Monday, September 17, 2007

Belgium – Race Analysis

After the McLaren unexpected win last week at the high speed Monza circuit, I expected another at Spa-Francochamps. The hilly, curvy layout should have favoured the better mechanically adjusted Mclaren and its high-torque Mercedes engine. I was wrong. The deciding factor in today’s F1 is always aerodynamics, and Ferrari is known to have, at this stage of the season, a better aero package than McLaren.

The race itself was again nothing to write home about, as it has been the case for most of this year. A few battles for position were exciting, but except for Lewis Hamilton vs. Fernando Alonso, they had no major effects on the championship standings.

Raikkonen’s last championship thrust

Kimi Raikkonen had one of the cleanest wins of his career. Based on his lap times, I do not think that he made any mistakes. He had perfect lap after perfect lap. Maybe on Saturday during qualifying he had a little bit of a bad moment during his last flying lap, but even with that he was still on pole position. Of course when he beat Felipe Massa on Q2, by Ferrari internal rules that meant he would be the one with the lighter car. With the long lap around Spa – 7.004 km/4.352 mi – that meant Massa would carry added weight that would cost him about 0.1 to 0.2s a lap.

By the way, Massa also did a good job. The problem for him is that he is now 20 points behind Hamilton with 3 races – maximum 30 points – to go. Therefore, Raikkonen, 13 points behind the championship leader, is the only real remaining hope of a Ferrari driver winning the title. Even so, it will be very hard to happen.

Kimi’s last championship thrust does not depend on much more than only him or his team. If they finish 1-2 and Hamilton finishes third for the remaining three races, the Englishman would still be world champion by 1 point. In Ferrari’s favour is the fact that Alonso is now constantly getting the upper hand on Hamilton. Against them is the fact that, based on what we have seen this season, McLaren will probably have the best car for at least one of the remaining tracks.

Kudos for Raikkonen for pulling a donut after winning the race. This is what the fans want to see. If you have ever seen Valentino Rossi’s victory celebrations in MotoGP – like the one yesterday in Portugal – you will understand what I am saying. Maybe the FIA will give him a fine, but it was worth it. The fans deserve it.

Alonso continues to one-up Hamilton

What a battle between Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton going into turn 1 all the way to the exit of the famous Eau Rouge! At that point one would have to brake, or they would end up in a pile of carbon fibre debris. Luckily Hamilton did, as it seemed Alonso was determined not to do so.

After Hungary, Alonso has constantly beaten Hamilton. This probably means that the press rumours are true: The team has divided into two since that pit melee in the Hungaroring, and no setup information is transferred from one car to the other over the course of a race weekend. As good as Lewis is, he does not have yet the same setup finesse as Alonso.

The Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway will be a good place to prove my theory. If it stands, Alonso should beat Hamilton by a large margin there. The last time that Formula One was there was in 1977. None of the title contenders were even born then and they certainly do not have any setup references.

The only other explanation is that pressure has finally affected Hamilton, but I think that he is the kind of driver who turns pressure into good results. By the way, that wide turn into the safety track on the penultimate lap was probably just because he lost his concentration as the race had become very boring.

The effects of the spy scandal closure

McLaren was able to race, besides the fact that it is now clear to me that many people in the organization were aware of the illegal information obtained from Ferrari. At this point I agree with Flavio Briatore’s comments during Friday Press Conference: Although the drivers were benefited by some sort of illegal advantage, it is not their fault. They have not stolen the blueprints from Ferrari and more than that, they may not even know what is legal and what is not regarding an engineering project. Engineers and technicians, on the other hand, absolutely know where the line that they should not cross stands. Good luck to Nigel Stepney and Mike Coughlan. They will need it if they do not want to go to jail.

The better decision from the legal standpoint, in my opinion, would be to exclude McLaren from this championship and for at least a few races of the next. From the sporting standpoint, on the other hand, you should let the drivers compete. The decision was based on that fact that Formula One is still a sport for the drivers, although it is just business for the teams. The 100-million-U.S.-dollars fine will make sure that no team will even try something similar in the future.

With all that as part of the past, Ferrari has won the 2007 Constructor’s Championship, as BMW does not have any mathematical chances of beating them. Not that the general public cares.

Belgium’s quick notes

- Adrian Sutil did a fantastic race by Spyker’s standards, starting 19th and driving as high as 12th. He finished 14th. The B-spec car, Mike Gascoyne’s first full design for the team, is certainly an improvement. Sutil had his first chance of showing how good he actually is and he is pretty good.

- Heikki Kovalainen had a good start and moved from 9th on the grid to 6th after the first corner. His 1-stop strategy did not seem to be the best, but even so he got 1 point, after two excellent battles with Robert Kubica. Heikki won the most important, i.e. the final one.

- Jarno Trulli is continuing to struggle on race starts. He had to avoid contact going into the first corner and could not manage to retain his position at the starting grid – 8th. He finished 13th, one place behind teammate Ralf Schumacher.

- Alexander Wurz was again beaten by teammate Nico Rosberg. During the race Wurz had fuel pressure problems that made him drive behind the slow Sakon Yamamoto. That was no excuse, though, as Rosberg started the race in 5th place and Wurz only in 15th. If it were not for the problems, which were not his fault, he would be the ‘shame of the race’.

- Mark Webber showed that he is still that lightning-fast driver that got to Formula One in 2002. He finished 7th, ahead of better-balanced cars driven by Kovalainen and Kubica. I think his performance was a bit underrated by the media, so I will give him the ‘star of the race’ award.

Star of the race:

Mark Webber, with an honourable mention to Adrian Sutil.

Shame of the race:

Giancarlo Fisichella. Getting beat by your teammate in qualifying is not good, but it happens. Hitting the wall because you misjudged the braking point and damaging your suspension before the end of the first lap gives you this award.

--Andre N.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Italy – Race Analysis

A good race with a magnificent drive from winner Fernando Alonso: That was the story of the 2007 Italian Grand Prix. With four races to go in the Formula One season, it seems like the final battle will be among the two McLaren drivers. The 18-point difference from championship leader Lewis Hamilton to 3rd place Kimi Raikkonen is unlikely to completely go away, especially because we have seen so few retirements this year.

Alonso stole the show in Monza

Pole position, best lap, race win. I could stop here and it would be enough for everyone to understand what a great race Fernando Alonso had. The details show that it was even greater. For every lap of the whole weekend, he was 2 to 3 tenths of a second faster than Hamilton.

He saved the best for the race, though. When it became known that Ferrari had prepared a single-stop strategy for Raikkonen, Alonso would have to drive as fast as ever to stay as leader after his 2nd stop. Kimi pitted on lap 25 and was about 15 seconds behind. Alonso would need a 28-to-30-second gap to guarantee that he would rejoin the race ahead of the Ferrari. He had fuel up to lap 43, which meant 18 laps to open up 15 more seconds – more than 8 tenths a lap. Although Raikkonen had a lot more weight due to the larger fuel load, it would be hard. Not for Alonso. He just drove some of the fastest laps of the race. By the end of the stint he was consistently lapping at around 1min23s. Just so everyone can understand how fast that was: 1) His fastest lap of the race was 1min22.871s, and he was consistently lapping close to that time; 2) Lewis Hamilton’s fastest lap was 1min22.936s, barely beating the 1min23s that Alonso clocked many times, lap after lap.

There were a lot of great performances in Monza – including those from Jenson Button, Heikki Kovalainen, Robert Kubica and Nico Rosberg –, but as emotional as the other choices may be, the lap chart tells me that I must pick Fernando Alonso as the star of the race.

Second was not bad for Lewis

What else could Hamilton have done? Nothing, in my opinion. Racing is like this: one day you beat your teammate, the other day he beats you. Sometimes he beats you badly, like Alonso did to Hamilton in Monza. It was just one of those days, and hopefully for Hamilton there will not be many more of those until the end of the year. Fernando is just 3 points behind Lewis in the championship standings.

Hamilton’s overtaking manoeuvre over Raikkonen was one of the greatest this season. In fact, I think it is tied for number 2 this year – number 1 has to be Nick Heidfeld’s brilliant move around Alonso in Bahrain and the other number 2 is Kubica’s move around Rosberg yesterday. He had to go by Raikkonen, and it was only a matter of time before he did, because his car was faster. By surprisingly pulling aside just as he barely got close to Ferrari, he made his job a lot easier, as Raikkonen did not even have the chance to close the inside line. Even the Formula One Management TV transmission lost the exact moment when Lewis got by Kimi, so surprising that it was.

I am a bit worried about the way Lewis started the race. Maybe I am too old-fashioned, but in my opinion the start is a drag race towards the first corner. In drag races one driver must respect the other driver’s line. I know that in today’s F1 it is very important to get to the clean racing path, but Lewis just threw his car towards Felipe Massa and hoped that the latter would avoid the collision. Hamilton usually makes a lot of moves going into the first corner. If all drivers were to zigzag like that, half of the grid would be out of the race before the first corner. In the old days, the other drivers would have spoken to Lewis and they would respectfully get to an agreement about how to proceed at the starts. Today, it seems like they do not talk to each other anymore.

Ferrari beaten at their home turf

Considering all teams and all countries where F1 goes to, the most painful defeat has to be that of Ferrari in Italy, because the Italian fans are so passionate about the red team. This time it hurt even more. Ferrari was expected to win the race. Their longer wheelbase should have helped them around the Parabolica curve. In reality, McLaren could not only match Ferrari’s straightaway speed, but could also beat them at most corners, including the critical Lesmo and Ascari curves, just before two short straightaways. My only guess is that the Mercedes-Benz engine is stronger than the one from Ferrari, so McLaren could use more wing and have better results at the high speed corners.

The one thing that should never have happened was the suspension breakdown in Massa’s car. That was critical. Now he is 23 points behind Hamilton and I believe Ferrari has only one shot at the drivers’ championship – with Raikkonen. Unless the spy scandal changes everything...

My two words on the spy scandal

As an engineer myself, I have sworn to follow the law and never to deviate from what is known as ‘integrity’. This oath is taken by engineers everywhere. If half of the information released by the press about the spy scandal is true, I am sorry, the two engineers that are involved – Nigel Stepney and Mike Coughlan – should go to jail, McLaren should lose all of its constructor points and be banned from the 2007 season – and possibly from 2008 as well. If the drivers had no involvement with the illegal procedures, they should be allowed to keep their points. Just the fact that they will be forced to change teams in mid-season – if they can – will compensate for the points they got by indirectly benefiting from the illegal information. Again, this is my opinion only if these accusations are true. Ok, maybe I wrote more than two words.

Italy’s quick notes

- Robert Kubica had a really bad first pit stop, as he stopped the car in the wrong position and the mechanics had problems with the jack. Later, his bold move around Nico Rosberg was one of the season’s highlights and compensated for anything that went wrong.

- Sebastian Vettel had very good practice and qualifying sessions, but during the race he made a small mistake and ran into Davidson. Overall he was much better than in Turkey, though, but still not better than the replaced Scott Speed.

- I expected more from Jarno Trulli, but another bad start put him out of contention for the points. He finished only 11th.

- Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg showed what it is like to race wheel to wheel, respecting each other’s racing line. I wish all F1 drivers were as respectful as them.

- Heikki Kovalainen finished 7th, leaving his teammate Giancarlo Fisichella far behind in 12th position. Another great race by Heikki, especially because the Renault engine does not seem to be very strong this year.

Star of the race:

Fernando Alonso

Shame of the race:

Ferrari as a team – especially for having the single race retirement related to mechanical failure.

--Andre N.