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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