Thursday 26 December 2013

Final thoughts on 2013: Dark matters

The 2013 F1 season was a year that promised much and in many ways disappointed. It was a year undermined by political intrigue, aggravation, sometimes scandal. A year that perhaps won't linger in the affections, aside from recollection of a driver and team in unison performing at the top of their respective games in taking the honours, a partnership that has been formidable for a while and was increasingly so as this campaign went on. We might have witnessed the team in some ways at its worst this season, but we also saw it at its very best.

And yet at the campaign's outset we were full of optimism, coming off a season wherein the fare were was more competitive and varied than had been so for a long while, and was played to a close and dramatic climax. There were not many reasons to think that things would be much different this time, yet we didn't to any great extent get more of the same, and worse the main thing that we did get more of was politics.

The Pirelli tyres dominated the discourse in early 2013
Photo: Octane Photography
The F1 fraternity is a fractious lot, and the sport can never be detached completely from disputes; the tendency merely has to be managed. But this campaign contained rather a lot to manage, and much flowed over the brim. The matter that dominated the discourse in the first half of the year - much more than any driver or team - were the dark matters of the Pirelli tyres. Dark in more ways than one.

Early in the 2013 season some noticed that the rubber, with Pirelli deliberately engineering degradation in, didn't allow drivers to push all the time. This really shouldn't have been a surprise, as that had been Pirelli's approach (at the behest of Formula One Management) since its return as the sport's supplier in 2011 in order to add a variable to the racing and to strategies. And as had also been also been its way it also this year went more extreme with the tyres than in the season before, given that each year the teams' tendency to get on top of the challenges as the season went on resulted in more tepid fare.

Saturday 21 December 2013

My Top Ten Drivers of 2013: The Rest...

Here are my views on those F1 drivers from 2013 who didn't make my top 10 ranking that I published a few days ago.

My top 10 drivers of 2013 can be read here.

There were two drivers that came closest to pipping Paul di Resta for tenth place in the 2013 ranking: Felipe Massa and Daniel Ricciardo.

Felipe Massa is yet another in the F1 fraternity who must feel like 12 months ago may as well be another age. It's terribly easy to forget now, but rewind back to when we had but two races down in this campaign and Felipe looked close to the top of his game, or at least much closer than he had for years. Then he'd just qualified ahead of his haughty stable mate Fernando Alonso four times on the spin (including from the previous year) - some of the overexcited talked of him 'getting under Alonso's skin'.

Photo: Octane Photography
All a long time ago, as I said. The Felipe feelgood factor unravelled fairly quickly, as is often his way given as F1 drivers go he's always seemed particularly vulnerable to 'letting his chin drop', to use the British parlance. And where it really started to go wrong for him was a Monaco weekend wherein he crashed spectacularly in practice (forcing him to sit out qualifying) and then managed to do close to identical in the race. This was the start of a dark cloud passing over his campaign under which errors were frequent, and he crashed in the next two rounds - qualifying in Canada and practice in Silverstone - both of which compromised him, and then in Germany he spun out of the race early on. Sure enough, come Monza Ferrari had informed him that after eight years driving for the Scuderia he would have to seek alternative employers next year.

To a large extent 2013 seemed merely a continuation of what had come before for Massa. Again he scored fewer than half of Alonso's points total; again there were errors; again he seemed to never be quicker than Alonso on a race day; again even when he was about as quick there would be spells in races wherein his pace would taper off unfathomably. However, after his departure was confirmed there was a mini-upturn, him looking roughly as quick as Alonso in Monza, Japan and Abu Dhabi as well as running ahead of the Spaniard for much of the way in each race. His run to fourth in India was good too. And his quali match up with his team mate was more than respectable, being 11-8 to Alonso. Furthermore Felipe's not giving up on the sport, as he's struck a deal to race a Williams next year. How he fares in a new environment, and away from Alonso's long shadow, will be fascinating to watch.

Daniel Ricciardo however is journeying in the opposite direction: doing enough with midfielders Toro Rosso to be selected to join the big league in a Red Bull for 2014. The move was accompanied by a certain amount of cynicism - Red Bull is just signing a rabbit that won't threaten Seb was the gist - but don't be caught thinking that the cynics have a monopoly on wisdom; there are reasons to think that the big team selected Ricciardo for all of the right reasons.

Monday 9 December 2013

My Top Ten Drivers of 2013

Here is my personal rating of the top ten F1 drivers of the 2013 season, seeking to take into account their performance under the circumstances they were in as well as the machinery that they had access to.

A run down of my views on the drivers who didn't make the top ten will follow in the next few days.

Photo: Octane Photography
1. Sebastian Vettel
There can only be one number one. The overarching plot line of the F1 year just passed was all about the latest steps forward made by the prodigious Sebastian Vettel, him further exploring the outer territory of what is required to be a complete F1 performer. In 2013 he was formidable.

As it was for everyone else for Seb it was a season of two halves: pre and post the mid-year Pirelli changes. Yet it's probably instructive that Vettel mastered both. Early in the year, even though the delicate Pirelli rubber didn't always suit, he quickly adopted the role of man to beat: incrementally establishing a clear championship lead via dominant wins when his machine allowed and sizeable point hauls when it didn't.

Then after the summer break Seb was on a pedestal; such was his clamp on first place that race weekends became strictly a battle over second place at the very most. Seb's path to victory was indeed familiar, yet devastating in its repeated execution: take pole with a stunning lap as if it's yours by right; blast off the line and be seconds clear in the opening laps with devastating pace enacted like flicking a switch; manage the gap to the rest and your limited-resource Pirellis from there; make any passes quickly and decisively; and still be at the front when the chequered flag falls. Familiar, yes. Predictable too. But no less impressive for that.

And in a year wherein he always seemed to be pressing, almost always was at the front, from him there were almost no mistakes. Seeking examples wherein he erred is revealing only in its paucity: tapping a wall and later running across the grass in Canada; slightly damaging his front wing against Jenson Button in Hungary; being slightly scrappy in Japan. But that's your lot from a 19-race season. And on the broader level it's possible that Seb never once threw away points this year; that every time he maximised the possible result. Whichever way you define it, his 2013 campaign was just about flawless.

Perhaps it said something that the only chink in his armour made this year was self-inflicted: that around Malaysia wherein Seb allowed his competitive instincts to get the better of him and he rather ambushed an unsuspecting team mate in Mark Webber, against team orders, to win. And his response - all apologetic in the immediate aftermath; unrepentant three weeks later - was bewildering. Perhaps it showed the limitations of seeking to maintain two rather disparate Sebastian Vettels: the smiling, cherubic media darling, and the ruthless self-seeker on-track.

Yet these days Sebastian Vettel is a driver without obvious weakness. He has stunning pace on a single lap as well as in races that he can summon at will. His brain power in managing a race and mental strength in repelling pressure and attempts at needle bear comparison with the very best in F1 history. No one in contemporary F1 works as hard as he; takes such a holistic approach. His overtakes - previously an area where he was criticised - are these days crisp and assured. Somehow after winning everything there is to win repeatedly his motivation and spontaneous joy in achievement appear absolutely undiminished. And on top of all of this he has the confidence and reinforcement that habitual success brings.

Moreover, 2013 was surely the year wherein even many of Vettel's most hardened doubters will have been converted. Only professional churls and contrarians can by now be maintaining the view that Seb isn't all that.

Photo: Octane Photography
2. Fernando Alonso
There is no shortage of comparisons made between the Vettel-Red Bull reign of triumph now with that of Michael Schumacher-Ferrari roughly a decade earlier. There are some parallels indeed; but as is usually the case such comparisons aren't necessarily wholly applicable. With Schumi-Ferrari at the height of their powers even if you somehow managed to get your machine onto something like the level of the Ferrari you still had the driver factor to contend with: few doubted then that Schumi was the standard bearer. With Vettel and Red Bull this isn't universally thought to be the case, not quite anyway, as there is one man elsewhere who plenty reckon ensures that they do not have such comfort. The argument stands; many take the view that should Fernando Alonso ever over a season have access to a car nearly as good as any of the rest then the Spaniard's personal offering will be capable of making up the rest of the difference. And appropriately this season he was the last man left still standing before the Vettel-Red Bull juggernaut.

Monday 2 December 2013

Sebastian Vettel 2013 World Champion: The sign of the four

Twelve months ago Sebastian Vettel swept up world drivers' title number three for himself, merely the latest of his increasingly haughty collection of achievements. And with it all somewhere at the back of minds was the nagging thought that whatever his skills and statistical marks then, at the age of just 25 Vettel - some seven or eight years shy of when the F1 pilot usually peaks - was only going to get better. One year on and you know what? He did get better.

Sebastian Vettel in familiar pose
Photo: Octane Photography
In 2013 Sebastian Vettel was devastating; a notch or two beyond the already formidable figure we had before. Before long in this campaign he'd established himself as they guy to beat, and was edging clear almost inexorably even though his package wasn't at that stage always the class of the field in qualifying or in races. Then the second half of the year - aided by a change to the tyre spec - became a series of Clark-like demonstrations. Only major setbacks would have deprived him wins, and they never came. Minor setbacks seemed the most minor inconvenience. Seb time after time closed in on victories like a heat seeking missile. Of course, he was mathematically champion well before the season end. He was effectively so long before even that.

And the haughty records speak for themselves. Title number four and on the bounce, which can only otherwise be boasted by Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher; equalling Schumi's all-time mark of 13 wins in a season, which also vaults him up to fourth place in the all-time winners' list and does so with a better strike rate than those ahead (Seb has close to one win from every three Grand Prix starts); and then ending the season matching Alberto Ascari's long-entrenched record of nine Grand Prix wins in a row, a record long since considered so imperious as to have an untouchable, almost mythical, air. Vettel in his campaign of triumph took them all.