Posts Tagged ‘Felipe Massa’

When last we met, there was talk of how best to thoroughly louse up a season preview. For those of you who find yourselves too bone-idle to scroll down and read the last entry, a reminder: I, combining my extensive knowledge with my God-given knack for making predictions which diametrically oppose what subsequently goes on to happen, selected a top 10 for this year’s F1 world championship, taking the time not only to justify those picks but, in a new and exciting twist, explain why I might turn out to be wrong.

As the teams head off for their summer shutdown, some 34 laps into the second half of the season, let’s take a few moments to review whether I’ve been successful this year or whether I’ve instead managed to maintain my usual standards of foresight. Spoiler alert: it’s probably the latter.

This time we’ll be summarising the fortunes not only of those I selected in pre-season but of those who had the temerity to arrive unbidden. I’ll italicise those drivers who are so far performing in line with my predictions, partly so they’re easier to spot and partly in lieu of the lap of honour I’d normally embark upon in cases of unexpected success.

10: Pre-season pick – Fernando Alonso (McLaren Honda, currently 15th)
      Real-world interloper – Romain Grosjean (Lotus Mercedes)

If your powerplant is capable only of going nowhere fast or going nowhere at all, not even the best driver in the sport can help you.

Honda’s ongoing struggles are a waste of two talented drivers and a McLaren that appears to be a reasonable weapon when presented with a series of corners, possessing point-scoring pace at Hungaroring (the slowest permanent track on the calendar) and Monte Carlo (the slowest street circuit). Alonso’s Q1 run at Silverstone was both his and McLaren’s season in microcosm: 6 tenths down on a Ferrari along the straights of sector 1, a further 6 tenths down in sector 3, home of the Hangar Straight, but only 2 tenths away through the middle sector of the lap – through Luffield, where mechanical grip and traction are tested; then through Copse; through Maggotts; through Becketts, the kind of almost-but-not-quite-flat-out high-speed blasts that highlight the differences between a great racing driver and a Fernando Alonso.

The Honda may go on to be a potent weapon – it can’t be any less potent than the engine that earned both Alonso and Jenson Button a 25-place grid penalty in Austria – but the Spaniard is presently hamstrung by a power unit that, it seems, went racing a year too early. Give the man the tools and Alonso remains without peer.

Down Enstone way, Romain Grosjean’s chief handicap is a team lacking the funds to properly develop a reasonable car. While it’s not difficult to look calm and measured in comparison with Pastor Maldonado, the patron saint of drive-through penalties, the Grosjean of 2015 is a much more rounded, mature racing driver than the “turn one nutcase” Mark Webber so pointedly shot down not 3 years ago. The fundamental speed has never been in doubt and remains present, allied now to enhanced racecraft and the ability to better understand which causes should be fought on-track and which should be conceded.

Aside from his collision with the lapped Will Stevens in Montreal, when he seemed simply to forget that the Manor Marussia was still there, Grosjean has kept his nose clean, taken what this year’s improved chassis and aero package are willing to give him and converted that performance into solid points at every opportunity.

9. Pre-season pick – Nico Hulkenberg (Force India Mercedes)

Force India’s post-Monaco step turned out, for reasons financial, to be a post-Spielberg step, one which coincided with Hulkenberg’s victorious return from Le Mans. Nico, Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy’s win for Porsche at La Sarthe gave a clear shot in the arm to a driver whose abundant gifts had briefly threatened to wilt under the weight of another year in mid-table.

After a relatively tardy opening to the campaign, The Hulk came alive in Austria, qualifying 5th and finishing 6th in what was still a bare-bones evolution of last year’s Force India, a result which he followed up with further points at Silverstone when the new VJM08B made its debut. That Austrian qualifying effort has been exception rather than rule, with it being hard to escape the feeling that Nico leaves himself a little more to do than he ought to come Sunday afternoon, but what’s been particularly evident of late has been his haste in making up for that, running 5th in the early going having started 9th at Silverstone and 5th from 11th at Hungaroring.

The team think a podium was on at the latter event had an errant front wing not forced a spectacular retirement and while it’s difficult to agree with them, I have no problem seeing why paddock rumour links their driver with a return to Williams for 2016.

8. Pre-season pick – Daniil Kvyat (Red Bull Renault)

While it’s difficult to argue that Daniil’s 2015 to date has been anything other than a little underwhelming, the reasons for that have less to do with the young Russian than with the situation in which he finds himself.

Promoted prematurely into a team whose disharmonious relationship with its engine supplier has threatened to derail the entire year, Kvyat’s year has been spent chasing after a car/engine package that can’t give him as much grip as he desires without leaving him a sitting duck in a straight line. Red Bull’s RB11 is a more highly-strung piece of equipment than its immediate predecessor but where Red Bull have been able to set up their car for optimum performance (Monte Carlo, Hungaroring), Kvyat has scored handsomely, keeping his nose just about clean enough for long enough to take his maiden podium in Hungary even if he lacked a little pace relative to Daniel Ricciardo. Where the set-up has been compromised to compensate for the obvious deficiencies of the Renault V6 (absolutely everywhere else), the other Red Bull has tended to be a little way ahead, its driver coping that bit better with a car being purposefully moved away from a sweet spot that the team haven’t always been able to find to start with.

All exactly as you’d expect, in other words, from someone whose details sit in the file marked “Quick But Inexperienced” – remember, Kvyat only recently turned 21.

7. Pre-season pick – Felipe Massa (Williams Mercedes, currently 6th)
    Real-world case of overoptimism – Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull Renault, pre-season prediction 4th)

Felipe, you remarkable man, I am yet again quite wrong about you.

Back in March, writing my pre-season piece, I believed that Williams were best of the rest behind Mercedes and that Massa, better in 2014 than at any time since his near-fatal 2009 accident but still not quite the driver he’d once been, lacked the consistency to do the car full justice. In what is assuredly the season’s 3rd-best package, Felipe has not only been metronomic on Sundays but fast enough on Saturdays to hold a 6-4 qualifying lead over the supremely rapid Valtteri Bottas. Away from the Ferrari pressure cooker and now entirely settled at Williams, Massa’s peaks are on the same level as the best of his 2008 championship near-miss and being delivered more regularly than at any time since then, free of the sense that his concentration might fail at any moment that so blighted his final years with the Scuderia.

If that’s unexpected, not just by the viewing public but by Felipe’s self-confessedly startled employers, it’s also very welcome. From spent force at Maranello to a force to be reckoned with at Grove, this most personable of drivers is making the most of an unexpected Indian summer.

Down the road in Milton Keynes, Daniel Ricciardo is making the best of an unexpected French shower. This year’s Renault power unit started life with no more power than last year’s but with a far greater fondness for ritually barbecuing itself. Just like Kvyat, Ricciardo’s only hope of competing on the straights has been to trim the car out and deprive himself of the downforce Adrian Newey’s design team are so famously adept at providing. If chasing after the scraps at the lower end of the top 10 is demoralising the habitually cheerful Daniel, you’d hardly know it. Indeed, only once has Danny Ric’s natural frustration been expressed in public, during a Canadian weekend in which he professed himself lost with a car that wouldn’t handle and an engine that wouldn’t power.

Above all else, Ricciardo remains a racer. His talent as an overtaker remains undimmed, boosted as ever by a remarkable feel for the limits of adhesion in the braking zone, and he remains like a dog with a bone when presented with the faintest sniff of victory. In the end, his bid for honours in Hungary was stymied by – whoever would have thought it? – a lack of top speed on the straights, forcing him into bridging ever more outlandish gaps under braking, but if the final desperate lunge on Rosberg was doomed to failure from the start, it’s impossible to do anything but love the man for giving it a go in the first place.

6. Pre-season pick – Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari, currently 3rd)
Real-world occupant – Felipe Massa (Williams Mercedes, see above)

Yeah, I know…

The case for the defence is that a few months ago, it really wasn’t clear whether Sebastian Vettel’s 2014 struggles were with his Red Bull specifically or with adapting to the absence of blown diffusers generally. The team won 3 races but each time it was the car on the other side of the garage taking the honours, Vettel enduring the first winless full season of his F1 career. Not only was Daniel Ricciardo generally quicker, he also did a better job of tyre management, traditionally one of Seb’s strongest suits. Vettel began this year with his reputation dented, driving for a team whose last genuinely quick car was produced 5 years previous and, perhaps most importantly, no longer driving for those who offered him such backing and protection in years gone by, irrespective of whether or not that protection was actually warranted.

2 races into his Ferrari career, Vettel won, not through luck or inclement weather but through great pace and – wouldn’t you just know it – terrific tyre management, letting him sneak through a door left only a little ajar by Mercedes. His entire season has been spent illustrating that while he claimed 4 world titles driving terrific cars, the bloke behind the wheel was none too shabby either. The Malaysia win was opportunistic, his recent win in Hungary absolutely dominant and that other hardy perennial, “Yeah, but he’s no good in traffic, is he?” was laid to rest once and for all by a magnificent drive through the field after technical problems ruined his qualifying in Montreal. Within 50 points of the championship lead going into the break, clearly enjoying his work and in prime position to pounce should Mercedes falter, Vettel’s reputation is as high now as at any time during his championship-winning streak.

5. Pre-season pick – Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari)

In a race-winning car ran by a team becoming ever more aligned to Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen has only a single podium to his name.

It’s hard to shake the nagging feeling that what we’re watching is Kimi’s farewell to Ferrari and, in all likelihood, to motorsport at the highest level. Once a man whose qualifying runs could put the entire paddock on notice, Kimi returned to F1 seemingly shorn of that electric pace and is no closer to rediscovering it. The 6 tenths he’s consistently missing in comparison to team mate Vettel on a low-fuel flyer appear to be gone for good and if the reasons are a complete mystery to those watching, so they seem to be equally perplexing to Raikkonen. At times unlucky come race day, as when leaving the Melbourne pits with only 75% of his tyres safely attached and when losing a certain Hungaroring podium to mechanical trouble, Kimi is too often either the architect of his own downfall or, more concerningly, simply too slow.

He has argued that his race pace has been strong all season and that he’s suffered from being caught in traffic on Sunday afternoons, to which the obvious remedy is to start in front of the slower cars – Raikkonen has somehow contrived to miss Q3 twice already this season. At his best, Raikkonen remains a driver from the very top drawer but his best is increasingly hard to come by…

4. Pre-season pick – Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull Renault, currently 7th – see above)
    Real-world Flying Finn – Valtteri Bottas (Williams Mercedes)

…which isn’t something you’d say of Valtteri Bottas, 10 years Raikkonen’s junior and poised to save Ferrari’s mechanics from the trouble of having to take those Finnish flags down from the garage awnings next year.

The original prediction, of course, was for Valtteri to be a place higher, with the qualifier that he’d struggle to attain 3rd place if Ferrari or Red Bull outspent and out-developed Williams. Ferrari were faster from the outset, as it turned out, but believe they’d be faster still with Bottas at the wheel. A quick glance at the championship table doesn’t necessarily reveal why – Bottas, Raikkonen and Massa are covered by just 3 points after 10 races – but, for all that I love a good statistic, glances at the championship table don’t allow you to see a substantially quicker car getting caught behind a Williams in Bahrain and being completely unable to find a way past its steely, millimetrically-precise occupant. Nor, come to that, do they show you how Bottas claimed a podium position in Montreal by virtue of a strong start and a race spent repelling the theoretically faster man behind for as long as it took that man to lose patience and spin himself out of contention.

On both occasions, the car behind was red. They were paying attention in Maranello.

3. Pre-season pick – Valtteri Bottas (Williams Mercedes)
    Real-world humble pie baker – Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)

2. Pre-season pick – Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)

The enigmatic Rosberg has days when he simply can’t be defeated – Spain and Austria for starters – and would progress from potential threat to genuine contender if he could only have them more often.

The relationship with Lewis Hamilton that threatened to turn into open warfare during 2014 seems far better on the surface this year, to Rosberg’s ultimate disadvantage. The combination of Nico’s Spanish dominance and that remarkable Monaco win, inherited when Hamilton’s 20 second lead turned to dust in one needless pit stop behind a late-race safety car, would last year have been seen as the ideal platform from which to ramp up the mental pressure on his team mate.  This year’s model, perhaps still feeling the after-effects of the booing that stung him post-Spa 2014, has too often seemed to genuinely believe that Hamilton has his number and misjudged his one attempt to destabilise the reigning champion, complaining that Lewis had thought only of himself and not the team in China. Rosberg’s key complaint that day was that Hamilton was driving excessively slowly to preserve his tyres, thus allowing Vettel the opportunity to stay close. The watching fans, either missing the subtle nuances of Nico’s argument or else blowing a gigantic hole through it, depending upon your viewpoint, suggested that if the man ahead was going so slowly, it might have been worth trying to pass him.

Rosberg remains the second fastest Mercedes driver but without the edge, the faint air of menace he brought to last year’s title fight. To stand any chance of usurping Hamilton over the remaining 9 races, Nico needs to rediscover that air, quickly.

1. Pre-season pick – Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)

The fastest Mercedes driver, 2014 qualifying weakness fully addressed, driving better than at any stage of his career.

From the word go, Hamilton proclaimed himself happier with the W06 than with the title-winning W05, that happiness leading to the return of that Schumacher-esque searing speed over one lap, the speed we’d grown so used to in Hamilton’s McLaren days. Car 44 has sat on pole position 9 times in 10 races, going on to win 5 times, and only in Austria has he been soundly beaten for pace. Several wins, most notably those in Melbourne and Shanghai, came with pace to spare had it been needed, while his domination of the Monaco weekend was as crushing as his ultimate disappointment. His reaction to that weekend and his immediate return to winning ways in Canada were marks of the man’s increasing maturity, as was his willingness to take blame for a Hungarian race spent hitting everything that moved, as if he’d crashed into his bedside table upon waking up and decided to take it as a sign of something.

The lead is 21 points. But for one pit-wall gaffe, it would have been 38. Lewis believes he has more in his locker yet.

That pit-wall gaffe is something for which the neutral fan should be thankful. As a direct result of it, the summer break begins with Rosberg able to take the championship lead if he wins in Belgium and Hamilton fails to score. Substitute Vettel for Rosberg in the same situation and the top 3 drivers could head to Monza separated by less than 20 points. Imagine Vettel, already celebrating his wins in delighted Italian over the radio, going to Italy for the first time as a Ferrari driver right in the heart of the title fight, the Tifosi turning Monza into the kind of seething, foaming sporting cauldron only those of Latin blood can ever properly create, the Mercedes drivers cast into supporting roles by that most partizan of crowds…

Anything is possible. In truth, though, the Mercedes has had the legs of the Ferrari too often in 2015 for Vettel to properly sustain a title tilt, no matter how many miracles he might work between now and November. Seb’s presence guarantees that the Silver Arrows have to extend themselves come race day but the battle for ultimate honours remains between their drivers. My money remains on Hamilton.

Where’s yours?

Alonso: I would support Massa if needed.

In other news this evening, Petrolhead Blogger: I would become trapped in a lift with Beyonce if needed.

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. 

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

The 2011 Australian Grand Prix was due to represent a first step into F1’s brave new world.  Pirelli returned to the sport after a 20 year absence, tasked with designing tyres that would fall to pieces if you so much as looked at them the wrong way.  KERS, the energy recovery system used to give a power boost for 6.6 seconds each lap, made a comeback after an underwhelming debut in 2009.  Both moves were designed to aid overtaking, as was the introduction of the Drag Reduction System or DRS, a moveable rear wing designed to reduce drag (no, really), increasing the top speed of any driver running within a second of the car ahead.

The expectation was that we’d see much more on-track action and a raft of shock results.  The reality was that we nearly did.  For the majority, though, the first race of the new season was about a slightly different way of achieving the usual result.

The front row of the grid was occupied by a pair of world champions, 2008 winner Lewis Hamilton lining up behind reigning king Sebastian Vettel.  While Vettel made a scorching getaway from pole, Hamilton fluffed his lines, too much wheelspin leaving him vulnerable to attack from the second Red Bull of Mark Webber.  By turn 1, Lewis had boosted his way back into P2, thus answering one of the big questions of the weekend.  McLaren’s KERS was working fine, but Red Bull’s wasn’t working at all.  Behind the leading trio, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso went toe-to-toe and ran wide, inviting Vitaly Petrov and Felipe Massa by.

In the middle of the first corner action, Michael Schumacher was bottled up behind Alonso’s slow Ferrari, thus losing all of the ground gained through one of his now standard lightning getaways.  Despite that, Schumi was still just inside the top 10 as the field streamed into turn 3, just inside the top 10 being the perfect place from which to be harpooned by a Toro Rosso.  Jaime Alguersuari was the assailant, pitting for a new nose as his victim trailed around with a right-rear puncture.  Just behind them, a Williams went sailing into the boondocks, Rubens Barrichello attempting to pass half the world via an outside lane that disappeared long before he ever arrived there.

At the front of the race, a pattern began to develop.  Vettel led as he pleased for the first 10 laps, building a lead of around 4 seconds over Hamilton.  Both men were leaving Webber behind, while the Australian had built a sizeable gap back to Petrov, having far and away his most impressive weekend for Renault.  Behind them, getting further behind with every passing second, were Massa and Button, the pair engaged in a ferocious tussle for 5th place.

Having spied an opportunity to profit at no cost off the start, Felipe was now running some way off the leading pace, to the increasing frustration of Jenson.  The Englishman could very clearly go much faster if given the chance but, no matter how creative his lines became, was equally clearly stuck behind a very wide Ferrari.  Massa’s defence of P5 was stout and robust but perfectly fair, with Button always close enough to use his DRS in the designated zone but never close enough to overtake once he’d done so.  Matters were resolved in the Brazilian’s favour on lap 10, when Button mounted an attack around the outside of the quick turn 10/11 chicane, ran out of road and gained the position by taking a short cut.

Had he then slowed down to let Massa regain the position, he would have been free to fight on.  When a few seconds had passed without any sign of the McLaren moving over, Massa forced the issue by firstly letting his team mate Alonso go by too, then by making a pit stop, making it impossible for Jenson to give the place back.  A drive-through pit lane penalty for the 2009 world champion was the inevitable result.

Webber, his rear tyres shot, had already made the first scheduled pit visit of the season, followed on lap 14 by Vettel.  Hamilton had reduced the gap to 1.5 seconds and stayed out, hoping to put in some fast laps while Vettel was bringing his new tyres up to temperature.  Last year, Lewis would probably have taken the lead.  This year, his Pirellis fell off a cliff just as Sebastian’s came on song, the gap increasing to 7 seconds as the pit stops cycled through.

Petrov and Alonso were about to engage in a battle for 4th which would swiftly swallow up Webber and become a battle for 3rd.  While one Red Bull was running away with it, the other was tearing through tyres while moving at a fairly sedate pace, to the vexation of its pilot.  To make matters worse for Mark, it was rapidly becoming clear that while he’d be making 3 pit stops, the Russian behind him had only made plans for 2.  This was exactly what we wanted to see, knowing that there was more than one way to skin this particular cat and that the best strategy wouldn’t become clear until the final laps, but it hadn’t yet produced any great amount of overtaking on the track.  Was there a solution?

The independent thought alarm was sounding in the cockpit of car number 11.  The problem with the DRS was that for this race, the FIA had put the overtaking zone in the wrong place.  They’d used the start-finish straight, which is the longest straight at Albert Park but is preceded by a fast right hander where the cars can’t follow each other closely, a result of the turbulent air F1 cars produce at speed.  DRS was helping drivers to close up on the car ahead but from too far back to make an overtaking move possible.  Having presumably worked this out, Rubens Barrichello hit upon an idea.  At turn 3 on the opening lap, Rubinho had made a stunningly bad job of overtaking around the outside, but on lap 21 he made a brilliant three-wide pass on the inside of Kamui Kobayashi as both men lapped the broken Mercedes of Schumacher.  Since passing at turn 3 was clearly possible, what would happen if you were to replicate that late-braking lap 1 effort but try the inside line instead?

On lap 23, we had our answer.  Barrichello sent one up the inside of Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes from long distance, clouted the German’s sidepod and caused damage to the cooling system which would lead to the Silver Arrow’s retirement later that lap.  Often in these circumstances a writer will say that it happened “before you could say Jack Robinson,” or something similar, but in this case the gap between Barrichello’s move and the eventual contact was more than long enough to say, “Rubens, this is very, very clearly going to be a crash of some sort.”  Barrichello maintains that he was in fact defending against Kobayashi and only hit Rosberg because the German’s hard tyres had much less grip, leading him to brake earlier.  For the uninitiated, this is the racing driver’s equivalent of “my dog ate my homework.”

Rosberg joined his team mate in retirement, Alguersuari’s earlier assault having caused terminal damage to Schumi’s floor and rear suspension.  Pastor Maldonado and Heikki Kovalainen were on the sidelines with an undisclosed technical glitch and a water leak respectively, while Timo Glock was in for running repairs at Virgin Racing but would eventually rejoin, too far behind to be classified as a finisher.  Running repairs weren’t an option at McLaren after the floor of Hamilton’s car detached itself, the resultant loss of downforce sending Lewis scooting straight on in a shower of sparks at turn 1.  Any lingering hopes of a challenge for victory vanished instantly, though Hamilton’s pace was enough to keep him safe from the chasing pack.

The remaining interest in the race, one which never quite made it beyond the city limits of Intrigue and into the nearby town of Entertainment, surrounded 3 men and their tyres.  Petrov had kept to his 2 stop plan and ran 3rd in the late going, throwing the efforts of 14th placed Nick Heidfeld into sharp focus.  The best finish of his career beckoned, but the black and gold car was being caught at an indecent rate by Alonso’s freshly-tyred, 3-stopping Ferrari.  Further back, Sergio Perez had his Sauber well inside the points.  On the fragile, gripless Pirelli tyres, Perez had made a single stop.  He hadn’t planned to – the intention was to stop twice – but having had to drop back to preserve his tyres while running behind Button, the Mexican found that his lap times were staying consistent enough for long enough to avoid an extra pit stop.

He made it home in 7th, just ahead of Kobayashi in the other Sauber, and did so going at a remarkable pace, doubtless hurried along by his race engineer’s helpful advice.  Perez has one of those engineers who dispense such handy hints as, “Try to pass Button.  Try to pass Button,” as if this thought had never once occurred to the man behind the wheel.  Sergio was one of a pair of impressive rookies, Paul di Resta having kept the experienced Adrian Sutil honest throughout a solid run to P12 for Force India.

Alonso began taking chunks out of Petrov’s advantage in the battle for 3rd, but the Renault driver’s calm approach to last year’s final race in Abu Dhabi has clearly extended into this season.  Vitaly upped his pace again in the final laps, the time saved by avoiding a 3rd stop proving just enough to overcome the advantage of fresh rubber.   The first Russian to make a world championship start came home with a second in hand on his pursuer after a classy, mature performance, becoming the proudest podium finisher you’ll ever see.

Ahead of him, Hamilton took a lonely P2, but a lonely P2 is a dream come true for driver and team after their nightmarish pre-season.  Button’s recovery from that earlier drive-through took him back past Massa legally and into 6th, illustrating that MP4/26 now has genuine pace, for this weekend at least.  Genuine pace, however, wasn’t enough to stop the one-man show at the front.  For the Australian crowd, the wrong Red Bull driver finished 5th, but neither Webber, Hamilton nor anyone else had an answer for the raw pace of the reigning world champion.  2011 started just as 2010 ended, with Sebastian Vettel’s message to the opposition being sent out loud and clear: catch me if you can.

Race Results

1. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), 1h29:30.259
2. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), +22.297
3. Vitaly Petrov (Renault), +30.560
4. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), +31.772
5. Mark Webber (Red Bull), +38.171
6. Jenson Button (McLaren), +54.304
7. Sergio Perez (Sauber), +1:05.845
8. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber), +1:16.872
9. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), +1:25.186
10. Sebastien Buemi (Scuderia Toro Rosso), +1 lap

11. Adrian Sutil (Force India), +1 lap
12. Paul di Resta (Force India), +1 lap
13. Jaime Alguersuari (Scuderia Toro Rosso), +1 lap
14. Nick Heidfeld (Renault), +1 lap
15. Jarno Trulli (Lotus), +2 laps
16. Jerome d’Ambrosio (Virgin), +4 laps

Not classified:

Timo Glock (Virgin), +9 laps, running at finish
Rubens Barrichello (Williams), +10 laps, mechanical
Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), +36 laps, cooling
Heikki Kovalainen (Lotus), +39 laps, water leak
Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), +39 laps, accident damage
Pastor Maldonado (Williams), +49 laps, mechanical

A little while back, I wrote a fairly substantial piece on 5 things to watch out for during the 2011 season.  The intention was to let that stand as the meaty season preview and throw together a little series of predictions in the week before the first race.  Pre-season testing, however, has shown that predicting anything much about the 2011 season is a fool’s game.  It’s incredibly difficult to get any kind of solid read on the pecking order as we prepare for first practice in Melbourne, now only 4 days away, so anyone trying to pick a winner must be abandoning their timing sheets and employing some Olympic-standard guesswork.

With that in mind, I originally took the courageous decision to follow the example of this fine English hero:

Later, though, it dawned on me that here was a perfect opportunity to hand over the reins for a moment, letting someone else have a bash at claiming a gold medal for Great Britain in the long distance buggered-if-I-know event.  This was, in fact, a great chance to take some of my thoughts, my best judgements from a winter spent trying my hardest to decipher the results of every test session, and compare them with someone who watches Formula 1 regularly enough during the season but would manage quite happily if the sport didn’t exist.

For this exercise, I’ve been joined by my mother.  Sue started watching Formula 1 8 years after I did, for reasons I don’t recall.  They probably had something to do with there being nothing else to watch if it was Sunday and I was at home.  She was fond of Mika Hakkinen, rapidly became a fan of Johnny Herbert and had high hopes for Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who didn’t win a single Grand Prix from that point forward.  She has all the right credentials for this kind of work.

Questions are in bold, Sue’s answers are in red, while my thoughts will look the same as ever.  Onward!

 

Who will be the pick of this year’s rookies?  Maldonado, Perez, Di Resta or d’Ambrosio?

Maldonado.  I’ve got a feeling.

While I’m fairly sure this selection was made on the basis that she liked his name more than the others, it might not be a bad shout.  It’s a three-horse race, this one – d’Ambrosio doesn’t look like the next big thing and a Virgin is not the car in which to demonstrate otherwise.  Perez has been rapid in testing but his Sauber team have precedent for running a very light car, setting headline-grabbing times to attract the sponsors, while I’m not sure about the young Mexican’s focus over a long race.  Di Resta is the real deal, quick in occasional Friday practice runs last year and the reigning champion of the German DTM touring car series.  Working against him this season is a move to a Force India team who have lost key technical staff over the winter and have shown little pace so far.  No matter how attractive his sponsorship dollars made him to the Williams team, Maldonado is quick – he wins on the streets of Monaco an awful lot, which a merely average driver wouldn’t do – but his reputation for wildness has been around for so long that the corners have started to curl up.

I’m going to pick Paul Di Resta, but this is one I wouldn’t be at all surprised to lose.

 

Which of the midfield teams is most likely to spring a surprise this season?

Scuderia Toro Rosso.  Because of Albert Shuari.

She does that sometimes.  Albert Shuari is young Spanish driver Jaime Alguersuari, who rose to prominence partly through spending an afternoon annoying the life out of Michael Schumacher in Melbourne last year, but mainly through having a name that’s easy to mangle.

Sue has the same kind of hopes for Jaime that she had for Frentzen a decade ago.  His testing times on short runs, along with those of his team mate Sebastien Buemi, have been up among the front runners.  It’s a little difficult to believe that STR might have gone from occasional points finishes to genuine threats in the space of a few months, though.  I don’t doubt they’ve improved, much as I’m sure Sauber have made strides over the winter, but I’m not convinced those strides are enough to lift them into the top 10.

There’s no such thing as a completely unbiased sports writer.  The subject matter is far too emotive for that.  Organised sport is a way of compressing every possible human feeling into a couple of hours and, even at the most amateur of levels, we care passionately enough about the whole business that we want to share that passion with the world.  Against that backdrop, we’re bound to develop favourites along the way.  My favourites are going along very nicely, thank you very much, so I’ll stick with them – my ones to watch in the midfield battle are the chaps at Williams.

 

Will Michael Schumacher win again?

No.  I don’t think he’s good enough to win a race.

A divisive subject, this one.  Whatever your views on his racing ethics, Michael Schumacher’s first spell in F1 established him as one of the best drivers in history on pure, raw, unadulterated speed.  The first year of his comeback established him as just another racing driver.

Towards the end of the season there were encouraging signs, with a marked upturn in pace and results, but for much of the year Michael wasn’t quite on the pace of his team mate Nico Rosberg and appeared to have no way of making the Mercedes behave to his liking.  Initial signs from 2011 testing weren’t promising, with the MGP W02 looking to be well off the pace, but a major upgrade at the final test in Barcelona saw Schumacher set the fastest time of the winter by a huge margin.

Nobody knows how much fuel everyone ran through the winter, nor do we know which tyres were used on each run.  My suspicion is that Michael did a qualifying simulation with low fuel and super-soft tyres, while teams like Red Bull have probably ran a middling fuel level all through the winter (some reports say the RB7 has always had at least 80kg of fuel – every 10kg is worth around 0.3 seconds per lap, so by that logic Red Bull are 3 seconds a lap quicker than everyone else on a fuel-adjusted basis…).  I wouldn’t have Mercedes as the favourites for Australia, then, but I do believe they’re somewhere just behind the leading teams and I don’t think Schumacher has completely lost his touch.  Will he win in 2011?  Yes.

 

What about Felipe Massa?

Is he still at Ferrari?  He’ll always be in Fernando Alonso’s shadow.  He won’t win again.

I want to disagree with this.

Having been within 20 seconds of winning the 2008 world championship, Massa spent the first half of 2009 doing a mightily impressive job in a Ferrari that looked barely controllable at times.  Then, during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix, a spring from Rubens Barrichello’s rear suspension detached itself, bounced back along the racetrack and came within an ace of killing his fellow Brazilian.  Despite briefly leading the 2010 championship in the early stages, Massa is yet to look like the driver whose efforts in the two preceding seasons won him the respect and admiration of millions across the world.  In his one truly competitive post-comeback run, when he led for much of the way in Germany last year, “Fernando is faster than you.  Can you confirm you understand this message?”

I might want to disagree, but I can’t.  Throughout the build-up to this season, there’s been talk of the two Red Bull drivers, of Alonso and of the struggling pair at McLaren.  We’ve had the late rise of Mercedes and the sadly brief thought that Robert Kubica might be a real contender, but nothing on Massa.  Ferrari is now Alonso’s team, Massa is cast in the supporting role and in truth, he might not be capable of anything more.  Massa won’t be a serious contender in 2011.

 

Will Pirelli’s new tyres spice up the show?

The colours help.  They look pretty and people can go, “Oooh, so-and-so’s on those tyres.”  I’m not sure whether more tyre wear will help.  I don’t think that’ll add much – it’ll be the same as before but the colours will be nicer.

Uh-huh.

The colours will be nicer, yes, and as discussed previously, it should be easy to determine which drivers are running a particular type of tyre as we work through a race.  More importantly, though, Pirelli have kept to their brief of designing tyres with a very short working life.  The result is that you’re going to see cars sliding, drivers making mistakes and, in the early races at least, people trying different tyre strategies as they try to find the fastest way through a Grand Prix.

All of that should result in closer racing and more overtaking.  It worked in Canada last year, when Bridgestone’s rubber wasn’t designed to fall to pieces but did so anyway.  In 2005 and 2009, it even worked in Monaco, where every corner is barely more than a car wide, framed by metal barriers ready to catch the unwary.  It might not solve all of F1’s passing problems and the teams might wrap their heads around an optimum strategy after a few races, but for the early part of the year at least, the new tyres will definitely liven up the races. This might come at the expense of practice running, as teams try to save tyres for race day and do the bare minimum on Friday and Saturday, but the main event will certainly benefit.

The 107% rule is back.  You must qualify within 107% of the fastest time to be allowed to start the race.  Will anyone fall foul of the rule?

More than likely.  A new season, different setups and things…

I will confess that I’m not absolutely sure what Sue’s on about here.  She may have meant that the teams all have new cars and some of them are bound to struggle, especially those who haven’t yet done any running at all.

The team most likely to fall foul is HRT, whose F111 hasn’t turned a wheel yet.  Last year, they turned up for the first race in Bahrain with the same problem.  As qualifying started, they were still building the car Karun Chandhok would try to qualify.  Had the 107% rule been in force that day, Chandhok would have been off the pace by a reasonable margin but Bruno Senna would have missed out by just o.1 seconds.  By the next race in Australia, both men were setting times within 107% of pole position.

You might see teams, HRT in particular, struggling to make their car run for long enough to post a reasonable time and missing the race that way.  On pure pace, they should all just about make it.

 

Who will win the world title?

Red Bull.  Driver?  You’d have to say Vettel, though I’d prefer it if Webber won.

An awful lot of people would prefer it if Mark Webber won.  Mark is a very straightforward, honest and friendly chap who, in the autumn of his career, is driving very well for a team that very obviously favours the man in the other car.  His main problems are that he’s very, very, very slightly slower than the other guy, the other guy is the reigning world champion and it very much suits Red Bull to have a young, German-speaking driver acting as the leading billboard for their young, German-speaking drinks company.

Through the winter, the Red Bull RB7 has appeared to be quick, consistent and kind on tyres, so they’re a very solid pick for the constructors championship.  As far as the driver battle goes, I agree with Sue.  I’d be happier if Webbo pulled it off, but I expect Vettel to take the honours.

 

We’ll reconvene either in November or whenever one of these predictions goes horribly, horribly wrong, whichever arrives soonest…

Presenting, for your viewing pleasure, the Ferrari F150 in which Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa will tackle the 2011 season:

Keen students of racing cars with red paint on them will note that the F150 features a flatter top surface on its sidepods than last year’s sculpted concave efforts and that the nose is higher than the F10’s.  You’ll need to be a very, very keen student to pick up on any of that within 5 minutes of your first glance.

It’s par for the course to see a new car launched with interim parts attached and that’s probably the case here – for starters, the front wing looks a lot like the 2010 version.  The rear wing, though, is a 2011 model.  The upper portion, the area with Santander written on it, can be flattened using a driver-activated switch at designated points on the racetrack, which will lower drag and increase straightline speed.  During races, the device can only be used when within a second of the car ahead and not at all during the first 2 laps.  The idea is that overtaking will increase, though whether it will and how artificial any passing moves will look remains to be seen.

Packaged away neatly inside the car is the returning KERS package – kinetic energy becomes heat energy under braking, which is collected and converted into a temporary power boost.  A few teams ran it in 2009 but all the major players have it this year, which might provide a way of cancelling out the straightline speed increase brought about by the new rear wings.  Keeping track of which driver is operating which system at any given time may well prove difficult, but not half as difficult as remembering which one to operate while still having a hand free to turn the steering wheel.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when teams produced Grand Prix cars which looked appreciably different from one another and the launch season was filled with excitement and anticipation.  This digitally-rendered teaser for the new Mercedes MGP W02, which very definitely isn’t a Ferrari F150 coloured over with silver and bits of turquoise, suggests the 2011 launch season isn’t going to be a classic.