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

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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

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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

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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

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Lewis Hamilton: Hoon or Hero?

Surprise, surprise, our favorite boy racer Lewis Hamilton was yet again involved in a race incident at the Canadian GP, and this time it involved his teammate and fellow Brit Jenson Button.  Getting into a crash with your teammate is a cardinal sin in motorsport, so it follows that Hamilton should’ve offered penance for his wrongdoings.  Problem is, according to Lewis Hamilton, Lewis Hamilton did nothing absolutely wrong.  Well then…

Button went on to win the race in spectacular fashion while Hamilton had to retire from the contact.  Canada wasn’t the greatest weekend for the dynamic duo, but judging from this bit, despite its commercial intentions, their cameraderie and friendship seems genuine, and they’ll get over their little mishap.

I admit I’ll never be the president of the Hamilton Fan Club, but as a racing fan I have to say he is one of the most magnetic personalities on and off the track.  It’s pretty much guaranteed regardless of the circumstances, Hamilton will drive the wheels off his car to the ragged edge, which is what you want in a driver.  But the flip side is he places himself in precarious situations where conflict is inevitable, and as a result he makes himself a target for criticism from other drivers, race officials, and the media.  Hamilton recently spoke out on the brewing controversy over his racing mentality, and was adamant that he “liked” his racing style and had no intention of changing.

More so than any of the current drivers on the grid, Hamilton channels the spirit of the late Ayrton Senna, the greatest driver of all time.  They are pure racers, they drive with at times reckless abandon, and they are capable of putting on spectacular demonstrations of racing at the absolute limit.  Which embodies what F1 at its heart is all about.  On second thought, deep down I am a fan of Hamilton, I think any fan of motorsport has to be.  Just stay away from my boy Alonso and his Prancing Horse.

MP

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Banning off-throttle blown diffusers and the FIA’s (un)intentional attempt to create a silly circus

So the FIA is at it yet again, and this time their decision is going to directly affect the racing on the track, as opposed to determining when and where F1 will race.  Now the hot button issue is the teams’ use of off-throttle blown diffusers and the FIA’s decision to ban them midseason, just in time for the British Grand Prix.  To clarify, here’s a quick background on diffusers and their storied technical history in the past several years.

A diffuser is a shaped section of the rear underbody of a car that manipulates its aerodynamic properties.  A diffuser increases the velocity of the air exiting underneath the car, which in turn reduces pressure, and the subsequent effect is the slower velocity/higher pressure air flowing above the car generates a downward pressure effect on the car, creating the mystical yet very tangible and beneficial aerodynamic principle of downforce.  In its simplest terms, think of a diffuser as an inverted wing installed on the bottomside of a car, and the faster the car goes, the more atmospheric pressure presses downward on the car, ultimately improving its grip and handling.

Now that’s a rear end only an F1 fan could love.

Starting last year, Red Bull Chief Technical Officer Adrian Newey designed the RB6 so that the exhaust gases are discharged from the bottom undercarriage of the car, essentially dumping the hot gases into the airstream flowing underneath the car and out through the diffuser.  The net result from the artificially energized air flow was an increase in downforce without any increase in drag, which is the holy grail for aerodynamic engineers.

Fast forward to 2011, and Red Bull took their design a step further by “mapping” the engine to leave the throttle slightly open to blow exhaust gas into the diffuser even when the driver is off the throttle pedal, hence the term off-throttle blown diffuser.  Not to be left behind, the other teams responded with their own off-throttle diffuser systems, with only a small minority sticking with a “cold blowing” diffuser design.

One of the general design doctrines in F1 is the strict ban on moveable aerodynamic devices other than the ones permitted by the regulations.  The FIA chose to interpret the use of off throttle diffusers as in violation of this rule by declaring that the engine was now a moveable aerodynamic device because of use of exhaust gases to influence aerodynamics, specifically during the off-throttle stage.  Clever buggers.

After several months of debate and a meeting by the FIA’s Technical Working Group, the decision was made to ban the use of engine mapping to artificially blow exhaust gases during the off-throttle stage, with the British Grand Prix set as the deadline for the teams to modify their designs.  Several of the teams using the innovative diffuser design in conjunction with the off-throttle engine mapping, Renault and Red Bull in particular, voiced their dissenting opinions with the FIA’s decision, with other teams either supporting the decision or staying silent on the matter.  Point is, the FIA decided to change the rules of the game mid-season, which could potentially lead to a dramatic change in the teams’ performance for the remainder of the season.  Imagine the NBA deciding to shorten the shot clock by tw0 seconds or MLB deciding to shrink the size of a baseball midseason.  Does that sound fair to you?  It’s not an apples to apples comparison, but hopefully you get the gist.

Skeptics will claim that the FIA is trying to manipulate the outcome of both Championships this season, in particular because Red Bull is the team that pioneered the off-throttle diffuser design and has fielded the strongest car on the grid for the past two seasons.  Pragmatists will claim that the FIA is simply executing their duty to ensure the teams adhere to the technical design regulations.  Personally speaking, it seems a little absurd to force teams to come up with new designs midseason, especially considering the current trend in F1 to reduce costs in the area of car design and testing.  But if Ferrari manages to benefit from the FIA’s decision, then who cares?  Forza, and off to Valencia!

MP

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Senna: The sound of speed

Senna.  Just saying the name evokes a reaction.  Whether it’s a sense of relief from chronic constipation, or confidence from a flawless complexion, or perhaps the memory of the greatest motorsport driver of all time, it can mean many things to different people.  For me, the memories of Monaco ’84, Monaco ’88, Japan ’88, Japan ’89, and of course the tragic events at Imola in ’94.  For the past six months, film festivals abroad and here in the States have been giving new life to the legend by screening the feature film bearing his name.

Even if you’re not a fan of F1, Senna is worth the 2 1/2 hours it’ll take up in your increasingly hectic lives.  It’s not just merely a documentary of a deceased race car driver; it’s a time capsule of the storied history of F1, a window into the past, to simpler times when tv pictures were fuzzy, hair was cheesy, and the romance and bravado of F1 was at the peak of its modern era.  Sure F1 today is still awesome, but in the wake of its technological revolution in the 90’s and 00’s, a small part of its soul was lost forever.  The death of Senna marked the beginning of a new era in F1, one that emphasized safety, aerodynamics, and ironically enough, the car over the driver.  Schumacher may be the winningest, Vettel may be the youngest, but Senna will always be the most celebrated and beloved.  For all disciples of F1, in Senna we trust.

MP

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