surprise in 2014.

8. Webber
This year we say goodbye to AussieGrit, as Mark Webber returns to sportscars with Porsche. Through his career, Webber has been honest, determined, and a team player (as far as F1 drivers go). After scoring points in his debut in a Minardi (a Minardi!), he went years before having the equipment to win. But he was finally in the right place with Red Bull, just the wrong time. He'll be remembered as the support to Vettel's championships, but on his day no one could touch him, and early on, he was all over Seb. Porsche, I think, has signed themselves a plum, and all success to Webber in his new job. Meanwhile, fellow Aussie Daniel Ricciardo gets to prove the Red Bull driver academy can produce more than one great driver...

That puts us into the home stretch. The final two stories of 2013 are U.S.-related...

9. Rush
For the first time in a long time, Hollywood made a decent racing film, and it was about F1. Ron Howard's Rush, a dramatized take on the '76 season, was entertaining fun that, for the most part, avoided cliches. Moderately successful in the States, the film did very well overseas, and was well received by the F1 community. This isn't an easy task. Driven, for example. Hopefully, awards season will get some who may have given it pass the first time around interested. Daniel Brühl, who was excellent as Niki Lauda, has rightfully been nominated for a Golden Globe. Hopefully the success of the film will spur interest for the sport in America.

10. The U.S. and F1
To do that, you have to have a few ingredients. One is a successful race. Austin proved this year 2012 was not a one hit wonder, as once again the city wen the extra mile and opened up for the community (something Indianapolis never quite pulled off). Attendance stayed strong, and the future looks bright.

A second race, the New Jersey event, continues to struggle. There is hope, and though postponed, it sounded good a couple of weeks ago. Then, the Bernie-sympathetic press suddenly opened a broadside. Not sure what prompted that, but things are definitely precarious. But I stick with the belief Bernie wants it to happen, so it will. Eventually. Austin looked dead many times. It's the way this stuff goes.

Finally, the sport is benefiting from better exposure on TV in the U.S. NBC did a good job in its first year, keeping the elements that worked on Speed and adding to it. Bob Varsha is missed, and maybe something will happen there in the future, but Leigh Diffey knows his stuff. The Hobbs/Matchett combination are part of the fabric of F1 coverage in America. Complainers complain, but it is no different than anywhere else. Ask about Sky vs. BBC. Hopefully, NBC will continue to build on this foundation.

As I look at the counter on the top of the site as I write this, we are under 80 days to Melbourne. Most of the seats have been set, and real testing begins in earnest soon. There will be surprises, I'm sure, and probably more of the same, too. So farewell, 2013, and bring on a new year!

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