Saturday 30 April 2011

Looking back: Alfa Romeo's return to F1 - always leave them wanting more

Manufacturers have a tendency to come and go in F1 with remarkable frequency, appearing in a blaze of optimism and budget, only to disappear just as rapidly, usually when the board, no racing passion there, decides that the F1 programme can no longer be 'justified'.

Alfa Romeo have a typically sporadic presence in F1's history, though unlike many manufacturers they do have a famous legacy in the sport, having claimed the first two drivers' world championships, for Nino Farina in 1950 and for Juan Manual Fangio in 1951. However, in 1951 the Alfas were increasingly challenged by the burgeoning Scuderia Ferrari concern. Alfa concluded that it would require major investment to meet this, by replacing their long in the tooth 158 model (designed in the 1930s!), so they quit while they were ahead and withdrew from the sport.

Rolf Stommelen wrestles the the 1976 Brabham-Alfa Romeo BT45

Broadly, that's the way it stayed for Alfa for the next quarter century. Despite the odd appearance in F1 as an engine supplier, for McLaren in 1970 and March in 1971, the Alfa name remained as a revered and successful one from the sport's early days. Alfa Romeo did however have a second effort at a factory F1 team, between 1979 and 1985, which was altogether less successful than their first.

Sunday 17 April 2011

Chinese GP Report: Lewis takes Seb down to China town

It just goes to show that nobody knows anything. Or to use the famous Murray-ism: 'anything can happen in Formula One, and it usually does'. And it all happened in the Chinese Grand Prix today.

The expected Vettel-benefit didn't happen in the end, and the race was won, brilliantly, by Lewis Hamilton. Having been a little under the radar for a lot of the way, he came alive in the latter twenty laps of the race. He put in a fantastic, aggressive move on Jenson Button into turn one, passed Rosberg, outmaneuvered Massa on the pit straight and then reeled in and passed Sebastian Vettel into turn seven with four laps left, thus taking a lead which he kept. It was another variable race with plenty of passing, like in Malaysia, but this time with the cars at the front running in closer company, creating a classic race. It's hard to remember a more diverting all-dry weather race in modern times, you may have to go back to the Japanese race in 2005.

The story of the race, strategy-wise, was that a three stop race (used by the McLarens, the Mercedes and Webber) worked much better than a two-stopper (employed by Vettel and the Ferraris). Indeed, in many ways the race was reminiscent of a wet (or wet-to-dry) race, in that being on the correct tyres, and thus being seconds of a lap faster a lot of the time, was worth an extra stop. The two-stoppers were easy meat in the final laps of the race as the three-stoppers reeled them in. The days of drivers 'racing to the final pitstops' are very much behind us, and not before time. Hats off to Pirelli for creating such an entertaining formula - though F1 teams do have a tendency to converge on each other, so we should enjoy this level of variation while it lasts!

Saturday 16 April 2011

Shanghai Qually: Predictably comfortable for Seb

Sebastian Vettel took pole position for tomorrow's Chinese Grand Prix at Shanghai, by a comfortable seven tenths of a second from his next challenger. Just like in Melbourne. Hey ho.

While the previous round in Malaysia suggested that Seb's challengers may be closing the gap to the front, there were strong mitigating circumstances, with Red Bull having to change their set up fundamentally to preserve their tyres (at the expense on one lap performance). Seb sharply indicated to all that things are back to normal in China, his rivals have a lot of work to do it seems.

It was a rather unusual and bitty qualifying session, interrupted by a lengthy red flag halt (caused by Petrov stopping on the track in session two) and characterised by drivers seeking to preserve as many sets of tyres as possible for tomorrow. But even with this some of the themes of the first two rounds were present. McLaren continued to be best of the rest, and will line up second and third tomorrow, though this time Jenson Button is ahead of the two, continuing the theme of practice wherein he seemed the more comfortable of the Woking pilots. And Seb's team mate Mark Webber continues to have a frustrating time of it. Someone got it seriously wrong in qually one, Webber went out on harder tyres when all his rivals were on softs (and his KERS wasn't working, yet again), and Webber, amazingly, didn't make the cut for the next session, and will start way back in P18 tomorrow. At least him coming through the field will create some entertainment. Heidfeld and Schumi are also starting well down (P16 and P14 respectively).

Friday 15 April 2011

Shanghai Preview: Chinese year of the Red Bull

We're not even into Saturday and it already looks like Red Bull's race to lose in China. Sebastian Vettel topped the timesheets in both Friday practice sessions, seemingly with plenty of fuel aboard in the second session and being upwards of two seconds clear of the first non-Red Bull in the first.

While the relative closeness in Malaysia a week ago gave some indication of a season wherein the Bulls (or more to the point, Seb's Bull) wouldn't have quite all of it their own way, it transpires that it may have been a mirage to some extent. Given their concerns about their tyre wear in a hot and tyre-taxing event and circuit, Red Bull deliberately engineered understeer into their cars to max out their tyre life. This cost them about 0.6 of their ultimate pace in qualifying, and yet Seb took the pole and won reasonably comfortably, leading almost all of the way (and his KERS stopped working part of the way through). Just stop and think about that for a moment.

The tyre degradation rate in Shanghai is around 30% down on the Malaysia level, and the long run pace of both Red Bulls looked ominously good. Short of unreliability or some other freak occurrence, it's difficult to see what can stop them on Sunday.

Sunday 10 April 2011

Malaysian GP Report: Seb still on top, but a lot happening behind him

Sebastian Vettel claimed the Malaysian Grand Prix, making it two wins out of two this year. This topline does however hide that he had to work much harder for the win than in Melbourne two weeks ago. Nevertheless, Seb demonstrated his growing maturity by always staying calm and in command up ahead and making passes when necessary during the pit stop phase, no matter what was going on behind him. And a lot was.

To a large extent, the Sepang race was our first genuine look at the 'new' formula for this year, much more so than in Melbourne. As predicted pre-season, the tyre degradation in the race is such that three or four pits stops were the norm in Malaysia, with most trying to eke out a three stop strategy, and there is the constant possibility of tyres 'falling off a cliff', to use the parlance, when they're at the end of their life. This resulted in a rather topsy-turvey race, not panning out in nearly as predictable fashion as we've grown used to in F1 races over the last decade or so. No bad thing in my view.

Further, the DRS systems contributed to the topsy-turviness, helping a few overtakes into turn one without making things too easy. The system continues to get a cautious thumbs up from me.

Saturday 9 April 2011

Looking back: The original Drag Reduction Systems

Of all of the regulation changes for the 2011 F1 season the Drag Reduction System, or movable rear wings, has perhaps caused the most controversy. This is a system wherein a driver, operating the system from their cockpit, can flatten their rear wing plates, thus reducing aerodynamic drag and increasing speed where the downforce from the rear wing is not required, such as on the straights. The system can be used to the driver's heart's content in practice and qualifying, and only when within a second of the car infront, and at a certain point of the track, in the races, the aim being to create more overtaking. The system in action on the Sauber can be seen in the film below:

The criticisms have been widespread, and have included claims that the system is potentially dangerous due to the increased speed differential of cars it creates, as well as that operating the system could distract the driver. More substantial criticisms have been made by those seeing the system as somewhat false and 'gimmicky' (Mark Webber said it belongs more on a PlayStation), and not in keeping with F1's heritage.

Such claims aren't entirely true though, as movable rear wings in fact have a previous in F1. To find them and their previous creation one has to go back to 1968.

Sepang Qually: Seb made to work for it

It just goes to show that nobody knows anything. William Goldman famously said it of Hollywood, and it applies to F1 just as aptly.

As a topline, Sebastian Vettel claiming pole for tomorrow's Malaysian GP was as expected, but the parallels with the opening round at Melbourne end there. Seb was really made to work for his pole, going toe to toe with the equally mighty Lewis Hamilton, and pipping the Englishman by a smidgen at the very last of a highly exciting qualifying session.

We're therefore perfectly poised for the race, two champions in evenly matched machinery on the front row, and it's possible that the McLaren looks looks after its tyres better, which could be its trump card. The fact that the two have been needling each other off track for weeks (as have their respective teams), and that there's a strong possibility of rain at some point, only adds spice to the mix.

Like the champions they are, both Seb and Lewis found those vital extra tenths that weren't really there in their final runs. This left their team mates filling the second row, Webber ahead of Button, and each around three tenths down on Seb's pole time.

Sepang Preview: Bulls blowing smoke?

One of the most galling aspects of Sebastian Vettel's dominant performance in Australia two weeks ago, for his rivals at least, is that on paper the Sepang track should allow his Red Bull to stretch its legs even more than the Albert Park track did.

The evidence of practice in Malaysia is that dominance could continue this weekend. As previously discussed, the Sepang track is in many ways a much more representative guide of competitiveness than Albert Park. Some of the other teams may want to look the other way when the final qualifying times are in.

As in Australia, the McLarens are giving the Red Bulls most to think about in Malaysia, getting amongst them on the practice timing screens and Lewis topping the times in practice three. Yet most of the paddock are hard bitten on this sort of thing - the conventional wisdom is that the Red Bulls will find half a second per lap of pace for qualifying. We'll find out later today if that's the case. (And I loved Lewis's quote on the subject: 'I think Red Bull are always blowing smoke up other people, I'm sure they have got half a second at least to pull out tomorrow.')

There are a few factors that could disrupt the Vettel/Red Bull demonstration run, however. Perhaps the biggest factor is Seb's team mate. Mark Webber has looked far more on it this weekend than in Australia, and indeed has been the quicker of the two Bulls in each practice session, topping the times in both of Friday's sessions. Both driver and team have admitted there isn't a complete explanation for his off the pace performance in Australia, and Mark will be more determined than ever to end Seb's recent (and now fairly lengthy) run of beating him.