Testing for new F1 season underway as Hamilton expects a tougher challenge from Ferrari

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton will be hoping to win a sixth World Championship this season as pre-season testing gets underway in Barcelona

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With the first Grand Prix of the 2019 season in Melbourne, Australia under a month away, the ten teams competing for this year’s World Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championship have been testing their new cars in four days of pre-season testing.

There have been a number of changes to both the teams and rosters between seasons with several new drivers who will be lining up on the grid on March 17th. Force India have completed their transition after being bought in August 2018 and will now race under the name Racing Point. 

Sauber has also seen a name change this time through a sponsorship deal, and have been renamed Alfa Romeo Racing. Alfa Romeo’s two drivers will be Kimi Raikkonen, who has swapped his place at Ferrari with Charles Leclerc, and Antonio Giovinazzi, who raced twice in 2017 while Pascal Wehrlein was injured.

Two British drivers will be joining the pack this season, both promoted from Formula 2. F2 champion George Russell joins Williams alongside Rober Kubica. Polish driver Kubica returns after an eight-year absence from F1 following a horrific crash at the Ronde di Andora rally in 2011 that left doctors fighting to save his hand.

The other British driver is 19-year-old Lando Norris who came second in last season’s F2 Championship. He will race with Carlos Sainz at McLaren after Fernando Alonso decided to retire. Norris and Russell will be hoping they can rise to the same level as five-time World Champion and Mercedes Driver Lewis Hamilton.

Ferrari had the superior car last season but a slew of bad racing decisions which Hamilton capitalised on allowed him to win by a margin of 88 points. The Brit thinks that it will be a lot harder to retain the title this season though.

“Ferrari are very strong. It appears they have a better package than last year, which means it will be a bigger challenge for us. They have been looking great. We have just been digging deep, trying to understand the car, pretty much the same as the beginning of every year. 

“Ferrari always look strong, particularly the last few years; they looked strong right at the beginning, so that’s to be expected. It has been normal. I am competing with everyone. I don’t know who’s going to be quickest. You can’t say just Ferrari. You don’t know where the Red Bulls are. Who knows what people are going to bring up for the first race.”

While nine of the teams were testing their cars in the first two days of testing, one was surprisingly absent. Williams did not manage to get a Russell or Kubica on the track until day 3, giving their rivals massive advantages.

Williams’ deputy team principal Claire Williams said: “it’s not a situation that we anticipated, or that we ever wanted to find ourselves in. We’re not just disappointed. It’s embarrassing not bringing a race car to a circuit when everyone else has managed to do that, particularly a team like ours that has managed to bring a race car to testing for the past 40-odd years.”

“We’ve missed two days of testing, and that’s not ideal. That’s a lot of potential kilometres, but I don’t think that we will actually know the full impact of having missed those days until probably a bit later on.”

“Clearly we’re doing everything we can to condense the programme that we had, to make sure that we maximised the time available and we really focused our efforts and attention on the most important and critical areas to make sure the car is in the best shape possible for Australia.”

Perhaps the biggest change to F1 this season will be seen after the season has begun. The first day of the Bahrain Grand Prix in March is also the deadline for the UK to make a decision on Brexit. With eight of the ten teams based in southeast England there is the potential for a lot of problems.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said that “a no-deal Brexit would have a major impact on our operations going to races and developing cars. We have certain contingencies in place, like having more stock and thinking about how we would get parts and people in and out of the country.”

“But it would be a disruption and it would cause all the UK teams a lot of headache, while Ferrari in Italy and Sauber (Alfa Romeo) in Switzerland would have a massive advantage over every UK-based team.”

Women-only motorsport series: “Oppression masquerading as opportunity is still oppression”

“I am deeply disappointed to see such a historic step backwards take place in my lifetime.”

The decision to create a women-only motorsport series has been branded a “sad day for motorsport” by British Indycar driver Pippa Mann. The W Series will start in 2019 and hopes to have 20 of the world’s best female drivers competing over six races for a $1.5 million prize pot.

The competition is free for drivers to enter and the final 20 will be chosen through an intensive program that will test the abilities of the candidates. The overall winner will receive a third of the total prize pot, $500,000, to be used to break into competitions such as Formula 1.

“What a sad day for motorsport,” said Mann, adding: “Those with funding to help female racers are choosing to segregate them as opposed to supporting them. I am deeply disappointed to see such a historic step backwards take place in my lifetime. For the record, I stand WITH those who feel forced into this as their only opportunity to race. I stand AGAINST those who are forcing the above-mentioned racers into this position as their only solution to find the funding to race.”

On the website for the W Series they state “there are no biological or hormonal impediments” to a women’s ability to compete with the best male F1 drivers, and that they “expect that the best graduates from W Series will be able to compete in Formula 1 on level terms.” This begs the question if the best graduates from the series should be able to compete on level terms with the likes of Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel then why is a women-only series needed? Matt Bishop, Communications Director for the W Series, said that “we don’t have the resources. Would that we did.”

“That’s why we’ve chosen to create what we hope will be a sustainable business that uses commercial sponsorship to create a series for women to race in, some of whom wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to race at all.”

Michele Mouton, president of the FIA’s Women in Motorsport Commission, is dismissive of the W Series. “One of the objectives of the commission is to help ensure females have equal opportunities to compete at the highest level of the sport. We know from our recent driver-assessment programme that there is a pool of very talented women drivers who deserve the chance to do this. As competitors, they want to be the best and the only way for them to benchmark their performance is to compete in a mixed environment, which they are already doing.

“While this new series is obviously giving an opportunity for women to showcase their talent in a female-only environment, our objective is to have more of them competing alongside men and demonstrating they have the same ability and potential to succeed in top-level FIA championships.”

Since the first F1 series in 1950, there have been over 900 drivers, of which only two have been women. Maria Teresa de Filippis started three races in 1958/9 and fellow Italian Lella Lombardi competed in 12 races between 1974 and 1976, yet despite several more female drivers being on the fringe of F1, none have managed to break into the starting grid.

This was not helped by Bernie Ecclestone, former Chief Executive of the Formula One Group, being dismissive of women driving in F1 saying that they “would not be taken seriously”. He has also said multiple times in interviews that women “should be dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances.”  Ecclestone left his position in 2017 and many are hopeful that this could represent a turning point for female involvement in the sport.

With the recent news that 21-year-old Ann Carrasco has become the first female rider to win a motorbike world championship in the World Supersport 300, it seems that the only thing holding women back from excelling in top motorsport competition is opportunity, not skill. So does the W Series offer that opportunity? Whilst there has been a lot of criticism, especially from prominent female drivers, there has been praise for the competition too.

Former F1 driver David Coulthard believes that men and women could compete equally but the current structure for finding female talent has “not worked”. He said “if you want a fundamental change in the outcome, you need a fundamental change in the process. W is a fundamental change in creating an opportunity to bring through female talent to the highest possible level.”

Interestingly this is not the first time a women-only racing series has been attempted. ITV presented ‘Formula Woman’ to viewers in 2004 in an attempt to boost the female audience of the sport and bring more women drivers to the major competitions. There was not a happy ending for the series as the main sponsor, Mazda, pulled out at the end of the first season and within three years it was axed.

Only time will tell what the impact of this new competition will be, but every female drive that enters the W Series will be hoping to use it as a stepping stone to greater things. “As female racers we are racers first, and our gender comes second. We grew up dreaming of winning races and winning championships, against everyone – the same as every male racer does. We did not grow up dreaming of being segregated and winning the girl’s only cup.”

Hamilton victory is Russia spoiled by team orders

Bottas was told on lap 25 to let his teammate pass to help Hamilton’s championship chances

Lewis Hamilton is now 50 points ahead of rival Sebastian Vettel in the battle for a fifth world championship after a victory in the Russian Grand Prix. The Brit’s race was shrouded in controversy as Mercedes ordered teammate Valtteri Bottas to let him past on lap 25 in order to secure a Hamilton win.

With only five races left, the championship is no longer Vettel’s to win, only Hamilton’s to lose. Vettel could come first in all remaining races but still come second in the standings.

The beginning of the race saw intense battling at the front of the grid but no major positional changes. Hamilton had a slow start but managed to use Bottas’ slip stream to avoid being overtaken by Vettel. Further back in the grid both Torro Rosso’s retired in the opening laps after independently spinning out.

Aside from Verstappen storming through the field after a back row start, the excitement died down until the first pit stops. On lap 12 Bottas came into the pits, followed by Vettel a lap later. During this time Hamilton began setting fastest sector times and it seemed he could move into first place, but the Williams of Sergey Sirotkin held him up wasting valuable seconds.

When Hamilton pitted on lap 14 the question was no longer ‘would he come out in the lead?’, but ‘would he come out third to Vettel?’. As the Mercedes emerged from the pit lane he saw the Ferrari of Vettel next to him, and then ahead of him as they went into the first corner. “How did that happen?” he asked. Was Ferrari’s strategy finally coming together?

Hamilton is not a driver to sit back and watch as important points go to his biggest rival and immediately began attacking the German. On lap 16 the Mercedes went to move down the inside but the defence from the Ferrari almost led to a collision, the quick reactions of Hamilton the only thing preventing one.

Several corners later he finally managed to get the better of Vettel and moved into third place, behind his teammate and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who had yet to pit. As the laps progressed the Mercedes team began to notice blistering to Hamilton’s tires and gave orders to Bottas to let him through on lap 25 to protect the team’s interests.

Verstappen pitted on lap 43 and the top three stayed in those positions for the remainder of the race. Bottas asked towards the end if they were going to finish in these positions, hoping to be given back the place he gave up. In response he was told: “Affirm, we will talk about it afterwards.”

After the race Hamilton said: “Valtteri did a fantastic job all weekend and he was a real gentleman to let me by. It has been a great weekend for the team. Usually I would be elated, but I can understand how difficult it was for Valtteri.”

The next race takes place on 7th October at the incredible Suzuka circuit in Japan. If Vettel cannot take significant points from Hamilton, the championship is all but over.