Posts Tagged ‘Nico Rosberg’

When last we met, there was talk of how best to thoroughly louse up a season preview. For those of you who find yourselves too bone-idle to scroll down and read the last entry, a reminder: I, combining my extensive knowledge with my God-given knack for making predictions which diametrically oppose what subsequently goes on to happen, selected a top 10 for this year’s F1 world championship, taking the time not only to justify those picks but, in a new and exciting twist, explain why I might turn out to be wrong.

As the teams head off for their summer shutdown, some 34 laps into the second half of the season, let’s take a few moments to review whether I’ve been successful this year or whether I’ve instead managed to maintain my usual standards of foresight. Spoiler alert: it’s probably the latter.

This time we’ll be summarising the fortunes not only of those I selected in pre-season but of those who had the temerity to arrive unbidden. I’ll italicise those drivers who are so far performing in line with my predictions, partly so they’re easier to spot and partly in lieu of the lap of honour I’d normally embark upon in cases of unexpected success.

10: Pre-season pick – Fernando Alonso (McLaren Honda, currently 15th)
      Real-world interloper – Romain Grosjean (Lotus Mercedes)

If your powerplant is capable only of going nowhere fast or going nowhere at all, not even the best driver in the sport can help you.

Honda’s ongoing struggles are a waste of two talented drivers and a McLaren that appears to be a reasonable weapon when presented with a series of corners, possessing point-scoring pace at Hungaroring (the slowest permanent track on the calendar) and Monte Carlo (the slowest street circuit). Alonso’s Q1 run at Silverstone was both his and McLaren’s season in microcosm: 6 tenths down on a Ferrari along the straights of sector 1, a further 6 tenths down in sector 3, home of the Hangar Straight, but only 2 tenths away through the middle sector of the lap – through Luffield, where mechanical grip and traction are tested; then through Copse; through Maggotts; through Becketts, the kind of almost-but-not-quite-flat-out high-speed blasts that highlight the differences between a great racing driver and a Fernando Alonso.

The Honda may go on to be a potent weapon – it can’t be any less potent than the engine that earned both Alonso and Jenson Button a 25-place grid penalty in Austria – but the Spaniard is presently hamstrung by a power unit that, it seems, went racing a year too early. Give the man the tools and Alonso remains without peer.

Down Enstone way, Romain Grosjean’s chief handicap is a team lacking the funds to properly develop a reasonable car. While it’s not difficult to look calm and measured in comparison with Pastor Maldonado, the patron saint of drive-through penalties, the Grosjean of 2015 is a much more rounded, mature racing driver than the “turn one nutcase” Mark Webber so pointedly shot down not 3 years ago. The fundamental speed has never been in doubt and remains present, allied now to enhanced racecraft and the ability to better understand which causes should be fought on-track and which should be conceded.

Aside from his collision with the lapped Will Stevens in Montreal, when he seemed simply to forget that the Manor Marussia was still there, Grosjean has kept his nose clean, taken what this year’s improved chassis and aero package are willing to give him and converted that performance into solid points at every opportunity.

9. Pre-season pick – Nico Hulkenberg (Force India Mercedes)

Force India’s post-Monaco step turned out, for reasons financial, to be a post-Spielberg step, one which coincided with Hulkenberg’s victorious return from Le Mans. Nico, Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy’s win for Porsche at La Sarthe gave a clear shot in the arm to a driver whose abundant gifts had briefly threatened to wilt under the weight of another year in mid-table.

After a relatively tardy opening to the campaign, The Hulk came alive in Austria, qualifying 5th and finishing 6th in what was still a bare-bones evolution of last year’s Force India, a result which he followed up with further points at Silverstone when the new VJM08B made its debut. That Austrian qualifying effort has been exception rather than rule, with it being hard to escape the feeling that Nico leaves himself a little more to do than he ought to come Sunday afternoon, but what’s been particularly evident of late has been his haste in making up for that, running 5th in the early going having started 9th at Silverstone and 5th from 11th at Hungaroring.

The team think a podium was on at the latter event had an errant front wing not forced a spectacular retirement and while it’s difficult to agree with them, I have no problem seeing why paddock rumour links their driver with a return to Williams for 2016.

8. Pre-season pick – Daniil Kvyat (Red Bull Renault)

While it’s difficult to argue that Daniil’s 2015 to date has been anything other than a little underwhelming, the reasons for that have less to do with the young Russian than with the situation in which he finds himself.

Promoted prematurely into a team whose disharmonious relationship with its engine supplier has threatened to derail the entire year, Kvyat’s year has been spent chasing after a car/engine package that can’t give him as much grip as he desires without leaving him a sitting duck in a straight line. Red Bull’s RB11 is a more highly-strung piece of equipment than its immediate predecessor but where Red Bull have been able to set up their car for optimum performance (Monte Carlo, Hungaroring), Kvyat has scored handsomely, keeping his nose just about clean enough for long enough to take his maiden podium in Hungary even if he lacked a little pace relative to Daniel Ricciardo. Where the set-up has been compromised to compensate for the obvious deficiencies of the Renault V6 (absolutely everywhere else), the other Red Bull has tended to be a little way ahead, its driver coping that bit better with a car being purposefully moved away from a sweet spot that the team haven’t always been able to find to start with.

All exactly as you’d expect, in other words, from someone whose details sit in the file marked “Quick But Inexperienced” – remember, Kvyat only recently turned 21.

7. Pre-season pick – Felipe Massa (Williams Mercedes, currently 6th)
    Real-world case of overoptimism – Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull Renault, pre-season prediction 4th)

Felipe, you remarkable man, I am yet again quite wrong about you.

Back in March, writing my pre-season piece, I believed that Williams were best of the rest behind Mercedes and that Massa, better in 2014 than at any time since his near-fatal 2009 accident but still not quite the driver he’d once been, lacked the consistency to do the car full justice. In what is assuredly the season’s 3rd-best package, Felipe has not only been metronomic on Sundays but fast enough on Saturdays to hold a 6-4 qualifying lead over the supremely rapid Valtteri Bottas. Away from the Ferrari pressure cooker and now entirely settled at Williams, Massa’s peaks are on the same level as the best of his 2008 championship near-miss and being delivered more regularly than at any time since then, free of the sense that his concentration might fail at any moment that so blighted his final years with the Scuderia.

If that’s unexpected, not just by the viewing public but by Felipe’s self-confessedly startled employers, it’s also very welcome. From spent force at Maranello to a force to be reckoned with at Grove, this most personable of drivers is making the most of an unexpected Indian summer.

Down the road in Milton Keynes, Daniel Ricciardo is making the best of an unexpected French shower. This year’s Renault power unit started life with no more power than last year’s but with a far greater fondness for ritually barbecuing itself. Just like Kvyat, Ricciardo’s only hope of competing on the straights has been to trim the car out and deprive himself of the downforce Adrian Newey’s design team are so famously adept at providing. If chasing after the scraps at the lower end of the top 10 is demoralising the habitually cheerful Daniel, you’d hardly know it. Indeed, only once has Danny Ric’s natural frustration been expressed in public, during a Canadian weekend in which he professed himself lost with a car that wouldn’t handle and an engine that wouldn’t power.

Above all else, Ricciardo remains a racer. His talent as an overtaker remains undimmed, boosted as ever by a remarkable feel for the limits of adhesion in the braking zone, and he remains like a dog with a bone when presented with the faintest sniff of victory. In the end, his bid for honours in Hungary was stymied by – whoever would have thought it? – a lack of top speed on the straights, forcing him into bridging ever more outlandish gaps under braking, but if the final desperate lunge on Rosberg was doomed to failure from the start, it’s impossible to do anything but love the man for giving it a go in the first place.

6. Pre-season pick – Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari, currently 3rd)
Real-world occupant – Felipe Massa (Williams Mercedes, see above)

Yeah, I know…

The case for the defence is that a few months ago, it really wasn’t clear whether Sebastian Vettel’s 2014 struggles were with his Red Bull specifically or with adapting to the absence of blown diffusers generally. The team won 3 races but each time it was the car on the other side of the garage taking the honours, Vettel enduring the first winless full season of his F1 career. Not only was Daniel Ricciardo generally quicker, he also did a better job of tyre management, traditionally one of Seb’s strongest suits. Vettel began this year with his reputation dented, driving for a team whose last genuinely quick car was produced 5 years previous and, perhaps most importantly, no longer driving for those who offered him such backing and protection in years gone by, irrespective of whether or not that protection was actually warranted.

2 races into his Ferrari career, Vettel won, not through luck or inclement weather but through great pace and – wouldn’t you just know it – terrific tyre management, letting him sneak through a door left only a little ajar by Mercedes. His entire season has been spent illustrating that while he claimed 4 world titles driving terrific cars, the bloke behind the wheel was none too shabby either. The Malaysia win was opportunistic, his recent win in Hungary absolutely dominant and that other hardy perennial, “Yeah, but he’s no good in traffic, is he?” was laid to rest once and for all by a magnificent drive through the field after technical problems ruined his qualifying in Montreal. Within 50 points of the championship lead going into the break, clearly enjoying his work and in prime position to pounce should Mercedes falter, Vettel’s reputation is as high now as at any time during his championship-winning streak.

5. Pre-season pick – Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari)

In a race-winning car ran by a team becoming ever more aligned to Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen has only a single podium to his name.

It’s hard to shake the nagging feeling that what we’re watching is Kimi’s farewell to Ferrari and, in all likelihood, to motorsport at the highest level. Once a man whose qualifying runs could put the entire paddock on notice, Kimi returned to F1 seemingly shorn of that electric pace and is no closer to rediscovering it. The 6 tenths he’s consistently missing in comparison to team mate Vettel on a low-fuel flyer appear to be gone for good and if the reasons are a complete mystery to those watching, so they seem to be equally perplexing to Raikkonen. At times unlucky come race day, as when leaving the Melbourne pits with only 75% of his tyres safely attached and when losing a certain Hungaroring podium to mechanical trouble, Kimi is too often either the architect of his own downfall or, more concerningly, simply too slow.

He has argued that his race pace has been strong all season and that he’s suffered from being caught in traffic on Sunday afternoons, to which the obvious remedy is to start in front of the slower cars – Raikkonen has somehow contrived to miss Q3 twice already this season. At his best, Raikkonen remains a driver from the very top drawer but his best is increasingly hard to come by…

4. Pre-season pick – Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull Renault, currently 7th – see above)
    Real-world Flying Finn – Valtteri Bottas (Williams Mercedes)

…which isn’t something you’d say of Valtteri Bottas, 10 years Raikkonen’s junior and poised to save Ferrari’s mechanics from the trouble of having to take those Finnish flags down from the garage awnings next year.

The original prediction, of course, was for Valtteri to be a place higher, with the qualifier that he’d struggle to attain 3rd place if Ferrari or Red Bull outspent and out-developed Williams. Ferrari were faster from the outset, as it turned out, but believe they’d be faster still with Bottas at the wheel. A quick glance at the championship table doesn’t necessarily reveal why – Bottas, Raikkonen and Massa are covered by just 3 points after 10 races – but, for all that I love a good statistic, glances at the championship table don’t allow you to see a substantially quicker car getting caught behind a Williams in Bahrain and being completely unable to find a way past its steely, millimetrically-precise occupant. Nor, come to that, do they show you how Bottas claimed a podium position in Montreal by virtue of a strong start and a race spent repelling the theoretically faster man behind for as long as it took that man to lose patience and spin himself out of contention.

On both occasions, the car behind was red. They were paying attention in Maranello.

3. Pre-season pick – Valtteri Bottas (Williams Mercedes)
    Real-world humble pie baker – Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)

2. Pre-season pick – Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)

The enigmatic Rosberg has days when he simply can’t be defeated – Spain and Austria for starters – and would progress from potential threat to genuine contender if he could only have them more often.

The relationship with Lewis Hamilton that threatened to turn into open warfare during 2014 seems far better on the surface this year, to Rosberg’s ultimate disadvantage. The combination of Nico’s Spanish dominance and that remarkable Monaco win, inherited when Hamilton’s 20 second lead turned to dust in one needless pit stop behind a late-race safety car, would last year have been seen as the ideal platform from which to ramp up the mental pressure on his team mate.  This year’s model, perhaps still feeling the after-effects of the booing that stung him post-Spa 2014, has too often seemed to genuinely believe that Hamilton has his number and misjudged his one attempt to destabilise the reigning champion, complaining that Lewis had thought only of himself and not the team in China. Rosberg’s key complaint that day was that Hamilton was driving excessively slowly to preserve his tyres, thus allowing Vettel the opportunity to stay close. The watching fans, either missing the subtle nuances of Nico’s argument or else blowing a gigantic hole through it, depending upon your viewpoint, suggested that if the man ahead was going so slowly, it might have been worth trying to pass him.

Rosberg remains the second fastest Mercedes driver but without the edge, the faint air of menace he brought to last year’s title fight. To stand any chance of usurping Hamilton over the remaining 9 races, Nico needs to rediscover that air, quickly.

1. Pre-season pick – Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)

The fastest Mercedes driver, 2014 qualifying weakness fully addressed, driving better than at any stage of his career.

From the word go, Hamilton proclaimed himself happier with the W06 than with the title-winning W05, that happiness leading to the return of that Schumacher-esque searing speed over one lap, the speed we’d grown so used to in Hamilton’s McLaren days. Car 44 has sat on pole position 9 times in 10 races, going on to win 5 times, and only in Austria has he been soundly beaten for pace. Several wins, most notably those in Melbourne and Shanghai, came with pace to spare had it been needed, while his domination of the Monaco weekend was as crushing as his ultimate disappointment. His reaction to that weekend and his immediate return to winning ways in Canada were marks of the man’s increasing maturity, as was his willingness to take blame for a Hungarian race spent hitting everything that moved, as if he’d crashed into his bedside table upon waking up and decided to take it as a sign of something.

The lead is 21 points. But for one pit-wall gaffe, it would have been 38. Lewis believes he has more in his locker yet.

That pit-wall gaffe is something for which the neutral fan should be thankful. As a direct result of it, the summer break begins with Rosberg able to take the championship lead if he wins in Belgium and Hamilton fails to score. Substitute Vettel for Rosberg in the same situation and the top 3 drivers could head to Monza separated by less than 20 points. Imagine Vettel, already celebrating his wins in delighted Italian over the radio, going to Italy for the first time as a Ferrari driver right in the heart of the title fight, the Tifosi turning Monza into the kind of seething, foaming sporting cauldron only those of Latin blood can ever properly create, the Mercedes drivers cast into supporting roles by that most partizan of crowds…

Anything is possible. In truth, though, the Mercedes has had the legs of the Ferrari too often in 2015 for Vettel to properly sustain a title tilt, no matter how many miracles he might work between now and November. Seb’s presence guarantees that the Silver Arrows have to extend themselves come race day but the battle for ultimate honours remains between their drivers. My money remains on Hamilton.

Where’s yours?

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

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

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

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

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

10: Fernando Alonso

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

9: Nico Hulkenberg

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

8: Daniil Kvyat

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

7: Felipe Massa

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

6: Sebastian Vettel

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

5: Kimi Raikkonen

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

4: Daniel Ricciardo

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

3: Valtteri Bottas

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

2: Nico Rosberg

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

1: Lewis Hamilton

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

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

Anyone fancy a rumble?

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

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

10. Jaime Alguersuari

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

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

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

9. Paul di Resta

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

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

8. Michael Schumacher

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

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

7. Nico Rosberg

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

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

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

6. Mark Webber

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

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

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

5. Lewis Hamilton

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

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

4. Heikki Kovalainen

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

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

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

3. Jenson Button

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

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

Jense, I was quite wrong about you.

2. Fernando Alonso

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

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

I love statistics.  These ones are worthless.

1. Sebastian Vettel

Sensational.

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

Pick the bones out of that…

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

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

Of course I’m sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ever wondered exactly how a top-line racing driver prepares himself for the season ahead?  Some focus on the gym, others go out and about for some running and biking.  Nico Rosberg does all of these, but he also rides a unicycle while juggling tennis balls:

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These words are being written 27 hours before the first free practice session of the year gets underway in Melbourne.  For the drivers, it’s time for the first round of pre-race media interviews and public appearances.  Jenson Button has already carried out a car swap with V8 Supercars star Craig Lowndes at Bathurst, while Sebastian Vettel has sheared a sheep on behalf of Red Bull.  For the teams, today is an opportunity to have the garages prepared and organised ready for action tomorrow, making sure all the little detail upgrades the mechanics brought over as hand luggage have been accounted for.

Detail upgrades are all you’ll bring to the first fly-away events, unless you’re in major trouble and need to redesign half the car before the season has even begun.  McLaren’s MP4/26 will feature an all-new exhaust system along with a new floor, neither of which have featured on the car during pre-season testing.  The last sentence contains a fact, reported with complete neutrality as if framed by a camera filming the scene, which you’re free to interpret in any way you’d like to.

The way McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarsh interprets it is that, “I was not satisfied with where the car was from a reliability or performance point of view. We have made some dramatic changes to the car. There is some risk, but we hope that it pays off and the car is more competitive.  The changes are aimed at making the car over a second quicker than it was in the tests.”

As we mentioned a little while ago, one of this year’s design keys involves blowing exhaust gases onto various aerodynamic parts to generate greater downforce and grip.  McLaren’s work in this area had, we’re told, led them to come up with a complex, extreme interpretation of the concept which has now been abandoned in favour of a simpler approach.  “I think the car fundamentally isn’t a bad car.  We need to unlock the exhaust blowing potential and we had some very creative ideas, some of which could have worked spectacularly well, but in order to do that they had to be durable and raceable and frankly some of our solutions weren’t.  That’s why we had to go back and in doing so we found some interesting performance.”

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Nothing says, “What do you mean, you have shown me our entire sponsor portfolio?” more than hiring Sakon Yamamoto and his wallet as your reserve driver.  Virgin Racing are this year’s wearers of the I’m With Slowcoach t-shirt.

Elsewhere in the paddock, Team Lotus (that’s the team whose cars are called Lotus, not the one whose cars have Lotus written on them) have hired proper racing driver Karun Chandhok to be their reserve driver for 2011, presumably with a view to a race seat in 2012.  Lotus now have no fewer than 6 drivers on their books, but predictably Renault (that’s the team whose cars have Lotus written on them) have managed to top that.  The team from Enstone have announced that they’ll be calling on the services of Nicolas Prost, son of quadruple world champion Alain, to drive at PR events and filming days whenever Nick Heidfeld, Vitaly Petrov, Bruno Senna, Jan Charouz, Fairuz Fauzy, Romain Grosjean and Ho-Pin Tung are all double-booked at the same time.