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.

Perhaps when Christian Horner spoke after the Indian race about his team still needing 'three perfect races' before the season's end it reflected more than simply healthy paranoia.

Alonso joining the legends
The assembled fans and marshals at the Indian Grand Prix podium ceremony had it right. Sebastian Vettel may have won, and the Red Bull again shown itself again to be a highly impressive set of wheels, but as far as they were concerned there was one star of the show. It was the name of Fernando Alonso being chanted, as he'd hauled his F2012 up to second place and subsequently kept Vettel more than honest in a drive that stretched plausibility. And it continues a season wherein drives of that ilk from him have featured regularly.

Fernando Alonso - making the transition to an all-time great
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Fernando Alonso and his fans may lament that, once again, he has had to fight without access to the best machinery this season (indeed, possibly not since 2007 has he had this). But there is another way of looking at it. One of F1's underpinnings is that participant teams design and build their own cars (hence why they're called 'constructors'), and as a consequence one of the best things about the sport, which we don't get to see, say, in a single make series, is witnessing a great driver in a not-so-great car, relying on their driving ability to make up the difference. It is in these circumstances that a driver's greatness can be most obviously appreciated.

In my recent review of Michael Schumacher's career I noted that when people reminisce on Schumi's best drives it tends to be those from the 1996-1998 period, wherein he sought to overcome far superior cars, that are mentioned rather than the years he cantered to titles where it was much harder to discern his own personal contribution. The same goes for Ayrton Senna, it's his drives in 1992 and 1993, up against prodigious Williams-Renaults, that provide the majority of his most celebrated drives rather than those from his championship years. And would as many hark back to Stirling Moss's 1961 wins at Monaco and Nurburgring had they been achieved in a Ferrari, that year's class of the field? Probably not.

Fernando Alonso may or may not win the 2012 drivers' title. But surely his performances this year will go a long way to ensuring his transition into an all-time F1 great.

Bore at Buddh?
So that's two F1 visits now to the Buddh International Circuit, and two rather underwhelming races.

Pirelli - too conservative?
Credit: Rich Jones / CC
And that's an unfortunate state of affairs for a number of reasons. One is, the Indian Grand Prix is an important one for F1 to get right for a number of reasons (as outlined in my event preview). For another, the event is one with a definite pulse. The crowd at Buddh was slightly down on that last year, though that was to be expected to some extent given it didn't have the novelty value of the debut race, and there was tangible sign of a passionate Indian F1 following in attendance. Plus the track is good one: challenging, popular with the drivers and one that should allow overtaking.

So, what's happened on race day last year and this? Well if the track has a 'problem' it is its smooth surface, which has been associated with very low tyre degradation. And both years it has been compounded (pardon the pun) by Pirelli making a conservative tyre selection by bringing the softs and hards. It seemed an odd choice this year, as while 12 months ago Pirelli had the mitigating circumstance of the track being unknown it had no such excuse this time for caution. In fairness though, Paul Hembery did admit after the race that Pirelli could have gone a bit more aggressive. Thus both years at Buddh we've had something of a throwback, with tyres that can be leaned on all day. Indeed, this time everyone who didn't either have a puncture (via contact) or lose a front wing stopped only once to change tyres on race day, and proceeded seemingly without any problems with wear.

Perhaps India has also been unlucky with its timing in the calendar, coming at the point of the year that the Pirelli rubber is better understood and therefore much less capable of throwing spanners into the works. Perhaps also it's been unfortunate that in both years Sebastian Vettel has dominated, and people have focussed on that rather than the racing that has taken place further down the field.

But possibly it's all an indication that, for all we focus on DRS and KERS, it's degrading Pirelli rubber that's been creating exciting on-track action as much as anything these past couple of years.

Sutil's salvation?
As might be expected, there was more focus than usual on the 'home team' Force India last weekend. And I was particularly intrigued to hear its team principal Vijay Mallya comment that, should Nico Hulkenberg indeed leave the team as has been speculated, Adrian Sutil is a name he has in mind to replace him in the driving line up.

Adrian Sutil - on the way back?
Credit: Nic Redhead / CC
In typically absurdist F1 Sutil found himself without a chair when the music stopped at the end of 2011, a year in which he finished ninth in the drivers' table with 42 points, ahead of his highly-rated team mate Paul Di Resta as well as ahead on the intra-team qualifying match-up, and indeed Sutil finished the year in particularly fine form. It also continued a trend wherein he'd improved markedly in each of his years in F1, and was a long way from the raw, unpredictable presence he was in his early days.

OK, Sutil was unfortunate to end up in a three-into-two-don't-go situation with Di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg, which not many would win out in, and in this sport there are always more deserving candidates than available seats. But it seemed a travesty to me that Sutil wasn't picked up elsewhere. I've heard it said that his off-track bother of a conviction for assault acquired early in 2012 counted against him. I hope this wasn't the case though, if nothing else it would seem an oddly moralistic attitude for those in the often amoral world of F1.

And of course, sometimes when you leave the F1 club it can forget about you very quickly, so I'm glad in Sutil's case that doesn't appear to have been the case. Not totally anyway. I for one would be glad to see him back on the grid in Melbourne next year.

Di Resta on a downer?
Nick Heidfeld was the future once.

Paul Di Resta - dealt a psychological blow?
Credit: Crosa / CC
Slightly odd thing to say I know, but once upon a time 'Quick Nick' was the next big thing. He was a young, thrusting McLaren protégé who arrived in F1 with a glowing reputation and a fine record in the junior formulae. At the end of 2001 a McLaren vacancy opened up, thanks to Mika Hakkinen stepping aside. But rather than go for Heidfeld McLaren chose Kimi Raikkonen, Heidfeld's Sauber team mate. Despite Heidfeld outscoring Kimi by 12 points to 9 that year McLaren reckoned Kimi had more of an 'X Factor' (with some justification as things turned out).

Heidfeld through a long-lasting F1 career never was to get his big break, and I've heard it said that his driving never fully recovered from the psychological blow of McLaren's snub. And why am I poring over such old news I hear you ask? It's because I'm wondering if the same thing's now happening to Paul Di Resta.

Di Resta for some time had been linked heavily with both McLaren and Mercedes drives for 2013, but as we know both doors were unceremoniously slammed shut a matter of days apart from each other. And in the three races since Di Resta has been rather underwhelming, not making an impression and finishing out of the points. Worse, his team mate has scored in all three races and generally impressed.

So has Di Resta's chin dropped, possibly irrecoverably? It's way too early to say. But with almost all of the most obvious options for career advancement now shut off for the time being he'd be forgiven for experiencing a crisis of motivation.

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