Saturday 27 November 2010

Looking back: 1979 - not the march de triomphe for Ligier

OK, I'll admit it. I first had the idea to write something on Ligier's 1979 season sometime after the Brazilian Grand Prix this year, in which Red Bull had refused to 'nominate' one of their drivers for the championship or to impose team orders. It was to be a cautionary tale of a frontline team with two competitive drivers losing out on a championship by allowing them to race each other, to the point that they damaged each other's hopes.

The Red Bulls then inconsiderately won both the drivers' and the constructors' titles. But the story of Ligier in 1979 is sufficiently compelling to be worth recounting nevertheless, and the lack of team orders is but part of it.

To cut a long story short, the Ligiers ran away with the opening two races of 1979, before gradually fading to become also-rans by the season's end with, on the face of it, an unfathomable rate of decline. As is usually the case in F1, the reasons for this decline are not straightforward.

Sunday 21 November 2010

My Top 10 F1 Drivers of 2010: The Rest...

A big draw back with compiling a top 10 of drivers is the arbitrary way you have to draw a line under the tenth driver. In an attempt to redress that, here are my thoughts on the 2010 F1 drivers that didn't make it into the top 10. 

Kamui Kobayashi came oh-so-close to pipping Felipe Massa for tenth place in the list. He started the year with a promising reputation, after two impressive, if wild, drives for Toyota at the end of last season. This year Peter Sauber's reputation for picking out a young driver (see Raikkonen, Massa etc) seemed to be under threat for a time, as Kobayashi struggled to get to grips with the sport and only maintained the 'wild' part of his 'fast and wild' persona. Three first lap accidents in the first eight races pointed to this, as did the fact he was hardly blowing away his team mate. His season gradually turned around though, qualifying in tenth in Spain and finishing tenth in Turkey. But the real watershed was his run in Valencia, running a long stint on the primes (in a way that became fashionable) before a late dash on the options including impressive outbraking maneuvers on Alonso and Buemi. His progress was underlined by being firmly quicker than Nick Heidfeld when he arrived in the team, as well as the faith Peter Sauber has shown by making Kobayashi his lead driver for 2011, guiding the rookie Sergio Perez. If nothing else, his overtakes usually provide a diversion in dull races.

Alongside Kobayashi, Pedro de la Rosa, who was surprisingly brought into a race seat for the first time since 2006, was safe enough as you'd expect, as well as gave his team mate a good run for his money pace-wise. Like Kobayashi, he struggled initially with car unreliability, though as things improved he scored his only points of the year with seventh place in Hungary. However, there had been some signs of tensions within the team and de la Rosa was dumped after the Italian race. His replacement, Nick Heidfeld, while typically keeping his nose clean, seems to have continued his uncanny ability to position himself away from potential drives. Having spent last winter holding out for a Mercedes seat that never came, he didn't really ever completely get on Kobayashi's pace in his five races, and now finds himself without a drive for 2011. A pity, as there's probably none better at bringing the car home, and he's rarely been embarrassed pace-wise by team mates such as Raikkonen, Massa, Kubica and the like. You'd think he'd be perfect for one of the new teams.

My Top 10 F1 Drivers of 2010: Six to Ten

Following on from one to five below... 

6: Robert Kubica
Robert Kubica is another who may be disappointed with where he's ended up in this list. To an extent, if we're purely to judge drivers on what they achieved with the equipment at their disposal then Kubica would certainly be placed comfortably within the top five. But there also has to be a premium on fighting at the front for wins and the championship when judging drivers, the pressure is of an entirely different level (and pressure does funny things to all of us).

These considerations aren't to take anything away from Kubica, who, after a slightly underwhelming and frustrating 2009 in the lame duck BMW (in which he was outscored by team mate Nick Heidfeld), successfully restored his formidable reputation this year. Like Alonso, he appeared to successfully build his team around him and galvanise them, ending what many thought was a terminal decline. Some in the Renault camp rated him better than Alonso in this regard - high praise indeed. Also like Alonso, he seemed to be getting the absolute maximum from his machinery, and consistently. Unlike Alonso, he didn't pepper this with mistakes, I cannot recall an error of Kubica's costing him points this year.

Kubica's finishing and qualifying records are models of consistent brilliance, and he didn't miss an opportunity to give the front runners hell when such moments arose. He qualified in the top three at the three circuits where the driver has the biggest potential to impact the outcome - Monaco, Spa and Suzuka. At Singapore, Silverstone and elsewhere he showed that there's nothing wrong with his abilities when wheel-to-wheel either.

Consistent, good with the team, bloody quick - with all due respect to Renault it's unfathomable why none of the 'big four' have found a place in their line-up for Robert Kubica.

Saturday 20 November 2010

My Top 10 F1 Drivers of 2010: One to Five

Top 10 drivers' rankings are all the rage these days. So I've decided to compile one of my very own. Just as a cowardly disclaimer, these are of course purely personal selections and I'm prepared to accept that there may be very defensible reasons for an alternative order.

This is the top five, the remainder are to follow. Here goes...

1: Fernando Alonso
One of the many reasons that the 2010 season was a great one was the return of Fernando Alonso to where he belongs - at the business end of the grid. It just shows what we'd been missing (and what a waste it was) in his last two years struggling with a mainly mediocre Renault.

After his Renault interregnum, preceded by a well-documented McLaren soap opera, Alonso finally had the opportunity to remind us all of his talent and why he is rated so highly in the sport. On track his brilliant tenacity, intensity and, less well-documented, his extreme pace were relentlessnessly on show. However, you could argue that Alonso was even more impressive off the track, building the Ferrari team around him as he had in this championship years at Renault, and providing the team with direction, motivation and technical feedback that they have been missing for a while and have historically responded so well to. This, more than anything else, emphatically reversed what many had seen as Ferrari's terminal decline post-Todt, Brawn, Schumacher et al.

It took an while for this completely come to fruition though. After an impressive win on the opening day in Bahrain, his season entered something of a mini trough. Ferrari were breathless behind the pace of the Red Bulls (and to a lesser extent, the McLaren f-duct) and their first serious round of technical upgrades in Spain made the car slower if anything. Worse, Alonso made a succession of uncharacteristic errors, probably trying to make up the gap single-handed, such as jumping the start(!) in China and pranging a barrier in practice at Monaco, consigning him to start at the back. Between times though the tenacious performances were there for all to see, and his run at Malaysia was perhaps the most impressive of anyone all season, running all day at comparable pace to Massa, Button and others without a clutch from the get-go.

In many ways, Alonso's season turned after the Turkish race. After an underwhelming race, quite a bit behind his team mate, he had the confidence to give his team a very public technical 'hurry up'. From that point on Alonso never failed to be a contender. Canada could have brought victory but for being mucked about by backmarkers, and then a technical upgrade introduced in Valencia leapfrogged Alonso's Ferrari into sniffing distance of victory. This was all Alonso needed.

Unfortunately, bad luck in Valencia and Silverstone meant few points from both rounds, leaving him 47 points from the top of the table. There was some concealed laughter as Alonso still maintained that he would be champion this year, but the laughter subsided as he went on to record a series of brilliant performances, claiming four victories and seven podiums in the last nine races. His victories at Monza and Singapore were vintage Alonso, and few can claim to match them for quality at any point this season. Only a disastrous team call on strategy in the final round cost him what would have been a stunning title won not in the best car. The driver of the year in my book.

2: Lewis Hamilton
It seems strange to think that this is only Lewis Hamilton's fourth year in the sport, such is his establishment in the top order. This year was no exception to the previous ones, Lewis's flair, aggression and stunning pace were consistently on show, and he underlined his long won crown of F1's best and most exciting racer, with a seemingly never-ending succession of overtakes.

For much of the season Lewis also allied these considerable talents to a new restraint and maturity. Examples include his patient probing of the front running Red Bulls in Turkey ending in their self-inflicted implosion, never giving the quicker Webber a moment's peace in running to second at Silverstone, and the marvellously calm and measured victory in changeable conditions at Spa. Abu Dhabi, Suzuka, Canada - the list of prodigiously quick and mature performances seems endless and the story is the same.

These were also achieved with a threat from within. Team mate Jenson Button arrived in the McLaren team as world champion and a considerable threat. His easy charm getting his feet under the McLaren table very rapidly, and further pressuring Lewis with two impressive early-season wins in changeable conditions. From Spain onwards however Jenson rarely saw Lewis on the track.

Indeed, had this list been complied after the Belgian race Lewis would have been a decisive number one, as well as would have claimed one of the most impressive world champion wins, not in the quickest car, the sport has seen. However, in subsequent races Lewis's season and performances slipped at precisely the wrong moment. He put himself out of the race halfway around the first lap at Monza, ill-advisedly sticking his nose down the inside of Felipe Massa when in a strong position. This was followed by another DNF at Singapore, again making contact with another car, this time Webber. It was harder to attribute to blame for this one, but with the championship at stake squeezing Webber to the extent he did was at least impolitic. These two bouts of nil points let his rivals back into title reckoning which they never relinquished, and his run was topped off by a smash in Suzuka practice, putting him on the back foot for the weekend that his championship chances, by his own admission, realistically faded away. Twice in the late races he was frightened off the road by Alonso.

Still, the old Lewis returned in Korea, where he somehow manhandled a difficult car to finish second place, and in Abu Dhabi where he harassed leader Vettel's quicker Red Bull throughout.

Lewis demonstrated this year that he is a formidable competitor, has suitably matured over his time in F1 and is at least as good as any of his rivals. If McLaren provide a car worthy of his talents in 2011 then watch him fly.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Thoughts on Ferrari's Abu Dhabi strategy

Lots of people have had their say on Ferrari's race strategy employed in Abu Dhabi. The details of the strategy call and its consequences are well-documented, and to cut a long story short, Fernando Alonso, running in fourth place, was pitted early, on lap 15, nominally to 'cover off' Mark Webber, who pitted four laps earlier. But as it transpired it was a gross misjudgment, consigning Alonso to be held up by traffic for the rest of the day, meaning he could finish no higher than seventh, when he needed fourth place or higher to claim the title.

In an age where we are used to sharp-end F1 teams showing precision and judgment beyond our individual comprehension, such an error at the business end of the season with the championship at stake has resulted in considerable fallout. A browse around internet forums and Twitter has shown calls for various heads on plates, such as those of Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo and team boss Stefano Domenicali. A particularly egregious Italian Government Minister joined in on the act, calling for di Montezemolo to step down for the team's 'demented strategy'.

I'm glad di Montezemolo treated him, and his demands, with the utter contempt they deserved. Di Montezemolo is a proven quantity, and the only people that would celebrate his resignation are Ferrari's rivals.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Abu Dhabi GP report: Vettel times it to perfection

Well, few of us saw that one coming. Sebastian Vettel is 2010 F1 world champion.

It's astonishing as it required him overturn a 15 point deficit to Alonso in the last race. It's also the first time he's led the championship ever, let alone this season. This seems an amazing stat as he's consistently been the fastest package this year, and he would have won the championship long ago but for various bouts of unreliability. For these reasons it's hard to argue that he is not a deserving or worthy champion.

Indeed, the most impressive thing about his performance in 2010 is the way he recovered in fine style from his troubles mid season, including after Spa where there seemed to be a concentrated effort to destroy him mentally from certain quarters (you know who you are, Whitmarsh...). He responded to this in the best way, with his best driving form of the season, and he was fastest everywhere from Singapore onwards.

He continued this pattern in Abu Dhabi. From pole, and getting a bit tight with Hamilton in the first corner, he led and won comfortably. And the question of who would win was resolved definitively after the first stops, wherein he managed to clear Kubica's late stopping Renault, which got in Lewis's way for several subsequent laps.

Saturday 13 November 2010

Abu Dhabi Qually: Advantage Fred

So, the crunch qually session of the season comes and goes, and it's distinctly advantage Fred for the title. In a session wherein the Ferraris looked slightly off the pace of the Red Bulls and (good heavens) the McLarens, he undertook something of a save at the last moment to claim P3. Even better for the Spaniard, this isn't behind a Red Bull front two as usual, which would have been his doomsday scenario, his main title rival Mark Webber lines up fifth tomorrow.

Indeed, Fred seemed very satisfied with his afternoon/early evening's work, describing the qualifying result as 'great', and himself as 'very happy'.

It was a curious session, about the only thing that went to expectation was Seb taking pole, having been comfortably fastest, as he has been pretty much everywhere it seems these past couple of months. Webber was curiously off his team mate's pace. Rather than his usual smidgen behind Vettel's pace, he was upwards of half a second slower.

Those reliable judges of winners and losers, the bookies, share Fred's confidence, making him odds-on favourite to clinch the title tomorrow. Webber's odds have drifted out as far as 7/1 with one bookmaker. Most actually now have Vettel as second favourite to win the championship. Still, no points will be awarded until the end of the last lap tomorrow.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Abu Dhabi Preview: It all comes down to this

It's what Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson calls 'squeaky bum time'. At the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this weekend everything will be decided, after 19 races and several thousands of miles on the track (and no doubt tens of thousands of air miles). If things go wrong there will be no other chances. I'm glad my own involvement won't extend beyond spectating.

Four drivers travel to Abu Dhabi with a chance of the drivers' championship: Fernando Alonso (246 points), Mark Webber (238), Sebastian Vettel (231) and Lewis Hamilton (222). The mathematics of resolving the championship are never-ending. Of the more likely outcomes, Alonso needs to finish in the top two to guarantee the championship for himself. A Webber victory with Alonso in third place or lower will win the title for the Australian. Vettel winning the race will only result in the championship if Alonso finishes fifth or lower.

Lewis Hamilton's chances, 24 points behind with 25 on offer, are mathematical only it has to be said. Realistically he needs all three other championship contenders to either not finish or be seriously delayed.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Brazilian GP Report: Red Bull make good their escape to set up last race showdown

Normal service was resumed rather rapidly on race day in Brazil. After the double six thrown by Nico Hulkenberg by taking a surprise pole ahead of the four main title contenders in a wet-dry qualifying session, the potential for him to add an extra variable in the race waned rapidly after the red light went out.

The story of the race was how quickly you could clear Hulkenberg's Williams. Vettel did this off the line, and Webber followed suit a couple of corners later at Descida do Lago. The Bulls then scampered off into the distance and were gone for the day. Alonso eventually followed past the Hulk at the same spot as Webber on lap 7, but even by this time he was upwards of ten seconds down on Seb at the front. Lewis, who seemed to be having some sort of crisis judging by his radio communications, didn't manage to pass the Hulk until the pit stops, by which time he wasn't within ten seconds even of Alonso.

Seb looked utterly in command throughout, and swept to victory from the front in that way he does to a nicety. Webber pedaled hard to keep up, but just didn't have his team mate's legs. Alonso did his usual formidable best to put them under pressure, but the Bulls always seemed to have something in hand, and Fred had to settle for third.

Saturday 6 November 2010

Interlagos Qually: The incredible Hulk

Wow - there's nothing like a bit of rain to shake up F1. And Interlagos, continuing it's tradition of being a place where the unusual happens, threw up a great qualifying session, with Nico Hulkenberg snatching pole position. And it looked like he was on a different track to everyone else, taking pole by over a second in the end.

The Williams have usually been competitive in wet conditions this season, were the first to make the call to change to slicks as the track dried in the final qually session, and got their timing perfect for when the Hulk would complete his laps. But even with those nothing should be taken away from Nico, whose performance was stunning. It also is perhaps the first time he's showed some real confirmation of the considerable potential he had attributed to him when he arrived in F1 at the start of the season. Let's hope it's the first of many.

It's also timely for both driver and team. The Hulk, despite steady improvement throughout his rookie season, has recently been dogged by rumours of his being replaced at Williams for next year, with GP2 champion Pastor Maldonado and his money bags conspicuously on the horizon. Williams have also been under financial pressure recently, so the associated publicity with the pole will be highly welcome. It's also their first pole position since Nurburgring 2005.

Interlagos Preview: Rain makes things interesting

Thank goodness for rain. Some of it fell between practice yesterday and practice today, and it'll clearly be at least damp for today's qualifying hour at Interlagos. This will make things interesting.

For most of Friday it appeared that the Interlagos weekend was going to follow the pattern of that pretty much everywhere else, at least in recent races. The Red Bulls appeared to have the legs on everyone. Further, of the two Red Bulls Vettel was a smidgen ahead of Webber, continuing the theme of the last couple of races. It seems astonishing how Seb seems capable of consistently outpacing his team mate by that tiny, yet massive, margin. Further continuing the recent pattern, Alonso was brooding not far behind the Bulls, and poised to take advantage of whatever opportunity they present him with.

However, the weather will make things a lot less straightforward. It is tricky to draw conclusions from the practice session just passed, given that times tumbled as the track dried and Webber and the two Ferrari pilots didn't complete many laps. But certainly the Ferraris and the Red Bulls both looked strong even in the wet (perhaps showing that quick cars in the dry are often still quick cars in the wet), so shuffling of the established order in qualifying may be limited. And it doesn't currently appear that we'll get the monsoon-type conditions that we did last year at Interlagos

Friday 5 November 2010

Racing between the lakes - the Interlagos circuit

There are many reasons to dislike the Autódromo José Carlos Pace, or Interlagos as it's better known (literally meaning 'between the lakes'), where the Brazilian Grand Prix takes place this weekend. Its surrounding urban sprawl is claustrophobic and not 'in keeping' with the image that the F1 fraternity likes for itself. Its pit and paddock facilities apparently belong to another age, power failures and timing screens being wiped out are common. Organisation is usually poor. In the year 2000 the qualifying session had to be stopped three times because of advertising hoardings falling onto the track, one even being hit by Jean Alesi's Prost. Then there's the track itself: for most of its existence the bumps have been treacherous and dangerous. Indeed, the Saubers had to withdraw from the 2000 race, due to the bumps accounting for the structures of their rear wings. A succession of resurfacing jobs consistently failed to solve the problem (though the surface laid in 2007 is a big improvement). Walls are close to the track, even on fast sections such as the uphill blast at 'Boxes'. Its pit entrance there has always had an outward resemblance to a death trap. Eddie Jordan in 2001 commented on Interlagos that 'They could do with doing something with the track, in terms of knocking the place down and starting again'.

The Interlagos circuit.
Some of the outline of the old track can be seen.
Credit: Marlon Hammes / CC
Yet, the Interlagos race for many who follow F1 (me included) is one of the most eagerly anticipated of the year. Why is this? Well, unusually for a modern F1 venue it is a proper racing track. Its undulating variety of fast and medium turns provide a genuine driving challenge. Further, each year it seems to prove the adage that if you give drivers a proper racing track they'll give you a proper race. The amount of overtaking in an Interlagos race, mainly under braking into the Senna 'S', seems to outnumber the rest of the season combined. This was notably seen in Button and Hamilton's drives through the field last season.