Posts Tagged ‘Mercedes GP’

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?

Lap 30 of yesterday’s German Grand Prix (which we will, in a roundabout sort of way, discuss in this little article) marked the halfway point of this year’s Formula 1 world championship.  It’s never been less than intriguing so far – indeed, for the most part, it’s been simply stunning.

Back in March, just before the most thrilling season in years got underway, nobody had any real idea of what to expect from the new face of Formula 1 racing.  None of us were quite sure exactly how KERS, DRS and Pirelli’s return to the sport would mix up the pecking order or change the way Sunday afternoons panned out.  Some of us were stupid enough to make some predictions anyway.  At least one of us thought asking his mother for some thoughts was a great idea which wouldn’t in any way come back to haunt him.

The aim was to illustrate that when it came to setting predictions for 2011, you were just as well off asking someone with a passing interest if you couldn’t find anyone who’d spent the last 20 years deeply in love with motorsport.  How are we doing so far?  Let’s see…:

Rookie of the year

Adam: Paul di Resta
Sue: Pastor Maldonado

This battle is beginning to tighten up a little as Pastor comes to grips with his Williams, of which more in a moment, but over the 10 races it’s di Resta who must surely get the nod.  The Scotsman has offered more than one genuinely stunning performance this season, with 6th on the grid at Silverstone being a particular high point.  It should also be said that Sergio Perez, despite the odd quiet showing or major gaffe, has been generally very impressive too.

Maldonado started to get a handle on things at Monaco, where he’s always excelled, and is by no means disgracing himself.  When, though, was the last time you saw him and said “Wow”?

Adam 1-0 Sue

Midfield surprise package

Adam: Williams
Sue: Scuderia Toro Rosso

While I have been surprised by Williams, it hasn’t been in quite the manner I’d hoped for.  FW33’s performance thus far has remained consistently in the space between ‘slow’ and ‘catastrophic’, with a pair of 9th places being the highpoint after a pre-season in which the team genuinely looked to be there or thereabouts.  A major reshuffle is currently taking place with various key technical staff, including technical director Sam Michael, taking their leave at season’s end.  You get the feeling that a clear-out is necessary, because while the existing design team appear to know they’ve drawn a bad car, nobody seems to know exactly why.  Last weekend, the team removed KERS from Rubens Barrichello’s car, replacing the unit with moveable ballast in an attempt to improve weight distribution and cure their heavy tyre wear.  This weekend, they’re putting it back on…

STR are somewhere near the position they occupied last season, thus winning this round by default.  Pulling up absolutely no trees in qualifying, the STR6 is built with race days in mind.  Jaime Alguersuari took 3 straight points finishes in Canada, Valencia and Britain, while Sebastien Buemi has scored on 4 occasions.  Only once has the Toro Rosso pairing scored points in the same race, suggesting that what the team really needs is a little more consistency from its driving staff rather than its racing car.

What we should both have said, as it turns out, was Sauber, but none of us could really have expected that, right?

Adam 1-1 Sue

Will Schumi win again?

Adam: Yes
Sue: No

Right, here we go…

Let’s not compare Michael Mk II to the all-conquering first career, the one that saw him become statistically the most successful driver in F1 history.  There’s no sense in us doing that, partly because Nico Rosberg was never going to let Mercedes mould a team around the other guy (Nico’s contract was in place before Michael’s, lest we forget), partly because there’s no prospect of Michael having the searing one-lap pace he used to have now he’s 42 and partly because relative to the competition, these Mercs are the worst cars he’s ever sat in.

For all that Nico has the undoubted qualifying advantage, it’s nothing like as clear cut when it comes to comparing race pace.  For 5 races on the spin now, Michael has been visibly, demonstrably faster on race day.  The problem is that only once, after a sublime showing on the Montreal boating lake, has he come away with a greater points haul than his team mate.  Everywhere else, car problems or silly mistakes have cost him – at Nurburgring, for instance, he had the pace to catch Rosberg, spin on a damp patch and then catch him again, all of which was fun to watch but brought him home one place behind his team mate.  That place was 8th to Nico’s 7th, in cars which haven’t once fulfilled the promise they showed in the final Barcelona winter test.

Viewed in isolation, without the 91 wins that came before, this Schumacher chap is a non-stop whirl of entertainment.  Try to recall the last time you saw Schumi on screen, on a Sunday afternoon, doing something that didn’t involve a passing move or a crash.  He remains the ultimate competitor, he has absolutely no concept of what it means to give up a position (often, it must be said, to his ultimate detriment) and I’m certain that if Mercedes can serve up a decent car, Michael can still win a race with it.

All of which, sadly, is a long-winded justification for why I’ve got this one wrong too.

Adam 12 Sue 

Massa – still a contender?

Adam: No
Sue: No

More than any of the other questions we set, this is the one I wanted to be wrong about.

For 20 seconds at the end of the 2008 season, as he won the Brazilian Grand Prix and Lewis Hamilton languished in 6th when only a top 5 finish would do, Felipe was the world champion.  The dignity, generosity and kindness of spirit he displayed when Lewis crept back into 5th and snatched the crown back was of a type no man could fail to admire.  His brilliance in the early part of 2009 was far more than the hateful Ferrari F60 deserved, his recovery from the near-fatal head injury he sustained in Hungary that year was remarkable and when “Fernando is faster – than – you,” the loss of what would have been a fairytale victory seemed unfair in a way few team orders ever have.

It’s easy to suggest that Massa is not the driver he was before a spring from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn struck him on the head that July afternoon.  The bad news, though, is that there may well be some truth to it.  Though he led the championship in the early part of 2010, his race in Germany later that year is the only post-comeback example of the raw speed the Brazilian used to serve up as a matter of course.  In Germany this year, he was 40 seconds back down the road from his team mate.

Or should I say team leader?  Ferrari have never been shy of playing politics, nor of openly favouring one driver over another – this, incidentally, is not a practice that started in the Schumacher era, no matter what the revisionists might have you believe.  Alonso was only ever going to be signed as de-facto number one driver, though there can be little doubt that Massa’s injuries smoothed his path to some degree, and it’s worth noting how when discussing potential threats at the front of the field, Fernando never mentions Felipe.  Even given equal billing, though, I’m not sure this most likeable of racing drivers quite has it in him anymore.

Adam 2-3 Sue

Will Pirelli spice up the show?

Adam: Yes
Sue: No

They haven’t done it by themselves, not by any means.  Even in races where the tyres have hung together well, there’s been something to see.  Last weekend, for example, Hamilton, Alonso and Webber were rarely more than a couple of seconds apart and swapped the lead on seven different occasions, despite each man following their planned tyre routine and pit schedule without any major drama.

It’s the 2011 rules package as a whole we should be praising for the marked increase in overtaking and proper racing action.  There have been races – China and Turkey spring readily to mind – where tyres have been the main factor in much of the passing, but they can’t solely account for great racing in Germany, Spain or even Monaco, where everyone who wasn’t born Lewis Carl Hamilton found a way to overtake without incident.  On the whole, though, they’re promoting overtaking and varied strategies, particularly in the midfield, where Sutil and Perez have both scored big points through superb tyre conservation.  There’s speculation that, prompted by mockery from a rival tyre company’s Italian advertising, Pirelli might move towards more durable tyres for marketing reasons.  Let’s hope not.

Adam 3-3 Sue

Will anyone fall foul of the 107% rule?

Adam: No
Sue: Yes

There are – and I realise it’s quite redundant of me to point this out – perfectly good reasons for my getting this one wrong.

Come to think of it, I did say that you might see teams miss the race because they couldn’t make their car run for long enough to set a decent time.  I had HRT in mind and said as much.  In Australia, they did exactly that, failing to keep the right nuts on the relevant bolts for long enough to post a lap within 107% of the quickest Q1 time.  Game over, Adam wins and on we go, right?

Not exactly.  HRT did miss the 107% rule again in Monaco, but this too was down to technical issues and both cars had demonstrated during practice that they were quick enough to meet the required time.  Virgin can’t make the same case for Jerome d’Ambrosio in Canada.  The stewards let him in to the race on the grounds that he was running a new chassis that Saturday, one he’d never driven before.  This, just so we’re clear, shouldn’t make the blindest bit of difference.  It’s said that no two cars are exactly the same, even if they’re built to exactly the same spec, but in this modern era of computer aided design and computational fluid dynamics, it simply isn’t possible for one team to build two cars which differ wildly in performance.

Nobody expected Virgin to be quite as slow as they’ve been, least of all Virgin themselves.  I certainly didn’t, I’m startled that d’Ambrosio missed the cut anywhere, especially on a Canadian circuit which is essentially no more than a big run of chicanes connected by long straights, and I can’t for the life of me find any mitigation.  He was allowed to start the race and I really ought to use that as my get-out clause, but since I don’t believe that was the right decision:

Adam 3-4 Sue

Who’ll win the title?

Adam: Red Bull, Vettel
Sue: Red Bull, Vettel

At about this time of year, it’s tradtional for me to crown someone as champion-in-waiting and for that someone to slump like Devon Loch on tranquilisers, but can we really see it happening this time around?

For a man with one title in the bag and another waiting to be collected, Sebastian Vettel is still surrounded by a fair number of doubts.  His judgement and ability to respond when Mark Webber is faster on a given weekend are both suspect.  His defensive skills appear to be lacking – witness Fernando Alonso’s cruise down the inside into the Nurburgring’s first hairpin on Sunday.  Under pressure, he’s prone to errors, such as the one he made while hanging on to the leading trio last weekend or the slip that gave Jenson Button victory in Canada.  The 45 laps he spent staring at the back of Felipe Massa’s car in Germany suggest that even when his machinery is vastly superior, he can still be found wanting when required to make his way through traffic.

If next year’s RB8 isn’t the class of the field, that’ll give Vettel a problem.  His victories are all of the lights-to-flag variety and it’s hard to recall Seb winning a race that his car didn’t deserve.  Even that brilliant maiden win, for Scuderia Toro Rosso at a wet Monza three years ago, was achieved from pole position and with his team mate Sebastien Bourdais starting at the front with him.  This year, though, it matters not, because the RB7 has been dominant enough for long enough that Vettel hasn’t had to go wheel-to-wheel with his main rivals on equal terms.

Given the best car in the field, the reigning champion has made better use of it than Mark Webber and his advantage, 77 points at the time of writing, is such that he doesn’t have to win again this season.  Steady points are enough.  Given that Sebastian finishes 4th even when he leaves the road twice and spends three quarters of the distance stuck behind a Ferrari, there’s no reason to suggest he won’t get them.

Final score:
Adam 4
-5 Sue

The worst part (at least for me, though not, I suspect, for my Mam) is that only one of us totally understood every question and realised that the answers really were being posted online.  My only hopes of turning around this deficit are for Williams to come on strong, Michael Schumacher to win a race before season’s end or for me to change my mind on that 107% business.

I’m toast. 

In mid February, there was no way the Formula 1 circus could consider visiting Bahrain.  By the end of the month, those in power came out and said so.  On Friday, the FIA World Council confirmed that the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix would take place on October 30th.

In order to accommodate the race, India’s first Grand Prix will be moved to another date, likely to be December 11th.  There are whispers that the Indian race organisers could use the extra few weeks, but it’s a smack in the face for all those fans who’ve already finalised their travel and hotel plans for Delhi.

Though the ongoing struggles are subject to rather less scrutiny now than they were at the turn of the year, Bahrain remains full of political tension and continues to show zero tolerance for dissenting voices.  Things are more orderly than they were, but the methods used to create that order are, to say the least of it, questionable.  With that in mind, let’s make a little assumption before we get rolling, shall we?  Let’s assume that those in power are on the same wavelength as Mark Webber, an intelligent chap blessed with the power to construct a balanced opinion and the eloquence to put that opinion forward.  If they are, and if the majority of the foreign offices I mentioned in February still advise against all but non-essential travel, what on Earth are we going there for?

Well…perhaps we’re not.

Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family are friends of Formula 1.  Their financial investment, both in terms of building the Manama International Circuit facility and paying Bernie Ecclestone’s sanctioning fee, has been considerable.  Neither the sport’s governing body nor its moneymaker-in-chief will be in any hurry to distance themselves from friends with deep pockets, particularly at a time when several FIA-sanctioned championships are seeking to establish themselves in the Middle East.

The same considerations do not apply to, for example, Vodafone, Santander or Red Bull, who might not be all that keen to have their products associated with increased security risks and the prospect of opposition protests.  Their representatives will see comments like those of Mohamed Al-Maskati, the head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights:

“On the one hand, Formula One isn’t respecting human rights, but on the other, it’s a good chance for the people to express how they feel on television worldwide.”

Once they’ve taken in those words, they might well consider that no matter what the organisers promise as far as a ring of steel around the circuit goes, the circuit is not the only place of interest in Bahrain.  Should this race go ahead, there’ll be photographers and camera crews all over Manama, not just at the racetrack, capturing images that reflect the public mood.  If Mohamed Al-Maskati’s words have any ring of truth to them, and those within Bahrain have indicated that they do, such expressions of opinion aren’t going to be the kind of thing any major sponsor wants to be connected with.  Add in the safety aspect – short of setting up camp within the circuit boundaries, there’s not much you can do to keep everyone within F1 protected at all times – and you might well find that the teams, rather than the governing body, will be the ones to say we’re not going to Bahrain.

It’s difficult to see anything putting a stop to that, not even the interesting pickle in which Martin Whitmarsh, CEO at McLaren and head of the Formula One Teams Association, finds himself.  Bahrain Mumtalakat Holding Company, which manages investments on behalf of the Kingdom of Bahrain, has a 42% shareholding in his team.  His next conference call should be a giggle, but there’s a convenient get-out in place, not just for Whitmarsh but for team owners up and down the pit lane.

That get-out, oddly enough, is that motor racing doesn’t really involve itself in human rights.  By walking away from the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix on those grounds, Formula 1 would leave itself open to all manner of questions.  How, for example, could you condone the sport’s continued presence in China, home to some of the most high-profile political prisoners of recent years?  Why would one of the last sports to condemn apartheid in South Africa, a sport which made the annual trek to Argentina all the way through the Process, now decide that it can’t be associated with any regime that chooses to maintain order through repressive measures?  Few men in the corridors of power would be especially keen to tackle such questions, not least because delivering an honest answer would require an extensive knowledge of synonyms for the word ‘money’.

What motor racing does involve itself in is logistics, and the numbers generated by shoehorning Bahrain into this year’s calendar are a fine way to reverse out of this year’s race.  These comments come from Ross Brawn, team boss at Mercedes GP, speaking for every other team in the paddock:

It is getting too much.  Our guys have been working since January.  We don’t have test teams anymore, so the same guys have been working since January and we are asking them to work into December.  That means there is no time for a holiday before Christmas and that would mean getting straight back in to it in January.

“So personally I think it is unacceptable and we’ve told Bernie that and he knows our opinion. If we continue to take those sort of approaches then we will run into problems because our people cannot be expected to work in that environment and situation, so I think it is totally unacceptable.”

The more you think on it, the more this kind of objection works for everybody.  It works for the rulers in Bahrain because by being reinstated to the schedule, they’ve been able to show the FIA, who in turn have shown the world, that the country is ready to get back to normal and entirely capable of hosting a peaceful, successful worldwide event.  It works for the FIA and for Bernie because this way, the refusal to race in Bahrain comes from another organisation and has no impact upon their relationship with Crown Prince Salman and his family.  It works for the teams because it allows them to save face with their sponsors and their fans without unduly upsetting their governing body.  At every step, someone’s telling a lie of some description, but it must be worthwhile.  It’d be foolish to put Formula 1 through a thoroughly public kicking for the sake of one race if it wasn’t.

The other possibility, of course, is that there’ll actually be a race in Bahrain at the end of October.  Would you watch?  Let me know.

Summarising rather than recapping, for several reasons.  It’s late.  I ate quite a lot earlier and feel somewhat lethargic.  I played the guitar for a couple of hours and keep getting cramps in my hand and forearm.  Most importantly of all, I’ve been at the cider.

Still, we should probably say something, right?

  • Another race, another Vettel pole position.  Not even losing most of Friday to a heavy crash in the rain slowed him down.  This represents Sebastian’s 8th consecutive front row start.  The last man to manage more was Damon Hill, never outside the first 2 places on the grid from the last race of 1995 to the last race of 1996.
  • Next door to him, though still 4 tenths away from being ahead, the other Red Bull.  Last year, as you’ll doubtless recall, Vettel and Webber completed 40 harmonious laps of Istanbul Park and then crashed into each other.  While a repeat performance tomorrow would do the championship fight no end of good, one suspects it wouldn’t be received quite so well by the team.  It’s a start for Mark, but there’s still quite a gap to bridge before he can really begin to threaten his team mate.
  • Mercedes have a Magic Paddle in their car.  It’s a device that gives the drivers quick, easy access to various settings on the car, though nobody’s prepared to say which ones.  Whatever it does, it’s situated next to the Curiously Ineffective Q3 lever, which Michael Schumacher pulled in error.  Rosberg has outqualified both McLarens and starts 3rd, while Schumi has been as quick as or quicker than Nico all weekend and is clearly mystified by how he’s ended up 8th, 1.1 seconds slower.  At least he made it to Q3, though.
  • Rubens Barrichello didn’t, but 11th is a step forward for Williams and he was within 24 thousandths of pipping Heidfeld to the last Q3 spot.  Signs of life from a sleeping giant?
  • They’ll be hoping so, as the scrap to avoid being embarrassed by Lotus heats up.  Heikki Kovalainen, trouncing Jarno Trulli yet again, is inching ever closer to the back of the midfield pack in qualifying.  Williams, Force India and Toro Rosso in particular must now be casting a nervous glance over their shoulders in the final seconds of Q1.
  • Kamui Kobayashi, who isn’t exactly backward in coming forward when there’s overtaking to be done, starts last after his Sauber’s wheels ceased to turn before he’d recorded a flying lap.  The idea of Kamui, a garage full of fresh tyres, KERS and DRS on a track which has always allowed some overtaking is a mouth-watering one.  Judging from his BBC interview earlier today, a wide-eyed affair in which a grin was never once off his face, Kobayashi thinks so too.  Keep your eyes on him tomorrow.

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

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

Of course I’m sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Maldonado.  I’ve got a feeling.

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

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

 

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

Scuderia Toro Rosso.  Because of Albert Shuari.

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

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

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

 

Will Michael Schumacher win again?

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

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

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

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

 

What about Felipe Massa?

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

I want to disagree with this.

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

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

 

Will Pirelli’s new tyres spice up the show?

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

Uh-huh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Who will win the world title?

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

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

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

 

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