Joe-Pinions: Sports

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.

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

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

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

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

Lotus-Cosworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HRT-Cosworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

BMW Sauber-Ferrari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virgin-Cosworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

F1

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

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