US Grand Prix Weekend

article-2507997-196FA6EA00000578-590_634x421The weekend is here, and boy do we wish we were in Austin for the second running of the US Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas. Qualifying is set to start in two hours but lets recap Friday’s practice and some of the events of this ever evolving silly season.

FP1 was delayed for thirty minutes due to fog (I know, weird – in Texas), and then subsequently red flagged due to the lack of a medical helicopter. Apparently circuit officials didn’t realize it had left, also odd. But that didn’t stop some promising rookies from taking to the track and hammering away for the remainder of the session. Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat drove FP1 and was lapping just .2 seconds behind Daniel Ricciardo, the man he’ll be replacing. At Caterham, American Alexander Rossi performed well, outpacing Charles Pic by nearly a second per lap.

Earlier this week Kimi Raikkonen announced he would not return for the final two races in Texas and Brazil, so Lotus scrambled to find a substitute for the Finn. Davide Valsecchi, Lotus’ reserve driver, arguably should have received the drive (as it is literally in his job description), but was snubbed for Caterham reserve driver, Heikki Kovalainen. This incident has cast a pretty dark shadow over Lotus upper management, but you wouldn’t know it by the track performance on Friday. Kovalainen adjusted to the E21 chassis in FP1, but outpaced Romain Grosjean to a fifth fastest time in FP2. Wonder if this weekends performance could vault the Finn back into a permanent F1 seat?….

Felipe Massa knows something about that, as he’s been fighting for a seat in the sport for the past few weekends since Raikkonen was rehired by Ferrari for 2014. Williams announced they will take Massa and current driver Valterri Bottas for 2014, dropping Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado. In another rather strange and unexpected move, McLaren has opted to drop Sergio Perez for 2014, and instead hire Kevin Magnussen. Wait you haven’t heard of Magnussen? You know, the winner of Formula Renault 3.5 this year. Yeah, we didn’t either. This controversial decision will leave Perez without a seat, unless he’s picked up by Lotus, or perhaps the duo of Caterham and Marussia. Either way, he’ll be fighting with Maldonado and anyone else who finds themselves sacked in the next two weeks.

Qualifying today should be interesting. The track seems to still be quite fresh in its only second year of running, so expect to see lots of cars running wide and locking up the fronts. If we go by FP2, the Red Bulls once again look unbeatable as they topped the charts. Mercedes has rebounded slightly. Nico Rosberg feels confident in his car’s balance, and Lewis Hamilton starts out with a brand new chassis for the last two races. His impressions are good; following a few miserable performances and having complained about terrible handling in his Merc, the mechanics tore it all down and discovered carbon cracks which compromised the chassis. Let’s see if King Lewis has what it takes to defend his run of two US GP titles…

Abu Dhabi: Vettel’s 7-in-a-row

Vettel wins Abu Dhabi

Surprise! Sebastian Vettel has won again. Can you believe it?! Well, yes. Vettel ties Michael Schumacher with a record of 7 grand prix victories in a row, and if winning the championship a fourth straight time last week wasn’t enough, this feat should surely cement Vettel as one of the greatest F1 drivers of all time.

With Mark Webber on pole, things looked good for the Aussie to nab his 10th career win, but Vettel and Nico Rosberg quickly stymied that thought. Webber’s start was average, but Rosberg quickly shot up alongside Vettel and pushed the #2 Red Bull to third. Kimi Raikkonen had been DQ’ed from yesterday’s qualifying session due to a floppy floorboard (say that 10 times Kimi) and was forced to start behind Jules Bianchi at the end of the grid. By Turn 1 he had disposed of Max Chilton and Bianchi, but was properly offed when Charles Pic turned into him and broke the Lotus‘ steering. Webber finished second, with Rosberg third and making a case for himself as the superstar that Mercedes desire.

Typical Vettel clinic by the end of lap 1; he worked out his 2-second lead and would hold it for the remainder of the race. On lap 14 he dove into the pits in front of Felipe Massa by 26 seconds, then reemerged still infront of the Brazilian. Massa looked compelling at the halfway point as he lead Fernando Alonso, but a slow pit stop onto the wrong compound would push Massa down to 8th place. Alonso nearly batted off Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso at the pit outlet which caused some scrutiny by FIA officials. The frenchman pushed over on the racing line, leaving a faster (but not by much) Ferrari with no where to go but off the track. Alonso would finish fifth, behind a very impressive Romain Grosjean.

The rest of the top 10 featured a few unfamiliar faces. Force India made a big turnaround today after getting both drivers into the points. Paul di Resta drove confidently on a forgiving set of Pirelli’s to 6th position, Adrian Sutil on a similar run to 10th. Sergio Perez snuck his McLaren into 9th, but was nearly creamed into the pitlane wall by Sauber. The young ace Nico Hulkenberg was released right infront of Perez, but was later rewarded a drive through penalty for the incident. This marks the first unimpressive drive from Hulkenberg since Sauber reconfigured their wing setup.

Speaking of unimpressive drives, Lewis Hamilton pulled his Mercedes into 7th position, having floundered for much of the race. The car had seen quite a few repairs done since yesterday’s incident at the end of qualifying. Turns out the rear wishbone broke which lead to Mercedes replacing the entire rear suspension… and subsequently the brake discs, calipers and pads all around. Not enough to get HAM up to his teammate on the podium.

So in two weeks F1 comes State-side once again. Wish I could be there at the Circuit of the Americas to watch, but for once I’ll get to sleep in on a Sunday morning. Cheers.

Webber on Pole in Abu Dhabi

mark webber abu dhabiIt’s only fitting that upon the crowning of 4-peat World Champion Sebastian Vettel, the drivers race for “best of the rest” really kicks off, and today saw the fireworks fly late in the qualifying session as Mark Webber stormed to P1 with the only qualifying time in the 1:39’s. Webber makes this his second pole position of the year, a position that most of the F1 world hopes will elevate him to another win before his career ends in Brazil. Vettel was visibly disappointed following his final lap, and could be seen shaking his head immediately upon crossing the line. After congratulating Mark, Vettel spoke on his position behind his Red Bull teammate in the press conference, “I think I deserved to do a little bit better.”

So far, Abu Dhabi has excited. The practices on Friday saw many drivers, from Chilton all the way up to Raikkonen, spinning and running off track in an attempt to squeeze everything from their cars. Oddly, the tires have been working well compared to last weeks degredation pace in India. The soft compounds have proved to be more than durable enough for a good race stint, but hopefully won’t equate to a dreary one-stopper. If anything, this week the focus will be on the changing track temperatures due to the race starting at dusk and ending in the dark.

Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton will lock out the second row for Mercedes, vying to be “best of the rest.” Rosberg once again looked relaxed and composed on his way to P3, while Hamilton spun on his final hot qualifying lap of Q3. His position was luckily unaffected, but he noted that “something went on the rear.” Both cars were closer to the Red Bulls than in the last few qualifying sessions. Hopefully tomorrow we’ll see some close racing from the Silver Arrows.

Kimi Raikkonen will start on Row 3, followed by Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg. Raikkonen has been having a very public dispute with his Lotus team over payment – allegedly having not received a single cent the whole season. Raikkonen showed up last minute on Friday for the first practice session, and conceded that he was thinking of skipping the last three races of the season if an agreement hadn’t been met. Meanwhile, strong performer Hulkenberg still has not signed a contract for 2014. It is rumored that he and Pastor Maldonado are in contention for Raikkonen’s seat at Lotus for next year.

And now to the big headline. Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso did not progress into Q3 for the first time since last year’s race in Valencia (a race in which he won). Alonso will be starting in 11th position with a seemingly uncompetitive F138. Felipe Massa once again out-qualified him, finishing in 8th position. Alonso was on track to have a good qualifying time when a mistake late in his run added crucial tenths to his time. He soldiered on for another hot lap but it wasn’t enough.

Other notable mentions. McLaren’s Sergio Perez bludgeoned Jenson Button’s qualifying speed, ending in 9th position and 13th position, respectively. That makes two world champions out of Q3. Ouch.

Let’s hope for a nail-biter tomorrow morning! Could this be win #10 for Webber? That’d be nice.

Vettel Win makes it 4 Consecutive F1 Championships

889701-seb-vettel

Forget 2012’s championship three-peat, on Sunday at the Buddh International Circuit, Sebastian Vettel won six races in a row to claims his fourth Championship title for Red Bull. His win also cements another consecutive constructors championship for the Milton Keynes team. The enormity of this win is unbelievable. Vettel sits fourth in number of total race wins behind absolute legends of the sport, Ayrton Senna with 41, Alain Prost with 51, and Michael Schumacher with 91. With three races left in the season, hats off to Vettel and Red Bull for performing absolute dominance.

It was good racing all around especially with the guys rounding off the podium. Nico Rosberg finished second to add to the Mercedes points haul in the constructors championship (now leading Ferrari by 4) and a surprising third place finish, Romain Grosjean. The Frenchman fought his way up from P17 at the start to land his Lotus on the podium, and near the end engaged teammate Kimi Raikkonen in a wheel-to-wheel fight which saw Grosjean leave the track altogether. Back to Mercedes, Rosberg continues to be better on his tires than teammate Lewis Hamilton… more on him later.

The man expected to finish on podium, Vettel’s teammate Mark Webber, had yet another heartbreaking incident which ended his race prematurely. On Lap 20, Webber was ordered to pull off track and stop due to an alternator failure. The dismay in his voice was evident as he pulled into the runoff area, a sight so frequent in the last few races of the year. Aside from a rocky start, Webber was on track to take the fight to Vettel due to a different tire strategy. Webber, slow off the line, made contact with the cascade elements on the front of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari and jostled into Raikkonen before Turn 2. This caused Alonso to pit prematurely for new tires and front wing damage; he never recovered and finished just out of the points in 11th.

Alonso’s teammate Felipe Massa finally converted his good P5 starting position into a positive fourth place finish. Massa monopolized after the start to claim second position behind Vettel, and then fought his way back up against the pair of Lotuses on lap 58, excecuting a thrilling three-abreast pass with Grosjean over Raikkonen. Following right behind was a knife’s-edge drive by McLaren youngster, Sergio Perez in fifth position, for his best finish of the year thus far. Perez wrung out every last ounce of performance from his car, and made some spectacular moves late in the race over Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton. On clapped-out tires, both Raikkonen and Hamilton were sitting ducks as they were passed easily in the closing laps.

Closing out the top 10 were Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil for Force India, followed by Daniel Ricciardo in the Toro Rosso. Sutil had been holding 4th position for most of the race after going a tremendous 41 laps without stopping. Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg retired in the closing laps, resulting in his startling absence from the points this weekend. Hulkenberg has amassed four top 10 finishes since Italy.

We have but one week ’til the next race in Abu Dhabi. How will things shape up now that Vettel has secured his 4th World Title? He has the opportunity to make his current 6-win streak into a 9-win obliteration of the 2013 season. Does Red Bull have what it takes to get him there? Obviously not if you’re Mark Webber… Stay tuned, I’m sure we’ll hear some more evolution in that story in the days to come.

Vettel on pole at Indian Grand Prix

mwebber2013

But tire strategy could put Webber ahead.

It should come as no surprise that for the 2013 Indian Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel has once again put himself on pole position. From its first iteration in 2011, Vettel has been on pole each time, set the fastest lap each year,  and has lead every single lap to date. History suggests that tomorrow we are unlikely to see anything different than the overwhelming Red Bull and Vettel dominance at the Buddh International Circuit, but there are a few details that might make this year’s race a little different.

Before we get to qualifying positions and all that good stuff, news flashes regarding Pirelli. Already under fire for bringing their two softest compounds this weekend, Pirelli made a statement Saturday vowing to leave Formula 1 unless the FIA allows preseason testing. This is bound to create quite a stir in the paddock, but Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembery backs the decision. “We have to do some testing. If we can’t, we won’t be able to provide the tires.” Hembery explained that for the tires to be optimal for the 2014 season changes, Pirelli must test over the winter on current cars. However, with the season still underway and early season testing at Jerez in February, the timeline looks doubtful.

Saturday’s qualifying was thankfully incident free, and Saturday’s Free Practice 2 was nearly the same. WilliamsPastor Maldonado was fined 60,000 euro over a lose wheel nut which flew off during FP2 on Friday. This incident is the second in two weeks for Maldonado, as he lost a wheel nut in Japan in an identical scenario. Otherwise, there were no retirements or accidents, but many drivers seem to be pushing the limit and sliding around on all the curbs in Sector 2.

The Mercedes‘ of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton will follow Vettel’s pole position. Both cars seemed to be on pace, ironing out a few balance issues in preparation for Sunday, but Hamilton seemed expectedly nervous and displeased with his car. Vettel, Rosberg, and Hamilton all qualified on the supersoft compound, while Red Bull #2 Mark Webber utilized a different tire strategy and qualified on the prime tire. This decision may put Webber on top of the podium Sunday afternoon. Although his starting laps may be slower, as long as he maintains position he will be able to run his harder compound further into the race while the frontrunners dive into the pits.

Behind Webber on row 3 is Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and LotusKimi Raikkonen. Massa, arguably driving for his chance to stay in Formula 1, has out-qualified his world champion teammate in 4 of the last 5 grand prix, however Fernando Alonso has finished ahead of Massa in all of those races, most of the time on the podium.

Speaking of Alonso, he’ll be starting behind Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg, who has come alive in the past few races. Due to a new aero setup on the Sauber, Hulkenberg has become a Q3 staple as of late, and a tough competitor well into the grand prix. In Korea, Hulkenberg fought valiantly and finished just off the podium, having held off Alonso, Hamilton, Rosberg, and the McLaren of Jenson Button.

Button will start behind fellow McLaren teammate Sergio Perez on row 5, wrapping up the Q3 starters. Saturday marked the first time all year that a McLaren managed to get to the top of the Qualifying board, a dreadful reminder of poor performance this year, but perhaps a sign of good race pace going into Sunday.

Towards the middle, Sahara Force India was relegated once again to Q2, with Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil starting in 12th and 13th spots, respectively. The team will be hoping to make a strong showing at their home grand prix. And at the very back of the pack, a usual frontrunner of late, Romain Grosjean will be starting from a dreadful P17. Lotus ended their run in Q1, expecting Grosjean’s time to stand up against the field, however at the very last moment he was bumped out by the second Sauber of Esteban Gutierrez.

This has been a largely uninteresting and technical synopsis, hopefully the race will be a little more eventful, but before tomorrow… a few words on our Champion-to-be, Sebastian Vettel. Watching everyone moving around the track, fighting for grip, and generally slipping all four wheels occasionally off the track made me realize how good of a driver and car combination Vettel possesses. For those that insist Vettel is only as good as his car – your wrong. The Red Bull chassis has proven to be the best around, but just watching Vettel put in fast lap after fast lap is truly tremendous. On Saturday, every single driver on the field looked twitchy, looked strained, and some, like Kimi Raikkonen, looked absolutely on the limit to get their qualifying time in. Vettel is different. Vettel always looks calm and never hints that he is out of control. Watching back to back laps of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel defined that point for me. Although a fantastic driver, Webber looked a little shaky at points, sometimes even putting three or four wheels off the track. Vettel looked shaky once, on his last lap, already having topped the charts, and then quickly into the pits.

The hype is real. Like him or not, Sebastian Vettel has the talent and will win this championship. Having the best car isn’t everything, and you certainly don’t win three championships in a row without having a special talent.

What should we expect for tomorrow? Will Webber shake things up with his tire strategy? Will Grosjean fight his way up from 17th to make a podium finish? Hopefully it’ll be a nail biter.

A Very Lotus Korean Grand Prix

Rise of “The Hulk”

To absolutely no one’s surprise, Sebastian Vettel once again stormed to victory in his RB9 on Sunday in Korea, however his pace and distance between the rest of the back did seem less dominant than in his previous victories (won 5 in the last 6 races). That being said, he did lead every lap of the race, start from pole position, and record the fastest lap – so who’s to say that isn’t dominant.

Teammate Mark Webber wasn’t so lucky. Webber qualified P3, but due to his reprimand in Singapore, would start 13th on the grid. He systematically hacked away at the field up to second place before pitting. Immediately after the pit, Webber suffered a puncture following a massive blowout from Sergio Perez’s right front tire. He pitted onto his remaining set of tires, the undesirable super soft compound, but a few laps later was punched off the track by Adrian Sutil, and the RB9 subsequently burst into flames. All hell ensued as the track officials released the safety car behind the pack, and a “fire” Jeep in front. I doubt the FIA is going to let that one slide.

Unexpectedly, Lotus filled out the podium with Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean. Lotus’ pace in practice and qualifying was good, but not consistent. Grosjean would start from P4, with Raikkonen all the way back at P9. Perhaps the long-run speed of the team was due to the use of the longer wheelbase chassis that saw its introduction in Raikkonen’s car in Italy. If that’s true than it’s quite a development, because Raikkonen’s performance with that chassis a month ago was ruddy awful (finished 11th).

Both Ferrari and Mercedes looked to be outpaced by an unlikely young driver. Nico Hulkenberg in the Sauber tied his best ever result (Belgium 2012) to finish 4th infront of Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, and Nico Rosberg. This race result combined with the few weeks left in the season should at least give “the Hulk” a chance for a better ride in 2014. Rumors recently surfaced that Ferrari had been seriously considering Hulkenberg for 2014 before deciding on Raikkonen. Shame, they would be saving quite a lot of Maranello’s money.

At Mercedes all is certainly not well. Hamilton complained of poor tire performance beginning around lap 10, and could do nothing but wallow in the Sauber’s wake as the laps ticked away. Rosberg, who at one point was lapping 2.5 seconds faster than Hamilton, encountered a fantastic front wing failure in the midst of overtaking his teammate. Sparks flew everywhere as the diffuser scraped the ground; if you missed it check out this bizarre malfunction.

Fernando Alonso seemed to have great trouble with his F138 on Sunday. Instead of bouncing up to the front, Alonso’s start pushed him back behind Hulkenberg, where he would remain for the duration of the race. Felipe Massa struggled once again this weekend, displaying this at Turn 2, opening lap. Massa spun his car, taking cascade elements off of Adrian Sutil and Jenson Button. With this type of performance it will be quite hard for Massa to prove to Lotus or Sauber that he is the right fit for one of their 2014 seats.

Further down the grid the action stayed lively up to the final few laps. The pack of Sergio Perez, Esteban Gutierrez, Valteri Bottas, and Pastor Maldonado committed some extraordinary passes between safety car stints. Both Toro Rosso‘s and Force India‘s retired in the last third of the grand prix. It’s been disappointing to see how far these two smaller constructors have fallen since the Pirelli tire switch following the British Grand Prix.  The effect of the change is evident. Paul di Resta had finished top 10 in all but one of the first eight races. Since the change, di Resta has finished out of the points or retired. The jury is still out on that ruling.

The action resumes once again in five days as the teams head to Japan, where the reigning world champion could clinch the title if Fernando Alonso finishes no higher than 9th. What a season, hopefully Ferrari keeps it interesting for us as we delve into the last five grand prix.

Singapore Grand Prix Recap

251188-mark-webber-fernando-alonso-valencia“Alonso is probably more supportive of Webber’s racing career than Vettel and Newey are, atleast judging by his mechanical reliability…”

Hot, sweaty, tired, desperately thirsty. The emotions of the drivers following this 2 hour long epic in Singapore are undoubtedly pinging on redline, but the story remains the same. Sebastian Vettel stands once again on the top step of the podium, his third consecutive win this season, matching his third consecutive win in Singapore. At this point we might as well say it; short of Adrian Newey quitting the team, Christian Horner going to the big house for drug charges, and Sebastian Vettel taking up a hobby of excess drinking – the championship is nearly clinched. While Vettel may not be the best Formula 1 driver ever, he is certainly the smartest, most calculated and has the best car of this day and age – cough *Prost* cough. Care to disagree? Vettel was lapping a full two seconds per lap faster than Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes after the Safety Car, pulling away to a 15 second gap in about 6 laps. So congratulations Red Bull #1, we sincerely hope next year’s changes even out the playing field.

Overall the racing was sporadic, bordering on dull at points. Fernando Alonso did impress once again, making a jump from 7th to 3rd place off the start, to finish on the second podium step. Alonso’s teammate Felipe Massa was not so lucky, finishing a distant 6th after a poor start set him back behind the midfield. Unluckier still was Vettel’s teammate and future teammate. Mark Webber showed good pace throughout the race until lap 60 (of 61) when an engine issue caused him to lose all power. Webber retired on lap 61. His replacement, young Daniel Ricciardo locked the front right tire very early on and plowed into a barrier, ending his run and bringing out the safety car.

Kimi Raikkonen clinched third position on the podium after a poor qualifying and while suffering from a pinched spinal nerve. His teammate, who out-qualified him handily, retired due to engine issues. LotusRomain Grosjean pitted and subsequently retired after engineers spotted a pneumatic failure in the engine valve system of the car. Grosjean was quite verbally displeased as the radio messages made evident, and wasn’t the only driver to come across a little fierce on the 2-way. Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton both had tense moments of discussion with engineers, finishing fourth and fifth, respectively.

McLaren had a moment of glory where tire strategy had put Jenson Button on third position and Sergio Perez firmly within the points  with just 9 laps to go, but the quickly degrading compound forced both cars back quite a ways from the desired third spot. Earlier on Paul di Resta made a massive show of skill as he nursed his first set of prime tires nearly half the race before pitting. The Scot hadn’t made it out of Q1 in yesterday’s qualifying and looked to be in good standing until the safety car disrupted his tire strategy. He ended up crashing with a handful of laps to go. di Resta keeps showing impressive skill and brilliant control that are deserving of a top drive, but for nearly every great drive there is an equally poor showing – like Monza’s lap 1 retirement. Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg remained in the points finishing ninth right behind Perez. These two drivers may have uncertain futures, as Perez may be out of a McLaren drive for next year and Hulkenberg may be in line for the upgrade.

Amidst all this talk of silly seasons, team swapping, and one sided championships, it’s sometimes hard to see what makes this sport so unique and mystical. For me, I saw that essence return once again at race’s end when Alonso gave Webber a ride back to the paddock after his Red Bull began sporting flames. I’m sure it’s a health and safety nightmare each time one of these “ride alongs” happens, but it’s damn good to see those two in good spirits. The comradeship, that exclusive fraternity of F1 drivers exudes such a powerful message when men fierce competitors of every nationality can chum up and be so supporting of eachother. Who knows, Alonso is probably more of a support of Webber’s racing career than Vettel and Newey may be, atleast judging by his mechanical reliability…