Tuesday 28 May 2013

Further thoughts on the Monaco Grand Prix

The real culprit in tyre test gate
Pride comes before a fall, as my mum likes to say. And in the case of Mercedes such a sentiment may touch a rather raw nerve right now. No sooner had the team on Sunday achieved probably its best result since its return to F1, and at Monaco of all places, than it became clear that the vultures from the rule book were circling. All on the matter of it taking part in a tyre test between the Spanish and Monaco rounds with Pirelli using the team's current car, in an age wherein in-season testing is restricted severely.

Mercedes - trouble brewing
Credit: Morio / CC
The matter had hung over the race somewhat as Red Bull and Ferrari had protested about it race day morning. But the consensus nevertheless seemed to be to assume that while the whole matter was clumsily handled, bound to create a fuss among rivals (especially given the test's apparently clandestine nature, as well as that Mercedes was having conspicuous problems handling its Pirellis), the team probably would be above board. Mercedes, surely, would have checked and double checked that it was all within the rules; indeed the team insisted that the FIA gave it a green light. But possibly not. On the evening after the Monaco race the FIA announced that the Monaco stewards were preparing a report on it all and that the matter was going to the International Tribunal. And that this tribunal, said with an air on understated menace, 'may decide to inflict penalties'. The rub it seems was that the FIA's green light for a test with a current car was a preliminary and conditional one, dependent upon the test being run by Pirelli and of 'upon every team being given the same opportunity to test'. The implication is that Mercedes had jumped the gun potentially, and the FIA isn't convinced that the second part at least was fulfilled. Indeed, a line of teams has piped up since to say they weren't aware of the test, and would not have turned down the opportunity to do a test with their 2013 car if offered. And the tone of the FIA's note to the media on the matter had a strong 'bang to rights' quality about it . Some reports have it that FIA President Jean Todt is furious at the test taking place. Vultures, as I said.

Sunday 26 May 2013

Monaco GP Report: Son shines in Monaco

For years we had the lingering unanswered question in F1: just how good is Nico Rosberg? Well, at last, this year with a quick car and a known quantity as his team mate we're getting an answer. He's very good. To say the least.

Nico Rosberg was immaculate in victory today
Credit: Morio / CC
And what we saw from Nico for the entirety of the Monaco weekend, not least in the race, was quite immaculate. In topping every session then leading every race lap and winning it's not exaggeration to say it was the sort of performance that any of the sport's greats of past or present would have been thoroughly proud of. He dominated from the moment a wheel was first turned and unlike in previous rounds there barely seemed a join between his practice/qualifying speed and his pace when it really matters on the Sunday. He controlled the race expertly, always appearing a master of events no matter what they were behind (and there were a few). And make no mistake, this was no follow-my-leader cruise taking advantage of Monaco's legendary inability to offer passing opportunity, Nico always was able to put a gap between himself and the cast of revered drivers making up those following.

And it was a result that hung heavy with reminders of the past. Nico spoke a lot this weekend about racing an F1 car around the very same streets that once upon a time he made his journey to school in. And furthermore, the race marks thirty years since Nico's father Keke won the Monaco Grand Prix for himself. Just as with Keke it was Nico's second Grand Prix win. And just as with Keke there was little doubt over the identity of the winner from an early stage of race proceedings.

Saturday 25 May 2013

Monaco Qualifying: No one can rain on Rosberg's parade

Everything happens for a reason, particularly in F1 wherein everything is measured, analysed and (hopefully) accounted for. And there were lots of reasons to think in advance that Mercedes, and more to the point Nico Rosberg's Mercedes, would be hard to keep away from pole position today. Sure enough pole position is exactly what Rosberg claimed. And not even F1's ultimate googly of it being Monaco with rain around during the qualifying hour was able to avert Nico's fate.

Nico Rosberg starts from the front once again
Credit: Morio / CC
The Mercs have had Saturdays pretty much to themselves in 2013, this being their fourth pole in row as well as Nico's third. The car was several strides quicker than all others in the tight final Barcelona sector in qualifying there, viewed pretty much universally as a guide to Monaco pace. Monaco was markedly one of the silver cars' most competitive weekends of last year. And Nico has been faster than everyone seemingly since a wheel was turned in the principality on Thursday morning - the qualifying hour simply made it four sessions from four which he topped. Sometimes in F1 cause and effect are insurmountable.

As mentioned it rained in advance of the qualifying session, and to start with it was definitely a track for intermediate rubber. The drivers earned their money with some serious tip-toeing, facing the perpetual threat of missing the cut due to not being on the right tyres at the right time (as well as of ending their session against the scenery) while times tumbled and the timing screen as it often does at such moments resembling the display of a fruit machine. The track was good for slicks though by halfway through the hour, and in the event the biggest casualties of the elements were Paul di Resta in Q1 and Pastor Maldonado in Q2. And with a dry track and just about all the big names having survived the detour normality reasserted itself.

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Monaco Preview: Spin of the roulette wheel

What is it with Monaco? Really, there are so many reasons to dislike Grands Prix there. It is an anachronism: the modern F1 car outgrew the torturous course not so much years but decades ago (Nelson Piquet once likened driving there to riding a motor cycle in your front room) while overtaking is a near impossibility. It would for various reasons all be laughed out of town if proposed from scratch today. Clive James once noted dryly that 'it is said these days with increasing frequency that Monaco makes a nice change from Grand Prix racing'.

Furthermore, the wealth on show is ostentatious, and the poseur occupants of the yachts in the harbour in all probability have little interest in the sport in the rest of the year. On the face of it, there seems very little to look forward to about F1's annual visit to the principality.

There's nothing quite like Monaco
Credit: Niels Mickers / CC
But we do look forward to it. And to the point that it is (genuinely) hard to imagine F1 without it. Monaco has an intangible quality that ensures it is this sport's Blue Riband event, the sort that just about every sport, and not just motor sport, has. Just as tennis has Wimbledon, golf has the Masters, and Indycars has the Indianapolis 500 (and I could go on), F1 has Monaco, the event most commonly associated with the activity. And American racing did its best to demonstrate the importance of this sort of thing after Champ Cars split from the Indianapolis 500 in 1996 and took most of the teams and drivers with it; for all the virtues of the championship it never managed to overcome it not having the big draw and had eventually to return somewhat with its tail between its legs.

Thursday 16 May 2013

Be careful what you wish for - views on the Pirelli changes

Judging by much of the reaction something hideous took place at the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona last weekend. Unspeakable. Something that sent F1 into the realms of farce. And it was all do to with the familiar pariah of the Pirelli tyres. One member of the press, that reliable source of wisdom, said the race was 'tyranny of the tyre...the unloved novelty of four stops per car is conspiring to reduce the sport to a rambling sequence of place-swapping that bears little resemblance to racing'. Martin Brundle noted: 'Qualifying clearly means nothing these days, just ask the front row Mercedes boys...It's all about saving new tyres and then trying not to abuse even those on race day. Pirelli simply have to sort this out.' Red Bull's boss Dietrich Mateschitz joined in, saying: 'This has nothing to do with racing anymore. This is a competition in tyre management.' And these comments were just the beginning.

It seemed F1 had got itself into one heck of a pickle. But Pirelli moved quickly to atone, announcing in the days afterwards that there would be changes in time for the Canadian Grand Prix, sooner than previously thought, and the changes would serve to add durability and therefore reduce the number of pitstops, by moving the tyres back more in the direction of how they were last year.

Fair enough? It's decisive action, after all. But perhaps the matter is not as simple as that. And solving problems in F1 is often rather like having a bubble underneath your wallpaper: you press it down only for it to pop up somewhere else. In other words by 'solving' one problem you create others. And this may be a classic case of it.

Pariah Pirelli is once again causing debate
Credit: Rich Jones / CC
At times like this it's always valuable to look back and remind ourselves how we got to where we are. F1, lest we forget, for years had a massive problem in the product it offered to spectators - F1 racing cars very rarely raced each other. From a peak of over 40 overtakes per dry race in the mid-1980s it had fallen gradually, and then off a cliff, to around 10 passes per dry race from 1994 onwards (see the Clip the Apex stats). A massive drop by anyone's standards. And this decline was not lost on anybody, the on track fare was hardly worth watching. Without exaggeration all you would have usually was qualifying, a start, a first lap shake out and then....next to nothing. Pre-ordained fuel strategies would simply play themselves out and while the drivers certainly worked hard their contribution in some ways was futile, almost like they were simply along for the ride if they had the strength and stamina to hang on. As Rob Smedley noted recently what would happen then in the normal run of things was that a race's outcome would be known on a Saturday afternoon, barring disasters such as unreliability (an increasingly rare event too). Ironically enough, races around Barcelona particularly were notorious for this; I recall the Autosport magazine after the 1999 race there with the banner headline across its front cover 'Is F1 too boring?' or words to that effect. Plus ca change...

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Further thoughts on the Spanish Grand Prix

Scuderia's strategic thinking
In among the Pirelli seethe that followed the Spanish Grand Prix an important development from Sunday's proceedings was to a large extent missed. The race was the strongest indication in a fairly long while that Ferrari - finally - looks like it has established a strong championship-winning package. The occasional dropping of clangers so far this year (be they from the team or the driver), most notably at Malaysia and Bahrain, has shrouded things somewhat as has the car's relative shortage of qualifying pace. But in the races in which nothing has gone wrong Fernando Alonso's Ferrari has won two at a canter and was only beaten in the other by Kimi Raikkonen's Lotus stopping one time fewer than it.

Does Ferrari finally have everything right?
Credit: Morio / CC
And the team it appears has many a string to its bow these days. The car looks to have fundamental pace and on all types of track, vitally it is gentle on the Pirelli tyres, it leaps from the starting grid like a scalded cat, Alonso's talents we know about, Felipe Massa seems close to the top of his game and is showing himself perfectly capable of being in the front-running mix and of taking points from the team's rivals, its pit stops are close to the very swiftest out there. And this all was reflected in Alonso's sentiments post the Spanish race: 'After a far from easy qualifying, everything went perfectly, the start, the strategy, pit stops, tyre management.'

Strategy? Yes, strategy. For a while - loosely ever since Ross Brawn left the team - Ferrari's race strategy had often appeared rather deficient compared with its rivals, slightly reactive and ponderous. But in Spain (just as in China) the team's approach can be considered a triumph. Pretty much only Ferrari, certainly among those at the sharp end, realised in advance that a four-stop strategy would be required in the race, and as a consequence was able to enact it without compromise, both cars pushing throughout. Red Bull in contrast aimed for a three-stopper but had to abandon the idea midstream and enact an imperfect version of the four-stopper; by the time the team had resolved to switch Alonso was 13 seconds up the road of Vettel and couldn't be caught. Mercedes for reasons best known to itself stuck obtusely to three-stoppers, and we know how that one turned out.

Sunday 12 May 2013

Spanish GP Report: Alonso's Home Run

Today there were no mistakes. Today nothing went wrong. Today was a red day: the Ferraris looking the quickest things out there, reminding us that - despite the odd clanger dropped this year - the F138 is a rapid car and will likely remain rapid just about everywhere. Felipe Massa finished a strong third recovering from a grid penalty while triumphing, and triumphing at home, was one Fernando Alonso.

And it was a typical Alonso victory. If you had to construct an identikit win for the Spaniard it'd probably involve early-race aggression, especially on the first lap wherein Alonso passed Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen around the outside of turn 3, and then once the lead is seized he holds close to complete command with a swift and consistent drive. And so it was. Only Kimi Raikkonen's strategy of stopping one time fewer threatened to get in his way, but Alonso always had the pace to handle that too. In the end, he prevailed at a canter.

Fernando Alonso was imperious in victory today
Credit: Morio / CC
And further, what does it all mean for the championship fight this season? Barcelona, rightly or wrongly, has a bellwether reputation, being competitive there tending to indicate having a fundamentally good car. Turns like turn 3 and Campsa give the car one heck of an aerodynamic test, and as such in recent times it's been almost impossible to envisage a Ferrari coming out on top around here. Today the Scuderia swept the board.

Alonso remains 17 points off the table top, still harmed by Malaysia and Bahrain where he didn't pick up many (or any) points. Yet today's results don't half spice up the Vettel-Raikkonen-Alonso championship fight, each being drawn closer to the others.

Saturday 11 May 2013

Barcelona Qualifying: Hey Ho Silver

It's now happened in the last three rounds. But it still seems rare enough to be considered a surprise. Yes, it'll again be the colour silver at the front of tomorrow's starting grid, and this time it'll be silver in one and two. Mercedes today locked out the front row for the Spanish Grand Prix.

And also against expectations it is Nico Rosberg who is ahead of the two. Just as with his team's efforts, even though it's his second pole on the spin him coming out on top of his intra-team conflict with the mighty Lewis Hamilton also seems unexpected. But it's further evidence that after years of confusion on the matter Nico might well be all that after all. Perhaps we should try to start to get used to it.

Nico Rosberg takes pole - not so much of a surprise
Credit: Morio / CC
And yet, it still all feels rather like F1's equivalent of the warm up act. The expectation tomorrow is that the Mercs will clear the stage before too long to allow the star turns of Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso to appear for the headline act. That's certainly what the evidence of Bahrain suggests where Rosberg started on pole (though Hamilton's trajectory in that race was upward), and the silver cars' race simulation runs in Friday practice were not encouraging. Nico further seemed to admit after qualifying that he expects the same himself, stating that 'the race will be a whole different thing'. The main trouble is that the thing that makes them good in qualifying, ability to generate heat in their tyres quickly, particularly in the rears, tends to be a vice over a race stint.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Barcelona Preview: End of the Phoney War

The F1 calendar is rather bloated these days, with 19 races on it; thus as we stand before round five we've barely reached the quarter distance point. And yet the lap times in the Spanish Grand Prix meeting this weekend, the first European round of the year, should go a long way to framing the holistic story of the 2013 World Championship.

No, I'm not being melodramatic. Not entirely anyway. The start of the European season has in recent times felt a lot like the end of the Phoney War. It is the scene of one of the campaign's most pivotal points for just about the entire paddock; everyone will roll up armed with a package of technical upgrades in the hope of making a giant stride forward. And in the European season the itinerary begins to taken a helter skelter quality, if you're not on the pace here then the probability is that several more races will pass by the time you're able to sort it (that's if you're able to sort it at all of course). And by that time your fate in the championship tables could be largely set.

F1 is back in familiar surroundings for a pivotal weekend
Credit: Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot / CC
And that the Phoney War ends at the Montmelo circuit near Barcelona compounds this; the track has long been considered as a bellwether. It has a variety of corners, gives the car a full aerodynamic workout and that some of the turns are long means that it's not the sort of place that a fundamentally underperforming car can be hustled around with great success (this in part explains its popularity as a test venue). Around here the car must do the work. And this year it is all even more acute than usual: with major technical changes awaiting in 2014 every team faces a conundrum of just how much resource in 2013 is put towards next year's car. And how competitive they are now will form a major part of that decision. No one will win the world championship this weekend, but it will likely go a long way in causing many teams to in effect thrown in the towel. Already.

Monday 6 May 2013

Looking back: Haas Lola - a study in what might have been

If, if, if. Life is full of them. Counterfactuals. What might have been. How things just might have turned out differently had x, y or z not, or had, happened. And F1 is especially laden with this sort of thing, as is befitting a sport where the distinction between success and failure has a particularly knife-edge quality. To coin the saying, 'F1' is 'if' spelled backwards.

And while we're on the subject of the things that lay alongside actuality, imagine that you could select any two technical brains for your very own F1 'dream team'. Ross Brawn and Adrian Newey are the two that many of us would pick. And why not? They've been (with Rory Byrne) F1's technical stars on the modern age, with only four on the last 21 constructors' champions' cars not having involvement from one or other of them. But while their being brought together to produce a car sounds strictly like it is from the realms of fantasy, it actually very nearly happened, before the plug was unceremoniously pulled on the squad they were part of. The team in question is Haas Lola, the team that ever so fleetingly was F1's next big thing.

'Who?' you might be forgiven was asking, as while both the Haas and Lola names are famous in motorsport more widely neither is central in F1 folklore. But in 1985 it was a team apparently poised to have the same impact on F1 as a bowling ball has on a set of pins. In the event however the team lasted but a single full season, 1986, and in that its cars were usually nowhere near the front. Six points were won via attrition, but that was its lot.

The Haas Lola THL1
Credit: Falcadore / CC
Of course, F1's not exactly short of teams arriving amid much fanfare only for it all to fizzle out when it meets the cold wind of bracing on-track reality. One can think of March, BAR, Caterham/Lotus and others, and thus Haas Lola seems just one example on a rather lengthy and inauspicious list (indeed, some wags later quipped that BAR stood for 'Beatrice Again Racing', in homage to the Haas Lola's chief sponsor). Yet such apparent potential at Team Haas, as the team was otherwise known, being squandered is worthy of its own investigation of what exactly went wrong.