Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Further thoughts on the Hungarian Grand Prix

Title tilts
Way back in the aftermath of the Spanish Grand Prix in May I made the entirely foolhardy decision to try to predict the drivers who I thought would be title contenders this year. I went for Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. And, unusually, I can pat myself on the back as if I was picking drivers now I'd again go for that four.

Fernando Alonso leads the way,
but who is likely to challenge?
Credit: Morio / CC
The inclusion of Alonso is a no-brainer. He sits 40 points clear at the table top and is driving beautifully. And even though his Ferrari is by no means the envy of the field, as outlined in this column last week several things count in his favour: that Alonso is always maximising things and finishing everywhere, and that the field remains tight and the likelihood is that others will take points off each other.

After the events of Hungary one could argue that Lewis Hamilton is Alonso's most credible rival. Following a mini-trough the McLaren has looked to be back on the money in the last two rounds. Lewis has a lot of ground to make up - 47 points - but with each win getting seven points back at least and with nine rounds remaining nothing is beyond the realms. And Lewis has been driving brilliantly all year.

Sebastian Vettel remains right in there also, even though just as with Hamilton there is a long way back to the table summit (in his case, 42 points). The car remains quick, Newey & co. will continue to push the boundaries to make it quicker, and Seb remains as competitive as always. And remember that this time last year after a period of relative struggle he came back from the summer break with a devastating run of form and victories, which definitively put the title beyond others' reach. The same again would suit him just fine.

Kimi Raikkonen also manages to hang in there in the vicinity of Lewis and Seb at least, mainly due to his consistency and ability to bring the car home in 2012 (he's finished everywhere and only in China did he fail to score). And in a race there are few, arguably no, cars as good as the Lotus, and as we saw in Hungary (and elsewhere) Kimi remains perfectly capable of taking advantage of it. Further, Eric Boullier reckons that once its double-DRS system is race-worthy Lotus will be in a position to win every time. There of course is likely to be a bit of blarney in there, but the confidence may tell us something. If nothing else a device that boosts the car in qualifying (which an enhanced DRS system will do) will target Lotus's overarching weakness in 2012. And remember where the next round is: Spa is very much Kimi country.

The most glaring omission from my selection (I hear you cry) is Mark Webber, who lest we forget remains in second place in the championship. However, I retain a hunch that over an entire season Vettel will ultimately emerge on top of the Red Bull intra-team battle. The list also omits Romain Grosjean and Jenson Button. I wouldn't count either out for race wins in the year's remainder, but for the championship I believe both have ceded too much ground, not only on Alonso at the top but also on their respective team mates. I say this because on the days that they have a mechanical advantage their team mate will also, so overhauling someone in the same equipment to that extent will be doubly-difficult.

Raikkonen's red return?
One way or another, much of the chatter around the Hungarian Grand Prix was about Kimi. Not only did we witness a tour de force from him on track that was so nearly rewarded with a victory, off track a rumour burgeoned that Ferrari, against expectations, might be minded to offer Kimi a route back to Maranello to partner Alonso next year. Media outlets quoted a 'Ferrari insider' talking in glowing terms about the Finn. And Kimi when asked about the matter conspicuously did not rule anything out.

Kimi Raikkonen - in demand?
Credit: Morio / CC
Of course, Machiavellian double dealings and double motives are common in F1, so at this stage we perhaps shouldn't give this rumour more credence than it deserves. But, hypothetically, would it work?

If nothing else, it's become clear in recent months that Ferrari is aiming high in its attempts to fill its empty 2013 seat (Webber, Button, even Vettel, have been mentioned in despatches at various points). It wants a driver who will score points regularly and thus help the team win constructors' titles, to be close to Alonso's pace and thus step in on days when he falters, but also to not rock the rather Alonso-centred boat. Kimi with all his driving talents as well as his unaffected, resolutely apolitical personality, ticks a lot of these boxes. And Alonso may be sufficiently comforted by Grosjean's upper hand on Kimi pace-wise this year to give his blessing to Kimi's recruitment.

But there are two problems with the move: a (relatively) minor one and (relatively) major one. The minor one is that if you look at Kimi's career trajectory he seems to be at his best when he's central to his team's thinking, such as at McLaren or now at Lotus. Whereas first time around at Ferrari in 2008 and early 2009 when Felipe Massa became the team's go-to guy Kimi got into something of a performance trough. And he almost certainly wouldn't be at the centre of things at Alonso's Ferrari. But the major problem is that Kimi and Ferrari President Luca Montezemolo apparently parted on bad terms in 2009, and neither is keen to work with the other again. Such grudges die hard in F1.

I'm therefore tempted to leave this one in the file marked 'long shot' for now.

Sam Michael gets it right
Something occurred to me in the course of the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend: have you noticed that no one's calling for Sam Michael's head on a plate any more?

The new McLaren sporting director must have felt rather like the whipping boy for much of this season, coming under sustained criticism as McLaren's pit stops, his bag it seemed, were frequently bungled. Many called for him to be shown the Woking door pronto, some (who should know better) even went so far as to declare that he was some kind of variation of Jonah, responsible for Williams' struggles before and now responsible for McLaren's (in organisations of several hundred people that would be unlikely).

Yet it now seems that McLaren has taken its medicine and is now much healthier as a consequence. Several Michael-led reforms later the team is now the quickest with the wheel guns in the pit lane. Jenson Button's record 2.31 second stop in Germany, which was vital in him usurping Vettel in that race, is well-documented, and in Hungary Hamilton and Button benefited from the second and third quickest stops respectively (only one of Vettel's pipped them), and Michael attributed much of Hamilton's holding off the Lotuses to the speed of the tyre changes.

The moral of the story of course is that in F1 it is prudent to give people time to allow their reforms to settle and to get things right. Stability and continuity usually associate with success, and demanding sackings and reshuffles on the basis of a set back doesn't help anyone invariably (this sort of thing seriously held Ferrari back for years).

As Michael stood on the podium as representative of the victorious McLaren team in Hungary he must have been resisting a strong impulse to wave two fingers. I'd be disappointed in him if he wasn't.

Silver Arrows missing the mark
Something else occurred to me when watching the Hungarian race last weekend. For a good few rounds in a row now you'd barely have noticed that the two Mercedes cars were in the race.

It's been a frustrating season for Mercedes all told
Credit: parepinvr4 / CC
OK, the Hungarian track layout was never going to suit the W03, and Michael Schumacher's achieved a couple of recent wet-weather assisted strong grid slots in Silverstone and Hockenheim, but even there the subsequent dry races were a case of minimising his slide down the order. In the normal run of things it appears that, right now, the tail end of the top ten is the Merc's place. And in the constructors' table it is nowhere near the leading four teams, and is but 26 points clear of sixth-placed Sauber. It's all a long way from a team which at the start of the year many thought was finally poised to get it right.

By the looks of things the Brackley team has once again produced a car with fundamental flaws, just as it did in 2011. The W03 chews its rear tyres and appears to have an extremely narrow operating window both in terms of track layout and temperature. If the circumstances come together, for example cool temperatures and/or a track requiring quick tyre warm-up, plus a layout with short corners needing good direction change, as broadly was the case in China and Monaco, then the car can be devastating. But if these things don't come together (which has broadly been the case everywhere else) then the W03 tends to fade down the order. And the team also looks to be falling behind in the development race: the Merc was one of the stars of pre-season testing and its cars challenged for pole at least in the first three rounds. Since then, Monaco aside, they've not even done that.

Without wishing to be callous Mercedes is a team I struggle a little to take seriously. For all of the resources available and the marque's heritage its overlong promising of 'jam tomorrow' can wear thin when results persistently fail to come. Of course, Ross Brawn has made lots of personnel additions and changes in recent times, and these have not yet had their opportunity to make themselves told on track (so it could well be that the 2013 car flies). And, in comparison with last year when it didn't even score a podium finish this year has been an improvement. Still, I'd be astonished if there is not a palpable sense of disappointment at Brackley (and in Stuttgart) right now. And more broadly than that, the Brackley unit under its various guises over the years (since Tyrrell was bought out in 1998) has, aside from 2009 and to a lesser extent in 2004, persistently failed to deliver on its potential. And this year that appears to have continued. It raises the possibility that there is something fundamentally amiss there.

Long time, no GP
So, F1 now heads on its summer break; it's a full five weeks until the next round, in Spa.

Argentine Grands Prix in the 1950s: somewhat
detached from the rest of the calendar
Few doubt that the hard-pressed fraternity, enduring a 20-race calendar 12 of which are long haul, could do with a rest. Still, to many fans the prospect of going such a time without their F1 race fix seems rather daunting.

But the wonderful thing about F1 history is that you can delve into the past and find a more extreme example of just about anything. And that goes for gaps between races too.

It used to be common for the F1 season to start in January: often you'd have a race or two in that month, usually in South America or South Africa, before the teams would go back into their winter hibernation until the Spring (March or April) at which point the season would kick off in earnest. Indeed, the most recent F1 January opener was as late as 1982.

And such waits were not exclusive to the season start. In 1962 and 1963 the final round on the itinerary was in East London in South Africa, and each year it took place in the days between Christmas and New Year! Not only that, in both years the previous round was in October! Indeed, in 1962 the destination of the drivers' title still hung in the balance heading into the final round, and all concerned had to wait upwards of two and a half months between the penultimate and last races to find out who would take the honours.

But for the biggest gap that I could find between F1 races in the same season we have to go back to the 1950s, and again to the season start. From 1953 to 1958 a round in Argentina joined the World Championship, and in each year apart from the last was the only round to take place outside of Europe (ignoring the Indianapolis 500, which curiously then was a race awarded with points for the F1 World Championship, but in reality was an F1 round in name only).

Again, the Argentine round tended to be held in January, with the European rounds from the Spring onwards. And in 1954 the Argentine race took place on 17 January, with the next World Championship round (again ignoring the Indy 500) at Spa not until 20 June! More than five months later.

We should count ourselves lucky.

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