Thursday 29 November 2012

Yellow fever: Thoughts on Sebastian Vettel's 'flag gate'

To think that just two days ago in this very journal I was heaping praise upon the 2012 F1 season, saying it almost certainly would go down in history as a great one. Yet next thing you know fate took hand and such status was ever so briefly thrown into some doubt.

As you're no doubt aware by now there's been one heck of a rumpus over the last day or so - all about Sebastian Vettel and yellow flags and world championships. A YouTube analysis of Seb's onboard footage from the Brazilian Grand Prix suggested that he on lap four had passed Jean-Eric Vergne under yellow flag/lights (not allowed), which if guilty and if the FIA had chosen to punish it post hoc would have likely taken the 2012 drivers' title from Seb and handed it in turn to Fernando Alonso. No small fry.

Briefly, it looked like Sebastian Vettel
might have cause to lose his smile
Credit:  JerichoNation / CC
As it was, rather like a firework it was all gone just as quickly as it exploded, as the FIA confirmed today that there was a green flag waved by a marshal (in the footage but admittedly not especially clear) and therefore ending the yellow 'zone' before where Seb made the pass. Thus, case closed and Seb's title is safe.

And I'm glad of that. As regular readers of this blog may have worked out by now I bow to few in my admiration of Fernando Alonso, but had he won the title this way - with the stroke of a pen rather than with pedals and a steering wheel - it would have had a hollow ring. And I'd be disappointed in Nando if he didn't, deep down, feel the same way. Plus, it would have in no way been a quick, clean execution. Instead it almost certainly would have been a drawn out and messy process, involved appeals and counter appeals as well as a load of bitterness and acrimony, and would have carried on throughout much of the winter. Once it was all resolved left standing would have been two rather bloodied and bruised fighters. None of this would have been good for anything, least of all F1's image.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Further thoughts on the Brazilian Grand Prix

That was the year that was
Has there ever been a better F1 season than 2012? It's not exaggeration - just try to name one.

Of course, many cite 1982 as a vintage season, mainly because of its extreme drama and variety of winners. But let's not forget that it was also a reason framed by tragedy and acrimony, the likes of which this year were thankfully absent. 1997 will always have its admirers, but surely 2012's racing and abundance was overtaking makes this year better. 1974 was also highly thought of, but this season has a good case to usurp it.

 This year will surely be remembered as a great one
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
This year was one with everything. There was a multitude of credible contenders which was reflected in the number of winners - some eight drivers from six different teams - and with a few cards falling another way 1982's all-time record of 11 winners might have been matched or even beaten: Sergio Perez should have won at Malaysia and could have won at Monza, Romain Grosjean challenged for the win at Valencia and Canada, Nico Hulkenberg could well have won at Interlagos had he got his pass of Hamilton for the lead right, and what if Michael Schumacher hadn't got his grid penalty at Monaco and had reliability that day? In other words, half the field and two-thirds of the teams might have been victors.

Then there is the quality of the races themselves. Listing diverting F1 races from 2012 isn't the work of a moment: Malaysia, Valencia, Abu Dhabi, Austin, and of course Interlagos, to name but a few. Very few failed to entertain; almost all had aggressive yet high-quality wheel-to-wheel dicing throughout the field.

Sunday 25 November 2012

Brazilian GP Report: Surpassing what has gone before

How on earth could the final act of the gripping and dramatic 2012 F1 season surpass what had gone before? Surely it couldn't happen? Well it did.

Then again, given this was Interlagos, there was rain around and that it was entirely in keeping with this year for there to be nothing close to a tepid finale, perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised.

The Brazilian Grand Prix was a race of incredible ebb and flow, twist and turn, and championship favourite Sebastian Vettel's race had more of these than most. Nevertheless, by the end he was in sixth place which was just enough for him to stumble over the line for his third world title.

Sebastian Vettel did just enough
to ensure the title today
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
It all started with Seb facing the wrong way after four corners, having turned in on Bruno Senna and getting a double-clout for his trouble. It defied belief that Seb could continue at all after the whacks as well as that his damaged exhaust area lasted, perhaps the relatively cool temperatures saved him (and we've also seen penalties given for less than what he did to Senna). He was also fortunate not to be collected by any of the cars following. Nevertheless, he didn't require much luck from that moment on as he moved through the field back into contention at a super-quick rate (though appeared to pass Kobayashi under yellow flags, however the official line is it was actually red and yellow striped flags he passed under) and thus was back on the championship box seat almost before we could draw breath. Later, an ill-timed tyre stop just before it rained, then a tardy stop for the inters (not helped by a dud radio) set him back further. But it wasn't enough to deny him the points he needed to just creep over the line by a nose for the title.

Fernando Alonso meanwhile did what he's been doing all season, his determined and tenacious best, which was awarded with second place at Interlagos. At various points it looked like the highly improbable might just happen, but as it transpired only a win would have seized the championship, which was asking a lot on a day that he never had the legs of the McLarens nor of Nico Hulkenberg.

Saturday 24 November 2012

Interlagos Qualifying: In the lap of the gods?

Pressure. People in sport are forever talking about it. And today we had a demonstration of why.

Coping with the intangible thing called pressure is part of any game; pressure it seems can do funny things to all of us. And it indeed seemed to be the case in the Interlagos qualifying session. The two 2012 drivers' championship contenders, rather than leading the way and leaving all others firmly in the supporting cast, qualified but in fourth and eighth (which in the latter case became seventh), with Sebastian Vettel ahead, and both behind their respective team mates.

Lewis Hamilton continued his fine form with pole position
Credit: Morio / CC
The starring role was instead taken by McLaren and especially by Lewis Hamilton, as he led a front row lockout for the Woking squad. Indeed, the McLarens being quick and Lewis very quick has looked the way of things at Interlagos from an early stage of practice, and thus it proved in qualifying. But, at a quieter moment, the achievement may have a bittersweet taste for the team. For one thing this weekend is the last time, for a while at least, that McLaren will benefit from Lewis's pace. For another, the team might wonder just how they managed to book-end the season with front row lockouts and yet finish nowhere near the top in either title fight?

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Interlagos Preview: Endgame

Sport has an incredible reductive quality. While prizes are usually determined by achievements over a lengthy period, somehow invariably they end up being decided in the margins, and often at the last. It goes a long to explaining why even minor setbacks in sport can cause considerable regret; the probability is that you'll need those points later.

Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso face off
Credit: Bill William Compton / CC
So it is in F1, and so it is this weekend as the 2012 year reaches its endgame at Interlagos. Even in the longest season ever, some 20 races, and thousands of miles of racing, it all comes down to the final race to decide where the biggest prize of all is to go. Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso are the protagonists, 13 points apart with 25 still at stake. And whichever of the two comes away with a smile on his face will also become the sport's youngest ever three-times world champion.

Whatever the case, it cannot be denied that Sebastian Vettel has the whip hand. He needs but a fourth place to ensure that the latest title crown is his, and that seems well within his, and on recent form his RB8's, capability. The car has been the class of the field in recent weeks and Seb is looking absolutely at the top of his confidence in taking advantage of it. What's more, a Red Bull has won at Interlagos on each of the last three visits, and on the last two they finished one-two. Heck, Seb even managed to finish second here last year having been hobbled with a dodgy gearbox for much of the way. So, surely only something very strange happening can deny Seb a fourth place at least this Sunday.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Further thoughts on the US GP

F1 passes its audition
Last weekend F1 as a sport had its most important audition in a long while. And whaddaya know, it only went and nailed it.

Austin - here to stay?
Credit: mrlaugh / CC
There was of course a bigger picture on Sunday. F1 for years, perhaps decades, has regarded breaking America as an itch that it's just never been able to scratch. Despite repeated and varied attempts pitching its tent successfully in the US market, and all its associated rewards, has always eluded the sport one way or another.

For this reason plenty of eager eyes were on last weekend's US Grand Prix at Austin and not just because of what was on track and how it would impact on the title battle. And it's hard to imagine how it all could have gone better.

The Austin facility is a fine one, the layout challenging, undulating and popular with fans and drivers alike. And not even the worries about a tepid race were borne out; we were treated to tense, old-fashioned tête à tête between two great drivers pushing to the limit throughout. In addition, there was ample wheel-to-wheel racing up and down the field. It turns out cars could follow closely through the flowing first sector (Kimi even passed in it), and over and above the DRS zone there was also plenty of overtaking into turn one as well as some even in the 'Mickey Mouse' leg of the track. Best of all, some 120,000 were there on race day to see it all (and plenty were in attendance on the other two days), and I don't know about you but I got the distinct impression that many of them will be back. Not even a clash with the NASCAR finale put a serious dampener on proceedings.

Of course, this is just the beginning; what happens next is crucial and F1 has had plenty of false dawns before (I'm looking at you, Turkey), and historically F1 has shown an unhealthy tendency to blow a hole in its own foot in regard to races in the States. But it's tempting to think that F1 has just given itself its best ever chance of at last getting it right in the US.

Sunday 18 November 2012

US GP Report: A western standoff

Before the race many (outside the Red Bull team anyway) feared the worst. No one would be able to pass. Sebastian Vettel would run away, he'd been fastest in every session after all, usually by a distance. The world championship would be decided a race early, which in mesmerising 2012 would seem a lot like an anti-climax.

Lewis Hamilton claimed a brilliant and unexpected win today
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
But we ended up with something very different. Perhaps in an appropriate place, we had a mano-a-mano standoff, Seb and Lewis Hamilton staring at each other and waiting for the other to flinch, for the whole race distance it seemed. No one else ever got near to them. And even though Seb led from the front as usual he didn't disappear in the way we've got used to. Lewis was able to reel him in, and in the end sneaked ahead after 42 laps (helped in part by Seb being baulked for a tiny moment by Narain Karthikeyan). He stayed there until the end, though with Seb never giving him a moment's peace. I'm pretty sure I've said this before, but never let anyone tell you that F1 is predictable.

All in, F1's overdue and much-vaunted return to the US couldn't have gone much better. The Circuit of the Americas is a fantastic facility with a challenging and undulating layout, popular with drivers and fans. And today some 120,000 were in attendance to watch all of the action. You feel that if F1 doesn't get it right in America with this starting point then it will never get it right.

Nelson Piquet: The deepest valley and the highest mountain

The F1 follower is an odd breed. In most activities, participants are judged by their peaks. A writer will be defined by their finest works, not by the contents of their waste paper basket. Orson Welles is remembered for Citizen Kane and not for what he produced during his long decline. Bob Dylan is considered great because of Highway 61 Revisited and Blood on the Tracks, and almost no one considers that his later producing of Slow Train Coming diminishes that.

Same goes for sport too. Name any great sportsperson, Ali, Nicklaus, Maradona, Borg, and it's their crowning achievements that people most associate with them, not what they did (or rather, didn't) when not at their best.

Nelson Piquet - in his Brabham glory days
Credit: Zocchi Massimiliano / CC
But in F1 things are different. We seem to insist on viewing an F1 career holistically; everything - good and bad - is thrown in for scrutiny. And no matter what the achievements subsequent (or previous) struggle is factored in, weighted against the glory. With the struggle we seem to rarely miss an opportunity to ask 'was he that good after all?'. Perhaps it reflects that F1, unlike most activities, is a measure of a combination of man and machine; definitive evidence of the driver's contribution, over and above the supremacy of their equipment, is next to impossible to come by. Therefore, possibly we view it as necessary to not discount any available evidence to form our judgments. But whatever the case, Nelson Piquet has more cause than most to regret this state of affairs.

Piquet won three world titles in his F1 career, along with 23 Grands Prix. Yet you'd hardly know it (not in the English-speaking world anyway). His name rarely features in debates about great F1 drivers, nor even in debates about great drivers of his era. Indeed, when his name is mentioned it's often merely to seek to demonstrate the point that statistics don't mean everything in judging drivers.

The common narrative is that Piquet had success in a team of one at Brabham, but then moved to Williams to pair up with Nigel Mansell and was 'found out', which heralded a lingering decline to his career, and which was ended by a young Michael Schumacher booting him out of the sport. But is this fair?

Saturday 17 November 2012

Austin Qualifying: Seb continues his Bull run

I remember reading a story told by the sadly recently-departed Professor Sid Watkins: in a qualifying session at Adelaide for the Australian Grand Prix one year, he was poised in the parked medical car, with Frank Gardner in the driver's seat. The commentary on their radio said something about the track being slippy, to which Gardner, having seen Ayrton Senna emerge from the pits, chortled: 'Watch - the circuit is suddenly going to get unslippy now...'. He was right.

It was tempting to view Sebastian Vettel's run to pole today, indeed how he's looked from the moment his RB8 set wheel on the Austin track, in the same way.

Sebastian Vettel has a clean pair of heels again
Credit:  Ryan Bayona / CC
As expected, the Austin facility is a fine one and the layout varied and challenging, with the size of the crowds in attendance indeed a good news story. But as also was expected in some quarters, the track is characterised by low grip. And then some, the F1 car on it (not helped by Pirelli bringing an ultra-conservative tyre selection) has appeared a lot like a duck on ice both through the turns and when under acceleration. But both yesterday and today the Red Bull - no, check that, Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull - looks like it has been operating on different tarmac to everyone else. Seb has been absolutely nailed to the floor in his RB8, especially in the technical final sector of the lap, pulling out rapid lap times as he liked and as his rivals simultaneously tip-toed around desperately seeking adhesion and temperature in their tyres. The rest of the paddock must have undergone something akin to the grief cycle as Seb topped every session, and by a distance each time.

The times in the last throes of qualifying were a bit closer than anticipated though as Lewis Hamilton, continuing good recent form, was just a tenth shy of Seb's best and indeed was quicker in the flowing sector one (though apparently Seb also made a small mistake). But even so somehow Seb topping the times seemed inevitable. And thus it came to pass.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

US GP Preview: Will Austin be Weird?

F1's final frontier. Its unfinished business. Its itch that it just can't scratch.

Call it what you will, but that's F1 in America. And this weekend we'll see the start of the sport's latest attempt to crack the States. And, what do you know, this time there seems to be a better than usual chance of getting it right.

Austin will be the tenth US venue to host an F1 race (and that's a record, France is next up with 'just' seven different venues), and that number betrays F1's repeated attempts at setting its roots down in the US. It also betrays that, one way or another, the sport has managed to make a pig's ear of it every single time.

F1 pitches up at a new, and important, venue this weekend
Credit: Larry D. Moore / CC
America is important to F1. Like it or not it's absurd that anything purporting to be a world championship should turn its back on the USA, indeed on the American continents, with the alacrity that F1 has in recent years. The potential benefits to F1, in terms of fan base, commerce and investment, of getting it right in America are considerable. And this, hopefully, will just be the start with New Jersey due to join to the calendar in 2014 and rounds in Mexico, Argentina, maybe even the Caribbean, rumoured to join also in the years ahead.

And, contrary to the claims of some who should know better, there is no inherent reason for F1 to fail in the US. Anyone who knows about F1 races at Watkins Glen and Long Beach could tell you that, as could those who know where F1's record race day attendance anywhere was assembled (it was Indianapolis in 2000 - some quarter of a million people were there that day). Indeed, any glance around F1-related social media will reveal many US-based F1 fans.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Further thoughts on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Kimi - how an F1 driver should be
Imagine that you were a writer of a film script or some other work of fiction, and you were asked to create the character of the chief protagonist and hero of the piece, who is an F1 driver.

Kimi Raikkonen - back where he belongs
Credit: Matthias v.d. Elbe / CC
You'd likely give him piercing blue eyes and blond hair. He'd be quiet, menacing, monosyllabic. He'd have an ice-cold, 'devil may care' persona, and exhibit a complete lack of melodrama and pretension. He'd never be one to whine, plead, and would be similarly underwhelmed by success as well. His answers to questions - be they from the media or from his own engineers - would be clipped, economical, sometimes contemptuous; his real focus would be on the core task at hand. His only interest would be in the racing, he'd have a healthy disdain for PR schmoozing, debriefs and other chores. He'd have a reputation as something of a party animal away from the track. His talent would be instinctive, he'd be a 'plug in and go' talent not needing to play himself in or build up to his ultimate lap time, understanding technical matters almost immediately. Most important of all he'd be bloody quick. And he'd come from Finland and his name would be Kimi Raikkonen.

There are many good things about F1 in 2012. The return of Kimi to where he belongs, at the sharp end of the F1 pack, has to be one of the best.

Sunday 4 November 2012

Abu Dhabi GP Report: Race of champions

We really should have known better shouldn't we?

There was no way in the mercurial, madcap F1 2012-style that we were going to have a simple end to the season, with Sebastian Vettel cruising to honours. That's not how the season has been. And sure enough Abu Dhabi, perhaps not the likeliest scene of F1 drama, delivered another swing.

Kimi Raikkonen reminded us of his star quality today
Credit: Morio / CC
It all started in qualifying, with Lewis Hamilton going against the recent Seb-dominated grain by taking pole by a distance, and was exacerbated as Seb was put to the back of the grid for not being able to provide a litre of fuel for the post-session check.

And you could hardly see the join between that and the drama today on race day. While there was some poor driving on display in the pack, the range of driving quality in the modern F1 field was laid bare with four truly magnificent performances from world champions.