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).

Friday 26 August 2011

Spa Preview: Tough one to call

It's good to have F1 back. And it's Spa, so all the better.

This is a really tough weekend to predict. This is for few reasons: one is we're just back from a long, four-week, break, in which the teams were forced to down tools for much of it. For another, the 'big three' - Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari - have had very little between them on pace in recent times. And, last but not least, this is Spa where the weather is usually one of the major players due to its notorious micro-climate, and can have massive impact on who comes out of top.

Much of practice was run in wet conditions
Credit: / CC
And today didn't give us many pointers for the weekend. It was typical Spa, with rain showers disrupting both practice sessions. It rained in the first session a matter of minutes in, at which point only the two Mercedes had set a time. Still, it ensured that Schumi has something to take from his 20th anniversary of his F1 debut weekend, as he topped the first session.

The second session gave us more pointers. Times tumbled as the damp track dried, and some running on slicks was possible, before the rain kicked in again. It wasn't a surprise that the usual 'big three' were up there, but more of a surprise was the apparent strength of the Red Bull. Mark Webber topped the second session, and he likely would have been joined by team mate Vettel had he ran on the options. The Bulls were strongest in the middle sector, not surprising as it's full of fast and medium speed corners. But the Bulls were also fastest in the speed trap at the end of Kemmel, where they tend to be at a disadvantage. They looked well-placed for the weekend, and it continues a theme of the season, that the Bulls tend to confound expectations at tracks that are supposed to trip them up. 

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Looking back: 1968 - Chris Amon's unluckiest year

Chris Amon. Mention of his name to a historically-minded F1 fan invariably brings up the association of 'the best F1 driver never to win a Grand Prix'. His ill-luck was legendary, and was only equalled by his astonishing natural talent and artistry behind the wheel.

Chris Amon in 1973
Credit: Lothar Spurzem / CC
Many argue that Amon didn't help himself in many ways: he was guilty of a number of bad career moves, had a far from disciplined life off the track and his relative lack of selfishness didn't serve him well in the warped world of F1. But it was also the case that time and again Amon would dominate F1 races with considerable elan and flair (summed up by one of the most iconic photographs in the history of the sport, of Amon attacking Oulton Park in his Ferrari 312 in 1968), only to crawl to a halt through no fault of his own. 183 laps, and 851 km, led in 95 F1 starts didn't add up to a single victory. Mario Andretti once commented that had Amon become an undertaker people would have stopped dying!

The tag of 'best F1 driver never to win a Grand Prix' sells Amon short however. This is partly because his talent is such that he should be remembered as being among the best of all time, regardless of the lack of wins. Ferrari designer Mauro Forghieri rated Amon as highly as they come: 'it's a fact that we never gave him a car worthy of him. As far as I'm concerned he was as good as Clark', while Jochen Rindt considered Jackie Stewart and Amon as his only true rivals. But the tag also sells him short because there was one season that the drivers' world championship should have been his. This year was 1968.

Sunday 14 August 2011

Looking back: Schumacher falls to a Hakk attack - the 2000 Belgian Grand Prix

In many ways it felt like the first Grand Prix I'd ever been to. I wasn't strictly, as I'd been to the British Grand Prix in 1993, but I wasn't very old then and was in the company of a parent. This certainly felt like branching out on our own. A 21st birthday present from the parents: a trip to the Belgian Grand Prix at the classic Spa-Francorchamps circuit with my brother. For a young man who hadn't spent many of his days outside Scotland up until this point it seemed like an incredible leap into the unknown. And, what do you know, at the end of it all the race we watched turned out to be a great one, featuring a classic man-to-man battle between the two drivers of the age, settled by a late-race pass that has gone into folklore. Just as well I timed my 21st birthday so well.

So, off we went with a tent, on the train from Edinburgh eventually to Spa via London and a Brussels youth hostel. For much of the journey, even quite close to Spa, it's quite hard to imagine that the beautiful, wooded, undulating landscape that one associates with the Spa circuit is at the end of it. A matter of miles away Belgium instead is characterised by flat cornfields, with the odd (and dare I say a little grim-looking) town. Only on the last leg of the journey, which involved a bus trip, does the scenic Ardennes landscape that we know so well from our television screens begin to show itself.

Credit: Lester Klaassen / CC
The town of Francorchamps is like something from a picture postcard, and when the Grand Prix is in town a large, good-natured and multi-cultural camping crowd, replete with their fair share of, shall we say, larger than life characters, settle and ensure a jamboree atmosphere. But even with this in 2000 one nationality in particularly was dominant. Spa is a matter of miles from the German border, and this was during the high plateau of Michael Schuamcher's popularity. It seemed much of Germany had made the trip, determined to make it another 'home race' for Schumi. The Schumi fans were easily recognisable, complete as they were with what seemed like standard-issue red Schumacher hats (you can say that Deustsche Vermoegensberatung got a decent return on that investment).

Saturday 6 August 2011

F1's Spa Treatment: the history of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit

It really is genius when you think about it. Construct a fast and challenging motor racing circuit that racing drivers can race and overtake on in a naturally beautiful and undulating part of the world. What's more, ensure that part of the world is in a notorious mini-clime, meaning it rains often and with little notice. Most of us therefore look forward to races there like no other.

Credit: Nathanael Majoros / CC
You've probably worked out by now that this circuit is Spa-Francorchamps. It's for these reasons and more that it remains resolutely the favourite of many F1 drivers and fans alike. I'm sure there have been dull races at Spa, but somehow it's genuinely hard to imagine one taking place. And it's next up on this year's F1 calendar, once the fraternity return from their summer holidays at the end of August.

In an age of gleaming and expensive new facilities and high circuit standards, Spa remains a circuit apart in modern F1. Yes, the track has had to adapt to the demands of the present day, it's no longer made up of roads open to the public, it has plenty of generous run off areas where there was previously very little room for drivers to get it wrong, has a billiard table smooth surface, and the efficiency of current F1 machines ensures that some of the demands of its sweeps are not what they once were. But Spa is still very special.