Monday, 30 September 2013

Yeongam Preview: When it goes wrong

If someone was to ask you how the F1 calendar has changed in the last 10 years or so, or alternatively ask what the financial model of F1 is these days, in both cases you'd probably come up with the same answer.

You don't need me to tell you that F1 has been chasing the Asian brass in recent times. That the itinerary has incrementally shifted eastwards to the point that today no fewer than eight of the rounds are in Asia (rewind to 1998 and there was only one), including the run of five in a row which we're currently in, tells us this. The story of the new countries joining the calendar usually goes something like this: a government decides it wants to stage a Grand Prix, and is prepared to pay a lot of money for the privilege. Yes, the event will likely make a financial loss, but you can write the loss off either as helping a national or regional branding exercise as a 'place to do business' or else against your tourism budget (or both). Got any motorsport heritage? Or a motorsport infrastructure? Or even much local interest? No? No matter. That will come later. Perhaps.

Impressive new city not pictured.
Yeongam races have an eerie atmosphere.
Credit: LG전자 / CC
But what if it goes wrong? Well, we know. Sadly the tale of the Yeongam facility in Korea that F1 gathers in this weekend is a slow motion demonstration of it.

Korea and F1's road to hell was paved with good intentions, and no little ambition, at least in its days of inception. The talk then was of a street circuit in reverse, with the circuit built and then to be surrounded by a new city complete with a new marina wherein the beautiful people could pose on their boats, as well as the whole range of leisure facilities, hotels etc etc. A Monaco for the new generation if you will. Or perhaps a new Singapore, as a night race was talked about too. It sounded impressive whatever was the case, and presumably that it was in a remote location - some 400km from Seoul on reclaimed swampland near a shipping port - would stop to matter once everything was in place.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Further thoughts on the Singapore Grand Prix

Di Resta's difficulty
F1, in more ways than one, is all about timing.

The timing screens - that all in F1 are enslaved to - we know about. But it applies more broadly too, to getting your big break. For all of the effort and analysis that go into the decisions of who drives where, we've seen that strong performances and results at exactly the right moment can sway who gets the opportunities.

Things have been difficult for Paul di Resta just lately
Photo: Octane Photography
Paul di Resta makes no secret of his desire for a team step-up, and those squads further up the grid you feel could do a lot worse (indeed, some are doing a lot worse) than throw him the keys. But just like last year, and the year before, di Resta's showing signs of letting things slip at the vital moment - at the point when contracts for the next year are being signed.

Since entering F1 from the unlikely route of DTM di Resta has been impressive. He divides opinion of course, partly due to his rather stern facade out of the car, as well as his habit of criticising his team in public (though even with this, I find the hostility he gets in certain quarters - if my Twitter timeline is any barometer - frankly ridiculous). But behind the wheel consistently di Resta has displayed a Button-like smoothness and polish, with a tendency to avoid errors and bring the car home that have belied his relative inexperience. In his freshman year no one completed more racing laps than he. And he doesn't lack speed either, shown especially when for the first two-thirds of 2012 there was almost nothing to choose between di Resta and the highly-rated Nico Hulkenberg in their direct intra-Force India face-off. However, di Resta then endured a difficult end to 2012, wherein he went oddly off the boil in the last six races - which many seemed determined to take from that match-up and extrapolate it over the whole campaign, perhaps showing the power of recency - and his F1 career got close to choppy waters. But this year he steered things back on course, benefitting from a surprisingly competitive Force India, scoring points in seven of the first eight rounds and firmly getting the better of new/old stable mate Adrian Sutil. For a while the lack of examples of his aggression and battling wheel-to-wheel was a gap on di Resta's F1 CV, yet his spirited dice with Lewis Hamilton at Silverstone was a revelation in this (and those who'd tracked di Resta pre-F1 knew that he lacked little here).

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Further thoughts on the Singapore Grand Prix

Truth and reconciliation
What a grand silly season we've had. And to think that up until about 12 months we were complaining that it had all got tepid. Then Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes hadn't changed their driver line ups since prior to the 2010 campaign - it felt almost like we'd reached the end of silly season history. But, starting with Lewis Hamilton giving the drivers' market an almighty shake with his unexpected Merc switch, it's as if all concerned have been determined to make up for lost time.

And in the Friday of the Singapore weekend silly season scaled a sheer rock face, that we thought never again would be scaled. For years it was assumed that, despite what other rumours might be doing the rounds, Fernando Alonso joining McLaren was about as likely as Kimi Raikkonen joining the temperance movement. It would never happen in other words, due to 2007 and all that.

Martin Whitmarsh - getting everyone into a flutter
Photo: Octane Photography
But it's merely the latest reminder that one should never say never, particularly not in F1. As McLaren's team principal Martin Whitmarsh on that Singapore Friday practice day got everyone into a flutter by confirming to several media outlets that he would indeed consider doing the un-doable regarding Alonso, in welcoming him back to the fold. 'Yes, any team would (be interested in signing him)' he said. 'He's the best driver.'

On one level of course it's a statement of the obvious. But this being the business that we're in, it was taken to mean so much more than that. Alonso's Ferrari relationship has indeed imploded many inferred, and McLaren will be his destination. And/or that Whitmarsh isn't happy with Perez. Or Button. Or both (after all, neither McLaren pilot yet has been confirmed to remain at the team for next year). As it was, it was a firework that burned bright upon ignition but was out almost as quickly, as Alonso took the unusual step of arranging an impromptu press call after Free Practice 2 that day in order to nip the rumours in the bud (though, equally, left the door ajar for the future with some kind words for McLaren).

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Further thoughts on the Singapore Grand Prix

Meet the new boss...
Life without Seb. For those who value close competition such a thought has been an attractive one in recent times. Just take away Sebastian Vettel and we'd have tight, competitive, unpredictable F1 racing again, we're told. And after a Singapore race wherein he did a passable impression of piloting the one LMP1 machine in a race of LMP2 cars, such a lament was pretty widespread.

But think about it. It's pedantic I know, but without him things might not be much different, or at least not as different as you might think. To a large extent you'd just be replacing one name out front with another.

Remove Vettel from the head of the pack,
would things really be that much different?
Photo: Octane Photography
In hypothetical results with Seb scratched, Fernando Alonso would have won the last three races, would have six wins this season and would be cruising towards world title number five. Which doesn't on the face of it sound a great deal different from what we have now with Vettel: he's won the last three races, has seven wins for the year and is cruising towards title number four. Just as with Vettel, two of the last three wins for Alonso would have been pretty comfortable too.

And while this state of affairs would no doubt please Alonso fans there would most probably still be plenty who'd call that boring too.

Further thoughts on the Singapore Grand Prix

Is it really always Webber?
To borrow from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem.

And so it may apply to Mark Webber. The common narrative among those watching on is it that one of these days he'll reveal a t-shirt under his workwear, in the style of Mario Balotelli, reading 'why always me?' The perception of many is that it is indeed always Webber; that he has something close to a monopoly on Red Bull technical bad luck. Some go so far as to mutter conspiratorial suggestions about it all. That it was his engine, not stable mate Sebastian Vettel's, that went pop in Sunday's Singapore race was just the latest lot of grist to this particular mill.

Is it really always Mark Webber? Perhaps not.
Photo: Octane Photography
But is it as it seems, or is it that the common perception doesn't chime with fact? There is at least potential for the latter being so, as after all Vettel is usually the more successful of the two, and it's life that the worse your outcomes are the more that setbacks and supposed 'ill-luck' will be dwelt upon. And it manifests itself in F1 especially, including that in motor sport the leader, uniquely, is in the privileged position of managing problems, to drive well within the car's limits, and still get the same result (and let's face it, Seb leads much more often than Mark does).

And, at the broadest level, the numbers don't really bear 'it's always Mark' out. In Austin last year Webber retired with alternator trouble, but that was his first mechanical retirement in 59 races, or in other words for upwards of three years. Brake failure at the 2009 Singapore Grand Prix was the previous time that technical gremlins stopped Webber early. And, for what it's worth, Vettel had to down tools ahead of time with mechanical failures in five separate races in that time. One suspects had it been the other way around that comparison would have been reported more forcibly.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Further thoughts on the Singapore Grand Prix

No sympathy for Mark Webber
I suppose it shows the importance of getting the whole picture.

Like rather a lot of people, when I first heard that Mark Webber would get a grid drop of ten places for the forthcoming Korean Grand Prix - as a consequence of his getting a 'taxi ride' back to the pits on Fernando Alonso's Ferrari on the slowing down lap of Sunday's Singapore Grand Prix - I thought it was the latest instance of Formula One making a thorough idiot of itself. Senna and Mansell in Silverstone 1991, folklore, and all that.

But the headline was deceptive; get beyond it and it all begins to make sense. It's a demonstration that the stewards don't always get it wrong.

Mark Webber (centre) and Fernando
Alonso (left): bang to rights
Photo: Octane Photography
For one thing, despite the claims to the contrary the grid drop penalty was not just for this. It was a result of the new rule that means an accumulation of three reprimands in a season equals a grid drop (just as in 1997 when many missed that Jacques Villeneuve's disqualification from the Japanese Grand Prix - which oh-so nearly altered the destination of that year's world championship - was a result of accumulated offences and not the single offence committed at Suzuka). And when Webber got his second reprimand of the campaign in Canada earlier this year it was reported widely that this left him with no more leeway (see, for example here). So Webber had no excuse for not making a point of being whiter than white, purer than pure.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Singapore GP Report: Seb's light show

Lots of adjectives get thrown about regarding the Sebastian Vettel/Red Bull combination's repeated demolition of opponents in contemporary F1. 'Dominant', 'devastating' and 'formidable' are among the most common. But in the direct assessment of today's particular demolition, which seemed just about the most decisive of any of them, 'unsurprising' seemed the most apt.

Somehow, getting on for four years of dominance later (and five if you negate the odd double diffuser business of 2009), none of their haughty opponents seem any closer to working out how to stop them. And today they seemed further away then ever; Seb simply was on another level. From the point that his RB9 first turned a wheel in Friday practice the efforts of the rest for the Singapore Grand Prix of 2013 looked an exercise in futility.

Sebastian Vettel once again was on another level
Photo: Octane Photography
And so it proved, as Seb triumphed under the Singapore lights pretty much unchallenged. The only threat of the day to Seb's supremacy was confined to the first three corners. For the briefest of brief moments it looked as if Nico Rosberg, who'd qualified alongside Seb on the front row, would get ahead and thus at least threaten to tamper with the demonstration run. But while he indeed dived past at the first turn he was a bit too hot and ran wide, which allowed Seb to smartly nip back past. Though given what came next you rather suspect that even if Nico had maintained the place it would have caused but the most minor ripple in Seb's upward trajectory.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Singapore Qualifying: Seb has the streets to himself

It says something about the 2013 F1 season, that even when severely compromising himself, sitting in the garage while all else are out on the track when it's at its best, Sebastian Vettel still prevails.

We know that Vettel has just taken two decisive wins at tracks - Spa and Monza - that were supposed to be where he exercises damage limitation, rather than dominate. And now, entering the Asian leg of the calendar that Seb always seems to have to himself, and racing at a Singapore track on which he's won in the last two visits and has characteristics that suit the Red Bull down to the ground, things looked ominous for his rivals. Some optimists thought it possible that the Bulls had concentrated disproportionately on their low downforce spec, so they may, relatively, be less strong here than usual. But it turned out that from the point of view of the rest Cassandra herself would have been closest to the mark. Red Bull - and more to the point Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull - has been absurdly, insultingly, quicker and more stable-looking than the rest just about all weekend at Singapore.

Vettel looked worried, but claimed pole nevertheless
Photo: Octane Photography
And so it continued for most of today's qualifying session, and Seb appeared even to be cruising - giving the walls more respect than just about anyone - as he set his initial Q3 mark a full six tenths under the best of the rest. It looked all over, though Red Bull concurred in extremis as Seb sat in the pits as the rest went out for their final runs.

However, as a consequence Seb and his team - having looked to have pole position in a python-like grip - nearly managed to drop it. The decision to put it all at risk by not running again in Q3 was one which Sir Humphrey Appleby would have shot down in flames by telling Jim Hacker that it was 'courageous'. Singapore like a lot of street tracks is one that evolves rapidly, and even those few minutes were enough for the rest to come oh-so close to jumping the chasm. This applied particularly to Nico Rosberg, who always goes well at Singapore and really let it all hang out in the final sector in his last-gasp lap, driving his Mercedes on its very outer edge. But he missed Vettel's target by just under a tenth. Romain Grosjean in P3 and Mark Webber in P4 got pretty close too to the bullseye. The expression etched on Seb's face at the end of it all betrayed the relief.

Backing the wrong horse? Why I think Alonso will beat Raikkonen

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Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen could be said to be F1's equivalent of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. The two are to a large extent co-existent, almost synonymous. In Kimi and Fernando's case having karted together both made their F1 debut in the very same Grand Prix, and come 2003 were together identified firmly as the leaders of the sport's next generation (see this from the cover of F1 Racing that same year). And indeed both since have developed formidable reputations at the very pinnacle of the sport, and became world champions along the way.

Despite their proximity, Alonso and Raikkonen
have never before worn the same colours
Photo: Octane Photography
Yet just like De Niro and Pacino somehow for years they avoided a direct face-off. This is despite a few near misses: as De Niro and Pacino both starred in The Godfather Part II, and yet thanks to series of shifts between different periods of history never appeared in the same scene, twice Alonso has signed for a new team with the potential of partnering Raikkonen and twice it didn't happen. At McLaren Kimi was busy making his own arrangements to join Ferrari instead; at Ferrari the Scuderia faced with a three-into-two-doesn't-go situation chose to stick with Felipe Massa and drop the Finn. Next year, following years of waiting and anticipation during which time many had reached the conclusion that it would never happen, at Ferrari we'll have F1's equivalent of Heat's sit-down scene in the diner. The two titans will at last will cross paths.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Singapore Preview: F1's light fantastic

I don't know about you, but whenever I'm reminded that Singapore's debut as an F1 venue was as recent as 2008 it always seems a little bit wrong to me. It demonstrates just how rapidly and resolutely the glittering event has got its feet under the F1 table. Already it is a favourite; already it seems a fixture; already a calendar without this particular stop off on it would strike as a severely depleted one.

The Singapore event is a stunning one
Credit: chensiyuan / CC
Singapore is a city state that is a quintessential F1 host, to the point that you wonder at quiet moments quite why a Grand Prix wasn't established here decades ago. Glamorous, vibrant and dripping with money, a lot like Monaco its relationship with F1 has been rather like a hand-in-glove. And the city responds in kind, never failing to fully embrace the event. The party spirit is absolutely entered into and the grandstands usually are packed.

Further, when the Marina Bay circuit arrived on the sport's itinerary someone somewhere had the bright idea to make it F1's first night race, taking its cue from other sports which showed that being conducted under floodlights somehow ratchets up the intensity. And it's hard to cite anywhere as more befitting of such an event: not only does Singapore boast a fervent night life but the cityscape nighttime backdrop to proceedings is stunning; as well as this the cars never fail to look beautiful under the lights. This all means - in another parallel with Monaco - that the Singapore F1 race is visually brilliant; in a Grand Prix weekend there wherever you direct your gaze is something worth looking at, and it thus attracts many-a wide angle camera lens. Not for nothing the event already is iconic.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Rush UK release: new features

After what seemed like interminable waiting, the Rush film - which follows the famous James Hunt-Niki Lauda rivalry of the 1976 F1 season - was released in the UK today. And to celebrate this StudioCanal has make available two new behind the scenes featurettes as well as a new clip.

And here they are. First of all here below is a clip from the film of Lauda and Hunt answering press questions prior to the season-ending Japanese Grand Prix.

Here's a featurette about putting the film's amazing on-track scenes together, specifically the wet race of Fuji in Japan (though you'll note that they filmed it at Snetterton!)

Further thoughts on the Italian Grand Prix

Pirelli's delicate tightrope walk
Once upon a time there was a sport that was in a panic. It was offering something hideous to the paying punter. Something that sent it all into the realms of farce. Something that bore no resemblance to what the sport 'was about'.

The Pirelli tyres' influence on the racing
was a source of frenzied debate
Photo: Octane Photography
You might have worked out by now that I'm talking about F1 earlier this year, wherein it seemed that many were insistent that the sport was writhing foetal on the therapist's chair, all to do with the pariah of the Pirelli tyres. Language of woe, woe and thrice woe was much in evidence. To quote one (not untypical) example, one member of the press after a particular race wrote that what was on show was 'tyranny of the tyre...the unloved novelty of four stops per car is conspiring to reduce the sport to a rambling sequence of place-swapping that bears little resemblance to racing'. Plenty of fans, along with certain team principals and drivers, bemoaned that the rubber didn't allow drivers to push all the time and on occasion even required deliberate ceding of positions in the name of tyre-saving, and that it all was forcibly ripping F1 away from its most sacred principles. The only race on show was that to the bottom.

But a handful of months is a long time in F1, clearly. A few races, tyre failures and subsequent revisions to the Pirellis' design later, and by last Sunday's Monza race we had something very different. Martin Brundle noted that it was a lot like 'a Bridgestone race', with one-stop strategies pretty much all round and almost no rubber degradation, which allowed everyone to drive at near the limit throughout. So, were we all happy? No, not entirely. Apparently the fare had become too tepid.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Further thoughts on the Italian Grand Prix

Vettel/Red Bull dominance - a matter of perspective
Time to employ some good old British understatement: the Italian Grand Prix last Sunday wasn't exactly a thriller. But you probably didn't need me to tell you that.

Sebastian Vettel's dominance -
mild by historical comparison
Photo: Octane Photography
And there was much doom and gloom afterwards: that F1 had become too boring; that Sebastian Vettel's dominance was a considerable test of resolve; that there is little point watching the season's remaining rounds. But perhaps some perspective is needed on all of this. On one hand the breadth of the Vettel/Red Bull dominance is indeed close to unprecedented, indeed with championship double number four on the way only the lauded Michael Schumacher/Ferrari link up and its five title doubles on the bounce in the early noughties has beaten it, or even come close (no other driver/team combination has got more than two clean sweeps in a row). But the depth of the dominance is not. Far from it.

To take last Sunday's race as an example, yes Vettel's win had a strong air of inevitability about it almost from the first corner, but he only won by five seconds. And it made it a grand total of two wins in a row for him. Even in 2011 - the year often cited as the Vettel/Red Bull zenith - his wins were very rarely by more than ten seconds. Often they were by much less even than that. It all hardly suggests that they are on another level to the opposition.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Further thoughts on the Italian Grand Prix

Why the hate for Sebastian Vettel?
It wasn't the biggest shock. Sebastian Vettel having won the Italian Grand Prix last Sunday was jeered when on the podium by the massed tifosi in attendance. Not a shock, as I said: after all the fanatical Ferrari fans at Monza have been prone to do similar for as long as a lot of us can remember. Alain Prost and then Ayrton Senna were on the thick end of it for years, as was Lewis Hamilton after winning here 12 months ago. But also it's not a shock as it's the third race of this year (at least) wherein Vettel has received a conspicuous thumbs down from the assembled gallery at an F1 race.

Despite the smiles, not everyone was
happy to see Sebastian Vettel win at Monza
Photo: Octane Photography
I've outlined on this site before my view on booing drivers (here and here - in short I don't like it) and I don't wish to re-tread old ground. But I do wonder more broadly what exactly Sebastian Vettel has done to offend people. On the face of things it may not be obvious: he is after all a very talented driver, a very smart individual, as well as is highly engaging and friendly with the media. And as a driver he's about as complete these days as can be reasonably expected - the 'he can't pass' idea really should have been given a dignified burial years ago, such is the regularity that he's shown different. And, oh yeah, he's well on the way to claiming driver's title number four for himself. To top it all off he's only 26.

Usually when the whole matter of Vettel's apparent unpopularity is raised the stock justification are the events of this year's Malaysian race, wherein Vettel of course defied a team order and ambushed his unsuspecting team mate Mark Webber to win. Some say more pointedly that, rather than it being about that act in itself, they found disingenuous his changing of his line of defence at least once in the aftermath, migrating from being apologetic to being unrepentant (and even to being an odd amalgam of the two). This all no doubt is part of it, or at least doesn't help, but I don't take the view that it's all of it. If nothing else Seb-bashing seemed a popular pastime even before Malaysia, and it strikes me that many use Malaysia as post-rationalistaion of something that they felt anyway.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Further thoughts on the Italian Grand Prix

Ice flee?
So the phoney war is over. The first shots in the 'who drives where in 2014' battle have been fired. Daniel Ricciardo last week was been confirmed for the Red Bull gig. And, if the word of the street at Monza and since is to be believed, we're about to have a major scud land, with Kimi Raikkonen's red return to Ferrari apparently to be finalised imminently.

Kimi Raikkonen - waving goodbye to Lotus?
Photo: Octane Photography
Like a lot of people, I met the initial rumours of Kimi's return to Maranello with general incredulity. After all, it comes just four years on from the Scuderia paying him rather handsomely not to drive for them. His disdain for PR and other legwork - which Lotus it seemed were uniquely able to tolerate - is well known. And he hardly seemed to fit with the Alonso-Santander plan for supremacy either.

More broadly, the move seemed against history. Ferrari has only signed four world champions to join its driving staff ever; it apparently hasn't had two world champions on the books since 1953. But by now, and with incumbent Felipe Massa today confirming that he is indeed looking for alternative employment for 2014, the momentum behind the Kimi transfer seems unstoppable.

Further thoughts on the Italian Grand Prix

Radio Ga Ga
Fernando Alonso finished in a worthy second place in the Italian Grand Prix, and then received much adulation from the assembled tifosi when on the lauded Monza podium. But still he quietly simmered. And with reason, as he was egregiously let down by the fourth estate of the media after the previous day's qualifying session, who'd managed to create one heck of a rumpus on his behalf, and from almost nothing. They said variously that he on his team radio during the qualifying session had barked that his team were 'really idiots' or similar, after attempts to have Felipe Massa help him via slipstreaming didn't come off. Moreover, some claimed that he said 'you have to let him' - by which they said he meant Felipe Massa - 'go', however we are to interpret that. Only he didn't say any of this. Didn't even come close.

Alonso, despite a good result, had a right to simmer
Photo: Octane Photography
And you can guess what happened next. Sure enough, once this was reported after Saturday's qualifying it was like flicking a switch. Many didn't wait for the full story, instead it seemed they were determined to believe the worst possible interpretation about a driver whom in many cases they clearly already had negative predispositions about, to crank up their offence, and to tell as many people so in as short a time period as possible. Social media, internet comments and forums descended into an ocean of faux outrage, with many seeking to give a convincing outward impression that they'd never heard of anyone raising their voice before, but the transparency of the relish with which they did so gave their motives away. Cliché followed cliché: Alonso had 'thrown his toys out of the pram' (whatever the heck that means); Alonso is 'poison'; Alonso is a spoiled brat; this was 2007 all over again (six years isn't long enough penance clearly); this was civil war erupting; Alonso would be sacked before the day was out.

The only tiny flaw however in all of this was that Alonso hadn't said anything like what was being claimed. It was revealed a while later that for one thing he was talking about having to let Nico Rosberg, on a quick lap, past him - not about Felipe Massa or the slipstreaming tactic. For another, rather than rant that his team were 'all idiots' or 'all stupid', he'd rather offered the sarcastic aside that they were 'geniuses' (as the Italian words are similar). While he clearly didn't intend it to be flattering it was all infinitely milder than the initial skewed 'translations' (one can only guess where and how those originated). It was a world away from 'you're idiots, get Massa's head on a spike'.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Italian GP Report: The freewheelin' Sebastian Vettel

It could have been a replay of the last race. Which in itself was a lot like the sort of race we've seen plenty of times before. Sebastian Vettel won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza with the sort of single-minded ruthlessness that seems ever-so familiar by now. Almost all of the 53 laps were one-sided, Seb having a firm grasp of proceedings. And the result means that he seems to have an equally firm grasp of world title number four.

Sebastian Vettel triumphed once again
Photo: Octane Photography
The observer, aside from fervent Seb supporters, today was left to frantically grasp around for remote and circumstantial hope to disrupt the race of one out front. Seb locked his wheel into turn one (and actually apologised for it after the race - he has high standards clearly), which made his first stint a bit harder than usual. It might have rained. He apparently had some kind of transmission problem towards the end, which required him to short shift. But as is his way right now, such things were batted away dismissively; Seb won as he liked. As he always was going to do.

And it's now nearly impossible to envisage the circumstances in which Vettel can be deprived of his latest world championship for the collection, short of something utterly incongruous like a driver or team meltdown or else a desperate run of bad luck. With now more than two race wins on Fernando Alonso in the table (and Ferrari not pulling up any trees right now), and the rest even further back, we now moreover enter the part of the year that Vettel and Red Bull really get into imperious mode. To add to the gall of his rivals, Spa and Monza are tracks that in theory were meant to trip Red Bull up. And what's more those same rivals you feel will today have been sent a long way towards deciding to call off the 2013 fight altogether and concentrate on 2014 with its many regulation changes instead. We could well be at the point where Seb and Red Bull can now freewheel to their respective 2014 crowns.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

The case for Daniel Ricciardo

Red Bull doesn't get much benefit of the doubt these days, it seems. And this week we got just the latest demonstration of it, after the team made its much-anticipated decision on who is to partner Sebastian Vettel there next season. No sooner had it announced who is to fill its Mark Webber-vacated race seat for 2014 as a round of knowing and cynical nods could be sensed among many of those watching on.

The Sebastian Vettel/Helmut Marko axis had prevailed again, they said. Kimi Raikkonen - for a long time the apparent front-runner for the ride - had been passed over on the grounds of being too much of a potential intra-team threat to the lauded Seb. Daniel Ricciardo of the sister team Toro Rosso was being promoted instead as he is less likely to challenge Vettel's supremacy. More malleable. A rabbit for the second car.

Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel will be a pair next year
Photo: Octane Photography
But is this fair? I as much as anyone am disappointed that we're being deprived a Seb and Kimi tete-a-tete, but is Red Bull likely effectively to write off one ride simply in order to appease Seb and Marko? Red Bull after all wants to win constructors' championships, and in constructors' championships it is the 'second' driver as it were, the points they accumulate, that is the key discriminator. And one point that I struggle with is if a Kimi move was always going to be vetoed then why pursue it for as long as and as far as Red Bull did? Seb also in Hungary talked in positive terms of being paired with Kimi (though in mitigation that was in response to a question about the prospect of being team mates with Fernando Alonso, so the lesser of two evils may have been on his mind) as well as hasn't let on in public any fussiness about whom he's to be paired with next year.

Furthermore, is Ricciardo's elevation to the Red Bull race seat really a travesty? Is it possible that part of it, perhaps a major part, is that Daniel Ricciardo has made a compelling case of his own in recent times?

Not convinced? Well here are a few considerations:

Monza Qualifying: Seb's calm in the eye of the storm

The story is just like that last time out at Spa: in 2013, even when we all think Red Bull's going to weak, it's strong. We really should know better by now, we've had plenty of wake up calls before after all.

Usually when the F1 season's calendar is published the Red Bull team puts a pin in the date of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza marking 'damage limitation'. The car's not good down the long straights. The team's never got the knack of the required low downforce spec. Well, the Milton Keynes lot has only gone and proved us wrong again.

In an unlikely place, Vettel stormed to pole
Photo: Octane Photogrpahy
Yes, today's qualifying session ensures that the Red Bull team has the front row all to itself for the start of tomorrow's Italian Grand Prix, having looked clearly the fastest thing around the rapid Monza track from the point a wheel was first turned yesterday. And even of the two Sebastian Vettel looked to be on another level, and so it proved as he claimed pole position as he liked. With a 46 point gap on the rest in the championship table his rivals were already seriously running out of time to haul him back, and no doubt plenty will be asking that if they can't get points back on Seb here then where can they? When it comes to where the honours will go this year, after today's outcome the fat lady is no doubt warming up her vocal chords.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Monza Preview: You got soul

Monza is upon us this weekend, and I for one am very happy about this. So are lots of other people associated with the sport. Why is this? From certain perspectives it may not be obvious. After all, Monza lacks the gleaming modernity or the seamless organisation of many of the modern venues on the F1 calendar. The place has never entirely shaken its vague feeling of ill-disguised mild chaos. Its layout isn't all that much a driving challenge, being as it made up essentially of straights separated by chicanes. It hasn't always produced enthralling races in recent times either. And as Lewis Hamilton might tell you, the locals aren't necessarily that welcoming.

There is nothing quite like Monza
Photo: Octane Photography
Well, in spite of this there are rather a lot of reasons to conclude that Monza is very special indeed. It's because its heritage is unparalleled: racing cars have been witnessed in wheel-to-wheel combat at Monza going all the way back to 1922, and the layout, other than the addition of chicanes and the coming and going of a fearsome banking section, has for the most part remained untouched in that time. It's because only in one season, 1980, has Monza not featured on an F1 calendar - no other track, not even Monaco, can boast close to that level of ubiquity.  It's because the venue has been the scene of the most astonishing and gallant triumph, the most enthralling stipstreaming battle, the most breathtaking split second finishes, as well as the most horrific tragedy. All of the greats have passed through Monza's gates. Many racing drivers have been defined here, many still have perished. The ghosts of the legends of the past who used to race before a rapt public still seem tangible, still seem to stalk the place; the atmosphere of an Italian Grand Prix at Monza always hangs heavy with a discernible sense of trepidation and mythology. It's because as a weighty reminder of how the sport used to be, the fearsome banking still broods over the Monza track, having witnessed much but now is dormant, yellowing, being ever-so slowly overtaken by nature as the metal perimeter guardrail gently rusts. It's because Monza has always been synonymous with speed; even today it boasts the highest average speed of all. It's because of the sheer passion of the Ferrari-loving tifosi that gather here annually in vast numbers, bedecked in red, waving flags, and providing an atmosphere with an intensity that is never replicated at any other race. The tifosi that follow F1 fervently, read about it, are knowledgeable about it, yet none of it dilutes that they have eyes only for the two red cars... It's because of the deep colours of the Italian late summer sun, and the shadows that stretch across the track from the lush trees of the royal park, which tell you that it can only be Monza. And it's because for as long as F1 exists, indeed for as long as machines of speed race one and other, nothing quite like Monza will ever exist anywhere else. Every time F1 is at Monza, despite everything, it feels like the sport is somewhere well-worn, somewhere it belongs. Even if you've never cared to see a Ferrari prevail in a Grand Prix I suggest with all my being that you visit an Italian Grand Prix at Monza one day before you die. And when you do, I defy you to not be touched by the ambiance of the place. If you do manage that then you have my every sympathy.

You've either got soul or you haven't. Monza has it.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Rush Review - 1976 and all that

If history is any sort of guide, then making a motor racing film is a perilous task. The pitfalls are many and considerable, perhaps even obvious, but no less hard to avoid for that. The main ones include that one has to come up with something plausible and accurate to the motor racing aficionado, but entertaining enough to transcend the boundaries and appeal to more of a mass market. If it's based on actual events then you're even more constrained, as the same motor sport nerds will delight in pointing out any major departures from what actually happened. It's also necessary to both create convincing on-track scenes as well as have a compelling off-track plot.

And achieving these seems easier said than done. Some have tried, but arguably none have ticked all of the boxes. John Frakenheimer's Grand Prix from 1966 emphatically ticks the on-track footage box, which was wonderful, but its plot away from the track is rather porous (though perhaps not quite as bad as some like to claim). Le Mans of 1971 equally has wonderful and convincing footage, but hardly an off-track plot at all. Driven fails on both counts, and thus the less that is said about it the better. While Senna got around many of the problems (such as those of realism and creating convincing action) by being a documentary which used original footage from on and off the track as well as, let's be frank, carried a narrative that only really gave one side of that particular story.

Thus, Ron Howard's Rush - tracking the James Hunt/Niki Lauda rivalry in the 1976 F1 season - had much to contend with, lots of traps to fall into. But, do you know what? He's only gone and nailed it. It could well be that motor sport now has a new number one film ever. Certainly it has its leading non-documentary.

New Rush features to mark the world premiere

As you're probably aware by now, the world premiere of the much-anticipated Rush film is happening today in London's Leicester Square. And to mark this as well as to whet all of our appetites further, Studio Canal has released two new behind the scenes featurettes as well as a new clip. You can watch them below.

And my review of the Rush film, given I was lucky enough to see an advance screening of it last week, will be live on this site at 9pm UK time this evening, when the embargo lifts. So do look out for that.