Monthly Archives: October 2011

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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