Wednesday 29 September 2010

Number crunching from Singapore: Nando and Seb on a different level

I've had a little gander at the lap times from last Sunday's Singapore GP (because I'm sad).

They show us what we already knew: namely that Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel were on a different planet to everyone else. But I thought the numbers were so striking that they're worthy of repetition here.

Alonso and Vettel exclusively shared the 26 fastest laps set by anyone at the Singapore race, as well as between them set 35 of the 36 fastest laps (these 35 laps were as equitably shared as is possible, Alonso set 17 of them and Vettel 18). That one rogue non-Alonso/Vettel lap of the 36 was set by Robert Kubica, who made a late stop for tyres and therefore benefited from running with a light fuel load on fresh tyres. And even there his fastest tour (1:49.255) was well over a second shy of Alonso's best (1:47.976) and of Vettel's (1:48.141).

Sunday 26 September 2010

Singapore GP Report: Fred shows that when you're hot you're hot

As is no doubt said in pool clubs roughly every fifteen seconds: when you're hot you're hot. Fernando Alonso in Singapore won his second race on the bounce, and is beginning to look like he may do something crazy and bag his third world title this year. I called Fred a 'dark horse' for the title last week, and am now wondering if I was under-selling him.

This was a smash and grab exercise by Fred in the very best sense of the phrase. Make no mistake about it, this should have been a Red Bull win (or more to the point, a Vettel win), and their failure to do so can be traced back to their being out fumbled for pole position on Saturday. Alonso tends to go into imperious mode when leading races, and he put those skills to their best use in Singapore, despite Vettel's best efforts to put him under pressure.

In reality both Alonso and Vettel were mighty in Singapore, with no one else seeing them. Just like the last race at Monza, we were treated to a tight, tense battle at the front between two drivers at the top of their game. Another parallel was that Webber started in the pack, looked racy, made some nice moves, and scored good points (this time for finishing third) that he may look back on as being key for his championship aspirations.

Saturday 25 September 2010

Singapore Qually: Fred pulls a rabbit out of the hat

Well I absolutely did not foresee that. Fernando Alonso pipped Sebastian Vettel to pole for tomorrow's Singapore GP, in a weekend that, up until that point, Seb looked like he had it taped.

The Red Bulls, at least in Vettel's hands, continued their strong pace in the first two qually sessions. But in the third, wherein only two flying laps can be squeezed in, apparently both were compromised by the same piece of traffic on their first run. Then, with the pressure on, seemed to not able to max out their second. Seb ended up second, and Webber fifth. Christian Horner admitted that his cars 'slightly underperformed' against their potential in qualifying.

If Fred gets off the line first tomorrow, and it stays dry (and the latest weather forecasts look relatively benign) who'd bet against him bringing the win home? He's looking more and more like the focused and metronomic Alonso we know from days of old. What's more, all the momentum seems to be with him currently. The one false note in qually for Ferrari was struck by Massa, who'll line up last tomorrow, his car having stopped with what may have been an electrical problem in the first session, having not yet set a time. Reliability problems are the last thing Ferrari needs right now.

Singapore Preview: Vettel's to lose?

So there you have it - looks like the claim from the Red Bull camp that Singapore would see them return to setting the pace wasn't spin after all. On the basis of practice they're the cars to beat, benefiting from their extreme levels of downforce and ability to ride the kerbs.

And even among the Red Bulls Vettel looks hard to stop, consistently being a number of tenths quicker than Webber. It's already looking like Seb's race to lose. Just a guess, but perhaps being the hunter, rather than the hunted is easier psychologically, and allows Seb to throw the car around with abandon (vital at Singapore).

If anyone is going to get close to the Red Bulls it looks like it'll be Alonso and possibly Hamilton. Further rubbering in of the track, after rain (yet again) before practice may bring them closer, but it'll probably require something special even by their standards to get pole. Beating Webber to second may not be out of the question though. Button looked off the pace in practice 3, and cannot afford to lose much ground this weekend.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Why I think it's Webber's title (probably)

It's all the fives in the F1 championship fight right now. Five races left, five drivers within a win of each other at the top of the table. But you know this already.

So, what is likely to happen next? I make no claims of being a clairvoyant, but I'll do my best.

A good place to look for clues is in the five remaining tracks, given that the characteristics of these are likely to be the biggest discriminators of pace in the remainder of the season.

Next up, this weekend, is Singapore. This looks like Red Bull country, given it's a tight, confined, bumpy street track, in the Monaco mold (and the Red Bulls, Webber in particular, were strong there earlier this season). Indeed, the Red Bulls have been insisting for a number of weeks that Singapore will see their return to the front. They probably will, though Hamilton and Alonso have good records there and certainly have the acrobatic skills needed to push their cards around that track competitively (and remember that Alonso probably would have been on pole at Monaco had he not pranged a barrier in practice). There is however rain forecast, in which case all bets are off.

Suzuka follows that, and in a dry race the Red Bulls will likely disappear, with their unrivalled pace around the fast sweeps. We're possibly due a wet race there however (and when it rains in Japan it really rains), again all bets will be off in this scenario. Still, both Red Bull pilots will see the next two races, if dry, as a great opportunity to put clear blue water (or should that be clear energy drink?) between them and their rivals. If Red Bull pull it off then with three races left everyone else could be on their knees.

Saturday 18 September 2010

Return of the Kimster?

Just when it seemed that the annual drivers' market silly season was getting boring, what do you know, Kimi Raikkonen has apparently thrown his hat into the Renault ring, to potentially partner Robert Kubica next season.

Bit of a bolt from the blue this one, coming just months after the mood music appeared to be that Kimi was content to stay in rallying, having had a quietly impressive debut year.

As has been pointed out, by Jonathan Noble on the Autosport website and others, there may be all sorts of Machiavellian sub-plots behind this apparent move, both from Renault and from Kimi. But in my view the move, on balance, just about makes sense.

No one doubts Kimi's natural talent. In my view it's greater than anyone in the current F1 field, including even Lewis Hamilton (whom I think has astonishing natural ability). Anyone who recalls the races in Japan in 2005, Spa in 2004, and others, has little doubt of Kimi's potential and genuine star quality.

Kimi has shown on occasion that he's bloody quick, and in ideal circumstances can beat all comers. He has won one world championship after all, and could have won three with better reliability from his McLaren in 2003 and 2005. If it was me making the decision at Renault I'd conclude that on driving potential, Kimi surely has to be considered by far the best bet when held in comparison to the other contenders. Surely Kimi, even at half cock, will be at least the equal the likes of Petrov or Sutil?

Sunday 12 September 2010

Monza GP Report: Forza Ferrari and Fernando

We just never learn do we?

After the last race, in Belgium, we were convinced that the championship was now a two-horse race, with Vettel, Button and Alonso out of it. But, just as a week is a long time in politics, an hour and a half on a Sunday afternoon is a long time in F1. Monza's results, with Alonso first, Button second and Vettel fourth, and with Webber 6th and Hamilton leaving with nil points, mean we have five drivers within a win of the top of the table once again, with five races left. Woo hoo.

The race was tight and exciting, in true Monza style. Jenson got the jump on Alonso at the start, helped by his extra downforce (though Alonso's start wasn't vintage either), and from that moment on Fred never gave him a moment's peace. We were treated to the sight of two top-level drivers, running at the limit, and never putting a wheel wrong from what I saw. The soft tyres held on magnificently, and it was a full 36 laps into the 53 lap race that Button blinked first and pitted (the team apparently gambling that the new tyres would give him an advantage). But Alonso pulled a fast one on the next lap, and squeaked ahead after his stop, holding Jenson off at the first chicane with some brio.

From that moment on the podium positions, with Massa third (holding on to the front two well, despite the odd hairy moment), weren't in doubt.

Saturday 11 September 2010

Monza Qually: Fred makes the tifosi very happy

Fernando Alonso took pole position for tomorrow's race at Monza. Not only this, he did it with a surprising pace advantage over his rivals. It's also Ferrari's first pole since about 1961, or something. And in Italy of all places.

The conventional wisdom had been that this would be a McLaren track, and Jenson Button performed with some vigour to complete the front row, just over a tenth back. He's gone with a larger rear wing and an f-duct, showing admirable calm in the face of people who should know better (like me!) telling him it was the wrong way to go. If anything it was Lewis who chose the wrong path, as he lines up fifth, having faded away in a curious fashion in final qually.

Jenson's extra downforce may give him a strong run to, and under braking for, the first corner tomorrow, though on the flip side, he's been slow through the speed traps and anyone that gets a sniff of his slipstream will sail past him.

Monza Preview: Tight at the top

Lewis has topped the times in this morning's final practice session at Monza prior to qualifying. He probably is favourite for pole, though Monza may not quite be the McLaren walkover that has been predicted. There doesn't appear to be much between the top three teams. The top five cars were covered by just over two-tenths of a second this morning, and Webber probably would have been right among them had he not stopped out on the track (for the second session in a row).

Red Bull are possibly pleasantly surprised by how close they are to the front (having told all in advance that this weekend was a damage limitation exercise), and Vettel was but a squeak behind Hamilton in second place this morning. The extent to which Webber has been impeded by his reliability problems yesterday and today remains to be seen, however.

Ferrari also appear to be doing their usual trick of finding something at Monza, neither car was far away and Alonso may well have topped the times this morning but for being mucked about by Kamui Kobayashi on his last run.

Thursday 9 September 2010

FIA get it right on Ferrari and team orders

This may come as a surprise to you, but the FIA got it right today in their ruling on Ferrari's team orders in the German race earlier this year.

The World Motor Sports Council decided not to add further punishment to the stewards' $100,000 fine handed to Ferrari at the event itself. Better still, they announced that the team order ban will be reviewed. Let's hope that this is the beginning of the end of the drawn out 'team order ban era' of F1.

Don't get me wrong, if I could wave a magic wand and make team orders disappear from F1 then I would. I'd much rather see team mates battle on the track than have the outcome decided by their pit wall. I also appreciate that to the uninitiated (and the pure) it would seem tremendously unfair for a team to ask a driver to give up a position. But team orders have always been part of the sport. As has been documented, it used to be not uncommon back in the 'golden age' of racing when men were men etc etc for drivers to go so far as to give up their cars for team mates who had broken down. Indeed, Peter Collins in the final race of the 1956 season even went so far as to give up on a chance of winning the championship himself so that team mate Juan Manuel Fangio could take over his car.

The team order ban was only brought in as a knee-jerk reaction to an egregious case in Austria 2002, and it owed more to pandering to public opinion than to the sport. Team orders are an inescapable part of F1. Teams invest lots of money and time to win championships, and winning comes higher in their list of priorities than the 'show' alone, which is the way it should be in a competitive endeavour. In the pursuit of this, teams will occasionally feel it necessary to swap the positions of their cars out on track. One has to accept team orders as part of F1 or find something else to do with their Sunday afternoons. Further, any attempt to ban team orders is unenforceable, and forces teams into various charades when team orders are applied, as was seen at Hockenheim.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Why the lack of real grid girls?

I spent last weekend at Brands Hatch doing my marshal thing at the DTM. Had a jolly good time thanks for asking.

One of DTM's distinguishing features (kind of) is that there are two female drivers on the grid, in the shape of Susie Stoddart and Katherine Legge. This reminded me of the question that is often asked of me (and others) by the uninitiated: why there are no female drivers in F1.

I have to say it's a good question. Historically there have been very few, only five in the history of the World Championship, and only two who have started a race.

Busting some myths

For one thing, I believe we can relatively quickly dismiss the Vitantonio Liuzzi claim that women aren't psychologically or physically equipped to take part in F1. The psychological claim can be dismissed out of hand, and I'm not convinced by the physical argument either. There are many female fighter pilots, astronauts etc etc operating at the top level of their professions. Hell, there are even female weightlifters in the Olympics. Further, there is evidence that women with their lower centre of gravity etc are actually better equipped in general to deal with extreme G-forces. So I can see no reason why women can't develop the physical fitness required to operate in F1.

Supply and demand

In many debates in professions in which women are underrepresented, such as in politics, there is discussion about whether the shortfall of women is down to supply (i.e. women aren't putting themselves forward to participate in the same numbers as men) or demand (i.e. the profession itself is making it disproportionately difficult for women to participate and to 'get on'). The supply point is probably worthy of more investigation in F1 and in motor sport more generally. Part of any supply problem is cyclical in that there being so few female drivers will likely mean that many other females won't see race driving as an option for them.

Saturday 4 September 2010

The (possible) return of the ground effect - hurrah!

I was intrigued by the article on the Autosport website on the latest working group ideas being touted to improve overtaking in F1. This may seem unlikely, given such working groups are convened and their outputs applied on a daily basis, it seems. But this time, just maybe, it could be different. This is because, for this first time I can remember, the return of the ground effect is being 'actively considered'.

I feel that the near absence of ground effect on F1 cars, that is achieving downforce from air flow passing under the car, is a major part in the difficulties of cars to run close to each other, and therefore to pass. I'm told that ground effect is less negatively impacted by the 'dirty air' from the car ahead, and also will relatively speaking reduce the reliance on air flow over the top of the car (which both creates and are negatively impacted by dirty air). I don't think it's a coincidence that the point in history when overtaking levels in F1 fell off a cliff loosely coincided with the 'plank' being attached to the underside in 1994, and the stepped underside introduced at the start of 1995, both of which combined to virtually eliminate ground effect.

Of course, a lot of things have to happen first before this becomes a reality, and no one has ever got rich by predicting what the FIA and F1 teams end up agreeing on (and it won't happen until 2013 at the earliest). But, here's hoping, a bright future with racing cars racing each other may lay in wait.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Stewards continue to baffle

A bit more musing on the Spa race.

You may recall Martin Brundle mentioning in the BBC commentary, as the cars were poised on the starting grid waiting for the green light, that Felipe Massa had overshot his starting slot by a couple of metres.

Well, what do you know, amateur footage has appeared on You Tube (better move quickly before Bernie twigs). Felipe looks bang to rights.

While I'm generally a fan of stewards butting out, it does seem odd that this wasn't even investigated, let alone punished. Even some kind of warning or fine to ensure no one would seek to use this sort of stunt as an advantage in future (as with Hamilton setting his fastest qualifying lap on fumes in Canada, and thus running out of fuel before getting back to the pits) would have been something.