Mark Blundell: Alonso can be the one to capture F1 crown from Vettel

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A NEW Formula 1 season dawns with the usual cocktail of burning issues dominating the talk in the pit lane.

Can anyone beat Sebastian Vettel to the title?

Will Lewis Hamilton settle in at Mercedes, and how long will it be before he is competitive?

Is the amount of paid drivers on the grid to the detriment of the competition, and is there an end in sight to money being valued higher than talent?

And with Danica Patrick making male drivers eat her dust in the US’s Nascar series, how long will it be before a woman drives competitively in Formula 1?

The most glamorous sport on the planet evokes some of the most intriguing sub-plots.

It is more than just 19 races around the globe, from Australia this weekend to Brazil at the end of November.

Attempting to answer some of the hot topics for the Yorkshire Post is ex-Formula 1 driver, pundit, steward and all-round petrolhead Mark Blundell, who 17 years after his last F1 grand prix, is still racing round a circuit of tarmac as fast as he can.

Blundell, 46, will race for Leeds-based team United Autosports in the British GT Championship this year.

But amongst a first season on home soil since the mid-1980s, Blundell will keep a keen eye on developments in Formula 1, either as a television or radio pundit, or as a FIA steward, a role he will undertake in China and Brazil.

So, does he think that anyone can stop Germany’s defending champion Vettel from winning a fourth straight drivers’ title for Red Bull?

“Vettel is beatable and this year probably more than any over the last two or three years,” is Blundell’s response.

“I think the gap has closed, the combinations have changed slightly and there’s some really competitive packages out there such as McLaren. Mercedes look like they’ve upped their game, Lotus have improved their car and Red Bull will obviously be strong again.

“Ferrari are a team that others will be concerned about because they’ve already looked strong in testing.

“Fernando Alonso will be a force to be reckoned with. I still believe he is the most complete grand prix driver. In terms of speed and experience, foresight and vision then he’s the No 1 guy.

“Ferrari have developed, you can see that from the pace already.”

Blundell raced for four years in Formula 1, starting 63 grands prix for four different teams and finishing on the podium three times.

His most successful year in terms of points came while he drove for McLaren, the premier British marque, who, this year, have to make do without the country’s most bankable racing driver.

Hamilton’s switch to Mercedes was arguably a bigger story at the end of last season than Vettel’s third title win.

Seeing how the 26-year-old fares at a factory name that does not have the pace or history of McLaren in Formula 1, will be just as fascinating.

“It’s a challenge for Lewis because it’s a new environment and he’s been at McLaren since he was a child, he’s known no other F1 team,” says Blundell. “He’s also going into a different environment, it’s a German-led operation.

“In many respects, there’s lots for him to get to grips with, but at the same time it’s a challenge he’s got to really step up to.

“He’s got the experience and the maturity to do that, he’s got the speed. All eyes will be on him.

“There is an element of patience required but, in our business, nobody really gives an inch, so if the results are not forthcoming quickly, questions get asked and there needs to be answers for that.

“There are things being put in place for the future on the technical side, but that’s the future, people in certain places want results now – including the drivers.”

While the pressure for results is intense at the front of the grid, merely competing is enough of a challenge for teams at the back of the grid like former Yorkshire-based outfit Marussia.

Such are the costs involved in running a team that Marussia can only give seats to drivers who bring vast sums of sponsorship with them. The situation is not restricted to the back of the grid, with drivers like Pastor Maldonado backed to drive at Williams by the Venezuelan government.

“It’s something that probably now covers 50 per cent of the grid in F1,” says Blundell. “You’ve got to understand that it has been around for a long long time.

“It was quite small back then, but now the group’s expanded. I don’t know how you’re going to get around it because there are combinations of driver and country and associated sponsorship that are prepared to buy in and purchase a seat.

“Whether they’re the best driver and warrant being there is not in question any more because these teams cannot survive without their input.

“You have to accept that, until the economic world changes to enable the teams to get their commercial side as strong as it should be, then the drivers are going to lead the way in terms of what finances they bring.”

What about women drivers in Formula 1? Patrick recently became the fastest pole qualifier at the revered Daytona 500 since 1990, making the men of Nascar sit up and take note.

Women in F1 is not unusual, but it remains rare. Blundell managed Maria de Villota, who was Marussia’s test driver last year. She suffered an accident in testing that resulted in her losing an eye.

Blundell believes it is only a matter of time before the trail Patrick blazed and the one de Villota came close to following, will result in a woman driving competitively in Formula 1.

Blundell explains: “The aim with Maria was to get her into Formula 1 and it was achievable.

“We’ve seen it before and it’s not new, but in the next generation there are more and more coming through.

“And I don’t see why the Formula 1 paddock wouldn’t be welcoming. The size of the cars now also suits women, which may in the past have been an issue, but not any more.

“If it’s good enough for Nascar then it’s good enough for Formula 1.

“It’s a global platform and a world stage and it warrants it.”