Friday, 29 August 2014

Belgian GP - The Race (and fall-out)

The moment Civil War erupted

And so its all-out war. The ‘clear the air’ talks at Mercedes between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were about as successful in preventing hostilities as the ‘peace in our time’ Munich Treaty. And as angry as Niki Lauda was after the race, I’m not sure I have ever seen anyone quite as incandescent as the normally very mild-mannered Toto Wolff who was the very definition of seething fury.

Angry man

As well Toto might be after the fragile ceasefire at Mercedes imploded spectacularly when his two drivers crashed in each other on lap two. As a result, Rosberg damaged his front wing and Hamilton sustained a puncture and further damage to the car floor as he nursed his car into the pits. It was pretty much race over for Hamilton after that. In a delicious piece of dramatic irony (and a nomination nod to the Guardian journo who referenced ‘Banquo’s ghost’ when writing about this moment in the race – surely a contender for this week’s Pseuds Corner in Private Eye!), Rosberg ended up with flailing streamers from Hamilton’s delaminated tyre becoming attached to his aerial and fluttering in front of him for a couple of laps. That must have made Eau Rouge interesting.

Rosberg battling to remove Hamilton's tyre streamers. I think they call that karma.

All of which played into the hands of the one driver who is always there to pick up the pieces when Mercedes self-destructs, the lovely Daniel Ricciardo. But it was by no means a gifted walkover of a win. Ricciardo had to overtake the supremely combative duo of Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel (6 world titles cannot be wrong) and then withstand some significant pressure from Nico Rosberg in the closing stages to seal the deal.

Ricciardo has now won 3 of the last 6 races and lies just 35 points in 3rd place behind Lewis Hamilton in the title standings. And while it would be inconceivable to imagine a non-Mercedes title winner, Ricciardo’s superb form (harnessed to perfection by a brilliantly run team) could add a lot of spice to the title battle. What an absolute joy it must be for Christian Horner to have a driver like Ricciardo in the team – massively talented, hungry for success but composed and level-headed in the cockpit. Just a class act on and off the track. As and when he wins the title (as surely he will one day), he will be an enormously popular champion.

Daniel Ricciardo. Class Act.

Bottas took another richly deserved podium by coming home having raced his heart out with stunning moves to pass Alonso and Vettel (his balls of steel overtake of Vettel on the outside of Les Combes rightly brought a standing ovation from his mechanics!) and in the closing laps he overtook Kimi Raikkonen to secure 3rd place. But for the first time this season Kimi finished ahead of his team-mate and had his best result of the year so far. Whatever happened in the summer break, Kimi was like a driver reborn in Spa and just seemed like the Kimi of old – aggressive, focused and really enjoying himself. Maybe that is the Spa Effect. But more of the same in Monza please!

The next 4 drivers across the finish line were 5) Vettel, 6) Magnussen, 7) Button and 8) Alonso who treated us to a wild and thrilling four way scrap that in all honesty could have ended any one of 24 different ways (unless my extremely rusty A-Level in statistics has failed me which is entirely possible). If there is such a thing as a pure shot of ‘racing’ then this exhilerating sequence would be your poison.

The calm before the storm

And so lets pick over the wreckage of Mercedes’ weekend.  The front row lock-out (their fifth of the season) had set the stage for double Mercedes glory and a fabulous battle round the greatest track in motorsport. Lewis had a stunning start to pole-vault himself into the lead and Rosberg initially dropped back to 3rd behind Vettel before quickly regaining his place. Perhaps Rosberg was slightly shaken by nearly throwing away his precious pole position advantage and his subsequent actions were borne more out of desperation to regain the lead than anything more sinister. But as Nico closed up on Lewis going into Les Combes, looking to make the pass, Lewis held firm to his racing line and Nico clipped Lewis’s rear left tyre which immediately suffered a puncture. Only the most stone-hearted fan would not have felt some small ounce of sympathy for Lewis as he staggered into the pits with a delaminated tyre and irreparable damage to the floor having been only moments earlier leading the race. But (and it’s a big ‘but’) this is motor-racing. Sometimes it is cruel and it is unfair. While undoubtedly Lewis has had more than his share of bad luck this season (although a far greater spotlight shines on his misfortune than retirements by drivers scrapping away for the odd point lower down the field), he is in exalted company with others who had the gods conspire against them (see Nigel Mansell, Johnny ‘bad luck’ Herbert and even the great Michael Schumacher at…oh yes… Mercedes).

This tyre blow-out in Adelaide cost Mansell the title. I could still sob at the very memory.

Of course deliberate accidents can and do happen between team-mates but I would definitely interpret this as more of a clumsy manoeuvre than any deliberate attempt by Rosberg to destroy Hamilton’s race. Firstly, Rosberg is leading the championship and there are still 7 races to go; secondly, nine times out of ten both cars would have escaped unscathed from that small sliver of contact; and thirdly, Rosberg has to answer to Toto Wolff who is Very Scary. While he might have misjudged and miscalculated the situation on lap 2 in Spa, and possibly acted a bit petulantly (but its one driver’s word against the other’s on that score), it was IMHO nothing more than a racing incident that even the FIA did not see the need to investigate. That it unfortunately cost Hamilton far more than it cost Rosberg is harsh and unfair but doesn’t mean Nico acted with malice aforethought.

There was another sub-plot in Hamilton’s race story that I found almost equally intriguing. From even before the half-way stage on lap 20, Hamilton implored the team to let him come in, retire from the race and save the engine. Mercedes rightly resisted his overtures at first by pointing out there could be the game-changer of a safety car. Always a distinct possiblity in Spa. But Lewis kept on and kept on pleading and the team clearly felt with 5 laps to go there was no point in him continuing and called him in to retire from the race.

Lewis retires on lap 39

Now this is a tough one. Lewis was obviously struggling without downforce to overtake far inferior cars and clearly his car’s performance deteriorated as the race went on. Probably by the time he did retire, there was little point keeping him out as his car was getting slower. But when he first begged the team to come in, he was still over a whole second faster than Grosjean. So to me it smacks of being a little bit precious and more importantly it shows that Lewis doesn’t have the same degree of fighting spirit out on track when things go wrong. He talks a good talk off the track but his head often goes down far too easily. He is so used to having a blindingly fast car but a Formula 1 grid is made up of 22 cars, most of which don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell in winning a race but all the drivers see the race through (if they possibly can). How much would Andre Lotterer, making his F1 debut at the grand old age of 32, have given to race around Spa for 44 laps as opposed to the one lap before his car conked out with mechanical failure? And what of the fans, Lewis? Its one thing to throw in the towel on lap 39 but did you not really owe it them more than to try and quit the race on lap 20?

The fall-out from the race was seismic. Rosberg was given the Full Vettel Treatment on the podium – a deafening chorus of boos. Mercedes then convened an emergency team meeting, details of which Hamilton ‘helpfully’ passed on to the media.

"We just had a meeting about it and he basically said he did it on purpose. He said he could have avoided it, but he didn't want to. He basically said, 'I did it to prove a point'.”

Rosberg’s initial response was to say:
"As drivers we are here to entertain and to show the fans a good time, our duels are always on the limit. I regret that Lewis and myself touched but I see it as a racing incident – just as the stewards did. I was quicker at the time and there was an opportunity, so I gave it a go around the outside as the inside was blocked. The opportunity was there and, for me, it wasn't a risky situation.”
And Puncture-Gate shows no signs of going away anytime soon. Mercedes has issued this statement today saying they have taken disciplinary action against Nico Rosberg following his collision with Lewis Hamilton in the Belgian Grand Prix.

‘Toto Wolff, Paddy Lowe, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton met today in the boardroom of Mercedes AMG headquarters in Brackley to discuss the events of the Belgian Grand Prix.

During this meeting, Nico acknowledged his responsibility for the contact that occurred on lap two of the Belgian Grand Prix and apologised for this error of judgement. Suitable disciplinary measures have been taken for the incident. 

Lewis and Nico understand and accept the team's number one rule: there must be no contact between the team's cars on track. It has been made clear that another such incident will not be tolerated. But Nico and Lewis are our drivers and we believe in them.

They remain free to race for the 2014 FIA Formula One World Championship.’

Fair play to Mercedes for allowing their two drivers to continue to race although it will be fascinating to see how that plays out in practice. All I can say is BRING ON MONZA!

Stirling Moss driving for Maserati leads the field at Monza in 1956
Michael Schumacher wins at Monza for the 5th time in 2006

The fabulous Tifosi at Monza

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Belgian Grand Prix – Qualifying

How much have I missed F1? I am overjoyed that it is back in all its crazy, controversial, glorious technicolour. And not only is it back, but it is back at The Best Track in the entire calendar, Spa-Francorchamps. I have waxed lyrical about this stunning circuit so many times that I will resist doing so again this time. But as always Spa will do the talking for itself.

The normally interminable summer break has actually gone by really fast – it seems like no time since the Hungarian Grand Prix (and blogging that rather marvellous race while cruising down the Bay of Biscay to Bilbao). But rather unexpectedly this summer I was able to obtain my F1 fix elsewhere.

It is not every day (or year) you go on holiday and discover one of the most important, influential, knowledgeable and legendary figures in Formula 1 happens to be by the most wonderful of coincidences staying at the same place. According to my husband he has never seen me so genuinely shocked and lost for words (including even when he proposed!) as when he told me who he had just been chatting to. Rather amusingly, the husband was wearing his James Hunt t-shirt when Charlie Whiting (just before we realised it was THE Charlie Whiting) asked him if he was a big fan of James. And yes, it was the real Charlie Whiting not the fake one although we *might* have asked him what it was like to meet a fake version of yourself. Fairly surreal apparently!

To be fair its a cool t-shirt

We were very fortunate to have many fascinating conversations with Charlie about Formula 1. I have to admit we would have loved to have spoken non stop about F1 with Charlie and, while he was enormously willing to share his thoughts and insights, he was on his holiday just like us and entitled to some down-time!

Of course we had to ask about favourite races and while my mind was flitting between great Schumacher races and great Senna races and recent classics such as Canada 2011 and Interlagos 2012, Charlie put forward the European Grand Prix of 1999, won by Johnny Herbert. Just a brilliant shout – there was a delayed start, an aborted start, barrel roll crashes, a sequence of heartbreaking retirements from race leaders including title contenders and Fisichella in what would have been his first race win. It was the only race ever won by the Stewart Grand Prix team - and Barrichello made it the perfect day for Stewart by finishing 3rd (behind Trulli in the Prost). To see highlights of that epic race, click here. And yes, Johnny Herbert really is an all round top bloke.

Anyway thanks Charlie – it was an absolute pleasure!

Yours truly and Charlie W
The other guy is the husband!

And so the curtain lifts on Act Two of the 2014 season. Qualifying, here we come.

Good old Spa, the morning of qualifying had already seen torrential rain and hailstorms. But qualifying got underway under glorious blue skies and a wet but drying track, However, more rain was expected within the hour. Should drivers be pushing for their best time right from the start? Spa probably more than any other race is where the team principals and strategists really earn their money.

Dumped out at the Q1 stage were Maldonaldo (Lotus), Hulkenberg (Force India), Chilton (Marussia), Gutierrez (Sauber), Lotterer (Caterham) and Ericsson (Caterham).

Andre Lotterer, making his F1 debut at the age of 32. Sometimes dreams do come true!
(please no one crash into him on the first lap!)

It is quite unusual to only get one pair of cars in the bottom six. Well done to Grosjean, Perez, Sutil and particularly Jules Bianchi (who set the 14th fastest time in his Marussia) all of whom succeeded where their team-mates failed. I would stake a trillion pounds that Bianchi ends up at Ferrari in the next 2 or 3 years. But what happened in Q1 to the Hulk? He is normally so good in the rain.

There's a Ferrari in there somewhere

Depending on who you believe, it was either now raining again or it wouldl be raining again very shortly. Some race engineers were telling their drivers that this run (ie. the first of Q2) could be the fastest one of this session. Blogging Spa qualifying is always a bit of a crazy mindbending experience where you cling on for dear life and enjoy the ride.

It was looking a whole lot like we were going to get yet another Mercedes front row lock out. The next cars (currently Alonso and Bottas) were around a second behind. Unless they were all holding something back in reserve. But unlikely. Or not enough anyway to alarm anyone on the Mercedes pitwall.

Button was teetering on the edge of the dropzone along with Vettel. Interestingly the Red Bulls weren’t exactly storming around Spa and hearteningly the Ferrari's seemed to be much improved from the underperforming and quite frankly dire cars (and if that sounds harsh you have to measure Ferrari by the standards they themselves expect) we saw in the first part of the season. Both Button and Vettel squeaked into Q3 by the narrowest of margins.

Missing the cut for the top ten shoot-out were: 11) Daniil Kvyat 12) Jean-Eric Vergne 13) Sergio Perez 14) Adrian Sutil 15) Romain Grosjean 16) Jules Bianchi. All in all no real shocks there.

So which of Hamilton and Rosberg would take first blood and grab pole in Spa? Its not the kind of track where taking pole is imperative but in the context of the title battle and it being the first race since the summer break, it would be a huge psychological boost especially I feel to Hamilton who must be desperate to break Rosberg’s hegemony in qualifying.

Nico Rosberg - taking on all challengers and the Spa weather

With 5 minutes to go, Rosberg was sitting pretty on provisional pole, with Hamilton just behind him and then Vettel a whopping 1.8 seconds down the order in 3rd spot. To give Vettel his due, he was still much closer than anyone else to the Mercedes pair. 

Really Spa is like manna from heaven for racing photographers. Endless dizzying images of sleek, gleaming cars emerging from the mist and rain through the Ardennes forest. But please remind me never ever ever to book a holiday in Belgium in the summer. Unless of course it is to attend the Belgian Grand Prix!

Track perfection

And Lewis was chucking everything at his final flying lap to grab pole back from Nico. He was ragged beyond belief considering the treacherous conditions and incredibly was a few hundredths of a second ahead but at the death he couldn’t quite pull it off.

Nico Rosberg took pole to make it now four consecutive pole positions (the last time Lewis started on pole was amazingly at the Spanish Grand Prix in mid May) and Lewis will start in second place. But only 6 of the last 14 pole-sitters have gone on to win at Spa. I wouldn’t bet against anyone in a silver car (although it would be turn up for the books if Button or Magnussen were to clinch a sensational win!!).

The top 3 in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix

The top 10 will line up as follows:
  1. Rosberg – Fewest mistakes. Fastest lap. Job done.
  2. Hamilton – Who said “being second is to be the first of the ones who lose”? Ah yes the incomparable Ayrton Senna. Lets see who finishes where at the end of 44 laps.
  3.  Vettel – Is this a rejuvenated Seb? Strange to say about a 4 time world champion!
  4. Alonso – Great to see Fernando higher up to the grid and hope he has one of his electric starts.
  5. Ricciardo – Unusually behind his team-mate but one to watch.
  6. Bottas – A smidge disappointed not to see Williams higher. Claire Williams said before the race that ironically for once they weren’t wishing for rain and looks like she was right.
  7. Magnussen – A good result in tricky conditions.
  8. Raikkonen – Promised much more in the earlier stages of qualifying. Oh Kimi.
  9. Massa – Really just not convinced by Massa at Williams.
  10. Button – Can’t help but think (and I love Jenson) he might have been slightly higher up a couple of years ago. The sands of time and all that.

The stage is set and in around 30 minutes time battle will be rejoined. 44 laps of craziness coming up.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Hungarian Grand Prix - The Race

Hungary is a lot like Monaco. It may not throw up an exciting race very often but when it does, they are truly magnificent spectacles. I warmed up for Sunday's race by watching (and therefore making the poor husband watch as well but he owes me big time for the entire month of televisual viewing of the World Cup) the awesome Hungarian Grand Prix of 1998 (one of my favourite races of all time) which I stumbled across while channel-hopping late last Saturday night. Rock 'n' roll baby.

Unusually we watched the race (as if live) in the evening after a frantic and fraught (and possibly another f-word) day in Bluewater getting last minute stuff for our holiday. We are now on the open seas heading towards Bilbao in the most heavenly weather. Without question this is the most gorgeous setting that I have ever blogged from (to be fair the other venues are my kitchen, Center Parcs and rainy Ireland so not much to beat). Usually it is around this point on our holiday that we realise some crucial thing has been forgotten or we have booked accommodation for the wrong dates but for now I'm in a happy place, especially when I think back to last Sunday's race. Quite simply the Hungarian Grand Prix of 2014 joins the pantheon of great F1 races. IMHO the best race of the season so far (and this deceptively excellent season has offered up some fantastic races so far).

Before I delve into #MartinsGridwalk, its eat-my-hat time - I have to say how well I think Simon Lazenby has grown into his role as frontman/presenter. Back in his first season (which was also Sky's first season - important to remember) I was very unsure he was the right man for the job (and at times I'll admit I was a bit critical, okay quite scathing) but credit where it's due he has improved leaps and bounds and is building up a great rapport with the rest of the presenter team. 

So what did Le Brundle have for us? First up it was Paul Hembery (head honcho at Pirelli). You may remember Paul as dead man walking last year when all the tyres were disintegrating after 5 laps (greatly vexing the likes of Christian Horner). These days Paul is a new man full of joie de vivre while Christian Horner is dating Geri Halliwell. Funny how fortunes can change so much in a year. Anyhow, the heavens had literally just opened all over the Hungaroring and Paul thought it was a 50/50 call between inter conditions and wets. The cars were still going round and round trying to decide with a mere 20 minutes until the start of the race. Nervous times.

Martin then tried to make his way over to Sebastian Vettel who was having A Very Serious Chat with his engineer and instead ended up getting a curt brush off from David Coulthard (who does a good line in curt). The lovely Tanja from German Sky TV who was wafting past was much friendlier to Martin. The F1 equivalent of Dawn and Tim from the Office (yes, I've been drinking!). Martin had a very quick chat with Jenson Button and Danil Kvyat both of whom said it was wet and interesting out there (certainly a prescient comment by Kvyat who ended up stuck on the grid during the formation lap). So folks, show time!

Lights out and Go Go Go! A very surreal start to a F1 race seeing the cars racing flat out along the first long straight to turn 1. A numbers of cars were wobbling out on track. Lewis was reporting problems with his front right brakes and Alonso's Ferrari was twitching all over the place. After things settled down, the front order early doors shook out as follows: 1. Rosberg, 2. Bottas, 3. Vettel, 4. Alonso, 5. Button and 6. Ricciardo. But the Weather Monitor of Doom predicted rain within 5 minutes. Rosberg and Hamilton (rapidly climbing up through the field) were looking very raggedy and Bottas was driving brilliantly to keep Vettel at bay. To recap, a Williams was holding off a Red Bull. How quickly the F1 landscape can change!

Safety Car Klaxon!!! Ericsson was the culprit with a monumental smash on lap 9. Most of the cars all bolted into the pits to whack on some slicks except Jenson Button who went onto inters. That's a mighty big gamble by McLaren. It takes some doing to crash under safety car conditions but Grosjean was the man to rise to the challenge so having just been called in, the safety car was told to stay out. Rosberg was complaining of 'something in the brakes'. Meanwhile the 20 million dollar question (especially for Jenson Button) was when is the rain coming?!

Lap 14 and racing in anger resumed once again. Button almost immediately passed Ricciardo to take the LEAD of the race and was then told that rain was looking a lot less likely. Bugger. Not McLaren's finest hour ever. Poor old Jenson. Hamilton was now doing a Senna-esque charge through the field and managed to take FOUR PLACES in one sector to move up to 9th. We were told it was clearly now Hammertime - a phrase that has been recently adopted by the media which irrationally irritates me. In a contrast of Mercedes fortunes, Rosberg was going backwards. Having tried and failed to take Magnussen, he was passed by Vergne and now found himself in a 3 way battle with Vettel and Hamilton (now up to 7th) for 5th place. Not where he would have wanted to be AT ALL. Even more calamitous was Jenson's race - after that suicidal pitstop decision, he dived into the pits on lap 16 to get the slicks he should have had put on 5 laps earlier. Bugger.

Ah a Maldonado crash (into Bianchi). Another tick on the F1 race bingo. Quite amazingly the fastest laps were now being set by Fernando Alonso. We hadn't seen that from a Ferrari for a very long time. The leading cars were now 1. Ricciardo, 2. Massa, 3. Alonso and 4. Vergne. Yes, Vergne was miraculously STILL ahead of Rosberg. 'Curiouser and curiouser' said Alice. Actually the real Alice was actually saying on loop "I want the red car to win". Ah those were the days. Or did she know something I didn't?!

Yet another Safety Car Klaxon (for the second time in this race) after a mahoosive crash by Perez. Cue pitstops galore and the main point I noted (not necessarily the key point but the only one I noted!) was that Hamilton was now sandwiched between the two Red Bulls. Given his race started in the pit lane in LAST place this represented stunning progress. Vergne was STILL defying all the odds and keeping the Silver Arrows of Rosberg firmly in his rear mirrors. Vergne's brilliant defensive driving was holding up a train of cars allowing Fernando Alonso to increase his narrow and precious lead lap by lap. Eventually on lap 33, Rosberg pitted from 3rd and to compound his bad luck had a slow stop before rejoining back in 13th. 

Hamilton (unlike his team-mate it has to be said) wasted no time in passing Vergne in a brilliantly clinical move on lap 34 and so at the halfway point, the top order was 1. Alonso, 2. Hamilton, 3. Ricciardo (going very nicely on fresh tyres), 4. Massa and 5. Kimi. Alonso was now getting all sorts of radio messages in different languages - always a sign that things are afoot at Ferrari! After the next round of pitstops, Ricciardo was leading the race on lap 45 and fragments of seconds split Alonso, Hamilton (who was now complaining of a hot seat...ouch!) and Rosberg. Well game bloody on.

Grandstand finish here we come and best of all we had the prospect of a mouthwatering Ros v Ham duel for the first time in a good few races. In a baffling intervention from Mercedes over the radio, Hamilton was told not to hold Rosberg up. Hamilton's response? "I'm not slowing down for Nico". Cue much complaining from Nico. Well a few points here in Hamilton's defence (please take note - you know who you are!):

1. Rosberg was no way near close enough (ie. not even in DRS range!) to Hamilton to warrant the imposition of team orders.
2. Rosberg still had to pit again (with all the variables that another pitstop brings) and Hamilton couldn't be totally sure that he himself wouldn't need to pit.
3. Ricciardo probably also had to pit so Lewis could not afford to give away 2 seconds in slowing for his team-mate. Oh and Alonso (still in front of Lewis and eminently catch-able in an inferior Ferrari) was not going to pit again so every second was vital.

Slam dunk as they say.

And sure enough on lap 55, Ricciardo came into the pits (as did Rosberg just two laps later). Alonso was now leading the Hungarian Grand Prix. How long has it been since Ferrari were in with a real shout of winning a F1 race? With an agonising 8 laps to go (if you were sat in the the Ferrari/Mercedes/Red Bull garage or in my house!), the first three cars (Alonso, Hamilton and Ricciardo) were separated by just hundredths of seconds. You simply could not call it and for good measure Rosberg had decided to join the party by putting in some blistering laps to slash the gap between himself and the leading three.

With a couple of laps to go, it was Ricciardo who seized the opportunity to go for glory by passing Hamilton and then Alonso (who had been clinging onto the lead for the last few laps by deploying every ounce of his tremendous racecraft) to take the LEAD of the race and then serenely pull away from the chasing pack. We were then treated to a stunningly exciting final lap as Alonso heroically battled to keep the mighty Silver Arrows at bay, ultimately succeeding to bring a very average Ferrari home in a truly magnificent second place behind race-winner, Daniel Ricciardo.

Hamilton took 3rd spot (ahead of Rosberg) which was simply a phenomenal performance of immense skill and tenacity given that he started last. Oddly he seemed dejected after the race. Lewis needs to learn how to be kinder to himself. He came home ahead of his team-mate (the pole sitter) after the aberration of qualifying which is more than he could possibly have hoped for (and Nico would definitely have to consider Hungary as 13 points lost). The remaining points were taken by Massa in 5th, Kimi in 6th, Vettel in 7th, Bottas in 8th, Vergne in 9th and Button in 10th.

Hamilton is now just eleven points behind Rosberg in the championship race which sets us up for a thrilling second half of the season. But first we have the summer break which almost cruelly interrupts the ferocious battle at the top of the championship just as it reached fever-pitch once again. But we can all draw breath, go on holiday (we have literally just disembarked in Bilbao and the 7 year old is already planning his visit to the Nou Camp once we make our way across to Catalunya!) and prepare ourselves for the return of hostilities at the Greatest Track in F1, the Spa-Francorchamps Circuit. Could the opening of Act II have a more befitting and majestic stage?!

Happy holidays everyone.