Friday 23 December 2011

Final thoughts on 2011: twenty-four cars battle for 90 minutes and at the end Vettel wins

Former England footballer Gary Lineker, shortly after losing to (then, West) Germany not for the first time, commented that: 'Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win'.

It's tempting to view the 2011 F1 season in similar terms. We were spoiled with lots of highly diverting races, characterised by impassioned and close racing with plenty of overtaking. And at the end of it all Sebastian Vettel was invariably at the front.

There were two key themes for the season. Sebastian Vettel's growth into a genuine top level performer in winning the drivers' title in double-quick time, and that overtaking returned to the sport at a rate that almost nobody could remember.

Credit: Russell Ford
Vettel's speed in clear air was well-established from recent seasons, but this year with the assurance of a surprise championship in his pocket he found a completely new level, as did the Red Bull team backing him up, who operationally hardly missed a beat. To cut a long story short, Seb's driving this term ruthlessly reversed the areas that had been seen as his weaknesses, and whatever happens from now on he'll surely go down as one of the sport's all-time greats. He's certainly the best 24 year old the sport has ever known - bar none. And while the RB7 was a mean set of wheels, Seb absolutely got the very best from it. His championship was mathematically all his with seven weeks of the season remaining. It was as good as his long before that.

The other key theme of the year was that the on track action was almost completely unrecognisable from what we had grown used to in years past. The lack of overtaking in F1 wasn't a new problem, and many potential 'solutions' had been tried before. But for 2011, desperate times brought desperate measures, with the introduction of DRS (Drag Reduction Systems - do keep up at the back) which allowed a car within a second of the car ahead at a certain 'zone' of the track to flatten its rear wing and thus increase its straightline speed.

Saturday 17 December 2011

My Top 10 F1 Drivers of 2011: The rest...

Here are my views on those F1 drivers from 2011 who didn't make the top 10 list I published a few days ago.

My top 10 drivers of 2011 can be read here.

Tenth place in the top ten was a close run thing between a number of drivers. Kamui Kobayashi got it, squeaking ahead of Jaime Alguersuari, Heikki Kovalainen and Felipe Massa.

Felipe Massa
Credit: Mark McArdle / CC
Taking them in reverse order brings us immediately to the curious case of Felipe Massa. In truth it was another desperately disappointing season for the popular Brazilian, in which his coming within two corners of winning the title in 2008 seemed like it was from another age. If anything, he was even further adrift of his team mate Fernando Alonso this year than last - only once (in China) did he clearly out race him. And while the Ferrari 150° Italia wasn't a great car, almost never did Massa look better than it, evidenced by the fact that he never finished higher than fifth in a year that his stable mate claimed ten podium finishes. He can claim to have been unlucky on occasion, there was more than one botched pitstop (see Malaysia, Turkey and Valencia), in Spa he punctured and at Monza he was hit by Webber. But even with these the pace wasn't there most of the time. Further, he didn't help himself, getting involved in a series of incidents to an extent that he didn't do in 2010: crashes in Canada and Hungary stopped better results, as did spins in Spain and Abu Dhabi. He hit a particular low by breaking his suspension twice in two days in India, with almost exactly the same error. Then there was his famous running battle with Lewis Hamilton this year. Yes, he was more the victim of these clashes all told, but he also sometimes displayed a machismo when wheel to wheel with him that didn't help matters, most obviously in Monaco and India. And, to be honest, his Hamilton grudge expressed out of the car struck me as a classic case of displacement.

Mooted reasons for Massa's struggles continue to vary. We'll probably never know how much the Hungary accident has affected him, but my instinct is that a lot of Massa's problems stem from the guy he's sharing a garage with. Massa of all the front runners appears particularly vulnerable to confidence, as well as particularly in need of emotional support. In a team mostly focussed on Alonso, and where Alonso almost always beats him, Massa isn't getting much of either of these things and it shows. Ferrari are retaining him for next year, showing admirable loyalty it has to be said, but next year is very much last chance saloon. They don't expect him to beat Alonso, but they do expect him to finish a bit closer behind him, as well as to take points from rivals more often.

Sunday 11 December 2011

My Top 10 F1 Drivers of 2011

Here is my personal top ten F1 drivers of the 2011 season, seeking to take into account their performance under the circumstances and the machinery they had access to. I hope that you find it interesting reading, and I appreciate that there are perfectly defensible reasons for an alternative top ten. It's a personal selection, as I said!

A run down of my views on the drivers who didn't make the top ten will follow in the next few days.
Credit: Morio / CC
1: Sebastian Vettel
The only candidate for top spot: 2011 was very much the year of the Seb.

The 2011 season witnessed the development of Sebastian Vettel into a complete F1 performer. The raw speed in clean air had been there for a while, but the impetuosity and mistakes, especially when in traffic or under pressure, as well as the occasional brattishness displayed in 2010 now seems like it was from someone else. Vettel was almost contemptuous in how he proved his doubters wrong this year. Indeed, the journey can be traced back even further, to the Belgian Grand Prix of 2010, after which it was open season on the young charger. But if the abuse was intended to destroy him then it backfired spectacularly. Since then he has barely looked back, delivering consistent copybook performances of dominating from the front when there and delivering solid points when not. Oh, and he's won two drivers' titles in that time as well. And with a championship in his pocket this season he got even better.

It was a season wherein Seb seemed to lead, and win, virtually everywhere. And the numbers back this up. Fifteen of the 19 pole positions were his, and it's impossible to think of an error on a pivotal qualifying lap this year, even though many were won under pressure. It's not exaggerating to say that Vettel's qualifying abilities are Senna-esque.

From then on the Vettel 'template' victory was seen repeatedly. Blast into the lead, be immediately on the maximum pace and several lengths clear after a few corners. Be out of the DRS zone before it kicks in, and then control the race from there, managing the limited grip resource from the Pirelli tyres perfectly. In Australia, Malaysia, Turkey, Valencia, Italy, Singapore, Korea and India the story was almost identical. This was the basis of his 11 victories, leading 739 of the 1133 laps, and totalling up 394 out of 475 possible points.

But it would be wrong to say that things were easy for Vettel in 2011. They weren't, and it was in such circumstances that he really showed his mettle. The wins at Spain, Monaco and Singapore were achieved under severe pressure for much of the way, and he never so much as put a wheel out of line. Nor did you ever expect him to. He could overtake decisively when required (though given he was usually at the front he didn't get many opportunities to demonstrate it): in Australia he passed Button around the outside of turn 4, in Spain he passed three cars in a lap after his first pitstop, at Spa he passed Nico Rosberg on the outside of Blanchimont at Spa, and most memorably he stuck his RB7 around the outside of Fernando Alonso with two wheels on the grass to take the lead in double-quick time at Monza. The whole 'Seb can't pass' idea received a dignified burial in 2011. He could also bring home good points when he didn't have the legs of the field, as he showed in China, Hungary, Japan and Brazil. Nursing his sick gearbox home to a comfortable second place in Brazil was arguably his best drive of the season. His ability to think through a race was unparalleled, and no one learned as well or as quickly what was required from the Pirellis. No one worked as hard at their game as he did. Only once did he have an off-day, unfortunately for him it was in his home race in Germany. And while the RB7 was clearly a mean set of wheels, it can't be denied that Seb personally brought a lot to the party. That his team mate Mark Webber, no slouch he, won only once in it demonstrates this.

The biggest compliment I can pay to how Vettel's performed in 2011 is that even if Alonso, Hamilton, Button or whoever had access to a Red Bull this season I'm not at all convinced they would have beaten Seb's points total. A truly top class F1 performer, who's only going to get even better.

Credit: / CC
2: Fernando Alonso
One win and fourth place in the drivers' table this season do not begin to do him justice. This was a magnificent season of fast, tenacious driving from Fernando Alonso. He once again looked every inch the man who won two titles magnificently for Renault in 2005 and 2006. It could be argued that he's now even better than then.

Consistent, relentless, almost permenantly at the outer edge of how quickly his recalcitrant Ferrari would go (and sometimes he was even faster than that it seemed) and yet, unlike in 2010, his was a season almost free of error. Only tagging the back of Lewis Hamilton's McLaren in Malaysia and a slightly scrappy run in the damp Hungarian race can be said to have fallen into that category.

The only problem for Fernando in 2011 was that, despite seeming to be top of the 'pre-season testing championship', his Ferrari proved to be a lemon as soon as things got competitive. A wind tunnel correlation problem was discovered eventually, but by this time the Scuderia were firmly on the back foot. That their blown diffuser was never as good as those of their rivals, and the car invariably had problems getting heat into its tyres for qualifying and into the harder tyres generally (which usually left it a sitting duck in that stint of the race), compounded things. The 150° Italia was rarely anything other than clearly the third best car out there. Indeed, Alonso only qualified in the top three twice in 2011.

That Alonso claimed 10 podium finishes (in a year wherein his team mate never finished higher than fifth) and was still in contention for second place in the championship table in the final race underlines just how he consistently outperformed his wheels, and left almost nothing out on the track. Like Vettel, he only had one off-day (his was in China). Elsewhere, the canvas was magnificent. The win at Silverstone, appropriately on the 60th anniversary of Ferrari's first F1 win, was wonderful, but so was the desperate clinging to the coat tails of the front runners in Turkey, Valencia, Belgium, Italy, India, Abu Dhabi and Brazil, and equally so were the tigerish, battling drives in Monaco, Germany and Japan, each of which he could have won with some of the playing cards falling in his favour. Indeed, virtually every race weekend the story was the same. Nando could be fully expected by the Red Bull and McLaren pilots to make a thorough pest of himself.

Fernando Alonso is clearly in a happy place at Ferrari, and this new found equilibrium has had a positive impact on his driving. Not that the Scuderia would be advised to test his patience waiting for a competitive car further. They can be content though that if they provide Alonso with a machine that's half as good as he deserves it to be then championships will follow.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Retro F1: the 1986 Spanish Grand Prix

The latest Retro F1 was held today, on the 1986 Spanish Grand Prix. For those who don't know, Retro F1 is watching a classic F1 race in full on YouTube and chatting on Twitter as we go.

The YouTube footage that we watched is below (or you can click here):

It was a race that featured Senna, Prost, Mansell and others, as well as the 1980s F1 turbocharged monsters. It has gone down in history as one of the sport's greatest races. So it was worth a watch!

The Twitter chat, using the #RetroF1 hastag, can be read here, and in this post I have edited highlights of the chat below.

Howdy partners. I'm clicking play now, the whole 1986 Spanish GP awaits.

Murray Walker and James Hunt commentating. Quality, I'm ten years old again.

@Parnelli98 Good afternoon (good morning for me!) Let's race!
Good morning to you! Glad you could join us.
@Parnelli98 Should be fun!

This was the first Spanish Grand Prix in five years, since Gilles Villeneuve’s famous 1981 win at Jarama, and the first ever at the Jerez circuit. Like Jarama, Jerez always struggled to pull a crowd for its F1 races, and eventually lost its place on the calendar to Barcelona in 1991.

Saturday 3 December 2011

Making sense of the 2012 drivers' market

It's not called the 'silly season' for nothing. On a daily basis almost there is a new twist in who's going where apparently for next year's F1 grid. This is despite the fact that the top four teams in this year's constructors' championship have their line ups for next year signed and sealed, as does Sauber (barring something really unforeseen happening in each case). The allocation of the rest of the racing slots for 2012 remain twisting in the wind.

And every year the silly season seems to get sillier than the year before (though that probably only works in the same way that Christmas seems to start earlier every year). It was brought home this year by the publication by the FIA of the 2012 entry list of drivers and teams this week. Pre season testing is but two months away and five of the twelve teams have yet to confirm their driving line up. Indeed, four have yet to confirm either driver, and this being F1 there may yet be the odd change among those already 'confirmed'.

In F1, as in most things, everything is connected to everything else, with confirmation or rejection of drivers in one team having a knock on impact on the decision of others. Currently, the line up decisions of Lotus (née Renault) and Force India appear to be especially important to where many of the rest of the pieces will fall into place.

Vitaly Petrov's 2012 future is not clear
Credit: Morio / CC
Lotus surprised everyone (including me) with the bolt from the blue signing of Kimi Raikkonen, back from two years of rallying. The team it seems moved quickly in response to Kimi's Williams deal falling down and the confirmation that Robert Kubica won't be back racing at the start of next season (and is likely to be out for even longer than that).

That leaves one race seat empty there. Vitaly Petrov is in many ways the man in possession. Indeed he has a contract at Lotus for 2012, but is not mentioned on the 2012 entry list and noted himself recently, albeit mid-rant, that contracts can easily be bought out.

Thursday 1 December 2011

The next Retro F1: 1986 Spanish Grand Prix, this Sunday at 1500 GMT

Hello everyone.

The latest slice of Retro F1 is on its way. It'll take place this Sunday, 27 November at 1500 (3pm) GMT and we'll be watching 1986 Spanish Grand Prix.

For those of you who don't know, Retro F1 is when we watch on old F1 race in full on YouTube, and post updates on it on Twitter as if the race is live.

It will be great if you can watch along with us and indulge in a bit of Twitter chat as we go. If you're anything like me, watching old F1 races is a real treat, and it'll be good to share thoughts through the race. The race will feature Senna, Prost, Mansell and others, as well as the 1980s turbocharged F1 monsters, so it will be worth a watch!

I also put a write up of the Twitter chat on my blog after the event. Those for the first two Retro F1 events can be read here and here.

You can follow the chat with the #retrof1 hashtag here, and the link I'll be using to watch the race is here.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Brazilian GP Report: Webber picks up the pieces to win finally in 2011

Not for the first time in 2011, today's race in Brazil was all about the Red Bulls. But what did happen for the first time this year, indeed for the first time since July 2010, was that Mark Webber won the day.

Mark Webber finally took a win in 2011
Credit: Morio / CC
It was made possible by car problems for Sebastian Vettel, making it the second time in two races that Seb's been hobbled. Seb did his usual thing of blasting off from pole into a clear lead in the early laps. Indeed, he was 2.2 seconds clear of his chasing team mate Webber in second place after just two tours. But from the fifth lap Seb's gearbox developed a problem, which forced him to short shift in second and third gears. Webber thus was able to reel him in gradually, and on lap 30 Seb yielded the lead to him graphically. Still, such was the Red Bull advantage Seb managed to nurse the thing home in second place, behind Webber who won as he liked. Such a state of affairs, the other teams not even being able to out pace an RB7 with a sick gearbox, must have been rather galling to everyone else. But that's another thing that happened not for the first time today.

The win will be a relief for Webber, even if it was by default to an extent. Going through a 19 race season with the stellar RB7 underneath him and not to win a race would have been an unwanted record. Still, he was never far off Vettel's pace today and didn't put a wheel out of line that I could see. He even managed to 'do a Seb' by claiming fastest lap on the last time around.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Interlagos Qualifying: Delivering when you need to

So, there you have it. Sebastian Vettel claims yet another pole position. That leaves his final total for the season at 15. And this is a record.

Yes, it will be argued that the previous record total, set by Nigel Mansell in 1992, was achieved in fewer races, but it cannot be denied that the mark is fitting for the astounding and consistent qualifying performances from Seb this year. Time after time his qualifying runs in 2011 have been like flicking a switch, delivering a lap time as fast as it is possible for his Red Bull to go, and sometimes even faster, when it really matters; no matter the pressure or opposition.

The fifteenth pole of the season for Sebastian Vettel,
which is a record.
Credit: Morio / CC
Today was a continuation. It had looked fairly nip and tuck between Seb and the McLarens, as well as with his team mate Mark Webber, initially. But come the final, vital, session Seb simply moved to another level. He set a first time well beyond all others, and then bettered it.

The first two rows on the grid for tomorrow's race are in Noah's Ark formation. Mark Webber will join his team mate on the front row, and the McLarens occupy the second row with Jenson Button ahead. It's worth reflecting as an aside though that for all of Lewis Hamilton's struggles this year it's only 6 times out of 17 that Button's qualified ahead of the two. Fernando Alonso lines up in his usual fifth place.

Interlagos Preview: A great track, a close battle, and rain!

There are plenty of reasons why we could feel jaded heading into the final F1 weekend of the season. This year's drivers' championship was decided a full seven weeks ago. We're at the end of a long season, with 19 races, and it's almost the end of November - by a distance the latest finish of an F1 season in modern times. But none of us feel jaded, because this is Interlagos.

There's nowhere quite like Interlagos
Credit: Marlon Hammes / CC
It's impossible to think that any race at Interlagos will be a subdued end of term affair. It's a proper circuit, representing the best of old school F1 venues before the modern Tilkedromes become de rigueur. Challenging, undulating, and varied - Interlagos gives the impression of being drawn freehand, not designed precisely with computers and intricate measurements.

The circus was at Abu Dhabi two weeks ago and Interlagos, almost exactly, is everything that venue isn't, in bad ways and good. It doesn't have the gleaming architecture or the spacious, space-age facilities that are Abu Dhabi's trademark. Organisation at Interlagos has often been haphazard, it doesn't run seamlessly as it tends to do at the Yas Marina circuit. It's not, and probably never will be, a favourite of those who inhabit the Paddock Club, or for those who spend their lives trying to woo them.

But, unlike Abu Dhabi, Interlagos is a genuine favourite of F1 enthusiasts. This is partly because of the old-school charm previously outlined. It's partly also because it always attracts a large, noisy and passionate crowd of genuine F1 supporters through the gates, who are able to sit close to the action (overhanging the circuit at some points it seems). This has continued to be the case even in the absence of a consistently front-running Brazilian driver in recent times.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Turning a Renault 4 into a Lotus 2

For the second year in a row there isn't much doing in the drivers' market for the front running teams. The 'big four' teams - Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes - won't be changing their race line ups, barring something unusual happening, making 2012 the third season in a row that the familiar faces are occupying those seats.

Instead, we've had to look to the next team up in the constructors' table for our dose of driver market intrigue. It's just as well they've been providing plenty of this all by themselves, enough for the big four teams put together.

Renault have had a four into two conundrum for their 2012 line up (by which time they'll be called Lotus - do keep up at the back) for some time. The drivers in question, all currently on the Renault payroll one way or another, are Robert Kubica, Vitaly Petrov, Bruno Senna and Romain Grosjean.

In recent days though something resembling clarity has descended upon the situation. First off: Robert Kubica, who appears to have been ruled out rather than ruled in.

Robert Kubica was mighty for Renault in 2010,
but looks likely not be with them in 2012
Credit: Morio / CC
Of course, in terms of pedigree Kubica is on a different level to the other three potential pilots, and all things being equal he'd be the first pick for a seat. But as is well known, all things aren't equal.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Abu Dhabi GP Report: Seb's pressure loss is Lewis's gain

Well, that was unforeseen. In a season wherein we've got used to Sebastian Vettel progressing confidently and often untroubled at the front of the pack, today his challenge ended after all of two corners, with a mysterious puncture.

Lewis Hamilton took a fine win at Abu Dhabi
Credit: / CC
This put Lewis Hamilton into the lead where he stayed for the duration, aside from pitstops. It would be wrong however to assume that it was an easy run to victory for him. He was under pressure all the way from a meteoric Fernando Alonso, but Lewis was fast and smart, keeping his McLaren at arm's length from the Ferrari while being sympathetic to his tyres to ensure their life, in a way that he hasn't always done this season. There are definite signs, on and off the track, that the mighty Lewis of old is beginning to re-assert himself. It bodes well for constructing another championship challenge in 2012.

Vettel led off the line from pole, which is sort of standard, but almost immediately he was broadside on the outside of the second turn, his right rear tyre without air. It was such an unexpected fate for Vettel that you briefly had to compose yourself in case you were imagining things. But Seb's afternoon was over: he hobbled back to the pits at a slow speed but his race ended there. The puncture was mystifying and still hasn't been explained by the team. There was nothing unusual in the line Seb took at the first corner, nor was there any contact or debris to be seen. At the time of writing the team were investigating the possibility of the car's bodywork rubbing against the tyre.

Saturday 12 November 2011

Abu Dhabi Qualifying: Never write off Seb on a Saturday

There are a few truths in life that are universally acknowledged. And increasingly the maxim that one shouldn't write Sebastian Vettel off in a qualifying session is threatening to join them.

Sebastian Vettel was masterful today
in claiming a surprise pole position
Credit: Morio / CC
Today's pole position was one that, by rights, shouldn't have been Seb's. The McLarens appeared to have the legs of him, especially Lewis Hamilton who was mighty as usual around the Abu Dhabi track in the qualifying hour, and didn't appear to do an awful lot wrong in his final runs. But what came next was classic Seb: he had the cool head to run significantly after the others on a clear track, put his Red Bull on a knife edge, didn't put a wheel out of place, and snatched the pole from McLaren's jaws by a tenth and a half at the very last of a gripping qualifying crescendo.

Vettel's run of poles may seem a bit samey to some, but it's surely impossible not to appreciate watching the master at work on a Saturday. He has that Ayrton Senna-esque ability to find tenths that aren't really there, and also like Senna, he's undoubtedly the driver of the age you'd choose every time to complete a qualifying lap to save your life. Try to remember the last time Seb made an error in a vital qualifying run and it's very very difficult - brushing the wall in Singapore in 2010, well over a year ago, is that last I could think of. I also couldn't think of many before that.

Friday 11 November 2011

Abu Dhabi Preview: The circuit that landed

There has been a never ending succession of gleaming new circuits debuting on the F1 calendar over recent times it seems. But even among these, Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina well and truly stands apart.

Yas Marina circuit - a venue like no other
Credit: / CC
It is very much the facility that landed, one that at first viewing you would have more expected to see in a sci-fi movie, with space ships ascending from and descending onto it, than hosting a modern day F1 event. More so than even the tracks that have been built since, Abu Dhabi seems to represent the future.

No expense has been spared it its creation. It forms part of the shimmering Yas Island, consisting of various attractions including Ferrari World and the world's fastest roller coaster. It is F1's first and only day-to-night race, and it has a icon all of this own in the Yas Marina hotel, which the track passes under, and shines in ever varying coloured lights which attract many a wide-angled camera lens.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Retro F1: the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix

Today was witness to my second ever Retro F1 event. Retro F1 is where I watch a classic F1 race in full on YouTube, tweet updates as I go and have some Twitter chat (using the hashtag #retrof1) with like-minded people!

The race in question was the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos, from the 2003 season.

If you want to watch the race in full the first part is here. And you can read through the chat on Twitter here. Highlights of the updates and chat is below:

Righty-ho, I'm clicking play now. Off we go.

We're clearly getting the Australian coverage, we'll be getting the James Allen/Martin Brundle partnership in the commentary.

A little bit of scene setting. This is round 3 of the 2003 season. In 2002 Ferrari dominated, but have struggled in first two races of 2003, and McLaren have won both. Kimi Raikkonen leads the table on 16 points, David Coulthard is second on 10, then Schumi and others are on 8.

@SartoMutiny Kimi looks about eight years old.
That's because he is, I think. 

Thursday 3 November 2011

The next Retro F1 - this Sunday at 1500 GMT

Good day to you all.

After the success of my first ever Retro F1 I've decided to do a second one. It'll take place this Sunday, 6 November, at 1500 (3pm) GMT, and I'll be watching the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix.

For those of you who don't know, Retro F1 is when I watch on old F1 race in full on YouTube, and post updates on it on Twitter as if the race is live.

It will be great if you can watch along and indulge in a bit of Twitter chat as we go. If you're anything like me, watching old F1 races is a real treat, and it'll be good to share thoughts through the race. The fruits of my first Retro F1 can be read here.

You can follow the chat with the #retrof1 hashtag here, and the link I'll be using to watch the race is here.

Sunday 30 October 2011

Indian GP Report: Summing up the season

If ever a race summed up a season it was today's Indian Grand Prix.

Sebastian Vettel won with a controlled, precise and dominant performance at the front. Jenson Button, after struggling in qualifying, ghosted forward to second and performed formidably to keep Vettel honest. And Fernando Alonso completed the podium with a tenacious run, probably a place that his car didn't deserve. Oh, and Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton collided with each other.

Sebastian Vettel dominated once again
Credit: Morio / CC
It was a pity that India didn't witness a more enthralling race at the front for its inaugural Grand Prix, but once again there was so much to admire about how Sebastian went about his business. It was copybook Vettel, the sort of win from the front display that we've seen repeatedly this year: get out of sight quickly and then pace yourself, and react to whatever those behind decide to do. That he pulls off the trick repeatedly doesn't make it any less impressive. He led every lap and once again claimed fastest lap on the last time around, as if to underline his preponderance. And yet another record tumbled: most laps led in a season, held by Nigel Mansell since 1992, fell to Seb today.

Saturday 29 October 2011

F1's American Odyssey

There was some good news for F1 last week. On Tuesday a 10 year deal for a new F1 race in New Jersey was formally announced.

The race, to be known as the Grand Prix of America, will be held from 2013 onwards on roads around Port Imperial in the towns of Weehawken and West New York, and will feature the New York City skyscape on the other side of the Hudson river as its backdrop. Attempts to stage an F1 event in or around New York City seem to have been made since the dawn of F1 itself (see here for more), but now, finally, it looks like it will be a reality.

This race of course joins the round in Austin, which is to feature on the calendar from 2012, again with a 10 year deal and to be known as the United States Grand Prix, meaning two US rounds on the F1 schedules in the near future, and for the first time since 1984.

An impressive promotion and 'lap' of the new Austin track, by Red Bull and David Coulthard

All of this is not before time in my view. I've long been of the view that there should be at least two US rounds on the F1 calendar. There should be no doubt of the country's ability to stage two races. For the purposes of the F1 calendar America should be thought of as a continent rather than as a country: there will be close to 2,000 miles between the two venues (and how many European rounds are within that radius of each other?).

India Qualifying: Vettel adds the spice

Once again, Sebastian Vettel has claimed a pole position for a Grand Prix in 2011. He'll start tomorrow's inaugural Indian Grand Prix from the front, a state of events which never appeared under serious threat.

In truth, it was a slightly bitty and disjointed qualifying session, and the three-place grid drop for Lewis Hamilton, in place before the session began, took away a lot of the tension as Lewis looked to be the only guy out there that could threaten Seb's lap times. As it was, he ended up second, which converts into a net fifth on tomorrow's grid.

Sebastian Vettel took yet another pole position
Credit: Morio / CC
The session was also deprived of its usual crescendo by an accident for Felipe Massa on his last run, after damaging his suspension clouting a kerb and the sleeping policeman within it, bringing out the yellow flags and depriving many of a final effort. We also had the usual problem of many not attempting as many laps for the grid as they could have. Something seriously needs to be done about that.

The qualifying records continue to tumble for Seb and his team. Sixteen poles for a single team in a season is a new record and testimony to Red Bull's dominance, and Vettel only needs to claim pole in one of the two remaining races to equal Nigel Mansell's record set in 1992 of 14 poles in a season. I wouldn't bet much against him getting that one.

Friday 28 October 2011

Buddh Preview: F1 looking for the perfect Indian recipe

It seems to be an annual event these days that F1 pitches up at a new venue. But 2011's debut venue carries more weight than most. This is because F1 is holding a race in India for the first time ever.

This of course represents a massive opportunity for F1. To use terms that the sport's power brokers understand, India is a highly populous potential 'market', a point that's given particular centrality by India's status as a coming force in the world economy.

However, F1's record in establishing new events in its recent eastwards expansion is, well, patchy. Of course, the round at Singapore, and at Japan before it, have been clear successes. But we've seen in the likes of Malaysia, Turkey and China that local interest in these 'new' countries can be hard to sustain or even to establish in the first place. Even Korea a fortnight ago, in but its second race, showed some signs of faltering.

The Buddh International Circuit layout
Credit: Ra-smit / CC
Still, today's practice session seemed a good start for the Indian Grand Prix. The Buddh International Circuit has received a universal thumbs up. The layout is typical Herman Tilke, one part long straights book-ended by sharp but wide corners, which should promote plenty of overtaking, the other half distinguished by sequences of rapid curves, one reminiscent of turn 8 at Turkey. The average speed is pretty quick by modern F1 standards and there is a refreshing abundance of elevation change as well. Some are calling it Tilke's best effort at a racing circuit so far.

The one bum note is that, as James Allen has pointed out, there's almost nothing in the circuit that is distinctively Indian, disappointingly. Watching practice today you could have been watching an F1 practice session in any country. Bit of a missed opportunity there.

Monday 24 October 2011

Retro F1: the 1995 Canadian Grand Prix

Today I tried something new. YouTube features some full length F1 races from the past, which, given my interest in reliving F1 history, I've taken an interest in watching. Today I watched one of these classic F1 races in full and posted Twitter updates on it as live (under the hashtag #retrof1).

The race was the 1995 Canadian GP. If you want to watch along with the full race the link is here. And the #retrof1 twitter timeline can be viewed here.

An edited timeline of my tweets is below. This may become a regular feature with other races available in full online. Though if it turns out that I achieve little beyond annoying people by clogging up their Twitter feeds then I'll abandon the idea.

Anyways, off we go.

The unmistakable tones of Bob Varsha kick us off. It's ESPN's coverage, and it's been raining in Canada.

Now Derek Daly is talking technical - sporting an impressive tie and mullet :)

Oh my god, James Allen was ESPN's pit reporter in 1995. Didn't realise he had experience when picked up by ITV in 1997 to perform the same role for the UK coverage.

@MKaipio So funny to see @DerekDaly500 and @Jamesallenonf1 there!
Nice to think they're still going strong in F1 16 years later!

Sunday 16 October 2011

Looking back: the time F1 drivers banned one of their own

In the build up to last week's Japanese Grand Prix the Italian magazine Autosprint reported that some F1 drivers wanted Lewis Hamilton's driving to be raised as a matter for discussion at that event's drivers' briefing.

I'm very glad that nothing came of that. Such a move would have been shameful, with the strong stench of a witch hunt. Furthermore, it would have been absolutely unnecessary. Yes, it can't be denied that Lewis Hamilton has been making contact with other cars too often over the last 12 months or so, but we're not talking about someone new on the scene, or someone unproven. Lewis Hamilton has been in F1 for close to to five years, and in that time proven beyond doubt that he's one of the sport's most accomplished performers. And up until the Italian race of last year (when his habit of tagging other cars began) he didn't make contact with other cars that often. It's very hard to think of occasions before that wherein he was involved in an incident with another car that was unequivocally his own fault. Hitting Kimi Raikkonen in the pitlane in Canada in 2008 is arguably the only one, and he's far from the only one to be caught out by that pit exit. Not bad for someone who in that time firmed himself up as F1's most exciting and willing racer and overtaker.

F1 does have a previous when it comes to egregious behaviour by some drivers towards one of their own. One time before a few 'senior' drivers effectively banned one of their fellow number from a Grand Prix. This they did by coercing the organisers of a race, on pain of them withdrawing and forcing the event to be cancelled, not to accept that driver's race entry. The year was 1978 and the banned driver was Riccardo Patrese.

Korean GP Report: Vettel's perfect 10

So, was Sebastian Vettel going to ease up with his second title in the pocket, and four races remaining? Not a bit of it.

Sebastian Vettel won in fine style, clinching
the constructors' title for Red Bull as he did so
Credit: Morio / CC
It never was going to happen. Seb, more than most drivers, knows his place in history, and is a big fan of records. But more than all that he loves to race. He won again today - his 10th victory of the season (only Michael Schumacher has won more in a single year) and 20th ever (and it's sobering to think that Schumi at Vettel's age had only won once).

But today wasn't a shoo-in. Vettel really had to go out and win this one, and his performance was a masterful display of controlling a race from the front. Unusually, he didn't claim pole, and for much of the weekend the McLarens looked the class of the field, over a single lap in any case. But Seb managed to outbrake Hamilton into turn four on the opening tour after nice use of his loaf in KERS usage and forcing Hamilton into a sub-optimum line at the previous corner, and Seb employed his usual strategy from there. He scampered out of the DRS zone, didn't put a wheel wrong, and eased clear while letting those behind squabble. This has to be one of the best of his score of wins, even by their high standards. And not for the first time this season Red Bull had the confidence to commit to an unorthodox strategy from early in the weekend and make it work. It wraps up their second constructors' championship: richly deserved for an operation that has been as sweet as a nut this year and absolutely on top of their game.

Saturday 15 October 2011

Korea Qualifying: Hamilton takes his Korea opportunity

Today represented a redemption. Lewis Hamilton's reputation has been kicked pillar to post in recent times, arguably with some justification. But today he claimed pole position for tomorrow's Korean Grand Prix, and looked just like his old livewire self in so doing. He never was going to be down forever.

If Lewis on pole position seems a bit unusual that's because it is. For one thing, it ends a 16 race Red Bull monopoly of the front of the grid, which stretched all the way back to last year's Brazilian Grand Prix. For another, it's also Lewis's first pole in close to 18 months - Canada last year was the last occasion he started at the front of the pack.

Lewis Hamilton claimed
a fine pole position
Credit: / CC
But there were plenty of clues in the recent evidence that a McLaren pole position wasn't far away. Their technical upgrade, brought to Suzuka last week, is clearly a good one. Button won that race of course, and Lewis probably would have claimed pole there as well but for a dropped ball. McLaren look to be the class of the field again this weekend.

Pole turned out to be a McLaren versus Red Bull affair. Sebastian Vettel managed to split the McLarens to qualify second, and Red Bull have opted for a contrary strategy wherein they sought to save prime tyres (the softs) rather than the options (super softs), with a view to running new prime tyres after the opening stint in the race - they have enough sets for three stints on new soft tyres tomorrow. Button and Webber fill the second row in that order, Jenson was helped by Webber having to abandon his last run after a mistake.

They're then followed by the Ferraris, with Felipe Massa again ahead of the two, for the fourth time in six races. Alonso, like Webber, abandoned his last run after a mistake. Still, Alonso sounds confident for tomorrow (and he finished far ahead of Massa in each of the four races he was outqualified by him in). And the reason he may be confident is tyres.

Sunday 9 October 2011

Japanese GP Report: Seb and Jenson do what is required

Today was a day about keeping your side of the bargain. Going in, Jenson Button had to win with Sebastian Vettel coming nowhere to keep the World Drivers' Championship away from Vettel for at least another week. Jenson Button did win and in fine style, but Seb kept up his end of things comfortably, taking third place and 15 points, much more than the one he needed to be champion.

Sebastian Vettel sealed his
second World Championship today
Credit: Morio / CC
It's an impressive and deserved title for Vettel, he now joins the all-time greats as a double world champion, a back-to-back world champion, and the youngest ever on both counts (more on my thoughts on Vettel and his championship year, published today, are here).

In terms of today, it was yet another impressive drive from Jenson, continuing his excellent recent form. It's his third win of the year, and his first in a dry race since Turkey 2009, almost two and a half years ago! It's strange, but definitely true, that his reputation in the sport is notably stronger now than even when he won his world title two years ago.

Sebastian Vettel: A worthy 2011 champion

It's been close to an inevitability for a long time, and Sebastian Vettel today made it official. He's the 2011 World Drivers' Champion, his second world championship and he's not even 25 until next year. Not bad work.

In reality, this title has been Seb's effectively for a long time. From the point cars first turned a wheel in the opening weekend at Melbourne Seb's been a stride ahead of all others. His results in the opening eight rounds were six wins and two second places, and had the Chinese round been five laps and the Canadian one lap shorter he would have taken a clean sweep. That period also included tracks such at Monaco and Canada that were supposed to trip him up, but Seb has spent most of the season proving doubters wrong. Barring strange happenings, such as Niki Lauda's fiery accident at the Nurburgring in 1976, in the history of the sport drivers don't squander that sort of early advantage.

And despite the briefest of mid-season troughs that advantage has continued and been extended as the year has gone on. The numbers are striking testament to his persistent command: he's won nine of the fifteen races, claimed 324 of the 375 available points, and taken twelve pole positions (and counting, in all three cases). Indeed, going into the Japanese race Seb had led 582 of the 839 racing laps this year, almost six times as many of the next best, the 99 laps led by Lewis Hamilton. Seb's presence at the head of the pack has been ubiquitous, only in Germany was he not on his game, and only there did he finish off the podium.

Credit: Anthony Porcino / CC
Watching Seb's races this year has been a little like watching a film on a loop. The Vettel copybook is clear. First off, claim pole, and Vettel's scintillating speed and absolute assurance on a single flying lap usually ensures this (can you think of an error from Vettel in qualifying this year? No, I couldn't either). Then Seb takes the lead at the start, and the first lap is like flicking a switch, he's on it immediately and in most races this year he's been seconds clear at the of the first lap, leaving the opposition on their knees from the very beginning. He then gets himself enough of a gap to be outside the DRS 'window', so not to inflate the following car's speed, as well as to be able to react to whatever those behind do in terms of changing tyres, vital in a season wherein tyre performance has varied markedly, duration of tyre life is limited and frequent pitstops have been necessary. From that position, Seb goes as fast as he dares with regard to his tyres, his steering input meaning he keeps his in shape longer than many around him (including that of his team mate - a vital component of his increased advantage over Mark Webber this season compared to last). At Australia, Malaysia, Turkey, Valencia, Monza and Singapore the story has been almost identical.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Suzuka Qualifying: Vettel touches down after McLaren fumble

Sebastian Vettel takes pole position, after McLaren fumble. Sounds rather familiar doesn't it?

Sebastian Vettel took yet another pole
Credit: Morio / CC
Yes, Vettel will again start a Grand Prix from the front tomorrow at Suzuka. It's his 12th pole of the season (and Nigel Mansell's record of 14 looks under genuine threat with three rounds to go), and his 27th ever. But this was no run-of-the-mill Seb qualifying dominance. This time it looked like he would have to step down, and that it would be the first time that a Red Bull wouldn't head the grid this year, as McLaren were making good on their practice pace and headed the times after the first efforts in the final qualifying session, with Lewis Hamilton ahead.

But then, and not for the first time this season, someone made what looked on the outside to be an elementary error. Lewis couldn't find a gap in the traffic to start his final flying lap, and didn't make it over the line before the session timing counted down to zero amazingly, meaning he couldn't do another time. Vettel's prodigious qualifying skills did the rest, turning the speck of light into the maximum advantage, and claiming pole by just 0.009 of a second from Button in second. Lewis lines up third, and reckons he had a couple of tenths in hand for a final run. Afterwards, his was a face that could stop a clock.

Suzuka Preview: Don't let the headlines fool you

Credit: / CC
'Button tops both practice session while Vettel crashes'. I've seen several versions of headlines to that effect since Friday practice at Suzuka finished. You'd therefore be forgiven for thinking that Seb and the Red Bulls are on the back foot on the basis of today's running, while Jenson Button is dominating, and bravely seeking to make Vettel's inevitable championship clinching as hard as possible.

Well, that's not exactly the case. As is usually the case in F1 things are not always what they seem on the surface.

Vettel again looks to be the man to beat
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
It again looks like Suzuka will be Red Bull country. Not really a surprise: the Bulls have been  fastest by a distance here in the last two visits, the long, rapid sequences of corners could have been designed for an Adrian Newey-penned car, and in any case the Bulls have been quickest just about everywhere this year.

And once again, Vettel is positively beaming this weekend and shows every intention even on the brink of the title of driving as he has all season, on the attack and going for the win, thus wrapping up the title in typical, lavish style. He won imperiously from pole here in both of the past two seasons, and I seriously wouldn't advise betting against a hat-trick.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Looking back: Al Pease - (not) the worst F1 driver ever

As part of my life on Twitter I like to dig out 'things that happened on this day' historical F1 snippets. Recently, I found one that intrigued me particularly. It concerned the 1969 Canadian Grand Prix, and the fabulous tale of a local entrant by the name of Al Pease.

To cut a long story short, in that race Pease became the only driver in history to be disqualified from an F1 race for being too slow. At the point he was kicked out he'd completed 22 laps, fewer than half the total that the leaders had managed at that point.

And Pease's other two attempts in Grands Prix weren't much better. In the 1967 Canadian race he did finish, but some 43 laps shy of the winner, and in the same Grand Prix in 1968 he failed to start because of engine problems, after setting a qualifying time way off the back of the pack.

So, Al Pease is a good candidate to be called the worst F1 driver ever? Well, no actually. As is often the case in F1 things aren't quite what they seem on the face of it.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Singapore GP Report: Vettel kettles them

A comfortable pole position, several tenths clear from his rivals. Lead from the start, have the opposition on their knees in a matter of a few corners. Seconds clear after one lap. Control the race and your tyres from there. Cover whatever your opponents do. Result never in doubt. A copybook win from the front.

Another average Sunday for young Seb then.

Sebastian Vettel has been dominant all season
Credit: Morio / CC
Yes, Sebastian Vettel took the win in Singapore, and it was a classic dominant performance, the sort trademarked by Ascari, Clark, Senna... and more and more it's becoming synonymous with Seb as well. No one ever got near him - he was 2.5 seconds clear at the end of lap one, and after a mid race safety car period he was no fewer than four seconds clear over the line to start the first racing lap. It was actually the first race this year that Seb has led flag to flag. It really doesn't seem that way.

The 2011 drivers' championship isn't quite his yet, but the odds of him not doing so are probably about the same as the moon turning out to be made of cheese. Only Jenson Button can now, mathematically, take the title instead, and only by winning the five remaining rounds and Vettel scoring no points at all. Ain't gonna happen.

Saturday 24 September 2011

Singapore Qualifying: Eleven up for Vettel

No one could get near Sebastian Vettel in qualifying in Singapore today. He claimed pole, as is standard, and even by his experience of this season it was comfortable. He was routinely several tenths clear of the next challenger in each of the sessions, and didn't look remotely perturbed at any stage. Singapore is very much his fiefdom it seems.

Vettel qualified on pole comfortably
Credit: Anthony Porcino
It's Seb's eleventh pole of the season, three short of Nigel Mansell's record for a single campaign set in 1992, and it's hard to see even that record surviving the year. And Red Bull's clean sweep of poles this year continues (it's also their fifteenth in succession in total). It's not clear who or what can stop them on a Saturday in 2011.

Seb's advantage over the next guy, team mate Webber completing a Red Bull lock out of the front row, was three and a half tenths of a second in the final breakdown. But that disguises that Seb didn't even feel it necessary to complete his final run - in 'reality' he was even further ahead.

Another guy who didn't complete two runs in the final qualifying session was Lewis Hamilton, who curiously parked it after his first attempt (after which he was placed second). It looked initially like he was gambling of saving a set of new tyres for tomorrow's race, but he subsequently indicated that it was down to a technical problem in refuelling the car for his second run. This all resulted in him being bumped down by Webber and Button to start fourth tomorrow, though with the consolation of an extra new set of super-softs compared to his rivals. Therefore, he may make some hay in the race. If he does finish ahead of Webber, Button and Alonso tomorrow it'll help Vettel claim the championship this weekend.

Friday 23 September 2011

Singapore Preview: F1's light fantastic

It seems astonishing to think that the Marina Bay circuit at Singapore made its F1 debut just three years ago. Already it is impossible to think of an F1 year without it, and one of the very most keenly anticipated events of the year.

Singapore's night race, one of the most
keenly anticipated of the year
Credit: chensiyuan / CC
Of all of the 'new' venues of F1's recent shiftwards east Marina Bay is the most successful by a distance. Singapore seems a city made to hold an F1 race: vibrant and glamorous, with large, enthusiastic crowds guaranteed year on year. It has the distinction of being F1's first (and, so far, only entirely) night race, the cars never fail to look beautiful under the lights, and are backdropped by Singapore's evocative nightscape. What's more, Singapore has proved to be possibly F1's most challenging race. It lasts just shy of two hours, is run in hot humid conditions invariably, and the acrobatic track doesn't provide much of a breather for pilots. Sunday's race will likely have each driver enduring upwards of 4,300 gear changes - that's almost double the number at Spa, unforgiving walls are always close and the bumps and kerbs vicious.

Saturday 17 September 2011

It's time to stop the block

The guys who finished in the top three at Monza last weekend have barely had a look in. Much of the comment about the race since has concerned the guys that came fourth and fifth: Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher. Most pertinently, it concerned Schumacher's tactics in defending his place from Lewis Hamilton, a battle that lasted for half the race.

Schumi's extreme pushing of the boundaries of acceptability when defending is well-established, and as it was, not for the first time, he escaped serious punishment at Monza. This was an outcome that split F1 fans pretty much down the middle, between the 'it's racing, it's entertaining, let them get on with it' group in one corner and the 'it was dangerous and clearly outside the rules' in the other.

Michael Schumacher has again been in the news
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
In my view it's beyond doubt that, given the rules, Schumi should have received some censure for his tactics. The battle certainly provided entertainment, much of Schumi's defence of positioning his car on the inside line was, given the regs are as they are, in the 'hard but fair' category, and he was greatly assisted his his car's prodigious straightline speed. But even so some of Schumacher's moves in defending his place went beyond what the regulations say are acceptable.

Just as a reminder, article 20.2 of the sporting regulations states: 'Manoeuvres liable to hinder other drivers, such as more than one change of direction to defend a position, deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track or any other abnormal change of direction, are not permitted.' Schumacher, most notably, moved twice in defending his place ahead of Hamilton on lap 20 approaching the first Lesmo, right to the inside of the track and immediately right back to the racing line to take his apex. He did something similar, though less extreme, on laps 10, 11, 13, 15 and 21 on the run down to the Ascari complex. And of course he edged Hamilton off the track at Curve Grande on lap 16, which looked both dangerous in itself and an example of 'crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track'. Indeed, he was warned more than once by race control for his driving, the first time was even before the worst case on lap 20, and it transpires that he in all probability would have received a penalty for the lap 20 move had the stewards' attention not been elsewhere at that point (something subsequently admitted by driver steward Derek Daly - Daly talks in detail and with commendable frankness on his stewarding at Monza on The Flying Lap below).

Episode 36: Italian De-brief with Derek and Conor Daly from Smibs TV on Vimeo.
But the discussion got me thinking more widely about what should be considered acceptable in F1 when defending your position from a competitor in a race.

Monday 12 September 2011

Italian GP Report: Dominant win leaves Seb on the brink

Sebastian Vettel wins. Where have I heard that one before?

And for the second race in a row Seb took the honours at a circuit that many had anticipated wouldn't suit his RB7. But the Bulls have spent the whole season being the team to beat at tracks that were supposed to be about damage limitation for them (well, Vettel has at the very least). Their variation in competiveness from track to track evidenced in previous years is very much a thing of the past. Yes, it may make the racing for wins and the championship less nail biting than we'd like, but you have to take your hat off to driver and team for a job very well done.

Vettel's being headed was brief at Monza
Credit: / CC
This all leaves Seb on the brink of his second title, which he can claim in the next round, at Singapore, with another win and other results going his way to a small degree. But to be honest the title is Seb's this year even if he starts his off season tomorrow and puts his feet up until next March.

Monza's had cars racing on it since 1922, and there can't have been many more dominant, decisive drives there than Seb's yesterday. Having claimed pole position by a distance, he was but ever so slightly inconvenienced by Fernando Alonso taking the lead at the first corner via another demon start, which looked like an action replay of his start in Barcelona. Just as in Barcelona it was never going to last for long though. After a safety car period in the early laps Seb took the lead back almost immediately like it was his by right, with a heart in mouth move around the outside of Curve Grande with two wheels on the grass, Alonso giving him no more room than strictly necessary as you'd expect. And not a shred of DRS was in sight (let's now give the 'Seb can't pass' idea a dignified burial). From that point on Seb had the race in the palm of his hand, and sure enough he brought it home almost completely unchallenged.

Saturday 10 September 2011

Monza Qualifying: Vettel cracks Monza

So, Monza isn't a Red Bull bogey track after all. Sebastian Vettel claimed yet another pole position, his 25th, and becomes only the second man in history to get ten or more of them in two separate seasons (it won't surprise you that Ayrton Senna is the other). At this rate Seb will be able to claim a copyright on them.

Sebastian Vettel claimed yet another pole position
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
So while the pole itself wasn't a surprise, the fact that it came at Monza was. This wasn't supposed to be Red Bull country, they've never so much as finished on the podium here, usually finding themselves at a disadvantage on the track's predominant long straights. But the Bulls have spent the whole season proving people wrong at tracks that they were expected to be vulnerable at, and this weekend has been a continuation of this. They've looked like the team to beat for most of the weekend, and so it proved today as Vettel took pole with a time almost half a second clear of the next guy. Yes, his nearest challengers weren't able to maximise their final runs, but it was still a stunning performance.

Friday 9 September 2011

Monza Preview: Red Bull to find a new frontier?

In F1, as with many things, you've either got it or you haven't. And without doubt Monza has got it.

Few rival the passion of the tifosi at Monza
'It' isn't always that easy to define, and so it isn't with Monza. But most likely it is related to a combination of the track's unparalleled heritage and the intense atmosphere provided by the Ferrari-loving tifosi looking on. Monza's seen cars racing here since 1922, and the layout, other than the addition of chicanes and the coming and going of a fearsome banking section, has remained broadly untouched in that time. Only in one season, 1980, has Monza not featured on an F1 calendar - no other track can boast anything close to that level of incumbency. All of F1's legends have raced here, many have perished, and the ghosts of warriors past seem to be conspicuous in the place. The list of Monza Grand Prix winners reads like a who's who of F1 history. Compounding this are the fans: few can match the buzz and passion of Monza's Ferraristi. There are some things that the money spent on the Tilkedromes can't buy. When F1 cars are at Monza all seems right with the world.

Monza is, and always has been, all about speed. Around three-quarters of the lap is spent on full throttle and there are only six sequences of corners, by far the fewest in F1 currently.

Sunday 4 September 2011

The Jim Clark Trail in the Scottish Borders

The Jim Clark Room in Duns
He started 72 Grands Prix, won 25 of them, claiming 33 pole positions, and won the World Championship twice. And this in an age where F1 mechanical reliability wasn't anything like it is now. Indeed, he only finished second in a Grand Prix once. In other words, when everything held together he tended to win. He also won an Indianapolis 500 (and was probably swindled out of two more) in just five attempts. He won the British Saloon Car championship (the forerunner of BTCC), and his skills in driving saloons were comparable with his F1 abilities. Indeed, he could put virtually anything with wheels under his magical spell, he was an accomplished F2 driver, sports car driver, once finishing third at Le Mans, and once genuinely looked like winning the RAC Rally, before crashing out. He even did NASCAR on occasion. And he died, tragically, too young at just 32. His international motor racing career in its entirety didn't even last ten years.

I'm not making this up. This guy existed. And his name was Jim Clark.

I was visiting family in Scotland recently and took the opportunity, for the first time in too long, to visit the Jim Clark Room in Duns, a small town around 30 miles south of Edinburgh. While Clark was born in Fife, he and his family moved to Edington Mains Farm, near to Duns, when Clark was six, where he was to farm in adulthood, and he remains synonymous with the area.

Sunday 28 August 2011

Belgian GP Report: Nothing can stop Seb

If someone was to ask you what F1's key themes are in 2011, you may say exciting helter-skelter races, plenty of overtaking, and in the end Sebastian Vettel wins as he likes. These were all on show in today's race at Spa.

Sebastian Vettel again won impressively
Credit: ph-stop / CC
It seems that nothing can stop Vettel in 2011. This time tyre blistering early on, sustained in qualifying and necessitating a pit stop after only five laps, was thrown in his way, but Vettel's response was almost contemptuous. He continued to lap strongly, came through the field in double quick time (so much for the 'he can't pass' nonsense), and eventually won sumptuously, managing his tyres carefully and thus avoiding the extra stop that some anticipated.

His championship lead is now a gargantuan 92 points (over his team mate Webber), the 2011 drivers' championship will surely be his with a few races to spare. And he will be a worthy champion.

For a lot of the race Fernando Alonso was Seb's closest challenger. He came through the traffic aggressively from his lowly eighth spot on the grid to lead by lap seven. Then, after his own stop he was second to Vettel and looking like he'd give the young German something to think about. However, at a safety car period, Vettel changed tyres and Alonso didn't, putting Seb not far behind Fernando and on a fresh set of boots. Seb soon took advantage of this to lead, which was a state of affairs that did not change until the end.

Saturday 27 August 2011

Spa Qually: Vettel confounds us once again

Sebastian Vettel took pole positon yet again
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
So, Seb has confounded us again. It's odd that in a season that a Red Bull has been pole everywhere and Seb has claimed all but three of them that his claiming of pole today should feel rather unexpected, but there you go. In a breathless wet-to-dry qualifying session so typical of Spa, wherein the times tumbled throughout and the timing screen resembled a fruit machine, Vettel claimed pole position at the last.

Spa, with its long straights, wasn't supposed to suit the Red Bull, but on the limited and rain-disrupted evidence of the running so far the Red Bulls appear to be right on it, wet or dry, and not giving much away on straightline speed. Furthermore the final qualifying session, where slicks were used on a still greasy surface, required bravery, commitment and judgement. Young Seb has plenty of those and put them to use.

Lewis Hamilton will start second tomorrow
Credit: / CC
His fastest time in the end was half a second clear of Hamilton in second and a full second clear of Webber in third. Webber admitted that he took too much out of his tyres before his final lap, and it appears Vettel's own judgement on this matter was perfect.

Not unusually for a wet-dry qualifying session there are some interlopers at the business end of the grid. Behind Massa in fourth we have Rosberg, Alguersuari and the amazing Bruno Senna, in his first race after replacing Nick Heidfeld at Renault, in that order. Only then do we find Fernando Alonso, starting eighth, who didn't get it together in the third qualifying session, a state of affairs that he attributed to traffic and not getting heat into his tyres (something that's dogged the Ferrari all season).