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

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.

FORMULA ONE MUM

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.

FORMULA ONE MUM

Prioritising F1

OK, I admit it, I’ve sold out.  Totally, completely and utterly sold out.  It was the TV advert that did it.  There was no commentary, no hard sell, just an increasingly urgent rhythmic beat building up, shots of the paddock, 5 red lights and go.   To be honest, they had me at the first whirr of the tyre gun.

The SKY man who came to upgrade our perfectly serviceable standard box with the new HD version insisted on demonstrating it using the wildlife channels.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I couldn’t give a stuff about seeing every leaf in the Rocky Mountains; every blade of grass in the Serengeti or the ice dangling from the polar bear’s fur.  I am sure they are fantastically impressive, but my thing is F1.

Of course, they caught me at my most vulnerable; at the precise moment of ultimate F1 anticipation.  Even if the year before has been a dreary, predictable procession; duller than a Kimi Riakkonen press conference, the commentators and specialist journals will always claim that the year ahead could be the best ever in F1.  Despite years of experience and unfulfilled hyperbole, I can almost believe them, for now.  I check out all the testing times, even though I know that they are about as reliable a predictor of form as chicken entrails.  I buy newspapers I wouldn’t normally have any use for other than as lining for the hamster’s cage, just to get the free souvenir F1 season preview. 

Even so, how can I justify the extravagance of a HD TV package?  Well, do my kids really need to learn the violin?  We’re nearly into the Spring, so the holes in their shoes won’t be so much of an issue.  The  5kg slab of Aldi “coloured cheese” (variety unspecified) with the sell by date of 2017, will cover their school lunches until the Summer.

So b*gger the budget and bring on Melbourne.

FORMULA ONE MUM

Sticks and Stones

As we move towards the 2012 Championship season, what have we learned from the outcome of the first F1 test of the year?  Over the 4 days,” Iceman” Kimi Raikkonen was fastest on day one, followed by “Aussie Grit” Webber, “Britney” Rosberg and “Nando” Alonso.   All this suggests that there is an urgent need for FIA to look at the poor quality of current F1 driver nicknames.

Driver nicknames have been an essential part of the F1 scene since the first Championship event at Silverstone in 1950.  Inevitably, the quality of those first pioneer  nicknames was  rudimentary, with Fangio “El Chueco” (Bandy Legs) racing against “Ciccio” (Butch) Ascari.  During the sixties it was a lucky driver who survived long enough to earn a nickname.

The halcyon days of F1 nicknames were the seventies and eighties, with “King Rat” Lauda taking on James Hunt “the Shunt”.  Nicknames had to be chosen with care.  A positive nickname could help illuminate a driver’s performance whilst the wrong nickname could blight a career – “Mr Monaco” Graham Hill (good choice of nickname) / “the Monza Gorilla” Vittorio Brambilla (not so good).  Italian Andrea De Cesaris never managed to live down the nickname “De Crasheris” despite a career of over 200 Grand Prix starts, admittedly not helped by images of him barrel-rolling his Ligier in Austria 1985.

The very best nicknames captured the spirit of a driver’s racing style.  Part of the magic of the Prost versus Senna battles of the late eighties was the contrast in style between the cerebral “Professor”  and the more spiritual “Magic” Senna.  Other nicknames seem to miss the mark, like perennial Dutch second-stringer Jos Verstappen, who was very rarely “The Boss” of anyone.   Nigel Mansell was presumably christened Il Leone by the Ferrari tifosi because of his resemblance to Bert Lahr’s character in the Wizard of Oz movie – “Put’m up, put’m up!”

By the nineties and noughties the quality of nicknames was already slipping, with Michael “ Schumi”, the “Red Barron” Schumacher easily outperforming the likes of David “DC” Coulthard; “Fisi” Fisichella and Damon “Over the” Hill.  The occasional nickname gems tended  to come further down the grid, like “Johnny Carwash” Giovanni Lavaggi, Antonio “Jungle Boy” Pizzonia and Ukyo “Kamikaze”Katayama.

In contrast, today’s driver nicknames either lack inspiration, like Jenson “JB” Button, or feel artificial.  For example, is the hand of Red Bull’s marketing department in Vettel’s “Finger”?  Mark Webber might consider returning to his original childhood karting nickname, “Postie”, as he rarely delivers after one o’clock.

FORMULA ONE MUM