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.