Tuesday, April 17, 2012

F1: It's Already Been Three Races, FFS

So, last week, in the height of excitement for the upcoming Chinese Grand Prix (which, quite unsurprisingly for this season, turned out to be incredible), I've made a bunch of statements in an attempt to "debunk" some of what people have been saying after the fairly random beginning of the season. Of course, it would be completely unfair of me to not hold myself to the same standards as I did with others, so let's see how the opinions I was bashing on stack up after China. Of course, no conclusive evidence here - it's still 3 races in.

On Kimi Raikkonen's race and chances of winning one: Kimi's had a reasonably good qualifying on fourth and you'd expect him to be up there on the podium considering the cars in front of him were the notoriously problematic (when it came to tyre wear) Mercs and a Sauber, which generally is not as fast as a Lotus. He had a reasonably good race throughout, opting for a two-stopper alongside race winner Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel and his teammate Romain Grosjean. However, unlike for the three latter drivers, it did not work out for Kimi who went from fighting for second place (admirable) to no-points zone in all of two laps. 

Thing is - those weren't exactly laps 55 and 56 which signified the race and his 28 lap prime stint, longest of any other stint any driver had. No, those were laps 47 and 48. A bit more than 20 laps into his stint. Romain had a 24-lapper closer to the end and his pace did not drop off. 

It's not exactly Kimi's fault, no. He keeps insisting that the strategy did not work out but it worked out for everyone else and some of them spent just as many laps fighting. I don't know if there's general consensus that it was the marbles he picked up off the racing line while defending from Vettel - but it looks like there really should be, because no other explanation seems to apply. A small mistake, not really one Kimi can be blamed much for - Romain had a worse one and Mark allowed two off-track moments during that same stint.

However, what I'm saying here is, this is how the Lotus seems to fare in a "normal" race everybody's been asking for. Yeah, sure, cold temperatures and all, but even if the race was red-flagged at lap 46, that second place would only have been a signed gift from Jenson's and Michael's pit crews. A normal race will not be enough - it will take a lot more to get Kimi up there. I don't know if he has what it takes, but I'm pretty certain his team does not.

On Maldonado and Senna: Yeah, Pastor has beaten Bruno in qualifying yet again but the time gap there was absolutely insignificant. And, say what you will about Bruno Senna, even I have to admit he had a good start and was genuinely better than his teammate throughout the race. Ex-STR driver, Jaime Alguersuari, on the BBC Chequered Flag post-race podcast for Malaysia has mentioned, if I remember correctly, that he did not think Bruno's success in Sepang was much due to his racing ability as much as the car he's been given. I was inclined to agree with him, but this race certainly does create a lot of suspicions that point otherwise. Also, Jaime is probably still mad about Bruno ramming him into the first corner of Spa last year. It's okay, Jaime. I am still a bit mad, too.

Still, Maldonado did manage to get yet another damn reprimand for blocking and Bruno has once again forgotten he has brakes during the first corner, breaking off parts of his front wing off of somebody's car in the process.

On Red Bull: After a fairly terrible qualifying, both RBR drivers had quality races. Vettel has gotten the best he could out of the circumstances he was in, while Mark was arguably the most entertaining one to watch.

There aren't exactly problems that team has on the driver front. However, the car isn't exactly what you'd call a winning one and with Mercs seeming to have figured out their tyre issues, it's not looking to occupy second place as it was in races one and two. The car doesn't have much qualifying pace and while everybody with qualifying pace seemed to have problems translating that to race, they don't anymore, and Red Bull still hasn't fixed their problems yet. Also, DRS, just as last year, seems entirely useless for RBR due to the terrible speed on the straights, which is a shame, cause this time they actually need it.

On Sergio Perez and Sauber:Well, he wasn't fighting for podiums in this one, just as expected. The uninspiring Sauber performance is not exactly his or his teammates fault - mediocre race strategy and tyre issues contributed to that. But, even with that, neither he, nor Kamui were up there after their qualifying.

This isn't so much directed at the people who sang Sergio praises after his Malaysia performance (for he deserved them) but more so at those who were sure that it was time for Sauber to repeat those results and generally be a contender for podium. They're not - because, even if their car is as good as Ferrari's (and it actually looks better), neither of the drivers is exactly Fernando Alonso and when you're fighting for places 5-10, you can't exactly beat a team who has a driver that can get its terrible car to podiums. If I were to take a wild, wild guess at Sauber's Constructors Cup result at the end of the season, sixth would be my guess - far ahead of the struggling Force Indias and Toro Rossos, but not exactly as good as either Williams and Ferrari.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

F1: It's Only Been Two Races, FFS

While F1 testing is usually given the importance that it should (i.e. as a combination of teams running weird different strategies that make the lap times incredibly varied and, therefore, almost universally unimportant), same cannot be said for the beginning of the F1 season. And, while it is true that a team that's leading the first race probably won't end up struggling to make the 107% by the end, first races are still just that and can't exactly be indicative of the general pace or of the trends that are gonna be prevalent throughout the season.
However, that doesn't exactly seem to be something a lot of people take into account, meaning that a lot of people have already managed to jump to fairly baseless conclusions about what the season's gonna be like. Here's some of those conclusions and why they might very well be complete bullshit:

Assumption #1: Kimi Raikkonen is a racing God who has returned to win championships and dominate the field and his pace has already proven that.

For all of the pre-season, I have been finding the incredible excitement over Kimi's return to F1 somewhat unexplainable. It is, obviously, of no doubt that the guy is an F1 great and a masterful driver. He also does, in fact, have a fairly unusual personality. But Michael Schumacher he is not and it would be foolish to expect him to light up the field right away with race wins and great performances. Apparently though, 7th in race number one and 5th in race number two is good enough for people to shout that the legend has returned and that he's surely gonna be battling for wins soon enough.
Just the facts here: 1. Discounting Vettel and Button in Malaysia whose unsatisfactory results were due to collisions, surely not lack of pace, Kimi hasn't clearly topped either McLaren, either Red Bull or Fernando Alonso in the two races. In fact, both of the times he's had a Sauber finish ahead of him. In other words, the relatively high finishing positions are gifts signed with love from Vettel, Button, Grosjean and even Maldonado.  2. Gearbox changes, team radio mistakes and all that, Grosjean has started ahead of Kimi in both races. 3. Unlike, say, Pastor Maldonado, at no point was Kimi's pace in the Australian GP as good as that of the Red Bulls or even the McLarens that were cruising to the win.  4. The Mercs can't exactly be having tyre issues forever and Romain's surely gonna finish the race one of these days.
No, he's not been bad by any means. In fact, 7th and 5th after a long F1 break and starting from 17th and 10th is more than respectable. However, that's quite a lot of guys he has to beat to get that win, some of them with clearly superior machinery and, you know what - the "normal dry race" Renault has been wanting so bad probably is a lot less likely to bring them that result than a massive mess like Malaysia.

Assumption #2: Pastor Maldonado cannot drive for shit and is not good enough for F1. Bruno Senna is clearly the better driver out of the two.

While it's hard to deny that Pastor, probably more than anyone else on the grid right now, really enjoys putting his car into walls or other cars. However, as always, the argument is that this man is a GP2 champion, a fact that isn't affected in the slightest by the 35+ million dollars PDVSA's paying for him. Oh, and there's also the little fact that he's been on RBR's pace for most of the Australian GP - no small feat for a Williams driver. Noticeably faster than Bruno in practice, he's hammered the guy both times in qualifying - only one of those two is fighting for Q3 after all.

Yes, the first two outings of 2012 haven't been that great for him, but only one of those was his fault. We've seen where that car can end up and Maldonado's probably the guy to take it there.

Still, lost the Malaysian P1 to Bottas. The guy who should have a race seat regardless of whoever comes out between Pastor and Bruno.

Assumption #3: Red Bull are in deep shit and Seb Vettel is terrible under pressure.

While it's almost impossible to defend Vettel for the stuff he's said about Karthikeyan, that's not exactly evidence of his lack of driving ability. And, while in qualifying he's lost out to Mark, in the races he's been faster on both occasions and was gonna get that Red Bull to the best it could do in those conditions. In fact, in Australia, he went one step higher than that. It's clear that there's some struggling going on - he almost went off chasing after Michael in Melbourne and nobody knows how that would've ended if the Merc didn't decide it didn't want to play anymore. However, the guy quite clearly still has what it takes to win F1 races and he doesn't really have to prove anything to anyone - those two championship titles are his and there's little doubt that they're his because he deserved them.

As for Red Bull, I advise you to go check out the constructors standings. Second. Also, the only team theoretically capable of pole positions that doesn't seem to have an issue converting qualifying pace to race pace (unlike, say, the team whose driver gets on pole twice and is both times nowhere near competing for the win or the team that's the anti-Sauber when it comes to tyre management or the team that has the overrated guy and the guy who can't seem to finish a lap so far).

Assumption #4: The race Checo Perez has had in Malaysia is a true indicator of his brilliance and incredible racing ability.

I wanted him to win that race. Really, really did. And he's quite clearly one to watch - has been pretty much since the start of his F1 career. But if we're not crowning Adrian Sutil, Giancarlo Fisichella, Nico Hulkenberg, Sebastian Vettel and Sebastien Bourdais as incredible racing talents based on their one-off performances, we should probably wait a bit on Perez, too. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Life After F1: Oval Racing + Touring Cars (March 2012)

One of the greatest things about motorsports (at least, in this blogger's humble opinion) is how a driver is very likely to have had participated in several different racing series (often even different classes of racing). Driver migration is not only a fascinating thing to observe, it inspires fans to explore racing series that they may have previously been reluctant to. For me, a major factor in following series like DTM and Indy has been the participation of ex-F1 pilots like Hakkinen and Sato. It’s been interesting to see how these world class driver adapt to new cars, rules and racing styles. It also helps to highlight just how talented these guys are at driving to see them flourish in series that can be vastly different than the one I previously knew them for.

I figured I’m not the only one who might find following these pilot’s careers post F1 interesting, so with this posting, I am starting up a new feature of the blog - "Life After Formula One" – the focus of which will be updates on F1 drivers you might have lost track of during the post F1 stage of their careers. More importantly, I’m having fun doing it, in the end, that's what this whole thing is about.

We start our roundup of the month with IndyCar, which has been a fairly common place for people out of F1 to continue their careers. In March, IndyCar held a pre-season test in Sebring before kicking off the season with a St. Petersburg race on March 25th and a Birmingham race on April 1st. The tests in Sebring yielded some surprising results, particularly the third time on the leaderboards shown on the final day by a certain Rubens Barrichello, IndyCar's most well-known recent newcomer after his illustrous F1 career that lasted 19 seasons in a row.
The first race, however, did not go so well for Rubens, who, while qualifying in 13th place, could not keep up the pace on Sunday. To add to the not-so-good race, Rubens ran out of fuel on the very last lap, ending up 19th, penultimate among those who finished, 2 laps behind the race winner, Helio Castroneves. While one of two teammates, Brazilian racer Tony Kanaan, a close friend of Rubens and IndyCar veteran, did not manage to finish the race due to mechanical problems, the other KV Racing driver, Venezuelan E.J. Viso has done pretty well for himself to finish 8th. Other ex-F1 Indy regulars who also partook in the race did not have their best weekends either. Takuma Sato has shown great pace in the race, even leading for a small part of it, before retiring with mechanical problems. Same lap has seen former Scuderia Toro Rosso driver Sebastien Bourdais end his race as well, also due to car failure. On the other hand, the race has seen British driver Justin Wilson (who's done a full F1 season with Minardi and Jaguar in 2003) make his way from 15th place on the grid onto a fairly respectable 10th in the final classification.
The weekend in Birmingham went marginally better for Rubens. Having been fairly quick in practice, he qualified only 14th, behind both Kanaan and Viso. The race, however, was very eventful, with plenty retirements and two safety car periods, the second of which allowed Rubens to claim 8th after a series of overtakes. Sebastien Bourdais also had an uphill race, going from 17th on the grid to 9th. It was another weekend to forget for Sato, who has yet again retired with mechanical issues, while Justin Wilson had to contend with 19th after spinning.
After the two weekends, Barrichello is placed 10th in the championship with 37 points, ahead of his teammates Kanaan (22 points) and Viso (36 points). Bourdais has lifted himself to 14th with his great Birmingham performance, while Wilson is currently 16th. Sato, having retired twice, is only 24th with 24 points.

Another American racing series, NASCAR, hasn't really seen many F1 refugees over the years, with the two notable exceptions being Scott Speed and Nelson Piquet Jr., who this year have been racing in Nationwide and Camping World Truck series respectively (second and third series of the NASCAR hierarchy). Scott has continued his lacklustre recent run in NASCAR, having failed to qualify for the first Nationwide race and finishing at the back of the pack for the other three. Meanwhile, Piquet actually had a pretty decent start to his season, winning a Bristol Motor Speedway race of one of the regional NASCAR leagues from pole, while managing 22nd and 6th to start his season off in the Camping Truck Series.

March has also been a fairly busy month for touring cars and it's no surprise that we've seen ex-F1 drivers leave an impression in some of the events. WTCC had races in Monza and Valencia. Ex-F1 driver Tiago Monteiro (best known for his podium at the infamous 2005 US GP for Jordan, in which only six cars took part due to safety concerns) did not have a great start to his season in Italy, where he had to retire following a first corner pile-up in race one and only managed to finish race two in 18th. Valencia was a lot better for him, where he managed a points finish in 9th in race one, and a respectable 13th in race two, having kept Lukoil's Alexey Dudukalo at bay for most of the race, despite Tiago clearly having the slower car.
Dudukalo's teammate, Gabriele Tarquini, is also an ex-F1 driver, although in his 79 F1 weekends from 1987 to 1995 he only managed to qualify for the race 38 times and has only ever gotten 1 point. Tarquini's WTCC achievements have been a lot more impressive (including a title in 2009) and these two weekends were no exception. He managed to qualify on pole for the first race at Monza and finished it in third, unfortunately having to retire from race two because of a collision. In Valencia, he managed a 2nd place finish in race one, but only came 9th in second race, which, overall, has left him fifth in the standings with 44 points (to compare, fourth-placed Robert Huff has 57, while sixth-placed Stefano D'Aste has 25 points).

The Italian-based Superstars Series has also gathered some attention from F1 fans due to signing Vitantonio Liuzzi, who's been left without a seat in 2012 after spending 2011 with HRT. The Italian driver was notoriously quick in practice but has received a tire puncture on his fast lap and had to start last from the grid. However, that did not prevent him from ending up 3rd in race one, only a second off the race winner. From sixth on the grid in race two, Liuzzi managed to take the lead at the end of lap one and has maintained that lead for the rest of the race.
Another F1 veteran Mika Salo has also been present at both races, managing sixth in the first one. In race two, he seemed to be the only one capable of matching Liuzzi's pace, but a rear tyre problem has sent his car off track with 8 laps to go. Gianni Morbidelli, another Italian ex-F1 driver, came 7th and 5th in the two races respectively.

Next week - the month for ex-F1 drivers in endurance, GT and national series I haven't gotten around to. Sorry.

If you happen to know of any ex-F1 guys that I missed, by all means, inform me. It's very likely that I just forgot about them or didn't even know they were in F1.

- no title specified

Rubens BarrichelloBRA
Justin WilsonGBR2003160000114th34
Takuma SatoJAP2002-20089000104416th32
Sebastien BourdaisFRA2008-2009270000624th24
Scott SpeedUSA2006-20072800000NASCAR Ntwd--
Nelson Piquet Jr.BRA2008-200928001019NASCAR CT8th61
Tiago MonteiroPOR2005-20063700107WTCC13th2
Gabriele TarquiniITA1987-199538000015th44
Vitantonio LiuzziITA2005-201180000026Superstars Series2nd39
Mika SaloFIN1994-20021090020339th8
Gianni MorbidelliITA1990-19976700108,56th14