Maldonado: From the sublime to the ridiculous

After a close fought Monaco grand prix in which the top six cars were covered by just six seconds, we had our sixth winner in the opening six rounds of the 2012 Formula 1 season as Mark Webber took the chequered flag for Red Bull, making the 2011 constructors champions the first team to win two races this season. As good as Webber’s performance over the course of the weekend was – he also started on pole following Michael Schumacher’s five place grid penalty for running into Bruno Senna in Barcelona – the focus of this article is not on the race winner, or, indeed, any of the top six finishers. This article is all about a driver who didn’t even complete the first lap in Monaco, a driver who started on the back row, after qualifying ninth, the same driver that took an outstanding first career F1 victory in Spain a fortnight ago: Pastor Maldonado.

After the Barcelona race, Williams driver Maldonado was rightly praised for great performances in qualifying and the race. He had started the race in pole after Lewis Hamilton’s exclusion for a fuel irregularity, and drove a brilliantly controlled race to beat Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso to the chequered flag. I was among those that praised Maldonado, highlighting what seemed to be a new found maturity from the Venezuelan. After the events of Monaco, however, it seems that I, and many others, might have been too quick to herald the turning of a new leaf for the Williams driver. The Spanish grand prix winner had a dire Monaco grand prix weekend during which he demonstrated immaturity, overly aggressive driving and extreme hot headedness.

Let’s start with the final free practice session on Saturday morning. Maldonado was involved in an incident with Sauber’s Sergio Perez towards the end of the session in which the Williams driver appeared to deliberately drive into the Mexican as the latter slowed to let him pass at Portier, the right hander before the famous Monaco tunnel. Perez was quickly on his team radio claiming “Maldonado is crazy”. The stewards seemed to agree with this assessment, handing Maldonado a 10 place grid penalty for a breach of Article 16.1 of the FIA’s Sporting Code for causing a collision with another driver. Maldonado claimed afterwards that the clash had been accidental, and was quoted by Autosport as saying “I was trying overtake him and I lost the car…Maybe I was too optimistic on the throttle on cold tyres, because it was my first lap with a new option and I was trying to recover the car, it got too much grip and I touched his front left wheel. That’s it”. That certainly was not how the situation looked from the outside, with the clash looking like a deliberate piece of aggression on Maldonado’s part.

Let’s not forget that Maldonado has past form for aggressive driving of this type. He received a five place grid penalty at the 2011 Belgian grand prix at Spa following a clash with Lewis Hamilton during the second part of qualifying which saw Maldonado penalised for deliberately driving in to the Englishman after the La Source hairpin as the cars were approaching Eau Rouge. This came after Hamilton had passed the Venezuelan the previous lap, barging his way through after Maldonado had been held up by slower cars. If Maldonado’s incident with Perez was indeed as deliberate as it appeared, it seems that, contrary to what we saw in Spain, Maldonado still has a propensity for hot headed, petulant driving which has no place at the pinnacle of motorsport.

Maldonado’s move on Perez in FP3 was bad enough, but he followed it up on the very next lap with a further display of over aggressiveness as he took far too much kerb going through Casino Square before spearing into the barrier on the opposite side of the track, losing his left rear wheel in the process and causing the session to be red flagged. So, that’s two incidents from Maldonado before qualifying had even started. Two incidents for which he was clearly at fault.

After the events of free practice three, qualifying itself was fairly tame in comparison. Maldonado qualified ninth having made it through to the third part of qualifying, but even though the was no big incident involving Maldonado in qualifying itself I believe the manner in which he qualified ninth can be used to demonstrate a further lack of maturity on the Venezuelan’s part. Don’t forget that going in to qualifying, Maldonado knew that he had a 10 place grid penalty from the stewards, so was fully aware that he would start no higher than 11th place, making a good result extremely tough. Instead of trying to conserve tyres, though, Maldonado decided to fight for the highest starting position possible in Q3. You could argue that this showed some admirable fighting spirit but, with hindsight, it looked a little silly and desperate. Maldonado, despite using up his tyres, only qualified ninth, which meant a 19th place start, which soon became a 23rd place start after Williams elected to change his gearbox resulting in a further five place grid penalty. He was only saved from starting last because Perez crashed out in the first part of qualifying and then also changed his gearbox.

While Perez drove a creditable race, which would have seen him score points but for a drive through penalty for a late pit lane entry, eventually finishing 11th, Maldonado’s race was over on lap one. Instead of hanging back a little and being cautious into the bottle neck of Sainte Devote, Maldonado went careering into the back of HRT’s Pedro de la Rosa putting both drivers out of the race. As Perez’s performance showed, Maldonado could have salvaged more valuable points for Williams if he had kept a cooler head.

It’s clear from his performances so far this season, though, that Maldonado does have pace and ability, but that with that pace and ability comes hot headedness and inconsistency. There can be no clearer illustration of this than the last two grand prix: a brilliant result in Spain, followed by a dismal performance at Monaco. Which Maldonado will show up in two weeks time at the next grand prix in Canada?

Home page image © Williams F1 Team, LAT Photographic

A demonstration of the value of maturity

What an action packed Spanish Grand Prix weekend.  Full of controversy, excitement and incident with a multitude of talking points.  Where to start?  There was another mistake from McLaren which led to the exclusion of the driver that set the fastest time in Q3, Lewis Hamilton, from qualifying.  Narain Kathikeyan qualifying outside the Q1 107% time, but being allowed to race.  A first pole, followed by a first win for Pastor Maldonado.  Frank Williams’s 70th Birthday. The fire in the Williams garage after the race, and Michael Schumacher’s crash with Bruno Senna.  I can’t possibly go into all of these incidents in detail in a single blog post, but I think it’s possible to draw together a common theme from the majority of these events: maturity.

I think that it would be unfair not to start with a brilliant first win for Pastor Maldonado. Nobody would have predicted pole position for the Venezuelan – albeit an inherited pole after Hamilton’s exclusion – let alone that he would go on to win the race.  Indeed, you could have got long odds on both.  Maldonado was written off by the majority of fans as a pay driver with little talent when he entered Formula 1 with Williams in 2011.  At 26, he was far older than many drivers new to F1 having spent four seasons in GP2, before finally winning that championship in 2010.  By the end of his first season in F1, aside from a strong drive at Monaco, which ultimately ended in retirement, he had done little to persuade anyone that he had the talent to win races in the premier class.  Maldonado finished 19th in the championship in 2011 after scoring a single world championship point with a 10th place finish at Spa.

With hindsight it’s easy to say that perhaps we were all a little harsh in writing Maldonado off.  He was, after all, a GP2 champions, just like Lewis Hamilton.  Unlike Hamilton, though, Maldonado took his time to deliver GP2 race wins and the championship; four seasons to Hamilton’s one.  Despite being the same age as Maldonado, Hamilton had already completed four Formula 1 seasons, and won the world championship, before Maldonado even entered F1.  Maldonado has shown with his outstanding drive in Barcelona, though, that although he has taken much longer to develop as a driver than many of his peers, if he is given a good enough car he has matured to the extent that he can win races.

I’ll continue the theme of maturity by moving on to talk about Lewis Hamilton.  I’ve written earlier in the season about the Englishman’s new found consistency and maturity, but after his performance at Barcelona it’s hard not to acknowledge it again.  You can imagine that Lewis Hamilton might have been indignant at being excluded from qualifying after being ordered by his engineer to stop on track after his pole lap after a blunder from McLaren meant that his car was under-fueled.  This was made all the worse by the fact that Hamilton had taken a brilliant pole position by almost 0.6s.  Indeed, the McLaren driver said, before being excluded from qualifying, that “It was a fantastic qualifying session for me…one of the best I ever had”.  It must have been incredibly disheartening for that brilliant lap and outstanding performance to have been for nothing.  The Lewis Hamilton of 2011, dogged by controversy, incidents and stewards penalties might well have crashed out early in Spain as he desperately tried to make up positions after starting from last, but not so the Hamilton of 2012.  The 2008 world champion drove a brilliantly controlled and mature race to take 8th, ahead of his team mate, Jenson Button, who started the race in 10th (having actually qualified in 11th).

Hamilton has received a fair degree of criticism about his driving style.  He’s been written off in some quarters as a driver that’s unable to come to terms with the new Pirelli tyres, having been compared unfavourably to his team mate who is known for his smooth driving style and tyre management capabilities.  It’s hard not to be impressed that Hamilton showed not only the maturity to drive a controlled race – while at times pulling off some outstanding overtaking manoeuvres – and finish ahead of his team mate, but also the ability to manage his tyres better than anyone else.  Hamilton was the only driver to make only two stops at Barcelona, which meant that he had to do an incredible 30 lap final stint.  At the end of that final stint many would have expected that Hamilton would be struggling for grip, falling backwards, but that, too, was not the case.  Hamilton was actually pulling away from his team mate, who was on fresher tyres, and rapidly catching Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes, who was also on newer rubber.  Button said after the race “I am normally good at looking after tyres and having a good consistency, it is something I always work on but I can’t do that at the moment and I don’t know why”, while in contrast Hamilton said when interviewed “I was the only one to do a two stopper, despite everyone always telling me how aggressive my driving style is and how much better my team-mate is on tyres than me. I think today is a good demonstration that they are perhaps wrong”.  This must have been an extremely satisfying result for an increasingly mature Lewis Hamilton, who had refused to blame his team for the qualifying fueling error.

I’ll return now to Williams, whose founder Sir Frank Williams was able to celebrate his own ‘maturity’, having just turned 70, with a first win since Juan Pablo Montoya won in Brazil in 2004.  Sir Frank and the team’s deserved celebrations were unfortunately cut short by a fire in their garage which left a gutted shell in its wake and resulted in 31 people being seen by circuit medical staff.  But out of this adversity came a show of amazing community spirit and maturity from Williams’s rivals who not only helped to extinguish the fire, but also have offered to loan Williams equipment to replace what was lost in the inferno.

There’s always an exception to the rule, though, and my exception to the maturity rule in Spain is Michael Schumacher.  At 43 years of age the seven time world champion is certainly old enough, but in my eyes he showed a real lack of maturity in failing to accept complete responsibility for ramming into the back of Bruno Senna’s Williams, putting both drivers out of the race on lap 13.  Schumacher amazingly blamed Senna for the crash, but the Stewards disagreed, handing the German a five place grid penalty for the next race – Monaco.  With five winners from five different constructors in the opening five rounds of the season I, for one, can’t wait to see what round six brings.

Tyre trouble?

Formula 1 designers and teams spend a lot of time, energy and money designing, building, testing and racing their cars.  They all share the same goal; to produce a car that’s the class of the field, able to blow away the competition and deliver drivers and constructors world championships.  The cycle of design, build, test and race is a continuous one, going round year after year as the teams seek to innovate and maximise the opportunities for speed allowed in the regulations.  There is, however, one element of their cars over which they have very little control:  the tyres.

Before 2007, during the tyre war years, Michelin and Bridgestone battled it out to create the fastest rubber for their respective teams.  Following the controversial 2005 United States Grand Prix – where only six cars (those using Bridgestone tyres) started the race after the teams using Michelin rubber were forced to withdraw due to safety concerns relating to the tyres at the banked turn 13, after an unexplained tyre failure for Ralph Schumacher during practice – Michelin soon withdrew from the sport leaving F1 with a single tyre supplier.  With Bridgestone as the sole tyre supplier between 2007 and 2011 the teams effectively got what they were given in terms of tyres.  Bridgestone, with no competition, were free to produce ultra durable tyres that produced pretty consistent grip and degraded slowly; a good advertising platform for their road tyres.  However, this type of tyre produced highly tactical racing, with little overtaking and fuel strategy often the determining factor until refuelling during races was banned from 2010.

From 2011 Pirelli took over from Bridgestone as Formula 1’s single tyre manufacturer, supplying rubber to all 13 teams.  Pirelli entered the sport with a very clear brief:  design, build and supply tyres that degrade more quickly and produce more exciting racing.  Pirelli have certainly fulfilled that brief, moving the sport away from the situation it experienced with highly durable Bridgestone tyres following the end of the tyre wars.  The tyres are now less predictable and drivers have to conserve their rubber, not pushing flat out for fear that the tyres will “fall off the cliff” – a characteristic where the Pirellis simply run out of grip and need to be changed.  Logically, this will favour drivers with a smoother, less aggressive driving style.  Indeed, as we have seen, Sauber’s Sergio Perez has benefitted by being able to conserve tyres the longest managing fewer stops than other drivers to move himself forward during races. 

Recently, though, the Pirelli tyres have been criticised, by none other the seven time world champion Michael Schumacher, for not allowing drivers to drive flat out and push.  When interviewed recently by CNN Schumacher described driving on the Pirelli tyres as like driving on “on raw eggs”.  He said of the Pirellis “I just think that they’re playing a much too big effect because they are so peaky and so special that they don’t put our cars or ourselves to the limit…I don’t want to stress the tyres at all. Otherwise you just overdo it and you go nowhere”.  Although Schumacher has been very vocal in his criticism he has been very much a lone voice thus far.  You can, though, understand his frustration.  For aggressive drivers like Schumacher and, one would assume, Lewis Hamilton, the Pirelli tyres must be particularly difficult.  Schumacher and Hamilton both like cars that move around a little at the rear, a characteristic that is likely to be harder on tyres, which must compound their frustration when combined with their racer’s desire to push hard.

The problem with the Pirellis, in my view, is that for aggressive drivers, like Schumacher and Hamilton, the extra time that they would pick up by pushing themselves, the car and the tyres to the limit, is insufficient to balance out the time penalty that they would receive because they would need to pit more often.  Now that the teams are fairly used to the Pirelli tyres an element of the unpredictability that made the racing so exciting when they entered the sport has gone.  We’re now into a time management/conservation game which, ironically, could actually make the racing dull if the situation continues over a number of years.

For me, the last thing that we want is for F1 to be about tyre conservation.  Don’t we want to see drivers pushing to the limit, challenging themselves and their machinery?  As Schumacher has said, they’re just not able to do that with the current crop of tyres.  I ask myself how some of the drivers of the past would have managed on these tyres.  If I pick two great drivers from the past: Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna – both of whom we recently remembered following the anniversaries of their respective deaths – they would almost certainly have hated driving on the Pirelli tyres because of their aggressive and spectacular driving style.  Would we ever have seen great driving displays like the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix where Senna got faster and faster, building up an incredible 55 second lead over his team-mate, Alain Prost, before crashing out on lap 67?  I think the answer is probably “no”, because drivers are not able to push hard enough on the Pirelli tyres to go, as Senna said of his qualifying display at Monaco in 1988, “well beyond my conscious understanding”.  In contrast, drivers like Prost, himself a four time world champion, and famous for his incredibly smooth and precise driving style, would probably have quite liked the Pirellis tyres as they would play to his strengths.  Ultimately, different drivers with differing driving styles will benefit from tyres with characteristics that suit those different driving styles.

I don’t mean to be unfairly critical of Pirelli, who have done what they’ve been asked to do.  Their tyres, along with KERS and DRS have certainly helped to make the racing more exciting in recent times.  I do, however, think that it would be a massive shame to deprive F1 fans of the more aggressive style of driving of Villeneuve, Senna, Schumacher and Hamilton and the sorts of supreme displays of on the edge driving that we saw from Senna at Monaco in 1988.  I hope that Pirelli, and the sport, can get the balance right.

Imola 1994: A lasting legacy

18 years ago, Formula 1 had its most tragic race weekend in my living memory as not one, but two drivers were killed at the ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix at Imola.

Even before the deaths of Roland Ratzenburger and triple World Champion Ayrton Senna on Saturday 30 April and Sunday 1 May, respectively, there was a serious crash involving Senna’s compatriot, Rubens Barrichello, whose Jordan was launched into the air and hit the top of the tyre barrier after he slid over the kerb at Variante Bassa at around 140 mph during Friday qualifying.  The car rolled a number of times and came to rest upside down.  Barrichello was knocked unconscious, but fortunately suffered only relatively minor injuries; a broken nose and arm.  Commenting some 10 years after the event, Damon Hill – Senna’s Williams-Renault team mate at the time of his death – said “We all brushed ourselves off and carried on qualifying, reassured that our cars were tough as tanks and we could be shaken but not hurt”.  As we all know, though, Barrichello had used up all the good fortune that weekend; Ratzenburger and Senna proved not to be as lucky as the Jordan driver.

Of course, the vast majority of the attention, both in the immediate aftermath of the race and in the years since, has focussed on the death of the Brazilian Ayrton Senna during the race itself, but the world should not forget Roland Ratzenburger, the other driver to die at Imola in 1994.  The Austrian, driving a Simtek-Ford, died in qualifying, the day before Senna, as he competed for the final slot on the grid, crashing at Villeneuve corner – itself named after a supremely talented driver, Gilles Villeneuve, who died some 12 years earlier while competing in the sport he loved – after his front wing became dislodged and went under the car, sending the 33 year old into the outside wall at close to 200 mph, fracturing his skull.  Indeed, it’s easy to forget that it was Ratzenburger’s death, rather than Senna’s, that sparked the reformation of the Grand Prix Driver’s Association (with Senna one of the first three directors) and the drive to improve safety in the sport.

Indeed, improved safety was Ratzenburger’s great legacy, the most visible reminder of which is the HANS devices that all F1 drivers, as well as drivers in other racing categories, use to prevent the type of skull fracture that killed the Austrian.  Given his reputation as one of the best ever F1 drivers, if not the best of all time, the death of Senna, whose Williams veered off the track at the Tamburello corner on lap 7 of the race, remains the most enduring memory from the 1994 Imola race weekend.

Senna, already deeply affected by Barrichello’s crash in Friday qualifying, cried at the news of Ratzenburger’s death.  His great friend, Professor Sid Watkins, the then head of the medical team, tried to persuade him not to race, but Senna commented to him that “there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on”.  It was this determination and his amazing will to win that made Senna a great racing driver, but his refusal to call it a day meant that he got into his car on Sunday to start his 161st, and final, Grand Prix from pole position.

A big crash at the start of the race, after Finland’s JJ Lehto stalled his Benetton and was hit by the Lotus of Pedro Lamy, sending debris into the crowd injuring nine people, meant that the safety car was deployed.  The safety car re-entered the pits on lap 6, and just a lap after that, Senna (who it would later be revealed was carrying with him an Austrian flag in tribute to Ratzenburger) went straight on at around 200 mph at the fast left handed Tamburello corner, decelerating to approximately 130 mph before hitting the tyre barrier.  The cause of the accident has never been determined without doubt, with some saying that the car bottomed out after tyre pressures had dropped under the safety car, while others have said that the steering column on his Williams FW 16 snapped, leaving the Brazilian unable to turn the car.  Whatever the cause, the result is the same; the tragic loss of a truly great driver, who died after suffering multiple injuries, including those caused after the 34 year old’s Bell helmet was pierced by a suspension arm from his car.

Improved safety was again the legacy, with the Tamburello being turned into a far less dangerous, and less challenging, chicane and the high cockpit sides we see in the Formula 1 cars of today – designed to help minimise the risk of debris striking the driver’s head – a stark comparison to the low sided cockpits of Senna’s era.

There is, though, still room for further improvements to driver safety in this respect, as we have seen after the incident at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, where Felipe Massa was struck on the helmet by a spring that came loose from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn car, causing him a serious injury which meant he missed the remainder of the season.  The Massa incident serves as a reminder that Formula 1 must never be complacent about driver safety.

The FIA continue to explore options for protecting the driver’s head further, with windscreens, jet fighter style cockpit canopies and even front roll hoops being tested and evaluated as possible safety features for introduction in the future.  Fortunately, though, there have been no further driver deaths in F1 since Imola in 1994.  Long may it continue.

End note: Look out for the #F1Imola94 hashtag on Twitter today (1 May 2012) as we pay tribute to Roland Ratzenburger and Ayrton Senna.  Gone, but never forgotten.