Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Brazil – Race Analysis

Had I not seen it personally, from the backstretch grandstands of the famous Interlagos race track, maybe I would not believe the results. When I got home and watched the recorded version of the TV broadcast, it simply did not show what I saw live. Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa were unbeatable and drove equally. So identically that I was glad that their helmets have different colors so I could tell who was who. Fernando Alonso was very good as well, finding every last ounce of speed that his second-race engine had. And there was a disappointing Lewis Hamilton, one that finally felt the pressure and could not perform to his highest level. In the end the champion got crowned in one of the most unlikely turn of events in the history of F1.

The Iceman kept his cool under the hot sun

Kimi Raikkonen may not be the most exciting driver out there. He certainly is not as aggressive as half of the field and almost never makes mistakes, so there is not much to watch him doing. However he is so competent and fast that no one can complain. He deserves to be the 2007 Formula One World Champion. If we consider the way he partied the night after, he probably deserved to be the 1967 champion as well... Those were the good old times when the drivers were not full-time athletes and half of the fun was just having fun.

Raikkonen drove one good lap after another. So did the hometown driver – Felipe Massa. In fact, I believe Ferrari called Felipe in earlier for his second pit stop, because it was very quick – meaning that he probably had some fuel left on the tank. By the way, did anyone notice that the official FOM TV broadcast never showed Massa’s pit stop times? Make your own conspiracy theory here, but mine is that FOM knew – we all knew! – that Ferrari would do something to switch their driver’s positions and it was a clever way not to let the occasional viewer notice it. If you are reading this, though, you are probably a hardcore fan and you know that Ferrari helped Kimi to win the race. And it makes sense, since F1 is disputed by drivers AND teams.

The crowd did not seem to believe what they were seeing. As the race went on, more and more people started cheering for Raikkonen. When he drove past Massa at the pit exit, most of the crowd applauded, although many felt that the home driver was being robbed. After the end, when Kimi drove back to the pits side by side with Felipe, the crowd finally understood what happened. He got loud cheers, but not as loud as Massa and Michael Schumacher got last year – the former for winning the race and the latter for putting up one of the most amazing drives in F1 history.

Hamilton lost the title

There is no way I can write that Hamilton’s car electronic failure was unfortunate. Yes, it cost him more than 30 seconds, but if it were not for his stupid mistakes during the first lap, he would have a better chance of scoring more points and winning the title. The failure only magnified a problem that Lewis had already caused in China. There he tried to win a race that he did not need to. How come no one advised him not to repeat the mistake? In the beginning he tried to win the Brazilian race! He should have coasted to a 4th place finish, should he not? I guess he does not know how to do it. He won everything he has ever raced before F1. He does not know how to finish 2nd or lower.

Lewis’ first mistake was to allow Alonso to overtake him. He was trying to gain momentum on Raikkonen after braking for the first leg of the Senna Esse. When Raikkonen made a mistake, Hamilton had to steer wide not to hit him, and this allowed Alonso to dive to the inside and finally overtake him exiting turn 3. Hamilton should just have braked behind Massa and simply allowed the Ferrari to go by without a fight. That way there would be no room for Alonso.

Well, Alonso had gone by. Just stay behind him, Lewis, this is all you need to be the champion. No, the kid decides to outbrake Alonso going on the outside into the left hander after the backstretch. He moved to the outside very late, and braked later than I had ever seen anyone over the whole weekend. The crowd went nuts as they knew he would shoot straight past the corner. No one could understand why he was doing that, yet it was fun to watch. Lewis kept making mistakes all around the first lap and a couple after.

Then there was the electronic glitch that cost Hamilton half a lap. He dropped back to 18th, but suddenly his car started to race normally again. I do not believe in conspiracy theories, especially because McLaren clearly wanted Hamilton to win, but it was very strange. Not so strange was his race position, though. I had seen this movie last year with Michael Schumacher. I expected the same amazing comeback from Lewis. He gave signs that he would do so when he got to a pack of 5 cars and in about 2 laps was ahead of them all. He was never constant enough, though. He made small mistakes all around the laps. He never had enough speed. He lost the championship and disappointed me a lot. Even if the media keep praising him so much, now I truly believe that other drivers would be as great as Hamilton if they had a car as good as McLaren to drive. Nico Rosberg, Robert Kubica, and Heikki Kovalainen, for example. If Hamilton survives this defeat to become a better driver, he eventually will be world champion. If he cannot put it behind, his career will be ruined. This is not an exaggeration.

This century’s Fittipaldi

Back in the 1970’s, two-time champion Emerson Fittipaldi was the driver who took care of his car and always waited for the opportunity to win the race. Sometimes he got victories because the guys ahead of him could not preserve the equipment and had to retire. Fernando Alonso won two championships doing exactly the same thing, especially for the later part of the 2006 season.

Alonso had a worse equipment than his teammate and both Ferrari drivers. Because of the huge accident in Japan, he raced with a new engine in China. Since engines can be only switched after 2 races, Alonso had a disadvantage going to Brazil. His competitors could run the engine temperature a little bit higher, maybe use a different kind of lubricant, things like that. It was clear that Alonso lacked power and torque. I believe that he compensated the lack of power by having less wings, but that cost him some time in the middle portion of the track. And especially in that twisty section, there was nothing that he could do to compensate for the lack of torque. However, he just kept enough rhythm to stay third and snatch the title if one of the Ferraris hit misfortune. They did not, but last Sunday it was like if I was watching a documentary about Fittipaldi. Fernando Alonso deserved the title as much as Raikkonen. It was just not meant to be.

Brazil’s quick notes

- Nico Rosberg had a great race and his amazing battle against Robert Kubica for 4th during the last few laps was exciting enough to make the crowd stand up. With this kind of performance he is probably on top of Ron Dennis’ wish list – if Alonso leaves McLaren.

- Hekki Kovalainen’s accident was impressive. I was looking at his car when lots of parts flew from the rear end. He hit the wall that is know by fans and drivers as the Berger Wall – named after Gerhard Berger, who once hit it hard when he drove for McLaren. I am glad that Heikki is ok, because it was a pretty heavy collision going backwards. The HANS device probably helped, but I am sure that his neck will be sore for a week.

- Kazuki Nakajima showed the same form that he was known for in GP2. He was lighting fast at times – he was the 5th fastest driver of the day – and very slow at others. He needs time to settle, but I do not think he will ever be constant enough. His pit crew will appreciate, though, if he is able to stop the car without hitting them.

- Honda had a bad season, but this race was particularly bad as both Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button retired because of engine problems. This sort of problem may explain why the two cars seem to be so different, with Barrichello being faster all weekend. When an engine starts to fail, it never does it in identical way. This would show in the telemetry, though. Maybe Honda already knew why Jenson was slower during qualifying.

Star of the race:

Nico Rosberg

Shame of the race:

Lewis Hamilton

--Andre N.

Hold on for the Brazilian Grand Prix analysis...

I have not been able to write a proper analysis to the Brazilian Grand Prix. I will post it as soon as a have something. Since I was at the Interlagos race track since the early hours of Sunday, I was too tired to write anything by Monday. This time it will be Formula One Tuesday, but please hold on as I promise it will be worth it. Being at the track allowed me to see a lot of things that TV simply does not show.

Monday, October 08, 2007

China – Race Analysis

Without writing anything about the penultimate round of the 2007 Formula One Championship, just stating what is left for the last race would be enough to quantify all the emotions involved in last Sunday’s race. There will be a three-way championship battle in Brazil, as 7 points separate leader Lewis Hamilton from 3rd place Kimi Raikkonen, with current world champion Fernando Alonso between them. Even a boring race with this type of outcome would be good to watch, but the Chinese Grand Prix reserved us enough excitement – and many battles – throughout all racing field positions. Add to that some very unstable weather conditions, with rain coming and going faster than one can say ‘Shangai’, and you get the picture of an exciting race.

Hamilton sunk the title clinch in the gravel trap

Many times this year I have said that Hamilton is a rookie who has still a lot to learn. His weaknesses are so subtle, though, that sometimes it is even hard for me to make the point. Well, at least for one race analysis it will be easy. Lewis is a rookie, period. It just showed during the race. Why in the world did he push so hard during the battle with Raikkonen, ruining his already worn-out tyres? Why did he drive so fast going into the narrow pit lane when he could barely turn his car in the very wide corners in Shangai? Because he is a rookie. One of the fastest ever, but still a rookie.

It was not completely his fault, though. McLaren should have called him in for a tyre change at least one lap before, when he lost 7 seconds to Raikkonen. They also got carried away by the possibility of a race win and forgot to protect Hamilton’s championship lead.

On the other hand, Alonso was just constant enough to keep his championship very alive. Lewis still depends only on himself to win the title, but Fernando certainly has a good chance. It is clear to me, though, that McLaren will give the better equipment to Hamilton. I do not blame them. If I worked there and heard all Alonso has said about the team, I would not want him to win.

One last shot for Raikkonen – again

Kimi Raikkonen has already been runner-up in the drivers championship twice, he will not be able to stand it happening once again. He will fight until the end. Being the ‘Iceman’ is something that helps him a lot as the season goes down to the wire. The same amount of patience that Hamilton lacked, Raikkonen had in excess. Even while overtaking the struggling Brit, with a car that was at least 3 seconds a lap faster, he had enough patience to obey all yellow flags – and there were many, because cars slipped out as the rain picked up – and to wait for the a mistake from Lewis that gave him enough room.

His run against Alonso depends only on Ferrari, they ‘just’ need to finish 1-2 in Brazil. He still needs some help from mother luck in order to beat Hamilton. The Finn is not known for his good luck, but he is certainly helping his chances of winning by having strong performances such as the one yesterday.

If he ultimately wins the championship, it will be a lot like in 1986. Williams’ teammates Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet were the favourites going into the last race of the season. But running on the outside was Alain Prost, who took advantage of the internal fight at Williams to beat both its drivers. It was arguably one of the greatest upsets in the history of F1.

Sebastian’s turnaround

Sebastian Vettel showed that his mistake from Japan is a thing from the past. The kid is growing up with every race. Driving a mid-pack car is a good way to become a better driver. Finishing 4th in that car is certainly something remarkable. Doing that after starting 17th is amazing.

He is finally showing why he got his ride. I have said it before and I will say it again: Scott Speed’s departure was just a political decision. It does not matter to Vettel, who just took advantage of the opportunity and is now showing to be a proper replacement. I am pretty sure that Speed could not have done better. In fact, I think Vettel has that extra ounce of talent that Speed lacked under pressure.

We just cannot forget one fact: Driver’s aside, RBR and STR are improving because of Adrian Newey’s work. In my opinion, the guy is one of the best engineers ever. Although he is known as an aerodynamics specialist, I have to say that his best quality is his problem solving skills. Like all the chief engineers in F1, he divides one big problem – a bad car, for example – into smaller problems – such as a bad front wing. The difference is that he keeps the link between those problems and never loses track of the big picture. The result is constant overall improvement.

China’s quick notes

- Jenson Button finished 5th, one day after his miracle qualifying run put his Honda in the top ten. Besides clocking some of the fastest laps of the day as the track dried out, the most important thing for Honda is that the 4 points put them ahead of Super Aguri in the constructor’s standings. It also helps them not to be beaten by Spyker.

- Ralf Schumacher was racing pretty well until he tried to overtake Vitantonio Liuzzi. He left no room for the Italian, after making a move on the outside and returning to the inside to take the apex. Later, he spun out of the race. He has already announced his retirement from Toyota, but maybe he should retire from F1. For which team could he drive next year? The only option I can think about is Prodrive.

- Alexander Wurz tried a different tactic and switched to the option dry-weather tyres in lap 22. The rain returned and he could not do more than finishing 12th. He then announced his retirement, which is actually a euphemism for ‘Frank Williams kicked him out of the team’. Does it mean Alonso returning to Renault and Nelson Piquet Jr. going to the empty race seat at Williams? Let’s wait for the Brazilian Grand Prix to have more clues.

Star of the race:

Sebastian Vettel

Shame of the race:

Lewis Hamilton, with Ralf Schumacher in the runner-up spot for the most unwanted award.

--Andre N.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Japan – Race Analysis

Not even the huge Mount Fuji is able to shield Formula One from the curse that plagues it at Fuji International Speedway. F1’s bad luck at that venue started during the 1970’s and seems to continue today. The 2007 race started under the safety car because of the heavy rain, a decision that was basically commercial – so that sponsors and TV stations would be happy. For 19 boring laps we watched the entire grid moving around behind the pace car. No one can call that competition, so it has got to be business. The only things that kept the fans awake were some pit stops and an off-track excursion by Felipe Massa.

When the race actually started, it became one of the epic races of the modern era, with brilliant performances by the drivers with the most natural talent. Lewis Hamilton’s performance was certainly one of those, and helped by the fact that McLaren was the best car of the weekend, his victory was no surprise – although no one could be sure about it until the last few laps.

Unlikely but deserving win by Hamilton

If Lewis Hamilton were to be tested at any point this season, it would have been at Fuji Speedway. And it was. Without any references from the previous year and the internal McLaren break-up that would prevent him from getting Fernando Alonso’s settings, the rookie would have a hard time setting up a fast and constant car. He seemed to be on the right track on Friday, at least for one flying lap, but if it were dry on Saturday and Sunday I would still put my money on Alonso.

It rained, though. As usual, the wet track levelled most of the equipment differences and made driver talent a very important factor. Hamilton is a gifted driver, everyone should know that by now, but that only meant that under rain he was in equal terms to the equally gifted Alonso. Unfortunately for the latter, it just was not his day. When he pitted, he rejoined the race behind a group of cars. Hamilton, who had opened up a bit of a gap because of his better visibility as the race leader, was able to return ahead of this pack. That meant that Fernando would have no visibility for a while and about 4 cars between him and Lewis. Then Sebatian Vettel, who had not pitted and had a lighter car, hit Alonso’s sidepod, damaging it quite heavily. Finally, he aquaplaned and hit the outside wall just before turn 6, ending his race and most of his title hopes.

Hamilton also had his share of bad moments, especially when Kubica hit him during an overtaking attempt. Luckily, both drivers were able to return. After Fernando crashed out, Lewis had ‘only’ to hold his position for the win. Mentally, he had one of the greatest challenges of his career. Everyone was behind Lewis, but just imagine driving the last few laps of the race, looking at the mirrors, seeing nothing more than water spray, yet having a phobia that someone was always there. Just like the classic song ‘Fear of the Dark’ from Iron Maiden.

Hamilton got it all together and opened up quite a gap to second place Heikki Kovalainen. Just like any former champion such as Alonso would had done with a car as good as the 2007 McLaren. If Hamilton wins the championship, this is the race that proved that he deserves the title as much as any of the previous winners.

Ferrari almost out of driver’s title chase

Somehow the ‘F1 Fuji curse’ seems to be stronger to Ferrari. In 1976 there was torrential rain that made Ferrari’s Niki Lauda retire due to unsafe conditions. He was not the only one, but he lost the title in that race to McLaren’s James Hunt, who decided not to retire so that he would still have a shot at the title. One year later there was an accident that killed two spectators as Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari flew into the crowd after hitting Ronnie Peterson’s Tyrrel. In 2007, it was misery again for the red team, as they started with the wrong tyres – intermediates instead of the FIA-imposed extreme wets – and were forced by the marshals to pit under the first safety car, dropping both Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen to the back of the pack.

When Massa returned to the track after a spin – under the safety car, just to point out that the intermediates were certainly not the best choice - he was penalized with a drive-through for overtaking Nick Heidfeld. My complaint here goes to the FIA, once again for not knowing how to deal with safety car periods. They should just follow an American series rules for full-track yellow flag; the IRL, for example. If the driver is at a position in which he should not be with full track yellows, just make him allow the other drivers to go by and there is no need to penalize him. Anyway, that would not have changed Massa’s race a lot, and now, after finishing 6th, he is mathematically out of the title hunt. At least his battle with Robert Kubica during the last lap was alone worth the admission tickets! It is also good to know that both Felipe and Robert had a laugh about it after the race. F1 should be fun, because it is still a sport – for the drivers at least.

Kimi Raikkonen can still be world champion, but now he is 17 points behind Hamilton with 2 races to go. It is probably not going to happen for him.

Japan’s quick notes

- Adrian Sutil got his first F1 point ever after Vitantonio Liuzzi was punished with 25 seconds for overtaking under a yellow flag. Sutil’s performances for the past two races confirm that he is a very good driver.

- Another driver that impressed me a lot was Sebastian Vettel. He led the race for a brief moment and was in third during the second safety car period. This sort of performance reminds me of Ayrton Senna in his rookie season – 1984 – when he drove for Toleman. I felt really bad for him when he got distracted and hit Mark Webber – while the safety car was still out. This stupid mistake will either make him a much better driver – one capable of winning championships – or will ruin his career altogether. I am hoping for the former, especially after seeing the great car control that he has. As much as I like him, he will be the ‘Shame of the Race’, and he knows he deserves this kind of award.

- I only wish I could see Mark Webber fighting for the win...

- Veterans David Coulthard and Giancarlo Fisichella had the experience that Vettel lacked and were able to protect themselves from disaster, finishing 4th and 5th respectively.

- Rubens Barrichello has been struggling lately at Honda. I expected more than 10th from him yesterday, as he is really a ‘rain specialist’. He needs to be careful, because getting beaten by a teammate time after time is the easiest way for someone to lose the job in F1. Yesterday he was helped by the fact that Button was not on a good day and had to retire with suspension damage on the final lap.

Star of the race:

Heikki Kovalainen. Lewis Hamilton certainly was great, but I picked Heikki because I am sure that he had a harder time driving the not-so-well-balanced Renault. His last lap battle with Raikkonen was an artwork itself. He got overtaken by Kimi in turn 6 and then overtook him back on the outside of turn 10, with the car barely making the turn. Had Sebastian Vettel not hit Webber, he would probably get the award, because STR is certainly a lot worse than most of the cars. His mistake was so bad, though, that he will be the ‘shame of the race’ instead.

Shame of the race:

Sebastian Vettel.

--Andre N.