Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Breath of Fresh Air

Das Deutschlandleid for the winning driver. Il Canto Degli Italiani for the winning team. A combination we have heard often enough in recent years. This time, though, it was different. Michael Schumacher is two years into his retirement, and Ferrari no longer have a German driver on its books. Seemingly from nowhere, 21 year old Sebastian Vettel took the wet weekend at Monza by storm, seizing pole position on a soaking Saturday and running away into the distance on Sunday afternoon, the expected challenge from Heikki Kovalainen simply never materialising.

Sebastian Vettel - Youngest GP winner ever
F1's newest and youngest winner, Sebastian Vettel.

In the annals of surprise results, I find it hard to remember anything that compares with Vettel's win at Monza. Sure, Olivier Panis' victory for Ligier at Monaco in 1996 or Johnny Herbert's win for Stewart at the Nurburgring 3 years later had been still greater upsets of the form book, but these had been races of attrition where honours went to the last man standing. This, though, was a man driving a car which had never finished higher than 4th, a team which had gone into the year as backmarkers, taking the pole and winning from the front. The expected frontrunners didn't drop out - there were 19 finishers from 20 starters despite the atrocious conditions in the early laps - they simply didn't have the pace to live with the young German in the Toro Rosso. Perhaps the closest parallel would have been Damon Hill's near victory for Arrows in the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix, though he, of course, did not quite make it home to the chequered flag first. To find a similar result, you'd really have to go all the way back to his team boss Gerhard Berger's victory for Benetton at the Mexican Grand Prix in 1986. Even that was arguably less of a surprise, the Benettons had dominated the Austrian Grand Prix earlier that year before falling foul of electrical maladies. On reflection perhaps the closest parallels were Michele Alboreto's last hurrah for Tyrrell (and for Cosworth's venerable DFV engine) at Detroit in 1983 and James Hunt's maiden victory for the eccentric Lord Hesketh's racing team at the Dutch Grand Prix in 1975.

Scratch beneath the surface, though, and Vettel's win was not quite the inexplicable result that it might first appear to be, nor necessarily an indication that he is the Second Coming - of Michael Schumacher or anyone else. Mark Hughes wrote an interesting piece on the hype surrounding Vettel recently. We shouldn't be too surprised - F1 is an engineering discipline subject to the laws of physics and nothing happens for no reason. In truth, Toro Rosso have been making significant progress in recent races, and while they may not be on the tail of Mclaren or Ferrari, they have been giving BMW and Renault serious pause for thought. In Valencia, Vettel topped Q2, while two weeks later at Spa, Sebastien Bourdais headed the timesheets in Q1. At both Grands Prix, they showed well on race day too. One way of looking at Toro Rosso, and the angle being hyped by much of the media, is that they are the core of the old Minardi team. Perennial backmarkers who would go years without points. Another, and I would argue, much more accurate way of looking at them, is that they are a tight-knit experienced squad of racers with an Adrian Newey-designed chassis mated to the best engine on the grid. Put that way, it's almost a surprise that they haven't outrun their sister team all year and scored rather more points than they have.

Another fact worth remembering is that the recent Red Bull chassis have been consistently quick in the wet. Newey's creations may lack the sheer aero-efficiency of a Mclaren or Ferrari but they are clearly driveable, forgiving machines. Vettel, too has always appeared to be at his best in the rain. Remember that Mark Webber was chasing Lewis Hamilton down in last year's soaking Japanese Grand Prix before he was hit by - yes - 3rd place Sebastian Vettel. I remarked at the time that we might later remember that race as Vettel's "Senna in a Toleman at Monaco" moment rather than for the egregious error which ended it. It was not just the Japanese race. Both Vettel and Webber picked up solid points in Monaco in the rain earlier this year. Come to that, it was no chance happening which put 3 of the Red Bull empire's cars on the front row at Monza this weekend. Only David Coulthard, who would appear to be coasting towards his retirement, missed out, and he blamed traffic.

To illustrate that - good as his performance was - this was not a victory built solely on individual genius, the luckless Bourdais began the race proper 2m 44s behind his team mate, and finished it 2m 40s back, picking up the second fastest lap along the way. OK, so Bourdais had little to lose and perhaps Vettel could have gone still quicker had he needed to, but it is clear that the Toro Rosso is a very solid performer in the wet. Thanks to the vast experience of their Chief Engineer Giorgio Ascanelli, it is probably a better car in the rain than the Red Bull.

None of that, though, is intended to take away from a remarkable, mature performance from F1's newest and youngest winner. Many drivers of greater years and considerably more experience might have crumbled under the intense pressure of being in with a shot of a first win for both driver and team in such difficult conditions.

Mark Webber
Red Bull's Mark Webber may present rather more of a challenge to Vettel next year.

In a season dominated by arguments about the impartiality of the stewards, the apparently fractious relationship between Mclaren and the FIA, the doings of Max Mosley and all the rest, fresh-faced uncomplicated Sebastian Vettel's victory for Toro Rosso was a real breath of fresh air for the sport, as well some return for the vast resources that Dietrich Mateschitz's Red Bull company have poured into seemingly every branch of the sport. Next year, Vettel will move to sister team Red Bull alongside Mark Webber, a man not noted for being beaten by his team mates. That will be a real year of reckoning for F1's newest star. Toro Rosso may face a reckoning of their own - their victory last weekend is bound to reignite the row over customer chassis in F1. For now, though, he and the entire Toro Rosso squad can bask in the glow of a fairytale win. For him, for Toro Rosso, for the sport.

All photos author's own.

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Anonymous Peter White said...

Nice piece. Yes, the customer car issue is building a head of steam. The FIA want a quid pro quo before they will agree to this, and I suspect that that issue is the only real hurdle. Sir Frank will surely agree to it as he would become one of the commercial chassis providers. Ron is desperate for it as he has a complete package and sponsorship ready to roll with a second team. Max wants it too, I believe, but is holding out for a couple of key concessions the FIA want, and also wants the money to be divided more evenly between the teams. Obviously, four McLarens and four Ferraris could seriously deplete the revenues of the other teams.
Now, a second Ferrari team. Who would be the natural choice of entrant for the Ferrari customer chassis? Even Red Bull must be feeling the financial pinch. They could always supply Force India... Ciao

5:17 AM  

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