Tuesday 23 April 2013

Further thoughts on the Bahrain Grand Prix

Here comes Bahrain again
And thus F1 has endured its second weekend in Bahrain since the Arab Spring, and its second which afterwards private exhalations of relief may be had that the event just about went off without problems. Admittedly, there appeared a slightly lower level of background issues for the F1 bubble this time compared with what there was last year: no protesters died in the course of the weekend (as far as we know), and no members of the F1 fraternity were caught up in clashes as they were then.

Bahrain Grand Prix - a focus for protesters
Credit: Hamel Alrayeh / CC
And yet I'm no nearer to understanding why exactly the sport's decision-makers think going to Bahrain right now is a good idea. Yes, I'm aware that there are (reportedly) 50 million reasons for the fraternity to turn up, and Bernie/CVC are conspicuously wont to follow the money. But even still I cannot fathom why anyone at the top of the sport thinks that this credit outweighs the rather obvious debit. The debit being that F1 is being used as a country PR exercise by a regime (and by extension a PR exercise for the regime itself) at the same time that the regime has a criticised human rights record and faces daily protests and unrest from its citizens demanding democracy and reform (for whom the F1 race is a clear focus of discontent, unsurprising given the regime's closeness to the event and desire to derive prestige from it). And this unrest is prone to descend into violence from both sides. At best the sport appears uncaring, at worst that it's siding with oppression. And the broad perception was that matters in Bahrain hadn't moved on much since F1's last visit 12 months ago.

As outlined on this site before the race, it represents a toxic mix of two of the sport's most notorious vices: taking short term financial gain in return for longer term and less immediately tangible pain, as well as a disregard for how it's viewed more widely and why this is important. The sport relies on the world around it in a number of ways, most notably that's where it gets its fans from. It's also where it gets its sponsorship and technical involvement, and all three of these groups have plenty of options of where to invest their time and money. F1 is inviting peril by disregarding this.

The FIA and FOM seemed to shift their stance in the course of the weekend from 'we're not political' to 'we're a force for good' (two points which are rather contradictory). But both positions are not only absurd but also have the strong stench of a cop out, an excuse to do nothing. And while Bahrain had never set records for attendance at the best of times, the sparse grandstands of the last two Grands Prix there tell their own story. It's clear those in Bahrain don't consider it business as usual. And yet the lessons aren't being learned, the event looks like it'll linger on. There was talk afterwards of a new five year contract to ensure the race's future, even that it might get the prestige of hosting the season's opener. All in all, I'm rather put in mind of the words of Karl Marx: 'History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce'.

Alonso's adversity
Just four races into the 2013 campaign Fernando Alonso already has scaled the very peaks as well as plumbed the very depths. His car as noted widely has been a night and day improvement on this point in 2012 in terms of competitiveness, and he has a fine win and a strong second place (beaten only on strategy) on the board. The trouble is, he's had two major doses of bad luck the other two times. And none more so than in Bahrain with his DRS backflip problem which plucked him out of a battle with Sebastian Vettel for the lead and dropped him off the back with much against him. Eighth place in the end was the result of a mighty effort, but still meagre reward. And it all results in a 30 point head start for Vettel that Alonso has to overcome, and in a year wherein Seb doesn't look like he'll be leaving points on the table to anything like the same extent he did for much of 2012.

Fernando Alonso - varying fortunes this year
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
As we've come to expect from Alonso in recent times, the man himself is letting sunshine win the day, insisting that the luck will even out over the season. And while we can understand why he wants to keep the spirits up of his team and himself, the problem is that it doesn't necessarily work that way. There is absolutely no reason to assume the 'luck', however we define it, has to be distributed roughly equitably over a year. That you've had bad luck already doesn't mean it's any less likely to happen again (indeed, you could argue that it makes it more likely). And this is particularly so in an F1 season which, even with 19 races, is a small base in which there is little opportunity for the law of averages to take effect. Furthermore, F1's not like other sports; a single stroke of misfortune can and often does ruin your afternoon definitively. Compare and contrast with football for example where the worst that will happen is that you'll lose a goal, and even then you've got the rest of the game in which it is possible to make up for it. And at most you'll lose three points, not 25.

There are seasons from F1's past - such as that of James Hunt in 1977 and Nigel Mansell in 1987 - wherein despite just about always being on the pace and fighting for wins, somehow the run of misfortune, and more to the point completely unrelated misfortune, never seemed to end, and it all kept them away from title contention. Sebastian Vettel also experienced similar in 2010, though at least that ended well for him. One hopes, for Alonso's sake at least, that he isn't to be the latest to join this unwanted band in 2013.

Reduce the Drag Reduction System?
I'm someone who's always supported DRS. Well, 'support' is probably the wrong word. Tolerated perhaps for the greater good of the entertainment levels. Held my nose.

DRS - too much?
Credit: Morio / CC
And yet, for all the Pirelli seethe that we've witnessed in certain quarters this year, perhaps the focus has been in the wrong place. In the last two rounds at least the DRS advantage on race day has looked too great, with cars sailing past rival machines as if passing a lorry on the motorway (though in mitigation part of the problem in Bahrain was a strong head wind on the main straight, which amplified the DRS effect). Yes, there have been position changes, but the DRS has threatened to take the skill out of it; perhaps even the meaning. And it's all somewhat at a variance from DRS's original intention, which was to get the car behind within striking range but not to allow it to cruise past.

I'd always been curious as to what retaining the current variable Pirellis but with no DRS would result in, given both were introduced with broadly the same aim at the same time, and it was never easy to ascertain the exact amount DRS was contributing even to non-DRS zone passes (i.e. those passes might not have happened had the car got close thanks to DRS etc). And yet Alonso inadvertently provided some indication on Sunday, and the evidence was that overtaking would still happen but that it would be more difficult. Which is maybe no bad thing.

DRS though isn't going to disappear any time soon. It apparently remains popular with the teams and if nothing else all teams have designed their cars assuming DRS, so it's hard to imagine they'll agree to it being binned mid-season. But one relative benefit of DRS is that it can be tailored with little notice, indeed in its early days it was altered in terms of its length and siting pretty regularly, sometimes even within a weekend, if it appeared too powerful or not powerful enough. This doesn't seem to happen anymore, but it seems high time that it was brought back for the purposes of much-needed DRS trimming.

Gearboxing clever
One of F1's many foibles that is among the most difficult to explain to the uninitiated is quite how it is possible for everyone to do their thing on track, for an order apparently to be established, then for the outcome to be altered at the stroke of officialdom's pen. And so it was with Lewis Hamilton in Bahrain: he ran over debris in Saturday morning practice, got a puncture and the resultant damage necessitated a gearbox change. Which broke the rules regarding a gearbox having to last a certain number of races, thus meaning a five-place grid drop for Lewis. But this isn't fair, said his team principal Ross Brawn. After all, that's not what the rules had in mind (which was cost control), and it was hardly Lewis's or the team's fault that he ran over debris? Surely the rule should be rewritten to allow for that sort of thing?

Lewis Hamilton - the latest to fall foul of gearbox rules
Credit: Morio / CC
And who could possibly argue with that? But it's the usual story: nice in theory, but just try drafting a rule that the famously lateral-thinking F1 fraternity won't abuse. And we don't have to go back far to find trouble resultant from 'force majeure' defences. To borrow from the common phrase: F1 gets the regulations it deserves.

Some other mooted solutions to this situation also wilt under scrutiny. Fines don't seem like much of a deterrent. You could dock constructors' points, but what about teams that rarely/never score points? Are they allowed, in effect, to change gearboxes with gay abandon while their rivals ahead can't?

One possible solution that could work though is making the same change as happened with the engine change rules when faced with the same predicament of too many penalties being handed down. The rule was changed so that there was a maximum number of engines that could be used in a year - which would get a penalty if exceeded - but you wouldn't be penalised by a grid-drop for each and every change. So the rule had the same end, but much reduced the amount of artificial grid shuffling. Can the same be done with gearboxes? If so, then it should be.

Perez's predicament
There were a couple of fairly tasty morsels of irony for Sergio Perez to chew on in the Sunday evening after the Bahrain race. One is of course that having rather publicly been told to 'get his elbows out' by his boss Martin Whitmarsh, he now found himself under attack, not least from his stable mate Jenson Button, for going too far off in the other direction. And further it was Perez who, rather audibly and notoriously, questioned the driving standards of Pastor Maldonado after a clash in Silverstone last year. Yet now it was the the self-appointed judge who was the one being judged.

Sergio Perez - some things to think about
Credit: Morio / CC
The judges might have had a point. Even within the bounds of what's accepted in defending your position in F1 these days Perez seemed to walk the line of acceptability rather perilously in Bahrain (and in China), particularly in his moving around in a straight on occasion. Indeed, it's odd that Whitmarsh said what he did as apparently Perez generally has a bit of a reputation among his peers of not always being the fairest in battle. And Raikkonen, Hamilton and Alonso have complained about Perez's driving in the last two rounds too (Andrew Benson noted that he only needs to peeve Sebastian Vettel and he'll have the full set of active world champions).

It's a pity in sense, as in terms of pace it was Perez's strongest performance in his not entirely easy early days as a McLaren driver (though his Australian race was quietly impressive too, finishing just two seconds after Jenson despite being mucked around in qualifying by his team). And perhaps, on some level, Button's complaints weren't entirely born of concern over etiquette. Intra-team supremacy between drivers is a little like plastic, soft and easily altered early in its life, but hardens over time. Thus keeping his young team mate in his box at this vital point might have been somewhere in Jenson's considerations.

The next challenge for Perez is to perform as he did in Bahrain (but with reining in his excesses a little) consistently. His former employers Sauber reckoned that his performances wavered too much, and if true such a vice will be exposed ruthlessly, and tolerated much less, at McLaren. But if consistency can be achieved then that will likely irk Jenson Button much more than anything else.


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