Joe-Pinions: Sports

22 Apr 2012 – McLaren Miserable in Bahrain

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 22/04/2012

McLaren had a nightmare of a race in Bahrain.  Lewis Hamilton finished in eighth place, almost a full minute behind race winner Sebastian Vettel after a strangely muted race in terms of ultimate race pace and two separate badly-executed pit stops that conspired to drop him down the order.  Teammate Jenson Button ran with more pace, but as he did last week, he also lost places with yet another slow stop in the pits.  Ultimately, the bad pit work paled in comparison to Button’s car problems (his McLaren had a puncture very late in the race, then his Mercedes-Benz V8 sounded horribly sick as he coasted into the pits on the penultimate lap of the race), McLaren’s first for 2012.

Things certainly didn’t start so badly for the McLaren boys.  After all, Hamilton was starting from second, and Button from fourth.  Only the Red Bulls were faster in qualifying, with Vettel scoring his first pole position of 2012 and Mark Webber taking P3.  After the red lights went off, though, McLaren’s hopes of fighting with the resurgent Red Bulls were nothing more than a desert mirage.

Hamilton started sensibly, keeping his second place right at the outset, but almost immediately Vettel had created a DRS-proof gap ahead of him even before the third lap, when race control enables the Drag Reduction System for the first time in the race.  Hamilton held second place until his first pit stop, which dropped him from contention.  The 2008 World Champion had some notable battles with old nemesis Fernando Alonso as well as last week’s Chinese Grand Prix winner, Nico Rosberg.  His attempt to overtake Rosberg on lap 11 right after his disastrous first pit stop was particularly scary:  Rosberg swerved to his right and squeezed Hamilton completely off the track in between Turns 3 and 4.  Hamilton’s McLaren had all four wheels in the desert sand off the track surface, and in my opinion Rosberg’s “defensive” maneuver was stupid and dangerous.  That Hamilton did not lose control of his McLaren owes some to pure luck, and some to his skill as a racing driver.

(That Rosberg duplicated the trick and conspired to do the same to Fernando Alonso and completely escape ANY censure for either maneuver is stupefying to me; it indicates there are a few things fundamentally broken in F1 if moves like these are deemed legal.)

Meanwhile, Button slid down from his fourth place starting spot, running just within the top ten, seemingly content to run at his own pace until some fuel burned off.  He pitted on lap 10, dropping to 16th place, then immediately went on the attack, taking P8 from Fernando Alonso before running most of the first half of his race in P5.  Because of his poor start, however, he never got close enough to threaten Webber’s 4th place.

If Hamilton’s first pit stop was a disaster, it was frankly amazing to see his pit crew suffer a repeat performance.  For a team with a well-deserved reputation for having some of the best pit crew work in all of motor racing, it was shocking to see, to say the least.  That this was the THIRD such botch in two races surely must have the team’s boffins (never mind the drivers themselves) scratching their heads raw.

But as nightmares tend to go, there were a couple more shockers left in store.  Jenson Button also suffered with an extended visit to the pits, but this problem didn’t set him back as much as his teammate’s pit lane misadventures did.  However, the same could definitely NOT be said about first his puncture right at the end of lap 52, which forced him back into the pits for tire change.  The late-race tire change dropped him all the way down to unlucky P13.  However, a damaged exhaust caused not just an off-song Mercedes-Benz V8 engine note, but also, more critically, problems with his McLaren’s differential.  The problem with the differential put paid to Button’s race and heavily underlined McLaren’s terrible Grand Prix of Bahrain.

It used to be that problems with routine pit stops and mechanical unreliability were regular features of a Formula 1 season.  It was just simply impossible to expect every single pit stop to be executed perfectly, and for every team to expect both of its cars to finish every single race.  Engine failures, accidents, suspension and tire problems were all part and parcel of racing.

These days, though, such problems are aberrations.

And these aberrations, the type which cause you to drop out of points-paying positions, tend to decide the outcome of both the Drivers’ and the Constructors’ World Championships.

Although the Grand Prix of Bahrain was just the fourth race out of twenty, McLaren and its drivers lost a lot of points, especially relative to who are likely their strongest opposition this year, Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel.

Hamilton’s two points (and Button’s zero) just do not compare to Vettel’s twenty-five and Webber’s twelve.

McLaren’s two points are almost inconsequential compared to Red Bull Racing’s thirty-seven.

If neither McLaren driver lifts the World Champion’s cup at the end of the year, and if McLaren fall short in the race for the Constructors’ World Championship, they can all rightly point to their nightmares in Bahrain as one of the 2012 season’s critical moments.

16 Apr 2012 – Nico Nearly Man No More

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 16/04/2012

Nico Rosberg.

Some might say that he has it all.

He has the pedigree of a Grand Prix winner.  He is, after all, the son of 1982 Formula One Drivers’ World Champion Keke Rosberg.  Sadly, though, in this way he’s not particularly special.  After all, he’s not the first scion of a Grand Prix superstar to carry on in the family business.  The Rosbergs, after all, are only following on from the Hills (Graham and Damon, thus far the only father-son F1 world champion duo in the sport’s history), the Villeneuves (Gilles and Jacques, Grand Prix winners both), and, to a lesser extent, the Brabhams (father Jack was a 3-time world champion; sons Goeff and David flew the Brabham family colors with pride in the 1980s and early 1990s).

He has built up the requisite experience in lesser racing series on his journey to Formula One.  He was the series champion in German Formula BMW in 2002, and was the inaugural GP2 champion in 2005.  Obviously he had won dozens of races in karting and other racing series as well before joining the Williams Grand Prix team in 2006.  Here again, Keke’s son is not particularly special:  Most F1 stars win their share of races and championships on their trips up the ranks.  Indeed, there are many champions in the junior formulae who don’t achieve too much once they get to auto racing’s grandest stage (Erik Comas, anyone?)

Rosberg spent four years with the formerly mighty Williams team (2006-2009), then was handpicked by Mercedes-Benz to fill one of their driver vacancies when they took over the 2009 Constructors World Champion Brawn outfit.  Though Rosberg occasionally had some very impressive outings whilst at Williams, many observers believed that he owed his new seat to the fact that he raced under the German national flag in his racing career (Nico actually carries dual-citizenship with Germany and Finland).

Cynical as that view may be, undoubtedly the move from Williams to Mercedes-Benz represented an improvement to the quality of the equipment at his disposal.  After all, Williams had not been a serious World Championship contender since 2004, which was also when the team last won a Grand Prix.  Since even before then, Williams had gradually been sliding further and further away from the sharp end of the grand prix grid.  Where before giants such as Mansell and Senna and Prost would engage in fierce political battles fighting for a controlling position at Williams, the team had become the refuge of journeymen drivers desperate to restart their F1 careers (Rubens Barrichello) or newcomers with no real hopes beyond just making up the numbers (Kazuki Nakajima).

Upon arriving at Mercedes-Benz, however, Nico Rosberg faced a strange challenge:  Seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher was returning from retirement and reuniting with his old pal from Ferrari, Ross Brawn, at Mercedes.  It didn’t take long for the older German to mark out his territory, insisting that he, not Rosberg, had first call over who would race the #3 Mercedes-Benz MGP W01, thereby claiming however unofficially number one status in the team (traditionally, drivers who drove the lower-digit, odd-numbered car in a two-car team were the designated lead driver for that team).  Rosberg took the older German’s presence in the team in stride and simply did his best in the car.

Yet even in what should have been an apparently straightforward task Rosberg faced an uncommon situation:  Since he was far younger and far more attuned to the requirements of the current breed of grand prix car (F1 cars evolve constantly, oftentimes from race to race), the logical expectation was for him to show Michael Schumacher the way around.  Schumacher was handicapped by his three-year disconnection from the sport as well as by Father Time, in that his reflexes and reaction times would undoubtedly be slower than his much younger teammate’s.

On the other hand, Schumacher IS a seven-time World Champion; his prodigious talent for driving a racing car allied to his often ruthless approach on the track is a record-setting combination.  In terms of architecture, Schumacher’s ground floor was often higher than other, less talented rivals’ maximum ceiling.

Nico Rosberg, then, whether he admitted it or not, was in a no-win situation.  If he beat Michael Schumacher, well, by all rights he should, being younger and never losing the thread of continuity through his career as a Formula 1 driver.  And if he couldn’t beat the older German?  What else was new under the sun, for too few of Schumacher’s teammates had ever approached him in performance or results, whether they were contractually obligated to cede to the German champion or not.

I know this:  In my own mind, I thought that the only way Nico Rosberg could ever emerge unscathed in the battle against one of the all-time greats was for him to beat Michael Schumacher decisively at least 95% of the time, in both qualifying and in the races.  Nothing less than absolute domination of the much older Schumacher would do.

For the most part, Nico and Michael’s first two seasons as Mercedes-Benz F1 teammates lived up to my description of Rosberg’s circumstances; both literally and figuratively, it was a no-win situation.  Neither Nico nor Michael ever looked like serious contenders for grand prix victories, much less championship glory, in either 2010 or 2011.  The numbers say Nico outqualified his great teammate more often than not, but the difference in their best lap times was almost always skimpy rather than dominant in Rosberg’s favor.  At least to me, this suggested that Rosberg’s best was nowhere near the great Schumacher’s level, even many years past his peak.  And in the races, the elder German sometimes raced with more pace and polish than Nico did, especially in the latter stages of their second season together.

It seemed pretty clear to me that Nico was starting to drown in the rising tide of Schumacher’s resurgence and reemergence as one of Formula 1’s leading lights.  I’m only speculating, but when I connect the dots I think what has happened is that the Mercedes-Benz team has decided to follow Schumacher’s lead insofar as taking his inputs and feedback to guide them in their ongoing quest to design and evolve an ever-faster, ever-more efficient and effective Formula 1 car.  This is specifically why I thought Nico Rosberg should demonstrate his complete dominance over an older champion like Schumacher:  A Formula 1 team will always listen more closely and cater to the requirements of the driver who consistently and decisively gets the better results.  Though Rosberg was nominally that driver by virtue of the number of points he scored and his grid placement compared to Schumacher, the contest was too close.

Think of things this way:  If Schumacher is that close to Nico Rosberg in a car that, theoretically, catered to neither driver’s particular strengths, what would most likely happen if you designed and set up the car catering to Schumacher’s unique requirements?

To my mind, it’s no accident that Schumacher out-qualified Nico in the first two grands prix of 2012.  To me, this was a clear-cut sign that Mercedes AMG (as the team is now known) had finally decided to cater to Schumacher’s distinctive requirements.  It is only natural, therefore, for Rosberg’s performance and results to suffer.

Nico Rosberg, who supposedly had it all, seemed in real danger of becoming just the next “nearly man” in F1.  To be good, yet not quite good enough, is a curse for those who aspire to the highest levels of achievement.

The thing about Nico Rosberg, though, is that in the years I’ve watched him he has never truly shown that he had that kind of ambition, the kind that would push him beyond his talent’s limitations.  He has good natural car control and speed, but nowhere near the Vettel or Hamilton class.  He is reputed to be one of the more technically-accomplished drivers of the current generation, able to tune the car so that it is both fast and efficient; sadly for him, he has never been able to translate his skills at providing good technical feedback into developing his teams’ cars into better machines as the season progresses, the way Prost used to, and the way Jenson Button is now the best at.  If only he had something akin to Fernando Alonso’s steely determination, he might overcome his shortcomings and fulfill the promise hinted at by his pedigree and experience as a winner in his journey towards the pinnacle of motorsports.

In China, however, something clicked for Rosberg.  He took the pole position and won his very first grand prix in 111 tries.  He beat Michael Schumacher fair and square, as well as every other driver.  Quite like Button, Nico was able to get the best performance from his tires, maintaining a solid pace as well as keeping enough of his tires’ performance in hand in case he needed a hard push towards the end.

Sadly, though, I have a feeling that this will be Nico Rosberg’s one lone day in the sun, a day when he proved to be just good enough, and his rivals ran into some problems of their own (Button looked like a likely late challenger but for a botched tire change, and Schumacher was also victimized by some shoddy Mercedes AMG pit work).

Without wanting to take anything away from him, I think that Nico Rosberg, a grand prix winner at last, is now no longer just the next nearly man in Formula 1; rather, it’s going to be a case of one and done.

If somehow he does better, and he blossoms into a consistent Grand Prix winner after breaking his duck in China, then he deserves all the credit in the world.

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