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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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Remembering Group C

Let's leave F1 alone for a week. I've nothing to add to the vast acres of coverage of the Renault 'race-fixing' scandal. The series of articles on the subject on Joe Saward's blog and last week's MPH column in Autosport together give a pretty good overview of the whole grubby affair. It appears that we have seen the back of Flavio Briatore. For me, he was always the personification of so much that is wrong with modern F1. His lack of any real interest in racing, his love of tawdry glamour, his willingness to do anything for a quick buck. I doubt he'll be missed.

The Renault team, though, has got a stay of execution - at least so long as chairman Carlos Ghosn doesn't decide that enough is enough. So there will still be two full manufacturer teams in the sport next year, assuming Toyota don't make a dash for the exit door, as is currently rumoured.

In the end, I'm still not convinced that Formula 1 really makes that much sense for major car makers. For the man on the street, it has always been first and foremost about the drivers, and not about the cars. Ferrari are a bit of a special case, and dyed-in-the-wool anoraks like me have our favourite teams, but most people are fans of Alonso, or Raikkonen, or Hamilton, not Toyota, BMW or Renault. In any case, the cars these days are so devoid of distinctive character, so visually alike, that it would be hard for most people to tell them apart were they painted uniform white, let alone decide upon a favourite.

The other weekend, I was catching up with my father, and he said that if he was to pick his absolute favourite experience of seeing motorsport trackside - he'd have to go with the opening laps of the 1990 British Empire Trophy, at Silverstone, the third round of that year's Group C Sports Car Championship. For me, it doesn't top the opening lap of the European Grand Prix at Donington - I was a huge Senna fan as a kid - but I was there with him and I can see what he means. The sight of the Sauber Mercedes and TWR Jaguars going doorhandle to doorhandle through Woodcote as if they were in a ten lap sprint rather than a 3 hour endurance race was quite something to behold.

It strikes me that this was the kind of series that made sense for motor manufacturers. For a start, it was all about the cars, rather than the drivers. Nobody really cared whether Mauro Baldi and Jochen Mass beat Alain Ferte and Andy Wallace. It was about Jaguar versus Porsche, versus Mercedes, versus the Japanese arrivistes, Mazda, Nissan and Toyota. And the cars were much more interesting than modern F1 cars. At the risk of oversimplifying massively, it was essentially a fuel-economy formula. Teams could run, within reason, whatever engine configuration they wanted, but simply running the biggest, most powerful block possible would leave the car running dry long before the race's end. As a result, there was huge variety in engines - Jaguar tried both stock-block 7 litre normally aspirated and 3 litre V6 turbo engines, Mercedes ran a 5 litre turbo, Aston Martin a 6 litre Callaway beast, while Toyota experimented with both 4 and 8 cylinder turbos. Mazda ploughed their own furrow with the distinctive, wailing 1.3l rotary engines which can still be found in their road cars.

It must also have counted for something that these cars were works of beauty, something that can be said of no modern F1 car. The Porsche 962 is a design classic, while the late 1980s series of Sauber Mercedes machines are to my mind perhaps the most visually arresting racing cars I've ever set eyes on. Worthy successors to the Silver Arrows of 1930s Grand Prix racing. Nissan and Aston Martin's efforts - the RC90 and the AMR1, also stand out, though somewhat heretically, I never much cared for

Group C racing never received the kind of coverage that F1 did - a short-ish entry in the back pages of the broadsheets, but little in the way of terrestrial TV coverage, save at Le Mans. It did, however, attract vastly greater crowds than sportscar racing manages to these days. People might not have been able to tell you who was at the wheel, but even casual racing fans would have known who won Le Mans - and even those who couldn't care less about motorsport might have recognised a TWR Jaguar XJR9. Not something one could say with confidence of the Aston Martin Lolas, Courage-AERs and ORECA-Aims that were fighting it out for the LMES series at Silverstone the other weekend. The lower profile of the series, in comparison to F1, probably helped play a part in keeping budgets sensible too. The potential rewards were smaller, and, while I have no way of knowing for sure, budgets probably reflected this. Certainly, a private team with the money to buy a Porsche 962 could, for many years, stand a chance of beating the works if they could buy in a couple of talented guys to drive it.

For a few years, Group C provided the purist racing fan with a fascinating, multi-dimensional contest fought out with exotic, mechanically interesting racing machinery. The drivers were very much a secondary consideration, but guys like Martin Brundle, Andy Wallace, Alain Ferte, Mauro Baldi and Bob Wollek certainly weren't slow. Oh, and there was that young German kid with the funny-shaped chin in one of the Sauber Mercedes. He didn't do bad...

It didn't last. The series went from having capacity grids and huge crowds in 1990, to struggling to put together a grid of 10 cars, to play to deserted venues, just two years later. There was no 1993 World Sportscar Championship. The death of Group C could probably be a whole article in itself. Was it simply a victim of the recession of the early 1990s? Of the growing media attention given to touring car racing? Or was it killed quite deliberately by the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone, who weren't keen on anything that looked like it might one day be a threat to F1. Certainly, in retrospect, the switch to F1-spec 3.5l normally aspirated engines was a bad move. But whether it was intended to kill the series, or whether it was simply a miscalculated attempt to provide a market for old F1 engines, is hard to say. Its our loss. Sports car racing has never been the same since. Every now and again, the LMES, or ALMS, looks like it might be on the up-swing, but it never quite works out. Probably now, with so many sports and activities competing for the public's attention, there will only ever be room for one high-profile racing series, and that will be Formula 1. But it's a shame, because in many ways, Group C racing personified so much of what F1 lacks.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Resurrection Man

So, from four, it looks like we are down to just two realistic contenders for the driver's World Title following the Italian Grand Prix. I had expected Red Bull to be right on the pace at Monza. Their car, after all, had been the class of the field at the very fast Silverstone race earlier in the year, and on balance, it appeared quicker than anything else around Spa - another very fast race track - a fortnight ago.

At Monza, it just didn't work out. Vettel looked to be seriously struggling for grip all afternoon and was lucky to score a single point after Hamilton committed hara-kiri on the final lap, trailing Nick Heidfeld's hitherto unfancied BMW Sauber. Mark Webber didn't even manage that - punted out by Heidfeld's team mate in a silly little accident at La Roggia on lap one. There was nothing, though, to suggest that he would have been any quicker than his young team mate on Sunday afternoon. If anything, Vettel had looked the faster of the two over the course of the weekend.

With Vettel now trailing Button by a massive 26 points with just 40 left on the table, and with both Red Bull drivers struggling for engines to go the rest of the season without grid penalty, there is now no way that either Red Bull driver can win the title. It is, I suppose, not quite beyond the bounds of possibility that Brawn could contrive to lose it - but as both Barrichello and Button would have to screw up, I doubt Ross Brawn is losing any sleep over the possibility.

It's all but certain that one of the two Brawn drivers, Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button, will be World Champion by the year's end. A Brazilian up against an Englishman, for the second year on the trot. If you'd told me this time last year that it would end up that way, I wouldn't be too surprised - but I would have been rather taken aback if you then went and told me that Felipe Massa was out of action in hospital, while Lewis Hamilton lies a distant 7th in the title race, with not even a mathematical chance of retaining his crown.

Barrichello is the in form man, two wins from the last three races, quiceker than Button more often than not since, well since Button's remarkable winning run came to an end at Silverstone, back in early June. Button is the hunted, Barrichello the hunter, and it's no mystery that the latter is the psychologically easier position to be in - nothing to lose, and everything to gain. On the other hand, I'm sure Barrichello would happily sacrifice any psychological edge he might have for the 14 point cushion that his team mate is sitting on. In theory, all Button has to do is follow Barrichello home closely over the final four races and the title is his - providing nobody gets between the two of them.

Whichever of Barrichello or Button ends up World Champion, it will be quite a story. Let's not forget, after all, that at the beginning of the season, neither of them were certain of having a drive in F1 at all this year. Honda had unexpectedly pulled out of the sport, and at the height of the world economic crisis, it seemed unlikely that anyone would put up the cash to enable the hitherto unsuccessful squad to continue. After 9 years in the sport, Button was staring career oblivion in the face. A man whom, it seemed, had the talent but thanks to - what? a lack of killer instinct? simple poor timing? had never been in quite the right place at the right time and with but a single win to his name, it appeared that if the Honda squad didn't survive, he was more than likely bound for sportscars and a year on the sidelines. Nearing 30, there was serious chance his career would never recover from such a blow. Then, of course, he went and won six of the opening seven races of the year. He might not have won since, but it might still be enough to bring him the World Title. And how many would have bet on that during the Christmas holidays?

In a way, though, it would be an even bigger story, even more of a comeback from seemingly the point of no return, if Rubens Barrichello were to clinch the title. It seems he's been around forever. And he has been around for a very long time. He was racing back in the days of the original Lotus F1 team... and he might just hang on to see the new Malaysian-based team of the same name take its place on the grid next year.

Sixteen years ago, I was stood on the bank in the rain at the Craner Curves for the European Grand Prix. Everyone remembers Donington for Ayrton Senna's outstanding opening lap. But he was not the only Brazilian who put in a remarkable performance that day. Like Button he came into the sport young, and at the age of 20, he was set for a podium in only his third Grand Prix at the wheel of a Jordan Hart, until the fuel pump failed a few laps from the end.

It would be another seven years before he found himself at the wheel of a potentially race winning car - replacing former Jordan team mate Eddie Irvine at Ferrari. Unfortunately, he came into a team entirely built around Michael Schumacher, and while he was able to match, and even outpace him on occasion (more than can be said for most who were paired up with the German) he was never more than a number-2 at the team. To fail to win the title in five years at the team might suggest he wasn't a real first class driver, if it weren't for both his status as an outrider for Schumacher, and the simple misfortune of being paired with the best driver of his era throughout his time with the team.

His move to Honda looked like a bookend to a long career, and even before the Japanese manufacturer pulled out, there was talk that Barrichello's time with the team was up. In November, Honda were testing the young Brazilians, Bruno Senna and Lucas Di Grassi, and were reportedly particularly impressed with Ayrton's nephew. With KERS placing a greater importance on having a light driver at the wheel, and with Rubens one of the heaviest drivers on the grid (along with Kubica and Webber) it seemed more than likely that he would be dropped by the team.

So it was that Honda's withdrawal, far from ending his career, just might have thrown Barrichello a lifeline. The now-independent team, with little winter testing time, and without KERS, now needed an experienced pair of hands far more than it needed a young hotshoe who might or might not be the next great star, but who would certainly face a learning year. Brawn and Barrichello had worked for years together at Ferrari - Ross knew that Rubinho was nothing if not a safe pair of hands.

Nonetheless, in the opening races, it was clear that he didn't quite have the pace of his team mate, Button. At the season's midpoint, Barrichello had not won a single race, while Button had won six. At Barcelona and at the Nurburgring, it all appeared to be getting to him. Reportedly unpaid, he was damned if he was going to turn up merely in order to provide the same service to Button that he had to Schumacher for all those years. But a part of him wondered if Brawn was again, quietly and covertly, subjugating Barrichello's interests to those of his team mate.

After his outburst at the Nurburgring, I half wondered whether he would even see out the season - it seemed like a sad end to a man who could be as quick as anyone on his day. Remember Silverstone 2003 - and remember that the cause of the furore at Austria in 2002 was that he had been plain faster than Schumacher all afternoon. But rather than go away and sulk, he dug in and found his form, just as his team mate, Button, was beginning to struggle with his. And now, with four races to go, he's driving as well as he ever has done, and he has an outside shot at becoming the oldest World Champion since Alain Prost, back in 1993. It really would be some story if he pulls it off...

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Wagging the Dog

It seemed like it wasn't quite a done deal for a moment, but Force India have now confirmed that Vitantonio Liuzzi will replace Giancarlo Fisichella at Monza. Those who have long wondered whether he got a fair crack of the whip at Toro Rosso will be pleased to see him get a second chance with Vijay Mallya's team, which appears much improved of late. Certainly it will be interesting to see how he stacks up against Adrian Sutil, who to me remains one of the great enigmas of the F1 grid. Devastatingly quick on his day, especially if said day is very wet, he nonetheless has failed to establish himself as consistently quicker than Fisichella, even as the Italian appears to be coasting towards retirement.

There are those who think that Liuzzi is really rather special. Joe Saward, who has long been a cheerleader for Liuzzi, pointed to his karting performance in a recent article on his blog. Clive Allen has long championed his former team mate at Toro Rosso, Scott Speed, and by extension, must presumably think Liuzzi too was under-valued. It is true, after all, that he was as quick as Sebastian Vettel when they were teamed together at the end of 2007, and he was utterly dominant when he took the final F3000 title in 2004. Against that, it could be argued that the 2004 F3000 field wasn't exactly the strongest the category had ever known, and that while he was as quick as Vettel, Vettel was taking his first steps in F1, while Liuzzi had considerable F1 experience. It will be interesting to see how he fares.

It appears, however, that one Bernie Ecclestone Esq. thinks that Mallya's Force India have chosen the wrong man for the job. He's expressed 'disappointment' that the team have chosen Liuzzi over GP2 racer Karun Chandhok. Now let's not beat about the bush. Chandhok might be perfectly capable of putting in a respectable performance in an F1 car. In the way that Tiago Monteiro, or Giorgio Pantano, or his fellow-countryman Narain Karthikeyan were. There is no way, however, that he would be top of anyone's list of potential future F1 megastars. If it were down to potential alone, he wouldn't even be in my top 10 list of candidates for the vacant seat at Force India. After all, he spent last year being soundly beaten by team mate Bruno Senna at ISport, and in the end, nobody took on Senna, despite his having perhaps the most marketable surname in motorsport. This year, he's generally been out-paced by team mate Alvaro Parente at Ocean Racing Technology, and it's fair to say that Parente himself probably isn't at the top of F1 team bosses' shopping lists either. Among the current GP2 drivers alone, I'd have thought Hulkenberg, Di Grassi and Petrov, to name three, were more obvious candidates for an F1 drive.

To be fair, Ecclestone was talking to the Hindustan Times when he was touting Chandhok for the Force India seat, so he might simply have been playing to the gallery. If there's more to it than that, though, I can only assume Ecclestone's desire to see Chandhok in an F1 car is driven by marketing, rather than sporting, considerations. After all, he's been trying to get a Indian Grand Prix off the ground for some time - or rather, he's been trying to persuade the Indians to pay to host a Grand Prix. He was knocked back last week, when The Indian Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport vetoed a payment from Indian Grand Prix promoter JPSK Sports to Formula One Administration, saying that Formula 1 is fundamentally a commercial entertainment and not a sport. Now, perhaps he thinks that an Indian driver in a competitive Indian car (albeit one built near Silverstone in the UK) will help to change the Indian Government's mind.

Ironic then, that Ecclestone should be pushing for a driver not on the grounds of his sporting prowess, his ultimate pace, or his experience, but on the basis that he's trying to sell the sport to 1 billion Indians (or, rather, perhaps, to whoever signs the cheques there) and could do with a driver of the right nationality to help close the deal. It might be the right decision if we're in the entertainment business, but from a sporting point of view, I can't quite see the logic. Looks like the entertainment tail wagging the sporting dog.

Of course, the lower reaches of the F1 grid has long had its share of drivers there for reasons other than pace alone. If your car is 3 or 4 seconds of the pace, there's little point in putting a guy who can get the last couple of tenths out of it, when money's in short supply and there's someone offering to bring pots of sponsorship cash to the party in exchange for a seat. After all, everyone has to pay the bills. For years, the team now known as Force India has adopted this policy, handing at least one of its cars over to whoever could write the largest cheque whilst still persuading the FIA he was worthy of a superlicence.

Now though, the situation is a little different. Yes, if the rumours are true, they're having cashflow problems and both Ferrari and Mercedes are owed money for their engines. But of late, the VJM02 has been a lot closer to the ultimate pace. Enough to grab pole position in Spa. Enough to start racking up significant points. And under the Concord agreement, points, or rather, one's position in the Constructors' Championship, mean prizes. Having the right driver in the car begins to really matter. And to be blunt, Chandhok was not the right driver. Liuzzi, though? He might well be. Whatever Bernie might think, for those running the team, it's still a sport.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Tales of the Unexpected

That was just possibly the strangest Grand Prix I've ever seen. Not the most exciting. Even at a circuit like Spa Francorchamps, overtaking appears to be all but impossible in the dry in a 2009-spec Formula 1 car, at least once everyone's warmed their tyres up, and the end result was a something of a high speed procession. But what a peculiar procession it was...

For much of the race, the top 3 was made up of drivers from three teams which had not won a race all year. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, leading from, of all people, Giancarlo Fisichella's Force India, with Robert Kubica holding 3rd until Vettel finally got the jump on him at the last pit stops. His BMW Sauber at last beginning to come good after a miserable season, on the heels of the parent company's recent decision to withdraw from the sport at the end of the year. It was the performance of Fisichella' s Force India which was, by some distance, hardest to explain.

Ferrari might not have won a race until last Sunday, but they had been on the podium in each of the last 3 races, and with Spa being all but tailor-made for KERS, with the long drags up from la Source to Les Combes at the beginning of the lap, and from Stavelot to the Bus Stop at the other end, Spa has long seemed, along with Monza, the place the Scuderia was most likely to break its 2009 duck. Add to that the fact that Kimi Raikkonen always flies at Spa, and the eventual winner was not so unexpected.

Eventual third place finished Sebastian Vettel might have been odds on to win on Friday morning. The cool temperatures of the Ardennes at the end of August and the importance of aerodynamic efficiency through Pouhon and Fagnes should have played to the strengths of the Red Bull. As it was, the Red Bull never looked quite the devastating machine it had at Silverstone, the last real 'aero' track the F1 circus had visited. But for an awful start which left him stuck behind a number of much slower cars,k though, he might stillhave converted his 8th place on the grid into a win. As it was, he will take some consolation from the fact that with Button and Webber failing to score, he has kept himself in the title fight. He's really going to have to repeat last year's performance at Monza though...

What on earth to make of the performance of the man, and the car, which finished second!? Where did that performance come from? Yes, every now and again, F1 produces a freak result, but usually the explanation is apparent enough to the seasoned observer. The wins for Panis' Ligier at Monaco in 1996 and Johnny Herbert's Stewart at the Nurburgring might look equally unexpected, but they were essentially drivers in midfield cars benefiting in races of very high attrition.

Likewise, Damon Hill's near miss for Arrows at the Hungaroring in 1997 and the freak grid at the US Grand Prix at Phoenix in 1990 (Pierluigi Martini's Minardi on the front row, De Cesaris' Dallara ahead of Senna's Mclaren in 3rd, and Olivier Grouillard's Osella in eighth, perhaps even harder to explain on the face of it) were a consequence of the fact that Bridgestone and Pirelli, respectively, had produced the best rubber on the day at a time when all the serious, front-running teams were on Goodyears.

There is no such simple explanation for Fisi's pace at Spa that I can see. Yes, several of the expected front runners fell by the wayside, but Fisichella had been in front of them all at the time, having grabbed pole. Yes, Fisichella likes Spa, but so do a lot of other drivers. Button, for instance, has often gone very well there, and yet qualified outside the top 10 last weekend. There's no doubting, too, that Force India have been steadily improving this season, but only to the point where they no longer were routinely bringing up the very rear of the field. In the dry, they haven't previously threatened the points?

Why might the car suddenly have been so quick. Well, it's certainly clear that the 2009-spec control Bridgestones are very temperamental tyres, difficult to get into their operating window, and it seems that on that day, at Spa, with its combination of a very abrasive track surface and relatively low temperatures, the Force India was getting the tyres right into their operating window. There might well have been a substantial element of luck in this. With in-season testing banned this year, I'm not sure any of the teams have really been able to get a handle on all the tyres in all conditions.

Add to that, the Force India/Spyker has always tended to run a little better at Spa these last few years than it has at most other circuits. Maybe the team have just stumbled on a set-up trick that works well there. They also reckon that the latest upgrades have significantly improved the high speed aerodynamic downforce. Perhaps they've just produced a better implementation of the double-diffuser concept than anyone else. The radical rules change and the testing ban have tilted things a little back towards ingenuity and chance, and away from exhaustive iterative improvement and megabucks.

Mark Hughes take is that what we are seeing is that the Force India just happens to be supremely well adapted to a low-downforce set-up and this has been the first race all season at which this has really counted for anything. If he's right, they'll be right on it at Monza. Over at Autosport, Tony Dodgins (behind a paywall, but worth the subscription) relays the comments of one observer who wonders if something more sinister is going on - "It's simple, the team on pole has allegedly got some unpaid bills, the team that's second is not certain to carry on in F1 and the team that's third is for sale – so obviously they've all got the special comeback tyres that were meant for Schuey!" It's not been the first time this year that there have been whisperings that some Bridgestones are more equal than others.

Paranoia? Probably. It's always tempting to search for excuses when you aren't doing as well as you hoped and expected. And the idea that either the FIA or FOM are somehow conspiring to nobble some teams with duff tyres, because of their role in FOTA, or because of animus between the team principal and Ecclestone or Mosley is going to be hard to shake, even if its groundless nonsense. On the other hand, I had taken much the same view of suggestions that Nelson Piquet was instructed to crash out of the Singapore Grand Prix last year...

If Hughes is right, and the Force India is simply very good in low downforce trim, then this might just put Giancarlo Fisichella between the horns of a real dilemma over the next few days. There have been persistent rumours that Fisi is being lined up to replace the hapless Badoer in the second Ferrari. In normal circumstances, I don't doubt he would have jumped at the chance to see out the autumn of his career with a few races behind the wheel of the Prancing Horse. An Italian, in a Ferrari, at Monza.... How could he resist?

But wait a minute. Is the Ferrari actually a faster car than the Force India at the moment? And can he really pass up on the chance of winning the team's first race? If I were him, I'd be much more confident of my chances against Adrian Sutil in a Force India, than those of beating Kimi Raikkonen in an unfamiliar Ferrari. A tough call, but a nice problem to have. I hope he takes the chance if Ferrari come knocking, but if I'm honest, that's because I want to see what Tonio Liuzzi can do in a competitive Force India. Assuming, of course, that Spa was more than a freak occurrence.

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