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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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fuelish Thoughts

Refuelling in Formula 1 is, as far as I'm concerned, a bad thing. I allude to this from time to time, but until now, I don't think I've ever actually gone through my reasoning on this in any kind of coherent way before.

Given that I think the reintroduction of refuelling into Formula 1 in 1994 has been the biggest wrong-turning that the sport has taken in the time that I have been following it, I think this is something of an omission on my part. It strikes me that the three week gap in the Grand Prix calendar is as good a time as any to set the record straight.

An unnecessary risk

You might be well aware that Motorsports Ramblings is perhaps not the biggest fan of the health and safety brigade. I don't like it when drivers die any more than the next person, but motor racing is fundamentally dangerous, and in my view, it can only be made entirely safe via the kinds of compromises, for example to circuit design, which will eventually kill the very essence of the sport.

Nonetheless, I'd like to see refuelling banned because it is potentially very dangerous. Dangerous not just to the drivers, who have, to some extent, made their Faustian pact in pursuing their dream, but to mechanics, journalists, VIPs, and anyone else within the vicinity of the pitlane.

Enabling refuelling to take place during the race requires that each team has fuel-rigs with hundreds of litres of highly flammable liquid stored in the pitlane. Pitlane accidents are rare, but not completely unheard of. Likewise, the requirement to move heavy rigs around in order to refuel a car and get it out of the pitlane again as quickly as possible in a high pressure situation adds its own dangers.

The fact that there has not been a serious accident in the 14 years since refuelling was reintroduced in F1 indicates that the risk is very small. It does not mean that this risk is non-existent. The reason I bring it up is that the potential consequences are so dire. Remember Jos Verstappen's pitlane conflagration at Hockenheim in 1994? That spectacular blaze occured when just a litre of two of spilt fuel ignited on hot bodywork. If an entire fuel rig caught fire, the potential exists for a Le Mans 1955 kind of catastrophe (after all, press offices and corporate hospitality boxes are normally built above the pitlane these days). And in this safety-conscious era, F1 might never recover from such a disaster.

Dumbing down

My second argument is that the existence of refuelling dumbs down Grand Prix racing. Of course, in a sense, it does exactly the opposite - all those complicated strategies require the input of some serious pitlane brainpower and the likes of Pat Symonds and Ross Brawn have amassed a considerable reputation as masterminds of the art of calling the right time to refuel. From the point of view of the driver though, things are simplified. When a driver had to start the race with the fuel he needed to go the entire distance, he would begin with a car some 200kgs heavier than it is in qualifying trim. As such, the car behaves quite differently - it puts more strain on the tyres and brakes, and its handling characteristics will change significantly over the course of a race distance.

These days, a driver no longer needs to think about looking after the tyres or brakes in the early stages of the race, when the car is fat with fuel. Neither need he adapt to the very different handling of a 700kg F1 car on full fuel. Strategic thinking and intelligence are less important - fitness and the ability to run off a series of qualifying-style laps instead become all important. To me, that's less interesting. When I started following F1, the ability of guys like Alain Prost to 'read' a race, and to (in the words of Fangio) master the art of winning the race at the slowest possible speed, was a major part of the sport's appeal.

No passing, please

My most fundamental gripe with refuelling in F1 is that I think it reduces the amount of overtaking we see in the sport. That's overtaking as opposed to position changes. Sure, refuelling promotes position changes, as it provides an opportunity for a quick guy who has qualified poorly to move up through the order without having to find a way past on the track (simple fuel up heavy, sit behind the slower cars in the early laps, then go hot-lapping when everyone else comes in to refuel).

The thing is, pit-based changes of position aren't all that exciting. Overtaking is the lifeblood of the sport, and if a battle for the lead between two front runners can be resolved without them actually swapping places out on the track, I for one feel slightly cheated.

Now it could be argued that refuelling doesn't actually make overtaking any less likely - that's the fault of the laws of physics - or more exactly, the ever greater understanding of how to apply them that F1 designers have acquired over the years - it merely makes it seem that way because with passing ever more difficult on track - its at the fuel stops where places swap.

I don't think that's the whole story. I think refuelling discourages overtaking still further in two specific ways. Firstly, it reduces the temptation for a driver to gamble on an on-track pass. A pass on the road can be a position gained, but there's also a risk that it might all end in an accident. I'm not sure what proportion of crashes in F1 occur during attempted passes, but off the top of my head, I'd expect its quite high. If the only way you're going to find a way past is on the road, its usually still a risk worth taking - but if you're confident you can find a way past in the pitlane when you both come to refuel, why take the chance?

That's not the only way in which the current sprint-stop-sprint format of F1 inhibits overtaking, though. The other one comes back to the 'dumbing down' argument: If there is less variability in how a car handles over the course of a race, there is less chance that different drivers, or different cars, will be quick at different points. When someone whose car handles well on heavy fuel disappears off into a lead only to be reeled in by someone else, whose car is set up more for running on less fuel towards the end of a race, there is a greater probability of overtaking. The current format mitigates against different people being quick at different points of the race - and hence against overtaking.

The same is as true, if not even more true, of tyres (though without refuelling, this becomes more of an issue, because a driver can always decide not to pit for tyres, and sacrifice grip for track position). After all, when was there last overtaking in the race at the front end of the grid in F1 at Monaco? 1975? 1985 maybe?

No, 2005. There was refuelling, of course, but in 2005, drivers had to run the entire race on a single set of tyres. Hence the Renaults of Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella were quick in the early stages of the race, but were sitting ducks towards the end. In Alonso's case, for example, this led to the Williamses of both Heidfeld and Webber passing him for position in the closing laps. It was the most entertaining Monaco Grand Prix in years. With refuelling banned, you would not need to ban tyre changes (which, it could be argued, is dangerous, as drivers are encouraged to gamble on pressing on with dangerously damaged rubber) as the 'don't pit for tyres and try to take advantage of track position' strategy would always be open to any driver or team prepared to take the risk.

Nothing gained...

Is there really any argument for retaining refuelling? Something I have missed? Well, if so, I honestly don't know what it could be. It might be argued that refuelling encourages position changes. As I've said already, that may be true, but its not a price worth paying - nobody watches F1 in order to see changes of position in the pitlane. Perhaps the additional 'strategy' element adds a layer of interest to the sport? I'd argue that by homogenising car set ups and removing the gambler's option of running the whole race on a single set of tyres, it does the reverse. And besides, this is meant to be motor racing, not high speed chess. I've even heard know-nothings argue that pit stops are exciting to watch, and refuelling encourages more of them. Perhaps they are, at first sight, but after over 20 years of following the sport, I'm no longer enthralled by them. I want to see more on track action.

Could refuelling be abolished? I'd argue so. It has not become intrinsic to the sport. Sure, the teams might need a couple of year's notice to deal with the expensive business of designing quite considerably different chassis in order to carry twice as much fuel. Mr Mosley, if you're reading this, I know you're prepared to think radically when it comes to the future F1 rules. I've heard suggestions about regenerative braking, hybrid engines, spec-chassis and all the rest. So have a think about it eh...

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Monday, August 13, 2007

The Long Way Round

Years ago, in January 1990, my father took me to the Autosport International Show at Birmingham NEC. This eleven year old boy remembers two particular highlights from the trip. The first was beating my friend Tom on the giant Scalextric track that had been set up in the main hall. The second was meeting up-and-coming young star Allan McNish at the Mclaren stage.

At that point, McNish was a Mclaren junior driver, and had just narrowly been beaten to the British F3 champion by Jack Brabham's youngest son, David. He was lined up to drive for the crack DAMS squad in F3000 alongside Erik Comas and I was sure that he was going to be Britain's next F1 star.

Of course, in the event it didn't work out quite like that. McNish suffered a huge crash at the opening round in Donington in which a spectator was killed and, while he went on to win rounds at Silverstone and Brands Hatch, it seemed that this knocked his confidence to a significant extent. He wound up fourth, but given that his team mate, Comas, was champion, he might justifiably have hoped for better.

Thereafter, his single seater career began to fall apart. While his F3000 contemporaries, Comas, Eddie Irvine, Eric Van De Poele, Gianni Morbidelli, et al, graduated to F1, he remained mired in the midfield of F3000 until well into the mid 1990s, never again winning a race in the category.

By 1996, it looked as if McNish's career was over. His F3000 contemporaries had been and, to some extent, gone, in F1 and it looked as if Allan was never going to live up to his early promise. A successful career in sportscars followed, including a win at Le Mans in 1998 and that looked to be that for McNish. Except that his place in the Toyota sportscar team of 1999 meant that he was in the ideal position to pick up the job of development driver when Toyota decided to go F1 racing. After spending much of 2001 pounding round Paul Ricard in the hopeless Toyota development car, his reward was a race seat for the 2002 season.

So, 12 years after I'd met him in Birmingham - in which time I'd gone all the way through secondary school, university, an aborted career as a software developer and into government - Allan McNish was finally a Grand Prix driver. It had certainly taken a long while. To put in perspective, Mika Hakkinen, who had been competing in British F3 while Allan McNish was taking his first steps in F3000, had retired as a double world champion at the end of the previous championship. The Finn had fitted his entire F1 career into McNish's 'apprenticeship'.

Sadly, McNish's F1 career was brief and not conspicuously successful. The 2002 Toyota was not much of a racing car - it was horribly unreliable, and rarely capable of scoring points. The engine might have been very good, but the chassis was probably better only that the Minardi. Worse still, McNish was generally outpaced by his team mate Mika Salo. Whether this was down to Salo's much greater experience of F1, the possibility that McNish was already past his best by the time he got onto the Grand Prix grid, or the simple fact that he wasn't quite naturally quick enough to make it as an F1 driver is hard to say.
Whatever the truth of it, McNish got to put 'Grand Prix driver' on his CV, and the experience did no harm to his career, as subsequent roles as Renault's test driver and as a part of the all-conquering Audi sportscar squad testify.

In the same year that Allan McNish finally, belatedly made his way into F1, Sebastien Bourdais was busy winning the F3000 championship. At one time, an F3000 title all but guaranteed an F1 seat, but in more recent years, that has nto always been the case. All the same, with Renault making a serious assault on F1, it would have been reasonable to assume that a promising young French driver was likely to be in a strong position.

It didn't work out that way. Renault sniffed around Bourdais, but lost interest when he made clear that he was not prepared to sign a management deal with Flavio Briatore. A potential drive with Arrows fell through when Tom Walkinshaw's operation went bankrupt, and so the Frenchman found himself a refugee in the struggling Champ Car World Series.

The Champ Car Series was once a great place for a driver to make a name for himself, and Jacques Villeneuve, Juan Montoya and (less successfully) Alex Zanardi all won the Champ Car title before walking straight into drives with leading teams (Williams, in every case. Perhaps only Sir Frank is aware that there is racing beyond Europe). By 2003, though, Champ Car was in a pretty dire state. Newman Haas and Forsythe Championship racing were pretty well the only really serious teams in the field (although the since-departed Team Rahal weren't bad). Bourdais picked up four wins and 4th in the title race in his debut year, finishing top rookie. Not a bad showing, although had he ironed out some of the inconsistency in his driving, he might easily have finished second in the series, having won more races than all bar Champion Paul Tracy.

The following year, he put all that to rights. Bourdais won half of the season's 14 races - enough to ensure that his more consistent but slower team mate Bruno Junquiera (himself a former F3000 champion who never quite made the jump to F1) was beaten in the title race. Thereafter, he scarcely looked back. Thirteen more wins, and a further two championship titles established the Frenchman as one of the all-time Champ Car greats, but seemingly was still not enough to attract the attentions of the F1 team bosses. Perhaps they questioned how much success in Champ Car really meant. Certainly, it is worth asking the question of quite who Bourdais was really competing against - but on balance, a field consisting of Tracy, Wilson, Allmendinger, Junquiera and, latterly, Jani, Power and Doornbos is probably stronger than this year's GP2 line up.

All the same, with three Champ Car world titles, it looked as though the F1 world was determined to ignore Sebastien Bourdais, when Toro Rosso's Gerhard Berger made an approach over the winter of 2006/07. There was no promise of a race drive, but a 3 day test was offered and accepted. A further test at Spa Francorchamps followed in July, and right up against the deadline after which his option expired, the team last week finally told him he would be a Toro Rosso driver in 2008. Six years after winning the F3000 title, Bourdais is a Grand Prix driver.

It is hard though, to ignore the fact that Toro Rosso is hardly the equivalent of the Williams team that Jacques Villeneuve walked into in 1996. The team may have access to Adrian Newey's brainchild, the RB3, but there is no getting away from the fact that the squad is still fundamentally the same group of people that had run the struggling Minardi team for many years. On top of that, there has undoubtedly been long-running tension between the various characters with an interest in the team. Franz Tost and Gerhard Berger plainly do not see eye to eye with Dietrich Mateschitz and his talent scout, Helmut Marko, on matters of driver selection.

And the team has not proven to be a happy place for its drivers. Scott Speed effectively wrote his own resignation when he went public over a physical altercation with Technical Director Tost, and Liuzzi has quietly become ever most frustrated with the atttempts of the team to pin its own shortcomings on its current lead driver. Most notably, at the Nurburgring, the decision not to issue a press release was used to cover up the fact that it was a mechanical failure on the car, rather than any failing on the part of its driver, which led Liuzzi to exit the race so dramatically as he left the pits on wet tyres.

That said, it is not clear what else Sebastien was going to do. He could undoubtedly have stayed in the Champ Car series, but after three (and probably soon, four) straight titles, he really doesn't have a lot left to prove there. NASCAR might have offered opportunities for him, especially after Newman Haas recently took a stake in Robert Yates Racing, but fundamentally, Bourdais is an open wheel circuit racer - not a stock car oval racer. He might also legitimately have wondered whether the series organisers (and perhaps even the other drivers) would have conspired to prevent the upstart Frenchman from Champ Car from being too successful.

No, there is little doubting that F1 is the pinnacle of open wheel racing these days, and as such, it has got to be the place for Bourdais to be. There are plenty of reasons to be wary of a Toro Rosso drive, but, well, you play the cards you're dealt - and it was Berger and Tost's team who were offering him a seat. Besides, the drive has some potential upsides. Firstly, there is the link with Red Bull. Sooner or later, Adrian Newey has surely got to hit form again, and when he does, a Red Bull drive could be a much coveted thing to have. With David Coulthard's career probably only having another year or so to run, Bourdais could yet place himself in a prime position to land a front running drive in 2009. In marked contrast to F1's current media darling, Lewis Hamilton, he would undoubtedly have taken the long way round to get there.

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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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