Monday, 27 April 2009

A brilliant drive from Jenson Button gets him yet another victory, while Ferrari score their first points in this season

With all of the first 3 races of the season being affected by rain, it seemed as if even the 0.01% chance of a rain in the midst of the desert in the Sakhir circuit in Bahrain would materialise. Thankfully it didn't and we got to see the true pace of this year's cars under dry conditions. The conditions were very dry indeed, and swelteringly hot with air temperature upto 38 degrees celsius, track temperature 50 degrees and the driver's cockpit temperature upto 60 degrees. So one of the big challenges for all the teams were to keep their cars working in that heat and prevent the engines from overheating without compromising too much performance. Among the front runners, the two Brawn-Mercedes cars seemed to have a particular problem of overheating and throughout the weekend, the Brawn mechanics were working seriously hard to keep their cars running smoothly. Due to the overheating problem, Brawn actually had to turn down the engine revs a little bit from the maximum rev limit of 18000 rpm, while also making some subtle aerodynamic changes to help engine cooling. That meant that coming into this race, the Brawn-Mercedes cars did not have a significantly large performance advantage over their rivals mainly Red Bull, Toyota and a hugely improved McLaren.

So it didn't come as a real surprise to anyone when Toyota locked out the front row at the end of Saturday Qualifying, to give the Japanese team their first ever one-two start in a Grand Prix. Although pole-sitter Jarno Trulli and team mate Timo Glock were running very light on fuel, both Toyota's still seemed to be flying all throughout the qualifying session. But Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel, who qualified 3rd with quite a bit more fuel than the Toyotas, seemed to have better race pace than the Toyotas and so was a favourite to win the race.

McLaren-Mercedes kept making little improvements to their cars and that saw reigning World Champion Lewis Hamilton qualify in 5th, his best qualifying position this year. He was just behind current Championship leader Jenson Button, and ahead of Button's team mate Rubens Barrichello. Behind Barrichello were the two KERS cars of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, while Nico Rosberg in the Williams-Toyota and the other Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen rounded up the top ten in qualifying. This was only the second time in this season that both the Ferraris have qualified within the top ten. This was very important for them, because at the end of Round 3 in Shanghai Ferrari were yet to score any points so far in this season, making this their worst start to a season in 27 years. The situation was such that if Ferrari fails to score any points in Bahrain as well, this would be the worst start to a season ever in the history of Scuderia Ferrari. So the pressure was on for the Maranello based team.

The BMWs continued to dissapoint throughout the weekend with Kubica and Heidfeld, both using KERS this time, only managing to qualify 13th and 14th. But the real shock of qualifying was Red Bull's Mark Webber who failed to go through beyond Q1 and came 19th on the grid. This happened because when Webber was in his final flying lap near the end of Q1, coming into the second to last corner he found Force India's Adrian Sutil ahead of him on his outlap. When Webber tried to overtake Sutil, the young Force India driver thought that Webber was on his outlap as well and tried to block him by swerving across the racing line. This meant that Webber had to go really wide to overtake Sutil which made him loose a lot of time. When he finally crossed the finish line one corner later, Sutil then slip-streamed past him to start his own flying lap which meant that Webber did not have a chance to go for another one. This unfortunate incident meant that the Australian's race was pretty much over before it had even started. Although Sutil, who was apologetic for the incident later on, was given a three place grid penalty, it did not help Webber's case too much apart from improving his grid position by one place to 18th.

The start of the race was full of incidents with the first two laps being very crucial in deciding the eventual race winner. Lewis Hamilton, using his KERS package, had a tremendous start which saw him move up to 3rd position by turn 1. An aggressive overtaking move by Button got him ahead of Vettel, with the young German falling back to 5th as a result. At the front, Toyota's Glock had a flying start as well which saw him immediately overtake his team mate Jarno Trulli to take the race lead. At the mid field, the KERS powered Ferraris had a great start as well, but a lack of true race pace meant that they failed to capitalise on that. On top of that, coming into the challenging turn 1, Felipe Massa found himself sandwiched between fellow Brazilian Barrichello and team mate Raikkonen that scraped off parts of Massa's front wing. As a result of this, Massa had to make an unscheduled pit stop on lap 2, to change the front wing, and this pushed him all the way to the back of the field in another unlucky race weekend for last year's Championship runner-up. At the last corner of lap 1, Button made another aggressive overtaking maneouvre on Lewis Hamilton and succeeded, despite the World Champion having KERS, and this proved to be the turning point in the race. The Toyotas in front of him made very early pit stops as they had started with a very light fuel load, and this saw Jenson Button take the race lead and sent the Toyotas back to the mid-field upon rejoining the race.

Lewis Hamilton, who started pretty light as well, stopped soon after that for his first pit stop and this enabled Sebastian Vettel to move up to 2nd. Following the first pit stop, Hamilton failed to keep up with the phenomenal pace of Button's Brawn-Mercedes, Vettel's Red Bull-Renault and Trulli's Toyota. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, who started with the heaviest fuel load among the front runners, led the race at one stage as everyone in front of him pitted before him. Although he didn't have the pace to win the race, he still drove very well to eventually finish in 6th position and getting the 3 crucial points for Ferrari. Although Raikkonen was constantly chased by Toyota's Timo Glock, who led the race in the first stint, Raikkonen did well to defend his place which saw Glock finish in 7th after starting the race from the front row. Renault's double World Champion Fernando Alonso came home in the last of the points scoring position. Red Bull's Mark Webber, starting from a dissapointing 18th, had an absolutely flying start and he finished the race in 11th. Ferrari's Felipe Massa, who in spite of driving for the defending Constructor's Champions, was even lapped at one stage and finished the race in a dissapointing 14th.

So one of the hottest races of the season was pretty challenging for the teams, but provided a great spectacle for the viewers. From the sandy desert and the scorching sun of Bahrain, Formula 1 now returns home to Europe for the Spanish Grand Prix in two weeks time, taking place at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona. After Barcelona, we go off to Monte Carlo for the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix, closely followed by the Turkish Grand Prix at Istanbul and the British Grand Prix at Silverstone before we head off to the Nurburgring for the German Grand Prix. But before all that, this Wednesday the 29th of April will see the Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes team attend a hearing before the FIA World Motor Sport Council in Paris to answer charges relating to breaches of Article 151c of the Internatial Sporting Code. Anything can come out of this hearing which can possibly decide the future of the McLaren team in Formula 1. Until then, drive safely everyone!

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Red Bull Racing celebrate their first ever Grand Prix Victory with a one-two finish in Shanghai, while the Scuderia's run of bad luck continues.

This weekend Sebastian Vettel recorded the second ever win in his career and the first ever for his team Red Bull Racing. Vettel's first career victory was with Toro Rosso last year in Monza. His Red Bull team mate Mark Webber finished alongside him in second to give a one-two finish for the Milton Keynes based team in celebrations for their first ever Grand Prix victory. And it was a deserved win as well. The two RB5s looked fast throughout the qualifying session and they also led the pack throughout the race. What probably caught current championship leaders BrawnGP off guard is the RB5s pace under wet weather conditions. In fact it was raining throughout the entire race, which saw drivers running on full wet tyres for the entire race duration. In that torrential rain, the Red Bulls clearly had an advantage as they were maintaining a much tighter line, looked to be having greater downforce in the rain and while every one else was making mistakes by spinning off the track from time to time, the two Red Bulls kept pulling away from the field. Particularly special was Sebastian Vettel who finished the race 10 seconds ahead of his second place team mate Webber and a full 44 seconds ahead of current Driver's Championship leader Jenson Button, who finished in third.

The race started under the safety car, because heavy rain meant that there was quite a bit of standing water on the track and the cars were struggling for grip. This was bad for the drivers who were running light on fuel, particularly Alonso who started in second, and to some extent the two Red Bulls as well, as they wanted to pull away from the field early on in the race before coming to an early pit stop. So the first 4 laps being under the safety car meant that this strategy was pretty much out the window. At the end of lap 4, the safety car went back in and this is when the race really started. So when Alonso did make his first pit stop just a few laps after, it pushed him near the back of the field which is why he eventually finished in ninth.

As soon as the safety car was in though, race leader Vettel immediately started pulling away. Webber in the other Red Bull was also looking phenomenally quick. Although the two Brawns were looking pretty quick as well, they were not really being able to challenge the two Red Bulls up front.

In the mid-field, both the Ferraris had a pretty decent start. Particularly Felipe Massa, who started with a heavy fuel load, and along with that the fact that the first 4 laps were under the safety car meant that all the cars used less fuel than normal, opted for a one-stop strategy. This was proving to be very successful for him because it would mean that he would going in for his one and only pit stop some time around lap 28 or 30. By the time it was lap 20, most of the front runners have already pitted and on top of that put in some great overtaking, and Massa was running in 3rd position when his car had a catastrophic electrical failure forcing him to retire. His team mate Raikkonen had a good start as well from 8th position and he was looking to make up some places, but following his first pit stop and as the race continued he started falling back because of a lack of grip from the tyres. Coupled with that the fact that he had no KERS in his car, meant that he could only manage a tenth place finish.

The two McLarens were running pretty good though, and all the aerodynamic improvements they have made to their cars coming into Shanghai have obviously had a positive impact on performance. So reigning World Champion Lewis Hamilton finished in sixth while his team mate Heikki Kovalainen a place ahead. In fact for Kovalainen this was not only his first full race this season but was also the first time he managed to get past the first lap and not retire. At the back of the field, Robert Kubica's car was struggling for performance as well. The aspiring driver pushed as hard as he could, but his car would just not give him that extra bit of edge. When he had a crash with Toyota's Jarno Trulli, that saw Trulli being forced to retire, Kubica not just rammed into the back of Trulli but pretty much climbed over his car. That greatly affected Kubica's car as well, specially the underbody, although he was able to finish the race. The crash though was not really Kubica's fault, because with that much rain Formula 1 cars running at 200 miles per hour create a lot of spray making it really hard for the drivers to see. But it was unfortunate for both the drivers though.

In spite of all this action though, this race was all about one driver and one driver only, Sebastian Vettel. The 21-year-old drove his car beautifully, an almost flawless performance, and he shows real promises to be the next legend in the world of Formula 1. As BBC's presenter Jake Humphrey said in his closing statement, that 'he is cool, he is calm, he is imperious and he is German. Now does that remind of somebody?' It does to me indeed, and if any German is out there capable of carrying on Michael Schumacher's legacy, it's no else apart from Vettel.

So that's it for now. Formula 1 returns to the track again this coming weekend for the Bahrain Grand Prix, the last of the fly-away races before we move back to Europe for the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona on the 10th of May.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Vettel grabs first ever pole position for Red Bull, while Ferrari decides to run without KERS in Shanghai

Yet another very very exciting qualifying session took place in Shanghai for tomorrow's Chinese Grand Prix. The Shanghai circuit have always presented the teams and drivers with its own set of challenges. With its two ultra-long high speed straights coupled with several challenging high and low speed corners, this circuit never has a lot of overtaking opportunities. That is why for the front running teams, qualifying on the first row of the grid is absolutely crucial to be able to challenge for victory in Sunday's race.

Coming into Shanghai as Championship leaders, all eyes were on Brawn-Mercedes and particularly Jenson Button to qualify for this third straight pole position this season. But with all the controversies that have been going on in Formula 1 over the past week or so, specifically with the double-decker rear diffusers being declared legal by the FIA, quite a few teams have made some aerodynamic changes to their cars. McLaren-Mercedes have refreshed their rear diffusers, while Renault have gone a step further to introduce its own prototype of double decker rear diffusers. Ferrari have also made some aerodynamic changes to their F60s, but at the same time have decided not to run either of their cars with the KERS system installed in China this weekend. This decision by Ferrari was taken due to reliability problems with the KERS system, which might also be the reason why both the Renault R29s are running without KERS as well. So as far as KERS is concerned, that only leaves us with the two MP-4/24s from McLaren-Mercedes and the BMW Sauber of Nick Heidfeld. Although Heidfeld's team mate Kubica tried out KERS in Friday practice, for the first time this season, but it looks like he will not be using it for the race itself. So in my opinion, only three out of the twenty cars on the grid using this new innovative system which is meant to be compulsory from next year does not bode very well for the future of KERS in Formula 1, does it?

So that was about all the changes we have had coming to the race weekend at Shanghai. The practice sessions saw several cars taking turns to post best lap times including Rosberg, Hamilton, Button, Webber and Vettel. The Ferraris, although not their usual self, was not too far off the pace though but the lack of KERS certainly did not help. But this time, Ferrari have at least learnt from their mistake of being too complacent in Sepang and kept both their cars out on their flying laps until the very last moment in Q1. Among Bourdais, Piquet, Sutil and Fisichella, BMW's Robert Kubica shocked everyone by failing to qualify for Q2. All the other cars passed through without much of an incident apart from Sebastian Vettel. While his team Mark Webber was out on the track doing flying laps one after the other, and posting great lap times, Vettel was seen sitting in his car inside the Red Bull pit garage. In fact, Vettel did not come out of the pits until it was only a couple of minutes before the end of Q1, did just one flying lap and that was good enough to see him through to Q2.

In Q2, the other BMW of Heidfeld only managed 11th position bringing to an end a bad qualifying session for the BMW Sauber team. The Toyota of Glock and the Williams of Nakajima came 14th and 15th respectively, and thus failing to go through to Q1 as well. Ferrari's Felipe Massa made a critical mistake in his final flying lap of Q2 which meant that he failed to improve his position from 12th. Later on though, he was moved down to 13th when Red Bull's Vettel, like in Q1, only came out for one flying lap at the very end and posted a superb time again. McLaren-Mercedes's Heikki Kovalainen found some traffic on his flying lap, or specifically one of the Red Bulls and one of the BMWs both of whom were on their in-laps, and as a result Kovalainen could only get to 12th position. His team mate though was obviously making good use of all the changes the team has done to the car over the last couple of weeks, and Hamilton was much faster than he was in the first two races of the season. The real surprise though was Swiss Rookie Sebastian Buemi in the Toro Rosso-Ferrari getting through to Q1.

Then it was time for the top ten shoot-out. Again, no real surprises here with the Brawns and the Red Bulls particularly quick in the early part of Q3. Red Bull's Vettel once again came out for just one flying lap, right at the very end, and stunned everyone by posting by far the best lap time and in the process ensuring the first ever pole position for the Red Bull Racing-Renault team. His team mate Webber came in a very close second getting a provisional one-two for Red Bull, when out of nowhere Renault's Fernando Alonso got in an extremely quick lap to split the Red Bull duo. The double world champion will start the race in 2nd as a result. The two Brawns were right behind, with Barrichello at 4th and current World Driver's Championship leader Jenson Button on 5th who was out-qualified by his Brazilian team mate for the first time this season. Although the two Brawn-Mercedes cars are carrying a slightly heavier fuel load than the Red Bulls, but the Red Bulls are still extremely quick even accounting for the anomaly in fuel loads. Toyota's Jarno Trulli came in 6th ahead of 7th place Nico Rosberg in the Williams-Toyota. Former World Champion Kimi Raikkonen qualified 8th for Ferrari, which is not too bad given that he is carrying a heavier fuel load than both the Brawns and the Red Bulls. But without KERS at his disposal, Raikkonen will be under pressure right from the beginning from reigning World Champion Lewis Hamilton, who will start the race from 9th place. Being the one of three cars using KERS this weekend, Hamilton will probably get a jump start and overtake Raikkonen as soon as the lights go out for the start of the race. Once again though, surprise package Buemi in the Toro Rosso completes the top ten.

So that was the qualifying session of what promises to be a very exciting race tomorrow. We have to remember though that Toyota's Timo Glock will take a five place grid penalty due to a change in gearbox following a gearbox failure. So BMW's Robert Kubica, who was chasing for victory just three weekends ago in Australia will start the race from 17th, one position ahead of what he qualified in. UK viewers tune in to BBC One from 7:00 am tomorrow for live coverage of Round 3 for the Chinese Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

FIA International Court of Appeal declares the 'double-decker diffusers' legal

A Brawn-Mercedes car showing the double-decker diffusers below the rear wing, part of the car's underbody.
Well, the diffuser saga has finally come to an end when, earlier today, the FIA International Court of Appeal in Paris ruled that the double-decker rear diffusers used by the BrawnGP, Toyota F1 and Williams teams are indeed legal. Their opponents, mainly Ferrari, Renault, Red Bull Racing and BMW Sauber argued that this type of rear diffuser is not only illegal but also contradicts with the new 2009 aerodynamic regulations by increasing downforce, at a time when the cars are meant to have lower downforce in order to aid overtaking. They went on to argue that the three defendant teams (Brawn, Toyota and Williams) used a loophole in the technical regulations to use an illegal component in their cars. But the Court of Appeal decided today that these controversial rear diffusers are perfectly legal and that the race stewards at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix were also right in declaring them legal.

Now in my opinion, this is fantastic news for Ross Brawn and his team. The current driver's championship leader Jenson Button will probably go on to win his first ever driver's title. Although Button is very likely to be closely followed by the other two 'diffuser' teams, Williams and Toyota, the Brawn-Mercedes car probably has that bit of an extra pace to get it home ahead of everyone else. Although Renault has said during yesterday's hearing in Paris that they have got a prototype double-decker diffuser ready to be used in this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix, I personally don't think it is still going to get the Renaults too much closer to the Brawns in front of the grid. But like Renault, all the other 'non-diffuser' teams will now have to play catch up and come up with their own versions of the rear diffusers.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Some of the cars are designed in such a way, that it is just not possible to fit a double-decker diffuser in the current arrangement. Cars like the Ferraris and the Red Bulls for instance will have to undergo major aerodynamic changes to be able to accomodate the rear-diffusers, and that will take time. Now is it worth it? Well it does give a big time advantage, as much as 0.5 seconds per lap, but by the time Ferrari and Red Bull come up with their own rear diffusers, it will probably be close to half-way through the season. By then, the Brawn-Mercedes team may already be too far ahead in the Championship for the reigning Constructor's champion Scuderia Ferrari to try and defend the title. So it is a big dilemma indeed, whether to spend all this time and money for this season without foreseeing any real results at the end or does it make more sense for Ferrari to start early development on their 2010 car to get a head start on everyone else and not make the same mistakes as they have done already this year? Only time will tell.

Red Bull on the other hand is in a slightly better position than Ferrari because thanks to good aerodynamic developments, the two Red Bull-Renaults are probably the fastest 'non-diffuser' cars on the grid. So they still have a good chance of staying reasonably close to the front of the grid. If they can come up with their rear-diffusers in time, who knows they even may be contending for the title.

McLaren on the other hand, has got a lot more to worry about. Following the incident between McLaren's Hamilton and Toyota's Trulli in the Melbourne race during the safety car, where the McLaren team and Lewis Hamilton have been accused of lying to the race stewards to gain a position on the grid, the FIA World Motor Sport Council have called McLaren and Hamilton to a hearing on the 29th of April. The FIA have particularly accused them of breaching the International Sporting Code the second time within two years, the previous one being the Ferrari spying scandal in 2007, when McLaren was stripped off all their constructor's points. Because of that, the FIA World Motor Sport Council is expected to come down hard on McLaren and the maximum penalty they can choose to impose is totally up to them, being anything from a two-race suspension to an outright expulsion. So it will be very interesting to see what comes out of this. Besides, Hamilton's relationship with the team is said to be on a knife-edge, with Lewis Hamilton's father and manager Anthony Hamilton said to be particularly dissapointed regarding McLaren's conduct in this whole incident. There are also rumours that if McLaren is suspended, Hamilton may use that chance to get out of his contract with McLaren to try and get to a team that has a better car and better ethics. Brawn-Mercedes is being highly regarded as a likely candidate for that, with Rubens Barrichello likely to make way. But for now, these are all just rumours and we have to wait until the 29th of this month to see what actually happens.

So one of the two main controversies that have been surrounding the sport since the start of this season has come to an end, and now the teams move on to Shanghai for this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix which promises to be a very exciting race, and even more so given the fact that the teams now know that the double-decker rear diffusers are legal.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

McLaren to appear before the FIA for an inquiry while Ferrari boss urges his team to get back on track

Just a little update regarding the safety car incident of Lewis Hamilton's McLaren in Australia. According to the BBC, the Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes team have been invited to appear in a meeting before the FIA World Motor Sport Council on the 29th of April in Paris. The FIA say that McLaren will have to answer charges relating to a breach of the International Sporting Code. In brief, the charges are basically that when the race stewards of the Australian Grand Prix called both McLaren and Toyota to a hearing after the race regarding an incident where Jarno Trulli's Toyota overtook Lewis Hamilton's McLaren under safety car conditions, McLaren deliberately misled the stewards by stating that Hamilton did not intentionally let Trulli go past, neither did Hamilton have any team orders to do so. In other words, what McLaren said meant that Trulli wrongly overtook Hamilton under safety car conditions and neither Hamilton nor McLaren had anything to do with it. At the end of this hearing, the stewards gave Trulli a 25-second time penalty for overtaking under safety car conditions.

When McLaren was called to a second hearing by the same race stewards just a week later, the Woking based team still stood by their original statement and maintained that they had nothing to do with Trulli's overtaking. However, playing the clips of the radio chatter that took place between Lewis Hamilton and his McLaren team during the safety car was out proved that it was quite clearly McLaren team orders because of which Hamilton slowed down to let Trulli go past, something McLaren had not told the stewards about and in fact stating quite the opposite denying any such team orders. This is why Lewis Hamilton and McLaren were disqualified from the Australian Grand Prix and Toyota's Jarno Trulli was reinstated to third. On the part of the FIA World Motor Sport Council, this is a very serious breach of the International Sporting Code and depending on the gravity of the situation, they can impose any penalty on McLaren with no maximum limit.

What happened on the track was that Jarno Trulli made a mistake at a corner and went wide off the track. As the safety car was out at the time, all the cars were obviously running pretty close to each other and at a slow speed. When Trulli went wide, Hamilton who was just behind him, had to go past as he could not have come to a standstill on the track, waiting for Trulli to recover, as obstructing the track is both dangerous and illegal. Now that is totally fine and what Hamilton did was perfectly legal as well, and he knew that. But his team, and in particular technical director Dave Ryan at the time did not want to take any chances and thought that what Hamilton did was wrong. So he ordered Hamilton to give back the third place to Trulli, and thus correcting the mistake of Hamilton overtaking Trulli under the safety car, or as McLaren thought. After the race, when Dave Ryan realised that Hamilton was actually right and did not need to give back the third place to Trulli, and feeling sorry that he had cost his team a potential podium finish, he decided to keep quiet about the team order to let Trulli go past. He also convinced Hamilton to back him up on this which Hamilton did.

After this incident came out in the open, Hamilton came clean with an official press conference, apologising to everyone for this incident and also blaming it on orders given by Dave Ryan. Ryan was obviously sacked by McLaren but as far as the FIA are concerned, the inquiries are far from over although Lewis Hamilton will probably be spared of any further consensus, as he came clean with the whole incident. So as some people have called it, the 'lie-gate' saga, there is still possibly a lot more to come from the FIA.

Among other news, we all know how this has been the worst start to the season since 1992 for the Scuderia Ferrari-Marlboro team. In a long crisis meeting at the company's Maranello headquarters, president Luca di Montezemolo has demanded that his team rapidly improve their performance to get them to the place they deserve, which is at the front of the grid and not the back. With over 16 constructors' titles and the oldest team left in the sport, the Italian giant first envisioned by Enzo Ferrari hold more records than any other team in Formula 1. But this season, Ferrari is yet to score a single point at the end of the first two races which is mainly down to not having one of the fastest cars on the grid and also making some silly strategic decisions. It is quite clear that their fight with McLaren last season, where they kept concentrating on getting every last bit of pace out of the F2008 car until the very last race, had meant that they started development on the new F60 much later than most other teams. As a result, the F60 still has enormous room for development and improvement, but with such a poor start the only question is that if the car will improve soon enough. It was a similar case for McLaren as well though, which is why they are struggling for pace as well. But both these teams need to set aside their arch-rivalry at the moment and look at other teams such as the likes of Brawn, Williams, Red Bull, Toyota and BMW all or most of whom seem to have a quicker car than McLaren or Ferrari.

But even as a Ferrari fan, I cannot see how they can expect to contend for the constructors' or the drivers' title this year, given that the Brawns, Toyotas and Red Bulls seem to be so far ahead of them. Instead of working day and night and coming fifth in the constructors' championship, I will rather see Ferrari start early development on next year's car and bring back the glory days! Although with all the surprises we have had already, this season might still have a few more surprises up its sleeve!

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Back to back wins for Button in atrocious conditions

The weather forecasters did warn of heavy rain throughout the weekend, but luckily the Friday practice sessions and the third practice session followed by the Qualifying session on Saturday went without any intervention from the weather gods. Although that would not be the case for the Race on Sunday. The race started under dry conditions with the sun shining bright and air temperature in mid-30s. But as the cars went round the track for their pre-race warm up lap, it was evident that thick dark clouds were building up and the teams were expecting heavy showers within about ten to fifteen minutes.

So the race started normally. Jenson Button on pole had a poor start which saw Nico Rosberg, who was running very light on fuel, take advantage of Button's mistake and immediately take the race lead starting from fourth position. Jarno Trulli held his place in second for the first few laps. Timo Glock in the other Toyota starting the race in third, fell back quite a few places in turn 1, which saw Renault's Fernando Alonso move up to third ahead of Button. Although starting with a heavy car, Alonso soon fell back to the mid field as Button easily overtook him. Robert Kubica immediately dropped out and retired even before completing the first lap owing to engine troubles.

In the mid-field, there was heavy competition between Webber, Raikkonen, Barrichello and Alonso. With the heaviest fuel load and not a particularly quick car, Alonso was the slowest of them and before long the Red Bull, Ferrari and the Brawn have overtaken him. Particularly noticeable at this stage was Mark Webber in his Red Bull-Renault. He had a lot of pace along with Raikkonen in the Ferrari who was looking pretty quick as well. Both of them were pulling away from the mid-field pretty fast, with Barrichello not far behind. At the back both Hamilton and Massa started with very heavy fuel loads, so they were gradually making up their position through the grid. But Sebastian Vettel in the Red Bull, started on a very light fuel load and was absolutely flying. Although because of light fuel, he had to make a pretty early pit stop which saw him go down to the back of the grid. By lap 20, many of the cars have already made their first pit stops and all of them were still running with the softer option tyres. The only exception was the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, who decided to make a gamble and went out with the extreme wet weather tyres. This gamble back fired, because although it did start to rain about that time, it was only a slight drizzle and the track was not wet enough for the extreme wet tyres. So he lost a lot of lap time and was now in fourteenth position down from fourth, which he achieved early on thanks to his great start off the line and his longer first stint while everybody else in front of him made their first pit stops before him.

By the time the rain did start to come down slightly heavier, Kimi has already destroyed his tyres because those extreme wet tyres degrade terribly quickly if the track is not wet enough. This is the time when pretty much everybody started going back to the pits to change to the extreme wet tyres, including Kimi. Now the only exception was Toyota's Timo Glock, who was the only one in the field to choose the intermediate tyres. This gamble actually paid off because as everyone else found out soon after, that it was now raining but the track still wasn't enough for the extreme wet tyres. So while everyone else was struggling for grip, Timo Glock who have moved down to about eight position by then was really pushing hard as his intermediate tyres were absolutely perfect for the track conditions then. Before long, he was attacking then race leader Jenson Button for the lead.

Inspired by Glock's performance, Button made a third pit stop to change to the intermediate tyres. With the brand intermediates on, Button easily pulled away from the rest of the field and before long, has set up a big gap from second place Nico Rosberg. Most of the cars at this time made another pit stop to change to the intermediates, and as the rain came down heavier, that was followed by another round of pit stops for the extreme wet tyres.

BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld who started the race in tenth and with a heavy fuel load, made great use of his extra fuel and only made one pit stop to change to the extreme wet tyres, while the rest of the field made three or four pit stops. This meant that by lap 31, Heidfeld was in second position just ahead of fellow German Timo Glock in the Toyota. But by then the heavens have really opened up and it was raining in biblical proportions. The cars were just aquaplaning and were struggling to stay on the track even at low speeds of about 20 miles an hour! The safety car came out at the beginning of lap 32 and at the end of the lap, the race was red-flagged or in other words, suspended. All the cars then lined up on the grid in whatever position they were in and the teams were just awaiting word from the FIA as to what would be the fate of the race. It was already pretty late in the evening in Sepang and with the torrential downpour, visibility was almost next to zero. The rules state that if a race is to be re-started from red flag conditions, race control has to give the teams a minimum of ten minutes to prepare the cars again before the race re-starts. Keeping this is mind, by the time the rain has subsided, it was already almost an hour and 52 minutes since the race had started which meant that there was no more time left for restarting the race without going over the maximum two hour time limit set for a race. So it is at this stage that race control, led by Race Director Charlie Whiting, announced that the race would not be re-started. Because of the fact that at least three-quarters of the race have not been completed before the red flag came out, the FIA would only award the teams half of the points of what they would have usually got. The finishing order was taken from the one at the end of lap 31, which was the final completed lap before the safety car came out. This saw Button finish as the winner with five points instead of ten, ahead of Nick Heidfeld, Timo Glock, Trulli, Barrichello, Webber, Hamilton and Rosberg completing the top eight scoring positions.

So there it is, the second race of the 2009 FIA Formula 1 World Championship being red flagged, and the first one since the 2007 European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring and the first one to be red flagged and not have re-started since the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos. Jenson Button in his Brawn-Mercedes is yet to see the Chequered Flag without the safety car in front of him. Next week at the International Court of Appeal in Paris, the diffuser row hearing will take place where the judges will give a ruling on whether the rear diffusers on the Brawns, Toyotas and the Williams are illegal or not. Also, the McLaren 'lie-gate' saga is not over yet, as the FIA have stated they are still to decide whether they should be taking any more actions against Lewis Hamilton and McLaren. So plenty more happening in the world of Formula 1 within the next two weeks, after which we go to Shanghai for the Chinese Grand Prix.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Button and Trulli fight it out to the pole in another hugely exciting Qualifying session in Sepang!

Well, the first thing I have to say is that how close was that? Just like in Melbourne the top ten cars qualified within one second of each other, here in the Sepang circuit in Kuala Lumpur the top nine qualified within nine-tenths of a second of each other. That's how close it was! It was great to watch, with constantly changing positions for the drivers and a potential threat of rain that never really materialised.

The Brawns were yet again the fastest in the field and although Barrichello did complain a little bit about understeer, his team-mate Jenson Button looked absolutely flawless! He got a well deseved pole position. Although he was seriously challenged by Jarno Trulli, who's Toyota looked very quick as well, but Trulli just missed out on pole by about one-tenths of a second but still managed to get on the front row. Behind them, Vettel, Barrichello, Glock, Rosberg, Webber and Kubica all seemed to have very good pace and finished within milliseconds of each other. Kimi Raikkonen in his Ferrari and double world-champion Fernando Alonso in the Renault, representing the first two of the KERS cars, round off the top ten. Now is it a coincidence that six of the top eight cars are the ones with the rear diffusers?

At the start of the qualifying session, both the Ferraris looked pretty quick and got some good lap times pretty early on. Kimi got a provisional third and team-mate Felipe behind him in fifth when both of them, after only a couple of flying laps, went back to the pits and into the garage. Now both the Scuderias got very good lap times, and when I say good I mean almost as good as the lap record. So although there was still about eight minutes or so left to go in the first part of qualifying, Ferrari thought that they have done enough to get them through to Q2 (the second part of qualifying). This is why instead of burning another set of option tyres and trying to save them for the next two sessions of qualifying, both of Ferraris decided to stay back in the garage for the remaining time of Q1. This proved to be a critical error in judgement because what they couldn't foresee was how the others in the mid-field are going to improve towards the end of Q1, and before long both the Ferrari drivers found themselves getting too close to the knockout zone of the bottom five. And at the end of Q1, Massa was left in sixteenth, which means he was out of the running for the next two sessions of qualifying and would start the race from sixteenth on the grid! His starting position on the grid does not do him justice because he definitely had the pace to qualify way up front, and keeping in mind that in the last two years Massa has started the Malaysian Grand Prix on pole! His team-mate just got through, finishing in fourteenth at the end of Q1.

In Q2, Kimi Raikkonen was the first car to come out of the pit lane and this time, eager to avoid the mistake made earlier on, he did several flying flaps to finish the session in seventh so was well outside the knock out zone (as only the top ten of the fifteen cars go through at the end of Q2 for a shoot-out in the final session of qualifying).

Fernando Alonso, suffering from an ear infection tried to avoid doing too many laps in order to keep his energy for tomorrow's race, which is physically demanding due to the high-speed nature of the track and also the swelteringly hot temperatures. He was not particularly quick, but just had enough pace to eventually finish at tenth.

McLaren once again was pretty ordinary and fell out at the end of Q2 when reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton and team-mate Heikki Kovalainen only managed thirteenth and fourteenth on the grid. With all the off-the-track stories that have been going around regarding McLaren, it must have had a mental effect on the team as far as motivation and concentration is concerned, specially on Lewis and team-principle Martin Whitmarsh. Obviously McLaren have sacked their technical director Dave Ryan following the incident at Melbourne, but whoever is to blame for that incident, as a team what McLaren did amounts to cheating for just one extra point. Lewis could have easily come into Sepang with six points in hand from Melbourne as a result of his fourth position finish and a head-start on arch-rivals Ferrari who could not score a single point in the season opener. But what he and his team did is history.

On the other end of the field, the Brawns, the Toyotas and the Red Bulls were constantly swapping provisional pole positions between themselves. But in then end, Button in his Brawn-Mercedes seemed to have that little bit of extra edge that secured him a back to back pole position, a first in his entire career. Jarno Trulli did look very quick as well, and in my opinion he will keep challenging Button tomorrow all the way to the chequered flag. Sebastian Vettel in his Red Bull-Renault, qualifying in third, was the only one of the front-runners to be without the rear diffusers or KERS. That tells you how good Red Bull was in designing the aerodynamics of that car! But as a result of his ten-place grid penalty, Vettel will be starting the race in thirteenth. The other Brawn of Rubens Barrichello, who qualified fourth, will be starting the race five places behind in ninth as a penalty of making a change in gearbox before coming into Sepang. As a result of this, Glock, Rosberg, Webber, Kubica and Raikkonen all move two places up the grid from what they originally qualified in.

Tomorrow's weather forecast is still saying chances of heavy showers over the Sepang International Circuit near Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Massa and Vettel will probably be hoping for some rain as both of them will be looking to make up some places up the field. Raikkonen was probably running a slightly heavier fuel load than the cars in front of him, because in the practice sessions and in Qualifying 1, he definitely seemed to have some good pace. This is also the first time in this season that the teams are using the new Bridgestone hard compound tyres, which are different from the hard tyres used in Melbourne. These new ones are slightly softer and so reduces the difference between them and the super-soft option tyres. So it will be interesting to see how that and all the rest that has been going on in Formula 1 over the last week or so plays out tomorrow.

It will definitely be a juicy race at Sepang tomorrow and coverage of the Malaysian Grand Prix starts live on BBC One at 9:00 am BST here in the UK and 8:00 am GMT for the rest of the world. Stay tuned!

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Hamilton's disqualification, Vettel's 10-place grid penalty and Trulli's up-and-down ride with the race stewards

Well as I have said previously, that there were a few incidents on the track towards the end of the race at Albert Park in Melbourne. One of the most defining incidents was the Robert Kubica-Sebastian Vettel collision. After the race, the race stewards decided that the accident was avoidable on Vettel's part, and so handed him a 10-place grid penalty for Malaysia. So this means that whatever position he achieves on Saturday in Sepang, Sebastian Vettel in his Red Bull-Renault will be starting Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix 10 places behind on the grid. Personally, I think this is a bit too harsh on Vettel because the collision can be blamed on both the drivers. This is because when Kubica made the overtaking move, Vettel was already committed to braking just before going into the turn. At this stage, Kubica really squeezed him from the outside and anyone watching the race would have realised that a driver who is committed to his braking line cannot possibly change the line without potentially spinning off the track. May be Vettel could have tried to straight line the chicane a little bit, thus avoiding the collision but then possibly conceding his position to Kubica, which Vettel was not eager to do. And perhaps Kubica could have approached the apex of the turn slightly wider and then try to pass Vettel coming out of the turn. So in my opinion both drivers are equally to be blamed here, and it is probably just their inexperience than anything else as it deprived Kubica off a potential win, and it deprived Vettel off an almost guaranteed podium finish. So it is a bit unfair that Vettel is the only one having to take a hit.

Just after this incident on the track at Albert Park, the safety car was called in as the Vettel-Kubica collision had left some debris on the track. This was just about three laps before the chequered flag (i.e. the end of the race). Now under safety car conditions, no cars are allowed to overtake and even lapped cars can only unlap themselves if given permission to do so by race control. What happened in this case was that Jarno Trulli in his Toyota who was in third position ahead of Lewis Hamilton's McLaren, made a mistake and slid off the track. As Trulli took time to recover and get back on the track, Hamilton quite understandably had no choice but to go past. But to follow the rules of the safety car, Hamilton had to let Trulli regain his position in third, and was also ordered to do so from the McLaren pit over the radio. Because so much was happening around the track at the time, what everyone only noticed was Trulli overtaking Hamilton under safety car conditions. What no one appeared to know at the time was that Trulli was merely regaining his position as he was wrongly overtaken by Hamilton before. The reason Trulli was penalised by the race stewards at the end of the race by being handed a 25-second time penalty was because this overtaking move done by Trulli have not been permitted by race control. So they viewed it as an an illegal overtaking maneouvre.

Following some new evidence that surfaced over the week, mainly McLaren's radio communications, the race stewards called Lewis Hamilton and McLaren to another hearing in Sepang earlier today. In this hearing, the stewards came to a conclusion that Hamilton and his McLaren team had deliberately misled the stewards in the earlier hearing that took place just after the race, by not telling them about Hamilton's team orders to let Trulli go past. By not telling the race stewards about this team order, McLaren made it look like that Trulli wrongly overtook Hamilton, whereas the truth was that it was Hamilton who had earlier wrongly passed Trulli and should have conceded his position at the earliest opportunity. Following this hearing, Jarno Trulli and Toyota was reinstated to third position, which is where Trulli finished the race, and Lewis Hamilton and McLaren were stripped off any points they have gained in Australia.

Obviously Hamilton's English supporters are quite outraged about this and are going on about how the FIA is biased against McLaren and how this is too harsh on Hamilton. Personally I think that both Hamilton and McLaren deserved this, not because I am a Ferrari fan and hate McLaren, but because it was wrong what they did and this kind of incident spoils the spirit of the sport. And if you look back in the past, you will see that it is not the first time McLaren has done this. Remember the spying scandal in 2007, where they paid a Ferrari engineer to gain technical insight into the Ferrari cars? I mean Ferrari is not exactly a clean slate either, but there is a difference between controversial race strategies and outright cheating. But I really hope that the race results for all the remaining races in the season are determined by true and fair on-track performances rather than by the race stewards.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Formula 1 returns with a bang!

Well what a race weekend we have just had at Melbourne for the season opening Australian Grand Prix. As I have said in my previous post, the anticipation was immense coming into the start of the season this year due to not only the new regulations, but also the drama we saw regarding Honda Racing pulling out of Formula 1 last year, then their management led by the former Honda Racing's team principle Ross Brawn bought out the team just three weeks before the start of this season. Ross Brawn then renamed the team as BrawnGP and re-signed the two drivers who drove under him at Honda last year, that's Britain's Jenson Button and his Brazilian team-mate Rubens Barrichello. When Honda Racing pulled out at the end of last season, citing the economic crisis, they had already developed their car for this new season, but Ross Brawn needed an engine supplier for his cars as Honda being a road-car manufacturer used their own engine. That's when Mercedes-Benz came to the rescue and BrawnGP started the season as Brawn-Mercedes, as classified by the FIA.

During the final phase of the pre-season winter testing, the two Brawn-Mercedes cars led the field in terms of lap times, stunning everyone due to all the last minute preparations they've had, and still could get such pace out of their cars. In the three practice sessions in Albert Park, once again the Brawns were among the fastest cars on the grid, but this time Nico Rosberg in his Williams was the fastest in all three of the practice sessions. Ferrari had a pretty mixed session where they posted some good lap times and some mediocre, and particularly Kimi Raikkonen who was looking good also faced some technical issues for which he couldn't finish the complete practice sessions. Although Felipe Massa was looking great as well, he still wasn't quite a match for the Williams and the Brawns. Both the Renaults were also pretty ordinary, and although Fernando Alonso did look promising, his car didn't seem to have that extra edge to get him to win. And McLaren, as was anticipated, was simply lacking in pace compared to their cars last year and they have got a lot of catching up to do.

The qualifying session proved to be one of the closest qualifying sessions ever in Formula 1. As Eddie Jordan himself said that 'In all my years in Formula 1, I have never seen a more exciting qualifying session'. The top ten cars finished just outside one second of each other, that's how close it was! Of course with their pace, Brawn-Mercedes had a one-two on the grid with Jenson on pole. Red Bull-Renault's Sebastian Vettel was third with arch rival Robert Kubica in the BMW Sauber in fourth. Ferrari's Felipe and Kimi quailified seventh and ninth respectively, Fernando Alonso in the Renault qualified twelfth and Lewis in his McLaren qualified fifteenth as he could not take part in the final part of qualifying due to a technical fault with his car. That was fault was later found out to be a drive-train fault that required a change in gearbox, and this meant that Lewis would be starting all the way from the back of the grid as a penalty. Although he eventually started eighteenth, because the Toyotas who originally qualified sixth and eight were also given a penalty due to having a flexible rear wing, and so Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock started from the pit lane.

In the race, Jenson was leading comfortably all the way and never had any worries. He deservedly won the race in my opinion. His team-mate Rubens had a terrible start, because as soon as the lights went out, Rubens' car hit anti-stall and went into neutral which meant that it must have been a good couple of seconds before he could set off. The Ferraris had a very good start and Felipe was looking good for a podium finish when just about 10 laps or so from the chequered flag, he faced a catastrophic technical failure (most probably gearbox) and was forced to retire. Kimi was looking for at least finishing in fifth but towards the end he had a little accident where he suddenly lost control coming out of the corner, hit a barrier and then had to make an unscheduled pit stop to change his nose cone. This put him right at the back of the field.

Sebastian Vettel and Robert Kubica were racing in second and third when both of them were pushing for victories. When Kubica made a move on Vettel, Vettel wouldn't concede his position and while trying to defend ended up hitting Kubica and both of them crashed out of the race. This was only three laps away from the chequered flag, and due to the crash the safety car was called in. This is when Kimi also retired because by then there was no reason for him to finish the race anyway, specially with the safety car in. Trulli at this time overtook Hamilton just as the yellow flag was in, which was obviously a mistake, and so although he finished third he was later given a twenty-five second time penalty which saw Hamilton promoted to third instead. And in all this debacle, Rubens Barrichello was lucky and got the chance to correct the mistake he made earlier at the start and finished in second position alongside his victorious team-mate Jenson Betton, with his second Grand Prix win in a 152 starts. So the first race of the season finished under safety car conditions, and it looks like the championships this year can go to anyone.
And by the way, Round 2 which is at Sepang for the Malaysian Grand Prix is almost here and that promises to be another exciting race as well, with the threat of rain just spicing things up!