Friday 23 December 2011

Final thoughts on 2011: twenty-four cars battle for 90 minutes and at the end Vettel wins

Former England footballer Gary Lineker, shortly after losing to (then, West) Germany not for the first time, commented that: 'Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win'.

It's tempting to view the 2011 F1 season in similar terms. We were spoiled with lots of highly diverting races, characterised by impassioned and close racing with plenty of overtaking. And at the end of it all Sebastian Vettel was invariably at the front.

There were two key themes for the season. Sebastian Vettel's growth into a genuine top level performer in winning the drivers' title in double-quick time, and that overtaking returned to the sport at a rate that almost nobody could remember.

Credit: Russell Ford
Vettel's speed in clear air was well-established from recent seasons, but this year with the assurance of a surprise championship in his pocket he found a completely new level, as did the Red Bull team backing him up, who operationally hardly missed a beat. To cut a long story short, Seb's driving this term ruthlessly reversed the areas that had been seen as his weaknesses, and whatever happens from now on he'll surely go down as one of the sport's all-time greats. He's certainly the best 24 year old the sport has ever known - bar none. And while the RB7 was a mean set of wheels, Seb absolutely got the very best from it. His championship was mathematically all his with seven weeks of the season remaining. It was as good as his long before that.

The other key theme of the year was that the on track action was almost completely unrecognisable from what we had grown used to in years past. The lack of overtaking in F1 wasn't a new problem, and many potential 'solutions' had been tried before. But for 2011, desperate times brought desperate measures, with the introduction of DRS (Drag Reduction Systems - do keep up at the back) which allowed a car within a second of the car ahead at a certain 'zone' of the track to flatten its rear wing and thus increase its straightline speed.

Saturday 17 December 2011

My Top 10 F1 Drivers of 2011: The rest...

Here are my views on those F1 drivers from 2011 who didn't make the top 10 list I published a few days ago.

My top 10 drivers of 2011 can be read here.

Tenth place in the top ten was a close run thing between a number of drivers. Kamui Kobayashi got it, squeaking ahead of Jaime Alguersuari, Heikki Kovalainen and Felipe Massa.

Felipe Massa
Credit: Mark McArdle / CC
Taking them in reverse order brings us immediately to the curious case of Felipe Massa. In truth it was another desperately disappointing season for the popular Brazilian, in which his coming within two corners of winning the title in 2008 seemed like it was from another age. If anything, he was even further adrift of his team mate Fernando Alonso this year than last - only once (in China) did he clearly out race him. And while the Ferrari 150° Italia wasn't a great car, almost never did Massa look better than it, evidenced by the fact that he never finished higher than fifth in a year that his stable mate claimed ten podium finishes. He can claim to have been unlucky on occasion, there was more than one botched pitstop (see Malaysia, Turkey and Valencia), in Spa he punctured and at Monza he was hit by Webber. But even with these the pace wasn't there most of the time. Further, he didn't help himself, getting involved in a series of incidents to an extent that he didn't do in 2010: crashes in Canada and Hungary stopped better results, as did spins in Spain and Abu Dhabi. He hit a particular low by breaking his suspension twice in two days in India, with almost exactly the same error. Then there was his famous running battle with Lewis Hamilton this year. Yes, he was more the victim of these clashes all told, but he also sometimes displayed a machismo when wheel to wheel with him that didn't help matters, most obviously in Monaco and India. And, to be honest, his Hamilton grudge expressed out of the car struck me as a classic case of displacement.

Mooted reasons for Massa's struggles continue to vary. We'll probably never know how much the Hungary accident has affected him, but my instinct is that a lot of Massa's problems stem from the guy he's sharing a garage with. Massa of all the front runners appears particularly vulnerable to confidence, as well as particularly in need of emotional support. In a team mostly focussed on Alonso, and where Alonso almost always beats him, Massa isn't getting much of either of these things and it shows. Ferrari are retaining him for next year, showing admirable loyalty it has to be said, but next year is very much last chance saloon. They don't expect him to beat Alonso, but they do expect him to finish a bit closer behind him, as well as to take points from rivals more often.

Sunday 11 December 2011

My Top 10 F1 Drivers of 2011

Here is my personal top ten F1 drivers of the 2011 season, seeking to take into account their performance under the circumstances and the machinery they had access to. I hope that you find it interesting reading, and I appreciate that there are perfectly defensible reasons for an alternative top ten. It's a personal selection, as I said!

A run down of my views on the drivers who didn't make the top ten will follow in the next few days.
Credit: Morio / CC
1: Sebastian Vettel
The only candidate for top spot: 2011 was very much the year of the Seb.

The 2011 season witnessed the development of Sebastian Vettel into a complete F1 performer. The raw speed in clean air had been there for a while, but the impetuosity and mistakes, especially when in traffic or under pressure, as well as the occasional brattishness displayed in 2010 now seems like it was from someone else. Vettel was almost contemptuous in how he proved his doubters wrong this year. Indeed, the journey can be traced back even further, to the Belgian Grand Prix of 2010, after which it was open season on the young charger. But if the abuse was intended to destroy him then it backfired spectacularly. Since then he has barely looked back, delivering consistent copybook performances of dominating from the front when there and delivering solid points when not. Oh, and he's won two drivers' titles in that time as well. And with a championship in his pocket this season he got even better.

It was a season wherein Seb seemed to lead, and win, virtually everywhere. And the numbers back this up. Fifteen of the 19 pole positions were his, and it's impossible to think of an error on a pivotal qualifying lap this year, even though many were won under pressure. It's not exaggerating to say that Vettel's qualifying abilities are Senna-esque.

From then on the Vettel 'template' victory was seen repeatedly. Blast into the lead, be immediately on the maximum pace and several lengths clear after a few corners. Be out of the DRS zone before it kicks in, and then control the race from there, managing the limited grip resource from the Pirelli tyres perfectly. In Australia, Malaysia, Turkey, Valencia, Italy, Singapore, Korea and India the story was almost identical. This was the basis of his 11 victories, leading 739 of the 1133 laps, and totalling up 394 out of 475 possible points.

But it would be wrong to say that things were easy for Vettel in 2011. They weren't, and it was in such circumstances that he really showed his mettle. The wins at Spain, Monaco and Singapore were achieved under severe pressure for much of the way, and he never so much as put a wheel out of line. Nor did you ever expect him to. He could overtake decisively when required (though given he was usually at the front he didn't get many opportunities to demonstrate it): in Australia he passed Button around the outside of turn 4, in Spain he passed three cars in a lap after his first pitstop, at Spa he passed Nico Rosberg on the outside of Blanchimont at Spa, and most memorably he stuck his RB7 around the outside of Fernando Alonso with two wheels on the grass to take the lead in double-quick time at Monza. The whole 'Seb can't pass' idea received a dignified burial in 2011. He could also bring home good points when he didn't have the legs of the field, as he showed in China, Hungary, Japan and Brazil. Nursing his sick gearbox home to a comfortable second place in Brazil was arguably his best drive of the season. His ability to think through a race was unparalleled, and no one learned as well or as quickly what was required from the Pirellis. No one worked as hard at their game as he did. Only once did he have an off-day, unfortunately for him it was in his home race in Germany. And while the RB7 was clearly a mean set of wheels, it can't be denied that Seb personally brought a lot to the party. That his team mate Mark Webber, no slouch he, won only once in it demonstrates this.

The biggest compliment I can pay to how Vettel's performed in 2011 is that even if Alonso, Hamilton, Button or whoever had access to a Red Bull this season I'm not at all convinced they would have beaten Seb's points total. A truly top class F1 performer, who's only going to get even better.

Credit: / CC
2: Fernando Alonso
One win and fourth place in the drivers' table this season do not begin to do him justice. This was a magnificent season of fast, tenacious driving from Fernando Alonso. He once again looked every inch the man who won two titles magnificently for Renault in 2005 and 2006. It could be argued that he's now even better than then.

Consistent, relentless, almost permenantly at the outer edge of how quickly his recalcitrant Ferrari would go (and sometimes he was even faster than that it seemed) and yet, unlike in 2010, his was a season almost free of error. Only tagging the back of Lewis Hamilton's McLaren in Malaysia and a slightly scrappy run in the damp Hungarian race can be said to have fallen into that category.

The only problem for Fernando in 2011 was that, despite seeming to be top of the 'pre-season testing championship', his Ferrari proved to be a lemon as soon as things got competitive. A wind tunnel correlation problem was discovered eventually, but by this time the Scuderia were firmly on the back foot. That their blown diffuser was never as good as those of their rivals, and the car invariably had problems getting heat into its tyres for qualifying and into the harder tyres generally (which usually left it a sitting duck in that stint of the race), compounded things. The 150° Italia was rarely anything other than clearly the third best car out there. Indeed, Alonso only qualified in the top three twice in 2011.

That Alonso claimed 10 podium finishes (in a year wherein his team mate never finished higher than fifth) and was still in contention for second place in the championship table in the final race underlines just how he consistently outperformed his wheels, and left almost nothing out on the track. Like Vettel, he only had one off-day (his was in China). Elsewhere, the canvas was magnificent. The win at Silverstone, appropriately on the 60th anniversary of Ferrari's first F1 win, was wonderful, but so was the desperate clinging to the coat tails of the front runners in Turkey, Valencia, Belgium, Italy, India, Abu Dhabi and Brazil, and equally so were the tigerish, battling drives in Monaco, Germany and Japan, each of which he could have won with some of the playing cards falling in his favour. Indeed, virtually every race weekend the story was the same. Nando could be fully expected by the Red Bull and McLaren pilots to make a thorough pest of himself.

Fernando Alonso is clearly in a happy place at Ferrari, and this new found equilibrium has had a positive impact on his driving. Not that the Scuderia would be advised to test his patience waiting for a competitive car further. They can be content though that if they provide Alonso with a machine that's half as good as he deserves it to be then championships will follow.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Retro F1: the 1986 Spanish Grand Prix

The latest Retro F1 was held today, on the 1986 Spanish Grand Prix. For those who don't know, Retro F1 is watching a classic F1 race in full on YouTube and chatting on Twitter as we go.

The YouTube footage that we watched is below (or you can click here):

It was a race that featured Senna, Prost, Mansell and others, as well as the 1980s F1 turbocharged monsters. It has gone down in history as one of the sport's greatest races. So it was worth a watch!

The Twitter chat, using the #RetroF1 hastag, can be read here, and in this post I have edited highlights of the chat below.

Howdy partners. I'm clicking play now, the whole 1986 Spanish GP awaits.

Murray Walker and James Hunt commentating. Quality, I'm ten years old again.

@Parnelli98 Good afternoon (good morning for me!) Let's race!
Good morning to you! Glad you could join us.
@Parnelli98 Should be fun!

This was the first Spanish Grand Prix in five years, since Gilles Villeneuve’s famous 1981 win at Jarama, and the first ever at the Jerez circuit. Like Jarama, Jerez always struggled to pull a crowd for its F1 races, and eventually lost its place on the calendar to Barcelona in 1991.

Saturday 3 December 2011

Making sense of the 2012 drivers' market

It's not called the 'silly season' for nothing. On a daily basis almost there is a new twist in who's going where apparently for next year's F1 grid. This is despite the fact that the top four teams in this year's constructors' championship have their line ups for next year signed and sealed, as does Sauber (barring something really unforeseen happening in each case). The allocation of the rest of the racing slots for 2012 remain twisting in the wind.

And every year the silly season seems to get sillier than the year before (though that probably only works in the same way that Christmas seems to start earlier every year). It was brought home this year by the publication by the FIA of the 2012 entry list of drivers and teams this week. Pre season testing is but two months away and five of the twelve teams have yet to confirm their driving line up. Indeed, four have yet to confirm either driver, and this being F1 there may yet be the odd change among those already 'confirmed'.

In F1, as in most things, everything is connected to everything else, with confirmation or rejection of drivers in one team having a knock on impact on the decision of others. Currently, the line up decisions of Lotus (née Renault) and Force India appear to be especially important to where many of the rest of the pieces will fall into place.

Vitaly Petrov's 2012 future is not clear
Credit: Morio / CC
Lotus surprised everyone (including me) with the bolt from the blue signing of Kimi Raikkonen, back from two years of rallying. The team it seems moved quickly in response to Kimi's Williams deal falling down and the confirmation that Robert Kubica won't be back racing at the start of next season (and is likely to be out for even longer than that).

That leaves one race seat empty there. Vitaly Petrov is in many ways the man in possession. Indeed he has a contract at Lotus for 2012, but is not mentioned on the 2012 entry list and noted himself recently, albeit mid-rant, that contracts can easily be bought out.

Thursday 1 December 2011

The next Retro F1: 1986 Spanish Grand Prix, this Sunday at 1500 GMT

Hello everyone.

The latest slice of Retro F1 is on its way. It'll take place this Sunday, 27 November at 1500 (3pm) GMT and we'll be watching 1986 Spanish Grand Prix.

For those of you who don't know, Retro F1 is when we watch on old F1 race in full on YouTube, and post updates on it on Twitter as if the race is live.

It will be great if you can watch along with us and indulge in a bit of Twitter chat as we go. If you're anything like me, watching old F1 races is a real treat, and it'll be good to share thoughts through the race. The race will feature Senna, Prost, Mansell and others, as well as the 1980s turbocharged F1 monsters, so it will be worth a watch!

I also put a write up of the Twitter chat on my blog after the event. Those for the first two Retro F1 events can be read here and here.

You can follow the chat with the #retrof1 hashtag here, and the link I'll be using to watch the race is here.