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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F1 dazzles in the desert

After two easy victories, one for each of the Mercedes drivers, in the opening two races of the season many were writing off Formula 1. Quieter engines, fuel efficiency and the same big margins of victory; no battles at the front – F1 had lost the plot, right? Wrong. The Bahrain grand prix was full of thrills and spills and featured a titanic battle for victory between the Mercedes drivers – easily the best race in recent years; a real thriller that had you on the edge of your seat right until the chequered flag.

In the end, just like a week ago in Malaysia, it was Lewis Hamilton that came out on top in Bahrain, although his margin of victory over team-mate Nico Rosberg was dramatically reduced from 17.3 seconds last time out to a whisker over a single second this time. As reflected by the narrow margin of victory, we had a real fight between the Mercedes drivers in Bahrain, not only in the final grandstand finish over the last 10 laps, but also, crucially, in the run up to the first round of pit stops.

Hamilton beat Rosberg off the line and took the lead into turn 1

Hamilton beat Rosberg off the
line and took the lead into turn 1

Unlike in the last two races, in Bahrain Rosberg beat Hamilton in qualifying to take his first pole position of the season, with his team-mate qualifying second, giving the Silver Arrows their first front row lock-out of the season. Rosberg had clearly raised his game after being dominated by Hamilton at Sepang and looked to have the edge over the 2008 world drivers’ champion this time. The German, the race winner in Australia, might have been able to streak clear in the same way that Hamilton managed in Malaysia, but he was beaten off the line, and into turn one, by his team-mate.

Having gotten the drop on Rosberg, Hamilton couldn’t pull away, though. The gap hovered around a second to a second and a half in the opening stint of the race allowing our first round of fireworks to take place as we approached the first pit stops. Knowing that the driver who stopped first would enjoy the advantage of the undercut – the advantage of fresher tyres for a lap or so – Rosberg pushed hard to overtake Hamilton and closed to within DRS range of his team-mate.

Rosberg squeezed ahead of Hamilton several times, but couldn't make the pass stick

Rosberg squeezed ahead of Hamilton several times, but couldn’t make the pass stick

On lap 18 Rosberg made his move, diving down the inside of Hamilton at turn one before conceding the lead again as the Englishman fought back. On the next lap Rosberg tried again. This time it looked like he might have made the pass stick, but Hamilton wasn’t giving up and re-passed Rosberg into turn four. It was a truly brilliant counter-attack from Hamilton and it looked critical as at the end of the lap he made his pit stop. He had secured the advantage of the undercut.

Once both of the Mercedes drivers had stopped – Hamilton for another set of option tyres, while Rosberg had switched to primes – things seemed to settle down. The undercut had given Hamilton a six second advantage, which steadily increased eventually reaching 9.7 seconds on lap 40. While it was never quite a case of ‘race over’ given that Hamilton would use the slower prime tyre in the final stint while Rosberg would use the faster options, things did look reasonably comfortable up front.

Maldonado's Lotus flips Gutierrez’s Sauber into a dramatic somersault

Maldonado’s Lotus flips Gutierrez’s
Sauber into a dramatic somersault

But then along came Pastor Maldonado in the Lotus. On lap 41 the Venezuelan exited the pits and T-boned Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber, launching the Mexican’s car into a somersault at turn one – an incident which resulted in Maldonado receiving a five place grid penalty after the race, plus three points on his super-licence. Unsurprisingly, out came the safety car and away went Hamilton’s lead.

With Hamilton now on the slower tyres and Rosberg on the faster options, it looked to be advantage Rosberg. Just before the safety car pulled in with 10 laps to go, though, both Mercedes drivers received identical radio messages from Mercedes technical director Paddy Lowe “With 10 laps left to race, can we just make sure we bring both cars home.” Team orders, I thought. I was wrong! Rosberg attacked Hamilton immediately and while he couldn’t get the pass done he stayed close enough to Hamilton to receive the advantage of DRS when it became available two laps after the re-start.

Rosberg attacked again on laps 52 and 53, squeezing ahead of Hamilton only to be swiftly re-passed by his team-mate. It was thrilling stuff, but with better tyres and the edge in terms of outright speed I thought it was only a matter of time before Rosberg made the move stick. I was wrong again! Hamilton was told that he could use the overtake button on the exit of corners to aid in his defence and he was able to pull out a gap of around a second to Rosberg in the final couple of laps.

Perez celebrates his third place

Perez celebrates his third place

The second display of on-track fireworks between the Mercedes drivers was finally over as Hamilton took a brilliant victory, different in so many different ways to the win just a week earlier at Sepang. I haven’t even mentioned the other brilliant battles throughout the field during the race. Sergio Perez claimed third place to give Force India only their second ever podium finish and we saw on track fireworks from a whole host of other drivers. It was a tremendous race and a brilliant advert for the new era of Formula 1.

Not only did the battle between the Silver Arrows prove a thrilling spectacle, it also finally showed us the extent of the pace that the Brackley-based team have in their pocket. In just 10 laps they built up a 24 second advantage over Perez in third place; an advantage of some 2.4 seconds per lap. Something that will surely send shivers down the spines of the rest of the paddock.

Hamilton takes the checquered flag in Bahrain, just ahead of Rosberg

Hamilton takes the checquered flag
in Bahrain, just ahead of Rosberg

The championships look like Mercedes’s to lose, but we’re highly unlikely to get the sort of cakewalk that we’ve seen at times from Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel in recent seasons. The Mercedes drivers seem pretty closely matched and the team seem determined to let them race. That’s great for the sport. While Hamilton has two victories to Rosberg’s one, it’s the German that so far holds the championship advantage thanks to Hamilton’s unfortunate retirement in Australia.

There were more fireworks after the race, this time in the night sky as the organisers brought the curtain down on the 900th grand prix and the 10th at the Sakhir circuit. The next race in China has a lot to live up to.

Button shines amid the chaos at Spa

Well, Formula 1 certainly returned from its summer break with a bang as the start of the Belgian grand prix saw two of the leading contenders for the 2012 world drivers’ championship taken out of the running at a chaotic first corner.  Although we’ll never know what those two drivers – Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton – might have been able to do at Spa, it’s hard to argue that Jenson Button would have been remotely affected.  Button produced an outstanding performance at Spa to take his second victory of the season, becoming the fourth multiple winner of the season.

Aside from Button’s win there was also some outstanding racing at Spa, most notably between Kimi Raikkonen, who took his sixth podium finish of the season by finishing third, and seven time world drivers’ champion Michael Schumacher, who eventually finished seventh in his 300th grand prix.  Raikkonen’s pass on Schumacher through Eau Rouge was, in particular, brilliant, and the best overtake of the race for me.

Some of the less experienced drivers on the grid could certainly learn from these two former world champions.  I’m referring, in particular, here to Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado.  Grosjean’s move at the start of the race triggered the truly terrifying first corner crash that ended the races of Alonso, Hamilton, Perez and of Grosjean himself, while Maldonado was again involved in incidents in both Saturday and Sunday.

Romain Grosjean, Lotus E20, Jerez, Spain
10th February 2012
By Gil Abrantes from Portugal (IMG_8193.jpg) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s start by looking at the first corner crash that triggered a safety car period and ended the races of a number of drivers.  The incident was triggered by contact between Grosjean and Hamilton, which launched both drivers over the top of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari.  Grosjean appeared to be completely to blame for the crash as he moved sharply from left to right, cutting across the front of Hamilton’s McLaren.  Hamilton, running along the inside of the track, almost completely up again the white line marking the edge of the track, was left with nowhere to go and there was contact between the right rear of the Lotus and the left front of the McLaren, triggering carnage.

This was not the first early race incident that GP2 champion Grosjean has been involved in this season, but it was certainly the most spectacular and dangerous, and it will certainly reignite the debate about safety in F1 and possibly accelerate the introduction of cockpit protection for the drivers.  Certainly, Alonso can count himself extremely lucky not to have been injured in the incident as Grosjean’s car was launched into the air, dangerously close to his head.  The Spaniard said after the race that the impact ‘felt like a train’.

The stewards deemed the incident so serious that they later handed Grosjean a 50,000 Euro fine and a one race ban.  The stewards said that they ‘regard this incident as an extremely serious breach of the regulations which had the potential to cause injury to others”.  Grosjean has shown some prodigious speed this season, but has also been involved in several incidents, suggesting that he still has a fair amount of maturing to do as a driver.  His post race statement, where he admitted that he made ‘a mistake and…misjudged the gap with Lewis’ did, though suggest that it is certainly not beyond him to learn from such mistakes and convert speed into consistency.

Pastor Maldonado, Williams FW34, Spa, Belgium
2nd September 2012. Copyright: Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic

The same cannot be said of Pastor Maldonado, who was once again the focus of attention for all the wrong reasons.  Since his victory in Spain, Maldonado has failed to score a single world championship point and he continued this trend at Spa.  It could have all been so different for the Venezuelan, who qualified a brilliant third, but, owing to his own stupidity, started only sixth.  The Williams driver received a three place grid penalty from the stewards after holding up Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg in the first part of qualifying, despite being told not to hold him up over the team radio as the German closed up behind him.

Maldonado had said, before his grid penalty, that the team was “looking forward to making up for what we lost in the first part of the season”, after a number of lost points scoring opportunities.  Perhaps his desire to make up for past errors caused him to be a little over eager at the start of the race as he clearly jumped the start.  So clear was his jump-start that we witnessed race starter Charlie Whiting shaking his head in amazement as the Williams sped into second past a number of stationary cars.

Maldonado’s jump-start was subject to a stewards investigation and he would almost certainly have received a penalty during the race had he not crashed out of the race a few laps later following an incident with Marussia’s Timo Glock after the end of the safety car period.  As it turned out, the steward punished the Williams drivers for both the jump start and the incident with Glock, handing him two five place grid penalties for the next race at Monza.  Maldonado is certainly another driver that has shown some impressive turns of speed this season, but, as I’ve written about before, he is extremely hot-headed and has been involved in far too many incidents for anyone’s liking.

What is perhaps most worrying about Maldonado is that, unlike Grosjean, he seems completely incapable of acknowledging when he is at fault.  We’ve heard a number of excuses from him, notably ‘cold tyres’ for his incidents with Sergio Perez in Monaco free practice and the race at Silverstone.  This time Maldonado claimed that he ‘made a slight mistake at the start because the clutch slipped out of my hands before the red light switched off’.  I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Jenson Button, McLaren MP4-27,
Sepang, Malaysia. 23rd March 2012
By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Jenson Button was, though, completely untroubled by Maldonado’s jump-start or  the carnage at La Source at the start of the race.  Indeed, the Englishman was barely troubled by anything or anyone all weekend, having produced a completely unexpectedly dominant display in both Saturday qualifying and the race on Sunday to make the best possible start to the second half of the season.

The key to Button’s success seems to have been opting for McLaren’s new front wing after Saturday free practice, while his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, opted for an older spec wing and a higher downforce set up.  While Hamilton struggled for pace in qualifying, Button was serene.  We’ve often seen Button struggle with a car that was not to his liking while Hamilton has been able to somehow extract performance, but this wasn’t the case in Spa.

It’s well known that there’s no one better than Button when he’s got the car set up to his liking and there was no better demonstration of this than his performance in Belgium.  Indeed, Button produced a qualifying performance that was reminiscent of his team-mate’s performance in qualifying at the previous race of the season in Hungary.  Like Hamilton at the Hungaroring, Button’s time in set in Q2 would have been good enough for pole position had it been set in Q3, and like Hamilton in Hungary, Button followed a brilliant Q2 performance up with a further two searingly fast hot laps in Q3, both of which were good enough for pole.

Button’s qualifying performance was certainly impressive – surprisingly it was his first pole position for McLaren in his 50th race for the team – but so, too, was his performance in the race.  Button became the first driver to take a lights to flag victory in 2012, having one stopped his way to victory by 13.6 seconds from Red Bull Racing’s double world champion Sebastian Vettel.  Button was never challenged, pulling effortlessly away after the safety car pulled into the pits to record one of his very best Formula 1 wins.

Honourable mentions also go to Torro Rosso who, after a fairly dismal season, secured a double points finish with an eighth place finish for Jean-Eric Vergne and a ninth for Daniel Ricciardo.  Force India will be similarly pleased after a double points finish of their own – the highlight being a brilliant fourth place for Nico Hulkenberg.

Certainly, though, it was not a good weekend for either Hamilton or Alonso.  The latter saw Vettel move into second place in the world drivers’ championship just 24 world championship points behind him after his first DNF of the season.  This, of course, means that Alonso would lose his lead in the world drivers’ championship if he fails to score on Ferrari’s home turf and Vettel takes victory.  Who would have imagined that that would be possible before today’s race?

Button has clearly given his championship chances a huge shot in the arm with this performance, but the task of winning a second drivers’ championship still looks to be a massive challenge for him.  He has, though, closed to within 16 world championship points of his team-mate and reduced the deficit to championship leader Fernando Alonso to 63 points.  The 2012 Formula 1 season has certainly been full of surprises and a few more may yet be on the cards.

Red Bull push the limits as Alonso takes control

We’re now at the halfway point of the 2012 Formula 1 season after the completion of round 10, the German grand prix at Hockenheim.  We saw our fair share of controversy, both before and during the grand prix, a weekend to forget for Lewis Hamilton at his 100th Formula 1 race and a return to form for his team-mate, Jenson Button.  We also saw Fernando Alonso take his third win of the season, becoming the first driver this season to win more than twice.  So, where to start?

Let’s begin with Red Bull.  On Sunday morning we had the news break that the Red Bull may have been using illegal engine maps.  These maps were said to provide the Milton Keynes based team with both an element of off throttle exhaust blowing and a form of traction control.  In the view of FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer this engine map was illegal and he passed the matter to the stewards to adjudicate on.  A penalty seemed virtually a formality, especially given the wording of the statement from Bauer, which I’ll repeat here, in full.  The statement read:

“Having examined the engine base torque map of car numbers 01 and 02 it became apparent that the maximum torque output of both engines is significantly less in the mid rpm range than previously seen at other events.  In my opinion this is therefore in breach of article 5.5.3 of the 2012 Formula 1 technical regulations as the engines are able to deliver more torque at a given engine speed in the mid rpm range.  Furthermore this new torque map will artificially alter the aerodynamic characteristics of both cars which is also in contravention of TD 036-11.  I am referring this matter to the stewards.”

So, a fairly absolute view from the FIA’s own technical delegate.  The only question mark seemed to be over what penalty Red Bull would receive.  A pit lane start was mooted, or perhaps the Red Bull cars would appeal any penalty and start in their original grid slots, gearbox penalty for Webber notwithstanding.  In the end all the speculation proved to be academic, Red Bull received no penalty whatsoever from the stewards, much to the amazement of the other teams, the media and the fans.  The stewards, Derek Warwick, Tim Mayer and Paul Gutjahr, said in their statement that:

“While the stewards do not accept all the arguments of the team [Red Bull Racing], they however conclude that as the regulation is written, the map presented does not breach the text of Art 5.5.3 of the Formula 1 Technical Regulations and therefore decided to take no action.”

What the stewards were basically saying here is that the Red Bull engine mapping solution is against the spirit and the intention of the regulations, but that the way that the rules are written mean that the particular map used by Red Bull does not breach the letter of the law.  Both one of the stewards, Derek Warwick and Mercedes team principle Ross Brawn said that they do not expect that this will be the end of the matter, with a discussion at the next technical working group a foregone conclusion.

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

It seems that Red Bull, and their chief technical officer, Adrian Newey, are pushing the very limits of what is allowable under the regulations.  This isn’t the first time that Red Bull have been in this position this season, either.  We all remember the controversy in Monaco over the floor design used by Red Bull Racing.  It seemed certain that Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes, the teams most displeased with the design, would protest the result.  Under apparent pressure from the FIA, though, there was no such protest, with the FIA ruling, after the Monaco result had been finalised, that the design used in Bahrain, Spain and Monaco – with fully enclosed holes in the floor – was in fact illegal.  There was no penalty for Red Bull in that case, with the results of all three races remaining unchanged.  Parallels can certainly be drawn with the situation in Hockenheim, where Red Bull again seemed to have pushed the limits but have gotten away without a penalty.  As with their floor, we can be fairly certain that the engine maps that were the subject of this latest controversy will be changed for the next race in Hungary.

We all know, of course, that the teams all try to push the rules to their limits, stretching and perhaps bending the regulations to produce the fastest possible cars.  This is what Formula 1 is all about; innovation in the pursuit of speed, but it seems that Red Bull are pushing this principle to the very limit.  Innovation is one thing – and we’ve seen our fair share of it this season with the Mercedes double DRS, and the new Lotus F-Duct DRS – but using solutions that are clearly beyond the spirit and the intention of the regulations is perhaps stretching things a little far.  Red Bull would, I’m sure, argue that the exhaust solutions used by all of the teams this season – where gasses are being channelled to the diffuser to increase rear downforce – are also against the spirit and the intention of the rules, and they may well be right.  It’s certainly a fine line between clever innovation and interpretation of the rules and outright illegality.

Not only did Red Bull push the limits in Germany, but so did their reigning world drivers’ champion, Sebastian Vettel.  Vettel, having been leapfrogged by McLaren’s Jenson Button in the last round of pit stops, was running third in the closing stages of the race, catching Button, who was falling away from race leader Fernando Alonso.  Two laps from the end Vettel made his move, attempting to pass the McLaren around the outside of the hairpin.  As you might expect with a move like this, the Englishman squeezed the Red Bull driver to the edge of the track making it seemingly impossible for the German to complete the overtaking manoeuvre.  Vettel, though, left the track and used the run off area to complete the pass, rejoining the track ahead of the McLaren and ultimately crossing the line in second position.  Even before the race was finished it was announced that the incident would be looked at by the stewards at the end of the race.

Unsurprisingly, Vettel was indeed penalised for the pass, receiving a 20 second post-race penalty from the stewards, which dropped him from second place to fifth, costing him a potentially vital eight world championship points.  While the penalty was perhaps a little harsh – a five second penalty would, for example, have meant that Vettel finished third, behind Button – it’s very difficult to argue that the stewards made the wrong decision in this particular case.  It seems that while the German’s team have thus far gotten away with pushing the limits, their double world championship winning driver has not been quite so lucky.

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

Let’s move on now from the various Red Bull related controversies to Fernando Alonso, who once again had an outstanding weekend and took both pole position and a very well deserved third win of the season.  After winning, and consistently scoring points, in what appeared to be an uncompetitive Ferrari at the start of the 2012 season, Alonso has now taken a strangle hold on the world drivers’ championship as the Italian team have resolved their early season performance issues and provided their drivers with a truly competitive car.  While it’s true that Ferrari is still not the quickest car in the field, Alonso certainly gets the most out of it.

Alonso now leads the championship by a full 34 world championship points from second placed Mark Webber, who finished where he started in Hockenheim – eighth position.  While finishing where he started was certainly a disappointment for Webber, the same could definitely not be said for Alonso, who also finished where he started – first.  Alonso proved himself to be a master of all conditions, taking a brilliant pole position on Saturday in wet conditions for the second consecutive race, and driving a perfectly controlled race in the dry on Sunday to take a lights to flag victory.  At the mid-way point of the season it would be tough to argue that Alonso has not been the class of the field.  The Spaniard has scored points at every single race of the season so far, with only two single figure points hauls – in China and Bahrain, rounds three and four.

With such a big lead in the championship, Alonso is now guaranteed to go into the mid-season break after next weekend’s Hungarian grand prix in the lead of the world drivers’ championship.  However, while Alonso is in a seemingly dominant position in the championship, he will be all too aware that things can easily change in the second half of the season.  While we can perhaps expect to see Red Bull lose some performance if they are forced to change their engine maps, both drivers remain a big threat for the drivers’ championship – the Milton Keynes based squad do, after all, still have a big world constructors championship lead.

Alonso will also have to contend with McLaren, who bolted on a big upgrade package in Germany which delivered much improved pace, at least in the dry, for the Woking based team.  He’ll also have to watch out for Lotus and Kimi Raikkonen, in particular.  Despite having failed to win, the Finn has now crept in to fourth place in the world drivers’ championship, ahead of Lewis Hamilton after the latter’s struggles in Germany.

While Alonso is in a great position, he’s a very long way from home and dry in the championship race.  There may still be plenty of twists and turns left as we head into the second half of the 2012 Formula 1 season…

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.

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