Joe-Pinions: Sports

1 May 2014 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 3)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 01/05/2014

First off, it’s been a terribly long time since I last wrote anything in this blog.  A full year and one hundred and ten days, in point of fact.

The truth is, I’ve been quite busy.  I’ve been contributing to a tech website on a regular basis as a reviewer/editor, working on a still-evolving novella-length piece of fan fiction, and rediscovering a love for music and songwriting that had lain dormant for a decade or so.

Now that I’ve mentioned that, 1 1/3 years doesn’t seem too long, does it?

But I’ve digressed.

It’s time to continue this, my list of my top ten favorite F1 drivers.

I’ll admit something:  This list might need a little bit of revision, especially towards the rear of the pack.  During the last few years I’ve grown to admire some current F1 drivers enough to think that they might warrant inclusion in this list.  I think that it’s inevitable that a list like this would get revised.  I mean, I’m sure that every fan has a similar hierarchy of performers that he or she may hold dear, and that new names get added to that list all the time.

For now, though, this is how this version of the list stacks up:

10.  Nigel Mansell

9.  Jean Alesi

8.  Gilles Villeneuve

7.  Nelson Piquet

6.  Damon Hill

5.  Sir Jackie Stewart

4.  Jim Clark

We are now in the most hallowed portion of this gathering of F1 greats.  The top three finishers of any grand prix are, after all, feted on a podium of glory.

And so, my # 3 favorite F1 driver is:

3.  Ayrton Senna

Every single year, at around this time, I feel more emotional than usual about Formula 1.  Long-time fans of the sport will probably understand why, even without prompting.

Twenty years ago today, Formula 1 – indeed, all of motorsport – lost possibly its most charismatic participant ever when Senna’s Williams FW-16 smashed into the concrete wall on the outside of the mighty Tamburello corner at the Circuito Enzo e Dino Ferrari  at Imola in Northern Italy.

Even today, twenty years after his death, the name Senna is still as evocative as ever.  In some ways, the passage of time has only burnished his legend even further.  A similar thing happened to James Dean, to Princess Diana, to John Lennon; the phenomenon has also happened in F1, to Jim Clark and to Gilles Villeneuve, just to name two.

But Senna’s star appears to be inextinguishable.

Ask F1 fans today to name their all-time favorite driver, and chances are they’ll say “Ayrton Senna.”  Ask racing drivers today the same thing, and many will name him too.

Ayrton Senna's iconic bright yellow helmet:  Simple and powerful

Ayrton Senna’s iconic bright yellow helmet: Simple and powerful

To be honest, it almost feels somehow wrong if you think differently.

There’s no question that Ayrton Senna was a driver of immense talent.  His contemporaries all hailed him, almost to a man, as the fastest, most gifted driver on the grid.  I mean, how else can you conclude differently when he demolished the record for career pole positions, setting it at a stupefying 65 (almost doubling the previous record of 33 set by Jim Clark) from 162 races?  What else can you say about the man who was second in the all-time grand prix winners list at 41 victories at the time fate intervened at Tamburello?  Also, only a very select few have won as many as three World Championships.

However, I think it would be terribly boring to talk about Ayrton Senna and have the conversation boil down to a recitation of mere statistics.  As much as they are some measure of the man’s achievements in the top echelon of motorsport, Senna is far more interesting as a person.  And the biggest reason why Senna is so interesting is because he was just so imperfect.

Nigel Roebuck, who remains my favorite writer of all things Formula 1, once wrote that Senna is “a flawed genius.”  Personally, I cannot come up with a more correct description.  While most people only seem to remember Ayrton Senna as the transcendent talent and warrior on the race track that he undoubtedly was, I think that his untimely death also made too many people forget his various imperfections.

Alain Prost, Senna’s only rival, once told Roebuck that he felt uncomfortable talking about Senna.  Prost said during that magazine interview (and I’m paraphrasing here) that it’s impossible for him to talk about Senna because he (Prost) simply can’t win:  If he talks about Senna’s virtues, then Prost looks like a hypocrite.  Where were these platitudes when the man was alive?  Where was this appreciation when their rivalry was at its hottest and most hostile?  Yet if Prost aired his grievances, then he comes off looking like the ultimate complainer (which some in the press already see him as anyway), attacking a dead man incapable of defending his own reputation.  It’s really very easy to sympathize with Prost’s position.

But fans who still remember the sport pre-Senna would fully understand why Roebuck (and Prost, obviously) thinks that Senna, for all his brilliance and talent, was not the pristine exemplar of what’s best in motor racing.  Old school fans might appreciate the man’s abilities, but those of us who have a fertile-enough imagination for consequences for certain types of behavior maintain a reluctance to forgive certain transgressions.

Even before his arrival in F1, Senna (he was known as Ayrton Senna da Silva back in those days, incorporating both his parents’ surnames) was already establishing a reputation for ruthlessness, a penchant for intimidation, that truly has no place in an activity as potentially mortally dangerous as motor racing, especially when we’re talking about open-wheeled cars.  In Formula Ford and in British Formula 3, Senna had a reputation (especially amongst the track marshals, whose opinions of drivers and their behaviors, are the most serious and valid, in my opinion) for being far too aggressive than appropriate.  Again, Roebuck says it best:  In his Grand Prix Greats, Roebuck wrote that Senna had a “let me through, or we crash” attitude when it came to overtaking a rival (again, I’m paraphrasing).  In other words, Senna always relied upon his rival’s giving way whenever he attempted an overtaking maneuver.  Resistance was futile, and often it was destructive.

Just ask Martin Brundle, perhaps the most famous of Senna’s pre-F1 victims.  The two had a major contretemps at the Oulton Park circuit in British F3 whilst dicing for the race lead.  The two were battling for the series championship that year, and after dominating the early part of that season, Senna felt increasingly desperate as Brundle cut into his points lead.

Just watch what happens when Brundle resists Senna’s attempt to pass (Brundle is in the blue and yellow Ralt, with Senna in the white Ralt) (their incident starts at the 1:06 mark) :

The immediate aftermath of the accident looked a bit horrific at first blush:  Senna’s car was literally on top of Brundle’s, mere inches from Brundle’s head.  How Martin Brundle escaped this crash uninjured is a mystery, but this was but one example of Ayrton’s unyielding aggression and seeming lack of imagination might have ended up in a bigger disaster.  For sure, though, the fact that Senna’s Ralt had become a surprise headrest for Martin Brundle is the sort of thing that should have deterred Ayrton from similar stunts in the future.

Ayrton, though, was never officially sanctioned for this incident.  It’s purely my opinion that escaping censure for this kind of ultra-aggressive behavior in the lower formulae may have given Senna the proverbial green light to continue conducting his racing in a similar way once he broke into Formula 1.  Lots of drivers ran afoul of Senna’s uncompromising style:  Keke Rosberg at the Nurburgring in 1984, Nigel Mansell (several times, including a wild affair at Spa-Francorchamps in 1987 and a near-disaster at Estoril in 1989), even Michael Schumacher (France 1992, South Africa and Brazil the following season).

Of course, his innumerable run-ins with his rival Alain Prost are the ones that stick hardest in most people’s minds.  It’s useless to recount every single time these two true Formula 1 Titans crossed each other’s path; inevitably, grands prix became a race between just the two of them.  This is especially true about the 1988 season, when the two of them won fifteen out of the sixteen races with their indomitable McLaren-Honda MP4/4s.

Perhaps it was inevitable, but having the two best drivers in the same team was a ticking time bomb; it’s just impossible to have two alpha males in the pack.  Each one would want to assert his own dominance, and fratricide was probably unavoidable.  But their two years together at McLaren wasn’t always hostile.  1988 was a fairly harmonious year.  Indeed, aside from Prost’s occasional unhappiness with Senna’s sometimes brutal racecraft (his aggressive overtake lapping Prost into Woodcote at a sodden British Grand Prix stands out as a clear example – another unnecessary display of “move over, or we crash”), the two conducted themselves as professionals with an obvious mutual respect.

The Portuguese Grand Prix that year, though, revealed the first fissures in their relationship.  These hairline cracks would later escalate to earthquake faults that would ultimately destroy their relationship, however temporarily.  The 1988 GP of Portugal actually had three starts, with the first two being aborted.  At the original start, Prost jumped Senna and, perhaps fed up with all the times Senna had tried to intimidate him, edged Ayrton towards the outside of Turn 1.  It’s hard stuff, but entirely fair.  Indeed, Senna himself was known to do the same (and even worse) to other rivals.  Because of another driver stalling on the grid, the officials called for a second standing start, which itself was also marred by another stall, this time resulting in a multi-car accident.  The third start proved the charm, though, and Senna jumped Prost for the lead.  Beginning the second racing lap, though, Prost, who had a stronger car that day, moved to the inside on the long Estoril pit straight attempting to overtake.  Senna violently pushed his teammate towards the pit wall, causing the pit crews to raise their pit boards out of fear that Prost’s car or helmet might clobber them.  Post-race, after he had won the Portuguese GP, Prost did not bother to hide his anger for his teammate’s tactics.  He said, “If he (Senna) wants to win the world championship that badly (that he would risk an almighty accident – with a teammate!), he can have it.”

In intra-team discussions post-race, Senna complained that Prost had done him hard by edging him onto the grass at the first corner.  Prost, though, pointed out that it was a fair tactic; this point is beyond dispute.  The guy in front, after all, always has the line.  Senna himself has used this defense, both before and after this particular incident.  But Senna’s response at the third start was over the top.  You simply do not squeeze rivals into a wall or barrier.  That kind of maneuver just has far too much potential for a true disaster.  Anybody who would defend tactics like this clearly has a bankrupt imagination; anybody who might argue the validity or rightness of “defending track position” in this manner simply doesn’t understand how lethal something like that can be if these drivers touch wheels going down a circuit’s longest straight.

Ayrton Senna in his McLaren-Honda MP4/6, at Monaco.  He won this most prestigious of Grands Prix a record six times.

Ayrton Senna in his McLaren-Honda MP4/6, at Monaco. He won this most prestigious of Grands Prix a record six times.

The relationship, though, completely disintegrated less than a year later.  At Imola, at the restart after Berger’s fiery crash at Tamburello, Senna violated a pact that he himself proposed to Prost:  He overtook Alain going into the Tosa hairpin despite an agreement between both McLaren drivers that neither shall attempt to overtake his teammate at the start.  Senna justified his pass on Prost was legal because, technically, it wasn’t the start; it was the restart.  Engaging in semantic fencing like this reveals Senna’s hunger for victory as well as his utter ruthlessness.  Nothing, not even a pact that he himself initiated with a teammate, would stand in his quest for victory.

Many people admire that about Senna; I, on the other hand, have a very difficult time stomaching such a Machiavellian approach.  Victory at all costs, even at the cost of ethics, goes beyond the realm of sport.  Indeed, Prost said that racing to Senna went beyond sport; racing for Senna was nothing short of warfare.  To me, this is a distorted way of looking at racing.  Even war is governed by rules, after all.  But the way Senna approached his racing (or, at least his racing against one specific rival), the rules were only valid if they applied only to his advantage.

This was never more true than the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, when he simply rammed Prost off the track entering a fast fourth-gear corner at the start of the race.  The arguments will rage forever between those who, like the producers of the Senna “documentary” (I refuse to recognize this film as a documentary because of the liberties it took – not once was Senna ever portrayed as a human being with faults or a capacity to misjudge), see Ayrton as an inviolate deity-like figure, and those who will never forget nor forgive all that he had done to damage the sport.  I remain steadfast in my stance that intimidation and a willingness to cause an accident with a rival whose crime is to be ahead of Ayrton Senna have no place in any form of racing.  I am sure that people who would argue that Senna was justified to crash into Prost because of what happened the year before at the same track, albeit at the Casio chicane.  Like James Hunt did at the time, I will always believe that Senna was in the wrong in that incident as well.  As Senna himself said many times, the guy in front (Prost) had the line; it is always the man overtaking the man in front who has to make sure they don’t collide.

Senna fans will, in all likelihood, crucify me for committing the heresy of criticizing their idol.  But nothing I’ve said is untrue; all you have to do is revisit history by re-watching footage and reading all of the accounts written during Senna’s entire career.  I’ve watched most of Senna’s races, either live or on video, and I’ve read so many writers’ work from that time.  He wasn’t short on critics back then, especially among the part of the audience who could still remember the days when (or appreciate the fact that) racing was an eminently dangerous way to spend one’s time.  And this is all the more true in Formula 1.

Ayrton Senna

Ayrton sitting in his McLaren-Honda MP4/5, wearing his trademark mask of intense concentration. This might be my favorite photo of the great man.

In all honesty, Ayrton Senna makes me feel a huge conflict.  On the one hand, there is no escaping his shadow.  While I obviously do not subscribe to the groupthink that Ayrton Senna was the greatest and most talented F1 driver of them all, there is no disputing his place amongst the giants of the sport.  His achievements alone guarantee his place in the Mt. Olympus equivalent of F1 greats.  The style and panache with which he practiced the art of driving a racing car is unique unto Senna; like Muhammad Ali, he is an original.  Unfortunately, his portfolio, while full of masterpieces and glory, is also filled with ignominy and infamy.  I can never forgive Senna for Japan 1990.  I say this primarily because of the damage done to the sport.  No one like to see a truly epic clash for the world championship settled in such a cynical manner.  Everyone who saw that race felt cheated out of the right way to achieve the result.

At the end of the day, you see, it should still matter how you win.  Racing is sport, not warfare.  The ends shouldn’t always justify the means.  And Senna’s flaws are just too grotesque to ignore, at least for someone who remembers them from when he committed such sins.  No amount of hyperbolic appreciation of his greatness – greatness at his level shouldn’t be so subject to so much hyperbole anyway – can make me forget.  And that is the greatest tragedy of Ayrton Senna, really:  He was just too good to have to rely on such a Machiavellian approach to his racing.

 

 

10 Jan 2013 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 4)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 10/01/2013

A new year, a new blog post!

We march on towards the top of this list with the driver who occupies the # 4 slot of my personal top 10 F1 drivers.  But before we do that, let’s look at the list thus far:

10.  Nigel Mansell

9.  Jean Alesi

8.  Gilles Villeneuve

7.  Nelson Piquet

6.  Damon Hill

5.  Sir Jackie Stewart

We’re now in rarefied air, since any one of at least three of the remaining four drivers on my list would probably be tops on other peoples’ lists.  Remember, though, that my top 10 does not include the sport’s first 5-time world champion (the great Juan Manuel Fangio) or Michael Schumacher (a 7-time world champ who will never be one of my favorites).  So you can rule these two out.

The remaining four drivers on my personal list are all World Champions, of course, accounting for eleven titles between them.  But it’s not a simple matter of going by sheer numbers of titles won as far as ranking them.  I freely disclose that this entire list is more subjective than objective.

But that’s the fun of such a list, isn’t it?

So, then, the driver who sits at # 4 on my top ten list of F1 drivers is:

4.  Jim Clark

Before Senna, there was Clark.

Jimmy Clark, the youngest of five children born to Scottish farmers (and the only son), was universally lauded as the preeminent driver of his era, the benchmark, the one whose natural talent to drive racing cars was far in excess compared to everyone else.

I never saw Jimmy race – he’d been dead a full seven years before I was even born – but no other driver from before my time as a fan of the sport has captured my imagination as he has.

By the time fate ended his rule as the greatest Grand Prix driver of them all, he was the record holder for victories (25, from 72 starts, for an incredible strike rate of 34.72%!) and pole positions (33).  Jackie Stewart broke his record for GP victories in 1973, and it took twenty-one years until Ayrton Senna took the lead of the all-time pole positions list at the United States Grand Prix in 1989.

But it isn’t the magnificent statistics of his achievements that inspired my admiration for Jimmy.  Rather, it’s the sheer style of his driving and the beauty of his humanity which make Clark one of my all-time favorites.

Jimmy Clark:  2-time World Champion, winner of the 1965 Indy 500, and indisputably one of the all-time greats

Jimmy Clark: 2-time World Champion, winner of the 1965 Indy 500, and indisputably one of the all-time greats

Though I never saw him in his prime, there is thankfully enough film of him around to confirm just what everyone said about the way he drove:  He was the smoothest driver out there.  Jackie Stewart himself said of his fellow Scot, “Jimmy was absolutely a great driver, so smooth and understated when he drove yet went so fast.”

That is a huge part of my admiration for Clark.  That smoothness of technique blended with his spectacular speed against the stopwatch creates the illusion that this incredibly difficult and dangerous activity is something mere mortals could do.  To me it is the supreme magic trick, a mark of the work of the greatest masters.

And Jimmy was definitely one of the very best.

He drove anything and everything:  NASCAR stock cars; touring cars; sports cars; open-wheeled formula cars.  He even indulged in some rallying.

Just watching him at work, it’s easy to believe that Jimmy was born to drive racing cars.

In this onboard footage, observe just how slow and deliberate Clark is at the controls of his Lotus 25 at Oulton Park.

There is nary a hint of oversteer anywhere, or any other big steering corrections; he never locks the brakes up, never misses on any of his gear changes.  There are no curbs at the corner apexes, but even if there were the Lotus would never have clambered all over them as is the style today.

Big deal, right?

Then you look at the car – very obviously primitive compared to what today’s pilotes have under them – with its lack of downforce-producing wings, the narrow treaded tires, the lack of seatbelts (!), the aluminum monocoque chassis construction (carbon fiber was almost two decades away), the super-soft suspension, and you just cannot help but marvel at just how prodigious Clark’s natural talent and sheer feel must have been.  Granted, everybody else raced in similar cars, but Jimmy drove away from most of them, most of the time.

An interesting thing about Clark:  More than once he’d been asked about the secret behind his speed.  What made him quicker than everybody else?  How did he do it?  Sheepishly, Jimmy would often shrug and smile, confessing that he truly didn’t know how to answer that question.  He basically just got in the car and did his thing.

If driving a racing car is an art form (and it is, in my opinion), then Jimmy Clark was definitely Leonardo da Vinci in the cockpit.  The impression one gets when watching the great master at work is that his was a light touch.  When Clark is in his car, working hard but making everything looks so calm and gentle, it’s as if he is trying to paint in da Vinci’s sfumato technique:  What you see is beautifully delicate and fine, almost ethereal.

Jimmy three-wheeling a Lotus Cortina, and making it all look so easy.

Jimmy three-wheeling a Lotus Cortina, and making it all look so easy.

There is nothing harsh in Clark’s driving.  Even when he three-wheels his Lotus Cortina around corners, it never looks brutal.  Instead, it all looks natural, as if that’s how Lotus Cortinas should behave whilst attacking bends.

His ability to go so obviously quickly and yet look like he was out for an easy Sunday drive was a very rare gift indeed, and this made him a hero to many drivers, including Stewart, Senna, and Prost, themselves charter members of many a fan’s personal pantheon of F1 gods.

And yet, for all his prodigious natural ability, Jim Clark was a gentle, shy man.  He had a predilection for biting and chewing his fingernails (a nervous habit shared by one other driver on this list, in fact).  He was never bombastic, never one to cultivate attention to himself, never arrogant.

Nigel Roebuck, easily my favorite F1 writer of all time, once shared an anecdote featuring Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, and a host of other Grand Prix drivers.  The story goes that, one day at the paddock at Monza, Jackie was very animatedly talking about how on one of his laps around the frighteningly fast Curva Grande, his Matra’s throttle stuck open.  These days, the Curva Grande is a straightforward corner, easily flat in a Formula 1 car.  But back in the mid-1960s, it was a frightening corner that tested a driver’s courage and will.  Anyway, obviously Jackie survived his moment without crashing his car; all he suffered was a huge helping of sheer fright.  His coterie of mates, of course, reacted with applause.  With impeccable timing, Clark then reportedly said, “Are you saying, Jackie, that you normally lift off there?”

It says much that someone with an ego as huge as Jackie Stewart always looked up to Jimmy.  Jackie once said, “We became known as Batman and Robin. And there was no doubt who was Batman and who was Robin.”

It wasn’t just his fellow drivers and competitors who looked up to Jimmy.  Colin Chapman, boss of Lotus, the only team for whom Clark ever raced in Formula 1, admired Clark like no other driver.  Their first encounter, in fact, was in a GT race at Brands Hatch on Boxing Day in 1958.  Chapman won that race, with Clark (at that time still very much an amateur) finishing in second.  Chapman was so thoroughly impressed with the young Scot that he offered Clark a ride in one of Lotus’ Formula Junior cars.  So began what is probably still the most famous driver-team owner relationships the sport has ever seen.

The Chapman-Clark collaboration was obviously fruitful; how else would you classify the entirety of Jimmy Clark’s professional career?  Two World Championships (1963 and 1965), his record-setting tallies in pole positions and victories, a famous win in the 1965 Indianapolis 500, all in seven and a half years as a professional.

His death at Hockenheim in an otherwise inconsequential Formula Two race on April 7, 1968 shook all of auto racing like very few accidents have.  More than a few drivers have been killed or maimed whilst driving a Lotus, but as Nigel Roebuck tells it, the mere mention of Clark’s crash was enough to move Colin Chapman to tears.

No one knows for sure what happened to Clark – most say that Clark could not have made a mistake even in the wet just past the old Ostkurve where he went off, that the fatal crash must have been caused by a mechanical failure or a deflating rear tire.  What is beyond dispute, though, is that everyone – EVERYONE – who had any emotional or psychological investment into auto racing was devastated.

Racing drivers are abnormally brave people, but Clark’s death forced them to confront their own mortality in a manner they perhaps never had to before.  Chris Amon‘s words spoken in reflection say it all:  “If this can happen to Jimmy, what chance do the rest of us have? I think we all felt that. It seemed like we’d lost our leader.”

When I think of Jimmy Clark, I often think of all the words that were spoken or written about him.  But I also think of him in pictures.  My all-time favorite photograph of a racing driver, in fact, is of Clark, taken by Jesse Alexander.  It is a candid shot of Jimmy right after his first Grand Prix victory in Belgium, won at the mighty Spa-Francorchamps in all its 8.76-mile uncut glory.

Jesse Alexander's iconic candid shot of Jim Clark, Spa-Francorchamps, 1962.

Jesse Alexander’s iconic candid shot of Jim Clark, Spa-Francorchamps, 1962.

Jesse Alexander’s photo is not of a man pleased with winning his first-ever Grand Prix, but of a haunted soul.  It might surprise you to hear that Jimmy hated Spa-Francorchamps like he did no other track.  Much of his hatred for Spa could be traced to 1960.  In just his second-ever Grand Prix, Clark finished fifth (and in the points) at the mighty Belgian track.  Unfortunately, two of his colleagues – Chris Bristow and teammate Alan Stacey – were killed in separate accidents at the same race.  Clark had actually almost run over Bristow’s decapitated body at the fearsome Masta Kink, a flat-out left-right in between houses that is still considered one of Grand Prix racing’s most daunting corners.  No wonder Jimmy is absolutely joyless during a moment where countless other drivers would have been celebrating wildly.

For all his seemingly otherworldly talent behind the wheel of a racing car, Jimmy Clark was a simple, straightforward person.  It’s no surprise at all to read and hear that his contemporaries not only respected him like they did no other rival, but considered him a friend.

There will probably never ever be another Jim Clark in Formula 1.  And that is probably how it should be.

19 Dec 2012 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 5)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 19/12/2012

So here we are, breaking into the top half of this Top 10 list of my favorite F1 drivers.  Where spots 10 thru 6 were perhaps filled with names that many fans would probably never put in their own top 10, I’d dare say it’s very likely that every single driver in spots 5 thru 1 would be in most observers’ lists.

The only thing that would differentiate one list from the other would be the order in which the names would appear.

Before we start with the driver in the # 5 spot, let’s recap our list so far:

10.  Nigel Mansell

9.  Jean Alesi

8.  Gilles Villeneuve

7.  Nelson Piquet

6.  Damon Hill

And now, my # 5 favorite F1 driver:

5.  Jackie Stewart

Jackie Stewart Modern 002

Jackie Stewart’s helmet livery, with its distinctive Tartan headband.

Whether they know about it or not, every single racing driver today and forever after owes a gigantic debt to Sir Jackie Stewart.  It doesn’t matter which championship series they compete in.  Motor racing will never ever be 100% safe, but thanks largely to Sir Jackie’s courage, dedication, and tireless efforts to the cause of safety in motorsports back when he was an active competitor, as well as his endeavors after his retirement from competition, the sport is immeasurably safer.

In an era where death was a fairly common occurrence in a Grand Prix season, Sir Jackie was a true pioneer.  Undoubtedly influenced by his accident at a rainy Spa-Francorchamps in 1966, Stewart became a passionate crusader for driver safety.  Many of his contemporaries, and some from previous eras, derided Stewart’s efforts to make auto racing safer than it was; likewise, he was branded a coward by old-school members of the motor racing press corps.  All of his critics asked, “weren’t danger and the possibility of dying in a racing car part of the allure of the sport?”

Some even asked this most unbelievable of questions:  “Didn’t he (Stewart) want to die in a racing car?”

Stewart, of course, was far more sensible than these romantic yet misguided observers and participants.  He saw motor racing not as a bloodsport that extracted its toll in lives and grievous injuries, but as a test of skill, talent, and courage.  Somewhat ironically, Stewart’s courage is most in display in his crusade to reduce the mortal dangers that all racing drivers faced.  His willingness to absorb all the slings and arrows of misguided criticism – even outright disgust from some quarters – for his quest speaks of a courage far greater than that required whenever he stepped into his Tyrrell’s cockpit.

Some may object to the following description, but I truly think and feel that Sir Jackie is a type of Messianic figure:  He took upon the crushing gigantic burden largely by himself, sacrificing a good measure of his own comforts, for the betterment of all those to follow in his footsteps.  Thanks to his willingness to carry that particular cross, we (the people who truly love the sport) somewhat take for granted the many advances today’s racers now enjoy:  Seatbelts, the HANS device, safety barriers at the circuits, run-off areas at dangerous corners worldwide, ever-safer racing cars are just some of the fruits of Jackie Stewart’s crusade for safety.  Where before you could have as many as a dozen or so racing drivers lose their lives in racing incidents, the rare story of a single racing fatality inspires such shock and disbelief today.

As far as legacies go, Sir Jackie Stewart’s is almost impossible to match.

Given his monumental contributions to the relative safety of modern motorsports, it might be easy to forget that Sir Jackie was a brilliant racing driver.  Though I don’t think statistics are the end-all, be-all, Stewart’s career numbers are impressive:  27 Grand Prix victories out of 99 races (for an astonishing strike rate of 27%, which roughly means he won slightly better than one out of every four Grands Prix that he contested); 17 pole positions from his 99 starts; 15 fastest race laps; 43 appearances on the podium; 359 career World Championship points (earned during an era when 9 points was the maximum possible score, and there was an average of 11.5 Grands Prix per season).  He won the Drivers’ World Championship three times in his nine-year career (in 1969, 1971, and 1973), and finished second twice (1968 and 1972, to Graham Hill and Emerson Fittipaldi, respectively).

As breathtaking as Jackie Stewart’s career statistics are, they really aren’t the reason why I rate him so highly in my personal countdown of favorite F1 drivers.  You see, Jackie is as famous for his approach to driving – both racing and on the road – as he is for his monumental achievements as a multiple champion and race winner.

As with Niki Lauda (and two more, yet-to-be-disclosed, drivers in this countdown), the hallmark of Stewart’s approach to driving is smoothness.

Here’s what Stewart himself once said about driving a racing car:  Well I think a racing car is something very special, almost in the breed of an animal. Not only is it like an animal it’s also like a woman. It’s very sensitive, it’s very nervous, it’s very highly strung. Sometimes it responds very nicely, sometimes it responds very viciously, sometimes to get the best out of it you have to coax it and almost caress it, to get it to do the thing you want it to do and even after you done all these things and the car is doing exactly as you want it to. It will immediately and with no warning change its mind and do something very suddenly and very abruptly.

Stewart’s words are poetic, eloquent for their straightforwardness.  Anyone lucky enough to have had seat time in a very powerful and responsive automobile, even racing go-karts, would appreciate the essential truth in Sir Jackie’s brief discourse.

And that’s a huge part to why I have Sir Jackie so high up on my personal favorites list:  His driving style, so smooth and precise, is poetic in its own way:  There is very little waste, just the purity of technique applied to making the racing car go forwards as quickly as possible.  He never looks like he is struggling, as all racing drivers do, even as he fights to keep his car right on the knife edge of control.

That he makes it look so easy is nothing short of genius.

5 Jul 2012 – Fernando Reigns in Spain

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 05/07/2012

Sometimes the race falls to the swiftest.

Sebastian Vettel was the fastest driver of the 2012 Grand Prix of Europe weekend.  He won the pole position by a staggering .33secs over Lewis Hamilton.  Given the fact that P2 through P10 were covered by about .5secs, the gap between the pole and the second-fastest qualifying time is nothing short of astonishing.

He converted his pole position advantage at the start and led with imperious ease, leaving all his pursuers huffing and puffing in his Red Bull’s wake.  Things looked very grim for anyone who were hoping for an unprecedented eighth different winner in eight Grands Prix.

Behind Vettel, Grosjean had a great start from his P4 grid spot, hassling and harrying Lewis Hamilton.  After several laps of closely stalking the first of the McLarens, Grosjean put a brave move on the outside of the Turn 12 right-hander, which put him on the inside of the subsequent Turn 13 left-hand corner.  Grosjean thus seized second place and set off after Vettel, easing away from Hamilton without much effort.  Though he was around twenty seconds or so behind the leader, Grosjean was the only one setting comparable lap times to Vettel’s.

Other drivers were carving their way through the field.  The most notable of these was Spain’s own Fernando Alonso.  Alonso started from 11th on the grid, but he had a great opening stint, scything through the cars in front with sublime controlled aggression.  By the time he took his first pit stop at the end of Lap 15, he had climbed up to fourth place.  Post-pit stop, Alonso dropped to P9, though critically he just beat Kimi Raikkonen’s quick Lotus.  The upshot was that, after all the important stops and a collision between Bruno Senna and Kamui Kobayashi on the run down to Turn 8 which resulted in nothing worse than a wrecked race for Senna and minor damage to both cars, Alonso found himself in a charging P4.

Moreover, he was inexorably catching up to Lewis Hamilton lap after lap.

Vettel, meanwhile, was not only faster than everybody else, he was also using less of his tires.  He had the longest first stint among all the leading drivers – excluding those drivers who were evidently attempting to go through the race with just one tire stop – but he was still gradually stretching his lead over the impressively quick Grosjean.  For all but Red Bull’s staff and their fanbase, Vettel’s resurgence to the status as the unchallenged king of Formula 1 must have felt like the beginning of the end of this season’s exciting unpredictability.

The two-time defending World Champion’s dominance notwithstanding, there was still plenty of action in the race.  The battle between Jean-Éric Vergne Toro Rosso and the Caterham of Heikki Kovalainen ended in tire punctures for both cars – the left front for the green Caterham and the right rear for the dark blue Toro Rosso – and a retirement for Vergne.  Vergne was attempting to pass Kovalainen into Turn 12 when he inexplicably veered right into Kovalainen’s car, which resulted in the contact that damaged both cars.  The contretemps also caused the deployment of the Safety Car due to bits of Toro Rosso and Caterham littering the track, which obviously required the efforts of the brave marshals to clean up prior to the resumption of the racing.

The Safety Car period helped Grosjean immensely as it eliminated Vettel’s big lead.  Although all the leaders took the ideal opportunity to change tires, Grosjean was the biggest beneficiary of the Safety Car period.  The young Frenchman (who had made his Formula One debut on this circuit back in 2009 when he replaced the just-sacked Nelson Piquet Jr.) was now in the ideal position to challenge the Red Bull for the lead once the race restarted.

Meanwhile, McLaren had yet ANOTHER botched pit stop.  Hamilton dropped down behind Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen due to a problematic front jack which lengthened his pit stop.  The team’s other driver, Jenson Button, who had been suffering yet another miserable weekend away from the sharp end of the grid again, was also effectively punished by the Safety Car period due to the fact that he had pitted just before the Vergne-Kovalainen accident.  The upshot was that Button lost time in the pits changing tires while most of the rest of the drivers he was racing were able to pit under the full-course yellow.

The race resumed on lap 34.  Alonso pounced immediately, passing his old Renault teammate Grosjean with an audacious move around the outside of Turn 2.  A few seconds later, Alonso’s current teammate Felipe Massa became a victim of a Kamui Kobayashi banzai maneuver.  Massa was left with a puncture that dropped him down the order, while Kobayashi also limped back into the pits to retire with a broken steering system.

Lap 34 was also unlucky for the erstwhile leader Vettel.  Going down the long back straight past the bridge, the leading Red Bull lost drive and was swallowed up by the charging field.  Vettel’s car coasted for a couple more corners before the German abandoned his car, ripping his gloves off his hands in an obvious display of frustration.

With a championship battle that is so close and unpredictable, DNFs were potentially campaign killers.  I am certain that the same thought occurred to Vettel, Red Bull technical director Adrian Newey, and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner.

Anyway, Fernando Alonso now found himself leading in Valencia, much to the vociferous delight of his fellow Spaniards.  Romain Grosjean stayed in touch with the leading Ferrari with apparent ease.  Meanwhile, Daniel Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso was in third, benefiting from keeping track position during the Safety Car period whilst nearly everybody else changed tires.

Hamilton dispatched Raikkonen not long after the restart, then the pair of them swept by Ricciardo easily.  The sole remaining Toro Rosso took the hint and changed tires, which dropped him further down the order.

Grosjean shadowed Alonso, seemingly content to bide his time.  On lap 40, however, Grosjean was slow through the bridge between Turns 8 and 9, then was overtaken easily by Hamilton and Raikkonen.  His Renault engine suffered an alternator failure, which was the same exact problem suffered by Vettel when he had dropped out.  Grosjean coasted a little bit down the curving back straight, then abandoned his Lotus, displaying no histrionics whatsoever.  Perhaps he knew that he was in with a shot at victory.  His weekend in Valencia, while fruitless in terms of championship points or any other statistic, was bountiful in that he enhanced his reputation immeasurably with his performance.  Many felt that a win for Grosjean in the Lotus was imminent.

The race at the front, then, left Alonso in front of Hamilton and Raikkonen, then a big gap to everybody else.  Only the Hamilton-Raikkonen pair had any chance of catching up to Alonso.  However, Alonso was in inspired form in front of his home crowd.  He stretched his lead over his immediate pursuers.

Hamilton had no realistic chance to catch Alonso with Raikkonen being his constant shadow, and inevitably his efforts to stay ahead of the more efficient Lotus wore his McLaren’s Pirellis faster than Raikkonen did with his tires.  Raikkonen stalked Hamilton for lap after lap, until he finally overtook Lewis on lap 55 in a finely-judged maneuver.  By this point, Pastor Maldonado had crawled his way up to P4, his Williams clearly with more performance left in its Pirellis than Hamilton’s McLaren did.  On lap 56 (the penultimate lap of the race) Maldonado attacked, but Hamilton rebuffed him with some hard but fair defensive driving into the first few corners of the lap.  Maldonado smelled blood, though, and attacked again at the end of the DRS zone entering Turn 12.  Hamilton bravely braked just as late as Maldonado, keeping to the inside line going into Turn 12 and staying just in front of the Williams attacking down the outside.  Hamilton therefore had the line and squeezed Maldonado off the circuit, a hard but still fair tactic, which should have obliged Maldonado to surrender Turn 13 to Hamilton.  However, Maldonado did not cede anything and drove way inside the apex of Turn 13; his Williams clipped Hamilton’s McLaren, which pitched the chrome silver-and-red car into the outside wall and into instant retirement.  Maldonado damaged his own Williams’ front wing in the collision, which meant that not only did he not take Hamilton’s P3 away, he didn’t finish in P4 either; he finished in twelfth place, out of the points, by virtue of the 20-second penalty he was assessed for his role in the accident with Hamilton.  Such a huge waste, that accident was.

None of these things mattered to Fernando Alonso, though, as he took the checkered flag at the end of the 57th lap.  Alonso therefore became the first repeat winner of the 2012 season.

Vettel and Grosjean – indeed, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Maldonado, and several others – were faster than Alonso throughout the weekend.

But sometimes the race doesn’t always falls to the swiftest.

Sometimes, indeed, the swiftest are also the first to fall out of the race.

23 Jun 2012 – Hamilton Wins in Canada as F1 Remains Unpredictable

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 23/06/2012

Lewis Hamilton won the Grand Prix of Canada two weekends ago, thereby becoming the F1 2012 season’s seventh different race winner in seven Grands Prix.  Not since the 1982 F1 season has there been so many winners in a season.

Of course, in 1982 ELEVEN drivers won at least one Grand Prix, with no driver winning more than two.

Thirty years on, it looks somewhat unlikely that we’ll see eleven different drivers win a race.  However, given the current unpredictability of the 2012 season, who’s to say that we won’t be adding on to the list of seven?

In my mind, there remain three more viable candidates to win at least one race, and two long shots.  The Lotus drivers, Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean, have been threatening to join the list of race winners at various points in the season.  Seven-time F1 drivers’ world champion Michael Schumacher in his Mercedes has also been strong, at least in qualifying; curiously, Schumacher’s race performances have been a little muted, though it must be said that he has been the victim of a few mechanical maladies in his Mercedes (perhaps this is just Karmic payback for all his years racing in bulletproof Ferraris?).  The Sauber pair, Japan’s Kamui Kobayashi and Mexico’s Sergio Perez, are also possible winners, but given their team’s budgetary limitations they may run out of effective car developments well before their other co-contenders do (especially the bigger, more wealthy teams).  Perez, in particular, has been hugely impressive, able to run at a strong pace without destroying his tires.  Fellow grid minnow Williams Grand Prix (the old-school F1 fan in me just grimaced typing that phrase) has already won a Grand Prix sans the benefit of a rain shower to mix up the running order (Pastor Maldonado in Spain), so who’s to say Sauber can’t turn the same trick at least once this year?

If Raikkonen, Grosjean, Schumacher, Kobayashi, and Perez all hit the lottery at some point in the 2012 season, that would mean we will have had twelve different drivers atop the podium.  That would trump the 1982 season’s total by one.

And then there’s Felipe Massa.  Though Massa’s been positively eclipsed at Ferrari by Fernando Alonso (who 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve called F1’s “most complete driver” whilst he was a guest commentator on Sky F1’s coverage of the Canadian Grand Prix, an assessment I agree with 100%), the fact is he drives for Ferrari.  While Massa’s form has been depressingly bad for most of this season, the Ferrari is a car that is improving with each and every race.  Consequently, Massa’s performances have also begun a slow trend upwards as well.  With a few lucky breaks, who knows?

But enough about speculating about what might happen later on in the year.

Lewis Hamilton had a very strong weekend in Montreal, setting the fastest time in the first two Free Practice sessions on Friday.  He ultimately qualified in P2, though he was three-tenths of a second behind Sebastian Vettel’s pole-winning time.

At the start, Vettel converted his pole advantage into an immediate lead, with Hamilton and Alonso in his Ferrari in tow.  Behind them, the pack stayed remarkably intact.  Indeed, the first significant incident occurred on lap 5, when Massa squandered a strong start with a spin on the exit of Turn One.

The order at the front remained static, until Vettel called into the pits on lap 16 for a tire change.  Hamilton, who trailed the two-time defending World Champion by about two seconds, followed into the pits a few laps later.  Despite yet another less-than-smooth McLaren pit stop, Hamilton rejoined ahead of Vettel.  Meanwhile, Alonso stayed out until lap 20, building a good margin over the erstwhile leaders Hamilton and Vettel.  Alonso surrendered the lead to an impressive Romain Grosjean.

When all the significant stops were done, Hamilton led, with Alonso and Vettel scrapping over second place.  The 2008 World Champion was running at a strong pace and was easing away from his immediate pursuers.  As the race progressed, it became increasingly clear that Hamilton was on a different tire strategy compared to the battling double World Champions trailing in his wake.

On the fiftieth lap of seventy, Hamilton pitted for fresh tires.  Yet again McLaren had a poor stop (what IS it with the team’s pit stops these days?!?), so all of Hamilton’s hard work building up a margin seemed to go to waste as both Alonso and Vettel passed him and dropped him down to third.

However, with his fresh rubber and long straights followed by heavy braking zones, Hamilton had plenty of extra performance in hand due to his newer Pirellis.  He overtook first Vettel, and then Alonso, rather easily, seizing the lead that he kept until the checkered flag waved.

Meanwhile, both Alonso and Vettel continued to lose pace.  Not only did Hamilton leave them behind with imperious ease, but they were also getting caught from behind by Grosjean and Perez, both of whom also stopped for tires more than once.  By this point, it was clear that the one-stop strategy used by Alonso and Vettel was the incorrect one, but only Red Bull made the adjustment and called Vettel in for newer rubber.  Alonso’s pit crew never called him in, and so lost 8 World Championship points by finishing 5th (which earns 10pts) instead of 2nd (worth 18pts).

Hamilton thus became the 7th race winner in seven Grands Prix in 2012; Grosjean finished second, Perez third.  Vettel initially dropped to fifth, but caught the badly struggling Alonso before the end of the race.  Rosberg, Webber, Raikkonen, Kobayashi, and Massa rounded out the rest of the top ten.  Jenson Button, meanwhile, finished one lap behind his teammate in a pathetic 16th place.

And so the F1 circus moves on to the European Grand Prix, held on the harbor-side street circuit in Valencia, Spain.

Will we see an eighth different winner this year?

Or will we see our first repeat visitor to the top step of the podium?

8 Jun 2012 – What Has Happened to McLaren?

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 09/06/2012

Mark Webber won the 2012 Monaco Grand Prix, and Red Bull Racing became the first team this year to win multiple grands prix.

Six races into the twenty-race 2012 Formula 1 season, we have had six different winners from five different constructors.   Such a start is unprecedented in the history of this branch of the motorsports tree.

The big teams who have dominated the victories and champions lists for the past few seasons – Red Bull, McLaren, and Ferrari – have each taken at least one win, Mercedes-Benz (and Nico Rosberg) finally broke through, and even Williams (with Pastor Maldonado) has returned to the hallowed ground that only winners get to visit, territory that they used to tread on with imperious regularity.

But this blog post won’t be about Mark Webber.

It won’t be about Red Bull, either.

Neither will it be about this most unique beginning to a Grand Prix season.

Rather, this post will be about the McLaren-Mercedes team’s baffling season so far.

It all started out so auspiciously.

A front-row lockout at Melbourne seemed to promise so much.  At the onset, it certainly looked as if McLaren had addressed its biggest weakness relative to Red Bull, the lack of ultimate speed in qualifying.  To wit, Lewis Hamilton romped to the pole, with teammate Jenson Button just a couple of hundreths of a second away.  The fastest Red Bull, Australia’s very own Mark Webber, was almost .7secs adrift (and starting from fifth place).  Not only that, but it seemed as if the team had learned some valuable strategic and tactical lessons from Red Bull as well.  As Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel did last year with seemingly imperious ease at most of the races, they translated their superior qualifying position into an early DRS-proof gap at the front of the field.  After establishing such a strategic advantage, McLaren therefore had control the race’s tactics.  The lead car almost always dictates the pit stop sequences, and with nobody in front the leader also had the advantage of controlling his tire wear.  That was essentially the key to Jenson Button’s season-opening victory in Melbourne.  Even after the safety car periods, he would immediately just re-establish his DRS-proof gap over his immediate pursuers.

Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton finished in third.  This was probably very disappointing for him (as I wrote in March), but looking at the big picture it at least gave him a solid start to his 2012 campaign.  It wasn’t as satisfying as a race victory would have been, for sure, but he might have taken some comfort in the fact that he finished on the podium and put 15 useful points into his account.

McLaren thus led the Constructors’ World Championship after one round of twenty with 40pts; Red Bull, who they probably consider their chief competition this season, left Melbourne with 30pts.  Ferrari, meanwhile, looked like a giant mess with a pig of a car and apparently only one driver capable of producing good results:  The F2012 was a very difficult car to race, and Fernando Alonso was streets faster than poor Felipe Massa, who sadly looks like he has never fully regained his form after his devastating accident in Hungary in 2009.

The team repeated its Australian qualifying feats in the following race in Malaysia.  Again, Hamilton took pole; again, Button was second fastest.  At the start, the McLarens narrowly avoided a fratricidal intra-team contretemps; the upshot was that Hamilton held his lead, and Button was in second.

Things didn’t stay that good for the team, however.  When the predictable onset of a Malaysian monsoon drenched the track, the ensuing race suspension served to scramble the race order as conditions became more difficult for the teams and their drivers.  When the race resumed some 51mins after the suspension was called, track conditions were still difficult.  Button ran afoul of a very slow Narain Karthikeyan and wrecked his front wing, as well as his chances for a good finish.  Hamilton, though, fell down the order to third when he simply didn’t have the pace to match either the surprising Sergio Perez in his Sauber nor the brilliant Fernando Alonso.  Still, a second consecutive P3 at the end meant that Hamilton was the only driver so far to have finished on the podium for each race run.  McLaren still held the lead of the Constructors’ championship, while Hamilton was second to Alonso in the Drivers’ title race.  Button was third after two races.

McLaren couldn’t make it three pole positions in three races in China, although Hamilton did secure his third consecutive front row starting position.  Nico Rosberg finally broke his duck and  took his first career pole position in the Grand Prix of China.  Indeed, Rosberg parlayed his first career pole into his first career Grand Prix victory, with both McLaren drivers finishing on the podium with him.  Button took P2, and Hamilton P3.  Button was actually in strong contention for the race victory, racing with strong pace and excellent tire management skills, but was hampered by a problematic pit stop late in the race whilst in a narrow lead.

Normally, McLaren’s pit work is topnotch; nobody saw Button’s bad pit stop in China as nothing more than a rude Shanghai Surprise, an aberration in every sense of the word.  The fact that the McLaren drivers now stood 1-2 in the championship race (Hamilton with 45pts now two points ahead of Button), with Button in particular looking superbly suited to adapting to the vagaries of the Pirelli racing tires, probably didn’t set off any real alarm bells within the team.

The team’s disastrous Bahrain Grand Prix, however, probably did.  Despite the fact that both McLarens were starting in the top four (Hamilton in 2nd, Button in 4th), they never displayed the necessary pace to beat the two-time defending World Champion Sebastian Vettel.  More disconcertingly, the McLarens also proved to be slower than the black and gold Lotuses, Nico Rosberg, and even Fernando Alonso in his Ferrari.  After their pace-setting opening to the season, it was a minor shock to the system to see the McLarens struggling against so many of their rivals.

But the bigger shock, at least to me, was to see the continuation of their poor form during the pit stops.  They arguably lost their opportunity to win in China due to Jenson Button’s tardy final stop, but with no less than THREE slow and disorganized tire stops (two for Hamilton and one for Button) in Bahrain it seemed that McLaren had a definite problem either with their equipment, their personnel (not too likely, in my opinion), or their pit stop methodology.  The bottom line remained unchanged, however:  As difficult as it is to win races and championships with impeccable work in the pits during the races, the task becomes near impossible when the pit crew suddenly becomes unreliable.

This becomes immeasurably MORE true when the competitive balance amongst the teams is so tight it’s impossible to predict who will win the next race.

But it wasn’t just the shoddy pit work that made Bahrain such a miserable race for the McLarens.  With just a couple of laps remaining in the race, Jenson Button’s car suffered first a broken exhaust, then, more terminally, a broken differential.  It ended Button’s fighting comeback that was one of the highlights of the final third of the race.  Given that Hamilton only managed an 8th place (and 4pts), this meant that McLaren ceded first position in the Constructors’ championship to Red Bull, and that Lewis lost the lead in the Drivers’ title chase to the winner of the Bahrain GP, Sebastian Vettel.

The Spanish Grand Prix only continued McLaren’s trend of misery.  Although Lewis Hamilton actually set the fastest time in Q3, thereby taking the pole position, he had to stop out in the middle of the circuit on his in-lap per the advice of his team.  The team was concerned that if Lewis continued on his way back to the pits and parc fermé, his McLaren would not have had enough fuel to provide the required 1liter post-qualifying sample for analysis and homologation.  The race stewards deemed this breach in the regulations severe enough to warrant excluding all of Hamilton’s times set in qualifying and therefore relegating him to the very back of the grid.  Given the fact that Button only managed to qualify in 10th, the operational botch (whether by design – perhaps McLaren deliberately put in such a low fuel load on Lewis’ final qualifying run to ensure he took pole in Barcelona – or through simple yet accidental negligence) on Hamilton’s car cost Hamilton not just the pole position, but also any realistic chance to compete for the victory.

Hamilton raced with great pace and controlled aggression, eventually finishing in 8th place, one position in front of his teammate.  Hamilton’s race was again marred by bad work by his pit crew:  On his first stop, Hamilton’s exit from his box was delayed when he was forced to stop because he ran over something.  Some said Hamilton’s right rear ran over an old tire; other reports indicated that Hamilton ran over a part of a pit mechanic’s foot.  Whatever the case, Hamilton’s McLaren jumped off the tarmac and bounced as it landed hard when it ran over whatever it ran over.

Meanwhile, Jenson Button, slow throughout qualifying, never looked to have the necessary speed to mix it up with the faster cars.  His 9th place was singularly disappointing, the 2pts earned a paltry reward for such a difficult weekend’s work.

And so to Monaco we go.  McLaren’s luck, in particular in Button’s half of the garage, continued its inexorable descent.  Although Lewis Hamilton did manage to set the fourth fastest time in qualifying (he started third after the fastest man in qualifying, Michael Schumacher, was docked five grid placings for his role in the collision with Bruno Senna in the preceding Grand Prix in Spain), Button never found his groove, never into making it into Q3.  Button started a sad 13th.  On a circuit where overtaking is nigh impossible, this was almost a proverbial death sentence on any realistic chances to win.

Predictably, Button hit trouble at the start, losing places and momentum when he had to avoid the crash that eliminated the Lotus of Romain Grosjean at Ste. Devote.  In the tight confines of Monte Carlo, Button never really had a realistic chance to fight through the field.  His race ended on lap 70 when he spun his McLaren at the exit of the Swimming Pool complex.  That he spun whilst trying to overtake Heikki Kovalainen’s Caterham must have been particularly galling to both Button and McLaren.

Hamilton, meanwhile, lost two places relative to his starting position and finished the race in fifth.  Never during the weekend did he demonstrate that he had race-winning pace.

F1

McLaren has many problems at the moment.  Chief among these is the fact that while its expected rivals – Red Bull and Ferrari, as well as Mercedes – all have clearly improved their cars as the season has gone on, other teams have also improved.  Sauber has been a pleasant surprise; Lotus, too, has been threatening to win a race or two before very long.  With so many threats from so many different fronts, McLaren will find it difficult to improve their position.

Another problem is the rash of sloppy work in the pits and operations side of the team.  Frankly, it’s shocking to see McLaren, of all teams, to have hit a run of just bad pit stops, costing their drivers valuable points and even race victories.  One bad pit stop is enough to terminally damage a team and/or a driver’s chances at a championship (just ask Nigel Mansell and Williams from the 1980s); the McLaren team MUST eliminate the tendency to make mistakes on their side of the pit wall, especially since their strongest rivals don’t seem to share the same tendency.

As a fan of the team, it’s absolutely disappointing to see McLaren lose its way increasingly as the season has gone on.  The strong performances in the first three or four races now seem to be nothing more than just a distant memory.

How will the team and its drivers respond?

More to the point, can they respond and somehow rediscover the McLaren magic they had earlier in the year?

25 May 2012 – Frank Williams and the Magic of South America

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 25/05/2012

My apologies for the extreme tardiness of this blog report, but, unbelievably, I missed the Grand Prix of Spain from a couple of weeks ago when I didn’t hear my alarm clock go off.

Since I don’t have a TV at my apartment (I watch the races online live or, if I’m at my parents’ house, on their TV), there was absolutely no chance for me to watch a re-air of the race.  I begged the gods for one of my friends to come to my aid and provide me a recording (or some other way to watch the race) of what turned out to be a truly classic F1 race.

Though it took some time, I did have a couple of friends come through for me.  Thank goodness for their help!

As I type this paragraph, I have just finished watching the Spanish Grand Prix, a couple of days before the next race on the schedule, the Grand Prix of Monaco.  Since I have made it a personal goal to write something about each and every Grand Prix of this season, here then are my thoughts of the race:

Carlos Reutemann.

Nelson Piquet.

Ayrton Senna.

Juan Pablo Montoya.

Rubens Barrichello.

Bruno Senna.

All of these men have driven for Sir Frank Williams‘ eponymous Williams Grand Prix Engineering F1 team.

Three of these six men have also won at least one grand prix for Sir Frank.  The ones who never won in a Williams are Ayrton Senna, who was tragically killed in a Williams in his third race with the team; Barrichello, who drove for the team during two of its least competitive years; and Bruno Senna, the nephew of the great Ayrton who is still trying to establish himself at the top level of motorsports.

All of these men hail from somewhere in South America.  Reutemann is from Argentina; Piquet, Barrichello and the Sennas are Brazilian; Montoya is from Colombia.

By any measure, this is a hugely impressive roster of pilotes.  These are all names that mean a great deal to anyone with a nuanced appreciation of the history of grand prix racing.

After a riveting, enthralling 2012 Grand Prix of Spain at the Circuit de Catalunya, you can now add Venezuela’s Pastor Maldonado to the list of South Americans who have won a grand prix driving a Williams Formula 1 car.

Maldonado’s victory was the first of his F1 career.  Just as significant, this was also Williams Grand Prix Engineering’s first F1 victory since the 2004 Grand Prix of Brazil.

Maldonado started the 2012 Spanish GP from the pole position, even though he actually ended the qualifying period with the 2nd best time.  Lewis Hamilton, driving for McLaren, actually set the fastest time in Q3, but was relegated to start dead last due to the fact his car stopped out on the circuit because of a lack of fuel.  Hamilton’s McLaren contravened regulations stipulating the car must return to parc fermé after its qualification run and provide a 1-liter sample of fuel.

At the start, two-time F1 world champion Fernando Alonso took the lead from Maldonado with a hugely impressive take-off from his 2nd place on the grid, much to the approval of his adoring home crowd.  The Ferrari stayed in front, with Maldonado’s Williams (and Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus in tow) staying in touch during the first part of their run.  Behind them, Hamilton was scything his way through the gaggle of slower cars at the back end of the grid.  The 2008 World Champion was 20th by the end of the first lap (from 24th on the grid).

The Red Bulls were among the first to make tactical pit stops (as opposed to Sergio Perez’s, whose Sauber was damaged after a contretemp with Grosjean’s Lotus at the long Turn 3 right-hander), with Mark Webber calling into the pits on lap 7 and Sebastian Vettel coming in the following lap.  The leading cars, though, took their first stops several laps later, with Hamilton being the notable exception.  He was the last to take his first scheduled stop on lap 15.

Alonso and Maldonado maintained their track positions through the first round of stops, the Venezuelan driving with impressive coolness and pace, keeping up with Alonso with remarkable ease.  The two leaders swapped positions at the second round of pit stops circa laps 20-30, with Maldonado’s Williams crew doing a brilliant job outperforming their counterparts at Ferrari.  Raikkonen had a brief stint at the front while Alonso and Maldonado made their pit stops, but he returned to P3 when he made his second stop of the race.

Maldonado stretched his lead over Alonso in the pursuing Ferrari, looking to have a small but crucial advantage in race pace.  In the current F1 era of KERS and DRS facilitating overtaking, it is critical for a leading car to lead a pursuer by more than 1.5seconds; at one point, Maldonado’s Williams led Alonso by around eight seconds or so, but the lead stabilized at around six seconds when Alonso decided to increase his own pace.

In the final round of pit stops, Maldonado’s crew had to deal with a problematic left rear tire change, costing the Venezuelan around 3 extra seconds.  Coupled with the fact that he stopped earlier than Alonso did (meaning Maldonado had a greater distance to cover on his last set of tires), conventional wisdom suggested that the time lost in the pits snafu would cost Maldonado and Williams any hope of winning the race.  The upshot of all this drama was that Maldonado’s lead over Alonso shrunk to about 3 seconds maximum after both drivers had come in for their final pit stops.

With Raikkonen again being the last of the three leading runners to call into the pits, Maldonado regained the lead over the Finnish champion.  Meanwhile, Alonso pushed hard to position himself into DRS range of Maldonado.  With the Venezuelan now on a tire conservation strategy (because of the extra laps he had to run relative to Alonso) and Raikkonen completely free of concerns over tire wear compared to both Maldonado and Alonso, the end game was shaping up to be special.

Could Maldonado stay in front of the Ferrari?

Could Alonso get a good-enough tow past the leading Williams-Renault and catapult himself into the lead of his home grand prix?

Could Raikkonen catch both leaders with his superior final-stint pace before the race ran out of laps?

Pastor Maldonado never made a mistake despite the red car menacingly close behind him lap after lap down the DRS zone on the main straight.  Alonso kept up the pressure for lap after lap, tantalizing his home crowd and Ferrari fans everywhere with the possibility that the two-time World Champion would become the 2012 F1 season’s first two-time race winner.  And behind them, Raikkonen’s pace was increasing lap after lap, shrinking his deficit to the leading duo.

By lap 63 of 66, Maldonado started stretching the gap between himself and Alonso, strongly suggesting that his Williams was using its tires much more efficiently than Alonso’s Ferrari.  So unless he made a mistake or hit some kind of trouble, Maldonado was in prime position to break his F1 duck and take his maiden victory.

With each corner it was clear that Alonso’s tires had fallen off their performance cliff, for not only was the gap to Maldonado growing inexorably, but the gap to Raikkonen behind was being decimated.  Would he even get to keep his second place?

Maldonado drove a faultless race, driving with cool precision and withstanding the enormous pressure of fighting with Alonso – perhaps his generation’s most complete F1 driver – for the entire race.  This was no mean feat, considering most people outside of Venezuela had never considered Pastor Maldonado to be anything more than just a journeyman.  This victory, as unexpected as it truly was, was won on merit.  It ranks as among one of the most memorable and impressive in all of motorsports as I can remember.

Spare some beautiful thoughts as well for Sir Frank Williams and his great team, one of Formula 1’s most successful ever.  After almost eight full years since their last victory, this unexpected win in Spain was a wonderful surprise.  Maldonado’s performance over the entire weekend owed nothing to luck – the weather did not assist him in any way, for example, as it stayed dry throughout the grand prix weekend.  How often do we get unexpected race results because of inclement weather?  Rather, this was a genuine, fully-deserved victory achieved in grand style.  Maldonado’s maiden victory may never be followed by another one, as some probably thought when Sir Frank’s team first entered the ranks of grand prix winners with Clay Regazzoni and the iconic FW07 way back in 1979.

But who knows?  This might only be the beginning of the latest renaissance for Williams Grand Prix Engineering.

16 Apr 2012 – Nico Nearly Man No More

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

Nico Rosberg.

Some might say that he has it all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 Mar 2012 – Alonso Shines in Kuala Lumpur Downpour

Posted in Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 26/03/2012

Although I stayed up until around 4:15AM PST to watch the Grand Prix of Malaysia live, the race at the Sepang International Circuit did a good enough job to keep me awake and hold my attention until the very end.  Though I honestly had no vested interest in either of the top two protagonists, the race was singularly riveting and exciting.

Because I was at my parents’ house visiting, I didn’t have time to write a blog entry about my post-qualifying and pre-race thoughts.  Playing with my four year-old nephew and enjoying my sisters’ and my parents’ company has that effect on me.  Had I had the chance, though, I would have made note of the following:

  • Don’t be surprised if a race-time monsoon scrambled the order.
  • Watch out for both Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, especially if it rains and if both are able to avoid any incidents during the likely wet weather.
  • Michael Schumacher might be a factor, given that he was starting from P3.
  • Romain Grosjean impressed again in qualifying, but can he translate the obvious pace he has into a good performance in the race.

As things transpired, the rain did start to fall around fifteen minutes before the start of the race.  Accordingly, the FIA allowed the teams to change tires prior to the race due to the change in weather conditions.  Ordinarily, of course, each car on the grid is required to start the race on the set of tires with which it set its best time in qualifying.  However, in a nod to enhancing the safety of the competitors, the FIA allows a change in tires should sufficient rain dropped to warrant at least the intermediate tire be run.

The onset of rain spoiled what could have been a very interesting tactical maneuver made by two-time defending champion Sebastian Vettel.  The World Champion, uniquely among the drivers who participated in Q3, set his best time on the harder-compound primary tire.  Many pundits thought this to be a shrewd choice, if a bit of a gamble.  In effect, Vettel had sacrificed his ultimate potential in qualifying by eschewing the slightly quicker soft-compound option tire (and a better starting spot on the grid) in favor of better early race tire durability.  The idea was that perhaps Vettel could improve his position on the track while his rivals running in front of him called into the pits for the first of their tire stops earlier than he would have to.  With enough rain wetting the surface of the Sepang International Circuit, though, we never saw how Vettel’s interesting tactic in action.

As in Melbourne, the McLarens took the first two positions.  As in Melbourne, Lewis Hamilton eked out a small advantage over his teammate Jenson Button to take the pole position.  Third on the grid was Michael Schumacher, who ran very strongly all weekend in his Mercedes AMG.  Mark Webber took P4, outqualifying Vettel, who set the sixth best time.  Kimi Raikkonen set a quicker lap time in Q3 than his teammate Romain Grosjean, but due to a necessary gearbox change was handed a five-place grid position penalty; what should have been fifth on the grid turned to tenth instead.  For the second race in a row, then, Grosjean was starting ahead of his Finnish teammate.

Both McLarens started well, Hamilton converting his pole position into an immediate lead.  He edged Button towards the outside of turn one as both scrabbled for the lead rather aggressively, but thanks to Button being a sensible chap, neither McLaren came to grief.  By turn four, though, Michael Schumacher found himself spinning to the back of the field, thanks to an assist by Grosjean.  Grosjean would later fall foul of the increasingly bad conditions, spinning into retirement in the gravel trap at the difficult turn five and turn six left-right complex a few laps later.

Almost unnoticed by observers, Sauber called in Sergio Perez to change to full-wet tires to cope with the worsening weather.  At one point, before everyone else had cottoned on to the tactic, Perez was an amazing three seconds per lap faster than anyone else.  His early pit stop as well as his overwhelming pace allowed him to leapfrog most of his rivals to find himself third behind the McLarens after starting P9 by the time the rest of the field followed his lead and changed to wets.

However, nature simply would not be denied, and with the rain only becoming more intense and the track becoming even more unsuitable for proper racing, the stewards of the race hung the red flag and suspended the race pending a positive change in the weather conditions.  The race stoppage lasted for fifty-one minutes before it restarted behind the Safety Car.

When the racing resumed, the McLarens maintained their lead until they decided they needed new sets of intermediate tires.  Alonso stayed out longer than most and inherited the lead when the McLarens found themselves bottled up in traffic.  Perez was also near the front, of course, and even overtook Alonso’s Ferrari and led very briefly before the red car retook the lead.

The running order at the front stayed until the very end, but behind them there was a lot of action.  Jenson Button found himself in front of teammate Hamilton, but probably wished he didn’t when Narain Karthikeyan chopped across his McLaren’s nose in the middle of the very tight Turn 9 climbing left-hander.  Button found himself near the tail end of the field after a pit stop to change his damaged front wing.

But Button was not the only world champion to fall victim to Karthikeyan’s shenanigans.  Late in the race, Sebastian Vettel also dropped down the race order after he damaged his left rear tire against Kartikheyan’s front wing.

Despite the lack of change in position at the front of the race, Alonso never looked absolutely safe with Perez lapping significantly faster.  With each passing lap the Sauber closed on the Ferrari, and clearly it became a question of which driver would do better at managing the escalating pressure.  Alonso, of course, is a two-time world champion, and so despite his Ferrari’s lack of speed relative Perez’s quickly closing Sauber (did I just write that?  Yes, I did.  The F2012 is one bad car) he never made a mistake.  In contrast, Perez did make a big mistake with seven laps to go, overcooking the complicated Turn 13 right-hander and going off-track.  He did well to recover and resume his chase of Alonso, again closing the distance, but ran out of laps.

Alonso thus won an unexpected victory for Ferrari, again proving just how brilliant of a driver he is.  Perez, too, impressed greatly, hauling up his Sauber to 2nd place.  Except for his late-race mistake, he may have pressed Alonso harder; who knows, maybe the Ferrari driver might have been the one to make the critical error, and Sauber would be celebrating their first victory in Formula One.

Nonetheless, it was probably Alonso’s best drive yet in his already distinguished career.  His victory in Malaysia took his career Grand Prix victory total to twenty-eight, taking him past the legendary triple World Champion Jackie Stewart.

18 Mar 2012 – Hamilton Cedes First Corner, First Battle to Button

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 18/03/2012

Lewis Hamilton looked like he was a new, refreshed man entering the season-opening Grand Prix of Australia.  Per most accounts he had spent the long cold winter off-season shrugging off the troubles of 2011.

As if to prove the reports of his newly rediscovered mojo, he took the pole position for the Australian Grand Prix by almost two-tenths of a second over his McLaren teammate, Jenson Button.  After the scintillating qualifying session, he looked and sounded like a new man indeed.

Gone was the grave, self-conscious, muted Lewis we saw all too often last year.  Instead, we saw a more enthusiastic, more visibly confident former 2008 F1 Drivers World Champion, looking forward to his season’s campaign.

Then the race started.

On Sunday, 18 March 2012, the five red lights winked out, and the roar of a grid full of 18000RPM V8 engines heralded the start of the Australian Grand Prix.  Lewis Hamilton shot out of his starting position, going up the gears, in prime position on the left side of the track on the racing line for the first right-hander of the 58-lap race.  I’m sure he believed in his heart of hearts that he would be first going into the first corner, especially given his pole position and the fact that he was starting on the clean side of the track.

Except Jenson Button had gotten an even better start than he did and had pulled alongside.

Hamilton had no choice but to cede the first corner to his fellow Brit and ex-World Champion teammate.

I was somewhat surprised to see Button, not Hamilton, pushing hard right from the beginning of the race, clearly trying to create a gap big enough to prevent being vulnerable to having a pursuer close enough to exploit a DRS advantage.  Why was this surprising?  Button is typically one of those drivers who is the easiest on his tires, while Hamilton is clearly more aggressive and tends to wear his tires out earlier and faster.  With Button in front and pushing hard, it looked to all the world that the McLaren teammates had switched roles.

Button’s tactics worked, creating – indeed, growing with each passing lap in the early going – a comfortable DRS-proof cushion between himself and Hamilton.  Hamilton, too, was pulling away from his closest pursuers, a testament to the early-season excellence of the McLaren chassis compared to the rest of the field.  But for Button to be staying in front of Hamilton without Lewis being able to respond, well, that was a bit of an eye-opener.

Since Button led on the track, he had strategic control of the race, even insofar as dictating when to call into the pits and change tires and who goes in first between the McLaren teammates.  Button made his pit stop, surrendering the lead to Hamilton at the conclusion of his in-lap, then wresting it away and increasing it impressively when Hamilton dove into the pits on the very next lap.

The race order at the front remained static despite the action throughout the rest of the field.  Fernando Alonso proved his worth, somehow getting his Ferrari up to P5 despite the obvious problems it seems to have.  2007 World Champion Kimi Räikkönen, returning after a couple of years away from F1, was also having a great race, hauling up his black and gold Lotus into the top 10 after starting a poor 18th.  Finally, two-time defending World Champion Sebastian Vettel had come up to third place after starting from P6 from the grid.

The McLarens were controlling the race from the front, Button around twenty seconds in front of Hamilton, when they both pitted on the same lap.  It looked like a master stroke that was brilliantly executed by the McLaren pit crew, keeping their two drivers in essentially the same track position relative to each other.  However, just as Hamilton was about to enter his pit box, Vitaly Petrov’s Caterham broke and stopped on the pit straight.  The race organizers deemed this a hazardous situation and dispatched the Safety Car for its first call of duty for the 2012 F1 season.

The Safety Car period scrambled McLaren’s tactics a little bit, since Vettel was able to pit and change tires during the Safety Car period and managed to climb one more spot.  Hamilton was probably annoyed and frustrated beyond description to find himself in P3 as the field followed the souped-up AMG Mercedes SL around beautiful Albert Park.

When the Safety Car returned to its station and the race restarted in full anger, Button repeated his early-race tactics and created a DRS-proof cushion between himself and Vettel.  As it did at the start of the race, Button’s tactics worked, and with Vettel’s attention occupied by a madly-pursuing Hamilton and Red Bull teammate Mark Webber now, the two-time World Champion dropped further and further away from the leader.

Thus the race ended with Button taking the first victory of the 2012 Formula 1 season.

Post-race, Hamilton looked absolutely shattered.  He seemed like a man who invested so much into this first race of the new season, as if this would set the tone for his year’s campaign.  Finishing third, despite an early-season car advantage over his rivals from Red Bull and Ferrari and Mercedes, was clearly not the result he wanted nor expected from the Australian Grand Prix.  He clearly believes – quite rightly, too, in my opinion – that he is a faster driver than Button.  But Button is hugely underestimated because of the lack of overt flash in his driving.  Maybe, just maybe, Lewis Hamilton had completely underestimated his teammate’s abilities, and this race was a rude wake-up call.  Button, remember, drives the same car as Hamilton; he therefore has the same car advantage over the rest of the field.  For Button to beat Hamilton in the same car must be a shocking truth that Lewis must now face up to.

As he said himself at a post-race interview, P3 is just “not a good enough standard.”

Lewis Hamilton looked broken, emotionally, psychologically, mentally, at the end of the race.  Whether his dejection is merely temporary – it is just the first race of twenty, after all, and there’s so much racing left to do – or is a further blow to his apparently fragile psyche is going to be a very interesting item to watch out for as the season rolls on.

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