Tuesday, August 07, 2007

C'est La Guerre...

Certain controversies and scandals, I must admit, I tend to stay clear of here at Motorsports Ramblings. You might have noticed that I have not so much as mentioned the subject of espionage, Mike Coughlan or Nigel Stepney. Why? Firstly, because I don't have access to all the facts, and so anything I did say would be little more than idle speculation. However, as someone not entirely averse to idle speculation, I have to admit the more fundamental reason is that the whole sorry saga bores me rigid. For similar reasons, I stayed away from the subject of 'mass dampers' last year. I'm no engineer, and the sum total of my contribution would have been little more than to note that it was strange that the FIA couldn't seem to make up their own mind about their legality until Renault started to run away with their second title.

A part of me is tempted to treat the latest spat between the FIA, Mclaren, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton in much the same way. I'm not going to, however, for two reasons. The first is that the affair provides a very interesting insight into the minds of the two men leading the chase for the world title, and the team which provides their cars. The second is that the very fact that the whole situation arose in the first place sheds light on what exactly is wrong with the current F1 rulebook.

The facts of the matter are set out very clearly in Joe Saward's most recent Globetrotter column. Lewis Hamilton disobeyed a team order from Mclaren to let Fernando Alonso past during the 'fuel burn' phase of qualifying because it was Alonso's turn to gain advantage from the additional lap's worth of fuel that can be gained from running first on the road (though one can't help but feel that there can't be many tracks where this is an issue). Hamilton said that he did this to prevent Raikkonen from getting past him as well. This seems a little disingenuous, because Raikkonen really wasn't that close to Alonso at the time and one can't help feeling that drivers of Alonso and Hamilton's ability could co-ordinate an overtaking manouevre if so required.

Alonso was held in the pits for 20 seconds after his pit stop. Mclaren say that this was done in order to get him out in clear air. There seems no reason to doubt this, and had he gone when the lollipop was lifted, there would have been time for Hamilton to make his pit stop and get in a second flying lap. However, Alonso did not go when he got the signal, and instead waited a further 10 seconds, thus preventing Hamilton from having a second run (by around 4 seconds, it would seem). Hamilton assumed this all happened at the behest of the team and, according to press reports, got into a war of words with his mentor and team boss, Ron Dennis, over the radio.

Hamilton: "Don't ever fucking do that to me again"
Dennis: "Don't ever fucking talk to me like that again"
Hamilton: "Go fucking swivel"

The FIA later decided that Fernando Alonso had deliberately impeded another driver (his team mate) during qualifying, and thus moved him back to 5th on the grid. Curiously, the stewards also decided that Mclaren had acted in a manner prejudicial to the interests of the competition and ruled that they would not score constructors points. This seems a little odd, because it strikes me that the incident which prevented Hamilton from getting a second qualifying run was either a) an accident, b) done at the instigation of the team to punish him for ignoring team orders or c) done at the instigation of Alonso for tactical advantage. Logically, it cannot have been both b) and c) and so it strikes me that the penalties are somewhat odd.

Opinion, it would seem, is split on the question of whether the blame lies mainly with Alonso, with Hamilton, or with the Mclaren team. Myself, I can't help feeling that none of them come out of this affair too well.

Fernando's Error

Let's start with Alonso. He has not looked entirely at home at Mclaren all season. At Renault, he complained on more than one occasion that he didn't get the support he wanted and expected from the team. For this, read, he was not the undisputed Number 1 that Michael Schumacher was at Ferrari. He should have known, coming to Mclaren, that the team had always had a policy of equal number 1 status between their two drivers. Perhaps he never expected Hamilton to get close to him in terms of pace, but when he did, did Alonso really expect that he would suddenly be granted special status?

Ron Dennis may claim otherwise, but it seems fairly clear that Alonso deliberately delayed his pit lane exit on Saturday in an effort to snatch pole from his young team mate. He must have known, given past form, that while Hamilton was doing nothing that was contrary to the rule book by disobeying orders from his team to let Alonso past, Alonso was breaking the rules when he blocked Hamilton in the pitlane. He really should have known, given how keen the FIA are on handing out penalties for blocking in qualifying, that he probably wasn't going to get away with it. More importantly, a man who to my mind genuinely was hard done by by the stewards last year in his title battle with Michael Schumacher has sacrificed his reputation and credibility, and to what end?

Lewis blows a fuse

By the letter of the law, Lewis Hamilton did nothing wrong on track. Indeed, on Sunday, in particular, his performance in the car around the Hungaroring was impeccable. It could even be argued that his disobeying of team orders on Saturday was a show of strength. The message he was sending was "I'm more important to you than you are to me. You can't punish me without harming yourselves" and that it is he, and not double champion Alonso, who represents Mclaren's best bet for the title.

The problem with that theory is the needless verbal spat with Ron Dennis over the radio when it all went wrong (it is interesting that he assumed it was the team, and not Alonso, which messed him around in the pits). That hints that the real reason he disobeyed orders is that Alonso's challenge has rattled him. Just as Alonso fears that the young protege is McLaren's favoured one, so Hamilton believes that Mclaren prefer the experienced, safe pair of hands. Certainly the row he had with Ron Dennis over the radio points in that direction. Others have suggested that the way he spoke to Dennis smacked of arrogance, of rudeness.

I'm less sure, to me it suggests immaturity. A young man - not really much more than a teenager - under intense pressure, who is perhaps beginning to crack. So Ron Dennis is something of a father figure to him? Well who hasn't exchanged harsh words with their family on odd occasions, when under particular stress? To me, Hamilton's behaviour was understandable, but it wasn't clever. He had an opportunity handed to him on a plate, after Alonso's pit lane shenanigans, to establish a clear moral upper hand at Mclaren - to get the whole team behind him. And he blew it.

Mclaren under pressure

There is a myth that Ron Dennis is the best manager in the pit lane. More specifically, I've heard it said that Mclaren are the best man managers in the business. This weekend rather blew that claim out of the water. If Mclaren were so keen that Alonso was first on the road in final qualifying last weekend, why on earth didn't they arrange for him to be first out of the garage? If they wanted to punish Hamilton for disobeying team orders, why not just put him on the wrong tyres for his final run? If, on the other hand, it was all Alonso's doing, why did they pretend otherwise to the stewards and end up losing their constructors points for the weekend? And if, as seems somewhat unlikely, it was all just a bit of a cock up.... Well, that doesn't say too much for them either. At least they made sure there was enough fuel in the cars...

Moreover, one has to wonder whether Mclaren have ever really deserved their reputation as driver managers. After all, in the last year, they have fallen out with Raikkonen - a man they went to enormous lengths to sign, and with Juan Montoya, a man who never struck me as a natural Mclaren driver, but whom Ron Dennis was convinced he could turn into a world champion. Going back through the years, both Alain Prost and Niki Lauda, who won world titles with the team, left under a cloud. Prost felt the team had failed to rein in Senna's excesses, and Lauda thought Dennis had simply never really made him feel welcome. This year, it is beginning to look as if McLaren are in danger of alienating both of their drivers.

Its funny, really, that it is Ferrari, who for so long have operated a clear number 1 driver policy, and who have abandoned it this year, who seem to be having the easier time of it with their drivers. Perhaps both teams have the wrong driver pairings, though. Might the imperturbable Kimi Raikkonen have been better suited to dealing with shockingly fast newcomer Lewis Hamilton? Might Fernando Alonso's strong work ethic have served Ferrari better this year as they struggle to rebuild the team after the departures of Brawn, Schumacher, and now Stepney? Who knows...

The underlying problem

Its easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, but let's not forget this was, in the beginning, an argument about who ran first on the road in qualifying. Why on earth has such a seemingly trivial matter assumed so much importance for the leading title protagonists?

Firstly, it is because of the hugely disproportionate importance of qualifying in modern Formula 1. It hasn't been exactly easy to overtake in F1 for a very long time - at least since the end of the turbo era in the late 1980s. In recent years, though, attempts by the rule makers to reduce cornering speeds have resulted in cars which are immensely sensitive to 'dirty air' and simply can't pass each other. Alonso, after all, spent much of Sunday afternoon stuck behind a Toyota. With all due respect, the Japanese team have not been anywhere near the pace all season, and while they may have been having an unusually good day, there is no way that Ralf Schumacher was within a second a lap of Alonso's pace.

That, in itself, would not necessarily be such a big problem. Sure, qualifying becomes immensely important because it helps to determine all-important track position, but if that were the only issue, the team could simply tell each of its drivers to get on with it and bang in the fast laps on Saturday.

There's another problem, though. Refuelling. Ever since this was reintroduced to F1 in 1994 (a terrible mistake in my book, but not one that I expect to see reversed any time soon), for any track and car combination, there will be an optimum fuel strategy. The problem is, the team can only give it to one driver. As only one car can be refuelled at a time, it is simply impossible to put both drivers on identical strategies. Usually, the difference between the two strategies will be small, but in a contest where the gap between the drivers is so small, and where overtaking is so difficult, the smallest of advantages can be crucial. Besides which, there's the psychological element - one driver will know that his team mate has been given the more favourable strategy. However small the real difference, that is inevitably going to provide fertile ground in which discord may grow.

Moving forward through time, since 2003, drivers have had to qualify with the fuel load they will start the race with. Now, not only will one driver have his strategy compromised slightly be carrying (for example) a heavier than ideal fuel load, but the fuel loads chosen affect the driver's qualifying pace, and hence their track position. Inevitably, one driver will always be fuelled lighter than the other - and so, all other things being equal, should qualify ahead.

Finally, the most recent tweak to the rules, the one which led to Saturday's debacle: Since 2006, drivers have got a lap's worth of fuel back for every lap they complete in the final phase of qualifying - the horrendously artificial and overcomplicated 'fuel burn phase'. Thus, in certain, very marginal situations, the order you run on the road affects the number of laps you can claim back. There will only be a few tracks where this is likely to be an issue, but Hungary was one of them. Mclaren calculated that one of their drivers - the one who was first on the road, could get an extra lap in, and hence gain some extra fuel back to start the race. The team had determined it was Alonso's turn. Hamilton decided otherwise.

I remarked at the beginning of the season that the Hamilton/Alonso pairing had the potential to disintegrate in the way that the Senna/Prost line-up of the late 1980s did. I thought, on balance, that it would not - that Alonso and Hamilton were not such disparate individuals as Senna and Prost; that an older, more authoritative Ron Dennis would have greater influence over his much younger charges. I reckoned without a rulebook seemingly designed to cause strife between team mates going for the world title. Had Senna and Prost been racing today, I doubt they'd have lasted half a season together at the same team.

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4 Comments:

Anonymous Clive said...

A pretty fair summary of the whole silly business, I'd say. It's worth pointing out that everything was made much worse by the intervention of the stewards and it is debatable whether they had the right to do so at all.

The reason given for Alonso's penalty was that he blocked Hamilton during qualifying - the stewards have been pretty hot on this one, too much so on occasion, as in the case of Alonso's Monza penalty last year. But this ignores the fact that Alonso was in the pits at the time.

As Mark Webber has pointed out recently, it is common practice to hold a driver in the pits longer than absolutely necessary in qualifying; this can be to wait for a gap in traffic or just part of fuel strategy. The stewards haven't been concerned themselves before about such things, so why this sudden interest?

It is the team's business what happens in the pits, surely. If they want to hold one of their drivers in the pits for the entire session, that's up to them. Otherwise we invite a situation where FIA observers stand by the pits with stop watches to ensure that every driver gets his tyres changed and then leaves immediately.

Had the stewards kept their noses out, all this would be over and done with by now. Ron would have bashed his drivers' heads together, made them shake hands, and we'd have had a proper race on Sunday. Instead, we have yet another court case to look forward to.

It's a bit hard to question Dennis' management skills over the thing too. It wasn't his fault that the stewards became involved, after all. And, although some drivers have left his employ in high dudgeon, they have tended to be the ones with over-inflated egos. Prost, for instance, walked out in a huff from every team he worked for.

Ron's weakness is that he likes to have the best drivers. And it is almost impossible to get the best drivers of any era to like each other. So McLaren end up always having a bit of a struggle to hold things together on the driver front. They've had plenty of practice, however, and generally they succeed.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Checkpoint10 said...

Great post. Without these awful qualifying rules, there would be no controversy. They should bring the rulebook instead of McLaren before the World Council.

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Number 38 said...

A good 'read' on the subject, my friend Clive certainly brought up an additional issue but checkpoint10 gets the 'win' this time......
"awful qualifyiny rules" and the "rulebook should be brought before the WMSC". And I'd ensure Charlie Whiting and MadMax Mosley were in the dock also!

1:49 PM  
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4:15 PM  

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