Thursday 28 October 2010

Looking back: F1's first foray with the safety car

The safety car is very much the part of the fabric of F1 these days. Indeed, it led 24 laps of the 55 laps of the Korean race last weekend, and has led 78 F1 race laps this season. That's more than double that of Felipe Massa!

Having been an integral part of the racing scene in the USA since the year dot, the safety car was introduced to F1 in its current form midway through the 1992 season. Minimising disruption of TV schedules from race stoppages was part of the reason for the move, though a desire to potentially 'spice up the show' in a season in which the Williams FW14Bs (more to the point, Mansell's FW14B) were running away with virtually every race also concentrated minds.

Less well known is that there was an earlier attempt at bringing the safety car, or 'pace car' as it was known then, to F1 races. Given their experience, it's little wonder that the idea was abandoned for almost two decades subsequently.

The year was 1973, and up until that point stopping races wasn't the done thing. Races continued unabated pretty much no matter what, even in incidents of extreme horror such as Lorenzo Bandini's fiery and fatal accident in Monaco in 1967.  Not including the 1950 Indy 500 (technically part of the F1 world championship at the time), the first F1 race to be stopped ahead of time was the 1971 Canadian Grand Prix, which ended a few laps early because of rain and mist.

Monday 25 October 2010

A few adjuncts from Korea

Red Bull not unreliable, contrary to popular belief

The Autosport website's post Grand Prix reviews, available to subscribers, are excellent. Given I'm a total nerd I particularly enjoy their 'Stat Attack' articles, which are a collection of stats and records established before and after each Grand Prix.

One thing that leapt out of their article after the Korean race was that the Red Bulls, contrary to what seems to be a commonly accepted belief in F1, actually have a very strong reliability record. For one thing, the Red Bulls, prior to the Korean race, were the F1 team who had gone the longest without a mechanical failure - the last one was Vettel's expiring brake disc all the way back in the Australian race. Indeed, Webber has not had a mechanical DNF this season (both his non-finishes were caused by accidents). Korea also ended a 22-race points scoring streak for the team, and going into the race the Bulls were one of only two teams who had scored in every race this season (McLaren is the other).

OK, there's an element of lies, damned lies and statistics here no doubt, and such stats ignore cases such as Vettel's brake problems in Barcelona and Monza, and his spark plug problem in Bahrain, which precluded better results in each case without actually stopping him. It's also the case that Vettel's three mechanical DNFs this year compare unfavourably with the two for Hamilton one for Alonso and Button. But for all we talk about Red Bull as being unreliable, and Adrian Newey 'pushing things to the edge' more than other designers, the numbers don't back up the point.

What Red Bull do next

A question probably still ringing in Christian Horner's ears since the Korean round is what he does now in terms of 'backing' Webber over Vettel for the title. Two rounds are left, with a maximum of 50 points available, and Webber trails championship-leading Alonso by 11 points, and Vettel trails Alonso by 25.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Korea GP Report: Fred cleans up as others fumble

Turns out those who set their alarms were rewarded, eventually. After well over an hour of false starts and touring behind the safety car (occasionally enlivened by driver politicking via their radios), what do you know, once the Korea race got under way proper it turns out to be a great one.

Fred took P1, and all of a sudden he looks to be in a strong position leading the championship table, with but two races left. Everyone laughed when mid-season he told all he would win the world championship this year, but now the only one laughing is Fred himself, as he gave us a demonstration of via the radio having taken the flag.

Yes, Fred took advantage of Red Bull fumbles to take the win, but there's always been an art to staying out of trouble to win races, particularly in these conditions, and Fred put them to full use today. He was never far behind the Bulls in any case.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Korea Qually: Red Bull pull two rabbits out of the hat at the last

Whoever devises Red Bull strategy must have nerves of steel. In a tight qualifying session in which both Red Bulls, Alonso and Hamilton looked on the pace, and just when it looked like it was Fred's pole, having improved his already P1 time on his final run, Vettel and then Webber each leapfrogged him at the very very last.

Lap times have been tumbling all weekend as the new Korean track cleans up and rubbers in, and it could be that getting their laps in last was vital to the Bulls squeaking ahead of Fred.

As expected, the Bulls lost time compared with the others in the first sector of the lap, which is dominated by long straights, before making the time back, and often more, in the twisty stuff in the remainder. The speed and challenge of the sweeps in the latter part of the Yeongam lap has pleasantly surprised everyone, especially the in the Red Bull camp you'd think, given they play utterly to their strengths.

Friday 22 October 2010

Korea Preview: Close call at the front, as one dog doesn't bark

Inspector Gregory: "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
Sherlock Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night time"
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

One dog in particular did not bark in Korea today. Contrary to common expectations, including by certain bloggers who should know better, the new track did indeed hold together. This bodes well, as on previous occasions of F1 circuits breaking up wear and tear had become apparent by this point of the weekend, and most cars did something like a race distance in the course of practice today.

Indeed, many drivers were pleasantly surprised by the Yeongam track and facility. While the surrounding scenery remains rather sparse (it's in effect to be a street circuit built in reverse, with surrounding buildings to be built after the circuit, rather than before hand) there have not been significant complaints, and there have been many plaudits. Schumi commented that 'I must say the circuit is very demanding, very challenging, very good. I really like it', while Mark Webber admitted that 'I’m clutching at straws to criticise anything'.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Breaking up is never easy

This weekend the F1 circus has a new venue, at the Korean International Circuit in Yeongam. But it turns out that the new facility for the inaugural Korean Grand Prix may if anything be too new. Anticipation of the race had for some months focussed prominently on whether there would be a race at all, with preparation of the track and facilities behind schedule.

Bernie admitted in the Guardian yesterday that until a few weeks ago cancellation of the event was a real possibility: 'Last month I didn’t think it would be finished. And it would have been cancelled then – for sure'.

However, things came together (Bernie's public 'hurry up' of Korea's preparations seemed to concentrate minds) and FIA race director Charlie Whiting approved the track 10 days before the first practice session is scheduled to start. This somewhat stretching the FIA's usual 90 day deadline for such an approval.

This hasn't done a great deal to calm nerves in certain quarters, particularly given that the final layer of track tarmac was laid on 9 October, but 13 days before F1 rubber hits the road. Some therefore doubt the extent to which the tarmac will have 'cured', and will therefore hold up to the rigours that 24 F1 cars (and support events) will impose upon it. Nico Rosberg and Nick Heidfeld among others have aired their concerns publically, such as that the track may break up, as well as that oils used in the construction of the track may not have dissipated, both of which have the potential to make the surface treacherous.

Friday 15 October 2010

Russia GP a reality

Say what you like about Bernie, but he's nothing if not persistent.

It appears that a Russian Grand Prix will be on the F1 calendar in 2014. This after three decades of trying on the part of Bernard Charles Ecclestone.

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

Momentum for and interest in a Russian/Soviet race seemed to be diluted for a while after that, despite the occasional murmur. That was, until the turn of the millennium. In the noughties more venues were touted and advanced to varying degrees before petering out, including in Moscow (again), St. Petersburg and Pulkovo Airport. For many onlookers the prospects of a Russian Grand Prix were ranked somewhere alongside that of a Grand Prix in New York - another ubiquitous but apparently unattainable venue in Bernie's vision.

Tuesday 12 October 2010

How do you solve a problem like Felipe?

An intriguing development of the past few days is the thickening plot surrounding Felipe Massa and his relationship with Ferrari.

It all kicked off, publically at least, in the build up to the Japanese race when Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo said: 'I have waited for Felipe with great perseverance in the last four races. I want a strong Massa who will shave points off the rivals...Those who race for Ferrari don't race for themselves, but for the Ferrari team colours. One who wants to race for himself will have to face the team'.

Curious stuff. Particularly given that, on the track at least, Felipe hadn't done an awful lot wrong in those four races. He scored a 3rd and two 4th places (in two of those races indeed taking points off championship rivals) and also came in 8th in Singapore after a mechanical failure in qualifying, absolutely not his fault, consigned him to start at the back. The inference could be taken that Massa's off track relationship with his team, particularity in regard to his his willingness to assist team mate Fernando Alonso's title bid, has become severely strained. We can also infer, going by di Montezemolo's stated chronology, that the problems are traced back to Hockenheim in July, the scene of 'team order gate' of course, wherein Felipe was required to cede a likely win to Alonso.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Japanese GP Report: Red Bull get it right

It's always nice when your predictions come true. Admittedly, I wasn't really sticking my neck out by suggesting that the Red Bulls would run and hide at Suzuka. Long fast corners, which are in bountiful supply at Suzuka, play right into their hands, and they have all season, and the result wasn't in doubt once Kubica left proceedings early. But this is the first time this campaign that the Bulls have converted one-two on the grid into one-two in the race, which says something of their maddening inability to turn pace advantage into hard results this year. It's made it more fun for us watching on though.

Fernando Alonso and the McLarens did well to at least keep the Red Bulls honest. Fred came home third, within three seconds of the Bulls, and will be glad to have limited the damage to his championship position. He and Vettel are now level pegging in the table, 14 points behind Webber (with 25 points for a win) with three rounds left. Indeed, all three of them will be pleased enough with their weekend's work: Webber will be pleased to stretch his lead ever so slightly, and Vettel will be happy to be right back in the mix, and back on form. In a weird way you wouldn't bet against any of them for the title. Webber does need to beat Vettel somewhere to be world champion, and the way Vettel's now going that won't be easy.

Suzuka Qually: As advertised

Nothing can go wrong for them now, can it? The Red Bulls have locked out the front row as was expected from a dry session, with a clear pace advantage, approaching half a second a lap, over everyone else.

As also expected, Seb is the quicker of the two and takes pole, though Webber ran him a bit closer than practice times had indicated, being around seven hundredths slower. Given a trouble free run the Red Bulls should score a one-two later today, but this is Red Bull we're talking about!

It'll also be fascinating to see what Webber's approach will be in the race. Will he see following his team mate into second place, and reversing the momentum on Alonso, as a good day's work, or does he see his team mate as as much of a championship threat?

Saturday 9 October 2010

Suzuka Preview: Opportunity Red Bull

We have to wait a little longer for qually at Suzuka. Heavy, incessant rain on Saturday, which created track conditions which rendered the cars virtually undriveable, means that the session now will take place on Sunday morning, 10am local time, finishing four hours before the race start. There was some prevarication as the scheduled time for qually came and went earlier today, and the fans waited patiently as surely only the Japanese can, before the powers that be finally gave into the inevitable.

All the indications from the running on Friday were that, if dry, the Red Bulls are untouchable. Their performance through fast, long corners has been well-established this season, and such corners are plentiful at the Suzuka track. Their grip and change of direction, in the esses section especially, is something to behold.

While this will be of some relief to Mark Webber, whose championship lead is a precarious 11 points, it'll be of less comfort to him that his team mate Sebastian Vettel again looks mighty, continuing his recent improved form and being consistently the quicker of the Bulls. Vettel won this race at a canter last year, and Webber himself has admitted that Vettel has the edge on him around this track.

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Thoughts on Peter Warr

Like many people, I was very sad to hear of the passing of Peter Warr earlier this week.

Bernie was absolutely right to say that 'When Peter was in Formula One he helped me to build it to what it is today'. Peter Warr's F1 team management career ran from 1969, when he was asked by Colin Chapman to take the team manager role at Team Lotus, all the way through to 1989, taking in spells at Wolf, Fittipaldi and back again to Lotus along the way. His career encompassed the transformation of the sport from something of a gentlemanly pastime to the professional event recognised around the world that we're all so familiar with today.

Further, in this time Warr was not just another team boss, he distinguished himself as one of the most effective team managers in the sport, often in difficult circumstances.

I personally became aware of Peter Warr when I first followed the sport in the mid 1980s. I was an Ayrton Senna fan (and not one of the posthumous converts that seem to be so numerous!), so Warr therefore was a key figure in my F1 initiation, as Senna's team manager at Lotus. While Lotus's decline throughout the 1980s is well documented, it should be recorded that Warr's team did astonishingly well with the resources available to them in this time.

Saturday 2 October 2010

Looking back: F1's first visit to Suzuka

Next weekend the F1 circus visits Suzuka for this season's Japanese Grand Prix - a track that all true fans of F1 eagerly anticipate seeing the cars on.

Such is the classic and challenging nature of Suzuka's fast sweeps, and its lack of modern sterility, it's easy to assume that the likes of Moss, Clark and Lauda pounded round the circuit in years past. In fact, the track was only used as a World Championship venue for the first time in 1987.

Indeed, the date of the track's opening stretches even further back - to 1962 (no gleaming new Tilke facility being brought onto the calendar here). It was designed by John Hugenholtz, who also gave Zandvoort to the world (he designed Jarama, Nivelles and Zolder as well - but for the sake of the point I'll ignore those!). But despite the staging of a couple of 'Japanese GPs' in its early years, Suzuka remained criminally undiscovered by much of international motor racing for the first quarter century of its existence.

The history of bringing an F1 race to Japan was equally haphazard. The track at Fuji, who were always more proactive than Suzuka in bringing international motorsport to Japan, held the first two F1 World Championship events in the country in 1976 and 1977. The first visit has gone down in folklore as the scene of James Hunt and Niki Lauda's championship showdown, held initially in monsoon conditions that resulted in Lauda quitting a couple of laps in on safety (or sanity) grounds. This left Hunt to dramatically claim the crown by taking third, having to pass cars frantically in the late laps, after a pit stop to replace a blown tyre.