Tuesday, 16 November 2010

We've got a champion!

Although this blog has been silent for a while, it can't not mention a little something about its favourite driver winning the WDC!

As a fan, you choose a driver to support for one reason or another. I spotted Sebastian putting his car on pole at Monza in 2008 and then winning that race and, you know, who doesn't love a good underdog story? Back then, it was easy to be Seb's fan. With no pressure on him and a less-than-brilliant car, all he did was impress. This year, on the other hand, hasn't been quite as straightforward.

There's no point in arguing about whether Seb deserves the championship. He had to fight it out with all the other big names in the sport and he probably lost as many points through reliability as he gained from the qualifying superiority of his car. The stats speak for themselves but there's something more impressive about his season.

It was only a few months ago that Sebastian Vettel was trailing in the championship by several points, and had just lost another bunch by crashing into Jenson Button at Spa. He was already considered the villain by many; Mark Webber was getting nothing but sympathy from the press after the team's awkward handling of the Istanbul and Silverstone incidents. Hungary had been another lost win and after that came an incident that earnt him the nickname 'crash-kid'. How does a 23-year-old bounce back from that?

In style, is the answer. In Singapore, even though he had just spent a whole race looking at Fernando Alonso's diffuser, he knew he was back. "Don't you worry, we will get them" he said calmly on the team radio at the end of the race. Next time round, he did what he does best: pole position and a race win at his beloved Suzuka, all in one day, put him back into the championship hunt.

Just before his engine blew up in Korea, he was on course to lead the championship for the first time. It didn't happen. He put the fire out, consoled the team, and decided to come back stronger. Two races and two wins later, he was the World Champion. Abu Dhabi was the first time Sebastian had led the championship in his career. Make your own jokes about German efficiency.

When Jenson Button won last year, you could see the relief in his eyes. He had been the leader all year and it was his to lose. In contrast, Sebastian just couldn't believe it. His reaction on the radio was heartwarmingly emotional and he looked completely in awe afterwards. And understandably so; after a year of dismal luck, everything had gone his way in the last race.

If you believe in fairytales, then the right guy won. Of course, in real life, things are not just black or white. Sebastian might not be the perfect champion (and who is?), but he is certainly a deserving one. And he'll only get better.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

When are team orders bad... and when are they really bad?

I can't speak for everyone, but I watch F1 because I love the racing. Sure, the off-track drama can sometimes be almost as entertaining, but hardly as thrilling as seeing two skilled drivers in powerful cars fighting it out on track.

Seeing it like this, we were robbed on Sunday. Just after the pitstops, everyone was hanging off the edge of their chairs, trying to see how Massa would deal with the hard tyre (which he clearly dislikes) and whether Alonso could take advantage of his struggles. As Massa kept locking up, Alonso was closing in dangerously and we were set for a brilliant fight.

Looking back at it now it is clear that Alonso wasted his only chance to take the lead as, after Massa got used to driving on hard tyres, he didn't look threatened anymore. The gap was a comfortable 4 seconds and we were getting ready to celebrate Felipe Massa's return to form, exactly one year after his horrific accident in Hungary.
What happened next is pretty well documented; the reaction from journalists and fans was passionate and the podium and press conference a sad affair. But why were we all so shocked? After all, team orders have occured several times in the past, even after they were banned in 2002.

One would be naive to assume that it is possible for a team to give both their drivers equal chances until the end of the year. Fans watch the sport for the racing. Teams and drivers are in it to win, and some of them will try and do so at all costs. So, if team orders are inevitable and (relatively) frequent, what's the fuss all about? Why is this different?

Well, the first obvious reason is that both drivers are still in contention for the championship. The new points system makes gaps look a lot bigger than they actually are and Keith from F1 Fanatic has done a great job of explaining Massa's and Alonso's relative positions in the standings. For me, there is a clear difference between what happened on Sunday and Massa helping Raikkonen in 2007 or vice versa in 2008. What Ferrari did in Germany was to publicly declare that they do not consider Massa a championship contender. Without his team's moral and practical support, he certainly isn't one.

Another important point is that the Constructors' points didn't change after the swap, i.e. Massa wasn't helping his team, he was helping Alonso. Two years ago, same place, Kovalainen let Hamilton past, who then went on to win. Crucially, Hamilton had the pace and the strategy to challenge for the lead and, after overtaking Kovalainen, he made two further passes and ended up winning the race. As a result, the team's points were maximised.

On a more sentimental note, Massa was about to win a race for the first time since his life-threatening crash, exactly a year ago. The team missed an excellent opportunity for positive press and a fairytale story. People like fairytales. What people don't like is spoilt drivers who make a fuss about "being stuck" behind their teammates while being faster than them, yet fail to overtake them without the team's help. This wasn't good for Alonso's image, for Ferrari's image or for the sport's image.

In the end, I didn't want to see a repeat of Turkey, but I did want to see a race.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

9 races, 5 winners, anyone's championship

If 2009 was exciting, 2010 was promising to be a classic with 4 world champions on the grid and at least 4 teams trying to establish themselves at the front.

Red Bull started the season nicely, with Vettel taking pole in Bahrain, but a spark plug issue dropped him to fourth. Alonso inherited the win and lead the first Ferrari 1-2 since the 2008 French Grand Prix. At least the Tifosi were happy; the rest of us were just hoping to see some real racing in Australia.

Another race, another pole for Vettel, another mechanical problem. This time it was a tactical Button who took advantage of Red Bull's misfortunes to grab his first win for 2010. Could he finally prove his doubters wrong?

Malaysia saw Webber taking pole to maintain Red Bull's impressive record. A mistake at the first corner gave Vettel the lead and the car held up for Vettel to finally celebrate his first win of the season. So far we'd had 3 different teams winning the first 3 races, an exciting start to the season that we hadn't seen since 1990.

Vettel returned to his qualifying form in China, but the Red Bulls faded away in a hectic race with changeable conditions, which was won by Jenson Button. The 2009 champion was now leading the 2010 championship.

Before Barcelona and Monaco, Webber promised his dogs to go back with as many points as possible and he's not a man to break a promise; two straightforward poles and wins at Barcelona and Monaco gave him 50 points and the championship lead. Had the bad luck finally abandoned him?

Two teammates tied in points at the top is a recipe for disaster though, as Red Bull discovered in Turkey. At a race to forget, Vettel hit Webber while fighting for the lead and gave Hamilton his first win of the season. Button got a bit too close trying to grab the lead and just avoided another Red Bull-style drama.

Hamilton was back for good, and he showed it with an emphatic win in Canada. The race was a classic, packed with action and far from predictable. Even if Alonso only managed 3rd, Ferrari's pace looked good and it gave them hope that they could return to their early season pace.

The season so far had been so exciting, some people were almost looking forward to the procession that is Euro GP. Luckily for the rest of us, that's not what we got. Drivers proved that overtaking might be hard on the Valencia street circuit, but not impossible. Vettel was back; a pole and a win gave him the confidence boost which he desperately needed after Turkey. Alonso was fuming after a safety car ruined his race but, crucially, not Hamilton's. Webber proved that Red Bull does give you wings when his car went flying after it hit Kovalainen's Lotus.

And for the rest of us, Valencia proved that with good drivers in fast cars and a bit of luck, F1 is at its best.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Lost Points

While we're approaching the half-point of the season, there's been a lot of talk of missed opportunities from several teams. Red Bull have had a big speed advantage, especially at qualifying, but they haven't always managed to convert pole positions into wins. They have had their fair share of problems and controversies but sometimes they just didn't have the race pace to win.

Although I thought James Allen was exaggerating a bit when he estimated that Red Bull had dropped 120 points so far this season, it got me thinking what the leader tables would look like if the top teams hadn't suffered any mechanical problems. Unlike James Allen, I am not taking crashes and racing incidents into account- it would make things too complicated and I don't think it's relevant.

In Bahrain, Vettel's spark plug issue dropped him to 4th and in Australia he retired from the lead when a wheel nut problem forced him onto the gravel.

In Malaysia, it was Ferrari's turn to hit trouble with Alonso's engine blowing up at the last lap and forcing him to retire from 9th.  In Spain, a brake failure dropped Vettel from 3rd to 4th, behind Alonso and at the penultimate lap Hamilton suffered a puncture and retired from 2nd.

In Monaco, Button retired with an overheating engine after a mechanic left a cooling cover on one of the sidepods. Although it's hard to tell how he would have done if it wasn't for that mistake, it makes sense to assume he could have finished at least 8th, just behind Nico Rosberg.

Turkey featured a controversial crash between teammates and, although it did gift McLaren a 1-2, it was a racing incident and not an unlucky mechanical failure - i.e. I'm not it counting here. In Canada, Vettel suffered some gearbox trouble which forced him to nurse his car to the end, but didn't lose any positions.

The Lost Points Championship

Driver    New Points    Difference
Vettel           128               -38
Hamilton      122               -13
Webber        102               +1
Button          101               +5
Alonso          81                +13
Rosberg        72                +2
Kubica          68                +5
Massa           59                 +8
Schumacher  31                +3

Clearly, the biggest loser in this is Vettel, who lost a massive 38 points from mechanical problems and, without them, he would be leading the championship now. Perhaps surprisingly, Alonso is the biggest winner, mainly because of the win he inherited from Vettel at the season opener in Bahrain.

In total, Red Bull have lost 37 points so far while McLaren just 8, with Hamilton being the overall loser at -13 and Button averaging at +5 despite his retirement at Monaco. Ferrari have gained 21 points from other people's problems, but they have had their fair share of accidents and mistakes, like Alonso's crash at Monaco or the bad qualifying choices in Malaysia- these are not taken into account here.

Mistakes, accidents and failures are all part of the racing though, and building a good car also means building a reliable one. At the end of the year, no one will care about missed points and opportunities; Vettel's two lost wins might cost him, but the points he managed to salvage in Bahrain and Spain could prove extremely valuable.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Is Renault the third fastest team?

Last Saturday wasn't the first time this year that Fernando Alonso didn't make the last stage of qualifying. It was though the first time that he failed to do so because the car wasn't quick enough. After the session he told journalists that Ferrari is now only the fifth fastest team, behind Red Bull, McLaren, Mercedes and Renault. I am not sure he is enjoying the irony of the situation.

Robert Kubica qualified behind both Mercedes cars, although less than two tenths off Michael Schumacher, with Nico Rosberg splitting the two. Vitaly Petrov also made it into Q3, four tenths of a second behind his teammate. During the race though, the Renaults showed superior pace and Kubica was frustrated to be stuck behind Nico Rosberg whose quick pit stop (fastest of the race) helped him stay ahead.

Vitaly Petrov posted the fastest lap of the race on the last lap and, although it was because he had very little fuel and new tyres on (a result of his tangle with Alonso) it was only 30 hundredths off Mark Webber's fastest lap. Webber posted his 3 laps earlier and since a lap of fuel is worth about 0.1 sec a lap, Renault can't be much more than 3 tenths off Red Bull's pace.

The team has still work to do to improve their qualifying pace if they want to catch the top teams but with their F-duct and a new front wing coming soon, we might see Robert Kubica regularly challenging for podiums.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

How McLaren almost did a Red Bull

More details have been emerging about the Webber-Vettel battle as well as the Hamilton-Button one, alongside many rumours of favouritism inside Red Bull. What we now know for sure is that, at lap 40, Webber went into fuel saving mode and turned his engine down. At the same time, Vettel was using the optimal engine setting and was able to get the run on Webber down the straight. Christian Horner has claimed that Vettel had managed to save an extra kg of fuel while being in Lewis's tail. There other versions of the story which include Vettel ignoring his team's orders to turn down the engine himself or even the team telling him to turn the engine up to overtake Webber.

I find the latter hard to believe, as it doesn't make much sense for a team to start alienating the driver who is currently leading the championship. They might prefer Vettel as he is younger and he is the product of their young driver development product, but a championship is a championship, and Webber would make a deserving champion and a very exciting story after years of being in underperforming cars.

Interestingly enough, Turkey '09 ended up with Vettel feeling let down by the team, as the strategy cost him a place to Webber. He was quick in the last stint but he was instructed not to pass with the message "Mark is faster". He went on to post the fastest lap of the race, surely wanting to show that he had the pace.

In a similar way to Vettel, Jenson Button decided to take advantage of Hamilton's fuel struggles and attacked him a few laps after the Red Bull crash. He overtook him briefly, but Hamilton was able to regain the lead soon after. What is interesting is that, in the lap before the overtake, Button managed to lap 1.2 sec quicker than Hamilton, and suddenly ended up right on his gearbox. After the race, Hamilton said he was instructed to save fuel and was given a target lap time, which he quickly slowed down to. He assumed Button would have been in a similar situation, and was very surprised to see him catch up so quickly.

The podium was a very awkward one, as all three drivers looked quite upset, each one for different reasons. There's an interesting story in the Guardian about Hamilton and Webber talking about Vettel's move. Lewis said something along the lines of "He did the same thing to me", presumably referring to their pitlane incident in China. Button thought he was referring to the move he pulled on him and, although Hamilton was quick to clarify, the misunderstanding says something about the tension that was evident on the podium between the McLaren teammates.

At least they managed to have a clean and exciting battle, which is something the Red Bull duo could learn from.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

What now for Red Bull?

The picture of Adrian Newey with his head in his hands sums up Red Bull's race perfectly. If there is one thing that will make you look silly in a race is crashing into your teammate, and it's only worse when you do so on your way to a podium.

The crash between Vettel and Webber cost the team several points, especially with Vettel retiring when he looked set for at least a podium and gifted McLaren a 1-2 in the process. Webber managed to keep going and salvaged 3rd, thanks to the big gap that the top 4 had to Michael Schumacher.

If Vettel had managed to pull that move off he would have silenced his critics who have been saying that he is being beaten by his teammate for several races in a row and to some extent, the ones that claim that he can't overtake. Instead, he is facing another two weeks of the media talking about how the pressure is getting to him.

Up to the point of the crash, he was driving a good race, having managed to jump Lewis at the pitstops (with some help from Lewis's own problems) and starting to pull away from him a little bit. Webber had to go into fuel saving mode, meaning that he was slower down the straight and Vettel, who had saved a couple of kilos of fuel, was able to run at full speed for an extra lap. So, realistically, that was his only chance to overtake and in doing so, he would also avoid being under pressure from the McLarens.

Maybe he got desperate or maybe he expected Webber not to give him such a hard time. The team seems to be putting the blame on both of them, which of course is the sensible thing to do in front of the media, saying that they should have given each other more space. Webber thinks that Vettel turned right too quickly and didn't give him a chance to react, which is what the replay shows too. Of course, it's hard to know without having all the data.

What I do find strange is that Vettel insists he didn't do anything wrong, while he has been very quick to apologise about less straightforward incidents in the past, like Australia '09. Maybe he expected Webber to move out of the way as he knew he was a lot slower due to being in fuel save mode. Psychologically, he must have been quite desperate to show he can beat Webber, since this was the first race in a few weeks where he had the speed and could have taken pole if it wasn't for another mechanical problem.

The media is already going crazy about team orders and favouritism, but Christian Horner is smart enough to realise that he can't favour one driver over the other at this stage, as it's unclear who will end up being on top after another ten races. The team will be very disappointed as this was one of the few races where they did everything perfectly, with the car having no problems, the pit stops being clean and the strategy working wonderfully. They need both drivers to be working together and stop giving points away, as McLaren isn't too far behind and they are ready to take advantage of Red Bull's mistakes.

Whose fault do you think it was? And how should the team handle it?