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.

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Mercedes feel the pain in Spain

It wasn’t the most thrilling race of the season, but one man who won’t be complaining about the result is Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard took what was in the end a very comfortable victory in his home grand prix and was joined on the podium by his team-mate Felipe Massa in third and Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen. Mercedes, on the other hand, certainly won’t have been pleased by the result in Barcelona. After dominating qualifying by locking out the front row, both cars went backwards in the race, finishing a long way off the pace of the front-runners.

Fernando Alonso on his way to victory in Spain

Fernando Alonso on his way to victory in Spain

I have to start with Fernando Alonso, though. The 2005 and 2006 world drivers champion drove another faultless race to take his second win of the season. Alonso again made a great start from fifth place on the grid, but didn’t actually move forward until turn three where he crucially passed Raikkonen’s Lotus and Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes around the outside of the corner to move into third position and grab critical track position.

As the race progressed, Alonso and Ferrari made their four stop strategy work to perfection, first passing Vettel and moving into second place through the first round of pit stops and then passing Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes just a lap later on lap 23. The Spaniard never really looked back from that point onwards. He relinquished the lead only when making his remaining four pit stops, but he never looked under threat.

Indeed, as revealed after the race, even the luck was with Alonso in Spain. When the tyres were examined after Alonso’s final pit stop on lap 50 the team and Pirelli found that the Spaniard actually had a puncture. Had he continued for even another lap it would have been likely that we would have seen a tyre delamination for the Ferrari driver, similar to the one that put Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne out of the race in the final stages of the race. I suppose that the good luck for Alonso in Spain balances out the bad luck he had in Malaysia when his front wing failed on lap two.

Lewis Hamilton's delaminated Pirelli tyre from Bahrain, which cost the Englishman a five place grid penalty after it forced a gearbox change

Lewis Hamilton’s delaminated Pirelli tyre from
Bahrain, which cost the Englishman a five place
grid penalty after it forced a gearbox change

The talk in the paddock, though, was all about the Pirelli tyres yet again. As I’ve already mentioned, we had a tyre delamination for Vergne in the race, following up the one suffered by Force India’s Paul di Resta in practice. It seems that the changed construction of the Pirelli tyres means that when the 2013 tyres fail we will see delaminations rather than deflations. It doesn’t look great, but I think that if this were the only issue with the tyres then there wouldn’t really be a problem.

However, tyre failures are not the only problem. Indeed, they’re not even the biggest problem with the Pirelli tyres. The big problem for Pirelli, and indeed for Formula 1, is the extreme tyre degradation experienced by all the teams. When Pirelli entered the sport in 2011 they were charged with making the racing more exciting by making the tyres degrade more quickly and forcing the cars to make more pit stops.

Vettel was forced to yield to Raikkonen in Barcelona

Vettel was forced to yield to Raikkonen in Barcelona

Pirelli have certainly succeeded in this respect, but I think that the 2013 tyres are a step too far. Formula 1 fans want to see cars pushing flat-out, at, and sometimes beyond the limit. This is something that is just not possible with this year’s rubber. Rather than fight to hold on to positions, drivers are told over team radio to let other cars pass them in order not to damage their tyres. We saw an excellent example of this in Barcelona as Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel didn’t put up much of a fight when challenged by Raikkonen’s Lotus.

We also heard Mercedes telling Lewis Hamilton to try lifting off in turn three to help save the tyres and the same team telling the same driver that the rear tyres were at critical temperature with the response from the driver being “I can’t drive any slower”. F1 fans and drivers want the cars to be going as quickly as possible, which is something that they just can’t do nowadays.

How would some of the great drivers of the past fare with these tyres? We would probably never have seen the exuberance of Gilles Villeneuve. We would probably never have seen the supremely talented Ayrton Senna charging around the streets of Monaco getting faster and faster, lap after lap. Formula 1 is about pushing the limits of technology and speed. F1 shouldn’t be about tyre conservation – it isn’t endurance racing.

Of course, some teams are able to manage their tyres better than others. There will always be winners and losers from changes to regulations and tyre compounds and the biggest loser this race was clearly Mercedes. The Brackley based team have clearly made huge steps forward in 2013, but they are being hugely disadvantaged by being too hard on their tyres in the races. This has been a problem for the team for some time. It’s an issue that we certainly witnessed in the opening four races, and although the team have been working to address it, on the basis of their race performance at the Circuit de Catalunya there’s still plenty more work to do.

Rosberg and Hamilton celebrating their front row lock out in Spain

Rosberg and Hamilton celebrating
their front row lock out in Spain

Mercedes had reason to be optimistic going into the race in Spain. After a three-week break, the team took their third consecutive pole position and first front row lock out of the season, with Lewis Hamilton second behind Nico Rosberg on the grid. However, any optimism would have quickly faded. Hamilton found himself down in fourth place by the fourth corner of the first lap. It didn’t get any better for Hamilton as the race progressed, either. He dropped further and further back, at one stage battling with Pastor Maldonado’s Williams over 13th place, before eventually finishing the race in 12th position. Out of the race and lapped.

While Hamilton had to pit four times, Rosberg managed to stop only three times. Although he fared better than his English team-mate, the German was also less than thrilled with his race result of sixth position, 68 seconds behind race winner Alonso’s Ferrari. Like Hamilton, Rosberg suffered with tyre wear, albeit not quite to the same extent. As a result Mercedes left Spain with just eight points; scant reward after such a dominant qualifying performance.

Mercedes can take heart that their performance in the final sector of the Barcelona track is a good indicator of a strong performance around the streets of Monaco in the next race, but that’ll be of little consolation to their drivers at this point in time. Indeed, while I expect that Mercedes will be much stronger in Monaco, tyre wear is once again likely to be the key determining factor in the race. Unless Mercedes can find a solution to their extreme wear issues – and quickly – they’re unlikely to be able to fully exploit the underlying pace in their car.

Paul Hembery promised changes for Silverstone

Paul Hembery promised changes for Silverstone

Pirelli, though, understand that they’ve probably gone too far with this year’s rubber. Paul Hembery, Pirelli’s Motorsport Director, said on twitter after the race “We aim for 2-3 pit stops. Today was too many, we got it wrong, too aggressive. We will make changes, probably from Silverstone [the British grand prix at the end of June]”. Mercedes are likely to benefit the most from more durable tyres, but where there’s a winner, as I’ve already mentioned, there will be a loser – probably Lotus, who are notoriously kind to their rubber.

Still, there are another two races before the grand prix at Silverstone. Sebastian Vettel, despite only managing fourth place in Spain, still leads the world drivers’ championship, albeit now by only four points from Kimi Raikkonen. The man on the move, though, is Fernando Alonso, who moves into third place in the standings. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him continue his charge in Monaco.

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?

Home page image © Williams F1 Team, LAT Photographic

A demonstration of the value of maturity

What an action packed Spanish Grand Prix weekend.  Full of controversy, excitement and incident with a multitude of talking points.  Where to start?  There was another mistake from McLaren which led to the exclusion of the driver that set the fastest time in Q3, Lewis Hamilton, from qualifying.  Narain Kathikeyan qualifying outside the Q1 107% time, but being allowed to race.  A first pole, followed by a first win for Pastor Maldonado.  Frank Williams’s 70th Birthday. The fire in the Williams garage after the race, and Michael Schumacher’s crash with Bruno Senna.  I can’t possibly go into all of these incidents in detail in a single blog post, but I think it’s possible to draw together a common theme from the majority of these events: maturity.

I think that it would be unfair not to start with a brilliant first win for Pastor Maldonado. Nobody would have predicted pole position for the Venezuelan – albeit an inherited pole after Hamilton’s exclusion – let alone that he would go on to win the race.  Indeed, you could have got long odds on both.  Maldonado was written off by the majority of fans as a pay driver with little talent when he entered Formula 1 with Williams in 2011.  At 26, he was far older than many drivers new to F1 having spent four seasons in GP2, before finally winning that championship in 2010.  By the end of his first season in F1, aside from a strong drive at Monaco, which ultimately ended in retirement, he had done little to persuade anyone that he had the talent to win races in the premier class.  Maldonado finished 19th in the championship in 2011 after scoring a single world championship point with a 10th place finish at Spa.

With hindsight it’s easy to say that perhaps we were all a little harsh in writing Maldonado off.  He was, after all, a GP2 champions, just like Lewis Hamilton.  Unlike Hamilton, though, Maldonado took his time to deliver GP2 race wins and the championship; four seasons to Hamilton’s one.  Despite being the same age as Maldonado, Hamilton had already completed four Formula 1 seasons, and won the world championship, before Maldonado even entered F1.  Maldonado has shown with his outstanding drive in Barcelona, though, that although he has taken much longer to develop as a driver than many of his peers, if he is given a good enough car he has matured to the extent that he can win races.

I’ll continue the theme of maturity by moving on to talk about Lewis Hamilton.  I’ve written earlier in the season about the Englishman’s new found consistency and maturity, but after his performance at Barcelona it’s hard not to acknowledge it again.  You can imagine that Lewis Hamilton might have been indignant at being excluded from qualifying after being ordered by his engineer to stop on track after his pole lap after a blunder from McLaren meant that his car was under-fueled.  This was made all the worse by the fact that Hamilton had taken a brilliant pole position by almost 0.6s.  Indeed, the McLaren driver said, before being excluded from qualifying, that “It was a fantastic qualifying session for me…one of the best I ever had”.  It must have been incredibly disheartening for that brilliant lap and outstanding performance to have been for nothing.  The Lewis Hamilton of 2011, dogged by controversy, incidents and stewards penalties might well have crashed out early in Spain as he desperately tried to make up positions after starting from last, but not so the Hamilton of 2012.  The 2008 world champion drove a brilliantly controlled and mature race to take 8th, ahead of his team mate, Jenson Button, who started the race in 10th (having actually qualified in 11th).

Hamilton has received a fair degree of criticism about his driving style.  He’s been written off in some quarters as a driver that’s unable to come to terms with the new Pirelli tyres, having been compared unfavourably to his team mate who is known for his smooth driving style and tyre management capabilities.  It’s hard not to be impressed that Hamilton showed not only the maturity to drive a controlled race – while at times pulling off some outstanding overtaking manoeuvres – and finish ahead of his team mate, but also the ability to manage his tyres better than anyone else.  Hamilton was the only driver to make only two stops at Barcelona, which meant that he had to do an incredible 30 lap final stint.  At the end of that final stint many would have expected that Hamilton would be struggling for grip, falling backwards, but that, too, was not the case.  Hamilton was actually pulling away from his team mate, who was on fresher tyres, and rapidly catching Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes, who was also on newer rubber.  Button said after the race “I am normally good at looking after tyres and having a good consistency, it is something I always work on but I can’t do that at the moment and I don’t know why”, while in contrast Hamilton said when interviewed “I was the only one to do a two stopper, despite everyone always telling me how aggressive my driving style is and how much better my team-mate is on tyres than me. I think today is a good demonstration that they are perhaps wrong”.  This must have been an extremely satisfying result for an increasingly mature Lewis Hamilton, who had refused to blame his team for the qualifying fueling error.

I’ll return now to Williams, whose founder Sir Frank Williams was able to celebrate his own ‘maturity’, having just turned 70, with a first win since Juan Pablo Montoya won in Brazil in 2004.  Sir Frank and the team’s deserved celebrations were unfortunately cut short by a fire in their garage which left a gutted shell in its wake and resulted in 31 people being seen by circuit medical staff.  But out of this adversity came a show of amazing community spirit and maturity from Williams’s rivals who not only helped to extinguish the fire, but also have offered to loan Williams equipment to replace what was lost in the inferno.

There’s always an exception to the rule, though, and my exception to the maturity rule in Spain is Michael Schumacher.  At 43 years of age the seven time world champion is certainly old enough, but in my eyes he showed a real lack of maturity in failing to accept complete responsibility for ramming into the back of Bruno Senna’s Williams, putting both drivers out of the race on lap 13.  Schumacher amazingly blamed Senna for the crash, but the Stewards disagreed, handing the German a five place grid penalty for the next race – Monaco.  With five winners from five different constructors in the opening five rounds of the season I, for one, can’t wait to see what round six brings.