Joe-Pinions: Sports

30 July 2010 – Formula One Mid-Season Review (Part 5)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 30/07/2010

The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on the Île Notre-Dame in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, is an important place for Lewis Hamilton.  It was here where he took his first career F1 pole position in 2007, which he converted to his first career F1 race victory; it was here where he crashed into the rear of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari the following year; and it was here where he took his first victory in the 2010 season.

Some circuits seem tailor-made for some drivers, for whatever reason.  The late Ayrton Senna dominated the Monaco Grand Prix like nobody else, winning six times in his ten year career.  Alain Prost mastered the Grand Prix of Brazil, taking victory five times at Jacerapagua and once at Interlagos, as well as the French Grand Prix, winning once at the Dijon-Prenois Circuit, four times at Circuit Paul Ricard, and once at Magny-Cours.  With two victories in three attempts, perhaps Lewis Hamilton is fated to be the perennial victor in Montreal.

Round 8:  Grand Prix of Canada

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” goes the saying.  Even in the world of Formula 1, where change is constant, the saying holds true.

Except, however, if you’re Lewis Hamilton, and you’re in Montreal for the Canadian Grand Prix.

Hamilton beat both Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, suspending Red Bull’s domination of Saturdays during Grand Prix weekends.  Webber made the 2nd fastest lap time, but found himself starting seventh because his car’s gearbox had to be changed after qualifying.  Sebastian Vettel therefore lined up alongside Hamilton on the grid.  The top ten on the grid, then, was as follows:  Alonso; Button; Liuzzi; Massa; Webber; Kubica; Sutil; Rosberg.

At the start, Hamilton parlayed his pole position into an immediate lead.  However, further down the pack, things were considerably messier as Vitaly Petrov jumped the start (and earned himself two drive-through penalties), Massa and Liuzzi indulged in some bumper-car action (resulting in Liuzzi spinning away his brilliant P5 starting position), and Kamui Kobayashi and Nico Hülkenberg clashed at the last corner, with Kobayashi finding his race terminated far too early in the so-called “Wall of Champions.”

This race was decided largely by tire strategies.  The FIA homologated four dry weather Bridgestone tire compounds at the beginning of the season; for simplicity’s sake, they are known as “hard,” “medium,” “soft,” and “super-soft” tires.  In previous grands prix, Bridgestone brought two tire compounds that were only one step away from each other, with the harder of the two compounds designated as the prime tire, and the softer of the two designated as the option tire.  For Canada, Bridgestone decided to bring tires that were two steps from each other.  In the event, they brought their hard and soft compound tires.

The effects were dramatic in the race.  Virtually everybody qualified (and therefore started) the race on the more ideal hard compound tires, but due to the regulation requiring the use of both compound tires during the race (except, of course, if the race is declared to be a “Wet Race,” which was not the case in Montreal this year), everybody had to use the soft option tires sometime during the race, which meant the teams had to figure out the optimal times when to bring their drivers in for their pit stops.

Some drivers, such as Sebastien Buemi, got things right.  Buemi enjoyed a brief stint in the lead as he was able to extend the life of his tires to the point that he found himself leading a grand prix for the first time in his career.  Hamilton and McLaren obviously figured their sums right as well, as Button used his tires wisely and exploited his superior grip to overtake Alonso for P2, a position he held until the finish.

Other drivers, however, got things wrong.  Mark Webber ran a two-stop race, with two back-to-back stints on the prime tire and a finishing stint on the options.  The soft options proved to be the least ideal tire during the final third of the race, as they exhibited far higher wear than was projected.  He lost the lead he briefly held to Hamilton, as well as another place to Alonso.  Michael Schumacher was another to suffer through bad tire wear.  The 7-time World Champion got so desperate with his defense of his positions he indulged in a lot of questionable tactics which force me to label him as a needlessly dirty driver given his considerable abilities behind the wheel.

At the end, McLaren finished with their third 1-2, this time with Hamilton leading the way home.  Fernando Alonso joined them on the podium, never being a serious threat to win the race.  Vettel and Webber finished fourth and fifth, while Rosberg beat Kubica over the line by less than a second.  Buemi finished in P8, while Liuzzi led Sutil home in a Force India double points finish.

Hamilton’s victory vaulted him to the top of the points table with 109pts, with teammate Button just three points behind.  Obviously, McLaren also took the lead in the Constructors’ championship.  Despite his fifth-place finish, Webber was in third, just six from the lead.

Round 9:  Grand Prix of Europe (Valencia, Spain)

Two races ago, Red Bull had been sitting pretty atop both the Drivers’ and the Constructors’ championship standings.  After the disaster in Turkey and McLaren’s domination in Canada, the team lost the lead in both tables.  They arrived in Valencia eager to put a halt to the slide and regain positive momentum.

Qualifying saw some semblance of order restored, with the team locking up the front row, Vettel on pole.  Lewis Hamilton might have had a chance to take a place on the front row as well, but a mistake in his final qualifying lap saw him take P3 instead.  Fernando Alonso took a feisty fourth place on the grid.  Felipe Massa was a tenth of a second slower than his teammate and lined up fifth, next to Robert Kubica’s Renault.  P7 went to Button, P8 to an impressive Nico Hülkenberg in his Williams.  Rubens Barrichello in the second Williams-Cosworth took P9, while Vitaly Petrov rounded out the top ten.

Other notables:  Sebastien Buemi continued from his good form in Canada, lining up 11th; the Mercedes boys performed poorly, with Rosberg in P12 and Schumacher in 15th.  Jarno Trulli’s Lotus was the fastest of the new entrants, lining up 19th on the grid.

At the start, Webber had an awful getaway.  Hamilton overtook him easily and lined himself up to pass Vettel.  Vettel took his normal line, and Hamilton’s McLaren touched the Red Bull.  Hamilton’s McLaren sustained minor damage to its front wing but was able to continue without problem.  Further down the order, Rosberg found himself eased off the track at turn four.  By the end of lap one, Vettel was already easing away from Hamilton and the rest of the pack.

Webber’s start dropped him down into the midst of a gaggle of cars in P9, so Red Bull called him into the pits early to take him out of the traffic and give him a bit of clear track to run in.  The Australian was on a charge after dropping back amongst the backmarkers when he apparently misjudged his closing speed on Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus and hit it at top speed.  The Red Bull was launched into the air, flipped onto its back, hit an overhead advertising sign, crashed upside down onto the track, then miraculously flipped back shiny side up before sliding into a tire barrier on the outside of the corner.  Kovalainen’s Lotus, meanwhile, was demolished in the rear after the crash.

Here is a video of the frightening accident:  

Webber’s crash obviously necessitated the deployment of the Safety Car.  As luck would have it, Hamilton was being chased by Fernando Alonso in P3, who was eager to impress in front of his home crowd.  Hamilton was on the pit straight when the Safety Car was just exiting the pit lane.  McLaren had been on the radio with Hamilton informing him about the Webber accident and that the Safety Car was being deployed, so just as Hamilton had gone past the start-finish area and into the pit exit area, the Safety Car was just in front of his car as it crossed a critical second blend line.  The regulations stipulate that if a car in a race crosses this second blend line after the Safety Car does, the car in the race must drop back behind the Safety Car.  Hamilton was all of one half-car length behind the Safety Car as it crossed this crucial second blend line.  In the confusion, he passed the Safety Car.

Here is a video of the incident:  

Astonishingly, the stewards in charge of the race did not even notice Hamilton’s transgression.  Only Fernando Alonso, who was following Hamilton very closely, noticed what had happened and was mindful enough of the regulations.  He complained to his pit crew via radio, who then told Race Control about what had happened.  It took twenty minutes for the stewards to study the incident and render a judgment, assessing Hamilton with a drive-through penalty during racing conditions.

Meanwhile, behind Alonso, nine drivers – Button, Barrichello, Hülkenberg, Kubica, Petrov, Sutil, Buemi, and de la Rosa – got caught up in the confusion and traveled faster than what the regulations allow during a Safety Car period.  Consequently, in the aftermath of pit stops taken during the Safety Car period, these cars wound up ahead of Alonso’s Ferrari, much to the Maranello team’s annoyance.

Some drivers elected not to pit during the Safety Car period.  Of these, Kamui Kobayashi was the most spectacular beneficiary of the enforced slowdown, winding up in P3.  Even after the Safety Car returned to the pits and racing resumed, Kobayashi was able to run fast enough to keep the cars behind him at bay.  Eventually he had to pit, wound up ninth, then overtook an already angry Alonso and Buemi (at the race’s final corner!) with much fresher tires to finish an excellent seventh.

Hamilton had to serve his drive-through penalty, but fortunately for him he had a clear track in front of him and was therefore able to open up a big-enough gap to Kobayashi behind so that he didn’t lose a position when he served his penalty.

Vettel won comfortably, with Hamilton closing in P2.  Button was lucky to finish third, with Barrichello, Kubica and Sutil following some distance behind.  Kobayashi, Alonso, Buemi, and Rosberg rounded out the points finishers.

Ferrari and Alonso were incandescent in their anger after what they thought was a “manipulated” race result.  Their bone of contention was rooted in what they felt was a miscarriage of justice during the Safety Car period.  Their histrionics were misplaced, as the stewards commendably took time to study the incident and assess what I thought were appropriate penalties.  Ferrari and Alonso simply suffered bad luck.

Thankfully, Webber’s luck was much better, his crash not resulting in any injuries to himself, Kovalainen, or to any spectators or marshals.  Not even Ferrari and Alonso’s hysterics in the aftermath of the GP of Europe could overshadow that happy fact.

Round 10:  Grand Prix of Great Britain

In the aftermath of Mark Webber’s spectacular accident in Valencia, some fans decided to cheekily reappropriate Red Bull’s advertising slogan, saying that it was only logical to see the RB6 do a somersault in mid-air since “Red Bull gives you wings.”

After the final pre-qualifying practice sessions, Webber found that not only did Red Bull give him wings, they took them away from him as well.  More specifically, the Red Bull pit chiefs decided to take off the new front wing on his RB6 and mount it on Sebastian Vettel’s car instead.

Vettel had an identical wing in the free practice sessions, but his broke its mountings so that it was deemed unrepairable and unusable.  Since Red Bull only had two of the special new wings on hand at Silverstone, team chief Christian Horner decided to let Vettel, who had 12 more points than Webber did after Valencia, use the new wing during qualifying and the race.

Mark Webber was incensed over this decision.  In the wake of the Red Bull teammates’ intra-team collision in Istanbul, Webber had been blamed (quite wrongly, in my opinion) by some (Austrian) people within the Red Bull power structure for causing the accident.  Now, after Horner’s decision, the public perception that Red Bull simply favored Vettel over Webber was only strengthened.

Webber drove with anger and determination, but was unable to beat Vettel to pole.  Nevertheless, the Australian still secured a place on the front row.  Fernando Alonso, another driver driving with a fierce need to prove a point, took P3.  His one-time teammate, Lewis Hamilton, qualified fourth.  Hamilton (and teammate Button) tested a new blown diffuser on their MP4-25s, but the team decided to run with the old-style diffuser after discovering that the new system was overheating the rear suspension, which, in addition to the change in vehicle dynamics under acceleration and deceleration, led to instability and wayward handling.

Here is the rest of the top ten:  Rosberg; Kubica; Massa; Barrichello; de la Rosa; Schumacher.

Other notables:  Jenson Button had a torrid time with his McLaren, qualifying down in P14; Kobayashi impressed with P12, suggesting that the Sauber BMWs were improving as the year progressed; and Sakon Yamamoto, replacing Bruno Senna for this race, bringing up the rear.

At the start, Webber had a better launch than teammate Vettel and got inside entering the super-quick Copse corner.  Vettel did not lift and rode around the outside of Webber, but ran out of road, clambered over the curbs, and touched Hamilton.  Vettel continued to lose positions as he entered the following Maggots-Becketts complex, slowed by a puncture incurred by his contact with Hamilton.  Consequently, he had to pit at the end of the first lap to change his tires.

Felipe Massa also picked up a puncture in the new “Arena” section of the revised Silverstone circuit, so he and Vettel found themselves at the tail end of the race well into the leader’s second lap.

Webber and Hamilton pulled away easily, seemingly on a different pace from the rest of the pack.  Meanwhile, Alonso was to suffer another run-in with race officials which would see him terribly unhappy at the end of the race.  Alonso attempted to overtake Kubica into Club, but flubbed the maneuver and found himself off the circuit.  He regained the circuit on the way out of Club, now ahead of Kubica.  Even at the time it looked like a clear-cut case of an illegal overtake, which obliged Alonso to drop back behind Kubica.  Unfortunately, Alonso continued the race in front of Kubica, instead of giving the place back.  In fact, he very quickly overtook Jaime Alguersuari soon after, which only complicated matters as they subsequently happened.

While Alonso was carving his way up the running order, Pedro de la Rosa and Adrian Sutil had a contretemps, resulting in de la Rosa’s Sauber losing its rear wing and consequent retirement.  The collision dumped left debris on the pit straight, which feeds into the ultra-quick Copse corner.  Race Control had no choice but to deploy the Safety Car.

Unfortunately for Alonso, the timing of the Safety Car’s deployment was beyond unfortunate.  By the time the Safety Car collected the leader, not only was Alonso illegally (if accidentally so) ahead of Kubica, but he was also now ahead of another Alguersuari, who was ahead of Kubica.  Moreover, even if Alonso had followed instructions from Race Control to drop a place to Kubica, the Pole had already retired with a mechanical problem; the upshot was that Alonso now couldn’t rectify the problem on the circuit (not that he wanted to anymore, since he had also already passed Alguersuari).  Alonso was given a drive-through penalty.

But, to twist the knife even more, under the regulations, Alonso was not supposed to serve his drive through penalty until the Safety Car period was over.  All in all, Alonso must have felt like even the heavens above had conspired to deny him any opportunity to shine at Silverstone.

Webber won the British Grand Prix, crossing the line a little more than a second ahead of Lewis Hamilton.  Webber exclaimed on his cool down lap, “Not bad for a number two driver,” a comment which demonstrated his anger and irritation over Red Bull’s decision to take his new front wing and give it to his teammate.  Rosberg claimed the final podium place.  Button finished in P4, followed by Barrichello, Kobayashi, and a quartet of Germans comprised of Vettel, Sutil, Schumacher, and Hülkenberg.

So, just past the halfway point of the 2010 Formula 1 season, here are the top five drivers:

  1. Lewis Hamilton (145pts)
  2. Jenson Button (133pts)
  3. Mark Webber (128pts)
  4. Sebastian Vettel (121pts)
  5. Fernando Alonso (98pts)

The Constructors’ Championship table looked like this:

  1. McLaren-Mercedes (278pts)
  2. Red Bull-Renault (249pts)
  3. Ferrari (165pts)
  4. Mercedes (126pts)
  5. Renault (89pts)

At the halfway point of the season, here are some observations:

  • Red Bull definitely have the fastest car on the grid.  However, a combination of mechanical issues and a lack of discipline with their drivers has resulted in their losing a lot of points to their opposition.  Given their appreciable and consistent performance advantages over the rest of the field, their drivers should be leading the Drivers’ championship, and logically the team should be leading the Constructors’ championship as well.
  • McLaren’s consistency has vaulted them to the top of the standings.  However, they don’t appear to have the fastest car on most weekends, so they need to find more speed in the MP4-25 if they want to achieve their ambitions of ending the season as World Champions.
  • Ferrari lost its way temporarily in the early part of the season, but Alonso’s fiery determination has led to good results.  Moreover, despite the bad finishes in both Valencia and Silverstone, it is clear that Ferrari has found speed in its F10 that wasn’t there in the beginning of the season.  At the time of writing, they have the second-fastest car on the grid.
  • Mercedes looks lost, its car apparently not designed to take advantage of either of its drivers’ abilities and strengths.  The question is, do they focus their attentions on Rosberg’s attributes, who is unquestionably the team’s pacesetter, or do they design next year’s cars according to Michael Schumacher’s requirements?
  • The Renault is a good car, on some days better than the Mercedes, but Robert Kubica is the real hero.  To me, he has done the most with the least insofar as his car is concerned.  It would be interesting to see what Kubica could do in a McLaren or a Red Bull.
  • Sauber BMW and Williams-Cosworth are improving as the season wears on.  The question is, can they catch up to Mercedes, who appear to be slipping backwards in terms of performance.

Next post:  A mid-season review of the drivers.

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29 July 2010 – GP of Germany Thoughts (Part 2)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 29/07/2010

In my most recent blog post, I shared some thoughts about Ferrari’s recent resurgence as well as why I thought it was wrong for the team from Maranello to ask Felipe Massa to move over for teammate Fernando Alonso in the German GP.  In this blog post, we’ll examine two more outstanding issues:  

  • The controversy over illegally-flexing front wings involving Ferrari and Red Bull
  • McLaren’s troubles adapting the blown diffuser into its car is making it hard for them to keep up with both Red Bull and Ferrari

Let’s look at these issues in turn.

Ferrari and Red Bull Give You (Flexible) Wings

There’s a good chance that you may not be aware of it, but there has recently been a row brewing amongst the teams in Formula 1 about a couple of competitors having illegal aerodynamic components on their cars.  Red Bull and, to a smaller extent Ferrari, have been reported to have overly-flexible front wings.  Several teams have put forward their concerns about the legality of these two teams’ front wings to the FIA’s technical rules enforcers.

I first came upon the rather suprising story (surprising, since it seems to have been largely ignored by many of the specialist press outfits I consult regarding F1) on Autosport.  According to the report they filed, the story actually was first reported by a French newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, and consisted of a series of photographs from multiple angles that seem to show the central sections of the front wings dipping lower than what the regulations prescribe.

When Yahoo!UK’s Will Gray wrote that there was some footage on YouTube that seemed to support the contentions that the Red Bull’s front wing did seem to be flexing under load, I naturally had search for such clips and have a look for myself.

I found two clips:

and

The apparent flexing in the wings looks most obvious (to me, anyway) when you look at the wing’s endplates (its outer edges), near the inside of the tires.  When the car speeds up, the endplates look like they’re slowly dipping down closer to the track’s surface.  More obviously, when the car is under braking, the endplates appear to be moving up away from the track.  This would be indicative of the aerodynamic effects in play:  As the car speeds up, the downforce exerted on the wing increases the load, pushing it (and the entire car) down onto the track; conversely, when the car slows down, the aerodynamic load decreases, allowing the car’s suspension to decompress and push the car up a little bit.  

Autosport’s report highlighted the relevant technical regulation (Article 3.15):  

Article 3.15 of the F1 technical regulations states that bodywork that affects the aerodynamic performance of the car: “must be rigidly secured to the entirely sprung part of the car (rigidly secured means not having any degree of freedom)” and “must remain immobile in relation to the sprung part of the car.”

In simple English, this means that the front wing and any of its components (“bodywork that affects the aerodynamic performance of the car”) should not move at all, even when under aerodynamic loading.  I don’t know if I’m merely reacting to the power of suggestion, but it sure looks to me that the Red Bull’s front wing is indeed moving when the rest of the car (particularly when you use the car’s chassis that you can see in the onboard footage) is completely static.  Even the suspension arms look to be moving far less, even though they are subjected to the forces of weight transfer.  (Although, to be fair, suspensions are set to be very rigid these days anyway, with the tires themselves acting as the springs in a conventional car.  The reason for the very hard suspension settings?  Aerodynamics, specifically the need to have the car be at the most consistent ride height possible to maximize the under-car venturi effect from the underbody and rear diffuser.  The car’s suspension system is now nothing more than just a means to control the car’s ride height.  What this all ultimately means is we should be seeing much less change in the wing endplates’ relative position to the track as the car goes accelerates and decelerates.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve not found any “evidence” or any other kind of indication of similar things going on with Ferrari’s front wings, nor have I found footage of Webber’s Red Bull exhibiting similar behavior.  That is not to say, however, that only Vettel’s car has the flexible front wing (Autosport and Gray’s articles obviously says otherwise).

(EDIT:  On James Allen’s F1 Blog, there are a couple of comparative photographs illustrating just how low the Red Bull and Ferrari front wings are compared to other cars (a McLaren and a Mercedes are pictured).  Darren Heath, a well-known F1 photographer, took the photos.  See and judge for yourselves.  Incidentally, it is Mark Webber’s Red Bull pictured in two shots.)

This is the Red Bull front wing:  

This is the McLaren front wing, in comparison:  

Finally, Ferrari’s front wing:  

To my eyes, given these three photographs, the Red Bull’s wing’s endplates look to be lowest to the ground, the McLaren’s the furthest from the ground, and the Ferrari’s somewhere in between the two.  Of course, it’s impossible to say whether conditions (i.e., photographer’s position, angle, etc.) were identical in all three shots (not likely), but I think the shots are still fairly good to be able to make a judgment one way or the other.  Insofar as I’m concerned, there is a clear difference in how the wings on all three cars vary insofar as how close their critical components, the endplates, sit relative to the track surface.

The upshot of all this is that the FIA has ruled the Red Bull and Ferrari front wings to be perfectly legal after inspections conducted during the German Grand Prix.  All the other teams are now obligated to study and fully understand how these wing designs actually work and how they are deemed legal by the FIA.  McLaren, for one, has already said that they are completely stymied about how the wings are constructed

I have a feeling that this controversy will only get bigger, despite the FIA’s declaration that Ferrari and Red Bull’s designs comply with the technical regulations.

McLaren:  Blowing It With Its Diffuser

Speaking of McLaren, their MP4-25 has slipped from being the second-best car on the grid to the third best car, after Ferrari’s impressive resurgence in recent races.  In an effort to keep up with their rivals from Milton Keynes (Red Bull) and Maranello, McLaren decided to adopt a technical feature the Red Bulls have had since the pre-season testing, the so-called blown diffuser.

What is it?   Renault’s own F1 Blog explains it quite elegantly:  “A blown diffuser is simply a diffuser that is energised by putting the exhaust flow into the diffuser and blowing it with the exhausts.”  In other words, the engine exhaust is routed through the diffuser, where the hot gasses then accelerate the flow of the air going through the diffuser, thereby increasing the venturi effect and increasing drag-free downforce.

It’s not a new invention, as blown diffusers were first run in early 1980s by Renault (from James Allen’s F1 blog).  They became basically de rigeur in F1 until Ferrari invented the upward-facing exhaust layout in the late 1990s, and all the teams followed suit.  Adrian Newey’s design team at Red Bull basically just took the concept out from mothballs and incorporated it into the RB6, judging that the advantages in additional downforce outweighed the potential pitfalls (which clever management of the Renault engine was able to eliminate, at least to some degree).

McLaren has struggled to adapt its MP4-25 to accept a blown diffuser thus far.  They first ran the new diffuser at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix in Friday’s free practice, but took the parts out and reverted to the “conventional” diffuser for the rest of the weekend.  Apparently the team were experiencing problems with overheating suspension pieces, so they decided to take the safe route and go with the older diffuser design.  In Germany they ran with the blown diffuser the entire weekend, but were still unable to catch up with either the Red Bulls or the Ferraris.

With the ban on in-season testing, McLaren is racing not only against their rivals on the circuit, but also against time.  Simulation programs can only go so far in evaluating a sub-system as big as a blown diffuser, since there are so many other parts of the car that are affected.  Solutions to these kinds of technical issues will only be found with track time, but the ban on in-season testing severely restricts McLaren’s efforts to catch up.  Until they get on top of their issues with the blown diffuser, which includes full acclimatisation by the drivers, Ferrari and Red Bull will continue to stay ahead.  Not only that, but other teams (such as Renault and Mercedes) now have a chance to catch up to McLaren, which will make things even more difficult for the team from Woking.


28 July 2010 – GP of Germany Thoughts (Part 1)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 28/07/2010

For me, there were four big things about the German GP from this past weekend:

  1. This was the first time Ferrari had won on legitimate pace since Kimi Raikkonen’s KERS-assisted win in Spa last year.
  2. Ferrari was wrong to ask Felipe Massa to move over for Fernando Alonso, for a variety of reasons.
  3. There is a brewing controversy about illegally-flexing front wings involving both Ferrari and Red Bull, but it’s an issue that hasn’t been prominent in coverage (I’ve only seen it in Autosport and in Will Gray’s commentaries on Yahoo! UK’s F1 coverage).
  4. McLaren has much work to do with its “blown diffuser” just to keep up with the front-running Red Bulls and the resurgent Ferraris.

Let’s examine these four points in turn.  I’ll offer my thoughts about the first two in this post, then follow up with the last two points in my next post.

Ferrari’s Return to Form

Hockenheim was the first race that Ferrari had won on genuine pace since the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix.  Last year in Spa, a mixture of an aggressive drive by Kimi Raikkonen combined with the straightline speed advantage conferred by KERS beat the pole-sitting Force India driven by a particularly inspired Giancarlo Fisichella.

Although Fernando Alonso won this year’s season opening Grand Prix of Bahrain, the victory in Sakhir owed more to misfortune befalling the fastest car-driver combination from that weekend, Sebastian Vettel in the Red Bull-Renault RB6, than to the F10‘s inherent speed at that time of the season.  While it’s true that the Ferraris were consistently the best of the rest that weekend behind Vettel’s Red Bull, neither Alonso nor teammate Felipe Massa looked fast enough at any point in the weekend to usurp Vettel’s position at the front.  Not only that, but the results in subsequent grands prix strongly suggest that the Ferraris rarely, if ever, looked like a potential race winner until the German Grand Prix.  They had no pole positions (Red Bull has had a complete stranglehold on this statistic thus far this year) and no fastest race laps (a strong indication of race form, in my opinion) until the British Grand Prix, the race immediately preceding Hockenheim.  Until Germany, the Ferrari was at best the 2nd best car in the very early part of the season, slipping to 3rd best behind both Red Bull and McLaren by the fourth grand prix of the season (China).

(As an aside, I have long considered the slower of a team’s two cars at any given grand prix weekend to be the measure of the car’s maximum potential performance.  The faster of the two cars is faster because its driver makes the difference; in other words, the extra speed comes from the driver’s abilities.  For me this is an almost absolute rule except in rare circumstances, especially in decades past – specifically the 1980s – when sometimes a driver would deliberately sacrifice ultimate speed in favor of superior race pace.  I think there’s a little bit of that with McLaren’s current lineup:  I think Lewis Hamilton is ultimately able to drive the McLaren faster, but that Jenson Button works on his car’s setup more and so is able to sometimes produce a better race result than Hamilton.

Therefore, even though there have been races when Alonso qualified in the top two rows, the slower Ferrari driven by Massa is almost always slower than the slower McLaren on almost every given weekend.  Alonso is, to me, the superior Ferrari driver; this is why he almost always produces a better performance, whether in qualifying or during the race, compared to Massa, except in circumstances where there are car failures or accidents.)

Germany belonged to Ferrari, pure and simple.  Although Vettel sustained Red Bull’s amazing perfect streak in pole positions so far this year, both Alonso and Massa were never far from the top of the times the entire weekend, the red cars finally looking fast and stable.  Indeed, the slower Ferrari in qualifying (Massa’s) was still quicker than the slower of the Red Bulls (Mark Webber, who qualified in P4).

Perhaps the only hypothetical that could have prevented Ferrari from winning at Hockenheim last weekend was Vettel’s start.  If Sebastian hadn’t flubbed his start so badly and converted his pole position into the race lead, who knows if he would have had enough pace to stay in front of both the red cars from Maranello.  It’s an interesting what if, but my personal belief is that given the relative closeness in performance of the top three (Alonso, Massa, and Vettel), whoever led away from the start had a significant strategic advantage given that overtaking is so difficult at Hockenheim, despite the very slow 2nd gear hairpin (Turn 4) which seems designed to facilitate passing.  Barring any mistakes on-track or in the pits or any other factors such as decisions issued by the pit crews, the order was unlikely to change.

So, the big question:  How did Ferrari regain its form?  I think it’s obvious that they have finally begun to understand their F10, after losing their way in the early part of the year.

Perhaps unusually, Ferrari did not have a clearly original technical innovation on the F10.  Compared especially to McLaren’s MP4-25, with its revolutionary F-duct rear wing system, and the Red Bull RB6 and its blown diffuser, the F10 was a fairly conventional F1 car.  The most innovative feature on the F10 was its unique wheel rim crowns, which are aerodynamic devices on the wheels which help clean up airflow from the aerodynamically-turbulent wheels.  While Ferrari are unique in having these wheel rim crowns this year, the advantages this feature give are not considered to be as big as either the F-duct or the blown diffuser.

Ferrari first tried to incorporate the F-duct, but quite clearly lost its way during its tests of the system.  They couldn’t find quite the right balance between the straightline speed advantage the F-duct endows and the significant downforce loss that occurs.  McLaren, of course, pioneered the feature, so they designed their entire car with this feature incorporated and have refined it to the point where its advantages have completely eliminated the disadvantages.  Ferrari, however, did a better job at incorporating Red Bull’s blown diffuser concept on their car, coming close to mastering it at Valencia and obviously exploiting it to the max in Germany.

Team Orders:  The Case Against Ferrari

As someone who used to love Scuderia Ferrari, I found it somewhat amusing that the argument over team orders in Formula 1 would explode back into prominence and that the team from Maranello would be involved in it, front-and-center.  Why was I so amused?  Because I still remember the Michael Schumacher era at Ferrari, and how much I grew to really loathe the team with the red cars and the man from Kerpen.

Here’s a short retelling of how the team orders furore became the story in Hockenheim:  Sebastian Vettel won the pole position for the German GP with a sensational final lap in Q3.  Before his last effort, Alonso was on provisional pole.  Nevertheless, both Ferraris looked like very strong contenders for the race win barring mishaps.

At the start, however, Vettel had a horrendous getaway from his grid position and attempted to squeeze Alonso into the pit wall.  Alonso kept his nerve and his foot on the throttle and got ahead of Vettel, expecting to lead into the first corner, only to find Felipe Massa had beat both him and Vettel and took the lead.

Massa set a good pace and ran ahead of his teammate, even into and out of the mandatory tire stops, looking very comfortable at the point.  He wasn’t going away and hiding from his teammate, but it was clear that he had enough speed to keep Alonso behind.  Given the configuration of the circuit, and perhaps also given car setups (perhaps Alonso’s setup was calculated with the idea that he would be in front and therefore carried more downforce to preserve the tires, instead of a lower downforce configuration for extra straightline speed), Massa’s lead looked safe enough from his teammate.

Alonso then radioed his pit, telling them “This is ridiculous!,” implying that he felt that Massa was holding him up.  Ferrari responded by having Rob Smedley, Massa’s race engineer, radio Felipe:  “Fernando is faster than you.  Can you confirm you understood that message?”

Massa apparently understood loud and clear, as he relinquished the lead exiting the hairpin.  Afterwards, Smedley radioed him again, apparently apologizing to him (though Smedley later clarified that he said “sorry” for the fact that he lost the lead).

Here’s my take on the how the lead change from Massa to Alonso went down:  Barring a rather unusual technical issue such as a big engine problem or a gearbox/transmission problem, it’s virtually impossible for a car in front of another to suddenly just lose forward drive at the exit of a very slow corner like a hair pin.  If a car indeed suffer such a problem, it’s highly unlikely for that car to make the finish, as it would have been a fairly catastrophic problem.  Neither could such an overtake occur with a driver error; Massa’s tail didn’t step out (power oversteer, indicating that he might have been far too exuberant in getting back on the throttle at corner exit), so it certainly didn’t look like he made a mistake at that point of the circuit.

In short, it’s almost impossible for a healthy car to lose a position to a car behind under acceleration from a slow corner exit like a hairpin unless the driver of the car in front actually doesn’t accelerate out of the corner as well as he could.

In my opinion, Massa wanted to make as overt a gesture in allowing Alonso through in response to his team’s command as possible.  He could have perhaps slowed on the main straight, or he could have lost his lead in a slow corner entry, making it look like Alonso simply outbraked him going into the corner; these are fairly conventional and normal ways to overtake a slower car.  But by choosing the manner and the place of how he was overtaken, I think Massa wanted to demonstrate his extreme disappointment and unhappiness over how his team treated him.

The thing is, if I was in his shoes, I would probably feel the same way.

No driver wants to be told to relinquish position to any competitor, but especially to as direct a rival as one’s teammate.  This is so much more true given Massa’s lack of success for the entire year up that point compared to Alonso.

In the aftermath of the race, Massa, being a team player, was cagey enough to just stop short of suggest that the radio transmissions from Smedley were team orders.

Though Ferrari denied (and continues to deny) it, many in the media covering Formula 1 and fans in the know understood that Smedley’s transmissions were coded orders from the team to Massa telling him to cede position to Alonso.

Unfortunately for everyone, from the drivers to their teams, to the media and finally the fans that love the sport, there is a ban on team orders in Formula 1.  All you would really get in the wake of this incident is a guaranteed controversy, and that is what we have right now.

Ferrari justified its radio calls to Massa (the team absolutely refuses to acknowledge that it issued orders to its drivers over the radio) by casting it in light of the championship situation:  As of the end of the British Grand Prix, Alonso had 98 points, Massa 67.  The championship leader, Lewis Hamilton, had 145.  Obviously, the chief (and arguably, only) beneficiary of changing the running order in Germany was Alonso.  If Massa had won and Alonso finished in second, Ferrari would still have amassed the maximum number of Constructors’ points.  So it’s clear that Ferrari decided to “help” Alonso’s championship chances by sacrificing his teammate’s own aspirations.

Until the outright ban on team orders, I would have had no problem with that IF it was very late in the season and there were only a limited number of points to be won, and IF only one of a team’s two drivers had a mathematical shot at winning the championship.

We are clearly very far from the end of the championship, barely having crossed the halfway point.  To me, that means that the drivers’ championship is wide open.  Indeed, the gap between championship leader Hamilton to Alonso is a mere 24 points, which means Alonso is within one win’s points total away from taking the lead.  With eight races to go after Germany, that means there are a whopping 200 maximum points available for any one driver.  What this also means is that Massa still has a shot at winning the championship.

Let’s talk about some more hypotheticals here, given the situation right now.  What if Alonso were to somehow encounter some kind of trouble which would result in him discontinuing his participation in the rest of the season?  What if he gets injured in a practice accident, or maybe suffers a broken leg falling down the stairs?  What if massively bad luck were to suddenly shadow Fernando between now and the end of the year?  What if Massa gets galvanized by the apparent lack of favor he enjoys with Ferrari and starts destroying Alonso?  The point of all these hypothetical questions is, there’s a very long way until the end of the year, and even though Alonso is comprehensively leading his teammate, who is to say that there might be a reversal of fortune?

As F1 reporter Joe Saward wrote in his blog, “Ferrari is putting its eggs in one basket.”  If Lady Luck decides to forsake Fernando and side with Massa, Ferrari will have unwittingly jeopardized its own ambitions of having one of its drivers win the drivers’ championship if Felipe winds up Ferrari’s pacesetter from here on out.  It’s not probable that this is what would happen, but then nothing is impossible.

I’m sure Fernando Alonso’s rationale in communicating his perception that he was much faster than Massa (a debatable point, in my opinion; Joe Saward very helpfully provides some lap time data from Germany that suggests that maybe Massa was not interested in running flat out even while he was in the lead) was that he fully understood that overtaking at Hockenheim is a risky proposition given the closeness in performance of the cars.  Obviously he wanted to win this race; however, he understood that fighting for the lead was going to be so difficult that it may have resulted in an accident which might have completely eliminated both Ferraris and allowed a Red Bull to win instead.  His radio message was a call for intervention; I facetiously call it a prayer to the gods.  I don’t know if he expected help from his team, but the facts bear out that the pitwall gods in control of the team smiled upon him and frowned upon Massa.

As a long-time fan of F1, I know that team orders, whether officially or unofficially, have always been part of the sport.  To be honest, I have no problem with Ferrari telling their drivers what to do.  What I DO have a problem with is the misuse or outright abuse of team orders, and I will be so bold as to suggest that this is what most fans have a problem with as well.  In my opinion, by taking the race results out of their drivers’ hands by sending coded orders to one of them to cede position to the other, they robbed the fans of what should have been another result altogether (i.e., Massa winning in Hockenheim, amazingly a year to the day since his life-threatening accident at the Hungaroring).

I believe racing drivers should RACE.  If Alonso wanted to win, he should have been prepared to fight for the position against Massa.  Overtaking is, by its very nature, a risky proposition, no matter what the circumstances are.  It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to pass a guy driving a different car from yours or if it’s a teammate, or if it’s an overtake for position or a lapping maneuver.  And the onus to make the pass work without harm to any of the parties involved always lies with the guy attempting the overtake.  To my mind, Alonso decided that it was going to be too difficult to try to pass his teammate, but he still wanted the rewards of winning the race.  From purely just a sporting perspective, calling the pits the way and relaying his frustrations with the apparent expectation of intervention is nothing short of cheating.  But that’s admittedly a Ferrari hater’s opinion.

So, how did I wind up with such a clear bias against Ferrari?  Well, to make a long story short, when Michael Schumacher joined the team in 1996, I stopped loving the red cars from Maranello.  I used to be a gigantic tifoso.  Along with McLaren and Lotus, they were always one of my favorites in F1.  Even in their post-Prost years in the doldrums, even when they were catastrophic from 1991-1993 and beyond, I was a Ferrari fan.  But when Michael Schumacher, who is as dirty a racing driver as you’ll ever find, joined the team, I stopped loving it.  I simply couldn’t love any team that would take on a dirty cheat like Schumacher.  (My opinions of Schumacher were changed forever the day he drove into Damon Hill’s Williams in Adelaide, Australia, in 1994.  You still don’t think he’s a dirty rotten cheat?  Look at Jerez 1997 for another blatant example.)

I’ve heard it said that Ferrari took on Schumacher because they wanted to do everything it could to get back to its winning ways.  I can accept that, up to a point.  But when the team enables Schumacher and allows him to dictate terms insofar as how he wants his teammate’s contracts are to be written, well…

It’s not a secret that Michael Schumacher imposed a stipulation on Ferrari’s management that any driver whom the team signed to be his teammate must be subservient to Michael Schumacher’s needs at all times.  What does this mean?  This means that if there is only one of a technical component available at any given time, only Schumacher takes advantage of it; if Schumacher breaks his car in practice or qualifying, his teammate must come in and have his car reconfigured to suit Schumacher, therefore sacrificing his teammate’s own interests in the team; if Schumacher is behind his teammate in a race, the team can impose team orders and tell his teammate to cede position.

For a great “champion” like Schumacher, it’s strange to know that he so overtly handicapped his own teammate’s chances in every single race that they had.

Eddie Irvine was Schumacher’s first slave at Ferrari.  Rubens Barrichello followed, and though he won races for the Scuderia, he was also ordered to relinquish a few as well, a fact that galls him to this day and undoubtedly colors his relationship with Ross Brawn (who was Ferrari’s technical director/pit crew commander during Schumacher’s halcyon days).  There have been numerous instances where Schumacher benefited from team orders, but the most infamous race was the Austrian GP in 2002.

Understand, now, that it was fairly rare when a teammate was actually performing better than Schumacher was during his period of absolute dominance.  Such was the case in Austria in 2002.  Rubens Barrichello had beaten Schumacher in every session, in qualifying, and was leading the race going into the final laps.  In 2002, the Ferraris were absolutely dominant; it was clear that nobody was going to threaten Ferrari and Schumacher in their quest for the Constructors’ and Drivers’ championships.  Not even Barrichello was a threat, with Schumacher having a buffer of around four race victories’ worth of points between them at that point of the championship.

So what happened in Austria?  Schumacher called to the pits and told them about how he wanted to take P1 for the maximum haul of championship points to help his own cause; Ferrari then ordered Barrichello to yield first place to his teammate.  Barrichello did not respond on the radio and kept the lead all throughout the final lap, until just a few meters from the finish line he lifted off the throttle and allowed Schumacher through.

Schumacher received the full 10 pts for his win, but was booed so vociferously by the crowd because of the shenanigans.  The crowd fully understood what had happened – everyone knew about the contractual stipulations that existed at Ferrari vis-a-vis their drivers.  After all, they had seen a similar thing happen in Austria just the previous year, when Barrichello ceded second place to Schumacher to help Schumacher’s championship aspirations.

The ultimate consequence of Ferrari’s use (in my opinion, abuse and misuse) of team orders during Schumacher’s time with them was the outright banning of overt team orders.  No longer were teams allowed to dictate tactics such as changes in position between teammates the way they always did.  Obviously, Ferrari was possibly unique at the time when they operated mainly to benefit just one of their drivers; other teams, for example McLaren, have always allowed their drivers to race each other, even at the risk of possibly taking each other out.  Occasionally, McLaren acted like Ferrari in sometimes telling one driver to cede position to benefit their other driver (Hakkinen benefited twice from Coulthard’s ceding position), but no team has abused such protocol as Ferrari and Schumacher have.

That’s why I thought it was so amusing Ferrari now are apparently in some trouble for how they conducted their 2010 German Grand Prix.  They got busted, caught red-handed as it were, and are in “denial mode” to anyone who would listen that they used team orders to effect a position swap between their drivers, contravening a sporting regulation that they themselves helped to create in the first place.

Sorry, but I think the video feeds and the radio transmissions are too obvious.

About as obvious as Massa slowing down at the exit of the hairpin…

27 July 2010 – Formula One Mid-Season Review (Part 4)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 27/07/2010

Jenson Button won the 2009 Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship using a tried-and-true strategy:  He dominated the early part of the 2009 season, winning six out of the first seven grands prix, then earning enough points despite his opposition getting stronger as the season wore on.  The massive lead he amassed in the early part of the year proved decisive as multiple challengers necessarily split the rest of the available points amongst themselves, eventually enabling him to clinch the title in Brazil, the penultimate race of the season.

2010 was following a far different script.  Even though Button found himself at the head of the drivers’ table as he was at the same point of the previous year, this time his lead was far slimmer, and the competition far fiercer.

Undoubtedly, the sixth grand prix of the year had the look of a potentially critical race of the season thus far:  Either the frontrunners like Button or Alonso were going to score well and consolidate or strengthen their positions at the top of the standings, or people behind were going to start making their push towards the front themselves and tighten things up even more.

Round 6:  Grand Prix of Monaco

The Monaco GP is often called “the jewel of the crown,” the most glamorous grand prix of them all, and the one all the pilotes wanted to win above all others.  Many drivers have confessed that they tend to push harder to win here.

Perhaps Fernando Alonso thought and felt the same during Saturday practice prior to qualifying.  He crashed his Ferrari on just his sixth lap in the crucial session (when teams are typically finalizing set-up work for qualifying), damaging the car beyond the point of repair and necessitating the use of the spare car.  Without a doubt, Alonso was pushing extra hard because, like each of the fancied top runners, he wanted to secure as good a grid position as possible, given the extreme difficulty in overtaking.  Because he needed to use the spare car by force majeur, however, he was automatically excluded from participating in qualifying.  The two-time World Champion from Spain would be starting this Monaco Grand Prix from the pit lane, which only added insult to injury.

Qualifying went on without Alonso, of course, and Mark Webber continued Red Bull’s impressive streak of consecutive pole positions in 2010.  A hugely impressive Robert Kubica – to me, the transcendent driver of the season so far – finished with the 2nd best time, splitting the Red Bulls.  Alongside Sebastian Vettel in P4 was Felipe Massa.  Fifth through tenth on the grid were:  Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Michael Schumacher, Jenson Button, Rubens Barrichello, and Vitantonio Liuzzi.

At the start, Vettel managed to beat Kubica to Ste. Devote, getting into P2 behind his teammate.  Meanwhile, Rubens Barrichello leapt from ninth on the grid all the way up to P6 in the mad scramble in the first lap alone.  This was just as well for Williams, since Barrichello’s young teammate, Nico Hülkenberg crashed in the famous tunnel, which necessitated the use of the Safety Car.  The crash was just the final domino for Hülkenberg, who had to start at the rear of the grid despite setting the eleventh-best time in qualifying because of problems with his clutch.

The Safety Car deployment was a blessing for some, particularly Alonso, who took the opportunity to change from the super-soft option tire to the prime tire.  For others, it was a curse, especially for Jenson Button.  His McLaren’s Mercedes V8 destroyed itself on the second lap, a consequence of extreme overheating because of a radiator intake being blocked by a bung left accidentally by a grid mechanic.

Although Barrichello enjoyed a great start to his race, a suspension failure due to a loosened drain cover on the long left-hander entering the Casino Square ended it prematurely.  Williams thus had another bad race at Monaco; it seems to be the team’s bogey circuit, on which it has a long litany of unusual failures and circumstances preventing wins.

Barrichello’s crash left plenty of debris scattered all over the track, which triggered the second Safety Car period, allowing the trackside workers to clean up the debris.

The third Safety Car period came just a few laps later, when marshals at Massanet reported a manhole cover loosening in its mounting.  Race control conducted a quick inspection of the manhole cover and deemed it safe enough for the race to continue.

Despite all the Safety Car interventions, Webber kept his place at the head of the race, followed by teammate Vettel.  The Red Bull-Renaults were clearly the class of the field.  Behind them, attrition was exacting its usual toll in Monaco.  Besides Hülkenberg, Button and Barrichello, both Saubers and Virgins retired, as did Bruno Senna and Heikki Kovalainen.  An accident between Karun Chandhok and Jarno Trulli eliminated the final two surviving new cars, as well as gave leader Webber a scare entering La Rascasse.  The accident, which saw Trulli’s Lotus ram Chandhok’s HRT up the back and almost hit the innocent Indian’s head, necessitated the final Safety Car period.

The Safety Car ran all but the last few hundred meters of the remainder of the race.  It peeled off into the pit lane towards the end of the final lap; it may as well as just stayed out, since no overtaking was allowed anyway under the regulations (Rule 40.13).  Despite this, Michael Schumacher overtook Alonso, who had recovered all the way up to P6.  Schumacher’s overtake was deemed worthy of a 20-second penalty added to his time, dropping him from what was P7 before the overtake to P12.  Truly, the attempt to sneak past Alonso was a pointless exercise.

Despite the controversy at the finish, Mark Webber led Sebastian Vettel in a Red Bull 1-2.  Kubica finished in P3; Massa, Hamilton, Alonso, Rosberg, Sutil, Liuzzi, and Sebastien Buemi rounded out the top 10.  Behind them, only Alguersuari and Schumacher were running at the finish, since Petrov parked his Renault with failed brakes during the final Safety Car period.

The Monaco Grand Prix decimated the field as well as substantially reconfigured the points standings.  Button fell to fourth behind Mark Webber, whose two wins and 78 points took him to the top of the totals.  Vettel actually had the same number of points as Webber, but due to having only won once thus far, Webber was entrenched at the top.  Alonso’s gritty drive through the field may have dropped his ranking to third, but at least he scored some points on a weekend when the erstwhile leader, Button, had none.

Round 7:  Grand Prix of Turkey

Red Bull arrived in Istanbul in a great frame of mind.  Not only had the team won the pole at every race thus far in 2010, but it had also won more races than any other team thus far (three wins – two by Mark Webber, one by Sebastian Vettel – versus two for McLaren and one for Ferrari).  It was easy to make the argument that the RB6 was the fastest car at this point of the 2010 season.  The fact that Red Bull-Renault was also leading the Constructors’ World Championship after the Monaco Grand Prix only made the case of Red Bull being the team and car to beat much stronger.

Not only that, but both of its drivers sat atop the Drivers’ World Championship tied at 78 points, with the nominal lead in the championship being assigned to Mark Webber by virtue of his having more race wins than his teammate.  Two top-class drivers matched with the top-class car were, as always, going to be difficult to beat.  

If anything, they only had themselves to fight against, all other things being equal.

Qualifying for the Turkish Grand Prix did little to dispel that notion, with Mark Webber claiming his third consecutive pole position.  Somewhat surprisingly, 2008 World Champion Lewis Hamilton in his McLaren managed to split the Red Bulls.  Row 2 of the grid looked like the front row, with Vettel’s Red Bull lining up ahead of 2009 World Champion Jenson Button’s McLaren.  The Mercedes twins took Row 3, Schumacher outqualifying Rosberg for the first time this year.  Robert Kubica was in P7, with Istanbul specialist Felipe Massa’s Ferrari in eighth, not an ideal grid position for a Ferrari team celebrating its 800 Grand Prix.  Vitaly Petrov did a good job to take the ninth spot, as did Kamui Kobayashi to take tenth.

Other notables:  Fernando Alonso in P12, looking like he was suffering a slight downturn in form given his problems in Monaco; the Williams-Cosworths of Barrichello and Hülkenberg looking slow and unwieldy down in P15 and P17, respectively; Vitantonio Liuzzi mired in P18, after a run of several strong qualifying efforts and races; and Karun Chandhok yet again bringing up the caboose in the high speed train.

At the start, both McLarens flubbed their getaways and lost one position each to the cars directly behind them, but quickly regained those spots back by the end of lap one, retaining the original grid order from P1 through P4.  Behind them, contact forced Sebastien Buemi and Nico Hülkenberg to both visit the pits for quick repairs.  The leading quartet very quickly and decisively broke away from the rest of the grid, making it clear that this race was up for grabs amongst just the four of them barring anything unforeseen.  

Vettel started the regular round of pit stops on lap fourteen (of 58), followed by both Webber and Hamilton on lap fifteen.  Vettel’s canny timing and slick Red Bull pit work ensured that he leapfrogged past Hamilton in the running order.  Button took his pit stop on lap sixteen and resumed in P4.

With the Red Bulls now running 1-2, Webber ahead of Vettel, the race settled into a rhythm with precious little action.  The Istanbul Park circuit may be nearly-universally praised as a treat for the drivers and spectators, but with the cars’ relative performance being so close each other, overtaking was proving challenging.  Prospects for a race-changing event perked up somewhat when the possibility of some rain showers increased as the drivers ran off the laps.  Virtually the only changes to the running order were retirements, with both Lotuses experiencing mechanical troubles.

On lap forty, after running in his teammate’s wake for the entire race, Vettel closed up on Webber’s rear wing exiting the Turn Eight complex.  Into the Turn 9-10 left-right chicane and down past the right-hand kink at Turn 11 he closed the gap even more, swinging left in an obvious bid to overtake for the lead.  

Webber defended his position, squeezing his teammate to the left and onto the dirty side off the ideal line entering the Turn 12-13-14 left-right-left complex.  Vettel’s superior momentum out of the slipstream managed to sneak about a half-car length in front of Webber.  However, knowing that his greater speed on the dirty part of the circuit afforded him less than ideal grip for very heavy braking into the 2nd gear left into Turn12, he tried to squeeze Webber back right in an attempt to force himself onto back onto the grippier ideal line.

Unfortunately, this maneuver saw the Red Bulls making contact with each other.  Vettel spun into the run-off area, while Webber’s front wing got mangled.  The McLarens were not too far behind and inherited the lead, Hamilton in front of Button, as Webber dove into the pits to have his front wing and nosecone replaced.

Webber was lucky that the leading quartet of Red Bulls and McLarens had a big gap to P5, rejoining the race in third.  Vettel joined the other four retirements (both Lotuses and both HRTs) after his collision with his teammate.  Behind him, Schumacher kept Rosberg behind for the remainder of the race, beating his teammate in both qualifying and the race for the first time in 2010.  Kubica finished in P6, beating both curiously slow Ferraris, Massa in front of Alonso.  Sutil and Kobayashi rounded out the points finishers, ending up ninth and tenth, respectively.

So which Red Bull driver was at fault for their race-losing collision?  In my opinion, Vettel was responsible.  He was the one attempting the overtake, for one thing, so he carries the burden of responsibility that the move be made without harming the man in front.  He did get his car very slightly ahead of Webber’s, but it didn’t look to me that he had gotten enough of the lead to properly claim the line.  If he got his rear wheels ahead of Webber’s front wing, then that’s enough of the lead to be able to dictate who owns the line.  Not only did Vettel not have enough of his car in front of Webber’s, but Sebastian also moved right in order to get closer to the ideal line and off the slippery dirty side.  Webber didn’t give him the space, as was his prerogative.  Unfortunately for the team, it resulted in them not winning the grand prix, much less scoring what should have been a 1-2.  The fact that Webber’s third place in the race was enough for him to retain the lead in the Drivers’ World Championship was perhaps the only measure of satisfaction anyone involved with Red Bull could derive.

Despite lacking ultimate speed and and true race-winning pace, Lewis Hamilton scored his first victory of 2010, and McLaren enjoyed their second 1-2 of the year.  In doing so, Hamilton vaulted up to third in the Drivers’ World Championship, and McLaren pipped Red Bull at the top of the Constructors’ standings.  The results of the Turkish Grand Prix demonstrated that speed is but one component to a championship-winning effort. 

Avoiding trouble on the track during races is also one of those components, and thus far this year Red Bull and its drivers were doing more to catch trouble than avoid it.

22 July 2010 – Formula 1 Mid-Season Review (Part 3)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 23/07/2010

Three grands prix into the 2010 season, we have three different drivers from three different teams, all powered by three different engines, taking victory.  The first race, the GP of Bahrain, fell to Fernando Alonso and Ferrari; Great Britain’s Jenson Button, the defending world champion, won the GP of Australia in his McLaren-Mercedes; finally, Sebastian Vettel, the young German driving the fast but apparently fragile Red Bull-Renault, took the top spot in the Malaysian GP.  Clearly, we have the makings of one of the most memorable seasons Formula 1 has seen in years.

Round 4:  Grand Prix of China

The Red Bull duo of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber once again took the top two positions after qualifying, again confirming the notion that the Renault-powered RB6 was the quickest car, at least in qualifying trim.  Fernando Alonso did well to take P3, with Nico Rosberg taking the fourth grid spot.  Button led Hamilton in an all-McLaren third row, while Felipe Massa, the current championship leader, shared row four with Robert Kubica in his Renault.  Row five was an all-German affair, with the 7-time World Champion Michael Schumacher taking only P9 (again out-qualified by his younger teammate Rosberg) and Adrian Sutil somehow coaxing his Force India-Mercedes onto the 10th spot on the grid.

A light drizzle sprinkled the Shanghai International Circuit shortly before the start of the race.  With the previous year’s race run in a heavy deluge, the consensus decision by all the runners was to adopt a full-wet car set-up, even though they opted to tak start on dry weather tires.

At the start, Fernando Alonso left rather earlier than he was supposed to and jumped into an immediate lead, albeit one which even he acknowledged he was never going to keep.  As the pack snaked and slid over the rain-slicked surface, it was perhaps inevitable that some racers would not finish even the first lap.  At turn six, Vitantonio Liuzzi lost control of his Force India-Mercedes and collected Kamui Kobayashi’s innocent Sauber BMW and Sebastien Buemi’s Toro Rosso-Ferrari.  Nico Hülkenberg took evasive action and saved himself from immediate elimination, but not from relegation to the back of the pack.  The Liuzzi-initiated carambolage triggered the deployment of the Safety Car, as well as provided most of the remainder of the grid to dive into the pits and take on intermediate tires.

By staying out, Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes took the lead, followed by Jenson Button in his McLaren and the Renaults of Robert Kubica and Vitaly Petrov.  Rosberg led serenely until he made a mistake on lap 22, which allowed Button to overtake him.

As ever, rain made the racing very interesting, especially behind the leading quartet.  Alonso and Massa engaged in an intra-team race in the pit entry lane, which saw the Spaniard pip his Brazilian teammate for position.  Close by, Vettel and Hamilton also engaged in a squabble during their pit exits, with the Red Bull and McLaren pit crews doing equally great jobs in servicing their charges.  Vettel and Hamilton, released nearly simultaneously from adjacent pit boxes, slithered down towards the pit exit side-by-side, until Hamilton ceded position and allowed Vettel through.  Sebastian and Lewis would later receive reprimands from the stewards for their pit lane shenanigans, but no further penalties.

Meanwhile, the leading quartet lost Petrov, the Russian rookie proving a little out of his depth amongst his more experienced competitors.  Not only were the three cars ahead of him going faster and leaving him behind, but the rest of the pack was also reeling him in with their intermediate tires fitted.  Before any more figurative fireworks could ensue, however, Jaime Alguersuari triggered another Safety Car period when he collided with another car, damaged his front wing, and spread bits and pieces of Toro Rosso all over the racetrack.  The top ten, then, at this point was:  Button, Rosberg, Kubica, Petrov, a recovering Michael Schumacher in 5th, Webber, Hamilton, Vettel, wet-weather expert Adrian Sutil, and Fernando Alonso, up to P10 after dropping back due to a drive-through penalty for jumping the start.

At the end of the Safety Car period, Webber got caught out by the accordion effect of Button controlling the pace of the pack (as is his right as the leader of the race) and slid off the circuit, dropping from P6 to P12.  Meanwhile, Hamilton jumped to fourth, first taking Schumacher during the first lap after the Safety Car period, Petrov soon thereafter, then Kubica after several more laps.  He continued to charge, closing the gap to Rosberg in P2, until the two ran nose-to-tail.  Hamilton overtook Rosberg with the same move he used to take Schumacher in turn six, but Keke’s son fought back and retook P2.  The matter was finally settled in Hamilton’s favor during the final round of pit stops, with McLaren helping him jump Rosberg’s Mercedes by virtue of a more efficient pit stop.

Jenson Button had a relatively boring day, taking only one car on the track and basically just keeping his nose clean and not indulging in heroics.  He took his second victory of the 2010 season and became the first driver to win more than once this year, followed by teammate Lewis Hamilton.  The McLaren 1-2 enabled the team to claim the top spot in the Constructors’ World Championship after four races.  Nico Rosberg took the final place on the podium, holding off a charging Fernando Alonso in P4.  The rest of the points finishers:  Kubica in fifth, Vettel a slightly miffed sixth, Petrov a very creditable seventh; eighth place went to Mark Webber, ninth to Felipe Massa, and Michael Schumacher took the final point for P10.

An action-packed race which saw plenty of overtaking, collisions, and a couple of Safety Car interventions, the Grand Prix of China also saw a good shuffling of the Drivers’ Championship deck, with Button taking over the top spot and his teammate Hamilton slotting into fourth.  Meanwhile, Felipe Massa, who was the leader of the standings entering this race, was now out of the top five.

Round 5:  Grand Prix of Spain

In years past, the first race of the “European season” in Formula 1 heralds the first round of major updates to the cars.  After the “flyaway races” in the Middle East, Australia and Asia, the return to Europe provides an easy opportunity for the teams to attach refinements and developments to their base chassis in their unending quest to make their cars go faster.

The Mercedes probably had the most significant alteration, at least visually.  Instead of the typical integrated roll hoop+airbox inlet, the MGP W01 now sported a two-piece airbox inlet split by a vertical roll bar assembly.  At the poorer end of the grid, the Virgins also had an important update with a lengthened chassis, to allow for a larger fuel tank.  Timo Glock’s Virgin also tried a modified engine cover with a “shark fin” extending to the rear wing as many of the leading cars had.

Most pundits thought that despite the various modifications to the cars, the Red Bulls would still retain their place at the head of the grid after qualifying.  So it came to pass, with Webber beating Vettel for the second time this season.  Third on the grid went to Lewis Hamilton, who was definitely gathering momentum as the season progressed.  Fernando Alonso, the hero of Spain, took P4 in the Ferrari.  The rest of the top 1o:  Button, Michael Schumacher (the first time he outpaced his teammate Rosberg this year), Kubica, Rosberg, Massa, and Kamui Kobayashi, hugely impressive in the BMW Sauber.  Other notables in qualifying:  Spanish Pedro de la Rosa in the slower of the two Saubers in P12, suggesting that perhaps the Saubers were improving quickly from their dreadful form from the flyaway events; Rubens Barrichello in P18, outdone in qualifying by Williams teammate Nico Hülkenberg in P13; finally, Bruno Senna bringing up the tail of the field in P24, showing that it’s possible for the great surname to be found at the very end of a list of qualifiers in a Grand Prix.

At the start, mostly everyone held station through the first lap.  There were some exceptions:  Kubica and Kobayashi touched and damaged each other’s cars, sending both of them down the order; local man de la Rosa and Sebastien Buemi had a similar incident with each other, resulting in a puncture for the Sauber; and Bruno Senna crashed out where de la Rosa and Buemi had their coming-together.  Meanwhile, Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus never took the start due to a gearbox issue.

The Red Bulls ran at the front mostly untroubled, until the pit stops during the first third of the race.  Vettel had a problem during his pit stop, resulting in Lewis Hamilton taking P2 away from him.  Later on, Vettel would drop further down the field when he indulged in an off-track excursion on lap 54, necessitating a cautionary pit stop.  The Red Bull pit crew discovered Vettel had a brake wear problem, which meant that Vettel had to cut his pace significantly if he was to make the end of the race.  Alonso, Schumacher, Button, Massa were the big beneficiaries of Vettel’s problems.

On lap 65, the penultimate lap, Lewis Hamilton lost P2 when his McLaren suffered a puncture to his left-front tire, sending him off the track and into the wall at turn three, a very long right-hander which puts maximum stress on the left-front.  Hamilton fell to P14 in the final classifications, a heartbreaking result when he looked set to make another big leap in the points standings.

Mark Webber won as he pleased, the first pole winner to also take the victory during the Grand Prix in 2010.  Alonso was cheered to the heavens for his lucky second place, and Vettel took the final place on the podium despite his brake problems.  The rest of the top 10:  Schumacher, Button, Massa, Sutil, Kubica, Barrichello, and young rising Spanish star Jaime Alguersuari earning the final point for tenth.  Other notables:  Rosberg in an unlucky P13, thoroughly beaten by Schumacher on a circuit where the 7-time World Champion won six times; Liuzzi classified in P15 after his Force India’s Mercedes engine blew up on the same lap Hamilton had his race-ending accident; and Jarno Trulli in P17, showing that Lotus was definitely the fastest of the newcomers.

So, after five races, the Drivers’ World Championship top five looked like this:

  1. Jenson Button (2 wins) = 70pts
  2. Fernando Alonso (1 win) = 67pts
  3. Sebastian Vettel (1 win) = 60pts
  4. Mark Webber (1 win) = 53pts
  5. Nico Rosberg (0 wins) = 50pts

And the Constructors’ World Championship:

  1. McLaren-Mercedes = 119pts
  2. Ferrari = 116pts
  3. Red Bull-Renault = 113pts
  4. Mercedes = 72pts
  5. Renault = 50pts

After five grands prix, the Red Bulls were still the cars to beat, while McLaren seemed to be on an upward swing in form.  Ferrari’s performances were inconsistent, in that Alonso usually would be high up the grid and Massa several rows behind.  Meanwhile, Renault continued their unexpected good form, suggesting that luck had nothing to do with their speed on the track.  Of the others, Mercedes was similar to Ferrari, in that their form was good but not good enough to pose a real challenge to the front runners; Williams was doing a mostly good job, though their performance in Spain was worryingly bad; Force India was doing a strong, steady job, almost always beating the Toro Rosso pair.  Finally, Lotus had definitely proven that they were the fastest amongst the newcomers, and HRT were definitely the slowest.

Next post:  Rounds 6 & 7.

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18 July 2010 – Formula 1 Mid-Season Review (Part 2)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 18/07/2010

In my most recent post, we discussed some of the many changes to Formula 1 in 2010, including some of the new regulations, the new competitors, and some of the entities who have departed from the sport.

Starting with this entry, we’ll next be looking at capsulized reviews of the first ten races of the 2010 F1 World Championship.

Without further delay, here is the 2010 Formula One World Championship so far:

Round 1:  Grand Prix of Bahrain

The first Grand Prix of the 2010 season was held on the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain.  Sebastian Vettel put his Red Bull Racing RB6 on pole position, with Felipe Massa doing a remarkable job lining up beside the young German on the front row.  Massa’s performance is remarkable not only because this is his first race back from his life-threatening injuries incurred in the Hungarian Grand Prix last year, but also because he beat his new teammate at Ferrari, the two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso from Spain.  Alonso wound up third, just ahead of Lewis Hamilton, who was his teammate at McLaren in 2007.  Other notable qualifying performances included:  Nico Rosberg (GER) in his Mercedes lining up 5th, beating his compatriot and teammate, 7-time World Champion (and fresh off a three-year retirement) Michael Schumacher, who lined up 7th; Mark Webber in the slower of the Red Bull-Renaults in 6th; 2009 World Champion Jenson Button in the second of the McLarens lining up eighth on the grid, just ahead of the Renault of Poland’s Robert Kubica; Adrian Sutil of Germany, driving the Force India-Mercedes, completed the top ten.

Vettel had a good start and kept his lead, keeping both Ferraris and Lewis Hamilton behind him.  Behind the leading foursome, there was plenty of action characterized by car troubles.  Webber left the grid with plumes of oil smoke pouring from his Renault engine’s exhausts, causing indecisiveness, order-shuffling and mayhem amongst the mid-grid runners.  Eventually, the race settled into a rhythm and saw Vitaly Petrov scything up through the field in his Renault, impressively overtaking six cars to find himself eleventh.  Whilst fighting with veteran Williams driver Rubens Barrichello, Petrov incurred a damaged suspension and dropped out, joining the HRTs (Hispania Racing) of Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna, both the Sauber BMWs (which actually run with Ferrari engines!) of Pedro de la Rosa and Kamui Kobayashi, the Virgins of Lucas di Grassi and Timo Glock, Jarno Trulli’s Lotus-Cosworth, and the Toro Rosso-Ferrari of Sebastian Buemi on the sidelines.

Late in the race, Vettel’s Red Bull-Renault developed a sick-sounding exhaust, which the team later clarified as a problem with a spark plug.  The Red Bull pit advised their charge to slow his pace in order to make the finish, allowing the Ferrari duo of Alonso and Massa and Lewis Hamilton to pass him.  Rosberg basically ran out of laps in his quest to similarly overtake Vettel for fourth.  Other notable finishers:  Vitantonio Liuzzi in his Force India-Mercedes doing much better than his teammate Sutil to claim two points for P9; Michael Schumacher finishing a decent 6th, with Button and Webber behind him; Heikki Kovalainen in the Lotus finishing in P15, the only one of the six new entrants to see the checkered flag; and Rubens Barrichello in his Williams-Cosworth finishing in P10 and scoring the final point on offer.

Some observers decried this race as “boring” and “processional,” but perhaps this was only natural.  This was the first race of a new era of Formula 1, so many of the entrants ran conservative setups in order to ensure a finish in the Grand Prix.  Not only that, but with the severe reduction in in-season testing, the early races in a season defined by these circumstances functioned as public test sessions even for the most established teams.

The results of the Bahrain Grand Prix of 2010 were arguably defined as much by fortune as they were by hard work and technical excellence.  Fernando Alonso became the first Ferrari driver to win on his debut race for the Scuderia since Nigel Mansell in 1989 despite his Ferrari not really possessing the pace of the outstanding car-and-driver combination, Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel.  For his part, Vettel was unlucky to suffer a mechanical gremlin and see his race-winning pace reduced just for the sake of preserving his engine for future grands prix.  At least he earned twelve championship points for his misfortune.

Round 2:  Grand Prix of Australia

Mark Webber was probably the most fired-up driver in the F1 circus.  Despite finishing in a relatively poor eighth place in the previous grand prix, he was coming home to Melbourne to a hero’s welcome.  As Australia’s sole F1 driver, he could be sure of enjoying the support of what is traditionally viewed as one of the best crowds attending grand prix weekends.  It mattered little that the GP of Australia has ceded its position as the season-opening race in F1; the Aussies love motorsports, and most of the drivers love visiting the country and racing on the Albert Park track.

Webber lost out to his teammate Sebastian Vettel in qualifying, with the young German winning the pole position again from his Australian teammate by a wafer-thin margin of .116s.  Behind the all-Red Bull front row were the hard-driving Fernando Alonso in P3, Jenson Button in P4, with Massa in the slower Ferrari in P5 leading both Mercedes cars (Rosberg ahead of Schumacher again).  Rubens Barrichello impressed with P8 in his Williams; Lewis Hamilton, P11 in his McLaren, did not.

Other qualifying notables:  Highly-rated Nico Hülkenberg looked overrated, lining up only fifteenth; de la Rosa (P14) did well to outdo his much-fancied Japanese teammate Kobayashi (P16) in the Sauber BMWs; Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok brought up the rear of the grid, some six seconds off the pole position time set by Sebastian Vettel.

Ongoing rain showers saw the grid drenched, forcing the race officials to declare a “Wet Race.”  This removed the requirement to run both dry compound tires on offer, which meant that there was a possibility for some drivers to run non-stop once they had fitted dry tires (as opposed to intermediate or rain tires).  Conditions dictated everybody fit intermediate tires on their cars; obviously, nobody wanted to gamble losing control and therefore lose track time when testing time (and therefore opportunity to collect performance data from their cars) was so valuable and rare.

At the start, the Red Bull twins led away.  Alonso and Button touched as they jockeyed for position at the first corner, resulting in a spin for Alonso which dumped him unceremoniously to the tail of the field.  Michael Schumacher couldn’t avoid the Ferrari and damaged his front wing, which necessitated a pit stop to replace the damaged wing.  Jarno Trulli’s Lotus failed to leave the grid due to faulty hydraulics.  Later on in the frenetic first lap, Kamui Kobayashi’s Sauber lost its own front wing and took out Nico Hülkenberg and Sébastien Buemi in a violent accident.  By the end of the first lap, then, four drivers were out, and the safety car was deployed to allow the trackside crews to clean up the bits of debris from the Kobayashi-Hülkenberg-Buemi incident.

After the safety car period, the race resumed at full tilt, and it soon became clear that a dry line was forming on the circuit.  Jenson Button was the first to roll the dice, diving into the pits to sit the soft option tires to his McLaren.  The move looked to be a mistake, especially when Button lost time when he slid off-course on his out-lap.  He recovered, however, and began setting very quick times, prompting the other teams to call their drivers in.  Perhaps predictably, Red Bull was one of the last to summon their cars into the pit for the tire change since they were running 1-2.  While Vettel didn’t lose the lead to Button when he finally came in, hometown hero Mark Webber suffered greatly due to the timing of his pit stop, falling from P2 to P8.

Lap 25 saw the end of Vettel’s Australian GP.  On approach to the 2nd gear Turn 13, bad luck reared its ugly head and Vettel found himself spinning backwards into the gravel trap.  Red Bull initially suspected a brake failure, but later clarified the cause of Vettel’s spin to be a problem with the left-front axle.  Jenson Button proved to be the chief beneficiary, as he was chasing Vettel when the German spun out of the race.

There was plenty of overtaking in this race.  Lewis Hamilton started in P11 but found himself in third place by the time of Vettel’s spin.  Fernando Alonso also drove aggressively, slicing up through the order from dead last and into the points and catching up to his teammate Massa.  In contrast, Michael Schumacher struggled to overtake Jaime Alguersuari in the Toro Rosso, who kept the 7-time World Champion back until almost the end of the race.  Robert Kubica also gained many positions through shrewd pit stop timing by his Renault team, as did his teammate Petrov.  Unfortunately, Petrov spun off the circuit very soon after he came in to replace his intermediate tires with dry tires.

Near the end of the race, McLaren called Lewis Hamilton into the pit for a tire change, much to Hamilton’s chagrin later.  In the process he dropped from third to fifth, now around a half-minute behind the Ferraris of Alonso and Massa with twenty laps to go.  Hamilton went on a brilliant charge, recovering track position relative to the Ferraris at a rate of around two seconds a lap.  He soon found himself under Alonso’s rear wing and looking for a way past.  Such was the lack of pace of both Ferraris at this point that not only had Hamilton closed the gap to nothing, but Mark Webber was also closing in behind Hamilton.

On the approach to turn thirteen Alonso moved to the right to protect the inside line under braking for the 2nd gear right hander.  Hamilton responded by lining up on the outside, looking to try an audacious overtake on the outside.  Webber, now close behind Hamilton, took a line between Alonso’s and Hamilton, looking to profit in case the Ferrari and the McLaren ahead of him had any problems.  At the limit of grip under braking, Alonso moved across Hamilton’s line and made contact with the McLaren; Webber, too close to Hamilton, then hit the McLaren and damaged his Red Bull’s nose, which necessitated an immediate pit stop for replacement.  Alonso survived the incident and kept his fourth place.

Button won from a very impressive Robert Kubica, with Massa earning P3 and the final place on the podium.  Alonso finished in fourth, followed by Nico Rosberg, Hamilton, Liuzzi, Barrichello, Webber and Schumacher.

Unquestionably, the most disappointed man after the race in Albert Park was Mark Webber, while Button was the most thrilled.  His audacious tactics were enough to get him in P2, ready to take advantage in case troubles befell Vettel.  As in Bahrain, the Red Bull-Renault proved fast yet fragile, ensuring that one of the preseason favorites for the Drivers’ World Championship was firmly behind the proverbial eight ball.

Round 3:  Grand Prix of Malaysia

Qualifying at Sepang International Circuit was an exciting affair.  A monsoon drenched the circuit during the session, resulting in some surprises.  Chief amongst these was both Ferrari and McLaren electing to stay in their garages during Q1, while all their rivals set about putting “laps in the bank” in case the weather worsened.  Consequently, Felipe Massa’s Ferrari was mired in P21, Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren in P20, Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari in P19, and the McLaren of Jenson Button in P17.

By virtue of a well-timed switch to the ideal intermediate tires in Q3, Mark Webber broke teammate Sebastian Vettel’s stranglehold on pole positions in 2010.  Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes split the Red Bulls, lining up on the front row and again beating Michael Schumacher, who lined up in P8.  Other notable qualifying performances:  Adrian Sutil, an acknowledged master of wet-weather driving, put his Force India in P4; Nico Hülkenberg lined up one place behind in P5; and Kamui Kobayashi, qualifying his Sauber in an incredible ninth place.

At the start, Vettel served clear notice of his intentions by taking the lead by the end of the first lap.  At the back end of the grid, Lewis Hamilton also served notice, slashing up through the order and overtaking ten cars by the end of lap four.  He worked on Vitaly Petrov on lap 5, then took P9 on the pit straight as the sixth lap began.  Petrov slipstreamed past the McLaren immediately and held the place until Hamilton finally retook the position two laps later.  He then weaved from side to side several times as he tried to break the slipstream with the Renault behind him, tactics which angered many observers.  The stewards investigated the maneuvers and ultimately issued Hamilton a warning for his tactics.

Other than Hamilton’s aggressive overtaking, car failures accounted for changes in the running order.  Kobayashi lost his engine on lap 8, Schumacher stopped with a loose wheel nut on lap 9, and Liuzzi’s Force India’s Mercedes lost its electronic throttle functions on lap 12.  Further changes to the running order didn’t come until the pit stops.  Button was the first to stop, taking on harder prime tires on lap 9.  He immediately set fastest lap of the race, prompting most of the other teams to call in their drivers to make the same move.  The Red Bulls, though, again did not call their guys in, waiting until laps 24 and 25 to summon first Vettel, then Webber, for their tire stops.

By this point, only Hamilton, Massa and Alonso hadn’t stopped for tires, but since the rules require them to do so they did.  Massa was first in, on lap 27, and immediately set staggeringly fast laps up to a second and a half better than anybody else’s.  Hamilton made his move and changed to the softer option tires on lap 31st (and P2, no less); he also started lapping faster than everyone else, Massa included.  Fernando Alonso was the final person to make a pit stop on lap 37.  Like Massa and Hamilton before him, once he had made his pit stop, the combination of fresh tires and a lighter fuel road equaled the best lap times of any runner in the race.  Unfortunately for him, though, his Ferrari’s engine would expire two laps before the end.

Once Hamilton peeled off onto pit road, the running order at the very front was set, with Vettel leading Webber over the finish line at the checkered flag.  Rosberg took P3 and the final place on the podium.  Rosberg’s 3rd place was also significant since it was the first works Mercedes podium position since 1955.  Kubica was fourth, Sutil a very impressive fifth, and Hamilton sixth.  Massa took seventh, while Button, Alguersuari, and Hülkenberg took the rest of the points-paying positions.

So, three grands prix in, and we have had three different winners driving three different cars with three different engines.  While the first two races’ ultimate results owed much to misfortune befalling Sebastian Vettel, Malaysia was a totally different story.  Malaysia was all about aggression combined with the correct tactical decisions, even in qualifying.  Webber’s decision to go with intermediates despite the monsoon conditions during qualifying rewarded him with pole position.  And in the race, Vettel and Hamilton showed what aggression can earn you, especially if the opposition is not as willing to match your tactics.  Vettel won this race when he took Rosberg and Webber on lap 1, while Hamilton almost went over the limit (some might say he may have gone over it) in his quest to recover lost positions with force and aggression.

After three grands prix, here are the top five drivers in points:

  1. Felipe Massa = 39
  2. Fernando Alonso = 37
  3. Sebastian Vettel = 37
  4. Jenson Button = 35
  5. Nico Rosberg = 35

The Constructors’ World Championship looked like this after three races:

  1. Ferrari = 76
  2. McLaren-Mercedes = 66
  3. Red Bull-Renault = 61
  4. Mercedes = 44
  5. Renault = 30

Next post:  Reviews of Rounds 4 and 5.

17 July 2010 – Formula 1 Mid-Season Review (Part 1)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 17/07/2010

Technically, the end of Lap 26 of last Sunday’s British Grand Prix was the halfway point of the 2010 Formula One World Championship.  But since I’m not really (that) daft, I’ll put this blog’s “official” mid-season point at the end of the tenth race (of nineteen) as the halfway point of the current World Championship season.

Because of the new rules package, this season looks amazingly different compared to past championships.  Look at the points totals, for one thing.  Ten grands prix in, and the championship leader, Lewis Hamilton, already has 145 points.  Until the Michael Schumacher era of domination in the early 2000s, it was fairly rare for world championship-winning drivers to amass 100 points for an entire season’s campaign; to have 145 points at halfway makes obvious the impact of the radical new points system.

To recap, here is how the points are distributed at every grand prix:

  • P1 (1st place) = 25pts
  • P2 = 18pts
  • P3 = 15pts
  • P4 = 12pts
  • p5 = 10pts
  • P6 = 8pts
  • P7 = 6pts
  • P8 = 4pts
  • P9 = 2pts
  • P10 = 1pt

The new points system may look a bit NASCAR-esque and quite radical compared to how it used to be, but in my opinion it does one especially good thing:  It gives the winner of the grand prix a justifiably big reward for his success.  Seven points is a big gap between P1 and P2.  This provides a bigger incentive (as if that was actually necessary) to fight for the victory; it places a bigger value to winning the grand prix.  In theory and in actual practice, I think this makes the drivers race harder for wins, instead of just cruising for points to protect their championship positions.

However, that’s not to say that consistent finishes are not rewarded handsomely as well.  When you look at the distribution of victories and the points earned so far this season, a pattern becomes obvious:  To stay on top of the points tally, you need to win AND to finish in sufficiently high positions (and thus earn as many points as possible).  I suppose that’s an obvious enough point, but given how some drivers have conducted their 2010 campaigns, perhaps it’s not as obvious as you might think.

There were other new rules introduced in 2010.  For the first time ever, the panel of stewards overseeing all Grands Prix will include ex-Grand Prix drivers in an advisory role.  The idea was to introduce the driver’s perspective in on-track incidents, to introduce a certain transparency in stewards’ decisions, and to hopefully decrease controversies with stewards’ decisions.

Another key rule change:  Mid-race refueling is also banned in 2010.  This means that, for the first time since 1993, Grand Prix cars had to carry enough fuel to finish the race.  This rule change, however, did not completely eliminate the need for pit stops, as there was also now a requirement to use both dry compound tires – a primary tire and softer “option” tire – brought by Bridgestone if the Grand Prix starts dry (if a GP is declared a “Wet Race,” the requirement to use both dry compounds no longer stands).  The elimination of refueling introduced a significant strategic wrinkle that the teams now had to wrestle with.

Aside from the new regulations, the 2010 season also saw the introduction of three new teams:  Lotus RacingHispania Racing, and Virgin Racing.  The new season also saw the departure of two manufacturers from the sport, Toyota and BMW.  BMW’s exit almost meant the death of the Sauber team, but Peter Sauber bought his eponymous outfit back.

Finally, 2010 also saw several rookies to the top echelon in motorsports making their debuts:  Nico Hülkenberg of Germany, for Williams-Cosworth; Brazilians Lucas di Grassi (Virgin Racing) and Bruno Senna (Hispania Racing); Russia’s Vitaly Petrov (Renault); and Karun Chandhok of India (Hispania Racing) all started their grand prix careers this year.

With the new regulations, a new points system, and new teams and drivers competing, 2010 had all the ingredients for potentially one of the more intriguing seasons Formula One has seen in years.

Next time:  Reviews of the first three grands prix of 2010.

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12 July 2010 – Last Comment of Derision over “The Decision” (hopefully?)

Posted in Uncategorized by txtmstrjoe on 12/07/2010

I just wanted to share what Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone has to say about “The Decision.”

Please follow this link to Mr. Taibbi’s “The Five Funniest Things About the ‘LeBron James:  Global Superdouche’ Broadcast.”

Here are a few awesome nuggets from his piece:

The first two paragraphs are golden:

“The Decision” was simultaneously the most painful and most hilarious television show I’ve seen in a long time. Its entertainment value rested almost entirely in its scope — the same way a person goes to the Niagara Falls or to the Grand Canyon for that take-your-breath-away moment when the heretofore unimaginable vastness of the vista is first perceived, I watched “The Decision” in breathless awe of the sheer scale of the narcissism involved.

By any measure it was a landmark moment in the history of human self-involvement, eclipsing previous peaks in the narcissism Himalayas (Nero’s impromptu fiddle concert as Rome burned, the career of the prophet Mohammed, Kim Jong Il publishing “The Popularity of Kim Jong Il”) mainly because it was a collective effort. You can understand the citizens of Tsaritsyn cheering the decision to rename their city; if they didn’t like “Stalingrad,” they were getting lined up and shot.

Here is a very sobering yet salient part of his commentary (obviously, I agree with this particular point, which is precisely why I’ve highlighted it):

I’m sure there’s a larger point to make in all of this about how the insane pathology behind the LeBron spectacle (read: a co-dependent need to worship insatiable media-attention hogs gone far off the rails of self-awareness) is what ultimately is going to destroy this country and leave us governed for all time by dingbat megalomaniacs like Sarah Palin.

Then Mr. Taibbi gives us his five reasons.  Each one is not so much “funny” in a humorous sense, but more so in the “painfully funny” sort of way.  To paraphrase,

  1. Instead of dedicating more time to promoting the Boys and Girls Club, the beneficiary of a mere percentage (I hear as little as 20%!) of the ad revenue generated by the one-hour special, LeBron James NEVER mentions the charity.  “The Decision” is all about LeBron.  Selfish, arrogant, misguided fool, yep.
  2. ESPN is a propaganda machine, complete with grammar check and transcript correction.
  3. Jim Gray.  ‘nuf said.  Worst.Most.Overrated.Piece.Of.Trash.Excuse.For.A.Journalist.EVER.
  4. LeBron James is asked a semi-interesting question, hedges, then most likely lies with his answer.  (And what does Gray do?  Absolutely nothing of merit.)
  5. “The Decision” stands as People’s Exhibit 90,909,349,839,483,948,394,839,483,948,439,829,348,320,984 on why “Reality TV” is part of what is systematically destroying society as we used to know it.  It’s a huge problem when we don’t know what is real and what isn’t real.  In other words, it’s a transparent attempt at a mind-fuck, even if some of the agents doing the mind-fucking don’t even know what they’re doing anymore.

Some of you may think I’m obsessed over this LeBron James crap, and perhaps you might be right.  I don’t know about you, though, but I really get disgusted when I find out that someone’s trying to pull the wool over my eyes.  You know why?  It’s an indication of a basic lack of respect.  The people engaged and invested in the business of slinging bullshit and lies care only about themselves and their interests; people who work with them and for them with a full awareness of the evil that they’re doing (Jim Gray pitched “The Decision” to LeBron’s team of buffoons, and they in turn pitched the idea to ESPN) are nothing but shills and whores only interested in lining their pockets (Jim Gray has no credibility whatsoever, in my opinion, when he claims he’s getting no compensation for his role in “The Decision.”  Don’t believe that crap, or anything else he has to say).

If you care at all about why it’s important to recognize “The Decision” as the most cynical mind-fuck that has ever happened in sports insofar as I’m concerned, please give Mr. Taibbi’s comments a good, critical look.  If nothing else, that’s what we all need to do with everything, really.

We really all need to learn how to be more critical.

12 July 2010 – Random Musings from the Weekend

Posted in Basketball, Cycling, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 12/07/2010

  • Here it is, four days removed from the end of LeBron James’ free agency, and I’m still flabbergasted and annoyed with how cynical and farcical and completely unnecessary the whole affair was.
  • I don’t have a problem with Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh coming together in Miami, or whether or not they have had a years-long conspiracy to eventually do this (the Cleveland Plain Dealer suggested that the threesome hatched the plan as long-ago as 2006).  I DO have a huge problem with how LeBron James parlayed his free agency into the most desperate grab for universal attention imaginable, as well as ESPN’s decision to shred the very last vestiges of its image as a reputable “sports journalism” entity to further enable James.
  • LeBron James’ stunt revealed the very worst aspects of his character, in my opinion.  I have always seen him as arrogant to a fault – I’ve been watching this guy ever since ESPN first told of his exploits as a high school basketball phenom in Ohio; his hubris, however, went up and beyond the exosphere when he and his cohorts sanctioned “The Decision,” which was, quite frankly, the most distasteful public ball washing of any celebrity, superstar athlete, or any other figure of prominence that I can ever remember.
  • All “The Decision” did was expose LeBron James’ as someone with a massively underfed ego.  Whatever illusions there were that he is a likeable person were destroyed in an hourlong special intended to enhance the LeBron James brand.  Whatever soul the person may have possessed was sacrificed to the altar of the pursuit of the almighty dollar, immolated beyond all redemption.
  • Jim Gray‘s role in “The Decision” proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he has absolutely no credibility as a journalist left in his entire being whatsoever.  As an aside, was there ever a time when Jim Gray was a good sports journalist?  As with Jeremy Schaap, I find his work and his style to be totally devoid of professionalism nor understanding for the principles of journalism (at least, the principles that I had been exposed to, to whatever degree, when I was in college).
  • Speaking of “The Decision,” why did it take almost eight minutes into the program proper (not counting the fluff intro piece with that insufferable talking head Stuart Scott and his cast of muppets, Chris Broussard, Jon Barry, and Michael Wilbon) before Jim Gray asked the one question anybody cared about?  Instead of increasing the drama, all it did was expose the entire episode as a horribly contrived, hopelessly narcisstic co-exploitive play by LeBron James (and the company of buffoons advising him) and ESPN.
  • ESPN has been nothing more than a promotional vehicle for certain chosen athletes, sports and organizations.  Where in their history they used to broadcast with professionalism and with a certain respect for the craft of journalism (where spreading truthful information was the aim), these days they resort to flash, spectacle, slant, and selectiveness when it comes to who they want to cover.  
  • If it ain’t flashy or trashy, it ain’t gonna make it on SportsCenter.  If it casts any of their sacred cows (such as Michael Jordan’s alleged gambling addiction or Ben Roethlisberger’s reputed penchant for sexual mischief, for example) in a negative light and is front-page, red-letter headline news on other sports-oriented media, it may not be on SportsCenter at all, unless the public outcry is enough to force ESPN to mention such incidents in passing.  
  • Do you think I’m the only one decrying ESPN’s descent into the abyss as a credible sports news agency?  See what The Rock Report has to say about “The Decision”:

“The Decision” was by far the most embarrassing example of how ESPN has turned away from the roots of sports journalism.  How does a simple:  “In this fall, this is very tough, in this fall I am going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”  have to take a hour in the first place?

Now for some other sports-related thoughts from over the weekend:

  • Lance Armstrong had a disastrous Stage 8 – actually, a rather dreadful first week – in the Tour de France.  Stage 8 practically destroyed the cycling great’s drive for eight Tour victories.  Unless his major competitors (Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, etc.) all run into major catastrophies themselves, it’s virtually impossible for Lance to recover the time lost in various spots of terrible luck.  If you’ve missed Tour coverage on TV, or if you simply want THE BEST TdF writeups around, make sure you read the armchair sports fan‘s excellent recaps.
  • Spain won its very first FIFA World Cup.  Strangely, the entire tournament failed to inspire me, which is the first time it has ever happened.  I enjoy the World Cup, but I couldn’t find the motivation to watch this particular tournament.
  • Mark Webber won the British Grand Prix yesterday.  The victory came amidst a raging controversy within his Red Bull Racing team, where the Australian accused his team of favoring his German teammate, Sebastian Vettel.
  • Red Bull had only two of a special front wing and fitted one to each of its cars on Saturday.  The new front wing apparently was a small but noticeable enhancement to the Red Bull-Renaults.  The team’s problems started when Sebastian Vettel broke his new front wing during Free Practice 3, which immediately precedes Qualifying.  Instead of fitting one of the older front wings to his car, Red Bull instead pulls Webber’s from his, effectively dealing the Austrian a double whammy.  Not only did he lose a performance advantage, but that very same advantage was now being used directly against him.
  • I used to think of Mark Webber as being a bit overrated as a driver, with a touch of the hooligan thrown in.  What I mean by him being a bit of a hooligan is that sometimes Webber’s defensive tactics tend to be a bit risky.  Weaving while trying to stay in front of your rival is one thing; weaving AT your rival when he’s got part of his car next to yours is not what I would consider a legitimate tactic.  
  • But back to me thinking Webber was overrated:  I’m now ready to shed that tag that I hung on him.  His performances over the last two and a half seasons have convinced me that he has matured into one of Formula One’s current best.  He may not have absolute top-drawer driving talent like Lewis Hamilton does (or Sebastian Vettel, to a bit smaller extent), but he definitely has honed and sharpened his abilities to the max.  I think of him as a super-developed version of someone like Damon Hill or David Coulthard, although I feel that Webber does have a bit more natural ability than Hill did.  
  • I certainly have always appreciated Mark Webber’s no-BS approach to his racing.  He strikes me as someone absolutely honest and forthright, completely unafraid of speaking his mind and even sometimes doing so to the horror of his team and its backers.  He’s very much an old-school racer in this regard, a reminder of the great old days of Lauda and Keke Rosberg.
  • Final note:  Derek Fisher is returning to the Los Angeles Lakers.  As the great man himself said, “Let the hunt for six begin.”

8 July 2010 – Stuff on my Radar

Posted in Basketball by txtmstrjoe on 08/07/2010

  • Steve Blake signed a four-year, $16million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. 
  • Speaking of the Lakers, Derek Fisher has yet agree on a mutually-beneficial contract.  Here’s at least one Lakers fan hoping he and the team can come to terms, and soon.
  • The British Grand Prix will be run this week at Silverstone Circuit.  With the new “Arena” layout making its F1 debut, it should be an interesting race.  I won’t be daft and try to predict a winner, but I do hope that the McLaren boys finish on the podium along with Sebastian Vettel.   
  • The Tour de France has completed five stages, and I’ve yet to see a complete one on TV.  I’ve seen bits and pieces of the Prologue and Stages 1 and 2, but absolutely nothing after that.  Thankfully, I can count on my new friend from across the pond, Tim, to provide excellent recaps and commentary on the Tour, thanks to his awesome blog, The Armchair Sports Fan.  To be perfectly honest, Tim’s blog is professional-grade and is a definite boon for cycling fans who, for whatever reason, cannot watch the sport’s biggest race in real-time.
  • I absolutely LOVE the fact that my girlfriend is starting to fall in love with the Tour de France as well.  She watches the coverage on Versus, which, thankfully, is of a very high standard.  She’s starting to appreciate the traditions and nuances and subtleties of the sport now, also.

I feel conflicted about one thing:  As much as I panned LeBron James and ESPN for their cynical conspiracy to grab the collective attention of sports fans, I feel almost compelled to tune in and see which team will be getting the King of Nothing But Hubris’ services.  Do I give in and watch, just as ESPN wants me to?  Or do I resist and read about it tomorrow?

Bleh.

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