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.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.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…