D-day for top F1 teams
Red Bull and rivals face development race dilemma
A Fascinating second half of the 2013 F1 season is in prospect, with as much depending on what happens in Milton Keynes, Maranello, Enstone and Brackley as at the eight remaining Grand Prix venues. In recent years the sport has increasingly become a development war, with those still in the title fight forced to maintain R&D momentum on their current cars until the very last race. That inevitably leads to compromises in terms of the level of resources available for the following year's chassis. Given the relatively stable rules of the past few seasons, however, teams have been able to feed much of what is learned during the closing races into new-car programmes.
That is patently not the case as we head into 2014. With so little carried over into the new breed of turbocharged cars, most work carried out on the current machines will have no relevance. The result is a fascinating psychological battle as Red Bull has to decide if it has a sufficient advantage to be able to back off on 2013 development and protect Sebastian Vettel's points lead. Meanwhile rivals Ferrari, Lotus and Mercedes have to make a call on whether or not they still have a realistic chance of catching the German — or possibly snatching the championship for constructors.
Recent history provides two contrasting examples. In 2008 Honda stopped work on a hopeless car in order to put all its efforts into what became the ultra-successful Brawn BGP001.
That same year BMW Sauber opted to look to the future, while Robert Kubica was still in title contention, with the management keen to follow a masterplan that had 2009 marked for a big championship push. A frustrated Kubica watched his chances fade — and the following year's car turned out to be uncompetitive. It's a tough call to make.
"We'll see how the first few races go when we get back after the break," Mercedes boss Ross Brawn told Motor Sport after Lewis Hamilton's Budapest win. "It's Spa, Monza, Singapore, and then you make a decision on whether this one is worth chasing, or whether you put your efforts into next year..."
All four title contenders are aware that having made such a poor 2013 car, McLaren is in the happy position of being able to devote most of its efforts to next year. Martin Whitmarsh has made it clear that any updates scheduled for the MP4-28 must have some future relevance. Given that it has to prepare for 2014 while working with Honda on a 2015 programme, McLaren might find its current form is a long-term blessing.
Meanwhile it remains to be seen which of Ferrari, Lotus and Mercedes is able to provide the most consistent challenge to Red Bull over the final part of the season.
Mercedes certainly appears to have the momentum, with Hamilton and team-mate Nico Rosberg sharing a string of poles and wins. A fully motivated Hamilton could make life difficult for Vettel and Red Bull.
"It was a brave decision for Lewis to put his faith in us," said Brawn. "I hope that in a way we've repaid that faith, and hopefully we can go from here and continue to repay that faith and even more. We've done some things to the car, we've got some things coming, but with the recent change of tyres you're not sure where you're going to be. I'm sure each race and each compound is going to be a new challenge. We've got to stay on top of it."
Fixture congestion looms
Austria's return to the F1 calendar in 2014 represents a welcome reversal of the sport's recent move away from its European heartland.
Now known as the Red Bull Ring, the former Osterreichring and Al-Ring last hosted a Grand Prix in 2003, before dropping off the schedule for the inevitable commercial reasons.
Circuit owner and Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz has made it clear that his company is underwriting the event, slated for July 6 assuming that local planning issues can be addressed.
With new events in Russia and New Jersey also due in 2014, Bernie Ecclestone faces a difficult job juggling an increasingly complex schedule. Ecclestone has made his life a little easier — for next year at least — by confirming that there will be no Indian GP. He wants to move the race from October to April, and has agreed with the promoter that it would make no sense to have two races six months apart, and would thus prefer to wait 18 months and return to Delhi in 2015.
However, it's worth pointing out that races have previously been repeated in quick succession, with Malaysia being held in October 2000/March 2001, and China in October 2008/April 2009.
Nevertheless, with India on hold and serious doubts over Korea continuing into 2014, Ecclestone appears able to maintain the 20-race schedule preferred by teams, assuming all is well with Russia and New Jersey.
Work is progressing well at Sochi, although a row between the promoter and the Russian ASN meant the formal application to the FIA for a race date missed the July 31 deadline.
Meanwhile, there remains a degree of scepticism about the ability of the New Jersey promoter to finance an event. There is also the question of where Ecclestone could slot the second US event into the calendar, given that the weekend of June14-15 — the obvious post-Montreal slot — has been blocked by the FIA for the Le Mans 24 Hours. The governing body insists there will be no clashing GP on that date.
Allison return lifts Ferrari
James Allison's return to Ferrari as technical director has given the Italian team a huge boost as it prepares for the turbo era in 2014.
Allison is highly rated in the paddock, and has rightly received a lot of credit for the emergence of Lotus as a title-chasing force.
He left Lotus earlier this year amid much speculation. Ferrari always appeared his most likely destination, however, given that he worked there under Ross Brawn from 2000-2005 and is comfortable with life in Italy.
He returned to the UK with Renault in 2006, then rapidly established himself as a key player. He was promoted to technical director after the departure of Bob Bell to Mercedes and stayed on when the team was rebranded as Lotus.
He is well known to Ferrari star Fernando Alonso and his official arrival, on September 1, is well timed given Alonso's frustration with the team's current form.
Erstwhile Ferrari technical director Pat Fry has moved sideways into the new role of engineering director.
Former Grand Prix driver Philippe Alliot will return to F1 in October, when he drives a recently restored Ligier J511/15 in a historic race at the new Baku circuit in Azerbaijan. The 59-year-old Frenchman, who started 109 world championship F1 races between 1984 and 1994, had two separate spells with Ligier, in 1986 and 1990. He is partowner of the J511/15, which is in 1980 specification and was driven in period by Jacques Laffite and Didier Pironi.