Joe-Pinions: Sports

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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

17 Mar 2012 – F1 2012, Rd 1: Australia (Post-Qualifying Thoughts)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 17/03/2012

The beginning of almost every season of Formula 1 racing traditionally springs many surprises.

In 2009, amongst the surprises were the shockingly bad form of the Ferraris and the McLarens, and the shockingly awesome pace of the Brawn (ex-Honda factory) team.

The following year, the surprises included the withdrawal of Toyota from the top level of motorsports and the 2009 World Champion, Jenson Button, losing his place at Brawn (which became the Mercedes GP team) to Michael Schumacher.

Last year, the surprises included the strife in Bahrain, which led to the cancellation of the opening race of the season, the GP of Bahrain, and the shocking injury suffered by Robert Kubica.

This year, true to form, there are lots of surprises.

The Ferraris are awful.

The Red Bulls are not as fast as they have been in the last couple of years.

Kimi Raikkonen has returned to Formula 1 after a few years away.

And, perhaps most amazing of all, Raikkonen’s teammate, young Frenchman Romain Grosjean, looks like he’s going to be the Lotus (ex-Renault, ex-Benetton) team’s pace-setter, at least in the early part of the season.

F1

Qualifying for the opening race of the 2012 Formula 1 season was held in glorious sunshine, a welcome sight after a wet Friday.  It was difficult to sort the form of the cars because of the weather on Friday, but many of the usual names were where they were supposed to be.  Namely, the McLaren duo of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton, the Red Bull twins Sebastian Vettel and Aussie Mark Webber, and Mercedes’ all-German pair Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, were all towards the sharp end, and the pathetic HRT and Marussia (ex-Virgin) cars bringing up the rear.  The most striking sights on Friday had to do with the Ferraris being very visibly nasty to drive.  Even given the wet conditions, the Ferraris just looked evil on the track, and predictably the rain sorted the men from the boys:  Fernando Alonso coped with the sodden Melbourne track better than the over-matched Felipe Massa did, who contrived to get two wheels onto the wet grass and spin into an early end of his practice session on Friday with his ugly Ferrari beached in the gravel trap.  McLaren’s Jenson Button set the best time in Free Practice 1, and Michael Schumacher set the pace in FP2 later in the day.

Saturday was beautiful, a far cry from the previous day’s cold gloom.  Free Practice 3 saw some interesting heroics, with the Sauber of Japanese sensation’s Kamui Kobayashi taking the top spot for a time.  By the end of the session, though, Lewis Hamilton set the best time, followed by the surprising Romain Grosjean and Mark Webber; Jenson Button was fourth, Nico Rosberg fifth.  Interestingly, by the end of the third practice of the grand prix weekend, the Red Bulls appeared to still be slower and less composed than both the Mercedes (which some say is running a possibly illegal DRS-boosting F-duct system) and McLaren cars.  Some (including me) thought that perhaps Red Bull was sandbagging through the wet practice sessions, only to flex their muscles once the weather turned dry.

After an exciting three rounds of qualifying, the McLarens of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button confirmed their potential by locking out the front row (Hamilton on pole), Grosjean maintaining his surprising form in P3, and Michael Schumacher in fourth.  The Red Bulls were both on the third row, Webber in front of Vettel, while Rosberg succumbed to pressure and had to settle for a disappointing P7 after an otherwise impressive weekend.  Raikkonen will start the Australian GP from P18, fifteen spots behind his Lotus teammate Grosjean.

The Ferraris continued to struggle in the dry as they did in the wet.  From my vantage point, the car looks dreadfully slow and hugely difficult to drive.  It looks like the Ferrari doesn’t behave consistently in the corner, and the driver is forced to continually adjust his steering and power input as he goes through a corner.  A good car is predictable; you know what you’ll get at every phase of the corner, and it will respond to set-up changes in a predictable manner.  The F2012 looks like it is all over the place, and unfortunately Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa will lose a lot of ground and a ton of points in at least the early part of the season until the team starts to understand how to best get the best from the car.

F1

The start of the Australian Grand Prix should be interesting.  I’ve got a few things to watch out for:

  • Which McLaren driver would have the better strategy?  I think Jenson Button has a slight edge here, since he is much easier on his tires than Lewis Hamilton has always been.  If Button doesn’t lose a lot of time and position relative to Hamilton, I think he’s got a shot at beating Hamilton, even though Hamilton is the faster driver.
  • How well will Romain Grosjean’s pace in practice and qualifying translate to the race?  This is Grosjean’s second try at F1; he had an uneven first stint with Renault back in 2010, when he replaced the sacked Nelson Piquet Jr.  I don’t know if he can beat either McLaren at the start; if he does, how well can he race with whomever he beats?  More importantly, he’s got someone very motivated starting just one grid slot behind him.
  • Michael Schumacher looks like he’s got his most competitive Mercedes GP car yet.  How high up the order will he finish?
  • The Red Bulls will need to fight their way to the front.  However, historically their KERS performance and reliability has been weak and unreliable.  Is this still a weakness for the Red Bull machines?  And how will the two drivers treat each other at this, the start of a brand new season?  I expect Webber, the hometown boy, to be ultra-aggressive against his two-time defending World Champion teammate.

The big thing to watch for in this first race of the season is the balance between race pace and tire wear.  The driver who can get the most performance from this delicate balancing act will likely win the race.

Unless, of course, we get a form-altering early corner crash early in this race.  This is a distinct possibility.  The first corner, the third, and the sixth corner are all likely places where an early accident can take place.

Whatever goes down down under, it should be an exciting start to another Formula 1 season!

8 Sept 2010 – When Are Rules Not Rules?

Posted in Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 08/09/2010

In the world of the FIA, when are rules not rules?

It’s not a trick question with a clever answer, a part of a game played for amusement.

The answer, of course, is:  The FIA’s regulations become null and void when Ferrari is involved.

After hearing about the verdict (or rather, the lack of one) levied against Ferrari for a clear case of the use of illegal team orders influencing the outcome of the German Grand Prix in late July, that is the only conclusion someone who is not biased for (or against) Ferrari can make.  On the other hand, if you are pro-Ferrari, you would be prone to celebrate what had happened at the World Motor Sports Council (as my cousin did on Facebook, saying “Score 1 for Ferrari team orders.”).

My cousin’s rhetoric, whether or not delivered tongue-in-cheek, nevertheless expresses the truth of the situation that unfolded at Hockenheim during the German Grand Prix.  As the saying goes, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck…”

Here’s my big problem with how things went down:  The WMSC basically agreed with Ferrari’s defense that it (Ferrari) did not violate the regulation (Article 39.1) prohibiting the use of team orders during a Formula One race, but still upheld the original stewards’ post-race decision that the team did violate the rule.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds like the FIA contradicting itself regarding the issue.  Ferrari cannot simultaneously be found guilty AND innocent of the violation it was accused of.  And yet that, in essence, is what the WMSC’s decision says by agreeing with Ferrari’s defense.

If an adjudicating body (which is what the WSMC ostensibly is) is in danger of even just appearing to be anything less than conclusive regarding any matter over which it presides, then it risks losing credibility in the eyes of a critical audience.  Insofar as I’m concerned, it’s very difficult to take seriously anything that the FIA does when it comes to controversies involving Ferrari.  This is an opinion that takes into consideration the controversies that ensued in this year’s European and British Grands Prix, where through simple bad luck Ferrari got victimized by circumstances and had the boom lowered on them by correct application of the regulations.

It’s very difficult to accept the WSMC’s decision regarding the events in Hockenheim considering what we, the audience, saw and heard during the race broadcast.  The radio communication from Fernando Alonso to the Ferrari pit was an obvious statement of his frustration with finding himself behind Felipe Massa.  Ferrari’s response was to have Massa’s chief engineer (and great friend) Rob Smedley radio to Felipe that Alonso was faster than he was.  The damning piece of evidence insofar as I’m concerned is Massa’s response to the radio communications.  He didn’t radio back to Smedley (if he did, my broadcast didn’t air his response), but what he did on the race track was far more eloquent than anything anybody could say:  Massa ceded position to Alonso at the EXIT of a hairpin.

Actions speak louder than words.  Anybody who knows anything about motor racing knows that unless the car has a problem affecting its performance exiting a very slow corner, or unless the driver deliberately decides to compromise his position on the track, it’s virtually impossible for a car leading another car to get overtaken.  Why?  The guy in front is in complete control of the corner; he decides for anybody else following him when, where, and how much to accelerate out of the corner.

Here’s a look at how the change in position occurred (at 00:56 on the video clip):

Based solely on the letter of what was said (or, rather, what viewers heard on their television broadcasts) in the various communications between Ferrari and its two drivers at Hockenheim, it’s possible to absolve Ferrari.  However, communications are never just about what is literally said; it would be naive to believe that communications exist only on a literal plane.  Coded radio communications undoubtedly exist in Formula One, so that is one very easy way to circumvent the letter of the regulations.  Not only that, but they also serve to obfuscate a team’s radio communications from their competitors.

I mean, listen to Rob Smedley’s transmission.  Pay attention not just to what he is saying, but how he speaks:

Smedley:  OK.  (pause) So… (short pause) Fernando is (short pause) faster (short pause) than (short pause) you.  (longer pause)  Can you confirm you understood that message?

I don’t know if Massa issued a reply via a radio, but it was unnecessary.  By allowing Alonso past at the exit of the slowest corner of the circuit, even though Alonso was nowhere near him on the entry of the corner, says so much more than any words could.

After Alonso assumed the lead of the race, Smedley made another call to Massa (02:18 on the video clip):

Smedley:  OK, mate.  Good lad.  Just stick with him now.  Sorry.

I think Ferrari and the FIA owe Formula One’s fans an apology.  Sadly, only Rob Smedley is on record for expressing any kind of remorse (whether he said sorry to Massa for being the one to issue the coded order to cede position to Alonso, or he said sorry for not being quick enough to keep the lead, is known only to him, though I strongly suspect that he probably meant it as an apology for issuing the order) over the incident at Hockenheim.

Once again, the FIA missed out on an easy opportunity to demonstrate some integrity when Ferrari, its favorite son, was on the dock for a clearcut rules violation.

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the first four teams’ driver pairings:

McLaren-Mercedes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mercedes GP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red Bull-Renault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I never picked Mark Webber for my team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ferrari

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

Thankfully, Massa recovered fully recovered in the physical sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

F1

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

27 July 2010 – Formula One Mid-Season Review (Part 4)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 27/07/2010

Jenson Button won the 2009 Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship using a tried-and-true strategy:  He dominated the early part of the 2009 season, winning six out of the first seven grands prix, then earning enough points despite his opposition getting stronger as the season wore on.  The massive lead he amassed in the early part of the year proved decisive as multiple challengers necessarily split the rest of the available points amongst themselves, eventually enabling him to clinch the title in Brazil, the penultimate race of the season.

2010 was following a far different script.  Even though Button found himself at the head of the drivers’ table as he was at the same point of the previous year, this time his lead was far slimmer, and the competition far fiercer.

Undoubtedly, the sixth grand prix of the year had the look of a potentially critical race of the season thus far:  Either the frontrunners like Button or Alonso were going to score well and consolidate or strengthen their positions at the top of the standings, or people behind were going to start making their push towards the front themselves and tighten things up even more.

Round 6:  Grand Prix of Monaco

The Monaco GP is often called “the jewel of the crown,” the most glamorous grand prix of them all, and the one all the pilotes wanted to win above all others.  Many drivers have confessed that they tend to push harder to win here.

Perhaps Fernando Alonso thought and felt the same during Saturday practice prior to qualifying.  He crashed his Ferrari on just his sixth lap in the crucial session (when teams are typically finalizing set-up work for qualifying), damaging the car beyond the point of repair and necessitating the use of the spare car.  Without a doubt, Alonso was pushing extra hard because, like each of the fancied top runners, he wanted to secure as good a grid position as possible, given the extreme difficulty in overtaking.  Because he needed to use the spare car by force majeur, however, he was automatically excluded from participating in qualifying.  The two-time World Champion from Spain would be starting this Monaco Grand Prix from the pit lane, which only added insult to injury.

Qualifying went on without Alonso, of course, and Mark Webber continued Red Bull’s impressive streak of consecutive pole positions in 2010.  A hugely impressive Robert Kubica – to me, the transcendent driver of the season so far – finished with the 2nd best time, splitting the Red Bulls.  Alongside Sebastian Vettel in P4 was Felipe Massa.  Fifth through tenth on the grid were:  Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Michael Schumacher, Jenson Button, Rubens Barrichello, and Vitantonio Liuzzi.

At the start, Vettel managed to beat Kubica to Ste. Devote, getting into P2 behind his teammate.  Meanwhile, Rubens Barrichello leapt from ninth on the grid all the way up to P6 in the mad scramble in the first lap alone.  This was just as well for Williams, since Barrichello’s young teammate, Nico Hülkenberg crashed in the famous tunnel, which necessitated the use of the Safety Car.  The crash was just the final domino for Hülkenberg, who had to start at the rear of the grid despite setting the eleventh-best time in qualifying because of problems with his clutch.

The Safety Car deployment was a blessing for some, particularly Alonso, who took the opportunity to change from the super-soft option tire to the prime tire.  For others, it was a curse, especially for Jenson Button.  His McLaren’s Mercedes V8 destroyed itself on the second lap, a consequence of extreme overheating because of a radiator intake being blocked by a bung left accidentally by a grid mechanic.

Although Barrichello enjoyed a great start to his race, a suspension failure due to a loosened drain cover on the long left-hander entering the Casino Square ended it prematurely.  Williams thus had another bad race at Monaco; it seems to be the team’s bogey circuit, on which it has a long litany of unusual failures and circumstances preventing wins.

Barrichello’s crash left plenty of debris scattered all over the track, which triggered the second Safety Car period, allowing the trackside workers to clean up the debris.

The third Safety Car period came just a few laps later, when marshals at Massanet reported a manhole cover loosening in its mounting.  Race control conducted a quick inspection of the manhole cover and deemed it safe enough for the race to continue.

Despite all the Safety Car interventions, Webber kept his place at the head of the race, followed by teammate Vettel.  The Red Bull-Renaults were clearly the class of the field.  Behind them, attrition was exacting its usual toll in Monaco.  Besides Hülkenberg, Button and Barrichello, both Saubers and Virgins retired, as did Bruno Senna and Heikki Kovalainen.  An accident between Karun Chandhok and Jarno Trulli eliminated the final two surviving new cars, as well as gave leader Webber a scare entering La Rascasse.  The accident, which saw Trulli’s Lotus ram Chandhok’s HRT up the back and almost hit the innocent Indian’s head, necessitated the final Safety Car period.

The Safety Car ran all but the last few hundred meters of the remainder of the race.  It peeled off into the pit lane towards the end of the final lap; it may as well as just stayed out, since no overtaking was allowed anyway under the regulations (Rule 40.13).  Despite this, Michael Schumacher overtook Alonso, who had recovered all the way up to P6.  Schumacher’s overtake was deemed worthy of a 20-second penalty added to his time, dropping him from what was P7 before the overtake to P12.  Truly, the attempt to sneak past Alonso was a pointless exercise.

Despite the controversy at the finish, Mark Webber led Sebastian Vettel in a Red Bull 1-2.  Kubica finished in P3; Massa, Hamilton, Alonso, Rosberg, Sutil, Liuzzi, and Sebastien Buemi rounded out the top 10.  Behind them, only Alguersuari and Schumacher were running at the finish, since Petrov parked his Renault with failed brakes during the final Safety Car period.

The Monaco Grand Prix decimated the field as well as substantially reconfigured the points standings.  Button fell to fourth behind Mark Webber, whose two wins and 78 points took him to the top of the totals.  Vettel actually had the same number of points as Webber, but due to having only won once thus far, Webber was entrenched at the top.  Alonso’s gritty drive through the field may have dropped his ranking to third, but at least he scored some points on a weekend when the erstwhile leader, Button, had none.

Round 7:  Grand Prix of Turkey

Red Bull arrived in Istanbul in a great frame of mind.  Not only had the team won the pole at every race thus far in 2010, but it had also won more races than any other team thus far (three wins – two by Mark Webber, one by Sebastian Vettel – versus two for McLaren and one for Ferrari).  It was easy to make the argument that the RB6 was the fastest car at this point of the 2010 season.  The fact that Red Bull-Renault was also leading the Constructors’ World Championship after the Monaco Grand Prix only made the case of Red Bull being the team and car to beat much stronger.

Not only that, but both of its drivers sat atop the Drivers’ World Championship tied at 78 points, with the nominal lead in the championship being assigned to Mark Webber by virtue of his having more race wins than his teammate.  Two top-class drivers matched with the top-class car were, as always, going to be difficult to beat.  

If anything, they only had themselves to fight against, all other things being equal.

Qualifying for the Turkish Grand Prix did little to dispel that notion, with Mark Webber claiming his third consecutive pole position.  Somewhat surprisingly, 2008 World Champion Lewis Hamilton in his McLaren managed to split the Red Bulls.  Row 2 of the grid looked like the front row, with Vettel’s Red Bull lining up ahead of 2009 World Champion Jenson Button’s McLaren.  The Mercedes twins took Row 3, Schumacher outqualifying Rosberg for the first time this year.  Robert Kubica was in P7, with Istanbul specialist Felipe Massa’s Ferrari in eighth, not an ideal grid position for a Ferrari team celebrating its 800 Grand Prix.  Vitaly Petrov did a good job to take the ninth spot, as did Kamui Kobayashi to take tenth.

Other notables:  Fernando Alonso in P12, looking like he was suffering a slight downturn in form given his problems in Monaco; the Williams-Cosworths of Barrichello and Hülkenberg looking slow and unwieldy down in P15 and P17, respectively; Vitantonio Liuzzi mired in P18, after a run of several strong qualifying efforts and races; and Karun Chandhok yet again bringing up the caboose in the high speed train.

At the start, both McLarens flubbed their getaways and lost one position each to the cars directly behind them, but quickly regained those spots back by the end of lap one, retaining the original grid order from P1 through P4.  Behind them, contact forced Sebastien Buemi and Nico Hülkenberg to both visit the pits for quick repairs.  The leading quartet very quickly and decisively broke away from the rest of the grid, making it clear that this race was up for grabs amongst just the four of them barring anything unforeseen.  

Vettel started the regular round of pit stops on lap fourteen (of 58), followed by both Webber and Hamilton on lap fifteen.  Vettel’s canny timing and slick Red Bull pit work ensured that he leapfrogged past Hamilton in the running order.  Button took his pit stop on lap sixteen and resumed in P4.

With the Red Bulls now running 1-2, Webber ahead of Vettel, the race settled into a rhythm with precious little action.  The Istanbul Park circuit may be nearly-universally praised as a treat for the drivers and spectators, but with the cars’ relative performance being so close each other, overtaking was proving challenging.  Prospects for a race-changing event perked up somewhat when the possibility of some rain showers increased as the drivers ran off the laps.  Virtually the only changes to the running order were retirements, with both Lotuses experiencing mechanical troubles.

On lap forty, after running in his teammate’s wake for the entire race, Vettel closed up on Webber’s rear wing exiting the Turn Eight complex.  Into the Turn 9-10 left-right chicane and down past the right-hand kink at Turn 11 he closed the gap even more, swinging left in an obvious bid to overtake for the lead.  

Webber defended his position, squeezing his teammate to the left and onto the dirty side off the ideal line entering the Turn 12-13-14 left-right-left complex.  Vettel’s superior momentum out of the slipstream managed to sneak about a half-car length in front of Webber.  However, knowing that his greater speed on the dirty part of the circuit afforded him less than ideal grip for very heavy braking into the 2nd gear left into Turn12, he tried to squeeze Webber back right in an attempt to force himself onto back onto the grippier ideal line.

Unfortunately, this maneuver saw the Red Bulls making contact with each other.  Vettel spun into the run-off area, while Webber’s front wing got mangled.  The McLarens were not too far behind and inherited the lead, Hamilton in front of Button, as Webber dove into the pits to have his front wing and nosecone replaced.

Webber was lucky that the leading quartet of Red Bulls and McLarens had a big gap to P5, rejoining the race in third.  Vettel joined the other four retirements (both Lotuses and both HRTs) after his collision with his teammate.  Behind him, Schumacher kept Rosberg behind for the remainder of the race, beating his teammate in both qualifying and the race for the first time in 2010.  Kubica finished in P6, beating both curiously slow Ferraris, Massa in front of Alonso.  Sutil and Kobayashi rounded out the points finishers, ending up ninth and tenth, respectively.

So which Red Bull driver was at fault for their race-losing collision?  In my opinion, Vettel was responsible.  He was the one attempting the overtake, for one thing, so he carries the burden of responsibility that the move be made without harming the man in front.  He did get his car very slightly ahead of Webber’s, but it didn’t look to me that he had gotten enough of the lead to properly claim the line.  If he got his rear wheels ahead of Webber’s front wing, then that’s enough of the lead to be able to dictate who owns the line.  Not only did Vettel not have enough of his car in front of Webber’s, but Sebastian also moved right in order to get closer to the ideal line and off the slippery dirty side.  Webber didn’t give him the space, as was his prerogative.  Unfortunately for the team, it resulted in them not winning the grand prix, much less scoring what should have been a 1-2.  The fact that Webber’s third place in the race was enough for him to retain the lead in the Drivers’ World Championship was perhaps the only measure of satisfaction anyone involved with Red Bull could derive.

Despite lacking ultimate speed and and true race-winning pace, Lewis Hamilton scored his first victory of 2010, and McLaren enjoyed their second 1-2 of the year.  In doing so, Hamilton vaulted up to third in the Drivers’ World Championship, and McLaren pipped Red Bull at the top of the Constructors’ standings.  The results of the Turkish Grand Prix demonstrated that speed is but one component to a championship-winning effort. 

Avoiding trouble on the track during races is also one of those components, and thus far this year Red Bull and its drivers were doing more to catch trouble than avoid it.

%d bloggers like this: