Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Trusting to luck

Its a cliche often repeated that "bad luck tends to balance out over the season". Its true as often as not. A driver may emphasise a misfortune in explaining away his failure to win a title, but all too frequently, the rival who beat him to the championship will have suffered an identical misfortune at another race. One might point to Michael Schumacher's engine failure in Japan last year, but that would be to forget Fernando Alonso's equally costly wheel nut disaster in Hungary. When a championship is particularly finely balanced, as is the case this year, it is possible for luck to play a decisive part in determining the winner. Usually, however, luck evens out, and other, more decisive factors come into play.

It isn't always so. The law of averages dictates that from time to time, someone is going to end up being repeatedly, and persistently unlucky. You don't have to give credence to voodoo, or witchcraft, or the idea that some people are just "born unlucky". Its just a logical consequence of the idea that misfortune is randomly distributed. Most people will suffer an average amount of bad luck, but a small minority will, by sheer chance, suffer a very high number of such "unlucky events". We see it from time to time in Formula 1. Remember when, in the early 1990s always seemed to be Johnny Herbert's Lotus that ended up broken by the side of the road? Or think about the sheer number of times that plain misfortune kept Chris Amon from winning a Grand Prix. Come to that, but for luck, might Kimi Raikkonen have been a double world champion by now? (I'm thinking 2003 and 2005, in case you're wondering).

Clive and Alianora have been having an interesting conversation about the GP2 series over at F1 Insight. I agree with much of what they say. Certainly, the category dies not seem to be producing a driver of the calibre of Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg or Heikki Kovalainen this year. What strikes me most, though, is that the championship appears to be developing into a fight between a very good racer who has had more than his share of bad luck, and a rather mediocre driver who has consistently had the cards fall in his favour.

Lets deal with Lucas Di Grassi first. The Brazilian comes with a rather uncertain pedigree. He arrived in GP2 last year with Durango having taken third in the Formula 3 Euroseries in 2005. Durango were thought of as one of the series' weakest teams, and Di Grassi's smattering of points finishes looked respectable enough and was certainly more than his team mate managed. A deal with ART for 2007 was therefore something of a make-or-break moment for the young Brazilian.

To my mind, its been a matter of his having been broken rather than made. ART have been the team to be with for the past two years. There's no doubt that their driver line-up hasn't exactly hindered them. Rosberg, Premat and Hamilton were all seriously quick drivers. Nonetheless, I think its reasonable to assume that if you can't win with ART, you probably can't win at all.

The problem is, Di Grassi hasn't been winning. His victory at Turkey last weekend was his first all season. Given he's a second year driver with one of the top teams, and given that the GP2 series has seen no less than 10 different winners, that doesn't exactly suggest he's been doing an outstanding job this season.

Nonetheless, that win was enough to haul him, briefly, to the top of the points standings. Why? Unlike almost all of his rivals, he's not been unfortunate enough to get caught up in silly accidents, and he's had impeccable reliability from his car while others have struggled with persistent gearbox woes (seemingly the fault of suppliers Mecachrome, rather than the teams themselves, for the most part). The end result is that he has been able to gather points by stealth, to the point where he is now the only realistic challenger to Glock in the battle to be GP2 champion. Of course, to a degree, the old saw is true, and you really do make your own luck. Di Grassi may not have been especially quick, but he has made few mistakes, at least until the sprint race on Sunday saw him hit Pantano, pick up a drive-through penalty and finish outside the points for the first time since the opening round in Bahrain.

In the end, though Di Grassi's position owes an awful lot to the fact that he has retired from just one race, while Glock has failed to finish on 5 occasions. The bare statistics indicate that Glock has won 3 of this year's 15 races. That figure really ought to be higher. Glock picked up steering damage at the opening corner of the opening race in Bahrain, and claims that only this prevented him taking the fight to Luca Filippi there. His performance in Barcelona suggests this might well have been more than mere bravado. The only front-running driver not to pit under the safety car in the opening laps of the feature race, he was left having to find 30+ seconds over his rivals. Despite this, he clawed his way back to beat all except Bruno Senna. He then promptly won the sprint race from 7th on the grid - just to ram the point home. Qualifying in Monaco didn't go quite to plan, but a steady, consistent drive brought a podium finish.

Then his season began to fall apart. Pole at Magny Cours came to nothing when his race ended in a silly startline collision with fellow front-row man and team mate, Andy Zuber. Neither were entirely blameless, but in my eyes, it was Zuber who must take the lion's share of the responsibility for the accident. Such was Glock's pace at the circuit, that it was still possible he might score in the sprint race, but a gearbox failure early on meant that we would never know.

The Silverstone race brought two further non-finishes. A likely podium finish in the feature race fell by the wayside when his electronics packed up, and a fantastic drive through the field from the back in the sprint race was ended by a braking error from Zaugg, which saw Glock punted off the road. There was more strife in Hungary, where again Glock looked far and away the quickest man on the circuit in the sprint race, but a wheel-gun error at his mandatory
pit stop sent him tumbling down the order, and he ended up spinning still further back, probably in sheer frustration.

Turkey brought a sprint race win, but it really should have brought a feature race win too. Again, Glock found himself a victim of a bad call during a safety car period, and was left with the difficult task of building up such a lead that he could afford a tyre stop and still retain his position. In the circumstances, his fourth place was a very remarkable achievement indeed.

There's one area, though, where this kind of misfortune counts for little, and that's reputation. People know that Glock is quick. Sebastien Bourdais reckoned that, had he stayed in Champ Car (where he made Rocketsports look like far more of a serious operation than in fact it was), Glock might have been the one man who could have posed a serious threat to him. He's bagged a BMW test drive, and Toyota are rumoured to be giving serious consideration giving the young German Ralf Schumacher's race seat next year. Di Grassi, on the other hand, shows no sign of progressing beyond GP2, even if he does luck into the title.

END NOTE: Something that's always bothered me about Blogger is the difficulty of producing a complete post index. I've decided to bite the bullet and create my own list here. All the previous Motorsports Ramblings articles in date order.

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Anonymous Clive said...

Great article as ever, Patrick. And I must compliment you on the new Archive system - there's an enormous amount of work in that.

In digging through your old posts, I came across a few that inspired me. Two have in fact induced me to write my own related post today. So think of this as a trackback, because my blog doesn't have that facility as yet:

The Enjoyment of F1

8:42 AM  
Blogger Nicebloke said...

So as someone who doesn't generally watch single-seater racing, should I be paying attention to GP2? If nothing else, is it entertaining?

2:06 PM  

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