Sunday, 28 April 2013

Pirellis, passes and politics: Thoughts on F1 in 2013

F1 is never calm for long. Never totally at ease with itself. And even if it does threaten to go that way it seems to feel obliged to find some aggravation from somewhere. Perhaps they like aggravation; maybe not having it makes them feel exposed somehow.

There are lots of things that are good about F1 right now, on the face of it at least. A close, competitive field. Races which contain a lot of action. One of the best driver line ups ever. Talk of breakaways, and of blocking the rule changes that await in 2014, have receded. But obviously this situation was unsatisfactory. Someone, somewhere had to stir the pot.

And so it has been in early 2013. The main issue has been around the dark matter and equally dark arts of the Pirelli tyres. It seems that some have noticed that the rubber, as Pirelli is deliberately engineering degradation in, doesn't allow drivers to push all the time. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner for one has bemoaned that the drivers don't like 'cruising at 70 per cent for a large percentage of the race', with Mark Webber claiming similarly that F1 is 'a little bit WWF at the moment' (get with it Mark, it's WWE these days).

Once again, there has been
much debate over the Pirelli tyres
Credit: Rich Jones / CC
It is however difficult to see what the fuss is about in a sense, or at the very least why the fuss is taking place now. While the tyres are revised for this year at the topline level they're not much different to those in Pirelli's previous two years as an F1 supplier (as Kimi Raikkonen noted) and, as well as this, in F1 drivers almost never have been able to push at 100% for 100% of the time (as Kimi also noted). Further, the high tide water mark of Turkey 2011 in Pirelli's early days, where it was four stoppers pretty much all round, hasn't been matched in 2013 and the races generally don't seem more variable than those of early 2011 or early 2012. And while the details can be argued (for example, this year's soft tyre was clearly unsuitable for the China track on that particular race day) surely the broad approach is worth supporting. Those who hark back to the 'good old days' when tyres hardly degraded are either suffering from selective memory or else enjoy Sunday afternoons that are akin to watching paint dry. Then, races (and I use that term advisedly) were usually soporific; sometimes farcical.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Further thoughts on the Bahrain Grand Prix

Here comes Bahrain again
And thus F1 has endured its second weekend in Bahrain since the Arab Spring, and its second which afterwards private exhalations of relief may be had that the event just about went off without problems. Admittedly, there appeared a slightly lower level of background issues for the F1 bubble this time compared with what there was last year: no protesters died in the course of the weekend (as far as we know), and no members of the F1 fraternity were caught up in clashes as they were then.

Bahrain Grand Prix - a focus for protesters
Credit: Hamel Alrayeh / CC
And yet I'm no nearer to understanding why exactly the sport's decision-makers think going to Bahrain right now is a good idea. Yes, I'm aware that there are (reportedly) 50 million reasons for the fraternity to turn up, and Bernie/CVC are conspicuously wont to follow the money. But even still I cannot fathom why anyone at the top of the sport thinks that this credit outweighs the rather obvious debit. The debit being that F1 is being used as a country PR exercise by a regime (and by extension a PR exercise for the regime itself) at the same time that the regime has a criticised human rights record and faces daily protests and unrest from its citizens demanding democracy and reform (for whom the F1 race is a clear focus of discontent, unsurprising given the regime's closeness to the event and desire to derive prestige from it). And this unrest is prone to descend into violence from both sides. At best the sport appears uncaring, at worst that it's siding with oppression. And the broad perception was that matters in Bahrain hadn't moved on much since F1's last visit 12 months ago.

As outlined on this site before the race, it represents a toxic mix of two of the sport's most notorious vices: taking short term financial gain in return for longer term and less immediately tangible pain, as well as a disregard for how it's viewed more widely and why this is important. The sport relies on the world around it in a number of ways, most notably that's where it gets its fans from. It's also where it gets its sponsorship and technical involvement, and all three of these groups have plenty of options of where to invest their time and money. F1 is inviting peril by disregarding this.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Bahrain GP Report: Vettel wins a race of one

We really never seem to learn, do we? Red Bull, particularly that driven by Sebastian Vettel, simply cannot be disregarded. The combination must always be factored into any F1 equation, unless you're certain that they've all actually left the circuit and are on their way back to Milton Keynes. And rather like the antagonist of a horror film, it has a tendency to suddenly burst into shot for the kill at the precise point that you think it's finally killed off. There has been much agonising over the Red Bull team this year, many talking about it being not quite ruling the roost as it once did, some having it in a state of meltdown. And yet Sebastian Vettel won the Bahrain Grand Prix at a cruise today, and Red Bull is bossing both championship tables after four rounds. Whatever problems it may have they must be nice ones to have.

All of a sudden, from existing in a season that had looked like it would give the established order a bit of a shake, we all seem to still be exactly where we have been for a good while: scratching our heads on how exactly the Vettel-Red Bull combo can be usurped. And the next race, but three weeks away, starts the European season at which point the major plot lines of the year tend to be set. Many at rivals teams will be feeling right now a little like they've received a firm slap across the face.

Sebastian Vettel - bouncing back to win
Credit: Morio / CC
Today's race was in effect a race of one. But few expected that Seb would be the one that was cruising to victory. Alonso's Ferrari would get the jump at the start they said, and the Ferrari has better race pace. As does Kimi Raikkonen's Lotus, coming up from eighth, and indeed Kimi may be able to do a two-stopper thus jumping much traffic. But today is just the latest reminder that Vettel when at the sharp end is always a contender, and so it proved. Alonso did indeed get ahead of Seb at the start, but Seb at turn four gave his first indication that he wasn't willing to cede to convention by decisively sweeping past Alonso. And then two laps later he scythed past surprise pole man Nico Rosberg in similar style to lead, and was never seen again. All the while he showed both a pace and an ability to sustain it over a stint that no one else could get near.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Sakhir Qualifying: Nico from nowhere

F1 meetings in Bahrain for various reasons have a slightly unreal quality to them (in F1 terms anyway). A bit like normality has for the most part been temporarily suspended. This is related to the surrounding controversy of the race happening, the introduction of issues that the sport doesn't have to think about ordinarily, as well as the track's slightly eery sparsely-populated grandstands. But today the unreality extended to on-track matters as well. Nico Rosberg hardly featured in predictions of who'd emerge as the Bahrain pole sitter. The odds of him doing so I'd imagine would have been long. And yet that is precisely what happened.

Nico Rosberg surprised everyone by taking pole
Credit: Morio / CC
And it couldn't have been timed better for driver or for team, as it comes in a weekend which looked like it was going to be the first of the year wherein the Mercedes wasn't quite on the pace, in qualifying at least. And of course the biggest challenge for Merc in 2013 is demonstrating that it's not going to repeat its sink down the order as the year progresses, seen in so many previous campaigns (and Bahrain was when the team's subsidence started last time). And for Nico, it follows a weekend in China which was the first of the year wherein his much-vaunted team mate Lewis Hamilton had seriously put some air between the two of them, so it was vital that he demonstrated in Bahrain that it was a blip and not the shape of things to come. In F1, nothing succeeds like failure; Rosberg is no doubt aware that there are plenty, within the team and elsewhere, who would be very quick to consider him 'the other driver', consciously or unconsciously, if Lewis got on top consistently. Further, it follows on from three rounds this year in which Rosberg has looked quick but his pace for whatever reason has tapered off when it most matters in the last moments of Q3. Well timed, as I said.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Sakhir Preview: Bracing yourselves

What are the things about F1, on the broadest level, that most get on your nerves? That most exasperate you about the activity and those in it? For me, it is the sport's tendency to put short term (mainly financial) gain way before the negative long-term consequences, as well as its insistence on behaving rather like it thinks it exists inside a bubble, seemingly not considering how it appears more widely and why that is important. And this weekend we'll likely see some of the negative implications played out when both of these manifest themselves simultaneously. Yes, ladies and gentleman, despite everything the F1 circus is returning to Bahrain this weekend.

This is even though the Bahrain race meeting of last year was one of the most controversial and damaging weekends for F1 in its already not exactly unblemished history. And this year, even though the best evidence is that the situation in Bahrain hasn't changed much in the meantime, it marches back as if nothing has happened, as if nothing has been learned from the experience of 2012. It's like the sport is determined prove George Santayana's celebrated maxim that 'those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it'. This weekend, just like that in Bahrain 12 months ago, feels rather like something to be got through, both in terms of the security for all involved as well as in terms of F1's image. Despite the undoubted collateral damage to its brand, F1 got away with it last year, particularly in that nothing regrettable happened to the event itself or to anyone who works in or around F1. Going back again into the same situation one year on has a strong feel of pushing ones luck.

The F1 race has been a clear focus for protesters
Credit: Hamel Alrayeh / CC
Of course, almost none of us who like to talk about F1 specialise in Middle Eastern politics, let alone the specifics of the Bahrain situation. And further we hear vociferous and regular claim and counter claim from both 'sides', making the real story hard to discern. But what we do know is that there has been unrest in Bahrain related to pressure for reform and for democracy, that there has been such unrest since at least early 2011, that it continues today (indeed, stories emerged of a car bombing this week as well as of the tear-gassing of a school by the Bahraini authorities, in addition to allegations of potential protesters being 'rounded up' for arrest) and has done so almost on a daily basis in between times. We know that the unrest has frequently been violent, and that there have been some brutal repressions of the protests that people have in the past died in. We also know that the F1 race has been and remains a major source of the 'opposition's' discontent. And this is unsurprising given that Bahrain's ruling regime associates itself closely with the F1 race that it bankrolls, and views it as a key means generally of conveying its national branding to the country and to the world, and even has on occasion used it as a means to legitimise itself; the 'UniF1ed' slogan promoting the race last year was thinly-veiled in this regard. And indeed the Bahrain opposition has promised that protests will escalate for the F1 weekend.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Further thoughts on the Chinese Grand Prix

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be
I reckon I must have been watching the wrong race last Sunday. I saw one that, while it wasn't necessarily a classic, was perfectly diverting, at the front was fought among the best F1 drivers in the best cars, contained plenty of overtakes as well as nine lead changes, included a range of divergent strategies playing themselves out, had an exciting finish as a freshly-booted Sebastian Vettel sought to chase down a podium finish at an astonishing rate, and provided a highly worthy winner. Pretty close to what the modern formula is designed to create in other words. And yet, to hear some of the reaction expressed online and elsewhere, what I actually saw was an hour and a half that made a mockery of the sport. Perhaps I'd put the wrong TV channel on by mistake.

The Pirellis once again
were on everyone's lips
Credit: Rich Jones / CC
Regular readers of this site (hello to both of you...) may be aware by now that I don't have much truck for the ongoing 'tyred and emotional' complaints regarding the Pirelli tyres. This is mainly on the grounds that what we have now is much preferable to what we had before. In pre-Pirelli times, when tyres hardly wore out, what would occur most of the time was we'd have qualifying and a resultant grid order, then in the race a first lap shake out and then...precisely nothing would happen. Anyone who watched the 'classic' Chinese Grand Prix of 2008 shown on TV in its entirety last week witnessed a quintessential example of this norm stretched out over a soporific ninety minutes. And this tyre formula signed off appropriately, with the farcical sight of a world championship being decided as a contender, Fernando Alonso, sat behind a plainly slower car for fully 40 laps, not passing or even having the remotest possibility of doing so (short of the guy ahead binning it). And this is Alonso, one of the sport's most tigerish performers in the normal run of things, let alone when a title's at stake. What we had absolutely was nothing to do with motor racing in my view. Therefore, the talk eulogising F1's mythical 'good old days' is absurd. And while some splutter that the limited lifespan of the Pirellis is engineered for 'the show', the show must be considered as well as the technical exercise. Without wishing to be facetious, if no one is prepared to watch the show then there is no F1, as no one would invest money in it.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Famous five: F1's honourable acts

The debate about the Sebastian Vettel-Mark Webber case from the recent Malaysian race has indeed been an enduring one, as well as is more nuanced than many on both 'sides' of the debate are appreciating. But one notion that has been fairly commonly expressed in the discussions that I do refute is that ruthlessness is required to prevail in F1, and that Vettel's actions were commendable on these grounds.

I do not believe that is true. While I am not so naive to think that ruthlessness doesn't help you I also absolutely do not believe that it is necessary. And for various reasons I'd like to think that there's still room for honour in sport, including in F1. Indeed, we can cite many of F1's greatest champions and purest racers who - while their will to win cannot be questioned - were also always absolutely honourable: Fangio, Moss, Clark, Stewart, Villeneuve, Hakkinen among others, and the positivity of their legacies reflect their honour as well as their talents. And it troubles me the number of people who appear to take the view that honour can if anything be considered as a weakness. I don't know if it in this case represents partisan Vettel/Red Bull supporters falling into line, the dubious legacy of Senna and Schumacher (both notorious for their win at all costs attitude), or is a more general indictment of our age. But I for one will always rail against such a notion.

And in my attempt to redress the balance ever so slightly I have complied five examples from history wherein honour did prevail in F1 and drivers prioritised doing the right thing to the detriment of their own chances.

Peter Collins, 1956
When we are given cause to agonise over the rights and wrongs team orders in F1 some talk about it like it's a new thing. Indeed in Monaco in 2002, the race after that wherein Rubens Barrichello notoriously had slowed on the line to let Michael Schumacher through to win, a protest banner could be spotted among the crowd stating 'Fangio didn't need team orders'. Not so, on either point. Back in F1's good old days when men were men and racing was pure team orders were even more endemic, and applied much more vigorously, than they are now. Simply ceding position to your team mate was just the beginning of it, it was common to go so far to cede your car to a nominated team leader mid-race should he have broken down or crashed earlier (and any subsequent points from that race would be shared).

Chinese GP Report: Red revolution

The Chinese Grand Prix today was, as expected, a whirlwind of overtakes, pit stops, and divergent strategies playing themselves out. There were nine changes of lead. It seemed you couldn't avert your eyes from the screen without missing something. Yet all of that is utterly incongruous with what was the main story of today: somehow at the middle of it all Fernando Alonso almost from the off looked utterly in control to win the race.

The whirlwind battles mentioned were essentially over second place at the very most. Even the haughty Vettel-Red Bull effort at an early stage of proceedings admitted that they weren't in a race with the Spaniard. Alonso was consistent in his pace, smart in looking after his tyres and crisp in the overtake. Even in the modern spiced-up age of F1 there is still an art to bossing a race and Alonso very much demonstrated it today. And it all had a watershed quality about it, for all of the Alonso-Ferrari partnership’s ubiquity it’s actually difficult to recall the last occasion on which it was the quickest in a dry race. You may have to wind back to the summer of 2010 for the previous time; more recent triumphs have either owed something to attrition or had a rear-guard action quality. In perhaps an appropriate place, we just might have witnessed a red revolution in China today.

Fernando Alonso was in control today
Credit: Morio / CC
Of course, we need to exercise a little caution as the Shanghai track is an unusual one, particularly in that it taxes the front tyres more than the rears, and we only need to look at the Chinese result from last year to know that it’s not necessarily a reliable guide of what is to happen elsewhere. But no one can doubt that today was an encouraging one for the Scuderia.

As is often the case in Chinese Grands Prix there was a conspicuous split between tortoise and hare strategies today. Some, most notably Sebastian Vettel, sacrificed grid position in order to be able to start on the more durable medium tyre on race day. But the race came to the hares, as Alonso followed by Raikkonen and Hamilton filled the podium, with the lead tortoise Seb narrowly missing out in fourth after a late charge. Indeed, the evidence over time is that while a tortoise approach may help you ghost somewhere into the vicinity of the bottom step of the podium if it all comes together, if you want to win you must be a hare. Which is exactly how it should be. And the implications of it not being that way don’t bear thinking about.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Shanghai Qualifying: The talented Mr Hamilton

He's a talented boy that Lewis. And he showed it once again today.

China was anticipated as the latest dose of clarity in F1's blurry competitive order. However from a fairly early stage of the weekend the battle to prevail appeared to be a close run thing between Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull (on race pace anyway) with Kimi Raikkonen perhaps getting in on the action too. And so it proved today in qualifying.

But even among this all star cast Lewis Hamilton stole the show, producing a final lap that was something close to perfection which got him pole position by a clear length. It's a timely reminder that for all that his accompanying soap opera has distracted us on occasion, there is an astonishing racing driver at the core of it all. It's also Lewis's first pole for his new employers, and if anyone there wasn't fully persuaded of what exactly they have on their hands with their new commodity they surely will be now.

Lewis Hamilton put in an excellent pole lap
Credit: Morio / CC
But Lewis will also have a lot of talent right behind him tomorrow. Kimi Raikkonen is next up on the grid, his best starting slot in his time at Lotus and therefore he won't have the extent of his usual problems of being stuck in race day traffic. Not from the off anyway. Kimi may particularly be one to keep an eye on in the early soft tyre phase of the race, though the evidence of practice is that the Lotus isn't all that impressive on the mediums. And then there is the brooding presence of Fernando Alonso in third. The Ferrari has looked strong all weekend and we know that Alonso's tendency is to move forward from his starting slot, and thus will surely be a contender. And remember that Hamilton-Alonso duels are usually worth going a long way to see.

Hamilton's and Alonso's team mates respectively are next up. Even though Nico Rosberg's impressed in general this year, for the third time out of three it seemed that his pace faded a bit when it really mattered in the final jousts of qualifying. And I can recall that Nico had a shout at pole in the first two rounds of last season and fluffed it both times. He'll be hoping that this isn't a habit. He'll also be hoping that the close to four-tenth gap between him and Lewis of today is a blip rather than the shape of things to come.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Shanghai Preview: Great brawl of China

China is the future, the coming force of the world economy. And Bernard Charles Ecclestone doesn't need much encouragement to seek to hammer F1's stake into arable ground. His following the money is a reaction rather akin to that of Pavlov's Dog.

The Chinese Grand Prix can be viewed as a little brother of the Hungarian race that appeared almost 20 years before it. Or rather, a bigger little brother, if that makes sense. In both cases it was a nominally Communist state, but one whose regime was losing the faith somewhat and keen to show the world instead that the country was outward looking and willing to embrace markets. And in both cases hosting an F1 race was seen as a great way of sending this message. Therefore no expense was spared in constructing a venue from nothing which featured all imaginable mod cons, and in giving Bernie a nice big cheque for the privilege of it all.

The Shanghai International Circuit venue is stunning
Credit: Emily Walker / CC
Today China still seems like a new F1 stop-off, and thus it is rather disquieting that this weekend will mark visit number ten. Perhaps it shows the way that sport, and F1 in particular, exists solely on fast forward. But perhaps it also demonstrates that the Shanghai International Circuit, even compared with previous Tilke-dromes, represented an vast acceleration in standards when it landed on the F1 itinerary, leaving everyone and everything else breathless. Even now arguably only the Abu Dhabi venue has since usurped it. The Chinese facility is vast, including towering and gleaming architecture which looks a product of the imagination of a sc-fi author visualising a Utopian future.

When the F1 circus first visited in 2004 no one knew exactly what to expect (nor, it seemed, did the locals of F1 - another factor redolent of Hungary), but the event swiftly was considered a big success for a variety of reasons, the cosmopolitan Shanghai city being one of them (the road traffic was and is a matter of taking your life in your hands though). Sadly, the early years' vast crowds (fully 270,000 came through the gates in 2005) were not sustained. The slide was reversed a little last year though, helped by more reasonable ticket prices. And the Chinese regime still sees the event's use, and thus it chunters on.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

The fall and rise of Felipe Massa

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, after the opening two rounds of the 2012 F1 season Felipe Massa looked to be a dead man walking. He hadn't left much of an impression on the opening round at Melbourne (and indeed didn't make it to the finish), and worse in Malaysia he finished a distant P15, close to a lap down on the winner. Who just so happened to be his team mate. And even worse than that, coming home a close second that day was Ferrari protegee Sergio Perez, having put in what appeared to be a star is born performance. And it all followed a protracted period of struggle for results by Massa in what is just about F1's most demanding team; his previous podium finish was close to 18 months beforehand. His imminent dismissal from the Scuderia looked to have all of the inevitability of Dr Strangelove's doomsday device.

And yet 12 months on Massa is not only still on Ferrari's driving staff but is looking a much stronger proposition than he has in some time. Stronger indeed than at any point since his harrowing accident while qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, which resulted in a fractured skull. Indeed, he's started to give even the exalted Fernando Alonso across the garage a run for his money, having qualified ahead of him in the last four meetings. And you'll struggle to find people unhappy with this state of affairs, given Massa's status as one of the most popular figures in the sport. Like his countryman Rubens Barrichello, even in the hard-bitten and cynical paddock there are few who speak ill of him, and his dignity displayed in the most testing of circumstances in Interlagos in 2008 was a true mark of the man.

Felipe Massa has looked close to his best lately
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
And perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at the resurgence. As after all we all knew that there was a very good F1 driver kicking around in there somewhere. His 2008 campaign, wherein he at the end of it was world champion for 30 seconds, confirmed as much. But it cannot be denied that Felipe's trough was an extended one, and the book of suggested reasons for it is well-thumbed. Of course, no one, probably not even Massa himself, knows the exact extend that the aftermath of the head injuries sustained at the Hungaroring diminished his subsequent performances. But further it seems that a major part of Massa's chronic woe was the psychological impact of Alonso taking over things at Ferrari off the track, as well as routing him on it. It would be understandable if this was the case. The bonds between Massa and Ferrari were always close: he has often expressed gratitude to the Scuderia publicly for helping his rise in the sport, and one can recall him talking on the radio after his crushing disappointment of having the 2008 title snatched away of his pride of being part of the Ferrari team. His 2009 accident recovery no doubt cemented this relationship further. And having this blown asunder by the Johnny Come Lately cannot have been easy.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Famous five: F1's most inspired career moves

When Lewis Hamilton announced that he was leaving McLaren to throw his lot in with perennial underachievers Mercedes for 2013, many recoiled almost like a car crash was about to unfold before their eyes.

There indeed seemed many historical precedents of a talented driver committing career suicide, with a bad team selection heralding a downward slide they could never reverse, such as Emerson Fittipaldi joining his brother's Copersucar team from McLaren and Jacques Villeneuve leaving Williams for BAR.

But the early evidence - as McLaren struggles and Mercedes performs ahead of expectations - is that Lewis might, just might, have played a blinder with his audacious move. And as well as bad moves F1 also has a few precedents of inspired team switches, which confounded the doom-laden expectations in place at the time they were made. I list five of the best ones below.

Graham Hill: Lotus to BRM, 1960
Let's start with a slow burner. Leaving Colin Chapman's Lotus team as it stood before its triumphant 1960s decade sounds a little like F1's equivalent of the guy from Decca Records who turned down signing The Beatles. Yet that is what Graham Hill did.

Hill got together with Chapman after a chance meeting, and recruited initially in a factory role Hill managed before long to blag his way into the driver's seat. And in 1958 driver and team together made their F1 debuts. But Chapman's cars were almost always known for being fast yet fragile; in the early days the latter was especially so as the cars would almost never last a race, and indeed the former was not always the case. Two years of meagre results led to frustration, and the clash of an exasperated Hill and a strong-willed Chapman (including Hill questioning Chapman's commitment to the job) was never going to end well.

Graham Hill - on the way to his first championship, in a BRM
Credit: Lothar Spurzem / CC
And thus Hill chose to join BRM for 1960. This raised many-an-eyebrow, as it was a team that had, despite periodic fanfare, persistently flattered to deceive. As Hill himself noted: 'I remember everyone saying "that's a mistake, you're joining a losing team" was being thoroughly trounced'. But as luck would have it the outstanding Tony Rudd was already there, and he and Hill well and truly clicked and thus began one of the sport's most iconic and effective driver-engineer partnerships. Results remained fallow for the first couple of years, but by the start of the 1962 year things had fallen into place (and at exactly the right moment as Sir Alfred Owen was threatening to cut off the team's life support). For one thing Rudd was given full executive authority for the team. For another BRM also managed to produce a V8 engine for the 1.5 litre formula that would match those of Ferrari and Coventry Climax.