Posts Tagged ‘Renault’

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?

Perhaps now would be an appropriate time to apologise for a month’s worth of silence, but there are two things we should consider first:

1) The writer of this piece has earned precisely no money at all from over 8 years of writing on this here Internet.  He does however earn a sum of money for doing something entirely different, which has taken up most of his attention for the last few weeks.
2) Absolutely nothing of any consequence has happened.

Until today, that is.  Bruno Senna will partner Vitaly Petrov at Renault for this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, with Nick Heidfeld the man to make way.  Why?

There remains a suspicion that the team’s problems are more car than driver, especially given that both Renault drivers took podium finishes in the early part of this season, but Quick Nick hasn’t pulled up any trees of late.  In his defence, neither has Petrov – only once, when the Russian finished 5th in the wet Canadian race, has a Renault finished in the top 6 since that pair of podiums at the first two events.  The team, though, clearly expected more from a man of Heidfeld’s talent and pedigree, both in terms of results and of car development.  It could be that.

It could just as easily be that the team’s owners, Genii Capital, have just put together a business deal which sees them become a key constituent of a large South American private equity investment company.  It might, then, make commercial sense for a South American driver to sit at the wheel of one of their racing cars for a little while.  Petrov has a multi-year contract, Heidfeld’s filling in while Robert Kubica recovers from his pre-season rallying crash and one imagines that such details might have an impact upon the level of severance pay being discussed.

Thinking ahead a month or so, to the time of the Italian Grand Prix, Romain Grosjean should have wrapped up the GP2 title by then and started looking for a late-season return to F1, having previously replaced friend of petrolheadblog.com Nelson Piquet Jr during the second half of 2009.  Grosjean remains on Renault’s books as one of their legion of reserve drivers and might find his route into the team a little more straightforward if he’s able to directly replace another reserve, Senna, rather than Heidfeld.  If it’s substitute replacing substitute, you’re not dumping your lead driver.  You’re just evaluating your talent pool.

In saying that, the first answer might be the one to go for.  Renault might genuinely have fired their highest-placed driver in this season’s championship purely for performance reasons.  Feel free to pick the answer you’re happiest with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Results

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

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

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

Not classified:

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

* Includes penalty of 20 seconds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Results

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

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

Not classified:

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

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.

As surely as spring follows winter and Christmas falls in December, so it is written that at this time every year, the tall Hartlepudlian blogger shall disappear for 10 days and fail to mention some things which may go on to be quite important.

Anyone else feel a quick catch-up coming on?

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The 2011 Formula 1 season will open in Melbourne on 27th March.  Crown Prince Salman confirmed last week that the ongoing political unrest in Bahrain has quite correctly left ‘staging a motor race’ fairly low on his list of priorities for the time being.  Had the race been left to go ahead, the odds of any major team turning up, leaving themselves open to accusations of condoning the bloodshed, would have been somewhat lengthy.

The race organisers will not be charged Bernie Ecclestone’s $40 million sanctioning fee and are keen to get back on the F1 calendar as quickly as possible.  They’ve spoken of staging a race later this year but, leaving aside the political aspects for now, there are few gaps in the calendar big enough to slot one in.  The one outside chance, in early November after the first Indian Grand Prix, is out because without a year’s experience of getting team personnel and equipment through Customs, those in charge are reluctant to organise another race a week after visiting a new venue.  It would also leave teams facing an India-Bahrain-Abu Dhabi triple header without any scope for a breather between races, which is a no-go for reasons of common sense as well as practicality.

Failing that, the only options available involve persuading the Indian authorities to give up their date and have an extra 12 months to prepare or shunting the season finale in Brazil back a week to free up space in the calendar.  The championship would then conclude no earlier than 4th December, though there’s no precedent for such a late finish in modern times.

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Tomorrow is expected to see the announcement of a tie-up between Red Bull Racing and Infiniti, the luxury arm of Japanese carmaker Nissan.  The exact nature of this link isn’t yet clear, though as Red Bull’s engine supplier Renault have a 44% stake in Nissan, the likelihood is that the team’s engines will carry the Infiniti badge.

The Infiniti name spent a largely unsuccessful spell in the Indy Racing League a decade ago and the company have recently launched the first model in their Infiniti Performance Line of luxury cars.  The brand is primarily used in the North American market, with occasional forays into Asia, but a push into Europe is expected this year.  It’s likely that Renault’s CEO Carlos Ghosn views F1, more specifically Red Bull’s F1 team, as a marketing tool to build brand awareness and help to shed the safe, middle-of-the-road image Infiniti has acquired.

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You’ll recall that a little earlier this year, we were introduced to Ferrari’s 2011 challenger, the F150.  You may also know that the best-selling car in the world is Ford’s F-150 pick-up truck.  You might quite reasonably draw the conclusion that these two facts have nothing to do with each other.

If that’s the case, you probably don’t work for Ford.  The American carmaker threatened to sue Ferrari for attempting to infringe upon copyright and benefit from the goodwill built up by the F-150 brand name.  The net result, notwithstanding the Scuderia’s perfectly sensible assertion that their F150 wasn’t going to be sold commercially now or at any other time, is that it’s now the Ferrari F150th Italia.

Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo is busying himself with becoming a major player in Italian politics, aligning himself as an opponent of Silvio Berlusconi, so it could be embarrassing to have a grand gesture (F150’s name was selected to honour the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification, with the car featuring the Tricolore on its rear wing) shot down in a blaze of illegality.  Presumably that’s why Ferrari are inviting us to believe that the car was always called F150th Italia, with F150 being used as a shorthand form.  It wasn’t and it wasn’t, Luca…

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Daimler and their partner Aabar Investments now wholly own the Mercedes GP team, having bought the 24.9% share in the outfit owned by team management including technical chief Ross Brawn.  No organisational changes are expected, with the design and engineering team responsible for the championship-winning Brawn GP car of 2009 remaining intact.

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Williams have unveiled the definitive livery for their FW33, an apparent homage to the Rothmans colours the team sported in the mid 1990s:

Time to confess to a little personal bias, a bias which the hardened regulars will already be aware of.  I began watching Formula 1 during an era of Williams dominance featuring major British drivers – Mansell, Hill, Coulthard.  They were destined to be my team from the start and have remained so ever since.  Their current lead driver, Rubens Barrichello, is a man I’ve always wanted to see succeed.

If a Williams returns to the winner’s circle in 2011 and does so with Rubinho at the wheel, my write-up of the race in question will be late.  It will be late because I will have exploded with joy.

In a rare instance of this writer predicting something which then actually goes on to happen, Renault have confirmed that German veteran Nick Heidfeld will replace injured lead driver Robert Kubica for the start of the 2011 season.

As highlighted slightly further down this very page, Nick has a blend of speed, consistency, experience and motivation which makes him the ideal choice for the substitute role.  His reputation as a safe, sensible but unspectacular pair of hands also gives Renault a handy little out ball should R31 fail to live up to expectations; few people expect Heidfeld to win races even given a competitive package, so there’ll be less external pressure on the Regie come Bahrain on March 13th.

Exactly how fast the new Renault is remains open for debate – nobody is yet running their definitive Bahrain package and there’s no way of gauging how much fuel everyone’s carrying in these early tests, with the first key indicators likely to come this week in Barcelona – but setting Saturday’s fastest time at Jerez last week will have encouraged team and driver.  Don’t be at all surprised to see Quick Nick live up to his nickname as the start of the season draws closer.