Joe-Pinions: Sports

18 Aug 2010 – Formula One Drivers’ Mid-Season Review (Part 2 of 3)

Posted in Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 18/08/2010

Let us return to our F1 Drivers’ Mid-Season Review.

(If you missed part one, click here.)

Williams-Cosworth

Rubens Barrichello – If Rubens Barrichello were a tree, he would be an evergreen.  How else could you classify a man who is 4 races shy of 300 Grand Prix starts as I write this?  In what is undoubtedly a young man’s sport, the 38 year-old Brazilian is something of a phenomenon.

Typically, by the time a Formula One driver reaches his mid-30s, he has started the inevitable slide into decline.  It’s true for almost all athletes, no matter what the sport.  One’s physical skills naturally deteriorate with age, and in a sport like auto racing, especially in a category as demanding as F1 where reaction time is critical to razor-sharp car control, that can be a significant handicap.  Somehow, though, Rubens has managed to stave off his own obsolescence and remained competitive.

Before last year’s performance with Brawn, which was as unexpected as it was amazing, Rubens was never really a driver one thought of as a potential World Champion.  He has always been fast, but was never seen as someone as ultimately quick in the mold of a Hakkinen or a Hamilton or a Senna.  Not only that, but he never ever developed a true “killer instinct” that many champions all seem to inherently have; he is just really too much of a “nice guy” to be a World Champion.  Much better than a journeyman, but far from a consistent threat to win a Grand Prix, he reminds me a lot of Giancarlo Fisichella.

On a small team, like Jordan or Stewart, he flourished.  He beat his teammates more often than he got beat, but more importantly he never rocked the boat.  He also developed a good reputation for being a driver who provides good technical feedback, which is a boon for any team, but especially a small one seeking to improve its car as the season wears on.

On a big team, though, Rubens seemed to be victimized by his own good nature.  His years as Michael Schumacher’s teammate amounted to something akin to indentured servitude.  He was sometimes good enough to beat Schumacher in a straight fight, but due to contractual stipulations was often not allowed to exploit his Ferrari’s significant advantages (advantages that he, as a better developmental driver than Schumacher himself, had a great role in creating and sustaining) if it meant he would get a better result than his teammate.  When he finally left Ferrari and found his way to Honda, he had the misfortune of getting on board a ship taking on water.  The Hondas he drove were so bad, not even a future world champion (Jenson Button) could do much with them.  And yet, as a mark of his quality as a grand prix driver, Barrichello and Button often fought to a standstill, neither one establishing a position of dominance over the other during their shared tenure with Honda.

His year at Brawn, though, rejuvenated him.  2009 showed he still had fire in his belly, fighting against Jenson Button, sometimes even daring to express his displeasure at times when he thought he was being aggrieved by unfair treatment by his team’s management (Ross Brawn was the boss of Ferrari’s race day strategies when he was paired with Schumacher).  Sadly for Rubens, perhaps he sometimes thought his performances were better than the reality of what the stopwatch indicated:  He just isn’t quick enough, often enough, to really be a World Champion.

Williams, though, is a good fit for Barrichello.  Paired with a highly-rated rookie hotshoe, he (somewhat surprisingly) has settled into a very comfortable role as the team’s lead driver.  He has out-qualified the highly-fancied Nico Hülkenberg 7-3 and finished ahead of the German rookie in the races 8-2 in the first ten grands prix.  Makes you wonder about just how much is left in Rubens’ tank, even as he rapidly approaches his 300th Grand Prix start.

Williams long ago lost its status as one of the big teams fighting for race wins on a consistent basis, but with Barrichello on the team it looks to be improving at each and every grand prix.  His expertise as a test and development driver alone would have justified his place with the team; showing his young teammate the way around at an astonishing strike rate (80% in the races) is a huge bonus.

Nico Hülkenberg – The young German rookie is a mystery to me, to be honest.  He comes into Formula One with a formidable reputation, primarily as last year’s GP2 champion, the Formula Three Euroseries champion in 2008, and a hugely impressive A1GP championship in 2007.  Three championships in three different categories for three straight years strongly suggests that what we have here is a very talented racing driver with the so-called “right stuff.”  Graduating from his part-time post as Williams’ 2009 test driver role to a racing seat is a logical progression, but even if you don’t indulge in the foolish expectation that Hülkenberg would then take the Formula One Drivers’ World Championship in a 2010 Williams at his first crack, his track record suggests that here is a very bright light to shine on the grand prix stage for years to come.

Strangely, though, Hülkenberg has been eclipsed by his very experienced teammate, Rubens Barrichello.  And it’s not as if Barrichello has only barely beaten Hülkenberg; it’s a dominant beat-down that casts doubt on Hülkenberg’s potential, at least in my own mind, at the highest levels of the sport.

It’s difficult to comment on Hülkenberg since he hasn’t really warranted a lot of attention for his performances in Formula One so far.  Running in midfield doesn’t attract the attention of the TV coverage, and the specialist press that follows and covers the Formula One circus tends to focus on the leading lights and the hottest rumors and controversies that are part and parcel of F1.  Two points finishes (two points for two P10s) in the first nine races, gained not through breathtaking speed or dynamic racecraft or cunning tactics and strategies but through luck and attrition don’t warrant much attention, sadly.

There’s very little logic to why Hülkenberg is being so comprehensively dominated by old man Barrichello.  As Williams’ test driver last year, he should be far more intimately familiar with the nuances of the FW32 than Brawn refugee Rubens Barrichello.  As the younger driver, he should have a stronger need to prove himself.  Younger drivers tend to take more risks, to push harder, than more experienced drivers; often this willingness to take bigger risks will be manifested in quicker lap times and better results at the end of the race.  To me it’s frankly quite bizarre why Hülkenberg looks so ordinary, especially his history as a championship-caliber racer in all his previous steps up the ladder to Formula One.

Who’s better? – The question is simple enough to answer:  Barrichello is leading this race, and it’s not even close.  If anything, this intra-team competition begs this question:  Is the performance gulf more because of Barrichello’s (under-appreciated) talent combined with his vast advantage in experience being much greater than any and all of Hülkenberg’s positive qualities, or is there another (yet unrevealed) factor which explains why this competition is so one-sided?  Barrichello is good, but compared to Hülkenberg he almost looks like an all-time great.

Renault

Robert Kubica – If there is one driver other than Mark Webber who has really impressed me thus far this year, it is Kubica.  The Kraków native’s performances in the Renault have flattered the yellow Anglo-French car (the team is based in both Viry-Châtillon and Enstone), making it a consistent points scorer and top-ten qualifier in almost each and every race this year.  Consequently, he has raised his profile even more, rumored to be in the running for a seat at Ferrari to replace Massa; he is undoubtedly Renault F1’s most valuable asset at the moment.

Not much was expected from Renault this year, coming off a 2009 season which saw its flamboyant former team principal, Flavio Briatore, receive a lifetime ban, its highly-respected technical director Pat Symonds a five-year ban, and title sponsor ING depart as direct consequences of one of the worst scandals Formula One has ever seen.  Even without the humiliation from Singapore 2008, the team’s form was undoubtedly in decline.  To top it all off, Fernando Alonso, who won his first two titles with Renault in 2005 and 2006, decided to leave the team for Ferrari.  There was a real possibility that the team might have left Formula One after last year’s embarrassments, and Kubica, who had confirmed his decision to join Renault well before the end of the 2009 season, might have consequently been out of a ride for 2010.

There were no shortage of offers for Kubica’s services during that unsettled period when a firm commitment from Renault to continue as a factory team in F1 was still forthcoming.  Notably, Toyota was quite keen to secure the Pole’s services for 2010; the fact that Toyota had since decided to leave F1 strongly suggests that its decision whether to stay or leave the category hinged in some significant part on whether or not they could acquire Kubica from Renault.

But Toyota wasn’t the only team interested in Kubica.  According to F1 Magazine, McLaren was also interested in him, many weeks before turning their attentions to the 2009 World Champion, Jenson Button.  However, Kubica himself wasn’t impressed with how McLaren had indicated its interest in him, intimating that McLaren’s posture of presenting the possibility of joining the team was more akin to McLaren offering him a handout.  Kubica’s refusal to join McLaren under such terms where the team from Woking had assumed far too much of a position of superior leverage surprised many; how many drivers in motor racing would ever refuse McLaren’s overtures?

If nothing else, the McLaren episode shows Kubica’s strength of character, his unassailable self-belief.  It is a powerful self-confidence, and one thankfully devoid of hubris.  You get the impression that here is a man who has a certain dignity and self-respect.

Happily, Renault decided to stay as a factory team in Formula One and reorganized the team’s management structure.  For his part, Kubica avoided losing his place in F1 and got down to business.

And how.

Few expected good things from Renault this year.  Its V8 is considered inferior compared to the Mercedes, and its chassis far from the best at any type of circuit.  Many pundits felt that it would be fighting primarily for midfield positions.  The slower of its two cars, driven by rookie Vitaly Petrov, has usually been amongst the midfield runners, occasionally mixing it up with the drivers fighting over the lowest points-paying positions (P9-P10).  That by itself is fairly impressive given the dire straits the team found itself in.

Kubica, though, consistently has his Renault in more rarified company.  In the first ten races, Kubica has qualified no worse than ninth.  More impressively, in six of the first ten grands prix this year he has finished in a better position than his grid position.  No other driver in 2010 can make a similar claim.  Finishing third in Monaco after qualifying a 2010 Renault in P2 is hardly something to be ashamed of; neither is a drop from P7 in qualifying to P8 at the end of the race in the Spanish Grand Prix.  In the season opener in Bahrain, he spun and dropped to the back of the field, then recovered to finish 11th (after qualifying in P9).  The only real blot to his remarkable record through the first half of the season was the British Grand Prix when his R30 had a driveshaft failure that put him out of the race whilst fighting against Fernando Alonso.

Robert Kubica is the driving force behind Renault’s surprisingly strong first half to 2010.  He had amassed 83 of Renault’s 89 points up through the end of the British Grand Prix and finished twice on the podium (P2 in Australia and P3 in Monaco).  In terms of doing the most with the least (I hardly consider the Renault to be on par with the McLaren, Red Bull, Ferrari, or even Mercedes), Kubica is hard to beat through the first half of the 2010 season.

I wonder what he could have done in the McLaren against Lewis Hamilton…

Vitaly Petrov – All things considered, Russian rookie Vitaly Petrov has done a fair job as Renault’s second driver through the first half of the 2010 Formula One season.  He started out his Grand Prix career with three straight DNFs (two mechanical failures and one driver error), then scored six points with a P7 in a very wet Grand Prix of China.

Sadly for Vitaly, his impressive 7th place in Shanghai was to be the high-water mark (pardon the pun) for the first half of 2010.  The remainder of the first half of the season highlighted the fact that he is a Formula One rookie driving a difficult car.  After China (the fourth GP of the year), he finished out of the points and squarely in mid-field:  P11 (Spain); P13 (Monaco); P15 (Turkey);  P17 (Canada); P14 (Europe – Valencia); P13 (Great Britain).  Not only were his race results a bit disappointing, but his qualifying performances suffered when compared to his teammate’s.  Granted, Robert Kubica is one of the year’s most impressive performers thus far, but Petrov has been thoroughly dominated through the first ten races of 2010 10-0.

Things could be a lot worse, of course.  At least Petrov hasn’t been so slow as to be amongst the backmarkers.  He is driving the Renault to the best of his ability which, considering the fact that he started his racing career rather late (according to his Wikipedia entry, he didn’t race go-karts as most of his competitors did in their formative years), is respectable.  He obviously cannot be bereft of talent, as he finished as runner-up to Nico Hülkenberg in the 2009 GP2 championship.

He is currently under pressure to produce much better results and is facing the possibility of losing his seat at Renault.  Perhaps this is an unfortunate consequence of being paired with Robert Kubica, one of the category’s brilliant lights.  A better car, one with higher performance that is also easier to drive, will do wonders to help Petrov improve his results; ironically, this will also exaggerate the gap between himself and Kubica.

Who’s better? – Kubica is the unquestionably better driver.  He has completely dominated qualifying, and when they both finish the race, he has always finished ahead of his younger teammate.  Kubica has the obvious edge over Petrov when it comes to experience, but more than that it appears that he also has more natural ability to drive a racing car.  Petrov, of course, will improve with experience.  Unfortunately, Renault may not be prepared to wait long enough to allow Petrov to grow, especially since he appears to lack the potential to push, much less beat, Kubica on a consistent basis.

Force India-Mercedes

Adrian Sutil – When I think of Adrian Sutil, two things about the 2009 Grand Prix of Brazil at Interlagos come to mind:  His wet-weather prowess, and his unfortunate race-ending accident with Jarno Trulli on the first lap.  These two images are Sutil in microcosm and define him for me in the simplest terms.

Just how good has Sutil been in the wet?  He took third on the grid in the 2009 Grand Prix of Brazil, when much of qualifying was run in a Sao Paulo downpour.  He did this in a Force India-Mercedes VJM02, a car which was very fast in a straight line, but lacked grip and downforce in medium-speed and slow corners.  He did this in the same race when the eventual 2009 World Champion, Jenson Button, floundered onto P14 on the grid with the Constructors’ World Championship-winning Brawn BGP 001; he did this in the same race Button’s championship runner-up, Sebastian Vettel (himself an acknowledged wet-weather meister), could only manage sixteenth on the grid in the Adrian Newey-designed Red Bull RB5.

There have been other occasions when Sutil displayed his wet-weather superiority.  He clawed his way up the order after qualifying in P18 for the 2008 Monaco Grand Prix.  The start of the race was wet, but even so, on a circuit where overtaking is almost impossible in the best possible conditions, Sutil gained fourteen positions and was running strongly in fourth very late in the race when his Force India was clobbered from behind by Kimi Raikkonen and was eliminated.  The previous year, Sutil impressed yet again by scoring a point for Spyker (Force India’s name prior to 2008) in Fuji, site of the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix which was run in a cataclysmic monsoon.

I think that Sutil’s wet-weather abilities are the best amongst the current crop of Grand Prix drivers.  Only fellow German Sebastian Vettel is close.   Sutil’s performances in the wet are all the more impressive since he drives for Force India, a team that, while it is steadily improving, is really still at least a step or two away from the top teams.  I wonder how his performances in the wet would be better still if he was driving a Red Bull or a McLaren instead.

But as good as Sutil has been in the wet (he finished 11th in the 2010 GP of China, out of the points, but qualified a brilliant 4th in the wet in Malaysia), he also seems to have a penchant for attracting trouble during the races.  The unfortunate incident in Monaco 2008 is one example.  There are two more memorable examples in 2009, in Spain and, more spectacularly, in Brazil, when Sutil was collected by Jarno Trulli.

The incident in Brazil, in particular, highlighted Sutil’s curious tendency to be involved in spectacular accidents which were not his fault.  On the Reta Oposta straight, Mark Webber chopped across Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari and damaged the red car’s front wing.  Behind Raikkonen, Sutil saw what had happened and lined himself up for an overtake going into the Turn 4 and 5 double left-hand complex.  Sutil executed the maneuver, but was sufficiently slowed by Raikkonen, allowing Jarno Trulli to get alongside him on the outside of Turn 5.  Trulli had all four wheels on the exit curb, still slippery after the weekend’s rains, and lost control of his Toyota.  The Toyota speared violently left and punted Sutil’s tail, causing the Force India to spin into the muddy grassy infield, totally out of control, whereupon he collided with the completely innocent Fernando Alonso.

From the sublime (his mastery over wet weather) to the ridiculous (his penchant for being involved in too many first lap mishaps, even those caused entirely by others), Adrian Sutil is a bit of a conundrum.  To be perfectly honest, I’m not really sure how to rate him and his performances this year.  Too often, and in too many areas, one is forced to say “if only” with him:  If only his skills in the wet (which suggest he’s got top-level car control and sensitivity) also translated themselves on a dry track; if only he beat his teammates (this year, it’s Vitantonio Liuzzi) more decisively on the stopwatch, even if the results tally has him miles ahead; if only he didn’t get collected in someone else’s accident every few races; if only he drove a better, less specialized car (the Force India tends to perform better on circuits where high downforce is not so important).

If only things were that simple…

Vitantonio Liuzzi – “Tonio” won’t ever be mistaken for a Grand Prix winner, much less a genuine World Championship contender.  After fifty-four Grands Prix over five seasons (only three of which are complete; his fourth season, in 2009, he joined only after Force India lost Giancarlo Fisichella to Ferrari after the GP of Belgium), he has earned only seventeen World Championship points, twelve of which are from the 2010 season and its “inflated” points system.

It’s not as if Liuzzi is a driver whose place in F1 should be questioned.  He is a World Champion in karting (2001) as well as the last International F3000 champion (2004), so clearly he’s got solid skills, speed and racecraft.  You simply don’t win championships in motorsports if you don’t have enough of “the right stuff.”

Unfortunately, in Formula One, it appears that you need even more of this undefinable “right stuff” to propel yourself into the realm of consistent race winners and, eventually, World Championship contention.  Some drivers, while qualified in terms of skill, may be found wanting in terms of attitude:  They may not be aggressive enough, ruthless enough, determined enough, to compete for wins and championships.

To me, Liuzzi appears to be just happy to be in F1, not really caring enough to push harder to beat his most direct rival (his teammate).  He has never struck me as a super-competitive animal out on the circuit.  Only twice in the first ten races has he beat his teammate Sutil (not counting the Australian Grand Prix, which Sutil failed to finish due to an engine failure) in the race and in qualifying, coming out on top in Monaco and Canada.  The trouble is, Sutil doesn’t appear to be an elite-level talent; Liuzzi, in comparison, suffers greatly since he’s getting killed in the direct comparison 80% of the time.

Who’s better? – Sutil over Liuzzi, unquestionably.  Of the two, it appears that Sutil has more potential for greater achievement.  It’s hard not to be impressed with the wet-weather driving skills and be tempted into thinking that perhaps there is even more potential to be found within.  The problem is that Liuzzi doesn’t appear to really push Sutil hard enough, often enough, to drive Adrian further.  Sutil has the look of a driver who seems content to just come out ahead and not try to prove he is someone special, so it’s impossible to gauge just how much potential is being left untapped.

Toro Rosso-Ferrari

Sebastien Buemi – The list of Swiss Formula One drivers is not a very long one.  Not since the pathetically slow Jean-Denis Délétraz “raced” (I use the verb very, very loosely) for the Keith WigginsPacific team in two events (the Portuguese and European Grands Prix) in 1995 has anybody from Switzerland competed in F1; it has been far longer, three and a half decades in fact, since a Swiss national was even a serious World Championship contender (the late, great Clay Regazzoni finished second in the Drivers’ World Championship to Ferrari teammate Niki Lauda in 1974).

Sebastien Buemi, then, doesn’t seem to be weighed down too much by the weight of a nation’s expectations the way modern German F1 drivers might be, or the way British or even Italian drivers always seem to be.  Nevertheless, the young Swiss driver (all of 21 years old as I write this) seems to possess just enough speed and skill to justify his place in the sport’s top category.

Very little about Buemi is flashy or spectacular, even though he did what so very few drivers in the sport’s history do in his debut race:  He scored points by finishing eighth in the 2009 Australian Grand Prix.  He also out-qualified his first teammate, Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais.  In fact, more often than not, he beat Bourdais in both qualifying and the race up until the Frenchman’s dismissal from Scuderia Toro Rosso after the 2009 German Grand Prix.

On its own, outclassing Bourdais is an impressive suggestion of Buemi’s potential; however, this is clouded by the lack of clarity regarding Bourdais’ own capabilities.  After all, Bourdais won four consecutive Champ Car championships in the USA.  F1 purists might sneer at the quality of Champ Car as an open wheel racing category, but that is conveniently dismissing the fact that Champ Cars are incredibly powerful and fast racing machines.  In other words, it still takes a good driver to do well in Champ Cars, much less dominate as Bourdais did in the category.

Buemi looks like a sensible racer, never extending beyond his car’s capabilities nor his own.  He has been involved in a couple of first lap incidents, but for the most part he will bring his Toro Rosso home to see the checkered flag.  This suggests a maturity far beyond his twenty one years.

Jaime Alguersuari – As young as his teammate Sebastien Buemi is, Alguersuari is a year and a half younger.  In fact, the Spaniard now owns the record for being the youngest man to ever start a Grand Prix (his age when he took over from Sebastien Bourdais in the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix:  19 years, 125 days).  What can you expect from a teenager driving a Formula One car?

His early racing career is a bit uneven, punctuated by a championship in the British Formula 3 series in 2008.  Though some participants in this very category have gone on to mighty achievements in Formula One (Mika Hakkinen and Ayrton Senna were both British F3 champions before they also became F1 World Champions), it’s far too early in Alguersuari’s F1 career to wonder about whether or not he has the necessary ability (he certainly doesn’t have the necessary experience yet) to be a consistent race winner, much less a World Championship contender.

He did outqualify Sebastien Buemi in Hungary on his debut, but his inexperience not just as a Formula One driver, but as a racing driver as a whole, is a handicap at this stage of the game.  He has occasionally beaten his teammate (Bahrain, Malaysia, and Turkey) when both finished the race, but is behind his teammate in Drivers’ Championship points, 3-7.  This is not an indictment of Alguersuari, nor damning evidence of his sheer inability to do the job.  If anything, his performances in a mediocre second-tier car suggests that perhaps he has got more raw ability than he’s showed so far.

There is something very intriguing about Alguersuari, a hint of a spectacular type of talent.  Up until the Grand Prix of Hungary, he has yet to race the same F1 circuit twice; for him to beat his teammate who has the benefit of prior experience on a circuit is hugely impressive.

What can a little more seasoning, and a better car, do for Alguersuari?  It’s a tantalizing question.

Who’s better? – For now, Buemi looks like the better driver.  He certainly is the more experienced.  But there is a hint of something a little special with Alguersuari, a certain panache.  Both drivers are actually quite excellent for a small team like Toro Rosso, since they are both very eager to impress.  For the most part, both are very sensible and will bring their cars home to see the checkered flag.  Both Buemi and Alguersuari have potential to be bigger players on the Grand Prix stage.

F1

Next time:  Reviews of our final batch of drivers:  Jarno Trulli, Heikki Kovalainen, Karun Chandhok, Bruno Senna, Pedro de la Rosa, Kamui Kobayashi, Timo Glock, and Lucas di Grassi.

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