Joe-Pinions: Sports

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.

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