Confused by a Season of Contradictions

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

Michael Schumacher – 2012 success and failure Photographer: Adrian Hoskins. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The run-up to the British GP, usually close to the mid-point of the F1 season, is traditionally a time for reviewing the lessons of the year so far and the implications for the remaining races.  However, the messages of the 2012 season to date are more confusing than a game of Chinese whispers involving Bane from the new Batman movie.  Here are some of the “push-me-pull-you” stories of the first half of F1 2012:

William’s Pastor Maldonado has matured into a GP winner, genuine front-runner and even, possibly, a potential championship challenger.  He has also taken over the mantle from Lewis Hamilton as F1’s bad boy, with multiple crashes and clashes and more trips to the race control than a man with his y-front elastic trapped on the stewards’ door handle.

The combination of Pirelli tyres, DRS and KERS are making for one of the most exciting ever seasons, with closely fought grids and races and unpredictable results.  Pirelli, DRS and KERS are also ruining F1 2012 with artificial factors and uncontrollable drop off in tyre performance undermining genuine competition and forcing drivers to drive to lap times rather than their true potential.

After 3 years away doing reconnaissance work for the Finnish forestry commission, Kimi Raikkonen’s F1 return has gone better than anyone could have expected, with podium finishes secured and a win surely not far off.  The Finn’s F1 return is also turning sour after being shown the way by almost rookie Romain Grosjean, a Monaco practice sulk and too many failures to capitalise on race winning opportunities.

The Ferrari F2012 is the least effective of the cars produced by the font-running teams, often struggling to make it into Q3.  The Ferrari is also powering Fernando Alonso to a healthy lead in the drivers’ championship.

Michael Schumacher is past it, making rookie errors such as running into the back of Senna at the Spanish Grand Prix and dropping over 50 championship points behind teammate Nico Rosberg after just 8 races this season.  Schumacher’s F1 comeback has also, finally, come to life, with the German securing his first pole and podium since Justin Bieber was a foetus, and having his Championship challenge only undermined by mechanical misfortunes.

Despite some pit-stop mishaps, the McLaren MP4-27 is, overall, both the best looking and the most effective of the 2012 machines, locking out the front row in the first two races of the season and qualifying at or near the sharp end of the grid for the remaining races.  The McLaren also struggles for speed in races, not only against the Red Bull and Ferrari, but has also now fallen behind the Lotus and, on occasion, the Mercedes.

Jenson Button is famously gentle on his tyres.  He is also one of the more cerebral drivers, demonstrating during his time at McLaren how race craft and general awareness can triumph over outright pace.  More than any other driver Button has struggled to cope with the 2012 Pirellis, requiring 3 pit stops in Canada, whist others made it home on just one.  The Brit has also confessed to being “lost and confused” about his race performances.

Jean-Eric Vergne is a prodigious talent and future GP winner, who has been marked for racing success since his father bought him his first kart when he was aged just 4, and who scored points in only his second F1 race.  Vergne has also been a huge disappointment, being the most likely driver to join the 3 F1-B class teams in Q1 failure and committing unprovoked GBH on Heikki Kovalainen’s Catterham at the European GP.

Sebastian Vettel has almost certainly signed a pre-contract agreement to drive for Ferrari alongside Fernando Alonso in 2014 and has also almost certainly not signed to drive for Ferrari in 2014. A future London city-centre Grand Prix is a definite possibility and definitely impossible.  All the F1 teams have signed the new Concorde Agreement, apart from those that haven’t, and Mercedes are and are not pulling out of F1 at the end of the season.

Based on the season so far, one thing I can predict about F1 2012 is that I definitely won’t be making any predictions.

FORMULA ONE MUM

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Battle of the Driver Egos?

Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari 150 Italia. Gran...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

OK, I’m not proud of myself, but I needed to find some way of blocking out the seemingly constant coverage of the Euro 2012 football championships.  I have, instead, been watching the television programme Battle of the Brides.  This programme takes what should be the most special and spiritual day of a bride’s life and turns it into the emotional equivalent of a two car head on collision.  Just watching it makes you feel like a rubber-necker.  The premise of the show is that two brides are offered £25,000 to hold a joint wedding, but they must agree to choose the same style of dress, decor and entertainment.  Inevitably, the entertainment value relies on pairing brides with wholly incompatible wedding tastes.  So, for example, a black clad Goth will share her big day with a pink Barbie fan, or a bride who’s always dreamt of a Marie-Antoinette style historical wedding will find herself walking down the aisle dressed in a Star Trek uniform and with her ring being carried by a remote controlled K-9 robot dog.

All this is by way of preamble to a word or two about the current discussion of the unlikely coupling of two of Formula One’s current three leaders of the pack, Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.   According to the speculation, Ferrari are reportedly playing a version of “Snog, Marry, Avoid” in deciding their future driver line up.  There has been surprise expressed at current incumbent Alonso’s suggestion that he would be entirely relaxed with sharing the Ferrari motor home with either of his main rivals.  However, this is hardly a shocking revelation.  Which Formula 1 driver would say publicly that he doesn’t want to compete against a particular driver in the same car, even if he is manoeuvring behind the scenes to keep his competitor locked out?  No, the unexpected element of this scenario is that the Ferrari Team would consider this approach.  All suggestions are that Alonso is carrying the Italian team this year, so why upset the famously touchy toreador.  Also, for at least the past 15 years, the Prancing Horse team have been the ultimate exponents of the one trick pony approach to driver couplings.  The first line of any Ferrari no.2 contract since Eddie Irvine’s in 1996 has been “Michael / Fernando is faster than you.”

Alonso and Vettel or Alonso and Hamilton at Ferrari or, possibly even Vettel and Hamilton at Red Bull, would be fascinating, mouth watering prospects, if the various pre-nuptials could be agreed.  However, the previous experience of star driver pairings (Jones & Reutemann, Prost & Senna, Mansell & anyone else) does not bode well for much in the way of loving, honouring or obeying.

Of course the other player in these silly season shenanigans is the poor cast-off current partner, Felipe Massa.  Will he end up in the Ferrari equivalent of the First Wives Club, along with Giancarlo Fisichella and Luca Badoer?

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A Good Month for Bad F1 Anniversaries

Rubens Barrichello makes way to Michael Schuma...

Rubens Barrichello makes way to Michael Schumacher at 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, from English Wikipedia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a terrible month for anniversaries, or maybe a good month for terrible anniversaries.  We have recently passed the anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s death on 1 May 1994.  We have progressed onto the 30th anniversary of Canadian daredevil driver, Gilles Villeneuve, at Zolder on 8 May 1982.  Looking for, and failing to find, some more positive anniversaries, I discovered that it is 20 years since Nigel Mansell was in the middle of his 5 race winning streak at the start of his tedious steamrollering of the 1992 World Championship in the active suspension Williams FW14B.    One of the best scenes in the movie Senna is a brief shot of the Williams in a pit garage, with the unmanned car dancing like a hyperactive Transformer, as the mechanics adjust the suspension telemetry.

Talking of unfair advantages, it is exactly 10 years this month since the notorious Austrian Grand Prix held on 12 May 2002.  This was the race in which Rubens Barrichello, leading in his Ferrari, was ordered to move over to allow his illustrious teammate, Michael Schumacher, to pass. This was only the 6th race of the season.  Schumacher had already won 4 of the preceding 5 races and was leading the championship by over 20 points.  David Coulthard’s win at Monaco later that month would be the last occasion in the 2002 season on which any car other than a Ferrari crossed the finish line first.  If ever there was an occasion when team orders were not called for, this was it.  Only when the boos began ringing around the A1 Ring did Schumacher and Ferrari team principal Jean Todt look suitably shamefaced, the German meaninglessly pushing the Brazilian onto the top step of the podium.

As usual, Bernie Ecclestone managed to miss the point entirely.  He commented “I did not like what I saw.  Team orders are only acceptable if the championship is in the balance at the end of the year…They could have come up with something more elegant or more discrete.”  So the problem wasn’t asking Rubens to move over, but that Ferrari made it too blatant.  Fortunately, Ferrari learned their lesson and applied the much more subtle “Alonso is faster than you” tactic in Germany 2010.

It seems inevitable, with such a tight championship challenge, that we will hear more about team orders this season.  Indeed, Lotus has already been criticised for not forcing Romain Grosjean to move aside for Kimi Raikkonen.  At least this year, unlike ten years ago, team tactics are likely to be justified.

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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”.

FORMULA ONE MUM