Posts Tagged ‘Ferrari’

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?

Never let it be said that I don’t keep my promises.  It takes me a while sometimes, but I get there.

I’m a car guy.  You’ve probably noticed.  A friend of mine picked up on this sometime around September or thereabouts – I thought I was doing a reasonable job of hiding it, but feminine intuition is a wonderful thing – and asked me what my favourite cars were.

You would think, dear reader, that a car guy would develop favourites over time, in much the same way as we develop favourite people or favourite songs.  To an extent, you’d be right – I want a Pagani Zonda Roadster in silver and I want it now, if not sooner.  Coming up, though, a bold, slanty however.

However…what’s my favourite racing car?

I felt like I should have had an answer instantly.  I couldn’t have spent 20 years watching motor sport, diligently learning its history as I went, without having a favourite racing car.  I had, though.  I promised I’d have a think about it and then write something for the lady in question, a considerable length of time went by and even though she probably has no recollection of our conversation ever taking place by now, we eventually arrived here.

I knew it wasn’t something from the recent past.  Last February I described the modern racing car as “something that fell from the ugly tree atop Minger’s Hill, smacking every physically repulsive branch on the way down before rolling helplessly into the nearby settlement of Repugnant, where the residents immediately set about beating it with aesthetically displeasing sticks.”  Watching a current-spec F1 car is like listening to the top 40 on the radio and realising I have entirely no idea who Mr Saxobeat is.  Sounds like a lucky fella, whoever he may be.

Come to that, I don’t really have a favourite song either.  Way back, years ago, I had one favourite song, until I stopped wearing a groove in my copy of The Blue Album and started listening to other bands instead.  I’ve ended up with a pool of songs I absolutely love and I’ll pick one as my favourite if you ask me to, but it won’t be the one I picked as my favourite last week.    I have different reasons for loving them all; some of them bring back memories, some of them suit a mood, some of them just make me happy.

That got me thinking.  Can I match them up?  Is there anything from my pool of songs that matches up with my fantasy racing car garage?  Do I really not have anything better to do with a Sunday evening than this?  The answers, it would appear, are a) kind of, b) to a degree and c) nuh-uh, but you can be the judges.  I’ll link to the different songs as we go too, just for laughs.

Ferrari 641


I quite like the Bee Gees.  There, I’ve said it.

It’s not a grand love affair, I’ll admit, but they’ve got a song on my list.  You know that I love high speeds, the throaty growl of a race-tuned engine and the adrenalin rush of wheel-to-wheel combat, watching knights of the track jousting in a quest for ultimate supremacy, so it’ll come as no surprise at all when you discover the song I’ve got in mind.

How Deep Is Your Love is beautifully arranged, has a lovely melody and features the kind of harmonies that make my heart sing.  It’s an “I love you and I have to tell you now” of a song.  She’s everything you could possibly want and when you’re together, in her arms is the only place in the world you could ever imagine being.  More than that, it’s the only place in the world that exists.  Alright, you understand she’s not perfect, because nobody is, but she’s perfect for you.  Nothing else matters.  Nothing else ever will.

“What’s that got to do with a Ferrari, Simo?” you’re probably asking.  I know I am.

The 641 wasn’t perfect.  It won 6 races and Alain Prost might even have won the 1990 championship with it had Ayrton Senna not dispensed vigilante justice heading into Suzuka’s first corner, but 641 wasn’t quick enough in qualifying trim, lacked a little top-end power and (particularly if the driver’s name began with “N” and ended with “igel Mansell”) broke too often.  It was the most successful Ferrari for some years, but the Tifosi tend not to worry about being better than before unless their beloved scarlet cars are being better than everyone else at the same time.

The thing is, though, that I don’t really mind.  The car gave everything it had and came up a little short, but that’s no disgrace.  Besides, if a car can look so elegant and if it can sound like this, I can forgive it anything.  It’s not perfect, because no racing car is.  Just perfect for me.

Eifelland

I don’t speak Korean.  As a consequence, I haven’t really got a clue what Epik High are on about at any stage of their song Fly.  They might be saying, “That Adam Simpson fella can’t write for toffee, got his foot stuck in a car the other day and I’ve heard his hugs are rubbish too,” and there’s no way I’ll ever know.  Sometimes, I hear the occasional English snippets and think I’ve cracked it – “fly, fly, get ’em up high” and “you can fly higher”, so perhaps it’s encouragement to chase your dreams – until I watch the video and realise that if chasing your dreams is the message, Epik High’s dreams aren’t exactly the same as mine.

All I can tell you with any certainty is that I love the bassline, the chorus is dreamy and I’m glad that Fly exists, even if I don’t understand what it is.  All of which leads me, reasonably neatly for once, onto the Eifelland.  Under the skin is a plain old March 721, but the skin is what we’re interested in here.

I haven’t really got a clue what possessed Luigi Colani to draw the Eifelland.  I know his entire design philosophy has always been based around curves – the Earth is round, it orbits in a circular fashion, the heavenly bodies are round, therefore everything Colani draws must be round – but the answer to the question, “What would make a March 721 go more quickly?” is not and was never going to be, “A surface you couldn’t stand a teacup on.”

What the car needed, in all truth, was redesigning from the ground up (which March subsequently tried twice for their own team with 721X and 721G, neither of those cars faring very much better), but in the absence of that, it might have been worth being a little less wilfully peculiar.  Colani studied aerodynamics in the 1940s but, since the Eifelland displayed no real desire to go round corners at speed, it’s probably worth assuming that his knowledge didn’t translate all that well to a 1972 F1 car.  Thanks to the all-enveloping bodywork, his machine also possessed an alarming tendency to cook its own internals every hour on the hour.

It really didn’t work.  In fact, the car gave so many problems that the team reverted to using standard March parts in place of Colani’s work, continuing until only the periscope mirror remained.  What’s it doing here, then?

You couldn’t design that car today, not in the one-size-fits-all series that our major worldwide formulae have become.  Major motorsport is so tightly regulated, innovation so quickly stamped out, that there’s no way to stand out and differentiate yourself.  You just can’t produce a racing car with an all-in-one front end, that mirror, a big air scoop in front of the driver and a launch ramp where the rear wing should be, even if you think you should.  For that reason, I’m glad the Eifelland exists, even if I don’t understand what it is.

Jordan 191

Before we get started, a word about that low purring noise you’ve suddenly started to make.  What you’re experiencing is a totally natural reaction, nothing at all to worry about.

My fondness for the Jordan 191 has nothing to do with performance.  The car scored 13 points in 1991, good enough for 5th place in Jordan’s first season as an F1 constructor, but each time the car scored points, the winner had crossed the finishing line over a minute ahead.  Nor does it have anything to do with how it sounds.  Ford’s HB V8 engine was a decent enough powerplant but the noise it gave off was coarse and unrefined.  My only reason for having the Jordan 191 on this little list is that it’s a gorgeous piece of kit.

Scrap that.  Let’s go with ‘stunning’ instead.  What I really want from a racing car is a design that looks purposeful without being imposing, something that’s clearly built for speed but maintains at least an element of poise at the same time.  191 scores in every way.  It looks like it’s doing 100 miles an hour before it even starts moving, with every eye-catching curve intended to bring a level of performance as well as an admiring glance.  A few paragraphs ago, I had a bit of a grumble about how modern racing cars all look the same.  If they all looked like a Jordan 191, I’d probably get over it.

About a year ago, I crafted some kind of imaginary nightclub where, even though you were clearly interested, the 191 had decided she could do better and gone home with your best mate.  In truth, you’d probably have got bored after a while anyway, because you can only spend so long admiring beauty before the whole ‘only fast enough for 13 points’ thing comes up, but that wasn’t the point.  In my mind, Head Automatica’s Beating Heart Baby was the soundtrack, but what I’ve just written probably calls for this instead…

This seems as good a time as any to stop writing, doesn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Results

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

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

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

Not classified:

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

* Includes penalty of 20 seconds

Did we learn that much?  Are we ever going to learn that much when, through varying fuel loads and tyre degradation, a car can be running 10 seconds a lap slower at the end of practice than at the start?

  • Perhaps not, but it seems safe to say that Red Bull are in decent shape, even if their KERS still isn’t quite there (did it work?  “Most of the time…” said the day’s fastest driver).  Mark Webber set the pace in both sessions today, 1.6 seconds quicker than anyone in the morning.  In the afternoon, a pair of Red Bulls and a pair of McLarens were within 0.2 seconds of each other, but you can’t escape the feeling that there’s more to come from Webber and Sebastian Vettel.  Neither can Lewis Hamilton.
  • 3rd in prac 1 and 5th in prac 2 for some old German bloke, amidst much cautious optimism at Mercedes.  Schumacher and Rosberg both feel they’ve made a step forward this weekend, both drove well today and both are in the hunt for a decent haul of points on Sunday.  Best of the rest?
  • Maybe, because the Ferraris continue to look nothing like as rapid as they did in pre-season.  Massa outpaced Alonso in both sessions and got to within 0.001 seconds of Schumi in the afternoon, but that still left him over a second adrift of the battle at the front.  Too early for panic at Maranello?  It’s never too early for panic at Maranello.
  • It would seem to be far too early for panic at Lotus, though.  Winter promises to threaten the midfield outfits continue to ring false like so many broken doorbells, with Trulli 20th and Kovalainen a broken-down 23rd in the afternoon.  The team maintain that glitches are hiding their true pace, but it’s quite a glitch that sees your lead car some 5 seconds a lap off the pace.
  • The lesser spotted HRT completed a full day of running.  Narain Karthikeyan was within 107% of the fastest lap and will start the race if he performs to that level in Q1 tomorrow.  Tonio Liuzzi wasn’t, though this had at least something to do with his car’s ignition switching itself off as he drove over a kerb, the same fault that sidelined him on Saturday morning in Melbourne.
  • Pirelli are tipping a 3-stopper again this weekend.  Pastor Maldonado coaxed a set of soft tyres into doing 19 laps this morning, so there could yet be scope for someone to Perez their way into a single stop race.  Then again, that same Pastor Maldonado crashed while trying to enter the pit lane in the afternoon, so as a barometer of performance he’s perhaps not the most reliable figure.  For the majority, it seems that the softer compound runs for 7 or 8 laps and then loses all of its rear grip at once.  In the heat of Sepang, tyre management will be one of the keys to the rest of the weekend.
  • Don’t fall over near a moving Formula 1 car.

Of course I’m sorry.

Formula 1 is as technologically advanced as any form of worldwide motor sport you could possibly name.  In common with every major showcase of cutting-edge tech, it’s a fairly expensive business.  One of the best illustrators of that cost is the steering wheel, which is worth well in excess of £20,000.  Why?  Let Nico Rosberg explain a little more about what the steering wheel does when it’s not turning the front wheels:

A quick note on why Nico can’t show us the back of the wheel: where else would you put all the things you didn’t want other teams to see?  Nico mentioned that the clutch paddles (F1 clutches are hand-operated) and gearchange paddles are on the back of the wheel, but you need only 4 separate attachments for that.  Ferrari have 7…

A few quick bits to pick up on before we go racing, boys and girls.

Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher are the winners of this season’s Start As You Mean To Go On prize, having being warned about their future conduct after qualifying.  Rosberg was adjudged to have blocked Sergio Perez during Qualifying 2, with Hamilton holding up Vitaly Petrov during the same session.  Schumacher’s blocking offence took place in Q1 when, in the opinion of the stewards, he delayed the Renault of Nick Heidfeld.  Additional penalties, including a demotion on the starting grid, could have been applied but the stewards, guided this weekend by Grand Prix winner Johnny Herbert, found that no further action was necessary.

Several teams have complained that the cool temperatures in Melbourne this weekend, allied to the track’s relative lack of abrasion compared to other circuits on the calendar, are making it hard to get heat into tyres.  Ferrari’s driver pairing of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa are convinced that in race trim and on a warmer day – Sunday is forecast to be comfortably the hottest day of this race weekend – they can give chase to the Red Bulls.  “I expect that this was not the normal pace from us, and we will get better and better tomorrow,” said the Spaniard.  Lotus, who’ve spent the entire weekend praying to all appropriate deities for a heatwave, have enlisted the help of both drivers and their team owner in delivering the same kind of message.

Why didn’t Red Bull use the Kinetic Energy Recovery System in qualifying?  The team aren’t telling.  “Everything we do has a reason behind it,” says team boss Christian Horner, refusing to elaborate further.  Both drivers have confirmed they didn’t use the special button during qualifying, which would have cost them an estimated 0.3-0.4 seconds per lap, enough to have Mark Webber ahead of Lewis Hamilton on the grid.  Those watching the first Friday practice session would have heard race engineer Guillaume Rocquelin telling Sebastian Vettel to “use KERS, urgent, use KERS,” leading some to suggest the team have fears about the reliability of their package.

Others have speculated that Red Bull are using a unique KERS package designed only for use at the start of a race, allowing them to run a smaller, lighter system than the rest of the grid.  Any truth in that, Christian?  “You’ll have to wait and see and watch the television.  I am not going to spoil the excitement…”

Finally, which Spanish driver with previous ties to the company could Vodafone Spain have had in mind when their marketing team came up with this?

Last week we covered how the Ferrari F150 was now in fact the F150th Italia, the result of a legal move by Ford.  Their best-selling series of pick-up trucks goes under the F-150 name, a trademark the American carmaker was keen to protect.  Keen enough, in fact, that the car isn’t called the F150th Italia anymore either.

Ferrari’s consistently barmy Horse Whisperer column tells it like this:

“It might seem like a Kafkaesque scenario, but the affair relating to the name of the car with which Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa will tackle this year’s Formula 1 World Championship saw its final and decisive episode played out these past few days with the concomitant withdrawal by Ford of the summons.  Therefore common sense has prevailed.

“In order to avoid the slightest risk of anyone confusing a Formula 1 car with a pick-up truck, for their part, the men from Maranello have decided that the car will lose the F that precedes the number 150 and which stands for Ferrari, as it has done on numerous occasions when it’s come to giving a car a code name, be it for the race track or the road.  It appears that this could have caused so much confusion in the minds of the consumer across the Pond that, at the same time as losing the F, the name will be completely Italianised, replacing the English “th” with the equivalent Italian symbol.

“Therefore the name will now read as the Ferrari 150° Italia, which should make it clear even to the thickest of people that the name of the car is a tribute to the anniversary of the unification of our country.  Let’s hope the matter is now definitely closed and that we can concentrate on other matters, namely ensuring that our car that already seems to be pretty good out of the box, becomes a real winner.”

If we were being particularly picky and tedious, we could all point out that if you let one trademark infringement go, you invite a million others, so Ford are as entitled to have a quiet word in the ear of Ferrari’s lawyers as they are sensible to do so.  Before being picky and tedious, you might want to go back and enjoy that magnificent rant one more time.

We’re used to Ferrari being an unstoppable winning machine.  Their cars have won at least one race in every season since 1994, taking 15 wins from 17 races in 2002 and 15 from 18 in 2004.  It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way, that the Maranello concern was once very capable of designing cars that went like trucks, looked like trucks or, in one remarkable instance, both.

Went like a truck: Ferrari F93A

In late 1991, four-time world champion Alain Prost compared his Ferrari unfavourably to a lorry within earshot of some very attentive journalists.  Instead of listening to one of the finest drivers and car set-up experts in history, the team sacked him.  Instead of working with him to improve their machinery, they ploughed on without him for the 2 years it took the company president to finally run out of patience.

Had he ran out earlier, or had someone among the chiefs of staff had the good sense to ask Alain to expand upon those thoughts, we’d probably never have seen the F93A.  Let’s get the good parts dealt with first: designed by Jean-Claude Migeot and John Barnard, the F93A was a very handsome car.  It also had a V12 engine which, in common with every Ferrari V12 you’ll ever hear, sounded absolutely glorious.

What it didn’t have, to the regret of drivers Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger, was any particular talent for going round corners.  The car chewed tyres at an alarming rate while displaying no great turn of pace, thanks to inefficient aerodynamics and a problematic suspension system.  The computerised ‘active’ suspension was designed to improve grip and cornering speed by keeping all four tyres perpendicular to the road at all times, no matter how bumpy or cambered the surface might be.  When it worked, it did so to little effect.  When it didn’t, which was often, the results were never less than disastrous.

The system’s finest hour came in Portugal, when a failure exiting the pit lane sent Berger spearing across the track at a right angle, the F93A finding a gap between Erik Comas and Derek Warwick and miraculously killing nobody:

If the suspension held together, Berger and Alesi would usually be defeated by the car’s other two sworn enemies, its own engine and gearbox.  When the car saw the end of a race, it did so at its own pace – Alesi took two podium finishes and Berger one, but all owed a lot to attrition and only at Monza, where power counts for everything and handling is a secondary consideration, did Alesi’s podium place see him finish within a minute of the race winner.

Looked like a truck: Ferrari F310

In the middle of 1995, Michael Schumacher was the hottest property in Formula 1.  Having won his first world title in contentious circumstances the year before, the German was well on his way to crushing all before him during a hugely successful title defence.  Having helped take the Benetton team from occasional race winners to rulers of the racing world in 4 years, the time was right for a new challenge.  He found that challenge at a Ferrari team undergoing some major rebuilding work under the stewardship of team manager Jean Todt, the Frenchman having been poached from Peugeot in 1993 to provide much-needed leadership and organisation.

A sleek, stylish supercar is the kind of thing you would expect the Italians to lay on for an incoming champion.  The kind of thing they actually laid on, the F310, looked like this:

For the benefit of those who haven’t remembered to hover their mouse over the pictures, the word you’re after is ‘pregnant’.

New rules for 1996 called for higher cockpit sides, designed to give greater head protection in the event of an accident.  Ferrari maintained that the F310 looked like this because they’d followed the rules to the letter and the other teams hadn’t.  If you wished to tell your friends how unlikely that sounded, you wouldn’t need a particularly good libel lawyer.

The car won once in this trim, a victory which owed everything to the sheer speed and skill of Michael Schumacher in wet conditions – nobody else that afternoon in Barcelona stood the slightest chance.  Mid-season revisions brought two further wins in Belgium and Italy, while the following year’s F310B managed not only to look much more like a modern F1 car but to go very quickly from the outset, but the car with which Schumi started his Ferrari career is best remembered briefly and viewed from distance.

Pulling off the double: Ferrari 126CK

Enzo Ferrari liked power.  That’s true no matter how you apply the word ‘power’ but fits particularly well with his view of racing cars.  “Aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines.”  Ferrari’s 126C, driven in 1981 by Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi, was the product of a company which had no mastery of either.

In 1979, a superb flat-12 engine and generally solid reliability masked the deficiencies of the 312T4 chassis to such an extent that Ferrari’s lead driver Jody Scheckter became world champion.  The same engine did nothing for the updated 1980 car, 312T5.  Renault’s work on turbocharged engines and the pioneering ‘ground effect’ Lotus cars, designed to use air flowing underneath the car as a means of sucking the car towards the track for improved handling, had rendered the current-spec Ferrari obsolete.  The car had limited ground effect but the width of the engine prevented the design team from exploiting the concept fully, while the engine no longer had the poke to make up for a poor chassis.  The future was one of turbos and full ground effects.

The future looked like this:

The new engine was fitted with KKK twin turbochargers and produced prodigious amounts of power, but the way that power arrived gave the drivers a problem.  Turbo lag, the delay between a driver pressing the throttle and the turbo kicking in, was still a problem for all the turbo engines of the period, but it was an especially serious issue in the 126CK.  When the power did arrive, it came in one big, barely-controllable lump, made worse by the limitations of the new chassis.

Save for some changes made to allow for a smaller engine, the car was essentially a development of the 312T5 and exhibited the kind of handling characteristics that led Villeneuve to call it ‘a big, red Cadillac’.  You could slide a 126CK – the above picture isn’t a bad example, though it’s not the best.  Journalist Nigel Roebuck has told of watching the Canadian through the final flat-out uphill right-hander at Dijon, noting that as Villeneuve passed the apex of the turn, he could only see where he was going by looking over the side of the cockpit rather than staring straight ahead.

A sliding car depositing 600 horsepower through its rear wheels all at once destroys tyres.  More than that, it destroys tyres while going fairly slowly, as the 126CK demonstrated when it wasn’t breaking down.  The most famous example of this came at Monaco when Pironi, a race-winning driver of some considerable talent, qualified a miserable 17th.  While he finished 4th the next day, only 7 men made it to the end and Didier got there a lap behind the race winner.  What makes the Monaco example so famous is the identity of that winner.

Villeneuve.

It was no fluke either.  He’d qualified 2nd and been on the pace all weekend.  Ferrari designer Harvey Postlethwaite, who joined the team in time to work on the 1982 machine, appreciated the achievement more than most:

“That car had literally one quarter of the downforce that, say Williams or Brabham had. It had a power advantage over the Cosworths for sure, but it also had massive throttle lag at that time. In terms of sheer ability I think Gilles was on a different plane to the other drivers. To win those races, the 1981 GPs at Monaco and Jarama — on tight circuits — was quite out of this world. I know how bad that car was…”

Jarama saw Villeneuve burst through from 7th to hold a very distant 2nd place in the early running, taking the lead when race leader Alan Jones crashed on lap 14.  The rest of the race was all about Gilles using whatever power he could on the straights and taking a wheel-perfect line all the way to lap 80 and the chequered flag.  The top 5 finishers crossed the line separated by 1.2 seconds, but not once did they even nose past the Ferrari.

Step this way and do your best to ignore the charisma vacuum operating around Simon Taylor’s voice (the script’s fault, not Simon’s) – here’s a demonstration of what sheer, unadulterated brilliance can do:

Pironi qualified 13th and finished a troubled 15th, a performance which was entirely a reflection on the car, not the man.

Dog-slow, unwieldy and aesthetically challenged – the video above shows the vast, yawning chasm between a neat, tidy Williams FW07C  and the Ferrari tugboat – the 126CK was as bad a Formula 1 car as any to roll off the Maranello production line.  The open, chatty Canadian at the controls was as spellbinding a driver as the sport will ever see.