Wednesday 31 October 2012

Abu Dhabi GP Preview: The future is now

I sometimes wonder about a situation where someone uninitiated on F1, channel-hopping on their TV on a Sunday afternoon, happens upon the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. What must their first thought be? They'd be forgiven for thinking that the cars were racing around an advanced future.

A brand new Hermann Tilke facility appears on the F1 calendar every year it seems, but even though this weekend will be F1's fourth visit to Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina circuit (making it positively long in the tooth in this ever changing sport) in terms both of its visuals and its facilities it remains a clear stride ahead of all other venues.

The Yas Marina circuit - an unmistakable venue
Credit: / CC
Visually it is stunning: all gleaming, shimmering, towering architecture, the like that one would have more expected to see in a sci-fi film. Even among modern day ostentatious F1 venues it has a unique no-expense-spared quality. It has a icon all of this own in the Yas Marina hotel, which the track passes under, and shines in ever varying coloured lights which attract many a wide-angled camera lens. Add that it is F1's first and only day-to-night race and has a resultant twilight atmosphere and you have a heady mix.

And in terms of F1 balancing its books it's clear where Abu Dhabi sits. The city of Abu Dhabi drips with money and, alongside Monaco and increasingly Singapore, Abu Dhabi is the event that F1's money providers, both current and potential, want to attend, entertain guests and do business at. The Paddock Club there is booked up far in advance, as is the deliberately Monaco-reminiscent harbour with room for 150 boats. Tickets also usually sell out, at the admittedly modest capacity of 50,000 (and in previous years some of these ticket holders appeared to attend the race disguised as empty seats).

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Further thoughts on the Indian Grand Prix

Bulls without a Plan B?
So, Sebastian Vettel won again on Sunday, his fourth win on the bounce, and three races in a row that he's had utterly at his mercy from a few corners in. Even better for him, for the most part the closest thing to him has been his Red Bull team mate Mark Webber. On the face of it, it's getting increasingly difficult to envisage circumstances in which he won't retain his drivers' title this year.

Red Bull - what if they have a set back?
Credit: Morio / CC
But are there reasons to think that the Red Bull dominance is a mile deep but an inch wide? In other words, is its supremacy based on a strict assumption of leading from the off and if that didn't happen for whatever reason it could result in a seriously tough afternoon? To summarise the summary: does it lack a Plan B?

The speed trap times from Buddh qualifying make fascinating reading, showing that on the long straight the two Red Bulls even with the much-vaunted double-DRS were second and third slowest of anyone, and were ceding close to 10kmh on the Ferraris and McLarens as well as on many others. In recent races this hasn't mattered, as the Bulls have locked out the front row and quickly gone out of sight with their prodigious cornering speed. But such is the way of F1 is that things can (and do) go wrong, be it unreliability, penalties, punctures, being compromised by the errors of others etc etc. The list is pretty much endless. And let's not forget that in two of the last three rounds Seb has sailed a little close to the wind on getting a grid penalty. You suspect that, whatever the merits of the current model of the RB8, if a Red Bull did end up in the pack for whatever reason its driver would be in for a long and frustrating race. Possibly not able to pass the cars ahead; maybe even being easy meat to cars behind. Add in that on the evidence of the past two races Alonso can just about match the Bulls' race pace anyway and they would have a particular problem. And it's not a new thing, Mark Webber spent most of 2011 demonstrating that the Bull isn't the car to have in traffic.

Sunday 28 October 2012

Indian GP Report: Seb's Fantastic Four

Do you remember the last time Sebastian Vettel was headed in an F1 race? You'd be forgiven for struggling. It was over a month and fully three-and-a-half races ago, at the Singapore Grand Prix when Lewis Hamilton led in the early laps before his gearbox went pop. Indeed, it's reaching the point that not only is it hard to remember anyone else leading a race, it's hard to imagine anyone else leading one.

Vettel won the Indian Grand Prix as he liked today, and it was simply a continuation of what's looking in recent weeks more and more like Seb's and Red Bull's inexorable march to 2012 title honours. He led off the line, put clear air between him and the car behind in no time, and the result of Seb's victory was pretty much set from then on. It's the sort of performance that's long since been his party piece.

Sebastian Vettel won as he liked again today -
making it four wins in a row
Credit: Morio / CC
That's now four wins for Seb in a row, and in the most recent three he's led every lap even in this age of the pitstop. The last guy to do that in any age was one Ayrton Senna in 1989.

Yet while Red Bull is a team that often gives the impression of having everything, there is one thing it doesn't have. There was another big story of the Indian Grand Prix along with Seb's victory; the other tale was that of the magnificent Fernando Alonso. He didn't win the race, Seb's dominance plus the limitations of the F2012 ensured that. But what he did was mighty, ensuring that Seb's points gain was minimised by clearing both McLarens as well as Mark Webber's Red Bull on race day, thus coming home second. He even managed to keep Seb honest by chipping away at his lead late on.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Buddh Qualifying: As you were

It wasn't exactly unforeseen was it? Sebastian Vettel claimed yet another pole position today, in what appears more and more like just the latest step in his inexorable march towards his third drivers' championship.

From early stage of the weekend in India the Red Bull looked by far the most nailed-on thing out there, just as it has everywhere in recent weeks, and that continued into today's qualifying session. And has also been the case in recent times Seb seemed to have the crucial edge on his team mate Mark Webber.

Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull look dominant again
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
There was only the most minor missing of a beat, when on Seb's first Q3 flying lap the rear of his car twitched and he ran off the track. But anyone who thought that this was Seb showing chinks in his armour were swiftly disabused. On his second, effectively his only, run he sneaked ahead of Webber to top the timing screens again. And Webber was compromised by traffic on his own last run, so that was that.

Even better for Seb is that in addition to his stable mate he's got two McLarens lined up conveniently between him and his championship rival Fernando Alonso on tomorrow's grid. As promised, the Scuderia brought a few upgrades to India, and indeed they appear to have brought the red cars closer to the charging Bulls. But as yet it's not close enough, and Alonso admitted that fifth place on a Saturday is their par score right now.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Buddh Preview: Providing more clues

The F1 calendar's shift eastwards is by no means new or small-scale. But even among the assorted new lands that the F1 circus has pitched in over recent years India must surely stand apart.

This is because the round and its associated potential represents a massive opportunity for F1. To use terms that the sport's power brokers understand, India is a highly populous 'market', a point which is given particular focus by India's status as a coming force in the world economy. And if the race there can be made a long-term success, and furthermore if a genuine motor sports infrastructure can be established in India on the back of the F1 race, then the rewards will be considerable.

Who can get close to Sebastian Vettel this weekend?
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
As we know, F1's record in moving east is more a patchwork quilt than a magnificent canvas; some events have been more successful than others. The likes of the Turkey and China races started with fine crowds and much talk of building a national infrastructure, as India did last year on its debut, only for the attendant audience to dwindle over time just as the bold talk did. But there are some reasons to think India just might prove to be different.

For one thing, unusually, the establishment of the race there is a bottom-up private enterprise by people with genuine motor sports passion rather than the standard rather top-down imposition by a government more concerned with national branding and boosting tourism. Also, there already exists a (nominally) Indian F1 team as well as a couple of Indian drivers in and around the sport, and who take more responsibility than most in F1 promotion. Various other initiatives in developing Indian drivers have also been mooted. Let's hope that this weekend's event is a continuation of setting the roots down.

Thursday 18 October 2012

Mover and shaker? Thoughts on the Sebastian Vettel to Ferrari rumour

It's almost like all of F1's juicy driver stories over recent times had been saved up somewhere private far from our view, with us all being oblivious of the fact. And now its container has got over-full, suddenly exploding the stories in every direction. For years it seemed not much was doing in the driver market. No one was moving, not among the front teams anyway, and there didn't even seem much prospect of it. But now we're being spoiled. No sooner had Lewis Hamilton dropped a bombshell by confirming that he will indeed be leaving McLaren for Mercedes for next year, with the reverberations still being felt the BBC reminded us earlier this week that, according to sources, Sebastian Vettel has a deal in place to join Ferrari for 2014.

Sebastian Vettel - looking to the future?
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
It’s a rumour that’s been about for a while, since around the time of the Monaco race this year indeed, so it's not clear what new was in the BBC's report (perhaps its success over calling Lewis to Mercedes went to its head a little). No sooner had BBC reported this than Ferrari President Luca Montezemolo was pouring cold water on the idea, but also without completely ruling it out. And apparently the story comes from ‘well-informed sources’ close to the Scuderia.

On the face of it though, Vettel to Ferrari doesn't make a great deal of sense. For one thing, Red Bull has been the sport's technical standard bearers consistently over recent times, being ahead of the pack for much of the previous four years, much more so than Ferrari. So, competitiveness-wise it would appear a risk to give that up for Ferrari, whatever the usual lure of the Scuderia. And if that wasn't enough Seb would all the while experience a very public comparison with the mighty Fernando Alonso, and on his home turf.

Further, outwardly at least, one cannot sense any obvious reason for Seb on a personal level to leave the Milton Keynes outfit. Sebastian Vettel appears the perfect final link in the Red Bull chain, a driver who somehow seems an ideal fit in the collective he's part of, possibly more so even than Alonso is at Ferrari. And in any case Red Bull is convinced it has Seb under (performance-related) lock and key for 2014 anyway. Seb himself is being rather quiet on the subject.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Further thoughts on the Korean Grand Prix

Tyred out
Are teams getting their
heads around the Pirellis
Credit: Rich Jones / CC
In F1, as in many things, history has a tendency to repeat itself. The broad pattern of 2012 is a lot like that of 2011. We start the year with apparently 'gumball' Pirelli tyres giving the teams plenty of headaches, providing a large random element to F1 races and even resulting in some complaining that such a 'lottery' is bad for the sport. But eventually teams get their heads around the rubber by the latter part of the season, thus giving us much more 'standard' fare.

That we've just had three rather sedate races in a row (in comparison to those earlier in the year) is evidence of this, as is that the championship battle has become a technical development war, the sort that we've grown used to, with the behaviour of the Pirellis hardly mentioned in the analysis of it. That the Red Bulls and Ferrari finished two-by-two at the front in Korea is also evidence of the establishment of some sort of order.

Be careful what you wish for, as the saying goes. This may not be a thought shared by purists, but I rather miss the gumball Pirelli lotteries.

Woking woes
McLaren - something fundamentally amiss?
Credit: Morio / CC
Perhaps uniquely for an F1 race after this year's summer break, the Korean Grand Prix result did not fundamentally change the picture of the championship battle, merely continued previous momentum. What's more, it seemed to give us something close to clarity in that battle, it now apparently boiling down to one for two players: Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull and Fernando Alonso's Ferrari.

Yet one team is conspicuous by its absence from all of this. Indeed, it was the very team that at the season's outset looked set to dominate the year; the team that's probably had the most effective and consistently competitive car of the season; the team that is one of the best-resourced squads in the sport and has been so for decades. Yet a team that's managed to (presumably) fritter all this away in the hunt for titles this year. Both drivers have conceded that their championship chances are over, and prospect of the constructors' title now also looks remote. Indeed, it's just sank behind Ferrari, not a team geared to the constructors' title, into third place in the standings. And it's not a new thing, the team has only won one of the last 20 constructors' championships (and just three drivers' titles in that time).

Sunday 14 October 2012

Korean GP Report: Seb scales the summit

There's usually something reassuring about something that doesn't change. And for Red Bull right now it must be especially so.

Today's Korean Grand Prix was almost entirely like last year's: Sebastian Vettel (atypically) qualifying second, but seizing the front pretty much immediately then controlling things from there, leading all the way to win and never looking under any sort of threat. Indeed, for Red Bull it's much more broadly becoming just like 2011; right now its is the car to beat everywhere, particularly in Seb's hands. The German's now not been headed in a race since Lewis Hamilton's gearbox failed in Singapore close to a month ago, and he's claimed three wins on the spin in a year in which previously no one had even got two in a row.

No one got near to Sebastian Vettel today
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
Even better for Seb he's now scaled the summit of the drivers' table, six points clear after being 44 behind table-topper Fernando Alonso in Germany. Just like in previous years, currently it looks like the Bulls are timing the title charge to perfection. As Bob Dylan once said, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

In the end the only race in Korea was between Seb and his Pirelli tyres. As he stroked his RB8 around at the front as he liked, his engineer Rocky's radio contact got more and more pained as the race progressed, urging Seb that his tyres could go pop at any moment in a fashion that went far beyond healthy paranoia. Seb showed exactly what he thought of that by setting his fastest lap on the last tour (perhaps working on the premise that the quicker the race finished the less time there'd be for his tyres to fail). But by all accounts it was a genuine concern on the pit wall. Yet Seb got the better of that fight, as he did almost all fights in Korea.

Saturday 13 October 2012

Yeongam Qualifying: Webber provides home discomforts

Mark Webber likes to remind us, just from time to from, that he's a contender.

Just as in Japan, from an early point of the weekend Sebastian Vettel looked the guy to beat in Korea, and it continued to look that way in qualifying. And presumably it would all be a prelude to him bossing the race out front as we've seen from him countless times.

Mark Webber will start at the front tomorrow
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
This remained the case right up until the final, vital qualifying run, that's when Seb was reminded that for all of the RB8's improvements in recent times he has opposition in residence. Webber put the thing on its nose and sneaked under Vettel's time. Vettel, behind him, didn't get it right in the first two sectors of his final lap, thus ensuring that the Red Bull front row lock-out perhaps unusually features Aussie Grit ahead.

Is Mark Webber as good as the likes of Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, or his team mate Vettel? Ultimately, probably not. But he's certainly capable of living with them, keeping them honest, and on many days of plain beating them. Today was one such day.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Yeongam Preview: When things go bad

Were someone to ask you how the F1 calendar has changed in the last 10 years or so, or alternatively ask what the financial model of F1 is these days, in both cases you'd probably come up with the same answer.

F1 has incrementally shifted eastwards in recent times, to the point that today no fewer than eight of the rounds are in Asia (rewind to 1998 and there was only one). The story of the new countries joining the calendar usually goes something like this: a government decides it wants to stage a Grand Prix, and is prepared to pay top dollar to the sport to do so. Yes, it'll likely make a financial loss, but it'll write the loss off either as helping a national branding exercise as a 'place to do business' or else to attract more tourists (or both).

But, sadly, the Yeongam facility in Korea shows what happens when things go bad with this.

Yeongam's backdrop is unmistakable,
but not for good reasons
Credit: / CC
It started with good intentions, and no little ambition. The talk was of a street circuit in reverse, with the circuit built and then to be surrounded by a new city complete with a harbour, leisure facilities, hotels etc etc. A Monaco for the new generation if you will. Or perhaps a new Singapore, as a night race was talked about too. It sounded impressive whatever the case.

Before the first F1 visit, in 2010, construction fell behind schedule and the event looked under threat. As it was, the track was approved a matter of days before first practice and everything was alright on the night, although the facility was skeletal. But rather than reflecting mere teething problems it was a portent of things to come.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Further thoughts on the Japanese Grand Prix

Gloves off
The only threat to Sebastian Vettel in Suzuka
came from off the track
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
Sebastian Vettel was untouchable in Suzuka, and was so from an early point of the weekend. But on Saturday afternoon about the only threat to his supremacy of the whole meeting emerged, and it came not from the track but from the stewards' room.

Ferrari and Fernando Alonso reckoned that Seb had blocked Alonso at the chicane in the latter's one and only flying lap in the final qualifying session, and estimated they'd lost a tenth of a second or two as a consequence. For some three hours after the qualifying session finished the result was in suspended animation, as all waited to see whether Seb's pole would stand. Eventually the stewards confirmed that yes, Seb had done wrong, but a reprimand was the only punishment.

Ferrari to some extent had a point, in that from a still shot I saw of the 'incident’ it appeared to fall under the category of the sort of thing punished these days (Seb looks to be on the racing line under braking for the chicane, with Alonso off it). And while no two blocking cases are the same, it seemed odd that Jean-Eric Vergne got a three-place drop for an offence under the same broad category in the same qualifying hour by the same set of stewards. Though, as Tony Dodgins pointed out, the stewards have been that way all season when dealing with blocking: some offences have got a five-place grid drop, some three, some just a telling off.

Sunday 7 October 2012

Japanese GP Report: Seb's perfect day

In a country famous for its karaoke, Sebastian Vettel would be forgiven for breaking into some Lou Reed this evening. For him, it was a perfect day.

Early in the weekend Seb talked ominously that he was determined to make up for last year's Suzuka race, where he could 'only' finish third after a conservative race to ensure he got over the line to confirm the drivers' championship as his. Well, it can be said that he did just that. It's clear that Seb sees this track as his fiefdom.

No one got close to Sebastian Vettel today
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
He led from pole and won the Japanese Grand Prix imperiously, there never looking to be a race over first place as he established a resolute lead and held it (and occasionally extended it) as he liked. The sort of drive that we've seen from him repeatedly, and that we seem to see from him most years at Suzuka. For Seb, the song remained the same.

Indeed, not just in the race but for most of the weekend he looked untouchable. And what's more, the one guy ahead of him in the title hunt didn't last beyond the first corner, Seb's win thus slashing the championship deficit down to almost nothing. And it's the first back-to-back wins for any driver this season (so much for the 'winner's jinx'). Furthermore, in a year which has been uncharacteristically bitty by Red Bull's haughty standards, in the past two rounds the car's looked just like its old self, the class of the field. All of a sudden, and having operated rather under the radar for most of the year, Seb is now the firm championship favourite.

Saturday 6 October 2012

Hot Schu: Reflections on the career of Michael Schumacher

Infamous British politician of yesteryear Enoch Powell didn't always talk sense, but when he said that 'all political careers end in failure' he was indeed being highly lucid. I've no idea if Powell liked F1, but his words could just as easily have applied to that pursuit too.

And such thoughts would likely have hung very heavy to Michael Schumacher in recent days. The most successful driver by a distance in F1 history was reduced almost to the role of footnote in the grand news of Lewis Hamilton joining Mercedes, Schumi being cleared out of the team to make way. And as part of the aftershocks of the move Schumi, rather than seek a drive further down the pecking order, announced his retirement from the sport days later. It was doubly unfortunate that it came right after a rather egregious error of judgment by Schumi in the Singapore Grand Prix, though to draw any inferences from this would be flawed as the error was atypical of a year in which Schumi, if not quite the driver he was, still drove well.

Michael Schuamcher- waving goodbye
Credit: Mark McAdrle / CC
But, such is life, no matter our achievements almost none of us get to stop at a time of our own choosing.

Whatever the circumstances of his bowing out though Schumacher's impact on F1, and his other-worldly levels of success, cannot be overstated. Rather than leaving his imprints on the sport he stamped size 12 boots all over it. His records defy belief: in a career spanning 21 years from beginning to end and some 301 starts (and counting), he totalled seven world championships, 91 wins (and that's only one shy of the totals of the next two combined - who go by the names of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna), 77 fastest laps and 68 pole positions. Schumacher didn't so much rewrite the F1 record books as redefine them. Most of his records will likely stand for ever.

So, the statistics say that Michael Schumacher is the greatest F1 driver ever. And while statistics only mean so much in F1 when comparing the merits of drivers, given one inevitably ends up with imperfect comparisons, only a churl would argue that he isn't at least among the very best ever seen in the sport.

And we don't have to rely on dry statistics to demonstrate as much. For me Schumacher's greatest achievement as an F1 driver was that he, probably more than any other in the sport's history, redefined what is required of an F1 driver. To put it in simple terms, he raised the bar in a way never done by any one individual before or since, and much of his gargantuan success came when everyone else was scrambling around either bewildered or furiously seeking to adapt.

Suzuka Qualifying: Seb poised for a Bull charge

The championship Bull charge is on, then.

Sebastian Vettel's Singapore win last time out got him to somewhere within range of Fernando Alonso at the drivers' championship top, and on the evidence of today's Suzuka qualifying he fully intends to take another bite out of the lead this time too. Game on for the drivers' title.

Sebastian Vettel - plenty to smile about
Credit: Morio / CC
This is especially as not only did Seb get the pole, it all looked ominously like old times when the Red Bulls would run and hide on a fortnightly basis. For the first time this year the team locked out the front row here at Suzuka, and the qualifying session looked a private Red Bull battle from a very early stage. And indeed Seb continued his record of never not qualifying on pole around this track.

There was a time when everyone could tick off a Suzuka weekend as a Red Bull benefit almost from the point that the calendar was published. This year, in advance, things didn't seem quite so clear, with the Bulls not running away at similar circuits raced on this year in a uncharacteristically bitty campaign for the team (all relatively speaking, of course). But, on today's evidence the RB8 is by now a fundamentally strong racing car. Alonso will have much to think about for the year's remainder.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Suzuka Preview: Big in Japan

They don't make 'em like they used to.

There's nothing quite like Suzuka
Credit: / CC
Such an aphorism isn't always true, but it sometimes is. And it seems to especially apply to the F1 circuit. Of course, some of the new-fangled Tilke-dromes are better than others, but none has got even close to creating the quickening of the pulse that F1 drivers and aficionados experience when cars circulate Suzuka.

Why is this? Mainly it's that the layout is dominated by rapid, challenging turns, the sort that separate the great from the good, the sort that would most likely be laughed out of court were it proposed these days. Combine this with the track's uncanny knack of being the stage of drama and acrimony, as well as with the large and enthusiastic Japanese support looking on, and you have a near-perfect mix. Indeed, such is Suzuka's classic nature it feels rather like Messrs Nuvolari, Fangio and Clark should have pounded around the track in their heydays; that F1's first visit here was as late as 1987 seems rather incongruous.

You've either got soul or you ain't. Suzuka has it.

So, all feels good with the world as we approach the Suzuka meeting this weekend. And even over and above that it's Suzuka, there are plenty of reasons to think that the on-track action will be close and unpredictable. There are a good few teams entering the weekend with reasons for optimism.