A case of what was, and what might have been

Who said that Valencia was a boring track?  Another enthralling race in the topsy turvey 2012 Formula 1 season ended with three former world drivers’ champions on the podium, but perhaps not the three that might have been predicted before the race.  Fernando Alonso broke the run of different winners in each round of the championship so far with his second victory of the season at the European grand prix and was joined on the podium by Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen and Mercedes AMG driver Michael Schumacher, who survived a post race stewards investigation for using his DRS under yellow flags and returned to the podium for the first time in his ‘second career’ in Formula 1.  It was undoubtedly a fantastic drive from Alonso, who started the race in 11th position, but with retirements for Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, Lotus’s Romain Grosjean and McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton – all of whom were in contention for victory – it was very much a case of what might have been for those drivers.

It wouldn’t be fair to Fernando Alonso not to start with him.  As I’ve already mentioned, the Spaniard started the race in 11th place having failed to make it into the final part of qualifying.  With the Ferrari having looked pretty uncompetitive in comparison to the other front running teams at this track, and with no-one having won at Valencia without qualifying in the top three, it looked highly unlike that Alonso would be able to challenge for victory, or even a podium.  Alonso though, as he has so often, particularly during the early part of the season, made light of these difficulties and drove a storming race to take his second victory of the season.  His pass around the outside of Romain Grosjean at turn two, after the safety car had returned to the pits, was a particular high point of his race for me.   Alonso’s victory was all the more impressive when compared with the performance of his team-mate, Felipe Massa, who started the race just two places behind his team-mate, having set a time less than a tenth of a second slower than Alonso in qualifying.  While Alonso drove brilliantly from his midfield starting position, pushing at the right times, Massa finished in 16th place, a lap down after a collision with Sauber’s Kamui Kabayashi forced him to pit for a new nose.  Massa was perhaps a little unfortunate, but his performances throughout the season, when compared with those of his double world championship winning team-mate, are making it increasingly unlikely that he’ll retain his drive with Ferrari beyond this season.  Alonso, though, with his ability to drag seemingly impossible results out of underperforming cars, now leads the championship.  It would be hard to argue that Alonso has not been the outstanding driver of the season so far.

By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Moving on to the ‘what might have been’ drivers, Sebastian Vettel will regard himself extremely unlucky not to have won a race that he was completely dominating before the safety car was deployed on lap 30 following a collision between Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne and Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen.  The Red Bull driver had built up an impressive 20 second lead over Romain Grosjean, who had managed to overtake Lewis Hamilton, who had been running second since the start.  Given Vettel’s dominant position at the half way point, few would have bet against the reigning world champion taking another victory at Valencia in a style reminiscent of some of his 2011 victories.  However, the intervention of the safety car proved crucial, eroding Vettel’s huge lead and, according to the German, possibly causing his eventual retirement with what turned out to be an alternator failure on lap 35.  Vettel can certainly consider himself to have been hugely unfortunate at Valencia.  We’ll never know whether he would have retired without the intervention of the safety car, but whether or not that would have been the case, he drove an outstanding first half of the race and would likely have won without the alternator issue.

By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Another driver that retired with an alternator failure was Romain Grosjean.  The young Frenchman had driven another extremely impressive race brilliantly passing Lewis Hamilton for second place before the intervention of the safety car, and out racing his more experienced world championship winning team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen, before his unfortunate retirement, 16 laps from the end of the race.  Grosjean is another driver who can consider himself to have been unlucky at Valencia.  The intervention of the safety car put the Lotus driver in contention to win the race, as he sat in second place to Vettel at the restart, but he was caught out by Alonso at the restart, dropping to third place after being overtaken by the Spaniard.  With Vettel’s retirement, though, Grosjean was once again running second and in with a real chance of challenging Alonso for victory.  The Lotus driver said after the race “I think I was looking not too bad and we knew we were quicker than the Ferrari. We just had to wait a little bit to see if their tyres were going away then try to push”.  As it turned out, Grosjean did not get the chance to prove that the Lotus was the faster car.  But for his alternator failure – the second Renault engine car to suffer this fate – we might have had a great battle between Grosjean and Alonso.

Finally, Lewis Hamilton drove a strong race in a McLaren which was clearly not the fastest car on the track.  Hamilton commented after the race that “We were a long, long way off today…we’ve got a lot of work to do to try and pick up the pace because we were really struggling today”, but despite the McLaren’s lack of pace – further demonstrated by another lacklustre result for Jenson Button, who finished in eight place – Hamilton might have won the race had it not been for another poor pit stop by the McLaren team.  The Woking based team have been working hard on their pit stops, having suffered a number of embarrassing delays in earlier races, and have introduced attached wheel nuts and a new, Ferrari style, pivoting front jack in order to cut down on the potential for problems and speed up their pit stops.  All their hard work seemed to be paying off with Hamilton’s first stop during which he was stationary for just 2.9 seconds.  The second stop was another matter, however.  A failure of one of McLaren’s new front jacks meant a second jack had to be used, but there were further problems even then.  In the end the delay was sufficient to drop Hamilton from third to sixth.  BBC pundit Eddie Jordan commented after the race “I believe the poor pit stop cost Lewis the race because he would have been clear of Fernando Alonso, and Pastor Maldonado would have not got anywhere near him to knock him out of the race”.  It’s hard to disagree that another slow pit stop cost Hamilton dearly.  The slow stop dropped Hamilton behind a number of cars that he would have been ahead of, cars that the Englishman then had to pass, wearing his tyres more than he otherwise would have done.  As Eddie Jordan mentioned in his post race comments, Hamilton eventually crashed out of the race, having been rammed off by Williams driver Pastor Maldonado on the penultimate lap.  At that stage of the race, Hamilton was running in third position on tyres that had ‘dropped off the cliff’.  The 2008 world champion had just been passed by 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen and as Maldonado attempted to pass Hamilton defended his position, squeezing Maldonado off the track.  The Venezuelan then rejoined and in doing so T-boned the McLaren pushing Hamilton into the wall and tearing off his own front wing.  This was another example of erratic and reckless driving from Maldonado who received a post race 20 second penalty from the stewards, dropping him front 10th to 12 place, costing him a world championship point.  That would have been of little consolation to Hamilton, though, who failed to finish and failed to score points for the first time this season.  As Eddie Jordan said, but for the poor second pit stop Hamilton would not have been in that position and, despite driving a car that was off the pace, he would have been in contention for victory.

It’s all ifs and buts for Hamilton, Grosjean and Vettel, though.  In the end it was Alonso who took a deserved victory with another outstanding drive.  Along with his win, the Ferrari driver also took the lead of the world drivers’ championship.  He has a 20 point lead over the second placed driver who, with retirements for Vettel and Hamilton, is now Mark Webber who drove a great race from 19th on the grid to finish fourth.  For now it’s advantage Alonso, but with such an unpredictable season it’s a long way from game, set and match in the championship.


Another race winner? The candid-eight-s

It’s been an exciting and unpredictable opening seven rounds of the 2012 Formula 1 championship.  The usual suspects – Alonso, Button, Hamilton, Vettel and Webber – have all won a race in the opening seven rounds of the season, and two unusual suspects – Maldonado and Rosberg – also have a victory apiece.  This makes it seven winners from seven races and fans and media alike are speculating about whether we might see an eighth winner and, indeed, who that eighth winner might be.  With the teams finding it difficult to work out how the Pirelli tyres are going to behave at each race, and how to set up their cars to extract the optimum performance from those tyres, and eighth winner is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.  But who might be our eighth winner in 2012?  Like everything else this season, winner number eight – if there is one – is tough to predict.  In this article I look at the five drivers that I consider to be the leading contenders to be winner number eight, and assess their chances.

By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s start with a driver that’s certainly had his share of bad luck in 2012: Michael Schumacher.  The seven time Formula 1 world drivers’ champion is, in the third year of his ‘second career’ in Formula 1, finally in a car that’s capable of winning races.  Indeed, the Mercedes AMG F1 W03 has already handed the team their first win since buying out Ross Brawn with Nico Rosberg’s first F1 career victory in China.  So, we know that the W03 is a fast car, which Schumacher himself demonstrated in Monaco qualifying with a brilliant pole lap (Schumacher actually started sixth once his five place grid penalty for his Barcelona crash with Bruno Senna had been applied), but what are Schumacher’s chances of driving it to victory?  As I mentioned, Schumacher has been extremely unlucky this season, scoring a paltry two world championship points for two 10th place finishes in Malaysia and Bahrain, with five retirements.  This compares very poorly against his team-mate who has a total of 67 world championship points and sits fifth in the drivers’ championship table.  Having said that, though, Schumacher’s run of bad luck simply has to run out at some stage.  Retirements like the failed DRS that we saw at round seven in Canada are one-off’s and four out of Schumacher’s five retirements have come from mechanical/team failures that have had nothing to do with Schumacher himself (the notable exception being Spain).  Given that the W03 is already a race winning car and Schumacher, although no longer at the height of his powers, is still a fast driver, I believe all that Schumacher needs are the right conditions and a change of luck in order to be able to record his 92ndcareer Formula 1 victory in 2012.

By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The next contender is another Formula 1 world drivers’ champion who has returned to the sport after taking a break: Kimi Raikkonen.  The 2007 champion returned to F1 this season, after two years in rallying, with the Lotus team.  As another former world drivers champion, Raikkonen is clearly a driver that’s capable of winning races in F1, as he has demonstrated 18 times before his two year break.  But is Raikkonen still a driver that’s good enough to win and is the Lotus E20 a quick enough car to win in 2012?  The answer to both of these questions is yes.  Raikkonen has already scored two podium finishes in 2012, with second place in Bahrain, swiftly followed with third in Spain.  Indeed, the Finn could easily have won in Bahrain had he not been held up behind his team-mate, Romain Grosjean.  Had the team ordered Grosjean to let his more experienced team-mate through, Raikkonen would have been able to catch eventual winner Sebastian Vettel more quickly, with tyres that had not been worked as hard.  Whether this would have been sufficient to allow Raikkonen to take and retain the lead, we’ll never know, although it would certainly have increased his chances.  Although Raikkonen has also had his fair share of less impressive results in 2012, he has clearly demonstrated that he’s still a quick driver.  There’s no reason why, if Lotus can maintain pace with the other front running teams, Raikkonen can’t take his 19thcareer F1 victory in 2012.

By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The other Lotus driver, Romain Grosjean, must also be considered a contender for a race win in 2012.  Like Schumacher and Raikkonen, Grosjean is another driver that is in his second stint in Formula 1, having returned after a break.  However, that’s where the similarities end; Grosjean’s position is very different to the previous two contenders.  Grosjean is not a F1 world drivers’ champion.  At 26 years of age he’s still a relative novice, having competed in just 14 F1 races (his first stint in the sport lasted for just seven races, having failed to impress after replacing Nelson Piquet Jr part way through the 2009 season).  So, is the Frenchman capable of taking victory in 2012?  The answer, as with the previous two contenders, is yes.  Before returning to Formula 1 this season, Grosjean demonstrated his speed in GP2, winning the championship in 2011 – his first full year back in the F1 feeder series.  Although Grosjean has been somewhat erratic this season, having had three retirements, he has proved himself to be very capable Formula 1 driver.  He sits just two points behind his far more experienced team-mate in the drivers’ championship and, just like his team-mate, he has scored two podium finishes in 2012, taking third in Bahrain and an impressive second in Canada with a one stop strategy.  Indeed, Grosjean would arguably have won the race in Montreal had McLaren attempted a one stop strategy for race winner Lewis Hamilton (as Ferrari did for Fernando Alonso, and Red Bull attempted for Vettel).  So, assuming that Lotus can maintain development pace with their rivals, Grosjean is definitely a contender for victory this season.

By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Sergio Perez is the next of my possible 2012 race winners.  Like Grosjean, Sauber driver Perez has yet to taste victory in his Formula 1 career but has sampled the podium finisher’s champagne on two occasions with a second place in Malaysia and a third in Canada.  Just like the two Lotus driver’s, Perez could already have won this season, having come extremely close to catching race winner Alonso’s Ferrari in Malaysia, before running wide and costing himself vital time.  As a Ferrari development driver Perez is clearly a driver that is highly rated by one of Formula 1’s top teams.  With two podium finishes this season, Perez has already shown us glimpses of his huge speed and potential.  The young Mexican has shown himself to be particularly adept and managing his tyres, making one stop strategies work extremely well when others have struggled to conserve their tyres.  All of this adds up to demonstrate that Perez will almost certainly win races in his F1 career.  Whether that happens in 2012 is another matter.  Sauber have worked wonders to build a competitive car this season.  The C31 has shown itself to be fast and able to deliver consistent lap times, particularly in Perez’s hands, but there must be some question marks over whether Sauber can maintain the same development pace as some of their better funded rivals.  For these reasons, I think that if Perez is going to deliver a victory in 2012, he will need to do it sooner, rather than later.

By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

On to my fifth and final contender for victory in 2012.  This driver is notably different to all of the other contenders.  He is not a world drivers’ champion like Schumacher or Raikkonen, and he hasn’t come close to a top three finish like Raikkonen, Grosjean and Perez.  So who is the fifth and final contender for victory in 2012?  The answer to that question is Felipe Massa.  The Brazilian has proved himself perfectly capable of winning rases in his Formula 1 career, having taken the chequered flag 11 times.  However, the last time that Massa won was at the 2008 Brazilian grand prix at Interlagos; the same race at which he lost out to Lewis Hamilton in the race for the world drivers’ championship.  Massa has also had a truly abysmal season so far, with a best finish of sixth in Monaco and just two other points finishes.  He lies a lowly 14th in the drivers’ championship, a massive 75 points behind his team-mate, Fernando Alonso, who has completely dominated at Ferrari.  Massa has really struggled with a Ferrari F2012 that was pretty uncompetitive at the start of the season.  While his team-mate was able to deliver results, notably winning at Sepang, despite the car’s deficiencies, Massa toiled, not scoring points until the fourth round of the season with a ninth place finish at Bahrain.  Why then is Massa a contender for victory in 2012?  The simple answer is that Ferrari have managed to develop the F2012 to such an extent that it is now a genuinely quick car.  Alonso demonstrated this with an impressive qualifying and race performance in Canada, qualifying third and eventually finishing fifth after the wrong strategy call when in contention to win the race.  Massa, too, has shown signs of improvement recently with sixth at Monaco, followed by 10thin Canada.  Indeed, had it not been for an early spin at Montreal, Massa might have finished further forward.  Massa’s qualifying performances have also improved in the last couple of rounds of the season, having failed to make it into Q3 before Monaco.  So, the improvement of the F2012 means that victory for Massa in 2012 is not beyond the realms of the possible.  It is, though, beyond the realms of the probable.  As I mentioned earlier, Massa has not won since the last race of 2012.  Between that victory and now Massa suffered an unfortunate accident in Hungary in 2009 which meant that he sat out the remainder of that season.  Many, including myself, would argue that Massa has not been the same driver since.  These factors, along with Alonso’s pre-eminent position at Ferrari mean that we’re unlikely to see Massa win in 2012.

Having run through the five drivers that I think are most likely to be in a position to become our eighth winner in 2012, who do I think will be the driver to do it?  If I had to make a prediction I’d go for Schumacher or Raikkonen on the basis of their past experience as grand prix winners and world champions.  The truth of the matter is, though, that, given the unpredictable nature of Formula 1 in 2012, it’s all but impossible to predict what might happen in future races.  We could quite easily see an eighth winner that’s not on my list of contenders.  Who, for example, would have predicted a victory for Williams driver Pastor Maldonado in Spain on the basis of past results?

We’ll just have to wait and see what happens, I suppose.  Round eight is at Valencia, a venue that has traditionally not delivered the most thrilling races in F1.  Let’s hope that Valencia can deliver a great race in 2012 and, who knows, maybe even an eighth winner in eight races.

A tale of two McLarens

After a closely fought battle for victory between the three drivers that occupied the first three grid slots in Canada, Lewis Hamilton came out on top, becoming the seventh different winner in the opening seven rounds of the record breaking start to the 2012 Formula 1 season.  While the winner of the race wasn’t a huge surprise given Hamilton’s form so far this season and, particularly, over the course of the three days of the Montreal event, what was surprising was that the drivers that he had been battling with throughout the race – Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso – did not join Hamilton on the podium, and that Hamilton’s team mate, Jenson Button, could only manage a distant 16th place, a lap down.  It’s this contrast in the fortunes of the McLaren team mates that I’m going to focus on, in particular.

Button started the season so well, winning the first race of the season in Australia.  Having become the first team-mate to beat Hamilton over the course of a full season in 2011, the result in Australia might have signalled that Button was set to continue this trend.  However, as McLaren have struggled with a car that looked to be losing ground to its rivals Button has suffered in particular in comparison to Hamilton, scoring just two points in the last four rounds of the championship in comparison to the 43 scored by his team-mate.  There’s no better example of the contrasting fortunes of the McLaren team mates than the race in Canada.  Button struggled all weekend in Montreal.  Admittedly his weekend was compromised by a lack of running in Friday free practice (due to oil leaks that took the team four hours to repair), but even with these problems Button would have expected to have qualified better than 10th, especially given that his team-mate managed to qualify on the front row.  Indeed, Button was lucky to make it in to Q3 at all, having also failed to do so in the previous two races in Monaco and Barcelona, with Pastor Maldonado looking set to beat Button’s 10th place Q2 time until he was over aggressive in the final chicane and crashed his Williams into the famous ‘wall of champions’.

If qualifying was bad for Button, things got even worse for him during the race in Canada.  He struggled with the car and had to pit three times for fresh rubber.  Button struggled so badly with tyre wear, in fact, that he needed to make his first pit stop before the cars that had started on the super soft option tyres, despite having started on the more durable soft prime tyres.  Button was never in contention to score points in Canada, let alone challenge for a podium or the race win, while his team-mate was on top of the car, able to push when he needed to and, crucially, able to extract the maximum from his tyres.

Hamilton could have been forgiven for being distracted by some of the pre-race speculation about his plans for 2013 and beyond.  The 2008 world champion’s contract with McLaren is up at the end of the season and, given that McLaren had failed to make the most of a quick car through a combination of strategy, pit stop and other errors, media and fans have suggested that his future might lie away from the Woking based team.  Hamilton’s failure to win in the opening six rounds of the 2012 championship – the only one of the likely championship contenders not to have done so before Canada – added further fuel to the fire, as did the possible availability of seats in all three of the other ‘big four’ top teams in 2013.  However, if this was on Hamilton’s mind it didn’t show, as he drove an outstanding race and took a brilliant 18th career victory.

There were two crucial stages of the race for Hamilton, the first of which was leading up to the first round of pit stops.  Importantly, as the lead three cars got ready to make their first pit stops Hamilton picked up his pace, closing in on race leader Sebastian Vettel, who had opened up his customary gap at the start of the race and who was the first of the top three to pit.  Hamilton stayed out for a further two laps, putting in some great times enabling him to leapfrog ahead of Vettel through the pit stops.  Vettel, who had now been on his new tyres for two laps and had brought them up to temperature, attempted to pass Hamilton through the DRS zone, but Hamilton’s ability to switch his own tyres on more quickly, coupled with Red Bull’s slow straight line speed, enabled Hamilton to retain the lead.  The battle had only just begun for Hamilton, though.  Alonso had closed up on Hamilton by the time that the McLaren driver pitted and, by staying out a lap longer than the Englishman, he managed to emerge from the pits just ahead of Hamilton in the lead of the race.  Again, though, Hamilton’s ability to turn on his tyres quickly proved to be crucial as he closed in on the Ferrari driver and successfully passed him in the DRS zone.  Remember, Vettel had failed to complete the same manoeuvre, in similar circumstances, on Hamilton a lap earlier.

Hamilton’s ability to switch on his tyres quickly was again crucial later on in the race.  Hamilton made his second pit stop of the race on lap 50, having been assured by his engineer that both Alonso and Vettel would also be on the same two stop strategy.  As it turned out this proved not to be the case as both the Red Bull and the Ferrari teams attempted to make their tyres last until the end of the race (although Vettel later decided to pit for fresh tyres).  Hamilton now found himself around 15 seconds behind race leader Alonso with 20 laps remaining, with Sebastian Vettel also some 12 seconds ahead of him.  Hamilton, lit up the timing screens with purple sector after purple sector, leading to fastest lap after fastest lap, doing times a second a lap quicker than the cars ahead of him.  He finally passed an ailing Sebastian Vettel with eight laps to go, and set about Fernando Alonso lapping two seconds a lap quicker than the Ferrari and passing him down the back straight two laps after his almost identical pass on Vettel.  Hamilton finished over 13 seconds ahead of Alonso who eventually finished fifth behind Lotus’s Romain Grosjean, Sauber’s Sergio Perez – who had both made one stop strategies work – and Vettel, who had pitted for fresh tyres after being passed by Hamilton.

So , Hamilton was resurgent in Canada while Button toiled again.  Clearly that McLaren is still a very fast car, but something has changed since the first race of the season in Australia and Button now struggles to extract the same pace from the machinery as his team-mate.  This is a real problem for McLaren, who will need Button – who declared himself “confused and very lost” after the race – to get on top of his issues quickly if they are to stand a chance of ending their world constructors’ championship drought (their last win came in 1998).  Although the strategy calls for Hamilton were exactly right in Canada, the team still have further work to do in other areas.  McLaren’s pit stops were again an issue in Canada – the anti-stall system engaged as Hamilton tried to pull away after both of his pit stops and the second stop was slow after a small problem at the right rear.  The pit stop issues, coupled with Button’s troubles could still cost the team dear come the end of the season if they’re not resolved soon.

McLaren shouldn’t dwell on the negatives, however.  They should enjoy their second win of the 2012 season; Lewis Hamilton certainly did.  After a third Canadian grand prix victory, five years to the day since the first win of his Formula 1 career at the same circuit, Hamilton now retakes the lead for the world drivers’ championship.  There’s still a long way to go, of course, and the top three in the championship are separated by a mere three points, but Hamilton’s rivals will surely be hoping that the Englishman’s win at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is not a sign of things to come.  Hamilton has scored points in every race this season, and if he’s now able to start stringing wins together a second world drivers’ championship could well be his.

F1 rules: Deeply floor-ed

So, last weekend brought with it the news that the FIA had indeed ruled that Red Bull Racing’s floor design, with fully enclosed holes in front of the rear wheels, is illegal.  The team will now need to make changes to the design for next weekend’s Canadian grand prix.  As is usually the case in Formula One, there are various different interpretations of the rules and what is, and what is not, allowed.  This is all part of the sport and, as fans, part of the show.  Which team will come up with the best ideas?  Which cars will develop the fastest?  Which design will be ruled illegal?  I’ve got no problem with any of this, but this latest ruling from the FIA has highlighted to me, again, the huge inconsistency with which the sport’s governing body applies its own rules and the strangeness of some of those rules and some of the penalties that are applied.

Let’s start off with the Red Bull floor design that’s now been ruled illegal by the FIA, despite being previously deemed legal.  The Milton Keynes based team has reportedly used this design since the Bahrain grand prix some three races ago, but it only really attracted attention at the last race of the season in Monaco.  F1 followers will recall the discussions before the race about the floor design, with Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes unhappy with Red Bull’s design and looking set to protest the race result.  In the end this did not happen, apparently because the FIA had asked the teams not to protest formally, promising instead to look at the design and produce a definitive ruling about its legality before the Canadian grand prix.  This, of course, means that the results in the three races, during which Red Bull used a design which has now been ruled illegal, stand.  In my opinion it is absolutely right that the results of the Spanish and Bahraini grand prix should remain unchanged.  There was no debate about the legality of the Red Bull at these races, and to retrospectively amend those results so long after those races would, even if the rules allowed it, risk making a mockery of the sport.  Monaco, I believe, is a totally different matter, however.

As I’ve already mentioned, there were questions about the Red Bull floor design even before the race in Monaco, a race that Red Bull’s Mark Webber won, with his team-mate, Sebastian Vettel, finishing fourth.  While the Red Bull design will not deliver a huge performance advantage over the designs of rival teams, the fact that there was a question mark over the cars legality at Monaco should, in my opinion, have resulted in a protest of the result, which would have forced the FIA to rule there and then whether the Red Bull design was legal.  If it was not legal, as has since been proved to be the case, then both Webber and Vettel would have been excluded from the results of the race, dramatically changing the championship standings (McLaren would lead the constructors’ championship, and Fernando Alonso would have a bigger lead in the drivers’ championship, with Webber falling from joint second to sixth).  This being the case, the other teams may well regret their decision not to protest the result come the end of the season.  If it is true that the FIA discouraged the teams from protesting the race result in Monaco because, as is rumoured, they did not want to retrospectively alter the result of the grand prix then, in my view, this makes more of a mockery of the sport than any post-race change to the results.  Don’t forget, the race results are provisional until the cars have been through scrutineering.  If cars are found to be illegal as part of the scrutineering process they can be excluded from the race result (although it is important to point out that the Monaco scrutineers did pass the Red Bull cars as legal).  This has happened in the past, but perhaps the most recent parallel we can draw is Lewis Hamilton’s exclusion from the results of qualifying in Spain because his McLaren team had under-fuelled his car.

In Hamilton’s case, his car had only been in breach of the regulations because it would not have been able to provide the mandatory one litre sample of fuel had he returned to the pits instead of stopping out on track.  This means that Hamilton’s car was perfectly legal in Q1, Q2 and the first part of Q3 during which he set a time which would have seen him qualify sixth.  However, as a result of the fuelling infraction, which I would argue is minor, Hamilton was excluded from qualifying completely, meaning that he started the race last, rather than first.  Now, if it was perfectly acceptable for the stewards to adjust the results of qualifying after the fact, why was it not equally acceptable for there to have been the potential for the Monaco race results to be altered after the fact, as they could have been if there had been a formal protest of the result (or, indeed, had any of the cars failed scrutineering)?  It’s important, I think, to highlight that Hamilton’s car was only ‘illegal’ at the end of Q3, while both Red Bulls were ‘illegal’ throughout the Monaco race weekend (and, as it turns out, for the whole of the preceding two race weekends).  Red Bull avoid any penalty and win the race in Monaco, while Hamilton is excluded from qualifying and robbed of the chance to challenge for victory in Spain.  Not really fair, is it?

Mercedes DRS. Image © Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s now move on to compare the Red Bull floor situation with the Mercedes DRS protest from earlier in the season.  You may well remember that, following lengthy discussions about the legality of Mercedes AMG’s innovative ‘double’ DRS system, the Lotus team decided to protest the results of the Chinese grand prix, which was won by Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg.  As we all know, the FIA ruled the Mercedes system to be completely legal, totally rightly in my view, both before and after the protest.  However, if the stewards had ruled the Mercedes design illegal following the Lotus protest, Rosberg would have been excluded from the results in China (his team-mate, Michael Schumacher retired early on in that race), and Jenson Button would have inherited the race win.  So, if it was OK for Lotus to protest the China result, albeit unsuccessfully, why was a similar protest apparently discouraged in Monaco?  It’s precisely this sort of inconsistent approach to the application of the rules that annoys fans in all sports, not just F1.

Inconsistency in the application of the rules is one thing, but in my view the powers that be in F1 need to take a serious look at some of the rules and, more specifically, the penalties associated with infractions.  How, for example, can it be right that Lewis Hamilton is totally excluded from qualifying in Spain due to under-fuelling, yet Williams driver Pastor Maldonado receives only a 10 place grid penalty for appearing to deliberately drive into Sauber’s Sergio Perez in Monaco free practice (his second such penalty in two years).  Which of these infractions is more serious or dangerous?  I think that you can probably guess what my answer would be.

I think that the FIA also need to have a rethink about the pit lane drive through penalty punishment.  I can see that it’s appropriate where a driver has caused an avoidable collision and, perhaps, taken another driver out of the race, but what about other cases where this punishment is applied?  Gaining a position by cutting a chicane is often penalised with a drive through penalty, as was Sergio Perez for a late pit lane entry in Monaco.  In cases like this, which I would judge to be more minor infringements of the rules, is a drive through penalty – which can completely destroy a driver’s race – really appropriate?  In my view, there must be other punishments that the rule makers could devise to better make the punishment fit the ‘crime’.

In my view, the inconsistency in the approach of the F1 powers that be in similar cases (dissuading a protest in Monaco, but allowing one in China, for example), is really frustrating, as is the lack of a sliding scale of punishments to fit the severity of the ‘offence’.  The FIA need to take a long hard look at the rule book, and the way in which stewards apply the rules, to come up with a system that is both more consistent and more flexible.  How they might do this, I’m not so sure; that might be why I’m just a fan, and not the head of the FIA.

McLaren malaise

What’s happened to McLaren?  Unlike in 2010 and 2011, McLaren started 2012 as the team to beat from the start.  The MP4-27 looked great and was fast.  McLaren looked to be in a great position to potentially dominate the season, especially given that it’s been their development pace that’s been particularly impressive in recent times.  The team hasn’t always started with the best car, but they’ve been able to improve more rapidly than their competitors, meaning that in 2012, with the fastest car from the get go, things looked well set for McLaren.  Things haven’t worked out as planned for the Woking based team, though.  Just one win – for Jenson Button in the season opening Australian grand prix – and a car that seems to be going in the wrong direction, would be bad enough, but it’s the mistakes that have dogged the team this term that have proved to be perhaps the most worrying for McLaren fans.

Let’s start by saying that everyone makes mistakes.  Ultimately, despite the huge investment and ground breaking technology in Formula 1 machinery, human beings still, thankfully, play a critical role in the sport.  Where there’s a human element there’s always the potential for mistakes to happen, but in Formula One it’s the job of team management to put in place processes and procedures to make sure that the possibility of human error is minimised as far as possible.  McLaren have a reputation for being excellent at this and, particularly under Ron Dennis, the team developed into one of, if not the, most formidable, professionally run, teams in the sport.  It’s this professionalism and attention to detail that made McLaren great.  While McLaren might not always have the fastest car, they always made sure that they were among the best drilled teams on the grid.  It’s what their fans, and indeed their competitors and the media, have come to expect from them.  The fact that the team have built up such a formidable reputation perhaps makes the mistakes of 2012 even harder to bear for their fans, and makes the team a virtually irresistible target for criticism from the media.  So, perhaps McLaren’s own gold plated reputation actually counts against them when the going gets tough.  While that may, or may not, be true, the fact remains that the mistakes that the team have made over the first six races of the 2012 season have certainly cost them, and their drivers, points and, arguably the lead of both the drivers’ and the constructors’ world championships.

While 2012 has certainly been error strewn for McLaren, things could have been a whole lot worse.  It turns out that Jenson Button might have been quite fortunate to win the opening race of the season in Melbourne.  Following the race, team principle Martin Whitmarsh revealed that Button was forced to aggressively conserve fuel from lap eight onwards after the team had made in error in calculating the amount of fuel necessary to finish the race.  It’s unclear whether the fuel saved during the mid race four lap safety car period (caused after Vitaly Petrov’s Caterham ground to a halt on the start/finish straight) spared McLaren’s blushes in this instance, or whether the team would have had sufficient fuel to finish in any case.  Where lady luck was with McLaren, or at least with Jenson Button, in Australia, she’s been absent since.

On the face of things, McLaren had a decent result in China, finishing second and third with Jenson Button leading home Lewis Hamilton, behind the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, who took his maiden grand prix victory.  That’s not too bad, given Hamilton’s five place grid penalty for a gearbox change (he qualified second and started seventh), but things could have been so much better for his team mate.  A slow pit stop on lap 39, when the 2009 world champion was leading by seven seconds, caused by a problem at the left rear, dropped Button out into heavy traffic, delaying him hugely and robbing him of the opportunity to challenge Rosberg for victory.  Whether Button would have been able to catch and pass Rosberg without the slow pit stop is a matter for debate, but what is certain is that he would have stood a better chance of doing so without it.  Unfortunately for McLaren, the slowish pit stop for Button in China was a sign of things to come.

Let’s move on to Bahrain, which proved to be an absolute nightmare of a race from Lewis Hamilton’s perspective.  Hamilton made his first stop for fresh rubber on lap eight of the race, together with Red Bull’s Mark Webber and the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso.  While the Australian and the Spaniard had flawless stops, the Englishman was stationary for over 10 seconds due to a problem with the left rear, repeating the issue that Button suffered in China.  Hamilton’s frustration was obvious; replays showed him shaking his head as he waited to be released.  If one slow pit stop was not enough, worse was to come for the 2008 World Champion.  He pitted for the second time on lap 23 and had an identical problem, again with the left rear, leaving him stationary even longer than in his first stop – over 12 seconds.  Hamilton eventually finished the race in eighth position, but without these pit stop errors would certainly have been in contention for at least fourth position, possibly more.  Hamilton’s team mate Jenson Button faired even worse in Bahrain and was forced to retire with engine trouble after earlier suffering a puncture.

Things didn’t get any better for McLaren at the next race in Barcelona, Spain.  Hamilton took a stunning pole position, by over half a second from Pastor Maldonado’s Williams, before being ordered by his engineer to stop on track.  It soon turned out that the order to stop the car had been given because the team had under fuelled Hamilton’s car.  The error lead to Hamilton being excluded from qualifying, meaning that instead of starting from the front of the grid, he started from the very back.  This sort of error is hard to excuse, but it was compounded by the severity of the penalty and the fact that the team had known that Hamilton had been under fuelled before he started his final flying lap.  Had they told him to abort, he would have still qualified in sixth position and been in with a chance of at least fighting for a podium.  As it was, Hamilton started last and drove a brilliantly controlled race to take a creditable eighth, ahead of his team mate who started and finished 10th, after struggling with the car throughout Saturday and Sunday.

Moving finally to Monaco, Button again struggled with an increasingly difficult McLaren.  He started just 12th and made no headway in the race itself before eventually retiring eight laps from the end, following a puncture.  Hamilton faired better, qualifying third and finishing fifth, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.  Monaco is a notoriously hard track to overtake on, so the start of the race is probably the best opportunity for drivers to move forward.  Hamilton would have known this all too well, so would have been aiming to make up places off the line and put himself in a position to challenge for victory.  Things didn’t turn out that way, though.  The team told him to make a late change to his clutch settings and, far from helping, the change meant that the McLaren was sluggish at the start, with Hamilton doing well to retain third position in the run to the first corner.  The Monaco resident was quickly on the radio to his team to ask what had happened and he said after the race that his start was “one of the worst in a long time”.  If the poor start cost Hamilton the opportunity to challenge for the race lead at the start, another sluggish pit stop and a lack of communication from the team cost him the opportunity to take a podium come the end of the race.  Hamilton was jumped by first Fernando Alonso, who’s pit stop was a full second quicker than Hamilton’s, and then by Red Bull’s double world champion Sebastian Vettel.  Vettel, drove a long first stint in a successful attempt to move forward from his ninth place grid slot, and built up a sufficient gap to allow him to jump ahead of Hamilton after pitting.  On the face of it, you could say that’s just a case of good strategy from Red Bull and clever tyre conservation from Vettel, but there’s more to it than that.  It turns out that Hamilton was unaware that he was under threat from Vettel.  His team had failed to warn him of the danger posed by the German and Hamilton, being in the dark about the threat, didn’t push to narrow the gap and ensure that he wasn’t leapfrogged by the Red Bull driver.  Hamilton declared after the race that “The team have definitely got some work to do because race by race we get farther and farther behind. It was more gutting losing the position to Vettel because it was so close”.

McLaren have enough problems without making these fundamental errors.  As Hamilton indicated, the car is falling behind some of its rivals in terms of pace.  Jenson Button, who has struggled more than his team mate in recent races, taking just two points from the last three, was more explicit, stating “The first three races were good and then suddenly in the last three…I don’t know where it is. The pace and the feeling that I’m getting from the car I’ve not had before. It’s tough but it’s nothing we can’t sort out – it’s just a question of whether we do it in time”.  And that’s the big question for McLaren: can they overcome their recent performance issues and eliminate the errors quickly?  If any team can do it it’s McLaren.  The MP4-27 has underlying pace that’s there to be unlocked and the team’s reputation for professionalism will stand them in good stead when they analyse their recent mistakes and address them.  They’ve already been working on pit procedures and systems and I expect that changes in this area will continue to be made until they get it right.

Don’t write off McLaren’s chances.  They’ve had a bad run of late, but we’re not even a third of the way through the season.  With six winners from the opening six rounds of the 2012 season, there’s no runaway leader of either the drivers’ or constructors’ championships.  I believe that McLaren can and will overcome their issues soon, and when they do they should be well set for the rest of the season.  McLaren  fans will certainly be hoping that the team have used up all their bad luck and eradicated the mistakes by this time next week, when the F1 circus moves to Canada for round seven.

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