Monday, September 28, 2009

Night Riders

A couple of years back when it was first announced, I was rather contemptuous of the whole idea of a night race around the streets of Singapore. What exactly was the point of racing under floodlights in the dark? And why on earth was Formula 1 going to Singapore, of all places? A country with absolutely no racing history or culture to speak of. And this at a time when France, the country which to all intents and purposes, invented Grand Prix racing, is without a slot on the calendar. How on earth does the use of massive quantities of electricity to generate the kind of light levels needed to enable cars without headlights to race in the dead of night fit in with F1's supposed 'green' agenda?

Belatedly, though I'm kind of warming to the idea. Apparently there's a real atmosphere to the place on Grand Prix weekend - like Adelaide used to, it really welcomes the sport to the city. Unlike, say Bahrain, which appears utterly indifferent to proceedings. Sitting watching it all on television, a few thousand miles and several time zones away, I couldn't care less about that. However, there is no getting away from the fact that the sight of Formula 1 cars, screeching through downtown Singapore in the dark, inches from the unforgiving concrete walls, sparks flying, is quite something. A spectacle which, much as it might irk the purists to say so, is in its own way every bit as memorable as watching a car on the limit through Casino Square at Monaco, or plunging down the hill from Rivage to Stavelot at Spa. For me, the television coverage was made by the in-car footage of drivers dancing their cars across the kerbs, between the barriers through the neon-lit darkness. It looked for all the world like a playstation arcade game brought to life.

There was just one small problem. It really wasn't much of a race circuit. After everyone's tyres had come up to temperature, about half way through the second lap, there appeared to be no realistic possibility of any overtaking. A massively frustrated and out-of-position Nico Rosberg managed to force his way past Jaime Alguersuari's Toro Rosso, but that was about it as far as on-track overtaking went this year. A similarly troubled Adrian Sutil tried something similar on his team mate Buemi and ended up facing the wrong way and eliminating himself from proceedings by running into Nick Heidfeld.

It might be unfair to blame this entirely on the design of the Singapore circuit - there's not been anywhere that 2009-vintage F1 cars have been able to pass each other with ease all year - but still, I rather doubt that any F1 cars of the last twenty five years could have made much of a race of it round the place. Some of the features of the track seem utterly perverse from this point of view. Mark Webber was upset that he was penalised for going out beyond the exit-kerb of turn 7 to pass Fernando Alonso on the opening lap and, given what Kimi Raikkonen was allowed to get away with at La Source the other month, he had a point. But more fundamentally, why was that kerb there at all? The run into turn 7 is the closest thing to a proper passing place on the whole circuit, so why artificially narrow the space available to the drivers in this way? I suspect there's some crass, safety-related explanation for it, but while I've no desire to see racing drivers getting hurt, there's no point pursuing the aim of safety to the point where any real racing is all but impossible.

Come to that, the chicane section at turn 10 seemed a strictly single-file 'follow-my-leader' affair - an interesting place to watch a Grand Prix driver's art in qualifying, but a block on what might otherwise be a fine drag-race down to turn 11, where Sutil and Rosberg tried passing the Toro Rossos during the race, with markedly different results. Get rid of it and instead make the section a fast left-hander.

For me, leaving the spectacle aside for a moment, the real saving grace of the Singapore circuit is that it felt like a place where a driver's improvisational skills and lightning reflexes could make up for limitations in his machinery. It was a place where there was a larger than average differential between drivers in the same machinery. It was no surprise to see Lewis Hamilton flying around the place. Like his childhood idol, Ayrton Senna, he's always had that extra-special something at street circuits. The Mclaren may be a much improved race car of late, but it is noticeable that while Hamilton led from the front all weekend, team mate Heikki Kovalainen, himself no slouch, never got beyond the lower reaches of the top 8. Another man transcending the limits of the equipment at his disposal was his former team mate Fernando Alonso. In the hands of Romain Grosjean, the Renault may have been a mobile chicane, but Alonso got the car onto the podium - surely more than the car really deserved. For some, he rather went and ruined it all by dedicating his 3rd place finish to his disgraced former boss Flavio Briatore, but to be charitable, Alonso would probably never have reached F1 without the Italian's largesse so it is perhaps no more than a man paying his dues.

I'd be surprised to see him in a Renault next year though. Everyone seems pretty certain he's signed to Ferrari for 2010, and with the news that he faces no penalty from last year's 'race-fixing' scandal, it seems Luca Di Montezemelo can barely be bothered denying this any more. Quite where that leaves everyone else is another matter. Will Raikkonen be returning to Mclaren? He might not have parted on the best of terms with Ron Dennis, but Dennis appears to be out of the picture these days, and in some ways, the utterly unflappable Finn, seemingly impervious to all stress and pressure, is perhaps the man best placed of all the real front-line drivers to cope with racing alongside Lewis Hamilton at what appears to be becoming his team in almost the same way that Michael Schumacher was Ferrari.

And what of Alonso's replacement at Renault? Now was I seeing things, or was second place finisher Timo Glock greeted by someone from the Renault team in Parc Ferme just after the race last weekend? Rumour has it that his Toyota contract might not be renewed and he'll be looking for work at the season's end. Renault could do a lot worse. The German driver may not be in Fernando's class, but then who is? I doubt the team could afford Raikkonen, even if he's available, and it seems that Kubica might be more inclined to try his luck with Frank and Patrick's squad....

If Bob Bell's team were paying attention to drivers' performances last weekend, Glock seems the obvious choice. The other men who shone around the streets of Singapore appear to be accounted for. Sebastian Vettel is very much a Red Bull man, while it seems that Nico Rosberg, who showed he was a chip off the old block, hustling his Williams with aplomb between the concrete walls until a silly error coming out of the pits put him out of contention, will be in a Brawn next year. Presumably alongside Jenson Button, who now looks very much the World Champion Elect. Which leaves the rather sad question of what the now much rejuvenated Rubens Barrichello might have open to him if Brawn replace him with Rosberg? In the unlikely event that he contrives to snatch the title from Button, could it be that he still finds himself without a seat in 2010?

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Blogger NaBUru38 said...

The Argentine TC2000 has raced last Saturday the Grand Prix of Santa Fe under the lights. The race was rather boring, but it was surely a great show.

10:25 AM  

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