Sunday 31 July 2011

Hungarian GP Report: Jenson rains on Lewis's parade

Jenson Button won today's Hungarian Grand Prix, and it may not surprise you that rain was involved. He put in the sort of performance he seems to have been producing in these sort of conditions since the dawn of time. Smooth, error-free and rapid, accompanied by strategy calls that made you wonder if Jenson has some kind of early warning system of what the weather's about to do and the resultant effect on track conditions (you wonder why in these situations his rivals don't just conclude to do whatever Jenson is doing on the strategy calls?). All sounds terribly familiar, but no less impressive for that.

Jenson Button took another fine win in mixed conditions
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
For the most part though it looked like Lewis's race to lose, having taken the lead from Vettel in the wet early part of the race and seeming to have not a care in the world as he retained it. But a variety of occurrences upon occurrences from lap 40 through to lap 57 ensured that he did lose it and then some.

First off, Lewis in his third tyre stop put on super softs, when most directly behind him (including Jenson) put on softs with a view to running non-stop to the end. This seemed to ensure Lewis would have to stop once more than those behind him, and it never seemed likely he'd have that sort of pace advantage to retain his lead after the extra stop. It seemed very odd that they should paint themselves into a corner on strategy like that when leading comfortably. Then on lap 47 rain gathered at the back of the circuit, and Lewis hit a wet kerb at the chicane and spun, letting Jenson lead. But worse for him was that in recovery he spun turn to face the right way without heed of Paul di Resta approaching, who had to leave the track to avoid him. This earned Lewis a drive-through penalty, which was just about fair enough in my view as the move risked a side impact collision which would have been very dangerous. Though it's possible that Lewis didn't see him, in his defence. But worst of all for Lewis, as the rain intensified, he made the wrong call to pit for intermediates (or rather someone made the wrong call) only to have to change back to slicks a handful of laps later. He eventually salvaged fourth place, passing Webber in traffic late on in a move reminiscent of Nigel Mansell's pass on Ayrton Senna here in 1989.

Sky falling in on F1? Thoughts on the BBC/Sky F1 TV rights deal

'(Rupert) Murdoch hasn't got anything really big to drive their TV audiences and Formula 1 would be good for that. They have been trying to buy the TV rights from us for a long time but we won't because they are not free-to-air television broadcasters. They are a subscription service. Sky is doing an incredible job but if you look at their audience figures they are nowhere.

'With these figures it would be almost impossible for teams to find sponsors. That would be suicidal.'

Who said this, and when? Well, in light of the events of the past two days, it may surprise you that these are the words of one Bernard Charles Ecclestone, and he said it as recently as at the Turkish Grand Prix in May this year. On the other hand, it might not be that much of a surprise.

But the problem is, depsite his subsequent Damascene conversion, I think Bernie may have been spot on first time around.

This action may only be available live on Sky from 2012
Credit: Alex Comerford/CC
Yes, news that UK based F1 fans had feared arrived early on Friday this week. The BBC, the current TV rights holders and free-to-air broadcasters, in a cost saving exercise will only show half of the F1 races and qualifying sessions live in the UK from next year onwards, with all of the races being available live on Sky, a subscription service (with the BBC showing deferred highlights of these races, possibly deferred full races if you believe Martin Whitmarsh but it seems the BBC are denying this). Such a deal had long been rumoured, but that hasn't tempered the anger in response to the actual decision being confirmed.

I share this anger, and the anger is mainly on the grounds that I think this decision will result in many F1 fans not being able to watch live coverage of the races for half of the season, with a subsequent marked drop in the numbers who follow F1. And ultimately this will be bad for the sport.

Saturday 30 July 2011

Hungaroring Qually: Vettel bounces back

So, Sebastian Vettel isn't in meltdown. He never was going to be, and he demonstrated this graphically by claiming pole position for tomorrow's Hungarian Grand Prix, bouncing back from a difficult home race last weekend.

Sebastian Vettel snatched pole position
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
What's more, this time he really had to pull a rabbit from the hat to get his pole. For the most part it looked like Lewis Hamilton, or possibly Fernando Alonso, had the legs of him and that the Red Bull duopoly on poles this year would finally end. But on his final run Seb edged Lewis's time by the smallest of margins, and looked in as good form as he'd ever been in doing so. He hadn't forgotten how to drive, despite some premature claims to the contrary from people who should know better.

Still, it can't be denied that the Red Bulls have been hauled in, and the McLarens look well placed for tomorrow. They tend to find something relative to the Bulls on race day, and Lewis lurks in second place on the grid, only marginally slower than Seb today. He also managed to save an extra set of option tyres relative to his rivals, running only on primes in the second qualifying session. What's more, Lewis has team mate Jenson riding shotgun in third. The only bum note is struck by the fact that Lewis starts on the dirty side the track - a particular impediment in Hungary (as well as that his car looked a bit tail happy, which is precisely what he doesn't need to make his tyres last a stint).

Hungaroring Preview: Closer than close

Three is the magic number at the Hungaroring. All of the 'big three' teams - McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull - are in the mix on pace. It's looking like this weekend will be an intense three-pronged battle for supremacy, just like last weekend in Germany. And that wasn't bad, was it?

Each of the three cars appear to have relative strengths and weaknesses, but they've met in the middle beautifully, meaning it's hard for onlookers to predict with confidence who'll come out on top this weekend.

Ferrari will hope to trouble Red Bull this weekend
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
In many ways the big story of today, certainly in terms of the balance of F1 power over the season, is that practice does further indicate that Red Bull have been caught up. Of course, fuel loads vary (some in the paddock reckon they were running heavier than their rivals today), and the Bulls do tend to hide their light a little on a Friday. No one's got rich betting against Red Bull, and more to the point against Sebastian Vettel, on a Saturday in 2011. But this is a track (downforce required, barely half the lap spent on full throttle) that was supposed to be their territory - they ran and hid, until Vettel fell foul of safety car rules, here last year. If they can't win here we may be entitled to ask where exactly they can. And Vettel, while his championship isn't really under threat, won't welcome the chatter that will come with another iffy result this weekend, especially as he'll have a month before he can bounce back.

Sunday 24 July 2011

In defence of Alain Prost

I, like most people who've seen it, consider the recent Senna film to be a triumph, for a number of reasons. But I do have one major criticism of the film: it is immensely harsh in its treatment of Ayrton Senna's chief rival, Alain Prost.

Credit: Mark McArdle
Prost is very much presented as the story's villain, with ex-ESPN commentator John Bisignano describing him as a driver who drove for safe points rather than wins, and used 'politics' to prevail in the sport.

I can understand why this is to an extent. The makers felt that the film had to have a coherent Hollywood-style narrative, complete with a protagonist and antagonist. But the problem is that their presentation Prost is rather jaundiced, and at the negative end of the possible interpretations of him as a man and driver.

I have always thought Prost curiously under sold as a driver generally (and this is coming from someone who spent most of his childhood hero-worshiping Ayrton Senna). This was the case long before the Senna film was even thought of - indeed some commented thus during his career as well as after it. I also always say that if I could buy shares in former F1 drivers I would buy shares in Alain Prost. I feel that his stock will surely only rise: there has to be a point where his driving genius receives the wider appreciation it deserves from history.

German GP Report: Lewis beats the Matador and the Bull in the Ring

So, Lewis is back. Suddenly all of amateur psychology seen in print in past weeks seems like it was written in another age, as he claimed the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring in fine style after a tight and exciting battle with Fernando Alonso's Ferrari and Mark Webber's Red Bull.

It was another classic race, with the three drivers out front in close company throughout and everyone else part of the landscape. Us viewers are certainly being spoiled in 2011.

Lewis drove brilliantly at the Nurburgring
Credit: / CC
And it was a flawless performance from Lewis: precise, decisive in battle and bloody quick, there was none of the desperation and frustration seen occasionally from him, on and off the track, this season. Sometimes F1 watchers are quick to write people off, today serves as a reminder that form is temporary and class in permanent.

It was a slightly curious race of two halves, as while Lewis led off the line (Webber again failing to turn pole into a first corner lead) for the first half of the race Webber seemed to have the legs of his rivals and looked the most likely victor. He stalked Lewis in the first stint (leading him briefly) and then took the lead properly by employing the undercut at the first stops and showed every intention of keeping it. Still, Lewis and Fernando clung to his coattails, and Webber oddly found himself down to third after the second round of stops, despite pitting sooner than the other two.

Saturday 23 July 2011

Nurburgring Qually: Webber pips a resurgent Lewis

It seems astonishing that a few races ago many of talked of the death of F1 qualifying. Mark Webber claimed pole position for tomorrow's German Grand Prix in a tight, competitive and exciting qualifying shoot out in the classic style.

Lewis Hamilton performed amazingly in qualifying second
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
All that was required to get the entertainment value of qualifying off its life support was for the protagonists at the business end to get closer to each other. That ensures that doing one run only in final qualifying and sitting out the final minutes of the session, as seen in some earlier rounds, will not be a goer. The Red Bulls and Fernando Alonso's Ferrari were right in the mix today, as expected in advance. But what was not expected was Lewis Hamilton at the sharp end, and he very much was. He came alive during qualifying, and his performance in the final session was stunning, particularly in the first part of the lap. He eventually was awarded with second on the grid, but half a tenth shy of Webber's best. That Jenson Button was upwards of a second slower than his team mate should leave you in no doubt as to Lewis's exact personal contribution to the outcome.

Friday 22 July 2011

Nurburgring Preview: As we originally anticipated?

It seems like a long time ago now, but at the outset of the F1 season learned opinion was that this year's championship would be a nip and tuck battle between Red Bull and Ferrari. That's what pre-season testing form pointed towards strongly.

It didn't turn out that way of course, as Ferrari's promised pace evaporated in the first practice session in round one (eventually revealing a wind tunnel correlation problem) and Red Bull cleaning up. But, half a season too late, we may well be getting the promised tight Red Bull/Ferrari contest.

Fernando Alonso - seeking to maintain his Silverstone advantage
Credit: / CC
The extent that Ferrari, and more to the point Fernando Alonso's Ferrari, can maintain their Silverstone predominance is the big question to be answered this weekend. On one hand, Ferrari were almost on Red Bull pace even before Silverstone's one weekend only diffuser regulations, and they arrived at Silverstone with a major technical upgrade that effectively amounted to a b-spec car. Their advantage on race day was such that it could have been a very boring afternoon had it not been for the early rain. And all this at a track that was supposed to be a Red Bull stick-on. So they argue that their advantage couldn't have all been down to the peculiar diffuser regs. But the paddock consensus is that Ferrari's disproportionately benefited from the said regs at Silverstone, and it may have also been the case that Red Bull suffered particularly from rear tyre wear on Silverstone's long corners, which won't be repeated this weekend (or in many other weekends). But the evidence of today's practicing at the Nurburgring is that Ferrari just might still be up there.

Sunday 10 July 2011

British GP Report: Nando's Red Revival

Some things are just meant to be. On the 60th anniversary of Ferrari's first ever F1 win, also at Silverstone, Fernando Alonso brought it home for Ferrari in fine style to win the British Grand Prix today. And this followed on from him, just before the race, doing a demonstration run around Silverstone, that he clearly enjoyed, in the car José Froilán González used to win all those years ago. Alonso was right to call it a 'very special day', for more than one reason.

Fernando Alonso was untouchable at Silverstone
Credit: / CC
Further, today seemed to represent a genuine red revival for Ferrari, as for the first time in a long time the Red Bulls, including Sebatian Vettel, were left breathless on pace during normal running (I reckon Monza last year was the last time it happened, and that could be explained by Monza being an unusual track). Yes, Alonso's taking of the lead was down to Red Bull botching one of Seb's pit stops, but he almost certainly had him on pure pace anyway. He took over a second out of Vettel lap by lap in the dry conditions in the second half of the race, even when Seb was in clean air, and was twenty seconds up the road on the start of the last lap. And all this at a track that was supposed to be Red Bull country.

Saturday 9 July 2011

Looking back: 'A typical English summer's day', the 1975 British Grand Prix

Rain and the British Grand Prix are reasonably familiar acquaintances. This has been the case this weekend, with each session for the F1 cars being disrupted by rain showers to some extent. However, whatever happens this weekend, or indeed at any other F1 race, it's very hard to imagine any being as rain-affected as the British Grand Prix of 1975, which was then as now at Silverstone.

After two days of rain-interjected practice, the race pivoted on two rain separate storms sweeping over the circuit. The second of which was of such force that it accounted for thirteen cars (compare that to the six that left the track via the Nurburgring river in 2007), leaving only six cars running as the race was terminated ten laps ahead of time. In between, the drivers did their best to put on a diverting motor race, with seven different leaders, and nine changes of lead, and a top order that swayed this way and that.

The F1 circus gathered at Silverstone for the 1975 race, and the large and enthusiastic crowd present across the three days (practice was Thursday and Friday, and the race on the Saturday - not unusual at the time), and the fact that everyone who was anyone in British motorsport was in attendance it seemed, ensured a jamboree atmosphere. This was despite the persistently iffy weather, storms intermingling with bright sunshine throughout.

Ronnie Peterson prepares for the start
Credit:  Lawson Speedway
The 1975 British Grand Prix was also one of watersheds (perhaps appropriate given the weather). First of all, Graham Hill had finally announced his retirement from driving, after a then record 176 starts, to concentrate on running his F1 team. I say 'finally' partly as the decision wasn't exactly unexpected, his previous attempt to qualify an F1 car was back in the Monaco event over two months earlier, but also because his performances had been far short of his former majesty for a number of years. Still, Hill threatened to bring the house down when he did a demonstration lap just before the race start, smiling, waving and minus a crash helmet, in one of his latest Hill GH1s.

Silverstone Qually: Red Bulls rained in

The Red Bulls have locked out the front row for tomorrow's British Grand Prix. But don't let that fool you - this was no run of the mill 2011 qualifying session. For one thing, the chasing pack, in particular Fernando Alonso's Ferrari, were in much closer attendance than usual. For another, for once, it's Mark Webber who claimed pole.

Mark Webber pipped his team mate to claim pole position
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
The Australian has looked confident behind the wheel all weekend, including in the perfidious conditions experienced during much of practice. The qualifying session, like every practice session here, was impacted by rain showers, though slick tyres were still what was required. Webber pipped team mate Sebastian Vettel by less than half a tenth of a second, making it only the second time this year Seb has missed out on fronting the grid (the other time being in Barcelona, when Webber again sneaked ahead of his team mate).

Reports of the Red Bulls' death, with the new interpretation of off throttle blown diffusers supposedly being the bullet, were somewhat exaggerated then. For all of that talk, it shouldn't be forgotten that the Red Bull is a fundamentally very good racing car, and it was going to take more than that to usurp them. But it was still the case that the chasing pack, especially the Ferraris, have been brought closer to them, at a track considered to be firmly Red Bull country. Whether this represents the new off throttle blowing regs benefiting them particularly (there's been some dark muttering that it has), or their technical upgrades being particularly fruitful, or both, depends on who you're talking to.

Friday 8 July 2011

Silverstone Preview: Impressive surroundings, but a lot of hot air

Incessant showers. Must be the British summer time. Fast, challenging corners, and a surprisingly big and enthusiastic crowd for a Friday. Must be the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

Track conditions were treacherous in both practice sessions
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Not for the first time in history foul weather and the British Grand Prix weekend came together today. Both practice sessions were run in wet conditions, turning both into, effectively, wet and intermediate tyre testing sessions. And the elements are expected to fine up for tomorrow and Sunday, meaning today's running offered few clues to who's hot and who's not this weekend. Felipe Massa topped the times in the second session, and while it was welcome to see him atop a final timesheet for the first time since before his near-fatal 2009 accident, it was essentially an exercise in setting a time latest on a drying track, and when many established front runners weren't out on track to take advantage at the same time.

The new Silverstone, with the new 'wing' paddock and pit complex, certainly looked in good nick (though there seems something rather parallel universe about Copse not being the first turn), to the point that not even Bernie could find much to complain about.

Saturday 2 July 2011

Why F1 needs a turbo charge: New engine regulations for 2014

F1's blueprint for the future is in place, finally.

On Wednesday last week the FIA rubber-stamped new engine regulations to be introduced for the 2014 season, previously hammered out by the teams. This means that the current 2.4 litre V8 units are on the way out, and will be replaced by 1.6 litre V6 turbos with more liberalised energy-recovery systems and using around 35% less fuel, while generating the same level of power as now. I'm going to don my tin hat and say that it's about time too.

Renault's V6 turbo engine from 1980
Credit: m duchesne
The changes have been criticised widely, right from their initial suggestion, and this will no doubt continue until the things are used in anger in the opening round of the 2014 season. Bernie Ecclestone has been particularly vocal, many F1 circuits are apparently threatening to decamp to the Indycar series, and F1 fans' forums also invariably betray extensive hostility to the new regulations. The main concerns are the loss of the high-revving scream of the current F1 engines which has an appeal in itself, as well as that the concentration on conservation and efficiency instead of excess is against what F1 'should be about'.

But no man is an island entirely of itself, and such a view I feel disregards that F1 does not and cannot exist inside a bubble. F1, like everything, can only proceed with the permission of the society around it. Its ticket sales, support, investment, sponsorship and regulatory framework in which it can operate all come from society more widely, and without these F1 could not survive.