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.

Wheel to wheel action was common in 2011
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Well it certainly can be said, at the topline level, to have worked. Overtaking in F1 races sky-rocketed in 2011. According to Clip the Apex we were treated to an average of 60.6 passes per race, which was more than double that of 2010 (which in turn was double that of 2009). Indeed, this year even dwarfed the highest ever since the records began in 1982, which was 1984's figure of 41.6 passes per race.

Even with this there were doubts about DRS. From the beginning many saw it as 'gimmicky', and against the grain of F1's heritage in that it permitted cars to not all run to the same rules at the same time. Many also worried that, on occasion, it made overtaking too easy, contending with some justification that constant and indefensible overtaking is as soporific as no overtaking at all.

I am someone who was always prepared to give DRS a fair crack - such was my level of exasperation at the lack of overtaking in recent times in F1, including many examples of a plainly faster car being absurdly stuck behind a slower one for much of a race. And short of un-inventing downforce it was difficult to see what else would work.

It was a moving target throughout the year, indeed sometimes the DRS 'zone' was shifted in the course of a weekend, even. And undoubtedly it was sometimes done badly. At Turkey and Spa (perhaps not coincidentally two tracks that have tended to provide plenty of passing before DRS was thought of) passing definitely was too easy - cars frequently sailed past each other in each race like a hatchback passing a lorry on the motorway. There were also some unintended consequences of DRS, such as at Korea where more than once a genuine (i.e. non-DRS) pass into turn one was overturned immediately by the subsequent DRS zone, and in Abu Dhabi where two zones one after the other meant that virtually any pass in the first zone was negated immediately in the second.

It can't be denied though that DRS helped make some often dull races less so this season. Ironically, this was especially so at the new-fangled Tilke-designed tracks, such as at Abu Dhabi race where 89% of the passes were DRS-assisted (according to a Mercedes analysis compiled before the last race of 2011), and in India the figure was 78%. I wouldn't necessarily write DRS off yet, with better planning it may just have a role to play.

But it wasn't all about DRS. In 2011 we were reminded what we should have known all along, that it's variation of pace between the cars that gives us overtaking. In previous years most F1 races had become a series of sprints at the maximum, with almost no such variation, partly due to refuelling but also because of tyre suppliers had became perfectly capable of producing tyres that would last an F1 race with minimal degradation. But this year F1 had a new supplier, Pirelli, and they came in with strict instructions to 'unlearn' what had gone before, and produce tyres that would diminish in performance after a short period of time.

The Pirelli tyres were a major player in 2011
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
They did exactly as was required. Gumball tyres and the subsequent variation in race pace and strategy gave us overtaking, and it's not for nothing that 55% of the passes in 2012 were completed outside the DRS zone (though, as an aside, DRS and non-DRS can't be totally de-coupled, as some 'non-DRS' passes were assisted by the DRS zone allowing the following car to get closer. Indeed, some passes within a DRS zone may have happened anyway without DRS assistance).

Things seemed to calm down on this front in the second half of the season, possibly because of teams beginning to adapt to the tyres and required strategy, as well as partly that, perhaps, Pirelli were keen not to be associated with such a limited-lifespan product. Still, Paul Hembery of Pirelli was man of the year in my book. And Pirelli promise to push their tyres even more to the edge in 2012.

I'm also intrigued to know what the effect on the racing would have been with the Pirelli tyres and no DRS...

The overtaking also happened despite the stewards making the unwelcome move to being more interventionist than last year in attributing blame and punishment for on-track incidents in 2011. It seemed to start in Malaysia, the second round, wherein Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso were both punished rather harshly for separate incidents. From then on it seemed the precedent was set. Let's hope the stewards revert to the refreshingly laissez faire view of 2010 next year.

Things were less competitive generally in 2011 than in 2010 however. Red Bull and Vettel cleaned up as mentioned, though this owed something to the fact that their closest challengers of McLaren and Ferrari started the season on the back foot, each for their own reasons. McLaren continued their recent maddening habit of producing a poor car out of the box. Their prodigious ability to develop a car in-season rescued things, and they won six races and finished up a comfortable second in the constructors' table. But it all rather precluded a serious challenge to Seb or the Bulls in each title fight. Worse, and well-documented, Lewis Hamilton had by far his toughest season in the sport, (though still took three wins) but at the other side of the garage Jenson Button was magnificent in coming second in the drivers' standings.

Then there's Ferrari, who many reckoned had won the 'winter championship' in pre-season testing, but Melbourne delivered a cold reality check as they were nowhere near Vettel's pace. They discovered a wind tunnel correlation problem eventually, and also undertook a technical reshuffle mid-season, but by this time months of development time had been lost. They were lucky to have Fernando Alonso at the wheel who made the car look better than it was usually.

Credit: Russell Ford
But, aside from a couple of early-season Renault third places, the podiums were monopolised by five drivers only: the two at Red Bull, the two at McLaren, and Alonso. Mercedes, despite having all of the pieces in place in seemed, again produced a car with fundamental flaws and if anything made a step backwards. Renault's year was a disaster. Despite starting well, their radical exhaust design was an albatross around their necks and left them to slide down the grid as the season progressed. Of the rest of the midfield only Force India performed ahead of expectations, the tidy outfit being consistent point scorers, especially in the year's second half. The three 'new' teams remained off the back of the pack. Despite not living up to their own hype, Lotus did at least show signs of a pulse, though.

It's been two and a half years since the last debut win for an F1 driver (Mark Webber's in Germany in 2009), and, aside from Brawn, the last time a team outside the 'big three' won a race was Alonso's triumph for Renault in Japan in 2008. This year that prospect looked further away than ever and you could argue things are getting a little samey. And with resource restriction under threat matters are only going to get more difficult for those chasing.

Which brings us neatly onto politics. By historical standards, it was a relatively calm season on the politics front in F1. But things were cranked up a bit from 2010, nevertheless. After months of visible strain the teams' organisation FOTA splintered at the season's end, with Ferrari and Red Bull (and others) handing their notice in and thus leaving FOTA in a quandary. Given the individualistic nature of those who run F1 teams, and their invariable refusal to trust each other, the FOTA split was perhaps inevitable, and the surprise may be that the organisation had hung together this long. The split is still a pity though. I'd always seen FOTA as a force for good for F1, in terms of helping the sport's long-term sustainability, its competitiveness as well as providing a useful counterbalance to CVC, fronted by Bernie Ecclestone, whose priority appears to be extracting as much money from the sport as they can and investing it elsewhere. It's not clear the extent that Bernie's invisible hand is responsible for one or both of Ferrari and Red Bull leaving FOTA, but divide and rule is just his thing. And if Ferrari have cut a deal, and I emphasise the word 'if', it's difficult to see how the other teams will ever trust them again given it would be the second time in recent years that they'd done such a bunk.

So with all of this, it makes it all the more likely that Bernie will continue to seek to pay off CVC's debt by taking F1 to countries where governments are prepared to wave a big cheque to hold a race and write their losses off against their tourism budget, at the expense of countries where the fans are. The flipside of this approach was shown more than once this year, most egregiously in one of a few cases where the governing regime that's waving the cheque is in possession of, at best, a questionable record of conduct.

The Bahrain Grand Prix was eventually cancelled
Credit: Alex Griffith / CC
The Sakhir circuit in Bahrain was supposed to provide the venue for the opening round of the 2011 season. But, in the weeks before the race, scenes in the country of civilian protest, and violent repression of it authorised by the very ruling regime that was stumping up the cash for the race and has sought frequently to be associated with it personally, filled news bulletins. Calling off the race seemed inevitable and a no-brainer. This was not only from a point of view of F1 not implicitly condoning repression but also that the security of all concerned at the race could hardly be guaranteed. But F1 instead gave us the latest chapter in its insatiable appetite to make itself look foolish. The FIA and Bernie ummed and ahhed for what seemed to be a painful eternity, including clinging to the unlikely possibility of rescheduling the round for later in the year, before the inevitable was bowed to. But the sport had hardly brought credit to itself in the meantime.

The Bahrain round is back on the calendar for early 2012, but it's hard to see how things have changed markedly in that country and there's a real possibility that F1 history will repeat itself next year.

Another 'new' round in F1's eastwards shift, Korea, also displayed problems in only its second visit. F1 returned, and it seemed the facility had barely been unlocked since the debut race 12 months earlier. The novelty of holding an F1 event had already worn off for the organisers and they rapidly came to the conclusion that they had a white elephant on their hands. At the time of writing they were seeking to wriggle out of the deal, but no one's ever got rich playing poker with Bernie.

The inaugural Indian Grand Prix was a success
Credit: formulasantander.com / CC
The one new venue on the F1 calendar this year showed a lot more promise though. India finally made its F1 debut. Unlike most other new venues of recent times, this was entirely a private enterprise, and almost as uniquely there appears to be genuine promise of building a grassroots motorsports infrastructure in the country. And the race itself was a success, with a good track (one of Tilke's better ones) and a large and enthusiastic crowd, in a country wherein very few were likely to have even heard of F1 weeks beforehand. India is of course a massive and growing economy, so the potential prize to F1 is a great one. There have been false dawns before in other new countries of course, but they've made a good start in India and let's hope that they get it right.

That F1 is to return to America next year in Austin, with a second round promised in New Jersey for 2013, is equally promising news.

And the sport marches on technically as well, with regulations framed for the sport to move in the direction of the car industry, with 1.6 litre V6 turbos and more liberalised use of KERS on the way in for 2014. Like it or not, F1 does not exist in a bubble, it's not at all unlikely that F1 will come head to head with the environmental lobby at some point in the near future, and as with most things F1 will likely have to adapt to survive. In my view this is all a magnificent opportunity for F1 though, not only giving a whole new area for the engineers to explore but also for F1 to develop a good news story for itself.

But for next year it doesn't matter about swapping one kind of engine for another, or where in the world that the F1 cars are circulating. For the moment it's all about beating Seb and Red Bull.

You'll have noticed that the post is illustrated by some F1 movie posters. These are by Russell Ford, and more of his work can be viewed via the following links. I think the posters are rather excellent:
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