Joe-Pinions: Sports

1 Sept 2010 – Formula One Drivers’ Mid-Season Review (Part 3 of 3)

Posted in Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 01/09/2010

Here, finally, is the last part of our 2010 F1 Drivers’ Mid-Season Review.

(Part 1, if you missed it.  And Part 2 is here.)

Lotus-Cosworth

Jarno Trulli – To me, Jarno Trulli is one of the strangest drivers that I’ve seen in Formula One.  Often, you’ll see a driver and how he performs, and you’ll be reminded of someone else who had come before.  I see a lot of Niki Lauda and Jackie Stewart (judging by the rare footage I’ve seen as well as through the descriptions of other writers specializing in F1, most notably Nigel Roebuck) in Alain Prost’s driving; similarly, I am always reminded of Gilles Villeneuve’s flair and extraordinary car control when I watched Jean Alesi wrestling his early 1990s Ferraris.

But Jarno?  He’s a bit of a weird animal, in that he is simultaneously special and mediocre during a Grand Prix weekend. Ayrton Senna is acknowledged to be THE master when it comes to conjuring up that very special magic that goes into a qualifying run.  Notwithstanding the fact that Michael Schumacher now owns the Brazilian great’s place at the top of career pole positions list, to me only two drivers since Senna come close to having that special qualifying touch:  Mika Hakkinen and Trulli.

Trulli has arguably built up his entire Grand Prix career on the basis of his superb reputation as a qualifying specialist.  He has earned four pole positions, which I suppose looks like very small beans compared to the all-time greats that populate the career pole positions list.  But winning is not always the end-all, be-all; sometimes the destination is far less compelling than the journey you make to get there. More often than not, Trulli wins the intra-team qualifying contest against any of his teammates, no matter what team he drives for.  He clearly has a knack, a special gift, for coming up with a few truly quick laps.

Unfortunately, he also has earned a reputation for being far less impressive during the race itself.  As focused as he can be during those special qualifying flying laps, he tends to dawdle during a grand prix.  I honestly cannot remember any of Trulli’s races where he pulled off effective overtaking maneuvers to hoist himself up from a lowly grid position.  On the other hand, more often than not he would somehow lose positions during the race, wasting his spectacular qualifying efforts. He makes errors aplenty, sometimes even when there is really no reason to.  Case in point:  In the 2009 Australian Grand Prix, whilst running in third very late in the race, during a Safety Car period no less, Trulli somehow lost control of his Toyota and flew off the very slow 2nd gear left comprising the final left-right Prost complex at Albert Park.  It wasn’t as if Lewis Hamilton, running in P4 just behind him, pushed him off the circuit; it wasn’t as if they were at racing speed and Hamilton pressured Trulli into a mistake.  Trulli just somehow lost the car and had to take to the grass.  (This incident triggered the over-blown, over-hyped F1 controversy now known as Lie-Gate).  And I’ve already mentioned his rather monstrous mistake in Brazil 2009, which he had the gall to blame the completely innocent Adrian Sutil for.

It’s not as if Trulli is prone to physical fatigue; at least I wouldn’t think so, as he is famous for having triathlete-levels of physical fitness.  There’s just something missing in his makeup as a racecar driver, in my opinion.  Perhaps it’s a lack of sufficient mental capacity to maintain that superhuman level of concentration required to be a consistent leading performer during a grand prix.

Whatever it is, Trulli’s career seems to be on its last legs.  Driving for the all-new Lotus outfit, there are no big expectations from him.  His talents as a superb qualifier are an asset (they would help attract attention to the team, hopefully helping it acquire more and bigger and better sponsorship for the future), but because he often will not be mixing it up with the faster cars and drivers further up the grid, he won’t have too many positions to lose during the race as well.  Unfortunately, Jarno no longer seems to even have his strongest card in his hand anymore, as he doesn’t seem to be dominating his teammate in qualifying as he always used to be able to.

Heikki Kovalainen – The pleasant Finn must be experiencing a fair bit of culture shock these days, having traded his place in one of Formula One’s leading teams (McLaren) for a seat with one of the sport’s newest (Lotus).  Although the team has resurrected the great name of Lotus, this is, in fact, an all-new team with nothing but the name as a link to one of Grand Prix racing’s all-time greatest participants.  It must be like going from dining on the finest filet mignon to eating generic, no-name corn flakes.

Some drivers would have sulked at the radical downgrade in their circumstances, doing nothing but harm to their reputations and basically self-destructing.  Whether it’s a young driver with a hitherto vaunted reputation in previous lower formulae still learning the ropes (Jos Verstappen and Jan Magnussen are my favorite examples), or an older accomplished driver who used to be thought of as a leading light but is now cast in the role of extra (René Arnoux or even 1996 World Champion Damon Hill), going from the so-called top of the mountain to the pits of despair might be enough to snuff out whatever motivation they may have had and extinguish the competitive fires.

Kovalainen, though, seems to have been galvanized by his somewhat traumatic experience with McLaren.  It’s not as if McLaren’s people didn’t like Heikki; if anything, they liked him quite a bit since he really is one of the sport’s nice guys according to most reports.  However, he had the misfortune of being paired up with one his generation’s transcendent talents, 2008 World Champion Lewis Hamilton.  He won the 2008 Hungarian Grand Prix for the team, but looked fairly ordinary in the races.  If there’s one thing that the McLaren team dislikes, it’s not being a strong-enough contender for Grand Prix victories.

Kovalainen found himself with no takers at the end of his disappointing stint with the Woking team, except for the new teams entering F1.  Lotus Racing has proven to be a shrewd choice, as its very striking T127 has consistently been the fastest car amongst the newcomers.  He and Jarno Trulli have virtually been equals this season.  Through the tenth Grand Prix of the season, the intra-team competition in qualifying is 5-5; in the races where both drivers finished the race (only two, amazingly enough!), they each have one “victory” over each other.  Kovalainen, though, tends to bring his Lotus higher up the final order than Trulli, so you can argue that he’s probably doing more with the car than Jarno does.  Clearly, the move to the lower end of the grid hasn’t psychologically wrecked Heikki to the point where he would just roll onto his back and surrender.

Heikki was involved in what was possibly the 2010 season’s most frightening moments:  Mark Webber ran into the rear of his Lotus and launched his Red Bull into a mid-air flip before crashing back down to earth and into a tire barrier.  Some blamed Kovalainen for the incident, but in my opinion he was completely blameless.  He was in front, and he had the line.  Webber misjudged his position on the track in relation to Kovalainen’s and simply rammed the Lotus.  Thankfully, nobody was hurt in the incident, and as far as Kovalainen was concerned, most have completely absolved him of any responsibility for the crash.

Who’s better? – Kovalainen leads this intra-team contest, in my opinion.  He has brought the Lotus T127 to its best finish (P13, during the Australian GP) so far this year.  He may not be the flashiest nor the fastest, but he is a steady, reliable driver who gives everything he’s got AND who will bring the car home.  Jarno Trulli, on the other hand, can be really fast from time to time, but is frankly pathetic during the races.  He’s had the benefit of driving some rather good cars in his long career, but has only managed one GP victory.  Kovalainen looks as if he hasn’t got enough speed and desire to be a World Champion, but he would make a good wing-man to a transcendent driver in a good team.  Sadly, though, I fear that Kovalainen will never get another chance to drive a car like a Renault, much less a top-of-the-line car like a McLaren.

HRT-Cosworth

Karun Chandhok – India is a country with a very short history in Formula One.  Before Karun Chandhok started his career in the top category of the sport, Narain Karthikeyan drove for the Jordan team in 2005 (scoring 5 points for his P4 in the disastrous US Grand Prix, when all the Michelin runners withdrew just prior to the start of the race), and stayed on as Williams’ reserve driver from 2006 to 2007.  Also in 2007, Vijay Mallya bought the Spyker (formerly Midland, formerly Jordan) team and renamed it Force India, bringing a bigger Indian presence in F1.  Chandhok now is the country’s most prominent racing driver by virtue of being its sole representative in Formula One.

To be perfectly honest, it’s impossible to evaluate Chandhok as a Formula One driver simply because his Hispania F110 is so pathetically slow.  The only things I know about Chandhok are that he’s been slower in qualifying than his teammate Bruno Senna six times out of the nine races they drove against one another in the first half of the season, but has a 2-1 advantage of finishing ahead of his teammate in races wherein both of them saw the checkered flag.  While it’s clear to see that Senna has a big edge in terms of being able to put together a single fast lap, the tiny sample size of race results (and the lack of TV attention given to the slowest cars in the race) make it impossible to come up with any educated observations and opinions of a driver’s capabilities during a race.

Bruno Senna – In some ways, I’m happy to see the name of Senna back in Grand Prix racing.  It is unquestionably one of the sport’s most evocative names.  On the other hand, it’s also simultaneously quite saddening to see the name marking the tail end of the qualifying and race results.

Through no real fault of his own, Bruno Senna seems incapable of doing better than outqualifying his teammate every single time out, if only to prove that he is a driver of real substance and quality.  If Bruno had been able to beat Karun Chandhok nine out of nine times, and by a significant margin (say, around four-tenths of a second or so) every single time out, there would be no doubt of his superiority over his Indian teammate.  Alas, the record is 6-3 in Senna’s favor, and the typical gap between them is around three-tenths of a second at best.  Also, each has had one race where the gap in qualifying has been a full second or thereabouts, which is a monstrous gap; the fact that they each have bested their teammate by such a big gap casts doubt on such statistical facts (anything from weather conditions, traffic, driver’s form, the setup of the car during the qualifying run, etc. can account for such a big performance gap).

Like his teammate, right now it’s impossible to tell just how good Senna is in a Formula One car.

Who’s better? – Senna is faster, but is he better?  Given the fact that his HRT seems allergic to making the end of races (either through driver errors – I’m willing to give Bruno Senna the benefit of the doubt here because I’m sure the HRT is a beast of a car to drive, so it’s  easier to make driving errors), we simply don’t have a big enough sample size with which to make a fair judgment between the two Hispania teammates.  We’ll call this one a draw due to lack of evidence.

BMW Sauber-Ferrari

Pedro de la Rosa – Once upon a time, Pedro de la Rosa was the only Grand Prix driver from Spain.  In 1998, he was a test driver for Jordan.  He moved to Arrows the following year and was joined by countryman Marc Gené in Formula One (Gené drove for Minardi).  After two seasons with Arrows, he moved on to the Jaguar team for another two years, then almost disappeared from the F1 grid when he took on the unglamorous yet crucial test driver role at McLaren in 2003.  He was the Woking team’s test driver for seven full seasons before returning to full-time competition this year.

During his time away, Spain’s national Formula One profile zoomed to the stratosphere, with countryman Fernando Alonso emerging as one of F1’s great (and most controversial) talents of the present generation.  Alonso won two World Championships at a time when de la Rosa toiled away from the limelight developing McLaren’s F1 cars for other people’s benefit.  Alonso himself was a beneficiary in 2007 when he joined his compatriot in Woking, but the relationship between Alonso and the team dissolved many races before the official end of the season and the final formal divorce between both parties.

When BMW decided to leave Formula One at the end of 2009, Peter Sauber seized the opportunity to buy back his eponymous team.  He shrewdly calculated that he needed one of his team’s two seats to be occupied by someone who had plenty of experience as well as a reputation as a capable developmental driver.  De la Rosa therefore severed his ties with McLaren and returned to the F1 grid as one of Sauber’s drivers.

His return to the big stage started auspiciously, outqualifying his teammate, the exciting Japanese newcomer Kamui Kobayashi, in the first two grands prix.  He leveraged his vast superiority in experience over the talented Japanese driver to compile a 6-4 intra-team qualifying edge.  Unfortunately, the Sauber clearly lacked reliability, notching thirteen DNFs out of twenty possible starts (two starts per Grand Prix in ten Grands Prix).  The pathetic 35% reliability record for Sauber through the first ten races served to muddy evaluations of de la Rosa’s (and Kobayashi’s) form relative not only against the rest of the competition, but against one another in the races.

In the races where they did finish, though, de la Rosa’s weakness as a grand prix driver came up.  While a reliable and steady driver, he always seemed to lack that special ability to maintain a torrid pace during a race.  He definitely assumed the role of the tortoise in the Sauber pairing.  This is no coincidence, of course, as this is precisely the role Peter Sauber had hired him for.

Kamui Kobayashi – Kobayashi is probably the most promising driver to come out of Japan.  There have been other contenders for this distinction; Ukyo Katayama comes to mind, as does Takuma Sato.  But where Katayama was sensible yet fast (but unfortunately never to drive a good car) and Sato was fast yet ragged (he seemed to always be on the ragged edge fighting for control), Kobayashi is simply exciting and fast.

He made his mark last year in the 2009 Brazilian Grand Prix, weaving and bobbing left and right in his battles for position, including one with 2009 World Champion Jenson Button.  Button was moved to comment regarding Kamui:  “That guy’s insane.  He was moving around all over the place on the straights, and we almost crashed together a couple of times.”  Indeed, Kobayashi did take out one of his competitors in Brazil, compatriot Kazuki Nakajima, coming out of the pit exit lane.  Kobayashi weaved as Nakajima moved out of the tow, clipping Nakajima’s Williams’ front wing and causing Kazuki to crash into the tire barrier at the end of the Reta Oposta straight.  But he did finish in P9, just on place out of the points.  He finished off 2009 with a superb P6 in Abu Dhabi and opened his F1 career points account with 3pts.

His impressively aggressive, audacious driving saw him fielding a few offers once Toyota announced their decision to quit Formula One late in 2009.  He signed with Sauber and filled the first seat; clearly Sauber wanted to have one of his two cars to have a driver with a certain flash, a certain tendency for the spectacular.  Kobayashi fit the bill, for sure.

The first few races of 2010 were unremarkable due to the Sauber’s frankly poor reliability.  Kobayashi’s most spectacular DNF was undoubtedly in Australia, when his front wing failed on the first lap, causing him to lose control and crash, unfortunately taking Nico Hülkenberg and Sebastien Buemi with him.

Kobayashi recorded Sauber’s first points finish of the year in Turkey (incidentally, the first double finish for the Saubers in 2010) with a P10, then followed up with a spectacular drive in Valencia in the European Grand Prix two races later.  He ran most of the race in 3rd, only to pit and drop down to ninth.  He passed Fernando Alonso and Buemi very late in the race and wound up in seventh place.  His drive in Valencia was one of the race’s highlights.  He finished off the first half of the 2010 season with a P6 and 8pts, his biggest points haul thus far in his F1 career.

Kobayashi’s driving is impressive in its aggressiveness.  However, he does tend to have a bit of the hooligan in him, weaving in front of challengers to his position on the race track in the style of Schumacher or Ayrton Senna.  He is undoubtedly very fast in the race, though, if a bit ragged.  In my opinion, he looks to have plenty of natural talent and a certain fearlessness.  This fearlessness, though, is not necessarily a good thing, as it appears to be the flavor of someone who has never been hurt before.  Hopefully it will not take a serious injury for Kobayashi to learn how to master his tendency to try to intimidate rivals.

Who’s better? – Kobayashi has the edge, if only because he is clearly faster in the races.  He is also younger and less experienced than de la Rosa, so his impressive speed and pace during races is even more impressive.  The disparity in qualifying will likely swing in Kobayashi’s favor as we enter the second half of the season, and de la Rosa will be eclipsed by the talented Japanese driver.

Virgin-Cosworth

Timo Glock – Timo Glock is the most unassuming of men, quiet in manner and unspectacular in style as a driver.  He is thus very easy to overlook.  But to underestimate him is to simply not appreciate the fact that sometimes the subtle approach can be just as effective, if not even more so, than the spectacular.

He is probably most known for the fact that he floundered on the final lap of the 2008 Grand Prix of Brazil, running in P5 on a sodden track whilst on dry weather tires, and allowing a desperate Lewis Hamilton to pass and therefore earn one more crucial point to win the 2008 World Championship.  Some people wrongly accused him of laying down and therefore manipulating the championship in Hamilton’s favor, even receiving death threats as a consequence of his decision to not defend position more vigorously.  In my opinion, such beliefs are irrational in the extreme and betray nothing more than an anti-Hamilton bias at best.  The way I view that hectic final lap, Glock is doing all he can to keep an undrivable Toyota on the circuit; he deserves a lot of credit, not a lot of derision, for not defending position because to have attempted to do so could have potentially exposed both himself and Hamilton to a collision.  Just imagine, if Glock had triggered a crash and took Hamilton out, what would the reaction have been?

This one footnote in F1 history has overshadowed the fact that Glock is actually an accomplished racer.  He has finished on the podium thrice, including two second places, in 47 Grands Prix (as of the British GP of this year).  As Jarno Trulli’s teammate, he compared quite favorably, finishing just 14.5pts behind Trulli’s total points haul from 2008-2009.  And that’s with Glock missing the last three races of 2009 with an injury he sustained during qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix.

This year Glock drives for Virgin, in a car that’s often not fast enough to beat the Lotus T127s.  It’s a thankless task, but perhaps Glock knew what he was signing up for when he declined to wait for confirmation of Renault’s entry in the 2010 season.  The idea of the unspectacular yet effective Glock racing alongside Kubica constitutes one of the most tantalizing “What If” scenarios of 2010.

Lucas di Grassi – Like HRT teammates Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna, I have seen precious little of Lucas di Grassi this year.  His cause isn’t helped by the fact that, like the Hispania F110, the VR-01 has been both slow and unreliable, making evaluations of a raw novice close to impossible.  He does have the honor of bringing the Virgin to its highest finish, P14 in Malaysia, for whatever that’s worth.

Who’s better? – By default, Glock is the better driver.  A lot of that is down to having more experience, but it’s all too easy to underestimate Timo’s quality as a racing driver.  A shame, too; while he’ll never be a World Champion, he can probably be a very good number two to a star driver.  

F1

So, there it is, dear readers.  A massive three-part blogging odyssey has ended.  My apologies for making you wait so long for me to complete this, as well as rather scarce commentary on this season’s new drivers.

I must say I enjoyed this mid-season appraisal (I write this three races into the second half of the 2010 season) and am looking forward to doing something similar at the end of the F1 season.  Between now and then we should see a lot of great racing, especially at the sharp end of the grid.  

Though I have rarely said so, I welcome your comments and discussions on this and any other blog entries.  I want to let you know that this blog belongs to you in that way as well; it’s not just me offering my opinions on sports.  I would like to see you offer your reactions and comments and thoughts as well.

Thanks for reading!

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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.

4 Aug 2010 – Formula One Drivers’ Mid-Season Review (Part 1 of 3)

Posted in Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 04/08/2010

Although Formula 1 is touted as “the pinnacle of motorsports” because of the ultra-high levels of technology in the sport, to me F1 is what it is because of the human element.  In particular, the drivers in the cars are what fascinate me the most.

The following is a purely personal assessment of the drivers participating in the 2010 Formula 1 World Championship.  The reviews will be based on their performances up until the end of the British Grand Prix, which represents the halfway point of the 2010 season.

A disclaimer:  Perhaps inevitably, my reviews of the leading lights will be longer and more detailed than the drivers who constitute the back end of the grid.

Here are the first four teams’ driver pairings:

McLaren-Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton – The 2008 F1 World Champion found himself in the lead of the 2010 championship at the season’s halfway mark.  He had a steady, if unspectacular, start to his 2010 campaign, scoring podium places in Bahrain (P3) and China (P2) and points finishes in each race except for Spain, until he took back-to-back victories in Canada and Turkey.  He also took another second place in his home race at Silverstone to round out the first half of the season.

Hamilton has shown a new maturity to his driving.  He appears to have shed an occasional tendency to overdrive past his car’s limits (as he did at Monza in 2009), resulting in a more consistent finishing record.  Except for his bad luck in Spain, when an unexpected puncture caused him to crash out of a strong second place, he would have finished every race in the points.  He tends to maximize his car’s potential as well in both qualifying and in the races, but looks to lack a true top-drawer ability to sort the car and provide feedback to his engineering crew to help them develop his car as the season progresses.

Hamilton has been gaining momentum as the season progresses, which suggests that he is growing stronger and driving better.  This is hugely impressive, as most drivers tend to start strong and gradually peter out.

Jenson Button – The defending World Champion left the comforts of a familiar situation at Brawn (now Mercedes) GP to join “Lewis Hamilton’s team,” which prompted many pundits to assume that he had committed career suicide.  Not only was there no way he could match Hamilton’s basic speed, but surely he would wither under the pressure of trying to compete against the McLaren incumbent Hamilton.

These pundits underestimated both Button’s speed and his psychological strength.  The early races saw him actually out-qualify Hamilton, until the Monaco Grand Prix started a streak where Button lost to his teammate in qualifying four straight times.  After nine races, the score between the two most recent World Champions and McLaren teammates is Button 4 – Hamilton 5.

But qualifying is just one aspect of the competition between the two teammates.  The World Championship is won based on the results from Sundays, and in this regard Button has done well enough to take second place in the points standings at the halfway point.  In terms of wins, both he and Hamilton have two.

He may not be as ultimately quick as Lewis, but he wins races not with superior speed, but with superior cunning and intelligence.  In a style reminiscent of Alain Prost, Button’s silky-smooth driving style sees him routinely use his tires much more efficiently than most drivers on the grid, enabling him to run longer on even the option tires.  This often allows him to leap past several opponents who have to pit earlier than he does, which means that he overtakes other drivers with the least possible risks.  It’s not a spectacular way to do the job, but it definitely works and highlights Button’s superior understanding of the big picture.

Who’s better? – I think Hamilton is shaping up to be the better of the two McLaren drivers.  Their performances in recent races all have been going Hamilton’s way, which suggests he is doing a better job adapting to a changing car and increasing competitive pressure in the chase for the championship.  He does have the advantage of knowing McLaren inside and out, so that’s one less factor to fight against.  Button, though, is not far away at all, although he needs to either do a better job of setting up his car to suit himself more, or to learn how to drive harder and faster than what he’s comfortable in doing.  Unfortunately, Button isn’t wired to push harder than what his car will do.  To beat Hamilton he needs to both adapt to the car more effectively and learn how to adapt the car to his driving style.

Mercedes GP

Michael Schumacher – The seven-time F1 World Champion returned to the sport after a three-year absence.  Some predicted that, despite the long layoff, he would soon find himself at the sharp end of the field as if he had never left and show his young teammate Nico Rosberg and most of the other runners how things are done.  In reality, though, Schumacher has only shown that his absence dulled his driving enough so that he frequently found himself in mid-pack while unfortunately retaining the unsavory aspects of all his previous years at the front.

Schumacher’s time away inevitably put him out of touch of the latest developments in car design.  2010 F1 cars are quite different compared to the 2006 cars in so many ways:  2010 cars are now shod with slick tires, while the bulk of Schumacher’s halcyon days were run with grooved tires; today’s cars no longer refuel during the race, which entails a totally different approach to racing compared to the multiple-sprint format encouraged by the 1994-2009 era of F1; aerodynamics are much more sophisticated, even compared to what was available in 2006.  No matter how great of a driver you are (or were), it’s inevitable that there will be a period of adjustment involved when you spend time away from such a technical/technological sport as F1 is.  Niki Lauda’s history bears this out, as he took a little more than two years to fully adjust to the turbo era after his multi-year semi-retirement.

So Schumacher’s results are inevitably weighed against some rather unrealistic expectations.  It shouldn’t be surprising that he has been beaten, if not exactly dominated, by his teammate Rosberg at almost every race this year up until the halfway point.  To his credit, most times he is just a few tenths away from Rosberg’s times in qualifying, which is fairly impressive given his time away from the sport.  But then again, he still is a seven-time World Champion, so he must have a very high talent level.

Nico Rosberg – In some ways, Nico Rosberg is in a no-win situation.  For one thing, he is Michael Schumacher’s teammate.  Because Schumacher had what was effectively a three-year sabbatical away from F1, Rosberg is expected to beat him.  So when he does, which he does with regularity, it’s only Nico doing what he’s supposed to do.  Never mind the fact that Schumacher is a 7-time World Champion; Michael was away from the sport for a few years, so the excuse works in Schumacher’s favor and not necessarily Rosberg’s.

Rosberg gets no extra points for beating Schumacher.  He would get a lot more credit, though, if he dominates Schumacher.  Unfortunately, a three-year absence doesn’t rob someone completely of his ability to drive an F1 car quickly; it only dulls the formerly super-sharp edge somewhat.  Rosberg would look a lot more impressive if he was beating Schumacher by more than a half-second, even more, each time out in qualifying; Nico would enhance his reputation so much more if he was challenging for wins and lapping his teammate, instead of curiously never being involved in any of the major battles for position at the front of the field.

Part of Rosberg’s problem is his car.  The Mercedes MGP W01 is a good car, but is far from exceptional.  It seems that its most impressive feature is its unique split engine air intake design.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t improve the car’s handling capabilities.  The MGP W01 looks like it’s not using its tires to maximum effect, unlike the Red Bull (or even the Ferrari).  Consequently, the drivers lack the platform to truly showcase their capabilities.  In this way, Nico truly is in a no-win situation, except if he somehow becomes the beneficiary of multiple troubles hitting all of the frontrunners in a race this year.

Nico needs to assert himself more, especially outside the car.  He particularly needs to have a stronger presence insofar as influencing the team’s design direction.  This year he has the excuse of being a newcomer into the team.  He’s gotten into a car with Jenson Button’s design DNA; it’s possible that their respective driving styles are incompatible with each other, resulting in a car that’s not optimized to take advantage of Rosberg’s strengths as a driver.  Schumacher is a very strong personality, and if Rosberg doesn’t have a reinforced iron will, Michael will take the initiative and have next year’s car designed to suit his driving style; Nico needs to show his team’s technical staff that they should design next year’s car around HIM.

Who’s better? – Rosberg is beating Schumacher.  Nico’s is not a dominating performance, but it’s enough to maintain a solid gap between himself and Michael.  Schumacher will get lucky now and then, perhaps at Spa, but Rosberg should continue to stay ahead in the results table.

The key to this driver pairing, though, is whose influence on next year’s car’s design is more profound.  Logic says the team should devote more of its attention to Rosberg.  He’s younger and is performing better than Schumacher is.  Plus Schumacher’s driving style is so unique and specialized, it’s a good bet that none of his tailor-made design requirements will be exploited by any future drivers for Mercedes.  However, seven world championships and a strong personality are hard to ignore…

Red Bull-Renault

Sebastian Vettel – He’s already been called “Baby Schumi” by some in the press, but that’s doing Vettel a disservice.  If nothing else, it denies Vettel any chance of defining his own place in the sport’s history.  Also, insofar as I can see, he’s shown himself to be very different compared to Michael Schumacher.  Aside from nationality and the fact that they’re both very very quick drivers, it’s not so easy to find similarities between the two.

Of course, the biggest difference is in the résumés of both men.  Where Schumacher’s list of accomplishments is far longer than Vettel’s entire racing history a few times over, Vettel is still just trying to find his way in Formula One.  Given the pole positions he has won, especially this year, and the race wins, it’s fairly easy to imagine that Vettel has the potential to approach, if not actually equal and surpass, his countryman.  Such is the blessing of accomplishing much while in the full flower of one’s youth.

Of course, youth has its pitfalls.  While Vettel has already achieved more in terms of wins (7) and pole positions (12) in less than sixty Grands Prix than some World Champions have for their entire careers, one gets the impression that he is still immature as a racing driver.  For example, while he does have seven grand prix victories so far in his career, it’s difficult to remember a race when he had to pull off an overtaking maneuver on the circuit (as opposed to a change in order due to pit stops) to take the lead of the grand prix.  It’s actually easier to remember the overtaking attempts which sadly ended in tears, such as his badly executed attempt to wrest the lead from teammate Mark Webber in Turkey this year.  He sometimes also falls prey to giving in to his aggression, as he did in Silverstone at the start; after a slow launch from pole, when he could have conceded the lead into the first corner to Webber, he tried to keep the lead on the outside of the super-quick corner, ran out of road, and consequently picked up a puncture.  A more mature driver would have given up the corner and calculated a way past later on in the race.  Sometimes, even when defending a position, he will sometimes miscalculate his tactics and crash into his opponent (as he did with Kubica in last year’s Australian GP).  One gets the sense that Vettel may not have complete control of his emotions, and he is a very emotional driver.  There is a delightful transparency with how he expresses his emotions, whether positive or negative.  On the other hand, Vettel is quite impressive in how he handles the pressure of leading a race.  Almost inevitably, he wins because he is simply a lot faster than the guy in P2, so there’s really nobody directly attacking him.  But it’s very easy to lose concentration and crash out of a dominant lead (as Ayrton Senna famously did in Monaco 1988), and Vettel hasn’t shown a tendency to do that.

The guy is also a talented wet-weather driver, perhaps one of the best of his generation.  His first two career victories were in the wet at Monza (2008) and China (2009).  This speaks of superior feel and sensitivity, as well as lightning-fast reflexes and Jean Alesi-like car control.

For all the obvious speed and talent behind the wheel, though, is a sense of incompleteness to his repertoire.  Maybe it’s the folly of putting too much stock in expectations, but many thought that he would be destroying Mark Webber this year.  As of the halfway point of this season, though, they are tied in pole positions and is trailing Webber in terms of race victories and points earned.

Vettel seems very outgoing and charming, honest, even loquacious.  One of the charms of youth is the fact that he names his racing cars.  It might be a marketing gimmick, but it could also be a genuine sign of the guy’s personality.  There is a lot to like about Vettel.

Mark Webber – Straight-talking and strong-minded Mark Webber seems like he’s a throwback from the glorious old days of F1.  Believe it or not, but there was a time when racing drivers spoke straight, revealing their real thoughts and displaying their real personalities whenever they got the chance to speak into a microphone.  As the likes of James Hunt and Niki Lauda used to, Mark Webber shoots straight from the hip, doesn’t care what you think of him, and drives quicker than most of the drivers on the grid with him.

Many people thought that, while Webber was a good driver, there was simply no way he could live with a prodigiously talented hotshoe like Sebastian Vettel.  Many expected Webber to trail in Vettel’s wake; I certainly didn’t believe that he could be a genuine Drivers’ World Championship contender mixing it up with the McLaren drivers, Fernando Alonso, and Vettel.

The truth is, I underestimated Webber’s capabilities.  I always thought of him as a good driver, but not as a very good (much less a great) one.  In a good car, he might fight for the last few points placings; in a very good car, he’d fight for maybe sixth or eighth.  Prior to this year, I didn’t think that even a great car would enable him to be a solid contender for the race win every single time.

(As an aside, I want to say that I participate in a fantasy F1 league with my best friend and a few of his friends at his job.  As a rule, I always have Vettel and Hamilton on my team; our league’s budget rules allow me to pick only one other top driver, and this third driver almost always varies.  Vettel has burned me more often than not the last couple of years; Hamilton’s results depend largely on the quality of the McLaren depending on the circuit.

I never picked Mark Webber for my team.

Until recently, that is.  Now I’m likely to keep him on my fantasy F1 team until the end of the year.)

Now driving what is undeniably the year’s best car, Webber has made the most of the opportunity and revealed himself to be a true world championship contender.  He has combined his trademark fiesty, indomitable will with a polished, efficient driving style.  He may not match Jenson Button’s smoothness (nobody does amongst the current crop of drivers, in my opinion), but Webber looks more comfortable when he needs to attack.  Where before he used to become really ragged and untidy when he had to set a faster pace, he simply just slashes the tenths off each lap without making the car look like it’s being forced to perform above its limits.  Webber’s has been a very impressive evolution of technique and style.

You can deduce that the Webber of old may have driven the way he did because that was simply the only way available to get speed out of the car.  Gilles Villeneuve, for example, frequently had his Ferraris in crazy oversteer angles because there was no other way to make the car corner as he needed it to.  Jean Alesi is another driver who had the same trait.  These drivers, like Webber, hungered to win, but looked to be frustrated by their cars’ inherent deficiencies.  The hunger to win resulted in a certain desperation in their driving.

That desperation also manifested itself in questionable defensive tactics.  I actually disliked Webber, if largely because of his tendency to indulge in the kind of questionable defensive driving that is part of Michael Schumacher’s signature style.  It hardly mattered where in the running order he was; if someone attacked Webber, the result was a predictable swerve towards the attacking car when it got alongside.  One only needs to remember Webber’s first victory last year in the German Grand Prix.  At the start, Barrichello got a better launch and was driving up Webber’s inside towards the tight first-corner hairpin.  When Rubens’ Brawn’s front wheels were level with Webber’s Red Bull’s sidepod, Webber veered right, resulting in a hefty smack against the Brawn’s left-front wheel.

Intimidatory tactics like these have no place in Grand Prix racing, in my opinion, given the speeds these cars are capable of.  Too often Webber has indulged in this kind of driving, and too often he had gone unsanctioned.  But at the German Grand Prix last year, Webber was penalized with a drive-through penalty.

Amazingly, though, he won that race despite the penalty, turning amazingly quick laps and running down Barrichello (who inherited the lead) and overtaking him on the circuit.  It was a true winner’s performance, cast from the mold of the likes of Mansell and Senna and Prost.  I think he turned a corner after that race.  I believe Webber finally saw that, with a good car under him at last, he no longer needed to be a hooligan when things don’t initially fall your way.  Perhaps he learned that he could depend on his ability to RACE, instead of trying to discourage the competition from overtaking via intimidation and hooligan behavior.

He clearly has matured.  He still will be hard when defending position, but he no longer tries to drive his car into yours.  In Turkey this year, he squeezed Vettel towards the dirty part of the circuit, but he stopped squeezing when he knew that to do so further would put his teammate (and rival) into the grass and into a potential disaster.  Unfortunately, Vettel lost his nerve and swerved into his teammate, resulting in the very public tangle that lost Red Bull the Turkish GP.  At Silverstone Webber beat Vettel off the line, then defended his position by not lifting at Copse.  Vettel should have ceded the corner, but tried to ride around the outside; it was a hard move, but fair, in my opinion.  Silverstone also proved that Webber could channel his anger into a great drive, winning the British GP with a Prost-like polish despite the Senna-esque emotional turmoil smoldering beneath, the consequence of a swap of his new front wing onto his teammate’s car (and a somewhat valid perception that Vettel enjoys the status of favorite son within the Red Bull camp).

The only black mark in Webber’s season thus far is the Grand Prix of Europe at Valencia, when he famously crashed into the back of Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus and flipped the Red Bull in mid-air.  This is the one race when Webber looked like he lost control of his emotions and momentarily misjudged what was happening on-track.  A cooler head would have avoided the potentially more grievous accident; indeed, Webber had demonstrated patience and a good understanding of the big picture (much like Button does) both before and after this incident.  Webber looks like he understands that the World Championship is the result of an entire season’s worth of performances, where every finish and point earned counts towards the final tally.  At Valencia, the desperation to make up lost ground became a spectacular accident.

Who’s better? – This is probably the most difficult driver pairing to evaluate.  It’s easy to fall into the trap and say that Webber is better, since he leads Vettel in the standings.  That would be ignoring Vettel’s obvious natural speed and talent, which I believe is top-notch; Vettel and Hamilton are probably the two most talented drivers of their generation.

On the other hand, natural talent is just a starting point, really.  More important is how you use what you’ve got.  This is where Webber beats Vettel.  He’s scored more points, he’s finished more races, and up until the halfway point of the season they’ve been virtually even in qualifying.  Webber’s superior experience gives him the edge over his younger teammate.  The adversities of his past history have helped mold him into a championship contender.  In contrast, Vettel’s inexperience has shown itself in more and bigger mistakes on the track.

In many ways, this is a mirror image of the current McLaren driver pairing, and a reminder of the awesome duo of Prost and Senna in 1988-1989.  Where at McLaren 2010 the more talented driver (Hamilton) has the slight edge (as Senna did in 1988), the 2010 Red Bull comparison sees the more experienced driver getting the nod.  Like Prost in 1989, Webber is getting more out of his car as of the halfway point.  Like Prost in 1989, Webber is arguably not the team’s favorite driver, but is still beating the guy in the other car.

It will be very interesting to see which of these two drivers tops the other by the end of the year.

Ferrari

Felipe Massa – It’s a minor miracle of sorts that Felipe Massa is even racing this year after his horrendous accident in Hungary last year.  A few short years ago, then-current helmet technology may not have saved his life; in fact, if the spring from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn’s broken rear suspension had hit him in the visor, it’s possible that Massa might have been injured more grievously, or possibly even killed.

Thankfully, Massa recovered fully recovered in the physical sense.

Now his biggest challenges are psychological.  This year will be all about seeing 1) if his injuries have dulled his racer’s instincts to the point where he cannot push hard enough to go to the limit, and 2) if he can deal with his new Ferrari teammate, 2-time World Champion Fernando Alonso.

His season started auspiciously enough, out-qualifying his esteemed teammate in Bahrain and finishing second to him in an unexpected Ferrari 1-2.  He beat Alonso again in the race in Melbourne, just beating him to P3 despite being outqualified.  Malaysia saw Massa trail Alonso in qualifying and in the race, but the Brazilian made it to the finish while the Spaniard’s Ferrari V8 expired two laps from the end.  Felipe then outperformed Alonso in both qualifying and in the race in Monaco and Turkey, then slipped back behind his teammate in the next three races.

It’s somewhat impressive that Massa has even beaten Alonso a few times in qualifying (3-6 in Alonso’s favor), given the fact that Fernando is a two-time World Champion.  Massa has fought for the championship twice, being mathematically eliminated with two races left to run in 2007 and just narrowly losing to Lewis Hamilton in 2008.

But is he a genuine championship contender?  I wouldn’t say so.  At best, he can win races for you if his car is better than everybody else’s.  But how often does that happen?  He outscored Raikkonen in 2008 mostly because he finished more races and had fewer problems with his Ferrari than Kimi did.  He’s competent, sure, but World Championship material?  Can you expect Felipe to get similar results in a car less competitive than a Ferrari?

Here’s my assessment of Felipe Massa in a nutshell:  Massa is more like someone who has learned the necessary techniques but lacks the panache of a true artist.  He might be able to copy someone’s drawing of a horse and do that really well, but if you ask him to draw one just from his own imagination, free-hand, the results would be far less spectacular.

Fernando Alonso – There was a time when Spain’s first F1 World Champion was seen as Michael Schumacher’s successor as the dominant force in Formula 1.  Two consecutive World Championships in 2005 and 2006 ended Schumacher’s run of five straight, and many expected Fernando Alonso to only add to his tally even after leaving the Renault team for McLaren-Mercedes at the end of 2006.

Then he found out how it is to have a teammate who not only is at least as good as him, but might be, on some days, even better.

Lewis Hamilton destroyed the burgeoning myth of Alonso’s indestructibility in 2007.  A bit hyperbolic, perhaps, but no less true.  Alonso suddenly looked mortal when he was paired with Hamilton at McLaren, being genuinely beaten on pace by a teammate with the same equipment as he had for perhaps the very first time in his career.  This, perhaps, was also the first time Alonso experienced a very powerful emotion:  He had never feared a teammate before.

Adversity is an interesting stimulus, if only because oftentimes you find the true measure of a person when he or she has to face a significant amount of it.  In the midst of extreme difficulty, in the most challenging times, you tend to find out who you really are.

Unfortunately, in the midst of what had been, until then, the biggest challenge he had faced yet in his racing career, Alonso showed himself to be a bit of a dirty player.  No, he didn’t resort to intimidatory tactics like pushing rivals towards pit walls or barriers, Michael Schumacher-style.  He did, however, hold his team hostage over disclosure of McLaren’s involvement in what was later dubbed as “Spy-Gate,” that unfortunate episode of industrial espionage perpetrated by disgruntled ex-Ferrari employee Nigel Stepney and his friend at McLaren, ex-Chief Designer Mike Coughlan.  He practically blackmailed McLaren over information about Stepney and Coughlan’s illicit exchange of Ferrari designs, in exchange for concessions including an enforced rule at McLaren where he would be the team’s official number one driver.

When McLaren refused to do as he wished, he acted petulantly.  The worst obvious behavior was at the 2007 Hungarian Grand Prix when he denied Hamilton a shot at a critical pole position by delaying Hamilton from having fresh tires fitted.  The upshot of his one year at McLaren was that he burned his bridges to Woking and returned to Renault for 2008.

Away from the pressure of having to fight against a good teammate, Alonso was again able to concentrate on driving a car as hard and as fast as it could possibly go.  With no disrespect meant to Nelson Piquet, Jr., Alonso never had to worry about what the other Renault was doing.  He rehabilitated a damaged reputation with some really gutsy performances in 2008 and 2009, although he was involved, however indirectly, in one of Formula One’s most sordid and damaging controversies, the race-fixing scandal in the 2008 Grand Prix of Singapore.  Although it is impossible to prove whether or not he had any direct influence over that affair, the simple fact is that Alonso was the only one who benefited from Singapore 2008.

Whatever the case, Alonso spent two years in the purgatory known as a Renault team in decline, before picking up a contract with Ferrari starting in 2010.  This time he would be paired with Felipe Massa, a good driver, but really just a top-lieutenant type in the mold of the Patrese-to-Mansell, or perhaps the Berger-to-Senna.

Luck smiled on Alonso in Bahrain, when he won after Vettel had to cut his pace to ensure making the finish.  The pendulum swung in Alonso’s teammate’s favor for the next few races, including the most embarrassing moment, a crash during the final free practice prior to qualifying in Monaco.  He started from the back of the field, but amazingly finished in sixth.

Monaco was a showcase of the best of Fernando Alonso.  On a circuit where overtaking is difficult in the best of times, he methodically slashed his way up the order.  If nothing else, this was a demonstration of Alonso the fiery, determined fighter.

In many ways, Alonso reminds me of Nigel Mansell.  Like Mansell, Alonso is a fearsome competitor.  Like Mansell, Alonso seems to lack a fine touch behind the wheel, looking like he is squeezing the car by its neck and forcing it to go faster than it could.  To be fair, I think his natural feel and talent behind the wheel are superior to Mansell’s.  He is certainly not an artist with the grace of a Prost (or Jenson Button, to a smaller degree), more a brute.  But his way works, if the car is capable.

Alonso’s Macchiavellian tendencies, though, reveal another Mansell quality:  A paranoia that bubbles to the surface when he is faced by the prospect of combat against an opponent who is his equal.  Alonso will think nothing of destroying relationships with a team if he feels his own position of assumed superiority is threatened; Mansell did the same when he was paired with World Champion Nelson Piquet in 1986-1987, then again when Prost joined him at Ferrari in 1990.

Who is better? – Massa might be a good technician who sometimes has transcendent days, but Alonso is a far more complete driver.  Not only that, but Alonso has a more ruthless personality.  Massa is too much of a nice guy (he somewhat reminds me of Gilles Villeneuve in this way; as an aside, sometimes I see Gilles’ face when I see Felipe, to be honest), too willing and eager to please his Ferrari masters to risk indulging in any behaviors that may rock the boat too much.  Unless paranoia and insecurity devour him and disrupt his focus on the job of winning races and the championship, Alonso is too great a driver, too strong a force for Massa to resist.

F1

Next time:  Reviews of Rubens Barrichello, Nico Hülkenberg, Robert Kubica, Vitaly Petrov, Adrian Sutil, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Sebastien Buemi, and Jaime Alguersuari.

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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