Saturday, 22 November 2014

Abu Dhabi Qualifying: Nico refuses to go quietly

'Nico is not going quietly' mused Damon Hill afterwards. And he was spot on. It's been a recurring theme of F1 in 2014. Along with that whatever else has occurred, on the Saturdays Nico Rosberg has been the man. In the season's final Saturday in Abu Dhabi he was the man again, claiming another pole position.

Nico Rosberg once again was the one smiling on a Saturday
Photo: Octane Photography
And this was a scrum won against the head, as for much of the weekend it seemed Lewis had matters well in hand. The Yas Marina track is one on which he specialises, and it looked that way again. In Friday practice he was king, and while Nico sudden pulling out of a time three-and-a-bit tenths quicker than Lewis's in Saturday morning's FP3 put a timid kitten among the pigeons, come the qualifying session it seemed order had been restored. Lewis was quicker in Q1 and set a mark a whole half a second under Nico's best in Q2.

But Q3 is the thing, and therein Nico whizzed around first with a 1m 40.697, almost six tenths under anything he'd done before. And whether related or not Lewis suddenly got scruffy, locking a wheel on two on the way to cutting the beam some three tenths over Nico's time.

Then in the final runs Nico found more with a 1m 40.480, and once again Lewis's brakes seemed a little grabby at the same moment. While he improved his time the gap to Nico's raised bar remained similar. Second place was all he could muster.

It seems another recurring theme of the year too, that at the vital part of qualifying small, sometimes nearly imperceptible, errors can creep into Lewis's repertoire. Whether due to tightening up at the crucial moment or not. As Martin Brundle wondered when the guns fell silent today it would be fascinating to see his comparative telemetry of Q3 and, say, the quali simulation in FP3 where he usually excels, particularly on braking pressure. Nico meanwhile, as an admiring Mark Webber watching on noted, 'nailed it'. Again.

Niki Lauda, drilling to the core as usual, reckoned 'it was impressive how Nico got his two laps together...the second one was an unbelievable one perfect lap...and Lewis made some small mistakes, this is the reason.'

Lewis once again was sub-optimum in qualifying
when it really mattered
Photo: Octane Photography
And the demeanours on show in the post-qualifying press conference appeared to betray the respective pressure situations of the two Merc pilots. Nico all smiles, excited chatter, even cracking jokes. Lewis meanwhile with an extreme economy on his prose and animation. Nico therefore reflected Damon Hill's words noted at the outset literally as well as metaphorically.

Yet for Lewis, in yet another recurring theme, he can draw succour from the names roll off the tongue - Austria, Britain, Hungary, Japan, America - of races this campaign wherein Lewis has endured a difficult qualifying, even on occasional outwardly close to down and out, but overnight regrouped and been magical come the race. You wouldn't bet a penny against similar happening again this time. Niki Lauda indeed promised that while Lewis will be 'upset' right now, tomorrow he - as will Nico - be 'reset'.

And of course Lewis doesn't have to beat Nico tomorrow, but therein lies a lot of Lewis's conundrum. As Brundle noted in previous weeks 'Lewis doesn't do second very well'. And his previous attempts to go against his instincts and drive within himself in a title showdown have been borderline-painful. Possibly reflecting this Lewis reiterated once again today that there will be no change to his usual approach.

And the probability surely remains with him. As previously argued, and whatever his difficulties today, only the unusual can deprive him of the title.

Nico too was minded afterwards that - for a few reasons - this is only the start of what still is a lengthy journey to the crown for him: 'A great day again today for sure' he said, 'I was really happy with the set-up, it all worked out well. But of course it's only one step, a very small step, because this weekend it's about the championship, not about pole position or anything.'

Lewis admitted meanwhile that he didn't make the best of things: 'I generally didn't have the best of laps...the car was fantastic.' And he agreed with his title rival on one point at least: 'Tomorrow is the special day.'

Valtteri Bottas yet again was impressive
Photo: Octane Photography
One thing that Nico has been hoping for is other cars getting between him and his title antagonist. From Friday practice that looked a long way off, there then being almost eight tenths per lap to the first one not in silver. But the rest got a bit closer to today, particularly in the hands of Valtteri Bottas. Indeed in his final run he lit the timing screens purple in the first two sectors, but it was not enough to split the haughty Mercs even before they set their own final times. It remained close however, and in the final shake out Bottas was within two tenths of Lewis.

Nico watching on was very mindful of the score: 'Valtteri said he got his perfect lap together' he said, 'it would have been great if somehow there would have been a Williams between us, but that could always happen tomorrow.'

Bottas however concentrated on his own position, and didn't reckon he could make Nico's wishes come true. 'As we've seen before Mercedes normally has more of an advantage on Sundays than on Saturdays' mused the Finn, 'it could be difficult, but for us the target is to finish as high as possible, and if something's going to happen and if we have the pace then there's no doubt we'll try to move forward...this race is no different to any other for me.'

Felipe Massa was next up, followed by the once-again mighty Daniel Ricciardo - who was almost unnoticed in setting a mark upwards of half a second under that of his team mate Sebastian Vettel, who nevertheless starts one place shy in sixth (there is though some possible trouble brewing for the Bulls due to front wing flexing...). Daniil Kvyat, who of course if to partner Ricciardo in Vettel's stead at Red Bull next year, signed off from Toro Rosso in style with P7, his best lap extremely close to Vettel's mark.

Jenson Button was next up in P8, no doubt with his future still in the balance taking no pleasure from once again getting one up on his young team mate, followed by the Ferraris, Kimi Raikkonen ahead after Fernando Alonso erred on both of his Q3 laps.

Both Mercedes drivers can look ahead
 to tomorrow with optimism
Photo: Octane Photography
It's ironic that even now the persistent discourse of this campaign's intra-Merc title fight is that Lewis is the one with the raw pace and Nico is the cerebral one - perhaps showing the sport's weakness of framing all battles as akin to Senna vs. Prost.

But its suitability herein has been limited as for all that some seem determined to typecast Nico, and for all that the wins ratio of the two is touted, in 2014 the German has been the qualifying master, today winning his 11th pole position to Lewis's seven. A ratio almost as impressive as Lewis's advantage on victories. F1 in more than one way has stepped through the looking glass in 2014.

Looking ahead to when it really matters tomorrow Nico noted: 'I need to get the job done...I'm sure it's going to be a great battle between the two of us, and then of course I hope for more than that...some sort of help from Lewis or anything...'.

Kind of sums the thing up. Lewis as outlined is in the box-seat, wherein only the unusual will take the title away from him. But there was something very usual as far as this year is concerned about today's qualifying. Nico on top, and striking back just when we started to venture that he was dealt with. Doing everything that he can. And refusing to go quietly.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Lewis Hamilton vs. Nico Rosberg in 2014

You are being spoiled today as here we have a second infographic for your perusal in anticipation of this weekend's vital championship showdown in Abu Dhabi. This infographic created by sports spread betting company Spreadex below focusses on the drivers' title protagonists of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

You'll see that it outlines their respective histories as well as a variety of stats comparing their 2014 campaigns with but one round remaining. Hope you like it!

Spreadex Hamilton v Rosberg F1 Infographic 2014
Infographic brought to you by Spreadex, leading provider of sports spread betting in the UK.
Click here for the full size image (1600 x 7000 px).

TeamSport Infographic - F1 2014 round up before Abu Dhabi

As you'll no doubt be aware by now the season-concluding, and championship-deciding, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix awaits us this weekend. And TeamSport - UK indoor karting specialists - in anticipation of this have produced the infographic below, which details the state of play as we head into the vital final round, with the top six in the drivers' championship detailed. So you can have no excuse for not being genned up.

More detail can be found here, and you can let TeamSport know what you think on Twitter.

  #F1 2014 seasonSource: TeamSport

Monday, 17 November 2014

Abu Dhabi Preview: Between cup and lip

There is many a slip between cup and lip as the saying goes. And how appropriate it may seem to the season-ending and championship-decisive round that awaits us in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

Lewis Hamilton holds the aces this weekend
Photo: Octane Photography
Lewis Hamilton to this end holds the aces. He knows what he needs to do to guarantee for himself the drivers' title of 2014. And that seems well within the probable outcomes. But in this game such situations come with a massive disclaimer, as possibly no other sport encompasses a wider variety of things that can go wrong, that which come seemingly from nowhere, and which have nothing to do with whether the protagonists get it right or get it wrong. The Goddess Fortune of F1 can be, and has been, particularly cruel.

And if she decides to be cruel to Lewis this time then the path to the title will likely open up to his team mate Nico Rosberg. At no point will this be too far away from many minds. The tension throughout the Mercedes camp will this weekend fill the air like molasses. Even the imperturbable Niki Lauda admitted in advance that 'it's going to be difficult'.

Lewis needs second place in Abu Dhabi for the title to definitely be his. Seems easy enough on the face of it, given that he occupies one of only two Mercedes and the W05 has been on another level to its opponents this season. Indeed in the last round in a not atypical outcome the next guy not bedecked in silver behind was some 40 seconds adrift.

And the Yas Marina track is one on which Lewis has always excelled, particularly in the snaking street circuit-like final sector, where his precision and his ability to control a sliding rear end on the low-grip track set him apart from all others with the possible exception of Sebastian Vettel. And for all that the historical final-day swings shifting the title destination at the very last (e.g. 1964, 1986, 2010) have stuck in our minds, in reality the guy with the points advantage managing to saunter over the line with the minimum required remains far more common.

Really, all Lewis has to do is stay out of trouble, as if he does so then surely he'll take the second position he needs and with a lot to spare. Even at the Yas Marina track, where overtaking remains relatively tricky, something akin to four years ago when Fernando Alonso got stuck behind Vitaly Petrov for most of the way surely will not be so in the age of DRS, degradation/multiple pit stops as well as with the Mercs' mammoth performance advantage.

But then again such a trouble-free time is easier said than done, and especially within the melting pot of an F1 weekend.

The season-decider in 2007 didn't go well for Lewis
By Morio (photo taken by Morio) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/
copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.
org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps especially for Lewis. Twice he has entered the concluding race with a finish apparently insultingly within reach all that was required to clinch the honours - in 2007 he just needed a second place if Alonso won and (in a much more likely scenario) just a fifth if Kimi Raikkonen was first home; then 12 months later he required a mere fifth place whatever anyone else did. But in the first one he managed to miss out on the title and in the other he would have done had the race been a couple of corners shorter.

He can point to bad luck, particularly in his first attempt, but still if we take a step back for a wider view in neither did he seem his usual self. Almost as if, all of a sudden, the possibility of driving within yourself for the least required was incongruous with his instincts to attack, and what we ended up with was slightly painful. That he ended up abandoning the approach that had served him so well since his earliest days of karting. As Martin Brundle noted back in Austin, that while Lewis needs a second place 'Lewis doesn't do second very well'.

Perhaps learning the lessons he's been insistent lately that he's going to change nothing when he gets to Abu Dhabi: 'I'm not going to do anything differently...I'll be pushing as hard as I can in Abu Dhabi' he stated after the Brazil race in this spirit.

Possibly too Lewis's team faces a similar conflict, as well as face the risk that a possible urge to be cautious may start to work against itself.

This was outlined by Gary Anderson recently: 'The problem is that when everybody is desperate for things to go right, the way they do things can change' he said. 'You triple-check everything rather than double-checking and rather than just going about your business in the normal way, you are thinking about it too much.

Mercedes reliability hasn't been perfect this year,
 as Nico found out in Singapore
Photo: Octane Photography
'That's the worst thing you can do, because suddenly the way of doing things that's served you well all through the year isn't the same as the way you're doing it now.

'That's when there's a risk of engineering in problems. The fear of getting something wrong can often be responsible for doing just that.

'For both the team and the drivers, it will be essential to do everything as normal in Abu Dhabi. But because of the circumstances, it's very difficult for it to be just another race, and the team management will have their work cut out keeping everyone calm.'

Which brings us neatly to likely the greatest risk to Lewis taking the title. Reliability, which has not been perfect for Mercedes this season, and if it strikes in the Yas Marina race will likely decide the title destination there and then. Temperatures in Abu Dhabi will be high of course (though that the race takes place in the evening, with the second part at night, helps take the edge off this), and it's at such moments that Merc breakages have crept in this campaign, such as those seen in Singapore and Canada.

Then there is of course the fact that it's the final round wherein power units and gearboxes which have limits on usage by regulation will be at the end of their designed life-cycles. You can add to this too that the Yas Marina track is a tough one on engines.

It's understandable therefore that the senior management at Merc in recent weeks when a microphone has been before them have talked about little else than the need to avoid car failures.

Then there is the simple happenstance that F1 also excels in - a puncture, a wayward backmarker, a wheel not attached at a pit stop. If anything like that strikes at a vital moment matters could pivot.

While all of this is going on perhaps the person with the least to think about is one Nico Rosberg. As it is he with the clearest sense of what he needs to do. Basically what he can. Pretty much like every time. Almost alone in the Mercedes squad he can approach the weekend in a habitual frame of mind.

In a sense, Nico heads into the weekend with the simplest task
Photo: Octane Photography
Nico can attack and aim for the win, knowing that it is matters outside of his control that will otherwise determine whether he gets a championship too from his weekend's work.

That was evident in his words immediately following his Interlagos win: '(I'll be) fully motivated, full attack, just optimistic, believing in it because that's the best approach for me and it worked this weekend. That's how I'm going to go into Abu Dhabi.'

And a recurring theme of 2014 is that at the point that you think Nico is down and out he delivers a counter-punch. In a sense it would be in keeping with it all if he delivers a definitive one at the Yas Marina venue this Sunday.

This Abu Dhabi round has been a notorious one for close on 12 months, given of course twice the normal number of points are on offer for every place in the top ten. Thankfully (though touching several pieces of wood) it doesn't seem too likely to alter the championship outcome, which was the major fear for most of the effect of this particular wheeze. It only will be critical if Lewis finishes between third and sixth (inclusive) and Nico wins, or else in the event of some other similar but even less probable combination.

It nevertheless will be interesting how if at all it changes the drivers' approach and not just for the front two, as Pat Symonds outlined: 'In the knowledge that double points are up for grabs they must balance the conservative approach of protecting their overall finishing position for the year with the awareness that a risky overtaking manoeuvre could seal an unexpected elevation in the points'. If the points available has been doubled, so has the potential punishment of a DNF.

It will be interesting too to see whether there are any resultant indirect shifts in the competitive order and reliability from the temptation of the additional points available. As noted many technical parts will be nearing the end of their lives, but it's been thought that a few have been saving relatively fresh power unit elements for the rewards of the Abu Double.

Double points might have a radical impact on the championship order behind too. Indeed it was looking fairly knife-edge even without it. While Daniel Ricciardo wrapped up third place in the table last time out in Brazil, we then have Vettel, Alonso and Valtteri Bottas within three points of each other. There are plenty of others closely grouped further back also.

As for the constructors' order all are rather spaced out by now, so even with double points it will take something very strange to happen for that to change.

But this weekend all eyes will be on the front. And it will be the possibility of that something very strange happening that will be occupying most minds.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

How I learned to stop worrying and love Caterham's crowdfunding

It's not a lot, but it's something. Something at least for now.

Rather like the Monty Python and the Holy Grail character, Caterham yesterday exclaimed that - despite wider assumptions - it isn't quite dead. Not yet anyway. As the team that (along with Marussia) has missed the last two rounds amid financial woes and administration and that many expected never to see again will indeed be present in the forthcoming Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, thanks in large part to money raised via a 'crowdfunding' scheme.

Against expectations, Caterham are due
 to be seen in Abu Dhabi
Photo: Octane Photography
The scheme was announced at the start of last weekend and its target was to drum up was £2.35m to get the squad to the season-closing Yas Marina race meeting. And while at the point yesterday that Caterham declared itself alive and kicking again only around 80% of it was raised (just over £1.9m), that level in itself helped apparently by a few sizeable contributions late on, reportedly too some sponsors have been found to make up the shortfall.

At the same time the deadline for the scheme, originally the end of yesterday, was moved to nine days hence; something I'm told is above board. Perhaps all surmised that there was no harm in keeping it open.

If you need brought up to speed as to what 'crowdfunding' is, well it's quite the new big thing in our age of the online community. It's a means of raising funds for projects that (presumably) would struggle to be funded otherwise - ordinarily those starting-from-scratch - via an accumulation of voluntary pledges of cash from individuals. The pledges of course can vary in size, right from pocket change to fairly vast sums. Often too the pledge is in return for a 'reward', perhaps some kind of name credit or something more tangible (though apparently equity and credit crowdfunding exists out there too).

New F1 Times article: Should we be asking what the point of Bernie is?

Photo: Octane Photography
You'll be well aware of the sport's various financial woes, and its various manifestations, that have dominated discourse in recent weeks. You'll also be well aware of the related frenzied debate over F1's future and what it should look like.

And you'll also likely know that the fingerprints of a certain Bernie Ecclestone is all over many of the matters of moment as well as over a framed future F1 that doesn't appear to have much wider support.

In my latest article for F1 Times, given recent goings-on I ask should we be asking what the point of Bernie is? You can have a read here: http://www.f1times.co.uk/news/display/09543

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

What did the Raikkonen-Alonso battle in Brazil tell us? Nothing.

Let me tell you a story.

It is an F1 race, in 2014, and in the closing laps. The two Mercedes are way off ahead in a tight battle for the win, but down in sixth place we have Kimi Raikkonen. He is in the process of executing a two-stop strategy, but bearing down on him from behind is his Ferrari team mate Fernando Alonso, who instead has stopped three times and is benefiting from being more freshly-booted.

Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso in battle
Photo: Octane Photography
With ten laps left Fernando is right with Kimi, but rather than meekly cede the place Kimi is fighting for it for all he's worth. Clearly there are no instructions coming from the pit wall. Not that they'd likely be heeded anyway. For several laps the two feisty racers tough it out, getting alongside each other at several points, but Kimi time after time is able to position his car so to remain ahead.

That is until there are four laps left when Nando is able to get by; where he stayed. But still with the time lost squabbling Alonso had to abandon any vague thoughts of attacking Sebastian Vettel ahead, who'd passed Kimi himself shortly before Alonso arrived on the scene.

You would be forgiven for thinking that I'm referring to the race in Brazil just passed last weekend. But forgive me, it was a deliberate attempt at a bum steer. Actually what I described is from the Spanish race earlier in the year. Round five. In May.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The previous of the penultimate round

What is it, in years in which the drivers' title race goes to the wire, with penultimate rounds?

The thought occurred to me before the end of the Brazilian Grand Prix just passed - that distinguished by Nico Rosberg abruptly reminding the hordes of doubters that he's not surrendering in the world championship battle - that it all seemed a bit familiar. That next-to-last rounds have a knack of this. Confounding expectations; shifting momentum almost onto its head.

If Nico Rosberg's win in Brazil seemed a bit familiar, you had
some good reasons for thinking so
Photo: Octane Photography
And I was fairly relieved to discover subsequently that I wasn't imagining things, as after a think I was able to come up with a fairly extensive previous for this sort of thing. If it seemed familiar, that's because it was.

The penultimate round from history that the Interlagos race really put me in mind of was that from 20 years ago, that one held in Japan in Suzuka. And in teeming rain. Then Damon Hill played the Nico Rosberg role, coming into the race still with a mathematical title chance but as far as plenty were concerned as something of an interloper. The other guy - in this case one Michael Schumacher - was the one by consensus cruising to the honours, and then as now the closeness on points at this late stage from many perspectives owed to peculiarity. Subtract unreliability and conspiracies regarding collisions and trips down escape roads and add instead Schumi being disqualified from two races and banned from two more. Each of which Hill took maximum points from.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Brazilian GP Report: All apologies...

Well Nico it appears that many of us owe you an apology.

We all knew the statistics heading into today's race, of the ratio in 2014 of your poles to wins. Indeed we didn't let many opportunities to mention them pass. Moreover someone pointed out that of all the times that you'd started on pole with your team mate and title foe Lewis Hamilton alongside this campaign you'd triumphed but once. At Monaco...

Nico Rosberg - against many expectations - triumphed in the
Brazilian Grand Prix
Photo: Octane Photography
We didn't think you had it in you. Well, you did.

OK, you did have a conspicuous dollop of luck along the way. But you needed no more than that, looking fast and precise throughout, even in the breakneck final stint when Lewis with the smell of blood in his nostrils stalked you from behind. Even as the lap times dipped down to scarcely credible levels. You looked utterly in command.

You could argue too that you made your luck, what with the pressure you were exerting with your pace possibly drawing the crucial error from your rival.

But whatever was the case in a weekend when you simply had to deliver, and deliver against just about all expectations and previous, you did. And how you did it, topping every single session of the weekend. Including, today, the important one.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Interlagos Qualifying: Fightback or more of the same?

I suppose it shows the importance of getting the whole picture. Understanding the context.

On the face of it the Brazilian Grand Prix weekend thus far could hardly have gone better for Nico Rosberg. He's topped every single session. And come qualifying having again headed the times in Q1 and Q2 he also topped matters in the important part to take pole. In an exciting session he pipped his team mate and title rival Lewis Hamilton, the latter apparently being pressured into a crucial error.

Nico Rosberg claimed pole once again
Photo: Octane Photography
For what it's worth too it now means that Nico has claimed the sport's inaugural 'pole trophy', for prevailing most on a Saturday in a season. But there was little abandon about the place. Everyone knew what the bigger consideration was.

That of Nico Rosberg's nine pole positions won in 2014 prior to today he has only converted two to victory. That Lewis overturning his team mate's qualifying advantage in the race has been lately like an F1 equivalent of Groundhog Day - Bahrain, Monza, Suzuka, Austin. The names roll off the tongue.

Will Nico prevailing today prove to be an in-the-nick-of-time start of a fight back or simply more of the same? This will matter. A lot. And it was on everybody's minds afterwards.