Monday, June 23, 2008

First you've got to be good...

What does it take to win a world title? Ability? Yes. Application? That never hurt either. A team that is 100% behind you? Not for nothing did Michael Schumacher always demand a say in who his team mates were. The right car? Few have won the F1 championship in recent years without having the best machinery on the grid. None of that, on its own, will necessarily be enough, and last weekend's action at Magny Cours demonstrated the point amply.

It was a sportsman of a much earlier generation, the baseball player Vernon 'Lefty' Gomez who famously remarked "I'd rather be lucky than good" and I can't help feeling that Felipe Massa might, very quietly, see what the Portuguese pitcher meant. In the last couple of races, he has had no answer for his team mate, Kimi Raikkonen in terms of absolute pace, but events have conspired to ensure that while Raikkonen has picked up only 8 points from the last couple of races, Massa has scored 14 and has now taken over the lead of the championship from BMW's Robert Kubica.

When Massa spun out of both of the opening rounds of the World Championship, I have to confess that I quietly wrote him off as a serious title prospect. He might be quick, I thought, but the championship would be too closely fought to allow the mercurial Brazilian to get away with mistakes like those. I'm beginning to wonder if I'm wrong. Firstly, I hadn't counted on his most obvious title rivals, Raikkonen and Hamilton making so many mistakes of their own. Secondly, I had forgotten the influence of Lady Luck. After all, if Hamilton hadn't made that disastrous error when exiting the pits in Canada, he and Raikkonen would most likely be comfortably ahead in the standings. Come to that, Raikkonen would be a lot closer to Massa on points had his exhaust not failed during last weekend's French Grand Prix and handed victory to his team mate. After a couple of races, at Monaco and Turkey, where Massa had seemed to have the edge at Ferrari, he never really looked on terms with his team mate in the last couple of races, but nonetheless emerged with more points. It's this sort of thing which could decide the destination of the title.

Also working in Massa's favour is the fact that it this year's title battle is beginning to look like an exclusively Ferrari affair. Their advantage over Mclaren just appears bigger than last year. Perhaps, whisper it, the Woking team are missing the input of experienced double world champion Fernando Alonso, and are suffering for running a pair of sophomore drivers who aren't as used to developing a car over the season, or setting it up under the pressure of a race weekend. Last year, there were clearly 'Mclaren' tracks and 'Ferrari' tracks. To an extent, this remains the case, but Maranello appear to have closed the gap considerably at the 'Mclaren' tracks like Monaco, while Mclaren look further adrift than ever at places like Magny Cours which have always favoured Ferrari. Come to that, some tracks, like Sepang, had better suited the Mclarens last year, but clearly favoured the Ferraris this year.

In light of this, if Hamilton is to have any chance of snatching the title, he really cannot afford to throw away results in the way he did in Montreal, in Bahrain and (to a lesser extent) last weekend at Magny Cours - where from the moment he cut the chicane in the aftermath of his pass of Vettel, I found myself thinking - "let him back through, the stewards will do you for that". He didn't, and the stewards duly did. A marginal call, and one which could have gone either way, but - call me a cynic - I wouldn't take any chances if I were in a silver car. As I have written at F1-Pitlane, Hamilton and Mclaren do have the ghost of an opportunity in that a clear No. 1 has not yet emerged at Ferrari, but increasingly, I'm coming to doubt they can pull it off.

Until last weekend, Kubica was actually leading the title chase, but I somehow can't quite bring myself to take him seriously as a title contender. He drove the wheels off the BMW in Magny Cours, but still ended up finishing behind Jarno Trulli's Toyota in fifth. Nick Heidfeld could do no better than 13th, over a minute off Massa's winning time in the sister-BMW, which further illustrated just how hard Kubica was having to push. To be blunt, I just don't believe that even someone as quick as Kubica can win the world title in a car that isn't even always quick enough to beat the Toyotas, regardless of the fact that, thus far, he has been alone among the top four in the title race in not having made a mistake worth the name./

It wasn't just in the Grand Prix where luck turned out to be the deciding factor last weekend. The GP2 series may appear wide open - there have been 7 winners in the 8 races so far this season - but looking underneath the bare statistics, it seems to me that there are really only three driver/team combinations who have consistently shown the kind of pace that marks them out as real contenders.

Unsurprisingly, two of those three drive for the established top teams in the series - ART's Romain Grosjean and ISport's Bruno Senna. That doesn't necessarily mean its all about the car, to be fair. Their respective team mates, Luca Filippi and Karun Chandhok, proven race winners both, have so far failed to make any kind of an impact and perhaps suggests that, while being with the right team is important, it can be overestimated and sometimes the best teams appear so in part because they have the best drivers, especially in a spec-formula such as GP2.

The interloper in the ISport/ART battle is of course Racing Engineering's Giorgio Pantano. The vastly experienced Italian is the only man to have won two races this year and, what is more, they have both been feature race wins. All the same, Pantano owes his lead at least somewhat to luck. In France, Romain Grosjean looked on course to win until his gearbox packed up, which appeared to hand certain victory to Bruno Senna....except just a few laps later, his gearbox went the same way. Pantano, who had been set to score 6 points while his rivals picked up 8 and 10, now picked up the win while his rivals got nothing. Come Sunday, Pantano bent his steering and failed to finish in the sprint race, but he didn't pay the price he might have done - Grosjean fell off the road at Grande Courbe on slicks on a still-damp track, while Senna, who had started on slicks from the back looked set for a podium only for a recurrence of his gearbox gremlins to force him back down to 5th. So Pantano has a 7 point lead over Bruno Senna, and Romain Grosjean, to my mind still the fastest man in the field, is 16 points adrift and fourth in the title chase.

Right now, it would appear that the gods are smiling upon both Felipe Massa and Giorgio Pantano. However, it is oft said that "luck balances out over a season" and while this isn't always entirely true, it could be that after Silverstone, an article about how lucky Massa and Pantano have been could look very ill-timed indeed. An old Swedish proverb comes to mind. Luck never gives, it only lends...

ENDNOTE: Motorsports Ramblings will be taking a short break next week while I go climbing hills, taking pictures of the windswept isolation and, most likely, getting rained on an awful lot in the Scottish Highlands. I'll be back with you all the other side of the British Grand Prix.

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