Friday 29 June 2012

Further thoughts on the European Grand Prix

The real story from Valencia?
What was the biggest story from the European Grand Prix in Valencia just passed? Fernando Alonso's victory was as unexpected as it was brilliant, and only a curmudgeon will have been left unmoved by his emotional home win, all of which leaves him a clear 20 points clear in the drivers' table.

Are Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull set to dominate?
Credit: Morio / CC
But in the midst of all this was the real story of the weekend, at least in the longer term, missed? Before his alternator failed him at mid distance Sebastian Vettel had routed the field. With Red Bull having turned up with a technical upgrade so extensive that one team member quipped that it was not so much a B-Spec as a D-Spec, no one could live with Seb. From pole position (acquired comfortably) at the start of the race his lap-on-lap lead went like this: 1.9 seconds, 4.0, 5.3, 6.8, 7.6, 8.5, 9.2. And by lap 22 he had upwards of 20 seconds in his pocket over the next guy, more than enough to make an additional pitstop and still be leading, before first the safety car and then, definitively, a dud alternator destroyed his advantage. It was an astonishing show of supremacy, the like of which we've almost never seen in F1 2012-style, but that we saw repeatedly last season.

So, has Red Bull put a massive stride on the opposition which will be decisive for where honours go this year? Well, I wouldn't put it past them; Adrian Newey and his team are perfectly capable of such a eureka moment. And, something that's under-commented on, Red Bull's record of in-season development is an excellent one. Try to remember one of its upgrades that didn't work and it's genuinely difficult to cite many (or any) examples. Of course, on the flip side it's been such an unpredictable season so far with such a multitude of variables that it may be foolish to base too much on one race; Vettel qualified only seventh in the Spanish round which followed his win in Bahrain earlier this year, and while Nico Rosberg trounced all in China he's barely been seen at the front since. And at least some of Seb's Valencia dominance owed to his closest potential rivals on pace being tucked up behind slower cars. Silverstone next up, which is a very different circuit to Valencia, should give us a clearer sense of how the land really lies.

But without wishing to play the bad fairy at the christening, do you ever suspect that the close and unpreditable 2012 we've been enjoying may be about to come to an end?

Sunday 24 June 2012

European GP Report: Alonso the street fighting man

Races at Valencia are boring, right? No one can pass there anyway. You can't win a Grand Prix these days unless you start at the front, certainly not at Valencia. Fernando Alonso starts eleventh on the grid? No hope from there. Certainly if it doesn't rain. He said so himself. Indeed, he said not even a podium is possible. And he can't rely on attrition; modern F1 cars almost never break down.

Well never let it be said that in F1 things can be foreseen with confidence; all of these things turned out to be wrong today. Whatever ration there is for exciting Grands Prix at each venue was clearly saved up by the Valencia street track for each of the last four years and all dispensed liberally in the race this afternoon.

Fernando Alonso was at his brilliant best
to take his second win of the season
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
In the most unlikely of locations we were treated to an improbable and incident-packed race, even by the exalted standards of the 2012 season. For much of the way you didn't know where to look, such was the concentration of things happening. And at the end of it all home hero Fernando Alonso took the flag first, after a combative and rapid drive up from what looked a forlorn 11th place on the starting grid, a performance that must be among even his very best ever. There was not a dry eye in the house.

Of course, eight rounds in it ends the unprecedented run of no driver winning more than one race this year, but such was the quality of Fernando's drive I will forgive him for that. And on a day that closest championship rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel didn't score he now leads the drivers' table by a clear 20 points. It also, curiously, is the first home victory for an F1 driver since Felipe Massa took the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2008.

Saturday 23 June 2012

Valencia Qualifying: Seb stops the silliness

The Monty Python fans among you may recall a Sergeant-Major character who, when a sketch got (typically for Python) too madcap, would stride in front of the camera to order 'Stop that! It's silly!', thus bringing the tomfoolery to an abrupt close. It's tempting to see Sebastian Vettel in a qualifying hour as adopting a similar role these days. Not for the first time this season it looked late on that we'd get an unexpected pole sitter, as first Romain Grosjean then Pastor Maldonado topped the timing screens as the clock ticked down tantalisingly in the final session. But then, again not for the first time, Seb emerged at the last possible moment to remind them and everyone else of harsh reality by claiming pole, and claiming it by a distance.

Sebastian Vettel takes yet another pole -
bringing him level with greats Jim Clark and Alain Prost
Credit: Morio / CC
As argued before on this blog, even at this early stage of his career and of his life it surely is beyond contention that Seb is one of the best practitioners of a single qualifying lap that the sport has ever seen. Today's pole is his 33rd ever, which brings him equal in the record books with Alain Prost as well as with the legendary pole-claimer Jim Clark, who held the all time record for over twenty years. And it's only taken Seb a handful more races to achieve this mark than it did Jimmy (89 vs. 72).

And today all of Seb's magisterial qualifying qualities were on show: his lap was immaculate despite it being last chance saloon, and he found pace from thin air it seemed. All the way through qualifying (and indeed all the way through the weekend) there was almost nothing between the competitors' best times; the top 10 in Q2 was covered by just over two tenths of a second. But in his final effort Seb managed to dip under the bar set by his rivals by a full three and a half tenths of a second. A lifetime in F1 terms, even longer than that in super-competitive 2012.

Valencia Preview: F1's ugly duckling

It's by no means melodramatic to say that the Valencia stop-off isn't the most popular one on the F1 calendar. It's become F1's equivalent of the ugly duckling: one that its very mention at best results in indifference, at worst vitriol, among many fans. It's one that is invariably on the tip of many tongues when the 'which F1 circuit would you like to see dropped' question is raised.

So, why is this? On the face of it, you could say the venue has a lot going for it. It is in an exciting and vibrant city, it can boast a home hero who pulls in a large and passionate crowd, and a track layout that has plenty of big braking zones that should encourage overtaking. A while it doesn't really have a quick corner worthy of the name the same can be said of many circuits F1 visits, such as Canada and Singapore (two very popular stop-offs). And, contrary to popular belief, the circuit is a challenging one for drivers.

Perhaps it all demonstrates the importance of an F1 round as a holistic event, with off-track maybe as important as on-track. While the Canada and Singapore rounds have unique and electrifying surroundings and atmospheres, F1 pitched up in Valencia for the first time in 2008 to find not the 'new Monaco' that had been promised, but a circuit in a rather rough-around-the-edges and on-the-decline industrial port that had its back turned on it by the wider city somewhat, all far away from Valencia's attractive and buzzing centre. And apparently things haven't improved hugely since.

Related to this, TV shots rarely provide obvious and memorable landmarks and reference points in the surroundings, and instead concentrate on the inexorable walls around the track. This, combined with a rather repetitive, stop-start layout, makes the track to the viewer seem rather samey and unappealing. Alan Henry in Autocourse last year said the Valencia track: 'looks like a rather run-down, faux Indycar circuit - a sort of Long Beach without the glamour'.

Saturday 16 June 2012

Further thoughts on the Canadian Grand Prix

Variety is the spice of life
So it happened, we got our seven winners in seven races so far in 2012. And that's definitely a record (with or without the 1951 anomaly).

This hasn't pleased everyone, with for example the likes of Niki Lauda and Fernando Alonso joining those saying that such a variety of winners risks turning people away from the sport.

Well I respectfully disagree. Variety of winners is a good thing. You want evidence? Ask any F1 enthusiast which season was the best ever, and the year of 1982 will be prominent among the suggestions.

The Williams FW08, which took Keke Rosberg
to the 1982 world championship
Why is this? On the face of it, a lot was bad about 1982. It was a time of extreme political acrimony and bitterness in the sport, and one race had only 14 competitors due to a teams' strike. The cars with ground effect aerodynamics and rock hard suspension were unsatisfying and unpleasant to drive. What's more they were dangerous, and two F1 drivers (including the great Gilles Villeneuve) died in action that season, and one more (Didier Pironi) was injured severely and never raced again. Many of the races were processional, and the gaps on lap times between the competitors were often large (plus the Renaults were the fastest just about everywhere). There wasn't even a particularly close championship battle: Keke Rosberg effectively taped it all up with two rounds to go.

But what 1982 did have was 11 different winners in 16 races. Enjoy the 2012 'lottery'; you'll miss it when it's gone.

Sunday 10 June 2012

Canadian GP Report: Lewis in seventh heaven

Seven races in 2012, and now seven different winners. And for all of the variation and talk of lotteries, there always seemed something absurd about Lewis Hamilton never having visited the winner's circle this year. That particular wrong was righted today.

Lewis had the whole thing under control from an early stage of the Canadian Grand Prix, despite the odd adventure which we've come to expect at this Montreal venue.

Lewis Hamilton took a fine win today,
and now leads the championship
Credit: Morio / CC
For the most part the race for the win was a game for three players: Lewis, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso running in close order out front. Seb led off the line and scampered off in the fashion to which we've grown accustomed, but Lewis in second place gradually hauled him in and then got ahead by staying out a lap longer at the first stops and being able to hold Seb off while he got sufficient heat into his tyres. Fernando Alonso threatened to be the wild card, as he stayed out two laps longer than Lewis and cleared them both. However, it also took his Ferrari a while to get its tyres to operating temperature and Lewis cruised past him in the DRS zone at his earliest convenience.

Saturday 9 June 2012

Montreal Qualifying: Seb takes pole without any holes

Must be nice to feel vindicated. The Red Bull team has had a tough time of it in Montreal. Not only has the Montreal track, with no fast corner worthy of the name, never really been happy country for the Bulls, it has this weekend been faced with open season on the details of the RB8. First off, the FIA had asked Red Bull to remove the holes in the car's floor in front of the rear wheels, and today it transpired that it'd been asked to make modifications to the wheel hub due to getting aerodynamic advantage from holes there as well. Some were even muttering about the validity of the team's results since Bahrain.

Well, holes or no holes, the team is still right there and Sebastian Vettel underlined this fact by taking an unexpectedly comfortable pole position for tomorrow's Canadian Grand Prix.

Sebastian Vettel took a clear pole position -
the 32nd of his career
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
As expected, lap times were tight in qualifying. McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari were at the sharp end, and with this the likes of Mercedes, Lotus, even Force India, Sauber and Williams, were within their ballpark. All of this added up to the top 16 cars' best times being within a second of each other in the second qualifying session.

Even within this though Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso seemed the most likely pole candidates. But as we've seen so often in the past Seb is one blessed with an intangible ability to pull out extra crucial tenths of a second on a single flying lap and never to compromise his own chances. And this, it seemed, was enough to tilt things in his favour - he topped the first two sessions and in the end he took the quickest time in Q3 by the surprisingly large margin of three tenths of second over Lewis in second and Nando in third.

Friday 8 June 2012

Montreal Preview: Wonderfully different

Try to find an F1 fan who doesn't like races at Montreal. Go on. I warn you though: it won't be the work of a moment.

The Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal is anticipated almost like no other on the modern calendar. Why is this? Well a lot of it, in my view, lays in the fact that the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is different.

Montreal - a venue like no other
Credit: magicfab / CC
Sited as it is on a man-made island barely 150 yards across in the St Lawrence river, surrounded immediately by parkland and flower beds which is dusted with quirky, other-worldly architecture, all overhung by an exciting, vibrant, international city, yes dear reader when the F1 circus pitches up in Montreal it certainly could not be mistaken for being anywhere else.

Such characteristics are increasingly welcome in an age of more and more off-the-shelf Tilke facilities on the calendar, but even when the circuit made its F1 bow back in 1978, and even by the standards of that age, the venue was notable for its charming nonconformity. This was noted in that year's Autocourse annual: 'Even a cold and wet Autumn day could not drown the magical surroundings of Montreal's brand new race track, weaving around the futuristic buildings of the Expo 67 site in the man-made Ile de Notre-Dame...The track itself could be described as another Crystal Palace...the whole place had an out-of-context atmosphere as racing cars screamed through tree-lined corners and neatly trimmed flower gardens only minutes from the noise and bustle of a major city'.

Monday 4 June 2012

Mounting the Prancing Horse? Contenders for the 2013 Ferrari seat

If you think the faces who occupy the drives in the 'big four' F1 teams seem a bit familiar, that's because they are. We're now into the third season in a row of the same drivers in the same seats at Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes.

But before you think that F1 is losing its reputation for musical chairs, as well as its notorious 'silly season' of rumour and counter-rumour about who is going where in the future, for 2013 all of this will change. None of the teams I listed has its drivers' line up set, or even reasonably clear, for next year. This includes Ferrari: while Fernando Alonso is under contract to drive for them all the way until the end of 2016 there is an ever-increasing number of hats in the ring for who'll be partnering him.

Here I assess some of the runners and riders in the Prancing Horse seat race.

Credit: Mark McArdle / CC
Felipe Massa
First of all, let's not forget that there is an incumbent.

What does Ferrari want from the guy who'll drive alongside Alonso from 2013? Well, ideally it wants someone who can co-exist with the Spaniard, and not 'rock the boat' unduly. The Ferrari-Santander-Alonso plan for glory is a clear one. But, with this, Ferrari is an outfit that wants to win constructors' titles as much as drivers' ones. Therefore, most probably, it requires someone humble enough to accept 'the role', but also good enough to bring home big points and be close to Alonso's pace.