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.

And he's allied all of this with attributes he displayed even in the difficult times: namely determination, aggression and the ability to bring the thing home having maximised his hand dealt. Webber leaves very few points out on the track, and it's this consistency (shown with four fourth places in the opening four races this year) as much as the wins that's got Webber where he is in the table.

And, moreover, Webber has simply always been very good, and there have always been some days that simply no one on the F1 grid can live with him. Last Sunday's British Grand Prix was one such occasion.

The quiet redemption of Felipe Massa
As mentioned, on the Tuesday after the Silverstone race Mark Webber confirmed that he's sticking with Red Bull for next year rather than twisting by joining Ferrari, with whom there had been talks. It's probable that Webber was the Scuderia's first choice to partner Fernando Alonso for 2013, so with him out of the reckoning who's next on the list? I'd suggest that it's the incumbent Felipe Massa.

Felipe Massa - now favourite to retain his Ferrari place?
Credit: Morio / CC
And why not? While at the Malaysian race in March Massa's Maranello obituaries were written by those watching on, over the piece he's quietly been having a good season.

With perfect timing given the Webber news he put in a very fine race in Silverstone, looking confident and combative throughout on his way to fourth place, just 6.5 seconds shy of Alonso at the end. The Monaco weekend, with a revised front suspension at his disposal, was to a large extent Massa's turning point. There he looked a lot like the guy who won a world championship for 20 seconds back in 2008 as he ran right with the leaders throughout and was rather unfortunate to end up only sixth in the final shake-out. And since he's been close to Fernando's pace; in Canada he finished just 12 seconds behind despite spinning and in Valencia he ran close to him before picking up damage from debris in the Kobayashi/Senna clash, and then had Kobayashi ruin his day by driving into him. Even before all of this, in China and Bahrain, he ran pretty much bang on Alonso's laptimes and finished only 5 and 7 seconds behind in each respectively (with no safety cars or similar to artificially diminish the gap).

One thing that also strikes me is that while we are prone (with justification) to laud Alonso as a driving genius we can be guilty of in the same breath decrying Massa for not getting near to him. It's difficult to have it both ways. With Webber out of the picture, the vacancy by the team's own admission coming too soon for Sergio Perez, the likes of Vettel presumably unavailable and in any case the Ferrari model being one of Fernando-focus, just who around could you say with confidence would be a better bet in that seat next year?

More from Maldonado
You may recall that in the previous installment of Further Thoughts... I, with spectacular ill-timing, defended Pastor Maldonado following his contretemps with Lewis Hamilton. In Silverstone Pastor got into another scrape, this time with Sergio Perez. And Perez stoked the whole thing up with some subsequent frustrated barbs that Maldonado is 'dangerous', 'doesn't respect other drivers' and that 'everybody (i.e. all drivers) has concerns about him'. To many it was the story of the weekend, and it all again ignited an explosion of anger towards the Venezuelan, many calling for race bans and worse (one article even called for him to be banned on the grounds of 'bringing the sport into disrepute').

Pastor Maldonado - in the wars once again
Credit: Morio / CC
Inadvertently it seems I'm becoming a Maldonado defender-in-chief, but I think there’s been a touch of over reaction to that crash. Yes Maldonado was at fault but it was also a bit of a racing incident in my view, he just got a snap of oversteer while on cold tyres and thus slid into Perez - a genuine error (which he held his hands up to). It certainly wasn’t malicious or showing a lack of 'respect', and Perez was out of order frankly to suggest that it was.

I suspect if the incident had involved anyone else it wouldn’t have raised much more than a shoulder shrug; the fuss to a large extent likely reflects the accumulative effect of Maldonado’s previous incidents rather than that incident in isolation. Rather like the footballer who's known as a dirty player, even when he does something fairly innocuous the crowd goes up in unison demanding a red card. I'm therefore glad that the race stewards disregarded the clamour and saw a fine and reprimand as sufficient sanction.

But still, the accumulative effect of Pastor's various bumps isn't good. Only a churl would dispute that he’s making contact with other cars way too much and needs to work on his judgment in that area. We all tend to close our eyes when he goes wheel-to-wheel these days (and so, apparently, does he). And ultimately it's to his own detriment, as he loses major points hauls that his impressive raw pace should be rewarded with. But just as with Lewis Hamilton in his run of clashes last year, I don't believe that punitive actions such as race bans will help anyone.

Is Perez the best judge?
As an adjunct to Sunday's Maldonado-Perez spat, I did also wonder whether Perez was the best placed to be doing the criticising on driving standards. Like Maldonado he's shown lots of pace and potential in his year and a bit in F1, but also like Maldonado he's been prone to mistakes and to get into contact with competitors.

Last year Perez was penalised for a clash with Adrian Sutil in China, lost his front wing in Turkey, spun in Germany and got drive through penalties in Hungary and Spa; the former for passing under yellows, the latter for a clash with Sebastien Buemi. And this year he got a penalty at Monaco for a sharp cut across Kimi Raikkonen's bows to enter the pits, made contact with Heikki Kovalainen in the same race (which resulted in Kova pitting for a new nose and deprived the Caterham team of a record finish arguably), and in the race before in Spain some reckoned he was fortunate to escape without censure when he, while hobbled with a puncture at the third corner, rejoined the track as the full pack of F1 cars was flashing past at much greater speed to him, and indeed it caused Lewis Hamilton to swerve off the track in avoidance. Totalled up like this one could argue that Perez's list of misdemeanours isn't actually that much shorter than Pastor's.

I do not intend this to be any sort of character assassination of Perez, merely some context. Perhaps next time he feels like complaining about other drivers he should remember the old one about stone throwing and glass house occupants.

Party like it's 1986?
In ever-surprising 2012 it's probably foolish to make confident predictions as to what's going to happen next on the competitiveness front. The potential for egg on face is considerable.

But, disregarding my own advice, the evidence of the past race or two is that things just might be boiling down to Red Bull vs. Alonso for the drivers' title this year.

The Williams FW11 was without doubt the car of 1986, but
it was Alain Prost in a McLaren that claimed the drivers' title
Credit: Morio / CC
If so, it's all something of a parallel with one of the great seasons in the sport's history, 1986, with Alonso as Alain Prost and with Red Bull playing the part of Williams.

The similarities are rather spooky: Prost then, as with Alonso now, was by common consensus the gold standard driver of the time but many felt was not in the best car. And Williams, just like Red Bull currently, was viewed as the car to have, and had two evenly-matched drivers with one performing far ahead of expectations (Webber thus taking on the role of Nigel Mansell).

A sobering thought for the Bulls is that Williams missed out on the drivers' title as its two drivers battled, and thus took points from, each other, and in the end Prost sneaked through the middle of them to snatch the honours at the final round. And it does look a boon for Alonso that presumably he doesn't have to worry about his team mate taking points from him. Also, Webber needs to avoid fluffing his start in the penultimate race, as well as be wary of tyre blow outs in Interlagos.

But if the season climax is half as good as that of 1986 then we're all in for a treat.


  1. "My boy" Vettel is going to put Webbo in his place as number two driver.
    Would have happened already were it not for a rare engine failure and Karthikeyan clumsily cutting his tire so that's big points from two races gone through no fault of the driver.
    I thought Vettel's battle with Alonso for the WDC to be exciting, this just spices things up even further, he has to contain his team mate as well.
    Can't wait for the next chapter!

  2. Until Vettel, it should be reemembered that Webber had shown the door to every teammate he had ever had - and some of them were no slouches! So contrary to what Christos_SWC has suggested, maybe Webber has simply restored the status quo after a couple of bad years. Sure, Vettel has challenged him like no team-mate ever has before - but Mark is back on top right now, and I would expect him to have every reason to want to stay there!

    1. Thanks Mike. A very good point - pre-Vettel Webber has habitually blown his team mates away in his F1 career (including Nico Rosberg in 2006, though in Rosberg's defence he was young at the time). So, Webber's always been very good, perhaps we shouldn't all be so surprised when he does well. Still, I agree with Christos_SWC in the sense that I have a hunch that, over a season, Vettel will emerge ahead of Webber in the table.

    2. We've always known that Webber was Very Good, but his performance vs Vettel this year will tell everyone whether he is Great.

    3. His failure of mounting a World championship challenge at the end of the 2010 season is on the back of everyone's (and his) head.
      The true mark of a champion is that he gets better when the chips are down, rather than fall apart.
      There's no denying he is a very fast driver (when he's in the mood!) but he will have to prove he can take the next step.
      Personally I doubt he can but he still has a chance to do it so let's see.
      The good thing for him and the team is that his dislike of the young kid that's been beating him more often than not is firing him up.