Monday, June 18, 2007

United States – Race Analysis

After the safety car showdown in Canada, we finally got a proper F1 race in North America. The clever track layout allows for some overtaking manoeuvres, mainly going into turn 1. This is what we saw yesterday, a very nicely fought race, especially for positions 5 and below. The top four positions seem to belong to the two silver and the two red cars. Besides Kimi Raikkonen’s bad start, it seems like McLaren and Ferrari are still in a league of their own, with the obvious advantage going for McLaren. Hamilton won, but it could have been Alonso had the starting positions been the other way around. At least we had some fight for first place, although it required the backmarkers’ presence to set up the moment. Formula One may have improved, but with such aerodynamically dependent cars, closely matched cars still cannot fight for position, as the pursuer loses too much downforce around the corners.

Two in a row for Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton won his second race in a row. More than that, he won two races this season, same as Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa. Since he is more consistent than the other 2-time race winners, he truly deserves to be leading the championship.

My biggest complain about Hamilton is not exactly about his results. It is that I have not been able to accurately tell if he is ‘only’ a great driver or a genius. Not that he cares about it. He certainly knows his limitations, but he is not going to tell everybody about them. I just wish I knew... I am pretty sure that he is a great driver, but there were not enough chances for me to confirm if he is a genius. Besides some great starts, he did not have to overtake anyone.

Most of the races were pretty straightforward for Lewis. Yesterday, at least, he had to fight with Alonso. And he did not disappoint me at all. After making a minor mistake in turn 9, he knew how to hold his position at the end of the frontstretch, breaking at the exact point he was supposed to, following the perfect line at the corner exit, leaving no chance for Alonso. However, it seems to me that if Alonso were in first place he would hold Hamilton behind the same way. Alonso even seemed faster – he just could not follow closely due to the loss of downforce and the car overheating that comes from drafting closely. Therefore, I cannot confirm if Hamilton is genius. Maybe he is ‘just’ a great driver.

I am almost hoping that at one point Hamilton hits trouble in qualifying so that he starts on the back of the grid. Or maybe it will rain during a race, so I can see if he’s got that natural talent that only geniuses have. And just to make sure, I also want to see in F1 the only other driver who I think was able to match Hamilton’s speed in the access series: Nelson Piquet Jr.

A better Alonso makes an even stronger McLaren

Fernando Alonso may have lost a race, but mentally he became stronger. The fact that he complimented Hamilton twice – after crossing the finish line and on the podium – shows that he is not going to keep complaining as much as he did this week. He lost, yet he knows that he could have won. He knows that the difference was in qualifying and that he can beat Hamilton. More than that, he knows now that McLaren will always give them equally matched cars, because this is what they got yesterday. If he wins or loses to Hamilton, it will mean one thing: the better one has won.

My praises go to Ron Dennis. McLaren is so well managed that it makes me believe that Ron would do well at any other kind of business. The way he manages the team is just beautiful. It was beautiful during the Prost-Senna era. It is beautiful at the current Alonso-Hamilton period. Dennis has certainly done his job in calming down Alonso, in order to make sure that the current period will also become an era in the history of F1.

Ferrari finally got something from Raikkonen

After being beaten on the track by Felipe Massa throughout the season, Kimi Raikkonen was finally able to match his teammate’s performance. He was again on the wrong end of the results, as he was 4th just behind Felipe. At least he pushed hard and showed us two things: 1) he has changed his driving style and is finally adapting to the Bridgestone tyres; 2) what we saw today was the most the Ferrari could do.

Felipe Massa was not brilliant, but he got the most that he could from today’s race. If he had driven with the same mentality in Malaysia, the championship gap would be much closer than the 19 points he has less than Hamilton. He is stronger this year, but of course he still lacks something to become a Michael Schumacher. He is still improving, though, so maybe one day he will be a seven-time world champion. Maybe not. Seriously, though, he has what it takes to be as good as anyone I have ever seen. The natural talent is there. It is just a matter of improving his mental state. And also getting a race-winning car, something Ferrari is not providing at this time.

United States’ quick notes

- Adrian Sutil drove a fantastic race – for a Spyker, that is. After starting 21st, he avoided the first corner melee and managed to drive as high as 12th. In the end, he finished 14th, just ahead of teammate Christijan Albers. But he certainly drove a lot better than Albers, the final results just do not show it.

- I do not know what Ralf Schumacher thought he could do by breaking deep into the first corner. He is being badly beaten by his teammate Jarno Trulli this season, the least he could do was to finish the race. Since Jarno finished 6th, including a nice fight with Mark Webber, I believe Ralf is about to lose his job. My bet is that he will not be driving for Toyota by the end of the year.

- Takuma Sato was about to do one of his memorable races, overtaking many opponents as he was recovering after starting only 18th. Then his car understeered, he drove wide, hit the grass with both left wheels, then oversteered and spun out of the race. One week he is great, the other he is a shame. Either way, he is just a poor man’s Nigel Mansell.

- Since the difference between prime and option tyres was not very large, many drivers tried a one-stop strategy. Among these, Nico Rosberg was the one who had the best chance of finishing in the points, but he left the race in anger as his engine gave up and caught fire.

- BMW had a strong race with rookie Sebastian Vettel, who became the youngest ever driver to score points as he finished 8th. By the end of the day, however, they had a bitter taste in their mouths because Heidfeld had gearbox problems – once again.

- Heikki Kovalainen is finally showing what he is all about by finishing a strong 5th. Although Giancarlo Fisichella finished 9th with the other Renault, his race also shows some improvements for the team. He spun and drove through the gravel in the second lap of the race and came from the back of the pack, overtaking many drivers in the process.

Star of the race:

Lewis Hamilton. No one did more than what they were supposed to do, so the award goes to the race winner. The way he held back Alonso is the exclamation point needed for winning my award.

Shame of the race:

Ralf Schumacher.

--Andre N.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Canada – Race Analysis

Let’s start by saying that the good news is that Robert Kubica only broke a leg after his huge crash [note: this was the information at the time of the post; later it was known that he only sprained the ankle!].Everything else, though, was very complicated. Whenever you have to read the rulebooks to understand a sporting event, something went wrong. This is the case of the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix. After four Safety Car entrances, the race itself became a mess. At least the race winner was preserved from the chaos. Lewis Hamilton became one of the youngest ever race winners and keeps showing that he is there to fight for the championship. However, besides the British fans – who must be ecstatic – most of the rest of the world is still trying to understand a confusing race.

Hamilton shines, but not as much as he could

Lewis Hamilton won his first race. The guy is great, everyone knows that by now. I have a feeling, though, that he has not shown us what he is capable of. Driving the best car in F1 is just too easy for him. Beating Alonso is impressive, but something is missing. Maybe I feel like this because Alonso self-destructed yesterday.

I said before and I will say it again: I wish Hamilton started off his career driving for a worse team. It would be exciting to see him doing the impossible with a slower car. Like Fernando Alonso did with Minardi and then the improving but not yet no.1 Renault. Like Michael Schumacher with Jordan, then the not so great Benetton. Like Ayrton Senna and the lousy Toleman, then the inconsistent Lotus.

The only other recent driver who had such an easy start to his F1 career was Jacques Villeneuve. But when he got to F1 and the dominant Williams team, he was the reigning Indycar (CART) and Indy 500 champion – at a time when Indycar was really competitive. And he had great battles against teammate Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher before he became world champion. I just wish Hamilton has at least one good fight against someone before he becomes champion.

Hamilton was lucky to get a contract with McLaren at a very young age. I just wish this does not become the trend for the top teams, or else we are going to have two championships in one. One with the top teams’ protégés and one with the drivers who will never make it to the top teams because someone wearing diapers already owns the seat that will become available.

I deviated to another subject because there is not much to say about Lewis’s race performance yesterday. It was perfect.

As Alonso self-destructs, Ferrari never had a chance

Fernando Alonso had a really bad race yesterday. He overshot the first corner because he was trying so hard to overtake
Hamilton. He did not need to do that. The world champion version of Alonso is the driver who finishes 2nd when he cannot win, like Alain Prost or Emerson Fittipaldi. Yesterday Alonso was more like Mark Webber or the F-3000 version of himself. Unimpressive, to say the least.

Also outrageous was Kimi Raikkonen’s performance. He almost took both Ferraris out of the race in the first corner as he hit Massa’s rear wheel. At one point he was losing ground to Nico Rosberg. He is earning too much money for what he is doing. I mean, for what he is NOT doing.

Felipe Massa on the other hand seemed very self-controlled given the circumstances. He had a great start and would give Nick Heidfeld a run for his money in the fight for 2nd place. The safety car messed up his race. He could still finish 3rd, but then he made a mistake while leaving the pits under the red light. I think this rule is confusing – not to say that it makes no sense, as I will explain below – but rules are rules. Massa was wrong and was disqualified. As was Fisichella who was also having a good race.

Someone’s got to be blamed for the lousy race. Why not the FIA?

After 4 drivers from 4 different teams were penalized in safety-car-related incidents, it was clear to me whose fault it was: the FIA’s. For about a century racing events in the United States have been using a safety car – or pace car, as they call it – without the problems we usually see in F1. How many odd incidents have you seen during the F1 SC periods? I have seen too many. Have you seen two cars trying to stop on the same pit stall at the same time and blocking the car behind? I have. Have you seen drivers slowing down on purpose to hold back the other drivers so that their teammate completes his pit stop? I have. Have you seen drivers stopped at the end of pit lane because the pit exit is closed, although the entry was open? I have. In fact, I have seen it all once again this weekend.

The easy thing for the FIA to do is to carbon copy most of the IRL or CART regulations for the safety car period. But no, they have to be the clever ones, they must innovate. So they create a different set of rules that never works and has to constantly be changed because it interferes negatively with the race results.

Why complicate what is simple? Here are some ideas for the FIA:

1. Clearly indicate when the pits are closed – both entry and exit – by having a steward signaling with a flag.

2. If the pit entry is open, so must be the pit exit.

3. Drivers who hold back other cars while following the safety car should be penalized, including during the pit entrance.

These ideas were all taken from the American race series. So was the idea to close the pits before everyone lines up behind the pace car, new to F1 until this year, but so old in other race series. Since F1 has only one pit stall for every two cars, they should also give more room between stalls so that an eventual waiting car does not block the team behind him. Something has to be done!

Canada’s quick notes

- McLaren is suddenly the fastest team. What is their secret? It seems like they are able to exit the slow corners better than Ferrari. At first this would probably seem like they have better torque and traction. However, that extra front wing element just above the car’s nose seems too flexible in my point of view. ‘Slow’ corners in F1 are still pretty fast to the point that aerodynamics still makes a difference. Having higher apex speeds due to the extra downforce generated by the wing element, while not having the drag as it bends on the straigthways certainly helps. The FIA cannot scrutinize every type of wing element – they are too different, so no standard test can be created. Therefore these kinds of wing elements should simply be banned.

- Robert Kubica had a tremendous crash after he hit the back of Jarno Trulli. It is good to know that he is alive and almost unhurt after this crash. And I am not exaggerating by saying ‘alive’. Fifteen years ago the same crash would be fatal. Nevertheless it was a reminder that F1 is a dangerous sport, even 25 years after we lost the great Gilles Villeneuve who gave his name to the circuit.

- Takuma Sato took advantage of the many safety cars and was able to finish 6th with his Super Aguri. He is still a very talented showman indeed, as he overtook the struggling Alonso on the outside, entering the last chicane.

- Alexander Wurz finished third, but that does not save his job at Williams for next year. He was so lucky that it is hard to believe it will happen again.

- Heikki Kovalainen was also lucky, but his 4th place finish counted more than Wurz 3rd. What was special about Heikki’s race is the fact that he bounced back from 2 crashes on Friday and Saturday and was still cool enough to keep his car on the track during Sunday.

- Toyota scored one point with Ralf Schumacher, after the dismal performance during Friday practice. Two suspensions were broken when Trulli rode the curbs like all the other cars.

Star of the race:

Lewis Hamilton.

Shame of the race:

Fernando Alonso. Yesterday it seemed like he was a different person in comparison to the Alonso who won my star of the race award two weeks ago.

--Andre N.