One in the eye for Hamilton in Monaco

Having grabbed the lead of the world drivers’ championship with victory in Barcelona – his fourth straight win – Lewis Hamilton promptly surrendered it back to Nico Rosberg, who took a lights to flag victory in Monaco. All quite straightforward, you might think, but that would be a massive over simplification.

The tensions between the two Mercedes team-mates, which had been bubbling away under the surface prior to Monaco, finally erupted this weekend. The battle between the two drivers has been close all season and, going in to the final Q3 run in qualifying the pair were separated by less than six hundredths of a second. But it was what happened on that final qualifying run that has ramped up the tension at Mercedes to such an extent that come the podium in Monaco, the two team-mates couldn’t even look at each other, let alone congratulate each other on another 1, 2 finish.

Rosberg's qualifying error actually guaranteed him pole position

Rosberg’s qualifying error actually
guaranteed him pole position

The flashpoint was the mistake from Nico Rosberg on Saturday, which saw him lock up at Mirabeau and go straight on down the escape road. The error ruined Rosberg’s final run and opened the door for Hamilton, who was half a lap behind him and going quickly. However, the problem for Hamilton was that Rosberg’s error also brought out yellow flags; yellow flags that Rosberg guaranteed would continue to be waved as he reversed backwards onto the track.

There was talk that Rosberg deliberately went off to guarantee himself pole position, but I don’t agree that was the case. Indeed, the stewards didn’t think so, either, having examined the TV footage and telemetry as part of their post-qualifying investigation into the issue. The issue for Mercedes is, though, that many in the paddock, including, crucially, Lewis Hamilton thought otherwise. Hamilton’s mood would not have been helped by Rosberg’s pole celebrations, which I would say were over the top, particularly so given the circumstances.

It’s in a situation like this where the media like to stir the pot. Hamilton fell into the trap of saying that he’d deal with the situation like Senna in a post-qualifying interview, which ramped up the tension another notch. The Prost/Senna comparisons, already prevalent in the media, were brought out again. All the talk was of a potential incident at turn one.

Rosberg leads the field into Saint Devote

Rosberg leads the field into Saint Devote

As it happened there was no such incident come race day. Rosberg got off the line brilliantly, unlike in other races this season, and led Hamilton and the rest of the field into turn one. Given the nature of the Monaco track – tight, twisty, and with limited opportunities to overtake – the start was the first of two big chances for Hamilton to overtake Rosberg; one which he couldn’t take.

The second chance would come through strategy, with Hamilton hoping to use the single pit stop that both drivers were scheduled to make to his advantage. Unfortunately for him, the second of the two safety car periods, caused after Adrian Sutil crashed his Sauber heavily coming out of the tunnel, fell in the ‘window’ for making that pit stop.

The safety car all but ended Hamilton's chances of beating Rosberg

The safety car all but ended
Hamilton’s chances of beating Rosberg

We heard over the radio that Hamilton was irked that he hadn’t stopped immediately, before the deployment of the safety car. Instead Mercedes took the safe option and stopped both drivers on the same lap, following the deployment of the safety car. That decision, while completely understandable, meant that Hamilton had to wave goodbye to his second big chance to overtake his German team-mate.

With Hamilton questioning the decision and his frustration levels rising, he resumed the fight after the safety car in the wrong frame of mind. Not that it mattered at the time, though. Hamilton could never quite get close enough to Rosberg to attempt to pass, even when the latter was forced to save fuel for several laps. The fight was over long before Hamilton suddenly and alarmingly dropped back several seconds from Rosberg after dirt became lodged in his eye.

Ricciardo celebrates his podium finish after the race

Ricciardo celebrates his podium finish after the race

In the end, Rosberg won the race comfortably, by over nine seconds from Hamilton who did well to hold off the hard charging Daniel Ricciardo who took third for Red Bull Racing. Once he’s had a chance to calm down and reflect on the situation Hamilton may feel differently, but he was certainly not happy post-race. The body language between the two team-mates at Mercedes suggests that they’re on the verge of meltdown; a consequence of the team’s decision to let their drivers race each other on an equal footing.

Jules Bianchi scored his, and Marussia's, first points in Monaco

Jules Bianchi scored his, and
Marussia’s, first points in Monaco

While meltdown might be on the cards at Mercedes, there was delight for one of Formula 1’s smaller teams. Marussia, through 24-year-old Frenchman Jules Bianchi, finally scored their first point in Formula 1 in their fifth year in the sport. Bianchi’s ninth place finish (he actually crossed the line eighth, but had to take a five second penalty) resulted in the Banbury-based team scoring not one, but two world championship points.  This means that they’re now ahead not only of fierce rivals Caterham, but also Sauber in the world constructors’ championship. A massive achievement.

There’s no chance of them, or anyone else for that matter, overhauling Mercedes, though. That is unless the Brackley-based squad shoot themselves in the foot by going into a full-scale meltdown. The Silver Arrows have now amassed 240 world championship points. Their nearest rival, Red Bull Racing have yet to break into three figures, thanks, in part, to an early retirement for Sebastian Vettel in Monaco.

All eyes will continue to be on Mercedes as we head to Canada in two weeks’ time. Lewis Hamilton will be desperate to reassert his authority, and retake the championship lead, in Montreal; a track he loves and has had great success at in the past. Nico Rosberg will be equally keen to ensure that the momentum remains with him. The battle between the Mercedes team-mates looks set to be a season long one.

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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 rules: Deeply floor-ed

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

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

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

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

Mercedes DRS. Image © Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

McLaren malaise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home page image © Getty Images

Maldonado: From the sublime to the ridiculous

After a close fought Monaco grand prix in which the top six cars were covered by just six seconds, we had our sixth winner in the opening six rounds of the 2012 Formula 1 season as Mark Webber took the chequered flag for Red Bull, making the 2011 constructors champions the first team to win two races this season. As good as Webber’s performance over the course of the weekend was – he also started on pole following Michael Schumacher’s five place grid penalty for running into Bruno Senna in Barcelona – the focus of this article is not on the race winner, or, indeed, any of the top six finishers. This article is all about a driver who didn’t even complete the first lap in Monaco, a driver who started on the back row, after qualifying ninth, the same driver that took an outstanding first career F1 victory in Spain a fortnight ago: Pastor Maldonado.

After the Barcelona race, Williams driver Maldonado was rightly praised for great performances in qualifying and the race. He had started the race in pole after Lewis Hamilton’s exclusion for a fuel irregularity, and drove a brilliantly controlled race to beat Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso to the chequered flag. I was among those that praised Maldonado, highlighting what seemed to be a new found maturity from the Venezuelan. After the events of Monaco, however, it seems that I, and many others, might have been too quick to herald the turning of a new leaf for the Williams driver. The Spanish grand prix winner had a dire Monaco grand prix weekend during which he demonstrated immaturity, overly aggressive driving and extreme hot headedness.

Let’s start with the final free practice session on Saturday morning. Maldonado was involved in an incident with Sauber’s Sergio Perez towards the end of the session in which the Williams driver appeared to deliberately drive into the Mexican as the latter slowed to let him pass at Portier, the right hander before the famous Monaco tunnel. Perez was quickly on his team radio claiming “Maldonado is crazy”. The stewards seemed to agree with this assessment, handing Maldonado a 10 place grid penalty for a breach of Article 16.1 of the FIA’s Sporting Code for causing a collision with another driver. Maldonado claimed afterwards that the clash had been accidental, and was quoted by Autosport as saying “I was trying overtake him and I lost the car…Maybe I was too optimistic on the throttle on cold tyres, because it was my first lap with a new option and I was trying to recover the car, it got too much grip and I touched his front left wheel. That’s it”. That certainly was not how the situation looked from the outside, with the clash looking like a deliberate piece of aggression on Maldonado’s part.

Let’s not forget that Maldonado has past form for aggressive driving of this type. He received a five place grid penalty at the 2011 Belgian grand prix at Spa following a clash with Lewis Hamilton during the second part of qualifying which saw Maldonado penalised for deliberately driving in to the Englishman after the La Source hairpin as the cars were approaching Eau Rouge. This came after Hamilton had passed the Venezuelan the previous lap, barging his way through after Maldonado had been held up by slower cars. If Maldonado’s incident with Perez was indeed as deliberate as it appeared, it seems that, contrary to what we saw in Spain, Maldonado still has a propensity for hot headed, petulant driving which has no place at the pinnacle of motorsport.

Maldonado’s move on Perez in FP3 was bad enough, but he followed it up on the very next lap with a further display of over aggressiveness as he took far too much kerb going through Casino Square before spearing into the barrier on the opposite side of the track, losing his left rear wheel in the process and causing the session to be red flagged. So, that’s two incidents from Maldonado before qualifying had even started. Two incidents for which he was clearly at fault.

After the events of free practice three, qualifying itself was fairly tame in comparison. Maldonado qualified ninth having made it through to the third part of qualifying, but even though the was no big incident involving Maldonado in qualifying itself I believe the manner in which he qualified ninth can be used to demonstrate a further lack of maturity on the Venezuelan’s part. Don’t forget that going in to qualifying, Maldonado knew that he had a 10 place grid penalty from the stewards, so was fully aware that he would start no higher than 11th place, making a good result extremely tough. Instead of trying to conserve tyres, though, Maldonado decided to fight for the highest starting position possible in Q3. You could argue that this showed some admirable fighting spirit but, with hindsight, it looked a little silly and desperate. Maldonado, despite using up his tyres, only qualified ninth, which meant a 19th place start, which soon became a 23rd place start after Williams elected to change his gearbox resulting in a further five place grid penalty. He was only saved from starting last because Perez crashed out in the first part of qualifying and then also changed his gearbox.

While Perez drove a creditable race, which would have seen him score points but for a drive through penalty for a late pit lane entry, eventually finishing 11th, Maldonado’s race was over on lap one. Instead of hanging back a little and being cautious into the bottle neck of Sainte Devote, Maldonado went careering into the back of HRT’s Pedro de la Rosa putting both drivers out of the race. As Perez’s performance showed, Maldonado could have salvaged more valuable points for Williams if he had kept a cooler head.

It’s clear from his performances so far this season, though, that Maldonado does have pace and ability, but that with that pace and ability comes hot headedness and inconsistency. There can be no clearer illustration of this than the last two grand prix: a brilliant result in Spain, followed by a dismal performance at Monaco. Which Maldonado will show up in two weeks time at the next grand prix in Canada?

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