Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Singapore Grand Prix - Preview

Act III, Opening Scene - Downtown Singapore

All of a sudden we are down to just 6 races. We are reaching the end-game.

The globetrotting denouement to this fiercely contested and impossibly hard to call season will get underway in Singapore this weekend. In recent seasons this has normally heralded a run of horrifically dull, processional races (normally won by Red Bull). But joy of joys the Indian GP (should have worked but just didn’t) and the Korean GP (the all-time highlight being PSY waving the chequered flag in 2012 to put an end to all our misery) have been dropped from the F1 calendar. *High Five to Bernie* So goodbye Indian and Korean GPs, we barely knew you at all but I think we can all agree a conscious uncoupling is the best thing all round.

And this means we have a very eclectic, diverse and fascinating collection of races to see out the season. First off, its back to the Far East for the longest race (309km – that’s a whole lot of street) and one of the most gruelling races for drivers of the season. Cards on the table, I’ve never been much of a fan of this race. On paper, it sounds great. A night race around a visually stunning street circuit that by all accounts has an incredibly charged atmosphere. Its basically like watching Bladerunner with cars. No other race on the F1 calendar has that package so what’s not to love?

A scene from Bladerunner or the Singapore GP? Spookily alike!

Well its very difficult to overtake for starters meaning that other factors such as tyre/pitstop strategy and unreliability will have much more of a bearing on how the race unfolds. Interestingly, it has a 100% record of a Safety Car (normally a good indicator of a lively race, see Montreal) so it obviously has had its fair share of crashes and incidents, not surprisingly given the length of the race and constant braking around a tight, walled track.

It undoubtedly poses a unique set of challenges for the drivers but doesn’t tend to throw up any real surprises. Whisper it quietly (or hey just tell the FIA 1 Race Director like I did – ahem!!) it is quite a b-o-r-ing race. Which is generally won by Sebastian Vettel (for the last 3 years at any rate). Although ironically a Vettel win this year would probably mean its been an rollercoaster humdinger of a race as the likely Mercedes benefit gig would have not gone to plan. Mind you he’d have to see off Daniel Ricciardo first!

But this year I am quite hopeful. Firstly, the stand-out dominant car doesn’t not have a stand-out-running-away-with-the-championship driver (like the Vettel-Red Bull dream team of the last few seasons). There is the tantalising prospect of Hamilton and Rosberg racing each other like loons around a track where there is no margin for error. And we all know how that can play out.

And to add some further spice to proceedings in Singapore, there is also the new all-singing and all-dancing directive from the FIA banning teams from giving their driver coded messages over the radio or passing on any performance related information (including on pitboards). All the teams have been given a long list of banned messages and the teams, as is their wont when their lives are made a teeny bit more difficult, are quite vexed by the whole situation. So what’s on the Banned List? Quite a lot actually – sector time information, clutch maps and settings (so expect to see an interesting start to the Singapore GP as drivers have been used to a LOT of help in getting the car ready during the formation lap), fuel flow settings and fuel saving, engine settings, gearbox settings and brake balance settings (which could make a big difference at a brake-heavy track like Singapore). Pretty much all settings you can think of. Also teams can’t answer direct questions from drivers such as “what’s Nico’s sector time” or “at what corners is Lewis gaining time”. For example. Oh and from Japan it will get a whole lot harder as brake wear/temperatures and tyre pressures/temperatures will join the Banned List.

The thinking behind all of this from Charlie Whiting and FIA is to strip away the relentless ‘coaching’ that a team gives their driver throughout a race. Its fair to say the amount of help and instructions that drivers were getting over the radio was becoming a bit ridiculous. Stuff like “try using 5th gear into turn 4”. Really? And I had to laugh at the senior engineer who said people should be careful what they wish for - this is going to mean almost no radio traffic at all”. Honestly guys, on the whole your radio messages aren’t actually all that interesting. Back in the day, we hardly ever heard any radio messages and gasp, shock, horror we still had some stunningly exciting races. And bless the Sky team who literally saturate us (in a good way!) with non-stop analysis and post-race dissection of every key moment on the Sky Pad. We’re hardly going to be left in the dark as to what’s happening out on track, even if the drivers are!

The SkyPad in action. No stone left unturned etc!

From the perspective of my sofa, I’m quite looking forward to watching a race where drivers are less spoon-fed and their driving isn’t oh-so-carefully managed by their team during the race. They are all top-class drivers or they wouldn’t be in F1 so let them just race as much as is possible in modern day F1. This new directive is hardly going to rip up the F1 grid order and lead to a Caterham snatching a race win from Sauber next weekend but it should reward the instinctive, natural drivers and those who have a deep, intuitive feel for the handling of their cars and can relay that to their engineers. And that has to be a good thing in my opinion.

So after Monza, Lewis Hamilton trails Nico Rosberg by a mere 22 points. Not insignificant but the title lead is now less than a race win (for Lewis) and a DNF (for Nico) away. Both drivers have welcomed the FIA crackdown on radio messages as something that will enable their own superior talents to come more to the fore - psychological mind-games are well and truly in full force - but only time will tell who will benefit the most from a return to what Nico Rosberg calls ‘purer racing’. Pure racing hey? That could kickstart a whole other debate...!

Nuvolari - the purest of them all?

Or the incomparable Fangio?

Or Jim Clark, regarded by many at the most naturally gifted driver ever?

Or Senna, more at one with his car than any over driver?

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.