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.

So far, so good. But when seeking to pitch its tent in India the F1 fraternity has encountered the country's legendary capacity for bureaucracy, which by making all concerned jump through a seemingly unending sequence of administrative hoops has by all accounts long since sapped whatever enthusiasm the paddock occupants had for the stop-off. Moreover - and probably more traumatically as far as the fraternity is concerned - there have also been disputes about the amount of money being claimed from the teams in taxation too. Some reports have further suggested that the promoter is in financial bother.

It all isn't well-timed either, as we've just entered a moment wherein there are far more race hosts (confirmed and potential) than there is an ideal number of calendar slots. India's been left off the 2014 calendar, apparently to return in 2015 with an early-season slot. But it remains to be seen if it's just F1's peculiar way of letting them down gently (many think it is).

And perhaps these problems have revealed the flipside too of the lack of top-down Government involvement, that such blessing and goodwill from on high can also make a lot of these sorts of problems go away; make apparently solid rock-like obstacles become as fluid as water as if by magic.

It's nearly impossible to think that Sebastian Vettel
won't be world champion again come Sunday
Photo: Octane Photography
The Buddh International Circuit also has already developed a rather unfortunate reputation for not providing enthralling races. This is despite the fact that, rather like most Tilkedromes, its layout has been designed with overtaking specifically in mind: there's an ultra-extended (1.2km in length) straight book-ended by wide, sharp corners. And yet such overtaking here in both of F1's two visits so far has seemed scarce. Perhaps Buddh is just unfortunate: after all it takes place in the latter part of the year wherein the Pirelli effect provides fewer curveballs due to teams having a better understanding of the rubber (indeed last year's visit was in effect a Bridgestone race, with one-stoppers all round virtually), as well as that it's also the time of year that Sebastian Vettel tends to have to himself.

Ah yes, Sebastian Vettel. Even this far in advance, come Sunday afternoon it's difficult to envisage circumstances wherein he won't be a four-times world champion, adding the 2013 crown to his considerable collection. He only needs a fifth place so to do, and on recent form he can do that one-handed. And, oh yeah, Seb's never been beaten here. Heck, he's never so much as been headed here.

Plus, even if the worst happens and something strikes Seb down in the Indian race Fernando Alonso is required to come home in second place or better to keep the matter alive - in theory at least - for another week. Which on his recent form is no gimme.

Furthermore it's equally difficult to envisage circumstances if which Seb won't win the race on Sunday either. Like a lot of the Tilke-designed tracks it has a bit of everything: some quick turns that follow each other in rapid succession, some slower and more technical stuff, with both braking stability and good traction required. And as we've seen repeatedly such characteristics suit the Red Bull down to the ground. And with young Seb a cruise and collect to edge over the line to win the title is highly improbable: Seb you suspect will go full gun for the win, like he always does. If you don't believe me me, just think back to 2011 when he clinched the championship with a third place, and gave the outward impression that the fact irked him ever so slightly.

Romain Grosjean's recent form has been impressive
Photo: Octane Photography
In recent times, and on these sort of bit-of-everything tracks, it's only been Seb's stable-mate Mark Webber as well as Romain Grosjean in the Lotus that have held a candle to the haughty Vettel. Both again seem the most likely close contenders come the race, with Grosjean's recent form being particularly impressive in harness with his clearly fine-handling E21, which also suits the all rounder requirements of Buddh. Suzuka made it three rounds in a row wherein he's appeared to have the legs of Kimi Raikkonen, especially so in qualifying. If Buddh makes it four for him then a few more will sit up and take notice surely.

Lewis Hamilton has also been close in recent times, though perhaps more so in qualifying than the races (accepting that in Suzuka we never got to find out either way). He'll presumably do his formidable best as always, but in-race matters for Mercedes have been a bit iffy just laterally (see Nico Rosberg arguing with the team over the radio on the Singapore strategy, the curious decision to keep Lewis circulating on dud tyres in Korea, as well as releasing Rosberg into Sergio Perez's path after a pitstop in Japan). A nice clean race for that team will be more than welcome.

And as for the afore-mentioned Fernando Alonso? Ferrari seems to have been mid-slump recently. But on Sunday at least the Spaniard can be counted upon to make the very best of things. And Alonso's record here is good, he's never been off the podium and indeed last year he performed something akin to motor racing alchemy by splitting the Red Bulls on a day that nothing, least of all his Ferrari F2012, deserved to be near them.

While the Sauber has since Monza consistently been a factor near, and even among, the big boys. Presumably it will be again, the track characteristics being similar to Korea where it was particularly strong; its fine rear-end exhaust solution and rapid traction having plenty of opportunities at Buddh to show its mettle, such as in the many acceleration zones as well as the long Turn 10/11. Additionally, more and more, both Sauber drivers are showing potency.

As mentioned, the conservative tyre selection by Pirelli 12 months ago in effect gave us a Bridgestone-type race of yesteryear: wear and degradation were virtually no problem (evidenced by many setting their fastest lap on the last time around, suggesting there was plenty of performance left in them). This year it appears Pirelli has learned and has gone slightly softer: bringing the soft and medium rather than soft and hard of last year. If we're lucky we'll get similar fare to in Japan, with varying strategies playing themselves out. One-stoppers seem unlikely but perhaps some - those who are gentler on the tyres - will try two stints rather than one on the soft in their two-stopper.

But whatever the case it seems likely that this weekend will be an important one. Partly, as we know, Seb's title number four - only the fourth in history to achieve this as well as only the third to achieve them in succession - looks highly likely to drop. And also it'll most probably mark the farewell - and given everything a highly regrettable one - of F1 from India, at least for the time being.

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