Joe-Pinions: Sports

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

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

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

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

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

But I’ve digressed.

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

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

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

10.  Nigel Mansell

9.  Jean Alesi

8.  Gilles Villeneuve

7.  Nelson Piquet

6.  Damon Hill

5.  Sir Jackie Stewart

4.  Jim Clark

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

And so, my # 3 favorite F1 driver is:

3.  Ayrton Senna

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

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

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

But Senna’s star appears to be inextinguishable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ayrton Senna

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will we see an eighth different winner this year?

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

8 Jun 2012 – What Has Happened to McLaren?

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

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

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

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

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

It won’t be about Red Bull, either.

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

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

It all started out so auspiciously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

F1

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

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

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

How will the team and its drivers respond?

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

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!

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.

26 Sept 2010 – Sad Sports Day

Posted in Football (NFL), Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 26/09/2010

Today’s a sad sports day for me.

In Formula One, Lewis Hamilton’s World Championship hopes took what could be a terminal blow when he was knocked out of the Grand Prix of Singapore by championship leader Mark Webber.  Hamilton had eased ahead of Webber entering Turn 7 when Webber hit him, damaging his left rear suspension.  To compound my personal sorrows, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso won the race, finishing just in front of Sebastian Vettel.

Hamilton’s DNF also damaged my Fantasy F1 prospects, as I had him on my team this week.  Two races in a row he has given me a pittance in points due to crashing out due to accidents, so it looks like it’s going to be almost impossible to climb back onto the top of my Fantasy F1 league standings.

In other sad sports news, my San Francisco 49ers are now 0-3 after getting barbecued in Kansas City.  I didn’t see the whole game, but I saw enough through the magic of live streaming TV to rediscover the 49ers’ biggest problem on offense:  The Niners suffer from wildly inconsistent offensive line play.  The 49ers demonstrate the critical importance of the offensive line.  That’s literally where it all begins.  The O-line creates holes and lanes for the running backs, and give the quarterback protection and time to throw.  When the Niner O-line is dominant (as it was at home against the Saints in Week 2), the offense clicks; when it is being dominated (as they were in Kansas in Week 3), the offense is a huge mess.  Alex Smith is no Joe Montana, but not even Montana could do well playing behind such a porous O-line.

Such a sad sad sports day…

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.

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