Monday, March 19, 2007

Australia – Race Analysis

Nice country, good weather, great public. The first race of the 2007 F1 season had the perfect scenario, yet the race itself was not that exciting. The front runners were not fighting for positions, the real action was happening on the back of the pack. Kimi Raikkonen did not worry about this, though. He took 10 points for the win, knowing that Ferrari is better than all the other teams and that his main rival at this time – his teammate, Felipe Massa – is 7 points behind him in the Drivers’ Championship. Let’s analyse the details...

Kimi Raikkonen: Great start for his Ferrari career

What else can we say when a driver takes pole, times the fastest lap of the race and wins? He did not have to push, as his main contender – Massa – had already been defeated by a gear box failure in qualifying. Kimi drove perfectly except for a lack of concentration on lap 46, in which he braked too late and put a wheel on the grass. He had no radio communication, because it broke just before the race. But he is the ‘Ice Man’, isn’t he? His focus was enough for that not to have an impact on the final result.

I also like the fact that he took both his hands off the wheel and raised both arms to celebrate, just before crossing the finish line. He almost lost control of his car, but that was fun to watch. He is becoming a little more Italian as he spends more days in Ferrari. This will help him inside the team, as mechanics tend to like drivers who put up a good show.

Alonso is Alonso once again, with a helping hand from McLaren

Alonso was himself once again. Or was he Alain Prost? I have certainly seen this ‘not so fast, but constant’ approach to racing before... Fernando Alonso did manage to score 8 points in a race that should have been a Ferrari 1-2. He also drove some very fast laps as Hamilton got in for his second pit stop, and managed to overtake him in the pits.

What McLaren will never tell us is that it was their intention for Alonso to beat Hamilton. Otherwise, they would never put 3 more laps of fuel in Alonso’s tank. OK, someone has to pit first, but why change the order from the first stop? Strange, to say the least.

Hamilton shows why he drives for McLaren

I have already written that I find Lewis Hamilton to be a very intelligent, self-controlled person, and that would help him become a great F1 driver. I just did not think he would be this good in his first race. The move he made just after the start was amazing, overtaking two cars at once. Also impressive was his pace. He was as quick as Alonso for the entire race. He lost the second position for two reasons: 1) he was held by backmarker Sato before his second pit stop; 2) McLaren’s strategy favoured his teammate (as I wrote in my comments about Alonso, just above).

Hamilton has shown why McLaren hired him. It is almost a shame that he is not driving for a smaller team. It would be a good show. Who can forget when then-rookie Ayrton Senna drove for Toleman in 1984? What would Hamilton do if he drove for Super Aguri, for example?

Trouble for Massa, but satisfactory results

If Felipe Massa learned anything from Michael Schumacher, it was that he needs to take whatever points he can when the day is not right. Starting in 22nd, Massa drove all the way to 6th. I have read over the Internet forums many complaints for his lack of attitude when he was behind the two Hondas. I guess Schumacher would not wait as many laps, but it was not that bad. In the end, it cost Massa 1 point, as he would probably have had time to overtake Fisichella. Felipe would never reach Heidfeld, though, as the latter finished almost 28 seconds ahead of Fisichella.

Australia’s quick notes

- Mixed results for BMW, with Heidfeld in 4th but Kubica forced to retire with gearbox problems. This is the tale of this car since pre-season testing. It seems like most of their reliability problems are related to the gearbox, though. They will certainly correct these problems in a few races, but until then they may have a few more DNF’s on the gearbox’s account.

- David Coulthard did what was probably the most stupid move of his career as he tried to pass Alexander Wurz for 13th. He was sensate enough to recognize his mistake and apologize. I must say that Coulthard is a true British gentleman, because nothing less would make Wurz accept his apologies – as he did –, since Coulthard’s wheel almost hit Wurz’s helmet during the crash.

- It is expected for rookies to make mistakes, but Heikki Kovalainen made so many that it makes me wonder if Nelson Piquet Jr. Renault’s test driver could not do better. I still believe Kovalainen will improve and will have more points than Fisichella by the end of the season.

- Nico Rosberg drove a quiet race and managed to score 2 points with his Toyota-powered Williams. In a bold overtaking move, he took 7th place from Toyotas Ralf Schumacher, who finished 8th.

Star of the race:

Lewis Hamilton

Shame of the race:

Heikki Kovalainen

--Andre N.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Felipe Massa – 2007 F1 world champion?

We are less than a week away from the first race of the 2007 season. Pre-season testing is over. It is that time of the year again when every other F1 fan is discussing who will be the next F1 world champion.

For the past few weeks, I have been asking myself the same question that ended up as this post’s title. It is about the driver who has constantly topped the time charts during pre-season: Is Felipe Massa going to be the next F1 world champion? Of course no one can be 100% sure of such answer. All I could do was to come up with a logical approach. If real life is then illogical, as many times it is, things may change – but at least logic gave a starting point.

From what I know about Formula One and logic, the answer is simple.

Yes, Felipe Massa will be the 2007 F1 world champion.

So easy to say, yet so shocking. At first thought, the response by the logical approach would be either Fernando Alonso – 2005 and 2006 champion – or Kimi Raikkonen – 2003 and 2005 runner-up. Further analysis points to Massa, though.

Let’s take the step-by-step method to show how I came up with this answer. I will divide the response in match-ups with the other title contenders. If Massa wins them all, he is the virtual champion.

Match-up #1: Massa vs. Raikkonen

Ferrari will be the team to beat in 2007. The second half of 2006 and 2007 pre-season has shown that. I believe Ferrari will be the constructor champion – for more on that, check out my post ‘What about McLaren?’. If I am right, this is the key match-up for the drivers championship: Massa versus his own Ferrari teammate.

I believe Massa will beat Raikkonen. Massa is focused: He knows what he wants, is working hard and has learned everything he could from Schumacher. His mental state is great. Ferrari is his home. He loves the team, the team loves him. Kimi is the new guy there. When anyone makes a job change, there is a period of adaptation. In F1, this is not different. Even ‘The Iceman’ wil take some time to adapt. When he does, it will be hard for him to catch up to Massa, who will have a few more points.

Maybe it is just the press, but the fact that Raikkonen is told to be partying and drinking every other week does not seem to be a good thing. This blog is not about protesting against alcohol, but I have not heard about any recent champion athlete who drank half as much as Raikkonen is told to drink. Even if it is not entirely true, the fact that the press states it is will bother Kimi at some point. Felipe does not have this type of distraction in his quest for the championship.

Massa will win this match-up.

Match-up #2: Massa vs. Alonso (and Hamilton)

Both Massa and Alonso have always been lighting fast drivers. In the beginning of their careers, both would make many mistakes, trying to be faster when the car did not allow. At one point, Alonso stopped making mistakes. After that, he has 'suddenly' won 2 titles. Massa is at that point right now. He has stopped making the stupid mistakes from his early F1 career at Sauber.

Since both are - in my opinion - equally fast, and Massa is now becoming equally consistent, only one factor will be really deciding: the car. And Ferrari is better than McLaren at this time. Therefore, Massa will also win this match-up.

Note: I will not compare him to the less experienced Hamilton, since Alonso is the current world champion and should score more points than the rookie. If Massa can beat Alonso, he can beat Hamilton as well.

Match-up #3: Massa vs. Kovalainen

This match-up should be versus both Renault drivers. But I think Kovalainen will be faster, and Massa already beat Fisichella in 2006, so there is no point comparing to him. Still, the only way Kovalainen would beat Massa would be if Renault were faster. This has not been the case since the second half of the 2006 season in most tracks. Add to that Kovalainen's lack of experience and Massa wins another match-up.

Match-up #4: Massa vs. everybody else

Who else could be champion? Kubica or Heidfeld and the surprising BMW? They still have reliability problems that will cost them a few points. They will surprise at some races, but will disappoint in many others.

No one else seems to have a car good enough to consistently beat Ferrari. Not Honda, not Toyota, not Williams, not anyone. Therefore, Massa wins all the remaining match-ups.

The bottom line

Massa is a winner. He has won every category he has raced after karting. He has won Brazilian Formula Chevrolet in 1999, the Italian and European Formula Renault in 2000, and the Formula 3000 Euro-Series in 2001. Why can’t he also be Formula One champion? This seems to be his year.

--Andre N.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

F1 Online Competition

The link above is a nice web competition. No prizes – except for glory – are given, but it is really fun to compare yourself to people all over the world. It is called Pick 6 because of the former F1 point format, but you actually pick the top 8 drivers.

Since you must make your pick before Friday practice, surprises do not interfere in the result – it affects everyone in the same manner.

--Andre N.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Schumacher’s last race – I was there

This may be a bit late or already a bit of nostalgia, but I cannot contain myself from writing about Michael Schumacher’s last Formula One race – The 2006 Brazilian Grand Prix. I have just watched the recorded TV coverage for the 2nd time and it does not pay justice to what I saw live at the race track.

Back to October 22nd, 2006: I had bought a ticket to the gigantic backstretch grandstands, which has the cheapest available seats. Interlagos is such a great track for spectators because there is a nice view of most of the action from anywhere. Some people say that A1-Ring in Austria is the only other full size road course with such great views, but I have not been there to confirm. From the backstretch you are able to see the entire track except for the pits and about a quarter of mile of the front stretch – unfortunately you are not able to see the start/finish line, but there had to be a reason for the tickets to be cheaper. The two main overtaking spots – the Senna Esse and the fast left-hander next to the pond at the end of the backstretch – are viewable if you seat right in the middle of the stands.

Since there are no numbered seats, you must get to the track very early to get a nice spot on the upper levels of the grandstands. Besides watching all the preliminary races, it allows you to feel the atmosphere. And it was quite a different atmosphere. Most people were wearing the Ferrari red, which is understandable, since Felipe Massa is Brazilian and was racing for Ferrari. But there were many farewell posters to Schumacher. Most people seemed happy to see Massa on pole, but a little bit sad due to Michael’s departure. Maybe the thought of seeing another great champion leaving reminded them of the emptiness left after Ayrton Senna’s fatal accident in 1994. It certainly reminded me.

It was noticeable that the crowd cheered – almost as loud as they did for Massa –as Schumacher drove by during the grid formation lap. I guess everybody was expecting something special from him. Due to a fuel pump failure in qualifying, he would be starting 10th.

As the race started, there were two loud roars from the crowd. One as Massa made it safely through the Senna Esse and the other as Schumacher did a zigzag on the backstretch looking for some room to pass the cars ahead. He passed both BMW’s on the next corner. He passed his brother Ralf on the front stretch, as he completed the first lap. He passed former teammate Rubens Barrichello right in front of me on the backstretch. The Brazilian crowd did not mind that a Brazilian had just been overtaken. The show was too good to be true. Some people were so excited that they were even jumping on the stands.

Then the safety car was deployed due to Nico Rosberg’s accident just before the end of the first lap. Schumacher was right behind Fisichella, in 6th. After a few laps, the safety car went back to the pits and Schumacher seemed to be very fast behind Fisichella. As he completed another lap, he was side-by-side with Fisichella as he went by the pit wall and out of my line of sight. Almost thirty thousand people on the backstretch grandstands turned their heads to the Senna Esse, waiting for the cars to come by. Fractions of second seemed like minutes. Then I saw a big puff of smoke as Schumacher red car was locking his brakes, closing to the inside, barely in front of Fisichella. That overtaking manoeuvre was historical. I was glad to be there, that was too beautiful too be true. The crowd was louder than anytime before during that weekend.

Unfortunately, I guess the move was not perfect. He may have been slightly touched by Fisichella’s front wing as he finished the pass. On the second leg of the esse, Schumacher almost spun out as he lost control of the rear end of the car, with a punctured left rear tyre. The crowd turned quite. If it were not for the F1 engines, you could hear your own breathing. At that time, I guess even Alonso’s fans wanted Schumacher to continue his show.

Very slowly he crawled back to the pits, where Ferrari changed the 4 tyres and added some fuel. As he came back to the race, he was almost a lap behind Massa. For the next laps, he would be a bit slow because of the heavy load of fuel. Massa had such a commanding lead that it seemed like he slowed down a little bit in order not to put his teammate a lap down.

Then there was some exciting action going on, but the TV did not show most of it. Schumacher was struggling with his car, driving every lap as he was on a hot qualifying lap. I could see him locking his brakes a few times on the trick curvy section in the middle of the track. His lap times started to improve as he burned some of the heavy fuel load.

Almost 30 laps into the 71-lap race, as the other drivers were pitting, Schumacher reached the backmarkers. Every overtake manoeuvre was celebrated on the grandstands, even if it was for a position outside the top ten. He made it to the points as he passed Nick Heidfeld for 8th with about 35 laps to go. The crowd realized that he could make even more.

With 32 laps to go, he got by Kubica on the first corner. Then something weird happened as he slowed down mid-lap and let Kubica went by. I guess we will never know for sure what that was, but it seems like the fuel pump problems he had in qualifying were back. The crowd was quiet again. But Michael regained speed and 2 laps later went by Kubica again.

He was picking up large chunks of track to 6th-place driver, Rubens Barrichello. It was visible; there was no need for a stopwatch. Barrichello pitted with 25 laps to go, and Michael would go in on the next lap. He was 8th on the return, still picking up time on Barrichello. In a couple of laps or so he got by Rubens on the Senna Esse. The crowed roared. I guess there was some resentment for the fact that the Brazilian had never been able to win his home Grand Prix.

As all drivers had pitted, Schumacher was 6h, and Fisichella was 5th. Michael got to the back of Giancarlo with about 15 laps to go. Two laps later, he had the same problem on the mid-section of the track as when he passed Kubica. But as he started to pick up speed again, the crowd forgot about that once again. I realised that the racing gods would not let him retire from his last race. The people were on their feet. It was time for payback. The TV did not show this part very well either. It was a masterful piece of driving. Michael pressured Fisichella so much that the latter lost it under braking for the Senna Esse, with 9 laps to go.

Kimi Raikkonen was the next. The feeling was that he would allow Michael to go by easily since he was already hired by Ferrari for 2007. That did not happen, and I am glad it did not. With 4 laps to go, Schumacher tried an overtaking manouvre on the front stretch, but Raikkonen closed the door to the inside. On the next lap, Raikkonen thought he had closed the inside, but Schumacher found some room between the McLaren and the pit wall. I could barely see the red car as it came towards the Senna Esse, since he was so close to the guard rail. He made his last overtaking manoeuvre, riding wheel-to-wheel with Raikkonen on the first leg of the Senna Esse.

The crowd went nuts. Grown men were in tears.

Schumacher did not have time for any other overtaking manoeuvres. He finished 4th, but that was one of the most amazing races I have ever seen. Everyone was happy. The likeable character that is Felipe Massa had won his hometown race. The competent Alonso was the world champion. The brave Jenson Button finished 3rd after starting 14th. Yet, it was the spectacular Michael Schumacher who had put up one of the greatest shows in the history of Formula One. He will be missed.

--Andre N.