Reviews I meant to write in the summer break, #1

Posted: September 3, 2012 in F1 race reviews, Formula 1
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

There are, it’s completely redundant of me to tell you, very good reasons why this place has lain fallow for so long.  Most of them relate to me being a busy boy with lots of things to get on with at the minute, all of which have more immediate, tangible benefits than blogging.  Sorry.

What I intended to do a couple of weeks ago was write a little review of the drivers based on the 11 pre-break races.  That couple of weeks passed by awfully quickly, leaving us with this, a little review of the drivers based on the 11 pre-break races and 1 post-break race.

In coming to write this, I realised that I could say pretty much the same thing about 90% of this year’s grid.  Very few drivers have spent the entire season making me wonder why we shouldn’t just swap jobs but equally, I can only point to two men who’ve consistently got everything from the car they’ve been given.

It’s a point that hardly needs to be made any more, but goodness me, Fernando Alonso is as complete a racing driver as you could ever wish to see.  Fernando once said he doesn’t view himself as the fastest driver in the world but ranks himself among the most consistent.  There must surely now be evidence that he’s both, leading the championship handsomely in what is assuredly nothing more than this year’s 4th quickest piece of kit.  Ferrari’s F2012 is no longer the barge with which the Spaniard somehow contrived to win in Malaysia, but nor is it anything like as quick as a McLaren, a Red Bull or even a Lotus.  The circumstances of the season have played a part – no team has got the best from Pirelli’s rubber at every race and a series of wet events have gone some way to masking the F2012’s inherent deficiencies – but of the drivers, only Alonso has got the absolute maximum from the equipment at his disposal at each event.  As a demonstration of what sheer brilliance can do, this man’s season will take some beating.

In trying to think of the second man to earn top marks, you’ve probably gone nowhere near the name of Pedro de la Rosa.  You might wonder what a 41 year old ex-McLaren driver is doing making a comeback in the grid’s slowest car but clearly Pedro loves his motor sport.  Equally clearly, the old dog has some life in him.  The season is littered with examples of this but his qualifying performance at Monaco is the pick, 1.3 seconds up on his team mate and only 2.678 seconds off Nico Hulkenberg’s fastest Q1 time.  As an indication of how competitive Formula 1 is these days, it’s not that long ago – 1995, in fact – that the same gap would have put PDLR 9th on the grid, between Martin Brundle and Eddie Irvine.  The HRT is slow relative to the opposition, yes, but it’s absolutely not slow full stop.  Watching Pedro throw it around Casino Square, it was hard to escape the conclusion that the driver isn’t sluggish either.

We’ve already mentioned that the bulk of this year’s grid is essentially interchangeable, and so it is at Red Bull, where both Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber have teamed impressive highs with periods of crushing mediocrity.  Of the pair, Vettel’s highs have arguably been slightly higher, controlling the race in Bahrain and contesting a race all of his own until the alternator failed in Valencia.  Webbo was peerless at Silverstone and has generally been slightly more consistent than Seb but in a season crying out for someone to step forward and take the fight to Alonso, neither man has seized the inter-team initiative.

By and large, the fast and mature Lewis Hamilton has turned up this season and left the surly, distant Lewis at home, Belgian meltdown notwithstanding (and folks, if you’re going to temporarily lose contact with planet Earth, try not to reveal all kinds of sensitive data as you do so, especially if that data might be of genuine use to your rivals.  I mean, that’s just common sense).  Hamilton’s resurgence coincides with a McLaren that keeps its drivers guessing, veering drunkenly from world beater to also-ran and back again with a frequency that its drivers must now be finding tedious.  When it works, it’s the fastest car in the field, and when it’s the fastest car in the field, Jenson Button delivers.  When it’s not, though, Jenson goes from the untouchable winner in Australia and Belgium to the confused 16th place finisher in Canada, a lap behind the winner, one L. Hamilton.  Renowned as a man with great feel and solid technical feedback, JB’s attempts to understand this year’s tyres led him down a blind alley on car set-up that he’s needed half a season to reverse out of.  Barring a calamitous run for Alonso and a series of wins for Jense, it’s too late for a title tilt, with nothing but self-inflicted wounds to blame.

Oh, Felipe.  Oh, Felipe Massa.  You’re a lovely, lovely man and everyone desperately wants to see you win again – how could we not, after the grace you showed at the end of 2008 and the recovery from that life-threatening head injury in 2009 – but the fact is that next year, someone else is going to be driving your Ferrari, because you’re not making it go anything like quickly enough.  After a brief mid-season rally, Phil’s back in his standard position of 6 tenths away from Alonso, a gap that sees Fernando leading the championship on 164 points while Felipe languishes in 10th on 35 points.  The car might not be as good as his team mate makes it look but it simply cannot be anything like as bad as it appears when Massa is at the wheel.  See also Narain Karthikeyan, who, in fairness to him, doesn’t race too badly.  His aversion to qualifying sessions borders on allergy, though, and while de la Rosa might be driving the wheels off the HRT every time he sits in it, there can be no excuse for being quite so much slower than your team mate quite so often.

Kimi Raikkonen has returned from his holiday home in the Norwegian village of Unintelligibuhl, showing that he hasn’t suffered any great ill effects from those two years spent crashing a Citroen through various forests and snowdrifts.  In saying that, it’s worth highlighting that potential victories in Barcelona, Bahrain and Valencia have gone begging as a result of poor Saturday afternoons.  The Iceman’s race pace has been excellent all year but when everyone else is finding time in the final part of qualifying, his Lotus is standing still, as if a switch flicks in his head partway through qualifying and tells him there’s just no way he can possibly go faster.  Kimi remains firmly in the hunt for a second world title to go with his 2007 crown but to mount a serious challenge, wins must follow soon.  Similarly afflicted but a little further down the field, Bruno Senna has been strong in races this year, particularly in the early part of the season, but continues to leave himself far too much to do with ordinary qualifying performances.  The 17-place grid gap between Senna and the other Williams in Barcelona illustrates how far away from the Saturday pace Bruno has been at times, a situation he desperately needs to fix if he’s to prevent Valtteri Bottas from pinching his 2013 race seat.

Then again, perhaps it’s his team mate that’s at greater risk.  Pastor Maldonado won in Spain, a most unexpected and hugely popular first win for Sir Frank’s boys since Juan Pablo Montoya took the flag in Brazil at the end of 2004.  He’s fundamentally quick, he brings enormous amounts of Venezuelan sponsorship money and so it follows that his 2013 drive is assured, doesn’t it?  In the 7 races since then, Pastor has scored precisely no points at all while accruing 6 separate penalties, 3 of those picked up during the same Belgian weekend, 2 of those in a race which saw him complete only a single lap at racing speed.  Maldonado is rapidly establishing a reputation as the sport’s most dangerous, vacant, utterly rock-headed racer: coming from off the track to nerf Hamilton into the Valencia wall, deliberately crashing into Perez during Monaco practice, bouncing into the same driver at Silverstone, shoving Di Resta off the road at Hungaroring and a thoroughly dreadful jump start in Belgium when “the clutch slipped from my hands”, this after a penalty for impeding Hulkenberg in qualifying.  The question must be asked: does Maldonado cost Williams more in damages, repairs and sheer, straightforward goodwill than he brings in South American pennies?

The same is not true of Romain Grosjean, Kimi’s partner at Lotus.  Romain is quick too but differs from Maldonado in that, for the most part, he shows signs of basic neural activity.  What Romain needs to appreciate – one assumes his upcoming period of enforced rest, discussed below, will assist him here – is that a Formula 1 race has bits, quite important bits, that take place after the first corner.  Fernando Alonso muddles involvement and responsibility when he says Grosjean has been involved in 7 separate accidents at the start of races this year – you can be involved in evacuations without being responsible for starting the fire – but more often than not, an incident on the first lap this year has seemed to contain a Frenchman in what used to be a Lotus.  When he keeps out of trouble, he’s a contender for outright victory and had his car not responded to Vettel’s alternator failure in Valencia by copying it exactly, he’d have already claimed one.  The rough edges are many but they’re worth smoothing off.

I have no idea how good Nico Rosberg is.  This is a line I’ve been peddling since I started writing about racing cars, yes, but it’s as true today as it ever was.  His win in China was magnificent, dominating on a day when Mercedes understood what their tyres needed and everybody else missed the mark.  Judge him on that and he’s a world-beater.  Judge him on his recent efforts at Silverstone, Hockenheim and Spa, where his weekend’s work was frankly atrocious, and he couldn’t beat an egg.  Nico’s an enigma, a riddle I can’t seem to solve, and the absence of Rosberg’s name when talk turned to vacant drives at Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull for next year would suggest I’m not alone in that.

If the only accurate barometer is the fella in the other car, he’s not as good as Michael Schumacher, whose 2012 campaign would have offered rather more had everything inside his Mercedes worked at the same time.  There’s still been the odd rick, such as crashing into Senna in Spain and the casual surrealism of his Hungarian horror story, where he crashed in practice, qualified 17th, parked in the wrong place on the grid, switched his engine off as the rest of the field started a warm-up lap, started last and picked up a first lap puncture.  It would have made sense during the last two years but this time around, it’s seemed incongruous when viewed in the context of his season; juxtapose it with his glorious pole position lap at Monaco, a weekend where the old stager was the fastest man in town in qualifying and race before the inevitable car failure, to see what I mean.  The Valencia podium was a fluke but it should have come elsewhere and much earlier.

I’d like Michael to stay on for at least one more year but if he doesn’t, Paul Di Resta has long been the hot tip to take a Mercedes works drive.  Closely linked to the Three Pointed Star through his Formula 3 and DTM adventures, it’s been assumed that Paul is a natural fit with the F1 operation and a shoe-in for the role.  For that assumption to hold true, we must now ignore the bloke in the other Force India, for Nico Hulkenberg has strung together a mightily impressive series of performances after a steady start to his racing return.  It’s a fine problem for Mercedes to have and assuming Force India hang on to one when the other leaves, they’ll still have a worthy team leader on their books.  Di Resta’s side of the garage seems more inclined to roll the dice tactically, make fewer pit stops than their rivals and nurse the car to the end, which leaves him popping up at the front during pit sequences more often than Hulkenberg but tailing off in the later stages with equal frequency.  Hulkenberg’s crew take a more conventional approach and display more obvious pace on Sunday afternoons.  Take them over a single lap and there’s nothing to choose.

Last year, I called Sergio Perez the perfect endurance sportscar racer from years gone by but said I wasn’t sold on him as a Formula 1 driver.  You’d think, with two podiums to his name this season and what should have been a win in Malaysia only disappearing through a late slip on a greasy kerb, I’d have changed my mind.  For a moment earlier this year, I thought I might, until it dawned on me that both of his podium finishes came as a result of tyre conservation, through looking after your equipment and not taking too much out of it, just like the World Sportscar Championship used to be.  Outside of those results, he’s only featured in the top 10 finishers twice.  He’s not bad by any means and may yet go on to be great, but he’s wrong to believe he’s already done so.  In the other Sauber, Kamui Kobayashi still suffers from the loss of his unique selling point.  Before DRS, he was the only driver who appreciated that if the following driver was rude enough, one Formula 1 car could overtake another.  Now they’re all at it, the impact of Kamui’s aggression is less keenly felt.  His consistency is coming along – 5 points finishes is more than Perez has so far this season – and only Sergio’s big day in Malaysia keeps him ahead in the championship table.  Kamui might have been deprived of his when the Grosjean-Hamilton-Alonso schemozzle at Spa chose his right front suspension as a landing pad, but the raw pace is there.

Even now, 12 races into the season, I cannot tell you the difference between Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne, any more than I can tell you what either of them brings to Scuderia Toro Rosso that Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari before them didn’t.  Both men have had their moments – Ricciardo qualified magnificently in Bahrain, with a 6th place on the grid that would surely have landed a much bigger blow had he not fluffed the start and arrived at the first corner in 19th, while Vergne sailed majestically up the order in the early stages of a Malaysian monsoon on an afternoon when STR briefly joined the Marina Militare.  Outside of that, Vergne has struggled in qualifying but the pair have finished line astern 8 times in 12 races, which would seem to indicate that the problem in Faenza isn’t the drivers they’re employing but the car they’re being given.

All of which leaves me with Marussia and Caterham.  A third season tugging around at the back of the field seems to have finally got to Timo Glock, who appears to have realised that no amount of his considerable talent can elevate his team beyond the ranks of the also-rans.  Being impressive every so often, as Timo has undeniably been this season, will catch the eye of absolutely nobody after two seasons of being impressive at all times.  He looked a race winner in his Toyota days, did Timo, but now it’s hard to see not only where that driver is, but who else he could possibly drive for if not his current team.  In criticising Glock’s performance, it’s only fair to give due credit to Charles Pic, who has been much, much closer to his highly-regarded team leader than any 22 year old well-financed rookie with a solid but unspectacular record at junior level has any right to be.  The danger at the blunt end of the grid is that your team might need drivers with a budget, someone else might come along with a larger budget than yours and your talent isn’t viewed as great enough to get a drive further up the field.  Pic’s performances this year have been those of a man who deserves more than that.

Down Caterham way, Heikki Kovalainen‘s patience appears to have snapped somewhat.  If he’d driven a McLaren anything like as quickly as he routinely drives a Caterham in qualifying, he’d have been a world champion by now rather than having a single inherited race victory to his name.  Heikki’s problem has been an inability to reconcile himself with the idea that, pre-season promises notwithstanding, the team still haven’t bridged the gap between the new-for-2010 outfits and the established midfield, nor have they left Marussia behind by anything like the expected margin.  The desperation creeping into the Finn’s driving leads him to do astonishing things with his machinery in an attempt to make up the difference.  In qualifying, starting ahead of Mark Webber’s Red Bull in Valencia and bridging the gap to Toro Rosso with the utterly unhinged Monaco masterwork we’ve become used to seeing from Heikki, this has worked wonderfully.  In races, this has worked him into becoming an accident looking for a scene.

As a consequence, Vitaly Petrov has tended to see the chequered flag before his team mate, by virtue of being rather slower in general but driving within the limits of the car at his disposal.  In the lower reaches of the field, where nobody is likely to score points and your position in the constructors championship is determined by each team’s best finish, there’s a lot to be said for being there at the end just in case everyone else isn’t.  Vitaly does this very well.  I’d still hire Heikki.

Want me to pick a world champion?  At the start of the season, eventually and under some duress, I gave you the name Lewis Hamilton.  Now, he has 8 races to make up a 47 point deficit, which is more than achievable if he goes on a winning run.  The question is whether there’s any sign of that winning run coming together and whether, left to his own devices and free from assault by flying Frenchmen, Alonso will drop enough points to leave himself open to anyone.  There’s no dignity in changing horses mid-stream, so I won’t, but I will tell you this: ignore what I said in March.

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