Sunday 30 September 2012

Kaleidoscope shaken: implications of Lewis Hamilton joining Mercedes

In F1, as in life, everything is connected to everything else. Every action has a ripple effect throughout the pitlane; every gap created has to filled.

Indeed, in the case of the movements of Lewis Hamilton, one of the biggest beasts of the F1 plains, one is put in mind of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's celebrated quote on Canada's relations with the USA: 'Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.'

Lewis Hamilton - not in McLaren
colours for much longer
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
And unless you've been living in a cave these past couple of days, you'll be aware by now that Lewis has decided to shake the kaleidoscope, not only of his own career but of contemporary F1, by announcing that he'll be leaving McLaren for Mercedes at the year's end. It's the first time since the off season of 2009/2010 that a major driving player in a major driving team has switched employers. The ripple effect of this switch will be felt throughout F1, most heavily at the McLaren team he's leaving and the Mercedes team he's joining but also felt much further potentially. It only remains to be seen where the kaleidoscope pieces settle, and when, both for Lewis and for everyone else.

There has been a lot of speculation as to what encouraged Lewis to reach his decision, and in reality it's likely that no one aside from Lewis himself and a few close to him know the real reasons. It cannot be denied that on competitiveness grounds the move is hard to justify, at least in the short term (though Lewis may be looking a bit further ahead, for various reasons).

But while it seems the basic retainers on offer at McLaren and Mercedes were pretty similar, at his new abode he'll have much more freedom to develop 'brand Lewis' (and he must be interested in this, he wouldn't have signed up with XIX Management in the first place if he wasn't). Many auxiliary reasons have been touted too: that he feels constrained at the 'paternalistic' McLaren and, rather like kid who grew up, is keen to flee the nest and prove himself 'on his own'. The sporting challenge of building up a team that's all potential but currently struggling may also be tempting (as Michael Schumacher was tempted by the Ferrari challenge in 1996), as might the possibility of making a team very much his team, as Fernando Alonso has done so transparently at Ferrari.

Friday 28 September 2012

Further thoughts on the Singapore Grand Prix

Can't read the poker face
Credit: / CC
It shows that you'll never get rich trying to guess what Lewis Hamilton is thinking, at least when basing it on his exterior demeanour. At Monza, when Lewis looked glum and rather detached from his team, most assumed that the touted move to Mercedes was a done deal or close to it. In Singapore, by contrast, Lewis looked at ease with himself and his intra-team surroundings, so most surmised that some kind of rapprochement had taken place and he would indeed be staying at McLaren.

Well, what do you know, he only then goes on to announce in the days after the Singapore race that he is signing for Mercedes for next year after all. Perhaps we should quit trying to second guess him.

But not only is Lewis's body language hard to read, you'd never know that the whirlwind off-track Lewis drama was taking place from his driving either. Not for the first time this year, Lewis was immaculate behind the wheel in Singapore. Along with Vettel, he was a stride clear of everyone all weekend, unlike Vettel his qualifying lap was a joy to behold, and in all probability it all would have been awarded with a win but for a terminal gearbox problem stopping him early. Surely in the next three years it is Mercedes's, not Lewis's, reputation which is on the line.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Looking back: Jochen Rindt's greatest day

There are lots of reasons to dislike the Monaco Grand Prix. The wealth on show is ostentatious. The poseur occupants of the yachts in the harbour in all probability have little interest in the sport in the rest of the year. And for large part of the race's history the contemporary F1 car had long since outgrown the circuit. Nelson Piquet once likened driving there to trying to ride a motor cycle in your front room.

But even with all this, for many F1 fans there's nothing quite like the Monaco Grand Prix. Monaco has an intangible quality, what you would call 'magic'. Just watching racing cars around Monaco is an enchanting experience. The backdrop is one of the very most iconic of any sporting event, let alone in motorsport. Wherever you turn in Monaco when the racing is on you invariably see something eye-catching. And when you've got Monaco you've got F1.

The Monaco Grand Prix has a long history.
This is Station Hairpin in 1932.
Its magic is also no doubt related to its heritage. The first Grand Prix around the principality was held in 1929, and the layout of streets that cars race around today isn't much different. All of the sport's greats have graced the place.

But in my view one of the most endearing aspects of the Monaco Grand Prix is that in terms of driving challenge and the ability of an individual driver to make a difference over and above their car, Monaco is probably unparallelled among F1 races, and has been that way for many a year. Almost all of F1's greatest drivers can point to an occasion around the principality streets in which they transcended their machinery, in which all watching on could hardly comprehend what they had witnessed.

Additionally, while we may instinctively associate races here with a scarcity of overtaking, things happen at Monaco, the Grand Prix there somehow attracts drama and incident. Throughout history many such examples can be cited, such as Stirling Moss in the outdated Lotus 18 holding off the more powerful Ferraris for the entire distance in 1961, the extraordinary late laps in 1982 where a succession of leading cars faltered and the likely winner changed continuously like the display of a fruit machine, Ayrton Senna's celebrated 'star is born' drive in the rains in the Toleman in 1984 (cut short by a red flag, just as he was posed to take the lead), and Nigel Mansell's desperate but ultimately futile attempts to usurp Senna in 1992. And there are a multitude more that could be mentioned.

My personal favourite Monaco Grand Prix was that in 1970, however. This is for a number of reasons, all of which are linked to the things that I believe lend the magic to a Monaco Grand Prix. Partly it is because much of Monaco's heritage was on show: it was on a Monaco layout still in its original configuration, virtually identical to that used all the way back in 1929 (the 1973 race witnessed the first significant divergence from it with the introduction of the 'swimming pool section', fatuously to allow more grandstands but ensuring Monaco races from then on were usually a case of follow-my-leader). Also the architectural backdrop was still classic and elegant, Monaco not quite yet all the way to becoming the tightly packed cluster of high rises that it was to become.

Singapore GP Report: Long time, no see

So Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull are back. At today's Singapore Grand Prix they finished up on the top step of the podium, a place they know well. This is despite Seb not having won a race since the Bahrain round in April. There always seemed something a little wrong about that fact. But back on a high downforce track the Bull looked just like it was again on its ever-so-familiar full charge.

Sebastian Vettel had reason to smile today
Credit:  Morio / CC
Once again today's race gave us a galling demonstration of the folly of counting one's chickens before they are hatched in F1. Yesterday, it looked rather like Vettel had blown it. He and Lewis Hamilton had the legs of the field almost from the very start of Friday practice in Singapore, but Seb's pace mysteriously faded in the final part of qualifying, and his resultant starting two places shy of Lewis looked a decisive advantage to the McLaren man. Indeed, although Vettel immediately cleared Pastor Maldonado in the opening corners of the race and broadly kept pace with Lewis it wasn't at all clear how he was going to usurp him. But the problem was solved for him when Lewis's gearbox failed after 22 laps, thus putting the race into the palm of Seb's hand. And he never let it go nor looked remotely like letting it go, winning with a flawless drive the likes of which we've seen plenty from him before.

Lewis's retirement was therefore the pivotal moment of the race, and it couldn't have been worse timed or more unlucky for Lewis. I've been saying for a while that for all that F1 is an intricate science, dumb luck will have a say in who takes the title honours this year. And dumb luck had a massive say today.

Saturday 22 September 2012

Singapore Qualifying: Lewis's light fantastic

In the end it was just like last time at Monza. Qualifying at Singapore looked certain to be a game for two players, with one of the two being Lewis Hamilton and the rest scrapping for third place at best. And just like last time the guy that wasn't Lewis faded in the final, vital, session, leaving Lewis to claim pole position as he liked.

Yet another pole for Lewis and McLaren
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
This time we anticipated that Lewis's tête-à-tête would be with Sebastian Vettel, the sort of two-way battle at the front with the rest nowhere that Singapore seems to specialise in. The Red Bull, back on a high downforce track, looked fully to have returned to the sharp end and Seb had topped all practice sessions. And he looked like he intended to keep things that way in qualifying, with as mentioned only Lewis a probable challenger. But Seb's pace tapered when it most mattered and as a consequence the relatively meagre (compared with expectations) third on the grid is where he'll start his race tomorrow. And while Alonso's fading at the last in Monza qualifying was traced to mechanical problems, explanation for Seb's plight this time at the time of writing is less clear. Driver and team appear to be scratching around for a convincing hypothesis (Christian Horner attributed the sudden lack of pace to Seb losing momentum on his out laps, which struck me as a little lame).

Still, none of this at all takes away from the pole-sitting driver and team. Lewis's gap to the next guy was stunning on this track where it seems the driver can make a considerable difference, half a second under the best of the rest even without improving on his second run. It continues a season wherein, despite the occasional whirlwind off track, on track Lewis has been right at the top of his formidable game. And McLaren now can boast four poles on the bounce on four very different circuits; such consistency bodes well for the Woking lot as they target the top of the drivers' and constructors' tables in the remaining rounds.

Friday 21 September 2012

Sponsored video: Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button & the Singapore Night Race

Earlier in the week in my Singapore Grand Prix preview I tried to explain just what it is about this round, having only been on the calendar since 2008, that makes it one of most special and iconic on the modern F1 calendar.

Via the link below Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and friends seek to do the same thing in a nice film brought to us by the lovely people at Johnnie Walker. Its worth just under three minutes of anyone's time. Hope you enjoy it.

In an age where F1's move incremental shift eastward hasn't universally been a success, Singapore can certainly be considered an unqualified triumph. The venue made an immediate and positive splash with the famously hard-to-please F1 fraternity right from its very arrival there. And this popularity is reflected in Jenson's and Lewis's thoughts in the film.

Credit: Dhonsky357 (D357) In and Out

It also reflects that Singapore is a quintessential city to hold an F1 race: affluent, vibrant, exciting. Jenson and Lewis also talk about the physical challenge of the Singapore Grand Prix. The race is run in sapping heat and humidity for close to two hours, and has an acrobatic layout with walls almost always nearby offering little room for error.

What's more, it had the distinction of being F1's first night race, and a more fitting venue for this could not have been chosen. Not only does Singapore boast a intense night life, but the cityscape nighttime backdrop, in addition to F1 cars that never fail to look beautiful under the lights, mean that Singapore offers many an ideal opportunity for a camera lens.

This post has been sponsored by Johnnie Walker

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Singapore Preview: F1's nighttime spectacular

When reminded that F1's first visit to the Marina Bay circuit in Singapore was but four years ago I always think that it sounds slightly wrong. Somehow it feels like F1 has been stopping off there for far longer, that Senna and Prost pounded round the tight streets just as Alonso and Hamilton now do.

It all underlines how rapidly Singapore has got its feet under the F1 table, how quickly it's established itself as one of the sport's most popular and iconic rounds. In an age where F1's move incremental shift eastward hasn't universally been a success, Singapore can certainly be considered an unqualified triumph. The venue made an immediate and positive splash with the famously hard-to-please F1 fraternity right from its very arrival there in 2008.

Singapore - F1's light fantastic
Credit: chensiyuan / CC
Singapore is a city just meant to hold an F1 race: affluent, vibrant, exciting. What's more, it had the distinction of being F1's first night race, and a more fitting venue for this could not have been chosen. Not only does Singapore boast a intense night life, but the cityscape nighttime backdrop, in addition to F1 cars that never fail to look beautiful under the lights, mean that Singapore offers many an ideal opportunity for a camera lens.

What's more, the Marina Bay circuit is a proper downtown street track, the likes of which had seemed altogether abandoned by F1 for many a year as street circuits dwindled and those that persisted tended to be in parkland (such as Melbourne) or away from the city's epicentre (such as Valencia).

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Further thoughts on the Italian Grand Prix

Kicking the boos
Controversy on some level seems to follow Lewis Hamilton. But in the latest case we can say unequivocally that he was the innocent party. The latest case being that when he was being interviewed as Italian Grand Prix winner on the Monza podium on Sunday there was rather a lot of booing from the assembled tifosi, that is the hordes of Ferrari fans, below.

The tifosi: good and bad
Of course there is a lot that is very good about the tifosi. The intensity and passion of Monza crowd, unparalleled elsewhere, is a key part of F1's appeal and we'd never want to lose that. And on plenty of occasions they display considerable honour and sportsmanship, indeed we saw that on Sunday with the reception Jenson Button received after parking with a stricken car (and there are ample other examples from history of similar). But there is a unpleasant flip side to the tifosi, and we heard that on Sunday. And it's not a new thing: going back some years the Ferraristi have appointed a 'prince of darkness', usually the driver from a rival team who represents the greatest threat to the supremacy of the red cars. For years it was Alain Prost (until he resolved the situation by joining the Scuderia), and then for a long time it was Ayrton Senna. I have to say I've never approved of this side of things, from the tifosi or from anyone else. One of the things that compels me be about this sport is that all F1 drivers, indeed many of those in F1 teams, are much better than the rest of us. And for that reason they are worthy of a lot of respect. And indeed generally I believe that all who take part in sporting contests, including those we might view as 'opponents', should be respected.

Sunday 9 September 2012

Italian GP Report: Lewis shows his worth

We can say that there was only ever going to be one winner today.  Lewis Hamilton, aside from strategy, led all the way in today's Italian Grand Prix at Monza, smoothly moved clear of the chasing pack lap after lap, and looked absolutely in control for the duration.  Even Sergio Perez doing his seen-before defying the laws of physics in tyre-life run, which everyone else ceded to, barely caused Lewis any agitation.  The win was indeed his, making it three in a row for the McLaren team (on three pretty different tracks), and consistent competitiveness ever since the Hockenheim upgrade reversed its mini-slump.  A championship charge for driver and team looks yet more credible.

Lewis Hamilton was in control all race
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Yes, Fernando Alonso's qualifying technical maladies gave Lewis something of an open goal, but he kicked the ball hard and true and there was never any doubt that it was heading straight for the back of the net.  There has been the odd off-track ripple for Lewis in recent times, what with his Twitter misjudgement and the vexed issue of the identity of his 2013 employers.  But on the evidence of the Monza weekend, indeed of most weekends in 2012, it is absolutely not having a negative impact on his driving.  I reckon the probability remains that Lewis will stay at McLaren for next year (you'd have thought that Mercedes is too much of a risk on competitiveness).  But today's race was a reminder that, whatever the actualité of the Lewis/McLaren contract negotiations, at some level McLaren must be playing with fire.   If this all does result in Lewis leaving Woking it cannot be considered as anything other than a major blow to the team.  Drivers of Lewis's quality don't hang around on every street corner.

Saturday 8 September 2012

Monza Qualifying: McLaren given a clear run

Well, that was unforeseen. Today at Monza it looked for all the world that we'd have a titanic battle for pole position between Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, and it can't be denied that the squabbles of that pair have an additional edge that no other face-offs can match. But the prospect was rudely snatched away just as we prepared for the mighty final crescendo.

Lewis Hamilton took pole, even with a 'half decent' lap
Credit: Morio / CC
In the final, vital, qualifying segment Alonso's rear anti-roll bar failed on his first lap, leaving him only able to put in a token effort as well as to help his team mate with some slipstream. It all means he'll start the race down in tenth place. This in effect handed things to Lewis and McLaren, and Lewis indeed took the pole (with what by his own reckoning was only a 'half decent' lap) with his team mate Jenson Button completing a front row lock out for the Woking collective.

This isn't to take anything away from either Lewis or McLaren, both driver and team have been right on it all weekend (continuing the team's strong recent form) and Lewis is showing that the considerable chat about his future isn't negatively impacting him on-track. But it can't be denied that Alonso would have been right in the mix at the very least. Indeed Alonso for one reckoned the pole would have been 'easy' for him and that the team was 'expecting' a 1m 23.5 lap, half a second quicker than Hamilton's best. Of course, in F1 there is always some potential for blarney, but the evidence of earlier in the session was that this wasn't an outlandish assessment. If nothing else we'd have had fun finding out how much truth there was in all of it.

Mark Webber interview: 'It would be good to be faster than Usain Bolt'

Mark Webber. What a guy. He's a great ambassador for F1 as well as more open and genuine than most in interviews (and most importantly he's bloody quick). And here with his usual frankness he talks about the Olympics, motor bikes, his sporting heroes and which team he'd like to join if he had to leave Red Bull.

1. You were at the Olympic Stadium on the night Mo Farah won the 5,000m. How did that atmosphere compare to what you experience on a Grand Prix weekend?

I think it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life to see him win that. The atmosphere was incredible and it is something we do not experience as drivers. When we race we are in our own bubble. The crowd was deafening, I was pretty close to the track and could see his face, what was at stake for him, the years of effort that went into those last four laps. The race was awe-inspiring.

2. If you had to leave Red Bull tomorrow, but had the choice of a spare seat with any other team in the F1 paddock, which seat would you choose, and why? 

It’s tricky. I know a lot of the guys at Enstone and Lotus is a team that is probably closest to Red Bull in terms not taking themselves too seriously but still have a very clear focus and goal of being competitive. I think the atmosphere would be good there. And, Ferrari, obviously, from a romantic perspective. All the drivers know that it is a special team. In the end, I am really happy at Red Bull. I wake up each morning knowing I have a sensational team of guys around me and I love driving here.

3. You're famous for racing in four-wheeled motorsport, but are a fan of two-wheels, too.  Tell us a bit about that. 

Friday 7 September 2012

Hamilton to flee the nest?

'Silly season' hasn't really been living up to its name in recent times. That the likes of Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes haven't changed their driving line-ups in the past three seasons has ensured this. And for much of this summer it's looked not beyond the realms that all of those teams would have a fourth straight year with pilots unchanged. But silly season has had the last word: one heck of an F1 story has been sprung on us. One that almost none of us saw coming.

Eddie Jordan on Wednesday commented that 'I believe Hamilton and Mercedes have already agreed personal terms and a deal (for Lewis to drive there next year) could be imminent'. A heck of a story as I said.

Lewis Hamilton - waving goodbye to McLaren?
Credit: ph-stop / CC
So, how much traction does this idea have? That the rumour’s come from Eddie Jordan has led to some dismissing it out of hand. But for all of Eddie’s capacity for buffoonery I wouldn’t have thought that he’s just pulled this idea out of the air. Plus, Eddie's close to Bernie Ecclestone and it's been known for Bernie, who tends to know more than most, to use EJ as a vehicle to get stories out there. Also, conspicuously, no one's denying anything (not Lewis, nor his management, nor Mercedes). And as if by magic in the last 24 hours or so since the story first broke we've had subsequent stories that give the Lewis to Mercedes idea additional credence, such as more positive noises on Merc's long-term commitment as an F1 constructor, as well as talk of Michael Schumacher being offered a team role at Mercedes once he stops driving (and thus creates a space in the driver line up).

Of course, there are the usual disclaimers: in F1 there’s always the possibility of double-motives, for example someone in the Hamilton camp might have put this rumour around to try to cajole McLaren into giving Lewis more favourable terms in his new contract, or something similar.

There may also be nothing to see here. Unlike in football say, dialogue between drivers/their representatives and other teams is pretty much an ongoing process in F1, and with Lewis Hamilton's contract up at the end of the year it makes absolute sense for his management to have been in discussions with Mercedes as well as with McLaren. If nothing else it strengthens Lewis's bargaining position. Though EJ did go a little beyond this to say that Lewis signing for Mercedes 'could be imminent'.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Further thoughts on the Belgian Grand Prix

Dumb luck
Some things just happen. It seems an obvious point, but it is one that eludes many in F1 as far as I can tell. In recent weeks and months as Fernando Alonso established his lead at the top of the driver's table, many within and without the sport surmised that Alonso had yet to have his dose of bad luck for this year (though, as my brother pointed out, having to drive a F2012 is a bit unlucky...). Christian Horner, Helmut Marko and Jenson Button, among others, all commented to that effect.

Dumb luck will play its part in whether Fernando Alonso,
or anyone else for that matter, takes the honours in 2012
Credit: Morio / CC 
Well, following his being erased from the Belgian Grand Prix by an errant Romain Grosjean at the first corner this can no longer be suggested. But the apparent prevailing 'wisdom' in F1 that fortune is something that is doled out roughly equitably over the course of a season is of course a nonsense: there is no reason to think this has to be so. It's not impossible to experience ill luck in every round of a year, or indeed in none. Even in an extended 20-race season there exists no necessity that the law of averages must make itself felt within that time. It indeed amazes me that in a business where evidence, science and empiricism is all, that there still is some reliance on beliefs that have no more basis than astrology or tarot reading. It may be a sobering thought to Alonso and Lewis Hamilton that they could just as easily be wiped out by an opponent at the first corner at Monza too, through no fault of their own. That it happened in the last round doesn't make it any less likely to happen again.

Perhaps some in F1 prefer to delude themselves that such random chance can be controlled for, rather than accept that some things just happen, and they can't control it. But whether they like it or not, one thing that they can count on is that dumb luck will have a say in who claims championship honours this year.

Sunday 2 September 2012

Belgian GP Report: Buttoned Up

Well, I guess that's what you call 'copybook'. Jenson Button won the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa in an imperious fashion today, leading all the way (that rarest of things in the age of the pitstop) the result wasn't really in any sort of doubt after a few corners of green flag racing. Yes, he was helped by a first corner accident rubbing out a few potential rivals, but the best evidence from qualifying and from Jenson's subsequent race performance is that he had the legs of them anyway.

Jenson Button - never ruffled today
Credit: / CC
Jenson seems to have a sixth sense of what to do when the weather throws in a few variables. This weekend it was a Friday rain washout which left everyone with some guesswork to do for how they'd set their cars up for when it mattered on dry Saturday and Sunday, and Jenson found the sweet spot. He blitzed the field in qualifying, and which left him perfectly poised to do the same on race day. This he indeed did, looking smooth and assured all the way through, stopping to change tyres only once via displaying his usual sensitive touch on the Pirellis. When Jenson's happy with what's underneath him he can be unstoppable; today was one such day.

It shows F1's ability to change things utterly in the space of a single weekend. On Friday in Spa the air was full of talk of Jenson, after a season of relative struggle, having to subjugate his own personal ambitions in assistance of his team mate's title bid for the year's remainder. Two days later things look much brighter for Jenson with 25 points for his win and some other contenders not scoring, though it remains the case that he's 63 points off the table top and has five drivers ahead of him. Still a long shot in other words - but at least he's made the title win a bit less improbable for himself.

Saturday 1 September 2012

Spa Qualifying: Push the Button

Going into today's Spa qualifying session there was a driver whose name was not among those being touted as contenders for pole position. He didn't especially light the track up in the one dry practice session, and indeed is enduring a season in which he's been struggling for the most part. And moreover, qualifying isn't his strong suit: he'd never claimed a pole position for his current team and it was getting on for three-and-a-half years since he last started a Grand Prix from the very front.

You may have worked out by now that the guy I'm talking about is Jenson Button. And what do you know, he only went and claimed pole position today, and comfortably. It's yet more evidence that F1, while many things, is almost never predictable.

Jenson Button surprised everyone by blitzing the field in Spa
Credit: Morio / CC
Even in the early throes of the qualifying hour today it looked like it would be more of the same for Jenson, as he complained on his radio about the car's handling. But almost immediately he went fastest of all ahead of all the usual suspects, and then in the second session he pulled his party piece partway through and set a mark some eight tenths of a second under the best of the guys who had in advance been expected to fight it out for pole. All of a sudden everyone had to radically re-calibrate: Jenson was clearly the guy to beat. It stayed that way in the vital final session, as Jenson immediately set a time six tenths clear of the rest and no one (apart from himself) was able to beat it at the last. Indeed, no one really got close.