Posts Tagged ‘McLaren’

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?

Since we last spoke, deals have been done, contracts have been signed and one L. Hamilton of Stevenage has found himself being given the keys to a shiny new Mercedes. Those who’ve recently uttered words like, “So, we’re doing half-yearly season reviews now, are we?” will be pleased to hear that we’re going to revisit this topic and the motivation behind the move soon (clue: it’s not all about money. The money is probably quite important, I’ll allow, but Lewis is a bit more complex than that). Before we do, though, let’s have a quick squint at what it means for the rest of the grid.

Firstly, it means I finally get an answer to that hardy perennial, “Exactly how good is Nico Rosberg?” There’s a strong argument that he’s not doing as good as job as Michael Schumacher this year – “outdriven at Monaco” (look beyond the grid penalty – Schumi was faster in qualifying and race), “outdriven at Spa” and “outdriven at Suzuka” are three things you really don’t want to be saying about circuits that reward men over machines – and that win in China is looking more and more like a fortunate bounce with every race that passes. Hamilton is a proven quantity, a world champion with 20 wins under his belt and the nagging sense that the 2007 and 2010 titles were ones that got away. Lewis believes he’s the fastest driver in the world, a thought shared by a great many people outside of the Hamilton family, so for Nico, there can be no hiding place in 2013.

By extension, we’ll also find out roughly how good Schumacher Mk 2 was. With his second retirement now confirmed, this one more of his own volition than 2006’s effort but still with the unfortunate feeling that he was pushed before he ever made it as far as jumping, there’ll be no 8th world title for the Red Baron. If Rosberg keeps up with Hamilton, that’ll throw the old stager’s recent efforts into focus. If he doesn’t, we’ll know that Michael’s second coming was that of a good Grand Prix driver, not a great one being stymied by his equipment.

Sergio Perez is on his way to McLaren. Regulars will know that the Petrolhead Blogger doesn’t consider Sergio to be one of F1’s elite. His good results have been spectacular – think of that 2nd place that should probably have been 1st in Malaysia, of 3rd in Montreal and 2nd again at Monza – but none of them have been achieved through pure pace. Perez has been the man on the favourable strategy each time he’s appeared on the podium, popping up at the sharp end through good use of tyres rather than blistering speed. Qualifying averages tell the same story – have a look at his average starting position against Kamui Kobayashi this season and you’ll find that Sergio is losing. Each Sauber driver has 7 points finishes to their name this season and with Kamui losing great grid slots to oil on the track (China) and a clutch problem leading to a first corner shunt (Spa), the balance could just as easily have tipped in the Japanese driver’s favour. Curiously, nobody is talking about Kobayashi as a future McLaren driver…

This may end up being wildly inaccurate (“Shock! Horror!” – every single one of you, right now) but it’s hard to see Perez qualifying next year’s McLaren anywhere near where it should be or having the pace to come through strongly unless tyre conservation comes to the fore. It’s also hard to see his current team mate in a car next season. Kobayashi’s maiden podium on home soil at Suzuka was rich reward for a superb drive but the overriding feeling is that Sauber are a little frustrated not to have done better this season given the undoubted qualities of their car. Peter Sauber rates Kobayashi as a little slower than Perez and says Perez is on the pace of Sauber-era Felipe Massa, which hardly implies that either man is a potential world-beater. Everyone in the paddock without a seat for 2013 would like Kamui’s drive, which could mean one or more of the following names driving something Swiss next year:

  • Esteban Gutierrez, Sauber’s current reserve driver and a means of keeping the team’s existing Mexican sponsorship
  • Heikki Kovalainen, once of McLaren, currently with Caterham, always rapid
  • Felipe Massa, twice a Sauber driver previously, has strong connections to engine supplier Ferrari but his recent upturn in form might yet keep him at Maranello for one more year
  • Jaime Alguersuari, former STR driver and current Pirelli tester, worthy of a race seat and with intimate knowledge of current tyre technology
  • Adrian Sutil, ex-Force India man who could maybe have done without a trial and subsequent conviction for GBH after sticking the stem of a champagne glass into a Lotus managing director’s neck
  • Nico Hulkenberg, linked strongly to Ferrari should they jettison Massa but with Sauber as an increasingly plausible back-up plan

Were Hulkenberg to move, this would leave a vacancy at Force India, where Paul Di Resta has a contract for 2013 but remains an outside shot for the Ferrari gig. Anyone taking the Ferrari drive would effectively be staking their career on having one impressive season, since it’s widely considered that Sebastian Vettel already has a 2014 contract with a prancing horse printed on it and it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine Ferrari telling Fernando Alonso to “hop it, mate – we’ve got that Hulkenberg bloke on a long-term deal.” All the same, few young drivers could resist the lure of Maranello money (particularly if they hadn’t been paid at all this year, which – it is alleged, Your Honour – Di Resta and Hulkenberg haven’t). If either Force India driver was to bolt, have a look at the Sauber shortlist for your main contenders while also factoring in Jules Bianchi, currently going great guns in Formula Renault 3.5 and impressing for both Force India and Ferrari in the recent Young Driver Test.

The standard trick Dr Helmut Marko employs with the Red Bull driver development programme is to put his drivers into F1 slightly too early, give them a couple of seasons at Scuderia Toro Rosso and then offload them. See Scott Speed, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Jaime Alguersuari, Sebastian Buemi (who, it should be said, bucked the trend somewhat by managing three seasons and then landing the Red Bull reserve drive when STR got bored of him). Both Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo have only had one year at STR, so expect them to get another one. Then the sack.

Tangentially, back in 2001, the same Dr Marko withdrew Red Bull’s sponsorship from Sauber in protest when they refused to accept his driver Enrique Bernoldi (eventual F1 career record: 29 races, 0 points, best finish 8th), preferring instead to take a chance on signing Finnish newcomer Kimi Raikkonen (F1 career record to date: 171 starts, 18 wins, 16 pole positions, 37 fastest laps, 736 points, 1 world championship). His level of sway within Red Bull seems, to these eyes, inversely proportional to his talent-spotting ability. Save my thoughts on Sergio Perez, come back in a year and see if I’m doing any better. Those in glass houses and all that.

Lotus are probably settled, since for all Romain Grosjean’s ongoing wildness at the start of races (Mark Webber referred to him this weekend as “that first lap nutcase”), his management group also own the Lotus team. Kimi Raikkonen has shown no inclination to up sticks and leave either.

Or has he?

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.

Having been passed fit to compete in this weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix, Sergio Perez has withdrawn from the event after Friday’s first practice session.  The Sauber driver is still feeling the effects of his crash during practice for the Monaco Grand Prix and has reported sensations of sickness and discomfort after driving the car.

In a statement, Peter Sauber said, “This development hit us by surprise, because Sergio underwent thorough medical checks, first in the hospital in Monaco, then in a hospital in Zürich, and finally, the FIA doctors gave him the green light this Thursday in Montreal. Nobody could have foreseen that he would feel unwell. Maybe we are being overly cautious, but when it’s about the health of our drivers we take zero risks.”

To illustrate just how unforeseen this is, Sauber’s reserve driver Esteban Gutierrez is currently in Mexico, which is in the same continent as Montreal but not exactly next door.  In his absence, Sauber have arranged to borrow their 2010 race driver and current McLaren reserve Pedro de la Rosa for the rest of the weekend.

Who’s on pole?  Gimme an S!  Gimme an E!  Gimme a BASTIAN VETTEL!

The big question, one which we haven’t had to ask at any stage prior to today, is whether he should have been.  For once, being called Sebastian and driving a Red Bull doesn’t appear to be the quickest way to get around a Grand Prix circuit, but a combination of bad luck and bad decisions has left Vettel’s main challenger with an impossible amount of work to do.

The man most likely throughout the early stages of qualifying was Lewis Hamilton, wringing his McLaren’s neck on a circuit he loves.  Throughout Q1 and Q2 the McLarens were at the top of the timesheets, with Jenson Button looking a solid three tenths slower than his team mate but well up in the overall classification.  When Vettel came to show his hand in the final moments of Q2, his best lap on Pirelli’s supersoft tyres was good but not quite good enough.  0.002 seconds separated Hamilton and Vettel, setting the stage for a battle royal in Q3.

What followed was something of an anti-climax, particularly if you’re a fan of Stevenage’s finest.  While every other major player set his wagons rolling in the opening seconds of the session, McLaren elected to keep Hamilton in the garage and go for a single quick run in the final minutes.  While he was there, a hexagonal nail-biter played itself out on track, with Vettel, Button, Webber, Alonso, Schumacher and Massa recording lap times.  The quick six couldn’t possibly have known it, but they’d already bought themselves the best seats in the house for the opening lap of the race.

When Lewis took to the track, he was hampered first by catching Massa at an unfortunate moment, then by Sergio Perez going straight across the chicane after the tunnel rather than around it.  It was a big shunt from which the Mexican seems to have emerged intact, as detailed below, and the session had to be stopped while the stricken Sauber was attended to.  Upon qualifying’s resumption, the track surface appeared to have given up grip, to the dismay of all in attendance but particularly Hamilton.  His best effort was good for no more than 7th, which became 9th when he was adjudged to have jumped the chicane during his flying lap.

It’s not known exactly how hard he laughed at this, but Lewis is well aware that he was not the architect of his own downfall.  At Monaco, you simply cannot afford to sit and watch while your major rivals are on track posting quick times.  Saving tyres for the race is a laudable aim but it’s madness on the streets of Monte Carlo, where one false move from another driver could completely destroy your only meaningful qualifying lap.  So it was for McLaren, now counting the cost of leaving their quickest car parked in the garage.  What makes the decision still more curious is that they’re racing on a track where tyre wear is not a significant factor.

If Lewis Hamilton can’t recover from 9th to win at Monaco, then nobody can.  He can’t, though, so who’s left to challenge Vettel?  Jenson Button starts from the outside of the front row but hasn’t had the legs of Hamilton all weekend.  Despite being the slower of the McLaren duo, he shouldn’t be discounted, being blessed with a sharp tactical mind and remarkable sympathy towards whatever Pirelli provide him with on a given weekend.  We’ve seen Jenson pop up ahead of Lewis on Sunday afternoons already this season, often by choosing to veer off the beaten strategic track, so it’ll be very interesting to see if he has anything for Sebastian over a race distance.

The slower of the Red Bull pairing starts from P3, but unlike the in-house war at Woking, the one at Milton Keynes is fairly clear-cut.  Not only is Mark Webber struggling to extract maximum performance from the RB7, he’s struggling to keep his tyres alive while he’s at it.  Last year he blitzed the field and might have won by a minute or more had the race ran without safety car intervention, but we’ve seen nothing this weekend to suggest that a repeat performance might be on the cards.

What of the Mercedes duo?  Michael Schumacher was a joy to watch throughout qualifying, dispelling any lingering doubts about his commitment in a series of tail-out slides through the swimming pool section. He lines up 5th, equalling his best qualifying position since his comeback.  With Schumi, a dynamic opening lap now comes as standard, but the track is too narrow to make much headway in the early stages.  On a wider circuit and on his usual form, he’d stand a chance of not only leading this race, but of leading the next race in Canada at the same time.  As it is, Michael has a couple of potentially quicker cars behind him and might not be too upset to finish in the middle of the top 10 tomorrow.  One of those potentially faster cars belongs to Nico Rosberg, who has had a slight edge all weekend but didn’t deliver the goods in Q3.

The Ferrari pairing continued their year-long battle with their worst enemy, the 150th Italia’s own front end.  Alonso and Massa are right up on the wheel of their cars this weekend and on Thursday, it looked like Fernando might be the man to beat.  On Saturday, he found his car loaded with the standard amount of understeer and couldn’t better P4, from which he might still be able to do some damage.  We’ve already mentioned that it’s going to be much harder for Schumacher to pull off another first turn shuffle, so it’s also unlikely that Alonso will be able to barge his way to the front using nothing but his own sheer brilliance as he did last week.  What if he did, though?

What we’ve seen so far this season is that Pirelli’s tyres hang together for a fairly low number of laps and then give up all of their performance in one go.  Unlike the refuelling era, when the aim was always to stay out a lap longer than the competition and take advantage of having a lighter car, the key this season is timing your pit stop so that you change tyres just as the performance disappears, thus extracting the absolute maximum from the rubber.  Leaving the pits on new tyres just as your rivals begin to experience problems, you can then get the hammer down and ensure that as the other guy leaves the pits after his stop, he’s staring at the back of your car vanishing into the distance.

We’ve also seen that the race leaders can leave the pits on new tyres and overtake midfield runners on old sets without too much difficulty.  This has removed the need to avoid being held up in traffic when calculating the best time to make a pit stop.  The leaders know they’ve got a speed advantage and they know that a driver on old tyres has little power to defend his position, so it’s not important to exit your pit stop on a completely clear track.  At Monaco, though, if the chap in front doesn’t want you to come past, you don’t come past, irrespective of how quickly he’s going.  For proof, see Nigel Mansell catching Ayrton Senna at an indecent rate after a forced tyre change late in the 1992 race.

If someone like Alonso is able to muscle through to the front, Vettel and company won’t find it quite so easy to overtake through better pit stop timing as they did in Spain last Sunday.  If they try to jump him by pitting early and emerge from the pits behind, say, a Williams or a Force India, they could quite conceivably be stuck in traffic for long enough to give Fernando or Michael or whoever a shot into the clear.  For that reason and that reason alone, it’s not safe to completely rule out a shock result, but realistically?  We’re clutching at straws.  Kinky Kylie has the box seat yet again.

The Grid

1. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), 1:13.556
2. Jenson Button (McLaren), +0.441 seconds
3. Mark Webber (Red Bull), +0.463 seconds
4. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), +0.927 seconds
5. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), +1.126 seconds
6. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), +1.321 seconds
7. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), +1.724 seconds
8. Pastor Maldonado (Williams), +2.972 seconds
9. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), time disallowed for jumping a chicane
10. Sergio Perez (Sauber), no time set due to accident *

Eliminated in Q2

11. Vitaly Petrov (Renault)
12. Rubens Barrichello (Williams)
13. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber)
14. Paul di Resta (Force India)
15. Adrian Sutil (Force India)
16. Nick Heidfeld (Renault)
17. Sebastien Buemi (Scuderia Toro Rosso)

Eliminated in Q1

18. Heikki Kovalainen (Lotus)
19. Jarno Trulli (Lotus)
20. Jaime Alguersuari (Scuderia Toro Rosso)
21. Timo Glock (Virgin)
22. Jerome d’Ambrosio (Virgin)
23. Vitantonio Liuzzi (HRT), outside 107%, no time after crash in morning practice **
24. Narain Karthikeyan (HRT), outside 107%, no time after suspension problem found in pits **

*Due to the concussion sustained in his Q3 accident, Sergio Perez will remain in hospital for observation tonight and will not start the 2011 Monaco Grand Prix

**Despite failing to post a qualifying time, both HRT drivers set times during practice which would have put them within 107% of the fastest Q1 lap.  Accordingly, both drivers will be allowed to start tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Webber?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results:

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

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

Not classified:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Results

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

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

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

Not classified:

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

* Includes penalty of 20 seconds