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.

If Mercedes has indeed erred it seems an astonishing error of judgement by the team. And if it has, what might happen? Who knows, but few punishments can be ruled out, including financial penalties and points deductions. Still, you'd imagine that the FIA will resist the urge to humiliate Mercedes and thus risk chasing them out of the sport, being as it is both a constructor and an important engine supplier. As for Pirelli, this could hardly come at a worse time given it hasn't had its problems to seek recently, and while as a supplier rather than an entrant it cannot be punished the risk of it being caught in the crossfire is great. The company would be forgiven, with this just the latest episode in which its reputation is being buffeted around, for saying something to the effect of 'sod this for a game of soldiers' to its whole F1 involvement (and then where would we be?). Whatever the case though, as Lady Macbeth once opined what’s done cannot be undone, and it seems likely that at least part of the solution would be the other 10 teams each getting a three-day tyre test of their own (which, ironically, Pirelli would be delighted with).

James Allen however noted the ultimate culprit in all of this is a familiar one, what he calls F1 'dysfunctionality'. Or to put it another way, few teams trust any other team, even if the matter is in all of their interests. And Pirelli is not only being asked to produce a specific product that'll give two or three stops per race and strategy variation for 19 highly disparate F1 circuits, using just four compounds, the sport is also not letting the company test as the teams refuse to agree on how it should be done. In effect F1 is tying one hand behind Pirelli's back while demanding it performs an intricate juggling act. Paul Hembery effectively admitted indeed that such politics contributed to the Mercedes test's 'hushed up' status, stating that 'the more discussion you have, the less you manage to achieve'.

Why Checo needs care
Sergio Perez can certainly be said to have made the Monaco Grand Prix more entertaining than it otherwise would have been, but even so his actions have split opinion somewhat. Some reckon he was a fast young lion clawing at the more established members of the pride; others that he shared more with a young foal kicking around aimlessly and destructively.

Sergio Perez - making the wrong enemies
Credit: Morio / CC
In my view, Perez in Monaco tip-toed along the line of acceptability, and occasionally wandered over it (a little like he had in Bahrain). His passing attempts were gung ho, but sometimes too much so, and it seemed his willingness to push the limits and thus threaten to go beyond them increased as the race went on. His pass on Jenson Button (the one where he stayed on the track) was a perfect ambush move; his pass on Fernando Alonso pushed the bounds of acceptability; while his late attacks on Kimi Raikkonen were at the least very clumsy, quite possibly worse. And by the end of it all he'd again, and not for the first time this year, put those revered noses out of joint.

It's a pity in a way that the focus has been on this, as in the last three race weekends Perez's pace has been a pleasant surprise, and in all three he's pretty markedly been the McLaren pacesetter. And of course, Alonso technically is correct to say that 'only McLaren has to be happy with him', while as you'd expect McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh has since been at pains to defend Perez in public.

But perhaps things aren't quite as simple as that. With the likes of Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado last season we could see the impact a negative narrative more widely can have on a reputation. And that it can easily get their driving into a downward cycle (it's also ironic, given Perez himself was one of the most vocal critics of Maldonado last year). Most pointedly Perez may be better advised not to pick on the bigger bullies in the playground. All three of those that he peeved in Monaco are world champions, all three have high media profiles - their words tend to be quoted widely and carry a lot of weight. And as we found out after the Monaco race Kimi in particular can express himself in a rather noticeable fashion.

Or to put it another way: Perez needs to be careful he's not making the wrong enemies.

Ro Gro Woe
During the Monaco weekend Perez had ample opportunity to witness some grim vision of his (possible) future self. This was in the form of Romain Grosjean. Given his well-documented problems in his accident prone 2012 season (mentioned above) there was some doubt as to whether Lotus would retain him in a race seat for this year. It did in the end, but it came with a strong whiff of him being on a final warning. In 2013 however, aside from a good third place in Bahrain, he hardly can be said to be making good on his last chance. For one thing, perhaps in a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in trying to mend his ways, or else as a result of lost confidence, the pace of before seems diminished: he's rarely got near Kimi Raikkonen there. And in Monaco he was back to being his old self in terms of failing to stay out of trouble - having three prangs in practice (which oh-so nearly meant that he had to sit out qualifying) before driving into the back of Daniel Ricciardo in the race, which for all of Grosjean's protestations looked like a major error of judgement.

Romain Grosjean - right to look worried
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
I've always sought to defend Romain Grosjean, partly because I think in F1 the timespan offered (both by those within the sport and among those judging from outside) for drivers to get it right is way too narrow. But in Grosjean's case it is also the case that his transition into a very good F1 driver has seemed tantalisingly close at various points; indeed we briefly saw it in Monaco qualifying wherein his immediate pace after joining Q1 with minutes to spare was impressive. The speed is there - indeed there have been times he's even left Kimi Raikkonen behind. If only he could iron out the propensity for accidents, and do so while retaining his laptimes, we'd have something very worthy.

But the problem is that in F1 patience is a limited commodity, no one will wait forever for him to get it right, and even now Grosjean's had more chances than most drivers get. And a further problem for him is that there has been little sign of improvement over time. On the contrary, it appears if anything that the more mistakes he makes - and by extension that more criticism he gets - the greater his edginess and subsequent tendency to err while behind the wheel. Many of the flaws, such as his apparent problems with peripheral vision, appear by now to be fundamental. And given all of this it's reaching the point that you begin to doubt if he'll ever mend his ways.

By now you'd think that surely Grosjean is hanging to his F1 career by his fingernails. But while some, including Sky commentators, were talking openly about his being replaced imminently, I would not necessarily count those chickens. Mainly because in this age of the testing ban it is so difficult for drivers coming in mid season to get up to speed, something we've seen demonstrated repeatedly. Some, such as Kamui Kobayashi, immediately got on the pace, but they are very much the exception. Further, the Lotus team has shown no great enthusiasm to give its reserve drivers much track time, seen in it hauling Grosjean back halfway across Europe when Kimi got ill in pre-season testing rather than run Davide Valsecchi. Therefore I expect Grosjean to see out the season. But without a quick transformation he won't be in F1 next year.

Tyred arguments
Another race; another round of agonising about the Pirelli tyres. Not the biggest surprise of the weekend.

The race was a go-slow, an exercise in tyre preservation. To emphasise the fact, Vettel set a fastest lap on the penultimate tour some two seconds quicker than what had been done before. David Coulthard, on air and in print, described the race as 'rubbish'.

Monaco races have been follow my leader for some time
Credit: Steve Gregory / CC
True? Possibly. But I'd suggest those taking this view are pointing in their finger of blame in the wrong direction. The culprit is not pariah Pirelli: the tyres provided could easily have done a two or three stopper with the drivers pushing most of the way. In other words, precisely what Pirelli has been asked to provide. Instead the culprit is the Monaco track, combined with the teams' approach to racing on it. As we know track position is all on race day around the principality's torturous circuit; even if you're several seconds a lap faster than the car ahead passing is not at all the work on a moment. And as a consequence of this no one wanted to pit and find themselves bottled up behind other cars if they could at all help it. Therefore, pretty much from the get-go the drivers sought to cruise and save tyres, with the aim of stopping just the once (as it was, the mid-race red flag gave them a 'free' tyre change). It also all became self-perpetuating: the go-slow (along with the two safety car periods and the red flag) led to the field being bunched, and thus there were next to no 'gaps' in the traffic to drop a pitted car into. Everyone was thus in something of an impasse; F1's equivalent of trench warfare.

And let's face it, it should hardly be a surprise that Monaco races are this way. For all of the benefits of the event to the sport, the F1 car outgrew the circuit decades ago and indeed this year is the 40th anniversary of the insertion of the 'swimming pool section' (fatuously to increase the space for grandstands) which sealed the track's status as forever to be a no overtaking zone. It's touching the number who each year give the impression that they view this outcome as somehow unforeseen.

Lewis Hamilton: through the looking glass
If any F1 driver was to be totally candid they'd tell you that the first thing they think about after opening their eyes in the morning is how they plan to beat their team mate. No matter what, they are your yardstick; the match-up wherein there are few places to hide. Excuses for being beaten by them are near-impossible to sustain.

Is it 2007 again, but with the boot on the other foot?
Credit: Mark McArdle / CC
And 2013 is rather rich with tantalising intra-team tête-à-têtes. The McLaren pairing of Jenson Button and Sergio Perez we've mentioned, wherein against many expectations Checo for all of his foibles evidently is getting under Jenson's skin (betrayed by Jenson's radio communications, which in Monaco even included the lowest form of wit). But it has nothing on Mercedes. I, like rather a lot of people, have been consuming ample portions of humble pie in recent times given that Nico Rosberg, rather than be put in the shade by his new and revered team mate Lewis Hamilton, has for the most part matched him and laterally has even started to beat him.

So, what is the explanation? It most likely reflects a couple of things: Rosberg being better than we thought, as well as possibly raising his game ever so slightly with Lewis's arrival; as well as Hamilton taking time to get used to a new machine and team and getting it all to his taste (he mentioned over the Monaco weekend about the brakes not being to his liking). There also are a lot of parallels with the Alonso-Hamilton pairing at McLaren in 2007: champion arrives in team with fanfare, but finds himself up against someone already there who is much better than anyone had realised previously, and also finds that what is underneath him is not immediately bespoke (in Alonso's case it was the Bridgestone tyres among other things). The glaring difference this time of course is that it is in something of a mirror image, as then it was Lewis who surprised everyone by getting the upper hand while now he is on the receiving end (though in fairness Hamilton is at least, for now, keeping his response to all of this in public in check).

F1 is a sport that loves to provide delicious ironies.

1 comment:

  1. Regarding Kamui's good debut, if I recall correctly he had quite some mileage in F1 testing when he debuted with the Toyota in place of leg-injured Glock.