Sunday 28 July 2013

Hungarian GP Report: Lewis turns silver into gold

Well, how many of you foresaw that podium, in that order? Before the race, or even better before qualifying? Don't lie now.

Lewis Hamilton - justifiably pleased
Photo: Octane Photography
Even Lewis Hamilton seemed sceptical that he was any sort of contender for the Hungaroring race win, even after he'd staked the ground of pole position yesterday. The assumption of the driver, his team and of everyone else for that matter was that - given the Mercedes's tendency to chew the tyres, the characteristics of the track and the baking ambient temperatures - he'd do no better than manage a decline down the order. Some opined that he'd struggle even to score a point. Yes, dear reader, we had the latest demonstration today that when it comes to F1 especially, nobody knows anything, as it was indeed Lewis that prevailed for the win, and did so with dominance and verve. We never learn, do we?

It's not clear if Lewis actually believed his doom-laden predictions or else is some kind of master of the bum steer (the former seems more likely), but Lewis took the lead at the get-go, and refused to relinquish it. But this was no grim hanging on at the head of the pack, à la Thierry Boutsen. Lewis had the required pace over a race stint to stay ahead and even to move clear. Indeed, it was a drive a lot like him: fast, featuring (crucial) immediate and often spectacular overtakes, and much smarter than many give him credit for, as he went as fast as he dared with the limited (and often with the Mercedes, very limited) resource of the Pirellis.

Saturday 27 July 2013

Hungaroring Qualifying: Lewis's ambush

In the event he sounded as surprised as anyone.

Perhaps it shouldn't have been so: after all this is his third pole position in a row, and his team has now claimed seven of the last eight. But still when it happened it seemed incredibly unforeseen.

Lewis Hamilton - unexpectedly - ambushed pole position
Photo: Octane Photography
From an early point the qualifying battle appeared to be as per usual for the 2013 season: Sebastian Vettel versus the Mercedes drivers Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton; the only variation being perhaps Romain Grosjean getting in there as an interloper. But even among these Vettel looked seriously hard to stop: he'd been on top for all of Friday - on both single lap pace and longer runs - and coyly had concentrated on race set up in Saturday morning practice. And his haughty status looked even more firmly set as he, in that way of his, swept round the Hungaroring track partway through the vital final qualifying session to blitz everyone's previous efforts with a 1m 19.5 mark. Admittedly Seb was on new tyres, with everyone else on up until that point on used ones, but it still looked all over bar the shouting.

But then in the final runs Grosjean sent a warning shot across the bows of Seb's time by getting within a tenth of it, before a certain Lewis Hamilton sent a torpedo through its hull. Vettel behind improved marginally, but not by enough, and thus it'll be Lewis who starts at the front tomorrow with Vettel second.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Hungaroring Preview: The heat is on

The Hungaroring is important. No, really.

Have you ever ruminated over the sort of track that gets added to the F1 calendar in modern times, almost exclusively it seems: that which is purpose built from ground up especially to hold an F1 event, is super safe, has gleaming facilities, no expense is spared, and all is bankrolled by the national government keen to promote the country? And have you in turn wondered which venue was the first of these? (And if the answer to either of these two questions is 'yes' then well done for being about as nerdy as me). Well, the most likely answer is Hungary's Hungaroring.

Hungaroring: tight and twisty
Photo: Octane Photography
The Hungaroring debuted as an F1 host in 1986, constructed in just the seven months prior to the event on a greenfield site not far outside the city of Budapest. And 27 years on (gulp) it's easy to forget what a complete step into the unknown this represented for both the F1 circus and its hosts, stepping as the fraternity was behind the Iron Curtain into the 'Eastern Bloc', as Hungary was then part of. Without hyperbole, neither party had the first idea what to expect.

Bernie Ecclestone - F1's very own Henry Kissinger - had eyed a race in the Eastern Bloc for some time, and indeed as early as 1983 a street race in Moscow appeared on the provisional F1 calendar. That plan foundered on insurmountable bureaucracy, but by 1986 Hungary, always the most outward-looking of the Eastern Bloc countries, stepped in and Bernie was sold on the idea.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Looking back: Alonso's forgotten marvel

Fernando Alonso is an odd one, isn't he? While his place at least somewhere within the sport's pantheon of great drivers seems assured by now, citing single astonishing performances from his career - drives from the Gods, if you will - is a little tricky.

With many of the other F1 greats such drives can roll off the tongue: Fangio at the Nurburgring in '57, Moss in Monaco '61, Clark in Monza '67, Senna in Donington '93, Schumacher in Hungary '98... Even within Alonso's 2012 campaign, one which only the obdurate would suggest was not one of the most persistently impressive seasons from anyone ever, naming individual performances of that rank is difficult, maybe Valencia aside. His year's effort was more based on relentless brilliance, a 9.5 out of 10 performance just about every time.

Fernando Alonso in the 2006 season
Credit: Kamalsell / CC
But there is another drive in Alonso's career that we can point to as being up there, that of Hungary in 2006. Now, you'd be forgiven at this point for feeling rather bewildered, as it's not a drive talked about much. Indeed, it even seemed that the drive's quality had been forgotten in certain quarters before the race had even finished. Perhaps because it was a drive that didn't last all of the way to the chequered flag (and F1 is a results business), perhaps as well it reflects that the focus after the race was elsewhere (for one reason in particular). But whatever the case these do not begin to diminish the quality of Alonso's performance that day; it can absolutely be considered as a forgotten marvel.

Ah, Hungary. For much of its now quarter century-plus history as an F1 venue its Hungaroring has not won many popularity awards. Yes, it's always attracted a numerous, multi-national crowd; it's the layout that's been the problem. It arguably was the first of the new generation of tight, torturous tracks that gradually replaced the classic high-speed challenges such as the Österreichring and Zandvoort on the calendar. 'Monaco without the houses' was a polite description made in the circuit's early days. Nigel Roebuck noted that when the fraternity first laid eyes on the 'purpose-built' venue in 1986 'we swiftly concluded that part of that purpose had been to prevent motor racing. Tight and sinewy, it amounted to a prescription for soporific grands prix.' Jabby Crombac was less restrained, as when one year he was asked by a local how the track could be improved he replied 'Dig it up'.

Yet somehow, in addition to the Michael Schumacher drive already mentioned, it has developed a partial knack of being the scene of great drivers putting in great drives. And so it was in 2006.

Tuesday 9 July 2013

Further thoughts on the German Grand Prix

The big picture
Christian Horner was right to say that the victory of his charge Sebastian Vettel in the German Grand Prix wasn't a knockout blow to his rivals in the championship fight. But yet, it does feel like his opponents are very much on the ropes.

F1 in 2013 is entering something of a hiatus now, with only the Hungarian race in the next seven weeks, before the start of a slalom run of nine rounds in the second half of the season. A good opportunity to take a look at the big picture, in other words. Yet even at this relatively early point, with 250 points still available, it's rather difficult to see how the Vettel-Red Bull combination can be scuppered.

Can anyone deprive Vettel and
Red Bull of the ultimate honours?
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
Not only does Seb have a 34-point lead in the table, well more than a race win, we also enter the point of the year wherein historically he and Red Bull have really got into their strides. The Milton Keynes team is excellent at in-year development, its upgrades regular and close to seamless it seems. More generally, the RB9 has been quick just about everywhere, Seb is on top of his considerable game (errant gearboxes aside he has finished in the top four in every round) and from now on only in Monza can you envisage the car not being near the pace, given the Renault engine's comparative lack of top-end grunt.

And it's also not easy to see where an external threat is coming from. The Nurburgring confirmed that there will be enough rounds wherein the Mercedes won't keep their tyres together to presumably preclude a title charge for either driver; Lotus improved in that race but there yet remain question marks over its ability to sustain competiveness race-by-race, not least via its iffy qualifying speed and occasional strategy lethargy. Which leaves the Ferrari in Fernando Alonso's hands. Placed second in the table this pairing seems the most likely to deprive Seb and Red Bull of the drivers' championship. But it's a relative term, it still doesn't seem all that likely. Not for nothing, Alonso commented on Sunday after the race: 'to recover (the points deficit) you need to win two or three races, at the moment it seems that we are not able to do so...'.

Further thoughts on the German Grand Prix

Massa's endgame?
F1 matters move on very quickly. And if you need recent evidence of this you need look no further than to the curious case of Felipe Massa. It seems no time since, earlier in the year, we were declaring Felipe as finally being back to his best. He looked confident out of the car and quick in it, and had out qualified his haughty team mate Fernando Alonso four times in a row. Some of the excitable started to talk about his 'getting under Alonso's skin'.

Felipe Massa - not waving but drowning?
Credit: Mark McArdle / CC
Yet before we know it we seem almost back to where we started. Massa's in the doldrums again, his last four race weekends have each featured at least one accident or spin (and he's scored but 12 points in this time), including in the latest race in the Nurburgring where he spun off after four laps, which the man himself admitted subsequently was a driver error. And equally suddenly the wolves are at Massa's door regarding his 2014 Ferrari future - in poor timing the slump has coincided with the point that moves to firm up drivers for the following year gather pace.

Admittedly Massa was running ahead of Alonso at the time of his latest misdemeanour. But, if we're to be brutal, that's always been the way with Massa: that he is capable of going quickly but also that mistakes never seem too far away. These have been his traits going right back to his early days at Sauber (traits which led to Jacques Villeneuve describing Massa as 'probably the worst driver out there' in his debut year of 2002). He seems a very reflexy sort of driver, one that asks a lot of his car, but the flip side is that he never seems to offer himself much of a safety margin, and also that he doesn't appear to know any way other than to push. If he has a car that is ultra-planted, as he had in 2008, then he might broadly get away with it, but even in that season - viewed very much as Massa's personal tour de force - there were errors, most notably in Malaysia when he spun away an easy second place, discarding points that would have comfortably tilted the title in his favour as things transpired.

Monday 8 July 2013

Further thoughts on the German Grand Prix

Back to the future on backmarkers
McLaren at the Nurburgring had its best weekend in a while, and somewhat against expectations. Yet despite finishing in sixth place, and stating the team hadn't 'put a foot wrong' throughout the weekend, its pilot Jenson Button was rueful. He reckoned he would have finished one place higher had he not been delayed by battling Caterhams when trying to lap them late on (Jenson said somewhere that it cost him four seconds), which assisted Lewis Hamilton in passing him on the final lap.

Jenson Button - rueful
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
But, nothing personal Jenson, I'm afraid that any driver that complains about delays resultant of picking your way through backmarkers gets no sympathy from me. The sport has definitely changed in this regard, and changed relatively recently. It's not all that long ago that working your way through lapped 'traffic' was part of the game and an important one at that. Up until roughly the mid-1990s only egregious cases of blocking by backmarkers (e.g. those which lasted several laps) would have a chance of being punished, and sometimes not even those would result in censure. Some of those about to be lapped would move graciously to one side, but many would not (e.g. De Cesaris, Arnoux, Alliot, to pick some notorious offenders). And I can't help but think that a lot has been lost with the current practice of drivers leaping out of the way and applying the anchors at the earliest opportunity upon seeing a blue flag. Lapping while losing the minimum time is a lost art to the sport, and one that many of F1's greatest practitioners, Ayrton Senna most notably, were particularly skilled at. It's not exaggeration to say that had the current practice existed in Senna's day you would most likely have to take away ten or more of his 41 Grand Prix wins.

More broadly, dicing through traffic greatly added to the excitement and variation of an F1 race, and many iconic moments resulted from a leader being 'baulked', such as Nigel Mansell's opportunistic pass on Senna in Hungary 1989 which has gone into folklore.

Further thoughts on the German Grand Prix

Pit lane problems
The German Grand Prix on Sunday felt a lot like a soothing balm on the sport's troubled self. After considerable recent acrimony, that we all know about, the race was exciting and variable, and provided exactly the sort of action that the current formula is designed to.

There was however one false note, when Mark Webber was released by his Red Bull crew after his first pit stop with his right-rear wheel not attached, and the wheel flew towards those standing in the pits to hit a cameraman at sickening speed. Thankfully and mercifully his injuries at the time of writing seem light.

The modern F1 pit stop - poetry in motion
Credit: Gil Abrantes / CC
It's inevitable, and entirely honourable, that after such incidents changes will be sought to reduce the probability of it or similar happening again. But equally knee jerk response, and changes for the sake of changes, should be avoided.

The sport of course has come a long way in terms of who is and isn't allowed into a 'live' pit lane. One thinks of the 1974 British Grand Prix, wherein Niki Lauda made a late stop to change a punctured tyre, to find that he physically could not rejoin the race as various somebodies had gathered at the end of the pit lane to get a view of the finish, and literally blocked the way.

These days pit lane access is severely restricted, befitting that it's a dangerous place even in our post-refuelling age. And given this inherent danger such incidents sadly can probably never be totally ruled out. We already have a rule wherein pit crews are only allowed out into the pit lane if a stop is imminent, though that can have limited effect when, as is often the case, pit stops are clustered. A reduction of the pit lane speed limit in a race also comes in for 2014, though in a situation like this it's doubtful that would have made a difference.

Further thoughts on the German Grand Prix

Strike averted
Thus the German Grand Prix happened, and it was a good one. But for a time there was a possibility that it wouldn’t happen at all, or at least there was a threat of that.

On the Thursday before the race the Grand Prix Drivers' Association (GPDA) issued a statement promising to boycott if the tyre failures that were such an unwelcome presence at Silverstone were repeated this weekend. I have a lot of sympathy with the drivers' position, after all it is their lives on the line, both if they experience a tyre blow out themselves, or find large pieces of tyre debris fly towards them at 200 mph as was the case so harrowingly a week ago. So undoubtedly the drivers had right on their side.

Bernie Ecclestone - gets his own way
But equally, I couldn’t see a boycott materialising, and mainly because history suggests that at such moments getting such action to hold is next to impossible. In short, for various reasons drivers struggle to stick together when the chips are down.

Time was when driver power, and the GPDA, did have such clout. Both the 1969 and 1971 Belgian Grands Prix, at the fearsome original Spa, were cancelled after the GPDA refused to attend on safety grounds. Similarly, the 1970 German Grand Prix was moved from the Nurburgring to Hockenheim as major safety work was done on the Nordschleife. There were earlier examples of driver power winning the day too.

But in the course of a late April weekend in 1975 that all changed. Again, drivers had right on their side, as then all turned up to the Spainsh Grand Prix in Montjuic to find the crash barriers in woeful condition. But in effect the drivers' bosses, spooked by the threat of legal action from the organisers, barged in on where the drivers were assembled and ordered them into their cars. And almost all of them did as they were told. That was the day that the constructors and the organisers won, and probably driver power has never been the same since.

Sunday 7 July 2013

German GP Report: Seb's Bull triumphs in the Ring

On days like today you can't help but wonder why there yet remain those who doubt Sebastian Vettel's potential. Those that say he's just a gazelle, capable of running by himself when all is easy, or that his success is purely a function of Adrian Newey's design genius. It's not clear what their number is but at the very least they seem to shout loud. It's also not clear if they're watching the same F1 races as the rest of us. Yet perhaps it's true what they say: the less they know the more stubbornly they know it.

Sebastian Vettel triumphed under pressure
Credit: Morio / CC
Today's Nurburgring win was not the work of a gazelle. There may have been faster cars over the duration of today's German Grand Prix than Seb's Red Bull. Certainly for most of the way he drove under pressure, with opponents never far behind. Various varying strategies among his challengers swirled all the while like sharks in a pool. And in the late laps the pressure ratcheted up further, with none other than Kimi Raikkonen closing down on him at a rate of knots, benefitting from fresher and softer Pirelli boots. Despite everything, in an exercise that appeared akin to spinning plates, Seb remained in a net first place throughout. And he was still there at the end.

There wasn't the slightest error from him for the duration, nor did there seem to be the slightest possibility of one. It was a masterful performance, and Seb was justified in sounding delighted afterwards, and not just because it was his first win at home and it extends his championship lead after his Silverstone gearbox misfortune.

Saturday 6 July 2013

Nurburgring Qualifying: Just like last week

Lewis Hamilton struggles in practice. He bemoans the car's handling. It looks like his team mate will lead the way for Mercedes as we enter qualifying. But yet, when we reach the important hour Lewis blitzes everyone and snatches pole. Sound familiar? Yes it should. It happened last week in Silverstone. And it happened again in the Nurburgring today.

We really should know better than to write the prodigious Lewis off. His is one of those talents that means pulling rabbits out of the hat is always a possibility. And so it was today, 'taming the wild bull' of his Merc (to use his words from last week) and beating the nearest challenge by a clear tenth of a second to thus ensure he'll start tomorrow's Grand Prix from the front. Not for nothing he described it as 'really overwhelming'.

Just like a week ago, Lewis Hamilton emerged from
struggle to claim pole
Credit: Morio / CC
'I've been struggling since the first run in P1, which was pretty good.' said Lewis, 'P2, P3 were just disasters and it got even worse this morning. We were miles off...I wasn't comfortable with the car at all. We went back into the truck and we just worked hard...made lots and lots of changes and I just hoped that it would work. Fortunately (in qualifying) the car was beneath me...'

It was a qualifying session full of surprises, with an increase in track temperature seemingly changing things and drawing the pack together. Broadly speaking the order, Lewis aside, was as expected, but things were much closer than was anticipated. And this caught out Nico Rosberg's side of the garage most egregiously. Despite his being right in the front-running mix, he dropped out before Q3, someone making the decision to not go for an additional run at the end of the second session. This confines him to start 11th instead, with much to do.

Thursday 4 July 2013

Nurburgring Preview: Unknown leap in tepid surroundings

So, this weekend F1 cars race around the Nurburgring. Only they don't. Not for anyone with much reverence of the sport's history, anyway.

Because what we have now isn't the Nurburgring. The Nurburgring is a fearsome and torturous 22.8km challenge. It is Flugplatz, Bergwerk, Karussell. It has 89 left-handers and 85 right, 300 metres of elevation change, and is surrounded by deadly trees and bushes, which also serve to make most of the corners blind ones. It is where many of the sport's gladiators of the past did battle, sorted the great from the good, teased death and in some cases succumbed to it. This is not what F1 drivers will face this weekend.

The original Nurburgring
Don't get me wrong, there's not a great deal wrong with the new Ersatzring that is used by the contemporary sport. In itself it's perfectly tolerable albeit in a modern and sanitised way. But that's it: it doesn't stir the senses as the Nurburgring should.

F1 of course abandoned the original 'Ring after Niki Lauda's harrowing fiery accident in 1976 which scarred and very nearly killed him; the elapse of time for assistance to reach the stricken Austrian on the lengthy circuit being the particular show-stopper.

Eight years later, the sport returned to the 'neu' Nurburgring, and were generally bewildered by what they found. Unlike the new Spa which had been completed a handful of years before it, it did not retain any of its elder sibling's character, not did it use any of the old track. Contrary to some of the suggestions made in advance, it didn't use any of the equally-magnificent Südschleife either; instead that was trampled underneath the new creation.

Further thoughts on the British Grand Prix

Not like the rest of us
'The danger? Well, of course. But you are missing a very important point. I think if any of us imagined - really imagined - what it would be like to go into a tree at 150 miles per hour we would probably never get into the cars at all, none of us. So it has always seemed to me that to do something very dangerous requires a certain absence of imagination.'

The words of a Grand Prix driver? Yes. Well, sort of. It's actually from Jean-Pierre Sarti, one of the protagonists in the 1966 John Frankenheimer film Grand Prix.

But clearly his words apply to F1 reality, and indeed still apply today. The latest evidence of this was on Sunday.

Fernando Alonso - reminding us not
just anyone can be an F1 driver
Credit: / CC
After the first three tyre failures early in the Silverstone race several drivers received radio messages advising them to keep clear of the kerbs in order to minimise the chances of a further tyre failure for themselves. Nevertheless much kerb-riding could be seen throughout the field for the race's remainder.

Fernando Alonso for one made no bones about the fact that he didn't heed the call for caution from his pit wall: 'They kept telling me to go off the kerbs, but obviously if you’re position 12 you need to attack, you need to change the racing line, you need the use the DRS...I didn’t change, I didn’t change lines.' And, judging from the lines most of his rivals continued to take after the first round of tyre failures, Alonso was far from the only one.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Further thoughts on the British Grand Prix

Hard to make it in the rain
As we know by now, F1's ability to make itself look foolish at regular intervals is rather well-established. And in the Silverstone weekend its manifestation didn't even start and end with tyre failures, the opening Friday practice session also resulted in a degree of cringing. The wet weather - combined with unintended consequences of various F1 cost-cutting measures - ensured that, while the sport's paying customers in attendance were rained on, they didn't even have anything to entertain them as there was only an empty track to look at for the most part. It took a full 76 minutes of the 90 minute session for the first laptime to be set.

I got angry at it all at the time (see my article on the matter on, but on reflection perhaps solving it, at least without creating even worse unintended consequences, is easier said than done. The F1 rule book is much more house of cards than steel structure - it can be brought tumbling down rather easily.

Nico Rosberg - explaining why wet
practice running is difficult
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Later that day the FIA announced a number of regulation changes for F1 from next year, including that an extra set of tyres will be available to each driver for the first 30 minutes of FP1, in order to encourage more track running then. Nico Rosberg, while expressing sympathy for the fans, doubted however that an extra set of tyres would have made a difference to Silverstone's sparse action: 'I felt it was a bit disappointing for the fans today, they pay a lot of money and come here and then we don’t run. So it would be worth looking into that, yes. But what to do? I don't know, because we already have that extra set of tyres as it is.'

Rosberg further sought to explain why it was in the competitors' interests to not run: 'It's just the fact that we don’t really want to risk things going out in the wet because it's going to be dry all weekend. And even things like engine degradation, we have only a very very limited amount of engines for the whole season, and any extra laps that we do we lose power because they degrade inside, so you don’t want to do any useless laps on the engine either. That’s just some examples why we then choose not to run.'

Further thoughts on the British Grand Prix

Kimi's in
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. And this applies to the weird world of F1 as much as it does anything. Matters tend not to be dwelt upon; no sooner does something happen than all look ahead to what the implications will be. And so it was with Mark Webber's Silverstone announcement that he's off to sportscars next year, before you knew it focus shifted to who would plug the Aussie Grit-shaped hole at Red Bull (though for various reasons for a while almost no one had expected him to still be there next year anyway). And sure enough the Bulls' boss Christian Horner quickly stated that there are three candidates: the two Toro Rosso pilots - Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne - and Kimi Raikkonen.

Kimi Raikkonen - in a
perhaps not inappropriate hat
Credit: Matthias v.d. Elbe / CC
But perhaps the fun speculating about it all will be short-lived, as the momentum behind Kimi to fill the Red Bull vacancy already looks unstoppable. Conspicuously, no one is denying anything, and moreover the key players are making noises which indicate considerable movement down the Kimi to Red Bull path. Lotus's Eric Boullier admitted in the team principals' press conference at Silverstone that 'Red Bull is chasing Kimi'. And Horner in the same room didn't make effort to downplay it in response, commenting that 'Kimi Raikkonen is a driver you would be foolish to ignore', before going onto make noises that he wants to 'pick the best candidate for that role' and elsewhere that 'we want the fastest line-up that we can'. All roads lead to Kimi you'd have thought, being by far the most qualified available candidate in the here and now, and even the Ice Man himself has admitted to there being talks with the Milton Keynes team. Indeed, paddock gossip had Kimi to Red Bull as a done deal already.

And it's one of those moves that no matter how far you dig it's hard to discover any show-stoppers: the temptations of a Red Bull to Kimi are obvious, given that the car has been the sport's gold standard for a number of years. From Red Bull's perspective the temptations of Kimi are obvious too: the Finn has established himself as one of the very best and most reliable F1 drivers in the contemporary age, and surely in a Red Bull he'd be good both for wins and for consistent points in chasing the constructors' title. Kimi you feel further fits the Red Bull brand perfectly; indeed he was sponsored by the company in his rallying sojourn. Of course, a potential impediment would be what Luca Montezemolo called 'two roosters in the same hen house' resultant from pairing Kimi with Sebastian Vettel, but among the top drivers surely Kimi represents the lowest risk of all on this front, given his firmly apolitical and equanimous attitude. Further, while some have claimed that Vettel could veto the move, you'd imagine that had Seb not given it all his blessing it would never have been allowed to get this far (and, given the lingering existence of Seb-doubters, just perhaps Seb's keen to prove himself alongside him?). As for the Toro Rosso two, harsh though it sounds (but hey F1 is a harsh business) it's hard to argue that either pilot has made a consistent case for the step up - not yet anyway. And in any case Red Bull clearly feels no obligation to promote from within. To borrow Sherlock Holmes's maxim: eliminate the impossible and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Further thoughts on the British Grand Prix

Why I'll miss Mark Webber
It was overshadowed somewhat by the time the race had ended, but early in the Silverstone weekend the talk of the town was Mark Webber confirming that this year will be his last in F1, as he's off to drive for Porsche in sportscars from 2014. It's wrong to call it a retirement; he'll still very much be active in LMP1 which is a formula on an upward curve right now. And while the man himself is clearly content with his decision I for one cannot help but feel a tinge of regret at his loss to F1.

Mark Webber will be missed
Credit: Rich Jones / CC
Part of this is that drivers of Webber's quality are not two-a-penny. While even the man himself would likely admit that he is not consistently of the quality of an Alonso, a Hamilton, a Vettel, he certainly isn't far off, and very much is at the top of the next tier of talent. And as we know there are those occasional weekends when Webber is really on form and then absolutely no one can live with him - not even the haughty names I mentioned. We can recall such days: Germany in 2009, his debut win; Spain and Monaco in 2010; Silverstone last year, and indeed his aggressive drive last weekend at the same venue was very much among them, rising from P13 nearly to win.

But the main reason I'll miss Mark Webber is to do with his personality. To borrow from something Martin Brundle says from time-to-time, racing drivers these days have a rather atypical, perhaps even a rather sheltered, existence and from an early age: in most cases they've never sat in a job interview or gone through any of the other character-building experiences that the rest of us do. And perhaps it shows: while my admiration of anyone good enough to get into F1 is extreme, perhaps the situation I've outlined contributes to something of an overgrown child personality manifesting among them a lot of the time.

Further thoughts on the British Grand Prix

No one emerges with credit
'You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.'

No, these are not the words of Paul Hembery - rather they were uttered by Rahm Emanuel, currently Mayor of Chicago - but they could have been. They're very apt.

It probably seemed impossible at the time, but at least some good has come of the British Grand Prix last weekend. It's whipped the notoriously difficult to herd F1 fraternity into order, in-season tyre testing to help Pirelli is to come back, first at the Young Drivers' Test and possibly at Brazil too, as well as that changes to the tyres are to be made incrementally in the next two rounds.

Adrian Newey - wide of the mark
Credit: Morio / CC
I've noticed however a certain amount of finger pointing at three teams - Ferrari, Lotus and Force India - who'd sought to minimise the changes before now, including the two changes to the tyres that we've now ended up with: reintroduction of the Kevlar belt and having 2013 compounds with 2012 tyre construction. Surprisingly, such finger pointing has also come from Red Bull's Adrian Newey - I say 'surprisingly' as Newey's public comments are usually considered, even-handed. But in this case he said: 'It's a sad state of affairs but such is the nature of Formula 1, really. It's been fairly clear that there's been a number of worrying tyre failures through the year. Pirelli came up with a solution for that, with a different construction, and that was being offered initially for Montreal. But two or three teams vetoed that because they were worried it would suit some other teams more than it would suit them. As a result of that short-sightedness, Formula 1 ended up putting up the worrying performance it did and concerns about driver safety.'

Monday 1 July 2013

British GP Report: The best of times, the worst of times

I suppose it shows the importance of getting the full picture. On one level, yesterday's British Grand Prix was an exciting and eventful one. It had battles up and down the field that you couldn't avert your eyes from. And it featured an exciting finish with one fine hardy driver chasing down another for the win in the final corners.

And yet that's not even the start of it. Those facts outlined in the opening paragraph you feel will be far from top of mind when the 2013 British Grand Prix is recalled, at least in the days and weeks to come.

Pirelli once again was the centre of attention
Credit: Rich Jones / CC
And the matter is a familiar one: yes, dear reader, it's all about tyres. In the Silverstone race there were repeated tyre failures, nay explosions, for competitor after competitor. First leader Lewis Hamilton's rear left tyre went, then Felipe Massa's, then Jean-Eric Vergne's. And with each failure the sense of trepidation, the sense that we were entering some kind of nightmare, increased. Later Sergio Perez's left rear was to go too, and in between times the front left tyre of Esteban Gutierrez failed in similar style. They of course also followed from a close to identical failure for Perez in Saturday morning's practice session.

The debris strewn after the first three failures resulted in a safety car, and never in my life did I think I would ever be so reluctant to see green flag racing subsequently. The threat of further failure left a haunting chill over proceedings, all with uncomfortable reminiscence of Indianapolis in 2005, one of the darkest hours in a sport not short of dark hours.

As it was, the race was completed and one way or another we got away with it. But it could have been much worse: Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso both stated after the race that they had tyre failures too just before pitting, Sebastian Vettel's tyres from the first stint were also found with cuts. More pointedly, no one was hurt in any of the failures, and in particular Perez's failure which took in front of several cars - the Mexican's McLaren squirming at 200mph and all sorts of rubber being spat behind - could easily have resulted in carnage akin to a plane crash. For a time as failure followed failure a red flag was a genuine possibility, confirmed by Race Director Charlie Whiting later. If that had happened it would have ranked right up there in the sport's most inauspicious moments.