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.

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