Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Road Trip

Seeing as I have a lot else occupying my time this week, I thought I'd dive into what passes for the archives here - or more specifically, a scribbled account of a trip to the Belgian Grand Prix in 1999. My father had, years before, told me of his hitch-hike down to the French Grand Prix of 1972, complete with near death experiences at the hands of a drunk woman at the wheel of a Citroen 2CV. Twenty seven years later, needing a break after spending the summer break from university gutting fish in a factory in Granton, I repeated the experience. Here, with minor editing to correct the worst of the grammatical infelicities, and to remove the more incomprehensible private jokes*, are my notes from the trip....

It all begins chaotically enough with the realisation at 6am in the morning that I have no medical insurance, little in the way of clean clothes, and can't even find a marker pen for the hitch-hike signs. A big hole in my plans to be on the A74 by 9am. In fact, by the time I've got an E111 (best to be on the safe side, in case the race has sold out and I have to start climbing fences at Spa), raced over to South Bridge to send an urgent email and negotiated the almost Kafkaesque LRT Bus system to get out of Edinburgh, it's damned near 11 o clock. I begin to wonder whether Sunday might be a better bet than Friday night for arrival in Dover, but my luck is in. I don't even get as far as my chosen hitching spot when a Med student in a dark green Golf pulls up. He can take me as far as Stoke. The whole mad idea of hitching to Spa begins to look like it might work.

We spend a few hours bemoaning the state of British sport as we head south, and he launches off on a long monologue about the shortcomings of people who drive Volvo 3 serieses and the impossibility of getting anywhere by train. I'm also treated to a tirade on the state of British television. It's the price you pay for a free lift - you're a captive audience for the pet rants of whoever has picked you up. Before I reach Dover, I will also receive insights into the merits of German cars, and how the law is an ass if you're a truck driver. I have a horrible suspicion that my own specialist subject could be the pros and cons of hitching out of different UK motorway service stations.

On that note, I ask to be dropped off at Knutsford so I can avoid the horrors of Sandbach Services (I was stuck there for 3 hours in the early hours of the morning while trying to win a hitch-hiking race earlier in the year) and leave the Golf driving medic to get to his mountain bike race. I have a race of my own to get to. 20 minutes later and I'm off down the M1 to Leicester with a former teacher who now "co-ordinates half-witted Mersey sales reps" at a plastic sheeting company for a living. He seems happy enough. The teaching profession really must be hellish. Leicester Services turn out not to be the best in the place in the world to hitch a lift out of - an awful slip road and not much in the way of traffic on a Friday afternoon. I amuse myself for a while trying vainly to thumb a lift from fast women in faster cars. After three quarters of an hour or so, the entertainment value is lessening somewhat, and I'm glad to get a lift to Dover with a lorry driver who is friendly enough, if rather taciturn. For want of anything else to do, I flick through his copy of the Sun and ponder the story of 'Jaws' being sighted in the English channel. After giving up on the Sun, I content myself with staring out of the window and puzzling over what the people of the south east have chosen to call their towns. We pass a village called 'Thong' on the A2.

Sleeping in Dover ferry port proves, if not quite impossible, then certainly damned close. Announcements remind us in four languages not to smoke, leave our luggage unattended or park our cars outside the entrance for more than 15 minutes don't exactly help, but with the horrid artificial light that bathes the place, I doubt it made much difference. At 5 in the morning, I take a walk across Dover's deserted promenade to the Hoverspeed terminal and am rewarded with a very cheap ticket for the 7.30 to Ostend, at which point I decide to ditch the hitch-hiking, given that my InterRail pass now enables me to travel for free.

Arrival at Spa turns out to be something of a shock. While I had assumed that Spa and Francorchamps were one and the same, a quick glance at the station map informs me that Francorchamps is up a hill some six miles away. I attempt to ask when the bus to the Grand Prix is in French, but the reply I get is incomprehensible, so I wander out of the station resignedly and weigh up the possibility of doing some more hitching when I see two German backpackers draped in Ferrari and 'Schumi' flags, heading for a yellow bus and I'm on my way up the hill.

This weekend, it seems, there are no Belgians in Francorchamps. The village has been invaded by more than a hundred thousand Germans, dressed mainly in Ferrari T-Shirts and waving banners with the name of their absent hero, Michael Schumacher. A sprinkling of yellow Jordan T-shirts hints at a British presence, but these turn out to be worn by yet more Germans, supporting their country's last best hope in the absence of Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen. I secure a camping space in pidgin German and wander off into the village to soak up the atmosphere. Somehow, I wander around for a good 20 minutes without finding the circuit entrance, but a German tout sells me a reduced price ticket for the race. I wander back to the campsite, passing on the way some Irishmen at the bar, drowning out everyone else with chants of 'Irvine, Irvine'. The Irish presence is virtually negligible, but they make up in noise for what they lack in numbers.

I share a beers with some fairly mad looking guys from Luxembourg who sit comparing best laps of the Nordschliefe - one managed a 10 minute lap on his Suzuki 750. They also have a few digs at Ferrari, who as I point out, should have won five championships this decade, but as a consequence of their own incompetence, have failed to win any. The Luxembourgers head off for the bar. I decline to follow, feeling in desperate need of some sleep after two days on the road and little in the way of sleep. I talk to a Dutch couple , one of whom saw his first race at Spa in 1985, two weeks before I went to my first Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, then drift quickly off to sleep despite the best efforts of the Germans on the campsite with their heavy artillery. Sorry. Firecrackers.

Woken early by the sound of an alarm clock going off in the tent next to mine. Notice that, quelle surprise, what with Francorchamps being at the top of a big, big hill, it's absolutely Baltic at half five in the morning. Wander down to the La Source entrance, buying a coffee that gets cold before I can drink it along the way. Quickly make my way up to my preferred spot at the top of Eau Rouge and watch dawn break before some officious chap in a purple overall informs me that I don't have the appropriate £300 ticket to be standing where I am and moves me, and it seems, everyone else standing within 100m of me, along and out of the way.

I walk around the circuit for a bit as it slowly begins to fill up with Schumi's army (poster of note - 'The Schuminator' - He'll be Back...) Can't help feeling there is some of the same unpleasant undertow to this bunch as there was to the football hooligans who flocked to see Nigel Mansell in the late eighties and early nineties. Michael himself, of course, is undergoing physiotherapy in Switzerland right now.

Not sure if my memory is serving me right, but F1 cars seem louder than ever. The Honda engined Jordans in particular are absolutely deafening. Nobody seems to be going for any heroics this morning, perhaps understandable. BAR lose three chassis to accidents over the weekend. Ralf Schumacher almost loses his Williams and neither of the Jordan drivers look particularly happy but the session is otherwise uneventful.

Decide that the slow 90deg corner above Pouhon** is just a bit too ordinary a place to watch F1 cars from, and walk down the track to Pouhon, taking no more than a passing interest in the rather antiseptic Porsche GT race that is going on in the background. Pouhon looks mightily impressive, but there's no place to sit, or even stand, there and after watching the drivers' parade (curiously team mates seem to be standing as far from each other as the limited dimensions of the truck allows, though whether by design or accident, I couldn't say). I head on past Stavelot, Fagnes and Malmedy and settle on the idea of watching at least the first part of the race from from Blanchimont.

The start appears to be messy - I can see only the the back two rows through the zoom lens on my camera but it appears that at least one of the Arrows on the back row doesn't get away properly and some of the others appear to be taking evasive action. Yellows are waved frantically, suggesting that someone has done something stupid at La Source. Sio it comes as something of a surprise when all 21 cars (Tora Takagi's Arrows has gone AWOL) make it round the first lap, and David Coulthard appears to have got the jump on everyone. Irvine has fought his way up to fourth, while Hill has somewhat predictably slid back to seventh. Zanardi is an impressive sixth for Williams.

The race carries on in this vein. Nobody of any great significance drops out and David Coulthard runs away the comfortable winner. Hill and Salo both make their way past Zanardi at the pit stops, while Luca Badoer does a good job of hassling the slower Prosts, BARs and Benettons in the quicker of the two Minardis. I try to watch a bit of the action from the Bus Stop but it is vastly over-catchfenced and my view is impeded by 'Schumi' flags so I wander back down to Stavelot, only for the race to end before I get there.

I wander back down to the finish line with the intention of having a snoop around the paddock, but it quickly becomes apparent that the world has changed somewhat since I last went to a race, in my early teens, and purple-shirted goons are guarding the pit lane in a manner that leaves me a little surprised that they don't have semi-automatic rifles at their sides. From my vantage point at the entrance to the pitlane, I'm able to see enough to see that the sport has become a great deal more professional in the last six or seven years. Even the smallest, poorest outfits (a rather relative term in the world of F1) have neat, expensive looking team shirts and several huge, shiny new transporters that dwarf even those used by the largest of teams when I last crawled into the paddock, at Silverstone in 1992. I toy around the idea of going for a walk around the circuit, but I'm feeling hot and exhausted and so head back to the campsite to catch up on some sleep.

* I've taken out the rather strange diversions about my old Head of Sixth Form and the quality of coffee in Verviers. There's also a long and rather incomprehensible ramble about my flatmate flooding the kitchen by overfilling the washing machine on the day I left. It's a little vitriolic, and at the time I wrote it, I didn't know I would end up dating her for two years...

**My notes have completely different corner names, but my memory says otherwise. I'm sure I'd just given the corners the wrong names. I blame the Belgian beer. Or did I write this in Amsterdam a few days later? Maybe it was Prague, I was a bit absinthe-minded at that time....

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Motorsports Ramblings Top 10 - 2009

It's become something of an annual tradition here at Motorsports Ramblings for me to produce an annual top 10 list of the best drivers in F1 each year, in the same vein as that which appears in Autocourse. As usual, my own list, if rather less definitive, is at least available a month or so ahead of theirs. Argue with my selections if you will...

10. Robert Kubica

It seems to me that the Pole has on-years and off-years, in alternation. In 2006, he arrived in the sport in a blaze of publicity, only to disappoint slightly in the admittedly less competitive 2007 BMW. He was my driver of the year in 2008, keeping himself in the title battle until the penultimate race in a BMW Sauber that by rights had no business fighting with Hamilton and Massa, but was strangely disappointing this year. I still think it possible that he's a talent in the same league as Alonso or Hamilton, but it's becoming harder to argue when he ends up being outpaced by Nick Heidfeld, as was the case much of the time this season.

Nonetheless, he makes my list because there were odd days, usually when the BMW was at its most competitive, when Kubica reminded us all why he's still regarded by some of us as being very special indeed. The BMW might have been reasonably competitive in the last rounds, but it had no business finishing up second in Brazil, and keeping winner Mark Webber's Red Bull under pressure, in spite of being down on revs owing to overheating concerns. Kubica got absolutely everything out of the car in Singapore to pick up but a single point, and only narrowly missed out on a podium in Belgium. With, admittedly, a lot of help from a fortunately timed safety car, he might even have won the opening race, at Melbourne, had he not collided with Vettel in the dying laps. In the end, he did enough to make my top 10, but there were too many days like his final race at Abu Dhabi, where he was anonymous and a poor second best to Nick Heidfeld, to warrant being placed any higher.

9. Nick Heidfeld

He's not one of the sport's more exciting characters. And he's never going to be World Champion, though if he ever gets himself in the right car, he would probably win races. This year, Nick Heidfeld, in his tenth season in Formula 1, and once again finding himself stuck in a very second-rate car, knuckled down and got about as much as anyone could be expected to from the BMW Sauber F1.09. There was a fair bit of luck involved in his second place at Malaysia, but his drives at Suzuka and Abu Dhabi were indicative of a man who got the very most out of the car. And even if Kubica was having a bit of an off-year, anyone who can outqualify the Pole 7 times and score more points must have been doing something right.

8. Mark Webber

It's taken 7 years, but the perennially unlucky Australian finally got himself into a race-winning car. Unfortunately, he also found himself up against the strongest team mate he has ever faced, and was living with the consequences of a broken leg and shoulder sustained in a winter cycling accident. He rarely looked quite as quick as Sebastian Vettel did, but there were occasions when he was very impressive indeed. His first win was one of the standout drives of the year - refusing to let a drive-through penalty get in the way of converting his Nurburgring pole into victory. He held his nerve, too, when Vettel messed up his starting advantage at Turkey.

All the same, it was an ever so slightly disappointing season from Mark. The last race, at Abu Dhabi, summed up his year. A solid, competent performance, in which he did well to defend his second place from Jenson Button in the late stages, but one in which he never seemed to have the electrifying pace of his young wunderkind of a team mate.

7. Rubens Barrichello

He lost it in the first part of the season. Yes, he had more than his fair share of whatever misfortune was headed Brawn's way this year, but the blunt truth is that, until the British Grand Prix, he was simply not on Jenson Button's pace. He actually outqualified the Briton 10-7 over the year, but it was his race pace which seemed to be ever so slightly lacking.

He was beaten by Button at Spain and at the Nurburgring, because he simply couldn't turn in the series of near-qualifying laps that Button could. One wonders whether Barrichello, who is by some distance the oldest driver on the grid now, simply lacks the fitness of some of his younger rivals. He certainly seemed to be struggling physically with the g-forces of the tough, anti-clockwise Interlagos circuit, though whether it affected his pace was harder to judge. On the other hand, there were days when Barrichello was spell-binding. Beating Button at his home turf at Silverstone seemed to mark a turning-point and soon after came his first win in five years at Valencia, where he was pushed to the limit by Hamilton and came out ahead. Then there was Monza, where he held his nerve in a tense battle with his team mate to take what might turn out to be his final race victory, and what was certainly one of his finest.

6. Nico Rosberg

Assessing Nico Rosberg's performance this year was incredibly difficult, for the simple reason that it's just not clear how good the car he had underneath him was. Nonetheless, the statistics show that he scored all 34.5 of Williams' points this year. Exactly how much of an achievement this was rather depends on how quick his team mate Kazuki Nakajima was. Was one Williams being propelled further up the grid than it really belonged by a very gifted driver, or was the other underperforming in the hands of a very average one?

We can't know the answer for sure, but what was apparent was that Rosberg, in marked contrast with last year, appeared to do a very solid, consistent job with a car which, on the face of it, was nowhere near the pace of the front-runners, and in so doing, racked enough points to single-handedly run BMW Sauber very close for 6th in the Constructors title battle. In contrast with his 2008 season, there were few mistakes you could point to so it is a shame that his one glaring faux-pas of the season came at Singapore, when his transgressing the white line on the exit from the pits after his first scheduled stop came on the one weekend when he looked in with an outside shot of victory. Up to then, Rosberg fils was doing a very good job of conjuring up memories of his father, pushing a Williams right to the limit around a tight wall-lined street circuit. Next year, he'll be at Brawn, and we might get a firm picture of exactly how quick he really is.

5. Kimi Raikkonen

Kimi Raikkonen only really seemed to come into his own when Felipe Massa was forced out of action by his Hungarian GP qualifying accident, but he rose admirably to the challenge of becoming the clear team leader at Ferrari, and left me wondering whether the supposedly robotic and unemotional Finn was more affected by the team's affection for Felipe Massa than we might have thought.

His second place at Hungary was the beginning of a run of five consecutive podium finishes, in a car which Ferrari engineers seemed to think didn't really belong there
. Luca Badoer was clearly out of his depth in the other car, but even so, Giancarlo Fisichella, an experienced racer who had taken a podium with Force India in Belgium, wasn't able to get the Ferrari into the points in his five races with the team. Raikkonen's win in Belgium, in a car which was probably not the best in the field, showcased the man's improvisational genius, taking full advantage of his KERS system to grab the lead before Fisichella's Force India could get away, and then using it to stay there.

The end of the year might have been a bit dispiriting by contrast, but another podium in Brazil might well have been on the cards had he not lost time in the pits after Mark Webber chopped across him and took off his front wing on the opening lap. And the Ferrari team didn't appear to expect a fourth place in Japan, where the car never really looked close to the pace. Apparently he won't be with us next year, and his post-race interviews won't be missed, but his driving, at its inspired best, certainly will be.

4. Fernando Alonso

There was just one podium for the Spanish double champion this year. But let's not forget that he was driving a car so uncompetitive that neither of his team mates, Nelson Piquet Jr or Romain Grosjean could get so much as a sniff of a points finish with. That he got the car on pole at Hungary, and into the top-10 shootout in qualifying 11 times, when his team mates never once made the top 10 run off, showed the difference he was making. That Fernando Alonso finished the year with 26 points on the board was testament to his incredible tenacity, and the simple truth that he is one of the two or three best drivers in the sport right now.

Highlights? Well the pole position in Hungary might have owed a little too much to a rather silly fuel strategy, but the drive to 3rd in Singapore - in a car which his team mate couldn't get off the back row of the grid, was remarkable, at one of the few tracks on the F1 calendar which still gives a driver real scope to overcome the limitations of his machinery. And then there was the incredible wheel-to-wheel battle with Lewis Hamilton, for lap after lap, at Silverstone. So it was all over 15th place? That circuit's all about aerodynamic downforce, and on that day, neither the Renault nor the Mclaren had any. But they are racers and boy, did they race...

3. Sebastian Vettel

It's easy to forget, sometimes, that Sebastian Vettel is just 22, and was in only his second full season of Formula 1. He took four wins on his way to second place in the World Championship this year, and generally outpaced Mark Webber - not something that any of the Australian's previous team mates could ever claim. In so doing, he went a long way to living up to the his reputation as one of the very fastest men in the sport. His win in very difficult conditions in China, after only the bare minimum of running on the Saturday, was one of the drives of the season.

The thing is, but for a series of errors - some large and some small, he might have been able to win the title for Red Bull. The crash at Melbourne cost him at least six points, and the accident in Monaco probably another four. Then there was the first lap mistake while leading in Turkey which probably cost him a second place. Add them up, and you get a total of 12 points. And Button won the title by 11.

To be fair, though, Vettel suffered rather more than his rival from mechanical woes. There were engine failures at both Hungary and Valencia, and more points went begging when he got caught out by the freak rain storm at Malaysia. For a man in only his second season, and even taking account the way Lewis Hamilton has rewritten the form-book in terms of what it is reasonable to expect from young F1 stars, it was nonetheless a very impressive performance from the 22 year old man from Heppenheim. If Adrian Newey and Red Bull can maintain the momentum, I wouldn't bet against Vettel coming back even stronger in 2010.

2. Jenson Button

It could be argued that Jenson Button backed into this year's World Title, cruising and collecting. But let's not forget how it was that he got into a position to be able to do so. In the opening races of the season, when the Brawn enjoyed its greatest margin of superiority over the rest of the field, he was utterly imperious. Thereafter, it was largely a matter of keeping his head down, racking up the points and making sure that he didn't get caught up in silly, needless accidents. In contrast with, for example, Sebastian Vettel, it is very hard to point to any instances where Button threw away points through driver error. Yes, he seemed to struggle in qualifying, and sometimes, for example, at Valencia, this had a serious knock-on effect on his eventual race result, but he did his best to make up for this limitation by carving out a reputation as one of the best overtakers in the business.

His drive to the title in Brazil was typical of this. On his way from 15th to 5th, he dispatched with Nakajima, Grosjean, Buemi and Kobayashi in memorable style, giving the lie to the notion that F1 is entirely impossible. Back at the beginning of the season, too, his first lap moves on Vettel and Hamilton proved crucial in ensuring he eventually finished up winning, ahead of the German. In the end, he misses out on the top spot only because I can't help thinking he made much heavier work than necessary of sewing up the title, after opening up a huge lead in the championship early on. Next year, he faces an even bigger challenge, when he will go up against Lewis Hamilton in equal equipment.

1. Lewis Hamilton

So he only won two races... But frankly, this year's Mclaren was not a race winning car. Team mate Heikki Kovalainen never managed to get it near the podium. Somebody seemed to forget to tell Hamilton though. He picked up two victories, there would almost certainly have been a third had his brakes not failed in Abu Dhabi, and wound up fifth in the World Championship. It looked so unlikely early on in the season, when the Mclaren was the thick end of 2 seconds off the pace.

Yes, his year was not without mistakes. There was the qualifying accident in Monaco that put paid to any chance of his upsetting the formbook on the street circuit he made his own last year, and then there was the last lap crash at Monza whilst making a final effort to overhaul Jenson Button for second place. But this year's Mclaren was a car he had to push right to the limit, and occasionally beyond, if he was going to get a result out of it. Had he been in the running for the world title, and at the wheel of a dominant car, these would have been silly errors, but in the circumstances, they were indicative of a fierce competitive nature that refused to accept meekly the way the cards had fallen for him this year.

He matured too, as a man capable of providing focus and technical direction to a team floundering with a troublesome car. Where some drivers might have let their heads go down or lost interest, Hamilton never appeared to give less than his all. The only real blot on his copybook occurred outside the car. His drive to 3rd place in Melbourne was supremely impressive in a car that had no business being there, but his outright lies to the stewards about whether he had deliberately slowed to let Jarno Trulli past were not befitting of a World Champion, and his attempts to shift the blame onto the team afterwards were without excuse. If the team had instructed him to lie, he was, quite simply, still under a duty to be honest with the stewards. Still, I can't help thinking Britain's newest World Champion could be in for a hell of a tough time next year...

The rest...

First things first. Felipe Massa belongs on this list. Or he would do if I hadn't taken the difficult decision to exclude him in order to make things easier, given that he missed the last 7 of the year's 17 Grands Prix
. Until his season-ending accident in Hungary, he had usually been the quicker man at Ferrari and his podium at the Nurburgring, immediately before Hungary, suggests that he might have led the Scuderia's late-season revival of their fortunes.

An argument could be made for inclusion of either of the Toyota drivers in this year's top 10. Jarno Trulli continued his career-long habit of blowing hot and cold. He was on the podium three times during the course of the year, and his drive to second, beating Hamilton, at Suzuka, was as good a drive as anyone managed this year. But then, there were the days like his anonymous run to 12th in Singapore, where his team mate Timo Glock took second. Glock looked steady, and didn't deserve to be pushed aside for the final two races (I never entirely believed the claims that he was unfit to race following his Suzuka practice accident) but appears to be a solid number 2 in the Kovalainen mould, rather than a future star.

Sebastien Buemi acquitted himself reasonably well at Toro Rosso, and finished off Sebastien Bourdais' career in the process, but there was no single stand-out moment that suggested the first Swiss driver since Gregor Foitek is a future star. He does, however, deserve credit for picking up points at a truly treacherous Chinese Grand Prix in only his third race, on a day when many more experienced hands fell off the road. Jaime Alguersuari perhaps did as much as could be expected from an inexperienced teenager thrown in at the deep end mid-season, but I see nothing to indicate he's anything special, and the team might have picked up more points by sticking with Bourdais.

He certainly did better than Romain Grosjean managed at Renault. The Franco-Swiss racer had built up a reputation for being fast but erratic in F3 and GP2. In F1, he merely looked erratic. He simply made too many mistakes. He might be better than he was made to look alongside Alonso, but I doubt he'll get another chance. An unforgiving world, F1... Nelson Piquet Jr. did nothing to suggest he deserved the second chance he got at Renault and his decision to spill the beans about Crashgate following his sacking after Hungary smacked more of vengeance than whistle-blowing.

Giancarlo Fisichella had a final flourish with Force India at the Belgian Grand Prix - we'll pass over the fact, for now, that a driver with greater racecraft might have kept Raikkonen back after the restart, and brought the former Jordan team its first win under Vijay Mallya, but ended his career on a low when he went to Maranello to substitute for Felipe Massa. The less said about Luca Badoer the better. He got the chance of a life-time, too late in the day perhaps, and succeeded only in going from might-have-been to never-was. Fisichella's erstwhile team mate at Force India, Adrian Sutil, was hard to assess. There were times, such as in the wet in China, when he got the car far further up the field than it had any business being, but all too often he got caught up in silly little accidents. And if he was really quick, why was it that he was so comprehensively outpaced by team mate Fisichella at Spa?

Of the late-season substitutions, Vitantonio Liuzzi fared better than most. He was generally just about shaded by Sutil, but might have scored a podium had his gearbox not broken at Monza. At Singapore he looked out of his depth, but elsewhere, he was pretty respectable, and deserves a proper go, with a bit of winter testing to get him up to speed, next year. Kamui Kobayashi, who, after winning the GP2 Asia series last winter, went nowhere fast in the summer series and looked set for the scrapheap, was mighty impressive when he was given a couple of races in a Toyota. In Brazil, he did a good job of trying to sabotage Button's title hopes, by keeping the Briton behind him for lap after lap, and in the final race, he went one better by passing him on-track during the pit-stops on his way to 6th. It would be a shame if, with Toyota's withdrawal, he has to go back to making sushi in his father's restaurant...

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Every Dog Has Its Day - F1 2009 In Review - Part Two

Only Brawn, Red Bull, Mclaren and Ferrari actually won races this year. Yet the strangest thing about this season, in many ways, what marked it out from the 25 or so I've seen before, was that almost all of the remaining six teams on the grid had days when they looked as though they were in contention, and with a fair wind, they might have joined the winners' circle.

Perhaps the strongest of the six was the now departed Toyota team. It is ironic that the German-Japanese squad have had the rug pulled from under them by the parent company just as they were beginning to look like a serious racing team, as opposed to an enormously expensive white elephant. They made a number of very good calls this year. They were one of three teams to hit upon the double-diffuser concept from the start, and this put them in good stead in the early part of the season. They were also the only manufacturer team not to divert time and money into a KERS programme that they couldn't make work. The team locked out the front row at the third round in Bahrain, and I still wonder if they might have been in with a shout of victory of they had played a tactically smarter game - and in particular had they not put the wrong tyres on both cars at the first stop.

For much of the mid-season, the team appeared to slip into anonymity, struggling to make the tyres work and scoring little after Trulli's podium in Turkey. It was perhaps during this long, disappointing summer, the nadir of which came with a truly embarrassing performance at Monaco where neither driver could get sufficient heat into the tyres and one-time Monte Carlo winner Trulli was left ambling round at the back, seconds of the pace, that the decision was taken by the Toyota board to throw in the towel. If so, the late season return to form is all the more ironic. Timo Glock took an impressive second in Singapore after Rosberg and Vettel eliminated themselves from contention with penalties for pitlane offences and, Jarno Trulli, who had been nowhere in Singapore, settled the score at Toyota's home race (albeit on a track owned by Honda) at Suzuka, with another second place. In the end, it was a case of close, but no cigar for the team though. This year, they came closer than they ever have to taking a maiden race victory, but they leave the sport winless.

The same cannot quite be said of BMW-Sauber. Nonetheless, Mario Thiessen's decision to abandon development of the 2008 car to concentrate on a 2009 title assault now looks mightily presumptuous. It was never quite clear what was wrong with the 2009 BMW. There were times when it ran quite respectably. Aided by luck with the timing of the safety car, Robert Kubica looked in with a shot of victory at the opening race in Melbourne before he locked horns with Sebastian Vettel 3 laps from the end. Nick Heidfeld, who showed rather better relative to his much heralded team mate than he had last year, picked up a lucky second place a week later in Malaysia, and did a good job of picking up the minor points in a car that appeared capable of no more. There were days when it appeared Robert Kubica wasn't really interested, although it may only have been that he was less able to adapt to the 09 BMW's foibles than Heidfeld, who has rather greater experience of driving 'difficult' cars. That said, Kubica's drive to second in the Brazilian Grand Prix was one of the highlights of the year for me.

Unlike Toyota, who always struck me as a rather soulless team, devoid of real character, I'll miss BMW. Yes, they were ultimately just the plaything of a large corporation, but they done a good job of turning the Sauber team into a front-running squad, until things went wrong this year. That they didn't do the right thing by the Swiss team, failing to sign the Concord Agreement and selling the assets to shady investment company Qadbak rather than handing it back to Peter Sauber, leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth. A shame, because the building blocks were in place to put together a really first-rate racing team.

Renault, in contrast with Toyota and BMW, appear for now to be sticking with F1. From being, at least in terms of race wins, the most successful of the manufacturer teams last year, they slipped well back down the order in 2009. It is hard to assess exactly how bad the 2009 Renault was, because it was effectively a one-car team. All of the squad's 29 points came from their departing number 1 driver Fernando Alonso. It is hard to know whether this was a case of Alonso dragging the car places it didn't really belong, or whether Romain Grosjean and Nelson Piquet simply weren't getting the job done. Probably it was a mix of the two. There was a pole position in Hungary, achieved by running ridiculously light, and a podium in Singapore, but other than that it was a barren year for the Anglo-French squad. They made the news only when the 'crashgate' story broke in the aftermath of the sacking of Nelson Piquet Jr.

Given the $100m fine that Mclaren got for unauthorised use of Ferrari data by one of its employees a couple of years back, the deliberate arranging of an accident to attempt to fix a Grand Prix seemed to be remarkably lightly punished all told. But then perhaps the FIA decided that now was not the time to start driving teams out of the sport. And arguably the chief beneficiary of the move, Fernando Alonso, got off lightest of all. It seems hard to believe he would have run the strategy he did in Singapore had he not had some inkling what was planned. Flavio Briatore bore the brunt of the FIA's wrath. He'll probably be missed about as much as Toyota F1.

Williams started the year in the best form they have shown for several seasons, another team to benefit from spotting the 'double diffuser' loophole in the 2009 aero-regs from the outset. Sadly, the cards never seemed to fall their way. Potential podiums in both the opening races were lost to the timing of the safety car and a bungled pit stop in Australia, and to the timing of the opening of the heavens in Malaysia. The team flattered to deceive to some extent, usually topping the timesheets in free practice, only to slip back down the order when it counted on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

All the same, the team were probably stronger than their 7th place in the Constructor's Championship might suggest. Only once, at Singapore, did they look as if they might be within striking distance of winning a race, although Lewis Hamilton probably had Rosberg covered even before Rosberg effectively eliminated himself from proceedings by tripping over the white line on the pitlane exit. However, there were other races, notably Brazil and Malaysia, where car and driver looked much stronger than the final points tally suggests. As with Renault, Williams were held back by the fact that, in a tight and competitive field, they relied exclusively on Rosberg to pick up points. Kazuki Nakajima might be better than I thought him to be based on his GP2 performances, and certainly he was much closer to Rosberg on pace than Grosjean or Piquet was to Alonso, but in the end, he just wasn't quite quick enough to merit a place in F1. With Toyota's departure, his F1 career is probably over, unless he can use his connections to get a drive with one of the new teams next year.

The single biggest upset of the year, perhaps the greatest shock of the decade, came when Giancarlo Fisichella grabbed pole at Spa - not by running a silly fuel load - but by plain outpacing everyone else in a Force India. The team formerly known as Jordan were making steady progress towards the back of the field up to that point, sometimes frightening Toyota and BMW on their off-days, but until that weekend in the Ardennes, they had never actually scored any points. Yes, Sutil wasn't far off at Silverstone, and he impressed mightily in the rain in China until he flew off the road a few laps from the end, but the best you could say, really, was that while still backmarkers, they were much less far off the back of the pack.

Then Fisichella grabbed pole at Spa, and finished second. He was faster than eventual race winner Kimi Raikkonen too - it was really only the Ferrari's KERS equipment and, to be fair, probably Raikkonen's superior race-craft, which enabled the Italian team to take the victory. To prove it was no fluke, a week later, both Force Indias ran top-5 at Monza too. The VJM002 was clearly well suited to fast, open tracks. To judge by both the car's speed-trap times and it's remarkable fuel efficiency, which was better than that achieved by either of the other Mercedes-powered teams by some margin, it appears that the crucial advantage they had was tremendous aerodynamic efficiency. At tracks like Singapore and Abu Dhabi, where mechanical grip through slow and medium speed corners was crucial, they remained also-rans, but their late-season form was nonetheless a revelation.

Last, and in most respects, least, there was Toro Rosso. There was no repeat of the giant-killing performances of 2008 for the Faenza team, and it was a little hard to believe that they were running the same basic car as the Red Bull team which was in the running for the title. I suspect a large part of the explanation is that they simply didn't have the drivers to get the job done. Sebastian Buemi did a solid, competent job for a 20 year old in his first season, but it was hard to assess how quick he really was. Should he be judged by his pace relative to Sebastien Bourdais, who never seemed to get to grips with F1 at all, and relative to his still less experienced team mate Jaime Alguersuari? Or would a fairer comparison be with the 'A team' Red Bulls?

In what was a very competitive year, it could be argued that Toro Rosso did well to pick up eight points over the course of the season with what is by some distance the smallest team on the grid. Their approach to driver selection continues to baffle me. Jaime Alguersuari might be a British F3 champion, but his performances in the Renault World Series were hardly such as to mark him out as anything particularly special. If racking up points was the objective, then Takuma Sato or Anthony Davidson would surely have made more sense. On the other hand, Alguersuari is Spanish and well-connected, so it's possible than sponsorship concerns may have driven the decision, especially if Red Bull are still intending to sell the team. He did just enough, in my book, to merit a full season next year. In the end, Toro Rosso didn't have a bad season, especially in comparison with the team from which they were born, Minardi. The trouble is, everyone else, even Force India, had a better one...

End Note: Shell got in touch with me recently regarding promotion of a competition offering bloggers and aspiring writers the chance to establish a career as a motoring journalist. Those who know me will be aware that this is strictly a hobby for me - Ten years ago, it might have been right up my street, but these days I'm well settled in a job as a policy-wonk in Government and have seen too many people end up disillusioned when they mix work and pleasure. You, however, might feel differently, and if you do, you might want to take a look at this:,

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