Wednesday 27 March 2013

Further thoughts on the Malaysian Grand Prix

The two Sebastian Vettels
You won't be in the least bit surprised that we start with Sebastian Vettel and the by now familiar team orders business (perhaps for convenience someone should just label it 'Sebgate'?). One thing that struck me about Vettel's behaviour immediately after the Sepang race was that he, initially at least, seemed genuinely surprised by the negative reaction he got. An apology did follow from him fairly quickly once the reaction registered, but certainly his victory celebrations on the slowing down lap and then in parc ferme showed no outward sign of contrition, embarrassment or conflict.

Did Sunday reflect the conflict of the two Sebastian Vettels?
Credit: JerichoNation / CC
So, why was this? Perhaps Seb thought he'd be seen as the good guy? It's not as ridiculous as it might sound, after all there are plenty of similar cases from F1's past wherein the guy who defied the order/arrangement and kept racing is seen as the one in the right; history is by no means consistent on this matter (as discussed on this blog). Indeed, Seb no doubt remembers the boot on the other foot case at Silverstone eighteen months ago, wherein Mark Webber sought to pass Vettel against orders as both were told to cruise to the line. Webber didn't pass then, but it wasn't for the want of trying and the reaction subsequently was overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Australian (it shows the power of context possibly, that defying an order when you've won everything there is to win is viewed by observers as very different to doing so when you win but rarely).

But part of the answer may be on the broader level, in that Seb - rather like Ayrton Senna - appears a very different animal out of the car compared with in it, at least judging by what we see in front of the media anyway. Out of the car Seb is engaging, well-mannered, and also more than most F1 drivers seems rather minded of being liked and having a positive legacy. But in the car, seen plenty of times before last Sunday's race as well as in it, he becomes demanding, self-centred, rather petulant and short-fused as well as displays a strong and unattractive sense of entitlement. And apparently how he's viewed more widely didn't enter his considerations when he decided to attack Mark Webber for the win in Sepang.

Of course, all of us are different in different situations, but in Seb's case the disconnect seems chasm-like. Perhaps his surprise and apparent contrition after the Sepang race reflected genuine conflict between the two Sebs? Perhaps one of the two Sebs is the real one, and the other a construct which he feels is necessary to act out in order to help him prevail?

Sunday 24 March 2013

Malaysian GP Report: Vettel can't resist temptation

It should have been the perfect day for Red Bull and for Sebastian Vettel. A one-two finish on a day when many doubted the RB9's race pace and ability to look after its tyres. Sebastian Vettel claimed a maximum score in a race in which Fernando Alonso scored none and Kimi Raikkonen scored only six. And it was a close and exciting affair featuring a desperate battle for supremacy at the front. Yet it is a day that neither driver nor team will forget in a hurry for all of the wrong reasons. And its implications may yet come back to bite Seb in his quest for world championship number four.

Sebastian Vettel - he won today
but the smiles were strained
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
As is often the case in Sepang, rain was a major player, and a rain shower just before the start soaking particularly the back section of the track, framed much of the race. Loosely, the shake out from wet to dry left us with two Red Bulls and then two Mercedes out front, but with Mark Webber ahead of Vettel, as Webber made the right call of staying out on intermediate tyres a little longer. There were some subsequent adventures, but it stayed that way broadly, until the final round of pitstops.

Webber then remained ahead - just. And minded with tyre life, engine life and gearbox life, as well as getting both cars to the finish in one piece, Red Bull called the battle off (which we now know is called 'Multi 21'). But Vettel seemed to concur with the Oscar Wilde view that 'I can resist everything except temptation'. With seven additional points laying before him, Seb's competitive instincts took over. He sought first place, and got it after overcoming Webber's surprised yet determined defence after a rather lairy scrap. And Vettel was still there at the end.

Vettel apologised subsequently, but it all seemed rather a day late and a dollar short. And while he did indeed get seven more points today than he 'should' have done, you wonder if over time he'll lose more. For one thing, presumably he cannot necessarily count on help from across the garage in his quest for title number four this year. For another, we've seen generally in F1 that intra-team warfare can suck considerable energy out of a team, seen at McLaren in 2007, Williams in 1986-7, and in several other cases. And most of all, we have before now tended to think of Vettel and Red Bull as thick as thieves, but Christian Horner's reluctance to defend Vettel after today's race was tangible as well as possibly unprecedented. There will be little explicit sanction from Red Bull to Vettel, given he's the 'talent' in that team. But still you wonder in that relationship if it is never glad confident morning again.

What is right and what is wrong on team orders?

It was possibly the most glum podium in F1 history. Red Bull had claimed a one-two finish on a day it was expected to struggle, after an exciting wheel-to-wheel battle for supremacy. Winner Sebastian Vettel in so doing put clear points over those he's expected to be in a title fight with this year. While Lewis Hamilton finished in third, his new team's car showing that it has potency on race day and is much more competitive than many had thought/feared in advance. Yet, you'd never know it. Of the three drivers' faces two were sheepish and the other angry.

Sebastian Vettel won today, but that
was only the beginning of the story
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
It was team orders what did it. Both Red Bull and Mercedes, whose cars had ran in close formation at the front for most of the Malaysian Grand Prix's duration, chose to enact a 'hold station' order from the pitwall after their final stops. This should have meant that Mark Webber finished ahead of Vettel to win and that Hamilton finished ahead of Nico Rosberg in third and fourth. Rosberg chose (however reluctantly) to obey the order; Seb didn't and won the race.

So, Vettel did wrong? It seems so. He confirmed after the race that he heard the instruction as well as apologised for making a 'mistake' in taking the lead to win. But it's hard to believe that Seb didn't know what he was doing. It appears most likely that his competitive instincts took over and he couldn't resist seizing the extra seven points on offer, regardless of everything else.

Saturday 23 March 2013

Sepang Qualifying: Come rain or shine

So it was just like Melbourne. The rain came down in qualifying and threatened to jumble everything up. Yet Sebastian Vettel showed that, whatever the weather, he has a knack of coming out on top.

But it was the same, only different. As this time Vettel's pace in the dry was unclear, rain rather than being the unwelcome reset button that it was in Melbourne may well have been his salvation at Sepang.

Sebastian Vettel mastered the conditions for his latest pole
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
It rained just before the second qualifying session was complete, meaning the final session to determine the top ten of the grid was wet but drying throughout, resulting in the timing display rotating rather like that of a fruit machine. And in these circumstances all of Seb's party pieces can come to the fore: particularly extreme bravery and impeccable judgement when the grip beneath him is variable, as well as formidable brain power which he can enact to its full even while pushing a car along at the edge of adhesion. It was vital that Seb chose to change to a new set of inters during Q3 (his team mate Webber didn't and ended up over 2.5 seconds shy of Seb's best). It's not yet clear whose call that was, but given everything that we know about Seb it wouldn't surprise me if the decision to change came from the cockpit. It all meant that pole was his once again, with a best lap close to a second under the quickest of anyone else.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Sepang Preview: Signpost of the future

Sepang was the future once, you know. And, unlikely though it sounds, if anyone was ever to write a definitive history of the F1 venue then the Sepang International Circuit, host of the Malaysian Grand Prix for the 14th time this weekend, will have to play a major part in the story.

Yes, really. This is because it was the very first of the purpose-built, no expense spared, constructed from nothing, Hermann Tilke-designed facilities that so dominate the calendar these days. And when it landed on the sport's landscape in 1999 everyone could sense the forward stride in standards from what had gone before; Bernie not for nothing, called it 'the best circuit in the world'. Its template has been used repeatedly in just about every new venue on the F1 itinerary since.

Sepang - a challenging track that provides diverting races
Credit: Morio / CC
Much of this Tilke blueprint, so familiar now, is there at Sepang: impressive and decorative grandstand and paddock architecture, long straights book-ended by tight corners designed to provide conspicuous overtaking opportunities, and a fast esses section. And as the Tilke-dromes go its layout is one of the best, arguably only usurped by the Austin track that arrived last year. The Sepang circuit is flowing and challenging, with a wide variety of fast, medium and slow corners.

A further factor that has become synonymous with races in Malaysia is the flash tropical rain storm - and occasionally a prolonged one - which has a tendency to break in on proceedings at a moment's notice and ruin many-a-weekend (and storms are forecast for this weekend too). And its distinctive sharp right and left which start the lap can shuffle the grid order on lap one as well as be the scene of much grief. All of these have added up to there being an ample number of diverting F1 races around the Sepang track down the years.

Monday 18 March 2013

Further thoughts on the Australian Grand Prix

What next?
In F1 there are no ends; it is a continuum. For weeks and months we predict with supreme confidence that the opening race weekend will answer the key questions of who's hot and who's not. And indeed it does answer many of them. But the trouble is that it creates a few more at the same time. And so it was at Melbourne.

Does Sebastian Vettel remain the title favourite?
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull didn't run and hide in the race after all, despite practice and qualifying suggesting that it would. Instead, Kimi Raikkonen's Lotus won dominantly, and Fernando Alonso's Ferrari cleared Seb too. And while it was a surprise triumph for the Enstone team, perhaps we should have seen it coming. Lotus can be considered the forgotten contenders in 2013 season previews: the E21 had after all looked to handle extremely well in Jerez testing, and Romain Grosjean undertook an ominously pacy longer run in Barcelona. Yet it seemed the car's reliability troubles diverted attention somewhat. And Alonso and Ferrari will also be well satisfied with their debut. It's early days of course, but even after one round a Raikkonen-Alonso-Vettel battle for title honours in 2013 looks by far most likely.

But, without wishing to play the role of the bad fairy at Sleeping Beauty's christening, did Melbourne's race contain a clue that Kimi and Lotus will suffer from the same overarching problem as last year, that while it may be the fastest car on race day it too often gives its drivers too much to do from low grid slots? Kimi after all qualified seventh in Melbourne, some 1.3 seconds over Seb's pace. As it was, circumstances meant that he wasn't held up much in the race, and indeed was right on the tail of Seb and the Ferraris from early on, but can he count on that every time?

Sunday 17 March 2013

Australian GP Report: Red Bull dominance put on ice

'In Hollywood, no one knows anything.' This was said famously by screenwriter William Goldman in the opening line of his memoirs. I don't know if Goldman is a fan of F1 (in fact, I doubt that he is), but the sentiment could just as aptly apply to that activity too. And we had the latest demonstration of it today.

Kimi Raikkonen was a surprise victor
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
We never seem to learn however, despite the regular reminders. We have a tendency to declare outcomes set at an early stage with considerable confidence, not just for the here and now but for the foreseeable future. And it was the same again during the opening weekend of the 2013 season: the Red Bulls, and in particular Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull, dominated practice, and managed to lock out the front row of the starting grid despite the unwelcome (for them) variable of a wet but drying track. Many as a result foresaw not only a routine Vettel race win but also a season of Vettel dominance, akin to 2011. The latter part may yet still happen, but it didn't happen today.

Third place, and a rather distant one at that, was the best that Seb could do. And it was not a result that reflected ill-luck or wild cards such as a untimely safety car or a rain shower. It was simply the case that he didn't have the legs of Kimi Raikkonen's Lotus or Fernando Alonso's Ferrari. And, crucially, he didn't have the Lotus E21's mastery of the dark arts of the Pirelli tyres either. The E21 appears to have inherited the E20's magic touch, and from seventh on the grid Kimi kept up with the leaders early on and then smoothly moved into control of the race by stopping one time fewer than the others at the sharp end. It was a control he rarely looked like relinquishing, able to keep his laptimes low as those on fresher tyres chased and, sometimes, squabbled. And as if to underline his command, he set the fastest lap with two tours remaining. It was a drive from Kimi a lot like his persona: undramatic, undemonstrative, clipped, but with a potency that cannot be mistaken.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Melbourne Qualifying (so far): Rain stops play

Well, that was an anticlimax wasn't it? The first qualifying session of the season, always the most keenly anticipated, was due today and after an hour and a half of 'action' (using that term in the loosest sense of course) all we were able to establish was that two Caterhams, two Marussias, Esteban Guiterrez and Pastor Maldonado were those who dropped out after Q1. The remainder of the proceedings will have to wait until tomorrow, 11am local time, as rain, followed by bad light, stopped play.

Nico Rosberg was quickest in what little running there was
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Rain, or a wet track at least, was a permanent presence in the Melbourne qualifying time today, it was simply a factor of how wet as the elements intensified and occasionally relented. During one relative relent the first twenty minute qualifying session happened. There were plenty of lairy moments and front wings lost, but the track got less treacherous as time went on and the session was topped by one Nico Rosberg who had flown throughout (further grist to the 'Mercedes has got it right finally' mill). But then nothing happened. In F1's own equivalent of Waiting for Godot, we were told there'd be a 10 minute delay before cars were released again, then there'd be a further 20 minute delay, then another 20. Intense rain had started again just as Q1 ended, but moreover the organisers were spooked by a forecast which suggested a particularly sharp shower was on its way. All the while it got darker too, given that qualifying's scheduled start was only around 90 minutes shy of local sunset time. Eventually the inevitable was given in to, and it was announced that qualifying from Q2 onwards would recommence tomorrow on the morning prior to the race.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Melbourne Preview: Answering some of the questions

Do you ever get the feeling that there are many more questions than there are answers? That despite being swamped with information it is almost impossible to reach conclusions? Well, it could be that you're an F1 fan, and the opening round of the season is near. At this point of any campaign nobody knows anything. And thankfully the fraternity's first race gathering of 2013 that we stand before - taking place this weekend in Melbourne - should offer us the first doses of clarity of who's quick and who isn't.

Attempting to interpret pre-season testing must begin to offer an idea of what working in the intelligence services is like. It's a game of trying to work out what very clever people are trying to keep a secret from you. To repeat the mantra, lap times in F1 testing mean little; there are too many variables that we don't know (e.g. fuel loads, state of the track at that precise point) feeding into them to allow otherwise. And teams that feel that they are doing well and those that feel they are doing badly alike will almost certainly be playing bluff with the rest of us.

Even by these standards the pre-season testing of 2013 was particularly cryptic. That the regulations' fundamentals have stayed constant since 2009, meaning we're into year five of their existence, meant major departures from the technical norm were thin on the ground. And for many of the same reasons, no one (aside possibly from Caterham) has created a dog of a car as far as we can tell. Yet this in itself may be instructive, the best evidence is that much of the F1 field for this season is close on laptimes. Further there is the possible existence of a 'big five' teams, with Lotus and Mercedes stepping up to join the usual suspects of Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren at the sharp end. Some analyses have the five cars' ultimate lap times within about the width of a tyre of each other. It sounds therefore like this year will be like last year, only more so. More close, more unpredictable. Qualifying this weekend should be fun.

Albert Park in Melbourne is a popular venue
Credit: LGEPR / CC
There is a lot that the avid F1 follower can find to whinge about on the subject of the modern F1 calendar, but visiting Melbourne, and more to the point kicking off the campaign in Melbourne, seems just right. The warmth of the local welcome and (sometimes) of the weather, allied with a passionate crowd attending in large number, all in the picturesque setting of Albert Park with Melbourne's cityscape providing the backcloth, seems a perfect antidote to a sparse off-season and cold and clinical test days. Some with long memories hark back fondly to Adelaide, the venue from which Melbourne claimed the Australian Grand Prix amid some acrimony and mystery in 1996. But beyond this it's hard to find fault with F1 at Melbourne.

Monday 11 March 2013

F1 2013 Season Preview: Marussia - Road to respectability

'The whole ethos of Marussia is steady growth towards respectability, albeit on about two and sixpence'. Marussia's Technical Director Pat Symonds sums up where the team is at as it enters the 2013 season. It's looking to continue its climb to credibility established over the last 18 months or so, but all the while with a budget almost certainly the most meagre of any of the 11 F1 squads.

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Respectability may not seem much of an aim to the uninitiated, but it is so for a team that spent much of its formative years in F1 treated as little more than a joke. As Virgin Racing, it had entered the sport for the 2010 season start among that batch of three debutant outfits, and even though none by now have been able trouble the midfield with any regularity, Marussia managed to finish bottom even of that pile in the constructors' standings in each of its first two seasons. Its debut year was tricky enough (and contained an egregious error by the team, where it had to admit that its fuel tank was too small for the car to last a race distance without swingeing fuel-saving) and, worse, 2011 represented a step backwards even from that, falling further behind the pace as well as further behind the progress of Lotus (now Caterham) who'd entered the sport at the same time.

As team principal John Booth stated, last year was very much year zero rather than year three for the team. Partway through 2011 it had resolved that if you are in a hole, you should stop digging. Many changes ensued as a consequence: having entered the sport in 2010 as a collaboration between F3 Euroseries squad Manor Motorsport and Wirth Research, Marussia facilitated the buying out of the Wirth half, and the deal allowed the whole team to move to one facility, at Wirth's base at Banbury in F1's silicon valley (previously the design had taken place there and the management of the team had been at Manor's base in Dinnington, Yorkshire). Further, the CFD-only policy of Wirth, an idea ahead of its time it seems, was abandoned, and a technical tie-up with McLaren was announced which ensured that Marussia cars would see a wind tunnel for the first time. The 2012 car's in-year development was wind tunnel based, and the 2013 Marussia was the first created in a wind tunnel. And star technical brain Pat Symonds, who has won championships with Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso at Benetton/Renault, started to feed into the team as technical consultant (under the terms of his ban following 'Crashgate' he couldn't be more than a 'consultant'), as well as led the design of the 2013 car as Technical Director following the expiry of his ban. And Symonds has developed a new technical department at the team, including the recruitment of 20 new designers.

Friday 8 March 2013

F1 2013 Season Preview: Caterham - The honeymoon is over

Things are changing for Caterham. In F1 as in anything else, people begin to notice when promises exceed delivery on a persistent basis. Excuses wear thin after a while. Awkward questions start to get asked. That's where the Caterham is at now. For this team, the honeymoon is over.

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Of course, it wasn't always this way. For a lot of the team's existence its image was akin to that of a cuddly toy. It was by far the most convincing of the three outfits that arrived in the sport for the start of the 2010 season. It received much kudos for rising from scratch in a matter of months before its race debut. Team Principal Tony Fernandes was a refreshingly open and engaging figure in the paddock. It even for a time ran with the evocative Lotus name, and was based near the famous old team's Hethel headquarters. Its cars weren't on the pace of the midfield, or even close to it, but that would come with time, right?

But now, as the team enters season number four of its existence, the tide of perception is turning. For all of Caterham's smart media management and bold proclamations that the corner was about to be turned, that it was about to make the seismic step into the pack and into points-scoring positions, somehow it still seems barely further forward from where it's always been. There might have been progress relative to the cars ahead over time, but if there has been it is glacial. The gap to F1's peleton still seems gaping, and by Tony Fernandes's own standards set in advance this represents failure (indeed, Mike Gascoyne said that if it hadn't joined the midfield by 2012 then the team will have 'cocked it up').

Tuesday 5 March 2013

F1 2013 Season Preview: Toro Rosso - B plus

Toro Rosso bucked the trend in 2012, but not in a good way. In a year noted for the feast enjoyed by the midfield teams, the Faenza squad lived only on the crumbs that fell off the table. Sauber, Force India and Williams improved on their 2011 points totals vastly (and even then felt that they could have done better), but Toro Rosso's points haul almost halved, from 41 to 26.

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
The team was some 50 points shy of Williams next up in the final constructors' standings, and spent much of the year in a strange vacuum, off the back of the midfield bunch while clear of the three (now, not so) new teams. Quite why this came to pass isn't certain. Indeed, the Toro Rossos actually started the year pretty well, qualifying in P10 and P11 in Melbourne, scoring points in the first two rounds and Daniel Ricciardo started sixth in Bahrain, the cars all the while being firmly among the midfield pack. But then as the European season commenced and the teams around it 'kicked' on development, Toro Rosso for whatever reason didn't keep up. The team that was possibly the sixth best and certainly good for giant killing in late 2011 now looked a world away. Come the summer break Ricciardo admitted that further points that season would likely only be won via the attrition of others.

As we know by now, the Red Bull company doesn't take kindly to failure, and mid-year Dietrich Mateschitz got team principal Franz Tost to change things at Toro Rosso, which Tost did by initiating a technical reshuffle which included replacing Technical Director Giorgio Ascanelli with the highly-rated James Key (ex of Sauber and Force India). The Toro Rosso team is admittedly behind the the midfield squads around it on staff numbers and resources, and to be fair to all concerned no one sought to blame the two debutant drivers for the underachievement. But Key when he arrived nevertheless found an aero department rather short-staffed as well as stuck in something of a rut - it's been suggested that for all of Ascanelli's considerable talents leading an aero programme is not among them. Key also found that the STR7 machine had a rather narrow set up window, losing performance rapidly outside of it particularly when not at a precise ride height. In the age of the peripatetic Pirellis, this was considerable impediment.

Saturday 2 March 2013

F1 2013 Season Preview: Williams - On the comeback trail

Twelve months ago things were very different. Williams, once the sport's standard bearers and with 16 world championships and 114 race wins to its name, appeared to be in terminal decline. It had gone close to eight years without a win, and the 2011 season just passed had been awful. Its best finish was ninth place and, even in the modern age of generous scoring systems, had accrued but five points. It was all rather too much like Tyrrell had been once upon a time

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Well, as we know, a year is a very long time in F1. Managing declines, or being asleep at the wheel, is not the Williams way, and the team following a reshuffle of staff and revision of its organisation bounced back in 2012. It claimed 76 points, rather dwarfing the 2011 total, and what do you know it even managed to win a race for the first time in way too long, Pastor Maldonado's tour de force at Barcelona taking the honours.

As intimated this did not happen by chance. Following technical director Sam Michael and head of aero Jon Tomlinson handing in their notices shortly into the 2011 season in came Mike Coughlan as technical director, Mark Gillan as chief operations engineer and Jason Somerville as head of aero. And it wasn't simply a matter of changing the names on the office doors; there was root and branch reform of how the team did things. Before, while the team had good facilities in many areas, it seemed that Williams had not adapted to the demands of modern F1, with around 20 races a season most of which are outside Europe, and severe testing restrictions. There was a lack of control at the factory (it's not for nothing that Coughlan's role was factory-based largely in the early days) and the factory tail was wagging the race team dog, taking a scatter gun approach to producing new parts for the race team to use up its Friday practice running and also burden to it operationally, without much coherence or broad understanding of what the car needed. And the benefits of all this change transferred all the way to the lap times, and ensured a decisive Williams stride back in the right direction.

F1 2013 Season Preview: Force India - A rising force?

Does Force India get the credit it deserves? It is often viewed as a quintessential midfield presence, sometimes so with a dash of derision. But it's easy to forget how far the operation has come in a short space of time.

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Rewind just to 2008 and the team was considered little more than end of grid fodder. The squad, following from Eddie Jordan's faltering final steps in F1, had stumbled on under the guises of Midland and then Spyker with few signs of progress. And when Vijay Mallya led a consortium to purchase the outfit in 2007 it's fair to say that not many expected the trajectory to change. But change it did; a reshuffle and a McLaren tie-up (complete with McLaren gearbox and Mercedes engine/KERS) later from 2008 through to 2011 Force India's year-on-year final constructors' standings positions read thus: 10th, 9th, 7th and 6th. All the while the team had almost nothing an F1 fan could object to: a proper racing team, making the best of what it had and displaying a rare willingness to give drivers opportunities on merit.

And despite appearances the improvement continued in 2012. Even though the team started slowly, seeming tardier than most to understand the potential within the new exhaust positioning and blowing regulations, and slipped back a place in the final constructors' standings thanks in large part to a congested midfield in which most raised their game more than Force India did, the team get stronger as the year progressed and in the end almost doubled its points from the previous year (accumulating 109 compared with 69 from 2011). And of course it might well have won the final round.