Posts Tagged ‘Jenson Button’

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?

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He won.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Results
2011 Monaco Grand Prix, Monte Carlo, Monaco

78 laps of 2.075 miles

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

Not classified

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Webber?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results:

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

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

Not classified:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Results

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

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

Not classified:

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