Thursday 31 October 2013

Further thoughts on the Indian Grand Prix

Doughnuts all round
It seems appropriate for us to end this round of Further Thoughts... with Sebastian Vettel. We know by now that he isn't everyone's cup of tea, but surely even those with the iciest views of young Seb will have had them thawed at least a little by the sight of him cutting loose after taking the flag last Sunday and with it his latest championship crown. As has been replayed seemingly without end since, rather than return to parc ferme as is the standard tepid way he instead indulged in doughnuts on the pit straight in front of the packed and roaring grandstand, then bowed in front of the car in worship, before climbing the spectator fence and - redolent of Nigel Mansell - throwing his gloves into the crowd. It was a fantastic and, apparently, spontaneous display of emotion from Vettel, him showing simple child-like joy and desire for everyone to share the moment with him. Everyone loved it.

Surely not even the most vociferous Seb-baiter
will not have appreciated his Indian post race celebrations
Photo: Octane Photography
Well, everyone apart from the stewards, who (predictably) handed a reprimand to Seb for not returning straight to parc ferme after the race, as well as fined the Red Bull team for not instructing its charge so to do. The reaction to this was predictable too: for example 'Vettel fined for celebrating' was a headline I saw on the front of a national newspaper the next morning (quite impressive that they managed to get two things wrong in a four-word headline). But still, it can't be denied that the sanction being applied didn't come across well.

The stewards simply were applying the rules as they are, and as they've been applied in the past, so ill-will towards them is harsh. I'm also always rather loath to seek to resolve such situations by calling for 'common sense' to be applied, as I don't think such a call is especially helpful, given someone's interpretation of common sense is - despite its title - usually subjective, ill-defined as well as its usage often results in gross inconsistency of rules' application, which would also be bound to get people's backs up. And in almost every such case of F1 stewards enforcing an apparently bad rule one finds after a little investigation that, in spite of initial appearances, the rule actually exists for a good reason.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Further thoughts on the Indian Grand Prix

White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)
In most sports lines cannot be argued with. In football, if the ball crosses the line that marks the edge of the pitch then it's out, it's a throw in to the other team and there's no argument. Same in tennis, if the ball bounces over the line then it's out - end of story. So it is in rugby, so in fact it is in pretty much any sport you could mention: the line is sacrosanct.

And from a look at the F1 regulations there is very little to lead you to think that things are any different herein. Here, verbatim, is FIA Sporting Regulations Article 20.2: 'Drivers must use the track at all times. For the avoidance of doubt the white lines defining the track edges are considered to be part of the track but the kerbs are not. A driver will be judged to have left the track if no part of the car remains in contact with the track. Should a car leave the track the driver may rejoin, however, this may only be done when it is safe to do so and without gaining any advantage. A driver may not deliberately leave the track without justifiable reason.'

Race Director Charlie Whiting -
doesn't come out of this well
Credit: Morio / CC
Not much to argue with there surely? But, as we're growing used to, F1 manages somehow to be different to other sports; as we're also growing used to, in this game things aren't always what they seem - as anyone who watched Saturday's qualifying session at the Buddh International Circuit could tell you. It turns out the apparently innocuous words 'without gaining an advantage' are in fact a gaping get-out.

In the Indian qualifying session the white lines around the Buddh track barely were heeded by any driver, only seeming to have worth in offering the loosest guide of the direction that the cars should be going in. At several corners every car ran completely - with all four wheels - wide of the lines on the outside; some corners were similarly cut routinely. It looked terrible, and watching on I imagined someone viewing F1 for the first time in this session - they'd have been forgiven for wondering what on earth was going on.

But apparently it was all above board; there was no retribution for any driver. The FIA's Race Director Charlie Whiting, the sport's equivalent of the police officer, in the drivers' briefing on Friday night deemed that just about anything would go in qualifying. And when interviewed on television he shed a bit more light: upon being shown footage of drivers putting all four wheels off the track in previous years at this track he declared that in his view such lines simply could not result in an advantage, and that the design of the kerbs and AstroTurf strips outside of the track specifically ensure that this is so.

Further thoughts on the Indian Grand Prix

F1 in India - leaving the party early?
A highly populous country. And one identified as one of the world's major growing 'new' markets. The potential's obvious right? And if you're a business seeking to establish yourself there then it's surely worth putting in some additional time and effort to try to get the massive rewards further down the line? You know, endeavours over and above the minimum in terms of promoting yourself, making yourself known and the like? And equally it makes sense to persevere, not to walk away at the first sign of resistance? Of course, it's unreasonable to think that you'll crack the country immediately. Right?

Wrong. Well, wrong if you occupy the upside-down world of F1 anyway.

F1 might have paid its last visit to India
Credit: Dell Inc. / CC
The Indian Grand Prix is not on next year's F1 calendar, and despite the organisers insisting otherwise many reckon that last weekend's visit - just F1's third - will be the sport's last for the foreseeable future. And it rather disturbs me the regularity that I have encountered those seeming entirely sanguine at this: that the race wasn't worth the trouble, that it was ill-starred from the outset, that F1 is justified in turning its back, that the sport would never get any traction in this the ultimate cricket-loving country. Some even get close to 'good riddance'. Such sentiments are however in my view at best extremely short-sighted. I can only believe that such people have not considered precisely what potential F1 is walking away from.

As noted in my race preview, the Indian event has had problems, most regrettably a lack of Government support (be it in finance or goodwill), the Hampton Court Maze-like bureaucracy that has to be navigated as well as the levels of taxation claimed, both related to the classification of the event as 'entertainment' rather than 'sport' (titter ye not). That the Grand Prix just passed was threatened with 11th hour cancellation by a court petition over alleged unpaid taxes was certainly embarrassing also.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Further thoughts on the the Indian Grand Prix

The most valuable man in Formula One
Martin Brundle after the Indian race called him 'the most valuable man in Formula One'. And not for nothing, last weekend he increased his personal count of world championship crowns to 20, claimed in a mere 22 season spell and with three separate teams. He's not a driver, nor is he a team boss. Heck with this attempt to create tension, you've probably long since worked out who I'm on about: one Adrian Newey, Red Bull's Technical Director.

The days of an F1 car being the creation of one guy at a drawing board are long in the past; modern design teams encompass scores of people and Newey more than anyone resists the idea that - at Red Bull or anywhere else he's been - it's all about him. But even with this the magic dust that Newey sprinkles is obvious; for various reasons he more than deserves to detain us for a few paragraphs.

Adrian Newey - an astonishing man
with astonishing achievements
Credit: Morio / CC
Of course, I was cheating ever so slightly with the championships total above, in that Newey unlike a driver can aim for two crowns per year (drivers' and constructors'). But close to a 50% strike rate is not to be sniffed at - not even Schumi matches it (though he wasn't too far off pre-comeback). And even the equivalent totals of other revered technical heads from F1 history pale somewhat: Colin Chapman has 13 championships; Mauro Forghieri 11; Ross Brawn 16; Rory Byrne 14. It doesn't seem hyperbole to state that Newey is F1's best and most remarkable technical brain ever. Bar none.

And his title total has been accumulated despite a conspicuous fallow period. It seems scarcely believable, but for the whole of the 2000-2009 decade for Newey there was not a single title. There were of course mitigating circumstances: he was up against the mighty Ferrari 'dream team' for much of it; moreover Newey and McLaren were hardly helped during this period by many of Newey's ideas being shot down by the FIA, some before they'd even been raced (including something akin to KERS long before it became famous). This was the same FIA that just so happened to have a close relationship with the Scuderia at the time, as well as a highly adversarial one with McLaren's head honcho Ron Dennis. We found out some time later that the Italian team had a technical regulation veto too (and indeed still does). Not that I draw conclusions from this, you understand.

Further thoughts on the Indian Grand Prix

Bulls' run
It's been anticipated for a good while now, and in India title double four indeed fell the way of the Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull partnership. Their preponderance may be familiar by now. It may even be wearisome. It almost certainly is predictable. But it cannot be denied. Nor can it be belittled. Contemporary F1 is their time and emphatically so.

And it's tempting to ask where it all might end. That's not to wish ill on them, more that it's an inevitability. After all, that is the way of the world and not just of F1. As George Harrison once noted: all things must pass.

A familiar sight in recent times
Photo: Octane Photography
Looking at history for more probable sources of this indicates that at least as often as opponents defeat a dominant team, the dominant team in large part defeats itself. Achieving success in F1 is difficult. Sustaining success is doubly so. As Oscar Wilde once opined: 'There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it.' To put this more into terms directly applicable to F1 we turn to Jackie Stewart: 'Undoubtedly there is an infectious disease which afflicts every World Champion and team, and it’s been going on for years. It's not right to say that the guy who's champion loses his edge, or that the designer relaxes, the mechanics lose interest of whatever. But somewhere along the line these things occur - I'm talking about decimal points but they add up.'

Sunday 27 October 2013

Indian GP Report: Seb does it his way

And now, the end (of F1 in 2013) is near, and so we face the final curtain. And more, much more than this, Seb did it his way.

As expected, the 2013 driver's championship dropped definitively today in Sebastian Vettel's favour. As we probably also should have foreseen Seb went full gun after the Indian Grand Prix win even though it was much more the minimum he required to cruise safely over the title line. It seems to be the only way Seb knows. And he didn't waver from his path even after most of the small amount of lingering tension over the championship's destination evaporated in the early laps.

Sebastian Vettel did indeed clinch title number four
today, and did so in fine style
Photo: Octane Photography
It was an unusually madcap race (by recent standards) at the Buddh International Circuit, with the big gap between the two available tyre compounds' durability resulting in variable, jumbled fare. Various highly divergent strategies were enacted, with the 'net' order not all that clear for much of the way. It applied even to Seb, as while he took his standard pole on soft tyres there were a couple of potential 'tortoises' further down threatening Seb's 'hare', in particular his team mate Mark Webber and his one championship rival (in the loosest sense) Fernando Alonso lurking in the pack, starting on mediums.

But in that way we've long ago got used to whatever the circumstances or strategies Seb makes the best of it absolutely by blitzing the timing screens, with purple sector following purple sector. Today in that sense was like groundhog day, even though he pitted at the end of lap 2 to discard his soft tyres and dropped into the pack he continued to bear down on victory like a heat seeking missile, with decisive overtakes and rapid pace. Webber, pretty much alone, did look to be threatening his supremacy for much of the first half of the race via his unorthodox approach. But then before you knew it both had made their final stops at around the two-thirds mark and Seb was 12 seconds to the good and couldn't be caught.

Saturday 26 October 2013

Buddh Qualifying: One of Davids and Goliath

Sebastian Vettel on pole, and by a street. A mere seven tenths of a second quicker than the next guy. Displaying all of his usual swagger and precision over a single lap. It's merely a continuation of recent form in 2013 - indeed his form at the Buddh International Circuit in India more generally - wherein Seb's had the place all to himself? Possibly so, but this time there's a little more room for doubt. Seb has one or two conspicuous threats to his Indian Grand Prix supermacy, lurking further down the grid. A couple of relative Davids seeking to strike down modern F1's Goliath.

Sebastian Vettel is comfortably on pole again,
but has he a bit more to think about this time?
Photo: Octane Photography
As Malcolm Gladwell outlined recently, in the world today thee equivalent of David beating Goliath happens more often than we might think, but for David to beat Goliath then David must do something different to him - just as in the Biblical account David beat Goliath by shedding his heavy, restrictive armour and instead of partaking in a sword-fight with Goliath chose to sling stones at him. If David plays Goliath at the same game then he'll probably lose. And so it was today: just as David did so both Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso recognised Vettel's superiority in normal circumstances and are seeking to prevail via an unconventional strategy.

And it's all down to the familiar pariah of the Pirelli tyres. Pirelli consciously after the rather tepid Bridgestone-type one-stop race of 12 months ago at Buddh shed some conservatism this year by bringing the soft and medium tyre. And in running here the soft tyre while fast has also proved fragile, many cars not being able to proceed for more than a handful of laps at a time before the much-dreaded 'cliff'. Spanner meet works.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Buddh Preview: Out of India?

F1 is like life lived on fast-forward. One can go from being the next big thing to being a no-hoper cast onto the scrap heap in the space of time wherein most of us don't get from being a babe-in-arms to starting nursery. It's the way with drivers, and increasingly it seems - with the modern F1 calendar's state of near-perpetual flux - that it's the way with venues too.

And so it is with the Indian Grand Prix. Just two years ago when the sport rocked in for the first time all were brimmed with eager anticipation; the importance of the Indian market and the potential rewards of F1 cracking it being lost on no one. Yet before you know it such glad confident morning is long in the past, and plenty expect that this weekend will in fact mark F1's final visit to the Buddh International Circuit.

Will this weekend be F1's last visit to the
Buddh International Circuit?
Credit: Dell Inc / CC
It's a real pity, as the place has a lot going for it. It is an event that cannot simply be pigeon holed as a typical new venue in the sport's eastward shift. There's nothing of the usual Government viewing an F1 race as some form of national branding here, the circuit and event was instead a private enterprise, with much of the push from individuals with motorsport passion, and indeed Government support of just about any description is absent. Perhaps not unrelated, Grands Prix here have always had a welcome bottom-up rather than top-down feel, with a local enthusiasm, promotion and welcome which put most of the sport's recent new eastern outposts to shame. The turnout was good too - 95,000 spectators attending on race day in the first visit in 2011, and while the 2012 numbers didn't quite match it the crowd figure remained creditable, and still dwarfed that of most other new-fangled Grands Prix. The accompanying talk throughout was rich on using the F1 race as a stimulant to establish a highly welcome grass roots motorsport structure in the country too.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

1 - Film Review: Not just another F1 film

Yet another F1 film release? Right in the wheel tracks of the blockbuster successes of Senna and Rush, a documentary and a theatrical film respectively? Just like them based on the sport's past? What on earth can it offer over and above these? Well, in the case of 1, rather a lot as it turns out.

Even above and beyond the challenges outlined in the opening paragraph, the film-makers of 1 - a new film about the history of F1 - hardly could have asked for a more daunting set of objectives. Max Mosley told the film's director Paul Crowder at the project's outset that if he could 'capture why he's devoted 40 years of his life to F1 then he'll have succeeded'. In essence, the makers felt that their mission was to capture the essence of this the pinnacle of motor sport. Its glamour, its pace, its danger, and everything else besides. No mean feat.

Despite what it says on the tin though 1 isn't really a history of F1. Not exactly anyway. But nevertheless it can be said to have gone a long way to meeting its haughty mission statement.

Martin Brundle starts
 and ends the story
Credit: greenmashup / CC
The film starts not in the beginning, but on the starting grid of the 1996 Australian Grand Prix. Perhaps not the most obvious choice, but its reasoning soon becomes clear. The animated buzz of the assembled crowd, the rich colours resultant of the full-beam Melbourne sunshine, as well as the mass of team members and assorted hangers on crawling over the assembled cars - all in eager anticipation of the race, and season, start - are familiar. As is the gradual, aching build up of tension, eventually to be released as the cars are unleashed like feral beasts when the red light goes out.

But then...not long after we had a spectacular accident: Martin Brundle got his braking wrong and cartwheeled over several cars, his machine disintegrating as it did so. The car, by now a heap of wreckage, came to rest upside down in a gravel bed, and the seconds of time wherein there is no movement from the cockpit seem to stretch on like hours. All of the harrowing accidents, some fatal, that took place within the previous 24 months suddenly seem scarily redolent. Yet, before you know it Brundle emerges, in his own words 'without a bruise on his body' and then can be seen - accompanied by the roar of the crowd - hot-footing it down the pit lane to find Sid Watkins in order to get the OK to take the restart.

Monday 21 October 2013

Austrian Grand Prix To Return: What This Means For Your Formula One Calendar - a guest post by Adam Stevens

The Austrian Grand Prix, last won by the legendary Michael Schumacher in 2003, is set to return after 11 years out of the calendar.

This will help make the Formula One calendar host 22 races in 2014, something which fans will be delighted with but will leave racing teams horrified. Teams have been worried that the amount of races will reduce the quality of the races and have been hoping to have one or two races dropped from the calendar.

Bernie Ecclestone, president and CEO of Formula One Management, has previously said that 20 races is a sensible limit for F1, which implies his intention to drop races from the packed calendar for 2014.

Austria will host the return of their Grand Prix race on the 22nd June 2014 at the former A1-Ring, now Red Bull Ring, in Spielberg.

Friday 18 October 2013

Further thoughts on the Japanese Grand Prix

Webber's parting gift
Let's end this round of Further Thoughts... back where we started it, with Mark Webber.

The F1 community doesn't agree on many things, but one matter on which there is something close to consensus (or as close to consensus as you'll likely find herein) is that they'd like Webber to win a race before he bids F1 farewell at the year's end. It would be a fitting finish for the popular, hard-charging Australian, especially as he hasn't yet topped the podium this campaign. Even Christian Horner got in on the act after the Suzuka race: 'Mark got pretty close (to a win) today, it would be great to see Mark win a race before the end of the year as well.'

Many hope that Webber gets a win
before the end of the year
Photo: Octane Photography
Some have gone further to speculate that the Red Bull team might indeed engineer this outcome, given four races remain and the two championships effectively are bought and paid for. Perhaps even, a few say, it would be a form of pay back for Malaysia and all that. But whatever is the case, while I too hope sincerely that Webber can squeeze another win out of his F1 career, I hope just as sincerely that it is not one conspicuously handed to him. Webber is a proud man, and such a 'gesture' - however well-intended - would be the final insult.

I'm put in mind of a couple of instances of such from years past. In one, Ayrton Senna on the day that he clinched title number three in Suzuka in 1991 when leading comfortably on the last lap came almost to a stop on the run to the flag out of the final chicane, to allow his team mate Gerhard Berger to win. Seemingly it was a 'thank you' for Berger's support, and indeed the Austrian hadn't won a race for McLaren at that point. But however benignly it was meant, for Berger it wasn't a great deal like winning anything.

Further thoughts on the Japanese Grand Prix

Esteban emergent
I've surpassed myself and managed to squeeze yet another team mate vs. team mate matter out of the Suzuka race. Well, a variation of one anyway.

Much of the focus afforded on the Sauber team in recent times has been on Nico Hulkenberg, naturally. But less widely noted has been that the other Sauber pilot has been coming onto a game too.

Esteban Gutierrez - coming onto a game
Photo: Octane Photography
Esteban Gutierrez arrived in the sport this year with a rather (in my view) mean 'pay driver' tag. OK, his access to Mexican wealth no doubt oiled the wheels and his GP2 form was a little patchy, but third place in the GP2 table last year, in addition to GP3 and Formula BMW championships, at least suggested he wasn't an idiot. But for much of his freshman year in F1 the only thing that he distinguished himself by was an egregious error in the Chinese race, driving into the back of Adrian Sutil. Otherwise, it was mediocre runs and finishes far from the top ten pretty much all round it seemed.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Further thoughts on the Japanese Grand Prix

Massa sticks it to the man
It turned out that the Suzuka race was a good one for intra-team polemics. Red Bull we know about, as do we know about the potential changing of the Lotus guard. But there was one more in there as - you might say finally - Felipe Massa during Sunday's proceedings defied the Ferrari phone call to let his team mate Fernando Alonso pass him (appropriate, given 'polemic' is a word which many at Ferrari seem to have a particular fondness for).

At Suzuka Felipe Massa refused
to cede to Fernando Alonso
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Such team orders at the Scuderia aren't new as we know, given that Alonso's almost always the faster in races (and by extension is the one who makes much stronger challenges for wins and championships) but not always the faster in qualifying. Nevertheless for all that we might say 'good on Felipe' (indeed, judging by an internet trawl, that has been most fans' reaction), it's odd that the Ferrari team is making so little of it. The boss Stefano Domenicali was at pains to play it all down subsequently as well as insist that Massa retains his full support; the intended beneficiary Fernando Alonso was similarly emollient. Let's not forget that for most of us nakedly defying the instructions of our boss would likely be rewarded with the sack for gross misconduct (N.B. this is said purely for illustration; I'm not advocating Massa's instant dismissal, before anyone shouts). And Ferrari isn't necessarily the first team in the paddock you'd look for leniency from.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Further thoughts on the Japanese Grand Prix

What's up with Kimi?
Kimi Raikkonen is popular; we know this.

The reservoir of goodwill that he can draw on his deep and plentiful, much more so than that of any other driver in modern F1. Criticism of him can be slow to manifest. To borrow from what Philippe Auclair once said of Michel Platini: to question him is something like walking into a Greenpeace convention wearing a ‘Dolphins are bastards’ T-shirt.

Kimi Raikkonen - struggling in recent weeks
Photo: Octane Photography
And probably Kimi is particularly grateful for all of this right now, as in recent weeks things haven't gone too well for him. In the Japanese race he finished a mere 37 seconds after his team mate Romain Grosjean - he wasn't just pipped in other words - and without much in the way of mitigating circumstance to explain the difference. Moreover Suzuka made it the third weekend on the bounce that Kimi has been plain outpaced by his stable mate pretty much for the duration. It was papered over to a degree by good results in the end in Singapore and Korea, but in each case he was helped to a degree by the race coming to him somewhat, particularly via a mid-race safety car (it wiped out a 25 second deficit to Grosjean in Yeongam for example).

Of course Grosjean's up-thrust of form is part of this, but still the difference suggests that Kimi's lost something at the same time. And to return to the point made where we came in: you suspect rather that if it was, um, one or two certain other drivers being beaten by their intra-team yardstick by this far and for this long we might have heard a bit more about it by now.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Further thoughts on the Japanese Grand Prix

Sabotage? Or a mirage?
So, what was it? Genius? Or a cynical ploy to undermine the efforts of the 'lackey' driver to the end of helping the 'favoured son' win?

Unless you've been up a mountain, or in a cupboard (and you are an F1 fan), then you'll know what I'm talking about. Suzuka, Red Bull and race strategy. That, after Mark Webber had led Sebastian Vettel for the first half of the Japanese Grand Prix, both albeit in Romain Grosjean's wake, the Red Bull team split their ticket. Webber was switched to a three-stop strategy; Vettel remained on a two-stopper. And in the end Vettel won.

Mark Webber - bewildered after the Suzuka race
Photo: Octane Photography
So, was there foul play? Well, the first thing to say is that, if we can park the whole Vettel and Webber and their respective statuses within the Red Bull team narrative, what we had in Suzuka was brilliant team strategy from the Milton Keynes squad. It effectively put a pincer on leader (and Red Bull's only rival) Grosjean, leaving him under attack on two fronts, and his Lotus team floundering on which to cover. It gave both Red Bulls clear air to exploit - on a track where passing is difficult and turbulent air in a car's wake punishing on the tyres - as well as resulted in Grosjean making his final stop earlier than he'd have liked, which in turn allowed both Red Bulls to pass him on fresher tyres during his extended final stint. Thus a probable one-three, maybe even a two-three, was turned into a one-two for Red Bull.

Sunday 13 October 2013

Criminal records? Why just about all F1 records are problematic

The Japanese Grand Prix of 2013 was an important one. Or at least it was for the statisticians, as an all-time F1 record dropped. One that for much of history has been considered a highly valued mark.

Fernando Alonso, as has been anticipated for a while, beat the haughty Michael Schumacher's record for most points scored in F1 ever, now having a total of 1,571 compared with Schumi's 1,566. And yet with it has come a conspicuous round of guffawing. The points total doesn't mean anything, they said; the systems have changed so much over time so as to make comparisons meaningless. Alonso himself however - albeit with something of a glint in his eye - declared it 'great' to set the new mark.

Fernando Alonso claimed F1's
all-time points record in Japan
Photo: Octane Photography
But really, is it so unreasonable for Alonso to be pleased with this one? Or, to flip the question around, could such charges of non-comparability be laid before just about any F1 record? Don't they all at least somewhere involve imperfect comparisons? Is it not the case that they all require qualification?

All sports evolve over time of course, so just about any sporting record necessarily involves an element of imperfect comparison. But I struggle to think of another activity that has changed as much as F1 has from generation to generation, and therefore is so apt for the numbers and historical marks to be taken with not so much a pinch of salt but rather a trailer-load of it.

Japanese GP Report: Seb and his strategy get smart

Today's Japanese Grand Prix showed the value of the one about not judging a book by its cover. Yes - Sebastian Vettel won. Yes - it's his fifth win on the bounce. Yes - that now makes it seven wins from the last nine (and it'd be eight from nine but for a dud gearbox in Silverstone). But today it was different. Today was fine fare; today Seb really had to work for it.

Sebastian Vettel emerged triumphant once again
Photo: Octane Photography
Indeed, for a lot of the way it looked a lot like he wouldn't get the win at all, or even second place for that matter. From second on the grid Vettel's start wasn't the best. Fortunately for him, Webber's wasn't either, and it was left to the astonishing Romain Grosjean to lead from the off, followed by Webber and Vettel in that order. Lewis Hamilton would have been among them too, but for tagging his rear wheel on Seb's front wing on the way through, which resulted in a puncture and then his retirement not long after (and Seb was relieved to find out his wing wasn't damaged).

And so it stayed that way for a while, Grosjean-Webber-Vettel, evenly spaced and way ahead of the rest. From an early stage the Japanese Grand Prix was a game for three players. Just like last week, Grosjean was the only one who could challenge the Bulls, and unlike last week Webber - not impeded by a grid penalty - was right in the mix. Yet it wasn't at all clear what he or Seb could do to usurp the prodigious Frenchman.

Saturday 12 October 2013

New F1 Times article: Rush 2 - What happened next for Lauda and Hunt

Some of you might have noticed this by now, but in case you didn't I made my debut over at The F1 Times the other day, writing about a possible Rush 2. In other words, I looked at what happened to James Hunt and Niki Lauda after the Rush film leaves us, at the dramatic conclusion of the 1976 season with the two protagonists on top of the world.

And it's perhaps not a tale you'd expect, as within three years both drivers had walked away from the sport without a backwards glance (pretty much literally), having become also-rans. I look what happened and how; the article can be read here.

I'm particularly proud of it, if I'm allowed to comment on such things...

Suzuka Qualifying: Webber's redemption

F1 does this. Just at the very point you think you can say with certainty what's going to happen, it doesn't. In advance almost no one could see past the Red Bulls for Suzuka supremacy, and almost by extension that for Sebastian Vettel. Today the Red Bulls did indeed tape the front row for the Japanese Grand Prix - which was expected. But it'll be Mark Webber who will start ahead of the two - which was not expected.

Mark Webber took his first pole of the year
Photo: Octane Photography
Yes, you could argue that Sebastian Vettel had an imperfect time of it - with a KERS failure in Q3 as well as missing much of FP3 this morning with a similar problem - indeed Webber acknowledged as much. But Webber was more than close enough to take advantage which is all that you can ask.

Always honest, Webber described it as 'a little bit of a hollow pole position', given Seb's problems, but he's probably doing himself a disservice, at least to some extent. And Seb, to his credit, didn't seek to make excuses.

'We had a problem this morning but I don't think it made a difference' said Seb. 'Congratulations to Mark, I think he did a very good lap. We did have an issue in qualifying but I'm not a big fan of "without this, with this, if this..."'

Wednesday 9 October 2013

Suzuka Preview: Turning Japanese

You know what they say: little things can make a big difference.

If you sit down and list them, there are lots of parallels between last weekend's slightly tepid affair at Yeongam and what awaits us this weekend. We're still in the extended final acts of a long season, wherein we appear to be in a state of drift, with the destination of title honours seemingly inevitable and most competitors now focussing on 2014. Like Yeongam the track is in a remote location. Like then, we will be racing at a track at which Sebastian Vettel on form is close to unbeatable, and for this reason and others even in advance of cars setting rubber on tarmac for first practice the chances are that only the very unusual will deny him victory. Like a week ago too the race might not be choc-a-block with overtaking.

And yet it could hardly be more different: as this weekend we'll be at Suzuka.

There's nothing quite like Suzuka
Credit: Michael Elleray / CC
Ask any driver, or any fan for that matter, about their favourite circuits and for most Suzuka will be ranked as among the very best of the very best. Little wonder too: the layout is dominated by rapid, challenging and snaking turns, the sort that separate the great from the good, the sort that would most likely be laughed out of court were they proposed from scratch these days, the sort that remind the real racers why they got into the sport in the first place. Very much unlike the modern circuit type there aren't vast expanses of run-off areas for drivers to veer into on their racing line and to use as a benign get-out if they get it wrong. Therefore precision at Suzuka is vital and even a slight error can end your chances. Combine this with, very much unlike Yeongam, the large and enthusiastic support in attendance (they're respectful too, unlike some of the behaviour in evidence this year) and you can see why the fraternity approaches the weekend in a much more glad state of mind than they did seven days ago.

Further thoughts on the Korean Grand Prix

Hembery crosses a line
Regular readers of this blog (hello to both of you) will know by now that I've been a consistent supporter of what might loosely be termed the current 'Pirelli formula'. I also more generally have a lot of sympathy for the Italian company's plight, in that it's having to achieve something incredibly intricate and moreover do so with help from the competitors rather lacking in terms of agreeing on testing and the like. And - what strikes me as an obvious point though it seems to pass a disturbingly large number of people by - whatever you think of the 'Pirelli formula' ultimately the tyre company is only doing what it's told.

Talk of the Pirelli tyres was again on many lips in Korea
Photo: Octane Photography
Therefore, when Fernando Alonso complained over the Korean Grand Prix weekend that the tyres available there didn't allow him to push, while he's of course entitled to his opinion personally I didn't agree with his sentiment. But still, I agreed even less with the retort of Pirelli's Paul Hembery, describing it as 'disappointing and below the standards you would expect from such a champion', and even worse: 'I can only suggest he goes to ask the soon-to-be four-times champion how to get the best from the same tyres'.

While I've always found Hembery's frankness refreshing this in my view crossed a line. Indeed it crossed a few of them. The comments seemed petty, gratuitous, intended to wound, as well as got into a matter (i.e. Alonso and Vettel's respective merits) that with his supplier hat on was none of his business, and inappropriate for him to get into. And what's more the comments were highly disrespectful. They'd have been disrespectful when said of any F1 driver, but were especially so of someone who by consensus is the most revered driver of his age, as well as is - as it happens - extremely good at getting performance out of the limited resource Pirellis.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Further thoughts on the Korean Grand Prix

A local inconvenience
Perhaps the aspect of the 2013 Korean Grand Prix that will live longest in the memory was not an act by any of the competitors. As you'll no doubt be aware by now, on lap 38 of the Yeongam race we had the bizarre sight of the pack at racing speeds turning onto the main straight to find a fire recovery jeep before them, tooling towards turn 3 to assist putting out Mark Webber's aflame Red Bull in the run-off area. It's the sort of thing we thought long in the past in F1's ultra safety-conscious age. And for all of the titters that were raised in response the consequences of a racing car colliding with such a vehicle, presumably getting underneath it with its open cockpit exposed, don't bear thinking about. It's probably just as well that the cars came upon it on a long straight, with plenty of time to see it and react.

Mark Webber's Korean race came to a fiery end
Photo: Octane Photography
Sadly in response to it all it seems plenty haven't been able to resist playing the 'blame the naive locals' game. Ted Kravitz for one on his post-race 'notebook' programme said that it all was 'a sign that there isn't really a motorsport heritage in this country'. And he wasn't the only one: Jonathan Legard said roughly the same thing on the BBC's Chequered Flag podcast: 'This goes back to the fact that Korea does not have a racing history...that did not reflect well on the organisation'. Similar sentiments have been expressed frequently on social media too.

But is this fair? On one hand, although the initial word given to the media after the race was that the jeep was released as a result of a unilateral decision by a local Chief Fire Marshal, this was wrong. In fact, it was a mistake the FIA race control made all by itself (and, do you know what, I'd really love to know why the 'blame the locals' story was given to the media in the first place, and by whom). The error was that race control gave the OK to release the vehicle mistakenly believing it was stationed at turn 3, rather than at turn 1. It seems a rather fundamental error, as at any motor sport event it's part of race control's responsibility to know where the recovery vehicles are positioned, indeed you'll see the clerk of the course do a lap in a course car before the first session of the day to check this among other things.

Further thoughts on the Korean Grand Prix

Perez's predicament
After the excitement of the Korean Grand Prix was over I amused myself by taking a look at the latest 2013 drivers' standings (yes, I am tragic). One thing in particular leapt out at me: the positioning of Sergio Perez. He's totalled a mere 23 points, which for illustration is eight fewer than Nico Hulkenberg (who's spent most of the year in a recalcitrant Sauber), as well as is shy of the totals of either Force India pilot and only five clear of Daniel Ricciardo.

Even more absurdly, he's accumulated barely a third of the points he managed over last season for Sauber, 65, before his supposed step-up. That year too he could claim three podium finishes including one near miss of victory; this campaign his best result is a sixth place. But, I can hear Perez-defenders shout, a lot of this can be attributed to the McLaren MP4-28, which has not been a good one. His intra-team yardstick comparison however isn't flattering either. Button has well more than double Checo's score, 58, and is also up 8-6 in qualifying; this is Button remember, not known as a demon over a single lap, someone who has started from pole only once in the last four-and-a-half years (despite being at the sharp end more generally for most of that time). Some have even whispered that Button - without Hamilton pushing him along and with an uncompetitive machine - isn't quite at the top of his form right now either. And even at the best of times he's perhaps more of a number one-and-a-half rather than a number one in the Alonso, Hamilton or Vettel mold. If Perez has designs on being all that you'd think he'd be a bit closer.

Sergio Perez's season has been a disappointing one
Photo: Octane Photography
I'd always thought of McLaren's choice of Perez to replace Lewis Hamilton on its driving staff for this year as an odd one: even last season when he could boast some strong results (if you don't believe me see here and here). Yes, the three podium runs of 2012 were impressive but you wondered how much of them were down to a magic touch on the delicate Pirelli tyres from the C31 if voodoo-like factors aligned. Results otherwise were patchy, there were a few errors, particularly in the rounds after his McLaren contract was signed. Word in the paddock had it that Sauber wasn't all that thrilled with him either, feeling that the car was capable of more than he tended to deliver. And perhaps now Ferrari's reluctance to promote him to the big team - Perez was part of the Scuderia's young driver's programme - makes sense. Perhaps its insouciance over losing him does too.

Monday 7 October 2013

Further thoughts on the Korean Grand Prix

Romain's renaissance
It goes to show that we should never write a driver off. Particularly not one with the fundamental of raw pace.

Rewind to earlier this year, and it looked liked Romain Grosjean was well into his long goodbye from F1. The second half of his 2012 campaign was the stuff of nightmares: becoming the first F1 driver in almost two decades to get a race ban, thanks to triggering a multi-car pile up at Spa; then he took out Mark Webber at the first turn of the Suzuka race and, led by the Australian, it was open season on Grosjean afterwards, and this seemed to destroy whatever remnants of confidence remained. His driving became tentative, the speed of earlier in the year (wherein in often plain beat Kimi Raikkonen of all people in the same car) shorn apparently, and it added to a campaign that, despite there being good pace on show, included a string of incidents with other cars, particularly early in races.

Romain Grosjean's second half of the 2013
season has been a revelation
Photo: Octane Photography
And the 2013 campaign seemed merely a continuation: error-ridden and almost never getting near to his stable mate in the early rounds. Things reached a nadir in Monaco: Grosjean shunting twice in practice then driving into Daniel Ricciardo in the race. Some thought that Lotus reserve Davide Valsecchi was dusting down his overalls in preparation for being brought off the subs' bench mid-year. But I for one can rather immodestly claim that I cut Grosjean a bit more slack than many did, taking the view that (although it sounds like a cliché by now) for as long as the raw laptime is in there somewhere a driver deserves a bit longer to get it right than most. Indeed, even within his Monaco long dark night of the soul he showed this innate skill, getting out on track with minutes to spare in Q1 (a result of his FP3 smash) and immediately banging in a great lap time, in the most challenging circumstances of a drying track in Monaco, to make it into the next session.

Further thoughts on the Korean Grand Prix

Incredible driver, incredibly shunned
Sebastian Vettel won the Korean Grand Prix at a canter, but as far as most were concerned there was only one star of the show, and without intending disrespect it wasn't Seb. 'Why has Nico Hulkenberg not been snapped up by a top team?' was a common refrain during and after the Yeongam race. And so far as I can tell there isn't an answer.

Nico Hulkenberg has been impressing us in his F1 career
Photo: Octane Photography
The quality of the Hulk's run on Sunday was hardly new either as - after an iffy first half season at Williams in 2010 - he has impressed us pretty much constantly in his time at the sport's pinnacle, as well as he entered F1 with an exemplary junior formulae CV. His drive to fourth place in the Sauber in Korea was simply a reminder that he looks to be a driver good at everything: assured, confident, robust but fair when wheel-to-wheel, avoids errors, has an intelligence which he's able to apply in the cockpit (did you hear him after the race say that he was happy to let Hamilton pass him at turn one, as he knew Lewis would get marbles on his tyres and thus he'd be able to pass him back?). And most importantly of all he's very quick and consistently so.

The F1 drivers' market doesn't always make sense; this to a large extent is inevitable when you have a strictly limited number of available seats which each become vacant but sporadically. Being in the right place at the right time therefore can be vital. Some drivers have had to wait years for a path to open up to a drive worthy of their talent - such as Keke Rosberg (and in his case his belated step-up owed a lot to chance). By extension there will have been plenty of worthy pilots who never got the chance they deserved, many of whom we'd be utterly oblivious as to what they could have done.

Sunday 6 October 2013

Korean GP Report: Drift

I think we've seen this film before. This Korean Grand Prix, in terms of the fight for victory, didn't do anything to challenge the previous direction of travel, it simply continued previous momentum.

Sebastian Vettel cruised to the win again
Photo: Octane Photography
Yes, Sebastian Vettel took another win in Yeongam today, his fourth triumph on the bounce as well as his eighth of the year. And in that rather familiar way of his the result didn't look at all in question from the off, quite literally. The insulting superiority of Singapore wasn't quite in evidence - Seb only won by four seconds and indeed his lead rarely extended to much more - but somehow there seemed as little doubt about who'd be in front at the end. 'Disciplined' was how his boss Christian Horner described the drive. It was the most appropriate adjective.

And what's more the result put Seb on the brink of his latest drivers' title for the collection: now being 77 points ahead with just 125 available. He can win the title next week in Suzuka, but somehow the debate seems irrelevant. It's reaching the point that even if he was to sit out the remaining rounds you wouldn't bet a great deal on anyone behind making up the deficit.

Those rivals you feel rather gave up the ghost effectively a while back. F1 in 2013 has established an unmistakable sense of drift. Drift towards 2014; drift towards title number four for Seb.

Saturday 5 October 2013

Yeongam Qualifying: The same, only different

So, Sebastian Vettel's on pole. And while he didn't sit out the final run à la Singapore, he could have done, as no one could beat his initial Q3 mark. Just like last time then. Yawn.

Well, not quite. The opposition gave Seb a lot more of a challenge in Korea's qualifying session than they did two weeks ago. The young German seems as usual the man to beat, but this time there was none of the borderline insulting superiority that was on show under the Singapore lights. He had to abort his final quick lap, due to an inconveniently placed Kimi Raikkonen, but Seb it transpired had pace in hand. Even the man himself, with all of his usual sang-froid, described things in qualifying as 'fairly close'.

Sebastian Vettel claimed yet another pole position
Photo: Octane Photography
The Mercedes were the closest of all, and Lewis Hamilton always seems to be in good form around this track. And so it was this time as he was best of the rest, with a quickest time a couple of tenths over Seb's. He'll thus line up alongside the Red Bull on row one tomorrow.

Some hoping for variation from the ongoing Vettel-parade point out that the pole-sitter has never won around this Yeongam track. Without wishing to act as bad fairy at Sleeping Beauty's christening though that is something of a statistical quirk, reflecting that Seb - invariably the pace-setter here - was pipped for pole unexpectedly in the last two visits (and had reasserted himself within a few corners of both race starts) as well as that his engine went pop while leading in the other. But there is a little bit in it, as on the two straights early in the Singapore lap whoever is second has a good opportunity to slipstream past whoever is leading on lap 1. And if Lewis does get ahead tomorrow he seems to have enough to give us a good race. Lewis is hopeful too: 'I felt like I got the most out of the car...I really hope that tomorrow we're able to fight with them (Vettel/Red Bull)'.