Sunday 29 May 2011

Monaco GP Report: A game for three players

To say Sebastian Vettel won the Monaco Grand Prix, while true, barely does the event justice. This was no Monaco procession, nor was it a stroll for Vettel of the sort we've seen more than once this season. It was a tight, exciting battle that ebbed and flowed. At no point was it clear who the winner would be. And for all of the various incidents up and down the field, as far as first place was concerned Monaco was a game for three players - Vettel, Alonso and Button. All performed magnificently.

Alonso and Button were magnificent in Monaco  Credit: Nick J Webb/CC
Vettel headed Jenson Button off the line from pole, and Fernando Alonso managed to shuffle ahead of Webber to claim third. From that point on no one else saw them. And on two separate occasions they put close to a lap on the fourth placed car only for a safety car to negate much of the gap. They finished in the order of Vettel first, Alonso second and Button third, but there were many adventures along the way.

In the opening laps Vettel disappeared off like a scalded cat, building a gap of around four seconds in the blinking of an eye, which Button then clawed back a little. But then a botched Red Bull stop for Vettel, seemingly down to a breakdown in communication, put Button ahead of Vettel after the first round of stops. Button, still on option tyres, then appeared to have the race in the palm of his hand. He put often upwards of a second a lap on the chasing Vettel, who, mistakenly having had primes put on in the confusion of his stop, struggled to stay in touch. However, this tyre mistake ended up giving Vettel the win.

Saturday 28 May 2011

Monaco Qually: Vettel ticks another box

Who or what can stop Sebastian Vettel in 2011? He's making a habit of proving doubters wrong, and of dashing any expectations (or hopes) of his preponderance being challenged.

This is exactly what happened in qualifying in Monaco today. Seb had claimed four out of five pole positions so far this season, but today was supposed to be different. The Red Bull wouldn't be able to stretch its legs around the tight Monaco track, and in any case Seb didn't have a great record in the Principality. But Seb did claim pole position today, and by close to half a second from the next challenger. We really should learn not to underestimate him.

Vettel is clearly a more rounded and formidable performer than even in his championship year last season. He's addressed many of the areas that were previously seen as relative weaknesses in his make-up, and he demonstrated today that he's now got Monaco licked. His race engineer Guillaume 'Rocky' Rocquelin exclaimed 'tick!' down the radio to Seb after pole was confirmed. Everyone knew exactly what he meant.

Monaco Preview: Street-fighting Alonso to tame the Bulls?

There are lots of reasons to dislike the Monaco Grand Prix. The wealth on show is ostentatious, the poseur occupants of the yachts in the harbour in all probability have little interest in the sport in the rest of the year, and modern day F1 cars have long since outgrown the circuit. Nelson Piquet famously likened driving an F1 car there to trying to ride a motor cycle in your front room. But even with all this, for most F1 fans there's nothing quite like the Monaco Grand Prix. And when you've got Monaco you've got F1.

Further, in terms of driving challenge and the ability of an individual driver to make a difference over and above their car, Monaco is probably unparalleled on the calendar. And it's for this reason that many believe that today's qualifying session may finally see the Red Bulls step down from their usual front row dominance.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Spanish GP Report: Vettel does it old school

Yet another great F1 race took place on Sunday in Spain. But rather than being a manic overtaking-fest as in previous races this year, at the front this was a more subtle, tight and tense battle in the old style. And no bad thing for that.

Lewis Hamilton performed brilliantly  Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Not even the established annual Barcelona snooze-fest could stand in the way of the new, exciting Formula One. This was a race where many (me included) expected the Red Bulls to run and hide, but Lewis Hamilton performed a prodigy to harass Sebastian  
Vettel all the way to the flag, showing every intention of finding a way by. In the end he didn't quite manage it and Seb did win, which is his fourth win from five this year, but the performance of Lewis and McLaren at a circuit that was supposed to be Red Bull country bodes well for their future endeavours. And further down the field there was plenty of action as well, with no fewer than 90 overtakes in the race. Compare this with a grand total of two in the Barcelona race in 2009.

Sebastian Vettel won again, making it four wins from five races in 2011
But Seb drove a great race at Barcelona as well. A year older and with the assurance of winning a world championship, he's improved even from his title-winning performance of last year. The wins from the front were already being done to a nicety, but he appears to now be performing better in areas that were considered to be his weaknesses, and this was shown in Spain. He kept a cool head when led by Alonso early on, was clean and decisive overtaking traffic in the pit stop phase (passing three cars in a single lap at one point) and then utterly flawless when being stalked by Lewis in the latter stages (and without KERS). Seb continues to answer all of the questions posed to him in 2011.

Sunday 22 May 2011

Barcelona Qually: Bulls Fighting in Spain

Barcelona has proved to be Red Bull country. This wasn't particular unexpected in itself - the long rapid curves give such importance to aero advantage that they could have been designed by Adrian Newey himself. But even with that the advantage the Bulls have here has left their rivals gasping. Only Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso could get within a second of them in qualifying yesterday, and even then only just. The teams chasing them, fresh in Barcelona with a variety of upgrades, will hope this isn't the way of things at future rounds.

The only surprise at the front was that pole was claimed by Mark Webber, rather than by Sebastian Vettel, for the first time this season. It was perfect timing by Mark, it's a track he has gone well on historically, and if Seb and got one over on him here of all places yesterday it would have been very difficult to see him coming back. He was assisted by the fact that his KERS was working, and Seb's not (not for the first time year), but Mark's probably due a bit of luck.

Today's race will be fascinating. If Webber leads off the line then Vettel, unusually for 2011, will be out of his comfort zone, and it'll be fascinating to see how he'll react. There are lots of signs of a new maturity and calm in Vettel's armoury in 2011, and today may be a good chance for him to prove it. For as long as he's not at the front he won't be able to just react to those behind him strategy-wise, as he has done in most of the races this season. He will have DRS on his side, which will make things a lot easier. On this flipside, if the KERS glitch is still active then passing will be a bit more difficult.

Sunday 15 May 2011

A Formula transformed: Thoughts on F1 in 2011

An awful lot is different about Formula One in 2011. The various regulation changes effectively have brought in a new formula. Depending on who you spoke to in advance of the season start it was either going to prove as unnecessary and counter-productive tinkering, or a healthy means of improving the show from 2010's high level. Now, four races in and the European season having started last weekend, seems a good point to look back on how it’s all gone.
F1’s new formula seen in 2011 is certainly new. And what has been served up in a race on Sunday in 2011 is unrecognisable to recent previous years, and such a switch between seasons is barely precedented in the history of the sport. Even though 2010 was commonly accepted as a great season, it was hardly a secret that F1 had a conspicuous shortage of overtaking and had done for years. After much wrestling with the regulations over time, and many a false dawn, it appears that finally F1 has cracked the problem. And then some.

Webber and Alonso dice in the Turkish Grand Prix
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Finally, we have the F1 racing again. According to the Clip the Apex excellent historical overtaking analysis (you need a log in but it’s free – I highly recommend a look), the Turkish GP produced 126 passing manoeuvres. The previous record (since the start of 1982) was 79 overtakes in the 1983 Long Beach Grand Prix. Further, there has been an average of 74 passes per race in 2011, which compares to 28.8 last year and 14.4 in 2009. There’s already been more overtakes in 2011 in four races than there were in the whole of 2009. Indeed, by a distance there’s been more per race than in any year since these things were first analysed in 1982 (the previous highest annual average was 41.6 in 1984).

Sunday 8 May 2011

Turkish GP Report: Vettel imperious as always

Ignoring the final laps of the Chinese Grand Prix three weeks ago, the whole F1 season could be summarised as Sebastian Vettel being imperious at the front, while a lot went on behind him. This also sums up today's Turkish Grand Prix.

It was another diverting race with a lot of dicing, that never gave the viewer a moment's peace, but while all this action was going on Seb remained in command in first place. While a couple of opponents were able to keep him honest Seb never seriously looked in danger of relinquishing his lead and the win. He's got that Ascari/Clark/Senna-esque ability to dominate a race from the front down to a nicety.

It's now three wins and a second place from four races this year for Seb, giving him 93 points from a possible 100. While we're still in early days, but it's hard to see what can stop him doubling up on his world championships come the season's end.

Not even Webber, also in Red Bull wheels, could seriously challenge team mate Vettel today. Though he managed to stay within a handful of seconds of him the feeling persisted that Seb had plenty in hand.

Saturday 7 May 2011

Istanbul Qually: Seb makes it four out of four

Sebastian Vettel claimed pole position for tomorrow's Turkish Grand Prix at Istanbul Park. If that sounds rather familiar, that's because it is: it's Seb's fourth pole from four races so far this year, the first time that's been done since 1999 (when Mika Hakkinen did it).

It was comfortable stuff for Seb, as it has been in every qually session this year virtually. Indeed, Seb was content that the time set from his first run in final qually would be sufficient for pole, sitting out while most of those behind him scrapped for the lower places. It was visual testimony to his dominance.

For the first time this year Seb is joined on the front row by team mate Mark Webber, though the Australian will be less content with the four tenths of a second gap between him and the similarly equipped pole man. Both Red Bull pilots saved a set of soft tyres by only running once in the final session, so while the oppostion usually get a bit closer to the Bulls come race day, this factor will make it more difficult for the Bulls to be touched tomorrow.

Istanbul Preview: Seb still on top as Merc make a step

The Turkish Grand Prix in Istanbul is the first race of F1's European season (despite the track actually being on the Asian side of the Bosporus), a race meeting usually associated with a variety of new technical pieces on cars up and down the grid. In other words, it is usually here that we find out where everyone really is at.

And in spite of these developments in the past three weeks, in which the teams' staff no doubt resembled characters in those manic, speeded up comedy films of the 1920s, it appears that Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull remain the package to beat. Even after sitting out most of Friday, with a smash in the rain in first practice, forcing him to sit out the second, dry, session, he calmly re-asserted himself in the order of things by claiming top spot in practice this morning. Indicative of a team and driver absolutely at the top of their game.

Pole is probably Seb's for the taking, in part because Red Bulls have more of a DRS advantage than the cars around them such as the McLaren (which can be used liberally in qualifying and practice). Things nevertheless should be closer come race day, and Mercedes appear to have confirmed their progress seen in China. Schumi and Rosberg ended up second and third this morning, and look like they're somewhere near McLaren's level at least. There are also big bumps in the braking zone at Turn 12, which the Mercs are riding much more comfortably than the long-time stiff McLarens. Also, Seb's Red Bull had its nth case of KERS trouble his morning as well, they don't look any closer to having it running reliably, which may make them easy meat on the straights tomorrow, if anyone can get close to them.