Sunday, 31 March 2013

Marussia versus Caterham: The Battle at the Back of the Grid


Interlagos 2012:  While the driver’s championship was being hotly contested between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso at the top of the grid, another battle was being fought with just as much significance resting on the result between two teams at the bottom.  In the closing stages of the race in Brazil, Vitaly Petrov overtook Charles Pic to usurp eleventh place, his best all season, giving Caterham the vital tenth place in the constructor’s standings.  While they may have won the battle, it is Marussia who are winning the war as the 2013 season dawns.

Photo: Sutton images

Having guarded the precious tenth spot since Timo Glock’s twelth place finish in Singapore, losing it at such a late stage was particularly disheartening.  Missing out on the extra revenue carried by tenth place, economic troubles now became ominous for the team, forcing them to make tough decisions.  One such decision was to part ways with experienced driver Timo Glock.  Having already replaced Charles Pic with significantly funded Max Chilton, the looming cloud of economic instability dictated the need to have another driver with similar financial backing.  Initially announcing that Brazilian Luiz Razia would drive for them in 2013, Marussia headed into winter testing where it rapidly became clear that his career with the team was over before its inception, due to funding not being received.  Quickly benefiting from Force India’s decision to hire Adrian Sutil to fill their second seat, Marussia swooped in on Frenchman Jules Bianchi to drive alongside Chilton. 

Photo:  F1 Fanatic

Caterham’s preparations for the new season were slightly less tumultuous.  Charles Pic was signed from Marussia in November putting the seats of Vitaly Petrov and Heikki Kovalainen in danger.  Surrounding the departure of Heikki was lots of talk about the team needing to hire a driver who could deliver money, however his record of underperformance compared with his team mates may have had some bearing.  Despite earning the team their all important prize winning tenth place, Vitaly Petrov was also overlooked when signing for 2013.  Able to furnish the team with payment for his drive, rookie Giedo Van der Garde won the seat. 

While left to languish behind Caterham in the championship at the end of last season, the new season brings optimism and hope.  After the first two rounds, Marussia lie above their rivals in that lucrative tenth spot and have been the team to sparkle. 

Providing much of the sparkle is Jules Bianchi who is the leading light in Marussia’s invigoration.  Races in both Australia and Malaysia have been the settings for stunning displays of driving talent by the Frenchman, akin to those showcased by Fernando Alonso at Minardi and Ayrton Senna at Toleman.  Qualifying top out of the four Marussia and Caterham drivers, and achieving fifteenth place in Australia then bettering this by two places to bring the car home in thirteenth in Malaysia, has attracted attention and created luminosity around the team in a time when their success could be overshadowed by well publicised events further up the field. 

In comparison, Caterham have not had such a bright start to the season.  Indeed, the only thing to sparkle is their new livery.  In Australia they qualified in the lowest two positions, with Charles Pic failing to meet the 107% requirement.  Malaysia showed a slight improvement with Pic taking 20th position on the grid with Van der Garde in 22nd.  In the race in Melbourne the Dutchman finished last of the cars still running with his more experienced team mate two places ahead.  However, Caterham will have been pleased at finishing above Max Chilton in Malaysia.   While Max could be seen as a weak spot for Marussia, he is young and hungry, and with a team mate of Bianchi’s quality, has the ideal incentive to spur further improvement in performance. 

Photo: jamesallenon f1.com


In addition to having a promising driver such as Bianchi, Marussia have used links with other teams to bolster their aspirations for 2013.  Using a KERS system developed by Williams when they were running a Cosworth engine, Marussia have been pleased with its addition to the MR02 so far.  In conjunction with McLaren Applied technologies they have also been able to use wind tunnel technology to develop the design of the car, a significant move forward for them.  With Jules Bianchi being part of the Ferrari Young Driver Programme, links to the Italian team can also be made and could lead to a possible engine deal for the return to the turbo era in 2014, not to mention possible use of other Ferrari resources. 


So far 2013 is proving to be a season full of optimism and confidence, and instead of staring at the back of the Caterhams, they could be looking to battle the likes of Williams and Toro Rosso at the back of the midfield.  Finishing only three away from a point scoring position in Malaysia, attaining Marussia’s first point is almost guaranteed if Bianchi continues his electrifying form, and a contest for ninth in the Constructor’s championship is within the realms of possibility.   For the team with the smallest budget in Formula One, what an incredible story that would be. 

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Panicky requests for a change in Pirelli tyres may be regretted by Red Bull and Mercedes.


The power of rubber:  For something that is so easily destroyed at the hands of a Formula One car, it has a remarkable command over the sport stretching its tendrils of control into virtually every aspect.  Tyres dictate the design of the car, race set up, race strategy and driving style, and considering this omnipotence it is not surprising that complaints are heard from the teams when they impact negatively on performance. 



After high hopes held by Mercedes following winter testing took a tumble during the opening weekend of the season in Australia, Niki Lauda expressed serious concern over the 2013 Pirelli tyres.  With the race won by Kimi Raikkonen undertaking one less pit stop than the other front runners, the Austrian legend questioned the influence the new tyres have over the number of stops, saying that it is difficult for the fans to understand.  He told German newspaper Bild, “The fans don’t understand if there are more than two pitstops ( For F1) it’s a fundamentally wrong path.”  Could the reasoning behind crediting fans with such little knowledge and understanding, be a smokescreen for a whinge about the tyres because they prevented the team from delivering the results they hoped for? 

Likewise, after not being able to convert a pole position into a race win in Melbourne, Red Bull were also bleating about the high degradation of the 2013 compounds, with Helmut Marko declaring that Pirelli had agreed to bring a changed version to Bahrain at the latest. 

Helmut Marko's comments show anxiety about performance of the Red Bull.  Photo:  Yallaf1.com

Having had positive experiences with the tyres at Albert Park, with Alonso claiming second to Raikkonen’s victory, Ferrari and Lotus hold differing views to those of Mercedes and Red Bull.  Both teams have stated that they will not give their consent to an alteration in the tyres on anything other than safety grounds.  Holding the same belief, Pirelli’s Motorsport Director, Paul Hembury, has declared that no modification to the tyres will take place.

Pirelli were asked to change the tyres to make racing more exciting in 2013. The compounds they have produced to fulfil that brief are the same for every team on the grid, and moaning about their behaviour suggests insecurity about their understanding of the performance of their cars.   Surely adapting the design and set up of the cars to match tyre behaviour is part of the development contest that continues throughout the season and shouldn’t be questioned one race in. 

After sharing the top four finishing positions in Malaysia, Red Bull and Mercedes might just be ruing the panicky requests made to change the tyre compounds to make them more conducive to their cars.  They may be very glad that favouritism is not a word with which Pirelli are familiar.  

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Malaysian Grand Prix: Team mate conflict and pit lane catastrophe


Enthralling from the outset, the Malaysian Grand Prix became more and more bizarre as it evolved.  Underpinning the race was stirring wheel to wheel racing, later entwined with twisted tales of team mate conflict and pit lane catastrophe. 

As the lights were extinguished over a damp track and the cars sprang into action on their intermediate tyres, good starts were made by the drivers on the front few rows of the grid.  Fernando Alonso, having weaved his way round the outside of Sebastian Vettel at turn 1 to put himself on the racing line for Turn 2, became startled at the position and speed at which he now found the German, resulting in damage to his  front wing.  After another sterling start, Massa slipped down to sixth after the aforementioned scuffle.  Almost making contact with Alonso, he backed off a little to be passed by Webber, who had made an unusually positive start, followed by Hamilton and Button.  As they swept their way further round the opening lap, Alonso was pushing hard, overtaking Mark Webber despite sporting a precarious front wing.  Believing he could stay out until it was time to replace the intermediates with slicks, Alonso passed the entrance of the pit lane to start another lap, one that was halted by contact with Mark Webber, ripping the wing from the car and sending the Spaniard careering into the gravel.  The race now had a Red Bull one- two situation that would become more elaborate as the race unfolded. 

Alonso's 200th race ended in disappointment.  Photo: Montrealgazette.com

Having been given a three place grid penalty for blocking Nico Rosberg during qualifying, Kimi Raikkonen made a poor start which was taken advantage of Hulkenberg making a strong start from twelfth.  By lap six, Hulkenberg had  put his Sauber into seventh position. 

Lap five saw Vettel visit the pits for his first set of slicks.  A move that was followed by the rest of the field as a stream of cars followed suit causing problems in the pit lane.  A momentary loss of memory saw Lewis Hamilton pull into his old McLaren box much to the surprise of the pit crew.  An auto pilot mistake that caused him to lose a precious six seconds that could have put him in contention for the lead.   A collision between Jean Eric Vergne and Charles Pic in the pits resulted in a new front wing and a $10,000 fine for Toro Rosso for unsafe release.  The pit lane woes continued in the Force India garage with a problem securing the left rear tyre on Adrian Sutil’s car. 
  
The decision to leave Webber out a lap later than most of the field proved a smart move which propelled him ahead of his team mate.  After exiting the pits he put in a few storming laps on his fresh hard tyres.  Just behind the Red Bulls the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were making advances on the leaders, with Hamilton taking chunks out of Webber’s lead and Rosberg being told not to focus on nurturing the tyres.  In contrast to this aggressive action being taken by Mercedes, Webber was given a coded message telling him to look after the tyres because he will endure no assault from Vettel behind him, a request that gave the silver cars the opportunity to stalk the leaders more closely. 

For the second consecutive race, Maldonado made an unforced error rumbling through the gravel and across the grass.   To remedy his car after its adventure, he came in for a front wing demoting him to twenty first position.  He later retired on lap 49 with a KERS issue. 

Early on, championship leader Kimi Raikkonen spent a long time staring at the back of Perez’s McLaren, before use of DRS enabled him to get past on lap 16.  The stability and flexibility seen in the Lotus in Australia was a distant memory as The Finn looked uncomfortable all day.  On lap 35 he was overtaken in a close encounter by Hulkenberg in the pit lane. On lap 39, scrapping for ninth position,  Kimi could be heard complaining over the radio that he was being squeezed off the track by Hulkenberg. Two laps later he passed the German down the pit straight into turns two and three. He finished seventh, the position he qualified in before receiving the grid penalty.

Kimi was unable to repeat Melbourne performance.  Photo: Yallaf1.com 

Lying just behind the four frontrunners was Jenson Button in fifth, giving us a glimpse of the improvement McLaren are making.  However this improved performance was halted by a mistake during his pit stop on lap 36, when the front right tyre was not secured properly.  Having driven a few yards towards the exit, and not being able to reverse in the pit lane, he was hauled back to the box to ensure the job was done properly.  His hopes for points were dashed as he left the pits to rejoin in fourteenth, later retiring with two laps to go.   

Force India’s stunning start to the weekend dissipated from memory as another problem during a pit stop failed to secure the left front tyre on Paul di Resta’s car.  This left him to filter back onto the track in last position, a lap down.  Beginning their trip to Malaysia with such high hopes, the team later had to endure a crashing low in the form of a double retirement.

Nearing the midway point of the race saw the team mate battles heat up.  Having stayed out a lap longer than Webber, and hoping a fast in lap would help him overtake the Australian,  Vettel showed disappointment at having to remain behind.  Team radio aired, “Same strategy as previous stint, three second gap, saving the tyres.”  Thinking about the Constructors Championship on the Red Bull pit wall, decisions had been made to ensure a safe one – two result.  With Mark struggling on medium tyres however, the three times world champion’s desire to go faster couldn’t be controlled.  “He is too slow, get him out of the way.” Like an uncontrollable beast that won’t be tamed, Vettel was unable to accept the teams wish for him to concede the victory.  After exiting the pit lane following a stop on lap 44, Webber found himself embroiled in an almighty contest with his team mate that continued round to turn five.  The assault was repeated a lap later when he was finally overcome. Nerves ripped to shreds on the pit wall anticipating possible bloodshed, team radio messages were used to attempt to control the situation.   “Come on Seb, this is silly.”

Racing wheel to wheel.  Photo: News.com.au
Meanwhile the Mercedes drivers were having their own squabbles.  After their earlier messages intimating the need to push the Red Bulls, Mercedes now risked running out of fuel if they continued the level of pace.  Lewis, running just ahead of Rosberg was told to conserve fuel, with Nico being told to back off.  As with the Red Bull battle, team radio revealed all as Rosberg stated,  “ I can go faster than him, let me past.”   Clearly unhappy as he pulled in at the end of the race, he said,  “ Will remember this one.”

Adrian Newey was chosen to collect the constructor’s trophy and as he and the drivers gathered to await their podium appearance, the tension and animosity was palpable.  With the team telling Vettel over the radio at the end of the race, “Look’s like you wanted it bad enough, there will be some explaining to do,” words exchanged between Newey and Vettel were strained.  A lack of eye contact was evident as Mark Webber joined them and proceeded to show his displeasure at Seb’s blatant defiance of the team’s decision. 

Tension on the podium.  Photo: Telegraph.com

 With simmering vexation and wrath evident, coupled with Lewis Hamilton’s unease at taking third place from a faster team mate, the podium ceremony was more like a funeral than a celebration.  Malaysia 2013 will go down as an epic race, but not necessarily for the right reasons. 






Qualifying in Malaysia: Ferrari reveal their pace over one lap.


Q1
Contrary to usual practice in qualifying one, full use was made of the softer compound tyre, suggesting the teams will be favouring the harder compound in the race.  Not wishing to use more tyres than necessary, teams chose not to make early appearances. Prior to the session, Stefano Domenicalli voiced his opinions about the importance of saving tyres over the need to reach the front row, and backed this opinion up by sending out his cars for a sole run.  No more was necessary as Alonso went fourth fastest and Massa was twelfth. 

With eight minutes left of the session, Adrian Sutil thumped in a 1.36.8 on medium tyres to go fastest, a time consequently not matched.  Steaming out of the pits on medium tyres, Kimi Raikkonen slotted the Lotus in just behind the Force India. 

Looking like he could fall victim to the dreaded drop zone, Webber put in a lap that saw him go ninth fastest, leaving Gutierrez with a fight on his hands, one he won to reach safety in eleventh, five places ahead of team mate Nico Hulkenberg who had earlier become agitated when blocked by Sergio Perez. 

John Eric Vergne missed out on the second qualifying session while  team mate Ricciardo cruised through four places ahead; a difference matching that between Valtteri Bottas in eighteenth and Maldonado in fourteenth.  The remaining places in the drop zone were filled by Marussia and Caterham.  Although missing out on Q2, Jules Bianchi was only half a second behind Hulkenberg which not only showcased his own talents, but also those of the developing Marussia. 

Bianchi shows promise in the Marussia.  Photo: Skysports.com

Q2
Qualifying saw most drivers out on new medium tyres.  Adrian Sutil showed consistency as he matched his 1.36.8 time from the first qualifying session.   Rosberg outperformed Lewis setting the fastest time, closely followed by Webber seven places ahead of Vettel, who was on a used set of medium tyres, a clever move to guard a crucial extra set, something that will be needed if they do end up on a four stopper as suggested in the third practice session. 

Seven minutes in, and droplets of rain started to make the track slippery making it imperative that drivers get a timed lap completed before the elements truly turned against them.  Massa and Alonso got out on track just in time, resulting in sixth and seventh positions, while Di Resta and Grosjean were caught out.  Languishing in fifteenth, Paul di Resta was on a flyer that could have put him into the top ten but he slipped on moisture and lost it at turns 7 and 8 making another run necessary to avoid being locked out.  Unfortunately for him, he endured another spin leaving him to start the race in eleventh.  The other drivers to be locked out in this session were Hulkenberg, Ricciardo and Gutierrez. 

Paul di Resta couldn't keep the car on track ending up 15th on the grid.

Q3
The start of the third qualifying session saw a queue of drivers on intermediate tyres ready to be unleashed at sight of the green light. A queue of drivers itching to get an early lap in to pave the way for a later flying lap to ensnare pole position.   The earlier laps ironed out teething problems as Lewis Hamilton struggled to keep his Mercedes on track, Vettel was passed round the outside and Sutil showed that he wasn’t as content in inclement conditions. 

After initial timed laps were completed, but with no one quite brave enough to risk slicks, the drivers started to come in for new inters.  A crucial move made by Vettel, Massa and Alonso who captured the top three positions on the grid.  Despite lagging behind his team mate for most of the day, Hamilton finished the qualifying session two places ahead of Rosberg in fourth.  Emerging late, Raikkonen only had enough time for one timed lap, and with the car squirming underneath him, he only managed fourth, pushed down to seventh by later laps from Rosberg, Alonso and Massa.  A grid penalty for blocking Rosberg later pushed him down to tenth.  Button and Perez showed there is some performance left in the McLaren qualifying eighth and tenth respectively. 

Photo: Emirates247.com

It was a close qualifying.  After third practice, it looked like Ferrari were so focused on the race, they were sacrificing pace over one lap.  With qualifying over, they appeared to have focus for both.  With Red Bull fastest again over one lap, we were left to wonder whether they can put together an effective race package.  

Malaysia FP3: A close session pointing towards an exciting qualifying session.



Practice three in sweltering Malaysia alluded to what could be expected in qualifying.  With no team yet to have found all the pieces of the jigsaw, let alone pieced them together, a gripping qualifying session was promised following the session.
  
Red Bull started the session on heavily fuelled long runs and after Mark Webber initially set the pace, they were impeded by tyre wear.  Towards the end of his own long run, Vettel  had a skirmish with his car as the back end tried to escape him; a clear indication that tyre degradation was taking its toll.  With the circuit having evolved due to the rain in FP2, rear tyres started to struggle due to its now unfavourable tendency to cause oversteer.  With Red Bull’s race simulation showing that they only have eleven laps before their hard tyres reach their limit, four pit stops during the race wasn’t beyond comprehension. 

FP2 pace setter Kimi Raikkonen appeared to be tussling with oversteer in his car.  The changes in the track overnight affected the balance of the Lotus which seemed so perfectly matched to conditions in the earlier sessions.  He ended fifth fastest with his team mate down in fourteenth. 

Sebastian Vettel ended the session with a 1.36.4 to go fastest.  Red Bull still appear to have their main focus set firmly on pace over a single lap, but they aren’t looking good on long runs in terms of tyre management.   Completing less laps than the other top teams, Ferrari seem to be content with the set up of their car, and while they are not showing out and out pace, have an eye on the bigger picture with development for the race firmly set in their minds.  Massa and Alonso ended the session eighth and tenth respectively. 

Vettel topped the timesheet in the third session.  Photo: skynews.com.au


Niki Lauda could be seen looking serious in the Mercedes garage as both drivers put themselves at the top of the timesheet at different points in the session.   Continuing their quest to become the new McLaren in terms of constructor’s position, Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta kept the cars in the top five for the duration of the period.  With the aim of McLaren being to understand the car better in order to extract more performance in Malaysia, Button’s seventh fastest time suggests they are heading in the right direction.

Practice three built the foundations for an exciting qualifying session.  Red Bull were quick over one lap but their race simulation suggest they won’t be as strong in the race.  The opposite could be said of Ferrari.  Mercedes will be fairly optimistic, while Lotus will hope the track reverts to conditions experienced during practice sessions one and two. 





Malaysia FP2: Lotus set the standard as Kimi Raikkonen outperforms the field in changing conditions.


The threat of rain looming over second practice was a catalyst for the drivers to get out on track as soon as the green light flicked on. In stark contrast to the minimal lack of action seen in the first half hour of the earlier session, the possibility of a Malaysian downpour prompted all teams to complete runs before the gathering black clouds unleashed their ammunition.

The aim for Ferrari for the second session was to complete more long runs, having spent time doing practice starts and other pit lane tests in the first.  They immediately looked good as Alonso recorded a 137.3. Not good enough however, to prevent Kimi Raikkonen marginally trumping it a few minutes later with a 137.0.  Going in to this race it was the aim of Lewis Hamilton to build on the positive start experienced in Australia, however the pace of the Mercedes showed the foundations may have crumbled, as his first flying lap achieved a 1.44.1, slightly behind that of his team mate on a 1.43.7.  Hamilton later improved on this time, but was still left trailing by a second.    

Kimi sets fastest time.  Photo: Yallaf1.com


Ferrari set another fastest time twenty minutes into the session with a 1.36.6 from Massa on medium tyres, but with the Red Bull looking mighty through the fast corners, Sebastian Vettel  struck,  going a few tenths faster. 

With the first splattering of rain being felt half an hour in, exploration of tyre behaviour in the wet became the story of the session.  When rain began to fall steadily, drivers used the opportunity to explore different racing lines and test how far they could push their slicks on a moist track.  Nico Hulkenberg discovered the limits of his tyres, spinning the car by the entrance to the pit lane, his second incident of the session.  Finding reverse, he managed to move off the racing line avoiding an oncoming Sebastian Vettel, and a red flag situation. 

Rain gave the teams a chance to try out wet set ups.  Photo:dauliymail.com

With the chance to delve into the nature of the full wet and intermediate compound tyres, Gutierrez left the pits on the former and Perez on the latter with 26 minutes left on the clock.  Being unable to gain a suitable amount of grip on wet tyres, Gutierrez had a momentary excursion from the track.  Wrestling it back on, he headed for the pits to change to intermediates.  Likewise, Perez had a trip across the gravel after slipping on a white line.
The Ferraris were impressive on the damp track with a 1.53.6 from Alonso, compared with a 1.55.8 from Kimi Raikkonen.    Heat and humidity in Malaysia causes the track to dry quickly so it wasn’t long before cars emerged on slick tyres.  The track stayed patchy as Webber experienced on the final turn, when lack of grip caused a fleeting loss of control under braking. 
As the track continued to dry, Grosjean took a trip across the grass three minutes from the end of the session while his team mate Kimi posted a 1.40.0 on medium tyres.  

After his victory in Melbourne, Kimi expressed a wish for a continuation in performance.  Achieving the fastest time on a dry track, second fastest on a damp track and fastest on a drying track, his wish is on the road to being granted.  Although closely followed by Red Bull and Ferrari, Lotus and Kimi are setting the standard.  

Malaysia FP1: Red Bull show good pace while Lotus optimise tyre performance.


Two long straights fused at a hairpin and a selection of fast, flowing corners provides contrasting racing from that seen on Australia’s street circuit at Albert Park.   As the Formula One circus arrives at the first racing circuit of the season at Sepang International, thrilling racing packed full of overtaking is anticipated.  

Photo: Exampaper.com

With teams keen to look after their tyres, searching for the optimum time to go out to use the one set they can spare for the session, the first half an hour on track resembled a ghost town.  As the period crept on, a lone Marussia broke the silence.    Max Chilton set the first time of the session with a 1.42.5, a time he cut by a second on his second flying lap.  A few minutes later, Sergio Perez directed his McLaren round the circuit in 1.38.8, around two seconds faster than his more experienced team mate, Jenson Button.   

With 47 minutes left of the session, Grosjean emerged sporting a new front wing for the weekend.  Back to a familiar set up after a poor race in Melbourne, he pushed hard on his initial flying lap, going flat out through turn 13 rumbling over the kerb to record a time of 1.39.3.  Improving this time by one and a half seconds he pounded in a 1.37.9 to go fastest. 

Mercedes showed great pace on their first timed laps with Nico Rosberg setting a time of 1.37.5 on his second flying lap snatching the top spot from the Frenchman.  Red Bull revealed their hand as Rosberg’s time was overshadowed  by Mark Webber’s 1.37.0, which he later improved with a 1.36.9.  Vettel was just behind, 2 tenths off his team mate. 

Webber was fastest in the first practice session.  Photo: burnleycitizen.co.uk

With twenty seven minutes remaining, Esteban Gutierrez lost control into turn 14 after blasting up behind a slow moving Felipe Massa.  This incident was followed by a lock up from Alonso causing a momentary departure from the track.  Completing significantly less laps than the rest of the field, the Ferrari’s of Alonso and Massa finished the session four tenths and eight tenths off the pace respectively. 

After outpacing his team mate following their first flying laps, Adrian Sutil suffered a collapsed front wing after mounting a kerb.  The Force India appeared to be lacking flexibility as the ride height also had to be adjusted on the car of Di Resta.  Sutil was later told over the team radio to stay off the kerbs.  Finishing sixth and eighth fastest, despite their issues, they are emerging as front runners in the midfield, and if they stay true to this form, will overtake McLaren’s position in the pecking order.  William’s dismal start to the season continued as they finished sixteenth and nineteenth fastest. 

Last to set a time was Championship leader Kimi Raikkonen.  Starting the weekend with a new front wing and new bodywork, a KERs issue sprung up during the session requiring major work to be completed during the session.  The Finn’s first flying lap saw him set the second fastest time with a 1.37.4. 

Towards the end of the session degradation of the tyres became evident.  With the teams using the same set of tyres for the whole session, they tumbled over the precipice of peak performance.  After completing sixteen laps, the hard tyres on Sebastian Vettel’s car were propelling rubber missiles across the track and Lewis Hamilton could be heard reporting over the radio that his were destroyed.  Having only completed twelve laps, chunks appeared to be missing from Felipe Massa’s tyres.  Only Lotus, with their flexible car, together with a laid back, smooth Iceman driving style seemed to be able to combat the punishing effects of the double right handed corners on the left front tyre.  Having topped the timesheet, Red Bull showed they have a car with good pace, but lag behind in the quest to optimise tyre performance.  Red Bull and Lotus went into the second practice session evenly matched.  

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Can Felipe Massa Retain His Fighting Spirit?


With sixty eight consecutive races completed without a celebratory appearance on the podium to  the tune of the Brazilian national anthem,  Felipe Massa has now been festooned with the title of having completed most races without a victory for Ferrari.  An unwanted record he may not be celebrating  if events had unfolded differently at the opening race of the 2013 season in Australia.

Massa appeared to have arrived in Melbourne in high spirits, with an upbeat attitude that was reflected in his pace across the weekend.  The initial practice session saw him record the second fastest time ahead of his team mate Fernando Alonso, followed by times that were less than a tenth off the pace set by the Spaniard in Practice 1 and 2.  Qualifying saw him deftly samba the Scarlet beast round the twists and turns of the circuit at Albert Park culminating in a final position, one grid place ahead of his team mate.  Juiced up and ready, Massa made a jubilant start shooting him into second place leading the Ferrari procession with Alonso just behind.    Conga style, he led his team mate until the second round of pit stops when Alonso benefited from the perfect strategy gifting him position over Felipe and Sebastian Vettel. 

Massa made a great start in Melbourne.  Photo: PlanetF1.com

Of the Ferrari’s, Felipe was in the lead, and therefore should have enjoyed the festivity that the strategy provided his team mate.  Instead, any jubilance felt by the Brazilian seemed to disperse.  After the race Massa was quoted by O Estado de S. Paulo as saying, “There is a degree of frustration, because I was not passed except in the pits.”  He followed this by expressing his feelings to Spanish publication El Confidencial, “Yes I was upset when Fernando got ahead of me.  That was the only problem of my race, where I lost two positions.”
Ferrari make little attempt to masquerade their team orders, however it seemed a little partisan to apply them so early in the season.   Fernando Alonso is the third driver Felipe Massa has partnered at Ferrari, however the degree of subservience required by the Brazilian has varied with each.  In 2006, when fulfilling his role as number two to Michael Schumacher, he took victories in Turkey and at the season finale in Brazil.  Following that, in Kimi Raikkonen’s Championship winning year, he swung his way to consecutive victories in Bahrain and Spain, then added another Turkish win to his joyous tally.    These were two very high profile team mates against whom he took race victories during their fight for the title with rivals from other teams.  2008 was carnivalesque for Massa with the battle between the Brazilian and Lewis Hamilton creating the spectacle.  He partied his way to six wins giving him his own opportunity to fight the Briton for the championship.  Taking the chequered flag at the end of lap 71, and briefly celebrating victory, his revelry was halted when it emerged that Hamilton had usurped Timo Glock’s position on the track and with it, Massa’s title.

Massa wins in Turkey with team mate Schumacher in  third.  Photo: www.bbc.co.uk
Massa wins in Turkey again, this time team mate Kimi Raikkonen takes second. Photo: www.bbc.co.uk

This sort of anguish can prove hard to overcome, and will undoubtedly have some reverence on future performance.  Indeed, Felipe Massa has not won a race since.   The form shown in 2008 remained latent until the 2012 season restarted following the summer break.  From Spa onwards, we were treated to a Massa gala as his performances in qualifying and during races reminded Ferrari of the show they were missing.  With his recaptured form continuing into the new season, we may be forgiven in thinking he may have earned the chance to perform, to shine.   

Felipe was allowed to take wins from Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher, but he doesn’t seem to enjoy the same fortune while partnering Alonso.  The request made to hand the victory to his team mate during the German Grand Prix in 2010, the spurious gearbox penalty in Austin and the pit stop strategy to favour Fernando pay testament to this.  It leads us to wonder just how much of a stronghold Alonso has at Ferrari.  Considered by many to be the most talented on the grid, he is a master who expects to be served and the Maranello team will bow to his wishes.

Felipe’s struggles with form have been no secret, but now his Latin passion has been ignited once more, it would be a shame if it was left to fizzle out.  Let us hope he stays unaffected by the incident in Melbourne, and the unfavourable record he now holds, and continues to create Brazilian carnival in the car.  Here’s to a Massa jamboree in Malaysia.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Racing Takes Centre Stage on the Opening Lap in Australia


The Greatest Show on Earth:   Five red lights flick on in what seems like painfully long intervals.  Twenty two of the fastest cars and drivers in the world pose on the grid, ready to be released.  The rumble of the V8 engines and the pulsing anticipation become more intense with every passing second.  The power in the engines building to an ultimate crescendo as they thunder into the distance snaking  and writhing in their attempt to be the first to reach turn one. 

The countdown to any Grand Prix is one of the most stunning displays ever to be witnessed, but acting as a curtain raiser to a fresh season, the spectacle holds even more effervescence.  

Albert Park in Melbourne has been the home for Formula One in Australia since 1996. Consisting of 307.57 km of temporary street circuit, it has enjoyed the honour of hosting the opening race intermittently since then, and has proved itself worthy of providing the spectacular entertainment expected. 

Albert Park.  Photo: automobilsport.com

Due to its nature as a medium speed corner, allowing less time and space for braking, Turn 1 in Melbourne has been known to be the stage for opening lap collisions.  If all cars successfully weave themselves through Turn 1 without incident, trouble can arise at Turn 3, as drivers try to make the most of it being a corner conducive to overtaking.  Turn 6 can also be an accident hotspot, as the overhead umbrella of trees creates moisture on an already slippery track. 

Albert Park’s inaugural Australian Grand Prix in 1996 showed that trouble on the opening lap was not to be an unknown quantity for the new circuit.  Braking to enter Turn 3, the McLaren of David Coulthard darted across the track towards Johnny Herbert’s Sauber, catapulting Martin Brundle skywards in his Jordan.  Having freed himself from the fragmented car and making the most of the race being red flagged; Brundle sprinted back to the pits to take advantage of the spare car. 

Photo: no-clutter.com

The opening lap of the race in 2002 was also the scene of a spectacular pile up.  Weaving across the track to the left, Rubens Barrichello caused Ralf Schumacher to miss his braking zone, hurling him into the air above the Ferrari.  The incident at the front was the catalyst for further trouble behind them.  Losing control of his Sauber, Nick Heidfeld speared into the core of the rest of the field eliminating a further nine entrants. 

Ralf Schumacher hurtles over the top of Barrichello.  Photo: flickr.com

Unleashing twenty one cars at the same time will always create potential for opening lap incidents, but when you have five rookie drivers on the grid, that potential could change to inevitability.   Although they arrive on the grid in Melbourne with a sizeable number of races under their belts, none have been in a Formula One car and none at this circuit.  New Marussia driver, Max Chilton, confirmed that driving the actual track is definitely different to the experience created by the simulator.  The lack of experience starting a Formula One race mingled with nervous excitement could be a heady mixture guaranteeing first lap commotion.

In addition to a significant number of rookies lining up for their debut Formula One race, there was also a high percentage of drivers with fairly limited experience.  Sergio Perez, Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg, Paul Di Resta, Pastor Maldonado, Jean Eric Vergne, Daniel Ricciardo and Charles Pic all have under forty grand prix’s to their name.  Grosjean in particular still shows immaturity and inexperience at the start of races.  Labelled a ‘first lap nutcase’ by country man Mark Webber ,his string of eight opening lap adventures in 2012 began in Australia when contact with Maldonado at Turn 13 ended his race. 

So what could possibly add more drama and spectacle to the first lap of a season opener that already promises to be provocative and enthralling?  Rain of course... The two Friday practice sessions were dry, but Melbourne weather can be changeable and Saturday bore testament to this.  The third practice session gave drivers the opportunity to experience wet conditions as rain made its appearance fifteen minutes into the session.  The inclement weather worsened as qualifying approached with torrential downpours creating substantial standing water on the track.  Its status as a street circuit dictates behaviour that is far from ideal for such conditions.  Drainage is far from perfect and the white lines painted black for the race add to its already slippery nature.  After the first qualifying session, the decision was made by race control that qualifying two and three would be postponed until Sunday morning. 

Marshalls try to clear water from the track but to no avail.Photo:  theage.com

Intermediate tyres were used as the track continued to dry out during qualifying two, with the supersoft compound making an appearance for the third session.  By the time the cars lined up on the grid for the race the possibility of rain was only a distant possibility.  The rookies, grouped together with Maldonado amongst them, slotted their cars into their grid positions, engines throbbing, nerves jangling.  An inexperienced group with the potential for creating trouble as they reach turn one simultaneously, pushing their cold tyres and brakes to the limit attempting to squeeze through without becoming beached in the gravel trap.

Despite the chances of opening lap incidents being more than conceivable, all twenty one drivers made it through without incident leaving the battle for the lead to take centre stage spectacularly.  Felipe Massa had a lightening start propelling him past Mark Webber to take second place, with his team mate Alonso carving his way across the track in front of the Australian, following this up with a move on Lewis Hamilton into Turn 3.  Eventual race winner Kimi Raikkonen made the most of his start making up two places into Turn 1.   The spectacle created on the opening lap in this curtain raiser to the 2013 season was not one about contact and collisions.  Instead, it was a magnificent display of courageous racing and a clever, respectful fight for the lead.  If this opening display is a hint of what this season has to offer, it really will be the greatest show on earth. 

Photo: Mirror.com


Sunday, 10 March 2013

Lotus’ challenge for the title: In the shadow of the other teams?


16.00 BRT at Interlagos: The curtain of finality on the 2012 Formula One season has dropped.  From behind the curtain, the Lotus F1 Team can reflect on a successful first season in their latest guise.  Kimi Raikkonen coolly crept up to third position in the Driver’s Championship, the highest since Fernando Alonso took the double Championship for Renault in 2006.  This was coupled with fourth place in the Constructor’s, trailing only the mighty Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren.  The victory at the hands of the iceman in Abu Dhabi, and Lotus’ first in 25 years, provided an extra sprinkling of progress.  Running as the Lotus F1 team for the first time since 1994, 2012 definitely saw them making their mark on a new era for the famous name.

Kimi wins in Abu Dhabi.  Photo: Daily mail

But who really noticed Lotus amassing their achievements?  With Red Bull and Ferrari being the team names most uttered from peoples lips due to their battle at the front, Lotus were stalking McLaren in the Constructors Championship, largely unobserved.  Going into the mid season break, Lotus were trailing them by only one point.    Kimi Raikkonen’s second places in Bahrain, Valencia and Hungary, together with thirds in Spain and Germany placed him fifth in the Driver’s Championship with 116 points, just one behind Lewis Hamilton.  Romain ,Grosjean’s third places in Bahrain and Hungary and second in Canada supplemented their points tally.  Their stealthy challenge for the Constructors title declined a little during the second part of the season but it quietly surged on in the driver’s, with Kimi pursuing and overtaking Lewis Hamilton, finishing seventeen points clear.

So what will the challenge from the team and the E21 look like for 2013?  As was the case last year there is the chance for them to be an inconspicuous warrior that does battle from the shadows.   Although not being an accurate indicator of where the teams are in relation to each other, pre season testing is all there is to go on at this stage of the season.  Combined times from the first test in Jerez displayed Kimi Raikkonen second fastest over the four days, with Romain Grosjean fourth quickest, meaning they were the highest placed team mates.  Some discourse was to be heard about whether Lotus and their E21 could be title contenders, but with testing arriving in Barcelona and a surge in performance by Mercedes, talk about Lotus mostly dissipated.   

Hamilton looking strong in the Mercedes.  Photo: The Guardian

Although Toto Wolff has down played suggestions that the Silver Arrows could be a force to be reckoned with this season, Pat Fry, Technical Director at Ferrari told Speed Week that he thinks they look very strong.  Due to their impressive performances throughout testing, but especially in the final one, all the gabble is now centred around the Brackley based team.  Poaching Lewis Hamilton, arguably the most famous current Formula One driver from McLaren, followed by Toto Wolff from Williams and Paddy Lowe, also from McLaren, has established Mercedes firmly in the limelight where they will now mount the quest for their first title in fifty seven years.  

It has emerged this week that Red Bull have the slowest car in a straight line, and that worry about their two second speed deficit to Mercedes in testing has begun to creep in.  Helmet Marko expressed that not everything had “gone to plan.” We are still yet to see what surprises they have to unveil in style at Melbourne.  Having taken the Constructors crown for the last three years, talk about Red Bull as contenders will never be far from people’s lips, and every move they make will be closely scrutinised.

Combined times from the final test at Montmelo showed Fernando Alonso second fastest with his team mate Felipe Massa in fourth.  Ferrari Team President Luca Montezemolo is optimistic that the F138 is “meeting all our expectations.”  Due to their history and pedigree in the sport, even when the car isn’t operating at a peak level, Ferrari will always take centre stage in a championship to some degree.  

Ferrari testing at Montmelo.  Photo: Briony Dixon

Martin Whitmarsh, Team Principal at McLaren has voiced the difficulties faced by the team when attempting to gain a full understanding of the behaviour of the MP4-28.  Jenson Button and Sergio Perez haven’t seemed entirely happy with the performance of the car throughout winter testing.  McLaren have a huge fan base, and a long history.  Couple this with all eyes watching Perez to see whether his move to the team will end in success or failure, you have another substantial slice of the limelight taken. 

McLaren at the first Barcelona test.  Photo: Briony Dixon

With all the focus on their main rivals, Lotus are free to begin their challenge in their usual understated style, in the shadow of the other teams, something that will suit their laconic Finn, Kimi Raikkonen.  Suffering reliability issues during winter testing, in particular gearbox issues, has placed them slightly out of contention. 

One aspect of their 2012 season that wasn’t understated was Romain Grosjean’s penchant for causing first lap incidents.  The Frenchman was involved in eight across the season, including the worst opening lap crash at Spa since 1998, which resulted in his being issued with a race ban for Monza.  Lotus will need to hope that he has matured and learned from his mistakes if they are to make a stealthy advance into the top three or beyond. 

Lotus have kept a consistent driver pairing for 2013, and with the E21 being unveiled as an essentially slicker, more precise version of the E20, consistency could be the team’s secret weapon in their dusky rise up the table.  It is the belief of Raikkonen that adding more pace to the consistency from last year could propel them further forward.   Lotus’ title challenge this season could again be understated, in the shade of others, but the addition of outright, blistering pace to an already solid package could shoot them from the shadows.  Their rivals should watch out for these stalking panthers, their stealthy ascent could catch them unawares.  

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Pirelli: Is the current situation making racing too contrived?



From the minute the green light was activated signalling the start of the first pre season test at Jerez, the word on everyone lips has been ‘tyres’.  During this first test the new Pirelli tyres degenerated rapidly leaving them in tatters, however the highly abrasive nature of the track surface at Circuito de Jerez wasn’t able to indicate a true reflection of their behaviour.  When reflecting on the opening test and looking forward to the second test in Barcelona, Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembury said,

“The limiting factor at the opening test in Jerez earlier this month was the abrasiveness of the track, so hopefully conditions will be more representative this time.”

Pirelli tyres available this season.  Photo: F1fanatic

However conditions this year at the Circuit de Catalunya were not representative of those usually experienced in Barcelona.  While ice on the track first thing in the morning isn’t unheard of at this time of year, the temperature usually rises as morning progresses.  This year, the temperature remained cool, leading to more intense graining caused by an increased level of sliding being experienced on a cold track.  This circuit is also renowned for posing a challenge for tyres, as the formidable number of right hand corners results in high degradation, particularly on the left front.

With tyre behaviour still causing a concern, complaints about the new tyres flooded in courtesy of the drivers.  Particularly creative in their descriptions were Toro Rosso drivers.  Jean Eric Vergne, who thought the shredded tyres look like cauliflowers, and his team mate, Daniel Ricciardo, who likened the marbles left on the track to rubber bullets.   

Marbles at Turn 16.  Photo: Briony Dixon

Prior to testing in Barcelona Paul Hembury said this seasons tyres are,

 “Generally softer and faster than last year with deliberately increased degradation”

Have the tyres been made too soft?  Based on unreliable data from both pre season tests conducted so far, Sergio Perez was quoted in Speed Week,

 “The cool temperatures are making it worse; in Melbourne it will probably be better, otherwise we will be doing seven or ten pitstops.”

No doubt the weather will be less inclement in Melbourne but Pirelli are counteracting this with their nomination of the supersoft tyre to accompany the medium. According to Pastor Maldonado, the supersoft tyre is not only spongey and quickly degrading, but also slower than the soft compound.  In a media statement Pirelli said,

” The full step in the compound choice should ensure a performance gap between the cars that allows strategy to come into play.”

Couple this with a statement made by Racing Manager at Pirelli, Mario Isola, when speaking to Spanish newspaper El Pais,

“All we’ve done is try to slightly increase the spectacle of the racing, but we haven’t done anything dramatic.”

For those who believe that the spectacle of Formula One is centred on pit stop strategy, making the right call on tyres at the optimum moment and gaining positions while in the pits, then Pirelli’s election of the supersoft compound will appear positive and exciting.  But what about those who hold the view that the spectacle lies in the driving itself, in the different nuances the drivers have that enable them to undertake manoeuvres that leave the spectator awe – struck. 

Drivers bring contrasting styles to the track.  Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso share a smooth braking style, while Lewis Hamilton’s approach is to roar up to the corner braking as late as possible;  an approach that served him well in 2012 as he was able to get heat into the tyres, leading to a higher level of grip, something Jenson Button struggled with.  Alonso was able to transform his gentle approach into a style more reticent of Hamilton’s.  While it is a mark of an exceptional driver to be able to mould themselves to their machinery and the tyres, as Jim Clark was able to do and as Fernando has proved he can, is there a danger of all drivers adopting the same characteristics and style to their driving?  Do we want to see every driver thundering up to the corner, braking as hard and late as possible in order to get heat into the tyres, or do we want a variety?

Alonso is able to adapt driving style to match the behaviour of the tyres.

As Pirelli are the sole supplier, the situation regarding the tyres is the same for each team.  Ultimately this means that the race will be won by the team who can achieve peak performance out of them.  In a season that will close the performance between the teams on the grid due to the static regulations, tyre strategy could be the only aspect to propel a team into the realms of victory in 2013.  An achievement Pirelli would no doubt be proud of.  Paul Hembery expressed a wish to limit the cars aerodynamically, 

 “Our intention was to offer greater mechanical grip, thus reducing the importance of aerodynamics.  This leads us to believe that there will be less difference between the performance of the big and the middle- sized teams.”

If true, this would be beneficial, as more features kept consistent between all cars would move the spotlight increasingly on driver skill and style, but with the tyre situation forcing drivers to become clones of each other, only tyre strategy remains as the differentiating factor.  When available tyre compounds are dictated for each race, we could be led to wonder whether racing in Formula One has ever been so contrived.
Perhaps the most negative impact stipulations about use of tyres has made, was in 1982, when renewed regulations ordered that qualifying would be completed on just two sets of tyres. Gilles Villeneuve made the point that when on a last set of tyres and approaching traffic on a qualifying lap, a move to overtake could prove precarious and unsafe.  Shortly after expressing this view, the French Canadian was killed during qualifying overtaking a car not on a flying lap. 

Would having multiple tyre suppliers solve the air of manipulation that surrounds the tyre situation?  In 2001 Michelin returned to Formula One after a gap of seventeen years to challenge Bridgestone, who had enjoyed two years as the sole supplier.  This meant there were differences in the tyres, therefore facilitating varying driving styles.  Particular tyres would perform better at some circuits than others, so if the track was a Bridgestone track, tyre advantage meant then they were guaranteed to win.  In addition to this, some tyres were better in the rain or on damp tracks.  Tracks with lower tyre advantage differences would produce closer racing.  Though not as contrived or manipulated, it was perhaps more predictable. 

There is no getting away from it.  Whether a sole supplier has the monopoly or whether there is competition, tyres will always dictate racing.  For the 2005 season Michelin proposed a harder compound to reduce the number of marbles on track, eliminating the dirty line and leading to increased overtaking.  Now Pirelli attempt to create the spectacle through pit stop strategy.  I know which I would rather see. 

Pirelli’s wish to reduce the importance of aerodynamics hasn't really come to fruition.  Adrian Newey, Red Bull’s weapon in the aero war, ensures they are at the forefront in this area.  They have won three consecutive constructors titles.  As much as the tyre supplier would like everything to be the same, Formula One is a team sport and aerodynamic capabilities will never be equal, neither will driver skill.  The Pirelli tyres definitely creates contrived racing, however all the while we have exceptional people in the sport like Adrian Newey and Fernando Alonso, individual skill within a team will prevail over the false spectacle manufactured by the ‘tyre situation’.