Posts Tagged ‘Fernando Alonso’

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?

Things we could be discussing: Manor Marussia miraculously making it through the winter; Max Verstappen becoming F1’s first and, under next year’s licence rules at least, only 17 year old driver; Nico vs Lewis – This Time It’s Exactly As Personal As Last Time; Vettel and Ferrari seeking success together having both separately misplaced it.

Things we’re discussing instead: Sauber employing 3 men to drive 2 cars.

What the sport needs to learn from this is that if a team cannot make it through a winter without signing a driver whose sponsors will pay up front, all the while hoping that the driver they already signed to drive the same car either won’t mind or else somehow won’t notice, there’s a need to consider whether the existing costs of competing are sustainable. Much of Sauber’s conduct this week has been unfortunate, some of it disreputable, but much like the Lotus development driver we discussed last week, at the heart of it is a desperate grab for survival cash.

We’ll find out how the whole sorry business ends in due course, but first, crystal ball time. We’ve tried the broad, wide-ranging preview piece. We’ve tried 5 themes to watch. We’ve tried having an enthusiast lose a prediction contest against his own mother despite a) 25 years of avid fandom and b) his mother not really understanding what any of the questions meant. How next to thoroughly louse up an F1 season preview?

The answer, it turned out, was to write half the piece – some 1300 words – before unwittingly deleting them all via a keyboard shortcut I didn’t know existed, which is the kind of thing that can lead to someone snapping. Lacking the time, energy or strength to start from scratch leaves us with this, a cut-down version of the original plan: pick this year’s top 10 in the world championship, explain why and then, in a piece of immediate and immaculate back-tracking, highlight why I’m probably wrong.

10: Fernando Alonso

Relentlessly quick, combative, the ultimate competitor. New McLaren Honda doesn’t yet appear ready, so no real penalty for missing Australia after very, very curious testing accident and subsequent lay-off. Chassis appears strong and Alonso will outpace Button once everything inside the engine works at the same time, but that might not be until we’re well into the meat of the European season. Forget all of this if the engine remains incapable of more than 8 laps at a time past the summer break, or if the chassis only seems good because the Honda is detuned in ways that would suit an Austin Maestro.

9: Nico Hulkenberg

A superstar who’d prove it to the watching world more readily if only someone would give him the right tool. New Force India isn’t it – late, undeveloped, underfunded – but ran as many laps in 2 days of testing as McLaren did in 12. Reliability already there, pace will come from Monaco updates onwards, The Hulk wont miss an opportunity to score. Main risks to this prediction are that the post-Monaco step might not come and that the team might not survive the year.

8: Daniil Kvyat

Quick, intelligent, committed. Kvyat will go far but his promotion to Red Bull is, by the team’s own admission, a year too soon. Kvyat will impress this season but his performances will contain too many troughs to progress further up the standings, though the contrasting peaks will be high indeed. Won’t be any lower than this, could conceivably be higher if he’s more ready than we think.

7: Felipe Massa

Supremely likeable man whose move to Williams seemed to liberate him. Freed from the shadow of ex-teammate Alonso, Massa rediscovered old form but brought with him recent inconsistency, along with his unshakeable gift for being in the wrong place at the wrong time (Australia, Canada, Britain, Germany…). New Williams is firmly in the best-of-the-rest fight and podiums are likely, but surely not often enough to rank higher. Surely. Surely?

6: Sebastian Vettel

Man with a point to prove. Winning for Ferrari will dispel notions that 4 world titles were down to Adrian Newey’s cars and not Vettel’s driving. Winning for anyone at all might leas folk to forget about a 2014 spent in the shadow of Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull. New Ferrari appears a big step from last year’s maligned F14 T but new teammate Raikkonen has looked quicker in pre-season. Then again, Vettel has never had a problem waiting until the prizes are being given out before showing his hand…

5: Kimi Raikkonen

Unintelligibuhl’s finest has a car he can feel the limits of again. Notoriously sensitive to front-end behaviour and steering feel, the Iceman’s 2014 car gave him none of what he needed. Ferrari SF15T is already a marked improvement, designed with Kimi’s needs in mind. Has experience of Ferrari’s internal politics, continuity within the team and no reason to fear Vettel given his own natural speed. May, however, have extended periods of relative anonymity if faced with setup or tyres he dislikes.

4: Daniel Ricciardo

When reviewing the Kvyat entry above, bear in mind that a year ago nobody thought Danny Ric was a Vettel-beating regular race winner. Red Bull appear to be in amongst the Williams/Ferrari fight but keep their powder dry during pre-season where possible – the car will be thereabouts and the driver has only Hamilton for company at the top of the wheel-to-wheel combat tree. Probably can’t go higher without a Mercedes engine, can only go lower if Ferrari has a clear performance advantage.

3: Valtteri Bottas

The Real Deal. BO77AS teams speed with metronomic consistency, has a Merc engine behind him and sits in a sensible evolution of Williams design philosophy. Can’t win the title this year because he isn’t a Mercedes works driver, could undoubtedly do so in a car that allowed it. Wins are a realistic target but may need to come early – predicted P3 in championship might be unsustainable if Ferrari/Red Bull outspend and outdo Williams in the development war, though they didn’t in 2014…

2: Nico Rosberg

New Mercedes W06 has greater margin over rest of field than dominant W05 last year. Expect a Mercedes 1-2 in the final rankings. Nico is the second fastest of these drivers, hence this placing. Outqualified Hamilton last season but no match in races, losing 6 of last 7 and being outpaced by Lewis in the 7th. Requires Lewis to have a mental lapse to go higher but would need to go to extraordinary lengths to finish lower.

1: Lewis Hamilton

World’s fastest driver + world’s fastest car = world champion. The speed has always been there but last year came the patience and intelligence to use it wisely too. Recent changes in personal life could destabilise a driver of unusual emotional sensitivity, though car advantage is such that finishing below 2nd would involve a special effort. There for the taking as long as Hamilton doesn’t make too much of a hash of things.

Remember, though, that my track record in these matters is quite terrifically bad. We’ll check back in through the season to see how well (or otherwise) this is going…

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.

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.

Anyone fancy a rumble?

We haven’t had a decent argument around these parts since the last time I wrote a post containing the word “Bahrain”.  Since it’s beginning to look a bit like I might have to pick up that thread again in the near future, let’s have a little warm-up.  A starter.  An amuse-bouche, if you will.

Not a single one of you is going to agree completely with this, my selection of 2011’s top 10 drivers.  It was a season in which many drivers showed flashes of brilliance but only a few delivered on a sustained basis.  I could have put seven or eight drivers in the lower reaches of the top 10, but in doing so I’d have made it a top 16, so there’s no place for Adrian Sutil (average until he realised he didn’t have a 2012 contract, though now this is being taken to trial, he’s probably going to have to do without anyway), Sergio Perez (the perfect endurance sportscar racer from times gone by, but I’m not absolutely sold on him as an F1 driver just yet) or Felipe Massa (a lovely, lovely man who I desperately want to become a top-line driver again, but…).  There’s space for this lot, though:

10. Jaime Alguersuari

Out on his ear after Scuderia Toro Rosso refreshed its entire driving staff, Alguersuari’s Formula 1 career looks to be coming to a halt.  He doesn’t turn 22 until March.

I’m not about to present a case for the Spaniard as some kind of great lost champion, not least because I don’t believe he is one, but he did enough in 2011 to be considered worthy of a continued stay on the grid.  Hamstrung in qualifying by a car designed with Sundays in mind, Jaime came from 18th on the grid to score points in 3 straight races, with a charging drive to 8th in Valencia being a particular highlight.  Later in the season, his battle with Rosberg for P7 in Korea was won with a blend of racecraft, tenacity and sheer speed.

Never once did Alguersuari let his car down.  Having outscored team mate Sebastien Buemi 26-15, he could be forgiven for wondering what more he could have done.  He’ll be back.

9. Paul di Resta

Given that Paul di Resta entered this season as reigning DTM champion, had experience as Force India’s reserve driver from last year and beat Sebastian Vettel in equal F3 Euroseries cars in 2006, it shouldn’t be any great surprise that he’s acquitted himself well.

Quick, media-friendly and with his head firmly screwed on, Paul’s first season as an F1 race driver was, for the most part, a lesson in how to make an entrance.  Very occasionally, a good result was lost to impatience – think of what might have been had he got to the end in Canada, or had he managed to avoid hitting everything that moved in Monaco – but those drives don’t stick in the memory.  Mature, strategically driven runs to 6th in Singapore and 8th in Brazil do, as does a beautifully-judged run to 7th in the changeable, slippery conditions of this year’s Hungarian race.

8. Michael Schumacher

Now heading into year three of Schumi Mk II, it’s finally completely safe to say that Michael has a race seat not just because of who he is, but because of how he drives.

No, 2011 wasn’t perfect.  Schumacher crashed into too many people for that (didn’t he, Vitaly Petrov?), while his old ability to switch on and deliver one searing lap in qualifying seems to have deserted him forever.  The race pace is back, though, and in a season where the rules didn’t unduly penalise those who qualified badly in a quick car, that was enough to see Michael through.  Three of his drives – Japan, Belgium and one of the drives of the year on the Canadian boating lake – wouldn’t have looked at all out of place in his first career.  Indeed, before the Montreal track dried out and the natural order was restored, the Regenmeister was catching Vettel for the lead.  He’s still in there, if you look hard enough.

7. Nico Rosberg

I’m still not absolutely sure how good Nico Rosberg is.

I think Nico has something of the Jarno Trulli about him, in that he tends to pull out something ridiculous over a single lap in qualifying, then spend the entire race sinking backwards until he ends up in the position the car deserved all along.  2011 has given that theory some credence.  Look at how often Rosberg comfortably outqualified Schumacher, then at how often the Mercedes cars finished the race line astern.  To some extent, though, he still suffers from not having had a decent yardstick since being partnered with Mark Webber at Williams in 2006.

2011 was a year of consistently solid driving.  I can only really point to his cameo at the front in China as an instance of his Merc popping up somewhere it didn’t deserve to be, but I can’t really point to any race in which I thought Nico was letting anyone down.  Hard to knock someone who scores points 14 times in 19 races, but in this case, it’s equally hard to feel justified in going nuts about it.

6. Mark Webber

I know without thinking that I’ve just upset at least one person by ranking Mark Webber this low.  Here’s why I did it.

In 2010, Mark Webber lost the world title to Sebastian Vettel by 14 points.  In 2011, the gap between the two men was 134 points.  Having qualified an average of 0.053 seconds off Vettel’s pace in 2010, Webber could only get within 0.414 seconds on average this year.  One of Red Bull’s drivers adapted to the needs of Pirelli’s new tyres and went about the business of using the year’s best car to win an awful lot of races.  The other didn’t.

When everything worked for Webbo, as it did during his magnificent ascent of the field in China, he was sublime.  From 18th on the grid to 3rd at the finish, he might even have won that day given another 5 laps.  He drove superbly well in Brazil too, rounding off the year by taking his only win of the season.  The problem is that the chap on the other side of the garage drove like that almost without exception.

5. Lewis Hamilton

How many times do you suppose Lewis Hamilton had an accident during a race in 2011?

I’ve counted 13, while also disregarding his various adventures in qualifying this year, and I’m still not sure I’ve got them all.  Whether colliding with his own team mate, expecting Kamui Kobayashi to disappear or running his ongoing campaign to royally upset all of  South America, Lewis did an awful lot to damage his reputation in 2011.  That he still ranks so highly in this little list owes everything to his performances in China, Germany, Abu Dhabi and Korea, a trio of superb victories bolstered by one of the finest pieces of defensive racecraft you’ll see for years.

4. Heikki Kovalainen

This, I imagine, is the bit where you go and read something else instead, but think about it for a minute…

Whenever there was an opportunity for one of the minnows to sneak through the first part of qualifying, whose Lotus was always the car that made it to Q2?  Whenever you looked at the race order after a couple of laps and saw someone unexpected dicing with Williams, Sauber and Toro Rosso, who was it?  Whenever you looked at a timing sheet and marvelled at how that driver had no business being so far up the field, who were you marvelling at?

Kovalainen.  If he’d driven a McLaren anything like as well as he drove that Lotus…

3. Jenson Button

During 2009, I wrote a selection of articles in which I maintained that Jenson Button was a perfectly decent Grand Prix driver but nothing more than that.  I may also have suggested that he was incredibly lucky to have enjoyed the performance advantage conferred upon him by that year’s Brawn GP car, that any man who won no races at all from June to November could count himself very fortunate to win a world title and, as the cherry on the top, that I didn’t really like him very much either.

So much of Jenson’s 2011 was from the very top drawer that it almost seems harsh on the rest of his year when you start picking out highlights, but let’s do it anyway.  Controlling the race from the front at Suzuka.  Another win in a wet/dry Hungarian race, just like his maiden victory in 2006.  That comeback in Canada, snatching victory on the final lap having risen through the field from the armpit of nowhere.  Oh, and this interview ahead of his 200th start in Hungary, in which he’s clearly winning a bet of some kind.

Jense, I was quite wrong about you.

2. Fernando Alonso

The bare statistics will tell you that in 2011, Fernando Alonso won a single race.  They’ll say he finished 4th in that year’s championship standings and that in doing so, he trailed the winner by some 135 points.

Bare statistics will make no mention of Alonso’s qualifying lap in Spain, when he dragged the Ferrari into P4 through sheer force of will alone.  They won’t tell you that he led the opening stint of that race, having put together as brave and combative a start sequence as you could ever wish to witness.  They will record that he finished the race a lap behind the winner, but won’t tell you that the F150 Italia simply refused to work on hard tyres and that, as was the case throughout the season, Alonso’s car never once left the ragged edge of adhesion.

I love statistics.  These ones are worthless.

1. Sebastian Vettel

Sensational.

The scariest thing about this man’s dominant 2011 campaign is that he built it all on taking pole position, building up a gap in the first few laps and then just maintaining it.  We will never know exactly how fast Sebastian Vettel could have been, because so many of this season’s races gave him absolutely no need to show us.  You can call it dull if you like – and let’s be honest here; sometimes, it feels like hard work even turning the TV on when you know in advance who the winner will be – but we might all be better served admiring this combination of driving and engineering brilliance while we have the chance.

Pick the bones out of that…

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.

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