Joe-Pinions: Sports

5 Jul 2012 – Fernando Reigns in Spain

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

Sometimes the race falls to the swiftest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


26 Mar 2012 – Alonso Shines in Kuala Lumpur Downpour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ferraris are awful.

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

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

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


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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the first four teams’ driver pairings:


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.


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.


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

29 July 2010 – GP of Germany Thoughts (Part 2)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 29/07/2010

In my most recent blog post, I shared some thoughts about Ferrari’s recent resurgence as well as why I thought it was wrong for the team from Maranello to ask Felipe Massa to move over for teammate Fernando Alonso in the German GP.  In this blog post, we’ll examine two more outstanding issues:  

  • The controversy over illegally-flexing front wings involving Ferrari and Red Bull
  • McLaren’s troubles adapting the blown diffuser into its car is making it hard for them to keep up with both Red Bull and Ferrari

Let’s look at these issues in turn.

Ferrari and Red Bull Give You (Flexible) Wings

There’s a good chance that you may not be aware of it, but there has recently been a row brewing amongst the teams in Formula 1 about a couple of competitors having illegal aerodynamic components on their cars.  Red Bull and, to a smaller extent Ferrari, have been reported to have overly-flexible front wings.  Several teams have put forward their concerns about the legality of these two teams’ front wings to the FIA’s technical rules enforcers.

I first came upon the rather suprising story (surprising, since it seems to have been largely ignored by many of the specialist press outfits I consult regarding F1) on Autosport.  According to the report they filed, the story actually was first reported by a French newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, and consisted of a series of photographs from multiple angles that seem to show the central sections of the front wings dipping lower than what the regulations prescribe.

When Yahoo!UK’s Will Gray wrote that there was some footage on YouTube that seemed to support the contentions that the Red Bull’s front wing did seem to be flexing under load, I naturally had search for such clips and have a look for myself.

I found two clips:


The apparent flexing in the wings looks most obvious (to me, anyway) when you look at the wing’s endplates (its outer edges), near the inside of the tires.  When the car speeds up, the endplates look like they’re slowly dipping down closer to the track’s surface.  More obviously, when the car is under braking, the endplates appear to be moving up away from the track.  This would be indicative of the aerodynamic effects in play:  As the car speeds up, the downforce exerted on the wing increases the load, pushing it (and the entire car) down onto the track; conversely, when the car slows down, the aerodynamic load decreases, allowing the car’s suspension to decompress and push the car up a little bit.  

Autosport’s report highlighted the relevant technical regulation (Article 3.15):  

Article 3.15 of the F1 technical regulations states that bodywork that affects the aerodynamic performance of the car: “must be rigidly secured to the entirely sprung part of the car (rigidly secured means not having any degree of freedom)” and “must remain immobile in relation to the sprung part of the car.”

In simple English, this means that the front wing and any of its components (“bodywork that affects the aerodynamic performance of the car”) should not move at all, even when under aerodynamic loading.  I don’t know if I’m merely reacting to the power of suggestion, but it sure looks to me that the Red Bull’s front wing is indeed moving when the rest of the car (particularly when you use the car’s chassis that you can see in the onboard footage) is completely static.  Even the suspension arms look to be moving far less, even though they are subjected to the forces of weight transfer.  (Although, to be fair, suspensions are set to be very rigid these days anyway, with the tires themselves acting as the springs in a conventional car.  The reason for the very hard suspension settings?  Aerodynamics, specifically the need to have the car be at the most consistent ride height possible to maximize the under-car venturi effect from the underbody and rear diffuser.  The car’s suspension system is now nothing more than just a means to control the car’s ride height.  What this all ultimately means is we should be seeing much less change in the wing endplates’ relative position to the track as the car goes accelerates and decelerates.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve not found any “evidence” or any other kind of indication of similar things going on with Ferrari’s front wings, nor have I found footage of Webber’s Red Bull exhibiting similar behavior.  That is not to say, however, that only Vettel’s car has the flexible front wing (Autosport and Gray’s articles obviously says otherwise).

(EDIT:  On James Allen’s F1 Blog, there are a couple of comparative photographs illustrating just how low the Red Bull and Ferrari front wings are compared to other cars (a McLaren and a Mercedes are pictured).  Darren Heath, a well-known F1 photographer, took the photos.  See and judge for yourselves.  Incidentally, it is Mark Webber’s Red Bull pictured in two shots.)

This is the Red Bull front wing:  

This is the McLaren front wing, in comparison:  

Finally, Ferrari’s front wing:  

To my eyes, given these three photographs, the Red Bull’s wing’s endplates look to be lowest to the ground, the McLaren’s the furthest from the ground, and the Ferrari’s somewhere in between the two.  Of course, it’s impossible to say whether conditions (i.e., photographer’s position, angle, etc.) were identical in all three shots (not likely), but I think the shots are still fairly good to be able to make a judgment one way or the other.  Insofar as I’m concerned, there is a clear difference in how the wings on all three cars vary insofar as how close their critical components, the endplates, sit relative to the track surface.

The upshot of all this is that the FIA has ruled the Red Bull and Ferrari front wings to be perfectly legal after inspections conducted during the German Grand Prix.  All the other teams are now obligated to study and fully understand how these wing designs actually work and how they are deemed legal by the FIA.  McLaren, for one, has already said that they are completely stymied about how the wings are constructed

I have a feeling that this controversy will only get bigger, despite the FIA’s declaration that Ferrari and Red Bull’s designs comply with the technical regulations.

McLaren:  Blowing It With Its Diffuser

Speaking of McLaren, their MP4-25 has slipped from being the second-best car on the grid to the third best car, after Ferrari’s impressive resurgence in recent races.  In an effort to keep up with their rivals from Milton Keynes (Red Bull) and Maranello, McLaren decided to adopt a technical feature the Red Bulls have had since the pre-season testing, the so-called blown diffuser.

What is it?   Renault’s own F1 Blog explains it quite elegantly:  “A blown diffuser is simply a diffuser that is energised by putting the exhaust flow into the diffuser and blowing it with the exhausts.”  In other words, the engine exhaust is routed through the diffuser, where the hot gasses then accelerate the flow of the air going through the diffuser, thereby increasing the venturi effect and increasing drag-free downforce.

It’s not a new invention, as blown diffusers were first run in early 1980s by Renault (from James Allen’s F1 blog).  They became basically de rigeur in F1 until Ferrari invented the upward-facing exhaust layout in the late 1990s, and all the teams followed suit.  Adrian Newey’s design team at Red Bull basically just took the concept out from mothballs and incorporated it into the RB6, judging that the advantages in additional downforce outweighed the potential pitfalls (which clever management of the Renault engine was able to eliminate, at least to some degree).

McLaren has struggled to adapt its MP4-25 to accept a blown diffuser thus far.  They first ran the new diffuser at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix in Friday’s free practice, but took the parts out and reverted to the “conventional” diffuser for the rest of the weekend.  Apparently the team were experiencing problems with overheating suspension pieces, so they decided to take the safe route and go with the older diffuser design.  In Germany they ran with the blown diffuser the entire weekend, but were still unable to catch up with either the Red Bulls or the Ferraris.

With the ban on in-season testing, McLaren is racing not only against their rivals on the circuit, but also against time.  Simulation programs can only go so far in evaluating a sub-system as big as a blown diffuser, since there are so many other parts of the car that are affected.  Solutions to these kinds of technical issues will only be found with track time, but the ban on in-season testing severely restricts McLaren’s efforts to catch up.  Until they get on top of their issues with the blown diffuser, which includes full acclimatisation by the drivers, Ferrari and Red Bull will continue to stay ahead.  Not only that, but other teams (such as Renault and Mercedes) now have a chance to catch up to McLaren, which will make things even more difficult for the team from Woking.

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

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

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

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

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

Round 6:  Grand Prix of Monaco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Round 7:  Grand Prix of Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 July 2010 – Formula 1 Mid-Season Review (Part 3)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 23/07/2010

Three grands prix into the 2010 season, we have three different drivers from three different teams, all powered by three different engines, taking victory.  The first race, the GP of Bahrain, fell to Fernando Alonso and Ferrari; Great Britain’s Jenson Button, the defending world champion, won the GP of Australia in his McLaren-Mercedes; finally, Sebastian Vettel, the young German driving the fast but apparently fragile Red Bull-Renault, took the top spot in the Malaysian GP.  Clearly, we have the makings of one of the most memorable seasons Formula 1 has seen in years.

Round 4:  Grand Prix of China

The Red Bull duo of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber once again took the top two positions after qualifying, again confirming the notion that the Renault-powered RB6 was the quickest car, at least in qualifying trim.  Fernando Alonso did well to take P3, with Nico Rosberg taking the fourth grid spot.  Button led Hamilton in an all-McLaren third row, while Felipe Massa, the current championship leader, shared row four with Robert Kubica in his Renault.  Row five was an all-German affair, with the 7-time World Champion Michael Schumacher taking only P9 (again out-qualified by his younger teammate Rosberg) and Adrian Sutil somehow coaxing his Force India-Mercedes onto the 10th spot on the grid.

A light drizzle sprinkled the Shanghai International Circuit shortly before the start of the race.  With the previous year’s race run in a heavy deluge, the consensus decision by all the runners was to adopt a full-wet car set-up, even though they opted to tak start on dry weather tires.

At the start, Fernando Alonso left rather earlier than he was supposed to and jumped into an immediate lead, albeit one which even he acknowledged he was never going to keep.  As the pack snaked and slid over the rain-slicked surface, it was perhaps inevitable that some racers would not finish even the first lap.  At turn six, Vitantonio Liuzzi lost control of his Force India-Mercedes and collected Kamui Kobayashi’s innocent Sauber BMW and Sebastien Buemi’s Toro Rosso-Ferrari.  Nico Hülkenberg took evasive action and saved himself from immediate elimination, but not from relegation to the back of the pack.  The Liuzzi-initiated carambolage triggered the deployment of the Safety Car, as well as provided most of the remainder of the grid to dive into the pits and take on intermediate tires.

By staying out, Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes took the lead, followed by Jenson Button in his McLaren and the Renaults of Robert Kubica and Vitaly Petrov.  Rosberg led serenely until he made a mistake on lap 22, which allowed Button to overtake him.

As ever, rain made the racing very interesting, especially behind the leading quartet.  Alonso and Massa engaged in an intra-team race in the pit entry lane, which saw the Spaniard pip his Brazilian teammate for position.  Close by, Vettel and Hamilton also engaged in a squabble during their pit exits, with the Red Bull and McLaren pit crews doing equally great jobs in servicing their charges.  Vettel and Hamilton, released nearly simultaneously from adjacent pit boxes, slithered down towards the pit exit side-by-side, until Hamilton ceded position and allowed Vettel through.  Sebastian and Lewis would later receive reprimands from the stewards for their pit lane shenanigans, but no further penalties.

Meanwhile, the leading quartet lost Petrov, the Russian rookie proving a little out of his depth amongst his more experienced competitors.  Not only were the three cars ahead of him going faster and leaving him behind, but the rest of the pack was also reeling him in with their intermediate tires fitted.  Before any more figurative fireworks could ensue, however, Jaime Alguersuari triggered another Safety Car period when he collided with another car, damaged his front wing, and spread bits and pieces of Toro Rosso all over the racetrack.  The top ten, then, at this point was:  Button, Rosberg, Kubica, Petrov, a recovering Michael Schumacher in 5th, Webber, Hamilton, Vettel, wet-weather expert Adrian Sutil, and Fernando Alonso, up to P10 after dropping back due to a drive-through penalty for jumping the start.

At the end of the Safety Car period, Webber got caught out by the accordion effect of Button controlling the pace of the pack (as is his right as the leader of the race) and slid off the circuit, dropping from P6 to P12.  Meanwhile, Hamilton jumped to fourth, first taking Schumacher during the first lap after the Safety Car period, Petrov soon thereafter, then Kubica after several more laps.  He continued to charge, closing the gap to Rosberg in P2, until the two ran nose-to-tail.  Hamilton overtook Rosberg with the same move he used to take Schumacher in turn six, but Keke’s son fought back and retook P2.  The matter was finally settled in Hamilton’s favor during the final round of pit stops, with McLaren helping him jump Rosberg’s Mercedes by virtue of a more efficient pit stop.

Jenson Button had a relatively boring day, taking only one car on the track and basically just keeping his nose clean and not indulging in heroics.  He took his second victory of the 2010 season and became the first driver to win more than once this year, followed by teammate Lewis Hamilton.  The McLaren 1-2 enabled the team to claim the top spot in the Constructors’ World Championship after four races.  Nico Rosberg took the final place on the podium, holding off a charging Fernando Alonso in P4.  The rest of the points finishers:  Kubica in fifth, Vettel a slightly miffed sixth, Petrov a very creditable seventh; eighth place went to Mark Webber, ninth to Felipe Massa, and Michael Schumacher took the final point for P10.

An action-packed race which saw plenty of overtaking, collisions, and a couple of Safety Car interventions, the Grand Prix of China also saw a good shuffling of the Drivers’ Championship deck, with Button taking over the top spot and his teammate Hamilton slotting into fourth.  Meanwhile, Felipe Massa, who was the leader of the standings entering this race, was now out of the top five.

Round 5:  Grand Prix of Spain

In years past, the first race of the “European season” in Formula 1 heralds the first round of major updates to the cars.  After the “flyaway races” in the Middle East, Australia and Asia, the return to Europe provides an easy opportunity for the teams to attach refinements and developments to their base chassis in their unending quest to make their cars go faster.

The Mercedes probably had the most significant alteration, at least visually.  Instead of the typical integrated roll hoop+airbox inlet, the MGP W01 now sported a two-piece airbox inlet split by a vertical roll bar assembly.  At the poorer end of the grid, the Virgins also had an important update with a lengthened chassis, to allow for a larger fuel tank.  Timo Glock’s Virgin also tried a modified engine cover with a “shark fin” extending to the rear wing as many of the leading cars had.

Most pundits thought that despite the various modifications to the cars, the Red Bulls would still retain their place at the head of the grid after qualifying.  So it came to pass, with Webber beating Vettel for the second time this season.  Third on the grid went to Lewis Hamilton, who was definitely gathering momentum as the season progressed.  Fernando Alonso, the hero of Spain, took P4 in the Ferrari.  The rest of the top 1o:  Button, Michael Schumacher (the first time he outpaced his teammate Rosberg this year), Kubica, Rosberg, Massa, and Kamui Kobayashi, hugely impressive in the BMW Sauber.  Other notables in qualifying:  Spanish Pedro de la Rosa in the slower of the two Saubers in P12, suggesting that perhaps the Saubers were improving quickly from their dreadful form from the flyaway events; Rubens Barrichello in P18, outdone in qualifying by Williams teammate Nico Hülkenberg in P13; finally, Bruno Senna bringing up the tail of the field in P24, showing that it’s possible for the great surname to be found at the very end of a list of qualifiers in a Grand Prix.

At the start, mostly everyone held station through the first lap.  There were some exceptions:  Kubica and Kobayashi touched and damaged each other’s cars, sending both of them down the order; local man de la Rosa and Sebastien Buemi had a similar incident with each other, resulting in a puncture for the Sauber; and Bruno Senna crashed out where de la Rosa and Buemi had their coming-together.  Meanwhile, Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus never took the start due to a gearbox issue.

The Red Bulls ran at the front mostly untroubled, until the pit stops during the first third of the race.  Vettel had a problem during his pit stop, resulting in Lewis Hamilton taking P2 away from him.  Later on, Vettel would drop further down the field when he indulged in an off-track excursion on lap 54, necessitating a cautionary pit stop.  The Red Bull pit crew discovered Vettel had a brake wear problem, which meant that Vettel had to cut his pace significantly if he was to make the end of the race.  Alonso, Schumacher, Button, Massa were the big beneficiaries of Vettel’s problems.

On lap 65, the penultimate lap, Lewis Hamilton lost P2 when his McLaren suffered a puncture to his left-front tire, sending him off the track and into the wall at turn three, a very long right-hander which puts maximum stress on the left-front.  Hamilton fell to P14 in the final classifications, a heartbreaking result when he looked set to make another big leap in the points standings.

Mark Webber won as he pleased, the first pole winner to also take the victory during the Grand Prix in 2010.  Alonso was cheered to the heavens for his lucky second place, and Vettel took the final place on the podium despite his brake problems.  The rest of the top 10:  Schumacher, Button, Massa, Sutil, Kubica, Barrichello, and young rising Spanish star Jaime Alguersuari earning the final point for tenth.  Other notables:  Rosberg in an unlucky P13, thoroughly beaten by Schumacher on a circuit where the 7-time World Champion won six times; Liuzzi classified in P15 after his Force India’s Mercedes engine blew up on the same lap Hamilton had his race-ending accident; and Jarno Trulli in P17, showing that Lotus was definitely the fastest of the newcomers.

So, after five races, the Drivers’ World Championship top five looked like this:

  1. Jenson Button (2 wins) = 70pts
  2. Fernando Alonso (1 win) = 67pts
  3. Sebastian Vettel (1 win) = 60pts
  4. Mark Webber (1 win) = 53pts
  5. Nico Rosberg (0 wins) = 50pts

And the Constructors’ World Championship:

  1. McLaren-Mercedes = 119pts
  2. Ferrari = 116pts
  3. Red Bull-Renault = 113pts
  4. Mercedes = 72pts
  5. Renault = 50pts

After five grands prix, the Red Bulls were still the cars to beat, while McLaren seemed to be on an upward swing in form.  Ferrari’s performances were inconsistent, in that Alonso usually would be high up the grid and Massa several rows behind.  Meanwhile, Renault continued their unexpected good form, suggesting that luck had nothing to do with their speed on the track.  Of the others, Mercedes was similar to Ferrari, in that their form was good but not good enough to pose a real challenge to the front runners; Williams was doing a mostly good job, though their performance in Spain was worryingly bad; Force India was doing a strong, steady job, almost always beating the Toro Rosso pair.  Finally, Lotus had definitely proven that they were the fastest amongst the newcomers, and HRT were definitely the slowest.

Next post:  Rounds 6 & 7.

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18 July 2010 – Formula 1 Mid-Season Review (Part 2)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 18/07/2010

In my most recent post, we discussed some of the many changes to Formula 1 in 2010, including some of the new regulations, the new competitors, and some of the entities who have departed from the sport.

Starting with this entry, we’ll next be looking at capsulized reviews of the first ten races of the 2010 F1 World Championship.

Without further delay, here is the 2010 Formula One World Championship so far:

Round 1:  Grand Prix of Bahrain

The first Grand Prix of the 2010 season was held on the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain.  Sebastian Vettel put his Red Bull Racing RB6 on pole position, with Felipe Massa doing a remarkable job lining up beside the young German on the front row.  Massa’s performance is remarkable not only because this is his first race back from his life-threatening injuries incurred in the Hungarian Grand Prix last year, but also because he beat his new teammate at Ferrari, the two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso from Spain.  Alonso wound up third, just ahead of Lewis Hamilton, who was his teammate at McLaren in 2007.  Other notable qualifying performances included:  Nico Rosberg (GER) in his Mercedes lining up 5th, beating his compatriot and teammate, 7-time World Champion (and fresh off a three-year retirement) Michael Schumacher, who lined up 7th; Mark Webber in the slower of the Red Bull-Renaults in 6th; 2009 World Champion Jenson Button in the second of the McLarens lining up eighth on the grid, just ahead of the Renault of Poland’s Robert Kubica; Adrian Sutil of Germany, driving the Force India-Mercedes, completed the top ten.

Vettel had a good start and kept his lead, keeping both Ferraris and Lewis Hamilton behind him.  Behind the leading foursome, there was plenty of action characterized by car troubles.  Webber left the grid with plumes of oil smoke pouring from his Renault engine’s exhausts, causing indecisiveness, order-shuffling and mayhem amongst the mid-grid runners.  Eventually, the race settled into a rhythm and saw Vitaly Petrov scything up through the field in his Renault, impressively overtaking six cars to find himself eleventh.  Whilst fighting with veteran Williams driver Rubens Barrichello, Petrov incurred a damaged suspension and dropped out, joining the HRTs (Hispania Racing) of Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna, both the Sauber BMWs (which actually run with Ferrari engines!) of Pedro de la Rosa and Kamui Kobayashi, the Virgins of Lucas di Grassi and Timo Glock, Jarno Trulli’s Lotus-Cosworth, and the Toro Rosso-Ferrari of Sebastian Buemi on the sidelines.

Late in the race, Vettel’s Red Bull-Renault developed a sick-sounding exhaust, which the team later clarified as a problem with a spark plug.  The Red Bull pit advised their charge to slow his pace in order to make the finish, allowing the Ferrari duo of Alonso and Massa and Lewis Hamilton to pass him.  Rosberg basically ran out of laps in his quest to similarly overtake Vettel for fourth.  Other notable finishers:  Vitantonio Liuzzi in his Force India-Mercedes doing much better than his teammate Sutil to claim two points for P9; Michael Schumacher finishing a decent 6th, with Button and Webber behind him; Heikki Kovalainen in the Lotus finishing in P15, the only one of the six new entrants to see the checkered flag; and Rubens Barrichello in his Williams-Cosworth finishing in P10 and scoring the final point on offer.

Some observers decried this race as “boring” and “processional,” but perhaps this was only natural.  This was the first race of a new era of Formula 1, so many of the entrants ran conservative setups in order to ensure a finish in the Grand Prix.  Not only that, but with the severe reduction in in-season testing, the early races in a season defined by these circumstances functioned as public test sessions even for the most established teams.

The results of the Bahrain Grand Prix of 2010 were arguably defined as much by fortune as they were by hard work and technical excellence.  Fernando Alonso became the first Ferrari driver to win on his debut race for the Scuderia since Nigel Mansell in 1989 despite his Ferrari not really possessing the pace of the outstanding car-and-driver combination, Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel.  For his part, Vettel was unlucky to suffer a mechanical gremlin and see his race-winning pace reduced just for the sake of preserving his engine for future grands prix.  At least he earned twelve championship points for his misfortune.

Round 2:  Grand Prix of Australia

Mark Webber was probably the most fired-up driver in the F1 circus.  Despite finishing in a relatively poor eighth place in the previous grand prix, he was coming home to Melbourne to a hero’s welcome.  As Australia’s sole F1 driver, he could be sure of enjoying the support of what is traditionally viewed as one of the best crowds attending grand prix weekends.  It mattered little that the GP of Australia has ceded its position as the season-opening race in F1; the Aussies love motorsports, and most of the drivers love visiting the country and racing on the Albert Park track.

Webber lost out to his teammate Sebastian Vettel in qualifying, with the young German winning the pole position again from his Australian teammate by a wafer-thin margin of .116s.  Behind the all-Red Bull front row were the hard-driving Fernando Alonso in P3, Jenson Button in P4, with Massa in the slower Ferrari in P5 leading both Mercedes cars (Rosberg ahead of Schumacher again).  Rubens Barrichello impressed with P8 in his Williams; Lewis Hamilton, P11 in his McLaren, did not.

Other qualifying notables:  Highly-rated Nico Hülkenberg looked overrated, lining up only fifteenth; de la Rosa (P14) did well to outdo his much-fancied Japanese teammate Kobayashi (P16) in the Sauber BMWs; Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok brought up the rear of the grid, some six seconds off the pole position time set by Sebastian Vettel.

Ongoing rain showers saw the grid drenched, forcing the race officials to declare a “Wet Race.”  This removed the requirement to run both dry compound tires on offer, which meant that there was a possibility for some drivers to run non-stop once they had fitted dry tires (as opposed to intermediate or rain tires).  Conditions dictated everybody fit intermediate tires on their cars; obviously, nobody wanted to gamble losing control and therefore lose track time when testing time (and therefore opportunity to collect performance data from their cars) was so valuable and rare.

At the start, the Red Bull twins led away.  Alonso and Button touched as they jockeyed for position at the first corner, resulting in a spin for Alonso which dumped him unceremoniously to the tail of the field.  Michael Schumacher couldn’t avoid the Ferrari and damaged his front wing, which necessitated a pit stop to replace the damaged wing.  Jarno Trulli’s Lotus failed to leave the grid due to faulty hydraulics.  Later on in the frenetic first lap, Kamui Kobayashi’s Sauber lost its own front wing and took out Nico Hülkenberg and Sébastien Buemi in a violent accident.  By the end of the first lap, then, four drivers were out, and the safety car was deployed to allow the trackside crews to clean up the bits of debris from the Kobayashi-Hülkenberg-Buemi incident.

After the safety car period, the race resumed at full tilt, and it soon became clear that a dry line was forming on the circuit.  Jenson Button was the first to roll the dice, diving into the pits to sit the soft option tires to his McLaren.  The move looked to be a mistake, especially when Button lost time when he slid off-course on his out-lap.  He recovered, however, and began setting very quick times, prompting the other teams to call their drivers in.  Perhaps predictably, Red Bull was one of the last to summon their cars into the pit for the tire change since they were running 1-2.  While Vettel didn’t lose the lead to Button when he finally came in, hometown hero Mark Webber suffered greatly due to the timing of his pit stop, falling from P2 to P8.

Lap 25 saw the end of Vettel’s Australian GP.  On approach to the 2nd gear Turn 13, bad luck reared its ugly head and Vettel found himself spinning backwards into the gravel trap.  Red Bull initially suspected a brake failure, but later clarified the cause of Vettel’s spin to be a problem with the left-front axle.  Jenson Button proved to be the chief beneficiary, as he was chasing Vettel when the German spun out of the race.

There was plenty of overtaking in this race.  Lewis Hamilton started in P11 but found himself in third place by the time of Vettel’s spin.  Fernando Alonso also drove aggressively, slicing up through the order from dead last and into the points and catching up to his teammate Massa.  In contrast, Michael Schumacher struggled to overtake Jaime Alguersuari in the Toro Rosso, who kept the 7-time World Champion back until almost the end of the race.  Robert Kubica also gained many positions through shrewd pit stop timing by his Renault team, as did his teammate Petrov.  Unfortunately, Petrov spun off the circuit very soon after he came in to replace his intermediate tires with dry tires.

Near the end of the race, McLaren called Lewis Hamilton into the pit for a tire change, much to Hamilton’s chagrin later.  In the process he dropped from third to fifth, now around a half-minute behind the Ferraris of Alonso and Massa with twenty laps to go.  Hamilton went on a brilliant charge, recovering track position relative to the Ferraris at a rate of around two seconds a lap.  He soon found himself under Alonso’s rear wing and looking for a way past.  Such was the lack of pace of both Ferraris at this point that not only had Hamilton closed the gap to nothing, but Mark Webber was also closing in behind Hamilton.

On the approach to turn thirteen Alonso moved to the right to protect the inside line under braking for the 2nd gear right hander.  Hamilton responded by lining up on the outside, looking to try an audacious overtake on the outside.  Webber, now close behind Hamilton, took a line between Alonso’s and Hamilton, looking to profit in case the Ferrari and the McLaren ahead of him had any problems.  At the limit of grip under braking, Alonso moved across Hamilton’s line and made contact with the McLaren; Webber, too close to Hamilton, then hit the McLaren and damaged his Red Bull’s nose, which necessitated an immediate pit stop for replacement.  Alonso survived the incident and kept his fourth place.

Button won from a very impressive Robert Kubica, with Massa earning P3 and the final place on the podium.  Alonso finished in fourth, followed by Nico Rosberg, Hamilton, Liuzzi, Barrichello, Webber and Schumacher.

Unquestionably, the most disappointed man after the race in Albert Park was Mark Webber, while Button was the most thrilled.  His audacious tactics were enough to get him in P2, ready to take advantage in case troubles befell Vettel.  As in Bahrain, the Red Bull-Renault proved fast yet fragile, ensuring that one of the preseason favorites for the Drivers’ World Championship was firmly behind the proverbial eight ball.

Round 3:  Grand Prix of Malaysia

Qualifying at Sepang International Circuit was an exciting affair.  A monsoon drenched the circuit during the session, resulting in some surprises.  Chief amongst these was both Ferrari and McLaren electing to stay in their garages during Q1, while all their rivals set about putting “laps in the bank” in case the weather worsened.  Consequently, Felipe Massa’s Ferrari was mired in P21, Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren in P20, Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari in P19, and the McLaren of Jenson Button in P17.

By virtue of a well-timed switch to the ideal intermediate tires in Q3, Mark Webber broke teammate Sebastian Vettel’s stranglehold on pole positions in 2010.  Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes split the Red Bulls, lining up on the front row and again beating Michael Schumacher, who lined up in P8.  Other notable qualifying performances:  Adrian Sutil, an acknowledged master of wet-weather driving, put his Force India in P4; Nico Hülkenberg lined up one place behind in P5; and Kamui Kobayashi, qualifying his Sauber in an incredible ninth place.

At the start, Vettel served clear notice of his intentions by taking the lead by the end of the first lap.  At the back end of the grid, Lewis Hamilton also served notice, slashing up through the order and overtaking ten cars by the end of lap four.  He worked on Vitaly Petrov on lap 5, then took P9 on the pit straight as the sixth lap began.  Petrov slipstreamed past the McLaren immediately and held the place until Hamilton finally retook the position two laps later.  He then weaved from side to side several times as he tried to break the slipstream with the Renault behind him, tactics which angered many observers.  The stewards investigated the maneuvers and ultimately issued Hamilton a warning for his tactics.

Other than Hamilton’s aggressive overtaking, car failures accounted for changes in the running order.  Kobayashi lost his engine on lap 8, Schumacher stopped with a loose wheel nut on lap 9, and Liuzzi’s Force India’s Mercedes lost its electronic throttle functions on lap 12.  Further changes to the running order didn’t come until the pit stops.  Button was the first to stop, taking on harder prime tires on lap 9.  He immediately set fastest lap of the race, prompting most of the other teams to call in their drivers to make the same move.  The Red Bulls, though, again did not call their guys in, waiting until laps 24 and 25 to summon first Vettel, then Webber, for their tire stops.

By this point, only Hamilton, Massa and Alonso hadn’t stopped for tires, but since the rules require them to do so they did.  Massa was first in, on lap 27, and immediately set staggeringly fast laps up to a second and a half better than anybody else’s.  Hamilton made his move and changed to the softer option tires on lap 31st (and P2, no less); he also started lapping faster than everyone else, Massa included.  Fernando Alonso was the final person to make a pit stop on lap 37.  Like Massa and Hamilton before him, once he had made his pit stop, the combination of fresh tires and a lighter fuel road equaled the best lap times of any runner in the race.  Unfortunately for him, though, his Ferrari’s engine would expire two laps before the end.

Once Hamilton peeled off onto pit road, the running order at the very front was set, with Vettel leading Webber over the finish line at the checkered flag.  Rosberg took P3 and the final place on the podium.  Rosberg’s 3rd place was also significant since it was the first works Mercedes podium position since 1955.  Kubica was fourth, Sutil a very impressive fifth, and Hamilton sixth.  Massa took seventh, while Button, Alguersuari, and Hülkenberg took the rest of the points-paying positions.

So, three grands prix in, and we have had three different winners driving three different cars with three different engines.  While the first two races’ ultimate results owed much to misfortune befalling Sebastian Vettel, Malaysia was a totally different story.  Malaysia was all about aggression combined with the correct tactical decisions, even in qualifying.  Webber’s decision to go with intermediates despite the monsoon conditions during qualifying rewarded him with pole position.  And in the race, Vettel and Hamilton showed what aggression can earn you, especially if the opposition is not as willing to match your tactics.  Vettel won this race when he took Rosberg and Webber on lap 1, while Hamilton almost went over the limit (some might say he may have gone over it) in his quest to recover lost positions with force and aggression.

After three grands prix, here are the top five drivers in points:

  1. Felipe Massa = 39
  2. Fernando Alonso = 37
  3. Sebastian Vettel = 37
  4. Jenson Button = 35
  5. Nico Rosberg = 35

The Constructors’ World Championship looked like this after three races:

  1. Ferrari = 76
  2. McLaren-Mercedes = 66
  3. Red Bull-Renault = 61
  4. Mercedes = 44
  5. Renault = 30

Next post:  Reviews of Rounds 4 and 5.

29 June 2010 – More Post-GP of Europe 2010 Thoughts, Random Stuff

Posted in Auto Racing, Basketball, Cycling, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 29/06/2010

Here are some more thoughts on last weekend’s GP of Europe:

  • Lewis Hamilton clearly passed the safety car which was deployed in response to Mark Webber’s crash with Heikki Kovalianen.  However, I do not subscribe to Fernando Alonso and Ferrari histrionic contention that it was a case of Hamilton cheating deliberately, and the FIA stewards in charge of the GP being unfair in doling out the drive-through penalty Hamilton served.
  • For one thing, despite Hamilton’s checkered history insofar as incurring the stewards’ attention in his career so far in F1, I can give him the benefit of the doubt in this particular incident.  When you consider that he’s got Alonso in close pursuit, probable radio calls from his pit crew in his ear, and the fact that the timing of the whole incident had him racing down the pit straight just as the safety car and medical vehicle were being deployed from the pit lane, that’s a large number of things to think about on top of actually keeping his McLaren under control under racing conditions.  That’s a lot of factors to calculate in your mind all happening concurrently, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed with so much information to think about.
  • There is no question there was a transgression, but I don’t agree with Alonso and Ferrari’s insistence that it was a deliberate attempt to cheat.  I think Hamilton got confused by all that information coming at him, hesitated for a few brief moments (he lifted on the pit straight, allowing the safety car to get in front of him in the first place), and made the mistake of passing the safety car after it had crossed the 2nd blend line.
  • What’s intriguing about this whole incident is that the FIA originally had been completely unaware that Hamilton had indeed committed a rules violation; the stewards in charge of the race only became aware of the incident because Fernando Alonso complained to his team bitterly about it, and Ferrari relayed the complaint to the stewards.  While I give Alonso full marks for his knowledge of the rules (all competitors should be similarly comprehensive in their knowledge of the regulations), I believe that he is nurturing an unhealthy obsession over Hamilton.  Either that, or Alonso is still nursing a very angry grudge against McLaren.  (I don’t believe Alonso would have been so bitter about the safety car overtaking incident if it involved another driver or team altogether.  I might be wrong, but you have to admit there are grounds for my beliefs.)
  • Perhaps this is only natural, since Hamilton is the only teammate Alonso has ever had who has proven to be a match for him.  The two were contentious teammates at McLaren in 2007, when Lewis Hamilton was an F1 rookie and Alonso a new recruit into the team.  Hamilton beat Alonso in an equal car, so perhaps Fernando fears Lewis as a rival.  Also, Alonso may still be angry with McLaren because the team did not cede to his wish to grant him a guaranteed #1 driver status, a condition that Alonso is used to having in most other teams for which he has driven.  McLaren has never subscribed to the practice of officially naming one of its drivers as a #1, making it team policy to allow them to race each other as hard as possible without jeopardizing the team’s chances at scoring the most championship points.  McLaren has always believed that the issue of which driver is “#1” is settled on the track; in other words, the more successful driver in the team becomes #1 by virtue of his performances and results, not because he is nominally granted that status before the races are run.
  • One more point against the idea that Hamilton deliberately cheated by passing the safety car:  Alonso and Ferrari are mystified by why they fell so back in the race order while “respecting the rules,” to paraphrase their statements, when Hamilton did not suffer too much of a penalty by “cheating” and passing the safety car.  I disagree with this viewpoint as well.  I think that Hamilton’s drive-through penalty lost him all opportunity at challenging Sebastian Vettel for the win; 2nd place was the maximum result he could get if Vettel finished the race sans problems.  Hamilton had a lot of performance in hand, in my opinion, as shown by his torrid run of laps after the FIA notified McLaren that Lewis was being investigated for passing the safety car.  He put the hammer down and created a big-enough cushion between himself and Kamui Kobayashi so that he wouldn’t get stuck behind the slower Japanese driver in the Sauber during his drive-through penalty.  Let’s now suppose that Webber didn’t have his spectacular somersaulting crash and the safety car had never been deployed:  I think that Hamilton was just biding his time, saving his tires so that he could attack harder and close the gap to Vettel as the tire stops came into play, thereby putting himself in position to challenge for the win.  Alonso, in contrast, was pushing hard just to stay in contact with Hamilton.  What I’m trying to say is that I think there is enough evidence to suggest that Hamilton was never going to finish behind Alonso anyway  unless he hit trouble (say, he had a bad pit stop, or made a mistake on the circuit, or got balked by traffic long enough to allow Alonso to close and stay in contact).  Whether Lewis was faster than Vettel was and could overtake, however, is another argument altogether.  It’s a moot point, regardless.
  • The last few races, Ferrari has been quite vociferous in their complaints against their fellow competitors, whether it’s against McLaren (a long-time enemy since it’s a successful team with a long history, just like Ferrari is) or against the backmarkers (the slower cars and teams who happen to all be new to the category).  Things aren’t going well in Maranello, but they don’t ever acknowledge the possibility that their car simply isn’t good enough to fight against the front-running Red Bulls and McLarens.  It’s always other people’s fault that Ferrari isn’t doing well, if you were to swallow everything the team tells you.
  • Last thing about Valencia:  I think that a large part of the problem is in the rules themselves.  For some incomprehensible reason, the FIA likes to write their rules in legal-speak, which means that even the simplest contingencies are governed by regulations that are needlessly complicated.  (Again, kudos to Fernando Alonso for his apparent mastery of the rule book.)  I very strongly believe that the FIA does this deliberately so that their rules can be subject to interpretation.  This is especially true in the technical regulations; apparently, even the apparently mundane regulations governing merging behind the safety car are more muddy than they are clear.  Insofar as how the cars line up behind the safety car is concerned, in the event that there is a mistaken overtake of the safety car (obviously, this is the first time the safety car had ever been overtaken in F1, so the rules governing this contingency had never been exercised prior to the European GP 2010), the driver who overtook the safety car would simply be instructed to allow the safety car to overtake him again as soon as possible, then take his rightful position behind it.  This is the most straightforward solution to this particular question, in my opinion.  It does not penalize honest mistakes, which is all Lewis Hamilton’s violation really was.

And now, some other non-F1 items:

  • Lakers fans like me are on pins and needles right now waiting for Phil Jackson’s decision to either return to the team and coach, or to finally retire.  In my selfish heart of hearts, I want Phil to come back since I believe he gives the Lakers their best chance to defend their title again next year.  A new coach coming in may have a good shot at performing reasonably well given the quality of the team’s core, but he is also handicapped by that same advantage.  The Lakers’ success depends much on positive chemistry given the egos and personalities of the players on the team, and I fear only Phil Jackson is the only coach around who can come up with the right mix of ego massaging, instruction, and strategic direction for this group.  If a new coach is needed, this will obviously disturb the equilibrium that Phil Jackson creates for this team, and this disturbance may be enough to send the whole house tumbling down on itself.
  • LeBron James’ arrogance is astounding.
  • As June ends and July begins, I’m getting quite excited for the Tour de France.  I feel this way every year in July.
  • In my opinion, the Tour de France is the single most difficult athletic challenge that exists.  Consider these facts:  1)  The race takes place over the better part of a whole month.  The peloton is out racing almost every day every summer in France.  2)  The Tour is unmistakably dangerous partly because of the tremendous variety of terrain that the peloton has to cover.  They race up and down mountains, they race on cobblestone streets, they sometimes have raced on roads so dusty and bumpy they seem like dirt tracks.  Riders have been killed in the Tour.  3)  It takes a great degree of coordination of teamwork to win a gigantic race like the Tour de France.  The team’s ace (most teams which are run well know which of their riders gives them the best chance to win the Tour, so everyone else in the team becomes a domestique in service to the ace) cannot win without his team’s support.  This means having superior tactics (primarily in where they position themselves in the peloton) as well as performing the best in the team time trials.
  • Anyone who tells you that the Tour de France is overrated as an athletic event, and that road race cycling is not a “real” sport, is a bloody ignorant idiot who has absolutely no clue about what he/she is talking about.  It is not just riding a bike.
  • In fact, the same is true for people who say car racing isn’t athletic either.  I’d love to see what these morons can do strapped into a real racing car.  Let’s see them set competitive lap times lap after lap, racing in traffic, without stuffing the car into the barrier or the wall or into another competitor.  It’s not just “driving a car.”

After all, when was the last time someone was killed playing on the PGA Tour?

Now golf:  THERE’S a “sport” whose status and credentials as an athletic event I seriously question…

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