F1 dazzles in the desert

After two easy victories, one for each of the Mercedes drivers, in the opening two races of the season many were writing off Formula 1. Quieter engines, fuel efficiency and the same big margins of victory; no battles at the front – F1 had lost the plot, right? Wrong. The Bahrain grand prix was full of thrills and spills and featured a titanic battle for victory between the Mercedes drivers – easily the best race in recent years; a real thriller that had you on the edge of your seat right until the chequered flag.

In the end, just like a week ago in Malaysia, it was Lewis Hamilton that came out on top in Bahrain, although his margin of victory over team-mate Nico Rosberg was dramatically reduced from 17.3 seconds last time out to a whisker over a single second this time. As reflected by the narrow margin of victory, we had a real fight between the Mercedes drivers in Bahrain, not only in the final grandstand finish over the last 10 laps, but also, crucially, in the run up to the first round of pit stops.

Hamilton beat Rosberg off the line and took the lead into turn 1

Hamilton beat Rosberg off the
line and took the lead into turn 1

Unlike in the last two races, in Bahrain Rosberg beat Hamilton in qualifying to take his first pole position of the season, with his team-mate qualifying second, giving the Silver Arrows their first front row lock-out of the season. Rosberg had clearly raised his game after being dominated by Hamilton at Sepang and looked to have the edge over the 2008 world drivers’ champion this time. The German, the race winner in Australia, might have been able to streak clear in the same way that Hamilton managed in Malaysia, but he was beaten off the line, and into turn one, by his team-mate.

Having gotten the drop on Rosberg, Hamilton couldn’t pull away, though. The gap hovered around a second to a second and a half in the opening stint of the race allowing our first round of fireworks to take place as we approached the first pit stops. Knowing that the driver who stopped first would enjoy the advantage of the undercut – the advantage of fresher tyres for a lap or so – Rosberg pushed hard to overtake Hamilton and closed to within DRS range of his team-mate.

Rosberg squeezed ahead of Hamilton several times, but couldn't make the pass stick

Rosberg squeezed ahead of Hamilton several times, but couldn’t make the pass stick

On lap 18 Rosberg made his move, diving down the inside of Hamilton at turn one before conceding the lead again as the Englishman fought back. On the next lap Rosberg tried again. This time it looked like he might have made the pass stick, but Hamilton wasn’t giving up and re-passed Rosberg into turn four. It was a truly brilliant counter-attack from Hamilton and it looked critical as at the end of the lap he made his pit stop. He had secured the advantage of the undercut.

Once both of the Mercedes drivers had stopped – Hamilton for another set of option tyres, while Rosberg had switched to primes – things seemed to settle down. The undercut had given Hamilton a six second advantage, which steadily increased eventually reaching 9.7 seconds on lap 40. While it was never quite a case of ‘race over’ given that Hamilton would use the slower prime tyre in the final stint while Rosberg would use the faster options, things did look reasonably comfortable up front.

Maldonado's Lotus flips Gutierrez’s Sauber into a dramatic somersault

Maldonado’s Lotus flips Gutierrez’s
Sauber into a dramatic somersault

But then along came Pastor Maldonado in the Lotus. On lap 41 the Venezuelan exited the pits and T-boned Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber, launching the Mexican’s car into a somersault at turn one – an incident which resulted in Maldonado receiving a five place grid penalty after the race, plus three points on his super-licence. Unsurprisingly, out came the safety car and away went Hamilton’s lead.

With Hamilton now on the slower tyres and Rosberg on the faster options, it looked to be advantage Rosberg. Just before the safety car pulled in with 10 laps to go, though, both Mercedes drivers received identical radio messages from Mercedes technical director Paddy Lowe “With 10 laps left to race, can we just make sure we bring both cars home.” Team orders, I thought. I was wrong! Rosberg attacked Hamilton immediately and while he couldn’t get the pass done he stayed close enough to Hamilton to receive the advantage of DRS when it became available two laps after the re-start.

Rosberg attacked again on laps 52 and 53, squeezing ahead of Hamilton only to be swiftly re-passed by his team-mate. It was thrilling stuff, but with better tyres and the edge in terms of outright speed I thought it was only a matter of time before Rosberg made the move stick. I was wrong again! Hamilton was told that he could use the overtake button on the exit of corners to aid in his defence and he was able to pull out a gap of around a second to Rosberg in the final couple of laps.

Perez celebrates his third place

Perez celebrates his third place

The second display of on-track fireworks between the Mercedes drivers was finally over as Hamilton took a brilliant victory, different in so many different ways to the win just a week earlier at Sepang. I haven’t even mentioned the other brilliant battles throughout the field during the race. Sergio Perez claimed third place to give Force India only their second ever podium finish and we saw on track fireworks from a whole host of other drivers. It was a tremendous race and a brilliant advert for the new era of Formula 1.

Not only did the battle between the Silver Arrows prove a thrilling spectacle, it also finally showed us the extent of the pace that the Brackley-based team have in their pocket. In just 10 laps they built up a 24 second advantage over Perez in third place; an advantage of some 2.4 seconds per lap. Something that will surely send shivers down the spines of the rest of the paddock.

Hamilton takes the checquered flag in Bahrain, just ahead of Rosberg

Hamilton takes the checquered flag
in Bahrain, just ahead of Rosberg

The championships look like Mercedes’s to lose, but we’re highly unlikely to get the sort of cakewalk that we’ve seen at times from Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel in recent seasons. The Mercedes drivers seem pretty closely matched and the team seem determined to let them race. That’s great for the sport. While Hamilton has two victories to Rosberg’s one, it’s the German that so far holds the championship advantage thanks to Hamilton’s unfortunate retirement in Australia.

There were more fireworks after the race, this time in the night sky as the organisers brought the curtain down on the 900th grand prix and the 10th at the Sakhir circuit. The next race in China has a lot to live up to.

Bad behaviour in Bahrain?

I’ve already written about last weekend’s Bahrain grand prix, won by Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel, but looking back again, I thought it was worth returning again to something I covered only briefly in last week’s article: the fight between the two McLaren team-mates. As mentioned in my last blog post, Sergio Perez eventually got the better of Jenson Button, despite the latter’s complaints over team radio, to finish sixth.

Jenson Button being interviewed immediately after the end of the race in Bahrain

Jenson Button being interviewed immediately
after the end of the race in Bahrain

The on track fight between the two was a lengthy one, though, and post race comments by Button, in addition to those that he made over team radio during the race, clearly showed that he was far from happy with his Mexican team-mate’s tactics. The 2009 world drivers’ champion said that he was “not used to driving down a straight and your team-mate wiggling his wheels at you and banging wheels at 300kph”, and implied that Perez was immature when he further commented that “That’s things you do in karting but grow out of. Not the case with Checo”. Was Perez really that far out of line, though?

In my view, it was great to see two team-mates battling hard for track position, and being allowed to do so. Was Perez aggressive? Yes, absolutely, but then he was under pressure to be exactly that. Let’s not forget that, three races in to his McLaren career, the Mexican was a man under pressure. He already had Lewis’ Hamilton’s very large shoes to fill when he joined the team, but after being comprehensively outpaced by Button in the opening rounds of the reason, and receiving a fair amount of fan and media criticism, that pressure had ramped up.

After the previous race in China and ahead of the race in Bahrain, his team principle, Martin Whitmarsh, said of Perez “I think he’s been very polite so far this year; I think he needs to toughen up”. He also said that “You’ve got to be out there racing and that means sometimes you’ve got elbows”, and further elaborated by saying he said. “It’s right that you’ve got to be robust without being dirty”.

So, there’s Perez effectively being told by his team-principal that he needs to be more aggressive. To paraphrase Whitmarsh, Perez had to be tough, but fair. I’d argue that that’s exactly what he was in Bahrain. The crucial battle between the two came at around lap 30 when Perez’s front wing was damaged when he hit Button’s right rear tyre from behind. Button was soon on the team radio to complain, saying “He’s just hit me up the back. Calm him down”. It would seem a reasonable complaint from the Englishman, you would certainly not expect your team-mate to behave in that manner, but I’d argue that there were mitigating circumstances.

The view from Button's onboard camera as Perez makes contact

The view from Button’s onboard
camera as Perez makes contact

It’s easy to forget that Perez damaged his own car in the incident. It’s also easy to forget that Perez was obviously not trying to hit Button’s car. The incident most likely occurred because Button was trying to prevent his team-mate from passing him on the exit of the turn, by slowing mid-corner to halt the Mexican’s momentum. It’s obviously Perez’s responsibility to react and slow down himself to prevent contact with his team-mate, and it’s clear that in this instance he failed to do so sufficiently, but was the contact really caused by over aggression?

I’d argue that it wasn’t and that Perez probably just got caught out and made a mistake. The incident could quite easily be compared to an incident in China on the opening few corners between Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel. In China, the Ferrari driver hit the back of Vettel’s Red Bull, damaging his front wing, which failed the next lap, putting him out of the race. Was Alonso being over aggressive in this incident? Clearly not; he got caught out because Vettel had been going more slowly than he had expected at that particular corner – much the same as Perez’s contact with Button.

Perez eventually got the better of his team-mate in Sakhir

Perez eventually got the better
of his team-mate in Sakhir

So, for me Perez was just doing what he’d been told to do – be more aggressive, but fair. It was not as if Perez was intentionally battling unfairly with another car, as Pastor Maldonado had clearly been guilty of in the past. In fact, I’d argue that if either of the two McLaren drivers was overly aggressive it was Button, who actually forced his team-mate off the track in his desperation to maintain his position. Had Perez been over aggressive in that particular instance and not yielded track position there would certainly have been contact between the two McLaren’s. Contact that could have put both drivers out of the race.

Worse than that, though, were Button’s post race comments indicating a lack of maturity from his team-mate and an over aggressive nature. Personally, I expected more from a driver of Button’s experience and standing. The Englishman had been very clear before the start of the season that he regarded himself as the team leader at McLaren after Hamilton’s departure, but his post-race comments didn’t really demonstrate the level headedness that you would expect from him.

Sam Michael excused Button's heat of the moment comments

Sam Michael excused Button’s
heat of the moment comments

Sam Michael, McLaren’s sporting director excused Button’s comments by explaining that “Straight after the race had finished, Jenson was interviewed by a large group of TV reporters, as is always the case when a grand prix has come to an end. Jenson was frustrated that his race-long battle with Checo had slowed his progress throughout the event, and believed that Checo had at times been too forceful in his defence – and he made some robust live-TV comments about Checo as a result”. Going on to say that Button had been more balanced in later interviews.

To an extent, this is fair enough. Everyone makes comments in the heat of the moment that they might later regret. Other drivers have done so in the past, and will certainly do so again in the future, but if you’re to excuse Button’s post race comments so easily, then you’ve also got to excuse a little heat of the moment over aggression , if indeed it was even that, from his 23-year-old team-mate. To be fair to McLaren they’ve done just that.

If Perez’s performance in Bahrain is any indicator of what we can expect from him for the rest of the season, we’re certainly in for some exciting racing. That might be difficult for Button to come to terms with, especially if his young team-mate can start beating him more regularly. As former McLaren driver John Watson told BBC Sport “If Perez gives Button a difficult time, it’s up to Button to come to terms with it. It’s a fact of life. He can’t expect Martin Whitmarsh to tell Perez to back off”. Watson also added “If your kid team-mate is pushing you hard, it’s not nice, but it’s part of the game. You have to respond by getting in and doing the best job”.

It’ll be interesting to see how the battle between the two team mates continues as the season develops. If Button can respond in Barcelona by reasserting the dominance over his teammate that we saw in the opening three races of the season, we might see Perez respond by either battling back hard or fading badly. If Perez can maintain the momentum he established in Bahrain, though, it’ll be interesting to see how Button reacts…

Serene Seb storms to victory in Sakhir

Well, with Sebastian Vettel’s second victory of the season in Sakhir, we now know that there will be no repeat of 2012, with eight different race winners in the first eight races of the season. In Bahrain, at least, though, we did have a carbon copy of the 2012 top three, with Vettel being joined on the podium by Lotus pair Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean. While Vettel was untroubled at the front of the pack, the battles raged behind him.

It was a tumultuous, topsy-turvey race; different cars and drivers looked quick at various stages of the race, with McLaren looking extremely strong at certain points, while Mercedes looked to be struggling at times. At the end of the race, though, the only team that maximised the result for both of their drivers was Lotus, with a double podium. Unusually for me, I’m going to take a look at the race, team by team, for the top seven at least.

Vettel, leading Rosberg and Alonso early in the Bahrain GP

Vettel, leading Rosberg and Alonso early in the Bahrain GP

Let’s start with Red Bull Racing. As we know, Vettel took a thoroughly deserved and fairly straightforward victory. He battled with Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso at the start of the race and initially dropped back from his second place starting slot as Alonso opportunistically sneaked around the outside of the reigning world drivers’ champion at turn one. Vettel was back past the Spaniard later on the lap, though, and although it took him a two more laps to find a way past Rosberg’s Mercedes, once he did so on lap three he never looked back, winning the race by just under 10 seconds, looking perfectly in control throughout.

Mark Webber on the other hand had another torrid race. Eventually, the Australian finished where he started, in seventh place, but aside from a spell in second place after the first round of pit stops he never really looked in contention. Webber, of course, was hampered by a three place grid penalty carried over from Shanghai and his collision with Jean-Eric Vergne, but he never looked like he had the pace to compete at the very front of the race. Nevertheless, he battled hard throughout, eventually losing out towards the end of the race as he lost two positions on the final lap. Things could have been even worse for Webber, though, had the stewards decided that his coming together with Nico Rosberg on lap 38 was worth more than just the reprimand that he received after the race.

Paul di Resta drove an excellent race in Sakhir

Paul di Resta drove an excellent race in Sakhir

Force India had an excellent result with a fourth place finish for Paul di Resta. The Scot looked fast throughout the race and can consider himself unfortunate not to be able to take his first formula 1 podium. He led the race at times, and did an excellent job on a two stop strategy, but was overtaken five laps from the end by a charging Romain Grosjean. In contrast, though, his team-mate Adrian Sutil had a poor result. The German had started the race alongside his team-mate in sixth place, but contact with the Ferrari of Felipe Massa on the first lap of the race meant an early pit-stop for Sutil, from which he never recovered, eventually finishing the race down in 13th position – hugely disappointing considering the race that had clearly been in the car in Bahrain.

Next up, I’m going to have a look at the race for Mercedes. A dominant pole for Nico Rosberg on Saturday, their second pole in two races after Lewis Hamilton’s in China, promised much for the race. Rosberg’s previous pole position, in China in 2012, saw him take victory for Mercedes. Sadly for the German, though, there was no repeat in Bahrain in 2013. As many feared, tyre wear was a problem for Mercedes and Rosberg dropped further and further backwards as the race went on. He eventually had to stop four times due to excessive tyre wear, one of just a handful of drivers that needed to do so, eventually finishing in ninth place.

Hamilton improved throughout the race in Bahrain

Hamilton improved throughout the race in Bahrain

Ninth place was where his team-mate Hamilton had started the race after receiving an unfortunate five place grid penalty after a tyre delamination at the end of third practice on Saturday forced the team to change his gearbox. Hamilton’s pace was poor through much of the race, and it looked unlikely that he would score points at times. He fell back at the start and spent much of the race on the periphery of the top 10. In the second part of the race, on the hard tyre, the Englishman came alive, though. As his team-mate fell further back Hamilton pulled himself further forward, passing both McLaren’s and Webber’s Red Bull to take fifth. As he explained after the race “My race didn’t start well at all. I was looking after the tyres but I really struggled on the first two stints and was falling back. But as the temperatures dropped, the car picked up and then I had the grip that I needed to push and close the gap”. A good result for the 2008 world drivers’ champion, who moved into third place in the world drivers’ championship.

Hamilton’s old team, McLaren, looked transformed through much of the race. Both 2009 world drivers’ champion Jenson Button and Sergio Perez were solidly in the top 10 throughout the race, despite their modest 10th and 12th place starting positions. It looked, at times, like a complete turnaround in fortunes between McLaren and Mercedes, but it didn’t really last, at least for Button. The Englishman was the second man to have to make four pit stops due to excessive tyre wear – amazingly for a driver that’s usually so kind to his rubber. Like Webber, he eventually finished the race exactly where he started, in 10th place.

The reason for Button’s excessive tyre wear was probably the battle that raged between him and his Mexican team-mate throughout much of the race. The two drivers came together at the first corner and again later in the race as they pushed to, and sometimes beyond, the limit. Perez, after a disappointing first three races for McLaren had been told to ‘toughen up’ by team boss Martin Whitmarsh earlier in the week, and he did just that. The 23-year-old drove like a man possessed, with Button complaining about his team-mate’s driving over the team radio. The Mexican eventually came out on top, though taking sixth place.

A broken DRS destroyed Alonso's race

A broken DRS destroyed Alonso’s race

But what about, Ferrari? It had been a race which had promised much for the Italian team; both cars started the race on the second row of the grid, with Alonso ahead of Massa. Indeed, the Spaniard had looked tremendously fast all weekend and was many people’s pick to win the race, myself included. Disaster struck for Alonso on lap eight as he was forced to pit because his DRS had jammed open. His team managed to force it closed, but Alonso was back in the pits just a lap later as his DRS jammed open yet again. Again, the Ferrari pit crew forced it closed, but the Spaniard would be without DRS for the rest of the race. Considering the loss of a crucial overtaking aid, and the time that he lost in the pits, Alonso worked wonders to finish in eighth position.

Things went from bad to worse for Ferrari, though. Like his team-mate, Felipe Massa was forced to make two unscheduled visits to the pits during the race. Unlike Alonso, though, it was tyres rather than DRS that were the problem for the Brazilian. Massa suffered not one, but two right rear tyre delaminations. The first came on lap 18 and the second on lap 37, destroying his race. Massa eventually finished in a lowly 15th position, behind the Williams of Valtteri Bottas.

As I’ve already mentioned, Lotus, in stark contrast to Ferrari, had a brilliant race. Both cars had qualified comparatively poorly with eighth place on the grid for Kimi Raikkonen and 11th for Romain Grosjean. In the race, though, the Enstone based team came alive, making a two stop strategy work for Raikkonen and a three stop strategy work equally well for his French team-mate. Raikkonen admitted after the race that Lotus “did not have the speed to beat Red Bull this weekend” and given that the team did as well as they could have with a double podium.

The man with the biggest smile on his face was Sebastian Vettel, though. There was none of the controversy of his win in Malaysia this time and he extended his championship lead to 10 points over Raikkonen. As I mentioned, Hamilton has moved into third – albeit a huge 17 points behind Raikkonen – with Ferrari’s Alonso a further three points back in fourth place. Next up it’s the start of the European races in Barcelona. It’ll be a crucial point for all of the teams as big upgrade packages will be bolted on to all of the cars. Will any of those upgrades mix up the current pecking order? We’ll find out in three weeks time…

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.

Home page image © Getty Images

Nico Rosberg: Under investigation

Leaving aside the question marks over whether the Bahrain Grand Prix should have gone ahead or not in light of the continued civil unrest in the country, the race itself bucked the trend of previous F1 races at the Sakhir circuit by being full of overtaking and incident. The race resulted in the fourth race winner from the fourth team in the opening four races of the season. It saw the fourth leader of the World Drivers’ Championship, too, with Sebastian Vettel’s victory seeing him leapfrog several drivers, including previous leader Lewis Hamilton – who finished eighth after his race was destroyed by pit stop issues – and Red Bull Racing move ahead of McLaren in the constructors standings. The race also saw a great result for Lotus, with Kimi Raikkonen producing a storming drive from 11th on the grid to finish second and his French team-mate, Romain Grosjean, joining him on the podium with a third place finish. However, as you will have guessed from the title, this post is not going to focus on any of these things, but instead the two incidents that Nico Rosberg was involved in with Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, both of which were subject to investigations after the race by the stewards.

Mercedes AMG driver Rosberg was on a high going into this race after taking a first pole position and following it up with a first Formula 1 win, in his 111th start, at the previous race of the season in Shanghai. His form in free practice two and three, where he headed the time sheets, made him the clear favourite for pole position, with many also suggesting that Rosberg would go on to win the race. However, an error in the qualifying top 10 shoot out saw the German start the race in fifth position after being too aggressive in his single Q3 run, taking too much kerb and costing himself crucial time. As a result he started behind both McLarens, which started second and fourth, and both Red Bulls, with Sebastian Vettel claiming his 31st pole position. Rosberg has not, up to this point, been known as a particularly aggressive driver, but the same aggression that was his undoing in qualifying was again evident in the race as he aggressively defended his position against Lewis Hamilton on lap 11 after the Englishman was trying to recover ground after a lengthy first pit stop, and again when he made a similarly aggressive defensive manoeuvre against Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso as the Spaniard tried to pass him at the same part of the track on lap 24. The stewards decided to investigate both of these incidents after the end of the race.

Let me turn first to Rosberg’s incident with 2008 world champion Hamilton, arguably the most controversial of the two incidents. The lap 11 incident saw Hamilton pass Rosberg with all four wheels off the track as the Mercedes driver moved hard to his right in an attempt to block Hamilton’s passing move between turns three and four. Indeed, Rosberg moved so far to the right that he himself had two wheels over the white line defining the track boundaries. Some would point out that the McLaren driver could easily have received a penalty for this incident as other drivers had done for off track passes in previous seasons, although Hamilton’s pass was notably different as it did not involve cutting a corner as the past incidents have invariably done. The focus was on Rosberg’s driving, however, with his extreme defending reminiscent of his Mercedes team-mate Michael Schumacher’s defence of 10th place at the 2010 Hungarian Grand Prix against his former Ferrari team-mate Rubens Barrichello, who was then driving for Williams. In this incident the veteran Brazilian was almost pushed into the pit wall, and arguably would have been had the pit lane exit not become available for Barrichello to make use of in order to complete the pass. The only difference between this and the Rosberg/Hamilton incident is, in my view, that there was more space in Sakhir, with the wall much further back from the track edge. In the end, Schumacher was given a 10 place grid penalty for the next race of the 2010 season at Spa, but not so Rosberg in 2012, who got away without even a reprimand. Why the different verdict from the race stewards?

Other than attributing the apparent inconsistency to differing stewards, with different opinions and viewpoints, it’s quite hard to understand why Rosberg was not given some sort of penalty, or at least a warning following the race. This was made even the more baffling considering the second incident of the race involving Alonso on lap 24, after the second round of pit stops. In this incident, Alonso tried an identical pass to Hamilton between turns three and four, albeit unsuccessfully as Rosberg made the same aggressive defensive move as he had against Hamilton 14 laps earlier. Alonso was clearly unhappy with the move, saying on team radio, immediately after his incident “He [Rosberg] pushed me off the track. You have to leave a space. All the time you have to leave a space.” Hamilton made similar post race comments to the Times, saying “I felt I was forced off the track. It was really dusty, the car started bottoming and I had to make sure I didn’t lose control of the car.”

Certainly article 10.4 of the Formula 1 sporting regulations would seem to agree with the view of Alonso and Hamilton. 10.4 clearly states that: “Manoeuvres liable to hinder other drivers, such as deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track or any other abnormal change of direction, are not permitted.” It’s hard to see how this is not exactly what happened, especially in the Hamilton incident, but the stewards disagreed stating, in their verdict on the Hamilton/Rosberg incident, that:

“1. The driver of Car 8 [Rosberg] commenced his move to the right after the exit from T3 and moved to the right in a constant and continuous straight line manner, not making any sudden movements (as evidenced by telemetry and video evidence) and;

2. At the time he commenced his move, Car 4 [Hamilton] was behind him and no part of his car was alongside Car 8 and;

3. The driver of Car 8 made the move to the right prior to the driver of Car 4 making the same move and;

4. For more than half of the distance travelled by Car 8 in moving in a straight line towards the right hand edge of the track, Car 4 remained behind Car 8 and;

5. Because the delta speed between the two cars was quite significant it was difficult for Car 8 to detect the exact position of Car 4 in relation to his own car;

6. Had a significant portion of Car 4 been alongside that of Car 8 whilst Car 4 still remained within the confines of the track, then the actions of Car 8 may not have been considered legitimate.”

The stewards delivered an almost identical statement in relation to the Alonso incident, substituting point 6, above with “No part of Car 5 [Alonso] was alongside that of Car 8.”

While all of the above is true, the same could have been said of the Schumacher/Barrichello incident from 2010, where the stewards decided differently. It could also be argued that had the incident taken place in 2011, with Lewis Hamilton defending, rather than attacking, a penalty would almost certainly have followed. As in football, it is the inconsistency in decisions from officials that most infuriates and confounds fans. Certainly Alonso was far from happy; the double world champion was quoted after the race as saying “If instead of such a wide run-off area there had been a wall, I’m not sure I’d be here to talk about it,” – perhaps himself drawing comparison to the Schumacher/Barrichello incident.

Alonso clearly disagreed with the stewards’ verdict, and followed up his post race comments once the stewards’ decision was in, saying on Twitter “I think you are going to have fun in future races! You can defend position as you want and you can overtake outside the track! Enjoy! ;)))”. Hamilton was more overt in comparing Rosberg’s manoeuvre to those of Schumacher than Alonso, saying in his comments to the Times “[Rosberg] pulled really to the right. I thought it was Michael for one second…”

As for Rosberg, he unsurprisingly felt that the stewards’ decisions justified his aggressive defending, calling the moves “tough but okay” and “good racing”. Fernando Alonso, and many others, would certainly disagree.

Has Rosberg’s race win in China ignited a new found will to win? Has it made him a more aggressive driver? After two incidents in a single race it’s much too early to be able to answer that question – time will tell.