Pitlane to podium for Hamilton in Hungary

A dejected looking Lewis Hamilton walks away from his smoking Mercedes in qualifying

A dejected looking Lewis Hamilton walks away
from his smoking Mercedes in qualifying

After another dreadful qualifying session for Lewis Hamilton in 2014, the Briton looked certain to lose even more ground to Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg in the fight for the world drivers’ championship. Hamilton failed to set a time in Saturday qualifying, after a fuel leak on his Mercedes caused a huge fire putting Hamilton out and giving his Mercedes team a gigantic task to rebuild a car that was almost a total loss.

In contrast, as we’ve seen so many times this season, Rosberg had a trouble-free qualifying session. The German cruised to pole position by around half a second from the Red Bull Racing of Sebastian Vettel. It looked very much set fair for another win for the world drivers’ championship leader.

Sadly for Rosberg, though, the weather certainly wasn’t set fair. A huge downpour around 40 minutes before the start of the race threw a spanner in the works and added a huge amount of spice into the race mix. Nevertheless, though, Hamilton started the race in the worst possible position – the pitlane – and Rosberg in the very best starting spot. It would need a mighty drive from Hamilton, and some of the luck that had been so sorely missing from his season so far, if he was not to fall further behind in the championship race.

The race didn't start well for Hamilton, either, as he spun on the opening lap

The race didn’t start well for Hamilton,
either, as he spun on the opening lap

It certainly looked like luck was against Hamilton in the opening laps. The 2008 world drivers’ champion spun on the very first lap, on just the second corner of his race. Hamilton scraped the barrier, but crucially didn’t cause much damage to his car. Rosberg meanwhile, serenely streaked clear in the lead of the race. By lap eight, though, Hamilton had clawed his way up to 13th position, ahead of the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, and then the safety car came out after Marcus Ericsson slammed his Caterham into the wall at turn three – a 20G impact.

Not only did the safety car wipe out Rosberg’s substantial lead over the second placed Williams of Valtteri Bottas, but it fell at an awful time for the German. Rosberg was unable to pit immediately as he’d already passed the pitlane meaning he, as well as Bottas, Vettel and Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari all had to do another lap while the rest of the field streamed in to change from intermediate tyres to, for the most part, soft option slick tyres.

Still, though, Rosberg was in fourth position while Hamilton was 13th as the restart was further delayed by Romain Grosjean crashing his Lotus with the safety car about to release the cars. All was not well with Rosberg, however. Smoke was coming from the left rear brake on his Mercedes and as the race restarted on lap 14 Rosberg fell like a stone.

Perez climbs from his wrecked Force India

Perez climbs from his wrecked Force India

Hamilton on the other hand, was going very much in the opposite direction. By lap 17 the two Mercedes cars were running fifth and seventh, with just the Red Bull of Vettel separating the two Silver Arrows. Another safety car came out on lap 23, however, as Sergio Perez slammed his Force India into the pit wall after spinning coming out of the final turn.

As the safety car came in on lap 27, Alonso led, while Rosberg was up to third and Hamilton fifth. There was no further progress for either driver until Rosberg pitted on lap 33. Almost immediately, Sebastian Vettel had an almost identical accident to Sergio Perez, but managing not to hit the pit wall as he spun out of the final corner. That let Hamilton through and straight onto the back of the out of position Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne, who had done a tremendous job to hold up Rosberg before the latter pitted.

He couldn’t do the same up against Lewis Hamilton, though, with the Englishman executing the pass of the race on lap 34 to pass the Frenchman around the outside of turn four. Hamilton was now second, with Rosberg 13th, but moving swiftly back up the field after his pit stop. Crucially, though, Hamilton was now a full pit stop ahead of his team-mate. When he eventually made his second stop on lap 40 – from the lead – and fitted the slower, but more durable medium compound slick tyres, we was able to emerge ahead of his team-mate in fifth position.

Rosberg was able to close up to Hamilton, but not close enough to make an overtaking manoeuvre. The team-mates were on different strategies. Rosberg was on the fast option tyres and due to stop once more, while Hamilton was on primes and due to run until the end of the race. Hamilton was asked by the team to let his team-mate through, but Rosberg was simply not close enough and Hamilton was unwilling to lose a significant amount of time to wave his championship rival through.

Ultimately, the decision to put Hamilton on an alternate strategy cost both him and Rosberg the chance to win the race. Hamilton was unable to close in on Alonso and Rosberg was unable to pass Hamilton, with Daniel Ricciardo leading the race by a significant distance from the Spaniard. Ricciardo pitted again for Fresh option on lap 54, rejoining behind Rosberg, with the latter making the same change on lap 56, emerging in seventh.

Alonso, Hamilton and Ricciardo battled for victory in the closing laps

Alonso, Hamilton and Ricciardo
battled for Victory in the closing laps

Alonso – on soft option tyres – led from Hamilton, but Ricciardo was closing rapidly on them both with his new rubber. Similarly Rosberg was catching the leaders at an alarming rate on his fresh tyres, but it was Ricciardo who was in the best position to win the race, and he duly did.

First of all he moved ahead of Hamilton around the outside of turn two on lap 67 and just a lap later overtook Alonso in turn one. The Australian was gone, but Rosberg was now on Hamilton’s tail. The Englishman was just able to hold his team-mate off to claim the final podium position and reduce the championship deficit to 11 points. An almost unthinkable result after their contrasting fortunes in qualifying.

It was Ricciardo who took his second win of the season, though. The Australian will be hugely satisfied with his performances at Red Bull, which have put his four-time world championship winning team-mate, Vettel, in the shade. As we head into the mid-season break, though, it’s Rosberg with the championship lead, albeit slightly reduced. Hamilton, though, may well think that the luck may now be turning in his favour.

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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.

Rosberg feels the pain, as Hamilton takes the championship lead in Spain

So, Lewis Hamilton has made it four wins in a row with a hard fought victory in Barcelona. It certainly wasn’t easy, with Nico Rosberg closely shadowing his Mercedes team-mate for the entire race, eventually crossing the line just 0.6 seconds behind the Briton. While there was none of the dicing that we saw in Bahrain, Hamilton’s margin of victory was certainly similar, as was the significant nature of the win.

Bahrain and Spain are both theoretically Rosberg tracks; tracks that play to the strengths of the German. At both of these tracks Hamilton has now beaten his team-mate – psychologically, you suspect, this must give him a massive boost.

Just like in Bahrain, Hamilton was struggling in Barcelona. While Rosberg beat him to pole in Bahrain, though, this time Hamilton somehow managed to wrestle pole position away from his team-mate. The 2008 world drivers’ champion had been delighted with his car on Friday as he dominated both free practice sessions, but it was a different story come Saturday.

In free practice three, and more importantly in qualifying, Rosberg seemed to have the advantage over Hamilton, who was struggling with the setup changes that had been made to his Mercedes. In the qualifying top ten shoot out, though, Hamilton found some extra speed and snatched the pole position that Rosberg must have thought was his.

Hamilton led away from pole position, securing himself a vital advantage

Hamilton led away from pole position,
securing himself a vital advantage

Pole position is seen as hugely important in Barcelona, where overtaking opportunities can be limited. And so it proved. Hamilton got away to the perfect start and Rosberg was forced to slot in behind him. Things remained close in the first stint, which the gap between the two Mercedes hovered at around the two second mark – well clear of the chasing pack headed by Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo.

This, of course, meant that Hamilton got the advantage of pitting first, just like he did in Bahrain. Again mirroring the Bahrain race, Hamilton took the option tyres for his second stint while Rosberg switched to the hard, prime tyres. Hamilton, on the supposedly quicker tyres was unable to extend the gap to his team-mate in the second stint, though. He was struggling with the setup of the car, complaining about severe oversteer over team radio, while Rosberg seemed to have the car exactly where he wanted it to be.

As both drivers made their second and final pit stops Hamilton had a four second advantage over Rosberg, who now had the faster option tyres on his car, while Hamilton had to manage with the slower primes, again just like in Bahrain. This time, though, there was no safety car to close down the gap and spice up the action. Rosberg had 20 laps to close down and pass his team-mate.

He did the former brilliantly. The gap between the team-mates see sawed over the closing laps, but ultimately Rosberg was closing down his team-mate. As we entered the final couple of laps the German enjoyed the advantage of DRS as he closed to within a single second of Hamilton. It looked inconceivable that Hamilton would again be able to hang on to victory.

Rosberg (onboard) got very close to Hamilton in the closing laps, but there was no way through

Rosberg (onboard) got very close to Hamilton in the closing laps, but there was no way through

The Stevenage-born racer had other ideas, though. While Rosberg certainly got close, he was unable to pass Hamilton or even make an attempt to do so. As Hamilton took the chequered flag he also took the lead of the world drivers’ championship, yet another huge psychological blow. Hamilton has managed to beat Rosberg in two races where the German was clearly the quicker driver. Rosberg must wonder what he has to do to beat the Englishman.

2014 SPA RIC Trophy

Ricciardo might have been a distant third, but he was delighted with his trophy

The rest of the field, though, will be wondering what they have to do to beat Mercedes. While the battle between Rosberg and Hamilton was a close one, the battle between Mercedes and the rest was anything but. Daniel Ricciardo finished almost 50 seconds behind the Mercedes cars with his team-mate, Sebastian Vettel, over 25 seconds further back in fourth position, having driven brilliantly to claw his way up from 15th on the grid after a transmission problem in qualifying and a grid penalty for changing his gearbox.

In the preceding four races of the season the gap between the winning Mercedes and the first non-Silver Arrow was around 20-25 seconds. In Spain, that gap doubled. While Hamilton has struck a psychological blow over Rosberg, Mercedes are on the verge of a knockout over the rest of the field. Spain – the start of the European season – is the race where the teams traditionally bring big upgrade packages to their cars. With a three week gap between the races in China and Spain, the rest of the field would have been hoping to close the gap. Instead, that gap has doubled.

Yes, you can argue that other factors contributed to the bigger gap in Spain. Track characteristics, maybe, or the fact that Ricciardo was being held up behind the Williams of Valtteri Bottas, which eventually finished fifth, in the first stint of the race. However, you could also argue that the gap might have been even larger had Hamilton been happy with the setup of his car. Whatever the case, Mercedes now have a lead of over 100 points over second placed Red Bull Racing in the world constructors’ championship.

Alonso finished just ahead of his team-mate Raikkonen, but well adrift of the podium places

Alonso finished just ahead of his team-mate Raikkonen,
but well adrift of the podium places

Ferrari, boosted by Fernando Alonso’s third place last time out in China, must feel utterly demoralised in third place in the constructors’ standings. In Spain they were nowhere, qualifying in sixth and seventh positions and finishing the race in the same positions, albeit with Alonso managing to get ahead of his team-mate Raikkonen, after being out qualified by the Finn. More embarrassingly for the Scuderia, though, is the fact that Raikkonen was lapped and Alonso only escaped that indignity by a few seconds, finishing nearly 90 seconds behind Hamilton’s winning Mercedes.

The tight and twisty streets of Monaco will minimise the Silver Arrows’ power advantage, though, and the rest of the pack will hold out some hope that they’ll be able to take the fight to Mercedes in two weeks’ time. Both championships look out of reach already, though. It’ll be a battle between Hamilton and Rosberg throughout the season, but you suspect that the German needs to beat Hamilton again very soon.

Hamilton has the momentum and the psychological advantage. You suspect that he’d like nothing more than to rub it in around the streets of Monaco, where Rosberg won last season.

Cruise control in China for hat-trick hero Hamilton

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

Hamilton proudly holds his winner's trophy aloft

Hamilton proudly holds his winner’s trophy aloft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vettel seems to be struggling with his Red Bull

Vettel seems to be struggling with his Red Bull

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

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

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

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

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

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

The turn one contact between Rosberg and Bottas

The turn one contact between Rosberg and Bottas

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

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

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

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.

It’s back to the future as Raikkonen re-joins Ferrari

Thanks to Express Insurance  for sponsoring this post.

Ahead of last weekend’s Singapore grand prix the big news in the Formula 1 paddock was Ferrari’s announcement of Kimi Raikkonen as Fernando Alonso’s team-mate for the next two seasons.  The hiring of Raikkonen to replace Felipe Massa represents a significant change of approach for Ferrari; they’ve now got two drivers who will enjoy equal ‘number one’ status, instead of a clear lead driver and a ‘number two’ as had been the situation with Alonso and Massa.

Massa's inconsistency was a big factor in Ferrari's decision not to renew his contract

Massa’s inconsistency was a big factor in
Ferrari’s decision not to renew his contract

The move is, though, a clear statement of intent from Ferrari.  They have been frustrated by Massa’s inconsistency, and the Brazilian’s lack of points has been a hindrance in the Scuderia’s quest for world constructors’ championship titles.  Consistency is certainly something that Raikkonen will bring to Ferrari.  The Finn has been immense since his return to Formula 1 at the start of last season with Lotus.  He has scored points in almost every race, enabling him to stay in the hunt for the championship, and retired from only one; this season’s Belgian grand prix (through no fault of his own).

It was all smiles on launch day in 2007 for Hamilton and Alonso.  It didn't last...

It was all smiles on launch day in 2007
for Hamilton and Alonso. It didn’t last…

Despite the clear benefits that Raikkonen will bring in terms of a better points return than Massa, it may well be that Ferrari have bitten off more than they can chew with the Alonso-Raikkonen paring.  Anyone who watched the explosive pairing of Alonso and Lewis Hamilton at McLaren in the latter’s rookie season in 2007 will know that the Spaniard does not like it when his position is challenged.  Alonso thought he would be ‘number one’ in the team, but McLaren’s protégé proved to be a match for him resulting in some extreme petulance from Alonso, which ultimately cost both drivers the championship, ironically to Raikkonen.

The situation was so bad at McLaren that Alonso was released from a multi-year contract after only a single season.  Is there any reason to suggest that things will be different when Alonso is paired with another number one’ and, indeed, another world drivers’ champion at Ferrari?  The answer to that question will become apparent in 2014, but for now I think that the answer is probably yes, and no.

I think that there are some notable differences between the Alonso-Raikkonen pairing and the Alonso-Hamilton one.  Firstly, Alonso knows exactly what he’s getting with Raikkonen.  He will expect to be challenged by another champion and will go in to the situation prepared for that.  That’s obviously very different from the situation at McLaren.  Secondly, Alonso has matured considerably since 2007.  At 32 years of age he is now one of the more experienced drivers in F1.  Raikkonen, at a year older is also an old hand, so we won’t have a McLaren-like situation with two young drivers butting heads.

Raikkonen is notoriously unforthcoming when being interviewed

Raikkonen is notoriously unforthcoming
when being interviewed

Having said all of that, though, when push comes to shove at Ferrari I think we could see some fireworks between Alonso and Raikkonen.  Raikkonen is famous for being an unconventional driver.  He doesn’t really do media work, which might mean that the bulk of such activity falls to Alonso, a potential source of frustration.  More importantly, though, despite his greater maturity, there are still signs from Alonso that he hasn’t completely shaken off the petulance of his youth.  Certainly at Monza this year, we saw signs of the Alonso of old, berating his team on the radio and looking decidedly unhappy post-qualifying, despite the later denials.  A challenge from Raikkonen may well end up bringing out the worst, rather than the best, in Alonso.

So, we may or may not have fireworks at Ferrari in 2014, but have Ferrari made the right choice with Raikkonen?  First of all, I think that the team were absolutely right to replace Massa.  The Brazilian, who came agonisingly close to the world drivers’ championship in 2008, has been a shadow of his former self since a career threatening injury suffered at the Hungaroring in 2009.  Massa has had ample opportunity at Ferrari, but despite flashes of his old speed, he has not been able to deliver results on a consistent basis.

Nico Hulkenberg was considered as Alonso's partner before Ferrari opted for Raikkonen

Nico Hulkenberg was considered as Alonso’s
partner before Ferrari opted for Raikkonen

Having made the decision to replace Massa, was Raikkonen the right choice?  Well, that one’s a little more difficult.  We know that Nico Hulkenberg was under serious consideration for the second Ferrari seat.  The German is undoubtedly quick and hugely talented, and personally I’d love to see him given a chance at a top team.  Signing Hulkenberg would have maintained the current position with Alonso as the number one driver in the team, but in doing so Ferrari might have recreated a situation that was even more akin to the 2007 McLaren position than Alonso-Raikkonen.

Hulkenberg would likely have gone to Ferrari as a ‘number two’ to Alonso, though.  Just what would have happened if he proved quick enough to actually challenge Alonso?  That situation may well have been the one that would have been the most likely to bring out the absolute worst in the Spaniard.

Instead Ferrari opted to go with Alonso-Raikkonen.  On paper the partnership is the strongest one in Formula 1; two former world champions who are arguably at the peak of their powers.  However, this isn’t a long-term pairing.  As I’ve mentioned, both drivers are in their early thirties and you have to think that their time in the sport is drawing to its conclusion.  Doesn’t this leave Ferrari with a problem in a couple of years?

Are Ferrari waiting for Sebastian Vettel to become available in 2016?

Are Ferrari waiting for Sebastian
Vettel to become available in 2016?

The answer to that question is no.  Simply put, Ferrari want Sebastian Vettel in the team.  Vettel recently signed a one year contract extension at Red Bull racing, which will keep him at the team until the end of the 2015 season, coincidentally the same point at which Raikkonen’s deal with the team will run out.

So it all looks very neat.  Raikkonen is brought in to bring consistency to Ferrari and strengthen the team in the short-term until the arrival of Sebastian Vettel in 2016.  Is that how things will turn out?  Who knows!  Let me know what YOU think in the comments section, below.