Monday, 29 September 2014

Suzuka Preview: Big in Japan

They don't make 'em like they used to.

Such an claim isn't always true, but it sometimes is. And it seems to apply with particular regularity to the F1 circuit.

Suzuka is a popular venue - for many reasons
"Six F1 at Suzuka 2013" by Norimasa Hayashida - http://
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Of course, some of the new-fangled venues are better than others. But none has got even close to creating the quickening of the pulse that drivers and aficionados alike experience when cars circulate Suzuka, the scene of this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix.

Why is this? Mainly it's that its layout is dominated by rapid, challenging, snaking turns, the sort that separate the great from the good, the sort that would most likely be laughed out of court were it proposed from the ground up these days.

Very much unlike the modern circuit type there aren't vast expanses of run-off areas for drivers to veer into and to use as a benign get-out if they get it wrong. The track is narrow also; the ideal line like a tightrope. Therefore precision at Suzuka is vital and even a slight error can end your chances.

Combine this with the track's uncanny knack of being the stage of drama and acrimony, as well as with the large and fervent yet unfailingly respectful Japanese support looking on, and you have a near-perfect mix. Indeed, such is Suzuka's classic nature it feels rather like Messrs Nuvolari, Fangio and Lauda should have pounded around the track in their heydays; that F1's first visit here was as late as 1987 seems a bit wrong somehow.

Suzuka has an inimitable well-worn and comfortable quality, almost like an old pair of slippers; refreshingly shorn of modern sterility. Perhaps the changing of the world around it has only served to make its charms more distinct.

Ask any driver, or any fan for that matter, about their favourite circuits and for most Suzuka will be ranked as among the very best of the very best. Little wonder.

In recent times Suzuka has meant Red Bull, and more to the point Sebastian Vettel. Since the sport returned to Suzuka in 2009 Seb has won four times from five, and he cruised to the world championship in the other visit. Of course, the high downforce and aero efficiency requirements of the circuit is just the Milton Keynes thing.

Seeing Red Bull in the lead has become a common
sight at Suzuka
"2009 Japanese GP opening lap" by Morio - photo
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Yet as if to underline the extent that the 2014 season is a departure from what we'd got accustomed to a Red Bull cakewalk isn't expected this time. But still the RB10s may be able to give the imperious Mercs some bother.

All things being equal however the Mercedes should still be the ones setting the pace. The silver machines were miles ahead around the similar challenges of the long turns of Silverstone, and the probability is that they would have been around Spa too were it not for, you know, that. In an ironic role reversal of 12 months ago if a Bull is to prevail it'll likely need one way or another to lead into turn one and disrupt the Mercs' day from there, just as Romain Grosjean did vis-a-vis the haughty Red Bulls in 2013. One persistent pattern of 2014 is that the Mercs tend to be even further ahead of the rest in the races than they are in qualifying.

Daniel Ricciardo, who in recent weeks has been clinging to the title fight like a persistent Cocker Spaniel with teeth clamped to your ankle, you suspect will be up for the challenge though.

Suzuka also has had a knack of settling drivers' championships. This one won't be decided here, but it still could be important to that end. As ever it's hard to predict which Merc pilot is better-placed, and especially so this time as neither has a stellar record at Suzuka. But still drilling into this campaign in particular Lewis lately has established an unmistakable sense of momentum, that you feel Nico has to check pretty soon.

But still, for all that Lewis's tail is up there remains little between the two on pace in general. And to return to a lingering theme reliability could shift the title balance drastically and in either direction. Mercedes reliability has never been entirely sorted this year and Suzuka is another venue that strains the cars and in particular the engines given the high average speeds and ever-varying gradients and loads around the track. Both Brackley drivers know that there's something of the there but for the grace of God on this front right now, and will remain so for the rest of the season.

There also is the consideration of the new-found closeness of the order that was on show in Singapore, in qualifying at least. The balance of probability - one since opined by Rosberg indeed - is that it was a one-off, related to the Marina Bay track's many peculiarities. But still it'll be something a few anxious eyes will be on this weekend too. Someone getting between the Mercedes could go a long way to deciding the race and by extension the latest episode of the championship fight.

Grands Prix at Suzuka often turn out as a strategy battle. Overtaking isn't straightforward here; qualifying will be of greater importance than usual. Furthermore the successive long corners and direction changes here put a lot of loadings into the tyres, and the relatively abrasive surface strains them too.

And as was seen to Vettel's benefit here in last year's visit being gentle with the rubber can be crucial in terms of your strategy options in a Suzuka race. Just like then the medium and hard tyres are brought, and just like then two-stoppers will be employed by most, with whether you can achieve two stints on the medium or just one probably the biggest conundrum. Strategies may be hard to set in advance with much certainty, as approaches are likely to evolve during the race depending on degradation experienced. Mark Webber of course, infamously, was switched to a three-stop midstream last year. It contributed indeed to the three contenders for the win employing slightly different approaches which converged at the end.

We can possibly add another variable too. Japan is synonymous with rain; sometimes vast quantities of it. Suzuka particularly so, and indeed twice here qualifying has been held on Sunday morning due to Saturday's running falling victim to weather. Oddly though the elements' worst somehow have daintily danced around races here over an extended period of time, it being some 19 years since rain last fell on Suzuka during Sunday's business proceedings. Are we due a wet race?

So plenty to think about heading into our Suzuka weekend. Which is just the way it should be.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

New F1 Times article: Bad things come in threes – A view on three-car teams and F1's costs

Photo: Octane Photography
There have been plenty of bones of contention in this F1 season, as you'll no doubt be aware by now. But Adam Parr, the ex-Williams CEO and chairman right after the recent Italian race reminded us starkly of what probably is the biggest issue of all for the modern sport, and one that perhaps we hadn't given enough attention.

Parr spoke of the prospect of three-car teams in the near future, and entangled in this is the persistent financial struggle of many F1 teams, particularly towards the back, as well as persistent failures to control the sport's costs.

In my latest article for F1 Times I explore the whole issue, and what should be done about it. You can have a read here: http://www.f1times.co.uk/news/display/09392

Friday, 26 September 2014

Lapping loitering

The Singapore Grand Prix and the safety car are pretty much inseparable. In every race ever at the Marina Bay track it has appeared at least once. On occasion its presence here has been, um, notorious. But while this year the safety car appearance wasn't quite so controversial as, you know, that, it still caused a bit of chatter. Simply in the length of time that it was out there.

On lap 31 the safety car was deployed, after Sergio Perez's front wing detached following contact with Adrian Sutil which resulted in carbon fibre shards scattered all over the track. Come lap 35 the debris was cleared - which in itself seemed a bit tardy, given the marshals were oddly bereft of brooms, but that's another story.

The safety car took a long time to disappear
Photo: Octane Photography
But almost that same amount of time again was then added onto the safety car lull, as on the same tour in accordance with the way of things the lapped cars were allowed to go ahead of the queue in order to get their lap back. Not until lap 38 - by which time most of the lapped cars had caught up the back of the pack - did we have green flag racing again.

The safety car interlude took up some 15 minutes, 15 minutes in which the global audience didn't have much to watch. And from what was at core a rather trivial incident...

The rule of allowing lapped cars to unlap themselves under a safety car has come and gone over recent times, which rather underlines the extent that the value of the practice is marginal. In mid-1992 the safety car was introduced (or reintroduced if we are to be pedantic). In 2007 the rule of letting lapped cars unlap themselves was brought in. In 2010 it was ditched, mainly on the grounds of the time in which we could be racing that was wasted by it. For 2012 for some reason it was brought back. And it remains.

But sure enough reintroducing the rule brought back exactly the same problems. OK in this case in Singapore last weekend it was an extreme given the long, close to two-minute, nature of the lap. Nevertheless one is put in mind of Einstein's theory of insanity - of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Add to this that apparently next year after safety cars we are to get standing restarts (though Bernie's since hinted that the idea is to be scrapped) which if so will only add to the delay.

Since mid-1992 the safety car has become part of the F1 fabric. And this letting lapped cars by is justified as a means of ensuring that the dicing between the leaders after they are released subsequently is not disrupted. But as some kind of extension of the safety car becoming habitual it seems a few of us have forgotten the extreme unfair and arbitrary nature of them. Indeed they seem to have gone way beyond even that and developed an odd sense of entitlement about them. Whatever is the case trying to argue that they do bad by the cars that are behind strikes as highly inappropriate.

Sergio Perez's wandering front wing caused the delay
Photo: Octane Photography
It should not be lost how inequitable a safety car is to those ahead, in that legitimately won advantage is taken away at a stroke through no fault of their own. And to be deliberately slightly mischievous about it, one could imagine similar concepts if aired in other sports being dismissed as utterly ridiculous. 'So Mr Blatter I suggest that every time there is an injury in a football game and the trainer has to come on that, no matter what has happened up until that point, the score is reset to 0-0'. Actually Sepp would probably go for that, but that's also another story

I recall too the debates when the safety car was being brought in as mentioned in mid-1992. Despite the name safety was not the issue. Instead in a season of Williams FW14B demonstration runs the prospect of artificially closing up races enticed. As did that of not having to throw the red flag nearly as often given all of the implications that those delays had for the king of TV's scheduling. There was very little high principle in it in other words.

Those behind the leader in safety car deployments are net winners no matter what, and win entirely because of fortune. For them to then complain - or have it complained on their behalf - that on top of this that, poor diddums, they've got a car a lap down in the way when the safety car is released, is what? Just old-fashioned cheek? Frankly they should be thanking their lucky stars for what they got out of it. And if they do end up with backmarkers in front of them that's just too bad. The way the cookie crumbles.

There's also the fact that thanks to strict blue flag application lapped cars leap out of the way immediately these days in a way they didn't used to. Furthermore time was that watching leaders dive past backmarkers with the minimum of delay was a key part of the thrill for us watching on, and a key part of the game. Ayrton Senna in particular was a master at it. But that's yet another story.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Road to Redemption at Singapore

The Singapore Grand Prix just passed wasn't really up there in the entertainment stakes with some of the other races of this campaign. Not before the near-inevitable safety car appearance at any rate. Nevertheless it contained some reason for cheer, for a few drivers at least. This was because it contained a rather odd concentration of strong performances from those who really needed them. And pronto.

Photo: Octane Photography
First off is Felipe Massa, whose refuge at Williams this season after Lord-knows-how-long in the graveyard shift at Ferrari has often had something of the out the frying pan, into the fire about it. A few noted that other than replacing Fernando Alonso's name as the team mate trouncing him with Valtteri Bottas's it was hard to see the join. His place at Williams for 2015 never seemed under serious threat, but still what remained of his reputation was continuing to take a bit of a battering.

Massa however got his first podium for his new team at Monza two weeks beforehand, yet while that was a worthy effort some mused nevertheless that his team mate and therefore yardstick Bottas was severely delayed at the start. But none of this applied in Singapore, with Massa putting in a fine run to fifth place, leaving his much-vaunted stable mate way behind. And for all that he bemoaned having to drive 'like a grandmother' in order to keep his tyres in shape late on, he did so to much better effect than Bottas, who gave us a striking demonstration of what hitting the cliff looks like (Massa's tyres were a lap older too).

We have seen before with Massa in 2012 that a breakthrough podium appearance after a long time away can have a transformational effect on him. We've also seen that when everything is aligned he can produce performances that without hyperbole rank alongside the best of absolutely anyone - his magical qualifying lap at this very same venue in 2008 is considered totemic among these. Possibly these two factors came together last weekend. Whatever was the case he looked on top of the two Grove pilots for much of the proceedings.

Photo: Octane Photography
Then there is Jean-Eric Vergne, who like Massa was the star of the Singapore night show from a few viewpoints. Certainly his star was the more spectacular of the two. Vergne is someone I see as rather underrated; a proper talent and a proper racer. He is someone that I placed ninth in a mid-season 2014 driver rating, which a few disagreed with but I feel that wretched luck with reliability largely accounted for him not achieving a points total this year that would have done him much greater justice. And his getting the Toro Rosso chop infamously for 2015 just after the summer break reflected the strict Replicant-style lifespan of a Faenza pilot more than any assessment of what he was doing on track.

Furthermore when paired alongside Daniel Ricciardo before about the only distinction between the two was the Australian's qualifying abilities, Vergne often appearing edgy and error-prone therein. This year by his own admission he focussed heavily upon this, and he seems to have fixed it. So, with Danny Ric wowing us this campaign, you do the maths.

Since Vergne got his abrupt notice of dismissal from his employer he's had two weekends wherein he'd been out-qualified and out-raced by his young stable mate Daniil Kvyat, and the Frenchman was a quintessential model of midfield mediocrity throughout both. I worried that - given his fate - perhaps he'd either checked out, or that somehow the focus of the team had migrated to the other side of the garage. When Kvyat qualified ahead again in Singapore it seemed mere continuation. But Vergne on race day soon rectified that, sailing past the Russian early on, and not even letting two five-second penalties for exceeding track limits spoil his day. After pitting with 16 laps left, and emerging in P14 behind even a Caterham, Vergne gobbled up the road before him as well as plenty of opponents on the way to P6 at the end in a scintillating finale, getting the five seconds he needed over the next guy so not to be docked a place on the very final lap.

Murmuring even started in Singapore that Vergne may yet be rescued by another F1 team for 2015 (Sauber was mentioned), though as is usually the case it'll depend in large part on whether he can gather some money.

Photo: Octane Photography
And in discussions of F1 pariahs it would seem remiss not to include Pastor Maldonado. It's just as well therefore that he was another to claw himself back from an abyss ever so slightly on Singapore's race day.

Veteran readers of this site (hello to both of you) will know by now that I'm something of a defender of Pastor. A task that, you'll appreciate, isn't always easy.

There undoubtedly are mistakes in him. Probably by now without his bulging briefcase of cash he wouldn't be in F1 (let's not forget though that he entered the sport's top echelon as GP2 champion, beating plenty of worthy drivers in so doing). But some of the vitriol he receives I feel is ridiculous and way above and beyond the evidence actually provided on track. Such is his reputation he receives no benefit of any doubt, and the bile sent his way immediately upon any error seems a reaction for many akin to Pavlov's Dog. Worse it often has the odd parallel with a lynch mob. Sure enough it followed when he wiped off a front corner of his Lotus on one of this track's uncompromising walls in Friday practice.

Generally though the evil E22 is no machine for anyone to show their wares, and stands in rather stark contrast with the Williams that Pastor passed up for this season (another fact that some don't need much encouragement to point out). He appears rather to have had the majority of the team's reliability woes this campaign too. Yet he's also maintained a brave face at it all, being resolutely positive and optimistic (something which his stable mate hasn't managed), as well as infallibly open and friendly with the media, many representatives of which rip him to shreds in print as soon as his back his turned. And the bottom line is this season when the car has held together Pastor has tended to perform solidly, in races at least (his prangs - the infamous one in Bahrain aside - have been mostly contained in practice and quali). He actually - in a stat that may surprise - has yet to retire from a race this year due to an accident. He only did so once in the 2013 campaign too.

And while the other Lotus pilot Romain Grosjean left him far behind earlier in the season, latterly Pastor's been showing signs of getting with the programme. In the last two rounds indeed he's finished ahead of the two after respectable drives. This included in Singapore, where indeed Pastor was placed in the points with just six laps left before a close to inevitable worn-tyres induced slide down the order to P12. And let's not forget how highly-rated Grosjean is. He left Kimi Raikkonen behind plenty when all was well also.

Photo: Octane Photography
We can add to this tale of reclamation finally perhaps an even more unlikely figure of Marcus Ericsson. In making his freshman F1 campaign in a Caterham this year he can hardly be accused of setting heather alight. Nevertheless though he was gradually getting to grips with things in what was a difficult car, and one hanging off the back of the pack.

There were however a few knives out for Ericsson, particularly recently when in Spa and then in Monza it seemed whoever hopped into the other Caterham at however short notice was immediately putting heavy manners on him. In the case of Andre Lotterer in Spa and of Kamui Kobayashi in Monza their best qualifying laps were around a second under the best that the Swede could muster in the same session.

As was noted by Martin Brundle it all seemed rather curious, and made you wonder exactly what was going on there. An instant response might be to decry Ericsson as not being good enough, but it should not be forgotten that there was nothing in his GP2 record to suggest that he is an idiot (albeit not a world-beater either). Perhaps given Caterham's well-documented struggles lately the team's ability to prepare two cars to the same level has been diminished? We don't know of course, but for what it's worth this indeed appeared to be the case in Colin Kolles's previous cash-strapped F1 team, at HRT in 2012 (Narain Karthikeyan the possible victim them).

Singapore however is a happy hunting ground for Ericsson, him having finished second here twice in GP2. Again though he qualified far from the pace of his team mate, albeit to some extent explained by an electrical problem. In the race things came good for him however, starting with him rebuffing (an admittedly severely hobbled) Nico Rosberg coolly early on, staying in close company with Jules Bianchi, then getting ahead by eschewing a third tyre stop, before keeping Bianchi behind at the last despite extremely second-hand rubber. It was the first time he'd topped the B class in the finishing order, and a few reckoned it was his best drive of the year.

We could probably add Sebastian Vettel's name to these too. Perhaps Sergio Perez also. For whatever reason, peculiarly the Marina Bay circuit last Sunday rather doubled as a road to redemption.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

New F1Plus.com article: Lewis Hamilton – the perfect Ferrari driver

Photo: Octane Photography
Lewis Hamilton won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza recently, and on the podium got a warm reception from the assembled tifosi.

Some reckoned this was down to the fans taking sides in response to Lewis's clash at Spa with Nico Rosberg, but I wondered if it reflected a little more than that...

Over on F1Plus.com I explain (though I hasten to add not as any sort of addition to what has been a very silly season) why, for a number of reasons, Lewis Hamilton is a perfect Ferrari driver.

You can have a read via this link: http://www.f1plus.com/en/news/item/6744-lewis-hamilton-the-perfect-ferrari-driver#.VCHBwS8ImBI.twitter

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Singapore GP Report: Singapore Swing

Everything has changed, changed utterly.

If Monza changed the sense of momentum, Singapore today changed the mathematics.

Today's was a perfect result for Lewis Hamilton
Photo: Octane Photography
Lewis Hamilton indeed won the Singapore Grand Prix, and even better from his 2014 world drivers' championship point of view, his stable mate and title antagonist Nico Rosberg didn't trouble the scorers at all.

For all of the learned comment about what laid ahead in this particular mano-a-mano fight, and of Rosberg's continued advantage, it remained fact that Lewis was within a single race of getting on top of the table in his team mate's stead. It just required everything to go his way. Today it did. The maximum 25 point swing means he all of a sudden leads the drivers' standings by three.

Indeed Nico's race barely started. The first sign of trouble was when he rather than head to the grid after his reconnaissance headed instead back to the pits, and to be wheeled back into the garage. After some frenzied activity including changing his steering wheel he made it into his starting slot. But the problem clearly was unresolved as he then was left on his mark as everyone else proceeded on their warm up lap.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Singapore Qualifying: Fine margins

Sport has an incredible reductive quality. F1 often particularly so. No matter what all have to be strung out into a pecking order. And often it is based on the most infinitesimal, absurd, margins. For more than one reason this hung heavy over the qualifying session for the 2014 Singapore Grand Prix today.

Indeed more broadly it felt a lot like a grand departure from the 2014 season. The one in which we'd got used to comfortable - sometimes positively contemptuous - single team domination. But one specific part of the qualifying hour remained very familiar. That the Mercedes in the end were the ones on top.

Lewis Hamilton was once again smiling
Photo: Octane Photography
The best lap times on the screens even over the lengthy and challenging Singapore lap were within a few tenths for several competitors. No fewer than four teams looked at times genuine contenders for pole. The top nine times in the final reckoning weren't too far over half a second apart. Throughout unlikely cars popped up in unlikely places in the order. But still the Mercs managed in the end to trump them. Even on the matter of closeness.

And not only was it closer than usual, the Mercs took a bit longer than the norm to assert themselves in their habitual position. In a madcap final qualifying part the unlikely figure of Felipe Massa topped things after everyone had done their first runs. It was a worthy effort, and it certainly excited most watching on, but to some extent it was illusory. The Mercs down in P6 and P7 had set their times on scrubbed tyres, and had nice fresh ones awaiting them for their final efforts.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Singapore Preview: Monaco for the new millennium

We all know the one about F1's gradual shift eastwards in recent times. It hasn't necessarily been universally loved either. Perhaps with good reason; plenty of the new Grands Prix have failed to really capture the imagination. Some have been cringeworthy.

The Singapore Grand Prix is a stunning event
"1 singapore f1 night race 2012 city skyline" by chensiyuan -
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But there's one such latterly-established race that can hardly at all be considered a failure. Indeed instead it is a favourite, and in but visit number seven already it feels like part of the furniture. That the sport just belongs here and would be rather diminished without it. And the race is this weekend; the Singapore Grand Prix around the Marina Bay circuit.

As for why this is, there are several reasons. But an overarching one is that it all just seems very F1. Or rather what F1 at its best would like to be. It is a glittering, vibrant event in which the visuals rarely fail to look stunning. For several reasons, the venue feels a lot like the Monaco for the new millennium.

Just like Monaco, Singapore is a city state that is a quintessential F1 host, to the point that in the latter case you wonder at quiet moments quite why a Grand Prix wasn't established here decades ago. It is glamorous, dripping with money and tearing towards the future, and perhaps most importantly never fails to fully embrace its F1 visit.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Why, despite everything, there's reason for optimism at Ferrari

His departure was a lot like the man. Unorthodox, dramatic, no doubt rubbing a few up the wrong way. After a summer wherein rumours that he was about to quit, perhaps already had done, lingered throughout. A matter of days after requiring the world's media to gather outside the Ferrari motorhome for Lord-knows-how-long in the midday heat of the Monza paddock amid much anticipation only to tell them there was nothing to see here. It was confirmed: Luca Montezemolo was on his way out of Ferrari.

Luca Montezemolo was a man in much demand at Monza
Photo: Octane Photography
Such a step is not to be underestimated, and not just because Montezemolo's current stretch at the team extends to 23 years. He wasn't loved universally, indeed his interventions more latterly were treated by a few as the mad ramblings of an embarrassing elderly relative. As if Mrs Rochester had been let out of the attic. And such is the way of these things it took his departure for exactly what his contribution was to be expressed. His place at the very centre of Ferrari's lengthy history, indeed as one of the most central figures in modern-day Italian public life more generally, is incontestable. Bernie wasn't too far off in placing him somewhere within the bastion of the Commendatore.

There probably was justification for Montezemolo's dividing of opinion. But his effectiveness and achievements are absolutely not to be belittled. First of all as Sporting Director - team manager at the F1 team's coalface - in the early-to-mid 1970s, where he turned an outfit that appeared to the outsider to be slipping from the sport and causing the most minor of ripples as it did so to being F1's pace setters within six months; champions within 18. Only Jean Todt can be said to have been as successful in the role. You could make a case that not even he was.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Why does F1 love a conspiracy theory?

Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent. - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

All concerned were justified in being incredulous afterwards. When the chequered flag fell in Monza those in the Mercedes camp no doubt heaved a sigh of relief. They had got their first one-two finish since June. Moreover they had got their first race devoid of any sources of bitterness and rancour since early May.

Lewis Hamilton's Italian Grand Prix win was
only the start of matters, in some ways
Photo: Octane Photography
That's what they thought anyway. As you'll know by now they didn't get it. Some had managed to find a source of bitterness and rancour. In how the lead switched from Nico Rosberg to Lewis Hamilton at mid-distance of Sunday's Italian Grand Prix proceedings, thanks to Nico outbraking himself at the first chicane, under pressure from a rapidly closing Lewis (who as Mark Hughes has outlined was faster in the Monza weekend for a few reasons). The resultant delay was more than enough for the latter to seize the lead, which proved decisive to the final result.

Not much to see it seemed; it looked to the unaided eye a genuine error. Indeed it was one that Nico made earlier in the race too (though he didn't lose a place that time). Plus he made similar errors in the races in Canada, Austria and in Hungary earlier this campaign, as well as in Hungary's qualifying (though in mitigation the Hungaroring ones were both in the wet). He came very close to the same in Spa, managing to give himself large flat spots on his tyres instead - which given the problems they caused him there may have swayed him to take the escape road this time. He did it in Monaco quali too, but perhaps we best not go there.