Bulldog Lewis bites back in Britain

With a 29 point lead in the world drivers’ championship Nico Rosberg went in to the British grand prix very much on a high. The momentum, and the luck, was with him and his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, had the pressure on him to turn it around.

That pressure only increased after qualifying on Saturday. After looking to have the edge in tricky wet/dry qualifying conditions, Hamilton aborted his final lap when on provisional pole position, thinking that no-one would beat his time. However, that decision proved disastrous for the Briton. The final few corners of the lap were dry, and several drivers were able to beat Hamilton’s time. Rosberg snatched pole and Hamilton found himself having to start in sixth.

Hamilton was desperate to win his home race, but it looked like the odds were against him. However, just as in the last race in Austria, Hamilton started well from his lowly grid slot. After just a handful of corners the 2008 world drivers’ champion was up to fourth after passing Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India off the line and the Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull.

Raikkonen's crash resulted in a delay of over an hour before the race resumed

Raikkonen’s crash resulted in a delay of over an hour before the race resumed

That was the limit of Hamilton’s progress for around an hour, though. The race was red flagged on the opening lap after a very heavy crash for Kimi Raikkonen in the Ferrari, who ran wide, rejoined the track but was pitched into a spin after hitting a bump. It was an extremely heavy impact – registered at 47G – as the Ferrari speared into the metal Armco barrier and bounced back across the track and was then hit by Felipe Massa’s Williams. It was the end of the race for both drivers, and particularly saddening for Massa on his 200th Formula 1 race.

After the barriers were repaired and the race was restarted behind the safety car, Hamilton quickly picked up where he left off, dispatching the McLaren’s of Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button on laps three and four and setting about closing the five second gap to his team-mate. The Mercedes cars were, once again, in a race of their own, lapping around 2.5 seconds faster than anyone else, With Hamilton reeling in Rosberg. The gap between the Silver Arrows as Rosberg pitted was just 2.7 seconds.

Nevertheless, the advantage was still with Rosberg, who had track position and the first choice of race strategies. But then Hamilton’s luck started to change. Despite another slow stop for the Englishman on lap 24 – 5 laps after Rosberg’s – which meant that he emerged from the pits over five seconds behind his team-mate, all was not well with Rosberg’s car.

Rosberg suffered his first retirement of the season at Silverstone

Rosberg suffered his first
retirement of the season at Silverstone

The German had reported gearbox trouble on lap 21, but his pace was still good on the softer option tyres; the supposedly faster race tyre. Hamilton had changed onto the hard prime tyres as he attempted an alternate strategy to beat his team-mate. On the ‘slower’ tyres Hamilton was on fire, though. He was catching his team-mate hand over fist before Rosberg again reported gearbox problems, before losing gears as he lapped Max Chilton’s Marussia and Hamilton blasted through into the lead.

Rosberg was briefly able to get going again before the gearbox failed completely, resulting in his first retirement of 2014, compared to his team-mate’s two. Hamilton didn’t look back. He was some 25 seconds clear of Valtteri Bottas’s Williams in second place, with the Finn having driven a fantastic race to claw his way up from his 14th place starting position. When Bottas stopped for fresh rubber the gap ballooned to over 40 seconds and it looked like Hamilton could continue without bothering to stop again.

Hamilton on his way to his second Silverstone win

Hamilton on his way to his second Silverstone win

As it was, Mercedes decided to pit the race leader for a second stop, but such was Hamilton’s margin over Bottas that he still emerged from the pits leading by over 20 seconds. All that was left for Hamilton to do was to bring his Mercedes home in one piece which he did with ease, winning the race by over 30 seconds from Bottas, with Daniel Ricciardo bring his Red Bull home in third, just ahead of a charging Jenson Button, a further 16 seconds adrift.

Alonso and Vettel were involved in a thrilling battle

Alonso and Vettel were involved in a thrilling battle

For a variety of reasons, it was a thrilling race. The British crowd got almost exactly what they wanted: Some fantastic racing – including some brilliant overtaking from Bottas and a thrilling fight between the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso and the second Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel (the latter beat the former to fifth place) – a win for Hamilton and a retirement for Rosberg, which reignited the championship fight, with the gap between the two Mercedes team-mates now just four points.

Indeed, the only thing that was missing was a podium finish for Jenson Button. The 2009 world drivers’ champion has never stood on the Silverstone podium, but he came awfully close this time. The Frome-born driver finished under a second behind Ricciardo. I guess the fans can’t quite have it all.

Having won his home race, though, Hamilton will hope that the momentum has now swung back in his direction. He’d like nothing more than to drive home his advantage at the next race at Hockenheim; a home race for both Mercedes and Rosberg.

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Mercedes master the Ring

This sculpture clearly indicates that Spielberg is Red Bull territory

This sculpture clearly indicates that
Spielberg is Red Bull territory

After what was, by their incredibly high standards, a disastrous Canadian grand prix, Mercedes were looking to reassert their authority in Austria. The omens weren’t all that positive, however. Having been beaten by Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo in Montreal they now had to visit the Milton Keynes based team’s ‘home’ track; the old A1 ring which, under the new ownership of Dietrich Mateschitz has now been renamed the Red Bull Ring.

Add to that the fact that Mercedes didn’t have qualifying their own way and fans could have been forgiven for thinking that their domination might have been on the slide. For the first time this season Mercedes were not on pole position. Indeed, neither championship leader Nico Rosberg nor his team-mate Lewis Hamilton were even on the front row following Saturday qualifying. Instead, it was Williams who locked out the front row of the grid. Rosberg at least managed third, but Hamilton had a disaster, failing to set a time after making two mistakes in Q3 and starting down in ninth place, despite looking like he had the ultimate pace.

Going into the race it was clear that Mercedes were not going to have things all their own way. The Williams cars, using the Mercedes power units, were extremely fast in a straight line. On a track that is all about straight-line speed passing them would be a challenge, and with Hamilton starting in the middle of the pack his chances didn’t look all that promising.

Both Mercedes cars started well.

Both Mercedes cars started well

Hamilton soon put his starting disadvantage behind him, though. The Briton made a lightning start and made up a hatful of positions on the opening lap. By the time that he overtook Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari into turn eight he was fourth, just a place behind Rosberg. The German, despite passing Valtteri Bottas off the line was immediately re-passed by the Finn on the run down to turn two, again highlighting the straight-line speed advantage of the Martini liveried Williams cars.

As we have seen so often in modern formula 1 the race hinged on the pit stops. Williams didn’t seem to make the right calls, allowing Mercedes to gain an advantage by stopping first and not reacting to those pit stops immediately. Rosberg was able to jump ahead of both Williams at the first stop and while Hamilton only managed to pass pole-sitter Felipe Massa, he was able to get the job done on Bottas at the second round of pit stops as Williams again fell victim to the undercut.

Hamilton lost nearly two seconds to Rosberg through slower pit stops

Hamilton lost nearly two seconds to
Rosberg through slower pit stops

While Hamilton secured the advantage over the Williams cars through the pit stops, though, he lost out badly to his team-mate. The 2008 world drivers’ champion’s pit stops were a total of 1.9 seconds slower than Rosberg’s. Considering that Rosberg won the race by exactly 1.9 seconds, and that Hamilton backed off in the last couple of corners after being just half a second behind his team-mate earlier on the final lap, those slower pit stops proved to be the difference between a win and second place.

Truth be told, Hamilton was the faster of the two Mercedes drivers this weekend. Despite his stunning start to the race, he was never able to recover from the mistakes in the final part of qualifying, though. Those mistakes ultimately cost him the pole position he almost certainly would have secured. He was a huge four tenths of a second faster than Bottas after two sectors of his first run, and given that Massa only beat his team-mate’s time by under a tenth of a second you can see for yourself who had the true pace.

Instead, of pole and a likely victory Hamilton instead had to watch his team-mate win and extend his lead in the world drivers’ championship to 29 points; the biggest that it’s been all season. Even a win for Hamilton at his home race in two week’s time and a first DNF of the season for Rosberg would not be enough for the former to overhaul the latter in the standings. Hamilton certainly has his work cut out for him.

Perhaps not as much as Red Bull Racing, however. The world constructors’ champions headed to their home race on a high after Ricciardo’s opportunistic win in Canada, but they were quite simply nowhere in Austria. Sebastian Vettel didn’t even make it into the pole position shoot out in qualifying, and although Ricciardo did, he could only manage fifth on the grid, nearly three-quarters of a second slower than Massa’s pace-setting Williams.

Vettel retired from the race on lap 35

Vettel retired from the race on lap 35

Things went from bad to worse for the Austrian owned team in the race. Vettel, starting down in 12th place, suddenly slowed on the opening lap reporting to his team on the radio that he “lost drive”. Although the German was able to get back up to speed again, he lost a lap. Vettel continued, but then retired his car on lap 35 saying “We stopped because we wanted to save some mileage. We were hoping to get a safety car but it didn’t happen and there is no point continuing when you are a lap behind…I just hope Daniel [Ricciardo] can keep moving through the field and get some points.”

Perez drove impressively to finish sixth for Force India

Perez drove impressively
to finish sixth for Force India

As it happened, Ricciardo did score points, but only a paltry four after finishing eighth thanks to a stunning last lap move on the Force India of Nico Hulkenberg. The highly-rated German is being outshone by his team-mate Sergio Perez at the moment. Despite starting 16th thanks to a five place grid penalty for his collision with Massa at the last race, Perez showed great pace and led the race at one point after running a very long first stint of the race on the harder prime tyres. The Mexican eventually finished sixth to Hulkenberg’s ninth, but still trails his team-mate by just over 30 championship points.

There doesn’t seem to be any catching the Mercedes cars, though. Yes, Bottas finished just 8.1 seconds behind Rosberg in his Williams, but I don’t think that’s truly representative of the actual speed of Mercedes and Williams. Don’t forget that both Mercedes cars were held up by the Williams cars at various stages of the race. Had the Silver Arrows showed their true pace in qualifying, the gap to the rest may well have been a mammoth one.

As it was, Mercedes will be happy with a smaller margin of victory. They have reasserted themselves at the front of the pack, and with Red Bull faltering and Mercedes engines occupying the first four positions in Spielberg, and seven of the top ten places, the team are justifying the investment of the board in Stuttgart.

Mighty Mercedes dominate in Malaysia

So, it’s two wins out of two for Mercedes so far in 2014. Not only that, but this time both cars were reliable meaning that the Brackley based team achieved their first one, two finish in nearly 60 years as Lewis Hamilton led home team-mate Nico Rosberg to take his first win, and first podium finish, since last year’s Hungarian grand prix victory. The team now lead the world constructors’ championship.

To be absolutely frank, Hamilton’s victory never looked in doubt from the time that the lights went out to signal the start of the race. Unlike in Australia, the 2008 world drivers’ champion’s Mercedes engine was firing on all cylinders from the get go as he streaked away from pole position and led into the first corner, with his team-mate slotting into second place behind him.

Hamilton was at his dominant best in Malaysia

Hamilton was at his dominant best in Malaysia

While it was Rosberg who dominated in Australia as Hamilton was forced to retire just a few laps in, in Sepang it was most definitely Hamilton’s turn to stamp his authority on proceedings. The Englishman pulled seemingly effortlessly away from the rest of the field, including Rosberg who seemed to be struggling with his tyres, and, like Rosberg in Melbourne, he was soon asking his team whether there was anything more he could do for reliability purposes.

Indeed, Hamilton only relinquished the lead once during the entire race, albeit very briefly to the Force India of Nico Hulkenberg – who drove an excellent race to claim fifth place – which was on a different tyre strategy. Hamilton even achieved the first Grand Chelem of his Formula 1 career by leading every lap of the race and setting the fastest lap in addition to his pole position and race victory, eventually finishing the race 17.3 seconds clear of Rosberg, with Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel a further 7.2 seconds adrift.

Vettel seemed pretty upbeat after the race, though. The German appeared pleased that the Milton Keynes based squad looked like they had closed the gap a bit to Mercedes, but I wonder how much of that is positive spin winning out over harsh reality. While it was certainly true that, just as in Australia, Red Bull looked to have the second fastest car, the fact of the matter is that they still finished around 25 seconds behind the race winner, just like in Australia (before the disqualification of Daniel Ricciardo, of course).

Vettel was upbeat after the race, but while he got close to Rosberg at times, he was never able to attempt a pass

Vettel was upbeat after the race, but while he got close to Rosberg at times, he was never able to attempt a pass

You’ve also got to consider that Sepang is a circuit that plays very much to Red Bull’s strengths, with plenty of high-speed corners that allow them to show off their continued aerodynamic edge. Unfortunately for them, though, Sepang also features some long straights which allowed Mercedes to show of the undoubted superiority of their power train, as Vettel seemed to indicate when talking to Rosberg before the podium ceremony. The bottom line is that, Red Bull were never close to challenging for victory, and with a pit stop error resulting in the eventual retirement of Daniel Ricciardo (who also gets a 10 place grid penalty for Bahrain), Red Bull also only got one car to the chequered flag.

Another reason to suspect that Red Bull might not have made the inroads they seem to be suggesting that they have is Ferrari’s optimism that in Bahrain they will leapfrog the reigning world constructors’ champions. Ferrari were a very distant fourth in Malaysia, with Fernando Alonso finishing over 10 seconds adrift of Vettel, but Bahrain will bring different challenges to Sepang, challenges that the Maranello based squad think that they are better placed to overcome than Red Bull.

Alonso battled with Hulkenberg at Sepang, but he'll hope to be further forward in Bahrain

Alonso battled with Hulkenberg at Sepang,
but he’ll hope to be further forward in Bahrain

Bahrain is a track where fuel efficiency is expected to play much more of a role than it did in Malaysia and Ferrari think that their power unit is more efficient than its Renault counterpart. When you consider the fuel consumption figures displayed during the race, it certainly looked like the Red Bull cars were using more than Mercedes, certainly when compared to Lewis Hamilton who was considerably more fuel-efficient than Rosberg.

The only other talking point of note in Malaysia was Williams. After the trauma of “Fernando is faster than you” at Ferrari, poor Felipe Massa had to endure “Valtteri is faster than you” from his Williams engineer at Sepang. So long the dutiful and faithful company servant at Ferrari, Massa must have thought that he’d left those sort of radio messages way behind in his rear view mirrors when he move to the Grove-based team for 2014. That appears not to be the case, however.

Despite being ordered to move aside, Massa finished ahead of Bottas

Despite being ordered to move aside,
Massa finished ahead of Bottas

Williams believed that Massa’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas, on slightly fresher tyres than the Brazilian, was quicker and better placed to challenge the McLaren of Jenson Button for sixth place in the closing stages of the race, hence the radio message urging Massa to make way for his Finnish team-mate. The 2008 world drivers’ championship runner-up wasn’t having any of it, though, refusing to yield to his less experienced team-mate meaning that Williams had to settle for seventh and eighth places, with Bottas following Massa across the line.

While Massa and Williams deputy team principal Claire Williams denied that there was any issue in their post race interviews, Bottas was pretty taciturn and didn’t look at all happy. Massa will be welcoming the arrival of his Ferrari race engineer, and long-term friend, Rob Smedley at Williams in Bahrain. He may well need the moral support.

A happy Lewis Hamilton with his winner's trophy

A happy Lewis Hamilton with his winner’s trophy

Whatever the situation at Williams, one thing is for certain: Lewis Hamilton will not be remotely bothered. After the disappointment of Australia, Hamilton bounced back in the best possible way in Malaysia. His 2014 championship challenge starts right here, and if he can maintain this sort of form there may well be no stopping him. As the Malaysian grand prix weekend proved, whether the weather is wet or dry, Mercedes, and Hamilton, seem to fly

The wrong formula

If you’re reading this, it’s pretty likely that you’re a Formula 1 fan.  A fan of thrilling racing, overtaking, battles for the lead and the championship.  A fan of motorsport at it’s very best.  That’s what F1 is all about, after all; it’s the pinnacle of motorsport.  Or, at least, that’s what it should be.

Vettel takes the chequered flag at the Circuit of the Americas

Vettel takes the chequered flag
at the Circuit of the Americas

Sadly, Formula 1 has become increasingly dull.  At the weekend we saw the now four time world drivers’ champion, Sebastian Vettel, take his eighth consecutive victory.  As usual, he was pretty much unchallenged at the front and the win was comprehensive and straightforward.  As usual, we heard team radio messages to various drivers urging them to conserve their Pirelli tyres.  Yes, that’s right, team radio telling drivers not to push to the maximum for fear that they might wear out their tyres.  The overtaking that we did see either happened at the start or was largely achieved with the assistance of the Drag Reduction System (DRS) overtaking aid. Is this really what we want racing to be like at the pinnacle of the sport?

I should be clear that none of this is Vettel’s fault.  He’s clearly a great driver, who has the privilege of driving cars that have been the class of the field for the last four years.  Indeed, but for the Brawn double diffuser in 2009, there’s little doubt that Vettel and Red Bull Racing would have won five consecutive world drivers’ and constructors’ championships.  No doubt, future generations will look at the record books and marvel at the German’s achievements.  No doubt, his fans love his complete dominance of Formula 1.  For the rest of us, though, be we supporters of other drivers, or just fans of great racing, Vettel’s dominance is a real turn off.  What’s the point of watching a race when the outcome is all but certain?

An example of a coanda exhuast on Jenson Button's McLaren MP4-27 from 2012

An example of a coanda exhaust on Jenson
Button’s McLaren MP4-27 from 2012

The change in regulations in 2014 brings with it a huge opportunity for F1 to become exciting again.  Non-Vettel/Red Bull fans are living in the hope that other teams and drivers will raise their games for 2014, and that the absence of the exhaust technology that Red Bull has mastered will level the playing field somewhat.  I very much hope that it does, but even then there are other things that need to be addressed, chief among them the Pirelli tyres.

Again, I should preface my comments by saying that I don’t think the Pirelli are solely to blame for the problems that we’re now seeing.  They must, though, shoulder some blame.  When Pirelli entered F1 in 2011 they were asked to make tyres that degraded more rapidly than the Bridgestone rubber that had been used previously.  Typically races run on Bridgestone’s during the time that they were the sole tyre supplier, following the banning of refuelling, were one stop races, lacking in much excitement.  Then the Canadian grand prix of 2010 came along, with multiple tyre stops as the rubber degraded more quickly, we had an exciting and tough to predict race.  “This is the answer” thought the FIA, “faster wearing tyres produce better racing”.  So that’s what Pirelli were asked to produce.

Pirelli's 2013 range of tyres

Pirelli’s 2013 range of tyres

And that’s what Pirelli have produced.  I would argue that they have taken their brief too far, but they have certainly done what the FIA asked them to do, and with very limited testing, too.  What the FIA didn’t consider, though, was that rapidly degrading rubber is fine when it’s not the norm.  When it’s unexpected it will produce racing that’s exciting.  The problem is, though, that everyone knows that the tyres wear out quickly.  So, instead of pushing their cars and themselves to the limits – as they should be doing at the pinnacle of motorsport – they concern themselves with not overstressing their tyres.  They’re not pushing hard.  They’re not driving on the limit.  They are protecting their tyres to try to achieve the optimum race strategy.

As a result, we don’t see much exciting wheel to wheel racing.  There are no race long battles for the lead.  Formula 1 in 2013 has become what the FIA had hoped to avoid – dull and uninteresting.  If the FIA wants races with multiple pit stops it would be far better to have harder wearing tyres – tyres that drivers can really stress and push to the limit on – and mandatory pit stops.  That would be better from a marketing point of view for the tyre manufacturer, and better for the sport.

An example of an open DRS system on the Mercedes

An example of an open DRS system on the Mercedes

F1 is not really helped by DRS, the other big change, along with Pirelli tyres, at the start of 2011.  DRS, to be fair, does help overtaking by reducing drag.  As you probably know, it can only be used at set points at each track and only when a car is within a second of the car ahead of it at a set detection point.  The problem with it is that it’s completely artificial.

We’ve become so used to DRS now, though.  I find myself watching a DRS assisted pass during races and thinking, “great pass” or “good move” when it’s anything more than someone just driving past someone else in the middle of a straight.  These aren’t great passes, though.  They are manufactured and artificial.  A far cry from the truly great overtaking manoeuvres of the past that we now see fewer and fewer of.

As I’ve written about previously, instead of dreaming up devices to artificially boost overtaking, the FIA need to concern themselves with addressing the aerodynamic rules that make it difficult for Formula 1 cars to follow each other closely.  Resolve that, introduce mandatory pit stops and request harder wearing tyres, and we might see Formula 1 racing that’s exciting again.

Of course, not much can be done if one team or driver is just better than the rest, as we’ve seen over the past few seasons with Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing.  As I’ve said, it’s up to others to raise their game to make sure that it doesn’t happen again in 2014.  They need some help from the rule-makers, though.

Young Dane Kevin Magnussen has recently signed to drive for McLaren in 2014

Young Dane Kevin Magnussen has recently signed to drive for McLaren in 2014

At the moment, the FIA have got the balance completely wrong.  And when you add the ridiculousness of the driver market into the equation, the situation looks even bleaker.  Increasingly, teams need drivers to pay their way, rather than earning their drives on the basis of talent alone.  There are a few exceptions to that rule, most notably McLaren’s recent promotion of Kevin Magnussen to a race seat in 2014, but others aren’t as lucky.  The best example at the current time is Nico Hulkenberg.  It looks increasingly likely that the talented German will be overlooked for a leading drive at Lotus because of his lack of sponsorship cash.  Hulkenberg has performed wonders whichever team he has driven for in the past, but that’s not enough nowadays.

Instead it looks likely that the Lotus drive will go to Pastor Maldonado and his bucket-load of PVDSA sponsorship.  The Venezuelan is quick on his day, but crash-prone, erratic and prone to red mist.  As we saw in Austin, he’s also petulant and a poor loser.  Certainly not a driver that’s worthy of  one of the top drives in F1.  Indeed, but for his sponsorship money I doubt he would have ever secured a drive in Formula 1.

I’m not sure what can be done about the rise of the pay driver in F1 but this, together with the lacklustre on track action does not make for a healthy sport.  This is not the right formula for success.  As they’d say in Star Trek, the F1 of 2013 “is Formula 1, Jim, but not as we know it”.  Nor as we want it to be.

Safety concerns overshadow another Vettel victory in Korea

So, four wins in a row in 2013 and three wins in a row in Korea for Sebastian Vettel.  To be honest it never really looked in doubt after the German got away cleanly from pole position and pulled out an immediate gap to the cars behind him.  With Fernando Alonso only managing sixth place for Ferrari, Vettel now has a 77 point lead at the top of the world drivers’ championship.  A fifth straight win in Japan next weekend could see him wrap up a fourth straight championship, if Alonso fails to finish in eighth place or better.

Vettel on his way to another victory in Korea

Vettel on his way to another victory in Korea

You’ve got to congratulate Vettel on his win.  Since the summer break he has simply been untouchable and his rivals will be left scratching their heads to come up with an answer to his continued dominance of the sport.  As good as Vettel’s performances are, though, there will always be a question about how much of his speed is down to the German himself, and how much down to the Red Bull car, and its designer Adrian Newey.

Whatever the case, Vettel and his Red Bull seem to be in perfect harmony at the moment.  It doesn’t make for the most thrilling of race spectacles, but that’s not something that Vettel and his team will be too concerned about.  At least in Korea, the gap between the reigning world drivers’ champion and the rest was much closer than it had been two weeks ago in Singapore.  There was also more action further down the field and some standout performances from other drivers.

Raikkonen squeezing down the inside of his team-mate to take second position

Raikkonen squeezing down the inside
of his team-mate to take second position

Both Lotus drivers drove extremely well in Korea.  Romain Grosjean had been fast all weekend and followed up his third place starting position with third in the race.  He would have been slightly disappointed not to have taken second position, having done wonderfully at the start to pass Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes in the run down to turn three on the opening lap.  That disappointment will be magnified by the fact that it was his team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen, who beat him to second place.  The Finn took advantage of a small mistake by Grosjean after a safety car period, to dive ahead of the Frenchman into turn one.  A great drive from Raikkonen from a ninth place start, highlighting what a good acquisition he’ll be for Ferrari next year.

Ironically, perhaps, the other standout performance in Korea came from the man who Raikkonen pipped to the Ferrari seat.  Nico Hulkenberg scored points for the third race in a row for Sauber.  He followed up his excellent fifth place in Monza two races ago with a brilliant fourth place in Korea.  The German maximised the performance of his car to hold off Fernando Alonso at certain stages of the race while taking advantage of his car’s superior straightline speed as the race was restarted after a safety car period to pass Hamilton on lap 37 and, crucially, stay ahead of him over the remaining laps.  Hulkenberg is certainly doing all he can to secure the seat vacated by Raikkonen at Lotus for next season.

Rosberg, his front wing sparking after failing, briefly led Hamilton before pitting

Rosberg, his front wing sparking after
failing, briefly led Hamilton before pitting

As good as the performances of the top four were in Korea, the race was somewhat overshadowed by three safety related incidents.  The first of these came on lap 28.  Nico Rosberg had been catching his Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton hand over fist over the preceding laps as the Briton suffered with a badly degraded right front tyre.  While Mercedes inexplicably left Hamilton on track, Rosberg made his move in the DRS zone on the run down to turn three.  As the German pulled alongside his team-mate his front wing failed and sparks flew under the car as he made his way back to the pits.  Mercedes will certainly be concerned at the failure which, had the wing become completely detached, could have caused a serious incident for both of their cars.

Rosberg’s front wing failure was, perhaps, the least serious of the three safety incidents.  The next came on lap 31.  Sergio Perez, following a big lock up into turn one, was making his way down the straight on the approach to turn three when his right front tyre on his McLaren failed completely.  The tyre delaminated, causing a puncture for Mark Webber who ran over the debris and brought out the first of two safety cars.  While Pirelli will undoubtedly point to the age of the tyre – Perez had been on that set of tyres for over twenty laps – and the huge lock up as the cause of the delamination, we’re once again left with some question marks over the tyres currently used in Formula one.

In the run up to the race, Fernando Alonso had heavily criticised the Pirelli tyres, calling into question the quality of the product that Pirelli are producing.  The Spaniard is particularly worried about tyre durability, stating “We are getting used to these tyres that cannot last one lap”, going on to label the tyres as “not normal”, explaining that “If you push, you finish the tyres”.  The pre race response from Pirelli was robust, with their motorsport director Paul Hembery calling Alonso’s comments “disappointing and below the standards you would expect from such a champion”.

After yet another race where tyre degradation was once again the overriding factor in the race, you can’t help but think that Alonso has a point.  In Korea it was the right front tyre that was the limiting factor.  Aside from Perez’s total tyre failure, we heard Lewis Hamilton complaining bitterly about his tyres over team radio and numerous other team radio messages between other teams and drivers concerning right front tyre wear.

Alonso and Webber, pictured before the race in Korea, both criticised the Pirelli tyres

Alonso and Webber, pictured before the race
in Korea, both criticised the Pirelli tyres

Mark Webber added his criticism of the tyres to Alonso’s after the race in Korea, saying “Pirelli will put the puncture of Perez down to a lock-up but the reason the drivers are locking up is because there’s no tread left”.  He also highlighted the overriding role that tyre wear is having in modern Formula one results by saying that “The drivers aren’t super important”.  With Pirelli now confirmed as the Formula 1 tyre supplier for 2014, we’ll have to wait to see if they change their approach to tyre construction.  I personally hope that they do.

While, Perez’s tyre failure was concerning, though, the tyre situation has certainly improved from earlier in the season, with the low point being at the British grand prix where there were multiple failures.  Indeed, in Korea the tyres were not the biggest safety concern.  That came on lap 38.  Adrian Sutil spun and hit Mark Webber’s Red Bull at the hairpin, bursting an oil radiator on the Australian’s car.  This caused a fire, the second in two races on Webber’s car, and as the Red Bull was engulfed in flames a fire safety truck was released to deal with the inferno, but bizarrely BEFORE the deployment of the safety car.  As it turned out, the FIA had expected that the fire truck from turn three, where Webber’s car was ablaze, would be used, but instead the truck from turn one was called into action, which we saw making its way down the main straight with a train of F1 cars closing in.  The safety car was then deployed, but had the turn three truck been used, we might not even have needed the second safety car at all.

The situation was certainly a strange one, and one the Formula 1 one bosses will not be keen to see repeated.  I’m sure that procedures will be re-examined and tightened as a result, but that won’t be of too much concern to Sebastian Vettel.  The German is all but certain to take the world drivers’ championship yet again.

F1 musical chairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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