Lewis on song as Lotus look strong

Round 11 brought us our third multiple winner of the 2012 Formula 1 season as Lewis Hamilton produced a stunning performance over all three days of the event; taking a dominant pole position on Saturday and following it up with a lights to flag victory on Sunday. After such a great performance the Englishman and his McLaren team will certainly be pleased that their recent upgrades have brought some much needed performance to the MP4-27. Pleased too will be the Lotus team who, after an improved showing in qualifying, took their second double podium of the season with second for Kimi Raikkonen and third for Romain Grosjean.

By Ryan Bayona (Flickr: _RYN4096) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

We now head into a five-week summer break before the Formula 1 circus heads to Belgium. Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso has maintained his fantastic consistency by scoring points yet again – the only driver to score points in every round of the 2012 season so far – his 23rd consecutive points finish, spread over this season and last. Despite finishing in only fifth position, Alonso managed to extend his world drivers’ championship lead by a further six points from Red Bull Racing’s Mark Webber who finished down in eighth position. With a 40 point championship lead Alonso heads into the summer break riding high, but he and his team will be concerned at their dry weather pace at the Hungaroring. Ferrari looked to be only the fourth fastest team in Hungary, with Red Bull, McLaren and Lotus all looking quicker than the Maranello based squad. Indeed, Alonso himself commented after the race that “This weekend, with dry running on Friday, Saturday and Sunday you can see more clearly, but Lotus, McLaren and Red Bull have been ahead of us for the whole championship”.

Unless Ferrari can make another step forward in development at Spa, Alonso will be concerned that his championship lead could quickly erode. There are a couple of plus points for the Spaniard , though. Despite not being the quickest car in Hungary, his championship lead has never been bigger. Alonso will also be grateful that there is no single challenger emerging from the gaggle of four drivers in second to fifth in the world drivers’ championship. These four drivers – Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen – are covered by just eight world championship points. As their respective form has fluctuated throughout the season so far, they have taken points from each other, enabling Alonso to stay consistent and build his championship lead in recent races.

Another driver to head into the summer break with a big smile on his face is Lewis Hamilton, who took his second win of the season in Hungary. As I mentioned earlier on, Hamilton produced an extremely impressive performance over the full three days of the Hungarian event, having never been out of the top two on the timesheets. Indeed, aside from the Saturday morning free practice three – where the McLaren driver was second to Mark Webber – Hamilton topped the timesheets at every single session in Hungary. McLaren, though, have often been impressive in recent free practice sessions, only to suffer disappointment when it came around to Saturday afternoon and qualifying. Not so in Hungary.

Hamilton produced a totally dominant qualifying performance. His time in Q1, on the medium compound tyres, was so fast that it would have been quick enough for fifth place on the grid had it been set in Q3. The 2008 world champion finished Q1 just a few hundredths of a second shy of a full second ahead of Romain Grosjean, who finished the first part of qualifying in second position. So impressive was Hamilton’s time that he forced many of his competitors to run again, and burn through another set of tyres, because they feared that the track was ‘rubbering in’ and that they might be knocked out of the session by slower cars.

Hamilton was equally impressive in the final two segments of qualifying. The time that he set in Q2 would have put him on pole had he set it in Q3, and he maintained his stunning pace in Q3 setting two scintillating laps, both of which were good enough for pole. He finished four tenths of a second clear of Romain Grosjean who joined him on the front row of the grid after the best qualifying performance of his Formula 1 career.

It was this dominant qualifying performance that proved so crucial for Hamilton come the race on Sunday. We all know that the Hungaroring is a notoriously difficult track to overtake on. It’s extremely dusty off line, and with a lack of overtaking opportunities on a tight and twisty circuit, track position is often critical. This proved to be the case on Sunday. Hamilton’s pole and excellent start enabled him to run the race in clear air throughout. Although he never managed to break more than five seconds clear of his pursuers, this clear air meant that Hamilton minimised his tyre wear and was able to control his pace, and the race.

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

The lack of clear air proved to be the undoing for the two Lotus cars. Undoubtedly, Lotus had the fastest car in race conditions in Hungary, with Hamilton calling them “rapid”, going on to say “If they had qualified at the front it would have been impossible to get past them”. In the first part of the race Romain Grosjean often hovered around a second or two behind Hamilton, but was unable to get any closer as his car entered the turbulent air behind the McLaren. This trend was repeated after the second round of pit stops, before which Kimi Raikkonen put in a series of stunning laps to leapfrog his team-mate and take second position, with the two Lotus cars side by side as the Finn exited the pits on lap 46. Like his team-mate, Raikkonen piled the pressure on Hamilton, closing to within around six tenths of a second behind the Englishman, but was unable to close enough to attempt an overtaking manoeuvre.

As Hamilton commented to Raikkonen as the top three prepared for the podium ceremony, it was just “like old times”, as the battle between the pair was reminiscent of Hamilton’s debut season in 2007, where Raikkonen beat him to the world drivers’ championship by a single point. This time, though, it was Hamilton who came out on top, taking a great win and overtaking the Finn – by a single point – in this years’ world drivers’ championship.

Despite being unable to take that elusive first win, Lotus will also be extremely happy heading into the summer break. As I mentioned, they had the fastest car in race conditions in Hungary. They also qualified strongly – with Romain Grosjean taking the team’s first front row start of the season – which had often been a weakness in recent races. If this wasn’t reason enough for Lotus to be cheerful, they are also expected to have their innovative F-duct DRS system for the race in Spa. We have seen this device being tested by the Lotus team during practice in the last two races, but not yet raced. The system is expected to bring the team a significant speed boost, producing both increased rear downforce and an extra straight line speed boost when the DRS system is activated. This will help their pace in both qualifying and the race which, coupled with a car that is notoriously kind on its tyres, will put the Enstone based team in a strong position for the remaining nine races of the season.

Who knows what the position will be when we arrive in Belgium, though? Although, the Lotus F-duct DRS is a very obvious development that’s still to come, don’t expect that Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull will stand still in the development race between now and Spa. For now, though, McLaren – and particularly Lewis Hamilton – will go into the summer break on a high, as will the Lotus team. Fernando Alonso and Ferrari will be quietly satisfied, though. The 2005 and 2006 world champion is guaranteed to be leading the 2012 championship going into Ferrari’s home race of the season in Monza – round 13 of the championship – and unless the Spaniard’s fantastic consistency deserts him after the summer break, we can expect that Alonso will continue to lead the world drivers’ championship heading into round 14 in Singapore.

The world drivers’ championship remains very much Alonso’s to lose, but after the result in Hungary he’ll be looking nervously over his shoulder at a resurgent Lewis Hamilton and an increasingly impressive Lotus team. Don’t rule out Red Bull Racing either. The Milton Keynes based team didn’t have their best race of the season in Hungary, but they still lead the constructors’ championship by 53 points from McLaren, with Webber and Vettel sitting second and third in the drivers’ championship.

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Red Bull push the limits as Alonso takes control

We’re now at the halfway point of the 2012 Formula 1 season after the completion of round 10, the German grand prix at Hockenheim.  We saw our fair share of controversy, both before and during the grand prix, a weekend to forget for Lewis Hamilton at his 100th Formula 1 race and a return to form for his team-mate, Jenson Button.  We also saw Fernando Alonso take his third win of the season, becoming the first driver this season to win more than twice.  So, where to start?

Let’s begin with Red Bull.  On Sunday morning we had the news break that the Red Bull may have been using illegal engine maps.  These maps were said to provide the Milton Keynes based team with both an element of off throttle exhaust blowing and a form of traction control.  In the view of FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer this engine map was illegal and he passed the matter to the stewards to adjudicate on.  A penalty seemed virtually a formality, especially given the wording of the statement from Bauer, which I’ll repeat here, in full.  The statement read:

“Having examined the engine base torque map of car numbers 01 and 02 it became apparent that the maximum torque output of both engines is significantly less in the mid rpm range than previously seen at other events.  In my opinion this is therefore in breach of article 5.5.3 of the 2012 Formula 1 technical regulations as the engines are able to deliver more torque at a given engine speed in the mid rpm range.  Furthermore this new torque map will artificially alter the aerodynamic characteristics of both cars which is also in contravention of TD 036-11.  I am referring this matter to the stewards.”

So, a fairly absolute view from the FIA’s own technical delegate.  The only question mark seemed to be over what penalty Red Bull would receive.  A pit lane start was mooted, or perhaps the Red Bull cars would appeal any penalty and start in their original grid slots, gearbox penalty for Webber notwithstanding.  In the end all the speculation proved to be academic, Red Bull received no penalty whatsoever from the stewards, much to the amazement of the other teams, the media and the fans.  The stewards, Derek Warwick, Tim Mayer and Paul Gutjahr, said in their statement that:

“While the stewards do not accept all the arguments of the team [Red Bull Racing], they however conclude that as the regulation is written, the map presented does not breach the text of Art 5.5.3 of the Formula 1 Technical Regulations and therefore decided to take no action.”

What the stewards were basically saying here is that the Red Bull engine mapping solution is against the spirit and the intention of the regulations, but that the way that the rules are written mean that the particular map used by Red Bull does not breach the letter of the law.  Both one of the stewards, Derek Warwick and Mercedes team principle Ross Brawn said that they do not expect that this will be the end of the matter, with a discussion at the next technical working group a foregone conclusion.

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

It seems that Red Bull, and their chief technical officer, Adrian Newey, are pushing the very limits of what is allowable under the regulations.  This isn’t the first time that Red Bull have been in this position this season, either.  We all remember the controversy in Monaco over the floor design used by Red Bull Racing.  It seemed certain that Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes, the teams most displeased with the design, would protest the result.  Under apparent pressure from the FIA, though, there was no such protest, with the FIA ruling, after the Monaco result had been finalised, that the design used in Bahrain, Spain and Monaco – with fully enclosed holes in the floor – was in fact illegal.  There was no penalty for Red Bull in that case, with the results of all three races remaining unchanged.  Parallels can certainly be drawn with the situation in Hockenheim, where Red Bull again seemed to have pushed the limits but have gotten away without a penalty.  As with their floor, we can be fairly certain that the engine maps that were the subject of this latest controversy will be changed for the next race in Hungary.

We all know, of course, that the teams all try to push the rules to their limits, stretching and perhaps bending the regulations to produce the fastest possible cars.  This is what Formula 1 is all about; innovation in the pursuit of speed, but it seems that Red Bull are pushing this principle to the very limit.  Innovation is one thing – and we’ve seen our fair share of it this season with the Mercedes double DRS, and the new Lotus F-Duct DRS – but using solutions that are clearly beyond the spirit and the intention of the regulations is perhaps stretching things a little far.  Red Bull would, I’m sure, argue that the exhaust solutions used by all of the teams this season – where gasses are being channelled to the diffuser to increase rear downforce – are also against the spirit and the intention of the rules, and they may well be right.  It’s certainly a fine line between clever innovation and interpretation of the rules and outright illegality.

Not only did Red Bull push the limits in Germany, but so did their reigning world drivers’ champion, Sebastian Vettel.  Vettel, having been leapfrogged by McLaren’s Jenson Button in the last round of pit stops, was running third in the closing stages of the race, catching Button, who was falling away from race leader Fernando Alonso.  Two laps from the end Vettel made his move, attempting to pass the McLaren around the outside of the hairpin.  As you might expect with a move like this, the Englishman squeezed the Red Bull driver to the edge of the track making it seemingly impossible for the German to complete the overtaking manoeuvre.  Vettel, though, left the track and used the run off area to complete the pass, rejoining the track ahead of the McLaren and ultimately crossing the line in second position.  Even before the race was finished it was announced that the incident would be looked at by the stewards at the end of the race.

Unsurprisingly, Vettel was indeed penalised for the pass, receiving a 20 second post-race penalty from the stewards, which dropped him from second place to fifth, costing him a potentially vital eight world championship points.  While the penalty was perhaps a little harsh – a five second penalty would, for example, have meant that Vettel finished third, behind Button – it’s very difficult to argue that the stewards made the wrong decision in this particular case.  It seems that while the German’s team have thus far gotten away with pushing the limits, their double world championship winning driver has not been quite so lucky.

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

Let’s move on now from the various Red Bull related controversies to Fernando Alonso, who once again had an outstanding weekend and took both pole position and a very well deserved third win of the season.  After winning, and consistently scoring points, in what appeared to be an uncompetitive Ferrari at the start of the 2012 season, Alonso has now taken a strangle hold on the world drivers’ championship as the Italian team have resolved their early season performance issues and provided their drivers with a truly competitive car.  While it’s true that Ferrari is still not the quickest car in the field, Alonso certainly gets the most out of it.

Alonso now leads the championship by a full 34 world championship points from second placed Mark Webber, who finished where he started in Hockenheim – eighth position.  While finishing where he started was certainly a disappointment for Webber, the same could definitely not be said for Alonso, who also finished where he started – first.  Alonso proved himself to be a master of all conditions, taking a brilliant pole position on Saturday in wet conditions for the second consecutive race, and driving a perfectly controlled race in the dry on Sunday to take a lights to flag victory.  At the mid-way point of the season it would be tough to argue that Alonso has not been the class of the field.  The Spaniard has scored points at every single race of the season so far, with only two single figure points hauls – in China and Bahrain, rounds three and four.

With such a big lead in the championship, Alonso is now guaranteed to go into the mid-season break after next weekend’s Hungarian grand prix in the lead of the world drivers’ championship.  However, while Alonso is in a seemingly dominant position in the championship, he will be all too aware that things can easily change in the second half of the season.  While we can perhaps expect to see Red Bull lose some performance if they are forced to change their engine maps, both drivers remain a big threat for the drivers’ championship – the Milton Keynes based squad do, after all, still have a big world constructors championship lead.

Alonso will also have to contend with McLaren, who bolted on a big upgrade package in Germany which delivered much improved pace, at least in the dry, for the Woking based team.  He’ll also have to watch out for Lotus and Kimi Raikkonen, in particular.  Despite having failed to win, the Finn has now crept in to fourth place in the world drivers’ championship, ahead of Lewis Hamilton after the latter’s struggles in Germany.

While Alonso is in a great position, he’s a very long way from home and dry in the championship race.  There may still be plenty of twists and turns left as we head into the second half of the 2012 Formula 1 season…

F1 musical chairs

Speculation about possible driver moves provides an almost constant backing track to life in the Formula 1 paddock, a backing track that is never quite drowned out by the roar of F1 engines.  In 2012, this background music has been particularly loud, due primarily to the fact that one driver in each of the ‘big four’ teams was out of contract at the end of the season.  With the news that one of those drivers – Red Bull Racing’s Mark Webber – has decided to stay where he is for 2013, announcing a one year contract extension earlier this week, where does that leave things for the other three drivers still ‘in play’ and potentially in the hunt for a new seat: Mercedes driver Michael Schumacher, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa?

Let’s start with Felipe Massa.  The Brazilian’s struggles over the past few seasons have been well documented.  He has not won a race since his home grand prix in 2008 – the very same race that he lost out on the world drivers’ championship to Lewis Hamilton – and he has been comprehensively outpaced by Fernando Alonso since the Spaniard joined the team in 2010.  Massa failed to finish on the podium in the whole of the 2011 season and, up until the British grand prix, Massa’s 2012 campaign had been equally lacklustre, with just two top 10 qualifying slots in the opening eight rounds of the season, and three points scoring race finishes.  Massa’s performance at Silverstone was, though, a dramatic change in his fortunes and by far his best race weekend of the season.  A fifth place grid slot represented his best qualifying position of the season and a fourth place finish in the race, with strong pace throughout, was clearly his best Sunday performance of the season, and his best race result.

Given his dismal 2011 season, Massa was already under pressure going in to 2012, with speculation that he would leave Ferrari almost ever present.  His performances in the opening eight rounds of the season led to rumours that Ferrari would dispense with his services before the season was out but, thus far, that has proved not to be the case.  Now that there’s been an upturn in his form with the result at Silverstone, is there now a possibility that Massa could even stay with the Scuderia beyond the end of the current campaign?  The answer to that question is that yes, it’s a possibility, but despite the supportive comments from Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo and team principal Stefano Domenicali following Massa fourth place finish at Silverstone I expect that the possibility is probably a fairly remote one unless Massa can maintain his improved form over the remaining 11 races of the season.  In my view, Massa would, at the very least, need some podium finishes to stand a chance of retaining his seat.  Even that might not be enough though; I suspect that Ferrari may well have already made up their mind on Massa and that the exit door beckons.

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

Moving on to Michael Schumacher, who is in the final year of his three year contract with Mercedes AMG F1.  Schumacher hasn’t enjoyed the most successful time of his career since returning to the sport in 2010.  Admittedly, the Mercedes, until this year, hasn’t been a winning car, but in both 2010 and 2011 Schumacher was outpaced by his young team-mate, Nico Rosberg.  Even in 2012, Rosberg enjoys a huge points advantage over his seven time world drivers’ championship winning team-mate, having won the Chinese grand prix.  Schumacher, in contrast, had only scored a meagre two world championship points up until the European grand prix at Valencia; round eight of the championship.  This, though, does not tell the full story of Schumacher’s season.  He’s had five retirements in nine races, four of which were mechanical failures, like the bizarre jammed DRS in Canada.  He has also scored his first podium finish since his return to F1, with third in Valencia and he also drove a brilliant qualifying lap in Monaco to take pole position (although a grid penalty meant he started sixth).  There are, therefore, certainly signs of an upturn in form for Schumacher, and this being the case I would expect that he would want to stay on in Formula 1 for one more year in the hope that Mercedes can provide him with a car that’s capable of delivering another world driver’s championship.

The only question that remains for Schumacher is whether Mercedes would want to keep him beyond the end of his current contract.  The answer to that question is an emphatic ‘yes’.  Despite Schumacher being 43 years of age (he will be 44 before the start of next season), Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn was quite clear when discussing possible driver options in 2013 that Schumacher was very much the first choice.  Brawn was quoted as saying, ahead of the British grand prix, “We are focused on Michael for as long as it takes – and for whatever it takes”.  Let’s not forget that Schumacher and Brawn have a long and distinguished working relationship having delivered world championships together for both Benetton and Ferrari.  It’s no surprise that Brawn would like to continue what has been an enormously successful working relationship with Schumacher.  Given these factors, I expect that Schumacher will stay with Mercedes in 2013, but probably not far beyond that season.

McLaren’s 2008 world drivers’ champion, Lewis Hamilton, is also out of contract at the end of the current season.  Given the team’s well documented issues with pit procedure, strategy and, following the British grand prix, outright pace, many have speculated that Hamilton will take the decision to move on from the team that brought him into Formula 1 at the age of 22, the same team that has been supporting his development since the age of 13.  Hamilton has been linked with drives at all of the front-running teams.  There have been rumours of a move to Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes and even Lotus.  We now know, of course, with Mark Webber’s decision to re-sign with Red Bull for 2013, that the opportunity of a move to the reigning world constructors’ champions is not going to materialise, at least not this year.  With Mercedes being quite clear that they will retain Michael Schumacher, if the seven time world drivers’ champion decides he wants to carry on racing at the highest level, the possibility of a move to the Brackley-based team for Hamilton is still possible, but one suspects that the idea of being second choice behind Schumacher would not be particularly appealing to the Englishman.

The possibility of Hamilton replacing Felipe Massa at Ferrari – if, as I suspect, the Brazilian does not stay on with the team beyond the end of the current season – is an extremely remote one, in my view.  Given that Fernando Alonso has already said that he gets some say over who will be his team-mate at the Italian team, it would be incredibly hard to imagine him rubber stamping Hamilton as his team-mate.  The memory of Hamilton and Alonso as team-mates at McLaren in 2007 – Hamilton’s rookie year in Formula 1 – is still relatively fresh.  The relationship between the team-mates was not good and as they battled it out for supremacy in what was probably the fastest car that season.  That at times bitter inter-team battle ultimately allowed Kimi Raikkonen take the world drivers’ championship for Ferrari, who also took the constructors championship that year.  Despite having agreed a multi-year contract, Alonso left at the team at the end of that campaign, returning to Renault for two seasons, before moving on to join Massa at Ferrari in 2010.

With no seat at Red Bull, Schumacher the first choice to stay on for another year at Mercedes, and Alonso highly unlikely to countenance having Hamilton as his team-mate at Ferrari, the Englishman is left with very few worthwhile options for 2013.  In my view, the speculation about a move to Lotus is not credible, which leaves staying at McLaren as the 2008 world drivers’ champion only realistic choice.  This is exactly what I expect Hamilton to do, despite the team’s recent struggles.  Don’t forget, too, that despite the speculation about Hamilton leaving McLaren, there has been a notable lack of speculation about who might take his seat at McLaren if he did decide to leave.  This is in stark contrast to the Massa/Ferrari situation, and this contrast, in my view, gives an indication about the relative likelihood of Massa and Hamilton leaving their respective teams.  It’s also easy to under-estimate the value of loyalty, but I think that this, along with McLaren’s position as one of F1’s top teams over the past few decades, will mean that Hamilton stays with the Woking-based outfit.  After 14 years affiliated with the team that stood by him in 2011, despite his own troubled season, I would expect that it would take more than a disappointing start to 2012 – don’t forget that there’s still over half of the season to go – to persuade Hamilton that his future lies away from McLaren.  The length of any new deal for Hamilton at McLaren will, though, be extremely interesting.

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

So, with Mark Webber definitely staying at Red Bull Racing for 2013, and assuming that my other assumptions are correct, who will race alongside Fernando Alonso at Ferrari in 2013?  The most credible drivers to be linked with a drive with the Italian team are Force India’s Paul di Resta and Sauber’s Mexican driver Sergio Perez.  For me the most logical option is Perez.  He’s a Ferrari development driver and despite Ferrari Driver Academy head Luca Baldisserri saying recently that he was “too aggressive” and Luca di Montezemolo saying “to drive a Ferrari you need more experience”, I can’t see Ferrari turning anywhere else if they replace Massa.  As I mentioned, di Resta is the other current F1 driver that’s been linked with Ferrari, but I can’t see that happening.  Di Resta is a Mercedes protégé, and if he moves from Force India, the only place that I could see him going would be to the Mercedes works team, possibly to replace Schumacher in 2013 if the German decides to retire again.  The other possibility for the Mercedes drive, if Schumacher decides against continuing in Formula 1, is di Resta’s Force India team-mate Nico Hulkenberg, but as I’ve already said, I do expect Schumacher to stay on with Mercedes for another year.

The other big question mark for 2013 is Bruno Senna’s position at Williams.  Williams’s upturn in form in 2013 has been notable, and all of a sudden the Grove-based team are a more desirable place to be in 2013.  Senna was only confirmed at Williams for 2012 and while he has been consistent and a steady points scorer, his performances have not been as spectacular as many fans of his uncle, the late, great triple world drivers’ champion, Ayrton Senna, had hoped for.  There has been a lack of speculation about Williams and Senna and their plans for 2013 thus far, but I expect that to change as other drivers’ and teams’ plans for 2013 become clearer.

I might be completely wrong about all of my predictions for drivers and teams for 2013, of course.  Schumacher might choose to retire.  Massa might have a brilliant second half of the season.  Hamilton’s contract talks with McLaren might reach an impasse.  Only time will tell where everyone ends up when the music stops…

Felipe finds form; Pastor proves perennially problematic

The ninth round of the 2012 Formula 1 season proved to be something of a slow burner.  It looked to all the world that Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso would cruise to a third win of the season, and consolidate his lead in the world drivers’ championship, until his final stint of the race on the soft tyres.  Unusually, the harder of the two Pirelli tyre compounds proved to be the quicker of the two tyre choices and in the last stint Red Bull Racing’s Mark Webber, on the hard tyres, closed in on Alonso eroding the Spaniard’s four second lead and brilliantly passing him around the outside of Brooklands just a few laps from the end of the race.  It was Webber’s second win of the season, matching the feat that Alonso achieved in Valencia.  The top two in the world drivers’ championship are the only two drivers to have one more than once in 2012.

By Rich Jones from United Kingdom (Webber) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As brilliant as Webber’s victory was, though, it is not the Australian that I’m going to focus on in this article.  Readers of last week’s article about the competitors that I thought had room for improvement in the remaining races of the season will probably remember that I singled out two drivers for particular attention: Felipe Massa and Pastor Maldonado.  These two drivers had dramatically contrasting fortunes in the race at Silverstone, with one of the two drivers driving a great race to finish fourth, while the other crashed out after a clash with Sauber’s Sergio Perez.  You can guess by the title of this article which driver was which.  Let’s take a look at the contrasting results of Massa and Maldonado.

I’ll start off with Felipe Massa.  As I’ve mentioned before, Massa has really struggled this season.  Prior to the British grand prix Massa had managed just three top 10 finishes in the opening eight rounds of the season, with a best result of sixth at Monaco.  His qualifying form had been even worse, with just two top 10 grid slots, with a best starting position of sixth in round seven in Canada.  Although, the Brazilian was still unable to match the pace of his double world championship winning team-mate, who qualified on pole and finished second, he had a dramatic upturn in form at Silverstone.  With a fifth place grid slot, albeit 1.3 seconds slower than Alonso, Massa achieved his best qualifying result of the season, qualifying ahead of both McLaren’s, both Lotus cars and Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes.  Some might point out that qualifying was run in changeable conditions on a drying track and that Massa’s grid slot was down, in part, to an element of luck.  That would be very unfair, though, and the Brazilian’s pace in the race proved that not to be the case.

I’ve been fairly critical of Massa over the last couple of seasons, but at Silverstone he drove a great race and achieved a solid race result.  A race result that actually compares pretty favourably with the result of his team-mate if you analyse the situation.  Massa finished fourth at Silverstone, and can consider himself slightly unfortunate not to have made the top three.  Indeed, a podium finish would have been a fitting reward for Massa, who proved that the 1.3 second gap to his team-mate in qualifying was not representative of his true pace.  Massa finished the race a mere 6.5 seconds behind Alonso; an impressive result, especially when you consider that Alonso would have been running in clear air throughout the vast majority of the race while Massa had other cars to contend with and was held up behind the Mercedes of Michael Schumacher during much of the opening stint of the race.

Indeed, while Alonso dropped a place in the race, Massa had actually moved forward one place from his starting position at the chequered flag.  Alonso will, of course, get all of the attention, and deservedly so given that he’s won two races this season and leads the championship, but Massa deserves a lot of praise for his performance.  While one result does not a season make, the Brazilian’s performance at Silverstone bodes well for the rest of the season.  His upturn in form has, though, probably come too late to save his driver with Ferrari who, in my view, will replace him when his contract expires at the end of the season.

Copyright:Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic

Let’s move on now to look at Williams driver Pastor Maldonado’s weekend.  The Venezuelan qualified well, achieving his fourth top 10 grid position of the season with a seventh place grid slot.  Qualifying, though, hasn’t really been the issue for Maldonado this season.  Despite his victory at the Spanish grand prix in Barcelona it has been Maldonado’s inconsistent and erratic performances in races, coupled with his tendency to crash with other drivers, that have been his biggest problems.  We saw in the last race in the European grand prix at Valencia an excellent example of this as Maldonado speared into Lewis Hamilton while battling for third position on the penultimate lap, pushing the McLaren into retirement and receiving a 20 second post race penalty from the stewards.

At Silverstone, Maldonado crashed again, and again he cost another driver a race finish.  This time the driver on the receiving end was Sauber’s Sergio Perez, who Maldonado slid in to as the Mexican attempted to pass him around the outside of Brooklands on lap 12, in a very similar overtaking manoeuvre as proved to be so successful for Mark Webber when he took the lead from Fernando Alonso.  Where Alonso and Webber showed each other the sort of respect that you expect from the world’s top racing drivers racing in the premier racing class, the same cannot be said of Maldonado, who looked like he lost control in a forlorn attempt to keep Perez behind him.

Maldonado and Perez have a previous history.  It was Perez that Maldonado appeared to deliberately drive in to in Saturday free practice at Monaco, receiving a 10 place grid penalty from the stewards for the incident.  Perez branded Maldonado “crazy” as a result, while the Venezuelan insisted that the incident wasn’t his fault claiming “I was trying overtake him and I lost the car…Maybe I was too optimistic on the throttle on cold tyres”.  According to Maldonado, cold tyres were again to blame for the crash at the British grand prix.  The Williams driver also argued that he was just trying to defend his position.

It may well be the case that Maldonado was trying to defend his position, that much was obvious, but Perez, for one, was far from happy.  The Sauber driver was scathing in his assessment of the Venezuelan’s driving when interviewed by the BBC.  Perez claimed that “Pastor is a driver who doesn’t respect other drivers” and went on to argue that he “was already in front, and if not he should have given me enough space not to crash, but he tried to push me all the way to the outside”.   The Mexican further claimed that Maldonado is “a very dangerous driver and he can hurt someone”.

Perez was also clear that he was not the only driver that is of this view, stating that “Everybody has concerns about him.  He is a driver who doesn’t know we are risking our lives and has no respect at all. It is not a matter of close or not. He has no respect at all”.  If it’s true that the rest of the F1 drivers are of this view it is a pretty damning indictment of the Venezuelan.  As for this particular clash, the stewards launched a post-race investigation and determined that Maldonado was indeed guilty of causing a collision, issuing the Williams driver with a reprimand and a 10,000 Euro fine.  Given that Perez thought that Maldonado’s penalty for his crash with Lewis Hamilton in Valencia – a post-race 20 second penalty – was not severe enough, I think we can be fairly certain that he won’t be happy that Maldonado has gotten away with a fairly minimal punishment on this occasion.

So, while one previously lacklustre performer had a dramatic upturn in fortunes at Silverstone, another continued his poor form.  Also worthy of a mention, though, are the McLaren team – another of the competitors that I suggested need to up their game – who will have been delighted that their pit stops were fast and trouble free for both drivers throughout the race, but extremely concerned that their pace seems to have evaporated like the rain from the track.  Hamilton finished a distant eighth – the same position in which he qualified – while Jenson Button at least managed to move forward from his 16th place grid position, finishing 10th.  McLaren and their drivers continue to lose ground in the championship and they, along with Pastor Maldonado, will be hoping to emulate Felipe Mass’s upturn in form in the next race; round 10, the season mid-point, in Germany.

Mid-season report card: Must do better

After a thrilling opening eight races, we’re now rapidly closing in on the mid-way point of the 2012 Formula 1 season.  With seven winners from those eight races, no one driver has dominated so far, and there are a number of drivers and teams that will be fairly satisfied with their championship positions and progress so far.  There will be others, though, that won’t be so satisfied; teams and drivers that haven’t performed as they, or their fans, might have expected, or would have wanted.  So, who are those teams and drivers?  I’ve picked out two drivers and one team for particular attention.  Those that I think will want to pick up their performances the most in the second part of the season.

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

It might be surprising to some that I’m going to start  with a driver who is one of our seven races winners.  So, which of our 2012 race winners am I starting with?  Many of you might be able to guess that it’s Williams-Renault driver Pastor Maldonado, the winner of the Spanish GP at Barcelona in May.  It’s without question that Maldonado had an outstanding weekend in Barcelona taking pole position on the Saturday, albeit an inherited pole position after Lewis Hamilton’s exclusion, and driving an excellent race to beat the stand out driver of the season so far, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, in a straight fight in normal weather conditions.  However, one race does not a season make.  Yes, Maldonado has looked good at other races, for example qualifying third last time out in Valencia, but the bottom line is that, his win aside, he has only scored points in one other race this season; four points for eighth place in China.  Although, he has often looked quicker than his team-mate, Bruno Senna, Maldonado has, despite his win, only scored 13 world championship points more than the Brazilian who has scored points in half of the races so far and has looked far more stable and consistent.

The truth of the matter is, though, that it would be harsh to include Maldonado on the mid-season roll of dishonour on the basis of the points that he’s scored so far.  Points scored does not tell the whole story in the case of the Venezuelan, however.  I’ve written previously about Maldonado and his erratic driving and tendency towards hot headedness.  The Williams driver threw away points, and what would have been his best career finish at that stage of the season, for sixth place in the very first race of the season in Australia.  Maldonado crashed heavily in the final lap of the race, while pushing to catch and overhaul Alonso for fifth place.  Maldonado demonstrated that he failed to learn from this incident with his crash on the penultimate lap a week ago at the European grand prix at Valencia.  At Valencia, though, it wasn’t just his own race that Maldonado ruined, but Lewis Hamilton’s as well.  While attempting to pass the McLaren driver, whose tyres were rapidly degrading, Maldonado was squeezed off track by the 2008 world drivers’ champion.  Instead of rejoining behind Hamilton and trying again, Maldonado came straight back on to the track, spearing into the side of the McLaren, pushing Hamilton into the wall and damaging his own car badly enough that he could only limp over the line in 10th position, which the Venezuelan lost after a 20 second post race penalty from the stewards.

The Valencia incident was not Maldonado’s only run in with the stewards this season.  It’s hard to forget the events of the Monaco grand prix.  Maldonado was penalised for a clash with Sauber’s Sergio Perez in FP3 where he appeared to deliberately drive in to the Mexican and followed that clash up with a crash on the following lap at Casino Square, where he was again over aggressive, taking too much kerb and careering into the barriers.  In the race, Maldonado didn’t even last a lap after starting in the penultimate grid position when his penalty for hitting Perez and a further penalty for changing his gearbox had been applied.  All in all Monaco was an awful weekend for Maldonado in a 2012 season where he has shown win this win in Barcelona that he has some real speed.  Sadly that speed has not shone through elsewhere and instead of being praised for his unexpected victory, Maldonado is derided by many fans for his erratic driving.  I’m sure his Williams team, who have produced a genuinely quick car, despite their troubles in 2011, will be expecting more consistency from the Venezuelan driver in the second part of the season.

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

Let’s move on from Maldonado to another South American driver.  A driver who has challenged for the world drivers’ championship in the past, but who has not won a race since: Felipe Massa.  The Brazilian is in the final year of his contract at Ferrari and his performances thus far in 2012 have done nothing to suggest that he has a chance of retaining his seat with the Italian marque beyond the end of the current campaign.  Ferrari started the season with some heavy press and media criticism for producing a car that was both ugly and slow.  Despite having a slow car, Massa’s team-mate, Fernando Alonso, won the second race of the season in Malaysia in changeable conditions and has scored points in every race of the season so far, becoming the first driver to win two races this season when he won, in a much more competitive Ferrari, in Valencia.  While Alonso has been hugely impressive, Massa has been far less so.  He has really struggled to come anywhere close to the performances of his team-mate.  While Alonso has only failed to make it into the final part of qualifying on two occasions this season, at the first race in Australia and at the last race in Valencia, Massa has only made it into the final part of qualifying twice, in Monaco and Canada in rounds six and seven.

As we’re often reminded, no points are awarded for qualifying, so Massa’s poor qualifying performances could be excused if he was delivering strong race results.  The simple fact of the matter is, though, that he’s not.  Far from it, in fact, Massa has scored points in only three races this season and, with a best result of sixth in Monaco, he has amassed a total of 11 world championship points.  Again, Massa suffers badly when compared with his team-mate who has scored exactly 100 points more than him in the opening eight races of the season and leads the world drivers’ championship while Massa languishes in 16th place, ahead of only the drivers from Torro Rosso, Caterham, Marussia and HRT.  Ferrari will be expecting  far better from Massa, whose poor performances are costing the team badly in the constructors’ championship race; while Alonso heads the drivers’ championship, Ferrari sit only fourth in the constructors’ championship.

Having singled out two drivers who I think could do much better in future races, I’m now going to turn my attention to the teams.  I’m only going to single out one team here.  It’s not going to be any of the ‘new’ teams – although HRT get a special mention for being particularly unimpressive – but instead one of the front-runners.  Had I been writing this article at the start of the season that team would almost certainly have been Ferrari, but, eight races in, Ferrari deserve a huge amount of praise for developing their car so dramatically.  So which team am I singling out, then?  Well, it’s the very same team that received a great deal of praise at the start of the season for producing the best looking and, apparently, the fastest car: McLaren.  It might look a little odd to place the Woking based team in the ‘must do better’ part of my mid-season report card when they are one of only three teams to have won two races in 2012 and they sit second, behind only Red Bull Racing, in the world constructors’ championship.  However, but for a number of pit stop and strategy errors things could have been so much better for McLaren and their drivers.  I’ve written previously about McLaren’s issues here, so I won’t cover too much of the same ground again, but Lewis Hamilton has, in particular, suffered badly from a number of atrocious pit stops this season.  Bahrain was particularly bad, with two slow pit stops for Hamilton, but Button also suffered in the previous race in China.  The most disappointing thing for McLaren will be that they continue to suffer from pit stop issues, despite introducing new procedures and equipment to try to eliminate them.  In the last race in Valencia, Hamilton was again on the receiving end of a poor pit stop which, arguably, cost him a shot at victory, as one of McLaren’s new, Ferrari style, pivoting front jacks embarrassingly failed mid-stop.

Perhaps even more damaging from Jenson Button’s perspective, is that the introduction of the new higher nose on the McLaren has coincided with a dramatic downturn in form for the 2009 world champion.  It would appear that the upgrade doesn’t suit Button, who has struggled to set up his car well enough to qualify or race well.  McLaren have been unable to get to the bottom of the issue for Button who has, as a result, slipped to eighth place in the world drivers’ championship.  McLaren have worked themselves in to a position where one of their drivers, Lewis Hamilton, seems to be on the receiving end of some truly poor pit stops and team errors (e.g. Barcelona, where the team under fuelled his car in qualifying, costing him pole position), while their other driver, while not suffering to the same extent with pit stop issues, finds himself in a position where, after the Canadian race, he declared himself “confused and very lost”, simply unable to get the pace out of the revised McLaren that his team-mate can.  McLaren should and could be doing much better.  Their fans will certainly hope for a big upgrade package for the next race, the team’s home race, at Silverstone.  What is vital for McLaren, though, is that the upgrades work for both of their drivers and that, along with performance upgrades on the car come performance upgrades in the pits.

The upside for the team and drivers mentioned here is that, despite there being massive room improvement, all have proved in the past that they are more than capable of delivering great performances.  Indeed, we’re not quite at the half way point in the 2012 season.  There are still 12 races still to run, and in such an unpredictable season it’s not out of the question that Maldonado or Massa will blossom again.  More likely, though, is that McLaren finally sort out their numerous issues and are able to sustain a challenge for both world championships.  We’ll have to see how the season unfolds…