Nico Rosberg: Under investigation

Leaving aside the question marks over whether the Bahrain Grand Prix should have gone ahead or not in light of the continued civil unrest in the country, the race itself bucked the trend of previous F1 races at the Sakhir circuit by being full of overtaking and incident. The race resulted in the fourth race winner from the fourth team in the opening four races of the season. It saw the fourth leader of the World Drivers’ Championship, too, with Sebastian Vettel’s victory seeing him leapfrog several drivers, including previous leader Lewis Hamilton – who finished eighth after his race was destroyed by pit stop issues – and Red Bull Racing move ahead of McLaren in the constructors standings. The race also saw a great result for Lotus, with Kimi Raikkonen producing a storming drive from 11th on the grid to finish second and his French team-mate, Romain Grosjean, joining him on the podium with a third place finish. However, as you will have guessed from the title, this post is not going to focus on any of these things, but instead the two incidents that Nico Rosberg was involved in with Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, both of which were subject to investigations after the race by the stewards.

Mercedes AMG driver Rosberg was on a high going into this race after taking a first pole position and following it up with a first Formula 1 win, in his 111th start, at the previous race of the season in Shanghai. His form in free practice two and three, where he headed the time sheets, made him the clear favourite for pole position, with many also suggesting that Rosberg would go on to win the race. However, an error in the qualifying top 10 shoot out saw the German start the race in fifth position after being too aggressive in his single Q3 run, taking too much kerb and costing himself crucial time. As a result he started behind both McLarens, which started second and fourth, and both Red Bulls, with Sebastian Vettel claiming his 31st pole position. Rosberg has not, up to this point, been known as a particularly aggressive driver, but the same aggression that was his undoing in qualifying was again evident in the race as he aggressively defended his position against Lewis Hamilton on lap 11 after the Englishman was trying to recover ground after a lengthy first pit stop, and again when he made a similarly aggressive defensive manoeuvre against Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso as the Spaniard tried to pass him at the same part of the track on lap 24. The stewards decided to investigate both of these incidents after the end of the race.

Let me turn first to Rosberg’s incident with 2008 world champion Hamilton, arguably the most controversial of the two incidents. The lap 11 incident saw Hamilton pass Rosberg with all four wheels off the track as the Mercedes driver moved hard to his right in an attempt to block Hamilton’s passing move between turns three and four. Indeed, Rosberg moved so far to the right that he himself had two wheels over the white line defining the track boundaries. Some would point out that the McLaren driver could easily have received a penalty for this incident as other drivers had done for off track passes in previous seasons, although Hamilton’s pass was notably different as it did not involve cutting a corner as the past incidents have invariably done. The focus was on Rosberg’s driving, however, with his extreme defending reminiscent of his Mercedes team-mate Michael Schumacher’s defence of 10th place at the 2010 Hungarian Grand Prix against his former Ferrari team-mate Rubens Barrichello, who was then driving for Williams. In this incident the veteran Brazilian was almost pushed into the pit wall, and arguably would have been had the pit lane exit not become available for Barrichello to make use of in order to complete the pass. The only difference between this and the Rosberg/Hamilton incident is, in my view, that there was more space in Sakhir, with the wall much further back from the track edge. In the end, Schumacher was given a 10 place grid penalty for the next race of the 2010 season at Spa, but not so Rosberg in 2012, who got away without even a reprimand. Why the different verdict from the race stewards?

Other than attributing the apparent inconsistency to differing stewards, with different opinions and viewpoints, it’s quite hard to understand why Rosberg was not given some sort of penalty, or at least a warning following the race. This was made even the more baffling considering the second incident of the race involving Alonso on lap 24, after the second round of pit stops. In this incident, Alonso tried an identical pass to Hamilton between turns three and four, albeit unsuccessfully as Rosberg made the same aggressive defensive move as he had against Hamilton 14 laps earlier. Alonso was clearly unhappy with the move, saying on team radio, immediately after his incident “He [Rosberg] pushed me off the track. You have to leave a space. All the time you have to leave a space.” Hamilton made similar post race comments to the Times, saying “I felt I was forced off the track. It was really dusty, the car started bottoming and I had to make sure I didn’t lose control of the car.”

Certainly article 10.4 of the Formula 1 sporting regulations would seem to agree with the view of Alonso and Hamilton. 10.4 clearly states that: “Manoeuvres liable to hinder other drivers, such as deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track or any other abnormal change of direction, are not permitted.” It’s hard to see how this is not exactly what happened, especially in the Hamilton incident, but the stewards disagreed stating, in their verdict on the Hamilton/Rosberg incident, that:

“1. The driver of Car 8 [Rosberg] commenced his move to the right after the exit from T3 and moved to the right in a constant and continuous straight line manner, not making any sudden movements (as evidenced by telemetry and video evidence) and;

2. At the time he commenced his move, Car 4 [Hamilton] was behind him and no part of his car was alongside Car 8 and;

3. The driver of Car 8 made the move to the right prior to the driver of Car 4 making the same move and;

4. For more than half of the distance travelled by Car 8 in moving in a straight line towards the right hand edge of the track, Car 4 remained behind Car 8 and;

5. Because the delta speed between the two cars was quite significant it was difficult for Car 8 to detect the exact position of Car 4 in relation to his own car;

6. Had a significant portion of Car 4 been alongside that of Car 8 whilst Car 4 still remained within the confines of the track, then the actions of Car 8 may not have been considered legitimate.”

The stewards delivered an almost identical statement in relation to the Alonso incident, substituting point 6, above with “No part of Car 5 [Alonso] was alongside that of Car 8.”

While all of the above is true, the same could have been said of the Schumacher/Barrichello incident from 2010, where the stewards decided differently. It could also be argued that had the incident taken place in 2011, with Lewis Hamilton defending, rather than attacking, a penalty would almost certainly have followed. As in football, it is the inconsistency in decisions from officials that most infuriates and confounds fans. Certainly Alonso was far from happy; the double world champion was quoted after the race as saying “If instead of such a wide run-off area there had been a wall, I’m not sure I’d be here to talk about it,” – perhaps himself drawing comparison to the Schumacher/Barrichello incident.

Alonso clearly disagreed with the stewards’ verdict, and followed up his post race comments once the stewards’ decision was in, saying on Twitter “I think you are going to have fun in future races! You can defend position as you want and you can overtake outside the track! Enjoy! ;)))”. Hamilton was more overt in comparing Rosberg’s manoeuvre to those of Schumacher than Alonso, saying in his comments to the Times “[Rosberg] pulled really to the right. I thought it was Michael for one second…”

As for Rosberg, he unsurprisingly felt that the stewards’ decisions justified his aggressive defending, calling the moves “tough but okay” and “good racing”. Fernando Alonso, and many others, would certainly disagree.

Has Rosberg’s race win in China ignited a new found will to win? Has it made him a more aggressive driver? After two incidents in a single race it’s much too early to be able to answer that question – time will tell.

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Consistency the key for championship leader Lewis

So, here we are, after an enthralling Chinese Grand Prix, in which Mercedes AMG driver Nico Rosberg took his maiden Formula 1 victory, Lewis Hamilton moves into the lead of the World Drivers’ Championship after a hat-trick of third place finishes in the first three races of the season.  Hamilton’s race weekend didn’t get off to the best of starts with the news that his McLaren team needed to change his gearbox, resulting in a five place grid penalty for the Englishman.  This meant that despite another strong qualifying performance – Hamilton finished Q3 second only to Nico Rosberg in the timesheets – the 2008 World Champion started the race in seventh position.  It could have been far worse, though; Hamilton’s team mate Jenson Button only qualified fifth (after Hamilton’s penalty) and Mark Webber started the race in sixth in his Red Bull.  Both Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, the then Championship leader after his win in Malaysia, and Webber’s team mate, Sebastian Vettel, started behind Hamilton after qualifying 9th and 11th, respectively.

Nevertheless, this was exactly the sort of situation that might have led to a disastrous race result for the Hamilton of 2011 – starting the race among slower cars, eager to make up ground after a penalty (albeit not from the stewards on this occasion) – not so for the Hamilton of 2012.  Despite coming up against his 2011 nemesis, Felipe Massa, at a certain point of the race, Hamilton kept his cool and drove with controlled aggression – making a number of passes when he needed to, without ever risking a move that might have resulted in damage to his McLaren.  This is a theme that’s developing for Hamilton this term; arguably more muted driving performances that have, thus far, come without the swashbuckling, but at times reckless, style of past seasons.  Is 2012 the season that we see a more mature, focused and consistent Lewis Hamilton come to the fore?

Hamilton has himself emphasised the importance of consistent results after a 2011 that saw some great race wins, interspersed by numerous on track clashes, visits to the stewards and penalties.  Autosport quoted him as saying, after the opening two rounds of the season “last year taught me the value of consistency: it’s no use chasing a great result if you can’t back it up with another strong finish the following week. So maybe I’m just playing myself in gently: after all, in 2007, I didn’t win a race until the sixth round, and I was in the hunt for the title all through the year”.  Hamilton then went on to say “I’m looking at the championship as a whole – although, of course, I’d love to win every race, it’s more important to be in a good points-scoring position at every race…I’ll be heading to China looking to win – but it’s just as important to pick up some good points if, for whatever reason, a win isn’t on the cards.”  This sort of attitude shows that Hamilton is maturing both as a person and a driver this season; where in the past he might have gone all out for the win, and told the world that he was going to do so, now he’s prepared to take a good points finish.  His words about China proved to be prophetic as his grid penalty robbed him of the chance to compete for the win, but he picked up another podium and with it 15 valuable points.

As a fan I can’t help but yearn for the high risk, high reward style of the Hamilton of old.  I’d love to see more of the awe inspiring driving displays that marked him out from the crowd in GP2 and made him a force to be reckoned with in Formula 1.  But I, like all Hamilton fans and, indeed, the man himself, need to be pragmatic.  Hamilton has learnt the lessons of 2011.  He now better understands that there’s little point risking everything in pursuit of an unlikely race win.  Getting the balance right is vitally important, though.  It’s easy to forget that at this stage of the season in 2011 Hamilton had two more world championship points than he does now, after taking second in Australia and a win in China, sandwiching eighth place in Malaysia.  But in 2011, Sebastian Vettel was already beginning to dominate and led the championship with 68 points.  Unlike in 2011, no single driver has yet stamped their authority on the 2012 season.  If Hamilton manages to maintain his current level of consistency, when the race wins come – as I have no doubt they will – his championship position will be incredibly strong.  To sound a note of caution, though, consistent podium finishes won’t be enough if another driver starts to string wins together in a similar fashion to Vettel in 2011 – a completely consistent season of 20 third place finishes would see Hamilton finish the season with 300 points, some way short of the 392 points that Vettel accumulated in 2011 in only 19 races.

So, despite the note of caution, it’s a case of “so far, so good” for Hamilton in 2012.  The results of the first three races of the season, and the current championship standings, seem to bear out the mantra that consistency is the key to success.  It seems that, contrary to what your mathematics textbooks might tell you, 3 x 3 = 1, at least for Lewis Hamilton.

End Note:  I’ve got to sign off by declaring a bias:  As might be apparent from this post, I’m a big Lewis Hamilton fan.  In fact, I’m surprised that, having written four previous blog posts, I’ve barely mentioned Hamilton, who, in my view, is the most naturally talented driver of his generation.

The Lotus name game

We live in a brand conscious age, where clever marketing drives consumer attitudes and spending patterns.  Formula 1 is no stranger to the use of advertising and marketing, with all teams selling advertising space on their cars.  Indeed, Bernie Ecclestone’s marketing machine has made him a billionaire while he massively increasing global interest in Formula 1  since the 1970s, when he took control of the commercial rights to the sport.  Are there, or should there be, some restrictions to what Formula 1 teams can do in terms of advertising?

The answer to this question is clearly yes, as we saw with the end of tobacco advertising on cars early in the new millennium, but what about team names?  Personally, if I see a Ferrari on an F1 track I like knowing that, if I had the money, I could go out and buy a Ferrari road car that bore some relationship to the F1 car I watched on TV.  It’s not just Ferrari, the same point could be made using McLaren or Mercedes and, to a lesser extent, Renault (given their involvement solely as an engine manufacturer).  Of course, there’s Lotus, too…or is there?

At the start of the 2010 season, after a gap of 15 years, the Lotus name made a welcome return to Formula 1 with Tony Fernandes’s Lotus Racing, one of three new teams to be granted a place on the grid at the start of that season.  Fernandes had agreed with Proton, who own Group Lotus, to use the Lotus name under license in F1.  Despite the use of the Lotus name, the 2010 F1 Lotus – the T127 – wasn’t really a Lotus, was it?  The car we watched racing around Formula 1 tracks bore no relationship to Lotus road cars whatsoever.

Things got messier in the 2011 season, with the breakdown of the relationship between Fernandes and Group Lotus.  The latter decided to terminate the licensing agreement with 1Malaysia Racing Team (Fernandes’s Team), and instead sponsor the Renault Team, which became Lotus-Renault.  This deal included an option for Group Lotus to acquire a stake in the Lotus-Renault Team.  Not to be outdone, Fernandes bought the historic and evocative Team Lotus name from the Hunt family and the 1Malaysia Racing Team raced under this banner in 2011.  We now had two Lotus teams on the grid, neither of which had a particularly close link to the Lotus road cars, although the possibility of such a relationship developing clearly existed with the potential part acquisition by Group Lotus of a 50% stake in Lotus-Renault.

Two Lotus teams in F1 could never last for very long, though, and, following a legal dispute, Fernandes eventually sold the Team Lotus name to Genii Capital, the owners of Lotus-Renault, and bought the sportscar manufacturer Caterham.  So in 2012, 1Malaysia Racing Team became the Caterham F1 Team and Lotus-Renault became simply Lotus.  That cleared everything up, right?  We had a Caterham F1 Team that was under the same ownership as its road car namesake and, even though Group Lotus were basically acting as a title sponsor for what was the Renault team (which continues to use Renault engines), a Lotus F1 Team with the potential for a similar relationship to develop in the future.

This situation was not to last long either, though.  Autosport reported on 6 April that the Lotus F1 team had “terminated its title sponsorship deal with sportscar manufacturer Group Lotus”, but that they would continue to use the Lotus name in Formula 1.  Autosport also reported that the option for Group Lotus to buy a 50% stake in the team had been annulled, removing the possibility that the Lotus road car would bear any sort of relationship to the Lotus F1 car.  So, the team will change its name again, right?  Wrong.  Autosport quoted Genii Capital owner Gerard Lopez as saying “We are happy to carry the Lotus name as we believe it is a good name for F1”.  Well, yes, he’s right there it is a good name for F1, but in my view Lotus is more than just a name – it brings with it a rich motorsport heritage and history, one that the current Lotus F1 Team does not share.  To my mind this is a type of false advertising.

You could draw a parallel here with the Infiniti sponsorship of the Red Bull team.  When this was originally announced, there was some speculation that this would lead to the Renault engines that power the Red Bull cars being branded Infiniti.  This didn’t happen, though, with Autosport quoting Infiniti’s senior vice president Andy Palmer as saying, in response to being asked whether Red Bull’s Renault engines would be rebadged “No. Infiniti is all about being genuine – so rebranding an engine would not have been genuine”.  So, there you have it, a huge difference in approach between this and the Lotus situation.

One can only assume that the Lotus F1 Team’s continued use of the Lotus name is under some sort of licensing agreement, similar to the one that 1Malaysia Racing had when it entered the sport in 2010.  Is this right, and should it be allowed?  In my view, it shouldn’t.  The uninformed man in the street would expect the Lotus on the F1 grid to be owned by the same Lotus company that he could buy a road car from; an F1 team shouldn’t be allowed to use a name just because it’s “a good name for F1”.

I’m off out to buy some prancing horse badges to stick on my Ford.  From now on I’ll be telling everyone I drive a Ferrari.  Who could disagree?  It’ll have the right badges…

That Mercedes DRS…

Despite the FIA having ruled that the Mercedes AMG Team’s innovative DRS system is legal, some teams are asking the FIA to reconsider their decision.  The Mercedes DRS, when activated, exposes ducts on the rear wing which channel air the length of the car to stall the front wing, to give a greater speed boost than a standard DRS.  The most vocal of  the teams lobbying against the legality of this system seem to be Red Bull Racing and Lotus, who disagree with Mercedes’ and the FIAs interpretation of the rules and want to see this system banned.  So what’s all the fuss about?

The Mercedes system is estimated by some to be worth around 0.5 seconds per lap in qualifying where use of the DRS system is unrestricted.  Half a second doesn’t sound like much, but in the world of Formula 1, where the top 10 in qualifying might be covered by 1.5 seconds or so, 0.5 seconds is a considerable amount.  Indeed, if you add 0.5 seconds to Michael Schumacher’s qualifying time in Malaysia, the lead Mercedes would have dropped from an impressive third, just a couple of hundredths of a second off second placed Jenson Button, and a tenth and a half off Lewis Hamilton in pole position, down to sixth.  Add that same 0.5 seconds to Nico Rosberg’s time in Q2 and he would have come very close to elimination, scraping into the Q3 top 10 shootout by around a tenth of a second from Pastor Maldonado’s Williams.  Given that Mercedes’ race pace is actually quite poor – both cars have dropped back quite quickly in the two races so far, and the team have only scored a single point (Schumacher’s 10th in Malaysia) – it’s easy to see why this DRS system is so valuable to Mercedes.  Without it, they would not have track position at the start of the race and, given their poor race pace, scoring points would be even more unlikely.  Given Mercedes’ poor race pace, though, why are the other teams so eager to see the system banned?

I believe that the answer to this last question can be found when looking at which teams are protesting most vociferously about the Mercedes DRS system:  Red Bull Racing and Lotus.  Looking at qualifying in Australia and Malaysia, it is these two teams that have been most affected by the extra 0.5 seconds that the Mercedes DRS system is said to provide.  In Australia Schumacher out-qualified both RBR cars, but would not have done so with an extra 0.5 seconds added to his time, and came very close to out-qualifying third placed Romain Grosjean in the Lotus.  In Sepang, Schumacher out-qualified, thanks to his extra 0.5 seconds boost, both Lotus cars and both RBR cars.  If Nico Rosberg had been able to replicate his team-mate’s form, the position would have been even worse for RBR and Lotus.  So, in my view, the Mercedes DRS is disadvantaging Red Bull and Lotus the most; it puts them in a false track position at the start of the race and means that they lose time trying to pass the Mercedes cars – Rosberg is a good starter, so usually makes up positions off the line – and fall away from the two McLaren’s.  This is a particular problem for Red Bull, whose race pace is especially strong.  So, should the Mercedes DRS system be banned?

It’s at this point that we get in to a discussion about the rules, which can often be pretty impenetrable, especially to those of us that are not technically minded – myself included.  On this occasion, though, I think things are fairly clear cut and I find myself agreeing with the FIA’s opinion thus far: The Mercedes DRS system is legal.  The relevant rules are articles 3.15 and 3.18 of the technical regulations.  Article 3.15 states that, other than the DRS system (covered in article 3.18) “any car system, device or procedure which uses driver involvement as a means of altering the aerodynamic characteristics of the car is prohibited”.  Article 3.18 outlines the DRS system and restricts the “driver adjustable bodywork” to the upper flap of the rear wing only.  So, in simple terms any driver operated system than affects the aerodynamic characteristics of the car is banned, other than the DRS system.  In order for the Mercedes enhanced DRS system to work, all the driver needs to do is operate the standard rear wing DRS that all the teams have.  No other parts of the bodywork are moving or being adjusted by the driver.  In my view, this means that the Mercedes system is totally legal.  Will the FIA maintain its previous position on this system and continue to agree that the system is legal?  And, if so, will RBR and Lotus decide to protest the results at the next race in China?  Only time will tell, but the only constant in the world of Formula 1 seems to be controversy.

Moving on from Gherkin-gate

Probably the biggest talking point from the recent Malaysian Grand Prix was the coming together between Narain Karthikeyan and Sebastian Vettel. The contact, which occurred as the Red Bull attempted to lap the HRT, resulted in front wing damage for the Indian and a left rear puncture for the German, with the resulting pit stop for fresh rubber dropping Vettel from 4th to 11th position; out of the points.

After the race Vettel called the HRT driver a “gherkin” and an “idiot”, placing the blame for the coming together squarely at the Indian’s door.  The stewards agreed that Karthikeyan was at fault and handed him a post race 20 second penalty.  Some disagreed with this verdict and judged that the contact was a “racing incident”, while others thought that the clash was actually Vettel’s fault.  I’m of the view that the incident itself was Vettel’s fault.  The Red Bull appeared to clip the HRT rather than the other way around.  Yes, as the driver being lapped Karthikeyan is responsible for moving out of the way to let the faster cars through, but in this case I don’t think that he was given anywhere to go by Vettel.

However, given that the penalty for Karthikeyan had no impact on the race result – and, should the stewards have decided the opposite way, a similar penalty for Vettel would have been just as meaningless given his finishing position – the controversy has centred on Vettel’s post race comments rather than the incident itself.   A case can clearly be made that the double World Champion’s comments were harsh and, some would say, ungentlemanly.  Certainly Karthikeyan would agree with this assessment calling Vettel a “cry baby” and labelling the German’s comments “shameful”.  So were Vettel’s post race comments fair or justifiable?  Putting aside the fact that Vettel clearly felt that he was the aggrieved party, the short answer to this question is no.  Remember, despite Vettel’s own views, and indeed those of the race stewards, fault for the clash was far from clear.  In his heart of hearts, Vettel must have realised this.

So, then, why was Vettel so vocal in his criticism of Karthikeyan?  My answer to this question can be summarised in one word: frustration.  Looking at the situation from the outside, it certainly looks like Vettel is far from happy that the Red Bull RB8 is not, at least at this stage of the season, the fastest car on the grid.  It’s possible that, after dominating in 2011 in a car that was the class of the field, Vettel is finding it hard to adapt to a situation where he needs to fight and scrap for race wins and podiums.  Throwing away what would have been a valuable 12 points for 4th place, through what I believe was his own carelessness, must have been particularly galling given the current situation.  I think that this could be a real test for Vettel, who needs to focus on helping his team out develop McLaren, rather than wasting his time and energy on a spat with a backmarker.

Although he’s a double World Champion, it’s easy to forget that at 24 years of age Vettel is still a very young driver, with a degree of maturing still to do.  You could argue that this lack of maturity can be further evidenced by the fact that he didn’t retire the car in Malaysia, seemingly ignoring his team’s orders – through the “emergency” message from his race engineer, Guillaume “Rocky” Rocquelin – to do so.  Red Bull have since claimed that Vettel didn’t hear this, or other similar messages, due to an issue with his radio, but as an outsider, with no inside information, it’s hard to know whether this is true or not.

Don’t count Vettel out yet, though.  A fighting win from behind in 2010, where he won the championship despite having never lead the standings until he crossed the line in the final race in Abu Dhabi, should serve as sufficient warning to his competitors that he remains a threat.  He’s currently 6th in the championship, 17 points behind the current leader, Spain’s Fernando Alonso, but only 7 points behind the winner in Australia, Jenson Button, who is 3rd in the championship.  A race win for Vettel in China, would see him, at worst, draw level on points with the Englishman.  If results go his way Vettel could even be leading the championship after China.  It’s going to be a great season; there are still 18 races left to run…