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).

And next year it gets even harder. The team starts to pay for its engines. And, oh yeah, it's just lost the most instinctively talented and probably the quickest driver in contemporary F1 to a rival.

Yes, dear reader, you may have worked out by now that I'm talking about McLaren. Am I being harsh by framing it all in such a way? Possibly, but it also cannot be denied. McLaren has once again missed out on titles, as it has been making a habit of, despite this time finally having a lot of things in its favour. Many reasons for this can be pointed at this year, such as early-season botched pitstops, as well as ill-timed penalties and unreliability and the odd dose of bad luck. But, rather like with Romain Grosjean's first lap accidents, even with the presence of mitigating circumstances you begin to wonder if the regularity with which it happens is beyond mere coincidence. You wonder if something is fundamentally amiss with that squad. The big question is, what?

Obeying orders
Felipe Massa - rediscovered his mojo
Credit: Morio / CC
The Korean race provided further evidence that Felipe Massa has rediscovered his mojo, last seen in public upwards of three years ago. And few can be unhappy with that. Least of all him as it helped to cement his continued presence in the team for next year.

But this happiness was accompanied by a certain amount of vitriol on Sunday from those watching on after the world TV feed revealed Massa's engineer Rob Smedley warning him about getting 'too close to Fernando' at a point of the race that Massa was catching his team mate. As argued before on this blog, the rather naive, pass-the-smelling-salts reaction of many observers to the unavoidable application of team orders in F1 never ceases to amaze me.

And, honestly, did anyone expect Ferrari to do anything different? It's here to win the championship, and any team in the same situation - i.e. coming to the business end of the season, with one guy in the thick of the title fight and the other nowhere near - would have done similar. Yes, that includes teams that have a weakness for making holier-than-thou pronouncements on such matters, such as Red 'maintain the gap Mark/save fuel' Bull, and McLaren (remember Heikki Kovalainen almost swerving off the track to let Lewis Hamilton past in Hockenheim in 2008?).

Call me Mr Cynical, but I can't help suspect that a lot of it is faux outrage, reflecting that some struggle to pass up opportunities to denigrate the nasty Scuderia and/or Fernando. To give a recent example to compare and contrast with, Romain Grosjean conspicuously let team mate Kimi Raikkonen past late on in the Singapore race, and I don't recall much, or indeed any, criticism of that.

Perhaps one thing Ferrari could have done differently though in Korea is let Felipe to act as hare to go after Webber and 'interfere' possibly with the Australian's race in whatever way he could; after all Ferrari had nothing to lose by this (assuming Felipe would give the place back to Fernando whatever happened). Though sometimes such syncronised swimming is easier said than done. In any case, Fernando was saving his tyres for a late charge at Webber in the final ten laps, and presumably the logic on the Ferrari pit wall was that letting Massa go between them only would have compromised the plan.

Doomsday for Sauber
Sauber - lacking imagination?
Credit: Morio / CC
I sometimes suspect that someone in the Sauber strategy team is a strong believer in predeterminism. Or else just seriously lacks imagination.

As we know, one-stop strategies that defy the laws of physics have delivered a couple of very strong results for Sauber this year. But on other days it seems the team struggles to grasp that it won't always work, and insists on applying them like some sort of Doomsday device even when all can see it's not coming off. And Sunday in Korea was one such day.

It seems surprising especially given the resource F1 teams put into their pit strategy. The common narrative of fans and media alike is 'the guys on the pit wall making the calls', while if possibly ultimately true it's also the case that the calls are informed by armies of analysts and number crunchers back at base, applying all sorts of game theory and extrapolations.

In the initial shake-out in Korea Sergio Perez placed ninth, and given the Sauber's strong race day pace, helped by a gentle touch on the Pirellis, at least some points therefore looked likely. However, the team went for a one-stopper, staying out when most others pitted. But it never looked a goer and Perez circulated some 2-3 seconds a lap slower than those around him, a loss that easily negates the time of a stop in a handful of laps. The Sauber team eventually gave in, pitting Perez some 5 or 6 laps after his rivals. But the damage was done. Perez, also delayed on his pit exit, dropped out of the top ten and was still there at the end.

It's been a characteristic of Sauber for about as long as I can remember, that it is often rather pedestrian and safety first, given to strategy that involves stopping fewer times than those around it. Perhaps if it wants to 'move up a level' it needs to learn to live a little dangerously.

Incredible Hulk
Nico Hulkenberg -
proving me worng
Credit: Gil Abrantes / CC
If F1 was predictable, then presumably few of us would watch it.

I've spent much of Nico Hulkenberg's F1 career more cautious than most on his potential, even taking the view that he may be over-rated. Well, on recent evidence he may be starting to prove me wrong.

In the early days of his debut season, in 2010 in a Williams, I felt vindicated as he was roundly blown away by Rubens Barrichello and also struggled to avoid spins and crashes. But in the latter part of the year he came onto a game, and it's easy to forget that in this age of testing restrictions how much more difficult it is for debutant drivers. Indeed, I understand that Hulkenberg didn't match the mileage in a F1 car that Lewis Hamilton had before he made his debut in Melbourne 2007 until the Hungarian Grand Prix of his debut year. Which was when, perhaps not entirely by coincidence, he started to do well.

Of course, at the end of that year money spoke, and the Hulk in 2011 found himself relegated to the role of sometime Friday tester for Force India, prior to getting a promotion to the big seat for this year. And the season's followed a similar pattern to 2010, Hulk generally being shown the way by his team mate Paul Di Resta in the early rounds, but latterly it's been Hulk with the upper hand. His sixth place in the Korean round was a continuation of good recent form, including running with the leaders like he was born to do it in Valencia, Hockenheim, Spa and Suzuka.

And all the while he's been showing a racer's edge that his team mate has still yet to demonstrate. This was put on full display in Korea with his celebrated double-pass on Grosjean and Hamilton, as well as successfully holding off the apparently-quicker Grosjean for much of the way.

It now looks likely that Hulkenberg is off to Sauber next year. On the face of it, it's a bit of a sideways step, but perhaps Hulk's thinking that Force India, a rather mediocre car in the midfield battle with a stellar team mate in Di Resta, wasn't the best platform to show his talent. And of course Sauber is seen as something of a Ferrari B team; if the mooted Vettel move for 2014 doesn't come off then the Scuderia could do a lot worse than look at Hulk.


  1. McLaren are still a good team and have the best car. Button has had little luck lately, while Hamilton shafted the team that has given him everything and is getting his due reward.

    1. Thanks for that. Obviously McLaren aren't *bad*, indeed they do a good of of being up there in the mix consistently year upon year. But it seems that for whatever reason they struggle to make the vital final step to win titles and have done for 20 years. It makes you wonder if there are reasons for that.

      And I don't agree that Hamilton 'shafted' McLaren; his contract was up and in my view he paid off whatever debt of obligation he had to McLaren long ago.