Marciello at Trident Makes Sense

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In a year where perennial GP2 Series powerhouse DAMS abandoned the model of going for experienced drivers and instead picked up young stars Pierre Gasly and Alex Lynn of the Red Bull Junior Team, and Stoffel Vandoorne, last year’s vice-champion, will stay at ART Grand Prix where he nearly became the first rookie champion of the series in a half-decade the last time out, it made sense for Raffaele Marciello, the top prospect of the Ferrari Driver Academy, to stay for a second season at Spanish squad Racing Engineering, a team that has won two GP2 Series Drivers’ Championships in ten seasons, the team for which Marciello won the feature race at Spa-Francorchamps and qualified in the top ten for all eleven feature races – the only driver in the field to do so. Hell, it was already confirmed by Sky Sports on the day Marciello was announced as Sauber’s test driver!

And that’s just what went down when the 20-year-old Marciello was announced as the newest driver at the Italian Trident Racing team – wait…what!? Continue reading “Marciello at Trident Makes Sense”

Transaction Analysis: Felipe Nasr and Sauber

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As I watched the first practice session of the United States Grand Prix this past week, and saw the progression of the session standings focusing on one designated FP1 driver in particular (no, this time it’s not Max Verstappen), a thought crossed my mind. With Sauber F1 Team in a very publicized shortage of funds, but coming under heavy criticism for not taking enough speed to go along with those personal sponsorships – why not take a chance on a well-funded, yet highly-rated prospect who just outpaced his grand prix veteran teammate by almost a half-second in the first practice – finishing 8th? Why not go after Williams Martini Racing test and reserve driver Felipe Nasr?

Evidentally, someone at Sauber, Nasr’s management team, or his sponsors must have been listening in. On Wednesday, Sauber came to terms with Nasr on a two-year contract, beginning in 2015, where he and soon-to-be-former Caterham driver Marcus Ericsson will replace Esteban Gutierrez and Adrian Sutil. This means that Sauber will have also come to terms with Nasr’s prominent sponsor, Banco do Brasil – the largest bank in Latin America – which has accompanied Nasr since his GP2 Series debut in 2012, and will now go with him to Sauber next season. The Brazilian rookie candidate just turned 22 in August, and is currently 2nd in the GP2 Series standings behind newly-coronated champion Jolyon Palmer.

Sutil, as well as the man who was expected to partner Ericsson next season, Giedo van der Garde, may have individual claims that they are under contract and should be driving for Sauber next season, but the harsh reality for both of them is that despite Sutil’s masterful qualifying effort in Austin, and slightly outperforming Esteban Gutierrez – who himself is looking like a bust at the Formula 1 level – throughout 2014, Sutil is still a 31-year-old career midfielder, who in 124 Grands Prix has only finished as high as fourth just once in his career, he’s not been anywhere near the level of last year’s lead driver Nico Hulkenberg even when you factor in how much worse the Sauber C33 is compared to its’ 2013 predecessor, and he’s not really bringing enough money to justify staying at a team that is very openly in need of well-funded drivers. And while Van der Garde is a well-funded driver in possession of an eight-figure sponsorship from McGregor, as I mentioned in my transaction analysis of the Ericsson deal, both Ericsson and Van der Garde have been outperformed in every major head-to-head statistical category over the course of their respective campaigns at Caterham. A team of Ericsson and Van der Garde brings a lot of money, but it does not bring any significant speed nor a driver renowned for being able to develop a car over the course of a season by any means other than just throwing hard cash at it. A team of Ericsson and Sutil would bring less money and such a marginal increase in driving ability that it wouldn’t be worth the investment in a second season of the German veteran.

In signing Felipe Nasr, Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn has found the best “paying option” available, as Nasr strikes a near-perfect balance of pure speed and significant sponsorship. A sponsorship that has spawned some of the best looking cars on the GP2 grid in the last two seasons, might I add. He is the sort of driver that Sauber absolutely needed, and he seemed to just fall right into the Swiss team’s lap when it seemed another year of test/reserve duty at Williams was in the books. Continue reading “Transaction Analysis: Felipe Nasr and Sauber”

FR3.5 Review – Fortec Motorsports: Rowland’s Decisive Qualifying Edge

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Fortec Motorsports once again put on a strong campaign in Formula Renault 3.5 this season. Having seen the likes of Alexander Rossi, Robin Frijns, and Stoffel Vandoorne walk through their paddock as series rookies and immediately put on stellar performances, the team were once again expected to impress after bringing in the Racing Steps Foundation’s top prospect Oliver Rowland to partner second-year driver and current Sauber F1 Team reserve, Sergey Sirotkin.

Carlos Sainz‘s dominance and a smattering of untimely DNFs throughout the season ultimately squashed any chance of either Fortec driver being able to post a serious championship challenge the way that Vandoorne did last season by finishing 2nd to Kevin Magnussen, or Frijns the year before when he won the whole thing. But Fortec just missed out on the Team Championship by three points to DAMS, who accumulated over two-thirds of their points from Sainz’s championship campaign. That’s a testament to a strong organization with two very capable drivers that were, for the most part, very evenly matched. During a qualifying session at Moscow Raceway, Rowland, who finished fourth in the championship, and Sirotkin, who was fifth, were separated in qualifying by just one one-thousandth of a second. The smallest quantifiable margin you could get.

One driver, however, did prove to be decisively more successful than the other in at least one area. I’ll explain. Continue reading “FR3.5 Review – Fortec Motorsports: Rowland’s Decisive Qualifying Edge”

The Case For Ryo Hirakawa in GP2

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In 1999, Eddie Irvine and Heinz-Harald Frentzen were second and third in the Formula 1 World Championship, posting career-best seasons they would never come close to replicating in their remaining careers. Ralf Schumacher carried an in-flux Williams organization to fifth in the World Constructors’ Championship by himself at age 23. Pedro de la Rosa scored a point on his F1 debut for a woeful Arrows squad. And Mika Salo got the F1 chance of a lifetime as Michael Schumacher’s injury substitute at Ferrari.

Not a single one of these drivers graduated to Formula 1 via the International Formula 3000 Championship, though. All of them were products of the Japanese Formula 3000 Championship, and its successor from 1996, the Formula Nippon championship. A series that ran on only one Formula 1 circuit (Suzuka) as opposed to the small handful of circuits International F3000 shared with Formula 1.

Fifteen years later, the series that currently exists as Super Formula is making small steps towards regaining that relevance as a genuine F1 feeder series. Very small steps, though.

Andre Lotterer’s Formula 1 appearance at the Belgian Grand Prix ended the same way the last noteworthy German F1 driver debuting at Spa in a green car’s outing did – a quiet mechanical failure and a DNF on Lap 2. In terms of intra-team performance, however, Lotterer outqualified teammate Marcus Ericsson – who, like Lotterer, has won championships in Japan with the TOM’s organization – by almost a full second in the wet conditions. This has raised questions as to whether or not Ericsson is a worthy F1 talent, but do give credit to Lotterer, one of the greatest active drivers in all of motorsport, for performing as admirably as can be under the circumstances and proving that he is Formula 1 material, even if his heart lies squarely in Le Mans.

Caterham were rumored to be eyeballing another TOM’s driver to appear in Free Practice 1 at the Japanese Grand Prix in October, only this time it was 24-year-old Andrea Caldarelli. Caldarelli has substituted for both Lotterer and his Audi teammate Loic Duval in Super Formula this year. He has previously tested for both Ferrari and Toyota’s F1 teams, and he currently sits 2nd in the GT500 standings in Super GT with a chance to become the youngest ever champion in the class. It is his commitment to the Super GT title fight that ultimately led him to turn down Caterham’s offer, and instead race in Thailand that weekend as the series heads to the new Chang International Circuit in Buriram for the penultimate round of the 2014 championship.

Lotterer became the first driver since former Super Aguri driver Sakon Yamamoto to graduate to Formula 1 via Japan’s top open-wheel championship and compete in a Formula 1 Grand Prix. Yamamoto’s appointment was eight long years ago, and with the creation of GP2, GP3, and the Formula Renault 3.5 Series, Super Formula has become, until recently, completely redundant as a feeder series to Formula 1, when it had seen its alumni reach the pinnacle of F1 success as recently as July 6th, 2003 – the day of Ralf Schumacher’s 6th and final F1 victory in Magny-Cours.

When they were still in the sport, Toyota groomed F1 hopefuls such as Kamui Kobayashi, Kohei Hirate, and Keisuke Kunimoto in the European ladder rather than in Japan. Takuma Sato, a dedicated Honda driver, only spent a year in the Japanese Formula 3 series before moving to Europe, and eventually winning the British Formula 3 Championship in 2001.

Toyota has been out of Formula 1 for five years, and have no intentions to return any time soon. But they’re the primary backers of the man that is now Japan’s top open-wheel prospect, and a driver that must now be introduced to the European open-wheel ladder via the GP2 Series in 2015 and given a chance to succeed in F1 – Ryo Hirakawa. Continue reading “The Case For Ryo Hirakawa in GP2”

Carlos Sainz Jr. Is Ready For F1’s Big Stage

The news that Spanish Red Bull junior driver Carlos Sainz Jr., the son of the legendary former World Rally Champion of the same name, could be brought into Formula 1 via the Caterham F1 team as early as sometime later in 2014, is one of the early talking points of an F1 Silly Season that has yet to really take shape, at least not until we get to the mid-season summer break in-between the Hungarian and Belgian Formula One Grands Prix.

A mid-2014 promotion to Caterham for the 19-year-old Sainz would replicate the Formula 1 arrival of Daniel Ricciardo, whose first drive did not come with Red Bull’s “junior squad” Scuderia Toro Rosso, but with bottom-ranked Hispania Racing Team, where he participated in the final 11 of 19 rounds of the 2011 season with the backmarker organization. There, without any real pressure to score points right off the bat, he had a capable benchmark in another former Red Bull junior driver, Vitantonio Liuzzi (save for the Indian GP where Narain Karthikeyan was subbed in for Liuzzi), and Ricciardo performed admirably given the experience gap between himself, a rookie fresh out of Formula Renault 3.5 Series, and the tandem of veteran drivers who had made their F1 debuts six years earlier. Sainz would be in a similar predicament, as the Caterham team and their CT05 chassis ranks dead last among all eleven Formula 1 teams in terms of raw pace, and they are unlikely to score their first championship points this year unless there is a repeat of the attrition-packed Monaco Grand Prix from this May. In an interesting tie-in to the Ricciardo scenario from three years ago, Caterham was just sold before the British Grand Prix to a consortium of businessmen that included Colin Kolles, who ran HRT back in 2011.

So what exactly does the heir to the Sainz racing legacy bring to the table? Continue reading “Carlos Sainz Jr. Is Ready For F1’s Big Stage”