Wednesday 28 March 2012

Further thoughts on the Malaysian Grand Prix

Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez were
the surprise pace setters at Sepang
Credit: Morio / CC
Surprise surprise
As Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez lined up in eight and ninth places on the starting grid at Sepang last weekend, not even their respective mothers would have predicted confidently they'd be in the front two at the race's conclusion. This held even as the rain fell in the minutes before the start: for all we talk about rain's ability to act as a leveller, and to shuffle the usual running order, its ability to do those with any regularity is over stated. Usually, the cars that have grip in the dry will also have grip in the wet. And shock results in rainy conditions that we remember, such as Olivier Panis's 1996 Monaco victory, often owe more to attrition or other freak occurrences than to an unlikely candidate having the legs of the field all being equal. This wasn't the case at Sepang: Alonso and Perez against all expectations were fairly and squarely the quickest two guys out there in the race.

Finding a performance on pace which ranks as a similar surprise is a tricky business. Giancarlo Fisichella's run to second place in the Force India at Spa in 2009 was a similar turn-up, as was, famously, Sebastian Vettel's pole and win in a Toro Rosso at Monza the previous year. Before that, for a comparable shock you may have to go back to Damon Hill's dominant drive in the Arrows in Hungary 1997, which would have been rewarded with a win but for a last lap hydraulic problem. In other words, the 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix will be one that we will remember.

Checo checks in
There are always lots of young drivers with promise in F1. The key differentiator is exactly how good they are. For every Ayrton Senna there a dozen or two who transpire to be good without being top drawer (think Heikki Kovalainen, Jarno Trulli and the like), and even a few who can altogether (such as Stefano Modena and Jan Magnussen).

Sunday 25 March 2012

Malaysian GP Report: Alonso uses all of his magic

Off the track, Fernando Alonso is an accomplished magician. On the track, he puts similar skills to work it seems. And he put all of his conjuring abilities into action today to win magnificently, and against the odds, in the Malaysian Grand Prix.

Fernando Alonso put in a magical drive today
Make no mistake about it, this was a victory that owed to Alonso's performance rather than to that of the F2012. Yes, it was a wet-to-dry race, and on a dry day the McLarens would have likely ran and hid, leaving Alonso to limit the damage points-wise in the wake of the McLarens and Red Bulls, possibly even in the wake of the Mercedes and Lotuses. But cars that lack grip in the dry usually also lack grip in the wet, and Alonso was at the top of his game and immaculate in coming home first today.

He had to be, and the occupant of second place pushing him all the way was even less likely than Alonso himself: Sergio Perez in the Sauber putting in one of those star-is-born drives that happen but rarely. A bold call early on, being the first to switch to full wets at the end of the opening tour, brought Perez right into the front running mix, where he stayed. Indeed, he was the quickest guy out there in the second half of the race, and looked a likely winner as he hunted down Alonso in the latter part. Unfortunately, two doses of old-style Sauber caution hampered his cause. He was kept out a lap longer than seemed necessary before switching to slicks, which lost him several seconds to Alonso, and after he'd clawed the time back his radio crackled and Checo was told: 'be careful, we need this position'. Perez didn't seem to pay heed, but did run wide at turn 14 shortly afterwards, which gave Alonso vital breathing space and the final result was thus set.

Saturday 24 March 2012

Sepang Qualifying: Groundhog day

The McLarens lock out the front row of the grid, with Lewis ahead thanks to a stunning first flying lap in the final session. Where have I heard that one before?

Lewis Hamilton claimed pole position
for the second week in succession
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Yes, Sepang's qualifying today was just like at Melbourne last Saturday, with the McLarens on top and Lewis Hamilton claiming pole position. But last week it was his team mate Jenson Button who came on stronger on race day, getting more out of his tyres seemingly on the way to a comfortable victory. And here at Sepang tyre wear is much more acute than at Melbourne all else being equal, so will it be same again tomorrow? Not necessarily for a number of reasons: but Lewis will nevertheless between now and tomorrow be thinking mostly about stopping Sunday in Malaysia being groundhog day of last week, just as Saturday was.

For tomorrow's race outcome, a lot will depend on the order at the end of the first lap, most notably because, again just like in Melbourne, Michael Schumacher is lurking menacingly on the second row. He qualified third here, the first time since his comeback that he's got into the top three press conference. Schumi's usually good off the line and in leapfrogging cars on the opening tour. But there is some evidence that he could form a road block tomorrow: the Mercs won't be able to use their DRS-activated F-Duct rear wing as often, and Melbourne form suggested that tyre wear is still a particular problem for them (though Schumi insists that was a one-off). And the Merc's quick on the straights (though didn't look too special through the speed traps today) and Schumi never has been the easiest guy to pass. So if, for example, he gets between Lewis and Jenson tomorrow in the first stint it could swing the race in favour of whoever's ahead. If he gets between the McLarens and the rest it could allow the Woking men to make a vital break for the day.

Friday 23 March 2012

Sepang Preview: Days of Future Past

Sepang was the future once, you know. If anyone ever gets around to writing the definitive history of F1 circuit design and architecture then the Sepang International Circuit, host of the Malaysian Grand Prix for the last 13 years, will be pivotal to the story.

It was the first of the purpose-built, constructed from nothing, Hermann Tilke-designed facilities which so impose themselves on the calendar these days. When it landed in 1999 everyone could sense the stride in standards that it represented. Its architecture, especially its football ground-style main grandstand winding within the final hairpin and with a floral-inspired roof, was stunning. It also then and now boasts a fine track layout, with a mix of challenging expansive turns, and plenty of overtaking opportunities, making for many diverting races here.

Sepang's iconic main grandstand
Credit: Postmortem / CC
But there are flipsides. One is, the circuit is synonymous with extreme oppressive humidity, which gets seriously to everyone present. For another, flash tropical drain storms are commonplace (and are forecast for this weekend too - though in the past two years this rain has not arrived in the race despite it being widely anticipated) though, let's be honest, they have the ability to spice things up further.

More importantly among the venue's downsides, as at many of the 'new' venues of recent years the Malaysian locals don't appear altogether interested in it (despite there being capacity for 130,000 of them). Indeed, it's one of the growing number of F1 rounds that are rather eerie and otherworldly, where you almost wouldn't know outside the circuit's perimeter that a Grand Prix is taking place. This perhaps isn't surprising, the ticket prices are way beyond most Malaysians, the heat is unpleasant as mentioned, and the country doesn't have much of a motorsports' heritage (before F1 came along a single World Sportscar Championship race in 1985 at the Batu Tiga track was the best the country could claim to). And as is usually the case in motorsport's pinnacle, nothing ever stands still, and in the intervening 13 years since its construction the Sepang facility has, whisper it, started to look a little long in the tooth. As Ann Bradshaw commented: 'It's one of those places which, when you go back to it for a race, you feel that staff have arrived the day before, opened the offices, chased the spiders out and then said "here we go again". It does seem to be decaying. You didn't go there initially and think "oh, it's got everything" the way you do at Abu Dhabi.'

Sunday 18 March 2012

Australian GP Report: Jenson on the Button

Sorry Jenson. I really didn't think you'd do it. Not in the dry. Not with your rejuvenated team mate ahead of you on the front row of the grid. Not with the passing of the aggressive exhaust blown diffuser, thus not planting the rear of the car like before. But you did indeed do it. And mighty impressive it was too.

Jenson Button won in impressive style
Credit: / CC
Jenson Button dominated the Australian Grand Prix, from 'flag to flag' as they say, to win in stellar style. He got the better start to take the lead from pole man Lewis Hamilton into turn one, and then he simply checked out into a emphatic lead, which he held. Even with a late race safety car letting his rivals back onto his gearbox, Jenson never looked anything other than completely in control of proceedings. It was a drive anyone on the grid would have counted as among their best, and make no mistake about it, this is the start of a championship charge.

And in winning Jenson plain beat his mighty team mate in a straight fight. OK, Lewis was fed into traffic after his first pit stop, and lost a place to Sebastian Vettel in a safety car period, but there can be no qualification to the fact that Jenson was fairly and squarely the better of the two today.

After a qualification session wherein the competitive order of 2011 was given a severe shake-up, the old order reasserted itself on race day in Melbourne. Reports of the death of the Red Bull have been greatly exaggerated. They looked much more convincing today than yesterday, looking very close, if maybe not quite on, the McLaren's pace. Sebastian Vettel moved smoothly up the order and was monstering Lewis Hamilton for second by mid-race, before taking the place when the cards of a safety car deployment fell his way. Mark Webber was also impressive, showing as good pace as anyone out there when in clear air (the Red Bull is still not the car to have in traffic it seems), and eventually coming in close behind in fourth place. Webber, by the looks of things, will give his team mate a bit more to think about this year.

Saturday 17 March 2012

Melbourne Qualifying: Woking's working

It just goes to show that no one knows anything. Qualifying in Melbourne began to provide answers to some of the questions that had built up over the off-season. Some of the answers were as expected, but many were not.

McLaren have the front row of the grid all to themselves, with Lewis Hamilton ahead. This may not count as a surprise entirely, the Woking outfit have been quietly confident the whole time and the mood music from pre-season testing was that they're at the sharp end. Still, McLaren having a clear neck ahead of their rivals here is a turn-up, and while the season is long it's also encouraging for them as pace in Melbourne, contrary to popular belief, has been historically a pretty reliable barometer for how the championship will go.

Lewis Hamilton will start on pole
Credit: / CC
Furthermore, on the evidence of qualifying the Lewis Hamilton we know and love, from the top of his game, may be back more often in 2012.

And, against expectations, Red Bull look like they're behind at the moment. Throughout qualifying (as well as practice and the latter part of testing) the evidence for this had built up, including that their final test technical upgrade was transparently problematic. But old habits die hard and we'd learned over the past two years never to write them off, and that they have a tendency to pull rabbits out of the hat when it most matters. But no rabbits were forthcoming today, and the Bulls have to content themselves with the third row only, Webber ahead of the two. It also all goes to show that, even with relative rule stability, nothing in Formula One ever stands still.

Other mood music from testing included that Mercedes and Lotus were expected to make a step forward. These were also made good today, though in both cases there were some bum notes. In Lotus's case, Romain Grosjean did an amazing job to stick his car in third place on the grid, fewer than four tenths shy of the pole time. I've said it before, but Romain Grosjean's story, fighting back after being written off by the sport in 2009, is a wonderful one. Things were less good at the other side of the garage, with Kimi Raikkonen not getting out of the first qualifying session, leaving him to start in 18th. Kimi's seemed rather ill-at-ease all weekend, asking for adjustments to his steering and the like, and his efforts today were niggled with errors. It's way too early to write him off and comebacks in F1 are difficult (ask Michael Schumacher), but today wasn't a good start.

Friday 16 March 2012

Melbourne Preview: So many questions

Questions, so many questions.

Every year it's the same. In the build up to a new F1 season questions pile up. And only in the first race weekend do we begin to get some answers.

Credit: Thomas Reynolds / CC
And this year is no different in the number of questions that have accumulated. Who can stop the Red Bull? And more to the point who can stop Sebastian Vettel? Can Mark Webber start giving his team mate more to think about? Is the McLaren as close to Red Bull as is assumed? Is the Ferrari as bad as people think? Is this the year Mercedes finally step up? Are any of the Merc's innovative features a silver bullet? And if so what can either their drivers do in turn? What about Lotus, and will Kimi Raikkonen capture his glories of old? Who of the tight midfield scrap will come out on top? Will 2012 be the year that Caterham leave the backmarkers and join the peleton? Have the competitive gaps between the cars diminished since last year? How will the new spec Pirellis change things?

However, Friday's running around Melbourne's Albert Park didn't go far at all to answering any of these. Both practice sessions featured adverse elements, and the track dried gradually throughout, meaning the timing screens revolved like the display on a fruit machine and supremacy in laptime owed mostly to throwing caution to the wind and running late in the session rather than to offering any insight on the pecking order.

Sunday 11 March 2012

F1 2012 Season Preview: Marussia - Moving in the right direction or a false dawn?

This year should represent something of a clean slate for Marussia. Much changed in mid-2011, with their previous unorthodox approach tempered, and there are signs that they're beginning to move in the right direction. But, despite all of this, preparations for the start of the 2012 season have not gone to plan.

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
The team entered the sport in 2010 as a collaboration between F3 Euroseries squad Manor Motorsport and Wirth Research. Prior to their debut the team distinguished themselves mainly via a couple of avenues: one is they acquired the name Virgin Racing after the Virgin Group acquired the title sponsorship rights, the other is they raised a lot of eyebrows by stating that the car would be designed without use of wind tunnels, instead using only CFD computer simulations of airflow.

Times have been difficult since. Their debut year was tricky enough (and contained an egregious error by the team, where they had to admit that their fuel tank was too small for the car to last a race distance without swingeing fuel-saving). And, worse, 2011 represented a step backwards from that, falling even further behind the pace as well as further behind the progress of Lotus who'd entered the sport at the same time as they.

F1 2012 Season Preview: HRT - Struggling on

Without wishing to sound patronising, the fact that HRT are still going probably ranks as their best achievement. In their short existence as an F1 team they've been widely derided, have often given the outward impression of stumbling from one crisis to the next, and usually concerned more immediately with surviving than making progress up the order. But they continue to struggle on, against the odds somewhat, into their third season in the sport. And, relatively speaking, as 2012 starts the future in some ways looks a bit more promising for them now than at any point before.

Credit: Gil Abrantes / CC
As Campos Meta, the team entered the sport for the 2010 season, at the time assuming a strict and swingeing budget cap to be in place for all teams. Perhaps it was naive to think that would hold, but whatever the case throughout the team's life money and sponsors have been extremely hard to come by (and worse, F1 is a business that makes it even harder for new teams by keeping television-rights income among the established members of the top 10 teams). The money factor made itself felt before even their first race, financial problems resulting in majority shareholder José Ramón Carabante taking over control of the team from Adrián Campos, with Colin Kolles parachuted in to replace Campos as team principal and the team rebranded as HRT.

For the next two years HRT's cars have spent most of the time off the back of the pack, and although they've avoided placing last in the constructors' championship in both seasons (by finishing ahead of Virgin/Marussia in both 2010 and 2011) that owes something to the slightly strange and distortive countback system in establishing the order. And at the start of both seasons they've made all cringe by still being in the process of building their cars as the practice sessions were underway for the opening round.

Saturday 10 March 2012

F1 2012 Season Preview: Caterham - Showing that F1 is difficult

The case of Caterham (née Lotus) demonstrates vivdily that F1 is difficult.

Credit: Gil Abrantes / CC
Of course, this is exactly how it should be at the sport's pinnacle. But it also might not always be much compensation to those at Caterham as they struggle to extract themselves from the group of 'new' teams at the back and get themselves into the midfield battle.

Three teams made their debuts in F1 in 2010, part of the brave new resource restricted, post-manufacturer, F1 world. Each were the first non-manufacturer backed teams to start from scratch in the sport since 1997, and it's showed as, over the subsequent two years, they've almost always run a distance behind the established cars.

But of these Caterham/Lotus have definitely stood distinct. Despite only existing as a telephone in a room months before their 2010 debut, they have been by far the most convincing of the three.

Caterham have been doing all the right things in their quest to move up the order, and in many ways are world away from Virgin/Marussia and HRT, who entered F1 at the same time as they. They have their own factory, everything's under one roof (and this year they plan to move to Leafield, in F1's 'silicon valley'), they have their own design office and aero programme, they have the same engine and gearbox as the champion constructor (which dictates a similar rear end of the car as them), their number of staff (around 250) is creeping up on the sort of numbers as at the midfield teams, they have fine brains in the likes of Mike Gascoyne and Mark Smith (among others), and they now share wind tunnel time with Williams. And all of this is backed by a substantial budget and investment provided by Tony Fernandes. In 2011 they stretched their advantage over the 'other two', usually lapping somewhere in the region of 1.5 to 2 seconds faster. But, at the same time, the midfield pack remained significantly and maddeningly beyond their reach. F1 is difficult, as I said.

Thursday 8 March 2012

F1 2012 Season Preview: Williams - Arresting the slide?

October the 24th 2004 is a very long time ago. And for anyone associated with Williams it must seem especially so.

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
That, if you hadn't worked it out, is the date on which Williams last won a Grand Prix. Upwards of seven years ago in other words. If you'd told anyone associated with F1 back then that the Grove team would endure such an expanse without winning a race (indeed, with hardly looking like winning one), and that come 2011 they'd be further away from competitiveness than ever, they probably would have thought you'd flipped your lid. Yet that's exactly what has happened.

For a long time the assumption among almost all observers was that Williams would bounce back inevitably. How could they not? This after all was an operation synonymous with dominance and engineering excellence, with seven drivers' titles and nine constructors' titles to their name, won in a seventeen year period.

Monday 5 March 2012

F1 2012 Season Preview: Toro Rosso - Opportunity knocks

If you were to ask any F1 fan to take part in a word association test, and then say 'Toro Rosso', the phrase 'Red Bull's B team' would not be far from the first response.

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
It's certainly an odd state of affairs, as well as a potential conflict of interest, the likes of which it's hard to imagine being allowed in other sports (for example, could you imagine Manchester United being allowed to buy Bolton Wanderers?). Still, the relationship has just about stayed above board since Toro Rosso came into being in 2006, including throughout 2008 wherein the B team were generally the more competitive of the two.

The technical ties between Red Bull and Toro Rosso aren't as strong as they once were, and while some rubbing off of ideas may be inevitable Toro Rosso definitely stand on their own two feet design-wise these days. But one B team role for Toro Rosso does remain at the forefront: that of developing drivers for the big team. And for that reason the Faenza squad have an all-new driver line up for 2012.

F1 2012 Season Preview: Sauber - More of the same?

Sauber are often characterised - perhaps unfairly - as archetypal midfield runners. They're always there, they make the best of the resources available to them and have a good record of giving young, promising drivers their chance. But on the flip side they never seem able, or willing, to reach for the stars.

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
In addition to this, Sauber have a time-honoured tradition of, after producing a good car out of the box, gradually sliding down the competitive order as the season progresses, due to being out-developed by the teams around them (presumably due in turn to not having their money).

As with most assumptions in F1, there is only a certain level of truth in these. Coming in seventh in the 2011 constructors' table behind Force India, with excellent resources inherited from the BMW days, is indeed a rather underwhelming outcome. And Sauber did indeed slide down the order in 2011 in what looked like the classic style. But there were some peculiar circumstances behind all of this.

Sunday 4 March 2012

F1 2012 Season Preview: Force India - Punching above their weight

It doesn't seem that long ago that what was the Jordan team, under the guises of the likes of Midland and Spyker, were fodder somewhere off the back of the pack. It's fair to say that when Vijay Mallya, four and a half years ago, purchased the outfit and renamed them Force India few expected that state of affairs to change much. But change it has: the transformation of the team in the time since has been remarkable.

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
A restructure and technical tie-up with McLaren later and Force India have made tangible progress year-on year with each season's constructors championship finish higher than the one before (as Force India their finishes have been, in order: 10th, 9th, 7th and 6th). And they finished 2011 as firmly the best of the rest behind the 'big four teams', even sneaking ahead of the Mercedes pair on occasion, including in Adrian Sutil's stellar run to sixth place in the final round in Brazil. Given an extra round or two they could well have sneaked ahead of Renault in the constructors' table as well.

Saturday 3 March 2012

F1 2012 Season Preview: Lotus - Bouncing Back

The rule changes between 2011 and 2012 are not major by historical standards (despite the obvious aesthetic alteration). In such circumstances seismic shifts of the F1 pecking order tend not to happen. It could be the same this year, but even with this there is reason to think that Lotus (née Renault) may be this year's highest climbers.

Credit: Gil Abrantes / CC
This is for a number of reasons. Last year was a difficult one for them in peculiar circumstances, so some bounce back should be expected, especially so for a unit that have won world titles in recent times (indeed, they've won two constructors' titles since McLaren last won one). They've got a new and exciting driving line up, who clearly have had a galvanising impact on the squad. And, most importantly of all, their new car looks like it's a good one.

It seems odd that after the first pre-season test of 2011, in which Robert Kubica topped the times and the R31 caused a round of head scratching in the pit lane, particularly in regard to its innovative forward-facing exhausts, Renault (as Lotus were then) were talked of as the season's dark horses. The team's decline from this point started almost immediately and barely abated as 2012 progressed. Kubica put himself out for that season (and this) with injuries sustained in a rally accident, but worse as far as the team's prospects were concerned the exhaust concept proved to be a blind alley, and even worse than that precluded development in the aggressive exhaust blowing of the diffuser which was the key development area for competitiveness last year. This all left the team as sitting ducks, and they were counting down the days until 2011 finished long before the season was out.

F1 2012 Season Preview: Mercedes - Will the Silver Arrow hit the target?

So we are about to start the latest chapter of the curious case of Mercedes GP. It is a marque with an exemplary heritage in F1, including recent success. They took over the champion constructor at the end of 2009, and the team is headed up by one of the finest brains in the sport. And yet, in the proceeding two years all they can point to is three podium finishes in total, with third place their best result.

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
If anything, 2011 represented a step backwards, with no podium places at all. Of course, in both 2010 and 2011 there were mitigating circumstances in their relative struggles. In 2010 Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn could point to the necessary 40% cuts of the Brawn staff during the previous season, with hampered development of the 2010 machine. In 2011 the reasons were harder to put down to circumstance, as the car was fundamentally flawed. This was mainly down to a too-short wheelbase (which was in turn related to the team not foreseeing the potential of aggressive exhaust blowing of diffusers when designing the car), which resulted in too high a centre of gravity on full tanks on race day, as well as excessive rear tyre wear. This all added up to them qualifying an average of 1.6 per cent off the pole time over the 2011 season, and ending up a very distant fourth in the constructors' standings.

But even with all of the excuses, the record of achievement is not what anyone at the team hoped for and, three years into the project, signs of progress must be shown this year. If not, Stuttgart HQ may have something to say.