The Home Stretch

As we approach the final race of the 2011 season, the F1 circus is now focused on what holds in store for 2012, and the rumor mill is aplenty with talking points.

- Texas F1 Massacre

It was just weeks ago that Bernie proudly announced the addition of a second grand prix to be raced here in the States, with the US Grand Prix set to debut next season in Austin, followed by the Grand Prix of America to be raced in the streets of New York and New Jersey beginning in 2013.  For US based F1 fans the prospect of two races held here in the States sounded too good to be true, considering the shameful plight of the previous iteration of the US Grand Prix at the legendary Indy Motor Speedway.  Turns out our guarded skepticism was justified, and unless Bernie and the USGP heads work out a deal before this week’s Brazilian GP, the USGP will be axed without a foot tarmac being laid down.

To be quite honest, if I was forced to choose between the Austin and New Jersey races, I’d go with the latter.  While  the Austin venue would likely provide a better show from a pure racing perspective, the prospect of F1 cars racing through the streets of West New York and Jersey could be our equivalent to the street circuit races of Monaco and Singapore.  And I have a hunch that the teams’ principals and sponsors will have no quarrels with sacrificing the USGP for a potentially more lucrative New York based race.  Let’s just hope the Occupy Protesters and Greenpeace don’t band together in a joint faction to rob us of the next great F1 spectacle.

- Petrov slams Lotus Renault

It seems the Russian has had enough of the consistently poor decisions made by his team this season, and it spoiled over in a heated tirade during an interview with Russian media.  Considering the amount of criticism team principal Eric Boullier lobbed at his drivers this season, it was just a matter of time before they hit back, and quite frankly Petrov hit the nail on the head.  The R31’s radical forward facing blown exhaust diffuser system proved to be a engineering blunder, and despite their early season pace, the car pretty much failed to keep up with the rest of the pack for the rest of the season.  The lack of any in-season development of the R31 coupled with numerous pit stop and race strategy bungles, and one could only wonder if management intentionally threw this season away, and consequently threw their drivers under the bus.

Of all the team driver lineups, Lotus’ for next season is the most up in the air, with former number one driver Robert Kubica looking to make his comeback from a near fatal rally car race accident, mid-season replacement driver Bruno Senna having impressed for the majority of his shortened season, reserve driver and GP2 champion Romain Grosjean itching to secure a race seat, and the now under fire Petrov.  Boullier recently proclaimed he wants “big name” drivers, but quite honestly his team needs to get their act together and first develop a car that can compete with the top teams before they can sign a driver the likes of Vettel, Hamilton, or Alonso.  For a team that as recently as 2006 was the dominant force on the grid, Lotus have tailspinned into a mid-tier team, and it doesn’t look like things are going to change anytime soon.

- Mercedes, Lewis out at McLaren?

Two of the more sensational rumors both involve McLaren unsurprisingly, with one having real legs and other being pure hogwash.  The former is that the Woking team will switch from Mercedes engines which they have used since 1995 and return to Honda power, which was used from 1988 to 1992 in one of the most storied and successful periods in the team’s history.  Anytime an automotive giant like Honda decides to re-enter F1, it’s a good thing, and the reunion of the two partners would be a nostalgic throwback to the golden age of F1.  The timing of this headliner is somewhat uncanny given the parallels of makeup of McLaren’s team today and that of twenty years ago; Lewis Hamilton most mirrors the driving style and persona of the late great Ayrton Senna, who won three championships with McLaren-Honda,  and Jenson Button being one of the most consistent and cerebral drivers on the grid is much like the Professor and four time world champion Alain Prost.  Honda departed F1 after the 2008 season after three disappointing seasons as a factory race team.  But as an engine provider, they have historically been a tour de force, and with a switch to turbo V6 engines beginning in 2014, they have plenty of time to develop their powerplants and hopefully make a big splash in their return.

The other rumor is one of the most ludicrous in recent memory, it being according to the British tabloid Daily Star that Hamilton is unhappy at McLaren and ready to jump ship to arch rivals Ferrari, replacing Felipe Massa.  Despite this season being the most tumultuous in his young career, Hamilton has the chance to finish the season on a high note with back to back wins, and there’s no reason to think he’s unhappy with his team, except for his own performance.  This eye-roller probably has more to do with Ferrari’s discontent with Felipe Massa’s career drop off, and all signs point to next season being his last as a Ferrari driver.  With two of the most entangled racing histories among all the current drivers, one can only wonder how Hamilton’s and Massa’s careers arcs would have changed if the Brazilian won the 2008 Drivers championship instead of the Brit.

- Jean-Eric Vergne, the next Sebastian Vettel?

After posting lap times in a Young Drivers test at Abu Dhabi that were just four tenths off of double reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel’s pole position lap, the young Frenchmen could be in line for a race seat at sister B-team Toro Rosso.  If he does displace either Jaime Alguersuari or Sebastian Buemi and impresses management, he would be perfectly situated to follow Vettel’s career progression, with a potential seat at Red Bull as early as 2013.  Vergne himself stated he could “no worse” than Webber if given a chance at Red Bull.  Oof, that’s quite a zinger, maybe that sound bite alone will reignite Webber’s fire for next season.

MP

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The Iceman Cometh?

While the F1 circus makes its next stop for the first time ever in India this weekend, the big rumor buzzing around is that 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen, or better known to F1 fans as the Iceman, is making a comeback next season with the Williams team.  Raikkonen was already spotted visiting the Williams factory earlier this season, and reports are that the visit was more than just a casual tour.

After winning his lone championship in 2007, Raikkonen’s F1 career tailed off, as he was outdriven in 2008 by teammate Felipe Massa, and in 2009 looked absolutely disinterested in what was a write-off season due to the F60’s lack of pace.  To say that Ferrari is passionate about their racing is an understatement, and I imagine they must been frustrated by the Iceman’s unenthusiastic demeanor, and proceeded to give Raikkonen the axe at the end of 2009.  At the time, he was the second highest paid athlete in the world behind only Tiger Woods.  His separation from Ferrari and F1, while not exactly a surprise, was a big blow to the F1 community.  While his personality off the track left some fans wanting for more, his raw speed was undeniable.  And his persona in many ways perfectly complemented his racing style.  Stone cold, no mistakes.  To give you an idea of the enigma that is the Iceman, here’s a few clips from his storied F1 career.

You might be thinking the creator of that video was unfairly trying to portray Raikkonen as being stoic and emotionless about his winning his first grand prix.  Here’s the unedited video of the post race press conference, you can judge for yourself.

Not convinced?  Here’s the Iceman after winning his first Drivers championship on the last race of one of the most thrilling seasons in the modern history of F1.

Smile, Kimi, you just made history.  My favorite moment is his response to a question from Peter Windsor at the 3:00 mark.  And here’s Kimi after his last win in F1 back in 2009.

Starting to notice a pattern?

If Raikkonen does return to F1, his addition would make next year’s driver linup one of the most illustrious of all time, with six world champions on the grid(Schumi, Vettel, Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Button).  Raikkonen belongs in F1, and after two years of racing rally cars and inexplicably racing part time in NASCAR, it seems he’s ready to make his return.  Given Williams’ atrocious performance this season, it’s highly unlikely that Raikkonen will be able to compete for race wins let alone the Drivers championship.  But F1 fans, including myself, are eagerly anticipating seeing the Iceman back in the paddock.

It’s safe to say that Raikkonen is one of the most unusual personalities in all of motorsport.  But if he could speak for himself I imagine he would say that his goal is to be a very fast driver who pushes his car to the maximum and he always makes sure to thank his team for their support and he appreciates the effort they make to make sure his car is fast and for that he wants to say thanks and he’s very happy for what they’ve achieved.

MP

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Dan Wheldon: 1978-2011

On October 16, in the neverending waltz between man and machine, control and reckless abandon, speed and inertia, motorsport claimed its most recent life in Dan Wheldon, who died of injuries suffered while racing in an IndyCar race at Las Vegas.  He was 33.

Wheldon made his mark in motorsport entirely during his time as a driver in the IndyCar series, winning the Indianapolis 500 and Indycar season championship in 2005.  In 2007, his name entered the F1 sphere when he was offered a reserve driver role with the Sauber BMW team.  Wheldon ultimately passed because he wasn’t assured the opportunity to drive regularly for Sauber, and he subseuqently earlier this year won the Indy 500 for the second time.

The last time a driver of his stature died in a race was in 2001 when the legendary Dale Earnhardt died of injuries suffered racing in the Daytona 500.  Earnhardt’s death sparked a slew of safety changes to NASCAR, among them the proliferation of energy absorbing crash barriers, the use of the HANS(Head and Neck Safety) device, and more stringent standards on car design.  At first some of the changes were met with resistance ironically from the drivers, but eventually they acknowledged that it was for their own benefit that the changes had to be made.  NASCAR’s post-Earnhardt era response to improving safety mirrored F1’s response to the death of Ayrton Senna, and both racing leagues have flourished since, in large part because the improvements in safety allowed the respective leagues to focus on improving the entertainment quality of their product.

Wheldon’s death, unlike Senna’s and Earnhardt’s, can only be attributed to a freak chain of events that was practically impossible to avoid.  IndyCar racing, with close quarters wheel to wheel racing at high speed oval tracks, makes it inherently more dangerous than F1 or NASCAR.  In F1 the cars are similar to Indy cars with their open cockpit design, but the drivers and cars in F1 spend a significant amount of time on the track separated from each other by multiple car lengths, which makes the likelihood of contact with another car less frequent.  In NASCAR the racing is similar to IndyCar, with cars traveling in close quarters at high speeds, but the “car” like design of NASCAR cars makes them less susceptible to losing control in the event of contact with another car, and the drivers are in completely enclosed in their cars, providing them additional protection in the event of a crash.

A few months ago I wrote about whether the racing in F1 was too safe, and if it was negatively affecting the entertainment product on track.  The conclusion I came to was that safety was essential and necessary if motorsport wanted to progress as a viable sport in the future.  Wheldon’s death affirms that auto racing is one of the most extreme sports in the world, and despite every effort to improve safety, danger will always be an inherent element in motorsport.  Wheldon was a true racer, an adrenaline junkie, a thrill seeker.  Sadly for him in his pursuit of speed and glory he made the ultimate sacrifice, and the harsh reality is he will not be the last to do so.  But in the end he made his mark, and he will never be forgotten for as long as motorsport continues to live on.

MP

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A Tale of Two Drivers

So much for Sebastian Vettel letting up after securing his second straight Drivers championship.  Seven days after his title clinching 3rd place finish at Suzuka, Sebastian Vettel kept his foot firmly on the accelerator, adding yet another accolade to his sparkling season resume with a dominant win at the Korean Grand Prix.  Despite Jenson Button’s best effort to steal the spotlight with his third win of the season at Suzuka and teammate Lewis Hamilton’s pole position at Korea, which ended Red Bull’s streak at 16, the focus of the F1 universe for the past two weeks has rightfully been on Vettel.

If you asked a knowledgeable F1 fan to name the top three drivers on the grid, it’s likely that Vettel and Hamilton would be on their list.  Before Vettel became the youngest world champion last year, it was Hamilton who owned the distinction.  While the two have had slightly different career arcs, they are essentially at the same stage in their F1 careers: both are past(or current) world champions, both are firmly cemented at top tier teams, and at 26 and 24 years of age for Hamilton and Vettel respectively, they have yet to enter their prime.

In his rookie season back in 2007, Hamilton nearly pulled off the improbable, coming a point within winning the Drivers championship, and quite honestly should have won the title if not for a few ill fated driving errors and his highly volatile and ultimately destructive relationship with teammate and at the time reigning double world champion Fernando Alonso.  Alonso subsequently left McLaren after just one season, which left Hamilton free to assume #1 status within McLaren, who were understandably quite ecstatic to see their prized protege deliver immediate dividends on a decade’s worth of support and tutelage. Hamilton followed up his scintillating inaugural season with a more consistent performance in 2008, and in one of the most dramatic finishes in an F1 season, won his first Drivers championship at final race of the season(and literally final corner) at the Brazilian Grand Prix.  At the time it seemed all but certain that Hamilton would eventually displace Alonso as the youngest double world champion, but the only true certainty in F1 is if you stop moving forward, you’ll be left behind.

It was also in 2008 that Vettel announced his arrival as a force on the grid when he secured the first pole position and race win of his young career at Monza.  While his race result came as a surprise, it was clear that his sheer talent and speed was more than hype, and the higher ups at Red Bull promptly promoted Vettel from Toro Rosso to the senior Red Bull team at the end of the season. While 2009 was largely dominated in the first half by Jenson Button and Brawn GP, Vettel and the Red Bull RB5 was the faster combination in the second half of the season, foreshadowing their future success.  2010 was a season of peaks and valleys for Vettel, but ultimately he was the star of the final act, securing the DC with a pole position/win double at a yawner in Abu Dhabi.  Fast forward to today, and 2011 has been the Vettel show, with everyone else playing a supporting role.

While Vettel largely robbed the 2011 season DC race of any drama, his dominance has made this season one for the ages.  His 10 race wins and 12 positions are still within striking distance of Michael Schumacher and Nigel Mansell’s records respectively of 13 wins and 14 pole positions.  But what really distinguishes Vettel’s season as one of the greatest ever has been his consistency.  With no retirements and race finishes lower than 4th place, Vettel unofficially is on pace for the greatest season ever in terms of average race results.

In contrast, British racing hero(and hoon) Hamilton’s season has been one characterized mostly by moments of inconsistency and impatience.  Racing incidents at Malaysia, Monaco, Canada, Hungary, Belgium, Singapore, and Japan all negatively affected his race outcomes, and it’s likely that for the first time in his career he will be outscored by his teammate in the DC.  Hamilton went so far as to admit his career path has “driven off a cliff.”

One of the neverending points of debate in F1 is who is the fastest driver of their era.  The reason for this phenomenon is the inherent nature of F1 competition: the unique design of a car by a manufacturer.  Unlike other forms of motorsport, every F1 car is different, from manufacturer to manufacturer, and season to season.  An old adage in F1 is a driver’s primary competitor is his teammate, because they are the only ones with identical equipment.  So while the Vettel/RB7 combination has been undisputably faster than the Hamilton/MP4-26 pairing, it’s not an apples to apples comparison.  F1 fans were painfully teased earlier this season with a potential Vettel/Hamilton union after Hamilton met with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, but it’s unlikely that the two will be teammates in the foreseeable future.

Somewhat prematurely looking forward to 2012, it’s highly probable that next year’s world champion will be a repeat champion, with Vettel, Hamilton, Button, and Alonso as the candidates.  Alonso and Ferrari have written off 2011, having already declared they are focusing on developing their car for 2012.  Alonso as the previous youngest double world champion will be keen on challenging Vettel for the title of youngest triple world champion, and despite his comprehensive skill and speed, el Matador faces an uphill battle to reel in Vettel’s snarling Red Bull.  Button took a step forward this season with his pace and consistency, and his confidence seems to be greater than ever.  But at 30 and 31, Alonso and Button are in the twilight of their careers, and they now face a different race in the one against Father Time.

Vettel and Hamilton are the present and future of F1, and their budding rivalry could end up being the greatest ever.  For one driver this season has been the best of times, for the other the worst of times.  In an age of wisdom and foolishness, in a season of light and darkness, both drivers now look forward to the future, as will always F1.

MP

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King Vettel Reigns Supreme

Well well, so much for any speculation that Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull would play it conservative for the remainder of the 2011 season.  Following Jenson Button’s spirited win at Hungary, a small glimmer of hope remained that someone on the grid would step up to make a wholehearted challenge on Vettel’s death grip on the Drivers championship.  And as any true champion would do, Vettel responded in the next three races with a devastating showcase of pure speed and race management, taking a trifecta of pole positions and race wins at Spa, Monza, and most recently at Singapore in the lone night event on the F1 calendar.  As it currently stands, Vettel would have to go pointless for the rest of the season and his nearest challenger in Alonso would have to win every race to take the DC, which pretty much means Vettel will retain his title and become the youngest double world champion.  So before it’s official, let’s take a look at his form over the past month.  First off we head to Spa, where Vettel took his first win on the classic circuit tucked away in the Ardennes forest.

The irony at Spa was Vettel was so far ahead of the field that the only times he was the focus of the tv cameras was at the start and end of the race.  It’s almost as if they expected him to cruise to victory.  Which is exactly what he did.  Bah, on to Monza!

Meh, more of the same.  Vettel was out-drag raced by Alonso at the start of the race, but he promptly responded with a sublimely awesome pass on Lap 3 and never looked back.  Take a look.

Finally, over the past weekend Vettel took his first win at Singapore under the glitz and glamour of the night sky.  To be honest, the race was over before it even started when Vettel took his 11th pole position of the season in Saturday’s qualifying session.

The last time a driver was this dominant over the course of an entire season was in 2004, when Schumi was in his glory days at Ferrari.  Schumi that season won a record 13 races, but interestingly enough took only 8 pole positions.  Vettel, who stands at 9 race wins and 11 pole positions, has a slim but realistic chance of matching or beating Schumi’s record, along with Nigel Mansell’s record of 14 pole positions.  Granted Schumi and Mansell set their records in 18 and 16 races respectively, but that doesn’t diminish Vettel’s record worthy accomplishments this season.  And you also have to take into consideration his performance was against three other top tier teams in Ferrari, McLaren, and Mercedes, not to mention teammate Mark Webber.  Vettel’s season compares to another athlete’s in Novak Djokovic, who arguably had the greatest season in men’s tennis history in 2011, winning three Grand Slam titles, 5 Masters wins and finished the season with an absurdly sparkling record of 64-2.

Vettel’s and Djokovic’s achievements this season are in my opinion are even more impressive than those of the record holders in their sport’s respective pasts for several reasons.  As a general rule, competitive levels in sport have increased with the passage of time, which makes it more difficult to sustain an extended period of dominance over the competition.  And with the astronomical salaries, endorsements contracts, and general demands of being an international celebrity, it’s easy to lose focus on the task at hand.  Vettel is in that respect a throwback to the past, with no supermodel/singer celebrity girlfriends or high-profile management teams.  Vettel is a pure racer, and arguably the best in the field today and quite possibly of all time.  While he may have robbed the 2011 season of any drama in the DC, his supremacy now makes him undisputed king of the F1 universe.  The real focus now is on 2012, as most of the field have conceded this season to Vettel.  Ferrari, the most storied team in F1 history, was the first to acknowledge their deficiencies this season, admitting they need to revamp their entire approach to car design in order to challenge Red Bull.  And even then there is no guarantee that Ferrari or any other team will be able to bridge the gap to Vettel and Red Bull in the foreseeable future.  This is F1, the fastest sport in the world, and if you’re not moving forward, you’re just a fading image in someone’s mirrors.

MP

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Midseason Grades for 2011

Wow, talk about a midseason turnaround in 2011 for F1.  In case you missed it, last weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix was arguably the most exciting race of the season, with constantly changing weather conditions, plenty of wheel to wheel racing, and topped off by a clinical demonstration of race and tire management by winner Jenson Button.  We’re officially past the midway point of the season, which also means F1 is on a 4 week summer hiatus.  Seems like a perfect time to hand out some midterm  grades…

Sebastian Vettel : A+

How could one not give him top marks?  With 8 pole positions, 6 race wins, and podium finishes in all but one race, it’s safe to say he’s been on top of his game.  More importantly, his lead in the Drivers championship standings continues to grow with each race, having gone from 77 last week to 85 after Hungary.  So what if he hasn’t won in the last three races?  At this point in the season for someone in his position, it’s about winning the war, not the battle.  Which makes the criticism floating around lately on his inability to drive in traffic somewhat petty and frivolous.  Don’t let his recent performances mislead you, however, Vettel will still be in the hunt for race wins, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes at least two more before season’s end.  Regardless, barring a season ending injury, he will be this year’s Drivers Champion, and the youngest ever back to back World Champion and first to do so since Alonso accomplished the feat back in 2006.

Mark Webber: C+

At first I thought maybe I’m being a bit harsh on the Aussie considering he’s in 2nd place in the DC and one of the best equipped drivers to challenge Vettel’s supremacy this season.  But after looking at his race results factoring in his qualifying performances, it’s safe to say Webber has underperformed and underwhelmed.  In only three races has he finished in a higher position from his starting spot on the grid, and he’s failed to convert all three of his pole positions into race wins.  His most impressive drive this season was his 3rd place finish in China after inexplicably qualifying 18th, but someone in his position should be driving for race wins.  Nonetheless, he’s still a favorite of the fans and in the paddock, and will almost certainly be racing again for Red Bull next season.  So let’s give him a cheer, aussie, aussie, aussie, oy, oy, oy!

Lewis Hamilton: A-

Of all the drivers on the grid, Hamilton has been the most exciting to watch this season, if not also the most erratic.  His aggressive driving style paid off for him with epic wins at China and Germany, but also bit him in the butt at Monaco and Canada.  He probably should have won at Hungary, if not at least finished 1-2 with Button, but his in-hindsight premature decision to switch to intermediate tires, along with his drive through penalty for nearly driving into Paul di Resta, ruined any chance of a podium finish.  Of all the drivers in the grid, he seems the most determined to fight to the end, even if it means driving his car off the track instead of finishing the race.  Which is precisely why he is beloved by racing fans.

Jenson Button: B+

To be fair, Button could easily be #2 in the DC, but a bit stop bungle at Silverstone and a hydraulic failure at Germany ruined his chances of earnings solid points in both races.  His two race wins at Canada and Hungary were master class sessions of racing in changeable track conditions, but in truth he’s been the slower, if not less exciting, driver to his teammate Hamilton.  But he also has the hottest girlfriend/wife in the paddock, so in the end he’s always a winner.

VA VA VROOOM!

McLaren: A

Special commendation to the British outfit for constantly making upgrades to their car after a difficult preseason, for allowing their drivers to race each other along with the rest of the grid, and for stepping up as the strongest challenger to Red Bull.

Fernando Alonso: A-

The Spaniard is renowned for his relentless drive to push his car to the max, which is not exactly a glowing endorsement of this year’s Ferrari F150.  His  win at Silverstone was a welcome reprieve to F1 fans from Vettel’s consistent dominance, and he should be able to challenge for race wins for the rest of the season, which is all that he really he has to race for.  Another win at home soil at Monza would be a nice gift to the tifosi, vamos, or andiamo!

Felipe Massa: C

Everyone’s favorite underdog is having another forgettable season, all you have to do is look at the DC standings as evidence of his lack of pace this season.  The real question is Massa’s future at Ferrari, he has one more year left under contract, and it seems unlikely that he’ll be there after 2012.  If he does leave, there’s no obvious choice as to where he’ll go, but his replacement is a little more clear cut.  Expect to see Robert Kubica in a red jumpsuit in 2013, assuming he doesn’t completely chop off one of his arms in another freak rally or gasoline fight accident.

Schumi: C+

Oof, it’s been admittedly difficult to watch the most successful driver in F1 history struggle to match teammate Nico Rosberg’s pace, let alone the rest of the grid.  His near podium at Canada was the biggest highlight so far of his comeback, which is a far cry from his years of dominance at Ferrari.  He has one more year left on his contract with Mercedes, but the German outfit seems years away from challenging at the front on the grid.

Rosberg: B-

Of all the top drivers on the grid, Rosberg is one of the most forgettable, despite his edge up on his legendary teammate.  Wait a minute, who was I talking about?

Paul di Resta: B

Special gold star to the Scottish rookie, who at times this season has outdriven his teammate Adrian Sutil, who is no slouch.  Will he able to leverage his strong drives this season into a seat with a top team?  The race seat opening at Mercedes after Schumi’s pending retirement seems like the most obvious choice, at this point it’s all about baby steps for Coulthard 2.0.

Williams: Fail

Their whopping 4 constructors points this season is the lowest of all the established teams, and a far cry from their glory years in the 80s and 90s.  Not exactly what you want the year after you issue an IPO.  Their switch to Renault engines next year should provide a boost, but it’s going to take a near miracle for Williams to return to strength anytime soon.

The races after the summer break are some of my favorites of the season, with Spa, Monza, and Suzuka coming up.  With eight races to go, the question for this season remains, which driver, if any, will rise to challenge Vettel’s throne to the F1 kingdom?  I beseech the drivers on the grid to be epic, for much is at stake, but in the end, only one can claim thou has come in 2nd place in the DC!  Excelsior!

MP

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The Return of the 2011 F1 Season

Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s official, we have a race for the 2011 F1 season.  For the first half of the calendar, Sebastian Vettel was so dominant that most of his competitors were already writing off their chances for the Drivers championship.  Blown Diffuser-gate was (un)intentionally supposed to even the playing field, but even after that blew over, Ferrari and McLaren discovered some newfound pace, and for the first time this season, two straight races have been won by non-Red Bull cars.  So is it safe to reannounce a competition for the Driver and Constructors championships?  Not so fast…

Vettel, with his 4th place finish at the Nurburgring courtesy of a bungled pit stop by the Ferrari crew, is still 77 points ahead of second place contender and teammate Mark Webber.  In all likelihood Vettel and Red Bull will wrap up the championships by my predictions in Korea.  But that doesn’t necessarily preclude the possibility of some drama for the rest of the season.

The disappearance of Felipe Massa

Back in 2009, Massa sustained one of the more scarier injuries in recent memory when he was struck in the head by a dislodged suspension spring from fellow countryman Ruben Barrichello’s car.  Massa was traveling at around 180 mph when the spring struck him square over the left eye area, and he was instantly knocked unconscious.  Take a look.

Interestingly enough, the FIA and F1 have looked into the possibility of a closed cockpit and/or a raised windshield design in the future to protect the drivers from these type of freak accidents.  But what about splattered bugs?  Could F1 cars possibly have windshield wipers in the future?  One can only giggle at the possibility, but I digress…

Forced to sit out the rest of the season, Massa hasn’t been the same racer since the accident, and his winless streak stands at 39 races.  And now for the second straight season, Massa seems all but relegated to serving as a #2 to teammate Fernando Alonso’s and Ferrari’s championship aspirations.  One can only wonder if the high drama and heartbreak of missing out on the 2008 Drivers championship courtesy of a last lap pass by Lewis Hamilton on Timo Glock permanently damaged Massa’s driving mettle.  Massa is one of the more likable drivers on the grid and a natural underdog, but given McLaren and Red Bull’s(despite what they say) policy of having two drivers of equal skill and standing, Ferrari needs to consider other options going forward to stay competitive.  Robert Kubica is the most obvious choice, but Lotus Renault seem keen on holding on to him at all costs.  Massa may never be World Champion, but there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to stick his nose into the scrum.  Or maybe he’s holding on too tight, he’s lost the edge…

Schumi vs. Rosberg

Unlike last season’s much ballyhooed but ultimately disappointing showing, Schumi this season has looked feisty and competitive, evidenced by his near podium at Canada.  The 12-point gap between his 32 to teammate Nico Rosberg’s 46 is the smallest amongst the driver duos of the top teams, and their in-team competition is for me the most engaging and insightful.  As the most successful F1 driver of all time, Schumi has got to be frustrated at the lack of points and podiums, but if he is he’s doing a commendable job of hiding it.  The real winner in all of this is Rosberg, who for 1.5 seasons has outdriven his boyhood idol, and raised his stock in the process.  Both drivers have voiced their self assessments as the faster driver, and since Mercedes’ title hopes are practically unattainable, the only real reason to watch or care about Team Germany is for the automotive civil war between their two field generals.  All this German on German racing action is kind of exciting, let’s just hope they fight fair and clean.

Driver Lineups for 2012

Unlike most other professional sports, drivers are free to discuss with other teams over prospective racing opportunities even though they’re still under contract with their current teams.  Hamilton, Button, Kubica, Massa, Webber, and a handful of other names have all had their turn in the rumor mill.  Hamilton’s behind closed doors meeting with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was by far the biggest headline this season in terms of potential driver relocations, and was a real wakeup call to McLaren that there’s no guarantee their boy wonder will be content to play out his career with the only team he’s ever raced for.  While a Vettel/Hamilton partnership seems highly unlikely and extremely volatile, it would be an F1 fan’s dream come true.  But it’s always fun to speculate, and for whatever there’s been plenty of it this season, more so than in years past.  I expect Webber, Button, and Hamilton to all stay put, but as mentioned before the Massa/Kubica situation has real legs.  Massa recently signed a one year extension for next season, which was three years shorter than the one teammate Alonso agreed to, so one has to believe Ferrari is prepare to make a change after next year.  And what do you know, coincidentally enough, Kubica is signed with Renault through 2012.  Funny how things works out.

No bye week on the schedule after Germany, which means Hungary is this weekend.  Don’t hold me to it, but I expect a similar outcome to last year’s race, and look for Ferrari to be strong, assuming the track conditions are warm and not wet.  But if it does rain, all the better!

MP

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