|It’s been a bit like extended torture, but at Suzuka Sebastian Vettel secured a title which has been inevitable for months. So much so that the celebrations had something of a “yeah, whatever” feel to them, and the occasion seemed like a postscript to Jenson Button’s fine victory. Journalists were left scraping the barrel for mundane observations, such as that Vettel, having become the youngest ever champion last year, by winning again in 2011 became the youngest ever double champion. Like, duh.|
|Whisper it: can this season please finish ASAP? It’s dragging out ...
For the last few years, the championship has either gone down to the wire (as in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010), or had a certain feelgood quality to them (Fernando Alonso becoming the first non-Michael Schumacher champion in yonks in 2005, and Button’s fairytale Brawn title in 2009), even if the races themselves haven’t been much to write home about. This year, the quality of the Grands Prix on the whole has been very good, but the championship battle has been neither close nor captivating.
Which rather begs the question. Ideally you’d have both - exciting racing and an enthralling championship battle - but if you could only pick one, what would it be? The average casual punter might choose interesting races for when they occasionally tune in. But for us devoted fans, I’m wondering if we’d prefer a less eventful race, but filled with tension because of the championship implications? Because, to be frank, this year’s championship is rather starting to feel like it’s dragging out.
That’s because it’s not just the battle for the drivers’ championship which has long since been over. As pointed out in the last review, there hasn’t been a real fight in the constructors’ table for a while either. Red Bull now lead McLaren by 130 points. If they lead by 129 or more after next weekend in Korea, that title is sealed as well. Apart from that battle for 5th, 6th and 7th which we discussed last time, but which is quickly losing momentum, the teams’ positions are all but set in stone and have been for a while.
Even the fight for 2nd in the drivers’ championship, which looked epic for a while, now has a certain sense of inexorability about it, although the points are still close enough for something to change. But in Vettel, Button and Alonso, you have the three lead drivers for the three top teams, in the order their respective teams are ranked. Behind them in 4th, 5th and 6th, in Mark Webber, Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa, you have the lesser-performing drivers for those three outfits, again in team order.
There’s hardly even been a good intra-team rivalry like Hamilton versus Alonso in 2007, or Vettel versus Webber last year. There’s next to no intrigue about the 2012 line-up. There’s been very little controversy or anyone stirring the pot, after the gossipmongers had been spoilt by Spygate, Crashgate, Alleged-Nazi-Themed-Sado-Masochistic-Sex-With-Five-Prostitutes-Gate, and FOTA and Formula Elaborate Bluff. The best we can come up with in 2011 is Hamilton and Massa’s handbag warfare. That’s child’s play.
At Suzuka, there was only one DNF and that was due to a mechanic’s finger trouble. Of the 23 finishers, the top 19 were on the lead lap, thanks to the mid-race safety car. In some ways, it doesn’t matter what Pirelli, KERS and DRS have done to spice up the racing on a micro level this year. We have bemoaned this before, but it is ever so true: on a macro level, this unprecedented level of professionalism dictating results in clinical, computer-like fashion can strangle the life out of the sport, and it has done so in 2011.
|Where was this level of performance earlier in the season, McLaren and Ferrari?
Which is not to take away from Vettel’s title, or from Button’s victory. You can only make the best out of a situation. Jenson dominated free practice but was pipped for pole by Sebastian’s desperate final lap in Q3, before the Red Bull driver squeezed him onto the grass at the start. Some might say that Vettel’s lurch to the right was borderline but not quite worth a penalty. Had Button been fully alongside, as Rubens Barrichello and Schumacher were in Hungary last year, then that would have been different.
I’m not sure I agree with that. Despite his protestations of innocence, I think Vettel knew exactly where Button was - otherwise why did he keep moving right? He was clearly squeezing Jenson out of room. When Webber moved into Barrichello (who was not fully alongside) at the start at the Nurburgring in 2009, he was penalised. When Sebastien Buemi put Nick Heidfeld onto the grass at the ‘Ring this year, admittedly not at the start but again Heidfeld wasn’t fully alongside, Buemi was penalised.
On the run to Stowe at Silverstone in 2003, isn’t that also what Schumacher did to Alonso - edge him onto the grass when the then-Renault driver wasn’t totally alongside - which Fernando still fumes about to this day? Why is the start sacrosanct such that drivers can get away with whatever they like? If anything, the start is exactly where driving ethics, and giving rivals room, should be given even greater importance because of the close proximity of all the cars and the dire consequences of a pile-up.
Anyway, Sebastian got lucky that Alan Jones, a picture of whom appears in the dictionary under the phrase “Aggressive Racer”, was in the stewards’ box. At that point, Jenson took stock and stuck to his game plan. He closed in on Hamilton even before his team-mate’s puncture, and yet again preserved his tyres superbly, such that he avoided Vettel’s undercuts and instead hit the front by staying out longer, bucking one of the accepted norms of this year’s racing. Once in the lead, the race was his.
Indeed, Vettel got done twice by a driver who had stayed out longer on older tyres, because that’s how Alonso jumped into 2nd place. Fernando sacrificed qualifying pace for race set-up and it paid dividends. With the Ferrari as good as ever at keeping the Pirellis alive, the Spaniard’s speed towards the end of stints was staggering. He even mounted a late charge for the victory, but Button was always in control. As soon as Alonso closed to within the one-second DRS mark, Jenson responded and even set the fastest lap.
Where did this Red Bull-beating pace come from? Yes, the RB7 was chewing up its tyres whereas both Button and the Ferraris have been good in that department all season. But, at a circuit thought to be Red Bull heaven, McLaren introduced their Suzuka-spec rear wing, and voila! Which makes you wonder, what if McLaren had developed it sooner? What if Button and Alonso had cleaner weekends like this earlier in the year? In some ways this performance only added to the frustration of the season so far.
|Enough of the Q3 shenanigans! And wise up, Lewis!
Behind the top three, Webber, Hamilton and Massa had Schumacher interloping amongst them in 6th, and indeed out of these four drivers probably only Michael came away from Suzuka feeling more satisfied than not. On the same strategy as the rest of the leaders, he had taken advantage of the safety car closing the field up, and then a longer third stint on options (in which he temporarily took the lead - the first time he has been in P1 since his comeback) to leapfrog over Massa.
But then again Schumi had also been a part of the Q3 shenanigans involving Webber and Hamilton, which had seen Michael and Lewis fail to get their final laps in, and Mark’s last effort badly compromised. What is this obsession with playing dare with the chequered flag, and wanting to be the last on track? Does the advantage of that little bit of extra rubber on the track really outweigh the risk of having to compromise your out-lap to make a gap, or the risk of hitting traffic? I would have thought not.
That incident also left the bizarre situation of four drivers in Q3 not recording a lap, Kamui Kobayashi starting 7th on sector times, and Schumacher and the Renault drivers having their grid places determined by car number! Throughout the year, when one or even two cars have exploited the Q3 loophole, that has been tolerated. But when four cars sit out, robbing everyone of action, and meaning that four of the grid positions in the top ten are decided on fairly arbitrary grounds, then enough is enough.
I’m not sure about the notion of qualifying-only tyre sets, as that would go against the trend towards cost-cutting. On autosport.com, Gary Anderson has proposed making all drivers, not just the Q3 runners, start on the tyres on which they set their best time, but that would almost certainly mean the whole field starts on options, without strategic variety. I don’t mind his other idea though, of imposing a 105% rule in Q2 and a 103% rule in Q3 with grid penalties if you don’t make it without a legitimate excuse.
Having started 6th (the third time in five races that he has been off the first two rows), Webber recovered to 4th by undercutting Hamilton and Massa at the second stop, and he did well to hold onto that place despite losing a chunk of his front wing in a rather unnecessary clash with Schumacher in the esses. Massa, on the other hand, went backwards; having run 4th in the first stint, he lost positions at his first and third stops, bucking the trend of the day by losing ground by staying out longer.
Felipe was also missing some front downforce after yet another collision with Hamilton. Lewis just cannot stay away from controversy. The Q3 incident was messy enough, then his early puncture permanently spoilt his race, and another contretemps with the Brazilian was the last thing he needed. That he keeps on being on the same piece of tarmac as the underwhelming Ferrari driver speaks volumes about Hamilton’s season in and of itself.
Here again was an incident analogous to the Buemi-Heidfeld clash at the Nurburgring - the driver in front not travelling straight and the driver behind being squeezed off the track. The only difference was that the consequences for Massa were much less spectacular. Lewis was fortunate not to be penalised, and really he should have known better. If Massa had been right on his tail through 130R, but suddenly was not there and was not on the McLaren’s inside, where else could he have been? It’s not rocket science.
Hamilton’s statistics this year don’t lie. Apart from his wins in China and Germany and his 2nds in Australia and Spain, he has not seen the podium. In cumulative points over 2010 and 2011, Button is now ahead. Many have pointed to management deficiencies, but that lets Lewis off the hook too easily. His default response to challenges this year is to respond with aggression and petulance. Jenson has tended to respond by applying intelligence. Lewis needs to take responsibility and not just driver faster, but wiser.
|Kobayashi’s anti-climax on home turf
Sergio Perez drove a fine race to recover from his Q2 problem and 17th on the grid to finish 8th. The secret to his success was not only his usual gentleness on tyres, but the fact that he started on the primes, switched onto options just before the safety car period which meant he gained track position while others pitted, and had the pace to hold on given that he and all of his direct rivals still had a stop to make. Such was his speed that his best lap that was only pipped for fastest lap by 0.001s.
It was not such a brilliant race for team-mate Kobayashi though. It’s interesting how the pressure of one’s home race affects various drivers. Vettel has never succeeded in Germany, nor Webber in Australia, but British and Brazilian drivers tend to thrive on the Silverstone and Interlagos atmosphere. In Japan it’s been a mixed bag; Aguri Suzuki famously scored a podium in 1990 and Takuma Sato had several of his best races on home soil, whereas Ukyo Katayama tended to wilt under the pressure.
Kobayashi has now had an experience of both. Last year he was superb, but this year, having got into Q3 and started in 7th, he fluffed the start badly (despite having a camera trained especially on him), never made sufficient ground through the midfield pack, and strangely attempted a 29-lap stint on primes to finish the race. That was never going to work, and Kamui dropped like a stone in the last ten laps, to finish out of the points in 13th and earn himself the "Reject of the Race" award.
Sauber’s points drew them back closer to Force India, which couldn’t replicate its recent form of being the fifth best team on the grid, thus losing crucial momentum in their chase of Renault for 5th in the constructors title. Neither Adrian Sutil or Paul Di Resta made Q3, although they ran in the points throughout the race, swapping positions at the stops. But on primes in the final stint, they simply ran out of pace and tyres, especially against rivals finishing with a flourish on options.
Nico Rosberg was one of those, making up for his no-show in Q1, gaining ground steadily throughout the race by getting rid of his primes early and then using all three sets of shiny new options to make his way to 10th. Ahead of him was Vitaly Petrov, with Renault recovering well from their Singapore disaster to get both cars into Q3. Both Petrov and Bruno Senna ran on an interesting prime-prime-option two-stop strategy, but only the Russian made it work.
Like Perez, the key to that strategy was pitting before the safety car came out, and making up positions whilst others stopped. Although he was easy prey on primes after the resumption, he did not panic. At his last stop, he undercut Rosberg before scything past Kobayashi and the Force Indias. Senna, on the other hand, struggled for race pace after he got hung out to dry at the first corner by his team-mate, and at one stage was even passed by both Lotuses. His difficulties illuminated what a fine race Petrov drove.
|Ricciardo and the Virgins hold a race-long duel
There was some feisty action from both the Williams, but they were never seriously in the hunt, especially when both Barrichello and Pastor Maldonado ran three-stop strategies when the Saubers and Renaults were two-stopping. Less pace plus more stops equals ... take a guess. You’d think the Williams brains trust would’ve worked that one out by now. Although Barrichello had the upper hand for most of the race, he fell back on his final set of primes, allowing Maldonado on a reverse strategy to breeze past.
Eventually, Rubens was the last of the midfield in 17th whilst Pastor pipped Jaime Alguersuari for 14th on the last lap. Jaime was the sole running Toro Rosso after Buemi’s loose wheel DNF, which was a shame because Sebastien was amongst Petrov and the Force Indias early and could have been in with a shout for points, whereas Alguersuari’s race was rather like Senna’s. At any rate, the lack of points in the last two races has now meant that Toro Rosso is probably consigned to 8th in the championship.
The Lotuses of Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli started in that order, ran line astern for most of the race, and finished in that order as well. But thanks to the safety car bunching up the field, the green machines avoided being lapped, the first time that has happened. They had their moments too, running ahead of Perez in the early stages and then both overtaking Senna later in the race, but DRS meant that normal service would inevitably resume and the Lotuses would drop back into a race of their own.
The fact that they stayed on the lead lap left the Virgins and HRTs in their wake, but Timo Glock, Jerome D’Ambrosio and Daniel Ricciardo proceeded to have an epic race-long battle largely unseen by the cameras. With all of them running the same three-stop strategy, Ricciardo undercut D’Ambrosio at the first stops only for the Belgian to return the favour at the second round, before Jerome leapt over his team-mate as well in one of his best races so far.
All three cars finished less than four seconds apart at the end, which was a superb effort from Ricciardo in his first visit to Suzuka in the ill-handling HRT. He took full advantage of the litany of mechanical woes suffered by Vitantonio Liuzzi all weekend. Whilst in that context it would be unfair to say that the Aussie trounced the Italian, he’s getting the upper hand (and the rub of the green) enough times now for his Red Bull taskmasters to be suitably impressed, you’d like to believe.
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