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.

Singapore swings
So, for the third time in three races we have a championship outlook that looks very different after the race compared with before it. All of a sudden, the 29 points adrift Sebastian Vettel looks Fernando Alonso's most likely challenger. At least before the next race anyway. Seb to a large extent had been the forgotten man of the 2012 drivers' title battle, proceeding rather under the radar while much chat has been had on whether Alonso can hold on at the front, whether Hamilton's can catch him, as well as on Kimi Raikkonen's status as a dark horse. But now Seb's at the front of everyone's mind.

Fernando Alonso - mixed feelings from Singapore?
Credit: Nicolas Lannuzel / CC
Alonso and Ferrari will likely have come away from Singapore with mixed feelings. On the one hand, only one likely championship contender finished ahead of him, and the guy who appears to be the most consistent pace-setter (Lewis) didn't finish at all and for the moment has had his title chances filed under 'long shot'. But the F2012's lack of Singapore pace will be a concern, as will the fact that the team had to abandon its new rear wing. The last thing it needs now of all times are upgrades that don't work as well as doubts to emerge over the understanding of its machine and the veracity of its simulation tools. And while (contrary to popular belief) there is a lot of respect between Alonso and Hamilton, the Alonso/Vettel relationship is characterised by rather more needle. The dynamic of this year's title fight, at least on a personal level, could well be set for a change.

But we should know better than to look too far ahead. Just as in the last three rounds, there will no doubt be plenty more swings to come before the prizes can be handed out this year. Things could look very different again after Suzuka.

Fine Vettel
On the subject of Seb, it was a great gesture for him to pay tribute to the recently-departed Professor Sid Watkins publicly, both on his slowing down lap after winning as well as when interviewed on the podium. This is even though Seb and Sid never would have crossed paths in F1 circles as driver and medical head.

Sebastian Vettel - time for a reassessment?
Credit: Nicholas Lannuzel / CC
I often struggle to understand why Vettel inspires the vitriol that he does in many quarters; cursory glance at most F1 internet forums will tell you the extent that he does. In my view Seb is a great ambassador for the sport: a well brought up, friendly and responsible guy who is refreshingly open (for an F1 driver) with the media.

Of course, many express distaste for his infamous finger-thrusting into TV cameras, which I admit is a little ostentatious (though it's possible that Seb started that as a trademark long ago without thinking how it would come across 23 wins and 33 pole positions later). Others argue that he's somehow had it easy, having access to an excellent Red Bull and often winning from the front. But this is hardly his fault, and it can't be denied that for the most part he's made the very best of his advantage, and the 'he can't pass' idea has surely been given a dignified burial by now. Furthermore and in any case no one ever criticised Ayrton Senna or Jim Clark for going racing in roughly the same way.

Perhaps it's time for a Seb reassessment.

Scrambled radio
The pivotal point in Seb's win in Singapore was the early departure from the race of Lewis Hamilton, with gearbox maladies. And when he did stop we heard on the radio snippets broadcast on the TV feed: 'We have a gearbox failure' say a McLaren race engineer to Lewis, 'I'm sorry, we did everything we could yesterday.'

This sounded an awful lot like the gearbox problem (which put Lewis out) was one that the team knew about in advance of the Singapore race, and that they'd sought to 'manage' it rather than suck up a grid drop for replacing it. Afterwards, however, all at McLaren sought to insist that, no, what the engineer was referring to was the job that driver and team did in qualifying. But is it instead possible that someone at McLaren indeed 'mis-spoke'?

After all, if McLaren's explanation is to be accepted it seemed at least a rather incongruous thing to say in the circumstances: that upon Lewis dropping out to everyone's immense disappointment to immediately opine to the effect of: 'hey, weren't we great in qualifying?' Indeed, you'd have thought top of mind in that situation is to placate the frustrated driver. To say we did everything we could yesterday to manage the gearbox problem would fit in with this; what they subsequently claimed to have meant doesn't fit this. Also, why single out Saturday? It's usual when praising a team to say that they did a great job all weekend. And if the primary intention was to praise Lewis then why ignore his race performance so explicitly?

Of course, there may be nothing to see here: we can all say things that don't make a great deal of sense, especially at times of stress. But if it wasn't this then McLaren's explanation for the comment doesn't quite stack up for me. And it would make sense if the team didn't want people to know that it had taken a risk which didn't work out.

Michael maligned
Another talking point from the Singapore race was that, for the second year in succession, Michael Schumacher ended his race spectacularly missing his braking point and going for a flight over a rival car, this time that of Jean-Eric Vergne.

Michael Schumacher - not quite finished yet
Credit: Nichoals Lannuzel / CC
It cannot be denied that it was a major misjudgement by the great man. But, as if to prove the capacity of F1 observers to believe that you're only as good as your last race, the subsequent questioning of Schumi's suitability to remain in F1 as a result of the clash is surely excessive (even though it's subsequently transpired that - to make room for Hamilton - he's not being retained by Mercedes next year).

Schumacher has performed absolutely respectably this year. I count three errors in there (the clash at Singapore, driving into the back of Bruno Senna at Spain and lining up for the wrong grid slot in Hungary), but I can also think of at least a couple of drivers with more black marks than that in 2012. And, while it may sound like sacrilege, even in Schumi's heyday he was prone to drop the odd clanger.

More broadly, I reckon he's been the better of the two Mercedes pilots this season. While in his first two years of his comeback Nico Rosberg had blown Schumi away over a qualifying lap, this year Schumi's ahead on that match-up, by eight to six. And for the most part Schumi's been the more impressive on race day too. Yes, Rosberg has outscored Schumi by 93 to 43, but much of that can be attributed to Schumi's appalling luck. Hydraulics failing in Melbourne when running third, hit by Grosjean early on in Malaysia, a wheel falling off when a net second in China, having to start near the back in Bahrain due to a DRS failure in qualifying then a gearbox change, missing out on pole in Monaco due to a grid penalty and then retiring from the race with fuel pressure problems, DRS getting stuck open in the Canada race following on from a pitwall goof up in qualifying. Whereas Rosberg has (quite literally) finished everywhere.

Indeed, only once in 2012 has Rosberg finished ahead of his team mate when both Mercs have made it to the end. And prior to Singapore the last time that it could be argued that Rosberg out-raced Schumi was in Canada, some seven races previously. Schumi may or may not continue next year, but the idea that he's no longer good enough for F1 is laughable.

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