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.

Advertisements

The return of the Mack

So, that’s the first Formula 1 race of 2014 done and dusted.  In some ways you could say that, despite the new 1.6 litre turbocharged hybrid power units and regulations changes, nothing has changed.  We still had a German dominating the race, by breaking clear at the start, leading the way for the whole race and winning by a huge margin.  In reality, though, we all know that the F1 of 2014 is different from 2013 in a whole raft of ways.

Nico Rosberg on his way to a dominant victory in Australia

Nico Rosberg on his way to a
dominant victory in Australia

Firstly, of course, it wasn’t Sebastian Vettel – world drivers’ champion for the last four seasons in his Red Bull Renault – who dominated the race, but another young German in Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg.  Such was the manner of Rosberg’s victory, though, that it was very reminiscent of Vettel’s past dominance.  Rosberg won the race by a huge 24.5 seconds from Red Bull Racing’s new Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo (later excluded from the results after a fuel flow infraction), with McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen a further 2.2 seconds back.

While Red Bull Racing Team Principle Christian Horner’s prediction that Mercedes might win by a couple of laps proved to be very wide of the mark, it was certainly proved correct that Mercedes are enjoying a significant pace advantage over the rest of the field right now.  Unfortunately for them, and for polesitter Lewis Hamilton, that pace has not come hand in hand with total reliability.  Sadly for Hamilton, and for the race, he only managed to complete three laps because of a failed cylinder in his engine, which hampered him from the get go enabling Rosberg to cruise past him off the line.  Hamilton, though, handled the understandable disappointment well; you suspect that his turn will come, and before long.

Ricciardo drove an excellent race to finish second, and hold off Kevin MagnussenThere were also contrasting fortunes for the two Red Bull Racing cars in terms of race performance.  To be honest, the world constructors champions did amazingly well to be anywhere near the front after a disastrous pre-season, but they confounded expectations by looking competative in Melbourne.  While new boy Ricciardo was hugely impressive over the race weekend, both starting and finishing in second place before his subsequent exclusion from the results,  his team-mate, reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel, did not enjoy the same sort of performance levels.

Vettel was hampered by a software problem in qualifying, meaning that he could only manage to qualify in 13th place (he started 12th after a grid penalty for Valterri Bottas).  In the race, he never really got going, dropping back at the start and completing just one more lap than Hamilton before being forced to retire.  The frustration from the German was clear over team radio as he instructed his team to “Do something” while complaining of a lack of power and pace.  Things aren’t quite so easy when you’re not in the dominant car and you suspect that this is something that Vettel will have to come to terms with, particularly in the early stages of the season.

Eric Boullier has joined McLaren as Racing Director

Eric Boullier has joined
McLaren as Racing Director

While Mercedes cars, and in some ways the two Red Bulls, suffered contrasting fortunes the same cannot be said of a resurgent McLaren.  Martin Whitmarsh’s departure, the return of Ron Dennis and the recruitment of Eric Boullier as Racing Director has coincided with a huge turnaround for the Woking-based team.  McLaren struggled throughout 2013, finishing the season without scoring a single podium finish.  They ended that run in the first race of 2014 with rookie Kevin Magnussen’s brilliant drive to third place on his F1 debut.  Following Ricciardo’s exclusion this, of course, was upgrade to second.

Not only that, but Magnussen was followed home by team-mate Jenson Button who inherited third, meaning that McLaren leave Australia with a double-podium and the lead of the constructors championship.  While all is not quite as the team would hope – they’re still lacking in outright pace in comparison to Mercedes – this is a massive leap forward for McLaren.  They might not be the quickest, but they have proved that they’ve got consistency.  Not only that, but the tactical errors that have blighted the team over the past couple of seasons look to have been eradicated.  There was clear evidence of that as Jenson Button was moved forward through the pit stops from his 10th place starting position, leapfrogging cars with some good strategy, particularly when taking maximum advantage from the single safety car period – caused after Valterri Bottas brushed the wall in his Williams – by diving into the pits at the last possible moment.

Bottas, tyre smoking, squeezes past Raikkonen

Bottas, tyre smoking, squeezes past Raikkonen

While McLaren – the Mack of this article’s title – are clearly back amongst the front-runners, they’re certainly not the only ones.  Williams were hugely impressive in pre-season and they seem to have carried that forward into the season proper, along with a new title sponsorship deal with Martini.  Although they perhaps didn’t achieve the results that they might have hoped for in Australia, Bottas’s sixth place finish still resulted in eight world championship points for the Grove-based team.  That’s three more than they managed for the whole of the previous season.  Things might have been even better for the team had new recruit Felipe Massa not been taken out at the first corner by Caterham’s Kamui Kobayashi, and Bottas not brushed the wall at turn 10 on lap 10 when running in sixth position, triggering the safety car.

We’re only one race into the season, of course, but Williams and McLaren look to be back where they would say they belong.  Ferrari, clearly have work to do – the Scuderia where never really in contention at Albert park, finishing fifth (Alonso) and eighth (Raikkonen) places (both upgraded following Ricciardo’s disqualification) – but not as much as Lotus who, as expected, struggled badly, with both cars forced to retire.  Pastor Maldonado’s move from Williams to Lotus, is not looking like the wisest one right now.

One thing is clear, though, Mercedes are enjoying a significant pace advantage over their rivals.  If they can maintain that throughout the season, and minimise the sort of reliability issues suffered by Hamilton, there’ll be no stopping them in 2014.

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.

Rosberg plays his cards right to win in Monaco

Well, it’s the race that everyone wants to win. The one Formula 1 race of the year that sees the glitz and glamour of the sport brought absolutely to the forefront amid the gleaming yachts in a gambler’s paradise: Monaco. As it turned out, the result of the race was never really in doubt, despite plenty of thrills and spills in the Principality – Nico Rosberg, 30 years since his father Keke tasted victory at the same track, led from lights to flag to take a dominant and well deserved victory.

As ever in Monaco, track position was crucial. As all Formula 1 fans know, overtaking around the tight, twisty street circuit is incredibly difficult, which makes qualifying vitally important. Qualifying, of course, has been the great strength of Rosberg’s Mercedes car, and it was no great surprise to see the team take their fourth straight pole position on Saturday. Indeed, it was another front row lock out for Mercedes, with Lewis Hamilton under a tenth of a second slower than his German team-mate.

Rosberg leads the field into Sainte Devote

Rosberg leads the field into Sainte Devote

The big question was whether Mercedes had the race pace to compete, given the extreme difficulties that they experienced with tyre degradation in the last race at Barcelona. If Mercedes could lead into the first corner, and successfully manage their tyres, it was odds on that they would win the race. The fact that Rosberg started well, and beat his team-mate Hamilton off the line and into turn one, set his race up perfectly. As it turned out, tyre management was never an issue for Mercedes and Rosberg never relinquished the lead at any point in the race to take a brilliant second career race victory.

Massa's crash in the race was almost identical to his crash in practice a day earlier

Massa’s crash in the race was almost identical
to his crash in practice a day earlier

That might make the race sound a little more straightforward than it actually was. The result could have been even better for Mercedes had they not had a bad roll of the dice with the first safety car period. Surprisingly, and unlike their immediate competitors, lap 31 of the race arrived and neither of the Mercedes cars had pitted. That meant that when the safety car came out following a heavy crash for Felipe Massa on lap 30 – a carbon copy of the one that he experienced in Saturday morning free practice – Mercedes were forced to pit both cars on the same lap. This allowed the Red Bulls, both of which had been released by the safety car, to jump ahead of the unfortunate Lewis Hamilton, who missed out on the opportunity to challenge his team-mate for victory and take his third podium of the season.

Hamilton put Webber under heavy pressure as the race restarted, even drawing alongside him at Rascasse, but was unable to get ahead of the Red Bull. Indeed, despite further chaos later in the race the top four of Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and Hamilton remained in that order for the remaining 48 laps. Behind them, though, there was plenty of action with McLaren’s Sergio Perez and Force India’s Adrian Sutil putting in some great overtaking manoeuvres at the chicane and at Lowe’s hairpin respectively.

monaco_grosjean2It was at Perez’s favourite overtaking place, coming out of the tunnel into the chicane, that we saw the incident that resulted in the second safety car period on lap 63. Lotus’s Romain Grosjean had his fourth crash of the season, ramming into the back of, and mounting, Daniel Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso, leaving debris strewn across the track and putting both cars out of the race. Grosjean definitely had a weekend to forget, and that incident resulted in an investigation by the stewards after the race, who handed the Frenchman a 10 place grid penalty for the next race in Canada.

Maldonado before the incident with Chilton

Maldonado before the incident with Chilton

Perhaps even worse, though, was the incident that resulted in a red flag on lap 46. Williams driver Pastor Maldonado pulled alongside Marussia’s Max Chilton on the approach to turn 16. Chilton inexplicably moved across on Maldonado, pushing the Venezuelan’s car into the barriers and momentarily into the air before it speared head on into the barriers. Maldonado said afterwards “I didn’t expect Chilton to cross my line. It is very dangerous”. Certainly the stewards agreed, handing the Englishman a drive through penalty for the incident.

Indeed, that incident might have had a big impact on the result of the race. With the red flag, the teams were able to make changes to their cars and, crucially, change tyres. That benefitted Red Bull Racing, and Mark Webber in particular. The Australian had pitted to change tyres on lap 25, six laps earlier than both of the Mercedes cars and his team-mate Sebastian Vettel. It seemed that it was Red Bull, rather than Mercedes that seemed to be struggling a little with tyre wear and without the free tyre change afforded to the teams by the red flag period, we might have seen Webber struggle with degradation in the closing laps of the race. That’s all speculation, though.

Vettel led home Webber and Hamilton to take second place

Vettel led home Webber and
Hamilton to take second place

Rosberg and Mercedes will certainly have been delighted by victory around the streets of Monaco. Not even a pre-race protest by Ferrari and Red Bull about a tyre test following the race in Barcelona could spoil their party, although we’ve certainly not heard the last of that particular controversy. Despite not taking victory in Monaco, the big winner in terms of the championship was second placed Sebastian Vettel, though. The German saw his world driver’s championship lead over Kimi Raikkonen balloon to 21 points after the Finn could only manage 10th place after a puncture on lap 69 following an incident with Sergio Perez at the chicane. After only managing seventh place in Monaco, Fernando Alonso is a further eight points adrift n third place in the standings.

We head next to Canada in two weeks; a track with similar characteristics to Monaco, but many more overtaking opportunities. It’ll be interesting to see whether Mercedes can maintain their momentum there, or whether degradation will prove damaging to them once again.

F1’s bad boys: A comparison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruno’s burden of expectation

Other than the controversy over whether triple world drivers’ champion Sebastian Vettel did, or did not, overtake under yellow flags on his way to sixth place, and the 2012 championship, in last weekend’s Brazilian grand prix, the big Formula 1 story of last week was Wednesday’s announcement by Williams of their 2013 driver line-up. As had been widely tipped to be the case, reserve driver Valtteri Bottas was promoted to a race seat for 2013, alongside Pastor Maldonado. This, of course, meant that Bruno Senna once again found himself, at least temporarily, without a drive for the third season in a row.

It seems that Senna, despite his relative consistency and sponsorship money, has lost out to a rising star at Williams and a 2012 team-mate who was able to bring more money and more outright pace than the Brazilian. Most of all, though, Senna loses out because he hasn’t been able to live up to the huge weight of expectation that comes with his family name, a family name he shares with his late, great, triple world drivers’ championship winning uncle, Ayrton.

Ayrton Senna, McLaren Honda MP4/7AMonaco, 28 May 1992By Iwao, via Wikimedia Commons

Ayrton Senna, McLaren Honda MP4/7A
Monaco, 28 May 1992
By Iwao, via Wikimedia Commons

Ayrton Senna was perhaps the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time. A man who was blessed with an amazing magnetic personality and a natural charisma, as well as a phenomenal natural driving talent and ability. Other drivers have won more world championships than Ayrton, but none inspire the same awe. His tragic death at the 1994 San Marino grand prix at Imola has only served to increase the esteem in which he is held by the vast majority of F1 fans.

While Bruno has inevitably benefited from his family name as he has risen through the ranks of motorsport, he now finds himself in an unenviable position having made it to Formula 1 . There must be an almost unbearable weight of expectation on his shoulders. Bruno is the living embodiment of Ayrton’s legacy. He carries the Senna name in Formula 1, and with it the expectation that he will be able to show the same brilliance behind the wheel as his uncle had more than a decade before Bruno entered the pinnacle of motorsport.

How can Bruno ever live up to such a level of expectation? Ayrton was quite simply a one-off. A once in a generation talent, who few, if any, could ever live up to. Following Ayrton’s death, Bruno’s career came to an abrupt halt as his family, understandably given his uncle’s tragic death, didn’t want to see him racing. His father’s death, just two years after Ayrton’s, in a motorcycle accident in 1996 must have only served to strengthen his family’s protective instincts.

Bruno Senna, iSport International, GP2Silverstone, 4 July 2008By Jake Archibald, via Wikimedia Commons

Bruno Senna, iSport International, GP2
Silverstone, 4 July 2008
By Jake Archibald, via Wikimedia Commons

It was not until 10 years after his uncle’s death that Bruno, at the age of 21 re-entered competitive motorsport, having missed out on vital development behind the wheel during his teenage years. Nevertheless, by 2006 Bruno had made it into British Formula 3, winning almost a quarter of his 22 races on his way to third in the championship. Two years later he finished runner-up in the GP2 championship, the Formula 1 feeder series, in his second year at that level.

Bruno, despite the weight of expectation that the name Senna brings, and despite the huge gap in his driving development, was capturing the attention of Formula 1 teams. His performances led to a test at Barcelona with F1 team Honda in November 2008. Bruno lapped within 0.3 seconds of race driver, and future Formula 1 world drivers’ champion, Jenson Button, over the course of the three-day test. He looked set to secure a race drive with the team, before Honda pulled out of F1 and the team morphed into Brawn GP, only securing its future less than a month before the start of the 2009 season.

Given the lack of testing that Brawn GP was able to undertake before the start of the season, team owner Ross Brawn opted to retain the experience of Bruno’s compatriot, Rubens Barrichello, alongside Button. This left Bruno without a Formula 1 drive in 2009, and he was forced to watch from the sidelines as the team took both the drivers’ and constructors’ world championships in what turned out to be their only season in the sport. How different might Bruno’s career have been had Honda stayed in Formula one, or had Brawn decided to take a risk on him?

Bruno Senna, Hispania F110Sepang, Malaysia, 3 April 2010By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Bruno Senna, Hispania F110
Sepang, Malaysia, 3 April 2010
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

As it was, Bruno had to wait until 2010 for his Formula 1 chance. However, this chance came with Hispania Racing, one of the sport’s three new teams. The team was underprepared and extremely slow, and Bruno didn’t even get to compete in a full season as the team brought in other drivers in certain races. Bruno was unable to prove what he could do and lost his drive with the team at the end of the season, in favour of drivers with more funding.

Having sat out most of the 2011, Bruno drove for Lotus as a mid-season replacement for Nick Heidfeld. Despite a strong start to the season, Lotus were struggling when Bruno joined them, having failed to develop what had been a promising car. Nevertheless, despite no testing, Bruno managed to score his first Formula 1 points at the Italian grand prix, in just his second race for the team.

However, Bruno was not retained by Lotus for 2012 and it looked like he might be without a Formula 1 drive yet again until he secured the last seat on the grid, alongside Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado at Williams in mid-January, only three weeks ahead of the first pre-season test at Jerez on 9 February. This, of course, meant that Bruno had absolutely no input into the design of the 2012 Williams, the FW34. This, coupled with his relative inexperience – he had only competed in 26 Formula 1 races, spread across the 2010 and 2011 seasons, before the start of 2012, 18 of those with minnows HRT in 2010 – meant that he was always likely to struggle against a driver who had been with the team for a year and would have had an input into the design and the development of their 2012 car.

Despite these handicaps, and the fact that his time behind the wheel of the car was further limited by having to hand his car over to Bottas for 15 Friday morning free practice sessions, Bruno was a consistent points scorer for Williams in 2012. He commented last week that “It has been extremely satisfying to be the team’s most regular point scorer”, having scored in eight of the 20 races, compared to just five for his team-mate. However, Bruno suffered in comparison to his team-mate because Maldonado was seen as the quicker of the two, having performed far more strongly in qualifying and having taken the team’s first win since 2004, with victory in the Spanish grand prix.

Bruno Senna, Williams FW34India, 27 October 2012Copyright: Andrew Ferraro/LAT Photographic

Bruno Senna, Williams FW34
India, 27 October 2012
Copyright: Andrew Ferraro/LAT Photographic

Qualifying, in particular was Bruno’s Achilles heel in 2012, but this was perhaps not unsurprising given that his running, and car set-up, time was limited by having to hand the car over to Bottas in free practice sessions. It was no surprise to anyone, least of all Bruno, that Bottas was given the nod ahead of him for 2013. Commenting after Williams’s announcement, Bruno said “Since the beginning of my programme with Williams I accepted that I had to share the car with Valtteri for 15 Fridays as a part of his preparation for a likely debut in 2013”.

If Bruno is to continue in F1 in 2013, it’s going to be with his fourth team in four seasons. Caterham looks to be his most likely destination, although there are other possibilities like Force India, but yet again he will have to contend with having little input into the design and development of whatever car he drives. I personally hope that he is given the chance to show what he can do on a level playing field in 2013. He is a fast, consistent driver, more than worthy of his place in Formula 1. What he isn’t, though, is his uncle Ayrton. Who could be?