Joe-Pinions: Sports

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

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

A new year, a new blog post!

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

10.  Nigel Mansell

9.  Jean Alesi

8.  Gilles Villeneuve

7.  Nelson Piquet

6.  Damon Hill

5.  Sir Jackie Stewart

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

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

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

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

4.  Jim Clark

Before Senna, there was Clark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jimmy was definitely one of the very best.

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

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

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

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

Big deal, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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.

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!

26 Sept 2011 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 10)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 26/09/2011

Last time I listed a few drivers who didn’t quite make my list of top 10 F1 drivers.  Those guys were a mix of typical selections made by people who pick “best of” lists (Fangio, Ascari, Moss) based on reputation and achievement and drivers who probably would never have been considered anywhere close to the top of any lists bar the ones that are most subjective.

The drivers who didn’t quite squeak into my top 10 provide a handy illustration of the nature of this particular countdown:  It relies not so much on statistics or any other kind of “objective” metrics as it does on more subjective criteria.  This list is intended more as an enumeration of my favorite Grand Prix pilotes, not so much as arguments for these drivers’ places in the ultimate “best ever” lists.

(I will have to confess, however, that my top driver is often underrated in such lists.)

Anyway, I’m invoking the writer’s privilege here of shifting tactics a little bit.  Instead of listing the #10 thru #7 drivers as I had originally intended, I’ll be devoting one blog post per driver.  So today’s post will be exclusively about the #10 driver in my personal top 10 drivers list.

With all that preamble all dealt with, let’s see which driver gets the tenth spot.

10.  Nigel Mansell

I have to confess something.

I’m not a Nigel Mansell fan.

I was never a Mansell fan.

Two things I will admit, though, are that I wished that he had given Ayrton Sennaa stronger challenge in 1991, and that I was genuinely happy to see him finally earn the world championship that he’d been chasing for his entire career the following season.

Mansell's distinctive helmet livery, as done during his Ferrari years (Photo courtesy of anf1blog.com)

To be perfectly honest, Mansell never really captured my imagination on a consistent basis.  He started his Formula 1 career as a Lotus driver, the last grand prix driver personally recruited by Colin Chapman himself.  He drove a small handful of races as Lotus’ third driver in 1980 before earning a full-time ride with the team the following year.  His stay at Lotus was unremarkable in terms of results, scoring five podium places (five 3rd places) in four years, no wins, and 38 world championship points.  He did score his first career pole position while driving for the team in 1984, at the Dallas Grand Prix, the season’s ninth race.

But while Mansell’s results ledger whilst at Lotus was respectable at best (Lotus was in the doldrums in the early 1980s, the prelude to one final, all-too-brief resurgence after Mansell’s departure at the end of the 1984 season), he was acquiring a reputation as one of grand prix racing’s most dramatic performers.  Mansell wasn’t good enough to rise above his rivals in the early 1980s, but more often than not he grabbed his share of attention for how he went about his racing.

Mansell was dramatic not in the way Gilles Villeneuve or Ronnie Peterson were before him, or Jean Alesi afterwards.  His contemporary and 1985 teammate, Keke Rosberg, was more similar to these other drivers than Mansell was.  These drivers had dramatic driving styles, a flamboyance and flair that was spectacular and very easy for spectators to appreciate.  Mansell wasn’t dramatic in the way he drove; rather, he was just simply dramatic.  You watched him, and you remembered not impressions of his style behind the wheel, but specific moments, the high points of a narrative.

For instance, even before he became a Formula One driver, you remember hearing about the time when he and his wife sold their house and most of their other possessions just so he could continue racing.  You remember the story of his Grand Prix debut at the 1980 Austrian Grand Prix, when his Lotus’ fuel cell leaked into the cockpit and gave him significant (and painful) chemical burns to his lower body and legs.  You remember the time when he took his first career pole, but ran out of fuel in Dallas in 1984; I can still see him pushing his empty Lotus to the line, then collapsing with considerable theatrics into the tarmac as soon as he crossed the line.  And I’ll never forget how he qualified brilliantly for the Monaco Grand Prix earlier that final season with Lotus, overtook pole sitter Alain Prost early in the race, then threw the race away after losing traction on some painted street lines on the way up to the Casino Square.

He left Lotus and joined Williams in 1985.  Mansell was a bit of an unknown quantity at the time; his years with Lotus were rife with unreliable cars and erratic performances.  On occasion, Mansell’s performances teased you with hints of brilliance; there was no doubt that he was a fast, fearless driver who was capable of great results when inspired.  Too often, though, he would make critical errors and remove himself from contention.  And he never was a threat to win the world championship, with his best finish in the final standings being 9th, in 1984.

His Williams years saw him begin to blossom.  In 1985 he took his first two Grand Prix victories, winning the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch and the South African Grand Prix at the mighty Kyalami circuit back-to-back.  He finished 6th in the Drivers’ World Championship that year, almost doubling his career world championship points total in one year (he scored 31 in 1985; as mentioned earlier, he had earned 38 from 1980-1984).

1986 proved to be even better.  Now teamed with Nelson Piquet (Rosberg moved to McLaren for 1986), he won five Grands Prix.  He lost the drivers’ championship at the last race, the victim of a spectacular tire failure in the closing laps of the Australian Grand Prix.  He was cruising at a safe fourth place when the tire burst on the Brabham Straight, running in a position that would have earned him enough points to clinch the title no matter what eventual champion Alain Prost and teammate Piquet did.  Yet fate deigned to not smile on him.

The following year saw Mansell emerge as an even stronger contender.  This time, the championship battle was, for all intents and purposes, an all-Williams affair.  Prost and Senna were also in play, but in reality neither of them had a car that was as consistently good as the mighty FW11B.  Mansell won the most races (six), but frustratingly also fell victim to more car failures than his other co-contenders (I remember him losing a wheel nut in Hungary, causing him to retire).  He also occasionally made some bad decisions on the track, too, such as when he made a poorly-judged overtaking maneuver on Ayrton Senna at Spa-Francorchamps.  The ill-advised pass saw both Mansell’s Williams-Honda and Senna’s Lotus-Honda spin off into the gravel trap at the les Fagnes complex.  All told, Mansell retired from four of the fourteen Grands Prix he contested.  That’s 25% of a full Grand Prix season lost to retirements.

But wait:  4/14 does NOT equal 25%.  That’s because the 1987 season featured sixteen races.  Mansell ran only fourteen on account of his accident during the 1987 Japanese Grand Prix.  He made a mistake in the Esses and crashed his Williams-Honda, injuring his back and therefore ensuring that he would take no further part in the final two races.  He lost his chance to beat teammate (and now fierce rival) Nelson Piquet, who lifted the champion’s laurels despite winning half as many Grands Prix as Mansell.  Piquet did not score four times, but showed excellent consistency by finishing second seven times, thereby outscoring Mansell very easily (73 (Piquet actually scored 76 total points, but he had to drop 3pts due to F1’s rule of taking only the best eleven results of the season into account) vs 61).

Mansell and Williams lost their Honda engines in 1988; consequently, they were relegated to the status of also-rans in the year of total McLaren domination.  Mansell’s contract with Williams ended at the end of 1988, and though the team wanted dearly for him to return, he had another option to consider.

Ferrari came knocking, and Mansell could not refuse the call.  1989 saw him teamed with Gerhard Berger, driving the beautiful John Barnard-designed Tipo 640, the first Formula One car fitted with the now-ubiquitous semi-automatic gearbox.  The transmission was a brand new innovation, and inevitably it suffered through some serious teething troubles (pun not intended) throughout the 1989 season.  Nevertheless, Mansell took a memorable victory in the year’s first Grand Prix (in Brazil), forever endearing himself to the Ferrari tifosi, who grew to love him.  They even christened him il Leone, the Lion of England driving one of their beloved red cars.

Though Mansell could only finish 4th in the final standings (earning 38pts and winning only two grands prix), he continued to burnish his growing stature even further.  Not only did he win on his Ferrari debut (incidentally, Murray Walker famously said that Mansell was the first driver in Formula 1 history to have a five wheel-change pit stop, as Mansell also changed his steering wheel – which housed some of the electronic control mechanisms for the revolutionary semi-automatic gearbox in his Ferrari – along with the four tires at one of his pit stops in Brazil), but he also pulled off one of the most exciting overtakes ever captured on video.  Watch his breathtaking pass of Ayrton Senna in the 1989 Hungarian Grand Prix as they both came up to lap Stefan Johansson:

1990 saw him paired with Alain Prost.  Initially pundits thought that they would be a strong combination for Ferrari, but in reality Mansell was no match for his more accomplished new teammate.  Prost won five races to Mansell’s one.

What I remember of Mansell from 1990 are three huge moments.  First, I’ll always remember his overtake of Gerhard Berger on the outside of the fearsome and dangerous Peraltada corner, the wickedly fast fifth gear final corner of the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico.  To me, this is THE signature positive Nigel Mansell moment.  It demonstrates Mansell’s audacity, his sheer chutzpah, that so few drivers in the history of motorsports have.  The second moment from Mansell’s 1990 that I will never forget is his retirement announcement at the end of the British Grand Prix.  Borne from the frustration of having yet another race-ending car failure (this despite his Ferrari being sat on pole position for his home race), he theatrically threw his racing gear (gloves, balaclava, helmet) into the crowd and then convened an impromptu press conference to tell the press and the world that he was quitting F1 at the end of the year.  This shows Mansell’s unparalleled flair for the dramatic.  Finally, I will always remember the Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril.  Mansell beat his teammate Prost to the pole, then pushed Prost towards the pit wall at the start.  This dropped Prost down the order, eventually finishing in third, but crucially behind title rival Ayrton Senna.  By this time Mansell’s relationship with Prost had soured badly, with Mansell accusing Prost of indulging in intra-team polemics a bit too much. Mansell took his only win of the 1990 season and seemed ready to go into retirement.

Not long after the end of the 1990 season, however, Mansell had a change of heart and decided he wanted to continue on in F1 after all.  Some people theorized that he staged the retirement announcement to terminate his contract with Ferrari without penalty whilst secretly arranging another ride.  Luckily for him, Williams decided to jettison Thierry Boutsen, thereby allowing Mansell to return to the team with which he had his greatest successes.  Now driving the Williams-Renault FW14, Mansell entered the 1991 Formula 1 season with optimism.

Though the FW14 had a few teething problems (again, due to a new-for-Williams semi-automatic transmission, ironically repeating his experience with Ferrari in 1989), by mid-season Mansell and the Williams-Renault were the combination to beat.  He won three consecutive grands prix in the middle of the season, and ended up the year with two more victories, bringing his career total up to 21.  He was Ayrton Senna’s strongest challenger for the 1991 title, but Mansell lost far too many points to Senna due to his car’s unreliability and his own mistakes:  I’ll never forget Mansell stalling his Williams exiting the hairpin in Canada just a few hundred meters from the end of the race, costing him the win, as well as his mistake in Japan that saw him sliding out into the gravel trap because he tried to follow Senna too closely, which cost him critical front downforce.

1992, though, saw Mansell finally winning the world championship he had so fiercely desired.  Armed with an evolved FW14B now featuring a fully-reliable semi-automatic gearbox and stunningly effective active suspension which controlled the car’s sophisticated aerodynamics, Mansell dominated the 1992 season.  He reduced grands prix to demonstration runs.  He won nine grands prix (then a record) and took the pole position an astonishing fourteen times, a record that still stands to this day.

Mansell won his one and only F1 Drivers World Championship in 1992 (Photo courtesy of carazoo.com)

But it’s not so much for Mansell’s dominance on the track that I remember his 1992 campaign.  I remember three classically Mansell moments:  His duel with Ayrton Senna in the closing stages of the Monaco Grand Prix, his last-corner crash-and-feign-injury shenanigans early in the Canadian Grand Prix, and his dramatic retirement (again) press conference at Monza just before the Italian Grand Prix.  In Monaco, Mansell had to pit late in the race for what he suspected was a slow puncture, which lost him the lead of the race to Ayrton Senna.  Senna drove a masterful defensive race for the remaining laps, precisely placing his McLaren-Honda on the piece of the track that Mansell needed to execute the overtaking maneuver.  At Montreal, was not on pole position for the first time that year and was again chasing Senna when he botched an overtaking maneuver going into the final third gear right-left chicane; Mansell then feigned unconsciousness for a few laps, staying in his Williams (perhaps trying to force race officials to halt the race, therefore possibly giving him the chance to rejoin with a healthy car) while the field roared past at full racing speed.  Eventually, Mansell was persuaded to climb out, whereupon he told anyone who’d listen that Senna had “pushed him over” into the gravel trap, when video replays showed no such thing had occured.  Finally, when it became clear that Alain Prost was returning from a year’s sabbatical and joining him at Williams for 1993, Mansell decided he didn’t want to team with Prost and announced he was calling it quits at the end of 1992.  So much drama surrounding just one person.

Mansell’s ultimate retirement from Formula 1 was postponed, however.  He went to the USA to compete in CART in 1993 and 1994 (winning the championship in his first try), before returning for a few events in 1994 as Damon Hill’s teammate.  He even managed to win the 1994 Australian Grand Prix, his final victory.  He finally ended his grand prix career the following year with McLaren (a truncated season which saw him either quit or get dismissed due to the McLaren-Mercedes’ poor performance).

It’s impossible to be indifferent to Nigel Mansell:  You either love him and his racing, or you don’t.  My own feelings about Mansell are not as clear-cut; it’s not a case of just black or white.  Mansell takes my breath away in ways few drivers ever have.  When he pulls off such brave maneuvers (like his epic Peraltada overtake, or his “Silverstone Two-Step” in 1987, or his awesome battle against Jean Alesi in a Suzuka monsoon in 1994) he is almost unique.  But then I don’t care for his penchant for excessive dramatics.  I could do without his Brett Favre-like prima donna tendencies vis-a-vis retirement.  I don’t care for his theatrics.

Here’s my bottom line as far as Nigel Mansell is concerned:  I respected his great bravery tremendously, but I could do without his tendency to indulge in melodrama on and off the track.  He will always be considered as one of Formula 1’s most colorful and memorable characters, but apart from his prowess at overtaking (which, to me seemed more a function of his bravery exceeding his rivals’ and not so much an indication of his transcendent skills), there is precious too little of Mansell for me to give him more than just the respect he is due.

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

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

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

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

Lotus-Cosworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HRT-Cosworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

BMW Sauber-Ferrari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virgin-Cosworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

F1

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

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