Monday, July 23, 2007

Europe – Race Analysis

The FIA called it the European Grand Prix, due to contract reasons. It was really the German Grand Prix, but I will stick to the FIA’s terms in an attempt not to confuse the readers – at least not more than they may be already confused. The race at the Nurburgring did not take place at the famous north track – the Nordschleife; the last one there was in 1976. After reflecting on the events that took place in 2007, the nickname given to the north track 30 years ago by Sir Jackie Stewart still works: ‘The Green Hell’. Not as green as before, because the trees are not so close to the current Grand Prix track, but it was hell indeed.

No one can complain about the spectacle, though. Even Beelzebub himself would be delighted to see the action that took place over the weekend. There was a huge accident in qualifying that ruined Hamilton’s chances of winning the race; there were cars sliding all over during the two short stints of rain; there were some aggressive overtaking moves. He would be rally proud of the word fight between Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, because they touched as the former passed the latter with less than five laps to go.

The championship is very close now, with 2 points separating leader Lewis Hamilton from Alonso. Massa is 11 points behind in third, followed by Kimi Raikkonen, who is 18 points behind. There are seven races to go. It seems like this one will go down to the wire. Can I bet that the last race of the year – the Brazilian Grand Prix – will be a sellout?

Alonso is becoming a thinker... Inside the cockpit, that is.

I have seen it over and over this season. Whoever starts on the dirty side of the track has a big disadvantage going into the first corner. With traction control and automatic launch systems, the drivers will never make a mistake. Starting in 2nd on the dirty inside part of the track, Alonso would never get ahead of pole-sitter Raikkonen. It was so bad that Massa, who started 3rd, overtook him. Credit goes to the upgrade Ferrari made to their launch system during testing in Silverstone about a month ago. It is not fun to watch though, so thank goodness these systems will be disallowed in 2008.

Alonso had the great presence of mind of not trying the impossible. He stayed in third in the very beginning. It started raining, everyone would need a tyre change. Raikkonen made a mistake and slid wide of the pits. Alonso said ‘OK, I’ll take this opportunity’. He was second for a long time. As the rain came back with 7 laps to go he got his golden opportunity. As both he and Massa pitted for wet tyres, as soon as they returned to the track it was clear that the number-1 McLaren was faster than the number-5 Ferrari. It was difficult, but not impossible. It was the time to be aggressive, and that he was. On lap 56 of 60, he overtook Massa for the win. They even touched! It was a great move that made him look like a genius.

Unfortunately, as he got out of his car we were able to see the worst part of Alonso. He instantly helped selling the ‘crybaby’ image that his critics post all over the Internet forums. Calling the camera to show the tyre mark left by Massa’s Ferrari on his sidepod was the worst part. Is that more important than the win? Then he started an argument with Massa just before going to the podium. The TV showed everything, it was even possible to hear what they were saying – in Italian. At this point I have to agree with Massa. He said that he would never do that on purpose, and it makes sense, because the only thing that he would get from a move like that would be a cut tyre. Then he said a few times as Alonso would not stop complaining: ‘You win and make a scene?’

Alonso later apologized to Massa during the press conference. He will still get my Star of the Race award because it is not about the post-race, but the track action itself.

Is RBR improving?

By only looking at the results, one may say that Mark Webber was just lucky to fisish 3rd. He was certainly lucky that the 2 BMWs hit each other on the second corner and that Raikkonen had to retire. He drove a great race, though. Even if it were dry all around, he would probably get the same result. RBR was pretty good in Nurburgring. David Coulthard – the current ‘master of alternative strategies’ – started 20th and finished 5th. The car seems to be improving a little bit every race. This is expected, since their lead engineer is Adrian Newey. Their problem is reliability, but I would rather have a fast, unreliable car to drive in the middle pack than a slow, reliable backmarker.

It was not Hamilton’s weekend

All we can say about Hamilton is that it just was not his weekend. I was expecting a setback for him since the beginning of the season, so I would have the chance to see how good he really to overcome it. He was very good at the start, but again, it was partially due to the fact that McLaren has a better launch system than most of the teams – except for Ferrari at this point. Maybe he was too aggressive and got a cut tyre, but I cannot complain about it. He was expected to be aggressive. During the heavy rain, he lost his car coming into braking. That may be some sign of inexperience as many drivers did not make that mistake, but many others did, so there is no conclusion. I am still waiting for one fantastic race before I can say Hamilton is a genius.

Europe’s quick notes

- Someone in STR forgot to warn Vitantonio Liuzzi that the safety car was out. He was way too fast going into the first corner – in fact, he spun on the straight due to ‘aquaplanning’. Luckily the safety car driver had quick reflexes to avoid a crash from behind.
- Nick Heidfeld drove his worst race of the year. He hit teammate Robert Kubica as they made it into the 2nd corner of the race. Robert spun around but was able to return. Later on, Nick also hit and Ralf Schumacher, who had to retire. Maybe he had his mind away from the track, due to his newborn son.
- Is Kimi Raikkonen becoming that unlucky driver he used to be? When he missed the pits, it was his own mistake. When his car broke down – with alleged hydraulic problems – there was nothing that he could do.
- Points go for the FIA, because red flagging the race was the smart thing to do. The fans do not want another safety car showdown like the one in Canada.

Star of the race:
Fernando Alonso, with Mark Webber a close second.

Shame of the race:
Nick Heidfeld.

--Andre N.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Great Britain – Race Analysis

Before starting, I would like to make a few comments not related to the race itself. Every time I watch the British Grand Prix, I feel like it is the perfect place for a Formula One race. For many years it has been in Silverstone, but no matter where you chose to race at British soil, you are at a place full of history and the most knowledgeable fans. I mean, real F1 fans are knowledgeable everywhere, but the average citizen in Great Britain knows more about motorsports than anywhere else I know. I have the feeling that Bernie Ecclestone himself does not want this atmosphere to go away. By threatening to cancel the British GP, he only is making what he does best: more money.

No matter how great the venues like the ones in Bahrain and Malaysia are, Formula One needs the history behind countries like Great Britain, Italy, Germany, Brazil, and France. These are the countries where some of the greatest drivers ever were born. They represent the places where people have continuously been racing cars over the years. Formula One would not be the same thing without races in these countries. Yet it seems like France will be gone for next year. Let’s hope Britain stays.

After the ‘save the British GP speech’, let’s move on to yesterday’s race. It was a clear display that this year’s championship is going down to the wire. Every couple of races we either have a stronger Ferrari or McLaren. Yesterday it was fun to watch, although the winner could be picked beforehand from one of the leading four cars. Does anyone out there think we are going to see a winner that does not belong to these two teams until the end of the year? Not in normal conditions, I have to say...

Yesterday was actually a three-car plus 1 bonus showdown, as Felipe Massa’s engine died on the starting grid – he had to start from the pits and make his way past a lot of people to finish 5th. Besides his great aggressive driving, there were not many overtaking manoeuvres on the race, but there were many good fights. Raikkonen vs. Hamilton was a great close range fight, and Raikkonen vs. Alonso was more like a sniper battle. Since Raikkonen won these two battles, he won the race. Great driving for the Iceman.

Two in a row again, now for Kimi

After Lewis Hamilton’s display of power in North America, Kimi Raikkonen returns the favour and wins twice in Europe. These victories mean a lot more to Raikkonen than they did for Hamilton. Everyone expected Kimi to win. In fact, everyone expected him to beat his teammate. It was not happening until now. At some point even I thought that the Iceman had finally melt down, but it was certainly not the case.

If we consider that Massa had two mechanical failures this year – Australia and Britain – that did not prevent him from scoring a few points, we can compare that to Kimi’s race ending problem in Spain. Add to that the fact that they are now only separated by one point on the championship standings, and we realize that they are as evenly matched as Ferrari teammates have ever been since 1982, with Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi. Let’s hope Ferrari keeps it fair until the end of the year, as I believe McLaren will.

Kimi was as consistent as ever yesterday, and that gave him the race win. Besides that, he had the fastest lap of the day and was very fast just before his two pit stops. He is still not a Michael Schumacher. He may not even speak to him a lot, but he has certainly learned something from him.

I also have to point out that Ferrari did a wonderful job improving their start system. Although he was on the dirty side of the track, Raikkonen had a better jump than Hamilton.

Once again the strategy failed for McLaren

After Saturday qualifying I thought I had seen Ayrton Senna again when Lewis Hamilton beat the clock and everybody else to get the pole. It was the first real display of geniality I had seen from Hamilton. Everything was going for him until then; he did not have to face any real adversity. Then, under pressure, he clocked the pole. After the race started, some of my feeling was taking away, as Hamilton was clearly lighter. Still, that meant that he had to pull out the impossible to win. If he did, that would make me finally agree with the ‘Hamilton histeria’ and put him up there with the greatest ever, although he is still a rookie.

He did not win, and this was probably his worst F1 race. He only finished third because Massa would never reach the 3 front-runners. He almost made the same mistake as Albers did in France, by leaving with the fuel hose still attached. He destroyed his tyres in the beginning of the stints and had no grip in the end. He saved third and he is still the championship leader, but I would still put my money on Alonso to be the best McLaren driver on the long run.

For the past two races, McLaren lacks the pace and they try to compensate by changing the strategy. For the past two races, Ferrari has won. I believe that their main problem is the tyre consumption. They had an edge after implementing that flexible front wing element – although they say it is not, it clearly drops down on the straightaways –, but that alone is not enough now that Ferrari has also improved the aerodynamics.

Massa put up a show, but stopped one place short

Ferrari has sometimes seen some small reliability problems over the years. Yesterday trouble hit Massa. By the way, it certainly was not his fault, as F1 cars have a button for neutral, and the driver does nothing to control the revs.

He then did what he had to do, overtaking as many cars as aggressively as he could in his chase for the best possible result – 4th place. He was one place short, since Robert Kubica closed the door for more than 10 laps in the end and he could only finish 5th.

Kubica has made an impressive return from his Montreal accident. Usually it takes drivers a couple of races to return to the same form after large accidents, but Kubica seems to be better than before! The high torque of the BMW engine helped him out in order to hold Massa, though, as he would get away at every corner exit except for Club.

Britain’s quick notes

- We may say that Heikki Kovalainen has finally adapted to F1. He overtook his teammate Giancarlo Fisichella and did not show any of his rookie mistakes from the first races of the season. If he continues like this until the end of the season, the only thing that will make Fisichella keep a race seat is experience.

- Alexander Wurz tried to take advantage of the blue flags as Alonso was going by him and the car ahead, Scott Speed’s STR. As Scott opened the way for Alonso, Alexander tried to squeeze to the inside going into Vale. I do not like this kind of attitude. He should just have waited for Speed to let Alonso go by and got back to the fight they had before. It would be OK if Speed had made a mistake, but he did not. Scott got the worst of it as they touched, his left-front suspension broke down and he had to retire. Wurz went on to finish 13th. At least he got an award. My ‘Shame of the Race’ award, that is...

- Honda did a nice race for the bad car they currently have, but since no Ferrari, McLaren, BMW or Renault had race-ending troubles, all they could do was to finish 9th and 10th – Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button respectively.

- Toyota disappointed everyone – again, if it is possible. After a strong testing in Silverstone a couple of weeks ago, a lot more than a double retirement was expected. To make it worse, Jarno Trulli’s problems are still unknown; he was just sliding all over the track with no grip at all. Just for the records: Toyota has what is said to be the 2nd largest budget in F1, yet they are 6th on the Constructor’s Championship standings.

Star of the race:

Kimi Raikkonen. Had Felipe Massa finished 4th, he would probably have gotten the award.

Shame of the race:

Alexander Wurz.

--Andre N.

Monday, July 02, 2007

France – Race Analysis

Since I am posting this after 1200 GMT, it will be more like Formula One Tuesday for some of the readers. It is still Monday for me, so I will write about yesterday’s race; just consider it the day before yesterday’s race if this is your case.

The 2007 French Grand Prix was a good race, and even included some overtaking manoeuvres so uncommon in today’s Formula One. Kimi Raikkonen drove a great race and got his second win of the season, making it two for each of the main title contenders – himself, Massa, Hamilton and Alonso. Hamilton increased his championship gap to Alonso, but the Ferrari drivers are a little bit closer now.

Kimi Raikkonen finally seems to be himself

Kimi Raikkonen can say that he was very lucky once in his F1 career and that was yesterday. For a driver who has had so many misfortunes over the years, it was unexpected for him to win with what was probably the wrong strategy. The logic was that Kimi should have qualified with less fuel to make sure that he would start on the front row in order to have a chance. Although Hamilton started on the front row – on the dirty side of the track –, Raikkonen was able to jump ahead. That move gave him a chance to win the race.

The problem was that he had a heavier load of fuel than Felipe Massa, who opened a reasonable gap before his first pit stop. Massa is doing a wonderful job at Ferrari, there was no way that Raikkonen could drive any faster than him. Then the strange strategy worked out for Kimi, as Massa had problems overtaking the backmarkers and was not able to increase the gap during the second stint. Kimi drove two superb laps before his stop, and that guaranteed his return in first place. That was the driver we got used to, the same one that challenged Schumacher and Alonso in two championship runs.

Merit goes to Ferrari as well. The car has changed for better. Now it has also received some of Kimi’s inputs, therefore it is easier for him to drive. He is also more adapted to the Bridgestone tyres than he was in the beginning of the season. The two drivers are really pushing. Massa deserved the win as much as Raikkonen. Ferrari is back. Let's see for how long.

Different strategy for Hamilton, but one that would never work

After losing a place to Raikkonen at the start, Lewis Hamilton could have gone for two pit stops and easily finished third. McLaren tried three, though, knowing that they could not beat Ferrari in a straight fight and anything different would give them an opportunity. The strategy proved to be wrong, but since the gap to BMW was large enough, it was worth trying. At least it reduced the chances that Hamilton would spin out due to tyre wear.

Hamilton keeps proving that he has what it takes to be a champion. He finished a good third and did not try anything stupid. After the start on the dirty side of the track, third was the most he could get. Third was what he got.

McLaren made Alonso earn his salary

Mclaren started to ruin Fernando Alonso's race on Saturday, since he was not able to finish qualifying due to gearbox problems and had to start 10th.

During the race Alonso was helped by the early melee involving Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen. Then he had to follow Nick Heidfeld for a long time, though, and lost a lot of time. 'Follow' may not be the best verb, as Alonso tried everything he could to overtake. Heidfeld is one of the most difficult drivers to go by. Alonso showed his talent by passing at an unexpected spot, returning the favour for Heidfeld's great move in Bahrain. The scorecard is now 1-1. As a Formula One fan I am delighted to see their fight. It is very clean. They are both great drivers. I only wish that the current F1 cars depended less on aerodynamics so that we could see more fights like that.

Later in the race I believe McLaren changed the strategy and called Alonso in earlier for his second pit stop. In the end, this proved not to be good, as Alonso was held by Giancarlo Fisichella until the end of the race. Two long fights with two of the most difficult drivers to overtake. Alonso certainly earned his salary, although he was not able to beat Fisichella.

France’s quick notes

- Honda scored their first point of the season as Jenson Button finished 8th. It is still too little if we think about their budget. I think that Honda should change the team's management to get better results. Toyota too.

- Jarno Trulli is not helping Toyota out, as he hit Heikki Kovalainen from behind entering the Adelaide corner. I did not expect that from a long time veteran.

- Robert Kubica showed that he is a great, fearless driver. After the horrible crash in Montreal, he returned to score his best result of the season, finishing 4th.

- Christijan Albers has no excuse for leaving the pits before the 'lollipop' was up. That was a stupid mistake and he knows it. I think that the pressure he is getting from Sutil is making him a bit nervous. Albers was one of the best DTM drivers but is yet to make something happen in F1.

Star of the race:

Kimi Raikkonen. I really did not think that he could pull out a win until I saw the gap he opened before his second pit stop.

Shame of the race:

Christijan Albers.

--Andre N.