Monday, April 16, 2007

Bahrain – Race Analysis

This time we had a reasonable F1 race. Unlike the first two races of the season, the 2007 Bahrain Grand Prix had a little bit of a fight for the victory. The race was fun to watch, with many overtaking manoeuvres, although most of them for positions outside the points. Drivers had a hard time controlling their cars, especially when going out of the race line and onto the thin sand that covered the least used asphalt. Due to that, there were many off-track excursions. Rising above all the problems, Felipe Massa got his first win of the season and Alonso had his worst result – 5th – making the championship battle even closer.

Felipe Massa drove like a champion

Massa really drove like a champion. This is what Jean Todt said on the radio after Felipe crossed the line. He got the hat trick – pole position, best lap, win – which is already impressive. Hamilton’s pursuit did not alter his concentration. Add to that the fact that he came from a disappointing result last week, after a mistake that was solely his fault, and we may have two ‘icemen’ in Ferrari.

I have written in this blog that I believe Massa is the strongest contender for the title (‘Felipe Massa – 2007 F1 world champion?’) and have given many reasons for this. The speed and focus that he showed yesterday are two characteristics of a champion. I also have a feeling that Michael Schumacher treats him like his pupil. Massa has admitted that they spoke about Malaysia right after the race. That cannot hurt, can it? If I were Raikkonen I would start listening to Schumacher as well.

Lewis Hamilton rewrites the record books

Hamilton is a great driver, who got to Formula One better prepared than most before him. And Ron Dennis gave him a great car. Now he takes his 3rd consecutive podium, in his first 3 races, and he is the only rookie to have ever accomplished that. He beat Alonso all weekend long. There is nothing else to say about this guy.

Wait, there is. After Malaysia’s press conference, some people had the point of view that he was way overexcited, maybe even joking about Massa’s mistake. I do not think that was the case, he is just a young kid having fun. To strengthen my point of view, after yesterday’s race he put his car right next to Massa’s and applauded his opponent’s performance. He may only be a kid, but he is definitely one who respects his adversaries.

What is wrong with Raikkonen?

Kimi Raikkonen may never show his emotions, but deep down he knows he has found his match at Ferrari. Massa will drive many other races like he did in Bahrain, and Kimi will not be able to catch him. There is one extra pressure: he gets paid a lot more than Felipe, so he is expected to be faster.

He seems to have taken a hit from Massa’s phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes. His race was filled with apathy. He was not the driver he normally is, who pushes hard even when the car is not great, trying to force the others to make mistakes. He did the right thing at the start, trying to overtake Hamilton, but then he paid the price of not being able to finish the move and got passed by Alonso. Good thing he had a couple more laps of fuel during the first stint, otherwise he would ride all the way to park fermé stuck behind the McLaren. He has 3 weeks to think about his performance before the next grand prix.

Heidfeld vs. Alonso

Heideld got by Alonso with a fantastic move on the outside. BMW seems to be stronger every race, and maybe they will challenge Ferrari and McLaren for the win in a few races. Since they do not seem to have as much top speed, it is more probable to happen at a track with less straightaways. Well, Monaco is only two races away...

Alonso would have to have a bad race at some point. This was it. Heidfeld got by him because he made a small mistake. It will take him a while to digest Heidfeld’s pass, but the 4 points he got will count a lot by the end of the season. I am sure that if he ends up behind Heidfeld anytime soon, he will go for a bold move in exchange for the one he got yesterday.

Bahrain’s quick notes

- Anthony Davidson had a good race until his engine blew up. It seems like it could have been even better, though. For some reason Super Aguri filled his tank with a lot of fuel, so he only made his first pit stop in lap 28 of 57. His car seemed fast enough to match the others with equal amounts of fuel, so there was no reason for him to have a different strategy. Maybe they already knew that the engine could probably not take the extra revs...

- RBR is showing more speed. Chief engineer Adrian Newey is certainly behind this, as his nickname should be ‘continuous improvement’. Hopefully they will solve the reliability problems in a few races and fight for points. Both Webber and Coulthard got out with transmission problems – gearbox and driveshaft, respectively.

- Williams seemed to be a car that could finish in the points, but both Rosberg and Wurz made many mistakes and finished only 10th and 11th. Rosberg seemed to be suffering from the same disease that plagued Massa in Malaysia: lack of patience.

- Like yesterday, Rubens Barrichello and Ralf Schumacher had memorable battles in the past, when Rubens drove for Ferrari and Ralf for Williams. Those where battles for more relevant positions though, worth championship points or places on the podium. They met more than once in Bahrain, but both have disappointing cars now. Ralf took his Toyota to 12th place and Rubens his Honda to 13th. Their battles were fun to watch, as usual.

- Trulli drove very well, maintaining his fame of a driver who is almost impossible to be overtaken. He held both Williams’ drivers at one point, causing them to make many mistakes. In the end, he finished 7th, holding a faster Fisichella, who tried hard to go by on the last few laps.

Star of the race:

Nick Heidfeld. I could also say Felipe Massa, but the Heidfeld’s performance had a surprise appeal that got him this award. Passing the current world champion on the outside also helped.

Shame of the race:

Adrian Sutil. He had an excuse for every trouble in the beginning of the previous two races. Now he just hit Scott Speed from behind, period. He came back to finish the race, but he needs to improve his concentration if he wants to keep his job.

--Andre N.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Malaysia – Race Analysis

Malaysia 2007 was not a race that will be remembered as one of the greatest in the history of Formula One, but there was some action among the boringness. Fernando Alonso, though, will keep the trophy as one of his most memorable races: a perfect drive for his first McLaren win. Ferrari – Felipe Massa at least – seemed faster all weekend long, but somehow the victory slipped out of their hands. Let's analyse how...

The start: Advantage to second place

Is it just me or the starting grid in Malaysia gave an advantage to whoever qualified on the right hand side - i.e., 2nd, 4th, and other even positions? Why does the pole sitter start on the left side? The first corner is to the right. It would only make sense for the pole sitter to start on the left side if that were the race line where cars would normally go by. The race line has tyre rubber all over it and provides more grip for acceleration, being an advantage to whoever starts on top of it.

In Malaysia, the last corner is a left hander. Therefore, drivers exit the last corner on the right side of the track and go across the straightway to take the first corner from the left side. So the race line is actually diagonally across the starting grid. Since there is no better grip on either side, the best starting position is on the right – exactly where Alonso and Hamilton started – because it is an advantage going into the first corner. It is not a surprise that both got by their same-row opponents – Massa and Raikkonen, respectively – on the first corner.

Alonso not only got first place, but also blocked the way for Massa to take the inside line. As he took the first corner from the outside, Massa got on the dirty part of the track, outside the race line. This allowed Hamilton to drive side-by-side and carry more speed out of the next left hander. Two corners after the start, McLaren had a huge advantage, just because they started from the even grid positions. Someone at the FIA must have seen this...

Clean race for Alonso

Alonso is the man who takes whichever opportunity he has and scores the most out of it. I have compared him to Emerson Fittipaldi before, and I think the comparison is suitable again. After qualifying second, Alonso would be happy to finish in that position and take 8 points. With the advantage at the start, the opportunity was to win, so he drove one flying lap after another, without making any mistakes. It was a perfect race. Even without the help from Hamilton, who held Massa and Raikkonen, he would have won.

Hamilton: Too good to be true

Is Hamilton really a rookie, racing only his second F1 race? The guy is unbelievable. He drives like a veteran. He sometimes makes minor mistakes – a lock-up or a trip off-track –, but he never lets them interfere on the race result. He held Massa like Alonso would. And I am sure that with more experience, he will be able to race like Alonso did yesterday, as well. He lacks only a little bit of speed and lap-time consistency, but he will get there by the end of the season.

Massa beyond the limit

Massa wanted the win so much that he forgot the championship is 17 races long. Had he thought about the championship, he would have been more careful. He could have finished at least third, better than the fifth he got after the off-track excursion that was the result from trying too hard to overtake Hamilton.

I cannot blame him much, though. At least he tried something. It was exciting to watch. Unfortunately he made the biggest error in a weekend in which few drivers made mistakes. I will have to call him the ‘Shame of the Race’... The fact that he allowed Heidfeld’s BMW to finish ahead of him was decisive. Ferrari is still better than BMW, he should have finished ahead.

Modest race for Raikkonen, but he gets 6 points

Raikkonen is paid a lot more than Massa – 3 to 4 times. He should be faster than Massa. He is not at this point. It was Massa who made the mistake and let Raikkonen go by. Raikkonen did nothing more than, for example, what Rubens Barrichello would have done as a Ferrari driver. I expect a lot more from him.

He later explained that Ferrari was not giving full power to his engine, trying to avoid a breakdown after the water leak in Australia. Still, he was very close to Hamilton on the first stint, he could have at least pulled the car to the side entering corners, trying to cause a mistake by Hamilton.

Malaysia’s quick notes

- Rubens Barrichello had one of the greatest races of his career, starting last after an engine failure and finishing 11th on the ridiculously slow Honda, ahead of teammate Button. No one cares about 11th, though...

- Nico Rosberg had a great race and was robbed of a second consecutive points finish as his car broke down. The cause is still unconfirmed, but the DNF is not a surprise, as Williams has been unreliable during 2006 as well.

- Williams’ speed was confirmed by the great race that Alexander Wurz drove, starting 19th and finishing 9th. Although he finished the race, we can also say that he did not score points due to lack of reliability, since he had gearbox problems in qualifying.

Star of the race:

McLaren: Both drivers were great, but the team strategy was also perfect.

Shame of the race:

Felipe Massa: At least he admitted his own mistake.

--Andre N.


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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Traction Control Ban

Last week the FIA has announced that traction control will be banned for the 2008 season. It has been banned before, in 1993, but was then re-allowed in 2001, since the stewards stated that it was not possible to scrutinize an electronic feature within different and complex control units. In 2008 the electronic control unit – ECU – will be the same for every team, so now the FIA considers it possible to guarantee that no team will have ‘hidden’ traction control programmes.

Some people argue that Formula One should not only be the pinnacle of motorsports, but the pinnacle of engineering as well. They say that if this feature is banned, the technology in F1 would be at a lower level than what we see in productions cars. They are partially right.

A Formula One car is a combination of high level engineering in all components and features. The ECU and traction control are only a couple of them. I am sure that the teams’ budgets will not be reduced just because traction control was banned. This money will go to something else. Therefore, engineering will continue at the highest possible level, just the focus will be changed.

Others argue that some drivers would not be able to control their cars without traction control, because ‘they are not good enough’. I do not agree with this either. In order to reach Formula One, a driver must compete in other series. Most of these series – GP2, Formula 3, Formula Renault, Formula BMW, and many others – do not have traction control. Every single F1 driver has driven cars without traction control for most of their careers. Even drivers who are not the greatest, but got to F1 due to good sponsors.

I don’t think we are going to see cars swinging their backs at the corner exits, as it was common in the past. The cars are still too much dependent on aerodynamic grip, so if the tail starts to spin out in medium and high speed corners, there still will be no way to regain control. Maybe with the return of the slick tyres this will be possible. That will not happen in 2008, though. Also, with the current race tyres, the better lap times come from the smallest steering inputs and no excessive over- or understeer. To have a measure of what I am saying, compare karting in the 80’s – when oversteering was fastest – with today’s races – the cleaner the racing line, the faster.

The nice thing is that races will be more fun to watch. The change is the fact that drivers will need to concentrate both on the entrance and exit of a corner. Today they just press the throttle down after the apex and electronics does the rest. Next year drivers will have twice as much relevant pedal input as they do today: throttle will matter as much as brake. It is like having twice as much race action as we do today. I do not think it will have much of an impact in the results of the races or championship. Is there anyone out there who thinks Michael Schumacher would not be a champion without traction control? Or that Ayrton Senna would be beaten with traction control?

At least the fans were heard when they urged for more driver influence in the results. Just the fact that the FIA wants to add more excitement to the races is enough for this to be a change for better.

--Andre N.