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The new season approaches, the 67th year of the Formula One drivers world championship.

There has been a total of 34 individual world champions since the start of F1 in 1950, and of those there will be five world champions on the grid at Melbourne, with 11 world championships between them.  The last time a championship was one not by one of these five was back in 2004 with  Michael Schumacher.

Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid.

Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid.

For the record that is quadruple champion Sebastian Vettel (2010-13), triple champion Lewis Hamilton (2008, 2014-15). double champion Fernando Alonso (2005-06) and single champions Jenson Button (2009) and Kimi Raikkonen (2007).

So who is going to be taking the crown in 2016? The “winter world championship” has come and gone in Barcelona with no clear conclusive winner. However, you can’t help thinking that Mercedes have not really shown their hand yet and dare I say are sandbagging, and it looks very much that there is a lot more to come.

Lewis Hamilton must be the clear favourite. He has all the ingredients and the best package, namely car (chassis and power unit), talent and pure racing ability.  I know that some believe that Nico Rosberg may have closed the gap on his team mate, but for me Lewis just has that little bit extra.

All drivers who get to Formula One are undoubtedly very good.  It’s just that the real champions have an abundance of talent, which when combined with a dedicated work ethic, means that they are very very very very very good!

Hunt

The cheeky James Hunt.

Frequent mention has been made of Lewis “backing off” towards the end of last year, but he had won the championship and the pressure was off.  His lifestyle has also been criticised, suggesting that he should have his head down and concentrate on training.  However critics also bemoan the lack of characters in current F1, citing racing characters such as James Hunt.

So in this increasingly politically correct world Lewis can’t win … and quite frankly who cares how he lives his life, so long as he can get the job done.

As Lewis told the official F1 website recently:

“I try to find a balance in my life. Sure you need to be recharged and have full batteries for the season, and yes, the lifestyle that I live is definitely different to the other drivers. But who says that it has to be the way they are doing things? My style works perfectly for me. It is all about enjoying every moment.”

And why not – but for the sake of the championship he just need to be challenged?

Most likely, the most interesting challenger will be Sebastian Vettel.  To be honest I was never a fan of Vettel, which probably had something to do with that infamous one finger salute he smugly used to give whenever he won.  But since he has been at Ferrari he seems a changed man, which maybe comes from maturity, plus an understanding of his responsibility to the Ferrari legend.  The thing about him that I admire is his appreciation of F1 history combined with an impish sense of humour.  I remember his first win for Ferrari in Malaysia last year and watching his sheer joy at an emotional press conference after the race.

Sebastian Vettel (GER) Ferrari SF16-H.

Sebastian Vettel (GER) Ferrari SF16-H.

The battle between Vettel and Hamilton will be interesting one, so as fans of the sport we must keep our fingers crossed that Ferrari have narrowed the gap performance wise to Mercedes.  There is always the saying that the best drivers end up in the best cars.

Whilst not wishing that F1 followed GP2 and ended up with the same cars, however wouldn’t it be interesting to see the top drivers all in identical Mercedes F1 cars?  With Lewis as the benchmark, just imagine the battle with Vettel, Alonso, Ricciardo, Bottas and the fresh young talent of Verstappen  – now that would be worth seeing!  I am sure that others will argue to include other drivers and that is open to debate, but to me these drivers represent the key talents for where they are in their careers.

Whilst Vettel can rightly take his share of the credit for the Ferrari renaissance and galvanising the team behind him, a key architect of bringing together the key talents is the Team Principal  Mauricio Arrivabene.

Mauricio is a real racer through and through and has been involved with the Marlboro sponsorship of Ferrari since the 1980s.  I first met Mauricio when I was the McLaren marketing person responsible for the Marlboro sponsorship and Mauricio was the Italian Marlboro marketing man responsible for Ferrari.  Friday mornings during free practice was the regular meet in the

Maurizio Arrivabene (ITA) Ferrari Team Principal.

Maurizio Arrivabene (ITA) Ferrari Team Principal.

Marlboro motorhome with the Marlboro Sponsorship Manager John Connor.  John looked a little like the actor David Niven, and like the Hollywood star was a great raconteur and for an hour would hold court, with various amusing stories, interspersed with bits of business, framed in a fog of ever thickening cigarette smoke.  These were the days before passive cigarette smoke was an issue!  Mauricio was often present, usually when we had to synchronise the drivers to appear at joint Marlboro functions.  I always thought I had pulled the short straw as I had to guarantee the appearance of one Ayrton Senna,  who sometimes proved to be somewhat reluctant to attend if he didn’t want to, which meant I was usually the one who got the blame!

As I said, Mauricio is a real racer and there is an interesting tale of his introduction to Ferrari.

In an interview which appeared on the Road and Track website, Mauricio talks about his long connection and affection for Ferrari. An association which goes back to his first encounter with “the old man,” Enzo Ferrari, not long before he died in 1988 at 90 years old.

Mauricio who was with Philip Morris in Italy at that time, was about to be assigned to work directly with the Ferrari team, but first his boss had to take him to Maranello to meet Enzo Ferrari for approval. As he waited outside Enzo’s house on the grounds of the Fiorano test track, he was so fascinated with the Formula 1 car the mechanics were pushing out of a garage that he paid no attention to movement in the window overhead—Ferrari looking out.

“Suddenly, my boss came out and said, you’re fine,” recalls Arrivabene. “And I said, okay, but he didn’t meet me. And he said, here’s the story: I went in, Mr. Ferrari turned his head.  “The guy is okay.”  “And I said, but you didn’t meet him.”  “And Mr. Ferrari said, yeah, but I was looking at how he was looking at my car.”

So what about the prospects for the second oldest team on the grid?  2015 must go down as one of the worst seasons for McLaren and the historical hype regarding the renewed partnership with Honda never got remotely close to the expectations.  I am sure that a psychiatrist would have something to say about the effects of the funereal black (sorry gunmetal grey) colour scheme of the car and the effect this may have on the team.  You could almost parody the Monty Python scene where the undertaker is touring the streets with his cart shouting ‘bring out your dead”.  To which, one family presents a body for the undertaker, who screams “but I’m not dead yet!”  However fingers crossed that McLaren will rise again and Honda have found some more power because McLaren certainly have most of the ingredients for success, heritage, finance, technology, skilled workforce and two very experienced world champion drivers.  Enough said about the McLaren of today!

For me, one of the most interesting teams likely to emerge in 2016 is going to be Manor.  The old guard have departed and there are a lot of new faces, new Mercedes engine with Williams gearbox, plus the Mercedes reigning DTM champion Pascal Wehrlein.

Dave Ryan (NZL) Manor Racing Racing Director.

Dave Ryan (NZL) Manor Racing Racing Director.

The team is now headed by New Zealander Dave Ryan, who is very much a McLaren Old Boy, having risen through the ranks from mechanic, to chief mechanic to team manager, before he was sacrificed over the Lewis Hamilton Liargate” scandal in 2009.

Dave is a no nonsense Kiwi, who whilst being a hard task master, inspires trust and loyalty from those who work with him and above all, he gets the job done.  This can be seen by the number of McLaren Old Boys who have offered their services and want to work with Dave at Manor.

I actually first met Dave before either of us worked for McLaren. It was at the British Grand Prix in 1974 at Brands Hatch and Dave had just arrived from New Zealand and got a temporary job checking tickets. I was still at school and was camping at the circuit with friends.  Somehow we got talking and Dave ended up camping with us. The fact that he was controlling the gate for tickets was purely coincidental!

Much as we all may argue that Formula One has lost its way.  It’s quest to over complicate things, such as, the artistically sculptured but highly expensive front wings, or trying to introduce the farcical “it’s a knockout” musical chairs format for qualifying, or the head protection system which appears to be modelled on a flip flop.  However come Sunday 20th March, I am sure many of us will still be watching the traditional season opening Grand Prix in Melbourne, in the hopeful expectation that the racing will be closer and exciting!

With all the talk about history and heritage, it is only right to mention the sad passing of the well liked and respected journalist Alan Henry.  Alan covered nearly 650 Grands Prix between 1973 and 2009 and one notable exception was the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring where Niki Lauda had his fiery accident!

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Alan was always great company, with a encyclopedic wealth of knowledge and information, not only for the cars and teams, but also the behind the scenes gossip.  For many years when the French Grand Prix was at Magny Cours, the highlight of the weekend was a traditional McLaren F1 journalists dinner at wonderful French restaurant.  It was strictly F1 passes left at the door and nothing from that evening could be quoted afterwards, as we were regaled with hilarious tales from  the creme de la creme of the British journalists including Alan, Nigel Roebuck and Maurice Hamilton.  In fact a contributing factor to the no repeating of what happened that evening was probably due to the copious amount of red wine consumed.

For those interested in the history of F1 and the characters behind it, a thoroughly recommended read is Alan’s autobiography “The last train from Yokkaichi” which was produced as an e-book and was available on Kindle.

I think Alan is best summed up in a tribute by his great friend Maurice Hamilton:

“Underscoring all of this was a warm, kind and caring personality that endeared him to everyone. Alan Henry did not have a single enemy; a attribute that says everything about the rare ability in a ruthless business to perform an objective reporting role supported by the fact that this criticisms always had substance. That respect and affection became concern in recent years when illness took hold, followed by an outpouring of heartfelt tributes from the F1 community and readers when the news broke that Alan had passed away at the age of 68.”

Peter Burns

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