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.

It's way too early to say that it's Alonso's championship to lose, or similar. But his rivals must be looking at usurping him in the drivers' table as a challenge akin to a Himalayan trek.

Seb's further strife
Sebastian Vettel courted more controversy in Hockenheim
Credit: Morio / CC
Following his controversial late pass on Jenson Button at Hockenheim (which eventually got him a penalty), Sebastian Vettel decided to create a bit more controversy for himself with his 'stupid' comments post-race regarding Lewis Hamilton unlapping himself by overtaking him mid-race.

In Seb's defence, contrary to much of the reporting and headlines it was Lewis's behaviour that he described as stupid rather than Lewis personally. But, nevertheless, Seb is surely smart enough to realise that use of the word 'stupid' is what the media and many others would pick up on and most probably wouldn't reflect the subtlety. And it's difficult to understand what Seb was complaining about, there's nothing in the rules forbidding unlapping yourself, and Peter Windsor made the good point that Jim Clark's drive at Monza in the 1967 Italian Grand Prix has gone into F1 folklore as one of the best ever, and it involved unlapping himself. In American racing lapped cars seeking to 'get back onto the lead lap' is a fundamental part of the game.

It's a side of Seb that's never been entirely purged, namely tendency for petulance when things don't go his way. But still, I'm more relaxed than many are at this side of his character. For one thing - and it's easy to forget given he's already won everything there is to win - he's still young, only just turned 25. For another, something that does unite almost all top sportspeople is a hatred of losing. I'd be a lot more concerned if Seb seemed utterly sanguine when things don't work out for him.

The letter of the law
Another common topic of conversation from Hockenheim surrounded Seb's team, Red Bull. It was its engine maps that got all a-flutter, and Technical Delegate Jo Bauer had reported the car to the stewards on race morning. The Bulls starting at the back of the grid, or worse, looked a genuine possibility.

I'm gratified that Martin Brundle commented that there isn't really a simple, layman's way of summing up what the Bulls' engine map issue consisted of, but it seemed it was doing a couple of things: one is it was doing possibly a bit too much of the off throttle exhaust blowing that was meant to be restricted this year, and also possibly it amounted to a form of traction control.

But no such punishment was forthcoming, as the Hockenheim stewards in effect admitted that the Bulls had successfully exploited a loophole in the wording of the rules. This started a round of hand-wringing and dark frowning in the Red Bull team's direction. But I don't share this; Red Bull was doing its job. All F1 teams are there to stretch the wording of the rules to its limits without breaking them, and in this case it appears that the Milton Keynes squad did it successfully (even though Red Bull is to be told to change its mapping for Hungary as the loophole is to be closed). Christian Horner is absolutely correct to say that 'There is no clause in the regulations that refers to the spirit of the regulations'.

One of the oldest adages in F1 is that all teams must read the rules twice: first time to read what the say and then again to work out how they can work around them.

Why the lack of coaches in F1?
Imagine that you were to pick up a newspaper tomorrow and you read on the back pages that Novak Djokovic had dumped his coach and didn't intend to ever replace them, as he felt he didn't need one. Or that Leo Messi had decided that the only training he was going to do from now on is on his fitness, he reckoned his footballing technique didn't require further honing. We'd be entitled to think they had a screw loose.

Sir Jackie Stewart: Romain Grosjean
didn't think he needed his help
Credit: Dan Smith / CC
And yet that's to a large extent the way of it in F1. Whole armies of coaches are almost everywhere you go in elite sporting circles, yet in F1 they are as rare as hen's teeth. A small number of drivers have been known to consult a coach such as Rob Wilson as a one-off (but even there many haven't), but a coach by the driver's side working with them on a day-by-day basis, as is the norm in almost all other high level sports, is almost unheard of. It's difficult to understand why; part of it may be that F1's rapidly-developed cars and the difficulty of getting close to an F1 driver in action make it less appropriate to coaching than are other sports. But at least part of it is that it seems the F1 driver doesn't like to admit that they have things to learn.

There may have been some of this at work when in the build-up to the German race Sir Jackie Stewart offered Romain Grosjean some help with his driving and Grosjean, to my astonishment, turned the offer down. Even with the above qualifications it is amazing to me that in such a competitive and high stakes endeavour as F1, where even small details can make tangible differences, that such a glaring avenue of potential improvement is not explored more. And surely this applies to Grosjean in this case. He had nothing to lose by listening to Sir Jackie, and feasibly a lot to gain. It would have been entirely up to him whether he accepted or rejected the advice, and it's more than possible that there would have been something in there that would have helped him. If it had been me in Grosjean's position I would have bitten Sir Jackie's hand off at the opportunity to benefit from his experience and coaching acumen. Grosjean, as far as we can tell, let his pride get in the way.

F1's gun fight
The F1 pit stop has come a long way. For much of F1's history the planned pit stop wasn't part of the sport at all, between around 1958 (when race lengths were reduced and alcohol fuels were banned) and 1982 (when the Brabham team re-introduced the planned pit stop to the sport) for much of the period the pits were only for giving signals to drivers and for cars with terminal mechanical problems to retire in. Indeed, the pit stop was so far removed from the equation that wheels were fixed on with five nuts, and some cars did three races on a single set of tyres!

The F1 pit stop: poetry in motion
Credit: FlightReal / CC
Even when different tyres for different weather were introduced pit stops weren't planned for, and on the occasion that weather necessitated a tyre change the stops tended to be comical by modern standards, due to the lack of drill and practice. If you could get the change done in around 30 seconds you were considered to be doing very well.

Brabham in mid-1982 changed all that by adding the planned strategic pit stop to races for the first time since the 1950s, and by 1983 virtually all teams had honoured by imitation. Even when refuelling was banned at the end of that season the planned tyre stop stayed. The duration of tyre stops was whittled down over time, and by 1993, the last season before refuelling was reintroduced, stops in the region of four seconds were achieved by the better teams. The record was thought to have been set by a stop for Riccardo Patrese in the Belgian Grand Prix that year. In an otherwise unremarkable race he was stationary to be serviced with new boots by his Benetton team for just 3.2 seconds.

With refuelling the time taken to change the wheels became not critical, putting in the fuel invariably would take twice as long as the wheel change at least, resources that could be spent chasing quick wheel changes were better spent elsewhere. But now, with refuelling banned again, and moreover given the current age of multiple tyre stops brought about by the breed of Pirellis, reducing the wheel change time to a minimum is top of mind. We therefore have a war of innovation and drill, to shave tenths and hundredths of a second off a pit stop time. The evidence is all over a pit stop: svelte pit crews, lights systems (rather than the old lollipop), front jacks that allow the jack man to stand to the side, nuts within the wheel rim, nuts that need only three turns rather than six, and of course plenty of practice...

This has all led to a scarcely believable 2.31 second stop for Jenson Button at Hockenheim last weekend. And as far as I'm concerned this innovation and chasing of tiny improvements is wonderful, and exactly what F1 is about. Watching the modern F1 wheel change is as close as the sport gets to poetry in motion, as well a timely reminder that normal people like you and me couldn't operate at that level. And it all makes you wonder where it'll all end; surely there has to be a saturation point at which the wheel change simply cannot get any quicker. I reckon we're not too far shy of it. And apparently both Red Bull and Mercedes have achieved a sub-two second stop in controlled conditions.


  1. Nice to see someone not calling red bulls cheaters love the blog i completely agree with you about Alonso

    1. Thanks very much for the nice words! Glad you like the blog.