Thursday, 31 July 2014

Dear Sir, Am I Alone in Thinking? - Buxton gets it bang on

It was a lot like reading one of those letters to a newspaper that starts 'Dear Sir, Am I alone in thinking....?'. And upon reading it concluding no, you're not alone. I think exactly the same.

An article written by F1 journalist and NBC's pit lane reporter (as well as he of the GP2 and GP3 commentary and podium interviews) Will Buxton, cryptically titled 'New Coke', I'm talking about. My reading it gave that rarest of sensations, that of viewing the thoughts of another yet rather feeling you are having your mind read. You can have a scan of it yourself here: http://willthef1journo.wordpress.com/2014/07/28/new-coke/. I strongly suggest that you do.

Will Buxton (left) - got it spot on
Photo: Octane Photography
F1 on track fare is definitely boring right now. It's letting everyone down. People keep telling us this, after all. And demonstrating as much crisis meetings are being held in response. There was one among the teams and Bernie in Hungary last weekend; another today apparently. Yet another awaits around Monza time as proposed by Ferrari Chairman Luca Montezemolo.

To back it all up this year's TV viewing numbers have been disappointing reportedly, the latest step in a long-term decline on that front. Plus much of the recent German Grand Prix was conducted in front of vast numbers of those disguised convincingly as empty grandstand seats. All pretty irrefutable then? Well, as Buxton points out, no.

He was the equivalent of the child pointing at the emperor and telling all and sundry that the haughty figure has no clothes. Or perhaps one pointing out that the emperor in fact has a bit more ensuring his modesty than everyone was insisting. Contrary to the sound and fury outlined that has been the lingering background music of this F1 campaign, Buxton says something to the effect of 'hang on a minute' and points out that for all of F1's problems surely what is happening on the track itself - for the hour and a half on a Sunday - is not currently one of them. And I'm right with him on this one. It's a relief to know that it wasn't just me.

I'm always a little cautious of those who like to preface their arguments with 'I've watched F1 since year X...' as such claims are I usually find purely personally a bit pompous. But without wishing to become hoist on my own petard I've watched F1 races obsessively since the mid-part of 1986, which I'd like to think gives me some perspective of how this one we're in now is measuring up. And I concur absolutely with Buxton - another whose F1 passion goes back a while - when he says that 'rarely can I recall a season I have enjoyed as much...It is easy to overlook just how good we've got it right now.' I cannot see how even the harshest critic of this campaign cannot rank it as above average at least in the entertainment stakes. More probable is that it's among the best.

The Hungaroring round was an excellent one
Photo: Octane Photography
Yes, perhaps this season started slowly in terms of thrills. The Melbourne race that opened the year was around a six or seven out of ten - although reliability aside who was going to win was never in doubt. The Malaysia and China rounds were both a little tepid. Bahrain was excellent though. Spain was a slow burner but exciting at the end. Monaco was, well, Monaco. But then from Canada onwards, some five races and counting, the action has been persistently compelling. Each ranking genuinely somewhere among the top rank of races ever.

There's been plenty of aggressive and electrifying wheel-to-wheel action up and down the order from superb and brave racers (it's one of the ways that the F1 TV coverage has improved - time was not so long ago that the cameras would follow the leaders regardless of what was going on behind), a few drives through the pack and in plenty of the events (I make it five of them) doubt over who the winner was to be right to the very last. Hamilton vs. Rosberg in Bahrain, Alonso vs. Vettel in Silverstone, Alonso vs. Ricciardo in Germany, Bottas's climb to P2 in the British race, Hamilton's just about everywhere. All of these deserved ranking with the most revered performances we have ever witnessed

Which brings me neatly to our current cast of drivers which also can be compared with those of any season: Alonso; both Merc pilots; Hulkenberg; stars that have really been born this campaign in Ricciardo and Bottas; Kvyat, Magnussen, Bianchi and others underline further that the sport's future is in safe hands; even one or two world champions have been humbled in among it all. All the while we've had the thrill of this star cast wrestling with machines with a surfeit of torque over grip. Fears in advance such as mass unreliability and conspicuous fuel conservation runs have barely been borne out. Boring? Hardly.

Granted, we've got single-car domination, but that can happen, particularly in seasons wherein vast rule changes are debuted. One team can and often does hit on the right answers immediately, leaving the rest to catch up. Which they do. And at least with the highly intriguing intra-Merc battle for the title what we have is Senna-Prost rather than Schumacher-Barrichello.

With this the only thing that should be affronting us is that those insisting things are boring have gotten way with it for so long. Quite why they have been and continue to beat this drum isn't clear. Buxton suggests 'Perhaps it is because we are being given exceptional contests almost every racing weekend that we lose sight of how good these races really are. It becomes easier to remember the great races of days past, when those races were rare highlights in otherwise predictable and often dull processions.'

Austria's was another diverting race in 2014
Photo: Octane Photography
Indeed. Nostalgia ain't what it used to be of course, but something about nostalgia - and not just in F1 but in everything - is that it acts as an incredibly effective filter. The good bits are polished up, perhaps have the ugly parts painted over, and presented on mantelpieces for displaying proudly to all comers. The probably much more abundant unattractive bits are left in the rubbish bin and never thought of again.

Buxton himself offers a few examples. Such as the first ever Hungarian Grand Prix  in 1986, at the height of the much-harked-back-to first 'turbo era'. Then only two cars finished on the lead lap, and only ten made it to the end (the final of which was some six laps down...). And such a result all-in wasn't atypical of the time. Imagine the froth if we got such a result in 2014.

I can offer a few more. We all know about Gilles Villeneuve vs. Rene Arnoux in Dijon in 1979. But that was also a season wherein F1's show - plus ca change - was agonised over. I recall reading a magazine interview with Bernie Ecclestone from the end of that campaign that was dug out some years later, and the concept of 'F1 races being too boring now' was a hostile delivery that BCE had to bat off. Same goes for Ayrton Senna vs. Nigel Mansell in Monaco 1992. Thrilling of course; less widely-recalled is that this season was characterised in the main by Mansell demonstration runs in his insultingly-superior FW14B. Various things indeed were changed in response to it in order to 'liven up the show' (e.g. introduction of safety cars and changes to tyre widths).

Then there's the 'refuelling era' of the mid-to-late 1990s and much of the noughties. Many of those who decry the current era like to talk about then as the time that F1 got it right. Sky Sports in the UK however has - probably inadvertently - done us a service by replaying many races from this time in full as part of its 'Classic F1' series (and as the name suggests these are races hand-picked on the basis of being among the better ones). What often strikes from watching is how little happens in them. In those days a dodo flying over the circuit would not have caused more surprise than witnessing an something like an overtake, you know, on track.

Worse, as Rob Smedley noted a while later what would happen then in the normal run of things was that a race's outcome would be in effect known on a Saturday afternoon with the grid order and starting fuel loads set, barring disasters such as unreliability (an increasingly rare event too). The race would be an exercise of pre-ordained fuel strategies simply playing themselves out and while the drivers certainly worked hard their contribution in some ways was futile, almost like they were just along for the ride if they had the stamina to hang on. I certainly will take what we have now over that without a single shred of hesitation.

F1 in the noughties - not all that
"Formula one". Licensed under Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/
File:Formula_one.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Formula_one.jpg
Quite why so many seem determined to do down F1's fare 2014 style isn't clear. Perhaps Buxton is right and it reflects simply the human tendency to view the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Perhaps it reflects the power of suggestion - we believe it because people keep saying it. Perhaps in some quarters it reflects instead the human tendency to believe only what one wants to believe, regardless of the weight of contrary evidence.

Psychologists have various terms for such phenomena - confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, adherence to paradigm... We know that the new for 2014 regulations divided fans - many not liking the resultant noise of the machines or else the 'green' or conservation-type nature of them in what had been a sport that had often defined itself as offering excess and consumption. Perhaps therefore with this predisposition some have been rather too determined to maintain the view that what we're being served up is unpalatable, no matter what actually is being served up.

But F1 clearly does has its problems in terms of its numbers following as intimated, but as Buxton suggests the best evidence is that the problems lie off the track rather than on: 'it is abundantly clear that it is Formula 1's business model which is broken, not the racing spectacle itself' he noted.

He lists many of them. A ridiculous skewed financial distribution among the teams. A financial model that relies on grossly inflated race hosting fees, which has had the effect of taking the sport away from many of the core fans, and ensuring those venues of this ilk that remain have next to nothing to invest in improving the fans' experience as well as have to charge vastly bloated ticket prices in order to break even. A financial model that relies also on grossly inflated fees for TV rights, which means the sport increasingly is disappearing behind paywalls rather than being available free-to-air, losing swathes of viewers overnight in each shift. Refusal to embrace social media, which is the way sports consumption clearly is going and F1's attitude is particularly regrettable in terms of (not) attracting in younger fans.

He could have added a hobby horse of mine that the sport's general image of amorality - see for example Bernie's trial; cosying up to often unpleasant regimes as part of the chasing of vast hosting fees outlined above - holds it back. Compare F1's global reach with the amount of advertising space purchased on F1 cars at the moment. If you want to be really mean, do this having subtracted those logos related to the team ownership, technical tie-ups and brought by drivers. The thought that corporate entities are scared off by the thought of association with F1's murky image doesn't seem too much of a fanciful one. And not attracting sponsors' income quickens the vicious circle of attracting monies from the troublesome sources already mentioned...

And worryingly it seems that whenever lately this sport's luminaries have met to seek to remedy the situation the one sort of solution proposed - via a spectacular missing of the point - is to suggest yet more gimmicks. Sparks, standing restarts after safety cars and the like. The latest wheeze - disturbingly with lots of support among the teams reportedly - is success ballast; apparently to artificially correct the competitive disparity created in large part by the hideously skewed financial distribution mentioned that the guys at the top created, with some such as Ferrari and Red Bull getting vast sums not based on results but just for being them. A flatter distribution of cash is too simple a solution, clearly. It seems something beyond even Spike Milligan's capacity for surrealist farce.

In terms of the sport's current - and notorious - sources of gimmickry of DRS and gumball Pirelli tyres, I'm someone who on balance at the point of their introduction supported them, or at least tolerated them. Mainly on the grounds that such was the hole F1 had got itself into on the lack of passing that something drastic needed to be done, even as a temporary sticking plaster measure. But now it feels rather like the sport's had its fill of such things (another matter that Buxton outlines). Whatever is the case it hasn't at the broadest level done much to address the slide. The sport certainly doesn't give much sign of an appetite for more. That this game's big players seem to think greater and greater injections of gimmickry is the remedy doesn't really reflect well on their collective wisdom.

So there is a lot wrong with F1, that needs fixing. But as Buxton spells out in large letters, let's not denigrate and meddle with one of the few things that F1, against a few insistent claims, is actually getting right.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

New F1Plus.com article: It’s right to object to Azerbaijan, but some are for the wrong reasons

A view to Baku and it's Boulevard.JPG
"A view to Baku and its Boulevard" by Okinawa - Own work.
Licensed under 
CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Over the last weekend it was announced that as of 2016 there is to be a new addition to the F1 calendar, a 'European Grand Prix' in Baku, Azerbaijan.

This incited some derision; that it wasn't a 'classic' venue, that it won't get a crowd, some even complained on the grounds that they didn't know where Azerbaijan was.

In my latest article for F1Plus.com, I argue that while people are right to oppose the new race, many are doing it for the wrong reasons.

You can have a read here: http://www.f1plus.com/en/news/item/6431-its-right-to-object-to-azerbaijan-but-some-are-for-the-wrong-reasons

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Mercedes too clever by half with team orders

The Lewis Hamilton vs. Nico Rosberg fight for 2014 F1 supremacy is the gift that keeps on giving. And even though the goings-on of the Hungarian Grand Prix qualifying session couldn't have done more to keep the pair apart for last Sunday's race, it still managed to provide another dollop of intrigue. But it wasn't really either driver at fault this time, rather Mercedes the team - which has spent just about the entire season making all the right moves on letting the drivers race and stressing equity, despite facing on occasion rather lurid claims to the contrary - in Hungary rather blew a giant hole in its own foot.

In Hungary last Sunday it was Lewis Hamilton,
not Nico Rosberg, on the podium
Photo: Octane Photography
Why? Well the team that doesn't do team orders, did team orders. And rather clumsily. At around two-thirds distance as Nico got up somewhere near Lewis's tail - either on divergent strategies - the Merc pit wall told Lewis to let Nico through. Lewis didn't, and the consensus was that he was absolutely right in his stance. In the end he finished third to Nico's fourth, and Lewis's bewilderment at the matter afterwards was tangible. Merc boss Toto Wolff gently stoked matters by saying something not long after the chequered flag to the effect that Nico could have won had Lewis complied. But the management backtracked eventually.

So, how exactly did the previously imperious Merc get into such a fine mess? For me the most likely explanation is that Mercedes got too clever by half. We still these days often hear talk of strategy being decided by 'the guy on the pit wall', but these times are in fact long gone. Now it's churned out by vast armies equipped with all sorts of extrapolations, algorithms and game theory, many of them back at the factory. But sometimes it can be a curse as much as a blessing, as we on occasion witness times on which its outputs have been rather over-used, perhaps at the expense of what might loosely be termed as human savvy. A little reminiscent of the Little Britain 'computer says no' sketch. Indeed, we saw something in a similar ilk in last Sunday's race with McLaren at the first safety car; the team deciding to take on more inters for both cars when all others were putting on slicks, as a radar of its said some rain was on the way (wrongly). Human savvy might have told them they should have waited for an umbrella or two to go up at least before making that call...

And so it was here. No doubt the Merc systems produced an output that said it would be beneficial for the team all-in for Lewis to cede the place to Nico. At the time Nico, on soft tyres compared to Lewis's mediums (combined with that Lewis was running to the end on that set), was lapping around six to eight tenths a lap faster before getting onto his tail, and then spent 11 laps behind. The time 'lost' (though it's not known for certain what Nico's tyre deg would have done to potential lap times in that spell) appears enough on paper at least to vault Nico to the win, given at the end he was 6.4 seconds shy of winner Ricciardo (though Nico would too have had to overtake on track Fernando Alonso, maybe twice, as well as Ricciardo once; in none of these cases the work of a moment). As James Allen has outlined such ceding of places by team mates when on different strategies is pretty routine, especially for midfield squads who like to split their tickets. And one can see how a Merc dumb system could conclude that it was preferable to make the team order call, as the 1-4 or possibly 2-4 the team would probably have got with a 'switch' of course results in more points than the 3-4 it actually got without it.

But there are a few things that the systems didn't account for seemingly. The overarching one is that the ceding of the place also likely would have ruined Lewis's day. At the time he was within sight of Fernando Alonso, as well as within range of Daniel Ricciardo who was about 18 seconds ahead and clearly planning another stop (which would lose him around 21 seconds). And as has been pointed out by Martin Brundle and others had Lewis yielded the place on the pit straight (where his team told him so to do) the lifting off combined with presumably a slightly scrappy braking for turn one probably would have lost him two seconds at least. And these in a tight fight would have been crucial - consigning him to P4 at a point at which he was genuinely fighting for the win.

Rosberg spent several laps stuck behind Jean-Eric Vergne
Photo: Octane Photography
The time loss also was related to the slightly curious auxiliary story in that while all of this was going on Nico was hardly all over the back of Lewis in a way consistent with someone clearly quicker. Indeed earlier on in the race after the first safety car period Nico again was curiously subdued with cars around - first of all letting Jean-Eric Vergne and Fernando Alonso past, and then sitting behind Vergne for no fewer than 16 (count them) laps. That a handful of these were behind the safety car only slightly tempers matters. This was additionally after an early part of the race where he seemed to have the rest on toast, almost every time lapping a second and a half faster even than the next guy up in P2. Nico had reported brake problems not long before, which might have been a factor. Whatever was the case, as Peter Windsor noted without the time lost there the situation causing all of the fuss probably wouldn't have arisen in the first place. Indeed, Nico's adoption of a three-stop strategy, which was what put him behind Lewis, seemed at least in part inspired by the need to get out of Vergne's wake.

And this all is without even mentioning that Nico and Lewis are title rivals - and the only title contenders - and that the team therefore was asking Lewis to not only compromise himself but also to aid his team mate and sole championship antagonist. Seemingly the Merc computer and subsequent decision didn't account for this either. Drivers generally don't wave rivals by in races if they can help it even if they are running different strategies and the guy behind is much faster, as the possibility remains that your strategies playing out will bring you back together by the end. That's exactly how it happened in Hungary with Lewis beating Nico to the flag by a car's length. His deaf ear to the team's 'phone call' was indeed crucial.

So in effect the pit wall folks were requesting that Lewis - in the midst of a fight for victory - accept 12 points rather than a potential 25, as well as another points swing against him in this title fight with his team mate. Add to this too is that it's in a season wherein rather a lot has gone wrong for him, usually related to Merc equipment letting him down. Is it any wonder he said no? Mercedes it seems on a few levels managed to take a logical calculation to an illogical conclusion.

Inevitably there has been the odd comment aired since to the effect of how can you say that Lewis was justified in ignoring teams orders when such-an-such was criticised (usually Vettel at Malaysia) for doing the same? Well with team orders, as with anything, context is king. It can never be blanket that all team orders should be obeyed, or all ignored; instead it will hinge on circumstance. Indeed any of us are well within our rights to disobey an instruction from our employer that is unreasonable. None of us are (or should be) lackeys.

Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda was
critical of the strategy afterwards, and supportive of Hamilton
Photo: Octane Photography
And in Lewis's case he surely was justified in not obeying. Further, as Windsor also pointed out, quite why anyone among the Mercedes management - given who we're dealing with here - thought Lewis would obey is anyone's guess (presumably another thing its systems didn't factor in). Perhaps Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda is right that the team simply panicked, partly in response to a topsy-turvey race and having the unusual experience for 2014 of other cars around its own.

It also struck me that it was all rather at odds too with the Mercedes view, expressed repeatedly this campaign, that the team is going to let its drivers fight it out as nature intended, given particularly that it's clear that this title battle is a very private Merc matter. Yes as mentioned in this case in the Hungary race the two were on different strategies, but in those ever-so-clever strategy models referred to track position is a key part of it. Especially at the sinewy Hungaroring track. That Nico got stuck behind someone was just too bad.

The Merc systems also I'd imagine wouldn't factor in what all of this would do the already incendiary Mercedes 'conspiracy' idea. As outlined before on this site repeatedly I do not believe for a second that the Mercedes anti-Lewis conspiracy chat that lives among us in modern times holds a single drop of credence. Simply it does not pass any sort of credibility test (mainly that why would Merc move heaven and Earth - and a lot of cash - to get Lewis aboard only to scupper him deliberately as soon as he has a chance at the championship there?). But the team's apparent bone-headedness on this one doesn't really help in fighting that particular PR battle.

At least though with Lauda's comments post-race - supportive of Lewis's decision - combined with Toto Wolff suggesting there will be a rethink on it all, the Brackley squad at least appears to be learning lessons.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Hungarian GP Report: Ricciardo leads the three supremes

To think that in the day or two prior to the Hungarian Grand Prix the air was thick with wrestles of how to make F1 more entertaining. Some crisis meeting or other was being held among the teams; some action group or other was to be formed. As always seems to be the case at such moments, the suggestions floated were somewhere in the vicinity the absurd. Success ballast - F1 steps further away from being a sport and further towards being WWE - for one. Even more worryingly apparently rather a lot of team bosses liked the idea.

The smile of the victorious Daniel Ricciardo was
as wide as ever
Photo: Octane Photography
But on today's evidence any such think tank can now knock off early. Whatever this sport's problems are there is not a great deal wrong with what F1 serves up for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon. In that regard you rather wonder what exactly it is that all these luminaries are worrying about.

To think too that - following the events of qualifying - this was supposed to be a Nico Rosberg benefit also. It did indeed look that way in the race for a while, but the thing rather pivoted against him partway through, meaning in the end he was but one of a number of stars of the show. Also - very much against expectations - his team mate and 'competitor number one' (Nico's words) Lewis Hamilton gained a bit of points ground on him.

But the Hungaroring race was just our latest reminder that whatever a qualifying session throws up it still means nothing is for certain beyond the starting order. No points are handed out then. And this race provided our latest reminder too of the perils of extrapolating too far ahead. Especially so within this rather corkscrew 2014 F1 script.

As no matter how confident we are in assuming how a race will unfold, still plenty of variables can be thrown into the mix. This time it was a very old one. Rain, combined that is with a fairly new-ish one of safety cars, which rather split strategies, and thus shuffled the deck more than once.

Weather forecasts had for some days predicted storms to arrive sometime around the time of the race. Sunday morning started out fine, but then nasty looking clouds crept along, and what seemed like an indeterminable wait followed; all poised for the worst. And sure enough the rain arrived in large quantities around 40 minutes before the race start.

Early on, the race looked to be Rosberg's
Photo: Octane Photography
It stopped about as quickly but the track was saturated for the get-go. The 15 minutes between the pit lane opening and closing became in effect an acclimatisation session and conditions clearly were treacherous, as evidenced by plenty of lairy moments, some off track. Nevertheless it was inters all round at the start.

But early on even with the rain matters looked of the terribly familiar sort. Pole man Rosberg in his Mercedes appeared on another level. He led off the line and his lead grew like this: 2.6 seconds after a single tour, then 4.1, 5.7, 6.7, 7.8, 9.1, 9.1 (on a lap that he slid off at turn one and continued), 10.5. While all of this was going on both Red Bulls - Sebastian Vettel in P3 and Daniel Ricciardo in P6 - were bottled up by a Williams and McLaren respectively. It looked, rain or shine, a Merc rout.

But on that lap 8 Nico's day went wrong. Marcus Ericsson binned his car in a big way at turn three, necessitating a safety car. All (aside from the too clever by half McLaren operation) decided also that it was a good time to stop for slicks also, but the top four - Rosberg, Valtteri Bottas, Vettel and Fernando Alonso - missed the pit entrance and got bottled up briefly behind the safety car while those behind got their service a lap earlier. The quartet thus emerged in the pack, and Ricciardo now led.

As things got back under way Rosberg seemed curiously to lose the finer edge of his pace for a while, and at one point cars were passing him at all angles - Jean-Eric Vergne and Alonso vaulting past him in successive corners. He'd reported some brake problems behind the safety car, but whatever the case Nico spent several laps behind Vergne's Toro Rosso, who was scrapping impressively. And before he knew it the guy a couple of cars behind in the queue he was in was a certain Lewis Hamilton...

Lewis Hamilton survived this off early, but didn't
 need any luck subsequently
Photo: Octane Photography
Yes, after his latest bout of ill-fortune in qualifying and subsequent pit lane start Lewis was as ever making robust progress. His day nearly was over within but two corners, as he lost it under braking for turn two (presumably a consequence of not being able to warm up his brakes given his pit lane start) but merely tapped the barrier rather than destroy his W05 on it. From then on he needed no luck.

Ricciardo meanwhile appeared in control, in clear air he disappeared off out front, while Alonso showed many of his considerable skills by sliding up to P3 - Felipe Massa between - in the greasy conditions, overturning his pitting a lap too late behind the safety car deficit in no time.

Then another safety car appearance on lap 23, this time brought about by Sergio Perez spearing into the pit wall after getting too wide on the last turn, lobbed in another variable. This time Ricciardo - along with both Williams - decided to pit again for more tyres while Alonso and all others pressed on with the rubber they had. It wasn't clear at this stage how the strategies would unravel but Ricciardo would have the benefit of fresher boots, though on the flip side now was in traffic in P6 and clearly needed to do more of the overtaking.

Once the safety car cleared off Alonso now in the lead edged clear, with Vergne in an amazing second place keeping the rest away. Then Rosberg's race got further difficult as he pitted for new tyres just six laps after the latest safety car went in, which not helped by the stop being a tardy one sank him to P13 and with much before him - metaphorically and literally.

Jean-Eric Vergne looked confident running among the leaders
Photo: Octane Photography
Hamilton a couple of laps later got himself a free run at Alonso thanks to a brave and fine - classic Hamilton indeed - move around the outside of Vergne at turn four, and when the Frenchman pitted on the next lap we had three in fairly close company at the front - Alonso, Hamilton, Ricciardo.

The varying strategies of the trio still had to play out however. Alonso seemed to hit the cliff with his Pirellis and thus pitted and took on more softs after 38 laps, and a mammoth 32 to go. Hamilton pitted himself a lap later and took on mediums - clearly minded to go to the end on that set. Ricciardo now led but evidently had another stop to do. Alonso's intentions were less clear.

Ricciardo did indeed pit with 15 laps left, to leave Alonso back in the lead and Hamilton not far behind. Ricciardo was about nine seconds back in P3 but closing rapidly.

Alonso's conundrum was thus - pit and get an easy fourth place at least, or press on and risk once again 'hitting the cliff'. But possibly win. Said like that it's no wonder he took the option that he did. Alonso was going to tough it out.

Before we knew it the three were circulating as one pretty much; three diverging strategies converging in the late laps. Make that four as very late on too a freshly-booted Nico Rosberg started to close on the train at breakneck speed also. But Alonso as ever was showing little sign of giving anything away. A red car piloted by a magical driver in the lead and against all credibility holding off a load of quicker cars was redolent of Villeneuve, Jarama, 1981 and all that.

Alonso was brilliant once again, and very nearly won
Photo: Octane Photography
The Spaniard's tyres were long past their best, as to some extent were Lewis's, and as the laps ticked down the impossible of Alonso hanging on began to look a creeping possibility. But Ricciardo was determined to have the final say. And he did.

With four laps left he brilliantly elbowed his way past Lewis into turn three having not flinched when running around the outside of him at the previous corner. By his own admission with two fast in a straightline Mercs behind him Ricciardo couldn't afford to hang around, 'I knew we had to make a move quick, the DRS was there and I know it could have been my only chance, so I took it and it paid off. Had to be done' he said.

Sure enough at the start of the next tour he smartly outbraked Alonso into turn one, and then left him by the tune of three seconds by the end of that lap. First place was sorted.

Thus Ricciardo's second Grand Prix win was a lot like his first: hanging within a train of cars, the one at the front compromised, then striking in a devastating fashion right at the optimum moment, when such a strike always going to decisive; his opponents least equipped to react. And once again on a day that the Mercs got it wrong it was Daniel that stepped in to top the podium in their stead. Only he not in silver has triumphed this campaign.

'It feels as good as the first, it really does' said an as-ever beaming Ricciardo afterwards, 'the safety car at the beginning played to our advantage and then I thought when the second one came out it didn't really help us but we managed to pull it off at the end, had to pass our way through and that was a lot of fun in the last few laps.'

There were many star performers in Hungary and the flawless, rapid and crisply aggressive Ricciardo was chief among them. Alonso too was wonderful once again, as he somehow managed to hang onto second place by a fingernail, in a machine that most felt had no right to be anywhere near that place. He was aided at the last a little by the Mercs battling among themselves on the final lap; Lewis given everything justified in his uncompromising defence to maintain his P3. 'He (Rosberg) was catching me at three seconds a lap, so it was very, very tough at the end' noted Lewis with a little sangfroid.

All of the top three seemed content with their afternoon's efforts and rightly so.

For Alonso there was no regret at just missing out on a highly unlikely win, given his second place was about as unlikely.

'It was definitely a surprise' he said. 'We found ourselves leading the race when Ricciardo and Massa pitted so we thought OK, let's give the maximum for three or four laps just to open up a gap and stop see whether we are in the final part and then we realised that it was not so many laps to the end and it was a difficult call: stopping and keep pushing and finishing fourth or keep going and risking the cliff with the tyres and finishing fourth or fifth or whatever. So it was surprisingly good, it was surprisingly fast, the car in the race.

The top three were right to be pleased with their efforts
Photo: Octane Photography
'(I am) extremely satisfied. I think it has been a tough weekend – a tough season in general...a combination of things that made the race difficult to execute, difficult to understand and we took our opportunities...we need some crazy races to get some podiums and today we took the opportunity.'

'Obviously this is damage limitation' said Lewis meanwhile. 'I'm very grateful to have been able to get through with all the difficulties I've had this weekend, obviously yesterday and the first lap. I can't believe how things have gone but to be able to come back through...'. Elsewhere he spoke with some poetry of giving 'the middle finger to adversity'. And he presumably 24 hours earlier would have bitten your hand off if offered a three point gain on Nico from his Hungarian visit.

Nico however was a little rueful, particularly at getting stuck behind the first safety car - the point at which his day turned. There was also a sideshow during the race wherein Nico on a different strategy got vaguely near behind his team mate, and got a team call in his favour for Lewis to let him by. Lewis understandably didn't comply, as he was racing not only with Ricciardo and Alonso but as it transpired with Nico too, and the likely two seconds plus lost from yielding (to a guy that was hardly on his gearbox whatever was the case) would have condemned him to P4 at a point that he was focussed fully on winning. And Mercedes tells us it lets the drivers race - track position is part of the strategy calculation. Especially on this track.

At the broader level however it is genuinely difficult to cite a previous top three though so monpolised by brilliant drives as this one. For all of its capacity of self-flagellation, there remains an awful lot good about this sport.

On the day before the race Ricciardo confirmed that despite the impending summer break he's not likely to return to Australia as a Grand Prix winner until Christmas time, He therefore joked that he'll have to win another, lest his compatriots forget in the meantime of his achievement. Mission accomplished quickly on that one.

You rather suspect though that Australia, just like many of the rest of us, won't now forget about Daniel Ricciardo easily.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Hungaroing Qualifying: Déjà vu all over again

It couldn't happen, surely? Not again? Well, it did.

Another Grand Prix weekend, another Grand Prix weekend wherein something or other has compromised Lewis Hamilton. And while one or two of the ones before can be said to have been his own fault, most of them haven't. And it wasn't yesterday in the Hungaroring's qualifying session either.

Smoke turned into fire on Lewis Hamilton's W05 early
in Hungary qualifying
Photo: Octane Photography
Almost unbelievably no sooner had the hour started as Lewis - who'd been fastest in every session up until then - could be seen tooling down the pit lane, his W05 ablaze as a result of a fuel leak, his session over almost before it had begun. The gasp around the circuit almost was audible, followed by something of a silence consistent with people not quite comprehending just what it was they were witnessing.

Now, Lewis's last qualifying and race weekend not containing major problems or unusual occurrences was all the way back in Barcelona, in early May. Six rounds ago in other words. And for all that F1 is a precise game wherein everything and more is sought to be accounted for and controlled, it remains - perhaps increasingly - that the most credible explanation for it all is that he must have done something to grossly offend the Goddess Fortune.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Hungaroring Preview: A matter of halting Hamilton?

The Hungaroring is important. No, really.

Have you ever ruminated over the modern F1 calendar, and that sort of track that gets added to it almost exclusively these days it seems? That which is purpose built from ground up especially to hold an F1 event, is super safe, has gleaming facilities, and all is bankrolled by the national government keen to promote or 'brand' the country?

And have you in turn wondered which venue was the first of these? That set this trend in motion? Well, the most likely answer is Hungary's Hungaroring.

The Hungaroring now is a fixture on the calendar
Photo: Octane Photography
The Hungaroring made its bow as an F1 host in 1986, constructed in just the seven months prior to the event on a greenfield site not far outside the city of Budapest.

And 28 years on (gulp) it's easy to forget what a complete step into the unknown this represented for both the F1 circus and its hosts, stepping as the fraternity was behind the Iron Curtain into the 'Eastern Bloc', as Hungary was then part of. It may be difficult for us in the now to comprehend, but contact between East and West then was near non-existent. Without hyperbole, when F1 descended neither party had the first idea what to expect.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

New F1 Times article: Act in haste, repent at leisure – unsafe releases in F1

Photo: Octane Photography
Following an incident involving Mark Webber in last year's German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring a range of, rather tough, measures were introduced to seek to punish those who left the pits without all wheels attached.

By now almost exactly a year on there is talk that teams - dissatisfied with how it's all worked in practice - are gathering around a move to row back on some of it.

Over at The F1 Times I look at the whole issue such as why the system that we have now for unsafe releases isn't working as well as explore what the best way is to minimise such a danger.

You can have a read via this link: http://www.f1times.co.uk/news/display/09138

Reflections on Hockenheim - missing Schu?

A German manufacturer dominating an F1 season, one of the dominant drivers is German, as is the world champion (of the last four years) in addition to two other drivers, and the German economy despite the calamity around it remains itself rather strong. This all should add up to a healthy turn out at the German Grand Prix?

Much of the Hockenheim running was in front of
sparsely-populated grandstands. Here's qualifying.
Photo: Octane Photography
Well, no actually. Apparently only somewhere in the region of 50,000 was in attendance for the race, way short of the Hockenheim's track's vast capacity of 120,000. Running on Friday, even on Saturday, had a grandstand backdrop that looked a lot like there'd been some kind of evacuation. Though F1's declining following ain't a new issue, this seemed to slide things over a cliff edge.

As intimated this isn't new, therefore plenty of theories as to what is driving it all didn't require much dusting down. High ticket prices, dissatisfaction with the regs and/or the sport's creeping gimmickry, the lack of competitive competition in turn related probably to the skewed financial distribution, the TV coverage disappearing behind paywalls, while some of course still haven't been able to resist bringing out what already seems like an old chestnut of engine noise.

Monday, 21 July 2014

German GP Report: Everything's coming up Rosberg

You are Nico Rosberg. You are young; handsome; devastatingly intelligent. You also are a very fine Grand Prix driver. You're sitting atop the Formula One World Drivers' Championship standings, driving a mighty fine - nay untouchable - car brought to you by a prestigious German marque. In the past two weeks you've got married, your country won the World Cup and the said prestigious German marque has extended its contract with you.

Once again it was Nico Rosberg spraying the
champagne as victor
Photo: Octane Photography
And yesterday you won your home Grand Prix, easily, from pole. This extending your title lead by ten and adding a little more to the creeping sense that these months we are living through are your time in the sun.

Yes Nico, life's pretty good for you right now.

Indeed, the German race at Hockenheim wasn't really a race; not for first place at least. It was a lot like qualifying the day before, with his one rival in team mate Lewis Hamilton well dealt with Nico had something of an open goal. But again he volleyed the thing straight into the back of the net with some elan to emerge in P1. Some (including Rosberg himself) thought in advance that the mighty Valtteri Bottas-Williams combination might give Nico something to think about. But no - Nico smoothly and almost quietly moved clear lap after lap so that by his first pit stop after 14 racing tours he was ten seconds up the road. And untouchable.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Hockenheim Qualifying: Let's twist again

F1 in 2014 is the year of the plot twist it seems. Thought that Silverstone last time out had shifted the momentum? Wrong, as yesterday in Hockenheim's qualifying session it shifted back.

Nico Rosberg triumphed again in qualifying
Photo: Octane Photography
Whatever you may think of Lewis Hamilton, it's hard to deny that in the intra-Mercedes battle for the drivers' title this campaign he's had rather the bigger share of the bad luck. Two weeks ago, with Nico Rosberg dropping out in the Silverstone race leaving Lewis to help himself to a 25 point swing, seemed to go a long way to tilting the balance back.

But in Hockenheim qualifying the balance rebounded. There seemed little to choose between the two Merc pilots on pace for most of the weekend, and we all settled down for another close, edgy scrap for pole. But it ended quickly, as a racy looking Hamilton had a front brake disc fail on him at the Sachs Kurve in the first session, sending him into a violent smash in the barriers that left him sore in more than one sense. He already had a strong lap time but being unable to compete in Q2 or Q3 meant that P16 (which converted to P15 thanks to someone else's penalty) was his maximum.