Sunday, 29 July 2012

Hungarian GP Report: Lewis's command and control

We really are seeing a new and improved Lewis Hamilton in 2012. In previous years we knew what to expect from him: astounding pace, freakish car control, bravery and aggression reminiscent of the great Gilles Villeneuve. All this remains, but this year he's harnessed it with a control and intelligence to manage his race, and in particular to manage the finite resource of the Pirelli tyres. The errors seem to have gone; last year's clumsiness when wheel-to-wheel is now like it was from another driver. And the difference in the positivity of his demeanour out of the car is also palpable. All of this was on display in Lewis's masterful Hungarian Grand Prix win today.

Lewis Hamilton was masterful in
winning the Hungarian Grand Prix
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
Lewis was the quickest thing around the Hungaroring from the moment a wheel was turned in Friday practice. Yet, his race today was no cruise and collect. Against expectations the rain stayed away today, which helped Lewis, but in line with some people's expectations the Lotuses showed their prodigious race pace - Lewis had one of them breathing down his neck all afternoon. Further, tyre life was marginal and the McLaren pitwall seriously considered bringing Lewis in for a third change late on, which no doubt would have lost him the win. But while all this was going on Lewis never put a wheel wrong that I saw, carefully looked after his boots, and the thought occurred as the race went on that despite the Lotuses' proximity Lewis had the thing well under control. Sure enough, he was able respond to any threat as necessary and tick off the laps, still out front at the end.

And today's win meant more than 25 points for Lewis, it was a declaration of intent heading into the five-week summer break and the subsequent final part of the season: Lewis fully intends to win the drivers' title this year. Yes, the road back will be a long one, mainly because before today he'd scored but four points in the three preceding races. But the McLaren looks bang on the money right now, and neither championship leader Fernando Alonso nor his team will be even close to disregarding Lewis's threat. Indeed, they may well now see Lewis as their primary rival.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Hungaroring Qualifying: Lewis in a class of one

In F1 this year we've got used to things being very close and claustrophobic, with cars so tightly packed on lap times that one could (metaphorically) throw a handkerchief over most of them. That was indeed the case today, but with one glaring omission: Lewis Hamilton was in a class all of his own out ahead.

Lewis Hamilton was in a class of one
 in Hungaroring qualifying
Credit: Morio / CC
Today was classic Hamilton. Absolutely bang on the money, pitching the car onto each and every apex, tail sliding almost for fun, and a series of lap times that no one could get near. The acrobatic Hungaroring layout and low grip surface suits him just fine (indeed, in five years in his F1 career he's won here twice and has now taken three pole positions). And when Lewis really has his tail up there are few finer sights in modern F1 than watching him drive a car at its outer edge of adhesion.

From an early stage today it was pretty transparent that any tension was around who could qualify second. Sure enough, in the final session Lewis claimed pole by a clear four tenths of second, and just like Alonso last week at Hockenheim he set two separate times that were each good enough to have him start at the front. It all confirms the McLaren upturn hinted at last week, and further the hot track temperature and long corners prevalent here are right up its street. Jenson Button, more worryingly, sounded rather pained about the handling of his car, in a throwback to his woes prior to the German race. Still, he salvaged fourth on the grid, albeit six tenths slowed than his team mate's best.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Hungaroring Preview: A close call

Think of the sort of track that gets added to the F1 calendar in modern times, and there's a definite identikit. Purpose built, super safe, gleaming facilities, no expense spared, and all bankrolled by the national government keen to 'brand' the country. You may have wondered when this all began and which F1 venue in history was the first of these? Well, the answer is probably Hungary.

Races at the Hungaroring always attract
a large and enthusiastic crowd
The Hungaroring debuted in 1986, and was a high standard facility built purposively to host an F1 race, and in just the seven months prior to the event, on a greenfield site not far outside the city of Budapest. But that was barely the half of it. It's easy to forget now, but F1's stepping behind the Iron Curtain into the 'Eastern Bloc', as Hungary was then part of, was truly groundbreaking, and a step into the almost completely unknown for both the F1 circus and its hosts. Indeed, Martin Brundle has since commented that as he and the other competitors lined up on the dummy grid preparing for the race start he noticed something almost unprecedented from an attendant F1 crowd: complete silence. Those assembled in the stands had absolutely no idea what to expect to unfold in front of them, and were thus dumbfounded.

Bernie Ecclestone had eyed a race in the Eastern Bloc for some time, and indeed as early as 1983 a street race in Moscow appeared on the provisional F1 calendar. That floundered on insurmountable bureaucracy, but Hungary, always the most outward-looking of the Eastern Bloc countries, stepped in and Bernie was sold on the idea.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Further thoughts on the German Grand Prix

Alonso astonishes
I wonder what odds you would have got, as Fernando Alonso's Ferrari F2012 sat beached in the Melbourne turn one gravel trap during the opening qualifying session of the year, on that come the season's halfway point he'd be leading the driver's championship table. Not only that, but his lead on his championship rivals would read thus: 34 points clear of Mark Webber; 44 points of Sebastian Vettel; 56 points of Kimi Raikkonen; 62 points of Lewis Hamilton; 86 of Jenson Button. Alonso's astonishing season continues to confound all of us.

Fernando Alonso's 2012 success
has confounded most of us
Credit: Morio / CC
In the age of the bloated race calendar the halfway point now still leaves 10 races, and 250 points, available. Hey, even come mid-October there will then yet remain four races and 100 points. And in the 2012 year the only consistent factor is unpredictability; it'll only take one non-finish for Alonso for things to likely shift fundamentally. And the consensus is that there are at least a couple of cars, possibly more, superior to the Ferrari right now. Therefore, all to play for.

But on the other hand, Alonso is a man who has scored points in each of the last 22 races, and you have to go all the way back to early 2010 to find his last mechanical failure. Further, both he and his Ferrari look strong on all types of circuit and in all types of conditions, and have been consistently up there ever since the upgrades introduced before the Spanish race. In the six races since then Alonso has finished on the podium in five of them, and one could argue that with better strategy he could/should have won all six. And in close and variable 2012 getting a strong run of results to overturn Alonso's lead will be even more difficult than usual.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

German GP Report: Alonso rises above it

No doubt a lot of the headlines, and the legacy, of today's German Grand Prix will centre on Red Bull, and the team's courting of controversy on and off the track. Before the race the air was full of rumours of the Red Bulls being moved to the back of the grid, or worse, because of engine mapping that maybe wasn't quite kosher (and it seems the matter isn't over yet). Then after the race much of the chatter was of Sebastian Vettel's late pass of Jenson Button for second place in which he left the track, and which eventually got him a 20 second penalty which dropped him to fifth. But it would be quite wrong for any of this to be the story of today's proceedings. The real story was yet another immaculate win by Fernando Alonso against the odds, his third triumph of the season. We really are running out of superlatives for that man in 2012.

Fernando Alonso took another win in fine style
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Rather like a more heroic version of the Vicar of Bray, in the Hockenheim race Fernando Alonso stayed resolute in first place all the way through, no matter what was going on around him. For all of the 67 laps today he was under pressure, and there seemed a never-ending supply of cars behind which looked quicker than the Ferrari. And yet Alonso was never usurped, nor did he in hindsight ever look particularly like he was going to be usurped. We've seen this many times before from the Spaniard, and when the day comes that he does drop it when out in front in a motor race (as that is the way in F1) we'll no doubt all have to rub our eyes disbelievingly, not quite sure of what we've just seen.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Hockenheim Qualifying: Alonso rules the waves

Another weekend, another country, same story. F1 has decamped all of the 500+ mile distance from Silverstone to Hockenheim over the past two weeks, yet you'd hardly know it. The weather for one changed little, with qualifying proceedings disrupted by rain showers. And the outcome is exactly the same: Fernando Alonso topped the times imperiously and will start on pole position tomorrow.

Fernando Alonso ruled the wet
conditions once again in qualfiying
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
It probably hasn't escaped your attention that Alonso, to coin the British phrase, isn't necessarily everyone's cup of tea. And today on his radio at the end of the second qualifying session he (in effect) communicated to Charlie Whiting that he felt the conditions were too wet for matters to proceed. Just like Jackie Stewart before, Alonso's usually being among the first to raise the safety issue doesn't always win him fans in the strange world of F1. But also just as with Stewart his bravery absolutely cannot be called into question and is as committed as anyone when called upon to drive in such streaming wet conditions. There was no delay to the itinerary and in such treacherous conditions today in the final session Alonso was consistently the fastest of anyone and took the pole by a clear four tenths of a second. As David Coulthard noted: 'I think the other drivers would also give Fernando Alonso a round of applause. That is a sizeable gap in very difficult conditions'.

Harnessed to Alonso's skill was a Ferrari pit wall which got its approach spot on today. I, and others, haven't always been complimentary of Ferrari on the strategy front in recent times but today it was as sharp as a tack. It centred on two pivotal calls: one that Alonso changed wet tyres partway through the final session, giving him vital extra grip for his crucial last efforts, and the other that from an early stage it was clear that timing would be all, in that who was last over the line before the clock hit zero would have the driest track to set their time on and thus have a vital advantage. And so it proved: Alonso crossed the line last with but seven seconds to spare, and he then set the fastest time by a distance (though it transpired that his previous effort was good enough for pole anyway).

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Hockenheim Preview: A matter of perspective?

Even with a prolonged twenty-race calendar an F1 season still gives its usual impression of rattling along at a fair clip. And it seems astonishing that this weekend's race, the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, will mark the halfway point of the absorbing 2012 F1 year.

We're very much in phase two of Hockenheim's modern existence, and perhaps it says something about the age of the sanitised Tilke-drome that perspectives, and standards, have changed with the zeitgeist. It would have been an absurd thing to say for a long time, but the previously-used Hockenheim layout is these days viewed with something resembling affection by many. I even read one circuit guide describe the current Hockenheim as 'scarcely a shadow of its former great self'.

Panoramic view of Hockenheim    Credit: Matthias Ott / CC
For the 2002 race Hockenheim's current tight and technical Hermann Tilke-designed track replaced the preceding distinctive blasts through the forests, which amounted essentially to lengthy straights interrupted by chicanes, and ended with a serpentine 'stadium section' which wound within grey imposing concrete grandstands capable of housing 100,000 people. The 'old' Hockenheim was seldom popular at the time however. It was viewed as not being a challenge for drivers but simultaneously tough on engines due to them being on full noise for several seconds down the straights, thus ensuring races were battles for survival rather than necessarily those for the racers. And worst of all events here were perceived to be rather tepid and bland; a place where nothing much seemed to happen. Indeed, it used to be said that it was at Hockenheim where the annual 'silly season' of rumour and counter rumour of which drivers would go where for the following year would start, simply because of the lack of other things to talk about.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Further thoughts on the British Grand Prix

Explaining Webber's resurgence
'What's happened to Mark Webber?' I always recall my mum asking me that shortly after the 2010 Spanish Grand Prix, which Webber had won dominantly and against advance expectations. Mother could just as validly ask me the same thing now.

Mark Webber - every reason to smile
Credit: Rich Jones / CC
Just like two years ago this was a season wherein Mark was meant to quietly continue his role as, in his words, 'number two driver' to Sebastian Vettel. Yet nine races in he's the lead Red Bull pilot both on points and on the qualifying match up (by 5 to 4). This from a man who only three times qualified ahead of Vettel last year, and only once (in Germany) clearly outraced him.

So what's happened? Well, to wind back to last year a lot of the difference between Webber and Vettel was in qualifying and the starts. In most races Webber would be seriously on the back foot within a few hundred metres of the red light going out, down in the pack due to poor grid slots and getaways (and the Red Bull isn't the car you want in traffic) while Seb was scampering into the distance in no time. Those have been negated in 2012: Webber no longer starts the races in third gear it seems, and on a qualifying lap and to some extent by extension in a race Webber is getting much more out of this year's batch of Pirelli tyres than last year's. Webber's natural driving style caused too much of a heat build up on the surface of the 2011 rubber, especially in a single lap, taking them out of their narrow operating band, while at the same time Vettel was able to master them. This year's tyres seem much less sensitive to surface temperature, bringing Webber right back into the picture. And tracing Webber's F1 career back against the tyres he's been on, his performances have tended to vary with the type of rubber.

Not unimportantly Webber also has lost the rather haunted 'they've all got it in for me' world view that he exhibited for much of 2010 and subsequently. Outwardly Webber is in a much happier place now, exhibited by his signing to remain at Red Bull for 2013 just after the Silverstone race.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

British GP Report: The sun shines on Mark Webber

In a weekend of notorious unpredictability we got the biggest surprise of all in the British Grand Prix race: it didn't rain. Yes, after what seemed never-ending precipitation on Friday and Saturday things were unremittingly dry and sunny for the race's duration. Even better we were treated to a mano-a-mano race-long battle between Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso. And it was all resolved in Aussie Grit's favour with only three laps left, with a brave, decisive move around the outside of Brooklands turn.

It is always a real treat to see Webber and Alonso lock horns. Here we have two proper racing drivers who crucially also have massive respect for each other on and off the track. So while the battles are taken to the very edge never are they crude. That's exactly what we saw today.

Mark Webber took a fine win after a determined, quick drive
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
In an ever-unforeseeable 2012 year in F1 Mark Webber's form is possibly the biggest surprise of them all. Following on from a difficult 2011 most entered this year expecting him to retain the status very much as Red Bull's 'other driver', especially with both he and Sebastian Vettel a year older. More widely, this was meant to be a year's grace in the big time for Webber before he was moved on to make way for a younger pilot. But all of this reckoned without the man himself. Not for the first time he's proved us all wrong, and via a season of determined, consistent and quick driving, wherein he's rarely failed to play his given hand as well as possible, he is now but 13 points shy of Alonso at the drivers' table top and all of a sudden looks a genuine title contender. Additionally, he's got Red Bull and Ferrari having a tug of love over his services for 2013. Let's think twice before we write him off again.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Silverstone's water torture

Before the Friday of the British Grand Prix weekend was out we had our most weighty story of the whole event in place already. Incessant rain, the type that Britain specialises in, fell all day and brought chaos with it. This chaos is well-documented: grass car parks and some campsites became unusable and the management of the incoming traffic seemed to break down, causing thousands of fans to sit idle in their cars on gridlocked roads for hours. Many were still queuing for entry come the evening, long after the on-track action was complete. And even worse, those with public car park tickets, up to 30,000 fans apparently, were abruptly asked yesterday not to turn up for today's action. The effects of this today were clear from the TV pictures: some grandstands were sparsely populated on a day you'd expect them to be full.

It goes without saying that this is a very bad situation. The fans who spend money on tickets are the lifeblood of the sport, and for such paying customers, who as well as spending money on tickets also are likely to have taken time off work and done all sorts of planning and organisation etc etc, to be treated in such a way is exasperating. This is especially so in an age where disposable income is generally low and stretching to a (usually expensive) F1 ticket isn't easy. And just a few days ago I was paying tribute to the size and enthusiasm of a Silverstone Grand Prix crowd (indeed 80,000 were due through the gates yesterday and 100,000 today - figures most F1 venues can't even think about matching). F1 needs all the paying customers it can get, particularly right now, and we can just hope that the problems haven't lost too many of them to the sport.

Silverstone Qualifying: Alonso makes his luck

Napoleon used to say 'bring me lucky generals'. When considering which marshals to promote to general he asked not for a measure of their skills, nor their intellect, nor home life. He asked only for that measure of their mysterious tendency for good fortune. And if the answer was in the affirmative he made them a general.

But perhaps Napoleon wasn't relying solely on such a indiscriminate quality. Perhaps he also recognised that, ultimately, you make your own luck. Had he watched Fernando Alonso's blend of fortune and skill on display in claiming pole position today in a lengthy, interrupted qualifying session at Silverstone he may well have raised a smile.

Fernando Alonso relied on both luck and skill to take pole
Credit: Morio / CC
For the most part though pole looked a remote possibility for the Spaniard. He survived a wild spin somehow unscathed, was rescued by a red flag at a point when he looked fully destined to start in mid-grid, and got into the final qualifying session by a hair's breadth. But at the end of it all he emerged having claimed the right to start at the head of the grid for tomorrow's race.

In the second qualifying session it rained much harder than before, and Ferrari looked to have made the disastrous choice of sending out both cars on intermediate tyres when wets were what was required, and by the time they were changed the best of the conditions had gone as the rain intensified further. Indeed, while on this was going on Alonso undertook a high-speed spin, in which it looked for all of the world that he was going to wipe off the front of his car on a barrier. But, making his luck not for the last time this afternoon, he got the thing pointing the right way expertly. Then, with a massive stroke of fortune, the rain exacerbated to such an extent that the red flag was thrown, with six minutes of that session remaining - at the time Alonso was down in P16 and it seemed had no hope of improving.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Silverstone Preview: F1's home gig

I'm not one driven by patriotism. Nationalities, certainly in F1, mean very little to me. But even I fully appreciate that there's something very special about the British Grand Prix.

Crowds at Silverstone are always
large and enthusiastic
Credit: Richard Smith / CC
The Grand Prix at Silverstone very much feels like F1's home gig, and feels that way for a number of reasons. This is of course in part because eight of the 12 competing teams are based close by, as are a myriad of companies that supply them, in F1's answer to silicon valley. It's also in part because it was in Britain, and indeed at Silverstone, that it all started for F1 back in 1950. And the airfield track, despite inevitable changes in the meantime, retains much of its old character.

But it's also because very few races can match the British Grand Prix for the number, enthusiasm and knowledge of those who fill the grandstands. Many are there primarily to support the British drivers of course, but many are not and a worthy winner is always applauded at Silverstone whoever it is (despite the odd aberration such as in 1992). In an age wherein such core support has had its back turned on it by the modern F1 itinerary, to be replaced by more and more by rounds that owe more to the host Government's desire to 'brand' the country and boost its tourism rather than to local motorsport passion, Silverstone's place is especially welcome. Eddie Cheever, in the dark but recent days when the race looked to be under threat, summed it up: 'not having a British Grand Prix is like the Pope not going to the Vatican'.