Monthly Archives: July 2011

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Formula 1

FIA: Farce in Action

Forza!  Finally someone on the grid decided they had enough of Vettel and his solo index finger, and it was none other than el Matador Fernando Alonso taking the first win of the season for himself and Ferrari at Silverstone.  Coincidentally enough, Sunday’s British Grand Prix marked the 60th anniversary of Ferrari’s first win in F1 way back in 1951, and you’ll never guess where it took place.  Silverstone!  It’s as if the racing gods decided that balance needed to be restored to the F1 universe.  If you have the time, here in its entirety is Alonso’s lap in the same Ferrari 375 that was driven by Jose Froilan Gonzales to victory 60 years ago.

Ahh, if only I was alive back then to experience the joy of watching racing when the cars were slow, dangerous, and off-throttle blown diffuserless(more on that later).

No point living in the past, not when F1 was able to serve up a scintillating weekend of race action.  Despite a nearly disastrous run off the track in Q1, Alonso managed to put together a cracking lap in Q3 to put him in 3rd position for Sunday’s race, of course behind the two Red Bulls.  Take a look.

Of greater significance than his 3rd place qualifying effort was the fact that Alonso was only .117 seconds behind pole sitter Mark Webber’s lap time.  There’s no real point in recapping the race, if you’re reading this I’m assuming you saw for yourself Alonso’s emphatic 16 second victory over  Vettel and Webber(more on this later).  Before I digress, I think you know what’s coming…

It never gets old.

So as I alluded to earlier, Alonso finished practically 16 seconds ahead of both Vettel and Webber, which means Vettel and Webber finished 2-3 pretty much neck and neck.  Despite his insistence in the past that team orders were not a part of their of operation and that both drivers received equal treatment, Red Bull principal Christian Horner made the radio call for all the world to hear for Webber to hold his position behind Vettel, essentially ordering him to not race his teammate and settle for 3rd place.  That obviously didn’t sit well with Webber given the still lingering bitterness over last season’s course of events.  Not to bombard you with videos, but here is Webber’s post race interview and reaction.

His expression at the end says it all.  BBC pundit(and occasional pinhead) Eddie Jordan made the prophetic call of picking Alonso to win the race, and after the race he spoke out in defense of Horner, asserting that the collective objectives of the team came first.  Mind you this is the same Eddie Jordan that slammed Ferrari for issuing a team order at last season’s German Grand Prix to Felipe Massa to let Alonso pass to take the race win.  However, Damon Hill, an actual race car driver and former World Champion, spoke out in defense of Webber in a post race press conference hosted by Jordan, the rest of BBC crew, and with special guest none other than Christian Horner.  Last video I promise, I just can’t help myself.  To spare the boredom of watching the entire clip, jump forward to 6:30 for Hill’s opinion and watch until Jordan tries to break the subsequent awkward silence by changing the subject.

Enough of that.  So despite another solid weekend of racing action, the one subject that unfortunately dominated the paddock rumor mill yet again was the dreaded d-word, the cursed diffuser.  In yet another comical turn of events, the FIA before the start of the race weekend decided to “clarify” their ban on the use off-throttle blowing of exhaust gases and made a concession to several teams, most notably Renault, by allowing them to continue to leave their throttles partially open during the off-throttle stage.  Renault claimed that off-throttle blowing was an integral design feature of their engine and that without it their powerplants would be “compromised.”  This concession was rendered moot by Sunday, however, when supremo Bernie Ecclestone announced that the FIA and the F1 teams agreed to rescind the ban on off-throttling and return to their pre-Silverstone car setups.  In the words of Vince Lombardi, what the hell is going on around here?  First the FIA decides to impose a mid-season ban based off a technical design regulation which they should have issued before the season if they felt they needed to, then they partially retract it, and finally they rescind the ban altogether.  Not to mention all this ensued after the ignominy of the Bahrain GP saga.  Jean Todt, the president of the FIA since 2009, was supposed to restore stability and esteem to the position after the soap opera-like administration of Max Mosley.  But now it seems every time the FIA is pressed with an important decision, they bungle it beyond all recognition.

Sunday’s race weekend should have been about Alonso and Ferrari finally making a stamp on this season and commemorating their 60 years of success in F1, the ongoing in house drama at Red Bull, and the mysterious negative progress by McLaren, but yet again the FIA managed to take center stage for all the wrong reasons.  While it’s very likely that F1 will endure for another 60 years, will it still be the greatest sport in the world, or just a shadow of its former self?  On second thought, maybe we finally won’t have cars by then, and the world will have moved on to rocket racing in space.  But back to reality, and on to Germany!

MP

Leave a comment

Filed under Formula 1

The God of Thunder

The cyclist in the picture above is Thor Hushovd, the first Norwegian to win the UCI road race world championship and to wear the maillot jaune at the Tour de France, which he did for seven stages until Thomas Voeckler took it away earlier today with a breakaway attack.  Known as the God of Thunder, Hushovd is by far one of my favorite riders.  While at his core a sprinter, Hushovd is one of the most respected and well rounded riders in the peloton, evidenced by his 8 TDF stage wins, 2 Green Jerseys, and wins in both the Norwegian and World time trial and road race championships.  I was lucky to snap this picture of him at the Tour of California back in 2009, which wasn’t exactly easy considering he was moving at about 40 mph.  It’s one my personal favorites, and it seems apropos to share it considering the magnitude and scope of his recent achievements.  Cycling is one of the most physically challenging yet rewarding sports, it carves legends out of mountain climbs and manmade missiles out of sprints.  Maybe we can’t all be world championship winning athletes like Hushovd, but we can draw inspiration from their ethos.  So ride on, and ride safe!

MP

Leave a comment

Filed under Cycling

The Coming of the Vettel Era?

For the majority of the first eight races this season, F1 fans have been witness to the now all too familiar Sebastian Vettel finger point.  Not that anyone’s counting, but we’ve been subjected to a grand whopping total of 38 finger points, 22 for each pole position and 16 for his race wins, with the bulk of them in the past two years.  Because of the nature of sport and fandom, naturally some F1 fans(and very likely non-Vettel fans) recently voiced their distaste for the finger point.  It’s one thing to be passionate about sport and to be loyal to your team, but airing grievances over a finger?  It’s not like it he’s flipping the bird at us!  Or is he?

Vettel, at the ripe young age of 24, has already set numerous F1 records, most of them under the “youngest to do so and so” banner.  While it’s too early too predict if his career will be as prolific as his countrymen and predecessor(and now backmarker) Michael Schumacher, it’s a safe bet that he will be a multiple world champion by the time he retires.  Like most race car drivers, Vettel is known for his cocky attitude and methodical approach.  But he’s also more approachable than Schumi ever was during his reign, and all in all he seems like a good guy(He even likes ping pong, so brownie points there).  Vettel is also known for being borderline obsessed with achievements like fastest lap time, number of laps lead, and perhaps most significantly, most wins by a driver in an Adrian Newey designed car, which is currently at 15.

Newey is arguably one of the greatest technical minds in F1’s history.  He is the only designer to have won Constructors Championships with three different teams, and the majority of his success has been in the modern era of F1 during the past two decades.  He is currently the Chief Technical Director of Red Bull, and his RB7 in the hands of Vettel seems all but certain to secure another pair of Championships this season.  Newey was the first designer to implement the blown diffuser, as introduced in the RB6, and the controversial and soon to be banned off-throttle blown diffuser design in this season’s RB7.  If there’s someone to blame for the lack of drama in the Drivers Championship race this season, it’s Newey, and not Vettel that we should be pointing the finger at.

Ironically, Newey spent the majority of his career battling against Schumacher and fellow car designer Rory Byrne when the two were at Benetton and Ferrari.  Now Newey has his own Schumi in Vettel, and the Red Bull duo seem poised to lay siege to F1’s trophies for years to come.  But it’s highly unlikely Vettel will be able to achieve the same level of domination Schumi did with Ferrari from 2000-2004.  Ferrari during their modern renaissance were able to operate in exceptional circumstances, with practically unlimited technical and financial resources.  An example of this was Ferrari’s exclusive technical partnership with tire provider Bridgestone, which allowed both parties to specifically optimize their designs to complement each others.  Fast forward to today, with a sole tire provider, stricter enforcement of design regulations, and the prospect of a team dominating F1 seems practically impossible, and not so coincidentally unattractive for the sport.

The last time a driver had this dominant a start to the season was in 2009 when Jenson Button stormed to 6 wins in 8 races.  But the 2nd half of the season was a different story, and it was only until the penultimate race at Brazil did Button secure the Drivers Championship and the Constructors Championship for Brawn.  But his midseason downturn(or early season advantage depending on how you look at it) can be explained by the midseason implementation of the double diffuser by Brawn’s competitiors.  With no longer a distinct advantage, Brawn in terms of pure speed was usurped by Red Bull in the 2nd half of 2009, and since then it’s been all about Vettel and his snorting Red Bull racer.

Mirroring 2009, Red Bull face their own challenges with the previously mentioned ban of the use of off-throttle engine mapping in their blown diffuser, but the difference this time is the elite teams started at at even playing field at the beginning of this season and will most likely be evenly handicapped by the ban.  Even if you’re an optimist and a non-Red Bull fan(which I coincidentally am), the chances of a driver challenging Vettel for this year’s Championship is growing dimmer with each race, which means Vettel will become the first back to back Drivers Champion since Fernando Alonso did so in 2005 and 2006.  It’s not about conceding defeat or giving in, it’s acknowledging the reality that unless the other teams accomplish some drastic, we’ll be seeing a lot more of this future, so we might as well get used to it.

Actually, the damn thing is starting to irritate me.

MP

Leave a comment

Filed under Formula 1

Has F1 become too safe?

Something very rare and unusual occurred at the European Grand Prix last weekend.  All 24 cars on the starting grid finished the race.  No failures, no retirements, and no crashes.  What gives?  Are we not entertained?!  We want blood!  But in all seriousness, it’s a remarkable milestone considering it’s only the 4th time in F1 history that all cars finished the entire race.  What does all this mean?!

Because of the extreme nature of F1, it’s practically inevitable that at least one, if not multiple cars, will have to prematurely exit a race.  Full credit to the drivers for avoiding any race incidents(gold star to Hamilton!) and to the teams for ensuring the reliability of their cars throughout the whole weekend.  But as absurd as it sounds, is it good for the sport?  As both a business and an entertainment product, is reliability, and by extension safety, in F1’s best interest?  I submit Exhibit A…

The driver in that wreck, Robert Kubica, ended up with just a light concussion and a sprained ankle.  Considering at the moment of impact he was traveling at over 180 mph and experienced a peak G load of 75 (75!  To put in perspective, fighter jet pilots experience a max G load around 8, or when you ride a roller coaster the max G load is around 4-5), it’s more than a miracle that he sustained just minor injuries, it’s a testament to the technological evolution of modern F1 cars and the level of engineering that goes into them.  Kubica is regarded as one of the better drivers in F1, but that moment is undoubtedly one of his greatest career “highlights.”  The truth is that motorsport fans, deep down on some level, relish and almost eagerly anticipate a big crash.  No one wants to see anyone get hurt, but the spectacle of a crash like Kubica’s is F1’s equivalent of fireworks on the 4th of July.

Modern F1 cars, in light of their unmatched performance, are not so coincidentally designed to be extremely safe and secure in a crash.  For a F1 car to be safe, it is necessary for it be reliable.  A car is inherently unsafe if it’s on the brink of mechanical failure or if there’s uncertainty over it’s crashworthiness.  But a reliable car does not necessarily have to be safe.  Passenger cars, if well maintained, are extremely reliable.  But that doesn’t mean they are necessarily safe in the event of an accident.

Following the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, F1 and the FIA focused on improving safety by employing a broad and holistic approach.  Increased run off areas, crash barriers, improvements in helmet design, and more stringent standards with respect to car construction and crashworthiness.  In the wake of F1’s modern renaissance, performance and safety were no longer independent goals, they were now directly proportional and complementary.  Improvements in safety allowed the teams to push the performance envelope of their cars, and somewhat vice versa.  Safety and performance both prevailed, but as a result F1 lost a small part of its soul.

Sir Stirling Moss, one of the last living legends to drive in F1’s infancy, has voiced on numerous occasions his preference as a driver for the older and more dangerous eras of auto racing.  For him, the element of danger, the constant threat of mechanical failure or a fatal crash, was an essential ingredient in creating the ideal recipe for racing, and that the fear of the unknown was the source of his adrenaline, and the reward was simply surviving.  Drivers today still crave that adrenaline, but they can now drive with almost reckless abandon, knowing that if they exceed their limits, the car will be their protective cocoon.  Lotus driver Jarno Trulli seems to agree with Moss, and he voiced his displeasure with the racing last week at Valenica.  He asserted that the lack of retirement and uncertainty made for a boring race, and that F1 cars today are too reliable.  Sounds pretty absurd if you ask me, but I’m just a fan, what do I know?

So is there really a problem?  Performance levels continue to move upwards and the sport is as safe as humanly possible, which has allowed F1 to focus on improving the entertainment value on the track.  The racing this season at times has been exciting and engaging, and naturally it’s also been somewhat uneventful.  The disparity in performance among the teams is the principal cause of boring racing, but that’s also the nature of F1.  It’s not like NASCAR where drivers race stock cars wheel to wheel with identical engines and practically identical bodies.  It’s F1, and teams will always be pushing to gain an edge on their competitors.  But can the safety/reliability relationship be tweaked?  Can F1 sacrifice reliability without jeopardizing the safety of the drivers?  While logically it doesn’t seem feasible, there are a few areas where F1 could tinker with slightly.  Raising RPM limits is one possibility, which would potentially lead to more engine failures.  But considering F1 is trying to reduce costs and the engine is the most expensive component on the car, it seems unlikely that they would do so.

In the end, what makes F1 exciting is drivers like Hamilton, Alonso, and samurai passmaster Kobayashi pushing themselves and their cars to the absolute limit.  Improved safety and reliability is a reflection of the evolution of F1, and to lament their effects is in my opinion silly and shortsighted.  F1, more so than any other sport in the world, is in a constant state of change, charting into new frontiers and exploring new technologies.  Which is why it is and always will be the greatest sport in the world.

MP

Leave a comment

Filed under Formula 1