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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Williams F1 2004-2012 – Just History Repeating?

Juan Pablo Montoya driving for Williams at the...

Juan Pablo Montoya driving for Williams at the 2004 US GP. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following Pastor Maldonado’s win in the Spanish GP, many people have commented on the extended gap since the Williams Team last won a F1 race way back in the dim and distant past of 2004.  Of course, much has changed irrevocably in the World over the intervening 8 years.   The news today is almost unrecognisable from the issues that troubled us then.  This is obvious when you look at just some of the headline events from 2004:

  • A High Court judge was conducting a high profile Inquiry into the relationship between politics and the media.
  • In sport, a once proud but now badly cash-strapped nation was hosting the summer Olympic and Paralympic Games.
  • Wolves were relegated from the Premier League
  • In international news, Vladimir Putin was re-elected Russian President.
  • The British Prime Minister visited Libya to extend the hand of friendship to the country’s leadership.
  • A less than popular incumbent American President faced an election battle with an even less inspiring opponent.
  • America and her allies were preparing their exit strategy from the War in Afghanistan.
  • In science, England suffered bizarre weather, with both flooding and drought.
  • Astronomers were thrilled to see a rare Transit of Venus.
  • From the world of the arts, Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” was in the news.
  • Superhero movies and sequels topped the film box office.
  • Finally, Michael Schumacher was crowned Formula 1 World Champion (OK, maybe history isn’t always doomed to repeat itself).

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

Close, but….

Sergio Perez’s run to second in the Malaysian GP has me thinking about other occasions when a great race has resulted in a finish off of the top step of the podium:Jim Clark, 3rd Monza 1967 – Following a puncture Clark made up an entire lost lap to retake the lead, only to fall back to 3rd with gearbox problems.

Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux, 2nd and 3rd  Dijon 1979 – Famous as the one occasion when two F1 cars actually raced against each other, with passes, re-passes, wheel banging and mutual respect.  Great stuff.

Ayrton Senna and Stefan Bellof, 2nd and 3rd Monaco 1984 – Senna’s Toleman was catching Prost’s McLaren when the red flag came out, but who remembers that Bellof’s Tyrell was catching them both?

Rene Arnoux, 2nd Dallas 1984 – On a day that Prost, Lauda and Piquet all crashed, with a track surface made of porridge, Rene raced his Ferrari from last to second and got to meet Sue Ellen on the podium.

Alain Prost, 2nd Mexico 1986 – Finished 2nd despite a car “as bent as a banana”.  The 6 points turned out to be handy come the Championship showdown race in Australia.

Michael Schumacher, 2nd Spain 1994 – In his first F1 incarnation with Benetton, the German finished 2nd despite being stuck in 5th gear for most of the race.

Damon Hill, 2nd Hungry 1997 – I was never a Hill fan, but you can’t deny the achievement of almost winning in an Arrows – something the team didn’t do on 367 other occasions.

Lewis Hamilton, 2nd Turkey GP2 race 2006 – Not an F1 race, but one of the best comeback drives you’ll ever see.  Look up the highlights on You Tube.

Michael Schumacher, 4th Brazil 2006 – What a great way to end an F1 career; after a puncture, ‘Schumi’ drove from 19th to 4th place, including putting his Ferrari replacement , Kimi Riakkonen, well and truly in his place.

Giancarlo Fisichella, 2nd Belgium 2009 – The last time, pre-Perez, when a middle-to-back ranking team almost won a race.

FORMULA ONE MUM

The Next Vettel?

Much has been made of there being 6 current or former World Champions on this year’s F1 grid – or 6.00001 if you count Felipe Massa’s 30 seconds as Champion at Brazil 2008.  However, who amongst the current F1 runners and riders has the potential to step up to the plate and be the next big banana, if not in 2012, in some future year.

The various drivers fall into a number of categories.  There are the resounding “no’s”.  Sadly, although he came close in 2010, Mark Webber probably falls into this group.  Even if the RB8, or rather its tyres, are more to his tastes, the Red Bull ‘mo’ is now irresistibly with Vettel.  The ship has also sailed beyond the horizon for both Massa and, again sadly,  Kovalainen.  Nothing that Kobayashi, Petrov, Maldonado and Karthikeyan have contributed so far in their F1 careers suggests that they are on the right side of the Championship  talent curve and Marussia’s Timo Glock will only be World Champion if the Russian People’s Party are in charge of counting the Championship points.

There are then those drivers who haven’t fully had the opportunity to prove themselves, but are definitely teetering on the brink of the ‘no’ skip.  Perez, Senna and, possibly, Grosjean are in this category, although it really would be something special if Senna could perform a resurrection spell on Williams and drag them back into the winners circle.

The rookies – Verge and Pic have to get a “we simply don’t know” marking.  Experience suggests that performance in lower formulae is no indicator of F1 potential.  Given that he was driving an HRT last year, I’d say that we also haven’t yet seen Daniel Ricciardo have the chance to perform in a Grand Prix car.

Who does that leave as possible future Champions?  Despite six years and no wins, I’m willing to keep the faith with ‘Britney’ Rosberg.  It would be cruel to do otherwise.  His performances for Mercedes suggest that he’s at least as good as Michael Schumacher operating at 85% of his previous talent.  Paul Di Resta is entering the “tricky second year”, which often defines a driver’s career and potential.  If he keeps developing and doesn’t drop the ball when in good positions, he might get a move to a leading team.  Nico Hulkenberg sensibly spent his “tricky second year” sitting in the Force India garage.  The only things that any of us remember about his first year in F1 was him securing pole position for Williams in Brazil and being dumped for money-bags Maldonado, neither of which harmed his reputation.  The Force India rivalry looks like one of the more fascinating prospects for 2012. 

Last but not least of the potential recipients of the Champion’s laurels is Spain’s sparkling septuagenarian Pedro de la Rosa.  Assuming he carries on racing until he is 100, he will surely get an opportunity to seize the ultimate prize.

FORMULA ONE MUM

p.s. To be honest, back in his Honda days, I’d have put Button in the past-it ‘no’ category, so what do I know?

F1 Drivers – Forever Young

Recently, I have been thinking about Billy Bremner in Armani pants.  I have not taken on a sudden fetish for former Leeds United and Scotland players.  I have however been contemplating a curious phenomenon – F1 drivers, and sports people in general, are getting, or rather are looking, younger.

This may seem self evident.  Empirical evidence confirms that sports people are achieving success earlier. Tom Daley was a Diving World Champion at 15 and from 16 years old Wayne Rooney was playing in the Premiership and kicking players twice his age.   In F1 in recent years we have witnessed the inexorable downward trend in the youngest ever World Champion, from Alonso in 2005, to Hamilton in 2008 and Vettal in 2010.  The average Grand Prix driver’s career now makes Doogie Howser M.D. look tardy.  In contrast, both Carlos Reutemann and Clay Regazzoni, significant stars in the 1970’s, were both over thirty before they became established in F1.  Juan Manuel Fangio was forty when he won the first of his five F1 titles in 1951, which must give some hope to Pedro de la Rosa.

However, even the younger drivers looked older in the 1970s.  John Watson and Jody Scheckter both appeared to be mature men in their early twenties.  When he was crowned the youngest ever F1 champion in 1972 (aged 25) and again in 1974, Emerson Fittipaldi looked like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.

The phenomenon is not limited to F1, but applies to other sports too.  Take footballers, for example.  Whether out on the pitch or swaying out of time to Back Home or Glory Glory Leeds United, even top footballers had about as much youthful sporting vigour as Michael Caine in Escape to Victory.  It’s difficult to imagine anyone hiring any of the members of Don Reeve’s championship winning side to replace David Beckham on a billboard in a pair of Armani pants.

By contrast, today’s sportsmen are Peter Pans.  When the carriage clock was finally forced into his unwilling hands at the end of  the longest career in F1 history, Rubens Barrichello  was still recognisably the same shy, fresh-faced  twenty-one year old who joined the then Jordan Team in 1993.  Michael Schumacher is aging like Reed Richards in the Fantastic Four, with a few flecks of salt-and-pepper grey hair added to his sideburns and temples, but otherwise largely unchanged.

I have no single explanation for the unaccountable transformation of our sporting heroes over the past twenty to thirty years.  Muscle tone and conditioning are presumably part of the answer.  It is difficult to imagine Jack Brabham or Alan Jones, even in their prime, joining Mark Webber on his 1,000km Tasmanian Challenge.  In F1, the significant change in driver appearance seemed to come in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s around the time that, Scheckter, Hunt, Jones and Fittipaldi all retired and driver facial hair was banned as an aerodynamic aid.

With McLaren now testing their second generation of Magnussens – 19 year old Kevin – let’s hope The Finger is looking over his shoulder and feeling his age.

FORMULA ONE MUM