Ford announces WRC departure

I guess there’s only so much disappointment a championship contending factory team can take.

After getting pummeled by Sebastien Loeb and Citroen for nine straight years, Ford has announced that it will no longer contest the World Rally Championship.

Perhaps the fact that Loeb will no longer compete a full season from next year played into the manufacturer’s – whose factory team is run by M-Sport – thought process.

After not being able to defeat the flying Frenchman despite the excellent efforts of Marcus Gronholm and Mikko Hirvonen, succeeding in a championship without Loeb could diminish their achievement.

Whatever the reasoning, the announcement comes at the wrong time for rally fans who were looking forward to the arrival of factory teams from Volkswagen and Hyundai. With Red Bull set to promote WRC from next year, Ford’s presence in such a potentially competitive field would have been a lot to look forward to.

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Ferrari confirm Massa for 2013

Felipe Massa’s seat at Ferrari is secure, for 2013 at the very least.

In an extremely brief press release, the Italian team announced that the Brazilian who has upped his game and scored 55 of his season tally of 81 points in the last six races will continue to partner Fernando Alonso who is contracted to the team till 2016.

The one-year extension further fuels the speculation that Massa will be replaced by Sebastian Vettel in 2014.

With Massa’s seat secured, it is expected that Nico Hulkenberg will soon be confirmed by Sauber as Sergio Perez’s replacement, bringing an end to the annual jockeying for seats amongst Formula 1’s leading teams.

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Will Red Bull stay in Formula 1 beyond 2013?

No disrespect to Christian Horner and the Red Bull Racing team, but guarantees of Sebastian Vettel staying put at the Milton Keynes based team ring a little hollow after Lewis Hamilton’s switch to Mercedes from McLaren.

Hamilton repeatedly stated that he would never leave the team that supported him on his road to Formula 1 and gave him his big break. While Vettel seems more reserved in making long-term commitments than the Briton, the fact of the matter is that should Vettel leave for Ferrari after 2013 as has been suggested Red Bull won’t be able to prevent him from doing so. Red Bull adviser Helmut Marko who manages the team’s young driver program has admitted as much.

Vettel’s possible departure ties in with the fact that F1’s 2014 technical regulations have been drafted in a manner that will put the emphasis on the mechanical aspects of F1 rather than aerodynamics. Initially, at least, beyond which it will have to be seen if Adrian Newey and the aero brigade can fight back.

The much debated 1.6-litre, V-6, single turbo engines and doubly powerful Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (storage capacity of 160 bhp from current 80 bhp) should give an advantage to manufacturer backed teams as far as Mercedes AMG team principal Ross Brawn is concerned. And he is someone who should definitely be taken seriously.

With the deep pockets of Red Bull’s parent company, the expertise of Newey – who it can be argued battled against Michael Schumacher and his supporting cast from 1994 to 2004 – the current world champions were ideally placed to take advantage of the revamp of the technical regulations in 2009 that left a lot of scope for creative designers to improvise.

Brawn GP beat everybody to experimenting with the diffuser area of the car but as the one-time Honda team ran short on funds, Red Bull comprehensively out-developed them and went a step further with the blown diffuser concept (and now Coanda exhausts).

For Red Bull to remain competitive from 2014 and beyond it would have to call on greater involvement from the Renault-Nissan partnership that backs the team on the mechanical side. Judging by a recent feature in motor sport magazine Autosport, Renault is definitely keen on the new engine formula as it will have far greater relevance to its road cars. But Red Bull have had documented trouble with KERS.

A KERS related fire in the team’s factory prior to the 2009 season was one of the factors that prompted the team to not use the device at all that year and develop a relatively smaller, less potent unit for further seasons. They instead chose to focus on mechanical grip derived through its diffuser concept around which their title challengers were built.

Should Vettel up and leave to Maranello, will the team lose the momentum needed to take on F1 v.2014? Other factors may prompt Red Bull to stay. They are seemingly the sport’s defacto promoter as far as new venues and new markets are concerned it seems. Case in point, the elaborate demo-run at the new Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, Vettel turning up to promote the proposed Grand Prix of America at New Jersey.

Not to mention driving an F1 car to the highest motorable road right here in India last year ahead of the Indian GP as well as a demo run on Rajpath in New Delhi.

Losing their presence on the grid would definitely be a setback for F1 and this leverage may even be used by the team to ensure that some leniency is given to factor in their modus operandi in the 2014 regs.

Worst-case scenario, they could just up and leave to focus on adventure sports and the World Rally Championship that they are set to promote from next year. Which will be a shame indeed if this very big IF has something more to it than just ‘ifs’.

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Sauber reportedly sign Nico Hulkenberg

Sahara Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg is reportedly signing for the midfield team’s rival Sauber according to German magazine ‘Auto Motor und Sport’ to replace Sergio Perez who is headed to McLaren to replace Lewis Hamilton who is headed to Mercedes to replace the retiring Michael Schumacher (phew).

The 25-year-old German made his Formula 1 debut with Williams in 2010 after racking up an impressive CV in junior formulae that included a Formula 3 Euroseries crown in 2008 and a GP2 title in 2009. Hulkenberg currently leads team mate Paul Di Resta by one point following his impressive sixth place finish in the Korean Grand Prix.

Hulkenberg’s agent has neither confirmed or denied the move while speaking to a subsidiary of news agency AFP.

Following the end of BMW’s association with the Swiss-based team, Sauber has emerged from the midfield to score four podium finishes this year. Two of those podiums were strong runs to second place by Perez who looked genuinely set to take victory at the Malaysian and Italian Grands Prix.

Sauber had been outscored by Force India in the constructors championship in both 2010 and 2011 but has surged ahead of the team led by trouble-hit Vijay Mallya this year, which has not scored a pdoium in F1 since Giancarlo Fisichella took second place at the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix.

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Who can stop Red Bull in India? Hmmm…good question.

For anyone who has read this blog, you would have noticed my attempt to be more regular with it recently. I was not able to do so yesterday. I had decided to take a partial break from work (checking in everyday since Sep. 20) and accompany a couple of friends on a road trip to Agra where we met up to celebrate another friend of ours turning 30 (he was pretty ‘bummed’ about it).

I was worried about missing an eventful Korean Grand Prix but as it turned out it was pretty much business as usual for Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing. In the twilight of their involvement with Michael Schumacher Mercedes AMG were expected to be a factor but the live timing nipped that hope in the bud.

Let it be known, however, that this is no rant against Vettel and Red Bull’s return to dominance of Formula 1. On the balance of it, this season has been anything but a forgone conclusion and Vettel stands on the brink of joining Juan Manuel Fangio and Schumacher in the title hat-trick club. The young German will be the youngest in that club by far and has dug deep to capitalize on the recent run of bad luck for Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton.

The RB8 has looked dominant in the hands of Vettel over a single lap at both Suzuka and Yeongam, so there seems little to suggest that the fast and flowing Buddh International Circuit will not suit that combo.

Last year’s Indian GP was a battle between Vettel and McLaren’s Jenson Button as the latter excelled thanks in large part to his renowned smooth driving style. The section of the circuit that contains the rapid changes of direction from turns six to nine plays the biggest part in getting a lap around the 5.125km circuit right. Red Bull, with their indirectly blown diffuser – exhausts that use the Coanda effect (look it up) to channel gases to the diffuser to increase downforce – that they have worked on since the start of the season seem best prepared to tackle it but Button should excel here once again.

Will it be enough to beat Vettel and Red Bull though? Two factors could decide the outcome.

One is the fact that Red Bull’s parent company has enough money to promote the FIA World Rally Championship from 2013 as well as have the makings of its own space program (Google Felix Baumgartner) as well as sponsor and promote athletes and sporting events the world over. A revenue of 4.2 billion euros and an operating income exceeding a billion euros should allow for plenty of development of its F1 title challenger as well while working on their 2013 machine.

The second is that despite a much welcome cool down of the climate in the National Capital Region, track temperature during the race (scheduled to start at 3:00pm) should remain on the high side. Most likely above 35 degrees centigrade, possible even inching towards 40. After the inaugural event Pirelli has decided to bring its hard and soft compound tyres, leaving a gap in tyre choice as the medium compound tyre will not be used. The track surface is smooth but the combination of a softer, more ‘aggressive’ compound and fairly high track temperatures will play into the hands of a driver with a car that is easy on its tyres. That places Vettel and Red Bull as favourites.

Both McLaren drivers should be able to give it their all too, with Button presumably better over a race distance than Hamilton. In the ‘outside chance’ category Ferrai should be in pole position as you never discount Fernando Alonso. One also wonders if the Sauber drivers will be in the hunt for a late race charge with a longer stint on their tyres than anyone else.

Unfortunately, Mercedes seem ill-equipped to help Schumacher and Nico Rosberg to spring a surprise. The car is still hard on its tyres and its famed straight-line speed seems to have been eclipsed by Toro Rosso over the last two races. So the seven-time champion whose exploits and misadventures helped establish F1 as a fixture on Sunday television in India may not have a particularly happy swansong.

Long story short, it seems unlikely that anyone will stop Vettel and Red Bull at the Indian GP.

And to the neutral, it will seem like a shame that the season that started with such uncertainty now has an all too familiar feel to it.

Standard aerodynamics, budget caps and customer cars anyone?

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Webber takes pole but second placed Vettel real threat

Mark Webber set the fastest time in qualifying for the first time in 2012 at the Korean Grand Prix at Yeongam to take pole position ahead of Red Bull teammate Sebastian Vettel.

The gap was just 0.074 seconds and crucially, Webber did four laps more than Vettel throughout the three segments of qualifying. Vettel’s 13 laps were three fewer than anyone else in the top ten.

Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa, Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa, Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg, Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher rounded out the top ten.

Alonso is trying desperately to hang on to a four-point lead ahead of Sebastian Vettel. However, at this point, it seems as if the Spaniard will end up six to nine points behind Vettel. If, of course, he’s lucky enough to finish the race. His retirements in Belgium and Japan have cost him dear and with the increased competitiveness of Red Bull and McLaren a third championship looks unlikely for the fiesty Spaniard.

The other talking point of the session is Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg who managed to outqualify both Mercedes drivers. Crucially, Hulkenberg also outqualified teammate Paul Di Resta who managed just 14th on the grid.

Hulkenberg has been rumored to be in contention for a seat at Sauber to replace the departing Sergio Perez while Di Resta has been left out in the cold a bit due to Lewis Hamilton’s surprise move to Mercedes to replace Michael Schumacher.

While a Red Bull 1-2 seems a forgone conclusion it should still be a tense fifty-five laps on Sunday.

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End of an era for F1 junkies in America

The Fox Sports Media Group has released a statement to the Associated Press that states that the motor sport and automobile-centric channel Speed will not air Formula 1 races after the end of this season.

The channel had been the home of F1 on television in the United States for 17 years and based on AP’s anonymous sources Fox has been outbid NBC Sports Group for the broadcast rights for F1 in America.

On a personal note, the news leaves me pretty sad. I had spent a large part of 2003-07 and 2010 in America as a student and Speed was my sanctuary in a country where motor sport equals NASCAR.

In Speed, I saw a channel that featured truly committed and passionate motor sport journalists and personalities like Dave Despain, Bob Varsha, ex-Benetton mechanic Steve Machette, David Hobbs, Peter Windsor and Will Buxton (the last two, who I have had the pleasure of meeting in person and interacting with).

In relation to the relatively simplistic coverage of F1 in India on ESPN Star Sports, the detailed coverage on Speed was an F1 junkie’s dream come true. To the point that I would religiously be awake by 5:30 am on race weekends so as to not miss any of the live action.

It’s F1 coverage aside, Speed rounded off its coverage of motor sport excellently with Le Mans, WRC, MotoGP and road racing in America. Not to mention coverage of classic car shows and classic car racing.

This may be coming to an end soon as well as Fox plans to convert the channel into a broad-based sports channel with a new name.

If it is indeed NBC that will get the rights to F1 from next year, I hope they do it as much justice as Speed did to the sport and motor sport in general.

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Suresh Rana’s remarkable achievement

There have been some truly remarkable achievements in the world of motor sport. Sebastien Loeb’s nine consecutive WRC titles, Valentino Rossi’s seven MotoGP titles and Michael Schumacher’s seven F1 titles.
Less high-profile, but just as remarkable was Suresh Rana’s eighth victory at the Raid de Himalaya, announced early this morning. After the Dakar Rally, the Raid can probably lay claim to being the most extreme rally raid event on the planet. With competitors going flat out over 2,000 km of mountain roads of varying conditions at altitudes that exceed 6,000 meters above sea level.

Having participated as a navigator in the amateur category in 2008 – with manageable average speeds designed to give a first timer some experience – I can testify to the skill and daring of the competitors in the Xtreme category – flat out rallying.

The bikers get even more respect due to braving the elements as well as the dangerous terrain on which they can suffer serious bodily harm.

Back in 2008 – when I was employed by Autocar India – me and the driver of the Maruti-Suzuki SX4 managed to get all the way to the finish of the event that started in Shimla, and went up to Ladakh. The car, with little modification other than a sump and fuel tank guard, stood up to the beating fairly well and was in working condition with the exception of a leaky shock absorber and dodgy gearbox.

Yet we both knew that the car would never stand up to the punishment endured in the Xtreme event by Maruti-Suzuki’s long-running Gypsy off-roader. At the time auto-manufacturers in the country weren’t particularly keen on testing the mettle of their swany new vehicles in professional competition.

The hosting of the inaugural Indian GP seemed to bring about a shift and Mahindra threw its popular XUV 500 into the ring at this year’s Desert Storm. A Gypsy still triumphed with Lohitt Urs bringing an XUV 500 home in third, but Gaurav Chiripal brought his privately entered Grand Vitara home in second.

It definitely caught Rana’s attention and he admitted as much to me when he said that the Grand Vitara looked capable enough to take on the brutal stages of the Raid.

Even though this year’s event was cut short due to heavy snowfall, Rana had been pulling out a comfortable lead over the gaggle of Gypsies that followed him.

The XUV 500, much hyped by Mahindra and the motoring press for its looks, price and features list did not fare so well and was outside of the top five.

Hopefully the events at the country’s two premier cross-country rally events (Desert Storm and Raid de Himalaya) will encourage more manufacturers to put their products to the ultimate test and improve the street going version.

It’s a good start and with the continued participation of the likes of Rana, it should be a catalyst for qualitative growth in the Indian car industry.

Which will make Rana’s achievement all the more remarkable than it already is.

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Non-bailable warrant issued against Vijay Mallya

Not sure at the moment what effect this news will have on the operation of the Sahara Force India team, but liquor baron and the self-proclaimed ‘king of good times’ Vijay Mallya is in a spot of bother in India just 14 days before the start of the Indian GP.

A non-bailable warrant has been issued against Mallya and five others by the The 13th metropolitan sessions court in Hyderabad in a check bounce scandal.

The case was filed by GMR Hyderabad International Airport Ltd (GHIAL) in August after four cheques of Rs 10.3 crore issued by Kingfisher over user charges bounced.

The warrant was issued to Mallya after he failed to appear despite summons issued against him.

Mallya’s debt-ridden Kingfisher Airlines has been in the news for all the wrong reasons of late following the suicide by the wife of a Kingfisher employee who, like many others, had not been paid for months.

Mallya has been quick to defend himself saying that no domestic airline in India is running at a profit, despite the success of Indigo and the relative success of Jet Airways.

It is believed that airport operators in Delhi and Mumbai have similarly dishonoured cheques issued by Kingfisher.

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Honda threatens MotoGP exit

While Honda admitted an interest in a return to Formula 1 sometime in the future, it has left its highly successful involvement with MotoGP in doubt after Honda Racing Corporation team principal Shuei Nakamoto told Motosprint magazine that the Japanese manufacturer may pull out from MotoGP should a plan to force a rev-limit and standard ECU on the bikes become a reality.

It is a plan suggested by the series promoter and commercial rights holder Dorna in an attempt to level the playing field in MotoGP that has seen utter domination by Honda and its rival Yamaha. 

Nakamoto, however, claims that he has the support of his counterparts at Yamaha, Ducati and Suzuki; the other manufacturers involved in MotoGP.

Honda previously threatened to switch to Superbikes if the standard ECU formula becomes a reality.

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