Wednesday 19 December 2012

Final thoughts on 2012: The year that F1 went crazy

Imagine you were the racing gods and could write the script for an F1 season, what would it include? Exciting races, no doubt. Competitiveness may be high on your list, both among the nominal front-runners as well as plenty of competitors able to provide a surprise interloper presence at the front on certain days, resulting in a multitude of drivers and teams getting a win. Top quality driving too, with maybe three or four drivers providing magnificent displays almost every time, and others having ample impressive races. And the championship battle would be exhilarating and tight, have plenty of ebb and flow and be between several teams. It would also not be decided until the last, in a finale which if anything surpasses what came before. Well, the 2012 F1 season had all of these and more. Surely it will go down in history as a great one.

The 2012 F1 season will surely go down as a great one
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
In many ways the year was a continuation of F1's brave new world started in 2011. For that season the powers that be finally worked out that most of us thought that F1 racing bereft of racing cars racing each other didn't make for a diverting Sunday afternoon. And they went and did something about it; desperate times brought desperate measures with DRS, KERS and degrading Pirelli tyres. And say what you like about it but it certainly worked, with overtaking skyrocketing to levels not seen at any point since such things started to be measured. Suddenly F1 was not a resolution of pre-ordained strategy and fuel levels, races were no longer decided 'at the last stops'. 'Fake!' shouted the purists, but personally I'd much rather defend that point than defend dull races. And frankly the good ship of F1 purity sailed long ago (see narrow track, grooved tyres, downsized engines, parc ferme after qualifying, resource restriction etc etc).

But there were a couple of things missing last year if one was being greedy. One is, the F1 championship title destination was decided early, both metaphorically and literally. Another is that battle at the front had got rather samey. Aside from two early-season Enstone podium runs, only the 'big five' (Vettel, Webber, Hamilton, Button and Alonso) got onto the podium in 2011. And we had to go back to the Brawns in 2009 for the last time something other than a Red Bull, McLaren or Ferrari won a race. We had to go back to Mark Webber's victory in Germany in mid-2009 for the last debut winner. These drawbacks were sorted emphatically this year.

Saturday 15 December 2012

My Top Ten Drivers of 2012: The Rest...

Here are my views on those F1 drivers from 2012 who didn't make my top 10 ranking I published a few days ago.

My top 10 drivers of 2012 can be read here.

From about seventh place downwards in my ranking a number of drivers were in close contention with each other. Those who came particularly close to making the top 10 (in no particular order) were Sergio Perez, Michael Schumacher, Pastor Maldonado and Paul Di Resta.

Credit: Morio / CC
Sergio Perez is perhaps the most glaring omission from the final cut, given his season featured three memorable podium runs in Malaysia, Montreal and Monza. There he showed astounding confidence and verve and found pace to sail through the field like he was operating with different laws of physics to anyone else, and further he gets his big break for 2013 with a move to McLaren. But Sergio's problem is that an F1 season lasts 20 races, and aside from the three races mentioned there wasn't a great deal to write home about. There was one good race (Hockenheim), a couple more in which he was unlucky to start at the back (Melbourne and Monaco) and three more where first lap contact put him to the back (Spain) or wiped him out altogether (Spa and Brazil). But in the remaining races you'd hardly know that he was there.

And worse, in the latter part of the year and with a signed McLaren contract in his pocket he threw errors into the mix too. He binned it in Suzuka (trying to pass Lewis Hamilton - the guy he's replacing next year - no less) then making what looked avoidable contact with other cars in each of the next four races. Rumour has the top brass at Sauber believing that Perez is inconsistent, and that the C31 was a better car than he tended to make it look. And what about those podium runs themselves: how much of those were down to Perez's driving and how much down to the peculiar magic touch of the C31 on the Pirelli tyres if voodoo-like factors aligned? Next year, in the McLaren glare, we'll start to get answers to some of these questions. Of course, it's a fantastic opportunity and he is young and has time to improve. But at the very least all at McLaren would be forgiven for having some doubts about its new charge. Indeed, some recent comments from Martin Whitmarsh seem to betray as much.

This year we finally witnessed the swansong of the great Michael Schumacher. Debates about the wisdom of his comeback will continue to rage no doubt, but this year Schumi continued his year-on-year improvement since his return in 2010, and for the most part drove more than respectably. The qualifying gap between him and Rosberg was closed for the first time, and he was often the more convincing in races too, particularly in the year's mid-part when the lemon-like characteristics of the W03 became obvious. The main problem Schumi had was that intangible quality called luck. The opening round in Melbourne summed up his season: he qualified fourth (ahead of his team mate) and was running strongly in third...then his hydraulics went. In no fewer than six of the first seven rounds something impeded or stopped Schumi through little fault of his, and over the piece there were five mechanical retirements for him (compared to Rosberg's big fat zero). Without the bad luck it would have been fascinating to see if he could have beaten Rosberg's points total.

Thursday 13 December 2012

F1 Bloggers' Driver of the Year 2012

Recently MoneySupermarket.com asked a number of F1 bloggers (including my good self) to vote for their top F1 drivers of 2012. Each blogger was asked to submit a top ten ranking of drivers, and points were allocated based on the F1 scoring system. The results are outlined below, and you'll see that one Fernando Alonso emerged as the winner.

Apparently it was dominant too, him gaining around 25% more points than the 2012 World Champion Sebastian Vettel.

The full list is in the infographic below. I admit the comments are too small to be read by the average human eyeball; they can be read more easily here: http://www.moneysupermarket.com/car-insurance/grand-prix-driver-of-the-year/. It even includes a comment from me...

It's not too far off my own top 10 (available to read here), though clearly other bloggers rated Sergio Perez's season higher than I did. It all seems terribly harsh on Paul Di Resta too.


Image source: MoneySupermarket Car Insurance

Saturday 8 December 2012

My Top Ten Drivers of 2012

Here is my personal top ten F1 drivers of the 2012 season, seeking to take into account their performance under the circumstances and the machinery they had access to. A run down of my views on the drivers who didn't make the top ten will follow in the next few days.

Credit: formulasantander.com / CC
1. Fernando Alonso
A simply stunning season. Fernando Alonso spent 20 races scaling sheer cliff edges in his F2012, and it was an effort that so nearly took him to the high peak of the world title, a title which surely have gone into history as just about the most impressive and unlikely ever.

But, fortunately, championships aren't everything and this is a year wherein Alonso surely made the decisive, and most likely irreversible, stride from being an excellent contemporary performer into being an all-time great. It's certainly genuinely difficult to cite more impressive seasons of driving from F1's history by anyone. If you don't believe me just ask yourself this: has anyone ever come so close to winning the world championship in a car that wasn't the quickest in any round? I don't believe anyone has.

Despite having a car that over the year was no better than third best, in 2012 Alonso was always fighting, always on form, always sharp and aggressive in the overtake as well as in defence; even after 20 races it's hard to point out an off-day of his. Race performances that beggared belief roll off the tongue: somehow hauling the difficult machine to fifth in Melbourne, the quick and flawless win under pressure in Malaysia, the astonishing rise to grab a home win in Valencia, the masterful controlling of the Germany race ahead of quicker cars on his tail, the implausible and imperturbable splitting of the Red Bulls and hunting down of Vettel in India, to name just a few. And the F2012 was a machine that gave him much to do on a Sunday (if it didn't rain). Only once did Alonso start on the front row after a dry qualifying session (Spain) and even then only thanks to Lewis Hamilton getting a grid drop. Only in Canada and Italy did a fight for the front row look even possible. Yet, watching Alonso make up lost ground in the opening laps of race after race was extraordinary, and galling demonstration of what a top-level driver at the top of his game looks like.

Further, even though he was almost always at the outer edges of adhesion there were almost no errors either. The closest he came to one was at the start in Japan, when the tiniest tickle from Kimi Raikkonnen's front wing on his rear tyre put him out, but even there the driving was slightly imprudent rather than egregious. And the extent that some sought to pounce on it only underlined its rarity.

Fernando Alonso's equilibrium at Ferrari is a clear contributory factor to his mighty driving, though the Scuderia would be well advised not to test his patience waiting for a competitive car yet further. But the team can be content though that it doesn't have to worry about its driver; if it provides Alonso with a machine that's half as good as he deserves it to be then championships will follow. He demonstrated as much this year.

Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
2. Lewis Hamilton
Were you to judge purely from the points standings, Lewis Hamilton's season looks little better than his annus horribilis of 2011: fourth in the table and close to 100 points shy of the summit. But you know what they say about lies, damned lies and statistics.

This year we witnessed a supreme bouncing back of Lewis to his formidable best. For the first time since his stellar debut season he put together a campaign to match it, perhaps even to surpass it, in terms of consistent quality and decisive racing.

Lewis retained his status and F1's quickest, most exciting and instinctively talented performer this year. But the frequent ill-judgement of the last campaign, along with the discontented figure out of the car, was shorn. After a 2011 year where he, in his own words, had a loyalty card with the stewards, Lewis didn't so much as receive a reprimand from the stewards this year. The overtaking was crisp, aggressive and still frequent, but always clean. Lewis also managed to show suitable intelligence and restraint to manage a race on the limited-resource Pirellis (underlined by him driving close to half the Barcelona race on a single set, and was still quick). And what we ended up with was a mighty and complete F1 driver.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Talking about F1's Competition in Partnership with FreestyleXtreme

2012 has been another incredible year in Formula 1. The racing has been closer this year than ever and with and with plenty of overtaking it was a year to remember. Codemasters have recently launched the Formula 1 2012 game for the Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and PC, and we've a copy available to win.

We've partnered with Europe's largest action sport store, FreestyleXtreme (www.freestyleXtreme.com) to offer you an incredible competition to win a copy of the game as well as Alpinestars clothing.

To be in with a chance of winning, all you need to do is answer the following question.

Which team does Fernando Alonso drive for?
A) Red Bull Racing-Renault
B) Scuderia Ferrari
C) Force India

Please send the right answer to me at gkeilloh@hotmail.co.uk by the 16th of December 2012. One lucky winner will be chosen at random to win a copy of the game (for the Playstation 3, Xbox 360 or PC, you can choose which) as well as the Alpinestars clothing, and will be notified by email on the same day. Good luck!

Monday 3 December 2012

Sebastian Vettel 2012 World Champion: What has he got to do?

What have I got to do to make you love me? What have I got to do to be heard?

Odd I know to start an article about F1 with an Elton John lyric (or, to be strict about it, a lyric by Bernie Taupin). But Sebastian Vettel would be forgiven for thinking such things right now. He won this year's world drivers' title, his third in total as well as his third in three years which only Fangio and Schumacher had done before, yet you'd hardly know it. Beyond the Red Bull team and Seb's/Red Bull's coteries of supporters much of the reaction has been rather muted, almost resentful in some quarters. To borrow a little more from Bernie (not the F1 one): it's a sad, sad situation, and it's getting more and more absurd.

Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
What does he have to do, as I said? And further, the more you dig into the achievements the more remarkable they become: it's Seb's third championship from only five full years in the sport, and just four in a front-running car (indeed, had FIA's decision on the double diffuser gone the other way - and many thought it should have - Seb could be celebrating four from four). And Seb's done it from the front: he's triumphed 26 times (from just 101 starts) in a field that has good claim to being F1's most talented ever, and has almost always been a contender at the head of the pack. Seb is no cruise and collect points-gatherer.

All the while Seb has developed into a driver with just about everything. The speed and precision that he can turn on like it is on tap are well-established, and this is allied to intelligence, industry and increasing demonstration of his ability to race. Seb is a great ambassador for the sport too: a well brought up, friendly and responsible guy who is refreshingly open (for an F1 driver) with the media.

And while, yes, Seb has often had an excellent set of wheels to call on for much of that time, surely only a churl would argue that Seb isn't also personally bringing something to the party. If nothing else, where has Mark Webber (no slouch he) been when all this has been going on? Seb's up 25-9 on wins in their four years sharing a stable, as well as is 3-0 up on titles of course. If you're still not convinced, I invite you take a look at the entire list of F1 world champions since 1950, and count the number who won it without the best car (or close to the best). You'll likely not need more than the fingers of one hand.

And, oh yeah, did I mention that he's just 25? In F1 history only Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso had won any world championships at that age, and in either case it was just the one. If the past is any sort of guide then Seb's a good six or seven years shy of his peak even now. There's a long way to go of course and nobody knows what lays ahead, but it's not outrageous to say that even Schumi's stratospheric records might be vulnerable. One can only imagine what sort of force Seb might end up as.

Thursday 29 November 2012

Yellow fever: Thoughts on Sebastian Vettel's 'flag gate'

To think that just two days ago in this very journal I was heaping praise upon the 2012 F1 season, saying it almost certainly would go down in history as a great one. Yet next thing you know fate took hand and such status was ever so briefly thrown into some doubt.

As you're no doubt aware by now there's been one heck of a rumpus over the last day or so - all about Sebastian Vettel and yellow flags and world championships. A YouTube analysis of Seb's onboard footage from the Brazilian Grand Prix suggested that he on lap four had passed Jean-Eric Vergne under yellow flag/lights (not allowed), which if guilty and if the FIA had chosen to punish it post hoc would have likely taken the 2012 drivers' title from Seb and handed it in turn to Fernando Alonso. No small fry.

Briefly, it looked like Sebastian Vettel
might have cause to lose his smile
Credit:  JerichoNation / CC
As it was, rather like a firework it was all gone just as quickly as it exploded, as the FIA confirmed today that there was a green flag waved by a marshal (in the footage but admittedly not especially clear) and therefore ending the yellow 'zone' before where Seb made the pass. Thus, case closed and Seb's title is safe.

And I'm glad of that. As regular readers of this blog may have worked out by now I bow to few in my admiration of Fernando Alonso, but had he won the title this way - with the stroke of a pen rather than with pedals and a steering wheel - it would have had a hollow ring. And I'd be disappointed in Nando if he didn't, deep down, feel the same way. Plus, it would have in no way been a quick, clean execution. Instead it almost certainly would have been a drawn out and messy process, involved appeals and counter appeals as well as a load of bitterness and acrimony, and would have carried on throughout much of the winter. Once it was all resolved left standing would have been two rather bloodied and bruised fighters. None of this would have been good for anything, least of all F1's image.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Further thoughts on the Brazilian Grand Prix

That was the year that was
Has there ever been a better F1 season than 2012? It's not exaggeration - just try to name one.

Of course, many cite 1982 as a vintage season, mainly because of its extreme drama and variety of winners. But let's not forget that it was also a reason framed by tragedy and acrimony, the likes of which this year were thankfully absent. 1997 will always have its admirers, but surely 2012's racing and abundance was overtaking makes this year better. 1974 was also highly thought of, but this season has a good case to usurp it.

 This year will surely be remembered as a great one
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
This year was one with everything. There was a multitude of credible contenders which was reflected in the number of winners - some eight drivers from six different teams - and with a few cards falling another way 1982's all-time record of 11 winners might have been matched or even beaten: Sergio Perez should have won at Malaysia and could have won at Monza, Romain Grosjean challenged for the win at Valencia and Canada, Nico Hulkenberg could well have won at Interlagos had he got his pass of Hamilton for the lead right, and what if Michael Schumacher hadn't got his grid penalty at Monaco and had reliability that day? In other words, half the field and two-thirds of the teams might have been victors.

Then there is the quality of the races themselves. Listing diverting F1 races from 2012 isn't the work of a moment: Malaysia, Valencia, Abu Dhabi, Austin, and of course Interlagos, to name but a few. Very few failed to entertain; almost all had aggressive yet high-quality wheel-to-wheel dicing throughout the field.

Sunday 25 November 2012

Brazilian GP Report: Surpassing what has gone before

How on earth could the final act of the gripping and dramatic 2012 F1 season surpass what had gone before? Surely it couldn't happen? Well it did.

Then again, given this was Interlagos, there was rain around and that it was entirely in keeping with this year for there to be nothing close to a tepid finale, perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised.

The Brazilian Grand Prix was a race of incredible ebb and flow, twist and turn, and championship favourite Sebastian Vettel's race had more of these than most. Nevertheless, by the end he was in sixth place which was just enough for him to stumble over the line for his third world title.

Sebastian Vettel did just enough
to ensure the title today
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
It all started with Seb facing the wrong way after four corners, having turned in on Bruno Senna and getting a double-clout for his trouble. It defied belief that Seb could continue at all after the whacks as well as that his damaged exhaust area lasted, perhaps the relatively cool temperatures saved him (and we've also seen penalties given for less than what he did to Senna). He was also fortunate not to be collected by any of the cars following. Nevertheless, he didn't require much luck from that moment on as he moved through the field back into contention at a super-quick rate (though appeared to pass Kobayashi under yellow flags, however the official line is it was actually red and yellow striped flags he passed under) and thus was back on the championship box seat almost before we could draw breath. Later, an ill-timed tyre stop just before it rained, then a tardy stop for the inters (not helped by a dud radio) set him back further. But it wasn't enough to deny him the points he needed to just creep over the line by a nose for the title.

Fernando Alonso meanwhile did what he's been doing all season, his determined and tenacious best, which was awarded with second place at Interlagos. At various points it looked like the highly improbable might just happen, but as it transpired only a win would have seized the championship, which was asking a lot on a day that he never had the legs of the McLarens nor of Nico Hulkenberg.

Saturday 24 November 2012

Interlagos Qualifying: In the lap of the gods?

Pressure. People in sport are forever talking about it. And today we had a demonstration of why.

Coping with the intangible thing called pressure is part of any game; pressure it seems can do funny things to all of us. And it indeed seemed to be the case in the Interlagos qualifying session. The two 2012 drivers' championship contenders, rather than leading the way and leaving all others firmly in the supporting cast, qualified but in fourth and eighth (which in the latter case became seventh), with Sebastian Vettel ahead, and both behind their respective team mates.

Lewis Hamilton continued his fine form with pole position
Credit: Morio / CC
The starring role was instead taken by McLaren and especially by Lewis Hamilton, as he led a front row lockout for the Woking squad. Indeed, the McLarens being quick and Lewis very quick has looked the way of things at Interlagos from an early stage of practice, and thus it proved in qualifying. But, at a quieter moment, the achievement may have a bittersweet taste for the team. For one thing this weekend is the last time, for a while at least, that McLaren will benefit from Lewis's pace. For another, the team might wonder just how they managed to book-end the season with front row lockouts and yet finish nowhere near the top in either title fight?

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Interlagos Preview: Endgame

Sport has an incredible reductive quality. While prizes are usually determined by achievements over a lengthy period, somehow invariably they end up being decided in the margins, and often at the last. It goes a long to explaining why even minor setbacks in sport can cause considerable regret; the probability is that you'll need those points later.

Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso face off
Credit: Bill William Compton / CC
So it is in F1, and so it is this weekend as the 2012 year reaches its endgame at Interlagos. Even in the longest season ever, some 20 races, and thousands of miles of racing, it all comes down to the final race to decide where the biggest prize of all is to go. Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso are the protagonists, 13 points apart with 25 still at stake. And whichever of the two comes away with a smile on his face will also become the sport's youngest ever three-times world champion.

Whatever the case, it cannot be denied that Sebastian Vettel has the whip hand. He needs but a fourth place to ensure that the latest title crown is his, and that seems well within his, and on recent form his RB8's, capability. The car has been the class of the field in recent weeks and Seb is looking absolutely at the top of his confidence in taking advantage of it. What's more, a Red Bull has won at Interlagos on each of the last three visits, and on the last two they finished one-two. Heck, Seb even managed to finish second here last year having been hobbled with a dodgy gearbox for much of the way. So, surely only something very strange happening can deny Seb a fourth place at least this Sunday.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Further thoughts on the US GP

F1 passes its audition
Last weekend F1 as a sport had its most important audition in a long while. And whaddaya know, it only went and nailed it.

Austin - here to stay?
Credit: mrlaugh / CC
There was of course a bigger picture on Sunday. F1 for years, perhaps decades, has regarded breaking America as an itch that it's just never been able to scratch. Despite repeated and varied attempts pitching its tent successfully in the US market, and all its associated rewards, has always eluded the sport one way or another.

For this reason plenty of eager eyes were on last weekend's US Grand Prix at Austin and not just because of what was on track and how it would impact on the title battle. And it's hard to imagine how it all could have gone better.

The Austin facility is a fine one, the layout challenging, undulating and popular with fans and drivers alike. And not even the worries about a tepid race were borne out; we were treated to tense, old-fashioned tête à tête between two great drivers pushing to the limit throughout. In addition, there was ample wheel-to-wheel racing up and down the field. It turns out cars could follow closely through the flowing first sector (Kimi even passed in it), and over and above the DRS zone there was also plenty of overtaking into turn one as well as some even in the 'Mickey Mouse' leg of the track. Best of all, some 120,000 were there on race day to see it all (and plenty were in attendance on the other two days), and I don't know about you but I got the distinct impression that many of them will be back. Not even a clash with the NASCAR finale put a serious dampener on proceedings.

Of course, this is just the beginning; what happens next is crucial and F1 has had plenty of false dawns before (I'm looking at you, Turkey), and historically F1 has shown an unhealthy tendency to blow a hole in its own foot in regard to races in the States. But it's tempting to think that F1 has just given itself its best ever chance of at last getting it right in the US.

Sunday 18 November 2012

US GP Report: A western standoff

Before the race many (outside the Red Bull team anyway) feared the worst. No one would be able to pass. Sebastian Vettel would run away, he'd been fastest in every session after all, usually by a distance. The world championship would be decided a race early, which in mesmerising 2012 would seem a lot like an anti-climax.

Lewis Hamilton claimed a brilliant and unexpected win today
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
But we ended up with something very different. Perhaps in an appropriate place, we had a mano-a-mano standoff, Seb and Lewis Hamilton staring at each other and waiting for the other to flinch, for the whole race distance it seemed. No one else ever got near to them. And even though Seb led from the front as usual he didn't disappear in the way we've got used to. Lewis was able to reel him in, and in the end sneaked ahead after 42 laps (helped in part by Seb being baulked for a tiny moment by Narain Karthikeyan). He stayed there until the end, though with Seb never giving him a moment's peace. I'm pretty sure I've said this before, but never let anyone tell you that F1 is predictable.

All in, F1's overdue and much-vaunted return to the US couldn't have gone much better. The Circuit of the Americas is a fantastic facility with a challenging and undulating layout, popular with drivers and fans. And today some 120,000 were in attendance to watch all of the action. You feel that if F1 doesn't get it right in America with this starting point then it will never get it right.

Nelson Piquet: The deepest valley and the highest mountain

The F1 follower is an odd breed. In most activities, participants are judged by their peaks. A writer will be defined by their finest works, not by the contents of their waste paper basket. Orson Welles is remembered for Citizen Kane and not for what he produced during his long decline. Bob Dylan is considered great because of Highway 61 Revisited and Blood on the Tracks, and almost no one considers that his later producing of Slow Train Coming diminishes that.

Same goes for sport too. Name any great sportsperson, Ali, Nicklaus, Maradona, Borg, and it's their crowning achievements that people most associate with them, not what they did (or rather, didn't) when not at their best.

Nelson Piquet - in his Brabham glory days
Credit: Zocchi Massimiliano / CC
But in F1 things are different. We seem to insist on viewing an F1 career holistically; everything - good and bad - is thrown in for scrutiny. And no matter what the achievements subsequent (or previous) struggle is factored in, weighted against the glory. With the struggle we seem to rarely miss an opportunity to ask 'was he that good after all?'. Perhaps it reflects that F1, unlike most activities, is a measure of a combination of man and machine; definitive evidence of the driver's contribution, over and above the supremacy of their equipment, is next to impossible to come by. Therefore, possibly we view it as necessary to not discount any available evidence to form our judgments. But whatever the case, Nelson Piquet has more cause than most to regret this state of affairs.

Piquet won three world titles in his F1 career, along with 23 Grands Prix. Yet you'd hardly know it (not in the English-speaking world anyway). His name rarely features in debates about great F1 drivers, nor even in debates about great drivers of his era. Indeed, when his name is mentioned it's often merely to seek to demonstrate the point that statistics don't mean everything in judging drivers.

The common narrative is that Piquet had success in a team of one at Brabham, but then moved to Williams to pair up with Nigel Mansell and was 'found out', which heralded a lingering decline to his career, and which was ended by a young Michael Schumacher booting him out of the sport. But is this fair?

Saturday 17 November 2012

Austin Qualifying: Seb continues his Bull run

I remember reading a story told by the sadly recently-departed Professor Sid Watkins: in a qualifying session at Adelaide for the Australian Grand Prix one year, he was poised in the parked medical car, with Frank Gardner in the driver's seat. The commentary on their radio said something about the track being slippy, to which Gardner, having seen Ayrton Senna emerge from the pits, chortled: 'Watch - the circuit is suddenly going to get unslippy now...'. He was right.

It was tempting to view Sebastian Vettel's run to pole today, indeed how he's looked from the moment his RB8 set wheel on the Austin track, in the same way.

Sebastian Vettel has a clean pair of heels again
Credit:  Ryan Bayona / CC
As expected, the Austin facility is a fine one and the layout varied and challenging, with the size of the crowds in attendance indeed a good news story. But as also was expected in some quarters, the track is characterised by low grip. And then some, the F1 car on it (not helped by Pirelli bringing an ultra-conservative tyre selection) has appeared a lot like a duck on ice both through the turns and when under acceleration. But both yesterday and today the Red Bull - no, check that, Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull - looks like it has been operating on different tarmac to everyone else. Seb has been absolutely nailed to the floor in his RB8, especially in the technical final sector of the lap, pulling out rapid lap times as he liked and as his rivals simultaneously tip-toed around desperately seeking adhesion and temperature in their tyres. The rest of the paddock must have undergone something akin to the grief cycle as Seb topped every session, and by a distance each time.

The times in the last throes of qualifying were a bit closer than anticipated though as Lewis Hamilton, continuing good recent form, was just a tenth shy of Seb's best and indeed was quicker in the flowing sector one (though apparently Seb also made a small mistake). But even so somehow Seb topping the times seemed inevitable. And thus it came to pass.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

US GP Preview: Will Austin be Weird?

F1's final frontier. Its unfinished business. Its itch that it just can't scratch.

Call it what you will, but that's F1 in America. And this weekend we'll see the start of the sport's latest attempt to crack the States. And, what do you know, this time there seems to be a better than usual chance of getting it right.

Austin will be the tenth US venue to host an F1 race (and that's a record, France is next up with 'just' seven different venues), and that number betrays F1's repeated attempts at setting its roots down in the US. It also betrays that, one way or another, the sport has managed to make a pig's ear of it every single time.

F1 pitches up at a new, and important, venue this weekend
Credit: Larry D. Moore / CC
America is important to F1. Like it or not it's absurd that anything purporting to be a world championship should turn its back on the USA, indeed on the American continents, with the alacrity that F1 has in recent years. The potential benefits to F1, in terms of fan base, commerce and investment, of getting it right in America are considerable. And this, hopefully, will just be the start with New Jersey due to join to the calendar in 2014 and rounds in Mexico, Argentina, maybe even the Caribbean, rumoured to join also in the years ahead.

And, contrary to the claims of some who should know better, there is no inherent reason for F1 to fail in the US. Anyone who knows about F1 races at Watkins Glen and Long Beach could tell you that, as could those who know where F1's record race day attendance anywhere was assembled (it was Indianapolis in 2000 - some quarter of a million people were there that day). Indeed, any glance around F1-related social media will reveal many US-based F1 fans.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Further thoughts on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Kimi - how an F1 driver should be
Imagine that you were a writer of a film script or some other work of fiction, and you were asked to create the character of the chief protagonist and hero of the piece, who is an F1 driver.

Kimi Raikkonen - back where he belongs
Credit: Matthias v.d. Elbe / CC
You'd likely give him piercing blue eyes and blond hair. He'd be quiet, menacing, monosyllabic. He'd have an ice-cold, 'devil may care' persona, and exhibit a complete lack of melodrama and pretension. He'd never be one to whine, plead, and would be similarly underwhelmed by success as well. His answers to questions - be they from the media or from his own engineers - would be clipped, economical, sometimes contemptuous; his real focus would be on the core task at hand. His only interest would be in the racing, he'd have a healthy disdain for PR schmoozing, debriefs and other chores. He'd have a reputation as something of a party animal away from the track. His talent would be instinctive, he'd be a 'plug in and go' talent not needing to play himself in or build up to his ultimate lap time, understanding technical matters almost immediately. Most important of all he'd be bloody quick. And he'd come from Finland and his name would be Kimi Raikkonen.

There are many good things about F1 in 2012. The return of Kimi to where he belongs, at the sharp end of the F1 pack, has to be one of the best.

Sunday 4 November 2012

Abu Dhabi GP Report: Race of champions

We really should have known better shouldn't we?

There was no way in the mercurial, madcap F1 2012-style that we were going to have a simple end to the season, with Sebastian Vettel cruising to honours. That's not how the season has been. And sure enough Abu Dhabi, perhaps not the likeliest scene of F1 drama, delivered another swing.

Kimi Raikkonen reminded us of his star quality today
Credit: Morio / CC
It all started in qualifying, with Lewis Hamilton going against the recent Seb-dominated grain by taking pole by a distance, and was exacerbated as Seb was put to the back of the grid for not being able to provide a litre of fuel for the post-session check.

And you could hardly see the join between that and the drama today on race day. While there was some poor driving on display in the pack, the range of driving quality in the modern F1 field was laid bare with four truly magnificent performances from world champions.

Wednesday 31 October 2012

Abu Dhabi GP Preview: The future is now

I sometimes wonder about a situation where someone uninitiated on F1, channel-hopping on their TV on a Sunday afternoon, happens upon the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. What must their first thought be? They'd be forgiven for thinking that the cars were racing around an advanced future.

A brand new Hermann Tilke facility appears on the F1 calendar every year it seems, but even though this weekend will be F1's fourth visit to Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina circuit (making it positively long in the tooth in this ever changing sport) in terms both of its visuals and its facilities it remains a clear stride ahead of all other venues.

The Yas Marina circuit - an unmistakable venue
Credit: formulasantander.com / CC
Visually it is stunning: all gleaming, shimmering, towering architecture, the like that one would have more expected to see in a sci-fi film. Even among modern day ostentatious F1 venues it has a unique no-expense-spared quality. It has a icon all of this own in the Yas Marina hotel, which the track passes under, and shines in ever varying coloured lights which attract many a wide-angled camera lens. Add that it is F1's first and only day-to-night race and has a resultant twilight atmosphere and you have a heady mix.

And in terms of F1 balancing its books it's clear where Abu Dhabi sits. The city of Abu Dhabi drips with money and, alongside Monaco and increasingly Singapore, Abu Dhabi is the event that F1's money providers, both current and potential, want to attend, entertain guests and do business at. The Paddock Club there is booked up far in advance, as is the deliberately Monaco-reminiscent harbour with room for 150 boats. Tickets also usually sell out, at the admittedly modest capacity of 50,000 (and in previous years some of these ticket holders appeared to attend the race disguised as empty seats).

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Further thoughts on the Indian Grand Prix

Bulls without a Plan B?
So, Sebastian Vettel won again on Sunday, his fourth win on the bounce, and three races in a row that he's had utterly at his mercy from a few corners in. Even better for him, for the most part the closest thing to him has been his Red Bull team mate Mark Webber. On the face of it, it's getting increasingly difficult to envisage circumstances in which he won't retain his drivers' title this year.

Red Bull - what if they have a set back?
Credit: Morio / CC
But are there reasons to think that the Red Bull dominance is a mile deep but an inch wide? In other words, is its supremacy based on a strict assumption of leading from the off and if that didn't happen for whatever reason it could result in a seriously tough afternoon? To summarise the summary: does it lack a Plan B?

The speed trap times from Buddh qualifying make fascinating reading, showing that on the long straight the two Red Bulls even with the much-vaunted double-DRS were second and third slowest of anyone, and were ceding close to 10kmh on the Ferraris and McLarens as well as on many others. In recent races this hasn't mattered, as the Bulls have locked out the front row and quickly gone out of sight with their prodigious cornering speed. But such is the way of F1 is that things can (and do) go wrong, be it unreliability, penalties, punctures, being compromised by the errors of others etc etc. The list is pretty much endless. And let's not forget that in two of the last three rounds Seb has sailed a little close to the wind on getting a grid penalty. You suspect that, whatever the merits of the current model of the RB8, if a Red Bull did end up in the pack for whatever reason its driver would be in for a long and frustrating race. Possibly not able to pass the cars ahead; maybe even being easy meat to cars behind. Add in that on the evidence of the past two races Alonso can just about match the Bulls' race pace anyway and they would have a particular problem. And it's not a new thing, Mark Webber spent most of 2011 demonstrating that the Bull isn't the car to have in traffic.

Sunday 28 October 2012

Indian GP Report: Seb's Fantastic Four

Do you remember the last time Sebastian Vettel was headed in an F1 race? You'd be forgiven for struggling. It was over a month and fully three-and-a-half races ago, at the Singapore Grand Prix when Lewis Hamilton led in the early laps before his gearbox went pop. Indeed, it's reaching the point that not only is it hard to remember anyone else leading a race, it's hard to imagine anyone else leading one.

Vettel won the Indian Grand Prix as he liked today, and it was simply a continuation of what's looking in recent weeks more and more like Seb's and Red Bull's inexorable march to 2012 title honours. He led off the line, put clear air between him and the car behind in no time, and the result of Seb's victory was pretty much set from then on. It's the sort of performance that's long since been his party piece.

Sebastian Vettel won as he liked again today -
making it four wins in a row
Credit: Morio / CC
That's now four wins for Seb in a row, and in the most recent three he's led every lap even in this age of the pitstop. The last guy to do that in any age was one Ayrton Senna in 1989.

Yet while Red Bull is a team that often gives the impression of having everything, there is one thing it doesn't have. There was another big story of the Indian Grand Prix along with Seb's victory; the other tale was that of the magnificent Fernando Alonso. He didn't win the race, Seb's dominance plus the limitations of the F2012 ensured that. But what he did was mighty, ensuring that Seb's points gain was minimised by clearing both McLarens as well as Mark Webber's Red Bull on race day, thus coming home second. He even managed to keep Seb honest by chipping away at his lead late on.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Buddh Qualifying: As you were

It wasn't exactly unforeseen was it? Sebastian Vettel claimed yet another pole position today, in what appears more and more like just the latest step in his inexorable march towards his third drivers' championship.

From early stage of the weekend in India the Red Bull looked by far the most nailed-on thing out there, just as it has everywhere in recent weeks, and that continued into today's qualifying session. And has also been the case in recent times Seb seemed to have the crucial edge on his team mate Mark Webber.

Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull look dominant again
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
There was only the most minor missing of a beat, when on Seb's first Q3 flying lap the rear of his car twitched and he ran off the track. But anyone who thought that this was Seb showing chinks in his armour were swiftly disabused. On his second, effectively his only, run he sneaked ahead of Webber to top the timing screens again. And Webber was compromised by traffic on his own last run, so that was that.

Even better for Seb is that in addition to his stable mate he's got two McLarens lined up conveniently between him and his championship rival Fernando Alonso on tomorrow's grid. As promised, the Scuderia brought a few upgrades to India, and indeed they appear to have brought the red cars closer to the charging Bulls. But as yet it's not close enough, and Alonso admitted that fifth place on a Saturday is their par score right now.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Buddh Preview: Providing more clues

The F1 calendar's shift eastwards is by no means new or small-scale. But even among the assorted new lands that the F1 circus has pitched in over recent years India must surely stand apart.

This is because the round and its associated potential represents a massive opportunity for F1. To use terms that the sport's power brokers understand, India is a highly populous 'market', a point which is given particular focus by India's status as a coming force in the world economy. And if the race there can be made a long-term success, and furthermore if a genuine motor sports infrastructure can be established in India on the back of the F1 race, then the rewards will be considerable.

Who can get close to Sebastian Vettel this weekend?
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
As we know, F1's record in moving east is more a patchwork quilt than a magnificent canvas; some events have been more successful than others. The likes of the Turkey and China races started with fine crowds and much talk of building a national infrastructure, as India did last year on its debut, only for the attendant audience to dwindle over time just as the bold talk did. But there are some reasons to think India just might prove to be different.

For one thing, unusually, the establishment of the race there is a bottom-up private enterprise by people with genuine motor sports passion rather than the standard rather top-down imposition by a government more concerned with national branding and boosting tourism. Also, there already exists a (nominally) Indian F1 team as well as a couple of Indian drivers in and around the sport, and who take more responsibility than most in F1 promotion. Various other initiatives in developing Indian drivers have also been mooted. Let's hope that this weekend's event is a continuation of setting the roots down.

Thursday 18 October 2012

Mover and shaker? Thoughts on the Sebastian Vettel to Ferrari rumour

It's almost like all of F1's juicy driver stories over recent times had been saved up somewhere private far from our view, with us all being oblivious of the fact. And now its container has got over-full, suddenly exploding the stories in every direction. For years it seemed not much was doing in the driver market. No one was moving, not among the front teams anyway, and there didn't even seem much prospect of it. But now we're being spoiled. No sooner had Lewis Hamilton dropped a bombshell by confirming that he will indeed be leaving McLaren for Mercedes for next year, with the reverberations still being felt the BBC reminded us earlier this week that, according to sources, Sebastian Vettel has a deal in place to join Ferrari for 2014.

Sebastian Vettel - looking to the future?
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
It’s a rumour that’s been about for a while, since around the time of the Monaco race this year indeed, so it's not clear what new was in the BBC's report (perhaps its success over calling Lewis to Mercedes went to its head a little). No sooner had BBC reported this than Ferrari President Luca Montezemolo was pouring cold water on the idea, but also without completely ruling it out. And apparently the story comes from ‘well-informed sources’ close to the Scuderia.

On the face of it though, Vettel to Ferrari doesn't make a great deal of sense. For one thing, Red Bull has been the sport's technical standard bearers consistently over recent times, being ahead of the pack for much of the previous four years, much more so than Ferrari. So, competitiveness-wise it would appear a risk to give that up for Ferrari, whatever the usual lure of the Scuderia. And if that wasn't enough Seb would all the while experience a very public comparison with the mighty Fernando Alonso, and on his home turf.

Further, outwardly at least, one cannot sense any obvious reason for Seb on a personal level to leave the Milton Keynes outfit. Sebastian Vettel appears the perfect final link in the Red Bull chain, a driver who somehow seems an ideal fit in the collective he's part of, possibly more so even than Alonso is at Ferrari. And in any case Red Bull is convinced it has Seb under (performance-related) lock and key for 2014 anyway. Seb himself is being rather quiet on the subject.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Further thoughts on the Korean Grand Prix

Tyred out
Are teams getting their
heads around the Pirellis
Credit: Rich Jones / CC
In F1, as in many things, history has a tendency to repeat itself. The broad pattern of 2012 is a lot like that of 2011. We start the year with apparently 'gumball' Pirelli tyres giving the teams plenty of headaches, providing a large random element to F1 races and even resulting in some complaining that such a 'lottery' is bad for the sport. But eventually teams get their heads around the rubber by the latter part of the season, thus giving us much more 'standard' fare.

That we've just had three rather sedate races in a row (in comparison to those earlier in the year) is evidence of this, as is that the championship battle has become a technical development war, the sort that we've grown used to, with the behaviour of the Pirellis hardly mentioned in the analysis of it. That the Red Bulls and Ferrari finished two-by-two at the front in Korea is also evidence of the establishment of some sort of order.

Be careful what you wish for, as the saying goes. This may not be a thought shared by purists, but I rather miss the gumball Pirelli lotteries.

Woking woes
McLaren - something fundamentally amiss?
Credit: Morio / CC
Perhaps uniquely for an F1 race after this year's summer break, the Korean Grand Prix result did not fundamentally change the picture of the championship battle, merely continued previous momentum. What's more, it seemed to give us something close to clarity in that battle, it now apparently boiling down to one for two players: Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull and Fernando Alonso's Ferrari.

Yet one team is conspicuous by its absence from all of this. Indeed, it was the very team that at the season's outset looked set to dominate the year; the team that's probably had the most effective and consistently competitive car of the season; the team that is one of the best-resourced squads in the sport and has been so for decades. Yet a team that's managed to (presumably) fritter all this away in the hunt for titles this year. Both drivers have conceded that their championship chances are over, and prospect of the constructors' title now also looks remote. Indeed, it's just sank behind Ferrari, not a team geared to the constructors' title, into third place in the standings. And it's not a new thing, the team has only won one of the last 20 constructors' championships (and just three drivers' titles in that time).

Sunday 14 October 2012

Korean GP Report: Seb scales the summit

There's usually something reassuring about something that doesn't change. And for Red Bull right now it must be especially so.

Today's Korean Grand Prix was almost entirely like last year's: Sebastian Vettel (atypically) qualifying second, but seizing the front pretty much immediately then controlling things from there, leading all the way to win and never looking under any sort of threat. Indeed, for Red Bull it's much more broadly becoming just like 2011; right now its is the car to beat everywhere, particularly in Seb's hands. The German's now not been headed in a race since Lewis Hamilton's gearbox failed in Singapore close to a month ago, and he's claimed three wins on the spin in a year in which previously no one had even got two in a row.

No one got near to Sebastian Vettel today
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
Even better for Seb he's now scaled the summit of the drivers' table, six points clear after being 44 behind table-topper Fernando Alonso in Germany. Just like in previous years, currently it looks like the Bulls are timing the title charge to perfection. As Bob Dylan once said, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

In the end the only race in Korea was between Seb and his Pirelli tyres. As he stroked his RB8 around at the front as he liked, his engineer Rocky's radio contact got more and more pained as the race progressed, urging Seb that his tyres could go pop at any moment in a fashion that went far beyond healthy paranoia. Seb showed exactly what he thought of that by setting his fastest lap on the last tour (perhaps working on the premise that the quicker the race finished the less time there'd be for his tyres to fail). But by all accounts it was a genuine concern on the pit wall. Yet Seb got the better of that fight, as he did almost all fights in Korea.

Saturday 13 October 2012

Yeongam Qualifying: Webber provides home discomforts

Mark Webber likes to remind us, just from time to from, that he's a contender.

Just as in Japan, from an early point of the weekend Sebastian Vettel looked the guy to beat in Korea, and it continued to look that way in qualifying. And presumably it would all be a prelude to him bossing the race out front as we've seen from him countless times.

Mark Webber will start at the front tomorrow
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
This remained the case right up until the final, vital qualifying run, that's when Seb was reminded that for all of the RB8's improvements in recent times he has opposition in residence. Webber put the thing on its nose and sneaked under Vettel's time. Vettel, behind him, didn't get it right in the first two sectors of his final lap, thus ensuring that the Red Bull front row lock-out perhaps unusually features Aussie Grit ahead.

Is Mark Webber as good as the likes of Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, or his team mate Vettel? Ultimately, probably not. But he's certainly capable of living with them, keeping them honest, and on many days of plain beating them. Today was one such day.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Yeongam Preview: When things go bad

Were someone to ask you how the F1 calendar has changed in the last 10 years or so, or alternatively ask what the financial model of F1 is these days, in both cases you'd probably come up with the same answer.

F1 has incrementally shifted eastwards in recent times, to the point that today no fewer than eight of the rounds are in Asia (rewind to 1998 and there was only one). The story of the new countries joining the calendar usually goes something like this: a government decides it wants to stage a Grand Prix, and is prepared to pay top dollar to the sport to do so. Yes, it'll likely make a financial loss, but it'll write the loss off either as helping a national branding exercise as a 'place to do business' or else to attract more tourists (or both).

But, sadly, the Yeongam facility in Korea shows what happens when things go bad with this.

Yeongam's backdrop is unmistakable,
but not for good reasons
Credit: formulasantander.com / CC
It started with good intentions, and no little ambition. The talk was of a street circuit in reverse, with the circuit built and then to be surrounded by a new city complete with a harbour, leisure facilities, hotels etc etc. A Monaco for the new generation if you will. Or perhaps a new Singapore, as a night race was talked about too. It sounded impressive whatever the case.

Before the first F1 visit, in 2010, construction fell behind schedule and the event looked under threat. As it was, the track was approved a matter of days before first practice and everything was alright on the night, although the facility was skeletal. But rather than reflecting mere teething problems it was a portent of things to come.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Further thoughts on the Japanese Grand Prix

Gloves off
The only threat to Sebastian Vettel in Suzuka
came from off the track
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
Sebastian Vettel was untouchable in Suzuka, and was so from an early point of the weekend. But on Saturday afternoon about the only threat to his supremacy of the whole meeting emerged, and it came not from the track but from the stewards' room.

Ferrari and Fernando Alonso reckoned that Seb had blocked Alonso at the chicane in the latter's one and only flying lap in the final qualifying session, and estimated they'd lost a tenth of a second or two as a consequence. For some three hours after the qualifying session finished the result was in suspended animation, as all waited to see whether Seb's pole would stand. Eventually the stewards confirmed that yes, Seb had done wrong, but a reprimand was the only punishment.

Ferrari to some extent had a point, in that from a still shot I saw of the 'incident’ it appeared to fall under the category of the sort of thing punished these days (Seb looks to be on the racing line under braking for the chicane, with Alonso off it). And while no two blocking cases are the same, it seemed odd that Jean-Eric Vergne got a three-place drop for an offence under the same broad category in the same qualifying hour by the same set of stewards. Though, as Tony Dodgins pointed out, the stewards have been that way all season when dealing with blocking: some offences have got a five-place grid drop, some three, some just a telling off.

Sunday 7 October 2012

Japanese GP Report: Seb's perfect day

In a country famous for its karaoke, Sebastian Vettel would be forgiven for breaking into some Lou Reed this evening. For him, it was a perfect day.

Early in the weekend Seb talked ominously that he was determined to make up for last year's Suzuka race, where he could 'only' finish third after a conservative race to ensure he got over the line to confirm the drivers' championship as his. Well, it can be said that he did just that. It's clear that Seb sees this track as his fiefdom.

No one got close to Sebastian Vettel today
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
He led from pole and won the Japanese Grand Prix imperiously, there never looking to be a race over first place as he established a resolute lead and held it (and occasionally extended it) as he liked. The sort of drive that we've seen from him repeatedly, and that we seem to see from him most years at Suzuka. For Seb, the song remained the same.

Indeed, not just in the race but for most of the weekend he looked untouchable. And what's more, the one guy ahead of him in the title hunt didn't last beyond the first corner, Seb's win thus slashing the championship deficit down to almost nothing. And it's the first back-to-back wins for any driver this season (so much for the 'winner's jinx'). Furthermore, in a year which has been uncharacteristically bitty by Red Bull's haughty standards, in the past two rounds the car's looked just like its old self, the class of the field. All of a sudden, and having operated rather under the radar for most of the year, Seb is now the firm championship favourite.

Saturday 6 October 2012

Hot Schu: Reflections on the career of Michael Schumacher

Infamous British politician of yesteryear Enoch Powell didn't always talk sense, but when he said that 'all political careers end in failure' he was indeed being highly lucid. I've no idea if Powell liked F1, but his words could just as easily have applied to that pursuit too.

And such thoughts would likely have hung very heavy to Michael Schumacher in recent days. The most successful driver by a distance in F1 history was reduced almost to the role of footnote in the grand news of Lewis Hamilton joining Mercedes, Schumi being cleared out of the team to make way. And as part of the aftershocks of the move Schumi, rather than seek a drive further down the pecking order, announced his retirement from the sport days later. It was doubly unfortunate that it came right after a rather egregious error of judgment by Schumi in the Singapore Grand Prix, though to draw any inferences from this would be flawed as the error was atypical of a year in which Schumi, if not quite the driver he was, still drove well.

Michael Schuamcher- waving goodbye
Credit: Mark McAdrle / CC
But, such is life, no matter our achievements almost none of us get to stop at a time of our own choosing.

Whatever the circumstances of his bowing out though Schumacher's impact on F1, and his other-worldly levels of success, cannot be overstated. Rather than leaving his imprints on the sport he stamped size 12 boots all over it. His records defy belief: in a career spanning 21 years from beginning to end and some 301 starts (and counting), he totalled seven world championships, 91 wins (and that's only one shy of the totals of the next two combined - who go by the names of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna), 77 fastest laps and 68 pole positions. Schumacher didn't so much rewrite the F1 record books as redefine them. Most of his records will likely stand for ever.

So, the statistics say that Michael Schumacher is the greatest F1 driver ever. And while statistics only mean so much in F1 when comparing the merits of drivers, given one inevitably ends up with imperfect comparisons, only a churl would argue that he isn't at least among the very best ever seen in the sport.

And we don't have to rely on dry statistics to demonstrate as much. For me Schumacher's greatest achievement as an F1 driver was that he, probably more than any other in the sport's history, redefined what is required of an F1 driver. To put it in simple terms, he raised the bar in a way never done by any one individual before or since, and much of his gargantuan success came when everyone else was scrambling around either bewildered or furiously seeking to adapt.

Suzuka Qualifying: Seb poised for a Bull charge

The championship Bull charge is on, then.

Sebastian Vettel's Singapore win last time out got him to somewhere within range of Fernando Alonso at the drivers' championship top, and on the evidence of today's Suzuka qualifying he fully intends to take another bite out of the lead this time too. Game on for the drivers' title.

Sebastian Vettel - plenty to smile about
Credit: Morio / CC
This is especially as not only did Seb get the pole, it all looked ominously like old times when the Red Bulls would run and hide on a fortnightly basis. For the first time this year the team locked out the front row here at Suzuka, and the qualifying session looked a private Red Bull battle from a very early stage. And indeed Seb continued his record of never not qualifying on pole around this track.

There was a time when everyone could tick off a Suzuka weekend as a Red Bull benefit almost from the point that the calendar was published. This year, in advance, things didn't seem quite so clear, with the Bulls not running away at similar circuits raced on this year in a uncharacteristically bitty campaign for the team (all relatively speaking, of course). But, on today's evidence the RB8 is by now a fundamentally strong racing car. Alonso will have much to think about for the year's remainder.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Suzuka Preview: Big in Japan

They don't make 'em like they used to.

There's nothing quite like Suzuka
Credit: formulasantander.com / CC
Such an aphorism isn't always true, but it sometimes is. And it seems to especially apply to the F1 circuit. Of course, some of the new-fangled Tilke-dromes are better than others, but none has got even close to creating the quickening of the pulse that F1 drivers and aficionados experience when cars circulate Suzuka.

Why is this? Mainly it's that the layout is dominated by rapid, challenging turns, the sort that separate the great from the good, the sort that would most likely be laughed out of court were it proposed these days. Combine this with the track's uncanny knack of being the stage of drama and acrimony, as well as with the large and enthusiastic Japanese support looking on, and you have a near-perfect mix. Indeed, such is Suzuka's classic nature it feels rather like Messrs Nuvolari, Fangio and Clark should have pounded around the track in their heydays; that F1's first visit here was as late as 1987 seems rather incongruous.

You've either got soul or you ain't. Suzuka has it.

So, all feels good with the world as we approach the Suzuka meeting this weekend. And even over and above that it's Suzuka, there are plenty of reasons to think that the on-track action will be close and unpredictable. There are a good few teams entering the weekend with reasons for optimism.

Sunday 30 September 2012

Kaleidoscope shaken: implications of Lewis Hamilton joining Mercedes

In F1, as in life, everything is connected to everything else. Every action has a ripple effect throughout the pitlane; every gap created has to filled.

Indeed, in the case of the movements of Lewis Hamilton, one of the biggest beasts of the F1 plains, one is put in mind of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's celebrated quote on Canada's relations with the USA: 'Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.'

Lewis Hamilton - not in McLaren
colours for much longer
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
And unless you've been living in a cave these past couple of days, you'll be aware by now that Lewis has decided to shake the kaleidoscope, not only of his own career but of contemporary F1, by announcing that he'll be leaving McLaren for Mercedes at the year's end. It's the first time since the off season of 2009/2010 that a major driving player in a major driving team has switched employers. The ripple effect of this switch will be felt throughout F1, most heavily at the McLaren team he's leaving and the Mercedes team he's joining but also felt much further potentially. It only remains to be seen where the kaleidoscope pieces settle, and when, both for Lewis and for everyone else.

There has been a lot of speculation as to what encouraged Lewis to reach his decision, and in reality it's likely that no one aside from Lewis himself and a few close to him know the real reasons. It cannot be denied that on competitiveness grounds the move is hard to justify, at least in the short term (though Lewis may be looking a bit further ahead, for various reasons).

But while it seems the basic retainers on offer at McLaren and Mercedes were pretty similar, at his new abode he'll have much more freedom to develop 'brand Lewis' (and he must be interested in this, he wouldn't have signed up with XIX Management in the first place if he wasn't). Many auxiliary reasons have been touted too: that he feels constrained at the 'paternalistic' McLaren and, rather like kid who grew up, is keen to flee the nest and prove himself 'on his own'. The sporting challenge of building up a team that's all potential but currently struggling may also be tempting (as Michael Schumacher was tempted by the Ferrari challenge in 1996), as might the possibility of making a team very much his team, as Fernando Alonso has done so transparently at Ferrari.

Friday 28 September 2012

Further thoughts on the Singapore Grand Prix

Can't read the poker face
Credit: formulasantander.com / CC
It shows that you'll never get rich trying to guess what Lewis Hamilton is thinking, at least when basing it on his exterior demeanour. At Monza, when Lewis looked glum and rather detached from his team, most assumed that the touted move to Mercedes was a done deal or close to it. In Singapore, by contrast, Lewis looked at ease with himself and his intra-team surroundings, so most surmised that some kind of rapprochement had taken place and he would indeed be staying at McLaren.

Well, what do you know, he only then goes on to announce in the days after the Singapore race that he is signing for Mercedes for next year after all. Perhaps we should quit trying to second guess him.

But not only is Lewis's body language hard to read, you'd never know that the whirlwind off-track Lewis drama was taking place from his driving either. Not for the first time this year, Lewis was immaculate behind the wheel in Singapore. Along with Vettel, he was a stride clear of everyone all weekend, unlike Vettel his qualifying lap was a joy to behold, and in all probability it all would have been awarded with a win but for a terminal gearbox problem stopping him early. Surely in the next three years it is Mercedes's, not Lewis's, reputation which is on the line.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Looking back: Jochen Rindt's greatest day

There are lots of reasons to dislike the Monaco Grand Prix. The wealth on show is ostentatious. The poseur occupants of the yachts in the harbour in all probability have little interest in the sport in the rest of the year. And for large part of the race's history the contemporary F1 car had long since outgrown the circuit. Nelson Piquet once likened driving there to trying to ride a motor cycle in your front room.

But even with all this, for many F1 fans there's nothing quite like the Monaco Grand Prix. Monaco has an intangible quality, what you would call 'magic'. Just watching racing cars around Monaco is an enchanting experience. The backdrop is one of the very most iconic of any sporting event, let alone in motorsport. Wherever you turn in Monaco when the racing is on you invariably see something eye-catching. And when you've got Monaco you've got F1.

The Monaco Grand Prix has a long history.
This is Station Hairpin in 1932.
Its magic is also no doubt related to its heritage. The first Grand Prix around the principality was held in 1929, and the layout of streets that cars race around today isn't much different. All of the sport's greats have graced the place.

But in my view one of the most endearing aspects of the Monaco Grand Prix is that in terms of driving challenge and the ability of an individual driver to make a difference over and above their car, Monaco is probably unparallelled among F1 races, and has been that way for many a year. Almost all of F1's greatest drivers can point to an occasion around the principality streets in which they transcended their machinery, in which all watching on could hardly comprehend what they had witnessed.

Additionally, while we may instinctively associate races here with a scarcity of overtaking, things happen at Monaco, the Grand Prix there somehow attracts drama and incident. Throughout history many such examples can be cited, such as Stirling Moss in the outdated Lotus 18 holding off the more powerful Ferraris for the entire distance in 1961, the extraordinary late laps in 1982 where a succession of leading cars faltered and the likely winner changed continuously like the display of a fruit machine, Ayrton Senna's celebrated 'star is born' drive in the rains in the Toleman in 1984 (cut short by a red flag, just as he was posed to take the lead), and Nigel Mansell's desperate but ultimately futile attempts to usurp Senna in 1992. And there are a multitude more that could be mentioned.

My personal favourite Monaco Grand Prix was that in 1970, however. This is for a number of reasons, all of which are linked to the things that I believe lend the magic to a Monaco Grand Prix. Partly it is because much of Monaco's heritage was on show: it was on a Monaco layout still in its original configuration, virtually identical to that used all the way back in 1929 (the 1973 race witnessed the first significant divergence from it with the introduction of the 'swimming pool section', fatuously to allow more grandstands but ensuring Monaco races from then on were usually a case of follow-my-leader). Also the architectural backdrop was still classic and elegant, Monaco not quite yet all the way to becoming the tightly packed cluster of high rises that it was to become.

Singapore GP Report: Long time, no see

So Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull are back. At today's Singapore Grand Prix they finished up on the top step of the podium, a place they know well. This is despite Seb not having won a race since the Bahrain round in April. There always seemed something a little wrong about that fact. But back on a high downforce track the Bull looked just like it was again on its ever-so-familiar full charge.

Sebastian Vettel had reason to smile today
Credit:  Morio / CC
Once again today's race gave us a galling demonstration of the folly of counting one's chickens before they are hatched in F1. Yesterday, it looked rather like Vettel had blown it. He and Lewis Hamilton had the legs of the field almost from the very start of Friday practice in Singapore, but Seb's pace mysteriously faded in the final part of qualifying, and his resultant starting two places shy of Lewis looked a decisive advantage to the McLaren man. Indeed, although Vettel immediately cleared Pastor Maldonado in the opening corners of the race and broadly kept pace with Lewis it wasn't at all clear how he was going to usurp him. But the problem was solved for him when Lewis's gearbox failed after 22 laps, thus putting the race into the palm of Seb's hand. And he never let it go nor looked remotely like letting it go, winning with a flawless drive the likes of which we've seen plenty from him before.

Lewis's retirement was therefore the pivotal moment of the race, and it couldn't have been worse timed or more unlucky for Lewis. I've been saying for a while that for all that F1 is an intricate science, dumb luck will have a say in who takes the title honours this year. And dumb luck had a massive say today.