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.

Just what McLaren will be missing
So, the mask has slipped.

Ron Dennis - letting the mask slip
Credit: Tristram Biggs / CC
It's now pushing two months since it was announced that Lewis Hamilton, against many expectations, would indeed be fleeing the McLaren nest for Mercedes next year. Since, all at McLaren have done their best to put a brave face on the move. But McLaren executive chairman Ron Dennis left little to the imagination in his interview post-the Austin race on Sky TV.

Ron, for all his poker face and reputation for impenetrability, is a highly emotionally-driven man and both his demeanour and to some extent his words gave away a lot of hurt and a certain level of bitterness that Hamilton was about to be lost.

And of course it's understandable why Ron and others at the team would feel this way. Lewis lest we forget has been at McLaren since he was 13, for some 14 years in other words, the team has seen him grow from raw youth to world superstar, and his going must seem a lot like family breaking up.

But McLaren also has cause to regret the impact where it really matters, on track. The Austin race reminded us what a towering and freakish driving talent Lewis Hamilton is, as indeed he's been reminding us just about all season. Furthermore, Lewis appears to be just approaching the peak of his considerable driving powers. However McLaren chooses to slice it, losing that to another team cannot be considered as anything other than a massive body blow.

Back to the future on backmarkers
The pronouncements from those at Red Bull leave no doubt what they consider to be pivotal in Sebastian Vettel losing out to Lewis in the Austin race. The blame was laid squarely at the door of Narain Karthikeyan, who had held Seb up for a few corners (though in a section wherein it was hard to 'move over') just before Lewis made his definitive pass for the lead. Brickbats were tossed in the direction of the bottom end of the pit lane by Seb himself, as well as by Christian Horner and even by the usually mild-mannered Adrian Newey.

Ayrton Senna - a master in traffic
Credit: senna.org.br / CC
The sport has definitely changed in this regard. It's not all that long ago that working your way through lapped 'traffic' was part of the game and an important one at that; up until roughly the mid-1990s only egregious cases of blocking by backmarkers (e.g. those which lasted several laps) would have a chance of being punished. Some of those about to be lapped would move graciously to one side, but many would not (e.g. De Cesaris, Arnoux, Alliot, to pick some notorious offenders). But I can't help but think that a lot has been lost with the current practice of drivers swerving out of the way and getting out of the throttle at the earliest opportunity upon seeing a blue flag. Lapping while losing the minimum time is a lost art to the sport, and one that many of F1's greatest practitioners, Ayrton Senna most notably, were particularly skilled at. It's not exaggeration to say that had the current practice existed in Senna's day you would most likely have to take away ten or more of his 41 Grand Prix wins.

More broadly, dicing through traffic greatly added to the excitement and variation of an F1 race, and many iconic moments resulted from a leader being 'baulked', such as Nigel Mansell's opportunistic pass on Senna in Hungary 1989 which has gone into folklore.

I would assume that the main reason that the current strict appliance of blue flags came into being was the problem of 'dirty air' in F1, which meant passing cars even several seconds a lap slower without cooperation was problematic. However, that problem has been sorted and then some with DRS and the like, meaning we now have more passing in F1 than we have had for decades. So why not go back to how things were in lapping? I'm sure that Ayrton Senna for one would have approved.

I'm tellin' y'all it's sabotage
A major talking point in Austin of course was in train before the race had even started. All about Ferrari being ruthless, favouring Fernando and seeking to exploit the rules to his advantage with the championship at stake. Really, who knew?

Massa - making a sacrifice
Credit: formulasantander.com / CC
I was fully poised for the proverbial excrement to hit the fan when it was confirmed that Ferrari had indeed 'sabotaged' Felipe Massa by breaking the seal of his gearbox, thus consigning him to a five-place grid drop but moving Alonso one place forward and, crucially, onto the grippier racing line for the start. But the reaction in the main has been rather muted, both from rival teams and, if my trawl around the web is anything to by, from the fans. There has been the odd yelp of outrage, but they have appeared rather isolated.

Why is this? Well perhaps part of the answer lies in the first paragraph: it was hardly an unlikely act (this is F1 remember), especially within the circumstances. And the circumstances were peculiar, I find it hard to believe that Ferrari (even Ferrari) would have done this had it not been for the expected difference to the launch from starting on-line rather than off-line. As for the relative lack of outrage from rival teams, perhaps that to some extent itself reflects that just about any team principal would likely have done similar in the same situation, or at least been highly tempted to. Indeed I'd wager that you wouldn't have to dig for long to find acts by other teams which are guilty at least of exploiting the rules' letter rather than their spirit, or else compromising one driver to help another. You only have to go back one race to find Red Bull doing both.

But it did gladden me that Massa, far from being destroyed by this, appeared to take heart and subsequently put in one of his best drives of the season to come fourth. Massa is indeed becoming the perfect team player for Ferrari: quick enough to get into the mix but humble enough to accept his role. It's little wonder that the Scuderia retained him for next season.

Things are not always what they seem
To borrow from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem.

Mark Webber - it's not always him
Credit: Rich Jones / CC
This applies to F1 as much as anything. For example, how often do you hear it said in regard to Red Bull unreliability: 'why does it always happen to Mark Webber?' Webber did indeed stop in Austin on Sunday with alternator trouble, but it turns out that it was his first mechanical retirement in 59 races, or in other words for upwards of three years. Brake failure at the 2009 Singapore Grand Prix was the last time technical gremlins stopped Webber early. And, for what it's worth, his stable mate Seb's been stopped by mechanical failures on five separate occasions in the meantime.

And it doesn't seem that long ago that Seb was being derided as the 'crash kid', and even now many question his judgment when he has cars around him. But when was the last time a race of his ended because of an accident? The Turkish Grand Prix of 2010. That's 50 races ago. Or half of his career ago, if you prefer.

Always ask, never assume.

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