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.

Perez defies physics
A lot of the talk post-Montreal was of strategy, mainly Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel's attempts to string out a one stop strategy via a single 50 lap or more stint on the soft tyres. And the whole thing exploded in their faces.

Sergio Perez defied physics in Canada
Credit: Morio / CC
But at least part of the problem for both is that there was a couple of cars behind who ended up usurping them whose lap times on their one-stop strategies seemed to defy physics. One is Romain Grosjean, who despite his tyres being only two laps younger than Alonso's sailed past the Ferrari like his rubber was brand new and chased the much more freshly-booted Hamilton all the way to the flag to finish second. But it was the third placed Sergio Perez who especially defied credibility.

Starting in a gentleman's 15th place on soft tyres Perez not only stretched out his first stint to 41 laps, in so doing he matched the leaders' pace for much of the time, and did so right to the end of the stint. And then during his second stint, having found clear air on lap 56 with an opportunistic pass on Nico Rosberg, he simply flew; leaving the likes of Rosberg and Raikkonen behind and lapping as fast as anyone out there. Indeed in the final ten laps he motored consistently a second a lap quicker than Hamilton even and set no fewer than eight separate lap times better than Hamilton's best in the race, despite Checo's tyres being nine laps older. Of course, we don't know how much Hamilton, the race in his pocket, had time in hand, but it was still a mighty effort. And so much for running in traffic destroying this year's variety of Pirelli tyres: Perez spent pretty much all of his first 56 laps close behind a rival.

Perez enacting these sort of convention defying long strategies isn't new, and clearly he's bringing something to the party given I don't recall his team mate Kamui Kobayashi ever pulling off something similar. But it also shows that Sauber has a fundamentally good motor car this year: the Malaysia run definitely was not a freak and in Monaco and Spain Perez lapped very quickly after circumstances had put him far back (indeed in Monaco he claimed fastest lap). Peter Sauber is correct not to rule out a win for the team this year.

The downside of DRS
I am someone who supports the existence of DRS, or at the very least is prepared to let it have a fair crack.

And it seems it's here to stay, with many teams liking that it has gone a long way to resolving F1's perennial overtaking problem without requiring fundamental rewriting of the technical regulations. I'm well aware of the arguments against it, but am prepared generally to tolerate those points so to reduce the chances of races bereft of overtaking, and the exasperating sight of a clearly faster car bottled up helplessly behind a slower one for laps on end.

The downside of DRS was
on show in Montreal
Credit: Morio / CC
But, for every yin there is a yang. It can't be denied that DRS has brought with it unintended, negative consequences. And some of them were on show in Canada.

The race in Montreal was by no means an overtaking fest: according to Clip the Apex there was 47 overtakes in total which is fewer than there was in Spain for example. But it was unfortunate that DRS's downside showed itself at high profile moments upon which the race pivoted.

On lap 20 Fernando Alonso emerged from what was to be his only stop in a 'net' first place, but with Lewis Hamilton with his tyres fully scrubbed in soon all over him like a bad suit. Both were well aware that the DRS zone later in the lap, on the long straight after the hairpin, was Lewis's best opportunity to pass as Alonso got his rubber up to temperature, and that the pass could go a long way to deciding the race. Alonso therefore did a masterful piece of defensive driving, slowing to a crawl on the apex of the hairpin then stamping on the throttle and getting a clear jump on Lewis behind, putting several cars' lengths between the two. Had the DRS zone not been there this particular piece of driving genius could well have been rewarded with victory, as well as seen as the very point at which the race was won. But what happened next was that Lewis simply opened his DRS and sailed past as if Fernando was parked. If ever there was graphic demonstration that DRS is threatening the age old skill of defending your position this was it.

And as we know a key part of the race's story was Lewis, having stopped for a second tyre change, hunting down Alonso and Vettel ahead on much fresher tyres late on. Such was Lewis's pace advantage, and the extent that Alonso and Vettel's tyres 'fell off a cliff', Lewis almost certainly would have passed them anyway, but the existence of DRS took away a lot of the tension. It to a large extent turned the race into a forgone conclusion even when Lewis had two cars to pass before he led. Indeed, we even saw Lewis forgo a possible pass on Alonso into the hairpin, in preference of a 'safe' pass in the DRS zone (that's not to criticise Lewis, it was understandable in the circumstances).

As I said, DRS is most probably here to stay and in my view is broadly a good thing (and we'll probably be very grateful for it in Valencia), so perhaps we'll just have to get used to its flip side. But at times in the Montreal race the flip side seemed a terrible pity.

McLaren underestimating Lewis's options?
Those of us of a certain vintage recall that when the great Ron Dennis was principal of the McLaren F1 team he was notorious for his 'Ronspeak' (or 'Dennisperanto'). For all of his considerable qualities, his public pronouncements were often, shall we say, impenetrable.

Is Hamilton to Red Bull a possibility?
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
Faced with a Sky Sports microphone after the Canadian race he was on uncharacteristically frank form however, particularly on the subject of Lewis Hamilton's future. Hamilton is in many ways the key to the 2013 drivers' market; he's out of contract at his current employers and as far as we can tell isn't in a tearing hurry to sign a new one. And Dennis had this to say: 'He is on the end of a contract which was signed a at a time when the economy was somewhat different. Now there has to be a balance.' Lewis has to tone down his financial demands in other words.

Dennis isn't one who's got where he is today by speaking out of turn, so it would appear McLaren is confident about the strength of its hand. This is partly because it's hard to envisage Hamilton driving for anyone else (though that was said about Nelson Piquet vis-a-vis Brabham for years, before he decamped to Williams), but mainly because, possibly, the Woking squad is calculating that Lewis has nowhere else competitive to go.

You can understand why. It's widely assumed that Ferrari is a no-no for as long as Fernando Alonso is there (though as recorded on this blog we shouldn't totally rule it out), and Mercedes as things stand would represent a leap of faith on the competitiveness front.

But what about Red Bull? On the face of it, a move there presumably to partner Vettel would have the same 'two bulls in the same field' (pardon the pun) problem that partnering Alonso at Ferrari would have. And indeed, both Christian Horner and Helmut Marko have dismissed a potential Hamilton move for that very reason.

But just think of it this way. While the likes of McLaren, Ferrari, Williams etc are in F1 because it's their raison d'être, that with respect isn't the case for Red Bull. That organisation does F1 as part of its marketing. And, over time, it may find a law of diminishing returns of throwing money at an F1 team; after all it has won all there is to win already (Benetton had a similar experience). So, what better way of giving its F1 involvement a boost than having two of the top drivers of the age facing off in its team? And don't forget that while Horner and Marko can talk, ultimately both take their orders from above.

Seb does the sport proud
Let's finish on a slightly lighter note.

Fresh from the Canadian Grand Prix, and from sampling the New Jersey street track to be added to the F1 calendar next year, Sebastian Vettel appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, one of the USA's staple diet chat shows.

This is exactly the sort of thing F1 should be doing, and doing more often. I've often struggled to understand why F1 outwardly shows such a reluctance to promote itself outside of its own bubble, particularly in countries such as the US which it has failed to crack. Quite why F1 drivers aren't blitzing the chat shows, and there aren't more parades and events within major cities, particularly as race weekend approaches, is far from clear. And it's therefore no surprise that F1 has held races in 'new' countries and it hasn't caught the public's imagination to a sufficient extent (see Turkey, for example).

Peter Windsor mused on this very topic on the latest The Flying Lap episode, and said it to a large extent represents what psychologists call a collective action problem: Bernie and FOM would like such activities to be done (and paid for) by the teams, the teams would like Bernie and FOM to take the lead.

And in my view Seb does very well on Letterman. Despite the host's maddening insistence on not letting him speak (it seems a trait of the modern TV chat show host to try to make an interview all about them, rather than about the interviewee) Seb is friendly, charming, and his answers are comprehensive yet accessible, including on rather complex subjects like KERS and DRS (although he does drop in the f-word unfortunately)! I can think of very few contemporary F1 drivers who would have represented the sport anything like as well. Say what you like about our Seb, but it cannot be denied that he's a very good ambassador for F1.


  1. I hate DRS.

    Have you seen Dario Franchitti's recent appearance on Letterman?

    He does seem to give Dario a bit more room to speak. Letterman does tend to dominate his guests sometimes....

    1. Thanks Sarto :)

      You're right, Letterman's much better in the Franchitti interview. Not sure why he acted so differently in the Vettel interview. Letterman's clearly a massive motor sports fan (including of F1). Maybe, for some reason, he felt obliged to demonstrate his F1 knowledge?