Sunday 30 October 2011

Indian GP Report: Summing up the season

If ever a race summed up a season it was today's Indian Grand Prix.

Sebastian Vettel won with a controlled, precise and dominant performance at the front. Jenson Button, after struggling in qualifying, ghosted forward to second and performed formidably to keep Vettel honest. And Fernando Alonso completed the podium with a tenacious run, probably a place that his car didn't deserve. Oh, and Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton collided with each other.

Sebastian Vettel dominated once again
Credit: Morio / CC
It was a pity that India didn't witness a more enthralling race at the front for its inaugural Grand Prix, but once again there was so much to admire about how Sebastian went about his business. It was copybook Vettel, the sort of win from the front display that we've seen repeatedly this year: get out of sight quickly and then pace yourself, and react to whatever those behind decide to do. That he pulls off the trick repeatedly doesn't make it any less impressive. He led every lap and once again claimed fastest lap on the last time around, as if to underline his preponderance. And yet another record tumbled: most laps led in a season, held by Nigel Mansell since 1992, fell to Seb today.

Saturday 29 October 2011

F1's American Odyssey

There was some good news for F1 last week. On Tuesday a 10 year deal for a new F1 race in New Jersey was formally announced.

The race, to be known as the Grand Prix of America, will be held from 2013 onwards on roads around Port Imperial in the towns of Weehawken and West New York, and will feature the New York City skyscape on the other side of the Hudson river as its backdrop. Attempts to stage an F1 event in or around New York City seem to have been made since the dawn of F1 itself (see here for more), but now, finally, it looks like it will be a reality.

This race of course joins the round in Austin, which is to feature on the calendar from 2012, again with a 10 year deal and to be known as the United States Grand Prix, meaning two US rounds on the F1 schedules in the near future, and for the first time since 1984.

An impressive promotion and 'lap' of the new Austin track, by Red Bull and David Coulthard

All of this is not before time in my view. I've long been of the view that there should be at least two US rounds on the F1 calendar. There should be no doubt of the country's ability to stage two races. For the purposes of the F1 calendar America should be thought of as a continent rather than as a country: there will be close to 2,000 miles between the two venues (and how many European rounds are within that radius of each other?).

India Qualifying: Vettel adds the spice

Once again, Sebastian Vettel has claimed a pole position for a Grand Prix in 2011. He'll start tomorrow's inaugural Indian Grand Prix from the front, a state of events which never appeared under serious threat.

In truth, it was a slightly bitty and disjointed qualifying session, and the three-place grid drop for Lewis Hamilton, in place before the session began, took away a lot of the tension as Lewis looked to be the only guy out there that could threaten Seb's lap times. As it was, he ended up second, which converts into a net fifth on tomorrow's grid.

Sebastian Vettel took yet another pole position
Credit: Morio / CC
The session was also deprived of its usual crescendo by an accident for Felipe Massa on his last run, after damaging his suspension clouting a kerb and the sleeping policeman within it, bringing out the yellow flags and depriving many of a final effort. We also had the usual problem of many not attempting as many laps for the grid as they could have. Something seriously needs to be done about that.

The qualifying records continue to tumble for Seb and his team. Sixteen poles for a single team in a season is a new record and testimony to Red Bull's dominance, and Vettel only needs to claim pole in one of the two remaining races to equal Nigel Mansell's record set in 1992 of 14 poles in a season. I wouldn't bet much against him getting that one.

Friday 28 October 2011

Buddh Preview: F1 looking for the perfect Indian recipe

It seems to be an annual event these days that F1 pitches up at a new venue. But 2011's debut venue carries more weight than most. This is because F1 is holding a race in India for the first time ever.

This of course represents a massive opportunity for F1. To use terms that the sport's power brokers understand, India is a highly populous potential 'market', a point that's given particular centrality by India's status as a coming force in the world economy.

However, F1's record in establishing new events in its recent eastwards expansion is, well, patchy. Of course, the round at Singapore, and at Japan before it, have been clear successes. But we've seen in the likes of Malaysia, Turkey and China that local interest in these 'new' countries can be hard to sustain or even to establish in the first place. Even Korea a fortnight ago, in but its second race, showed some signs of faltering.

The Buddh International Circuit layout
Credit: Ra-smit / CC
Still, today's practice session seemed a good start for the Indian Grand Prix. The Buddh International Circuit has received a universal thumbs up. The layout is typical Herman Tilke, one part long straights book-ended by sharp but wide corners, which should promote plenty of overtaking, the other half distinguished by sequences of rapid curves, one reminiscent of turn 8 at Turkey. The average speed is pretty quick by modern F1 standards and there is a refreshing abundance of elevation change as well. Some are calling it Tilke's best effort at a racing circuit so far.

The one bum note is that, as James Allen has pointed out, there's almost nothing in the circuit that is distinctively Indian, disappointingly. Watching practice today you could have been watching an F1 practice session in any country. Bit of a missed opportunity there.

Monday 24 October 2011

Retro F1: the 1995 Canadian Grand Prix

Today I tried something new. YouTube features some full length F1 races from the past, which, given my interest in reliving F1 history, I've taken an interest in watching. Today I watched one of these classic F1 races in full and posted Twitter updates on it as live (under the hashtag #retrof1).

The race was the 1995 Canadian GP. If you want to watch along with the full race the link is here. And the #retrof1 twitter timeline can be viewed here.

An edited timeline of my tweets is below. This may become a regular feature with other races available in full online. Though if it turns out that I achieve little beyond annoying people by clogging up their Twitter feeds then I'll abandon the idea.

Anyways, off we go.

The unmistakable tones of Bob Varsha kick us off. It's ESPN's coverage, and it's been raining in Canada.

Now Derek Daly is talking technical - sporting an impressive tie and mullet :)

Oh my god, James Allen was ESPN's pit reporter in 1995. Didn't realise he had experience when picked up by ITV in 1997 to perform the same role for the UK coverage.

@MKaipio So funny to see @DerekDaly500 and @Jamesallenonf1 there!
Nice to think they're still going strong in F1 16 years later!

Sunday 16 October 2011

Looking back: the time F1 drivers banned one of their own

In the build up to last week's Japanese Grand Prix the Italian magazine Autosprint reported that some F1 drivers wanted Lewis Hamilton's driving to be raised as a matter for discussion at that event's drivers' briefing.

I'm very glad that nothing came of that. Such a move would have been shameful, with the strong stench of a witch hunt. Furthermore, it would have been absolutely unnecessary. Yes, it can't be denied that Lewis Hamilton has been making contact with other cars too often over the last 12 months or so, but we're not talking about someone new on the scene, or someone unproven. Lewis Hamilton has been in F1 for close to to five years, and in that time proven beyond doubt that he's one of the sport's most accomplished performers. And up until the Italian race of last year (when his habit of tagging other cars began) he didn't make contact with other cars that often. It's very hard to think of occasions before that wherein he was involved in an incident with another car that was unequivocally his own fault. Hitting Kimi Raikkonen in the pitlane in Canada in 2008 is arguably the only one, and he's far from the only one to be caught out by that pit exit. Not bad for someone who in that time firmed himself up as F1's most exciting and willing racer and overtaker.

F1 does have a previous when it comes to egregious behaviour by some drivers towards one of their own. One time before a few 'senior' drivers effectively banned one of their fellow number from a Grand Prix. This they did by coercing the organisers of a race, on pain of them withdrawing and forcing the event to be cancelled, not to accept that driver's race entry. The year was 1978 and the banned driver was Riccardo Patrese.

Korean GP Report: Vettel's perfect 10

So, was Sebastian Vettel going to ease up with his second title in the pocket, and four races remaining? Not a bit of it.

Sebastian Vettel won in fine style, clinching
the constructors' title for Red Bull as he did so
Credit: Morio / CC
It never was going to happen. Seb, more than most drivers, knows his place in history, and is a big fan of records. But more than all that he loves to race. He won again today - his 10th victory of the season (only Michael Schumacher has won more in a single year) and 20th ever (and it's sobering to think that Schumi at Vettel's age had only won once).

But today wasn't a shoo-in. Vettel really had to go out and win this one, and his performance was a masterful display of controlling a race from the front. Unusually, he didn't claim pole, and for much of the weekend the McLarens looked the class of the field, over a single lap in any case. But Seb managed to outbrake Hamilton into turn four on the opening tour after nice use of his loaf in KERS usage and forcing Hamilton into a sub-optimum line at the previous corner, and Seb employed his usual strategy from there. He scampered out of the DRS zone, didn't put a wheel wrong, and eased clear while letting those behind squabble. This has to be one of the best of his score of wins, even by their high standards. And not for the first time this season Red Bull had the confidence to commit to an unorthodox strategy from early in the weekend and make it work. It wraps up their second constructors' championship: richly deserved for an operation that has been as sweet as a nut this year and absolutely on top of their game.

Saturday 15 October 2011

Korea Qualifying: Hamilton takes his Korea opportunity

Today represented a redemption. Lewis Hamilton's reputation has been kicked pillar to post in recent times, arguably with some justification. But today he claimed pole position for tomorrow's Korean Grand Prix, and looked just like his old livewire self in so doing. He never was going to be down forever.

If Lewis on pole position seems a bit unusual that's because it is. For one thing, it ends a 16 race Red Bull monopoly of the front of the grid, which stretched all the way back to last year's Brazilian Grand Prix. For another, it's also Lewis's first pole in close to 18 months - Canada last year was the last occasion he started at the front of the pack.

Lewis Hamilton claimed
a fine pole position
Credit: / CC
But there were plenty of clues in the recent evidence that a McLaren pole position wasn't far away. Their technical upgrade, brought to Suzuka last week, is clearly a good one. Button won that race of course, and Lewis probably would have claimed pole there as well but for a dropped ball. McLaren look to be the class of the field again this weekend.

Pole turned out to be a McLaren versus Red Bull affair. Sebastian Vettel managed to split the McLarens to qualify second, and Red Bull have opted for a contrary strategy wherein they sought to save prime tyres (the softs) rather than the options (super softs), with a view to running new prime tyres after the opening stint in the race - they have enough sets for three stints on new soft tyres tomorrow. Button and Webber fill the second row in that order, Jenson was helped by Webber having to abandon his last run after a mistake.

They're then followed by the Ferraris, with Felipe Massa again ahead of the two, for the fourth time in six races. Alonso, like Webber, abandoned his last run after a mistake. Still, Alonso sounds confident for tomorrow (and he finished far ahead of Massa in each of the four races he was outqualified by him in). And the reason he may be confident is tyres.

Sunday 9 October 2011

Japanese GP Report: Seb and Jenson do what is required

Today was a day about keeping your side of the bargain. Going in, Jenson Button had to win with Sebastian Vettel coming nowhere to keep the World Drivers' Championship away from Vettel for at least another week. Jenson Button did win and in fine style, but Seb kept up his end of things comfortably, taking third place and 15 points, much more than the one he needed to be champion.

Sebastian Vettel sealed his
second World Championship today
Credit: Morio / CC
It's an impressive and deserved title for Vettel, he now joins the all-time greats as a double world champion, a back-to-back world champion, and the youngest ever on both counts (more on my thoughts on Vettel and his championship year, published today, are here).

In terms of today, it was yet another impressive drive from Jenson, continuing his excellent recent form. It's his third win of the year, and his first in a dry race since Turkey 2009, almost two and a half years ago! It's strange, but definitely true, that his reputation in the sport is notably stronger now than even when he won his world title two years ago.

Sebastian Vettel: A worthy 2011 champion

It's been close to an inevitability for a long time, and Sebastian Vettel today made it official. He's the 2011 World Drivers' Champion, his second world championship and he's not even 25 until next year. Not bad work.

In reality, this title has been Seb's effectively for a long time. From the point cars first turned a wheel in the opening weekend at Melbourne Seb's been a stride ahead of all others. His results in the opening eight rounds were six wins and two second places, and had the Chinese round been five laps and the Canadian one lap shorter he would have taken a clean sweep. That period also included tracks such at Monaco and Canada that were supposed to trip him up, but Seb has spent most of the season proving doubters wrong. Barring strange happenings, such as Niki Lauda's fiery accident at the Nurburgring in 1976, in the history of the sport drivers don't squander that sort of early advantage.

And despite the briefest of mid-season troughs that advantage has continued and been extended as the year has gone on. The numbers are striking testament to his persistent command: he's won nine of the fifteen races, claimed 324 of the 375 available points, and taken twelve pole positions (and counting, in all three cases). Indeed, going into the Japanese race Seb had led 582 of the 839 racing laps this year, almost six times as many of the next best, the 99 laps led by Lewis Hamilton. Seb's presence at the head of the pack has been ubiquitous, only in Germany was he not on his game, and only there did he finish off the podium.

Credit: Anthony Porcino / CC
Watching Seb's races this year has been a little like watching a film on a loop. The Vettel copybook is clear. First off, claim pole, and Vettel's scintillating speed and absolute assurance on a single flying lap usually ensures this (can you think of an error from Vettel in qualifying this year? No, I couldn't either). Then Seb takes the lead at the start, and the first lap is like flicking a switch, he's on it immediately and in most races this year he's been seconds clear at the of the first lap, leaving the opposition on their knees from the very beginning. He then gets himself enough of a gap to be outside the DRS 'window', so not to inflate the following car's speed, as well as to be able to react to whatever those behind do in terms of changing tyres, vital in a season wherein tyre performance has varied markedly, duration of tyre life is limited and frequent pitstops have been necessary. From that position, Seb goes as fast as he dares with regard to his tyres, his steering input meaning he keeps his in shape longer than many around him (including that of his team mate - a vital component of his increased advantage over Mark Webber this season compared to last). At Australia, Malaysia, Turkey, Valencia, Monza and Singapore the story has been almost identical.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Suzuka Qualifying: Vettel touches down after McLaren fumble

Sebastian Vettel takes pole position, after McLaren fumble. Sounds rather familiar doesn't it?

Sebastian Vettel took yet another pole
Credit: Morio / CC
Yes, Vettel will again start a Grand Prix from the front tomorrow at Suzuka. It's his 12th pole of the season (and Nigel Mansell's record of 14 looks under genuine threat with three rounds to go), and his 27th ever. But this was no run-of-the-mill Seb qualifying dominance. This time it looked like he would have to step down, and that it would be the first time that a Red Bull wouldn't head the grid this year, as McLaren were making good on their practice pace and headed the times after the first efforts in the final qualifying session, with Lewis Hamilton ahead.

But then, and not for the first time this season, someone made what looked on the outside to be an elementary error. Lewis couldn't find a gap in the traffic to start his final flying lap, and didn't make it over the line before the session timing counted down to zero amazingly, meaning he couldn't do another time. Vettel's prodigious qualifying skills did the rest, turning the speck of light into the maximum advantage, and claiming pole by just 0.009 of a second from Button in second. Lewis lines up third, and reckons he had a couple of tenths in hand for a final run. Afterwards, his was a face that could stop a clock.

Suzuka Preview: Don't let the headlines fool you

Credit: / CC
'Button tops both practice session while Vettel crashes'. I've seen several versions of headlines to that effect since Friday practice at Suzuka finished. You'd therefore be forgiven for thinking that Seb and the Red Bulls are on the back foot on the basis of today's running, while Jenson Button is dominating, and bravely seeking to make Vettel's inevitable championship clinching as hard as possible.

Well, that's not exactly the case. As is usually the case in F1 things are not always what they seem on the surface.

Vettel again looks to be the man to beat
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
It again looks like Suzuka will be Red Bull country. Not really a surprise: the Bulls have been  fastest by a distance here in the last two visits, the long, rapid sequences of corners could have been designed for an Adrian Newey-penned car, and in any case the Bulls have been quickest just about everywhere this year.

And once again, Vettel is positively beaming this weekend and shows every intention even on the brink of the title of driving as he has all season, on the attack and going for the win, thus wrapping up the title in typical, lavish style. He won imperiously from pole here in both of the past two seasons, and I seriously wouldn't advise betting against a hat-trick.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Looking back: Al Pease - (not) the worst F1 driver ever

As part of my life on Twitter I like to dig out 'things that happened on this day' historical F1 snippets. Recently, I found one that intrigued me particularly. It concerned the 1969 Canadian Grand Prix, and the fabulous tale of a local entrant by the name of Al Pease.

To cut a long story short, in that race Pease became the only driver in history to be disqualified from an F1 race for being too slow. At the point he was kicked out he'd completed 22 laps, fewer than half the total that the leaders had managed at that point.

And Pease's other two attempts in Grands Prix weren't much better. In the 1967 Canadian race he did finish, but some 43 laps shy of the winner, and in the same Grand Prix in 1968 he failed to start because of engine problems, after setting a qualifying time way off the back of the pack.

So, Al Pease is a good candidate to be called the worst F1 driver ever? Well, no actually. As is often the case in F1 things aren't quite what they seem on the face of it.