F1 2012 So Far, Part 2 – The Teams

Formula One 2011 Rd.2 Malaysian GP: Narain Kar...

Formula One 2011 Rd.2 Malaysian GP: Narain Karthikeyan (HRT) during the second practice session on Friday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous post I rated the relative performances of the drivers so far in 2012.  This time it’s the teams’ turn.  Which teams’ members are punching the air and which are punching each other?

Top Bananas

HRT: If you take a conventional points, podiums and wins point of view, then it would be difficult to place HRT in the upper echelons.  However, considering their change of ownership, move to Spain and failed crash test, turning up and being well within the 107% hurdle by race 2 is a significant triumph.  They’re maybe not Champions, but nor are they a real embarrassment.

Lotus:  setting aside all the Group Lotus/Team Lotus kerfuffle last year and the black and gold paintwork, the current “Lotus” has absolutely nothing to do with the legendary Team of Colin Chapman, Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt and Mario Andretti. It does, however, share its DNA with Senna’s Toleman, Schumacher’s Benetton and Alonso’s Renault and seems, now, to be remembering that.

Sauber:  2012 has shown both the very best and worst of Sauber.  For a Team that was left for dead by BMW a couple of years ago to be pushing near the front is impressive. However, when the moment came in Malaysian, the Team’s instinct was for caution and consolidation, not to go for the win.

Williams: After its worst ever season in 2011 it would have been challenging for Williams not to have performed better this year.  I still have my doubts about the driver pairing, but it would be churlish not to acknowledge the Team’s competitive revival.

Orange Squashed

Marussia:  The Team may have lost its Virgin status, but nothing else seems to have changed.  Is there any point in being the second worst team in F1?

Caterham:  The Caterham Team are a bit like the scenes in the cartoon Scooby-Do when Scooby and Shaggy start running away from the old caretaker dressed as a mummy; there’s lots of energy and effort but they don’t seem to make any movement forward.

Toro Rosso:  You have to judge a Team by its own purpose and criteria for success. Toro Rosso exists as the Red Bull kindergarten.  On that basis, neither Ricciardo and Vergne have yet been able to establish themselves as potential promotees.

Mercedes:  On the one hand, that Chinese win was a huge step forward for the Mercedes Team, as demonstrated by Norbert Haug’s Champaign and tear soaked grin on the podium.  However, taken as a whole, the season hasn’t proved yet whether the Silver Arrows can be consistent Championship challengers.

Sour Grapes

Force India: [This commentary has been left deliberately blank under instruction from FOM]

Red Bull:  If only there was a Germanic equivalent of the word schadenfreude.  It was delicious hearing Sebastian Vettel’s desperate enquiries during the Chinese GP practice, “Is it enough? Is it enough”.  No, it wasn’t.  Like a reverse Williams, Red Bull really had nowhere to go but down after their 2011 season and we have all been the beneficiaries, so far.

Ferrari:  1962, 1965, 1969, 1973, 1980, 1991-1993, 2009 – In its long history, Ferrari have had substandard performances and have recovered.  However, I doubt that is much consolation to Fernando Alonso.  At least they didn’t try and use the Malaysian win to paper over the cracks.

McLaren:  I have posted separately about the trials of the McLaren Team.  Is McLaren basically the fastest car, undermined by the vagaries of the Pirelli tyres and a few fumbled pit stops, or is there some more fundamental flaw in the Woking set up?

The good news is, based on 2012 so far, it’s likely that this post will fall out of date very quickly, which wouldn’t have been the case in 2011.

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F1 2012 – Who’s Hot and Who’s Not?

Nico Rosberg had a good race for Mercedes, fin...

Michael Schumacher Photographer: Adrian Hoskins. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, 4 races into the F1 season, with 4 different winners and 8 different drivers on the podium, team and driver form has fluctuated more wildly than Donald Trump’s hairdo in front of a wind farm.

Only a fool would try to draw any conclusions from the season so far.  So here are my conclusions drawn from the season so far, starting with the drivers.  Compared with the start of the year, who’s stock is soaring higher than Ron Dennis’ blood pressure during a McLaren pit stop, and who’s reputation has dropped faster than Bernie Ecclestone’s chances of winning the humanitarian of the year award?

On the Up

“Topper-most-of -the-poper-most” so far in 2012 are, I think, in no particular order:

Kimi Raikkonen  – To be honest, I’d have bet his weight in coke and ice cream that the Finn’s F1 return would fall flat, but he has applied himself and raced well.  Best of all, we haven’t had to listen to endless comments about what Robert Kubica might have achieved in the Lotus-Renault.

Roman Grosjean – Despite two early baths in the first two races, it is a credit to the Sideshow Bob lookalike that it’s still not clear where supremacy will ultimately lie within the Lotus team this year.  He is a salutary lesson for F1 not to give up on drivers just because their first foray into the top rank, in his case with Renault in 2008, is pants.

Sergio Perez – His second place in Malaysia was terrific and there is now no surprise in seeing him near the sharp end of the field.  How good is he?  We’ll not know for sure whilst he’s with perennial mid-fielders Sauber.  However, the experience of Badoer and Fisichella suggests that he should probably resist the temptation of any proposed mid-season switch to Ferrari.

Fernando Alonso – I’m sure Alonso would have liked a shot at the title, but, honestly, what could be better for his reputation than an ugly, ungainly Ferrari?  Any top 10 position is regarded as a minor miracle.

Honourable mentions too  for Mark Webber and Narain Karthikeyan, both for taking the fight to Vettel in their own ways, Di Resta for his Bahrain drive and Jamie Alguersuari – who knew he could sound articulate and knowledgeable?

The Levellers

Jenlis Butlton – the McLaren twins have been fairly closely matched this year.  Button has had two good and two not so good races. Poor Lewis has finally added some calm and consistency to his armoury, just in time for McLaren to turn into the Keystone Cops.

Michael Schumacher –  I was almost tempted to put him amongst the Uppers for his comments about the disproportionate importance of tyres and tyre management this year.  In addition, he qualified 4th, 3rd and net 2nd in the first three races when qualifying has been his Achilles heel since his return.

Nico Rosberg – Like his nickname-namesake, Britney, Nico has proved with his Malaysian win that he can be a top performer, but you’d still have to worry about his consistency.

Sebastian Vettel – Prior to the Bahrain GP, Vettel might have slipped into the “Downers” compared with his exalted position at the start of the season.

Downers

In China Qualifying 2, 14 cars were covered by less than 0.6 of a second and in Q1 even the HRTs have been well inside the 107% rule.  In other words, none of these drivers are slouches.  However…

Felipe Massa – It’s difficult to believe that the Brazilian’s stock could have actually dropped any further after his 2011 season.  To be honest, I’ve never really understood the trajectory of Felipe’s career from erratic Sauber driver; to dutiful Schumacher stooge; to race winner and genuine title contender; to Alonso’s whipping boy.  Some think him leaving Ferrari might be a blessing in disguise, although, as Winston Churchill said, if it is a blessing it is very well disguised.

Timo Glock – I’ve always been one of those who thought Timo Glock a reasonably talented driver, wasted in the Manor / Virgin / Marussia Team. However, with a long-term contract through to 2014 with the Team, I wonder if the German has become too settled in qualifying 20th or 21st.

Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo – This might seem a bit cruel, as they are both only a few races into their Torro Rosso drives and both have scored points.  However, the single question hanging over both drivers is whether they are performing better than Sebastien Buemi and Jamie Alguersuari would have done.  The question is still there and with each passing race the clock is ticking for them both.

Next post, the teams.

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McLaren F1 – An Omni-Shambles?

York as Logan 5, with blinking red lifeclock i...

Logan 5 watches another McLaren pit stop go wrong. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the Chinese and Bahrain double header, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton might be forgiven for launching into a few Malcolm Tucker of The Thick of It style, expletive laden, tirades. 

This post is not intended as further criticism of the Team’s unfortunate right rear gun-man.  Almost every TV show I’ve seen over the past couple of decades, with the possible exception of the Antiques Road Show and Songs of Praise, has at some stage run a Formula 1 pit stop demonstration.  Despite this, I still have not the slightest inkling of what it must be like to be a member of an F1 pit crew in the heat of a Grand Prix.  No, the McLaren Team’s problems run much, much deeper than a few fumbled tyre changes. 

Whilst other teams might wax and wane, McLaren, along with Ferrari, is accepted as one of the Formula One royalty.  Yet, the bare facts are that the McLaren Team hasn’t won a constructers championship since 1998 and has secured just one driver’s title since 2000, and then only by the skin of a Toyota’s Bridgestones.  A significant chunk of this period was, of course, the Schumacher and Ferrari era of dominance.  However, lesser resourced teams such as Renault, Brawn and Red Bull have all secured multiple titles in recent years.

Where is the flaw in the Woking Team’s world?  The fault can hardly rest with the drivers.  Of the 6 current or former World Champions on the present F1 grid, 4 have driven for McLaren during the past decade.  The Team can’t be criticised for its engineering ability or willingness to innovate – just look at the F-duct and the turn-around in their 2009 season.  McLaren doesn’t lack first class facilities – the McLaren Technology Centre and circuit Brand Centre are testaments to Ron Dennis’ unbending commitment to efficiency, presentation and silver paint

 

McLaren is like one of those futuristic utopias in a 1970s science fiction film.  On the surface, all is gleaming perfection, but underneath there is a rotting flaw waiting to undermine the whole edifice.  McLaren is the Logan’s Run of Formula 1.

What all the teams that have succeeded over the past decade have had – whether Ferrari, Renault, Brawn or Red Bull – is a clear philosophy running through from the design to the race tactics.  That may also be the case with McLaren, but it isn’t so obvious to see.

For the sake of a good 2012 season, I hope that McLaren can sort out the problems they have experienced so far this year, post-Melbourne.  If not, they are likely to face some significant criticism.  An attractive car and some funny Vodaphone adverts will only carry good will so far.

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Formula One Teams Boycott Race

Gilles Villeneuve

Gilles Villeneuve (Photo credit: Janex & Alba)

Exactly thirty years ago this week, the Formula One circus was preparing for a race mired in acrimony, with the threat of team boycotts.

There were a number of significant differences from the current situation in Bahrain.  On that occasion 10 of the teams decided that the issue in dispute was serious enough for them not to race.  Amongst the rebels was one B. Ecclestone, then owner of the Brabham team.  The race was the San Marino Grand Prix of 1982 and this was the height of the clash between the teams of the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) and the sporting authority FISA.  The subject of the disagreement was not about human rights, the struggle for democracy or state repression, but the slightly more prosaic question of whether teams should be allowed to top their cars up with “brake-cooling” water at the end of a GP race.

The water topping up was a clever, if hardly subtle, ruse by the normally-aspirated Cosworth powered teams.  It allowed them to run their cars underweight during the race and, therefore, compete against the more powerful turbo-powered manufacturer-backed so-called “grandee” teams.  The Brabham of Nelson Piquet and Williams of Keke Rosberg were excluded from the Brazilian Grand Prix for using this trick, which was subsequently banned by FISA.   In protest, 10 teams, including Ecclestone’s Brabham, Williams, McLaren and Lotus (mark 1), withdrew from the San Marino event.

Although 14 cars lined up to race at Imola, just 4, the two Ferraris and two Renaults, were genuine competitors.  When the fragile Renaults expired, the Ferrari’s were left alone far out in front.  This was the infamous race in which Didier Pironi duped teammate Gilles Villeneuve, passing the Canadian on the last lap as the Ferraris ran in 1-2 formation.  Villeneuve’s prophecy that he would “never speak to Pironi again” was proved tragically correct two weeks later when the gifted Canadian lost his life in a practice accident at the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder.  A few months later, Pironi would suffer a career ending accident himself at Hockenheim, robbing him of a likely World Championship.

It is hardly worth speculating whether the outcome of the San Marino race might have been different had the 10 Cosworth “garagistas” been present to mix up the race between the two Ferraris.

The carnage of the 1982 season largely brought an end to the FOCA vs FISA dispute.  By the end of the 1983 season, almost all the former Cosworth teams,  were running manufacture provided turbo powered engines in their cars.  Ecclestone continued his progress from team owner and representative to the sport’s commercial rights holder and dominant force.

However, as he tours the Bahrain paddock with the Crown Prince and insists that the F1 show should not be distracted by a “few kids” causing trouble, it is worth knowing that 30 years ago, Ecclestone along with Frank Williams and McLaren’s Ron Dennis  were willing to take a different view on standing up on a point of high ”principal”.

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Is Formula One the Most Fickle Sport?

Formula One 2010 Rd.3 Malaysian GP: Nico Rosbe...

 

Is there any sport more fickle than Formula One?

Following the first two races of the season, Nico Rosberg was variously accused of being a F1 choker, unable to string a decent qualifying run together when it mattered; failing to win after 110 attempts, shaming his World Champion father’s name and being shown the way by his elderly retainer team mate at Mercedes.  After his excellent China win, apparently, everyone always knew that Nico was a huge talent, with the potential to be a multiple race winner and future World Champion, who was previously held back only by the poor quality of equipment at his disposal.

After his run to second in Malaysia, ‘Checo’ Perez enjoyed a similar transformation, from obscure mid-field runner and tyre preservation specialist, to virtually being fitted out for a Ferrari race suit.  Sebastian Vettel experienced the reverse trajectory from semi-deity to under pressure “cry baby”.  Lewis Hamilton’s reputation seems to swing around like a weather vane, largely dependent on whether he cracks a smile or not.

Admittedly, there are other sports with reputations for inconsistency.  Football is notoriously impatient, particularly of managers.  However, most managers get at least 5-6 matches (3-4 if they manage Chelsea) before their reputations are trashed.  Even the England manager usually gets the chance to fail spectacularly in one major tournament before his head is replaced by a root vegetable.

American sport is also famously capricious, with whole teams shifting identities and locations overnight.  The Wichita Wombats can become the Baltimore Beavers in the time it takes the ink to dry on a franchise contract.  However, America sport tends to be sentimental – almost anyone with a pulse who played professional sport in America ultimately makes it into one ‘Hall of Fame’ or another.

Only in Formula One is it literally true that you’re only as good as your last race.

There is, of course, always one exception to prove the rule.  In this case, one driver whose reputation never seems to vary.  It appears that Fernando Alonso could spin off the track, crash through the barriers, ram raid an orphanage and run off with their teddy bears and the commentators would still say: “And their goes Alonso, the most complete driver in Formula One.” Annoyingly, they’d probably be right.

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Bahrain GP – Let’s Not Kid Ourselves

View of the stands from outside the main grand...

View of the stands from outside the main grandstands at the Formula One race in Bahrain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

OK, let’s not kid ourselves.  Formula One has never set itself up as an exemplar of morality.

In the apartheid era, F1 was happy to “play Sun City” long after other sports had departed.  The South African race was only cancelled, ultimately, under political pressure from teams’ and drivers’ home countries.  Formula One has always been a sport in which there is no such thing as the ‘spirit’ of the law, just what is written on the page, in the contract or at bottom line.

It is difficult to argue, therefore, that the decision to go ahead with the Bahrain race is a massive departure for Formula One.  Bahrain is by no means the only country in the Non-League Conference Division of World democracy, that F1 will visit this year.

The difference is that in Bahrain there is risk of the F1 race being a focus of political protests, disruption and unwanted symbolism.

Like Morgan Freeman at the end of the Shawshank Redemption, I hope for the best.  I hope the Bahrain GP goes off without a hitch and is as exciting a race as China was.  I hope that the Bahrain authorities do not try to use the race as a political statement that everything is all right.  I hope the Bahrain opposition don’t use it as an opportunity for protest.  I hope that the teams don’t feel the need for the sort security measures that will make the F1 paddock in Bahrain even more of a bunker  I hope  that F1 has not set itself too high a bar for ‘success’.

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Formula for Fun – F1 Driver Hobbies

Model train HO - Modélisme de train HO

Model train HO - Modélisme de train HO (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The gap between the Malaysian and Chinese GPs has been filled with stories of what the drivers do in their spare time.  We have seen endless shots of Jenson Button competing in the Hawaiian iron man event, which might have been marginally more entertaining if he’d only worn a hoola skirt.

Past drivers have had more eclectic hobbies. For example, what connects 1980s pop peddler, Pete Waterman and long-serving F1 racer Riccardo Patrese? Surprisingly, they both share an enthusiasm for model railways.  If you think that makes Patrese sound too sedate then watch the super You Tube clip of him scaring the lunch out of his wife at the Jerez circuit.

Not surprising for a sport relying on hand-eye co-ordination, a number of F1 stars have been radio control airplane enthusiasts, including Ayrton Senna, Alex Zanardi and Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Frentzen’s one-time teammate, Jarno Trulli will have more time this year to produce his now famous wine, although fellow Jordan old-boy, Giancarlo Fisichella might be too busy in the Ferrari simulator to fulfil his passion for stream fishing.

Former World Champion and reformed ‘tash’ wearer Nigel Mansell was a serious golfer, owning his own course and once competing as an amateur in the Australian Open.  In 2003 he just missed out on joining the European Seniors Tour when his golf buggy suffered a massive tyre blowout on the final fairway.

Away from the track, both Jamie Alguersuari and Sakon Yamamoto spin tracks as DJs.  Alguersuari and 1997 Champ Jacques Villeneuve went further by releasing their own albums.  Alguersuari’s Organic Life briefly topped the iTunes chart, whilst Villeneuve’s Private Paradise didn’t.

More daredevil hobbies can get drivers into difficulty.  For example 1970s and 80s French pilot Patrick Depailler broke both legs in a hand gliding accident, whilst Juan Pablo Montoya hurt his shoulder playing “tennis”.

Hell-raising reputations can sometimes belie more tranquil hobbies.  For example, James Hunt was a demon backgammon player and budgerigar breeder.  Similarly, modern day bad boy Kimi Raikkonen apparently enjoys more cerebral pursuits as a computer geek, or at least I’m sure I read that during his McLaren days he was a regular in a laptop club.

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