Thoughts on F1: 2013 Australian Grand Prix

F1 is back! I’m so glad the waiting is over. Apparently not glad enough – I slept through the first 15 minutes as I’m an idiot who can’t abandon a race in progress, I’d started following Sebring so I couldn’t stop, I had to see the end! At 2.45am. Not ideal when F1 started at 6am. I really did intend to watch F1 after a short sleep then go back to bed afterwards, but it didn’t happen.

Never mind. I watched the extended highlights instead. The name ‘highlights’ does it a disservice, there wasn’t much cut out of the Sky show I watched and even less from the BBC show I watched just minutes ago before writing this post. I do think the BBC version was superior in every way, but Sky’s show only had half the time to prepare it as it went out at 11am rather than the BBC’s 2pm. We have an interesting choice between speed and quality, and I do like competitive choice.

Was the race any good?

It wasn’t a classic race but it wasn’t boring by any stretch. It was interesting, in the same way I said Sebring was interesting – for racing geeks like us there was enough to think about. For casual fans it might’ve been easy to think it was just cars going around, but for the rest of us, if you followed what was going on it was a very interesting race. Races can be very interesting without being nail-biting and this was one of them.

There was passing too, in the early phase of the race, through the midfield during the race, and not only on the victims of the current supplier’s tyre degradation.

When Vettel and the pair of Ferraris scampered away into the lead I thought the race was already over. Oh, ye of little faith. Within a few laps, the Lotus of Kimi Räikkönen closed in on them. It turns out at this track in these conditions the Red Bull wasn’t a match for the Ferrari on tyre degradation and both were outclassed by the Lotus, specifically that Lotus because the other one wasn’t anywhere to be found. I was so pleased Kimi started reeling them in because then I knew we’d have a decent race.

Felipe Massa had a great day. If he is able to carry this on in to the next races, suddenly we might have two Ferraris in contention for regular podium finishes if not wins and that’ll transform the Constructors’ battle too.

Adrian Sutil was the other man I was very impressed with, I’d never rated him highly and I’ve been proven wrong. To take a year out and then not only put in a solid drive but also race hard, fair and professionally with those around him – a good drive slightly ruined by the red supersofts suffering higher degradation than the team expected on a rubbered-in track at the end of the race.

Finally a word for Jules Bianchi, the man I thought should’ve been in that Force India seat was easily the class of the ‘young teams’.

Early Form

Sam Collins of Racecar Engineering mentioned in the RLM F1 preview that he was very impressed with the Lotus and they’d not only win races but the Championship, too. I scoffed at such ideas and I still think a title, either title, is a long shot. I’m not scoffing any more at the thought of multiple race wins – sure I thought one or two, but now.. unless RBR and Ferrari get a handle on tyres Lotus could bag a few more at the other street-based venues. We must wait to see the form on a permanent race track.

The McLaren seems to be a dog of a car, for a McLaren. I’m astonished they turned out a car this bad. Early indications are that the Mercedes is pretty good relative to last year and Hamilton seems very comfortable with his new team – I bet that’s aided by seeing his old one struggling so suddenly.
The Force India is looking promising as well, they just need to sort out the tyre strategy. Sauber seemed to be nowhere but we only have one car to guide us after Hülkenberg’s DNS, all we can say is Gutierrez received practically no TV attention at all. Toro Rosso seem to have a strange car, Ricciardo was dreadfully slow early on but then he and Vergne both set Fastest Lap later on, again we’ll have to see how it behaves on a more normal track. Williams really are in the deep doo-doo.

We have to be careful, though. This was only one race and Albert Park is a famously unreliable barometer of performance. This weekend is the vastly different challenge of the Sepang circuit, a very fast, wide, flowing circuit in the damp heat of Malaysia with the potential (certainty?) of wet weather in late afternoon, when the F1 sessions will be running.
Even at Sepang we may not get a true picture, it’ll be clearer than now but we’ll have to wait until China for a true picture, perhaps not until Bahrain, then when the teams get to Europe there are usually a host of upgrades in time for Spain and Monaco before the real order is established.

Next Up

The Malaysian GP at Sepang is this weekend. Don’t forget the opening round of IndyCar also this weekend.

Thoughts on Sportscars: 2013 12 Hours of Sebring (ALMS)

Sebring wasn’t a classic race this year, rather than being exciting as some past years it was a case of being interesting in terms of who was fast, who was slow, who was reliable and who was not. I can’t say it was compelling enough to hold the attention for the twelve hours, or even for the ten hours I watched (there were a few long spells of simple lappery), but in this tough economic climate, and in a transition year before a major change to the race with the series merger you can’t really ask for big grids and close racing in each class.

Summary

The prototypes battle fell flat early on and in fairness that was expected before the race started. The focus fell on the two GT classes which did a good job of keeping things interesting, and there was a late battle in the PC class as well. With only an hour or two to go each of these three classes were led by something like 10 or 15 seconds! Tiny margins given the distances covered, a mistake on the track or by a pit crew would’ve turned it around.

I had other commitments in the afternoon and wasn’t able to join the coverage until 90 minutes into the race. I watched the rest, although I also dipped into the Red Bull Crashed Ice finale (I found myself unable to concentrate on that), and the delayed F1 qualifying.

I was watching the ALMS.com feed so their server problems were disappointing – I was happy they had the usual Hindhaugh & Shaw presentation and a solid pit crew. The ALMS Twitter feed claimed this race had 4x the viewers as last year, a statistic I find surprising considering last year’s race doubled as the inaugural WEC round, with a far deeper field. Compared to that race, with the ALMS struggling lately, this year’s race was always going to look a little weak in comparison to 2012’s so the increased viewership was interesting to see.

Through The Classes

P1

Audi dominated as everybody expected they would. There was a little fight amongst themselves but it was nothing compared to a battle with another manufacturer team, there was the definite sense they were tiptoeing around each other whenever they were racing – the right thing to do under the circumstances.

The real race in P1 was among the four-car “petrol/independent class” but Dyson Racing encountered problems with their Lola-Mazda, and Muscle Milk Pickett’s HPD was penalised (stop and hold for 60 seconds) following “avoidable contact”, when Klaus Graf and a PC-car collided. This was a shame as they were fairly evenly matched with the two Rebellion Lola-Toyotas, perhaps the Pickett car had the edge (perhaps thanks to their drivers and their circuit knowledge).

So this race was spoiled by a couple of happenings but that doesn’t mean Rebellion didn’t earn it, they were fast and kept their nose clean. I’m glad they’re keeping a car in the ALMS in addition to their two in WEC this year.

The DeltaWing, run by a completely different team to last year and with completely different technical partners, failed to impress after running slower than the PC class pace before an engine failure ended their day early.

P2

Five entries in this class, all top-drawer quality but sadly the race was effectively over by halfway. Level 5’s pair of HPDs were in control, it was always going to be tough to beat their star driver line-up of Marino Franchitti, Simon Pagenaud, and Ryans Hunter-Reay and Briscoe.
Extreme Speed did a good job learning their own pair of HPDs after moving from Ferraris in the GT class, although Ed Brown in particular seemed to struggle with his car with multiple spins and the other, faster car was delayed with mechanical issues. ESM will work on it, they’ll get there.
After splitting the HPDs right down the middle in qualifying, the lone Greaves Motorsport Zytek-Nissan wasn’t able to keep up with Level 5 in the race – which surprised me I have to say. I’m not sure if they encountered any problems.

PC

It was a hard-fought battle in the single-make class, the lead changing handle multiple times throughout the race. Most of this 7-car field was competitive and there wasn’t any way of picking a winner, even when it eventually distilled down to two cars you couldn’t call it, it was still a race as Ostella hunted down Marcelli for the win which is the opposite of what I would’ve predicted! This class is going to be a lot of fun this year.

GT

As expected the GT class proved a dogfight, though I have to say it seemed much cleaner than the wheel-banging of past years, which is impressive given how hard they were all pushing.

The main race was between the Corvettes and the Risi Ferrari, that classic battle between marques. Interloping from time to time were the likes of the Viper, the new BMW Z4 and even the Falken Tire Porsche, which given the struggles of Porsche teams everywhere wasn’t supposed to be near the front. The variety bodes well for a very exciting season.

The Ferrari had better range, the ‘Vette perhaps the better speed over a stint. Despite electrical issues and a penalty for pitlane speeding (caused by temporarily having no limiter) the no.4 Corvette fought back to win by just 3 seconds from the Ferrari, however that was arguably only because Matteo Malucelli’s stellar drive faltered under intense pressure from the yellow ‘Vette.
The Vipers fell back after a while as did the promising new BMW Z4 which had an impressive debut – though as both are running with exemptions for engines that are way too big for the regs, I was quietly pleased they lost (even though they have very cool cars).
Feelgood result of the race was the Falken Porsche, I thought they were a way behind earlier on but they came back to finish 3rd.

Notable absentees were the Aston Martins which suffered car trouble fairly early on and were forced to treat the rest of the race as a test, a very rapid test in which they set the class fastest lap, hinting at what might’ve been.

GTC

It is a sign of these economic times that so many top quality drivers – and teams – are in the low-cost spec class supposedly for entry-level entrants. The benefit for the class is the ridiculously close race! When you have Jeroen Bleekemolen, Sean Edwards, Damian Faulkner, Sascha Maassen, and Spencer Pumpelly you can’t say the class is lacking in talent. The result then depends how good the amateur, ‘gentlemen’ drivers are, and if they’re as evenly matched as they are here you have a race on your hands! Even deep into the race the top half dozen were split by 20 seconds or less. It was only in the very late stages that it got a bit split up. An under-reported, much-knocked class (and I’m fully guilty of that) which should continue to see some great racing this year.

Stars of the Race

I’d never heard of David Ostella or Matteo Malucelli so I was tremendously impressed by their performances. Malucelli put in a near-flawless performance for Risi Ferrari, whenever I looked at T&S he was in the car, his only fault being a little kind to the Corvette as it attacked him in the late stages of the race and that’s just down to inexperience of Sebring. Ostella on the other hand seemed to warm to the race the more it went on, culminating in a fantastic PC-class race-winning pass against Kyle Marcelli, who is no pushover.

If you weren’t paying attention to the laptimes of AMR after their long, long delays, you might’ve missed Bruno Senna’s speed in the car. Some suggested he wouldn’t be suited to GT racing. Wrong!

Kuba Giermaziak seems to be the real deal, too.

Other Business

There were a few controversial stewarding decisions. Some of the faster guys were a little impatient when lapping slower cars. Some were racing incidents, others were the fault of the slower guy wandering all over the road, yet it was always the faster guy that would get the penalty. McNish was definitely unfairly penalised. Graf’s penalty was less clear cut and both opinions were flying around Twitter – I thought the PC car stayed wide and braked early to let Graf through, which Graf may have misread or not expected  – a racing incident but under ALMS rules Graf got the penalty for braking too late, ‘avoidable contact’.

Next Up

The ALMS moves on to the vastly different challenge of a 2-hour race on the short Long Beach street course, one month from now.

Next year’s 12 Hours of Sebring will be part of the brave new world of United SportsCar Racing.

Thoughts on the Indianapolis 500

The over-use of the slogan ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ and that some appear to take it as a pre-ordained fact rather than the marketing slogan it is, instead of looking at each race objectively, has been a personal pet peeve of mine for some time.

That was until this year’s edition started. This year the race very much lived up to the branding and showed me and others just why the place is revered the way it is. I’ll take some more of the same next year, please!

Working the Air

After the race I saw it tweeted that the DW12 is a keeper. Too right. It may not be the most advanced and it may not feature the chassis competition many of us crave, but really, what a car. Nobody cares that it is slower than the old one now. It races so well at Indy, and what’s more, it didn’t come out of the box that way. The teams have had a lot of work to do to solve a lot of problems it had on ovals – problems that have been overcome and resulted in the best Indy 500 I have seen in six years of watching, and some of the far more experienced veterans were saying it was one of the best they’d seen in years.

Even before the exceptional drama of the last 20 laps which really made this race so nail-biting there had been overtaking and lead changes and drafting and all sorts. Okay granted, some of it was ‘fake’ lead changes as the Ganassi pair – and others – fought not to lead in order to save fuel and not end up as a sitting duck on the next restart. I don’t have a problem with such ‘fake’ or ‘scripted’ passes as they are part and parcel of the strategy of oval racing. Ganassi executed this strategy better than anybody else, with some of the Andretti drivers doing pretty well with it in the early stages as well.

Engines

What a turn around by Honda, Ganassi and RLL. Surely some of those teams were sandbagging in free practice! Very cleverly played if that’s the case, nobody had a clue. I suspect this had more to do with work done by Honda for these race engines, perhaps teams were using older less developed units in practice and qualifying knowing they’d get a ‘special’ for the race. Honda do like their specials, the Japanese department always used to bring out an uprated engine for the Suzuka F1 race.

I loved the unexpected dymanic between the two engine manufacturers. Chevy had run all season with engines which were both more powerful and more fuel efficient than those from Honda. The double-whammy. Race day rolls around and suddenly Honda has a significant fuel efficiency advantage (I’m not sure about power, they seemed roughly equal but if one was ahead of the other it was the Honda), enough of an advantage to allow them to pit a lap, two laps, even three laps later than the Chevy teams.  That was the race-winning difference right there.

The third manufacturer had both entries embarrassingly black flagged barely 10 laps into the event, shockingly early and far earlier than I had expected. Alesi and de Silvestro were running lap averages in the 200-205mph bracket while the leaders were up at 215-218. The eventual fastest lap was 220+. By the numbers it was the right decision but I can’t help feeling they should’ve been allowed to run more than ten minutes. Of course the leaders were bearing down on them rapidly and perhaps the sight of two Lotuses trundling around whilst Chevys and Hondas blew by 15mph per lap faster would’ve been even more embarrassing than simply disappearing whilst eyes were elsewhere.

Highs and Lows

Takuma Sato. What a guy, what a drive. He was passing people all day and he’d been working his way up, picking people off, until the one that counted – the pass for the lead. If it hadn’t been the final lap he’d have made it. As it was I suspect the red mist descended as it often does with Taku and he made the instinctive move to pass when the space wasn’t quite there. Probably lulled into it after making it past Dixon last time around, perhaps forgetting Dixon had left more room because Dario had just gone by him too. Still – good on him for trying! It was the final lap, there were no guarantees he’d get a chance at turns 3 or 4, he had to take it. Classified 17th, first of those a lap down.

Tony Kanaan. That cheer when he took the lead! Such a popular driver, I wish he could’ve won it. The place would’ve erupted. I wondered where he was for a while, then he appeared working his way forward. He made the most of the restarts, perhaps unfairly perhaps not. 3rd is a good result but still he chases that elusive Indy win. In a Q&A last week one journalist said to him he was more famous for not winning at Indy than he would’ve been had he won. True words. I really hope he does win before he retires.

Very pleasing to see James Hinchcliffe run so well early on, I felt for him later after he slipped back. Hunter-Reay and Andretti were up there too and an Andretti Autosport win looked a good in-race bet. RHR hit a mechanical problem and Andretti got a hot head (again), leaving Hinch as their remaining bullet. It wasn’t to be this time and I seem to recall that was due to a slow pitstop, but also down to some of the restarts where the midfield swamped those up front.

Oriol Servia somehow made it up to 4th. I still don’t know how – he was well back in the pack and just appeared from nowhere within the last 5-10 laps! There’s a team and driver glad they switched from Lotus to Chevrolet.

Justin Wilson was running up there too and finished 7th, after the awful season he’s had that’s a well-earned result.

Rubens Barrichello. No doubts about him on an oval now. Solid, consistent, aggressive when needed but mostly drove a careful defensive race, the perfect way to approach a debut oval event. 11th is a very respectable performance in a field this stacked.

Townsend Bell. Once again taking a one-off IndyCar entry to a good finish at the 500. Once again we ask why he hasn’t got a full time IndyCar drive.

Ed Carpenter. A great run came to a sad end when he got too low, clipped the paint and the apron/transition and spun. Frustation for the owner/driver.

Every one of the teams and drivers had an interesting story to tell.

Coverage

I usually find a hooky feed of the US broadcast but this year I was able to ditch the dodgy feeds altogether and watch Sky Sports 4. This might have been an error. I didn’t mind that the program started at half past, the race isn’t as big a deal as it is in the US so I can understand not giving it the full hour of pre-race particularly when the other races on the schedule sometimes seemingly don’t get any more than 10-15 minutes.

I did mind that it started 2 or 3 minutes after the scheduled time because they were showing adverts. It looked like the preceding event (rugby) had run very slightly over and they still needed to fit in their commercial allocation. This meant we missed driver introductions – a little annoying but okay.
It soon became clear the UK coverage was going to stick with the London studio discussion rather than show the pre-race festivities, including driver intros, all of the songs and anthems, balloons, flyover, practically everything. Even Dan’s car was shown in replay. By then I thankfully had the dodgy stream up again so I saw what a great tribute that was.
Part of the whole appeal of Indy is the way the pre-race builds – it has taken six years of watching for me to realise this – and Sky just had no idea that it was important at all.

I commend Sky for having Tomas Scheckter in the studio, he brought the much-needed perspective of someone who has raced many times at Indy. Jonny Kane’s input is always worthwhile but ultimately he is an LMP driver not an IndyCar driver so there is only so much he can relate to – I wouldn’t ask Helio to analyse Le Mans!

The other good thing about Sky’s studio was that when the international ESPN feed went to commercials, some of the time Sky would take their own break but other times they’d cut back to the discussion in London. It was a nice way to sum up the action so far. I just wish they’d not talked all the way through pre-race!

On the whole though, Sky’s effort here has been completely shown up by their own coverage of Formula 1. It really could use just 10% of that magic to liven it up a bit.

The ABC/ESPN portion was good, better than usual. They were very late coming back to show restarts on a couple of occasions but at least they didn’t miss them! The commentary was okay, I didn’t find it grating at all which is a good result for Reid & Co for me. Everyone has their own tastes and usually they aren’t mine but I thought the trio did a good job this time. The pit reporting was mostly very good, the glaring omission being that of Will Power and Mike Conway after their clash, it was a long time before we heard from either team let alone drivers.The number of ad breaks didn’t seem anything like as poor as last year, either they were fewer or better timed, or Sky going to the studio masked how many there were. On the whole the US feed was a vastly improved broadcast compared to 2011. I also saw many, many tweets praising their pre-race features which Sky also missed, I intend to look those up later in the week.

Result

1. Franchitti – Ganassi – Honda
2. Dixon – Ganassi – Honda
3. Kanaan – KV – Chevy
4. Servia – Panther/DRR – Chevy
5. Briscoe – Penske – Chevy
6. Hinchcliffe – Andretti – Chevy
7. Wilson – Coyne – Honda
8. Kimball – Ganassi – Honda
9. Bell – Schmidt/Pelfrey – Honda
10. Castroneves – Penske – Chevy
11. Barrichello – KV – Chevy
12. Tagliani – BHA – Honda
13. Rahal – Ganassi – Honda
14. Hildebrand – Panther – Chevy
15. Jakes – Coyne – Honda
16. Pagenaud – Schmidt/Hamilton – Honda
17. Sato – Rahal Letterman Lanigan – Honda  +1 lap
18. Viso – KV – Chevy  +1 lap
19. Jourdain Jr – Rahal Letterman Lanigan – Honda  +1 lap
20. Bourdais – Dragon – Chevy  +1 lap
21. Carpenter – Carpenter – Chevy  +1 lap
22. Legge – Dragon – Chevy  +1 lap
23. Beatriz – Andretti/Conquest – Chevy  +10 laps
DNF: Andretti, Newgarden, Saavedra, Hunter-Reay, Power, Conway, Clauson, Cunningham, de Silvestro, Alesi

Points

200 – Power (3 wins)
164 – Castroneves (1)
164 – Hinchcliffe
153 – Dixon
143 – Hunter-Reay
136 – Franchitti (1)
136 – Pagenaud
128 – Briscoe
113 – Kanaan
103 – Hildebrand
102 – Barrichello
100 – Sato
99 – Servia
97 – Rahal
96 – Kimball
etc.

Next Race

Sunday June 3rd at 8.30pm BST (GMT+1) – Detroit Belle Isle, a narrow course running through a park with concrete walls and a bumpy street track. It is a bit like Montreal or Melbourne but without usually being as interesting as the track is too narrow and twisty, save for the fast backstraight. It has been a few years since the last race here, I hope the new cars and engines spice things up.

Thoughts on the Monaco Grand Prix

I love the Monaco Grand Prix. Always have.  The history, tradition, colour, spectacle and test of driver challenge are rivalled by no other race on the Formula 1 calendar and that includes the other classics at Monza, Spa and Silverstone. Despite this we all know it can produce processional races. Many people would prefer to drop Monaco completely because of this – I say no to that. I can put up with the odd procession because Monaco can, now and then, produce utter classics. It might have 50 laps of tedium out of the 78 but when something happens in Monaco it happens in a big way. Countless races in the past have taught us this. Not every year can be a classic and that’s why classics are remembered.

At least.. this is the theory I’ve subscribed to for years. With that being the case, why is it then that when a processional race rolled around this year I was so turned off by it? In the first 20-30 laps there was a lot of promise of action caused either by rain or tyre degradation and that held my attention, I was sitting there expectantly waiting the action that would surely follow. Has F1 been so good this year that a ‘traditional’ Monaco isn’t good enough any more?

Even if there wasn’t passing I expected to see attempts at passing, cars darting this way and that as the drivers tried to force their way by. Didn’t happen. Even when the pack condensed in the latter laps and we had six cars covered by just six seconds, none of them ever really seriously looked like trying to overtake the guy in front. That’s why it was boring. If I can see people attempting to pass but failing, that’s fine, that’s still racing, it just means the guy in front did a better job. To seemingly not even try… that’s no fun.

Holding Back

Why did this happen? Tyre preservation. The soft and supersoft tyres brought by Pirelli were being nursed by the drivers. Rather than go balls-to-the-wall in the quest for speed, burning up the tyres in the process, every one of the top runners was content to sit back in order to preserve the rubber to reduce the number of stops they would have to make. In all fairness I hadn’t clocked this until Sergio Perez, delayed after contact, pitted and emerged in 17th place nearly a lap behind the leaders, and with a clear track promptly set a Fastest Lap on yellow soft tyres a clear 1.5 seconds (and I have a feeling nearer 2 seconds) faster than the frontrunners were going – I have in my mind that these guys were on the faster red supersofts by this point but I could be wrong. According to the official FL list he was still 1.2sec faster than the nearest driver all race.

Okay, conservation is a valid way to win a race. We saw later in the day the Ganassi team won the Indy 500 by holding back to save fuel and tyres for the final run. Not a problem. Perhaps I expected this strategy to be run against someone else doing the opposite – running hot, burning up the tyres and pitting. Like the classic Senna v Mansell race here when Senna ran long and Mansell pitted, caught up, tried to pass… drama, intrigue, could he do it before his tyres go off too? We didn’t really see that.

Vettel and Hamilton tried. They went off-sequence with tyres which was interesting, even if it was a bit dull to see Vettel driving around by himself for a while. Perhaps we blame the TV crew here for not showing us more from the field. Once they slotted into the field I expected them to use the reds to fight past the cars around them. Again, it didn’t happen. Seems as though they pitted too early for the reds and had to conserve them – which begs the question, why do it? Surely the point of using that strategy was to make use of the extra grip. Don’t squander it by telling your guy to go slowly to nurse them.

Highs and Lows

Despite the boredom I was pleased Mark Webber took the win. I always like it when Webber wins, he’s a good guy and I’ve been a fan for ages. Good also to see Rosberg hitting form this season.

Alonso was 3rd, since he joined Twitter I’ve taken to him a lot more, he’s showing personality we arguably haven’t seen properly since his days in blue and yellow at Renault when he was the breath of fresh air ending Schumi’s reign. Since he’s effectively fighting the lone fight in a Ferrari which is not the class of the field he’s almost an underdog, which means it is okay to root for him too!

The alternate strategy only netted Vettel and Hamilton 4th and 5th. The result says Massa was 6th but I don’t remember seeing him. Force Indias took 7th and 8th, again largely missing from the screens.

Perhaps the real mystery was the whereabouts of Kimi Räikkönen. After running so well in Spain I really expected Kimi to run well here and even win it. The form was repeated on Thursday practice. Then Kimi started struggling for reasons not explained fully. Romain Grosjean qualified well but was taken out before turn one, frustratingtly as he also looked set for a good run. I still think one of them will win this year.

Bruno Senna took the final point in 10th, largely unseen by us. Perez made it to 11th by the flag but he was helped for three of those places when Button hit Kovalainen and Vergne made a stupid gamble to take intermediate wets (from inside the top 8!) when the track was still dry.

History

You absolutely have to watch this video found from British Pathe at Sidepodcast (via Joe Saward). Precious little footage exists from 1929 of the first ever Monaco Grand Prix, I certainly have never seen any before now. It is just under 2 minutes in length and is a must-see for any fan of the history of racing. You can tell even then it was almost impossible to overtake at this place!

Race Result

1. Webber – Red Bull
2. Rosberg – Mercedes
3. Alonso – Ferrari
4. Vettel – Red Bull
5. Hamilton – McLaren
6. Massa – Ferrari
7. di Resta – Force India
8. Hülkenberg – Force India
9. Räikkönen – Lotus
10. Senna – Williams
11. Perez – Sauber  +1 lap
12. Vergne – Toro Rosso +1 lap
13. Kovalainen – Caterham +1 lap
14. Glock – Marussia +1 lap
15. Karthikeyan – HRT +1 lap
16. Button – McLaren +8 laps
DNF:
Ricciardo, Pic, Schumacher, Petrov, Kobayashi, de la Rosa, Maldonado, Grosjean

Points

76 – Alonso (1 win)
73 – Vettel (1)
73 – Webber (1)
63 – Hamilton
59 – Rosberg (1)
51 – Räikkönen
45 – Button (1)
35 – Grosjean
29 – Maldonado (1)
22 – Perez
etc.

Red Bull drivers tied on points, Vettel breaks the tie on countback. Button is amazingly low in the standings considering the car he is driving.

146 – Red Bull
108 – McLaren
86 – Ferrari
86 – Lotus
61 – Mercedes
44 – Williams
41 – Sauber
28 – Force India
6 – Toro Rosso

Next Race

Canadian Grand Prix, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Ille Notre-Dame, Montreal.

Always a race worth watching as the circuit is heavy on brakes, and the walls and bumps catch the drivers out. Expect Safety Cars.

F1 Reaction: Chinese GP 2012

What a brilliant race! It had passing, big groups of cars in battles, strategy calls and tyre changes throughout including a mid-race strategy change from 3 stops to 2 for many, and a popular first-time winner for a marque which hadn’t won outright for over 5 decades – even if the team itself had only gone winless for the 3 years since the season as Brawn GP.

There was enough action to forget the margin of victory, which normally would’ve led to cries of boredom from the peanut gallery. For this race such cries only came from those who only watch racing to see who wins, those who don’t care for the twenty other stories which happen in any race and would still find a reason to complain even if they’d just seen the best race in the world.

This wasn’t the best race in the world, but by F1 standards it was a cracker and by the standards of most other series it was pretty good too.

Runaway Success

Nico Rosberg didn’t win this race through chance. He put in a race-winning drive all day, the strategy was perfect and for once this year the car didn’t let him down, didn’t drop him into the pack as the tyres wore out. I’m not sure what Mercedes GP found since Sepang, both cars were competitive and it was only a pitstop mistake which forced Michael Schumacher to retire. Could it be that the Mercedes team will be the one to challenge McLaren for race wins for the rest of the season?

The Mercedes W03 works its tyres harder than other cars, at least up until now. It meant they were good for one-lap pace (great for qualifying) but ate the tyres much sooner than the opposition (useless in the race). Either the conditions in Shanghai suited them and worked against the other teams, or the team has found a solution to the problem and are a very credible contender for further race wins this year. If the former is true it could explain why Ferrari were slow – perhaps they car works better in different temperatures to the Mercs and that hurt them as compared to Malaysia.

Competition

Had Jenson Button’s pitstop not gone awry he would’ve been much closer to Rosberg at the flag – perhaps not enough to challenge outright, just enough that the race didn’t seem like the complete whitewash it will appear in the record books. The McLarens were fast throughout and were able to pass

The race for 2nd place was so closely balanced, even though some cars were faster than others their strategies meant some were conserving tyres and some were going all out. It was clear Alonso’s late stop was planned for two reasons: to use fresher rubber to make passes, and to cover the early two-stoppers whose tyres should’ve fallen off with a lap or two to go – as it was he didn’t have the top end speed for the former, and the latter only happened to Kimi Raikkonen despite potentially affecting several others.

The season-long battle between Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes and Lotus is fascinating, it seems each are better in different temperature conditions and each uses tyres differently. Each are also throwing upgrades at the cars all the time. Sadly it isn’t the fight for the championship but it is closely poised and could go in any direction!

Red Bull’s fall from recent grace is an oddity, and I wouldn’t put it past them to return to race winning form by midseason. Mercedes could just as easily sink back down as win another race, so unpredictable. Ferrari are all over the shop. Lotus seems a smidge behind on race pace but don’t count them out at all. What’s more, Williams is only a little way behind this group now.

It’s great to see both the team from Enstone and the team from Grove regularly in the points again. Raikkonen is feisty but his tyres fell off just slightly too early for him. Maybe the best thing about Lotus so far is the way Grosjean has been going, okay not his finishing record which has been awful, but he’s been fast and racy and that’s what we like to see. At last he was rewarded with a good points finish.

Sauber returned to their normal level as we mostly expected. Force India seems to have turned as invisible as Felipe Massa, I really don’t remember anything from their recent races apart from Paul di Resta’s helmet camera. See also Toro Rosso and Caterham.

Result

Chinese GP
Jiading, Shanghai, China

1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W03 Mercedes
2 Jenson Button McLaren MP4-27 Mercedes
3 Lewis Hamilton McLaren MP4-27 Mercedes
4 Mark Webber Red Bull RB8 Renault
5 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull RB8 Renault
6 Romain Grosjean Lotus E20 Renault
7 Bruno Senna Williams FW34 Renault
8 Pastor Maldonado Williams FW34 Renault

Not a Ferrari engine in sight! What a contrast to the 1-2 at Sepang. Norbert Haug looked very pleased on the podium not only with the win but also a top three for his engines!

I think the improvement of Williams is in no small part down to the switch to Renault, much as Caterham’s was when they caught the main field.

Drivers Championship

1 Lewis Hamilton 45
2 Jenson Button 43
3 Fernando Alonso 37
4 Mark Webber 36
5 Sebastian Vettel 28
6 Nico Rosberg 25
7 Sergio Perez 22
8 Kimi Raikkonen 16

Hamilton holds the lead with a run of three straight 3rds, which beats Button’s 1st, 2nd and DNF. It looks as though the McLaren drivers are the ones to beat in the championship this year at this early stage.

The only drivers not yet to register a top ten points finish are those from Caterham, Marussia and HRT….. and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. This can’t in any way be an acceptable position for the Scuderia.

Constructors Championship

1 McLaren 88
2 Red Bull 64
3 Ferrari 37
4 Sauber 31
5 Mercedes 26
6 Lotus 24
7 Williams 18
8 Force India 9

McLaren hold the early advantage, Red Bull aren’t far away but they will need to work on their race pace or hope for unreliability among the silver cars. I expect the fight for 3rd to be between Ferrari and Mercedes.

Next Event

This weekend: Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir, Bahrain

I’ll be writing further thoughts on Bahrain tomorrow.

IndyCar Reaction: GP of Alabama 2012

Honda Indy GP of Alabama

Barber Motorsports Park
Birmingham, Alabama, USA

Not only was this race a vast improvement over St. Pete, it was the best IndyCar race held at this track since the series first started visiting in 2009.

Race

I don’t think there was a ‘magic bullet’. A combination of several factors helped the racing here including the raceability of the car/engine package, the teams and drivers still getting a handle on the new equipment leading to mixed strategies and setups, and the new rules and interpretations coming from the series allowing drivers race each other.

The other great thing about this race was the mix of names running in the top five or six. Okay yes, so the top two featured a Penske and a Ganassi driver, but at least in the first half of the race it was not the Penske driver anyone would’ve tipped based on 2011’s form.  You could even, at a stretch, argue the same about the Ganassi driver, I certainly assumed Franchitti would be fighting for wins. No the fact that James Hinchcliffe, Simon Pagenaud, Graham Rahal and others are involved is great – this is exactly what the series needed.

The eventual winner came from nowhere but it wasn’t the characteristic easy, scythe-my-way-through drive we’re so used to seeing from Will. It looked like a lot of hard work, and yes, luck too. When the other runners struggled with tyres in the pit stops it allowed Will through, without those problems he might’ve only finished what, 2nd? 3rd?

Add to that some close racing right the way through the pack and we had an enjoyable, fun race! You couldn’t really say that about the past three runnings of this event. I don’t think we’ll see anybody calling for this venue to be chopped from the schedule now. At least – nobody sane.

Leading results:

1. Power
2. Dixon
3. Castroneves
4. Rahal
5. Pagenaud
6. Hinchcliffe
FL: Power 1:12.3912

Drivers

Isn’t it great to see Helio Castroneves back at the front? Two races, two podiums. I’m a fan of Helio and I’m glad to see him back where he belongs. We might see some real intra-team rivalry at Team Penske this season.

Two races down, and two races where Scott Dixon has smoked the other Honda runners. What secrets has he found which the others have missed? Why on Earth can’t Franchitti get his head around this car? It is almost the same situation at the sister Ganassi team with Rahal finishing 4th, and Kimball slow all day then registering a DNF. Rahal seems to be driving better than he has in a few years, it was good to see him at the top end. Somehow Franchitti dragged his car into the top ten in the dying laps of the race.

One of the drivers of the race was Simon Pagenaud. All race long he was fast, racy and made several passes on drivers who didn’t seem able to fend him off. There’s a strong chance he could win a race this year. He’s enjoying a pretty good transition from LMP cars.

Sebastien Bourdais put in a similar performance from the back end of the grid which saw him finish 9th, not bad at all in a Lotus-powered car for an underfunded team.

I was also impressed by James Hinchcliffe in what was more than just a solid run, I think it says something when even a 6th place finish looks disappointing given his run in this race. Offer Andretti Autosports a 6th pre-race and they’d have grabbed it after their recent years. His was still the first AA car home. I’m impressed because I assumed Hunter-Reay would be top dog in that team this year. I thought RHR was running higher than 12th but that’s where he’s listed in the results.

I was also struck by Marco Andretti, a fighting drive which I thought would be rewarded with a solid top 6 or 7 finish, yet somehow he dropped to 11th at the end. Regardless of ultimate finishing position it was a statement of intent for the year – he’ll be fighting. Good to see it. Perhaps the minor wing damage sustained earlier finally took its toll. On that note it is good to see these new cars don’t have the fragile front wings you sometimes see in other series, hopefully it’ll encourage drivers to give it a go.

Mike Conway finished 7th. Did you see him? I don’t remember seeing him. Stealthy.

As at St Pete Rubens Barrichello spent most of the day in the 16th-20th area,until the final stint when he somehow got into the top ten. I have no idea how he did this, I think TV missed it. We saw him making a few passes but I never saw it explained how he made up 10 places. He eventually saw the flag 8th, a good recovery given where he’d been all day.

Where was Briscoe? He had to pit very early in the 2nd(?) stint after eating up his tyres. I’m surprised. Similar questions about Wilson and Kanaan. These experienced drivers were supposed to be up front. What’s going on? Wilson’s car looked evil.

Race Control & Rules

It was a good day for Race Control. They kept things under local yellows for as long as they could. Starts and restarts were controlled and released at the right times. The only real black mark was the initial safety car period for Servia was too long, once the car was clear it seemed to take at least another 2 laps before going green.

Some complained the change in ‘blocking’ or ‘defending’ would ruin the racing. Well.. it didn’t! It helped it. The best example of it was the battle between Hunter-Reay, Viso and Barrichello. Rather than being forced to take the racing line, they were all allowed to choose their line into the turn 5 hairpin, and for two of them it didn’t quite work out as planned.

A new rule I hadn’t heard about this year was seen for the first time at this race. Once within 20 laps of the finish, prior to a safety car restart all lapped cars were sent through the pits and told to form up at the back of the train. GREAT idea. I first heard it as an idea during fan discussion about F1’s ‘lapped cars may overtake’ at Sidepodcast. I had no idea a series had actually come to the same conclusion. It worked brilliantly – it gets the lapped cars out of the way without giving them back their lap and without endangering the competitors, which both happen under the F1 rule. The only thing they have to watch for with this new rule is cars reaching pit exit before the back of the train on the racetrack has passed them, because IndyCar doesn’t close the pit exit.

Snippets

The NBC Sports Network broadcast was much better than last week’s effort by ABC/ESPN. The cameras were pointing at the right things, the feed was being sent to our screens, the commentary and pit reporting was top notch. Even the odd mistake from Bob Jenkins wasn’t as bad as the bleating on Twitter made it out to be.

The only thing I found wrong with it, was the tone. It seemed a bit.. calm. Not a lot of energy, with the possible exception of Jan Beekhuis! Jan’s input is invaluable. After recently watching some races from 2010 where Wally Dallenbach wasn’t present, I was glad to hear his input again from the 3rd chair. The pit reporters were excellent and I can’t fault any of the team, but even so I did miss Lindy. I’m also not quite sure why Robin Miller is there.

Now we’ve got two races under our belts I’d like to state my conclusions about the new cars and engines:

– I love the way these cars look on the racetrack now the livery designers have been set loose on them. They look good at speed.

– The exception: Those rear wheel guards. Don’t like ’em. Especially when viewed from the rear.

– Those engines sound really boring.

– I’ll put up with a crap engine note if it produces good racing without turning into a fuel-mileage race. Fuel strategy and fuel saving is fine and good when some of the cars are doing it and some are not. It isn’t fun when they all do it.

– If you’re looking for an IndyCar podcast I recommend More Front Wing.

Championship

1. Castroneves 86
2. Dixon 84
3. Power  77
4. Hinchcliffe 60
5. Pagenaud 58
6. Hunter-Reay 53

No surprise to see the ‘big two red car’ teams at the top, but not in the order we might expect. Who would’ve picked Helio to lead after two rounds? Not me. Dixon and Power are less surprising and I tip these two to be our title protaganists this season.

What of reigning champion Franchitti? He’s down in 10th, tied with none other than Rubens Barrichello on 37 points (and Rubens breaks the tie with a best result of 8th). Of course these are early days yet when a win is worth a massive 50 points.

It is worth noting the impressive starts from Hinchcliffe and Pagenaud to be in the top 5. Will it last?

IndyCar does not operate a teams’ championship, however there is an engines’ championship which I think is based on the first car home:

1. Chevrolet 18
2. Honda 12
3. Lotus  8

Next Race

April 15th: Grand Prix of Long Beach

The streets of Long Beach are a tough test with close concrete barriers, a very bumpy track surface and a short lap. Like many street races it is difficult to pass here, but unlike some others it is not impossible. Outbraking somebody into Turn 1 at the end of Shoreline Drive is the best shot, though if your rival makes an error through the corner on to the back straight it is possible to get up alongside them there.

These cars seem able to take more hits than the old cars and the ‘bumpers’ around the rear wheels (and those strong front wings) apparently encourange more passing attempts. LB can be a of a yellow-fest, let’s hope that’s not the case this year.

The ALMS will again race on Saturday evening, with IndyCar racing on Sunday in what has become a modern classic double-header meeting. The ALMS race should also be worth a watch.

IndyCar Reaction: St Petersburg GP 2012

Not the thrill-a-minute race we were promised but it was better than some make out. That’s not entirely surprising.

A Calm Race

IndyCar suffers from a longer off-season than most so the first race invariably gets hyped up quite a lot. If that race isn’t all-action, all the time, then a lot of fans get very disappointed and make unfair comments. IndyCar fans are a particularly vocal lot and quite a few rush to judgement.

Think it through logically though. This was the first race with a brand-new car, first we didn’t know how it would race and second there is a shortage of spares. Add in that this is a street race with bumps and concrete walls. Add in a smaller fuel cell than previous years, with new engines, leading to teams frantically trying to work the fuel numbers (and many failed). Add in the new Race Control with a different grasp on what they will accept and not accept, particularly on starts and on defending or blocking the drivers will have to get used to over a period of several races. Add in also, and not insignificantly, this was the first race since the drivers’ friend was killed alongside them, and it took place at his home.

Realistically the drivers were always going to take it easy at this one. I’d like to think they will be more likely to push the envelope at a track with a bigger margin for error, and the engineers will have the fuel mileage cracked now they have a race under their belts. We may still have to put up with fuel saving, however. When the fuel cell issue is resolved and they can be restored to normal size, I hope they have the option of making them slightly larger than before so the drivers can be allowed to actually push and race, we’ve seen too many fuel mileage races in the last few years and some drivers were saving throughout the whole St. Pete race. This can’t continue. Part of the fun of strategy races is the differential between tortoise and hare, it isn’t fun when everybody is made to be the tortoise.

Attention Diverted

All of this said, it was not entirely a processional race. The problem was the TV coverage giving us the sense that it was. This is not a new phenomenon, ESPN have done this countless times in the past. The other partner, Versus (now NBC Sports), is better but not always by a great margin. It isn’t as bad as some of the dire F1 races of the 1990s to early 2000s (the pre-FOM days), but it isn’t ideal.

Many passes were brought to us in replay, which is fine, you can’t be live everywhere. I understood why we missed the pass for the lead – we’d been watching Dixon and Helio driving around not passing each other for a while so it made sense to cut to a big group of cars where there might be passing. Just the luck of the TV crew that the pass happened just after they cut away! Now they could’ve had a spotter looking at the front straight to see if Helio was setting up a pass so they could cut back to it, and it seemed this didn’t happen, but we saw it soon after.

I’m actually more annoyed at the many other passes we missed entirely. People (including Pippa Mann) were tweeting live from the grandstands and were assurring us there was overtaking going on at turn 1 which wasn’t being picked up on TV or the big screens at the track. If we’d seen that racing people may have walked away from watching this race with a good impression not an indifferent one.

Given the levels of strategy involved in IndyCar racing, I would’ve appreciated a better explanation of what was going on. In a Safety Car period we were told the top 6 had not pitted and most others had, fine, what I didn’t pick up on at all was that the leading cars were on a 2-stop strategy and the rest a 3-stopper. I just assumed they’d decided to make their next stop later. Call me lazy, I’m probably very lazy at this, but from the UK F1 coverage (when we had refuelling in F1) I am used to being told how many stops people are planning to make based on what lap they come in. Yes, I know this is hard to do. I also think it would help more people understand what’s going on. To that end it was nice to see the ‘laps since pit’ column appear on live timing this year (thanks to @99forever I think it was for pointing that out) – I’d like a ‘total pit visits’ column too, please!

I watched the race on Sky and their pre-race featured a nice mix of their own interviews alongside ABC pieces, it was nicely done. They didn’t include ABC’s Wheldon tribute which received glowing praise on Twitter. While I’m unsure if that’s a good decision or not, I am certainly glad Sky chose not to air the crash again as that wasn’t needed at all, I wasn’t interested in seeing it again.

One of ABC’s good prerace pieces we did see was the comparison between 2011 and 2012 cars, that was a good explanation. I don’t know if they covered the differences between engines, I didn’t see anything on my coverage. Mid-race Sky lost the feed to Florida briefly but that’s the danger of satellite connections I suppose. It was very good to have at least a part of the race on the new Sky Sports F1 HD channel, which is available to those on Sky who don’t pay for the other Sky Sports channels and on a day with an F1 race when people would’ve seen the many trails for it. Sadly the delayed F1 replay took precedence over a live race in progress which was just a bizarre decision, so they bumped the first half of this race to ‘red button’ and online.

Competition

Isn’t it great to have engine competition again? No sooner than a Chevy engine took pole did Honda drivers start complaining they just didn’t have the mid-corner driveability of their rivals, even if they did have the top-end. Apparently when the Honda spools up it just goes – it just takes longer to get going. All do to with the choice of Chevy (and Lotus) to go with twin-turbos and Honda with a single. It may not be a big difference but I love that we now have a difference, and potentially it could change throughout the year as suppliers and teams play with setups and engine mappings.

On race day many of the Honda drivers struggled again, but one man didn’t. Scott Dixon was on fire and led for multiple laps. He seemed to be the only Honda entrant able to run up front consistently, and I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps his team nailed the setup of the DW12. Perhaps more of the Chevy teams just happen to have their chassis closer to the sweet spot than the Honda teams. The teams have been working together in each camp so it would make sense they might adopt similar setups at least to begin with.

Lotus were behind, as we all expected, yet they weren’t a million miles away. Perhaps by the standards of recent years they were, but not by the standards of open engine competition. They may have been at the back but they were still within 1.5 seconds of the frontrunner in any given session, except for Legge who was often a little further back.

I strongly recommend reading Marshall Pruett’s St. Pete Rewind for more of this sort of information as well as his view on the weekend as he saw it, touching on all aspects from technical traits, to race control decisions, to who’s been giving out press packs and who hasn’t. Marshall is one of the best around in any branch of our sport.

Star Newcomer

Many eyes were on Rubens Barrichello, despite this it was pleasing that ABC/ESPN didn’t spend the whole race ‘checking in’ with Rubens as they always did with Danica Patrick. They kept us up to date without piling on the pressure of expectation, that was left to those of us who know what he can do in the right car. So, how did he do? Sadly there’s only one word: underwhelming. That’s slightly unfair as he lost a lot of Friday running due to mechanical failure. Even so, and even in a series new to him, I still expected a professional of his experience to have bounced back on Saturday and Sunday to at least get close to his teammates if not beat them. As it was, he was nowhere near them. He’ll surely be happier on a more familiar style of track this weekend where I expect him to attack all the way.

Next Race

This weekend: Barber Motorsports Park, Birmingham/Leeds, Alabama, USA

IndyCar pays a 3rd visit to the challenging natural terrain course with the quirky statues and art installations. It is also fairly narrow by modern standards though perhaps not if you compare it to somewhere like Mid-Ohio or Donington Park which are similar in nature. It also has a long straight so is a fast course, yet the slow twisty sections at each end break up the flow enough to make passing difficult. The most ideal location is the hairpin of turn five which has an undulating straight into a tight slow hairpin, and it is a downhill braking zone which makes it very difficult to judge the right braking point when trying to make a pass, or defend against one!

It is better than the most of the IndyCar bloggerati give it credit for, I think a lot of them just don’t like F1-style races which is what this course has provided on the last two visits. Contrary to popular belief there is passing here and it happens at turn five. It is up to the TV crew to show it to us.