Joe-Pinions: Sports

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?

22 Apr 2012 – McLaren Miserable in Bahrain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These days, though, such problems are aberrations.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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!

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.

8 July 2010 – Stuff on my Radar

Posted in Basketball by txtmstrjoe on 08/07/2010

  • Steve Blake signed a four-year, $16million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. 
  • Speaking of the Lakers, Derek Fisher has yet agree on a mutually-beneficial contract.  Here’s at least one Lakers fan hoping he and the team can come to terms, and soon.
  • The British Grand Prix will be run this week at Silverstone Circuit.  With the new “Arena” layout making its F1 debut, it should be an interesting race.  I won’t be daft and try to predict a winner, but I do hope that the McLaren boys finish on the podium along with Sebastian Vettel.   
  • The Tour de France has completed five stages, and I’ve yet to see a complete one on TV.  I’ve seen bits and pieces of the Prologue and Stages 1 and 2, but absolutely nothing after that.  Thankfully, I can count on my new friend from across the pond, Tim, to provide excellent recaps and commentary on the Tour, thanks to his awesome blog, The Armchair Sports Fan.  To be perfectly honest, Tim’s blog is professional-grade and is a definite boon for cycling fans who, for whatever reason, cannot watch the sport’s biggest race in real-time.
  • I absolutely LOVE the fact that my girlfriend is starting to fall in love with the Tour de France as well.  She watches the coverage on Versus, which, thankfully, is of a very high standard.  She’s starting to appreciate the traditions and nuances and subtleties of the sport now, also.

I feel conflicted about one thing:  As much as I panned LeBron James and ESPN for their cynical conspiracy to grab the collective attention of sports fans, I feel almost compelled to tune in and see which team will be getting the King of Nothing But Hubris’ services.  Do I give in and watch, just as ESPN wants me to?  Or do I resist and read about it tomorrow?

Bleh.

%d bloggers like this: