Wednesday, July 25, 2012

How Are the Champions Faring in 2012? - Rallying

As with many other sporting disciplines, motorsports have their own staples, people who you can see in the hunt for titles year after year. It could be argued that, in racing, the staples are even more prominent, partially because the conditions for them are radically different to those for newcomers. As such, some championships go as far as being dominated by a single person throughout a course of many consecutive years. Such a feat was accomplished by Michael Schumacher in F1, Valentino Rossi in MotoGP, Sebastien Loeb in WRC among many others. 
As July 2012 is winding up to an end, many championships are entering their final stages and the title contenders in those are already obvious. In some, this is a halfway point (sometimes, even less than that), but clear patterns are already emerging as to who can fight for the title. As such, it's high time to do a fun little cross-analysis of the many different motorsports series and to see how their respective champions are faring this year. And since this is quite a monumental load of information, let's split it into a few parts and start with rallying.

For the eight-time world champion Sebastien Loeb, 2012 has been absolutely magnificent. In no small part is that due to Citroen's behaviour during the transfer market and the small amount of drivers who had a realistic shot of taking on Sebastien. His 2011 teammate, Sebastien Ogier, left Citroen when it became clear he wasn't satisfied with being a "number two driver", instead going to Volkswagen to help them prepare their major WRC entry for 2013. As such, this effectively put Ogier out of contention for 2012, which surely assisted Loeb, as Ogier was a major part of the title hunt in 2011. In an even better turn of events for Loeb, Citroen signed Mikko Hirvonen, three-times vice-champion in WRC and Loeb's main title rival.
As such, after 7 events out of 13, Loeb is leading the championship with 5 wins under his belt, while, Hirvonen, funnily enough, is second with 5 2nd place finishes. None of the four times when Citroen pulled a 1-2 has seen the two fight it out either, as the team effectively ordered them to "maintain the gap". Mikko could've scored a victory in Portugal, when he finished first as all of his main rivals retired, but his car was disqualified from the event later on due to a technical infringement, giving the win to super-talented Mads Ostberg.
While Hirvonen isn't the only one who is capable of matching Loeb's pace, the other drivers have had it even worse. The Ford World Rally Team, Citroen's usual rivals, have had a massive streak of misfortunes that prevented them from bothering Loeb so far. Norwegian Petter Solberg (the last one to win a WRC title before Loeb's massive dominance streak) has mostly had minor problems and mistakes that still allowed him to finish on the podium, albeit not fight for the win. His teammate, Jari-Matti Latvala from Finland, has been lacking any sort of consistency. Pretty much always having the pace to fight for wins, he repeatedly squandered the opportunities by going off the road and, thus, only has 1 win to his name in 2012.
A possible challenge to Loeb could have also come from the Mini WRC team but, just as his former teammate Dani Sordo started impressing for them, BMW pulled the plug on the whole thing.

* denotes partial participation
Bold Italic denotes current champion

Title repeat chances: 5/5 - Loeb is currently leading Hirvonen by 38 points with 6 rallies to go. With Solberg a further 17 behind, it's looking like only a run of mistakes could prevent Loeb from taking his ninth title and mistakes aren't generally what he's known for.

The points scoring system of this particular championship makes the title fight a bit unusual. Only a certain number of the driver's best scores from the season count towards the championship (this year, that would be 8 scores from 13 events). To add to that, the last event of the year, the Cyprus Rally, yields double points. Last year, that created a situation where something like six drivers had mathematical chances of winning the title coming into the last rally of 2011.
In 2012, there really is only one manufacturer team taking part in the championship and, as such, only they can really fight for the championship. The dominant Skoda team is represented by Andreas Mikkelsen, Juho Hanninen and Jan Kopecky. Yet, only one of those three turned up to every event so far - Mikkelsen, who also happens to be the 2011 IRC champion. Over the 8 rounds of 2012, Andreas has so far achieved two victories and four second-place finishes. Kopecky and Hanninen also have two wins both, yet they've only taken part in four and three events respectively. 
It's fairly safe to assume that Juho and Jan will turn their event counter up to eight at some point in 2012, probably in Cyprus, but by that time Andreas might already have four or five victories, as he is genuinely one of the quickest (if not the quickest) guys racing in IRC. In fact, him only having two victories is not due to lack of pace, but due to mistakes and bad luck. 
The two events not won by Skoda went to Dani Sordo, who entered one IRC event this year, and private Ford driver Giandomenico Basso. Sordo won't be a factor in the title hunt, while Basso might be, having taken part in three events so far. Basso's pace in some events has been fairly remarkable for a non-manufacturer driver, but it surely looks like a tall order for him to turn up for every remaining rally.
* denotes partial participation
Bold Italic denotes current champion

Title repeat chances: 5/5 - While Cyprus will again be a factor, it doesn't look like anybody can take this from Andreas Mikkelsen.

If you found the points scoring system in IRC a tad confusing, wait till you hear about the European Rally Championship. The season is divided into two halves, six events each, from which the best four results count towards the championship. A driver is only qualified for the championship if he has taken part in at least 4 events, a minimum of one from each of the halves. 
Last year, the championship went to Luca Rossetti, making him a three-times ERC champion. This year, however, Rossetti is clearly not going for the title, having only taken part in one event out of the first six, where he finished third.
Meanwhile, only two of the frontrunners had a somewhat regular rate of appearances - Juho Hanninen and Michal Solowow both took part in five events. Currently, they are occupying first and second in the standings, yet, while Solowow's best finish is 4th, Hanninen has won three events and also recorded a 2nd place. That currently puts Juho in the lead with over 100 points over Michal.

Title repeat chances: 1/5 - Probably mathematically possible, but Juho would have to not turn up to any of the events in the second half... and why would he do that?

The Asia-Pacific Rally Championship also refused to keep things simple with the points, having bonus points for those, who take a place in the top five during each leg of the rally (of which there are 2). To be fair, though, ERC totally does the same thing.
After 4 out of 6 events, 2011 champion Alister McRae (ex-WRC driver and late Colin McRae's brother) is in 2nd place with 81 points, 45 behind another ex-WRC driver Chris Atkinson. With such a massive lead that Atkinson has over McRae, it will be very difficult for the latter to catch up to him with two events to go. So far, Atkinson has recorded two wins and two second place finishes to McRae's one win and one second place finish. As such, only a DNF from Atkinson could allow Alister to catch up and, if he could do so, so could Brian Green and Gaurav Gill, 71 and 68 points respectively.
Bold Italic denotes current champion

Title repeat chances: 2/5 - Atkinson has to make some major mistakes, and, even if he does, there's still Green with his three third places and Gill with his win and second place.

Dakar Rally
As the Dakar Rally is not a championship, but a standalone event that already took place in 2012, all I can do is present its results. So, let's see where the title changed hands and where the champion has triumphed again.
In the truck category, 2011 champion Vladimir Chagin was not available for another shot at the title as he announced his retirement at the end of last year. As such, his team, Kamaz, ran a squad of up-and-coming drivers. In those conditions (and with overwhelming allegations of cheating and conspiracy theories from the Russian side), the win went to Gerard de Rooy, who confifently drove his Iveco truck, making little-to-no mistakes throughout the rally.
In the car category, 2011 champion Nasser Al-Attiyah ended up driving a Hummer after his previous team, Volkswagen, left the event after 2011. The champion's car wasn't all that reliable and he himself didn't seem to have the pace to challenge for the win. As such, the win went to Mini driver and Dakar legend Stephane Peterhansel. Nasser himself ended up retiring closer to the end of the rally.
In the motorcycle category, KTM drivers Cyril Despres and Marc Coma continued their truly peculiar tradition of taking turns to win the title. As Coma won in 2006, 2009 (not held in 2008) and 2011, while Despres triumphed in 2005, 2007 and now 2010, it was now Cyril's turn to take the win once again. And, despite stern resistance from Coma, that he did, beating him by 53 minutes.
In the quad category, 2011 champion Alejandro Patronelli retained his title, beating his brother and 2010 champion Marcos Patronelli by an hour and twenty minutes.

Other events
In the Rally America National Championship (which saw the participation of two racing celebrities of sorts - Internet star Ken Block and Dakar frontrunner Krzysztof Holowczyc), David Higgins has retained his 2011 title with 1 event to go. In a series where a win gives you 22 points, David is leading over 2010 champion Antoine L'Estage by 32 points.
In the Canadian Rally Championship (which features the same scoring system as Rally America), Antoine L'Estage is leading the championship with 66 points after 3 rounds out of 6 - a perfect streak. His nearest rival, Leo Urlichich, is 21 points behind. Even though the season is at its halfpoint, you'd be most hard-pressed to expect L'Estage, who happens to be a 4-time champion already, not to retain his 2011 title.
In the British Rally Championship, the 2011 champion David Bogie (one letter short of having one of the coolest names in racing) decided to focus on another competition, leaving the title hunt wide open. After 4 rounds out of 6, two Welsh drivers (Tom Cave and Elfyn Evans, the 2011 vice-champion) are tied for the lead with 60 points, while Keith Cronin, who's won the series in 2009 and 2010, is right behind them with 58.
In the Scottish Rally Championship, current champion David Bogie leads the standings after 5 rounds out of 8. Bogie, having decided to focus on this series in 2012 (as I masterfully foreshadowed in the previous paragraph), has won 4 events out of 5, but his one retirement has his rivals very close to him points-wise. Still, he is expected to win the championship for a fourth time in a row.
In the Australian Rally Championship, current champion Justin Dowel is not taking part in the 2012 season. As such, Michael Boaden and Tom Wilde (12th and 6th in 2011) are almost exclusively fighting for the championship, currently separated by 2 points with 3 events to go.
In the NACAM Rally Championship, current champion Peruvian Raul Orlandini is not taking part in the series this year, instead focusing on car development for Toyota. As such, Mexican PWRC driver Ricardo Trivino is leading the standings. After 3 rounds, 2009 series champion Trivino has 2 victories and a 3rd place, but will surely face competition from his compatriot Carlos Izquierdo, who has a win and a 3rd place while having missed the third round. Since only the best 5 results out of 6 count towards the championship, the title hunt should be wide open.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

F1 Transfer Review: Raikkonen for Lotus F1

F1 Transfer Review:

Lotus F1 Team Transfer #2


Disclaimer: In case you happen to be a die-hard Kimi Raikkonen fan, you probably shouldn't read this.

In a certain sense, Lotus changing both their drivers after 2011 can be regarded as commendable, at least when you are faced with the example of their Maranello-based F1 counterparts. Despite the fact both Kimi and Romain had prior F1 experience, making them your new lineup was always going to be a risk. In the case of Romain, I have already argued that Lotus have made a good move. But what about his far more famous counterpart? Were Lotus in the right in signing him? Was Bruno Senna not given enough of a chance, when he was booted off after half a year of racing in a car that was, by most accounts, bloody terrible?

Imagine yourself as the head of the Lotus F1 team. As it is the end of 2011, you've got plenty of drivers lining up, ready to take the available seats in your team, even despite the, quite frankly, poor performance during that year. The guy you go with, however, is a person with no F1 experience under his belt for the last two years who, while unquestionably fast and talented, also has a bit of a tendency to become disinterested when not winning. Were this my choice, I'd wonder why this option even came up and then call Timo, Adrian or Heikki.

Lotus, on the other hand, did not decide to call Timo, Adrian or Heikki. Perhaps a bit disenchanted after their experience with Nick Heidfeld (who I still maintain was reasonably quick and did not deserve to be dropped), perhapds just being the usual overly-ambitious squad they ever were, Lotus went ahead and signed 2007 World Champion, fan favorite and suspected robot Kimi Raikkonen.

I'll be honest here. As I write this, I still have no idea what to make of this move. After China, I was left sincerely doubting that Kimi had a shot at success here, yet then came Bahrain and his near-win. However, four races and two Kimi podiums later, I feel that some conclusions can already be drawn.

Why is it a good move?
  • Consistency - if we take all the races of 2012 so far, only once has Kimi finished outside of the top-10. To put that into perspective, out of the other 23 drivers the same is true only for Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton, while Fernando Alonso is the only driver who finished every race in the points. In the standings, Fernando is first, followed by Mark and Lewis. Most experts have agreed that consistency is key this year and Kimi has plenty of that. He hasn't been involved in any major accidents with other drivers so far, while most of his overtaking manouevres have been clean and precise. It doesn't look like this is likely to win him the title or anything, but at least you can be certain it keeps Lotus happy.
  • Fan favourite - the fans love Kimi. Don't ask me why, because I sure as hell have no idea, but they do. He is fairly outspoken and honest, but I'm surprised anyone takes note because you can usually barely hear him. However, one way or another, signing Kimi was an undeniably great PR move and if there ever was a team that really needed some of those, it's Lotus.
  • Concentration - Kimi is obviously a lot more experience than Romain and that shows, not only just in races where, unlike the Frenchman, he usually has no issues going through lap 1. However, same thing really shows in qualifying. While Romain has the pace to fight for pole but never quite manages to get that lap together in Q3, Kimi, quite frankly, doesn't. However, even though his pace seems to indicate he should have trouble even getting into Q3, he usually manages to do that with one collected last effort. 
What could've been better?
  • Qualifying pace - it's... it's pretty dreadful. So far it's 6-3 in favour of Romain if we count the actual time set in qualifying. Not exactly the result you would expect if you were to pit a relative rookie against a world champion. Ande, despite his ability to get that one lap together, Kimi has managed to miss Q3 three times, while in one of those he didn't even get as far as Q2. You could blame it on the car, I guess, but you really shouldn't - as evident from Grosjean's results, Lotus hasn't brought a non-Q3 car to a weekend yet this season.
  • Complainer - the thing that possibly got Vitaly fired surely is an issue with Kimi. Since the Spanish Grand Prix or so, Kimi has been dissatisfied with his car's steering, which is nothing too unusual in itself - ex-Lotus driver Jarno Trulli complained about it for all of 2011. However, the response he got from the team was unlike anything I've personally seen before - the team said it already designed six(!) versions of the steering and that they won't be doing another one. To add to that, one of the team members was quoted by a German magazine as having said that the situation was like dealing with a child. Not sure who to blame here, but a bit of a disaster all around, ain't it?
  • Winning - so, Kimi, like, really really wants to win and isn't satisfied with anything but the top spot of the podium. And, while it's perfectly understandable for him to feel that way in a season where we've already seen Maldonado score his maiden victory, sometimes it gets more than a little ridiculous. After Valencia, Kimi didn't seem too happy with his second place which, for a guy who had a fairly low-key race and was gifted a podium after two retirements and a crash, is just wrong. It's easy to imagine Lotus are already having problems with that attitude.
Other options?

The other drivers Lotus could've went with I listed off already in my piece on Grosjean. It's hard to tell whether Adrian Sutil or Jaime Alguersuari would've been higher up in the standings than Raikkonen, the likely answer being "no" - quite frankly, neither of them have the experience of racing on that level. But surely they would also be less trouble for the team. As for Bruno Senna, the season he's having probably proves that Lotus have made the right call. More on that later.

Verdict: Lotus have done well with Kimi so far, but there's a sneaking suspicion that his overreaching ambitions might be too much even for Boullier. While not a lot of people doubted it after Bahrain, at this point you can't say for sure whether the victory Lotus wants so much is even going to happen in 2012 and, if it does, there's certainly a chance it could come from Grosjean. And, should Kimi not win a race this year, Lotus risk either losing him or, what could be even worse, completely demotivating the Iceman.