Thursday, 16 October 2014

Double trouble

The day after the Russian Grand Prix - and Lewis Hamilton's latest triumph - my brother got in touch with me on Twitter with the following (and apologies to Nico Rosberg fans for his choice of nomenclature):

Alright, here's one. Imagine Lewis finished 1st in Austin with Britney second: Lewis leads by 24 points. Then the same thing happens at Interlagos: Lewis then leads Britney by 31 points. Under normal circumstances he'd be champ. Lewis retires at Abu Dhabi, Britney finishes second to (say) Bottas. Britney champion by five points. Britney ends the season with four wins to Lewis's eleven, and ends up champion. Imagine the seethe. Haha.

Lewis Hamilton has been doing more
of the winning at Mercedes this year
Photo: Octane Photography
And within this is a considerable thing left unsaid. That some of us might have even forgotten about amid the heat of an exciting championship battle. The notorious double points that awaits in the final round of the season.

This scenario imagined by my brother if played out would not so much break a record but smash it to smithereens. Lewis Hamilton claimed his ninth win of the season last Sunday, and no one has lost a drivers' title having won that many or even with one fewer than that (seven is the record, held by several drivers). So with the above chain of events the mark would be advanced by upwards of 150%.

I don't have any particular partisan leanings as to which Mercedes pilot indeed takes title honours this year, but at the broadest level there's always been part of me that likes the championship to go to the one with the most wins in that campaign. As implicit in this is that they've been the fastest, battling at the front and going for it, rather than hanging back and gathering points incrementally as might an accountant. Most of the time of course the winningest driver and champion in a season has been one and the same, but there have been odd occasions where it has not been so, with most wins (but not title honours) going to Stirling Moss in 1958; Jim Clark in 1964 and 1967; Mario Andretti in 1977; Alan Jones in 1979; a host of drivers got one more than Keke Rosberg's solitary win in 1982; Alain Prost in 1983 and 1984; Nigel Mansell in 1986 and 1987; Ayrton Senna in 1989 and most lately Felipe Massa in 2008.

As this shows it hasn't happened much lately, which certainly isn't a reflection of the points system which for a lot of that time has rewarded winning less than it had done previously - indeed the gap on points between race victory and first of the losers was reduced to an absurd two from 2003 to 2009. More likely it reflects that reliability has been much less of a factor in the last couple of decades, thus there is less to be had in itself just from making sure you are running at the end. Yet while I don't imagine that this was the intention of double points, it may be a consequence that it undermines rewarding the victor more than ever before.

Notorious double points awaits us in Abu Dhabi
"Abu dabi by night (crop)" by JiteshJagadish, rotated
and cropped by Apterygial - http://www.flickr.com/photos/
jiteshjagadish/5178451382/. Licenced under Creative Commons
Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.
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mediaviewer/File:Abu_dabi_by_night_(crop).jpg
But then again as a digression if we take another of Bernie's notorious bright ideas and which curiously would have the extreme opposite effect to that which double points was (officially) designed for, the medals system - wherein the drivers' championship would be ranked as the medals table is the Olympics (i.e. most wins, if tied then most seconds etc) - with that Lewis would have wrapped up the championship definitively last weekend. Perhaps underlining and not for the first time the importance of striking a balance.

Most of us concluded this close to 12 months ago when the double points idea was firmed up, and the passing of time hasn't done anything to alter things, that whatever happens you hope that the effect of double points doesn't alter who wins this year's drivers' championship.

If it does we might then be tempted to conclude as Tony Brooks did at the end of the 1958 season wherein he had three victories to his name to Mike Hawthorn's one, and his Vanwall team mate Stirling Moss had four triumphs, yet it was Hawthorn who took the title, 'that's when I decided the World Championship title didn't really mean an awful lot.'

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Rights and wrongs

Following F1 it often can feel that you need as much knowledge of geopolitics, foreign policy and the international human rights movement as the sport's esoteric matters. And this in a pursuit that at its core is as simple as which car can complete a proscribed distance most quickly.

But it can be and frequently is turned into more, often much more, than that. Agonising over the countries the sport visits - whether it should be keeping such company - is a regular feature these days. And the long wrestled over first visit to Russia that took place last weekend was merely the latest case.

Vladimir Putin's appearance, and the reasons for it,
were predictable
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Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/
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File:GranPrixRussia2014_winners.jpeg
I'll admit that the multi-faceted nature of F1, including the notorious political dimension, is for me part of the appeal. But when it reaches the politics of outside of the sport's boundaries it even from my perspective becomes rather wearing. Equally though it's unavoidable - everything is connected to everything else. Of course, at such moments we often hear the 'don't mix sport and politics' line. Would that it were but it's not the world we live in. Particularly not in a game wherein national governments are more and more footing the (vast) bill.

Sunday's pictures during the Russian Grand Prix didn't leave much to the imagination on that one, and I suppose if some good came out of it all it was in showing how absurd, or at best naive, the sport and politics shouldn't be mixed line is. Russian President Vladimir Putin's presence on the world TV feed, even appearing in the podium anteroom, a sort of appearance which I struggle to recall an equivalent of before, rather underlined it. The F1 race was being used by someone who in many eyes is a contentious figure as a means of lending himself greater legitimacy, and it could easily have been predicted that would be so.

That Bernie has in this followed the money at the apparent disregard of just about any other consideration should not be a surprise to us. It's what he does. It's not at all new either, given we can wind back through the decades passed to find that this sport on Bernie's watch was last out and first back into apartheid South Africa (and as if to underline the point F1 subsequently turned its back on the country pretty much as soon as it became respectable).

Indeed it can all be self-multiplying, as inflated fees can often be extracted from countries that are pariahs more easily, given they're likely to be more keen for the reflected respectability from hosting a high profile international sport event. Add in the greater importance of hosting fees to F1's financial model lately and the situation is exacerbated. Add to that they are bloated to such an extent that governments are one of the few entities that can afford them, and thus the proximity to the actions of the regime is more close, and it is exacerbated further.

I have argued on this site that having a Grand Prix in Russia is, in itself, a good thing for the sport, though I do not ignore that many things are done in the Russian state's that name cannot be defended. And one of the reasons why I wasn't quite as vocal on the matters of morality of a Russian Grand Prix as I had been with previous contentious races, particularly Bahrain's, was that - in something that is more of a condemnation of the sport than a defence - if we were to start ditching F1 races on human rights grounds by my reckoning we'd have at least four to knock off before we got to Russia.

Bernie Ecclestone (right) has long followed the money
"Al'Khalifa Putin Ecclestone" by kremlin.ru - kremlin.ru.
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File:Al%27Khalifa_Putin_Ecclestone.jpeg
To take one issue - one that I heard referred to a few times last weekend - of Russia's recent legislation prohibiting any 'positive mention of homosexuality' in the presence of minors, in my view the legislation is impossible to defend. But there are three host countries on the current calendar wherein homosexuality is illegal. These are the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi), Malaysia and Singapore (in the last case for men only). In the United Arab Emirates it is potentially punishable by death; in Malaysia by whipping and 20 years in prison. Yet every year the fraternity - including many of those vocal on Russia I'd wager - trots into those places without the tiniest hesitation in its step. I could be mischievous and point out that Texas State - the host of our next race - still hasn't repealed anti-sodomy laws on its books although they were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. I could be really mischievous Britain had up until as late as 2003 legislation in Section 28 that from what I can tell wasn't too dissimilar to the current Russian version. It's reported that some schools have latterly reintroduced it. Perhaps it shows the problems that can arise when one seeks to draw lines.

As for the tensions in Ukraine and allegations of Russia's contribution to it, while some may consider it a straightforward matter I've heard it argued too with vociferousness that the narrative presented predominately in the west on it is rather partial. Certainly it doesn't appear beyond dispute.

In this case though a lot of the collateral damage to F1's image it seems was related to profile. Russia is a large - and powerful - country, its leader (the one that turned up) having a high recognition - and infamy - factor. While for any of the three countries mentioned above I doubt many from outside the countries themselves could name a politician from there; nor is it likely that there is an individual therein so personally associated with the country's abuses. But certainly the argument of principle becomes weaker if it is applied more readily in some cases than in others.

Possibly as Joe Saward noted the main problem here was one of timing; perhaps if all had waited another 12 months for matters to cool down the damage would have been less. But such a thing is easier said than done. The race deal was done back in 2010, and a delay would inevitably have been viewed as a snub and a loaded one.

It's odd that there has been so much focus on F1 too. International football games be they European Championship qualifiers or Champions League games continue to take place in Russia unabated; British Airways continues to land in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. I'm not aware of much pressure being brought to bear on those. But then again, as we know and as outlined F1 has a bit of a previous for this. It stands to reason it gets less benefit of any doubt.

But that the race went ahead should not be a surprise to us either, and not merely because Bernie is not one for turning when it comes to pursuing cheques. It's also that to my knowledge a Grand Prix has never been cancelled on moral grounds.

Yes, as you may be shouting at this point, the Bahrain race of 2011 was indeed canned, but that officially was on the basis of security and Bernie didn't waste any time in reinstating it (indeed, he tried to reschedule it in the same season). South Africa we've mentioned, but that race being shunned owed to commercial pressure.

As Dieter Rencken pointed out too, if Bernie/FOM isn't going to be doing the stopping, the FIA's hands are tied also as it has an apolitical mandate. It can only postpone or cancel events on security grounds for which it relies upon guidelines issued by foreign offices. Which wasn't forthcoming in this case. And Russia and Ukraine both are full FIA members thus it's hard for the organisation to draw a distinction between them. As for the F1 teams they are committed to participate in a full FIA/FOM-framed championship so they can't really do much either, beyond exert pressure in private.

So we're at an impasse. Of the sport's triangle of power one point won't do anything and two points it seems largely can't. And you suspect that whatever the rights and wrongs of each of these cases of dubious F1 hosts, perception is everything and at the brand level the sport is being harmed. You wonder also at the broadest level where the line would be drawn. That Azerbaijan is to land on the itinerary in 2016 suggests we continue on the same path (here's my view on that race written for F1Plus.com).

I'm put in mind of the team principals' press conference that took place earlier this year in Hungary, wherein after several minutes of ducking and weaving on the matter of race hosts, someone asked 'Would you accept a Grand Prix in North Korea?' A good question - as yet unanswered.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Why, despite everything, I'm hopeful for the Russian Grand Prix

Confession time. I actually entered the Russian Grand Prix weekend in a hopeful state of mind for it. And ended it, despite everything, with reasonable optimism too. A position that for much of that time felt rather like one in a minority. But please, stay with me.

I ended the inaugural Russian Grand Prix with optimism
"GranPrixRussia2014 box" by kremlin.ru - www.kremlin.ru.
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The event as far as plenty were concerned was ill-starred from an early stage. Sochi as a town is small (some 350,000 inhabitants) and remote; Moscow being a three hour flight - or if you prefer a 24 hour car journey - away. F1 isn't well-established in the country either. All of which carry implications for it attracting a crowd and achieving viability.

Then of course there are some of the happenings within the country that cannot be defended, and that its notorious President Vladimir Putin clearly was going to associate himself closely with the race (as indeed he did). We can add to it the more recent events of 2014 - the Ukraine situation and allegations of Russia's contribution to it - which for plenty exacerbated the point and meant that up until the 11th hour some were talking of the race not taking place at all.

Whether related to a combination of some or all of such matters or not I got the impression that a few were determined to hate the whole shebang last weekend. I encountered plenty of 'typical Tilke' comments in reference to the track, others that compared the place to Valencia which was not intended as a compliment. One established F1 journalist on the Friday went further and declared Sochi a 'Mokpo Mk II' (in reference to the egregious Korean venue of recent times) as well as a 'future white elephant' - on the grounds it seems that it's a long way from Moscow and the local town of Adler wasn't very exciting. There's nothing like giving a new circuit a chance. And that was nothing like giving a new circuit a chance.

My Twitter timeline on Saturday evening appeared filled with F1 journos complaining about the local restaurants, while one or two others were similarly scathing the next day about the dancing festivities on the pit straight prior to the race. Presumably sneering at the outputs of those who've expended considerable time and effort to put on a show for you makes some feel big.

As for the on-track matters a few, including some drivers as it transpired, upon viewing maps of the circuit layout feared the worst in advance too, in that it looked a lot like a dead loss. But just about all pilots were pleasantly surprised upon actually driving around the thing. Many of the turns, with their odd camber, were deceptively challenging. Lewis Hamilton noted further: 'There's a nice flow you can get on this track, I'm really enjoying it'.

Given all of this I was therefore more disappointed than usual that the race itself was rather tepid. Perhaps inevitably a few interpreted this as further evidence to denigrate the event; declare it as doomed to failure. But as outlined in my race report it shouldn't be seen necessarily as a condemnation of the track, rather that there were some peculiar circumstances last Sunday that were mitigating at least.

Pirelli's Paul Hembery was correct to wonder
what his company has to do
Photo: Octane Photography
Pirelli as it often is was rather conservative in its tyre compound selections for a first visit to a new track, and this was combined with that a new surface is usually like glass (I won't bore you with the science of that) which gives us near-zero degradation akin to the Bridgestone days. And therefore near-zero variation on pace as a result. And near-zero fun. As an example Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo circulated in tandem in the latter part of the race with 14 laps' difference in the mileage on their mediums. But you'd never have known it. Presumably on both counts things will be different in future.

As a digression too, it's rather ironic that Pirelli got criticism for providing a product that proved to be made of concrete, given for much of previous years the company has been fending off audible criticism precisely for not doing that. Paul Hembery was correct to muse on the irony of it all later. I'm sure though that a happy medium exists that will please everyone. Maybe.

Then there's the fact that the track's layout meant fuel was apparently more marginal than in nearly any other race, summed up by the words of Kevin Magnussen afterwards: 'It was almost like a chilled-out Sunday drive, in fact, because I was easing off the power 200 metres before the corners in an effort to save fuel. I was really surprised that no-one was able to catch me, in fact; I guess the guys behind me must have been experiencing the same problem.'

This wasn't helped by that the expected safety car didn't appear, which also would have had an added bonus of potentially spicing up the action more generally. Indeed the GP2 race of the previous day benefited from that very thing. More broadly one of the GP2 and one of the GP3 races were rather thrilling, and the feature of long straights with big stops should in theory make overtaking possible here. We shouldn't give up on the place in other words. And even Valencia provided a classic eventually.

The crowd for the debut Russian Grand Prix was a good one
"F1 Grand Prix Russia 2014 start lane" by Premier.gov.ru
press service - http://premier.gov.ru/photos/. Licenced
under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia
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_Prix_Russia_2014_start_lane.jpg#mediaviewer/
File:F1_Grand_Prix_Russia_2014_start_lane.jpg
But I considered the debut Russian Grand Prix event a success. Visually I thought the venue was stunning, the backdrop all quirky, gleaming, modern architecture - a little reminiscent of Montreal's early days when the cars flashed between close-at-quarters weird and wonderful Expo buildings. The colours were richened and glinted the late summer, late afternoon, sun. Indeed the weather - another subject that the doomsayers referenced in advance - was excellent throughout. And the track circumnavigating the circular medals plaza, outlined by the elegant succession of national flags, was an excellent centrepiece. Scan back further and you see fine mountains in one direction and the waves of the Black Sea on the other. I was glad to see that Darren Heath agreed with me.

Fears of a sparse crowd weren't borne out either. I struggled to spot empty grandstand seats for the race (though the capacity was modest - around 55,000) and just about all present across the three days seemed enthusiastic. Of course we've seen plenty of times at new venues that early vast turnouts can dwindle rather quickly (see China, Turkey) but hopefully in this case with the rising star of Daniil Kvyat, presumably in a competitive ride in future years, and perhaps with Sergey Sirotkin to join him on the grid, results in fewer excuses for things not holding up. Add to this too that Bernie persevered with this race - for upwards of three decades - for a reason; that the country and therefore the 'market' is vast, that Russian investment already is present in Marussia, possibly soon in Sauber (though there seems a lot of prevarication in that deal) and the fulcrum of its own race presumably aids it growing further. No doubt it matters a lot to a few sponsors too. The race is important, and showed on its freshman appearance that it at least has a pulse.

I by no means always agree with Bernie, but in the sense that the Sochi event is one with a few factors making it worth persevering with, I will this time.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Russian GP Report: Russian stroll

Mario Andretti opined some years ago that - contrary to what us outsiders may assume - being in first place is actually the easiest place to be in a Grand Prix. There you have unique privileges, as out of all competitors you and only you are able to drive within yourself, merely at the pace of those who trail. To save your strength, your car, your fuel. It's a virtuous circle in other words. In F1, nothing succeeds like success.

Lewis Hamilton triumphed once again today
Photo: Octane Photography
And Lewis Hamilton benefited from it today. From the end of the first lap the tension in the inaugural Russian Grand Prix of the F1 era was over who would finish second at the very most.

As both Mercedes drivers had predicted the lengthy run from the start and subsequent big stop at Turn 2 (which despite names was the first turn as far as everyone was concerned) was vital. And indeed Nico Rosberg's launch was good enough for him first to draft and then get just ahead of his team mate and title rival on that run. But he seemed to get a bit overexcited at this and missed his Turn 2 braking point by what looked a distance. He ran well off into the benign tarmac run-off at the exit, which meant he'd have to give Lewis the place back. But even worse for him the resultant flat-spots on his tyres meant he had to pit at the end of the opening tour also, leaving him next-to last.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Sochi Qualifying: Continuing the Lewis theme

You wonder if Nico Rosberg turned up to the new Sochi Autodrom earlier this week, and let out a groan.

Not a reflection of the quality of the track hosting the inaugural Russian Grand Prix per se. No one was entirely sure what to expect in advance, after all. Data for simulation had been hard to come by. And once they were actually circulating on it for real drivers were pleasantly surprised by the circuit's challenge apparently.

Today Lewis Hamilton continued his recent momentum
Photo: Octane Photography
But many had already noted the Abu Dhabi similarities. An ultra-smooth low grip surface, with plenty of short 90-degree corners. A track that Lewis Hamilton is mighty on. He hardly needed it given the recent momentum, but before a wheel had been turned it looked like advantage to Lewis.

So it proved. For most of the weekend he's appeared on another level, as much to Nico as to everyone else. And this continued into qualifying. Nico could shadow box, but he never looked likely to land a glove on his team mate and title rival. Lewis took the pole from him by a clear two tenths.

'Lewis was quicker all weekend really' said an honest Nico later.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Matters to emerge from the best and the worst

Perhaps it is fitting that at a time of extreme we are witness to the very best and the very worst. And so it has been since the unfortunate events at what turned out to be the conclusion of the Japanese Grand Prix last weekend, with the result of Jules Bianchi in hospital and what awaits as yet remaining unclear.

The F1 community has come together
in support of Jules Bianchi
Photo: Octane Photography
But from somewhere within this harrowing and regretful matter as I said the very best of F1 was displayed. What often can appear a highly disputatious sport really came together in support of Bianchi, his family and his team. Moreover the community of F1 fans around the word united similarly and moreover devised many touching ways of demonstrating collective messages of hope and goodwill.

Yet some sadly went rather beyond. Of course as noted last Sunday on this site after the Suzuka race it is in large part human nature after a shock and a trauma to seek answers, seek resolutions. But a few inauspicious actors exhibited the behaviour in an unattractive fashion - stirring up a hornet's nest of recrimination and reaction. There had to be fault, and culprits, and pronto. Something - maybe lots of things - had to be changed on the same timetable. This too even though the FIA investigation into the matter had barely begun and the establishment of facts remain at a similar stage.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

New F1 Times article: Fernando Alonso goes from saviour to scapegoat

Photo: Octane Photography
We've all been aware for a while that Fernando Alonso hasn't been thrilled with life at Ferrari. That he's been scanning for alternative options. Most likely we can understand it too, given that for most of his time there he's struggled with rather substandard machinery.

But despite this - and that by consensus Alonso's personal contribution has delivered much better results than the red cars have deserved - recent word has been that in fact Ferrari somehow is not happy with Fernando Alonso. Eliciting some bewilderment.

In my latest article for F1 Times I look into what might be going on; what might be motivating Ferrari's behaviour, and reminding us that in many ways it's nothing new from the Scuderia.

You can have a read here: http://www.f1times.co.uk/news/display/09436

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Sochi Preview: One to get through

You would forgive the F1 fraternity, and plenty of fans, if they felt that this impending Grand Prix weekend is rather one to be got through. Moreover one that they could do without. Not necessarily a reflection on the Grand Prix in question. Rather that as we know the harrowing conclusion of the Suzuka race just passed, with Jules Bianchi's accident and resultant injuries, reminded us in a harsh way that, as Mario Andretti worded it, motor racing is also this.

It seems equally harsh that there has been little opportunity for grass to grow under the sport's feet since; little opportunity to reflect, consider, pause in respect. As almost in a blink of an eye - and with the matter far from settled - all were ripped away for the lengthy journey to the next round taking place but days later. And indeed the racing goes on unabated, though we can take some succour from the knowledge that the racing going on presumably is exactly what Jules would have wanted us to do.

Bernie signs the deal, under the watchful eye of Vladimir Putin
"Russia Grand Prix sign" by http://premier.gov.ru -
http://premier.gov.ru/events/news/12574/photolents.html.
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And while it's easy to miss among it all, at the sport's geo level this particular race meeting is an important one. At last a Russian Grand Prix is upon us - for the first time in exactly 100 years. Rather an important frontier for the sport.

Moreover it has been established following no fewer than three decades of trying on the part of Bernard Charles Ecclestone.

For most of this time there has been regular talk of a Russian/Soviet race, as well as visits by Bernie and apparent resolutions, all of which before now turned out to be false dawns. Indeed, a Grand Prix in the Soviet Union, to be held on the streets of Moscow, appeared on a provisional F1 calendar as long ago as that for the 1983 season (after a visit to the country by the same Bernie in 1982), only to be scuppered by various bureaucratic machinations. As it was the first Grand Prix of the F1 era in the Eastern Bloc was in Hungary in 1986, which had proved to be more accommodating.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Japanese GP Report: Dark clouds

At such moments the sights, the sounds, the feelings, can be horribly familiar. The incongruous silence when there should be noise; still when there should be buzz; restraint when their should be celebration.

We all know it, and the horrid sense of shock and then of uselessness as we watch on, desperate. And however much we love motor racing, it also is - and always will be - dangerous. The risk can be minimised, indeed it has been vastly as we know. But it cannot be uncoupled.

All drivers were understandably sombre after the Suzuka race
Photo: Octane Photography
Perhaps against expectations - and the expected vast quantities of rain indeed arrived - we had a motor race in Suzuka today for the Japanese Grand Prix. And for the most part we had a good one. One of remarkably good judgement by all of the drivers too, in addition to their considerable bravery and skill.

But it came to a rather abrupt stop on lap 42. As intimated come the commencement time of 3pm locally the track was very wet, which resulted in a start behind the safety car, a red flag then another safety car period. But the rain had relented before the time that the cars were released definitively. The circuit as a consequence was, if still difficult, suitable for green flag action.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Suzuka Qualifying: Things move quickly

Things move quickly in F1. In more ways than one.

Nico Rosberg ended up being the one smiling today
Photo: Octane Photography
Today's qualifying session for the Japanese Grand Prix had an other-worldly quality about it, that rather was in keeping with the astonishing 2015 driver news that had suddenly swirled in the morning. The astonishing news being that Sebastian Vettel was to leave his family home of Red Bull. With its many presumable implications.

The actual important on-track circulating seemed mere background noise to it all. Adding to it some mused that the drivers were frenetically qualifying for a race that might not happen. Or at the very least will be very different...

But rather as the 2015 drivers' market had done to it earlier the qualifying hour moved the immediate matter of the 2014 world drivers' championship on, possibly significantly, and in a way that wasn't universally anticipated. In recent weeks all of the talk has been of Lewis Hamilton's momentum, momentum that had taken him to the table top from rather a long way back. But today Nico managed to check it. Accepting that it is but one qualifying session, as well as that five races (and 150 points) remain, today still felt important.