Thursday 26 December 2013

Final thoughts on 2013: Dark matters

The 2013 F1 season was a year that promised much and in many ways disappointed. It was a year undermined by political intrigue, aggravation, sometimes scandal. A year that perhaps won't linger in the affections, aside from recollection of a driver and team in unison performing at the top of their respective games in taking the honours, a partnership that has been formidable for a while and was increasingly so as this campaign went on. We might have witnessed the team in some ways at its worst this season, but we also saw it at its very best.

And yet at the campaign's outset we were full of optimism, coming off a season wherein the fare were was more competitive and varied than had been so for a long while, and was played to a close and dramatic climax. There were not many reasons to think that things would be much different this time, yet we didn't to any great extent get more of the same, and worse the main thing that we did get more of was politics.

The Pirelli tyres dominated the discourse in early 2013
Photo: Octane Photography
The F1 fraternity is a fractious lot, and the sport can never be detached completely from disputes; the tendency merely has to be managed. But this campaign contained rather a lot to manage, and much flowed over the brim. The matter that dominated the discourse in the first half of the year - much more than any driver or team - were the dark matters of the Pirelli tyres. Dark in more ways than one.

Early in the 2013 season some noticed that the rubber, with Pirelli deliberately engineering degradation in, didn't allow drivers to push all the time. This really shouldn't have been a surprise, as that had been Pirelli's approach (at the behest of Formula One Management) since its return as the sport's supplier in 2011 in order to add a variable to the racing and to strategies. And as had also been also been its way it also this year went more extreme with the tyres than in the season before, given that each year the teams' tendency to get on top of the challenges as the season went on resulted in more tepid fare.

Saturday 21 December 2013

My Top Ten Drivers of 2013: The Rest...

Here are my views on those F1 drivers from 2013 who didn't make my top 10 ranking that I published a few days ago.

My top 10 drivers of 2013 can be read here.

There were two drivers that came closest to pipping Paul di Resta for tenth place in the 2013 ranking: Felipe Massa and Daniel Ricciardo.

Felipe Massa is yet another in the F1 fraternity who must feel like 12 months ago may as well be another age. It's terribly easy to forget now, but rewind back to when we had but two races down in this campaign and Felipe looked close to the top of his game, or at least much closer than he had for years. Then he'd just qualified ahead of his haughty stable mate Fernando Alonso four times on the spin (including from the previous year) - some of the overexcited talked of him 'getting under Alonso's skin'.

Photo: Octane Photography
All a long time ago, as I said. The Felipe feelgood factor unravelled fairly quickly, as is often his way given as F1 drivers go he's always seemed particularly vulnerable to 'letting his chin drop', to use the British parlance. And where it really started to go wrong for him was a Monaco weekend wherein he crashed spectacularly in practice (forcing him to sit out qualifying) and then managed to do close to identical in the race. This was the start of a dark cloud passing over his campaign under which errors were frequent, and he crashed in the next two rounds - qualifying in Canada and practice in Silverstone - both of which compromised him, and then in Germany he spun out of the race early on. Sure enough, come Monza Ferrari had informed him that after eight years driving for the Scuderia he would have to seek alternative employers next year.

To a large extent 2013 seemed merely a continuation of what had come before for Massa. Again he scored fewer than half of Alonso's points total; again there were errors; again he seemed to never be quicker than Alonso on a race day; again even when he was about as quick there would be spells in races wherein his pace would taper off unfathomably. However, after his departure was confirmed there was a mini-upturn, him looking roughly as quick as Alonso in Monza, Japan and Abu Dhabi as well as running ahead of the Spaniard for much of the way in each race. His run to fourth in India was good too. And his quali match up with his team mate was more than respectable, being 11-8 to Alonso. Furthermore Felipe's not giving up on the sport, as he's struck a deal to race a Williams next year. How he fares in a new environment, and away from Alonso's long shadow, will be fascinating to watch.

Daniel Ricciardo however is journeying in the opposite direction: doing enough with midfielders Toro Rosso to be selected to join the big league in a Red Bull for 2014. The move was accompanied by a certain amount of cynicism - Red Bull is just signing a rabbit that won't threaten Seb was the gist - but don't be caught thinking that the cynics have a monopoly on wisdom; there are reasons to think that the big team selected Ricciardo for all of the right reasons.

Monday 9 December 2013

My Top Ten Drivers of 2013

Here is my personal rating of the top ten F1 drivers of the 2013 season, seeking to take into account their performance under the circumstances they were in as well as the machinery that they had access to.

A run down of my views on the drivers who didn't make the top ten will follow in the next few days.

Photo: Octane Photography
1. Sebastian Vettel
There can only be one number one. The overarching plot line of the F1 year just passed was all about the latest steps forward made by the prodigious Sebastian Vettel, him further exploring the outer territory of what is required to be a complete F1 performer. In 2013 he was formidable.

As it was for everyone else for Seb it was a season of two halves: pre and post the mid-year Pirelli changes. Yet it's probably instructive that Vettel mastered both. Early in the year, even though the delicate Pirelli rubber didn't always suit, he quickly adopted the role of man to beat: incrementally establishing a clear championship lead via dominant wins when his machine allowed and sizeable point hauls when it didn't.

Then after the summer break Seb was on a pedestal; such was his clamp on first place that race weekends became strictly a battle over second place at the very most. Seb's path to victory was indeed familiar, yet devastating in its repeated execution: take pole with a stunning lap as if it's yours by right; blast off the line and be seconds clear in the opening laps with devastating pace enacted like flicking a switch; manage the gap to the rest and your limited-resource Pirellis from there; make any passes quickly and decisively; and still be at the front when the chequered flag falls. Familiar, yes. Predictable too. But no less impressive for that.

And in a year wherein he always seemed to be pressing, almost always was at the front, from him there were almost no mistakes. Seeking examples wherein he erred is revealing only in its paucity: tapping a wall and later running across the grass in Canada; slightly damaging his front wing against Jenson Button in Hungary; being slightly scrappy in Japan. But that's your lot from a 19-race season. And on the broader level it's possible that Seb never once threw away points this year; that every time he maximised the possible result. Whichever way you define it, his 2013 campaign was just about flawless.

Perhaps it said something that the only chink in his armour made this year was self-inflicted: that around Malaysia wherein Seb allowed his competitive instincts to get the better of him and he rather ambushed an unsuspecting team mate in Mark Webber, against team orders, to win. And his response - all apologetic in the immediate aftermath; unrepentant three weeks later - was bewildering. Perhaps it showed the limitations of seeking to maintain two rather disparate Sebastian Vettels: the smiling, cherubic media darling, and the ruthless self-seeker on-track.

Yet these days Sebastian Vettel is a driver without obvious weakness. He has stunning pace on a single lap as well as in races that he can summon at will. His brain power in managing a race and mental strength in repelling pressure and attempts at needle bear comparison with the very best in F1 history. No one in contemporary F1 works as hard as he; takes such a holistic approach. His overtakes - previously an area where he was criticised - are these days crisp and assured. Somehow after winning everything there is to win repeatedly his motivation and spontaneous joy in achievement appear absolutely undiminished. And on top of all of this he has the confidence and reinforcement that habitual success brings.

Moreover, 2013 was surely the year wherein even many of Vettel's most hardened doubters will have been converted. Only professional churls and contrarians can by now be maintaining the view that Seb isn't all that.

Photo: Octane Photography
2. Fernando Alonso
There is no shortage of comparisons made between the Vettel-Red Bull reign of triumph now with that of Michael Schumacher-Ferrari roughly a decade earlier. There are some parallels indeed; but as is usually the case such comparisons aren't necessarily wholly applicable. With Schumi-Ferrari at the height of their powers even if you somehow managed to get your machine onto something like the level of the Ferrari you still had the driver factor to contend with: few doubted then that Schumi was the standard bearer. With Vettel and Red Bull this isn't universally thought to be the case, not quite anyway, as there is one man elsewhere who plenty reckon ensures that they do not have such comfort. The argument stands; many take the view that should Fernando Alonso ever over a season have access to a car nearly as good as any of the rest then the Spaniard's personal offering will be capable of making up the rest of the difference. And appropriately this season he was the last man left still standing before the Vettel-Red Bull juggernaut.

Monday 2 December 2013

Sebastian Vettel 2013 World Champion: The sign of the four

Twelve months ago Sebastian Vettel swept up world drivers' title number three for himself, merely the latest of his increasingly haughty collection of achievements. And with it all somewhere at the back of minds was the nagging thought that whatever his skills and statistical marks then, at the age of just 25 Vettel - some seven or eight years shy of when the F1 pilot usually peaks - was only going to get better. One year on and you know what? He did get better.

Sebastian Vettel in familiar pose
Photo: Octane Photography
In 2013 Sebastian Vettel was devastating; a notch or two beyond the already formidable figure we had before. Before long in this campaign he'd established himself as they guy to beat, and was edging clear almost inexorably even though his package wasn't at that stage always the class of the field in qualifying or in races. Then the second half of the year - aided by a change to the tyre spec - became a series of Clark-like demonstrations. Only major setbacks would have deprived him wins, and they never came. Minor setbacks seemed the most minor inconvenience. Seb time after time closed in on victories like a heat seeking missile. Of course, he was mathematically champion well before the season end. He was effectively so long before even that.

And the haughty records speak for themselves. Title number four and on the bounce, which can only otherwise be boasted by Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher; equalling Schumi's all-time mark of 13 wins in a season, which also vaults him up to fourth place in the all-time winners' list and does so with a better strike rate than those ahead (Seb has close to one win from every three Grand Prix starts); and then ending the season matching Alberto Ascari's long-entrenched record of nine Grand Prix wins in a row, a record long since considered so imperious as to have an untouchable, almost mythical, air. Vettel in his campaign of triumph took them all.

Thursday 28 November 2013

Further thoughts on the Brazilian Grand Prix

Bull or Troll?
Prior to Sunday's race, running at Interlagos was pretty much a wash-out, the surface being to varying degrees wet throughout. And Pirelli had more cause than most to regret this, as it'd specially brought some 2014 spec slick tyres for the teams to try out. The Italian company - that seems to have offended the Goddess Fortune at some point in the recent past - thus was deprived of running and data on its developing product, and we know by now that it rather craves that sort of thing.

Pirelli - not having much luck right now
Photo: Octane Photography
Well, almost totally deprived of data anyway. As one team did do a lap on the new tyres (albeit a slow one) even in the streaming conditions, equipped with data gathering appendages and then telling its driver in a rather sinister tone that the required data had been got. Yes, this was Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel.

A few watching on interpreted this as just the latest evidence of Red Bull being a step ahead; leaving no stone unturned in the purist of an advantage. Ross Brawn - one ordinarily you have to get up early in the morning to catch out - didn't think so however: 'We always work on the principle that bad information is worse than no information' said Brawn subsequently. 'With all due to respect, Red Bull may well have found something out that we don’t anticipate but we couldn't understand what you could learn in those conditions, even though it looked like they were trying to take profiles of the tyres and so on, it was difficult to see how it could be useful...'

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Further thoughts on the Brazilian Grand Prix

Maldonado maligned?
In Interlagos Pastor Maldonado succeeded in being even less popular than usual it seemed. Much of this of course was a hangover from the Austin goings-on of a week earlier, wherein after qualifying he - at the very least - heavily implied that his Williams team had done the dirty on him. And he wasn't the flavour of the month anyway, given he and his management apparently had spent weeks trying (successfully as it turned out) to extract him from his Williams obligations as well as that the Venezuelan made some not entirely flattering public comments about the team as they did so. I even read someone somewhere in course of last weekend describe him a 'vile'. While in the Brazilian race things didn't improve much as he finished the year in what some might say was familiar style, colliding with Jean-Eric Vergne in an incident wherein Pastor didn't leave much room and was lucky to avoid sanction for his part in it.

Pastor Maldonado - much maligned?
Photo: Octane Photography
But I for one wonder if Pastor, yes even Pastor, should be cut some slack on much of this. Some delving may make many of these matters not as straightfoward as appears the case on the surface.

Picking a fight with Williams is in the eyes of many F1 opinion formers rather akin to picking a fight with Paddington Bear. And Pastor more than most was on a hiding to nothing on that one.

But perhaps both of his 'crimes' against his employer can be thought of a little differently when viewed from another perspective. On the forcible extraction of himself from Williams, as Peter Windsor noted it's probable that Maldonado's considerable financial backers would have been reluctant to sign a cheque for year number four at the same team, particularly one that had rather stagnated over that period. A move therefore was to a large extent necessary for him to retain his USP.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Further thoughts on the Brazilian Grand Prix

Set for a turbo charge
The Brazilian Grand Prix wasn't short on farewells as mentioned. And among the most prominent of these was that it was the scene of the final bow of the current engine spec: V8 2.4 litre units which are to be replaced by V6 1.6 litre turbo hybrids next campaign.

This got rather a lot of ceremony: tributes in the TV coverage throughout the weekend ('let's listen to these engines one last time' seemed a common refrain), references on the internet to 'the glorious V8 era' as well as even some teams revving their units until they went pop, or very nearly pop, after the Interlagos race. But I for one refrained from offering a fond send off.

V6 turbo units are to return to F1 in 2014
Credit: Morio / CC
Partly this is down to the engines being got rid of; I can't say I have much love for the 2.4 litre V8 engines. Although towards the end they did have the virtue that they already existed, and were subject to a development freeze, in an age wherein most F1 cars weren't big on spare cash, as Martin Brundle commented the engines are also 'gutless', and their spec seemed to evolve only in a ham-fisted attempt to control costs.

Further, I am an unashamed enthusiast for the turbo units that await next year. The new engines are absolutely in keeping with a key part of F1 (and for a lot of motor sport more generally), that it improves the breed. The turbos with ERS and the like is exactly the sort of things the car industry is looking to develop right now and for the immediate future, with V8s precisely what they are not looking to. To quote Ross Brawn: 'We're not going to get manufacturers to come in with the V8 normally aspirated engine that we have now. No-one's interested. We've got to create fresh opportunities for new manufacturers to come in because who's going to come in and build a V8 18,000rpm engine? The new engine gives a fresh opportunity and it's a more relevant specification for manufacturers.'

Further thoughts on the Brazilian Grand Prix

Webber times it perfectly
The most prominent of all of the goodbyes in Interlagos was that of Mark Webber, as he's off to drive Porsches in LMP1 from next year. And it said a lot about him that even in the cynical, fractious paddock this was met with something close to universal emphasis and poignancy. For lots of reasons I - like most - am sad to be losing Mark Webber from F1, both as a driver and man (I outline the reasons in more detail in what I wrote in Further Thoughts from the Silverstone weekend, when Webber announced that he was off).

Mark Webber - walking away at the right time
Photo: Octane Photography
Yet from Webber himself in Interlagos - while there was appreciation at his send-off - there were few tears. I instead sensed that Webber was entirely at ease with his decision to step away from F1; entirely prepared for it. And for that, I'm glad.

Webber has admitted that the Pirelli tyres and the resultant modern endurance-type F1 racing and persistent rubber conservation is not to his taste either in terms of satisfaction or results (it's ironic that he's off to endurance racing to be able to push again), telling The Daily Telegraph a few weeks ago:

'The young guys coming through don't know any different yet but it has been getting harder for me on Sundays. High-speed corners are one of my strengths but that's where you kill the tyres. It's so frustrating. The guys will come on the radio and say "Don't push. Slow it down." You just feel like there's a lot of stuff falling through the net in terms of what you could bring. Vettel is seriously handy, don't get me wrong, but guys like Lewis have been hurt. He just wants to race every lap. And this, at the moment, is just not working for him.'

Monday 25 November 2013

Further thoughts on the Brazilian Grand Prix

Ev'ry time we say goodbye...
When it comes to the F1 season end to an extent we can't lose. If there is still a championship battle open then that keeps us occupied. If not, then there is something of an 'end of term' feeling; downbeat and free of care by the haughty business's standards. And so the latter was to a large extent in Interlagos.

The end of each year also is a time to say goodbye. And this time - on a few levels - there seemed more goodbyes than standard. In Mark Webber's case from F1 altogether; in Felipe Massa's case from a long-term employer, to resurface next year in new colours. Yet as is often the case there are those who finish the campaign not yet knowing which category they are to fall into, and this time - for various reasons that I won't bore you with - there are a few more unknowns than usual for this point. There are 22 driving slots on the 2014 grid, and I make it that eight of them remain unclaimed (officially anyway): those are one at Lotus, two each at Force India, Sauber and Caterham, as well as one at Marussia.

Latest word has Paul di Resta
missing out on a 2014 F1 drive
Photo: Octane Photography
The who goes where scenario - as usual - seems to change pretty much hourly, but the latest word is that of all the various candidates it will be Paul di Resta without a seat when the music stops. This I struggle with, even accepting that most teams are in 'survival mode' financially, and that di Resta doesn't bring finance. Di Resta's not the first (nor the last) to face such a situation, particularly not in recent times, yet I find it hard to believe that many other disciplines would you have someone who'd out-scored his team mate over a season, not too far off the rate of double their total, as well as in a Force India only got one point fewer than someone who had access to a McLaren, and that this would add up to the sack (and the two guys I mentioned would apparently be shoo-ins to get drives). For various reasons - which need not detain us here - di Resta doesn't win popularity awards, but only a churl would argue that he deserves to be dropped on talent or on his record. Strange indeed are the ways of the F1 decision-maker.

Sunday 24 November 2013

Brazilian GP Report: Seb's dry run

We've been here before. Eight times on the spin before today to be precise. And sure enough not even the Interlagos venue's legendary capacity for mischief did anything to upset his confident, preponderant strut. Sebastian Vettel won the Brazilian Grand Prix, and did so in familiar style: seizing control of the race early and never relinquishing it, nor ever looking like doing so. In the end, the only thing that was unexpected was that the anticipated rain didn't arrive - well, not properly anyway. Not that greater quantities likely would have stopped Seb.

Sebastian Vettel: rounding off a
triumphant year with another win
Photo: Octane Photography
And as seems to be a race-by-race occurrence at the moment a couple more all-time records went Seb's way today: both Michael Schumacher's mark of 13 wins in a season and Alberto Ascari's record of nine on the bounce - a record before now which always had an untouchable, almost mythical, slant - were matched.

It underlines that Seb is on a pedestal right now, and that his rivals have long since been counting down the days to the season end and to the big shifts in regulations for 2014, which send everyone back to base camp, to put them out of their misery. But there are reasons to think those may not scupper Seb much either.

Saturday 23 November 2013

Interlagos Qualifying: Come rain or shine

You begin to wonder if anything can keep Sebastian Vettel from the top of the order right now. We've scratched plenty from the list of potential possibilities of this in recent weeks; on today's evidence of Brazilian Grand Prix qualifying at Interlagos we can scratch rain too. Such precipitation came down during the session, as it has pretty ceaselessly since the cars first started to circulate the São Paulo track yesterday. But the outcome remained the same. Sebastian Vettel claimed pole and imperiously.

In spite of the rain, Sebastian Vettel
claimed another pole position
Photo: Octane Photography
Vettel as we know has entered one of those virtuous circles that we get in sport sometimes, that he's operating with supreme confidence, reinforcing joie de vivre and borderline contempt for any obstacles in his path, and today it all had its latest reward. Attacking the perfidious track in a way that no one else did; looking planted while all others twitched and felt their way tentatively. And once again his lap times were on another level: his best seven tenths of a second under the quickest of anyone else; more than a second under that of his team mate.

Perhaps only half a metre of snow would be sufficient to stop him...

Friday 22 November 2013

Interlagos Preview: Seb on cloud nine?

You don't need me to tell you that for a good while now there’s been little to watch in F1 2013-style other than Sebastian Vettel's haughty preponderance. And as we stand before the season's final round it feels ever so slightly like the season's conclusion will be putting all of the Seb/Red Bull's rivals - long since having raised the white flag - rather out of their misery. Indeed it feels like the only thing that could put them out of their misery.

Sebastian Vettel looks set to continue
his run of wins, and a couple more
records will go his way if he does
Photo: Octane Photography
If it seems a while since Vettel was last beaten, that's because it has been. July to be precise, in the Hungarian round prior to the summer break. And now in Brazil yet another record lays vulnerable to Seb's run of success: Alberto Ascari's all-time mark of nine wins on the bounce, a record that for a long time had seemed as mythical and untouchable as the planet Magrethea. Seb in his extended spell of glory is all set to match it. He's also set to equal Michael Schumacher's high tide watermark of 13 wins in a season. And barring unusual occurrences surely he will.

But somewhere in there lies the rub, as if you're looking for a venue in which to avoid unusual occurrences Interlagos in Brazil is probably the last you'd pick. It has an intangible quality - always has - of being a place where things happen, from the sublime to the ridiculous. It has good claim to being the closest thing the sport has to the Bermuda Triangle.

History's examples run the gamut: Ayrton Senna's long overdue and highly emotionally-charged home victory of 1991, with just sixth gear remaining in the box, rain falling and shoulders spent; his follow-up win in 1993 when a freak rainstorm on the pit straight wiped out the dominant Alain Prost; advertising hoardings falling on the track in the 2000 qualifying session (one of which was hit by Jean Alesi's Sauber) which caused the session to be ended early; the madcap wet-dry race of 2003, wherein a freak river ran across the track at Curva do Sol, accounting for several cars, and Giancarlo Fisichella was an unlikely victor after a big crash involving Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso stopped the race ahead of time (and in what surely counts as an Interlagos special, Fisi didn't know about his win until a week later due to a timing glitch); Michael Schumacher's prodigious ascent through the field in his final race of his ‘first’ F1 career in 2006 after a gearbox problem in qualifying and then an early-race puncture sent him to the back, with the big finish of him putting the manners on his Ferrari replacement…; the mysterious technical problem that delayed Lewis Hamilton for almost a lap in 2007 and resulted in a freshman title slipping through his fingers, into the hands of the waiting Kimi Raikkonen; Lewis claiming the 2008 title for himself in the most dramatic of circumstances by passing a hobbled Timo Glock at the last corner, depriving Felipe Massa at home in the most heart-wrenching fashion; Nico Hulkenberg blitzing F1's frontrunners by claiming pole in 2010; and then of course last season’s corkscrew final act, which resulted eventually in Vettel seizing crown number three.

Thursday 21 November 2013

Postcard from Austin

'There's lots that we can learn from the American way of doing things'. The words of Sebastian Vettel, Formula One World Champion, after last Sunday's United States Grand Prix, the second to be held on Austin's Circuit of the Americas.

And you know what? Having been in attendance myself, I know exactly what he’s on about.

Photo: Octane Photography
There were plenty of sceptics about the Austin round in advance of its debut in 2012. Perhaps with justification: F1 has had plenty of attempts to conquer the States all of which had resulted in a an eventual retreat; some hasty, many cringe worthy. Illustrating this, Austin was no fewer than Stateside venue number 10 in F1 history. No other single country comes close to that total.

And of course Austin had a few problems of its own in the build-up, including delays (the race contract was even terminated for a while), financial problems, the forcible sidelining of Tavo Hellmund who was the driving force behind the project, to name but a few. Plenty of sceptics, as I said.

But as Mario Andretti has noted, Austin is doing a very good job of proving the sceptics wrong. And having been in Austin attendance this time, in the circus's visit number two to Texas, I had first hand experience of it so doing.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Off on a busman's holiday...

Credit: Earl McGehee / CC
Hello all.

Just so you know, for the next week-and-a-bit there's unlikely to be much new on the site. This is because I'm going on holiday - what might be called a busman's holiday - to the United States to take in this weekend's Grand Prix at Austin as a fan (not as part of the media), as well as will be stopping off in New York on the way.

I'll be back on the Wednesday after the Austin race at which point normal service will resume.

In the meantime, why not have a hunt through the archives on the site (there are topics as well as months/years in the right-hand column)? Or click on 'Looking back' above for my articles on F1 history? There's three-and-a-bit years' worth of writing on this site so there should be something to entertain you...

Also, I'll do my best to keep you updated on Twitter and Facebook with photos and the like from my trip. I doubt I'll have much chance to write anything for the site though when I'm away (but you never know).

Of course, if you're going to Austin yourself then do feel free to give me a shout via Twitter and Facebook too.

Toodle-oo for now.

Austin Preview: Making good on the audition

Twelve months ago F1 as a sport had its most important audition in a long while. And whaddaya know, it only went and nailed it.

F1's final frontier. Its unfinished business. Its itch that it just can't scratch. Call it what you will, but it has applied to the sport's relationship with America for years and decades.

Austin's Circuit of the Americas is an impressive facility
Credit: pdbreen / CC
F1 says it has a world championship, and indeed no season-long annual sporting event can be said to have the same global expanse. It also is not in the least bit shy of following the money. And yet for a generation or more it somehow has failed to establish a proper foothold in the world's biggest economy; indeed for much of that time the sport's turned its back on the place altogether. Despite repeated and varied attempts - some of which were successful only to be abandoned; others bordering on the cringeworthy - the rewards of the US market has always eluded F1 one way or another.

Thursday 7 November 2013

Further thoughts on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Kvyat deserves the keys
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend wasn't just about F1. The two feeder series - GP2 and GP3 - reached their respective season crescendos, and unlike F1 still had their titles hanging in the balance at this advanced stage. In the event the GP3 championship title was taken by one Daniil Kvyat. The same Daniil Kvyat who has recently been confirmed for a race seat at Toro Rosso alongside Jean-Eric Vergne next season.

Danill Kvyat - against expectations - is to
race for Toro Rosso in 2014
Photo: Octane Photography
Few at the time of the announcement saw Kvyat's selection coming; Antonio Felix da Costa as far as most looking in from out of the camp were concerned was a shoo-in for the drive. But perhaps it's one of those decisions that - if such a thing is possible - should simultaneously surprise us and not surprise us. We've seen before that when it comes to choosing those to promote within the Red Bull young drivers' programme that candidates can be skipped over, sometimes dropped altogether, rather pitilessly. We've also seen that the Red Bull collective is not shy of making decisions - such as with picking Daniel Ricciardo over Kimi Raikkonen to partner Sebastian Vettel in the big team next year - that do not appear the obvious ones to outsiders.

Many got cynical at Kvyat's accession, stating that it was all about money. There's a Russian Grand Prix next year after all, and someone worked out that in that vast country the soft drinks market was worth $14.5 billion in 2011. But just like with the Ricciardo decision, despite cynicism there is evidence beneath the exterior that this selection was in fact made for all of the right reasons.

Further thoughts on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Who goes where?
On the subject of silly season, this year's version still has a way to go. We're now firmly ensconced in November and only four teams - Ferrari, Mercedes and the two Red Bull collectives - have confirmed their driving line up for 2014. Many of those remaining haven't even confirmed a single member of their duo.

You'd have thought that Nico Hulkenberg
will now be confirmed at Lotus
Photo: Octane Photography
Much of the blockage apparently is due to waiting for the Lotus-Quantum-Hulkenberg situation to resolve itself. The Quantum Motorsports consortium is looking to buy a 35% stake in the team that would greatly ease Lotus's financial situation, and would in turn allow it to sign Nico Hulkenberg for next year (if it didn't come off it was thought that the team would instead go for Pastor Maldonado and his £30m annual wedge of PDVSA money). Over the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend Quantum chief Mansoor Ijaz said the deal was now virtually done, and that he supports the recruitment of Hulk, so there'd now be something seriously wrong if the rapid German doesn't end up there. And it should, you'd have thought, create a knock-on impact of a few other pieces falling into place elsewhere in this particular puzzle in short order. The resurgent Romain Grosjean is expected to fill the other Lotus seat.

Next up, McLaren which is most likely to retain its current line up, but its delay in confirming as much suggests it still hasn't given up on recruiting Fernando Alonso for next year (which would really put the cat among the pigeons). Murmurs persist that the team isn't too thrilled with Sergio Perez, and may even at Checo's expense fast track its young prodigy and FR3.5 champion Kevin Magnussen - whom Woking considers an excellent long-term prospect - into a race seat for next year (a few say that Alonso-Magnussen is the plan for 2015). And Perez dropping out of McLaren, with his Mexican commercial possibilities, presumably will create a ripple further along this particular game of musical chairs.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Further thoughts on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

When you're down, try positive thinking
In Abu Dhabi last Sunday, for the second time in a week a Grand Prix did not go all that well for Lewis Hamilton. There were plenty of parallels between his Buddh and Yas Marina afternoons: spending much of the race tucked up in traffic, while his team mate - quietly it seemed - left him far behind.

In some senses Lewis was unlucky this time: missing out on a probable higher grid slot with a suspension failure-induced spin on his final quali run, and then being boxed in at turn one which resulted in him being P5 compared with his team mate's P2, from where his race unravelled somewhat. But despite these the man himself wasn't happy at his contribution to it all, and made little effort to hide the fact afterwards, stating among a few other things: 'Clearly with Nico (Rosberg)'s result the car's better than I'm able to bring home with's the same every race, so it can't be other people's fault.'

Lewis Hamilton - down after the Abu Dhabi race
Photo: Octane Photography
It's not the first time that Lewis has used a microphone as some form of confessional; to self-flagellate. And in many ways it's refreshing, in that we get the real him rather than PR speak, as well as that he - almost alone - doesn't as a default at such moments dip into the plentiful pool of F1 driver excuses for underperforming. We all know them: 'would have done better with my team mate's strategy'; 'KERS/gearbox/brake (delete where applicable) issues'; and - the ultimate time-honoured whinge - 'traffic'.

But still, while it's admirable that he doesn't delude himself I occasionally wonder if Lewis can take it rather to the other extreme, and that his tendency to beat himself up doesn't help his driving. It's amateur psychology I know, and different things work for different people, but it doesn't seem too new age to suggest that positive thinking helps most of us to perform at our best.

Further thoughts on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Alonso - not quite stopping yet
F1 isn't the only pursuit with a silly season. Elsewhere however it often refers to something slightly different: unlike F1's equivalent of wild and frenzied speculation about who is going where for the next season in other walks of life it tends to refer to the content of media coverage - as the name suggests often rather silly, speculative coverage - when not much else is happening (political coverage during the summer recess is a good example). But perhaps F1 isn't all that different: it seems that in a situation such as now with the season's main prizes settled and the year in a state of drift to its conclusion - and let's face it, it's been so effectively for a while - many of those commenting on F1 become rather like mountain goats, having to survive on rather meagre sustenance for long periods, possibly tempted to turn whatever they can into something to keep them going.

And so it is with Fernando Alonso: with the latest drivers' championship gone elsewhere and his relationship with Ferrari having shown outward strain, many have said that he's lost some of his motivation. After all, his team mate Felipe Massa's qualified ahead of him in five of the last six rounds, the latest happening at Abu Dhabi when Felipe squeaked into the top ten shoot-out and did so at Fernando's expense, who was left to start in 11th.

Fernando Alonso - almost always the lead Ferrari in races
Photo: Octane Photography
But is too much being read into this? Probably. And it took Christian Horner (I almost said, 'of all people') to restore some sanity to the whole matter: 'Fernando's strength never seems to have been over a single lap' said Horner on Saturday evening after Yas Marina qualifying, 'but Fernando is so strong in the races. He won't be 11th at the end of the race, that's for sure.'

And he wasn't. Showing his habitual tenacity, brainpower and relentless pace he fought his way up to fifth by the end, clearing Massa as he so did. As he always seems to. Perhaps the only notable thing in it all is that some never learn; we've had demonstration plenty of times before that Fernando Alonso is a lot like the baddie in a low budget horror flick: no matter how often you think he's dealt with and it's safe to forget about him, he keeps thrusting back into the picture - complete with an accompanying jarring chord - to strike back.

Ten of the Greatest Drivers in F1 - a guest post by Maria Mcquire

Formula One is probably the most well-known and popular car race in the entire world. This series started in 1950; it is an international car race from the category of single seaters where 22 drivers and 11 teams compete for the fabulous trophies. There have been many great and fantastic F1 drivers since the start, but only a few can be the best. Here are a few details of some of the best F1 car drivers ever…

Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost (and Thierry Boutsen)
after the 1988 Canadian Grand Prix
Credit: Angelo Orsi / CC
Ayrton Senna: He was a brilliant, ruthless, determined, fast and fascinating racer that Formula One has never seen the like of before or since. He himself accompanied a more professional approach to fitness and dedication to the sport. He was unquestionably the best driver ever in wet weather conditions. One only has to remember Donington in 1993 where Ayrton went from fifth to first before the end of the first lap!

Michael Schumacher: The unfashionable driver of F1, Michael Schumacher, considered as one the best F1 drivers by his constant wins, you either like or dislike. He won five titles with Ferrari during his time, in a seven-time world champion career.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Further thoughts on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

The promise I made, started to fade
'He's done his job, he's scored points, he's scored podiums, they've earned millions in terms of prize money, millions in terms of sponsorship, it's wrong that they haven't paid him. Pay up, look big, and stand by your deals'.

If you watched the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on TV last Sunday you may recognise these as being the words of Martin Brundle, and on the murky matter that has lingered in Enstone shadows for months, one that suddenly had a lamp swung over it in the course of last weekend. Just what had been eating the Kimi Raikkonen-Lotus relationship: that the team had paid its charge 'zero Euro the whole year'. And, you know what? I agree absolutely with Brundle.

Kimi Raikkonen - driving for free
Photo: Octane Photography
From what I could tell most others agreed also. Though there was the odd yelp to be heard to the effect that 'yeah, but Kimi's loaded' to my mind that point is utterly irrelevant, and thankfully such yelps seemed isolated. The bottom line is that Lotus willingly and solemnly entered a contract with Kimi Raikkonen with various promises and obligations to Kimi agreed to therein, and hasn't stuck to it.

It should not be forgotten that employer-employee obligations, including those via signed contracts, work both ways. And I'm pretty sure that was Lotus in a boot-on-the-other-foot situation wherein one of its staff was not fulfilling its obligations to the team (e.g. by not turning up for work, or not doing their job properly) then Lotus would feel entirely justified in ditching them immediately. Same would go for a supplier to Lotus similarly not doing what it promised. Therefore the team should count itself lucky that Kimi didn't choose to dump Lotus just as readily.

Monday 4 November 2013

The best driver of my generation - Ayrton Senna

The Senna film frustrates me. More broadly, the hagiographic assessments of Ayrton Senna as driver and man that have predominated for close on 20 years frustrate me.

Why is this? Well, one thing it isn't is reflective of is tribalism: I grew up hero-worshipping Ayrton Senna. And perhaps appropriately I did so with extreme intensity; something close to mania.

Credit: Norio Kioke / CC
But Senna was not the saint portrayed in the film or anywhere else, nor was he the perfect heroic racing driver claimed in retrospect. And worse than such claims being inaccurate they also sell him far short. Senna was much more - more complex and more fascinating is his contradictions and unique imperfections.

Senna was often gentle, poetic, governed by conscience and humanitarianism; yet his F1 career was also characterised by astonishing ruthlessness and hard-nose, and an apparent inability to accept fault. Senna was supremely intelligent and rational - and surely no racing driver in history was as captivating, almost mesmeric, to listen to; yet he was also emotional, and capable of breath-taking spite, grudges and rages. And the contradictions applied to his driving also: to watch Senna in action was to watch the most delicate, almost ethereal, command of a racing car. He also was clearly concerned, and frequently vocal, on safety. But as we know his driving sometimes displayed extreme crudeness as well as what appeared a disregard for his or other drivers' preservation when around rival cars, particularly when around that of Alain Prost. What he did at Suzuka in 1990 was reprehensible.

Why though with all of these apparent drawbacks do I consider Ayrton Senna the best driver of my generation? I do because the flaws were all part of his unique tapestry which was also coloured by a quite extraordinary and inimitable driving genius.

Sunday 3 November 2013

Abu Dhabi GP Report: Wonderfully predictable

The tiny departure from the usual script resultant of yesterday's qualifying was corrected almost immediately. By the first turn we were rapidly back into a performance we've seen many times before: Sebastian Vettel out front; Sebastian Vettel in command. And, almost inexorably, an hour and a half later it was Sebastian Vettel: winner of the 2013 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

We've been saying for a while that we're in one of those periodic spells - that all sports get into and not just F1 - wherein only the very unusual can deprive one of the competitors of victory; we indeed didn't get the very unusual in today's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and sure enough just as night follows day we did get the anticipated victory for Seb.

Abu Dhabi was just the latest of Seb's familiar triumphs
Photo: Octane Photography
The race for first place as mentioned lasted as long as turn one. Vettel - unexpectedly - missed out on pole position thanks in part to a small error on his final effort. But Seb reminded all in today's race that they cannot count on such faltering, however minor, becoming a regular occurrence. He took the lead at the start, pole man Webber slipped behind Nico Rosberg, and everything from that very moment on in terms of first place seemed mere formalisation. Yet even if Webber had led off the line, such was Vettel's command on race pace you feel that almost nothing would have deprived him of the win ultimately.

In that familiar way of his, at the end of lap one Seb was just shy of two seconds to the good, and the gap grew almost inevitably from there. Then it multiplied as those closest behind (a relative term) peeled into the pits early, emerging in among those stretching out their initial stint, with overtaking never straightforward on this Yas Marina circuit. By the time Webber, by now ahead of Rosberg, cleared them Vettel had pitted himself (rejoining still first, natch) and was close to half a minute up the road. And despite apparently spending much of the race trying to go slowly, judging by the radio communications with his engineer, Vettel won in the end by 30.8 seconds. This was no less than another rout.

Saturday 2 November 2013

Abu Dhabi Qualifying: Webber's fitting farewell

Now, there was the fitting send off.

During Mark Webber's long goodbye from F1 talk of whether the hard charger would get such an apt farewell - one last great performance in his final act - before he goes off to drive his Porsche has danced in the air. It then gathered tempo as the destination of the championships to his team mate Sebastian Vettel and to his collective Red Bull became an inevitability - effectively and then actually.

Mark Webber took a stunning and unexpected pole position
Photo: Octane Photography
But today we had it, as in the final, vital throes of today's qualifying session for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Webber only went and nailed it. At the very last moment he rode his Bull at its very outer limit and sneaked under what appeared an unbeatable time by Vettel. Seb it transpired had made a small mistake at turn 1 on his own final run, and thus Webber stayed on top. But despite this - and unlike in Suzuka when Mark beat Seb to pole after the latter had a KERS problem, something that Mark acknowledged - this time it felt like Mark genuinely got one up on his team mate as well as on everyone else.

And what's more he did in Seb's back yard effectively: the Yas Marina track is one that Vettel specialises at; one that Webber often struggles to get within howling distance of him on. But Webber absolutely pulled it out, and even could be said to have out-Sebbed Seb. Webber was a joy to watch as he flicked the car with real commitment in the twisty final sector of the lap, the sector on which Seb most of the time cannot be touched (with the one exception of by Lewis Hamilton).

Friday 1 November 2013

Abu Dhabi Preview: Same as it ever was?

There are various things that F1 should be about. Modernity. Awe. A sense of the future. And the Yas Marina circuit, the scene of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, has more of these than any other stop-off.

The iconic Yas Marina Hotel
Credit: Rob Alter / CC
In its short life the venue has no shortage of icons established already. Visually it is stunning: all gleaming, shimmering, towering architecture, the like that one would have more expected to see in the Utopian future presented in a sci-fi film. It has the Yas Marina hotel which the track passes under, shines in ever-varying coloured lights and attracts many a wide-angled camera lens. It's also the calendar's first and only day-to-night race, the changing dusk-to-night light level throughout a little reminiscent of Le Mans.

Despite there being no shortage of newer tracks appearing since, the Yas Marina track - now experiencing F1's visit number five - remains the sport's standard bearer in terms of modernity and facilities. All that attend concur that everything seems to be in place.

Mercedes-Benz #SoundWithPower - with Lewis Hamilton

To support the release of the new Mercedes E63 AMG, the German marque has released two short interview films, under the #SoundWithPower title. The interview films explore the relationship between sound and power, and the emotion instilled by the noise of an engine revving.

And here below is one of those said films, featuring none other than Lewis Hamilton. Lewis talks about his feelings and thoughts when behind the wheel and racing, as well as his stirring of his senses when his Mercedes engine fires up.

And here, if you're interested, in a similar ilk is Mercedes DTM pilot, as well as McLaren reserve and test driver, Gary Paffett.

More about #SoundwithPower can be found here. You can do your very own music video 'mashup' (though I'm not trendy enough to know what that is).

Thursday 31 October 2013

Further thoughts on the Indian Grand Prix

Doughnuts all round
It seems appropriate for us to end this round of Further Thoughts... with Sebastian Vettel. We know by now that he isn't everyone's cup of tea, but surely even those with the iciest views of young Seb will have had them thawed at least a little by the sight of him cutting loose after taking the flag last Sunday and with it his latest championship crown. As has been replayed seemingly without end since, rather than return to parc ferme as is the standard tepid way he instead indulged in doughnuts on the pit straight in front of the packed and roaring grandstand, then bowed in front of the car in worship, before climbing the spectator fence and - redolent of Nigel Mansell - throwing his gloves into the crowd. It was a fantastic and, apparently, spontaneous display of emotion from Vettel, him showing simple child-like joy and desire for everyone to share the moment with him. Everyone loved it.

Surely not even the most vociferous Seb-baiter
will not have appreciated his Indian post race celebrations
Photo: Octane Photography
Well, everyone apart from the stewards, who (predictably) handed a reprimand to Seb for not returning straight to parc ferme after the race, as well as fined the Red Bull team for not instructing its charge so to do. The reaction to this was predictable too: for example 'Vettel fined for celebrating' was a headline I saw on the front of a national newspaper the next morning (quite impressive that they managed to get two things wrong in a four-word headline). But still, it can't be denied that the sanction being applied didn't come across well.

The stewards simply were applying the rules as they are, and as they've been applied in the past, so ill-will towards them is harsh. I'm also always rather loath to seek to resolve such situations by calling for 'common sense' to be applied, as I don't think such a call is especially helpful, given someone's interpretation of common sense is - despite its title - usually subjective, ill-defined as well as its usage often results in gross inconsistency of rules' application, which would also be bound to get people's backs up. And in almost every such case of F1 stewards enforcing an apparently bad rule one finds after a little investigation that, in spite of initial appearances, the rule actually exists for a good reason.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Further thoughts on the Indian Grand Prix

White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)
In most sports lines cannot be argued with. In football, if the ball crosses the line that marks the edge of the pitch then it's out, it's a throw in to the other team and there's no argument. Same in tennis, if the ball bounces over the line then it's out - end of story. So it is in rugby, so in fact it is in pretty much any sport you could mention: the line is sacrosanct.

And from a look at the F1 regulations there is very little to lead you to think that things are any different herein. Here, verbatim, is FIA Sporting Regulations Article 20.2: 'Drivers must use the track at all times. For the avoidance of doubt the white lines defining the track edges are considered to be part of the track but the kerbs are not. A driver will be judged to have left the track if no part of the car remains in contact with the track. Should a car leave the track the driver may rejoin, however, this may only be done when it is safe to do so and without gaining any advantage. A driver may not deliberately leave the track without justifiable reason.'

Race Director Charlie Whiting -
doesn't come out of this well
Credit: Morio / CC
Not much to argue with there surely? But, as we're growing used to, F1 manages somehow to be different to other sports; as we're also growing used to, in this game things aren't always what they seem - as anyone who watched Saturday's qualifying session at the Buddh International Circuit could tell you. It turns out the apparently innocuous words 'without gaining an advantage' are in fact a gaping get-out.

In the Indian qualifying session the white lines around the Buddh track barely were heeded by any driver, only seeming to have worth in offering the loosest guide of the direction that the cars should be going in. At several corners every car ran completely - with all four wheels - wide of the lines on the outside; some corners were similarly cut routinely. It looked terrible, and watching on I imagined someone viewing F1 for the first time in this session - they'd have been forgiven for wondering what on earth was going on.

But apparently it was all above board; there was no retribution for any driver. The FIA's Race Director Charlie Whiting, the sport's equivalent of the police officer, in the drivers' briefing on Friday night deemed that just about anything would go in qualifying. And when interviewed on television he shed a bit more light: upon being shown footage of drivers putting all four wheels off the track in previous years at this track he declared that in his view such lines simply could not result in an advantage, and that the design of the kerbs and AstroTurf strips outside of the track specifically ensure that this is so.

Further thoughts on the Indian Grand Prix

F1 in India - leaving the party early?
A highly populous country. And one identified as one of the world's major growing 'new' markets. The potential's obvious right? And if you're a business seeking to establish yourself there then it's surely worth putting in some additional time and effort to try to get the massive rewards further down the line? You know, endeavours over and above the minimum in terms of promoting yourself, making yourself known and the like? And equally it makes sense to persevere, not to walk away at the first sign of resistance? Of course, it's unreasonable to think that you'll crack the country immediately. Right?

Wrong. Well, wrong if you occupy the upside-down world of F1 anyway.

F1 might have paid its last visit to India
Credit: Dell Inc. / CC
The Indian Grand Prix is not on next year's F1 calendar, and despite the organisers insisting otherwise many reckon that last weekend's visit - just F1's third - will be the sport's last for the foreseeable future. And it rather disturbs me the regularity that I have encountered those seeming entirely sanguine at this: that the race wasn't worth the trouble, that it was ill-starred from the outset, that F1 is justified in turning its back, that the sport would never get any traction in this the ultimate cricket-loving country. Some even get close to 'good riddance'. Such sentiments are however in my view at best extremely short-sighted. I can only believe that such people have not considered precisely what potential F1 is walking away from.

As noted in my race preview, the Indian event has had problems, most regrettably a lack of Government support (be it in finance or goodwill), the Hampton Court Maze-like bureaucracy that has to be navigated as well as the levels of taxation claimed, both related to the classification of the event as 'entertainment' rather than 'sport' (titter ye not). That the Grand Prix just passed was threatened with 11th hour cancellation by a court petition over alleged unpaid taxes was certainly embarrassing also.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Further thoughts on the the Indian Grand Prix

The most valuable man in Formula One
Martin Brundle after the Indian race called him 'the most valuable man in Formula One'. And not for nothing, last weekend he increased his personal count of world championship crowns to 20, claimed in a mere 22 season spell and with three separate teams. He's not a driver, nor is he a team boss. Heck with this attempt to create tension, you've probably long since worked out who I'm on about: one Adrian Newey, Red Bull's Technical Director.

The days of an F1 car being the creation of one guy at a drawing board are long in the past; modern design teams encompass scores of people and Newey more than anyone resists the idea that - at Red Bull or anywhere else he's been - it's all about him. But even with this the magic dust that Newey sprinkles is obvious; for various reasons he more than deserves to detain us for a few paragraphs.

Adrian Newey - an astonishing man
with astonishing achievements
Credit: Morio / CC
Of course, I was cheating ever so slightly with the championships total above, in that Newey unlike a driver can aim for two crowns per year (drivers' and constructors'). But close to a 50% strike rate is not to be sniffed at - not even Schumi matches it (though he wasn't too far off pre-comeback). And even the equivalent totals of other revered technical heads from F1 history pale somewhat: Colin Chapman has 13 championships; Mauro Forghieri 11; Ross Brawn 16; Rory Byrne 14. It doesn't seem hyperbole to state that Newey is F1's best and most remarkable technical brain ever. Bar none.

And his title total has been accumulated despite a conspicuous fallow period. It seems scarcely believable, but for the whole of the 2000-2009 decade for Newey there was not a single title. There were of course mitigating circumstances: he was up against the mighty Ferrari 'dream team' for much of it; moreover Newey and McLaren were hardly helped during this period by many of Newey's ideas being shot down by the FIA, some before they'd even been raced (including something akin to KERS long before it became famous). This was the same FIA that just so happened to have a close relationship with the Scuderia at the time, as well as a highly adversarial one with McLaren's head honcho Ron Dennis. We found out some time later that the Italian team had a technical regulation veto too (and indeed still does). Not that I draw conclusions from this, you understand.

Further thoughts on the Indian Grand Prix

Bulls' run
It's been anticipated for a good while now, and in India title double four indeed fell the way of the Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull partnership. Their preponderance may be familiar by now. It may even be wearisome. It almost certainly is predictable. But it cannot be denied. Nor can it be belittled. Contemporary F1 is their time and emphatically so.

And it's tempting to ask where it all might end. That's not to wish ill on them, more that it's an inevitability. After all, that is the way of the world and not just of F1. As George Harrison once noted: all things must pass.

A familiar sight in recent times
Photo: Octane Photography
Looking at history for more probable sources of this indicates that at least as often as opponents defeat a dominant team, the dominant team in large part defeats itself. Achieving success in F1 is difficult. Sustaining success is doubly so. As Oscar Wilde once opined: 'There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it.' To put this more into terms directly applicable to F1 we turn to Jackie Stewart: 'Undoubtedly there is an infectious disease which afflicts every World Champion and team, and it’s been going on for years. It's not right to say that the guy who's champion loses his edge, or that the designer relaxes, the mechanics lose interest of whatever. But somewhere along the line these things occur - I'm talking about decimal points but they add up.'

Sunday 27 October 2013

Indian GP Report: Seb does it his way

And now, the end (of F1 in 2013) is near, and so we face the final curtain. And more, much more than this, Seb did it his way.

As expected, the 2013 driver's championship dropped definitively today in Sebastian Vettel's favour. As we probably also should have foreseen Seb went full gun after the Indian Grand Prix win even though it was much more the minimum he required to cruise safely over the title line. It seems to be the only way Seb knows. And he didn't waver from his path even after most of the small amount of lingering tension over the championship's destination evaporated in the early laps.

Sebastian Vettel did indeed clinch title number four
today, and did so in fine style
Photo: Octane Photography
It was an unusually madcap race (by recent standards) at the Buddh International Circuit, with the big gap between the two available tyre compounds' durability resulting in variable, jumbled fare. Various highly divergent strategies were enacted, with the 'net' order not all that clear for much of the way. It applied even to Seb, as while he took his standard pole on soft tyres there were a couple of potential 'tortoises' further down threatening Seb's 'hare', in particular his team mate Mark Webber and his one championship rival (in the loosest sense) Fernando Alonso lurking in the pack, starting on mediums.

But in that way we've long ago got used to whatever the circumstances or strategies Seb makes the best of it absolutely by blitzing the timing screens, with purple sector following purple sector. Today in that sense was like groundhog day, even though he pitted at the end of lap 2 to discard his soft tyres and dropped into the pack he continued to bear down on victory like a heat seeking missile, with decisive overtakes and rapid pace. Webber, pretty much alone, did look to be threatening his supremacy for much of the first half of the race via his unorthodox approach. But then before you knew it both had made their final stops at around the two-thirds mark and Seb was 12 seconds to the good and couldn't be caught.

Saturday 26 October 2013

Buddh Qualifying: One of Davids and Goliath

Sebastian Vettel on pole, and by a street. A mere seven tenths of a second quicker than the next guy. Displaying all of his usual swagger and precision over a single lap. It's merely a continuation of recent form in 2013 - indeed his form at the Buddh International Circuit in India more generally - wherein Seb's had the place all to himself? Possibly so, but this time there's a little more room for doubt. Seb has one or two conspicuous threats to his Indian Grand Prix supermacy, lurking further down the grid. A couple of relative Davids seeking to strike down modern F1's Goliath.

Sebastian Vettel is comfortably on pole again,
but has he a bit more to think about this time?
Photo: Octane Photography
As Malcolm Gladwell outlined recently, in the world today thee equivalent of David beating Goliath happens more often than we might think, but for David to beat Goliath then David must do something different to him - just as in the Biblical account David beat Goliath by shedding his heavy, restrictive armour and instead of partaking in a sword-fight with Goliath chose to sling stones at him. If David plays Goliath at the same game then he'll probably lose. And so it was today: just as David did so both Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso recognised Vettel's superiority in normal circumstances and are seeking to prevail via an unconventional strategy.

And it's all down to the familiar pariah of the Pirelli tyres. Pirelli consciously after the rather tepid Bridgestone-type one-stop race of 12 months ago at Buddh shed some conservatism this year by bringing the soft and medium tyre. And in running here the soft tyre while fast has also proved fragile, many cars not being able to proceed for more than a handful of laps at a time before the much-dreaded 'cliff'. Spanner meet works.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Buddh Preview: Out of India?

F1 is like life lived on fast-forward. One can go from being the next big thing to being a no-hoper cast onto the scrap heap in the space of time wherein most of us don't get from being a babe-in-arms to starting nursery. It's the way with drivers, and increasingly it seems - with the modern F1 calendar's state of near-perpetual flux - that it's the way with venues too.

And so it is with the Indian Grand Prix. Just two years ago when the sport rocked in for the first time all were brimmed with eager anticipation; the importance of the Indian market and the potential rewards of F1 cracking it being lost on no one. Yet before you know it such glad confident morning is long in the past, and plenty expect that this weekend will in fact mark F1's final visit to the Buddh International Circuit.

Will this weekend be F1's last visit to the
Buddh International Circuit?
Credit: Dell Inc / CC
It's a real pity, as the place has a lot going for it. It is an event that cannot simply be pigeon holed as a typical new venue in the sport's eastward shift. There's nothing of the usual Government viewing an F1 race as some form of national branding here, the circuit and event was instead a private enterprise, with much of the push from individuals with motorsport passion, and indeed Government support of just about any description is absent. Perhaps not unrelated, Grands Prix here have always had a welcome bottom-up rather than top-down feel, with a local enthusiasm, promotion and welcome which put most of the sport's recent new eastern outposts to shame. The turnout was good too - 95,000 spectators attending on race day in the first visit in 2011, and while the 2012 numbers didn't quite match it the crowd figure remained creditable, and still dwarfed that of most other new-fangled Grands Prix. The accompanying talk throughout was rich on using the F1 race as a stimulant to establish a highly welcome grass roots motorsport structure in the country too.