Outside Line: The Rapid Rise of W-Series

I’ll admit that when W-Series launched last year, I didn’t give it much thought. While I was by no means opposed to it, I was sceptical it could secure a long-term place in the motorsports landscape.

However, considering what they’ve achieved in the past twelve months – and particularly this past Friday – I’m much more of a believer.

Having already produced one legitimate talent in Jamie Chadwick, the series took another big step forward this week with the announcement it will be a support race for F1 at the US and Mexican Grands Prix. I mean, as a junior formula, you literally can’t get better exposure than that.

And sure, a cynic could say this has as much to do with the lack of road-racing categories present in those countries as it does W-Series making itself a legitimate option, but it’s nevertheless remarkable progress for a racing series one season into its existence.

Adding to the announcement’s credibility, W-Series CEO Catherine Bond-Muir confirmed in a conference call with journalists on Friday that they would be paying for their own shipping, so you’d have to say there’s at least some financial solidity even if Bond-Muir admitted they’re a few years away from turning a profit. In that respect I assume the new partnership with Rokit has helped – although like most of you, I still have no idea what Rokit actually does. Supposedly phones?

All that considering, I’d argue W-Series has been quite a success for so early in its history, with the caveat that it has much more it needs to do to be a true launching-pad for an underrepresented demographic in motorsport. Surviving as your own product is one thing, but if the goal is to get women both into motorsport and then through to the higher echelons, it’s got a long way still to go.

As things currently stand, there’s still no on-ramp for girls at the grass-roots level – although a karting series is apparently something Bond-Muir is considering – so the barriers to entry are the same as they ever were, even if more youngsters might be excited about the prospect of racing. On the other side, as impressive as the rise of Chadwick has been (and she would’ve had a lights-to-flag victory in Asian F3 race over the weekend were it not for a jump-start penalty), the 15 superlicense points she got for winning in 2019 puts her well short of the 40 needed to race in F1, and frankly, we don’t know if she, or any other woman is good enough to cut it at that level.

Still, whatever the answer to that question is, I like to think W-series is helping us get it. Obviously, it would be unreasonable to expect we’d have the female Lewis Hamilton (or even Marcus Ericsson) after one year of racing. For now, what they’ve done is enough – they just have to keep developing.

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Midweek Wrap: Double the Ferrari Drama, Mercedes Rumours Continue

The constructor’s championship may be decided, but for its two leading protagonists, the past seven days have seen them offer plenty to talk about.

Ferrari Civil War Heats Up Again: Either a waking nightmare or the gift that keeps on giving, depending on where you’re sitting, Ferrari’s season of misery continued in Brazil as Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc reignited their rivalry in the worst possible way, with an entirely avoidable collision that took them both out of the race.

Literally a day after the Scuderia celebrated their 90th anniversary, it’s hard to think of a worse possible way they could mark the milestone, but it also served as a timely reminder that allowing their drivers to battle simply isn’t the Ferrari way.

I mean sure, it’s great from a neutral’s perspective to see Vettel and Leclerc duke it out, and Mattia Binotto is at least publicly in support of the fight continuing, but when you consider the ethos this team has operated on throughout its history – from Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher, all the way back to Alberto Ascari – it would seem odd to let it continue into 2020.

Of course, that then raises the tough question of which driver should Mattia Binotto and co favour, especially considering neither is likely to take it well if they lose out.

As GP247 EIC Paul Velasco pointed out to me when we discussed this earlier in the week, back in the “old days” of F1, it was possible for drivers to come to “one year for me, one year for you” agreement over such a thing. In 1978, Ronnie Peterson and Mario Andretti had such an understanding at Lotus, with Ronnie knowing he was faster than Mario, but supporting his successful push for the driver’s championship under the condition the latter would return the favour in ’79. Unfortunately Ronnie was killed at the ’78 Italian GP before the plan could be completed, but with two drivers as capable as Vettel and Leclerc, it does offer something of a blueprint.

Then again, they might not go for it. There’s obviously no guarantee a car will be good enough two years running (the ’79 Lotus wasn’t), and with personal brands and legacies on the line, it would be a particularly tough sell in this day and age. Still, you could be sure the Ferrari of old would clamp stop this continuing regardless – I wonder if Binotto’s Scuderia is capable of doing the same.

… and so does the Engine Issue: A story that continues to simmer, as likely to erupt into full mania as it is to peter-out quietly, the legality of Ferrari’s power unit continues to be in question, with the latest chapter coming just a few hours ago.

Whereas after the quotes from Helmut Marko on the weekend seemed to indicate we would be waiting for Mercedes to lodge an official protest (which they haven’t), now Auto Motor und Sport is reporting the FIA has taken matters into their own hands and “confiscated” multiple Ferrari fuel systems for further examination.

Like everything else so far in this story, this could mean everything, or nothing. Certainly it would be bizarre if Ferrari have continued to ignore the FIA directives issued over the past couple of races regarding this matter – but if so, they it would seem they’re about to be caught out – or, it could just be a case of the governing body wanting to get a little more clarification. Either way though, it’s a distraction the Scuderia simply doesn’t need right now, and you have to wonder how it will impact their preparations for the 2020 seaosn.

Mercedes Quit Threat: Maybe it’s me just being in a state of denial, but I can’t believe that in the midst of the most dominant run this sport has ever seen, Mercedes are considering giving up their F1 team. Nevertheless, we were treated to a pretty crazy rumour over the weekend, with Roger Penske and Dmitry Mazepin reportedly lining up bids for the team.

Maybe if it was just Bernie Ecclestone talking his usual junk, I’d be less-inclined to take it seriously, but this was news which spread pretty fast through F1 circles, and I think that at the very least, the Silver Arrows are considering it. On the positive side, it was only last week Mercedes was trumpeting their relationship with F1, but this wouldn’t exactly be the first time a billion-dollar company put their profits ahead of sentiment.

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Could Alonso Return to Indy with Andretti?

Fernando Alonso, Michael Andretti

Fernando Alonso is reportedly negotiating with Michael Andretti for a return to the Indy 500.

In 2017, Alonso was charging for victory at the Brickyard in an Andretti-prepared McLaren entry when his Honda engine failed.

But last year, as McLaren went it alone without Andretti Autosport’s support, Alonso failed even to qualify.

So it is interesting that according to Spain’s AS newspaper, Alonso is back in talks with Andretti rather than McLaren.

That is despite the fact that McLaren will field two cars in the Indy 500 next year. McLaren supremo Zak Brown says it is possible Alonso will get a third car.

But citing ‘sources familiar with the negotiations’, AS correspondent Jesus Balseiro says Alonso is more interested in racing for Andretti next year.

“The deal is not done,” Balseiro said.

“The most important obstacle is that Andretti uses Honda engines,” he added, reminding readers of the “tumultuous past” of the Spanish driver and the Japanese marque.

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Irvine: I Think Ferrari Have to Focus on Leclerc

Former Ferrari driver Eddie Irvine has issued some harsh words for Sebastian Vettel, adding that it is time the Scuderia makes Charles Leclerc its number 1 driver.

Irvine said at the start of the year that he thinks Vettel would be “a sitting duck” now that Leclerc is his teammate.

“I thought Leclerc had a good chance of beating him because I don’t think Vettel is a worthy four-time world champion,” Irvine told Betway in Italy.

“I think he is a very good driver, but he makes a lot of mistakes and I never really thought he was that fast.

“We saw it with Daniel Ricciardo and we’re seeing it again now. Vettel got an amazing deal with Ferrari. I was surprised because it was at a stage where he was getting destroyed.

“I think Ferrari have to focus on Leclerc. We’ve seen this season Vettel not being sacrificed because he is a four-time world champion – they’ve lost wins because of it.”

Irvine, 53, knows Mattia Binotto well from his days at Ferrari, describing him as “smart” and “super calm”.

“But I think this is one of the difficult things that he has to get on top of, because I think Vettel can do damage to Leclerc’s chances of winning the title which I don’t think Bottas can do to Hamilton,” he said.

“The only guy who I think can race at the same level as Hamilton is Leclerc. Hamilton always destroys Vettel in a head to head.

“If you look at what Leclerc did to Hamilton in Monza, it was probably illegal but it was so perfectly done that it was hard to punish him for it. That’s why I am really interested to see Leclerc to head to head with Hamilton more often,” added Irvine.

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Ralf: I Think Lewis Can Beat Michael’s Records

Michael Schumacher could have his records beaten by Lewis Hamilton, according to the legendary German’s brother Ralf.

In Austin, Mercedes’ Hamilton put the lid on his sixth drivers’ title. Only Schumacher, with seven world championships, won more.

“Both of them achieved something incredible,” Ralf told Auto Bild.

“I think Lewis can break Michael’s records now,” the former F1 driver added.

Schumacher says Hamilton has “the best package” on the grid, but insists there is more to his success than that.

“He always gets the maximum from the opportunities,” Ralf said. “Everything fits together with him.

“He has the experience, he has a crazy natural talent, he knows when to attack and when to sit back, and he feels extremely comfortable in his team. He knows he is the absolute number 1.

“That creates trust and is very good for a driver. He probably doesn’t make many mistakes because of that,” Schumacher added.

As for Sebastian Vettel, Ralf thinks the Ferrari driver is simply feeling the pressure.

“You make mistakes when you feel the pressure like that,” said the German. “Look at Montreal. He sensed that Lewis was getting closer and lost his focus for a moment.

“Lewis and Mercedes are the best at dealing with pressure,” Schumacher added. “Toto Wolff has put all the right people around them.”

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Prost: 2021 Regs a Huge Step Forward

alain prost

Alain Prost, four time world champion and current advisor to Renault, says the 2021 regulations can be a “huge step forward” for Formula 1.

In the past days, rumours have suggested the embattled French team and carmaker could actually quit Formula 1 at the end of the season.

But Prost told L’Equipe he sees a lot of positives about the future.

“For the cars to follow one another, the so-called ‘dirty air’, it can be a huge step forward,” he said.

“I also see the cost cap and the redistribution of income as very positive, even if there are things you cannot change much like the weight of the cars. These are hybrid cars and there is the Halo and the larger wheels.”

What the F1 legend is more worried about are Liberty Media’s plans for as many as 25 grands prix per season.

“It wouldn’t fundamentally change the work of the drivers,” Prost said. “We did tests every week.

“But for the mechanics, the rest of the teams, 25 races really becomes difficult. In principle there is more income, but it is not obvious that it will attract more people, particularly young people, if there is so much work.

“And that may be costly if you have to set up double teams,” he warned.

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Verstappen: 2019 Went Well for Honda

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen has praised the improvement of engine suppliers Honda in a “year of learning” for the newly-forged partnership.

Earlier, it was rumoured the Dutchman was trying to get out of his 2020 contract. But now, he sounds upbeat about aiming for the championship next year.

“We have already achieved some good results, but we want to take the next step and try to go for the championship next year,” Verstappen said this week at a sponsor event.

“It was a year of learning with Honda this year and we made good progress. Everyone on the team is very motivated and wants to win.”

Team boss Christian Horner agrees, saying Red Bull-Honda’s current form is “a good sign” for 2020.

“The rules are staying relatively stable, so everything we have learned this year can go into 2020,” he said.

“We have always regarded 2019 as a transitional year, and it went well. We can only congratulate Honda on their progress. With a bit more luck, we could have won a few more times.

“Now we have to carry this momentum into next year. Mercedes is still the bar, but it feels like the field is coming together,” Horner added.

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Horner: Albon’s Development is Very Impressive

Red Bull’s Christian Horner has reiterated the team intends to “take our time” before confirming who will partner Max Verstappen in 2020, while heavily hinting it will be incumbent Alex Albon.

“After his accident and the front wing change, he was the fastest driver on the track,” Horner told Auto Motor und Sport, referring to the US GP in Austin.

“The way he fought his way through the field was phenomenal.”

Albon is now sixth in the drivers’ world championship, “even though he has only done seven races for us”, Horner added.

“His development is very impressive. I don’t think it will take much longer before he can drive right at the front.”

But for now, Red Bull says Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly are technically in the running to be promoted for 2020.

“We will not make any hasty decisions,” Horner said. “All the drivers are under contract, so we can take our time.”

McLaren driver Carlos Sainz, a former Verstappen teammate, says he doesn’t regret leaving the Red Bull programme and therefore his chance of securing the seat.

“It doesn’t matter who will be next to Verstappen next season, as he will remain the first driver,” the Spaniard told Sky Italia. “So it doesn’t affect me at all.”

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Midweek Wrap: Max Madness, Miami in Doubt, Haas in Trouble

On the eve of the USGP, the past week saw American-centric topics come to the forefront in F1, with the usual Max Verstappen hysteria thrown-in for good measure.

Max Sticks His Foot in It: What an eventful weekend for Max Verstappen – and not in a good way, either. Seemingly public enemy number one in Mexico, the criticism has been coming-in thick-and-fast both for his foolish refusal to lift-off under yellows in Saturday qualifying, and his coming-together with Lewis Hamilton on Sunday. A guy who before the summer break could seemingly do no wrong, now it seems like he can do no right.

At least in the case of the incident on Saturday, I think it’s fairly warranted. I mean, he already had pole for crying out loud, knowingly risks it by not slowing, and then smugly admits to it in the press conference – that was never going to go down well. Sunday is less troublesome, if only because the man leading the criticism is no angel himself, and certainly had a part to play in that particular incident.

However, through both cases, I think we’re seeing that the ‘Mad Max’ of yore is not completely gone, and I for one am not that surprised. He’s been in F1 – and indeed been a force in F1 – for long enough now that it’s easy to forget he’s still very young at 22, and while that doesn’t excuse his behaviour by any means, it’s also not that far removed from his more-prattish teenage years that we should expect him to have completely grown out of it. Having not been 22 that long ago myself, I know how immature you can still be at that age, and really, all the rest of us can do is keep on his case and hope he eventually does move past it.

Another US race DOA? It’s the market F1 has been trying to crack for years, and while I think most would agree CoTA has been a success, attempts to bring more GPs stateside have proven far less fruitful, with Miami seemingly headed in that direction.

Already subjected to delays with funding and finding an appropriate venue, the race is now being opposed by local residents who don’t want 1000HP monsters tearing up their local streets.

Whether or not their opposition actually proves successful, I think it highlights the biggest difficulty of hosting more races in the US, which is that the vast majority of the public either doesn’t know, or doesn’t understand the sport. To them it’s just a nuisance, and there’s no guarantee the necessary work and road closures will be made up for with increased tourist revenue.

Even if personally I would love a race in Miami (I’d be first in line for a press credential!) the better move for F1 and Liberty if they are serious about growing the sport in the US is to shelve this second-GP idea, take whatever funds they’ve set aside for it, and put it towards marketing the product. It’s all well and good to say “build it, and they will come”, but you have to have enough people to come in the first place.

Haas Wave the White Flag: Suffice to say, it’s been a rough year for Haas, and it seems like with three races remaining, they’ve essentially thrown in the towel.

Reading through the various statements from team personnel over the weekend, you could see the focus now is on just surviving until 2020 – indeed, Romain Grosjean said literally that – which is a sorry turn of events for a team that was not that long ago punching well above its weight class.

For his part, Guenther Steiner has been willing to take at least some of the blame, and yet while that’s better than some other team principals *cough* Cyril Abiteboul *cough*, I do wonder if his time at the helm might be coming to an end. As good as he is for a soundbyte, he also seems devoid of ways to stop the rot, and his decision to bring back both Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean further speaks to that. The last thing this sport needs is another Williams, yet I worry if things continue as they have in 2020, that’s exactly what we’ll end up with.

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Midweek Wrap: Lewis is OK, Max Splits Pundits, Mick to F1?

The calm before the storm of back-to-back races, the past seven days have been light on actual news, if not on newsworthy items.

Lewis Not Going Anywhere: A predictable end to last week’s saga, Lewis Hamilton took to Instagram last Friday to assure fans he wasn’t going anywhere.

At this point, there’s nothing much extra I can add. He cares about the environment, which is great, but he also leads a particularly environmentally unfriendly lifestyle, vegan or not. If Hamilton wants to really make a change, he should focus less on what Joe Public is doing, and more on the companies and brands that line his pockets – it’s them that do the real damage.

Verstappen a goat, or the GOAT? Holy overreactions, Batman! If you thought it was just us fans that got riled up about Max Verstappen, well… you thought wrong.

First Eddie Irvine comes out saying he’s not as good as Charles Leclerc, and then mere hours later, Jenson Button’s trumpeting him as the fastest driver ever.

While both statements come far too soon in the Dutchman’s career to hold much weight, it is nevertheless interesting that Irvine and Button chose to make them. Irvine, who won four races whilst driving for Ferrari, clearly still holds an affinity for the reds which is somewhat clouding his judgement – not to say Verstappen is undeniably better, but when you’re basing your reasoning on “a much lower error rate” despite costly mistakes in Baku, Monaco and Suzuka this year, it doesn’t quite hold weight.

On the other hand, it’s impossible for Button to compare Verstappen’s raw speed to someone like Senna (although it’s noteworthy that he rates him over his old teammate Hamilton), and just like Irvine’s argument, it doesn’t quite hold up when you consider the facts – more specifically, the fact that Verstappen has one career pole position.

Mick Wants to Move Up: 2019 has been a bit of an odd year for Mick Schumacher. Graduating to F2, the young German has had a spotty season at best, and yet, now here he is, declaring he’s ready for F1.

Here’s the thing though: I think he might actually be right. Even if his F2 campaign hasn’t yielded much in the way of results, he’s at least shown decent ability with his sprint win in Hungary and several other comeback drives through the field, and I don’t see how learning at (presumably) Alfa Romeo across from Kimi Raikkonen would be any less beneficial than squaring off with his current teammate, the chicken king, Sean Gelael.

Certainly age isn’t an issue – 20 is not that young these days in motorsport – and as Stoffel Vandoorne, Pierre Gasly, Jolyon Palmer and many others have shown, sticking it around in a lesser formulae until you nab a title doesn’t make you a F1-worthy driver. Additionally, Lando Norris told me in Germany he actually found driving a F1 car easier for his driving style – maybe the hard-charging Schumi junior will be similar. In any case, he either has enough there to develop, or he doesn’t, why not start finding out?

Alonso “Will Think About” F1 Return: Because apparently we can’t go a week in the F1 world without mentioning Fernando Alonso, here he is again, talking a potential F1 return, and as per usual, nothing is going to come of it.

To his credit, the man is doing a good job of literally moving-on to the next phase of his career, what with the Dakar Rally attempt and the like, but it seems some small part of him holds out hope one of the big-three will come calling. Speaking as someone who rates him very highly, I think that unfortunately, it might be time to rule-out that possibility.

Particularly with the emergence of Charles Leclerc this year, there is simply no place for Alonso to go. Where previously you could’ve speculated Sebastian Vettel’s (very unlikely) exit from the Scuderia would create space for him, now they have another alpha dog in the Monegasque, and ditto for Red Bull and Mercedes.

Even further down the grid, McLaren would be a tough sell, given both his history and their current partnership, who are as friendly with each other as they are quick on the track. Perhaps Renault is an option? Daniel Ricciardo would probably be a bit more accepting of his presence than other team leaders, but they just made a commitment to Esteban Ocon, and considering Alonso would probably want to wait until the French outfit is, y’know… good, he wouldn’t want to join before 2022 at the earliest, when he will be turning 41.

No, I think this is it for old Nando. I’m sure that won’t stop the stories from him and his mate Flavio still popping up, but he would need something crazy, like Lewis Hamilton retiring, to create a (very small) opening. The good news is he’s already proven there’s life in motorsport beyond F1 – here’s hoping he continues to live it.

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