Cruise control in China for hat-trick hero Hamilton

The thrills and fireworks that we saw last time out in Bahrain were sadly lacking at the Chinese grand prix. In that respect the two races couldn’t have been more different, but in another they couldn’t have been more alike. Once again, we saw Mercedes very firmly on top yet again, as Lewis Hamilton led home his team-mate Nico Rosberg to take his first ever Formula 1 hat-trick of victories with his third straight win and the team’s third consecutive 1-2 finish.

Hamilton proudly holds his winner's trophy aloft

Hamilton proudly holds his winner’s trophy aloft

The manner of Hamilton’s victory was akin to his first win of the season in Malaysia; completely dominant, with an 18 second margin of victory to his team-mate. In some ways, the race in Shanghai was even more impressive from Hamilton. The Englishman was severely hampered in Friday free practice because of suspension troubles which limited his running in FP1.

Despite finishing FP2 on top of the timesheets, Hamilton wasn’t happy with the car and made some big set-up changes for Saturday. Saturday free practice and qualifying were wet, however, which meant that, even though he claimed pole position, going into the race, however, he had no idea whether those changes would actually work. They clearly did, showing yet again that Hamilton’s detractors are wrong; he has the intellectual capacity to go alongside his undoubted natural speed and racing skills.

Indeed, the 2008 world drivers’ champion proved his critics wrong again during the race in China. Some said Hamilton would struggle with having to manage fuel consumption as a result of the 100 kg per hour fuel flow limit imposed in the new regulations. However, as we have seen in the previous two races, Hamilton’s fuel consumption was excellent. In China it was easily better than anyone else.

Hamilton was way out in the lead for the majority of the race in China

Hamilton was way out in the lead
for the majority of the race in China

Hamilton has also been criticised for using his Pirelli tyres too aggressively in the past, resulting in higher wear rates and faster degradation than his rivals. In China, while the likes of Red Bull Racing’s four time world drivers’ champion Sebastian Vettel complained about tyre wear over the team-radio, Hamilton declared “Surprisingly the front tyres still feel really good, as well as the rears.” He pitted some three laps later than team-mate Nico Rosberg on lap 17, after a brief off track moment as his soft Pirelli tyres finally gave up.

Hamilton, as in Malaysia, led every lap of the race, but to be fair to Nico Rosberg things might have been closer than the 18 second margin of victory suggested. Rosberg had a poor start and fell backwards as his team-mate got the perfect launch off the line to lead Vettel into turn one. Rosberg on the other had dropped down to seventh place, after heavy contact with the Williams of Valtteri Bottas in turn one.

Rosberg did well to recover from his disastrous start, to finish the race in second place. This was even more the case given that the German – the race winner in Australia – had to race without his car’s telemetry being communicated to the pit wall. This meant that Rosberg had to provide his team with fuel consumption data from his steering wheel’s LED display – an annoyance and a clear source of frustration.

Vettel seems to be struggling with his Red Bull

Vettel seems to be struggling with his Red Bull

Rosberg’s troubles pale into insignificance compared to those of Sebastian Vettel, though. Vettel, so dominant in winning four consecutive championships wth Red Bull, is clearly struggling with the 2014 RB10 and the change of regulations. Vettel has been out qualified three times in four races by his new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, and although he leads the young Australian in the fledging championship table he is not having things all his own way.

For the second time in two races, Vettel was asked to let the faster Ricciardo through. In China, he refused to do so, questioning his race engineer about the tyres the Ricciardo was on and the reason why he was being asked to move over. When told that Ricciardo had fresher tyres he replied simply “tough luck”. A couple of laps later Ricciardo moved ahead of his team-mate into turn one and although the official line from Red Bull was that Vettel had let him through, it certainly didn’t look like that was the case.

Ricciardo leads Vettel, who eventually finished 20 seconds behind his team-mate

Ricciardo leads Vettel, who eventually finished
20 seconds behind his team-mate

Vettel eventually finished the race in Shanghai a very distant fifth, only one place behind Ricciardo, but a massive twenty seconds adrift of his team-mate. Sobering stuff for the defending world drivers’ champion. He’s not the only one unexpectedly struggling, though. Kimi Raikkonen is having a torrid time on his return to Ferrari. The Finn finished down in eighth place in China, over 50 seconds behind his team-mate Fernando Alonso who drove brilliantly to claim Ferrari’s first podium of the season with a third place finish.

There are a few other teams and drivers that are worthy of a mention. Despite Romain Grosjean’s retirement following gearbox trouble it clearly looks like Lotus are finally getting their act together in 2014. The Frenchman did brilliantly to qualify in the top 10 and had been on course for a points finish before retiring. McLaren, though, seem to be on the opposite trajectory. After a hugely promising start to the season with a double podium finish in Australia, the Woking-based team now appear to be struggling. In China, they were the least competitive of all of the Mercedes powered teams, finishing in 11th and 13 positions, both cars having been lapped.

The turn one contact between Rosberg and Bottas

The turn one contact between Rosberg and Bottas

Williams are still looking competitive. But for first lap contact for both Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas and a truly horrendous first pit stop for Massa, the team might have had more than Bottas’s seventh place to take away from Shanghai. Given the right conditions, and a bit of luck, a podium finish would not look to be beyond Williams’s reach at some stage this season, especially if Massa can continue to make the same sort of lightning quick starts that we’ve seen in recent races.

It will be a big ask for anyone to catch Mercedes, though. Such was the dominance of Hamilton in Shanghai that the chequered flag was waved a lap early. A bizarre mistake, which fortunately didn’t alter the result of the race much. The only driver to miss out was Kamui Kobayashi in the Caterham, who had passed Jules Bianchi’s Marussia on the last scheduled lap of the race, which was officially classified as running for 54 laps rather than the planned 56, in accordance with the regulations.

Next we move to Europe for the Spanish grand prix. This is the race where traditionally the teams make big updates to their cars. On the strength of the evidence of the first four races, the others will have to make some massive improvements to get onto terms with the Silver Arrows.

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Awesome Alonso surges to victory in Shanghai

The 2013 Chinese grand prix certainly kept us entertained.  With differing tyre and pit stop strategies, cars coming through the field and a variety of different teams and drivers in the mix, the result was far from certain throughout most of the race.  When 56 laps had been completed and the chequered flag had been waved, five world drivers’ champions, driving for five different teams occupied the top five positions in the race.  We saw a second consecutive podium for pole sitter and Mercedes new boy Lewis Hamilton, while Kimi Raikkonen also took his second podium of the season with second place in Shanghai, behind winner Fernando Alonso, another driver taking his second podium in the first three races of the season.

Alonso and Massa pass Hamilton on lap five

Alonso and Massa pass Hamilton on lap five

It was Alonso, who always looked in control of the race, though.  The Spaniard got a brilliant start, leapfrogging Raikkonen’s Lotus to tuck in behind Hamilton who led the early laps.  Despite briefly managing to pull out a one second gap over Alonso, Hamilton was unable to break free of the pursuing pack and was passed by both Ferrari’s at the start of lap five, with Felipe Massa following his team-mate through with the aid of DRS down the pit straight.  While that, and a brief spell in the lead when Alonso pitted, was probably the high point of the race for Massa, who eventually finished sixth, Alonso never looked back.

The double world drivers’ champion wasn’t far ahead of Hamilton after the first round of pit stops for the leading cars, but he was never truly under threat from the Englishman, who we heard comment on the Ferrari’s speed on his pit radio.   Alonso had clearly brushed off his early retirement from the Malaysian grand prix three weeks ago and drove the perfect race in China.  It seemed almost effortless for him as he cruised through the field as different strategies played out.  In the final part of the race we saw Alonso putting in fastest laps of the race.  Such was his advantage that his team told him not to push on lap 47 of the race.  His response was immediate “I’m not pushing” as he posted a lap time of 1:39.506 – the fastest lap of the race at that stage.

Alonso takes the chequered flag

Alonso takes the chequered flag

Alonso eventually finished the race a full 10 seconds ahead of Raikkonen’s Lotus.  Things might have been closer between the top two had the race gone according to plan for the Finn, though.  Two incidents spoiled the 2007 world drivers’ champion’s chances of victory, however.  Firstly, the Lotus started poorly from the front row of the grid.  Raikkonen was passed off the line by both of the fast starting Ferrari’s which meant that instead of being able to challenge the Mercedes of Hamilton for the lead into turn one, he had to defend from the cars behind him.

Although his poor getaway was certainly not helpful, it was not massively damaging to the Finn’s chances of victory as he was able to keep pace with Hamilton’s Mercedes and the two Ferrari’s in the opening laps, and was just behind Hamilton when they both made their first stops.  Indeed, Raikkonen and Hamilton were close to each other throughout most of the race, with the Finn stopping earlier than the Englishman in the final round of pit stops which enabled him to jump his Lotus ahead of the Mercedes.   Raikkonen’s chances of being able to pass Hamilton earlier and, perhaps, challenge Alonso for victory were damaged by an incident on lap 16 of the race, though.

The damage on Raikkonen's Lotus is clearly visible after his clash with Perez

The damage on Raikkonen’s Lotus is clearly visible after his clash with Perez

As Raikkonen was coming through the field on fresh tyres, attacking cars that had started on the prime tyre and not yet stopped, he came up behind the McLaren of Sergio Perez.  The Mexican had been moving around to defend his position from other cars and as Raikkonen got a run on him and attempted to move alongside the McLaren he was pushed onto the grass, lost control and hit the back of Perez’s car as he rejoined the track.  The Lotus’s front wing was damaged and although team radio suggested that it would be changed at the next pit stop, Raikkonen continued with his damaged wing for the remaining 40 laps of the race.

Although Raikkonen’s car was suffering from increased understeer because of the damage, the team clearly decided that it was better to manage the car in that condition, rather than lose time by changing the nose.  It’s hard to say how much quicker Raikkonen might have been able to go with a new nose, or how much track position he would have lost had the team made the change.  Whatever the case, the Finn would have lost time either way.

Lewis Hamilton on his way to a second consecutive third place finish for Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton on his way to a second consecutive third place finish for Mercedes

It was hugely impressive that despite the damage, Raikkonen was able to get the better of Hamilton.  Mercedes have certainly made huge steps forward since last season, but despite Hamilton’s obvious speed in qualifying it’s clear that Mercedes do not quite have a race winning package yet; a fact that team principal Ross Brawn acknowledged on the slow down lap when he said to Hamilton “We’re not quite there yet, but we’re not so far away. Let’s keep working hard” over the team radio.  Indeed, Hamilton had to work hard to hang on to third as Sebastian Vettel charged up behind him on fresh option tyres in the last few laps of the race.  Just three tenths of a second separated the Mercedes and the Red Bull as they crossed the line.

Despite a fifth place finish for Jenson Button, it’s clear that, despite the upgrades that the team brought to China, McLaren aren’t really much further forward.  They made the most of their tyre and pit stop strategy to lead the race at one stage, but it’s telling that the 2009 world drivers’ champion still finished the race over 20 seconds behind Vettel, who started one place behind him on the grid and deployed an identical strategy.

Still, the Englishman can be fairly happy with his race, certainly happier than Mark Webber whose bad luck continued in China.  After the Red Bull team order debacle in Malaysia, Webber only qualified 14th at Shanghai after his car was under-fuelled in the second part of qualifying.  This error was compounded when there was insufficient fuel to provide the requisite one litre sample, which meant that the Australian was disqualified from qualifying.

Webber's bad luck continues as the wheel comes off his Red Bull

Webber’s bad luck continues as the
wheel comes off his Red Bull

Webber and Red Bull chose to start from the pit lane, but his bad luck continued in the race.  First he came together with the Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne on lap 16 – an incident for which the stewards gave him a three pace grid penalty for the next race – which damaged his front wing.  Unlike Raikkonen, whose front wing damaged occurred at the same stage of the race, Red Bull decided to pit Webber for a fresh nose.  Just a lap later Webber was reporting a problem with the car and as he cruised slowly back to the pits his right rear wheel came off on lap 18 putting him out of the race.

As a result, Webber falls down the fledging world drivers’ championship table, swapping places with race winner Fernando Alonso who moves from sixth in the standings to third ahead of Lewis Hamilton who maintains fourth place in the championship.  Sebastian Vettel still leads, although his lead of second placed Kimi Raikkonen is now only three points, a third of his previous advantage.

We’ve only got one week to wait until the next race in Bahrain.  Who knows how the Pirelli tyres will work in the desert and who will hold the advantage at the Bahrain International Circuit?  I can’t help but feel, though, that, three races into the season, Pirelli haven’t got their tyres quite right.  There’s a fine line between producing tyres that make racing exciting and tyres that produce an artificial spectacle.  The races are certainly exciting, but the drivers aren’t able to push flat-out anymore and the majority of the overtaking is purely a result of different tyre strategies.  Formula 1 has become all about tyre management rather than pushing to the limit.  Are the 2013 tyres a step too far?  I think so, but maybe after the result in China, Fernando Alonso will disagree…

F1 rules: Deeply floor-ed

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

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

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

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

Mercedes DRS. Image © Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

McLaren malaise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home page image © Getty Images

Consistency the key for championship leader Lewis

So, here we are, after an enthralling Chinese Grand Prix, in which Mercedes AMG driver Nico Rosberg took his maiden Formula 1 victory, Lewis Hamilton moves into the lead of the World Drivers’ Championship after a hat-trick of third place finishes in the first three races of the season.  Hamilton’s race weekend didn’t get off to the best of starts with the news that his McLaren team needed to change his gearbox, resulting in a five place grid penalty for the Englishman.  This meant that despite another strong qualifying performance – Hamilton finished Q3 second only to Nico Rosberg in the timesheets – the 2008 World Champion started the race in seventh position.  It could have been far worse, though; Hamilton’s team mate Jenson Button only qualified fifth (after Hamilton’s penalty) and Mark Webber started the race in sixth in his Red Bull.  Both Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, the then Championship leader after his win in Malaysia, and Webber’s team mate, Sebastian Vettel, started behind Hamilton after qualifying 9th and 11th, respectively.

Nevertheless, this was exactly the sort of situation that might have led to a disastrous race result for the Hamilton of 2011 – starting the race among slower cars, eager to make up ground after a penalty (albeit not from the stewards on this occasion) – not so for the Hamilton of 2012.  Despite coming up against his 2011 nemesis, Felipe Massa, at a certain point of the race, Hamilton kept his cool and drove with controlled aggression – making a number of passes when he needed to, without ever risking a move that might have resulted in damage to his McLaren.  This is a theme that’s developing for Hamilton this term; arguably more muted driving performances that have, thus far, come without the swashbuckling, but at times reckless, style of past seasons.  Is 2012 the season that we see a more mature, focused and consistent Lewis Hamilton come to the fore?

Hamilton has himself emphasised the importance of consistent results after a 2011 that saw some great race wins, interspersed by numerous on track clashes, visits to the stewards and penalties.  Autosport quoted him as saying, after the opening two rounds of the season “last year taught me the value of consistency: it’s no use chasing a great result if you can’t back it up with another strong finish the following week. So maybe I’m just playing myself in gently: after all, in 2007, I didn’t win a race until the sixth round, and I was in the hunt for the title all through the year”.  Hamilton then went on to say “I’m looking at the championship as a whole – although, of course, I’d love to win every race, it’s more important to be in a good points-scoring position at every race…I’ll be heading to China looking to win – but it’s just as important to pick up some good points if, for whatever reason, a win isn’t on the cards.”  This sort of attitude shows that Hamilton is maturing both as a person and a driver this season; where in the past he might have gone all out for the win, and told the world that he was going to do so, now he’s prepared to take a good points finish.  His words about China proved to be prophetic as his grid penalty robbed him of the chance to compete for the win, but he picked up another podium and with it 15 valuable points.

As a fan I can’t help but yearn for the high risk, high reward style of the Hamilton of old.  I’d love to see more of the awe inspiring driving displays that marked him out from the crowd in GP2 and made him a force to be reckoned with in Formula 1.  But I, like all Hamilton fans and, indeed, the man himself, need to be pragmatic.  Hamilton has learnt the lessons of 2011.  He now better understands that there’s little point risking everything in pursuit of an unlikely race win.  Getting the balance right is vitally important, though.  It’s easy to forget that at this stage of the season in 2011 Hamilton had two more world championship points than he does now, after taking second in Australia and a win in China, sandwiching eighth place in Malaysia.  But in 2011, Sebastian Vettel was already beginning to dominate and led the championship with 68 points.  Unlike in 2011, no single driver has yet stamped their authority on the 2012 season.  If Hamilton manages to maintain his current level of consistency, when the race wins come – as I have no doubt they will – his championship position will be incredibly strong.  To sound a note of caution, though, consistent podium finishes won’t be enough if another driver starts to string wins together in a similar fashion to Vettel in 2011 – a completely consistent season of 20 third place finishes would see Hamilton finish the season with 300 points, some way short of the 392 points that Vettel accumulated in 2011 in only 19 races.

So, despite the note of caution, it’s a case of “so far, so good” for Hamilton in 2012.  The results of the first three races of the season, and the current championship standings, seem to bear out the mantra that consistency is the key to success.  It seems that, contrary to what your mathematics textbooks might tell you, 3 x 3 = 1, at least for Lewis Hamilton.

End Note:  I’ve got to sign off by declaring a bias:  As might be apparent from this post, I’m a big Lewis Hamilton fan.  In fact, I’m surprised that, having written four previous blog posts, I’ve barely mentioned Hamilton, who, in my view, is the most naturally talented driver of his generation.