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.

Add that we saw magnificent seasons of driving from Alonso, Vettel, Hamilton and Raikkonen, as well as fine cameos from plenty of others, in addition to a tight and corkscrew-like title fight that was decided at the last in a gripping finale, and there's not a lot more one could feasibly ask for. Even if you'd been writing the script you probably wouldn't have come up with much else.

And to think that early in the year some were complaining that things were too unpredictable. I find it hard to believe that when we look back on the 2012 season in years to come we'll find much to complain about.

Maranello musings
One team that will be poring over the 2012 more than most may be Ferrari. The Scuderia isn't quite the highly-strung, over-political environment that it once was (though Chris Dyer probably has reason to disagree), but still there will no doubt be a post mortem as to just how Ferrari managed to, again, miss out on titles, despite a substantial advantage in the drivers' table at the year's mid-point.

Much for Ferrari to mull over
Credit: Morio / CC
Of course, many will point to Alonso's two DNFs thanks to first corner accidents in Spa and Suzuka. And it's easy to see why: Vettel got 18 points back on Alonso at Spa on a day that Alonso probably would have finished ahead, while at Suzuka it's reasonable to think that Alonso would likely have ended up in the top three at least, so another 15 points 'gone' (as an aside, compare the slightest tickle that put Alonso out in Japan with the double whack that Seb took in Brazil and was able to continue with, or even his contact in Abu Dhabi; it underlines how random chance has a say in who wins titles). There are other races in which smaller hauls were possibly lost via sub-optimum strategy, Monaco and Canada most notably. Though the risk is of course that in a close fight such as this year's almost anything can be said to have tilted it.

But ultimately what cost Alonso and Ferrari was the development race; when Red Bull kicked and uniquely for 2012 went on a run of wins, the Prancing Horse wasn't able to respond. And related to this, Ferrari's ability to trust its simulation tools was much weaker than for many of its rivals. Of course, the wind tunnel correlation problem reared its head again late in the year, and how often in the latter part of the season did Ferrari try developments only to bin them? At times the new spec car seemed slower than the old (such as in Austin). And overarching all of this, for that for all we talk about Ferrari International Assistance the current rules could have been designed to impede the Scuderia: testing, which Ferrari is good at and historically has relied on more than other teams, thanks in large part to having its own private test track outside the back of the factory, is severely restricted. And when testing was restricted the team found itself years behind its rivals on the simulators, CFD, wind tunnels etc that suddenly became crucial. And they're still behind on these it seems.

Fixing this has been at the top of Pat Fry's to-do list since he became Ferrari's de facto technical director, and no doubt it'll continue to be so this winter.

Finger pointing
I suppose it's in part a consequence of a great weight of tension lifting, but it's a pity that at the moment of greatest triumph some see fit to take the sheen off it by seeing it also as an opportune moment for voicing recriminations. Ayrton Senna of course upon winning the 1991 world drivers' championship was possibly the most notorious exponent of this.

It wasn't all smiles for Vettel after the Brazil race
Credit: Morio / CC
Neither Sebastian Vettel (famous for his finger pointing, though not in that way) nor Christian Horner could resist this particular temptation after claiming the crown in Brazil, both accusing their rivals of playing 'dirty tricks' this season. I wasn't impressed by this, not so much that they made the accusation (which of course is their right) but that they refused to be drawn into specifics. To accuse rivals of 'dirty tricks' without elaboration of who and what you have in mind, and thus leaving it hanging in the air, is at best unhelpful and incendiary - it'll no doubt incite speculation and rumour much of which is likely to be unwarranted. At worst it is childish and cowardly. If I was Jean Todt I might just be minded to give them a call about it.

Without specifics none of us (least of all the FIA) can do any sort of examination of the claims and come to an informed conclusion of their veracity. But as mentioned it won't stop speculation, and this helps no one. So come on Seb and Christian, tell us what you meant or retract the comments.

Time to say goodbye
Inevitably, the final race of a year is a time to say goodbye. As each year ends it marks the last we'll see of some, those leaving willingly and not so willingly alike.

Will we see HRT's like again?
Credit: suran2007 / CC
And although the title battle drew attention away to some extent, this applies to 2012 as much as any year. Of course, Schumi bows out, probably for good this time. But there were possible farewells elsewhere. It may well also be the last we see of HRT, as Thesan Capital has put the team up for sale (making clear it's no longer prepared to provide life support) and rumours swirl of redundancy notices being handed out to staff. It's all a pity of course, as HRT had been slowly building foundations in the last year and a bit, and while a sale of the team may yet rescue the situation to an extent, Pedro de la Rosa noted that even if a buyer does emerge it's still probable that the concern would be moved from Spain and reappear in a very different form (essentially they'd be buying the F1 entry only). For lots of reasons, basing itself in Spain and going for the 'national team' approach seemed to make life more difficult for the team than it needed be. But let's not forget that for all some decry HRT, it (as Campos) entered the sport having been sold a pup to a large extent, with the assumption of a strict budget cap which was agreed at the time but subsequently reneged on. And to again make the point that I labour, in historical terms its cars are not that far off the pace.

Then there are Kamui Kobayashi and Heikki Kovalainen, whom the grapevine have missing out on a seat when the music stops next year. In Kobayashi's case, for all his cuddly toy image it's been suggested that Sauber hasn't been happy with either of its drivers this year; indeed, the team's words when announcing the signing of Nico Hulkenberg for 2013 positively dripped with this idea while stopping short of actually saying it. But even so, in both Kobayashi's case and that of Kovalainen neither seems particularly warranting of the boot, and their lack of a pot of gold behind them is a major pivot. In both cases it appears that they are being replaced by a pay driver.

I have all sorts of conflicting thoughts on this situation. On one hand, I can see that a driver can be useful in raising finance for a team, after all a CEO is much more likely to pick up the phone when a driver calls than when a team principal does. And perhaps it's also, right or wrong, the new reality that drivers have to learn to adapt to. Kovalainen seemed to suggest over the Brazil weekend that he refuses to raise finance almost as a point of principle, which while admirable also has a touch of signing one's own death warrant about it. And it baffles me how Kobayashi, as the only Japanese presence in F1 (let alone driver), hasn't been able to rustle up some Japanese cash.

But the balance between sponsors' finance accrued by drivers and accrued elsewhere seems all wrong at the moment. And when you look at the cars on an F1 grid and see most of them with hardly a sponsor on them, and that many sponsors that are there are brought by drivers or associated with the team ownership, you wonder if the teams are doing enough themselves?

Things looking up
But perhaps all that is changing. F1, for the first time in a while, had some good news on the sponsor front over the Interlagos weekend.

Lotus is to get a new paint job
Credit: Morio / CC
First off, no less than the Coca Cola Corporation is coming into F1, with its Burn brand sponsoring Lotus. This was followed by confirmation that Infinity is to become Red Bull's title sponsor from next year. And before the weekend was out there were suggestions that MasterCard has agreed a major F1 track signage deal, as well as that other deals may be in the pipeline.

Thus after a fallow period (highly visible from looking at the cars, as mentioned) it seems multinational companies are seeing F1's global potential and returning to the sport in large number. Of course, the recession was a big contributor to the lean spell, but probably F1's ability to make a fool of itself it regular intervals (Bahrain, Crashgate, Maxgate etc etc) also hasn't helped. I often looked at the handsome sponsorship on cars in Indycar and NASCAR and surmised that F1 itself, over and above market conditions, was getting something wrong - particularly given it has a global reach that few others can match. Perhaps the quality of the racing and the sport's growing association with 'green' technology, which like it or not is an increasing expectation of wider stakeholders, and thus alleviating F1's possibly outmoded 'gas gussling' image, has also assisted the F1 brand.

Thus, as the sport heads into 2013 things are looking rather more up than before.

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