Archive for the ‘F1 race reviews’ Category

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.

Lap 30 of yesterday’s German Grand Prix (which we will, in a roundabout sort of way, discuss in this little article) marked the halfway point of this year’s Formula 1 world championship.  It’s never been less than intriguing so far – indeed, for the most part, it’s been simply stunning.

Back in March, just before the most thrilling season in years got underway, nobody had any real idea of what to expect from the new face of Formula 1 racing.  None of us were quite sure exactly how KERS, DRS and Pirelli’s return to the sport would mix up the pecking order or change the way Sunday afternoons panned out.  Some of us were stupid enough to make some predictions anyway.  At least one of us thought asking his mother for some thoughts was a great idea which wouldn’t in any way come back to haunt him.

The aim was to illustrate that when it came to setting predictions for 2011, you were just as well off asking someone with a passing interest if you couldn’t find anyone who’d spent the last 20 years deeply in love with motorsport.  How are we doing so far?  Let’s see…:

Rookie of the year

Adam: Paul di Resta
Sue: Pastor Maldonado

This battle is beginning to tighten up a little as Pastor comes to grips with his Williams, of which more in a moment, but over the 10 races it’s di Resta who must surely get the nod.  The Scotsman has offered more than one genuinely stunning performance this season, with 6th on the grid at Silverstone being a particular high point.  It should also be said that Sergio Perez, despite the odd quiet showing or major gaffe, has been generally very impressive too.

Maldonado started to get a handle on things at Monaco, where he’s always excelled, and is by no means disgracing himself.  When, though, was the last time you saw him and said “Wow”?

Adam 1-0 Sue

Midfield surprise package

Adam: Williams
Sue: Scuderia Toro Rosso

While I have been surprised by Williams, it hasn’t been in quite the manner I’d hoped for.  FW33’s performance thus far has remained consistently in the space between ‘slow’ and ‘catastrophic’, with a pair of 9th places being the highpoint after a pre-season in which the team genuinely looked to be there or thereabouts.  A major reshuffle is currently taking place with various key technical staff, including technical director Sam Michael, taking their leave at season’s end.  You get the feeling that a clear-out is necessary, because while the existing design team appear to know they’ve drawn a bad car, nobody seems to know exactly why.  Last weekend, the team removed KERS from Rubens Barrichello’s car, replacing the unit with moveable ballast in an attempt to improve weight distribution and cure their heavy tyre wear.  This weekend, they’re putting it back on…

STR are somewhere near the position they occupied last season, thus winning this round by default.  Pulling up absolutely no trees in qualifying, the STR6 is built with race days in mind.  Jaime Alguersuari took 3 straight points finishes in Canada, Valencia and Britain, while Sebastien Buemi has scored on 4 occasions.  Only once has the Toro Rosso pairing scored points in the same race, suggesting that what the team really needs is a little more consistency from its driving staff rather than its racing car.

What we should both have said, as it turns out, was Sauber, but none of us could really have expected that, right?

Adam 1-1 Sue

Will Schumi win again?

Adam: Yes
Sue: No

Right, here we go…

Let’s not compare Michael Mk II to the all-conquering first career, the one that saw him become statistically the most successful driver in F1 history.  There’s no sense in us doing that, partly because Nico Rosberg was never going to let Mercedes mould a team around the other guy (Nico’s contract was in place before Michael’s, lest we forget), partly because there’s no prospect of Michael having the searing one-lap pace he used to have now he’s 42 and partly because relative to the competition, these Mercs are the worst cars he’s ever sat in.

For all that Nico has the undoubted qualifying advantage, it’s nothing like as clear cut when it comes to comparing race pace.  For 5 races on the spin now, Michael has been visibly, demonstrably faster on race day.  The problem is that only once, after a sublime showing on the Montreal boating lake, has he come away with a greater points haul than his team mate.  Everywhere else, car problems or silly mistakes have cost him – at Nurburgring, for instance, he had the pace to catch Rosberg, spin on a damp patch and then catch him again, all of which was fun to watch but brought him home one place behind his team mate.  That place was 8th to Nico’s 7th, in cars which haven’t once fulfilled the promise they showed in the final Barcelona winter test.

Viewed in isolation, without the 91 wins that came before, this Schumacher chap is a non-stop whirl of entertainment.  Try to recall the last time you saw Schumi on screen, on a Sunday afternoon, doing something that didn’t involve a passing move or a crash.  He remains the ultimate competitor, he has absolutely no concept of what it means to give up a position (often, it must be said, to his ultimate detriment) and I’m certain that if Mercedes can serve up a decent car, Michael can still win a race with it.

All of which, sadly, is a long-winded justification for why I’ve got this one wrong too.

Adam 12 Sue 

Massa – still a contender?

Adam: No
Sue: No

More than any of the other questions we set, this is the one I wanted to be wrong about.

For 20 seconds at the end of the 2008 season, as he won the Brazilian Grand Prix and Lewis Hamilton languished in 6th when only a top 5 finish would do, Felipe was the world champion.  The dignity, generosity and kindness of spirit he displayed when Lewis crept back into 5th and snatched the crown back was of a type no man could fail to admire.  His brilliance in the early part of 2009 was far more than the hateful Ferrari F60 deserved, his recovery from the near-fatal head injury he sustained in Hungary that year was remarkable and when “Fernando is faster – than – you,” the loss of what would have been a fairytale victory seemed unfair in a way few team orders ever have.

It’s easy to suggest that Massa is not the driver he was before a spring from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn struck him on the head that July afternoon.  The bad news, though, is that there may well be some truth to it.  Though he led the championship in the early part of 2010, his race in Germany later that year is the only post-comeback example of the raw speed the Brazilian used to serve up as a matter of course.  In Germany this year, he was 40 seconds back down the road from his team mate.

Or should I say team leader?  Ferrari have never been shy of playing politics, nor of openly favouring one driver over another – this, incidentally, is not a practice that started in the Schumacher era, no matter what the revisionists might have you believe.  Alonso was only ever going to be signed as de-facto number one driver, though there can be little doubt that Massa’s injuries smoothed his path to some degree, and it’s worth noting how when discussing potential threats at the front of the field, Fernando never mentions Felipe.  Even given equal billing, though, I’m not sure this most likeable of racing drivers quite has it in him anymore.

Adam 2-3 Sue

Will Pirelli spice up the show?

Adam: Yes
Sue: No

They haven’t done it by themselves, not by any means.  Even in races where the tyres have hung together well, there’s been something to see.  Last weekend, for example, Hamilton, Alonso and Webber were rarely more than a couple of seconds apart and swapped the lead on seven different occasions, despite each man following their planned tyre routine and pit schedule without any major drama.

It’s the 2011 rules package as a whole we should be praising for the marked increase in overtaking and proper racing action.  There have been races – China and Turkey spring readily to mind – where tyres have been the main factor in much of the passing, but they can’t solely account for great racing in Germany, Spain or even Monaco, where everyone who wasn’t born Lewis Carl Hamilton found a way to overtake without incident.  On the whole, though, they’re promoting overtaking and varied strategies, particularly in the midfield, where Sutil and Perez have both scored big points through superb tyre conservation.  There’s speculation that, prompted by mockery from a rival tyre company’s Italian advertising, Pirelli might move towards more durable tyres for marketing reasons.  Let’s hope not.

Adam 3-3 Sue

Will anyone fall foul of the 107% rule?

Adam: No
Sue: Yes

There are – and I realise it’s quite redundant of me to point this out – perfectly good reasons for my getting this one wrong.

Come to think of it, I did say that you might see teams miss the race because they couldn’t make their car run for long enough to set a decent time.  I had HRT in mind and said as much.  In Australia, they did exactly that, failing to keep the right nuts on the relevant bolts for long enough to post a lap within 107% of the quickest Q1 time.  Game over, Adam wins and on we go, right?

Not exactly.  HRT did miss the 107% rule again in Monaco, but this too was down to technical issues and both cars had demonstrated during practice that they were quick enough to meet the required time.  Virgin can’t make the same case for Jerome d’Ambrosio in Canada.  The stewards let him in to the race on the grounds that he was running a new chassis that Saturday, one he’d never driven before.  This, just so we’re clear, shouldn’t make the blindest bit of difference.  It’s said that no two cars are exactly the same, even if they’re built to exactly the same spec, but in this modern era of computer aided design and computational fluid dynamics, it simply isn’t possible for one team to build two cars which differ wildly in performance.

Nobody expected Virgin to be quite as slow as they’ve been, least of all Virgin themselves.  I certainly didn’t, I’m startled that d’Ambrosio missed the cut anywhere, especially on a Canadian circuit which is essentially no more than a big run of chicanes connected by long straights, and I can’t for the life of me find any mitigation.  He was allowed to start the race and I really ought to use that as my get-out clause, but since I don’t believe that was the right decision:

Adam 3-4 Sue

Who’ll win the title?

Adam: Red Bull, Vettel
Sue: Red Bull, Vettel

At about this time of year, it’s tradtional for me to crown someone as champion-in-waiting and for that someone to slump like Devon Loch on tranquilisers, but can we really see it happening this time around?

For a man with one title in the bag and another waiting to be collected, Sebastian Vettel is still surrounded by a fair number of doubts.  His judgement and ability to respond when Mark Webber is faster on a given weekend are both suspect.  His defensive skills appear to be lacking – witness Fernando Alonso’s cruise down the inside into the Nurburgring’s first hairpin on Sunday.  Under pressure, he’s prone to errors, such as the one he made while hanging on to the leading trio last weekend or the slip that gave Jenson Button victory in Canada.  The 45 laps he spent staring at the back of Felipe Massa’s car in Germany suggest that even when his machinery is vastly superior, he can still be found wanting when required to make his way through traffic.

If next year’s RB8 isn’t the class of the field, that’ll give Vettel a problem.  His victories are all of the lights-to-flag variety and it’s hard to recall Seb winning a race that his car didn’t deserve.  Even that brilliant maiden win, for Scuderia Toro Rosso at a wet Monza three years ago, was achieved from pole position and with his team mate Sebastien Bourdais starting at the front with him.  This year, though, it matters not, because the RB7 has been dominant enough for long enough that Vettel hasn’t had to go wheel-to-wheel with his main rivals on equal terms.

Given the best car in the field, the reigning champion has made better use of it than Mark Webber and his advantage, 77 points at the time of writing, is such that he doesn’t have to win again this season.  Steady points are enough.  Given that Sebastian finishes 4th even when he leaves the road twice and spends three quarters of the distance stuck behind a Ferrari, there’s no reason to suggest he won’t get them.

Final score:
Adam 4
-5 Sue

The worst part (at least for me, though not, I suspect, for my Mam) is that only one of us totally understood every question and realised that the answers really were being posted online.  My only hopes of turning around this deficit are for Williams to come on strong, Michael Schumacher to win a race before season’s end or for me to change my mind on that 107% business.

I’m toast. 

I go quiet for nearly a month and you still keep on visiting.  You’re all quite mad, but I’m touched all the same.

I’ll soon be switching back to full-bore attack in my bid to become quite simply the finest bloke who blogs about motor racing in all of Hartlepool.  The reason I’m not there at the moment is connected to my work, the time I currently spend commuting and the effect this has on my ability to stay awake, along with my desire to sit at a PC.

In the meantime, I should offer some thoughts on the race this weekend at my beloved Silverstone:

  • Ferrari had Red Bull beaten even without the fumbled pit stop Vettel received.  Nobody on the track had an answer for the pure pace of Fernando Alonso in the second half of the Grand Prix.
  • McLaren defeated themselves.  It goes without saying that Button’s car should never have been allowed to leave the pits with only 75% of its tyres correctly attached – ambiguous though the tyre changer’s movements may have been, nobody ever signalled to say that the right front had been changed properly.  Hamilton, romping towards a podium place from 10th on the grid, says he spent the last 21 laps of a 52 lap race saving fuel, apparently because the team hadn’t expected him to make such rapid progress through the field and thought he’d be able to save fuel while running in the midfield early on.  Which driver have they been watching for the last 5 seasons?
  • Is it me, or has Nico Rosberg given up outperforming his car and settled for being quietly effective?  For the fourth race in succession, he hasn’t quite had the race pace of the old bloke alongside him, the saving grace for Nico being that Michael Schumacher never seems to finish a race using the same front wing he started with.  The two are a lot like Prost and Lauda at McLaren, when Alain had the searing qualifying pace and Niki, once the undisputed master of a single lap, couldn’t deliver in qualifying but made up for it on Sundays.  The key difference, apart from the relative merits of this year’s Merc against the all-conquering 1984 McLaren, is that Niki didn’t crash into things.  Schumi is this close to a run of competitive finishes, but it won’t come until he turns the magnets off.
  • Those Red Bull team orders.  Part of me, the part that hero worships racing drivers and cares not a single iota for their team managers, finds it abhorrent that Webber should have been instructed to hold station when clearly running faster than Vettel ahead of him.  It is however a team sport.  From that viewpoint, it’s quite sensible to call off the dogs in the late stages when both cars are in the podium places.  Had I been the boss on the pit wall, I would probably have made the same call, albeit with a somewhat heavy heart.  Had I been the driver catching his team mate, I would probably have ignored it.  Webber did, citing his failure to take Vettel off the road as proof that team orders were unnecessary.  My natural sympathies in this situation will always lie with the man behind the wheel, BUT team orders are legal and this order was clear.  I’ll leave you to debate which party holds the high ground on that one.
  • It is very, very nice to see displays of supreme driving skill.  Hamilton and Schumacher passed Alonso and Petrov respectively up the inside into Copse, which is negotiated at around 165 in the dry, using slick tyres on a wet surface.  To make that kind of move stick without ending up in the centre of Northampton takes no small amount of skill, along with a healthy measure of guts.
  • It’s equally nice to see racing drivers behaving like competitive beasts, while the stewards leave them to get on with it.  One of the added bonuses of Silverstone’s new pit complex is that the last corner is now the left-right-right of Vale and Club, with heavy braking on the way into Vale creating a prime overtaking opportunity.  Massa’s run at Hamilton on the last lap, the home favourite’s crash-bang defence straight from your local banger racing track and their subsequent drag race to the finish were an absolute joy to watch.  Both men were robust, both men were dogged and in the end, both men got to the finish together, Hamilton getting the nod by exactly 0.024 seconds.  To give that some perspective, it takes 10 times longer for you to blink…
  • All hail Jaime Alguersuari.  His recent upturn in form is the reason that Red Bull protege Daniel Ricciardo’s debut had to come at the wheel of an HRT, not a Toro Rosso.  For the third race in a row, the young Spaniard ended up in the points, attached to the back of Schumacher’s Mercedes and Heidfeld’s Renault.  From looking like a dead man walking barely a month ago to having the upper hand at STR today, Jaime’s transformation has been as sudden as it has been superb.

Redefining ‘late’ here, aren’t we?  Many apologies.  We’ll keep this brief.

The Canadian Grand Prix is held on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.  If you have any more than a passing interest in Formula 1 racing, the chances are you know that name already.  We’ve mentioned him briefly before and will doubtless do so again next May on the 30th anniversary of his untimely death, but it’s worth us doing the standard introduction to Gilles all the same.

This is the 1979 French Grand Prix at Dijon.  Nothing of any great import has happened for the first 77 laps.  Villeneuve has led the first half of the race but the turbocharged Renaults are better suited to the track.  Both Ferraris have cooked their tyres, with Jody Scheckter running a lap down.  Jean-Pierre Jabouille now leads, on his way to his first Grand Prix win, the first victory for Renault and the first win for a turbocharged engine in Formula 1.  Nobody’s looking at Jean-Pierre Jabouille.

We join the race at the start of lap 79, guided by Murray Walker.  Villeneuve has just been passed by Rene Arnoux in the second Renault.  After some consideration, he’s decided not to let that stand:

If you’re going to pay tribute to men with that kind of grit, skill and unbreakable fighting spirit by naming racetracks after them, you’d better make sure they’re capable of serving up memorable racing of their own.  Could this year’s Canadian Grand Prix do it?

It gave us all manner of stories.  The first one was all about rain.  It fell in a steady, persistent fashion before the race, stopping just prior to the scheduled race start.  Race director Charlie Whiting opted to start proceedings behind the safety car, a decision which seemed somewhat cautious on a track that looked ready for racing.  Soon enough, it dried out sufficiently to let drivers change from wet tyres to intermediates, at which point the clouds developed a sense of humour and dumped their contents over Montreal all at once.

Had the Canadian Lifeboat Institution lodged an entry, they could potentially have won.  They hadn’t, so everyone stopped and ran for shelter.  Those who hadn’t already pitted, like Kamui Kobayashi and Paul di Resta, got a free tyre change during the ensuing red flag period, which went on for enough time to make the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix the longest race in world championship history.  Those who had pitted got a free change too, but from somewhat further down the field than such leading lights as Nico Rosberg, Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher might otherwise have been.

Those who weren’t in the race any more had gone the way of Lewis Hamilton, who hasn’t yet figured out that there are some gaps your car simply won’t fit into.  Had he done so, he may well have gone on to win the race.  He certainly wouldn’t have crashed into Mark Webber at the very first corner or into his own team mate Jenson Button a few laps later, bouncing off the other McLaren and into the pit wall while aiming for a gap that was never going to be available by the time he’d arrived.  This was an activity which royally entertained the crowds on the pit straight but earned Lewis absolutely no points.  Brilliant though Hamilton is – and we must never seek to change, modify or in any way dilute the way that man drives racing cars – he’d be more successful, more often if he learned the difference between racing at every reasonable opportunity and racing no matter what the circumstances.

During the interlude, we learned that F1 drivers have galoshes to put over their driving boots when walking on wet ground, that HRT use plastic bags wrapped around Tonio Liuzzi’s legs instead and, thanks to Martin Brundle, that ‘racecar’ is a palindrome.  After it, we learned an awful lot about the class of 2011.  We found that Kobayashi, who has as much of the Villeneuve about him as anyone on the current grid, is completely unfazed by the prospect of running at the sharp end.  For lap after wet lap he kept Felipe Massa at bay, only falling back when the track lost its moisture and car performance began to take precedence over driver skill.  His time will come.

We discovered that somewhere in there, if you look hard enough, you can still find Michael Schumacher.  In the damp portion of the race he was peerless, faster than anyone else as he marched through the field.  Nobody carried more speed through the last chicane, nobody had the same raw pace and nobody pulled off the sort of opportunistic pass that took Schumi from 4th to 2nd in one swoop on the exit of turns 8 and 9.  When Nick Heidfeld’s crashed Renault brought out a late safety car (during which a marshal fell over and nearly got himself killed twice while we found out, in the same incident, that the German for “man oh man!” is “man oh man!”), it was briefly Regenmeister vs Weltmeister at the front, by which time the track had dried sufficiently for Vettel to draw away and Michael to drop back.  4th place was some reward, but his drive deserved more.

We also concluded that Narain Karthikeyan isn’t big on mental capacity.  Late in the race, everyone pitted for slick tyres as the track dried.  For reasons best known to himself, Narain assumed he’d been given a new set of intermediate tyres and proceeded to drive on the wet sections of track instead of the dry ones.  The subsequent loss of grip was enough to slow him down and to see Massa, attempting to pass the HRT, skating into the wall.  The Indian’s excuse?  “Nobody told me they were slicks.”

Finally, we saw how luck can change.  Fresh from being savaged by his team mate, Jenson Button made all the right calls on tyres and wound up precisely nowhere as a result of them.  He was the first major player to take intermediates in the early stages, becoming the fastest man on the track for the brief period between his tyre stop and the mammoth midway monsoon.  Displaced by those who hadn’t pitted prior to the race stoppage, JB made only small amounts of headway for much of the distance.  Upon calling for slicks as the race entered its final third, he became the fastest man on the track until he crashed into Fernando Alonso…

‘Crashed into’ is really quite harsh, as it goes.  Alonso had just left the pits, his slicks weren’t up to racing temperature and he’d had to drive through a lot of water on the pit exit.  The prudent racing driver would have let Button by on the inside of turn 3, rather than holding ground around the outside until the inevitable collision.  Alonso was out, Button was 21st with a punctured tyre and when the mess was tidied up and the inevitable safety car disappeared again, Jenson hadn’t even had time to catch the back of the pack.  At this point, someone who sounds a lot like me said, “He’ll win.”  Hahaha and all that.

He won.

The 2009 world champion was simply stunning from there on in.  Patient where necessary but aggressive where possible, just as Hamilton should have been, Jense picked his way through the field with surgical precision.  When Heidfeld hit the wall while running 6th, Button was already up the road in 4th.  When the safety car came in, he cleared Webber and Schumacher like a man in a tearing hurry to be somewhere.  The lead.

Vettel was pacing himself out front, but he was using the wrong marker.  In keeping the gap to Schumacher steady, Seb and Red Bull had ignored the McLaren, which had been taking two seconds a lap out of everybody prior to Heidfeld’s accident.  A thrilling chase led to a final lap shootout, Vettel responding but still losing chunks of time while his pursuer ran the McLaren to the ragged edge, looking lairy everywhere in a way that Button never, ever does.  On the limit into turn 6, Button kept on coming as Vettel strayed mere inches off line, locked his outside rear wheel on a damp patch and left his rival a shot into the clear.

Get at him, give him a proper race, and you’ll still find chinks in the defending champion’s armour.  Jenson did it, coming from nowhere with the kind of drive you simply have to applaud.  Had it stayed damp, perhaps an old master would have cracked it instead.  Heavier rain might have favoured a man born under the rising sun.  Each one of them went racing, each one of them put on a show and somehow, you imagine that Gilles would have loved every minute.

Monaco.  A place where the rich, the famous, the beautiful and her who used to be Ginger Spice gather among the the yachts and the palaces.  A place to see, a place to be seen.  A place which closes its roads in late spring and hosts a stately procession masquerading as a Formula 1 race.  The twisting, narrow streets of the Principality are a wonderful place to see cars and drivers at close quarters, but as surely as Geri Halliwell won’t be going to the Indian Grand Prix, you won’t see any passing once the red lights go out.

Or will you?  Starting at the front, as he does so often that he’ll soon have to change his name to ‘Sebastian Vettelsonpole’, the world championship leader probably hoped not.  Behind him were Jenson Button, a master of the off-beat strategy who drives with the precision and fluidity of a ballet dancer, a team mate with a point to prove in Mark Webber and, in Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso, two of the fastest, most forceful starters of the season so far.  Further back came Lewis Hamilton, desperate to make amends for Lady Luck’s desertion in qualifying.  One by one, the challengers would be removed from contention, but they had a good number of adventures along the way.

Schumacher was the first man to fall, his Mercedes pulling away well and then slipping into an anti-stall mode, engaging neutral gear when what Michael really needed was 2nd.  He dropped to 10th, machining parts of his front wing away against the back of Hamilton’s car as the field braked for the first corner, before snatching 9th from the 2008 champ in a brilliant piece of opportunism at the Fairmont hairpin later in the lap.  Fairmont has been many things over the years – I still call it Loews, Sir Stirling Moss refers to it as Station and if you came into F1 recently, you’ll know it as Grand Hotel – but it’s never been a prime location for successful overtaking, as we’ll see later.  This perhaps explains Hamilton’s apparent surprise at seeing Schumacher come by, a surprise which turned to supreme disappointment as soon as the Merc started to chew its rear tyres.

Michael believed his tyres were affected by a loss of downforce after his contact with Lewis, but in fact the other Mercedes of Nico Rosberg was soon in desperate trouble too, holding up Felipe Massa and – great Grandma’s spatula! –  Pastor Maldonado.  The Venezuelan, a Monaco expert in the junior classes, was on great form and looking good to break his F1 duck, along with his Williams team’s 2011 points drought.  As time went on, Hamilton and Barrichello would bully Schumi out of the way at Sainte Devote and Mirabeau respectively, while Rosberg lost out to both of his South American pursuers.  Before long, the Silver Arrows were in the pits, Michael for tyres and a new nose, Nico for tyres only, both men emerging just outside the top 20.

None of this concerned Vettel, who built up a 4.5 second lead in the early laps, with Button having Alonso for a dancing partner.  Webber wasn’t really in touch but might still have harboured a faint hope of victory until the first round of pit stops got underway on lap 15.  Button was in first, exchanging his tyres for a fresher set of the supersoft Pirellis and emerging in clear air after a quick turnaround from the McLaren crew.  Vettel came in a lap later for an eagerly-awaited stop.  Red Bull had changed their pit procedures, having been thoroughly bemused by Ferrari’s ability to predict exactly when Webber would pit during the race in Spain, and the watching world was keen to see what kind of effect this would have upon the race.

The new procedure, it seemed, was to get in a muddle over the radio, give Vettel a set of soft tyres when he was due to take the supersofts and then, upon Webber’s arrival soon afterwards, leave him sat on the jacks without any rubber at all.  Ferrari reacted to these developments with, one imagines, a fit of the giggles prior to Alonso’s pit visit, but perhaps there was something in the water.  When Hamilton pitted on lap 23, he found that not only were there no tyres ready, there were no mechanics ready either.  The highlight of Massa’s first stop on lap 27 was the man on rear jack duty completely missing the car and needing a second go to get the rear wheels off the ground.

Once everything had shaken out and Paul di Resta had demonstrated how overtaking moves at Fairmont usually end by driving into the side of Jaime Alguersuari, Button was in front and going away from the delayed, incorrectly-tyred Vettel.  Alonso was 3rd and keeping a watching brief, with nobody else really in the hunt.  Webber’s long, long first stop had dumped him firmly into the midfield, while Hamilton was in the same area, getting racy with any and all interested parties.  Having easily caught Massa, Hamilton opted to dispose of the Ferrari on lap 33, doing so by means of a clumsy move from some distance back on the way into Fairmont.  Could it work?

There are no prizes for guessing correctly.  The Brazilian turned in, as late as a man reasonably could do without inadvertently checking in to the Fairmont Hotel, there was contact and the two cars became intertwined in a slow speed kiss until corner exit.  Through Portier and down to the waterfront, Felipe remained ahead, but coming through the tunnel he ran wide as Hamilton drew alongside again, smacking the wall with enough force to bring out the safety car.  Lewis maintains that the initial contact was Massa’s fault, but it’s really not unreasonable of the man ahead to turn into a corner if you’re not clearly alongside.

Button, runaway leader at that point, had just pitted for another set of supersofts and could really have done without his team mate coming over all Mad Max.  By pitting just before the safety car emerged, Jense had unwittingly given up the lead to Vettel, who elected to stay out and see how far a set of soft tyres could take him.  Red Bull’s mistake at the first stops had just given their star driver brilliant track position.

Michael Schumacher no longer had any track position at all, victim of an airbox fire as the field slowed for the safety car period.  Alonso had been in for a set of softs and no longer had any need to stop again, while Button was now 2nd but hadn’t yet ran on the soft tyre, as demanded by the regulations.  Adrian Sutil and Kamui Kobayashi were 4th and 5th, both trying the one-stop route and doubtless thrilled to have Webber and Hamilton behind them on fresher rubber.  Maldonado, Vitaly Petrov and Nick Heidfeld rounded out the top 10 as the race got underway again.

What a race it was shaping up to be too.  Vettel had lapped cars between himself and Button on the restart, but the Englishman scythed through the backmarkers and a deficit of 4 seconds was whittled away to nothing in the blink of an eye.  By lap 42 he was right there with the Red Bull, but with another stop to make and Sutil holding up everyone from P4 backwards on his worn tyres, Jenson was in for his final tyre change on lap 49.  He ceded 2nd place to Alonso, who was now on a mighty forward charge of his own, while a drive-through penalty for clobbering Massa dropped Hamilton to 9th, the last man on the same lap as the leader.  He wasn’t the only Brit in the wars, with di Resta taking a second penalty of the day for another botched pass at Fairmont, this time against the Virgin of Jerome d’Ambrosio.

And then there were three, with Vettel reasoning that if he tried to hold on and failed, the worst he could possibly do was finish a solid 3rd.  Better to stay out and hope to do better, rather than pit in and guarantee himself the lowest step on the podium.  Alonso’s tyres were fitted on lap 35 and much fresher than Vettel’s, which had been going round in circles since lap 16.  Fernando clearly fancied his chances against a man asking for 62 laps from a set of boots, but Button was carving whole seconds per lap out of the pair of them.  By lap 60, having confirmed to his team that he knew Vettel was trying to go the distance, Jenson was back with the battle for the lead.  Alonso was clearly faster than Vettel but couldn’t get the power down well enough to get himself in a passing position, while Button seemed content to keep a watching brief for the time being, reasoning that he could pick up the pieces should anything go wrong.  It very nearly did on lap 65, with the Spaniard bailing out of a DRS-assisted move at Sainte Devote just in time to avoid creaming into the back of the Red Bull.

Behind them, patience had finally begun to snap somewhat in the queue behind Sutil.  Kobayashi was first to crack, passing the Force India at Mirabeau.  His methods, which involved getting horribly sideways, crashing into Sutil and shoving his car out of the way, were unconventional but there was no denying their effectiveness.  Petrov was next to have a go, making a pig’s ear of a move at Sainte Devote and letting Webber through.  Before lap 67 was out, Mark had dispatched Sutil too, leaving an almighty queue of cars bobbing around in the German’s wake.  Of greater concern to the leaders was that because of Sutil’s lack of pace, this battle was now taking place directly ahead of them as they came up to lap the protagonists.

What happened next takes a certain amount of unravelling, but let’s have a crack and see where we end up.  Going into Tabac on their 68th lap, Maldonado passed Sutil on the brakes.  Sutil ran wide and clouted the barrier, puncturing his right rear tyre.  At the same time and only a few feet further back, Hamilton was passing Petrov, who backed off to avoid contact and let Alguersuari come past too.  Maldonado scooted off to safety as the pack entered the swimming pool complex, but Hamilton had to lift as Sutil struggled to keep control of his stricken machine.  For whatever reason, the sight of a damaged car about to cut straight across the racing line hadn’t inspired the same caution in Alguersuari, who rode up over the back of the McLaren and connected with terra firma again just in time to pitch Petrov off the road.  Vettel, steady of pace and clenched of buttock, picked his way through the mess along with the other leaders, while the race was red flagged after a brief spell behind the safety car.

The stoppage was to ensure that Petrov received prompt medical attention.  Vitaly had complained firstly that he couldn’t feel his legs and then, when he could, that he was in considerable discomfort.  He was duly extricated and taken to hospital, where scans revealed no injuries.

A red flag was a mixed blessing for McLaren.  They had believed that Vettel’s tyres were just about to give up all of their grip, presenting Alonso and Button with an open goal and plenty of time to find it.  The red flag period allowed Red Bull and everyone else to fit a new set of tyres before the race got going again, thus robbing McLaren of their victory hopes and depriving the fans of what would have been a storming finish.  It also gave the team a chance to fix Hamilton’s rear wing, bent out of shape by Alguersuari’s aerobatics.

The benefits of this could be seen when the race restarted with 5 laps remaining, Lewis punting Maldonado out of 6th at Sainte Devote.   Lewis maintains that the initial contact was Maldonado’s fault, but it’s really not unreasonable of the man ahead to turn into a corner if you’re not clearly alongside.  He will one day learn that it’s sensible to take responsibility for your own mistakes, but it would seem that today is not that day.  Kobayashi had already picked up that lesson, defending 4th from Webber by ignoring the harbour-front chicane and immediately realising that he had to let the Australian come by.  5th was still a fine result and a timely fillip for Sauber after the worry over Sergio Perez yesterday, while a retrospective drive-through penalty didn’t affect Hamilton’s final placing.

At the front, nothing was going to affect Sebastian Vettel.  His adoption of the perfect strategy was a complete fluke in the first place, he couldn’t possibly have planned to take advantage of a race-stopping crash just as his tyres began to fade, he had no real business winning the Monaco Grand Prix under the circumstances and yet he did.  It was the kind of win runaway champions always seem to fall into.  Seems appropriate enough.

Race Results
2011 Monaco Grand Prix, Monte Carlo, Monaco

78 laps of 2.075 miles

1. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), 2hrs09:38.373
2. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), +1.138 seconds
3. Jenson Button (McLaren), +2.378 seconds
4. Mark Webber (Red Bull), +23.101 seconds
5. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber), +26.916 seconds
6. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), +47.210 seconds*
7. Adrian Sutil (Force India), +1 lap
8. Nick Heidfeld (Renault), +1 lap
9. Rubens Barrichello (Williams), +1 lap
10. Sebastien Buemi (Scuderia Toro Rosso), +1 lap
11. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), +2 laps
12. Paul di Resta (Force India), +2 laps
13. Jarno Trulli (Lotus), +2 laps
14. Heikki Kovalainen (Lotus), +2 laps
15. Jerome d’Ambrosio (Virgin), +3 laps
16. Vitantonio Liuzzi (HRT), +3 laps
17. Narain Karthikeyan (HRT), +4 laps
18. Pastor Maldonado (Williams), +5 laps, accident, completed 90% of race distance

Not classified

19. Vitaly Petrov (Renault), +11 laps, accident
20. Jaime Alguersuari (Scuderia Toro Rosso), +12 laps, accident
21. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), +46 laps, accident
22. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), +46 laps, airbox fire
23. Timo Glock (Virgin), +48 laps, suspension

* Time includes a retrospective penalty of 20 seconds for incident with Maldonado

One of the groups the FIA plainly failed to consider when designing this year’s rulebook was the hardy perennial blogging contingent.  As you’re doubtless aware, we’re not professional writers.  Some of us work a relatively low-paid job, mind you, so we may be quite happy to consider a career change on a similar salary or even the occasional freelance gig.  Tell your friends.  Particularly if those friends represent a publisher.

Sorry, what?  Oh, yes.  Since we’re nothing more than racing fans who happen to enjoy writing too, the bulk of the blogosphere doesn’t spend Sundays sat in front of the TV taking notes and keeping a detailed lap chart.  We sit with a refreshing beverage and we enjoy the Grand Prix or, where necessary, endure it in the hope that something worthwhile might happen later, then we write a little about what we saw.  How exactly is the hobbyist expected to stick to these tried and tested methods if the participants in these motor racing events insist on actually racing each other?

The drama in this event, the Chinese Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit, got going 25 minutes before the start.  Lewis Hamilton had qualified 3rd in his McLaren, doing a single run in Q3 to save a set of fresh tyres while his main rivals ran twice.  This would surely stand him in good stead once the race got underway, but we wouldn’t find out unless his engine started, which it didn’t.  The mechanics ran off to thumb the manual and checked the procedure for starting a flooded Mercedes, removing the rear bodywork in order to mop up the excess fluids with paper towels.  With seconds to spare before the pit lane closed, the car fired up, allowing Hamilton to take up his grid slot.  Had it not done, Lewis would have started from the pit lane, having first had to wait for everyone else to go by.  Formula 1 is always a sport of small margins, but this one would prove particularly important as the afternoon unfolded.

So would the small margin of safety afforded to the Englishman when the race got underway.  From pole position, Sebastian Vettel made a poor start and lost out immediately to Jenson Button, the 2009 world champion settling into an early lead.  Hamilton looked to follow, Vettel looked to block aggressively and as the cars headed for turn 1, there was a gap to the inside of the track which was just barely big enough for a racing car.  Lewis took it, McLaren were 1-2 and Rosberg was close to making it a silver trio at the front, being rebuffed by a Wall Of Death number from Vettel around the outside of the first curve.

The race settled down briefly, with the three leaders forming a fast-moving train which was mirrored, 3 or 4 seconds back down the road, by Rosberg, Massa and Alonso line astern.  Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil were next in a Force India each, while Vitaly Petrov briefly held off yet another first lap forward initiative from Michael Schumacher until the Russian locked up, ran wide and ceded the place.  To find Mark Webber, recovering from a dismal qualifying session in the Red Bull, you had to look back to 17th place.  Webbo was on hard tyres while those around him used the softer option.  In a crowded midfield, one where everyone had more tyre grip and seemed entitled to use their DRS systems every lap, the Australian had little to go racing with.

Before long it was time to plan the opening round of tyre stops.  Jaime Alguersuari was first to commit, pitting after 11 laps spent holding up a queue of lower midfield runners.  The Spaniard came in for 4 new Pirellis, the Toro Rosso pit crew attached 3 of those tyres correctly and their driver was compelled to retire a couple of corners later when the 4th wheel simply fell off.  The next lap, Michael Schumacher came in and was reassured to find that Mercedes had provided a full complement of tethered tyres.

Webber, having barrelled straight off the racetrack at turn 1 in the excitement of a pass on Barrichello for 15th place, came in for new boots too.  His hard tyres were finished, but having used no soft rubber at all in qualifying, he had plenty of fresh sets with which to attack from the back.  At the front, his team mate was getting into it with the McLaren duo, snatching 2nd from Hamilton into the turn 14 hairpin on lap 15.  Lewis appeared to have nothing left in his tyres, but the team chose to pit Button first, in with Vettel at the end of that lap.

How Jenson came to mistake the Red Bull garage for the McLaren one remains somewhat unclear.  What’s certain is that he did, that the Red Bull mechanics at the front of the pit box greeted him warmly, that they then showed remarkable presence of mind to get immediately out of the way and beckon him through and that Vettel’s pit stop suffered no appreciable delay.  Button couldn’t say the same, having slowed down for the wrong pit box, sped up and then slowed down again for the right one.  Despite that, he would remain ahead of Hamilton, whose gripless in lap saw him lose another place to the Ferrari of Massa.

Button’s inexplicable slip would have left Vettel in a clear lead had it not been for Rosberg.  Demonstrating the huge advantages of timing your pit stops properly, Nico came in on lap 13, emerged with a clear track ahead and put in lap times good enough to turn a 5 second deficit into a 5 second lead after the stops had played out.  The racing fraternity was thus reconfirmed in its belief that God is German.  Vettel was safe in 2nd but making no headway on the Merc ahead, while Button, Massa and Hamilton ran in close company.  Schumacher had got himself ahead of Alonso during the first pit cycle and was defending his position with the thoroughness of a man who intended to stay there.  Alonso could get alongside in the DRS zone but couldn’t get by, with the Red Baron sending him the long way around turn 14 every time.  It would be lap 27 before Fernando, now out of the hunt for top honours, could find a way past.

On the same lap, Hamilton and Webber pitted.  Both men had good-looking tyres available from now until race’s end, which was of particular importance to Mark.  He was still mired in the lower midfield, having never been higher than 11th.  To top it all off there came the announcement that, in a wholly predictable twist, his KERS power boost was no longer working.  All of this was the prelude to an astonishing drive.

Rosberg’s race was about to work in opposition to Webber’s, with a strong opening half being spoiled by his fuel tank.  Mercedes had expected the pace to be somewhat slower, filling both cars with fuel for the race and discovering after a few frenetic laps that the quantity used wouldn’t be quite enough.  Nico and Michael were obliged to run more steadily in the second half of the show but both remained well-placed.

While McLaren, Merc and Mark charted a 3-stop course, it was becoming clear that Vettel and the Ferraris thought 2 would be enough.  This was having a detrimental effect on their pace, with those on fresher rubber running at least a second a lap quicker, but the time saved by avoiding that extra pit stop made staying out a worthwhile option.  Seb pitted for a set of hard tyres on lap 31, Alonso came in on lap 33 and Massa stayed out until lap 34 having shown good pace in the latter part of his stint.

Knowing that the race at the front was about to come alive, it was easy to ignore the scraps down the field.  In doing so, you’d have missed Schumacher reminding Heidfeld, Perez and Petrov in quick succession that the old dog has plenty of life in him yet.  You’d have missed the Renault duo having 3 separate stabs at crashing into each other through turn 14 in a single lap and somehow missing each time.  You’d have missed di Resta and Kobayashi having a see-saw scrap over the final points position which wouldn’t resolve itself until the later stages, as well as Heikki Kovalainen proving that when everything on the Lotus is working at the same time, they’re right with the established lower midfield runners on race pace.  Wherever you looked in this Chinese Grand Prix, there was a story to be told and, more often than not, an overtaking move to be seen.  It’s a real shame that there’s no way to get it all across in an hour or so, which is all the time there is for this recap to be put together and published, but it’s a joy to report that it happened at all.

With Vettel and Massa having completed their scheduled stops, the race now hinged on how much ground the rest could make up before their final pit visit and what they could do on fresher rubber afterwards.  They came on successive laps, with Button taking hard tyres on lap 37, Hamilton pitting a lap later and Nico following on lap 39.  Jenson had been disadvantaged somewhat by Lewis, who chose the lap before his team mate’s stop to come haring down the inside of turn 1 in the kind of brilliant, full bananas, absolutely committed move that obliges the man in front to either give way or join you in the fencing.

Vettel now led by 3 seconds from Massa, with Rosberg a couple of seconds back and fighting a rearguard action against the racy Hamilton.  Button was just about in touch, but as the race entered its final 15 laps and Massa began to fade, the battle for victory looked like it would come down to Vettel, Hamilton and goodness gracious me, Webber.

Webber?

After his 2nd stop, Mark had fallen to 15th but had plans to spend the rest of the afternoon on fresh soft tyres.  In a single lap, he took 2.8 seconds out of Rubens Barrichello to claim 14th place.  In clear air, a chain of fastest laps followed as Sutil, Kobayashi and Heidfeld cleared a path by making pit stops of their own.  On lap 32, the Australian passed Perez, who was trying to go for 2 stops and struggling for grip.  Before long, he was on the tail of Schumacher’s scrap with Petrov, seeing off the Russian on lap 34 and Schumi on lap 39 after more spirited defensive work from the German.  Shorn of KERS power, the Red Bull racer was having to do all of his best work in the corners rather than the straights, taking full advantage of the grip, braking ability and traction his tyres had in comparison to those of the drivers around him.  When his final stop came on lap 41, he rejoined in 7th, certain of points and homing in immediately on Alonso’s Ferrari, Fernando having a strangely sluggish afternoon.

At the same moment, Hamilton said goodbye to Rosberg on the inside of turn 6, Nico appearing to concede the place almost willingly.  There was now less concern over his fuel supply’s ability to last longer than the Grand Prix would, but McLaren had all the pace in this final phase and Mercedes, delivering to somewhere near their potential for the first time this season, had nothing by way of response.

Neither did Massa.  Hamilton had been reminded by radio that he’d have a tyre advantage at the end of the race and should press it home then, but immediately decided that lap 45 was close enough to the end of a 56 lap race and gave it the beans.  Massa defended hard through the DRS zone, out of the hairpin and into the final left hander, but going past the pits Hamilton made the most of a better corner exit and just drove by.  Before long, Felipe would fall into the clutches of Rosberg, who locked up, ran wide and let Button through at the hairpin.  Both men would get past the Brazilian, who wound up a disappointed 6th after a fine drive.

Why were there pieces of car strewn across the outside of turn 2?

Massa wound up 6th because after clearing Alonso, Webber then drove straight past the other Ferrari too.  He also got Rosberg, passing him with 3 laps to go in a move that started with an outbraking attempt around the outside of turn 6 and ended with Nico having to finally give best on the way into 7.  Finally, at the end of the penultimate lap, he drew up alongside button at the end of the DRS area, took the inside line for the hairpin and drove away from the McLaren to claim a podium finish that had looked impossible only 25 laps before.

There were pieces of car on the outside of turn 2 because Sutil, having gone wide on the entry, had been savaged in a faintly ridiculous fashion by Perez.  The Mexican reckoned that a reckless lunge up the inside, on worn tyres, from too far back and on a section of the course where an F1 car always suffers from poor grip, would surely see him pass Adrian without incident and not receive a drive-through penalty for his efforts.  The Mexican was wrong.

Had Webber spent a little less time behind Schumacher, he might have won the whole event to go with the acclaim of his peers after an absolutely stunning display of attacking driving.  As it was, though, the identity of the winner was obvious the moment Hamilton cleared Massa.  Vettel did his formidable best but the Englishman had the pace, the grip and the patience to select his moment carefully.  Into the fast sweepers of turns 7 and 8 for the 52nd time, Lewis drew alongside, edged the Red Bull wide and seized a lead he was not to lose.

While he settled back to savour victory, Alonso and Schumacher engaged in a spirited scrap for 7th that ran right to the last corner, as did Barrichello’s dice with Buemi for the right to say “I finished 13th in the 2011 Chinese Grand Prix”.  Just ahead, di Resta and Heidfeld clattered into each other within yards of the finish, though both were able to make it home.  Everyone was racing at all times and nobody knew the final outcome until the chequered flag fell.  This was a motor race from start to finish.

If that sounds like a novelty, it’s even more peculiar to think that the race wasn’t won by a German man in an Austrian car.  One swallow doesn’t make a summer, particularly with the major teams introducing an upgrade package to their cars for the Turkish Grand Prix in 3 weeks, but here was the clearest indication so far that the 2011 world championship fight might yet be exactly that.

Race results:

2011 Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai International Circuit, 56 laps of 3.387 miles

1. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), 1hr36:58.226
2. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), +5.198
3. Mark Webber (Red Bull), +7.555
4. Jenson Button (McLaren), +10.000
5. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), +13.448
6. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), +15.840
7. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), +30.622
8. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), +31.206
9. Vitaly Petrov (Renault), +57.404
10. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber),  +1:03.273
11. Paul di Resta (Force India), +1:08.757
12. Nick Heidfeld (Renault), +1:12.739
13. Rubens Barrichello (Williams), +1:30.189
14. Sebastien Buemi (Scuderia Toro Rosso), +1:30.671
15. Adrian Sutil (Force India), +1 lap
16. Heikki Kovalainen (Lotus), +1 lap
17. Sergio Perez (Sauber), +1 lap
18. Pastor Maldonado (Williams), +1 lap
19. Jarno Trulli (Lotus), +1 lap
20. Jerome d’Ambrosio (Virgin), +2 laps
21. Timo Glock (Virgin), +2 laps
22. Narain Karthikeyan (HRT), +2 laps
23. Vitantonio Liuzzi (HRT), +2 laps

Not classified:

24. Jaime Alguersuari (Scuderia Toro Rosso), +44 laps, tyre fell off after pit stop

Perhaps, before we go any further, we should offer an explanation to those not versed in Sebastian Vettel’s habits. He names his racing cars, you see. The Toro Rosso he steered to victory in the 2008 Italian Grand Prix was Julie. Promoted to Red Bull for 2009, he drove Kate into a heavy crash during the Australian race, replacing her with the sleeker, more aggressive lines of Kate’s Dirty Sister. In 2010 there was Luscious Liz, followed by Randy Mandy and now, due to what is apparently a very tightly-packaged rear end, Kinky Kylie.

The following links, one of a car and one of another Kylie who is alleged to be somewhat adventurous, are provided for comparative purposes only.

While he may occasionally come across as somewhat arrogant and colossally smug, it’s hard not to like Vettel. It’s probably just as well, because he’s rapidly developing the habit of winning Grands Prix too. Pole position for the Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang suggested that the reigning world champion might fancy a crack at top honours this time out as well, but with a pair of resurgent McLarens and a hungry team mate lurking directly behind, could the German take his 2nd victory of the new season? Factor in Red Bull’s hitherto unreliable KERS system, the first chance to see the Drag Reduction System in action on a long straight and the fragile Pirelli tyres and you stood as much chance of predicting the race using form and performance as you did with a Magic 8-Ball.

At the start, all signs pointed to ‘Yes’ for Vettel, who led away commandingly on the long run down to the first right-hander. Behind him, the McLarens of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton made reasonable getaways while the other Red Bull of Mark Webber dropped anchor. Webbo had made a sluggish start and then found his KERS system choosing the exact same moment to develop a character, engaging a safety mode and refusing to work. 9th into the first turn, Mark would lose another place before the lap was out. Ahead of him were such rocket-boosted starters as Michael Schumacher and the two Renaults, Vitaly Petrov sneaking into 5th while Nick Heidfeld overtook everyone except Vettel in a masterful piece of work around the outside of turn 1.

Schumacher briefly split the Ferraris midway through the opening tour but by its end, Vettel led from Heidfeld, Hamilton, Button, Petrov, Massa, Alonso, Schumacher, Kobayashi and Webber. It’s not known exactly how hard the Australian laughed at this, but doubtless the hilarity only grew upon the discovery that while he could pass Kobayashi’s Sauber at will during the opening stint, he could not stay ahead of the Japanese driver. Kamui is always overtaking someone, no matter what the circumstances, but he seemed to be particularly enjoying the triple benefit conferred upon him by KERS, DRS and tyres that appeared not to disintegrate after 25 seconds.

Vettel was under no particular pressure at the front but Heidfeld was remaining in reasonably close touch, never more than around 7 seconds back through the opening phase of the race. One suspected that Hamilton might have got somewhat closer than that but the Englishman was never truly in position to mount an attack on the Renault driver ahead. Heidfeld was finding excellent traction on corner exit, enough to pull out a gap over the following McLaren that no amount of button-pushing could effectively bridge. 3rd was still better than nowhere, which was where Williams found themselves when Rubens Barrichello’s hydraulics packed in. He was already a lap down after being punted by a Force India at the end of the first lap, driving an entire circuit on 3 wheels having missed the pit entrance. With Pastor Maldonado already sidelined by a misfire, Rubinho’s retirement capped a miserable afternoon for the team from Grove.

Life became a little darker for Heidfeld and Massa at the first round of pit stops, both men receiving slow service and losing ground, with Heidfeld tucking in behind the McLarens and the upwardly mobile Alonso. As if to emphasise his new-found pace, Fernando came booming up the inside of Button at the first corner to snag 3rd place. Hamilton emerged from the pits directly behind the long-running Petrov but made the most of his fresh tyre advantage to sneak by within a lap, losing little ground to the leader. None of this was really troubling Vettel or Webber, with one man cruising at the front while the other remained at the lower end of the points places, plotting a 4-stop strategy against the 3 employed by the leaders. Deprived of Webber to attack, Kobayashi was having a royal set-to with Schumacher instead, the Mercedes having ran a long first stint. The plan was to stall the opening pit stop for as long as possible, in the hope that a recent outbreak of very mild drizzle might become the more typical Malaysian thunderstorm and let Schumi pick his moment to switch to wet tyres.

Before the race, the teams had been unanimous in their verdict on the weather. It wouldn’t rain for the 30 minutes after the start, unless it rained in the 10 minutes after the start, which it might but wouldn’t. This rain would be light, unless it was heavy, in which case it would either settle in for the afternoon or pass by after a few moments, assuming it came at all. In the event, it spat for 5 minutes and then cleared off, giving Schumacher and Nico Rosberg a long run on worn rear tyres for no gain. It also gave the veteran Jarno Trulli no excuse whatsoever for sailing into the kitty litter on a thoroughly locked-up set of cold tyres straight after his first stop. It was a real shame for Lotus, who had Heikki Kovalainen nibbling at the heels of Force India, Mercedes and Toro Rosso for the entire distance.

At the front, Hamilton was chipping away at Vettel but being caught by Alonso, who wasn’t getting away from Button, who wasn’t so far up the road from Heidfeld. It was all simmering away nicely in the battle for victory, with things getting hotter inside the Red Bull camp when Vettel was instructed not to use his KERS. This news was relayed to the German by radio, being passed on to the McLaren drivers as soon as it was broadcast on TV. Shortly after this, it transpired that Sebastian hadn’t properly heard the original communication, thus being the last of the front running drivers to know that his power boost wasn’t working. His response, which must have perplexed and deflated his pursuers in equal measure, was to begin pulling away from the chasing pack without any apparent effort.

After their heroic tyre preservation exercise in Australia, Sauber were at it again with Kobayashi’s car, which was clearly setting a course for 2 stops rather than 3. Sergio Perez may have been doing the same thing, but on lap 24 we were deprived of the opportunity to find out by a piece of debris from a Toro Rosso, which hit the bottom of the Mexican’s car, set off the fire extinguisher and disabled the electrics. How the collection of a small piece of debris could have had such drastic, race-ending consequences has yet to be fully established. It did, though, which was a shame for all concerned since the Sauber looks like a tidy little racing car. Kobayashi was still using his to engage in an after-you-no-after-you battle with Schumi over 8th place, the Red Baron leading the Mercedes charge while Rosberg tried and failed to recover from a poor start. It’s easy to dismiss Schumacher as a faded hero and have Rosberg as the ascending three-pointed star, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that apart from those DRS-induced struggles at the very end of Q2, the old stager was in front of the young buck for the entire Malaysian weekend.

The leaders made their 2nd pit visit of the afternoon, with most sticking to the soft tyres while McLaren went for a set of hards each. This transformed the afternoons of both drivers, with Hamilton looking instantly out of sorts on the harder compound while Button suddenly came on song. His rubber was adhering to the racetrack in a most satisfactory fashion, breeding the sort of confidence that takes a man ahead of Alonso’s Ferrari and allows him to close in on Lewis up ahead. Vettel was preparing to check out for the afternoon but would soon find Jenson’s new-found pace worthy of consideration instead. In the background, Alonso and Heidfeld kept a watching brief each while Webber, heroically battling back to the sharp end, interfered with Massa. Petrov was close enough to profit should either of those two make an error, with the Kobayashi-Schumacher scrap still rumbling on behind and Paul di Resta running quietly, unobtrusively and very quickly in 11th for Force India, set for another points finish should those ahead trip over themselves.

Everything settled down until the 3rd stops, when Hamilton was not at all amused to find that Button had managed to pull ahead of him during the pit sequence. Worse than that, Lewis wasn’t getting on with his latest set of hard tyres, so while Button set sail for Vettel, he had to give greater consideration to the looming threat of Alonso. Down the front straight they came, with Lewis changing his line twice but driving in broadly the same direction throughout. The rules stipulate that you can defend your position by changing lines once, the post-race steward’s enquiry determined that Lewis had breached that particular rule and a 20 second penalty was the result. At no point was Alonso close enough to pass and at no stage was his progress impeded, due in part to a broken DRS system that refused to activate, but rules are rules, no matter how inconsistently you apply them.

A lap later, with Hamilton still doing a passable impression of a sitting duck, the Spaniard lined up to pass his best friend on the flat-out exit of turn 4. In doing so, he misjudged the distance between the front of his Ferrari and the back of the McLaren, clipping Hamilton’s rear as he moved to pass. It was a simple misjudgement, a straightforward racing accident which did slight damage to the McLaren’s floor and more substantial damage to the Ferrari’s front wing. A pit stop to fit a new nose was penalty enough for Alonso, who really didn’t need to have 20 seconds added to his race time but got them anyway. If a slight clip during a botched overtake is worthy of a penalty for ‘causing an avoidable collision’, the stewards might have wished to penalise Pastor Maldonado twice in the opening laps too, while also censuring Sebastien Buemi for what amounted to a wheel-to-wheel shove on Perez through the tight turn 9 hairpin in the early going. They didn’t.

Hamilton soldiered on but he was easy meat for Heidfeld, Quick Nick on course for Renault’s 2nd straight podium finish. Webber, doing remarkable things after his 4th stop, would surely have taken Lewis too, but the McLaren speared off the road through the double-apex 7 and 8 right hander and gifted Mark the position before we ever got to find out. Lewis rejoined, pitted for another set of boots (his 4th, an unscheduled visit due to what the 2008 world champion felt was an excessively early 1st stop), came home a disgruntled 7th and cheered up not one jot upon the post-race discovery that his penalty had left him classified 8th instead.

It would have been still worse for Hamilton had it not been for a late incident involving one of the Renaults. NASA are winding down the Space Shuttle program, with Atlantis scheduled to make the final flight this coming June, and word has clearly made it as far as Russia. What better way to boost awareness of their contribution to the space race than by sending a racing driver into orbit, Vitaly? Petrov did his best to oblige, taking the Hamilton line through 7 and 8 but rejoining the track a little later, ploughing through a grass verge lined with rain gullies in preparation for the standard sub-tropical downpours. He struck one of those gullies with his throttle foot held firmly down, at which point his Renault’s nose pointed firmly upwards and launched into a parabolic flight of the kerbing, landing on the track with enough force to pull the steering column clean out of the rack. With the steering wheel in his lap, Petrov had no alternative but to plough straight ahead into a rudderless retirement.

It wasn’t all grim news for the Regie, though, with Heidfeld having just enough left in his tyres to withstand a late assault from Webber and claim 3rd place. It’s tempting to wonder what Robert Kubica would be doing with the same car, but better for all concerned to enjoy what is, which is pleasant enough, rather than speculating on what might have been. If Jenson Button had started anything like as well as he finished, 2nd might have been 1st. He didn’t, so it wasn’t. Sebastian Vettel’s 5th win from the last 6 races was comfortable, but here again is cause for those behind him to focus on what happened rather than wondering about other possibilities: had Seb’s car worked properly for the entire distance, ‘comfortable’ could just as easily have been ‘crushing’.

Race Results

2011 Malaysian Grand Prix, Sepang International Circuit, 56 laps of 3.44 miles each

1. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), 1hr37:39.382
2. Jenson Button (McLaren), +3.261
3. Nick Heidfeld (Renault), +25.075
4. Mark Webber (Red Bull), +26.384
5. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), +36.958
6. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), +57.248*
7. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber), +1:07.239
8. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), +1:09.957*
9. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), +1:24.896
10. Paul di Resta (Force India), +1:31.563

11. Adrian Sutil (Force India), +1:41.379
12. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), +1 lap
13. Sebastien Buemi (Scuderia Toro Rosso), +1 lap
14. Jaime Alguersuari (Scuderia Toro Rosso). +1 lap
15. Heikki Kovalainen (Lotus), +1 lap
16. Timo Glock (Virgin), +2 laps
17. Vitaly Petrov (Renault), +4 laps, accident, completed over 90% of race distance

Not classified:

18. Vitantonio Liuzzi (HRT), +9 laps, safety reasons, car unstable at the rear
19. Jerome d’Ambrosio (Virgin), +13 laps, ignition switch turned off when car hit kerb
20. Jarno Trulli (Lotus), +24 laps, clutch failure
21. Sergio Perez (Sauber), +32 laps, car disabled by debris
22. Rubens Barrichello (Williams), +33 laps, hydraulic failure
23. Narain Karthikeyan (HRT), + 41 laps, precuationary stop, high engine water temperatures
24. Pastor Maldonado (Williams), + 47 laps, misfire

* Includes penalty of 20 seconds