F1’s bad boys: A comparison

The 2012 Formula 1 season was certainly action packed, exciting and close. It was full of incidents, had an unbelievable eight different race winners and a championship race that went down to the wire. It’s some of the incidents that I want to look back on, though, and, in particular, two of the biggest offenders in the sport last season. I think that you can all guess who I’m talking about. Both are former GP2 champions and both, at times, drove brilliantly in 2012 and were rewarded with podium finishes, and in Spain one of them even won a race. That’s right, it’s Williams driver Pastor Maldonado and Lotus’s Romain Grosjean.

Romain Grosjean, Lotus E20, Jerez, Spain10th February 2012By Gil Abrantes  via Wikimedia Commons

Romain Grosjean, Lotus E20, Jerez, Spain
10th February 2012
By Gil Abrantes via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s start things off by looking back at Grosjean’s season for Lotus. Out of the eight drivers driving for what turned out to be the four fastest teams in the 2012 Formula 1 season, Grosjean finished the championship bottom of the pile, having scored 96 world championship points. In comparison his team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen, , finished an outstanding third in the drivers’ championship with 207 points, including 25 for his brilliant win in Abu Dhabi, more than double the number that Grosjean scored.

That’s not to say, that Grosjean didn’t have some great results in 2012, though. The Frenchman finished on the podium three times, including a second place finish behind McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton in Canada. He also qualified in the top three on three separate occasions in comparison to just one top three start for his Finnish team-mate.

It’s the sheer number of incidents that Grosjean was involved in, though, that defined his season. While Raikkonen finished every race, scoring points in all but one of them, his French team-mate retired from over a third of the races that he started. Now, it would be unfair to criticise Grosjean if those retirements were caused by factors outside of his control, but in actual fact only one of his seven retirements was caused by a mechanical failure on his Lotus car, his alternator failure on lap 40 of the European grand prix at Valencia, when he was in position to challenge for victory.

So, if we take that retirement out of the equation, that’s nearly 32% of races that Grosjean retired from in 2012 due to either spins or accidents; far too many. Indeed, many of Grosjean’s accidents came in the opening few laps of races. Of his six spin/accident retirements, five came within the opening five laps of races, the only exception being in Abu Dhabi where he crashed out in an incident with Red Bull Racing driver Mark Webber. Of those five incidents, four involved crashes with other drivers.

The most high-profile of those incidents came, of course, at the Belgian grand prix at Spa at the start of September. That incident, at the first corner of the first lap of the race as the cars raced away from the grid towards the La Source hairpin, ended up with not only a retirement for Grosjean, but also retirements for two championship contenders, Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.

Romain Grosjean flying pver Fernando Alonso's Ferrari at the Belgian GP

Romain Grosjean flying pver Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari at the Belgian GP

The accident was clearly Grosjean’s fault. He cut across the front of Hamilton’s McLaren, squeezing him towards the wall, leaving the Englishman with nowhere to go. Contact inevitably resulted and Grosjean ended up being launched over the top of Alonso’s Ferrari. Given that Alonso ultimately finished just three points behind 2012 world drivers’ champion Sebastian Vettel in the championship, this incident may have cost the Spaniard the championship, but he was fortunate that it didn’t cost him his life as Grosjean’s Lotus came within inches of the Spaniard’s helmet as it flew over the top of him. As we all know, Grosjean received a one race ban for the incident, and missed the Italian grand prix as a result.

In contrast, Williams driver Pastor Maldonado finished the championship in 15th position, ahead of his team-mate Bruno Senna by 14 world championship points. Maldonado’s Williams, of course, was not as consistently fast as Grosjean’s Lotus, but the Williams had races where it was clearly blisteringly fast, resulting in a win for Maldonado, from pole position, at the Spanish grand prix in Barcelona.

Pastor Maldonado, Williams FW34, Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary, 29th July 2012. Copyright: Charles Coates/LAT

Pastor Maldonado, Williams FW34, Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary, 29th July 2012. Copyright: Charles Coates/LAT

Like Grosjean, then, Maldonado demonstrated some considerable speed in 2012, both in qualifying – Maldonado out-qualified Senna in 75% of grand prix, 15 out of the 20 races – and race conditions. Unfortunately for the Venezuelan, though, he was also involved in a huge number of incidents over the course of the season. These incidents meant that Maldonado squandered points in several races last season, ultimately only scoring points in five races in 2012, including his win in Spain. In comparison his Brazilian team-mate had double the amount of points scoring finishes – 10 – for his, despite his huge qualifying disadvantage.

Maldonado threw away points for sixth place, which would have been the best result of his Formula 1 career at that stage, in the very first race of the season in Australia. Having driven a great race, Maldonado crashed heavily on the last of the 58 laps of the race, while pushing to catch and pass Alonso, who was just ahead of him in fifth place.

Seven races later, at the European grand prix, Maldonado again crashed out late in a race. This time it was two laps from home and he took another driver with him in Lewis Hamilton. While trying to overhaul the 2008 world drivers’ champion, who was struggling with tyres that had ‘gone off the cliff’, Maldonado was squeezed off track by the McLaren driver and chose to rejoin the track immediately and drive straight into the side of the Englishman’s car, putting him out of the race. Maldonado managed to continue with a damaged car, crossing the line in 10th, which he later lost after receiving a 20 second post race penalty from the stewards.

Pastor Maldonado leads Lewis Hamilton and Sergio Perez before taking out the latter at the British GPCopyright: Charles Coates/LAT Photographic

Pastor Maldonado leads Lewis Hamilton and Sergio Perez before taking out the latter at the British GP
Copyright: Charles Coates/LAT Photographic

Maldonado struck again in the very next race at the British grand prix at Silverstone. This time, the incident happened much earlier in the race, on lap 12, but again he cost another driver a race finish. This time the unlucky driver in question was Sauber’s Sergio Perez, who Maldonado slid in to as the Mexican attempted to pass him around the outside of Brooklands. This, of course, was not the only incident between the Mexican and the Venezuelan last season. In Monaco free practice, Maldonado appeared to deliberately drive in to Perez’s car and received a penalty for doing so from the stewards, and then followed this up in the race by slamming into the back of Pedro de la Rosa’s HRT at the start.

Although Maldonado has been involved in a similar number of accidents as Grosjean, none have been as severe as the Frenchman’s crash in Belgium. As a result, despite several penalties from the stewards for the Williams driver, Grosjean was the only driver to actually receive a race ban in 2012, becoming the first driver to do so since Michael Schumacher in 1994.

Despite the similarities between Grosjean and Maldonado in terms of speed and a propensity for causing accidents, there is one big difference between the two, for me: attitude. When Grosjean has made mistakes he has been apologetic and admitted his guilt. Following the awful Spa crash, for example, the Frenchman was contrite, admitting that he made ‘a mistake and…misjudged the gap with Lewis’. In contrast, Maldonado often believes that he has done no wrong. He blamed ‘cold tyres for his crashes with Perez at Silverstone and, almost believably, when he hit the same driver during Saturday free practice in Monaco.

It is this difference in attitude that leads me to think that Grosjean is the more likely driver to mature and progress, while Maldonado is the more likely to continue to be erratic and hot headed. This is borne out by comments that the two drivers made recently as they each looked forward to the start of the 2013 season.

Spanish newspaper Marca quotes Maldonado as saying, earlier this month, ‘Yes, I’ve had run-ins with other drivers, not only now, but in the past…But I have won in each of the categories in which I have competed and, every time I walk down the hallway in my house and see everything I’ve achieved with this style, I think I should continue’. I’m all for drivers that are aggressive and exciting, but aggression must be controlled or it can become dangerous. Maldonado seems not to understand that, and seems unwilling, or perhaps unable, to learn and adapt.

Grosjean, though, seems much more able to acknowledge his mistakes and, crucially, learn from them. Speaking earlier this month, the Frenchman told French TV show Stade2 ‘I do not think winning at all costs is the goal, because the dream is to become world champion one day…Of course, it is true that you have to win races to be champion, but I must be careful not to mistake the goal…I am not crazy, I am aware of the risks and I have worked hard to correct my mistakes. Over the last five races, I didn’t have any other problems and there is no reason to believe that I will have any more’.

We’ll have to see what 2013 holds for both Grosjean and Maldonado, of course, and only time will tell whether either driver can achieve the consistency needed to compete with Formula 1’s very best drivers. On the basis of their words and attitude, though, I know which driver I think is most likely, and able, to make that step up.

Silver Arrows: Shooting for the stars in 2013?

Despite taking their first Formula 1 race victory since returning to the sport with the purchase of the Brawn GP team at the end of the 2009 season, 2012 was a disappointing year for the Mercedes AMG F1 team. Even with Nico Rosberg’s victory at the Chinese grand prix, the team’s constructors’ championship position come the end of the season was fifth; one place lower than they had finished in both of the preceding two seasons.

Even though the team have recruited a top class driver in Lewis Hamilton, many suggest that Mercedes will continue to struggle in 2013. There is a widespread belief that 2013 will be sacrificed and that the team will be focussing on 2014, when there’s a significant regulation change. However, I think that there are a number of reasons why Mercedes might confound these negative expectations in the coming season, and here’s why.

Michael Schumacher at the 2012 Australian GP16 March 2012By Parepinvr4, via Wikimedia Commons

Michael Schumacher at the 2012 Australian GP
16 March 2012
By Parepinvr4, via Wikimedia Commons

First of all, and as I’ve already mentioned, Mercedes have recruited a truly world-class driver in Lewis Hamilton. People might argue that the man who Hamilton replaced, seven time Formula 1 world drivers’ champion Michael Schumacher, was no slouch and was a world-class driver in his own right, but the big difference between the German and the Englishman is that Hamilton is a man at the top of his game, while Schumacher was far from that at the time of his retirement at the end of the 2012 season.

Schumacher was consistently outpaced in his ‘second career’ in Formula 1 by his team-mate Rosberg. Rosberg finished ahead of his countryman in all three of their seasons together at Mercdes, scoring nearly double the amount of points that his more experienced team-mate in both 2010 and 2012. Despite Schumcher’s glittering Formula 1 career, and the odd flash of his old pace, like his pole lap at Monaco last season, his talent was clearly on the wane.

Lewis Hamilton at the Bahrain GP, 21 April 2012By Ryan Bayona, via Wikimedia Commons

Lewis Hamilton at the Bahrain GP, 21 April 2012
By Ryan Bayona, via Wikimedia Commons

Hamilton, though, should be approaching the peak of his powers. At 28 years of age he is 16 years Schumacher’s junior, but still an experienced Formula 1 driver in his own right. Hamilton is himself a Formula 1 world drivers’ champion who, after 110 F1 race starts, is now entering his sixth season at the pinnacle of motorsport. After a lacklustre 2011, littered with off track problems and uncharacteristic mistakes on the track, Hamilton was back on form in 2012. He drove brilliantly last season, and it was only operational and technical errors on the part of his former team, McLaren, that meant that he was ultimately unable to sustain the championship challenge that his driving performances warranted. Hamilton is also a man who is able to drag performance from a car that might be tricky to drive, which makes him the perfect man given Mercedes’s performance issues. As Martin Brundle said recently “Lewis has got such pace, and if Mercedes can harness that speed and give him the car, he will drag another quarter of a second per lap out of it somewhere”.

It is, though, important to point out that Hamilton has no chance of being able to deliver results for Mercedes in 2013 unless the new car, the W04, is, at least, reasonably competitive. A Mercedes that is able to sustain the sort of performance level that we saw from the Brackley based team at the start of the 2012 season is almost certain to be a winner in the hands of Hamilton, as it was for Rosberg in China. A Mercedes that delivers the sort of pace that we saw from the team in the latter half of 2012 will simply not be good enough, for even a driver of Hamilton’s considerable skill, to win races and challenge at the front of the field.

Why is there any reason to think that the Mercedes team of 2013 will be able to sustain winning performance where the Mercedes team of 2012 could not? Given the team’s position at the end of 2012, who could even say that the 2013 car will be good enough out of the box? Well, to answer the first of my own questions, there are good reasons why Mercedes suffered a mid-season slump in performance last season. As Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn said earlier this month, at the mid-season point Mercedes were transitioning from a 50 percent windtunnel to a 60 percent windtunnel. The change was needed to enable the team to increase the amount of data it could glean from the Pirelli tyres. With extracting performance out of the tyres becoming such a crucial part of modern-day Formula 1, making the switch was crucial for Mercedes, even if it did cost them performance in the short-term.

f1-wind-tunnel-model

An F1 windtunnel model

The windtunnel was not the only reason for Mercedes’s performance problems, though. The team’s had of aerodynamics, Loic Bigois, departed mid-season and his replacement, Mike Elliot, from F1 rivals Lotus, wasn’t able to immediately take over. As Brawn commented “We concluded the situation with Loic and there was a gap that we didn’t fill very well”.

The arrival of Elliot, though almost certainly bodes well for Mercedes. The Lotus E20 threatened to be the class of the field, at times, last season and Lotus scored over double the amount of world constructors’ championship points as Mercedes as a result. Elliot’s appointment, coupled with Mercedes’s new wind tunnel should certainly help the team to move forwards. Interestingly, Elliot’s appointment might also enable Mercedes to steal a march on some of its rivals in one, potentially important, area.

In 2012, Mercedes and Lotus were the only two teams to trial the use of a passive DRS system that uses air pressure to stall the rear wing at certain speeds; a sort of passive version of the driver operated F-duct device originally introduced by McLaren in 2010, but now outlawed. Neither Lotus nor Mercedes actually raced a passive system last season, but if teams can get such a system to work effectively it could be a big benefit. With Elliot, who presumably has some knowledge of the work that Lotus were doing on their system, now on board at Mercedes, you could surmise that the latter team are as likely as anyone to get such a system operating properly.

Mercedes W03 (DRS)Sepang, Malaysia, 23 March 2012By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Mercedes W03 (DRS)
Sepang, Malaysia, 23 March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, with the change in the DRS rules, an effective passive DRS system might become even more important in 2013. From this year, teams will no longer have free use of their standard DRS systems in practice and qualifying with use of the system restricted to the FIA’s designated race DRS zones. This means that an effective passive system could deliver a qualifying and race advantage. The key factor will, though, be whether anyone can get such a system to work. As I have said, I think that Mercedes will probably be in as good a position as anyone in this respect. Although such a system might not be suitable for all tracks – only tracks with predominantly low-speed corners and long straights – and, as Ross Brawn explained last year, such a system “is not going to be a game changer in terms of your competitiveness”, any advantage is potentially crucial in Formula 1.

This brings me on to my next point. As Red Bull Racing designer Adrian Newey admitted at the end of last year, the stability in the Formula 1 rules – there hasn’t been much significant change since 2009 – means that it is becoming more and more difficult for the top teams to find significant extra performance. With a team like Mercedes, though, which is certainly one of the sports big teams, but was lagging behind in performance terms at the end of 2012, there will be more speed to find than a team like Red Bull or McLaren. The new Mercedes, for example, will certainly feature a coanda exhaust, which the team could not get to work – probably in part due to their windtunnel transition – in 2012, which will deliver performance.

So, do I think that Mercedes will be championship contenders in 2013? Unless they find something that no-one else does, probably not, but with Hamilton on board and a car that’s in the right ball park then who knows? I certainly expect that Mercedes will be in a Lotus-esque position in 2013; consistently able to challenge for podiums and the odd race win.