It’s Not Just Where Will Lewis Go, But Which Top Driver Would Actually Want to Drive for McLaren?

Lewis Hamilton driving for McLaren at the 2009...

Lewis Hamilton driving for McLaren at the 2009 Turkish Grand Prix. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Way too much is being talked and written about where Lewis Hamilton might lay his sponsor-covered hat from next year.   There has been plenty of speculation – Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes, Lotus, McLaren, Williams –  but little or no genuine intelligence.  I have not the slightest clue what Hamilton’s favoured option would be and I’m pretty sure no one else has either, other than the Brit and his management.

The focus has been largely on Hamilton’s choices and whether these are now closing off.  Some might celebrate that, but from the evidence of the Canadian Grand Prix, it seems clear that F1 can only be better off with Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton in genuinely competitive machinery.

However, there is another angle on the story – would any of the other top drivers consider beating a path to McLaren’s shiny Technology Centre door?  There was no suggestion that McLaren was on Webber’s radar and I can’t imagine the British Team having to start preparing cartoons of either Alonso or Vettel anytime soon for their Tooned series.

The most commonly suggested replacement for Hamilton is Paul di Resta.  The Scot is a solid prospect, but even Lewis’s harshest critics, and there are plenty of them, would be hard pressed to argue that di Resta is a certain like-for-like swap for Hamilton at this stage of his career.

McLaren has a great name and is still one of the top teams, but it is difficult to imagine it now attracting two of the greatest talents in the history of the sport, as it did with prost and Senna in the late nineteen eighties.  Other than a few races at the end of 2005 (when it was too late) and a few races in the middle of 2007 (when they were about to implode), McLaren has not produced a consistently dominant car in recent times.  In contrast, Ferrari, Renault, Brawn and Red Bull all have.

Ultimately, I hope Hamilton stays at McLaren as it still feels the best fit of any of the available team choices.  But it would be good to see what he might do with a bit of Red-Bull 2011-style unfair advantage.

FORMULA ONE MUM

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

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?

FORMULA ONE MUM

Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton – Ultimately, Class Wins Through

Formula One 2010 Rd.8 Canadian GP: Lewis Hamil...

Formula One 2010 Rd.8 Canadian GP: Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing), and Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) on opening lap of the race. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a different post to the one I thought I might write.  I was going to comment that, for all the excitement of this season, the variability of tyres, team performance and occasional mishaps were making it difficult to assess the contribution being made by the drivers.  Which drivers are really performing and which are being either flattered or frustrated by circumstances beyond their control?

However, I then took a look at the top of the Championship leader board:  Vettel, Alonso, Hamilton.  That looked about right.  You might debate the order, but few would disagree that the three champions have been the most impressive performers of the year.  Raikkonen is just a step further behind, as he has been in the last couple of races, with Webber and Button bubbling under.  It is reassuring that, even in a season of total unpredictability, the cream, ultimately rises to the top.  This was well illustrated at last weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix.  Alonso took his previously wayward Ferrari to third, then second, on the grid and within a sniff of victory.  Vettel recovered well from a drive through penalty and Red Bull rhinoplasty.  Hamilton responded with maturity to the loss of pole and demotion to the back of the grid, for which he was blameless, and drove a race of beautifully balanced aggression with tyre and pit stop austerity.

The same was true back in 1983.  Prost, Tamby and Arnoux all made a pitch for the title, with Alboreto, Watson, Patrese and Rosberg also in the winners’ circle, but, in the end, Piquet and Brabham were worthy winners of the driver’s crown.

None of the above is to deny Maldonado and Williams their moment of Spanish triumph, which was about as unexpected as Bernie Ecclestone announcing that he is renouncing all his worldly goods and joining the Poor Sisters order.

With Monaco next, Hamilton is the favourite to join the 5 winners so far, but there are at least 2-3 other drivers – Webber, Raikkonen and, possibly, Grosjean – who it would be surprising if they don’t also win a race sometime soon.   Whoever ultimately wins this year’s F1 title (and I’m still betting on one of the experienced champions) will certainly have earned it against a fiercely competitive field.

FORMULA ONE MUM

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.

FORMULA ONE MUM

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.

FORMULA ONE MUM

VETTEL VS KARTIKEYAN – AN UNEQUAL CONFLICT

Cucumber Castle

Cucumber Castle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the old saying goes, if you tangle with an HRT you’ll end up looking like a Marussia.

I have nothing but respect for Sebastian Vettel’s talent and achievements, but you have to wonder at the wisdom of him engaging in verbal jousting with Narain Karthikeyan.    Vettel might consider the Indian make-weight to be a “cucumber” following their Malaysian contretemps, but the World Champion is beginning to look like a prize turnip.

For the leading drivers, the likes of HRT are usually of no consequence, they are in a different race, if you could even call it that.  They are just the blur that you whiz past against a background of waved blue flags.  However, where the back and the front of the grid do come together, literally, history usually suggests that the best advice for the leading driver is to walk away and preserve his dignity.

Here are some “don’ts” for drivers at the sharp end who find themselves blunted by a slow coach:

Don’t threaten to end the other driver’s career.  Ron Dennis and Norbert Haug didn’t follow this advice after Enrique Bernoldi’s Arrows legitimately held up David Coulthard’s McLaren for lap after lap in the 2001 Monaco GP.  If a driver is no good he’ll disappear soon enough with no outside assistance from the likes of Dennis or Hough.  If he is any good he might just come back to bite you.

Don’t gesture to show your displeasure.  Andrea De Cesaris was leading the Long Beach GP in 1982 when he was held up by Raul Boesel’s March.  In the time it took him to shake his fist he missed a gear and Niki Lauda’s McLaren slipped past to win the race.

Don’t bring photographic proof of the other driver’s guilt to the next race.  Jarno Trulli did this following his crash with Adrian Sutil at the Spanish GP in 2009, achieving nothing but a big bill from the photo developers.

Finally, and most importantly, don’t leap out of your car and start trying to perform prostate surgery on the other driver using your racing boots.  It certainly didn’t add much to the prestige of his role as World Champion when Nelson Piquet set about the hapless Eliseo Salazar when a failed  attempt to lap the Chilean at the 1982 German GP resulted in both cars ending up in the tyre wall.

It’s much better to follow the example of Jenson Button, who owned up to his own crash with Karthikeyan, or Ayrton Senna.  At the Italian Grand prix in 1988, McLaren’s perfect record of victories was destroyed when the Brazilian tripped over one-hit blunder Jean-Louis Schlesser’s Williams.  After the race, when a tearful Schlesser apologised, Senna reportedly accepted it with good grace, although I doubt that Ron Dennis was quite so sanguine.

FORMULA ONE MUM