Archive: fuel

I was absolutely buzzing after the Turkish Grand Prix, a race that had almost everything you could ask for. Even though superficially all the pre-race hype had Red Bull easily in the lead, it turned out that McLaren have turned up the wick and give them a really hard fight.

Red Bull hung on to the lead, as McLaren failed to take advantage during the pitstops. Thereafter, we were treated to an amazingly tense battle at the very front, with all four front-running cars running within a couple of seconds of each other after the pitstops had taken place.

I am struggling to think of any other time when the front-running cars were so close to each other so far into the race. For me, this was racing at its very best. Who needs refuelling?

Red Bull threw away a “sure-fire 1-2″

By lap 40, the McLarens had fallen back a tad, but Sebastian Vettel was still racing closely with Mark Webber. It transpires that Webber was using up more fuel than Vettel, with the German able to save fuel while running in the race leader’s slipstream. Webber therefore had to start conserving fuel sooner than Vettel, whose pace had picked up.

That gave Vettel the golden opportunity to seize the race lead. But disaster struck when the two collided in the most dramatic fashion as Vettel attempted to overtake. The German had to retire, but Webber limped on to the pits and ended up in third place.

It’s one of the most extraordinary things I can remember seeing in F1. This is exactly what I love about the sport. Once you think you’ve seen it all, something even more incredible happens. Red Bull should have had an easy 1-2. But after being pressed by McLaren, Red Bull have ended up, in the words of team boss Christian Horner, handing 43 points on a plate to McLaren.

Red Bull face a driver management nightmare

It is the worst case scenario for Red Bull, not only because a relatively safe 1-2 was lost. The team management now has a complete nightmare job — it must try to keep both drivers happy when inevitably fingers are being pointed and jabbed in opposite directions.

Initial reaction was that the crash was Vettel’s fault. He had half a chance to pass Webber, and bit off more than he could chew. While the speed advantage ensured that Vettel could run alongside Webber, he wasn’t quite fast enough to overtake cleanly. Presumably worried that he would be compromised going into the corner by running so close to the left edge of the track, Vettel turned in towards Webber.

Webber held his line, having given Vettel just enough space and no more. Even though the onboard footage shows Webber trying to steer slightly to the right, Vettel’s steering movement was much more extreme, and he ended up colliding straight into his team mate’s car.

My brother and I strongly disagreed about this during the race. I feel that it was Vettel’s responsibility to ensure that he could overtake in a clean manner. Webber left enough room for Vettel to run alongside him, and it was Vettel who changed direction. This appeared to be the broad consensus viewpoint among most F1 pundits.

It is highly surprising therefore to see the Red Bull management appear to come out in Vettel’s favour, at the risk of upsetting Mark Webber even when most people are taking Webber’s side. If I was Mark Webber, I’d be pretty pissed off by this turn of events.

In a way, you can understand why the team would want to back Sebastian Vettel. He is clearly the team’s best long-term hope, even if in the short- to medium-term Mark Webber is often the faster of the two.

Moreover, Vettel is the only tangible evidence of a vaguely successful driver coming out of the Red Bull young drivers’ programme which the drinks company has poured so much resource into. I am sure Helmut Marko is a proud person, and he would like to think of himself as a mentor to the drivers he that have been through his drivers’ programme over the years. Mark Webber is only at Red Bull to plug the embarrassing vacant gap left over by the complete lack of any other decent drivers to emerge from the programme.

Helmut Marko may deny that the team favours Sebastian Vettel. But the fact he and his colleagues in the Red Bull Racing management have been prepared to publicly blame Mark Webber for the incident — when the vast majority of the F1 community holds the opposite point of view — is indicative.

F1 journalists have certainly been left surprised by Red Bull’s actions after the race. Will Buxton has been particularly vociferous on Twitter, first saying: “Total BS being smelt around the paddock.” He later added:

Helmut Marko – “Vettel was 2 metres ahead”. Riiiiiight. That’s why he and Mark made contact, yeah? Red BS stinking up the place.

Did McLaren also crack?

Meanwhile, are things quietly unravelling at McLaren too? It has not been attracting as much attention, but it’s worth pointing out that the race between Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button was also distinctly odd.

At the very same point of the track a few laps later, Jenson Button got a run on Lewis Hamilton, and the pair had a ding-dong battle for several corners. Luckily, this time round both drivers were more sensible. A good, tough, clean fight was the main result.

Button briefly led, but Hamilton ultimately prevailed. Immediately afterwards, Button suddenly fell right off the pace.

After the race, I thought Lewis Hamilton looked a bit wooden and tense on the podium. Both Martin Brundle and Anthony Davidson picked up on his unusual body language, which seemed quite negative for someone who had just won a race.

Both McLaren drivers seemed confused when they were talking to each other just before going out for the podium ceremony. They were having an interesting conversation until it appeared that they suddenly remembered a camera and microphone were picking up their conversation and broadcasting it on the FOM world feed!

The tension between the driver’s interest and the team’s interest

This pair of situations throws the issue of team orders back into the spotlight. Superficially, team orders are banned — but that doesn’t stop teams giving drivers cryptic messages, or using mechanisms such as instructions to “save fuel” in order to slow down one of the drivers.

Team orders shouldn’t really be banned, as it is understandable that teams will always want to look at the bigger pictures as far as the whole team is concerned. It has always been a part of motor racing, and always will be. But there is always a tension when a driver disagrees with the team’s view.

This tension between the driver’s individual interest and the need for a driver to also play a role as a “team mate” is one of the most fascinating aspects of Formula 1 for me. It doesn’t actually crop up all that often. But when it does, the results can be explosive, as we have seen today.

We have seen that in both front-running teams in Turkey. The situation arose with both teams because — uniquely — all four drivers were running so close with one another. Even fourth placed Button could literally see the leading car at all points during the race. Each one of those four drivers would have felt like they had a major chance of winning today. That’s when egos collide, and team orders begin to unravel.

McLaren’s engineers said over the team radio that “we pushed them and they cracked”, referring to Red Bull. Given Helmut Marko’s comments that Vettel needed to push Webber because he in turn was being pushed by Hamilton appears to vindicate this. But, in their own little way, did McLaren also crack today?


Update: See also the BBC’s Andrew Benson discussing the situations at Red Bull and McLaren.

Up until now, I have refrained from writing about the latest scandal to envelop F1 — allegations that Nelsinho Piquet’s crash at last year’s Singapore Grand Prix was engineered in order to fix the race so that Alonso could win. Now that Renault have been summoned to an extraordinary meeting of the WMSC (sound familiar?), it seems as though there is some substance to the allegations. At least there is enough of a suspicion that the FIA feels the need to take the situation very seriously.

Suspicion about the result has hung around since immediately after the race. Fernando Alonso’s strategy was unusual, though by no means unheard of. He was filled very light at the beginning so that he could pit a few laps before everyone else and hope for a Safety Car within those few laps to make up the places. How convenient, it was widely noted, that the Safety Car Alonso badly needed was brought out as a result of his team mate Piquet slinging his car into the wall.

Up until this week, though, I had always suspected that if there was any conspiracy on Renault’s part, it was to tell Piquet in the heat of the moment to push hard in the hope that he might crash. The way the situation is framed now, it seems as though the allegation is that the whole thing was premeditated. The thinking appears to be that the plan was formulated by Renault personnel and discussed with Piquet before the race began.

If these allegations are true, they should be taken very seriously indeed. It would surely be the biggest scandal ever to have hit Formula 1 (and that is saying something). This is no little sex game. It is not mere pilfering of intellectual property. The concern here isn’t even just about race fixing, though that is a serious charge in itself.

When you talk about deliberately crashing a car, that is a major safety issue. First of all there is the safety of the driver who is being asked to crash a car into a wall. Despite the high safety standards for drivers today, it is obvious to see how this plan could have had terrible consequences.

Then there is the safety of other drivers. Even though Piquet’s crash happened when there were no other drivers near him, this is not really the point. (Update: Actually, looking at the replay, there are other drivers near him, and indeed he is overtaken while the crash is still happening.) His crash left debris spread across the track. A driver could easily pick up a puncture and end up in his own serious accident.

This year we have also had bad experiences of debris causing serious injury to Felipe Massa and the death of Henry Surtees. In Hungary, the spring from Rubens Barrichello’s car was bouncing around for four seconds until it hit Massa’s helmet with disastrous consequences. How would anyone setting out to deliberately crash their car know that there won’t be any knock-on effects to the safety of other drivers?

That is before we even consider the safety of the spectators. In the video we can see that they are actually sitting very close to Piquet’s accident right next to the circuit. If shards of debris made their way into the crowd, we could be looking at injuries there too.

Comparisons with rugby union’s “bloodgate” scandal understate the nature of these allegations. Piquet’s crash could have involved real blood.

Yes, motorsport is dangerous. Everyone knows that. But everyone takes part under the assumption that safety comes first, and that no-one is deliberately setting out to cause danger. Let us be clear. If it is true that Piquet was instructed to deliberately crash the car, we could easily be looking at manslaughter charges rather than just race fixing charges.

That is why I find it so difficult to believe that the Renault team or anyone else involved in motorsport would actually consider concocting such a scheme. The allegations against Renault are very serious and as such there needs to be cast-iron evidence if any action is to be taken.

It seems unbelievable that Renault would leave behind any trace of their plan in the form of, for instance, their radio transmissions (although that didn’t stop McLaren from inexplicably trying to pretend they didn’t exist back in Australia this year). A secret code phrase is not inconceivable though.

I can easily envisage such a code phrase being something like “Fernando has been in for his stop”. It is, after all, not unusual for a driver to be told how his team mate is doing, and that simple piece of information would have told Piquet all he needed to know. I imagine the FIA will be studying the radio recordings of the Singapore race and other races to see if there is anything unusual at all about the Singapore transmissions in the run-up to Piquet’s crash.

Then comes the question of where exactly the new evidence has come from. The assumption seems to be that it has come from camp Piquet (either Jr or Sr). It is easy to see what Piquet’s agenda might be. The clear mission just now is to discredit Flavio Briatore — that is clear from Piquet’s incredible statement after he was sacked by Renault.

One thing makes me doubt that Piquet is the whistleblower is that this whole thing would show him up to be the sort of dummy would go along with such a dangerous scheme for his own short-term gain. If the allegations are true, Piquet is just as liable as the Renault team. If he thinks he will save his career by blowing the whistle, he really is a few marbles short.

The only way this calculation can work is that Piquet thought that his career was ruined anyway (which I suppose is likely), and he has nothing to lose and at least can bring Briatore down with him. Otherwise, Piquet’s only hope will be that he is looked upon favourably for being the whistleblower. But I think anyone who is happy to deliberately crash their car in a premeditated scheme ought to be set for a lengthy racing ban.

Amid all this, it is worth asking the question: is Renault the sort of team that would do this sort of thing. A certain constituency would say that it is in the nature of competitive drivers and teams to exploit loopholes in the regulations, and that creative interpretations of the rulebook are to be expected and, in some cases, celebrated.

The Benetton / Renault team which has been run by Flavio Briatore for most of the past twenty years has certainly seen its fair share of scandals over the years. This was particularly the case while Michael Schumacher was driving for them. In 1994 it seemed as though Benetton were never far away from trouble.

But the team has been reticent in pushing the regulations in recent years, probably having learnt its lesson from previous controversies. That was particularly noticeable when Renault stuck to the spirit of the engine freeze principle, while every other engine manufacturer upgraded their engine in the guise of improving reliability.

There was a smaller spygate-style scandal when team members were found to be in possession of McLaren intellectual property. But overall, the picture is mixed. Most of the team’s biggest examples of cheating happened fifteen years ago. As such, it is difficult to say if Renault is the sort of team that would willingly manipulate events in the manner which is alleged.

The FIA will want to consider the facts of the incident in question though. Or will they? It is interesting to consider if this might be Max Mosley’s parting shot. Given the political shenanigans from earlier this year, it is probably fair to say that Flavio Briatore is not Max Mosley’s favourite person. Is this another invention of (or inflation by) the FIA, as with the Stepneygate issue of two years ago?

Some people will always suspect the FIA’s motives, particularly why Max Mosley is in charge. Checkpoint 10 goes as far as to “blame the rules” for Renault’s alleged actions. I agree to an extent. The FIA’s rulebook is famously convoluted, and it was the ridiculous Safety Car rules that led to this situation in the first place. I draw the line at saying that such actions should be “commended” though — as I say, there could have been far more serious implications than mere race-fixing.

Joe Saward has a good overview which I would highly recommend reading.

What a grand prix weekend that was. It just goes to show you what a decent circuit can do for racing. Boy, can Spa do it for racing. It also clearly does it for Kimi Räikkönen, who is always mesmerising in this most inspirational of settings.

Räikkönen confuses people a lot of the time with his apparent indifference. Often he simply does not seem to be bothered. But he always goes well at Spa. Indeed, he is the only current driver to have won there. His record includes a remarkable fight to the front from 10th on the grid in what was an otherwise barren 2004 season for him.

There are some parallels between that victory and this year’s one. Like McLaren in 2004, this year Ferrari began the season with uncompetitive machinery, but have developed the car into a winner for Belgium. This victory ends a 25 race drought for Räikkönen; the 2004 victory ended an even longer one.

In a lot of ways, Räikkönen’s victory was among the least surprising things to happen during an extraordinary weekend. The Finn usually gives a good performance in Belgium, but despite winning the race he was overshadowed by Giancarlo Fisichella, a man who would have been sacked at the end of last year if I had any say in such matters.

Question marks remain over a victory margin which perhaps ought to have been longer than one second. Then some say he wouldn’t have won were it not for kers — this is probably true. Others say that he gained an advantage by running wide and taking the run-off at La Source on lap 1.

However, David Coulthard says that Räikkönen will have gained no advantage from running wide, a fact which is apparently corroborated by the fact that Button took a similar line and lost places. It’s more likely that Räikkönen gained those spots by deploying his kers, the exit of La Source being the ideal spot to unleash that kers energy on lap 1 rather than the start itself. See Axis of Oversteer for a good debate on this matter.

Even so, the plaudits are going to Giancarlo Fisichella for his stunning drive to second place in the Force India. Is it a coincidence that he should up his game so much when there is a sniff of getting a Ferrari drive? I don’t think I have ever been so impressed by Fisichella, who I have always seen as a mid-grid sort of guy who only just about deserves his continued presence in F1.

Some of the upsurge can be put down to the car, which the team also expects to do well at Monza. In the sister Force India car, Adrian Sutil looked especially good through Raidillon, giving him an enormous advantage through the Kemmel straight, capitalising too on the grunt of the Mercedes engine, no doubt the best in F1. This led to him making a few impressive overtaking manoeuvres, though sadly for him it came to nothing and ended up in 11th.

Force India weren’t the only backmarkers to rise in Spa though. BMW, for the first time since Australia, looked quick. Both drivers scored points, and indeed Kubica did well to finish fourth despite picking up a substantial amount of damage in the lap 1 mêlée at Les Combes.

Lap 1 was an eventful lap all round, with Fernando Alonso’s race effectively ending at the start. But we were not to find that out until his first pitstop, when the Renault mechanics were unable to satisfactorily change his left front tyre. Renault didn’t want another controversy involving badly fitted wheels, so he toured into the pits to retire. A clever replay from FOM revealed that Alonso’s wheel was actually damaged in a turn 1 collision with Sutil at the start.

It is yet more bad luck for Alonso. Renault will not like the fact that in the Constructors’ Championship they are now behind BMW, a team which has been lamentably poor for most of the season. With the announcement that the FIA is investigating the unusual circumstances behind their victory in the Singapore Grand Prix, all-in-all it’s been a pretty torrid time for Renault. The move to the red car cannot come too soon for Alonso.

As for the sharp end of the championship, yet again three of the major Championship contenders failed to score a good result. This time, Vettel was the only one of the four challengers to have a good race. This makes Red Bull’s decision over whether it should start favouring one driver over the other yet trickier. Vettel now leads Webber in the Championship. But he still faces a massive 19 point deficit with only five races remaining.

Vettel actually had a strong race. In his analysis of the race, rubbergoat reveals that, when you consider competitive laps only, Vettel had the fastest average lap time of all the drivers. But he was hindered in the vital first stint due to being heavy on fuel.

Jenson Button had a DNF as he crashed out in that Les Combes pile-up. It is his first DNF of the season, making his sixth bad race in a row. Yet again, he has gotten away with it relatively unscathed. Another disastrous race, another two point dent in his lead which remains at 16 points. His main challenger is Rubens Barrichello who, with all due respect to the Brazilian, is not the most threatening of his three main challengers — not least because he is in the same team.

This has been a most strange season. Jenson Button couldn’t stop winning in the first half of the season. Now he can do nothing to help himself win. But his Championship chances remain high because the last six races have had six different winners. In stark contrast to the early Brawn dominance, you just don’t know who is going to be strong at a race and I would be a mug if I tried to predict what would happen in Monza. I daren’t even predict which car this week’s second placed man will be driving — I don’t want a wrap on the knuckles like Ian Phillips!

This year’s European Grand Prix was not the best race we’ve seen so far this year — but at least it wasn’t the utter snoozer we had last year. There are at least a few interesting talking points.

First, of course, is the performance of Rubens Barrichello, which was truly masterful. For once, the most experienced driver in the history of F1 has shown that the statistic doesn’t just mean he’s old — it means he can do the business as well. It is his first win for five years, and who would begrudge him this one?

Brawn were forced to spend Friday experimenting with set-up in an attempt to get to the issues that have prevented them from being competitive since Turkey. Despite this, Barrichello put all the car’s troubles behind him and didn’t seem to put a foot wrong all weekend.

I heard someone say that an emotional Rubens is a quick Rubens. It appears as though Felipe Massa’s injury has had some kind of impact on Barrichello’s form, not least because Massa has apparently been giving Barrichello tips on which lines to take in Valencia.

Certainly, not all of the performance can be put down to an improvement in the car because Jenson Button was thoroughly outclassed. In fairness, Button’s race was immediately compromised by a disastrous first lap — fatal on a circuit like Valencia. Even so, the Championship leader was strangely off the pace compared with Barrichello.

Barrichello even seemed to have the upper hand before the race started, as he was heavy on fuel and could pit later. It was marginal though, and it took until the third stint for the advantage to finally be realised.

There is a slight debate over whether McLaren’s bungled pit stop handed Barrichello the lead on a plate, though most agree that Barrichello would have ended up ahead anyway. Who knows how he would have coped under pressure from Hamilton though if that pacey McLaren was closer to him.

Hamilton and McLaren must count this as a lost victory, not a good second place. After the race, Hamilton’s words said he wasn’t disappointed or upset about the team’s mistake. But for me, his tone of voice said it all. This wasn’t the relaxed and happy Hamilton that we saw after the race in Hungary, and I detected more than a bit of tension in his voice in the post-race interviews.

I think Hamilton thought he had the race in the bag. I remarked at one point during the first stint that it sounded like he was taking it easy. Soon afterwards, Martin Brundle said that Hamilton was nowhere near his limit. For much of his first stint he was lapping in the high 1:39s or low 1:40s. In both his second and third stints he ended up consistently lapping rather faster, in the mid 1:39s.

It’s strange, because Hamilton has traditionally been criticised for not being conservative enough. But this is one instance where I think if he had pushed harder he would have won. His lead was indeed fairly comfortable during the first stint, but I feel he could have pressed home his advantage further.

Kimi Räikkönen scored his second consecutive podium in a row, and it was another relatively bland yet quick performance. He was barely on the television and there was apparently nothing interesting about his race, apart from the fact that he finished third.

This is interesting bearing in mind all the silly season issues, particularly while a question mark remains over the future competitiveness of Felipe Massa. People constantly say they struggle to understand Räikkönen, and many speculated about how he’d react to having Michael Schumacher as a team mate. On the current evidence, you have to say that he appears to have reacted rather well to no longer having Massa as a team mate. Räikkönen’s oft-predicted move to rallying in 2010 seems less likely now.

Fernando Alonso was another one who had a relatively uneventful race. But he and the Spanish fans will take the three points over the lap one retirement he suffered last year in Valencia. Alonso still does what I expect him to do in mediocre machinery, but is not yet showing enough of his double World Champion class which we saw last year.

BMW Sauber will be relatively pleased with how their weekend unfolded. The upgrade seems to have worked, with the team having its best qualifying of the season and Robert Kubica scoring a point. They are no longer the underachieving tail-enders, though you would still expect more.

As for the other big-name underachievers, Toyota, they are scratching their head over the fact that they were actually quite quick during the race, but were neutered by a poor qualifying performance. This year’s Toyota has always been bad round twisty places (such as Monaco and sector three at Barcelona), but despite its supposed “street circuit” status, Valencia isn’t actually all that twisty.

True enough, Timo Glock set the fastest lap during the race. Pascal Vasselon says that all of Glock’s laps during the race were fast. Looking at the raw lap times it doesn’t seem that way, but Glock’s slow times in the early part of the race are said to be down to a heavy fuel load. All told, it must be pretty frustrating to be fast, yet finish a dismal 14th, ahead of just the three new drivers.

There is one big team I haven’t yet mentioned. Red Bull — could you get a much more disastrous race? Webber was off the pace all race, never looked like scoring a decent result and ended up finishing behind a BMW. Meanwhile, Vettel’s brand new Renault engine rasped its way into an escape road just a day after another one spewed all over half the circuit. That’s not good for Renault’s engine department, but more on that in a future article.

Vettel wondered aloud if he is a “killer” of his engines in his post-race interviews. He has now used up seven of his eight engines, and with Spa and Monza coming up he is almost certain to take a grid penalty at some point in the next few races. If his Championship chances weren’t severely dented already, this near-certain penalty surely hammers a sturdy nail into the coffin.

Red Bull’s capitulation this weekend means that yet again Jenson Button has got away with a dire weekend virtually unscathed. Despite only finishing 7th, his Championship lead decreased by just half a point. Yet again, Button looks as likely as ever to become World Champion despite not having any good results. In Turkey his lead was 26 points. But after four dire races, his lead has only been cut by less than a third of that amount.

Since his last win four races ago, there have been four different winners. The lack of any real challenger gives Button breathing space. And for the first time in a while, Barrichello has moved up into second place in the Championship, hammering home the fact that Red Bull have not quite done enough to prove they can win the Championship.

But Spa will be a very different race, and conventional wisdom suggests that it will suit Red Bull. But do they have enough in the tank? Webber needs to overcome a substantial 20.5 point deficit to Button.

I will review the Hungarian Grand Prix soon, but I have a couple of other articles I need to get out of the way first. I didn’t want to do any of that before mentioning Felipe Massa.

It goes without saying that I deeply hope that Felipe Massa makes a full recovery, and that it won’t be too long before he is racing again.

I was shaking during qualifying as news of what had happened to Massa had emerged. I don’t think I have ever felt that bad in all the time I have been watching Formula 1 since 1995, although Robert Kubica’s accident at Montreal in 2007 came close to that feeling.

I said last week following the death of Henry Surtees that the greatest risk that faces racing drivers is not having a heavy impact with a wall, but being hit by a wheel. This week we must extend that to debris in general. The spring that fell off Rubens Barrichello’s car is said to have weighed around a kilogram, not the sort of thing you want to be approaching at upwards of 160mph. Meanwhile, his car’s heavy impact with the tyre barrier does not appear to have caused or exacerbated any serious injury.

Martin Brundle has rightly pointed out that the term “freak accident” is inappropriate in motorsport. When you are travelling at speeds regularly approaching 200mph, there is only so much you can ever do to make it safe.

But there is no doubting that Felipe Massa was extraordinarily unlucky. The part that failed on the Brawn had never failed before. The spring then bounced around for four seconds, before just happening to be in exactly the right position to hit Massa’s helmet. You couldn’t aim it like that if you tried. Had Massa arrived a second earlier or later, or been a few inches further to the right, we probably would never have known about the spring flying around on the track.

That this should have happened just six days after the death of Henry Surtees adds further to the sense of tragedy. When you have one tragic accident it might be easy to dismiss it as a freak one-off, but to have two similar incidents in close succession rings alarm bells. Rubens Barrichello has compared this week to Imola 1994.

There will be a renewed look at safety, which I sense has taken a back seat since cost cutting became the more fashionable cause. Many are asking, is it time for Formula 1 to consider closed cockpits? The debate has been started by Ross Brawn, F1 Fanatic and Checkpoint 10. But there are no easy answers. This weekend during an IndyCar race we saw a perfect demonstration of the extra dangers that a closed cockpit may create, when Tony Kanaan’s car caught fire following a refuelling problem.

Going back to Felipe Massa, ever since the second he hit the tyre barrier the reports that have come out have been conflicting and confusing. Thankfully, the latest news appears to be positive. Let us hope that Massa will make a full and speedy recovery.

Forza Felipe.

It was not the most entertaining of races, even though — somehow — I was kept interested in proceedings the whole way through. The race has produced little in the way of talking points though.

The Brawn rout continues, and Jenson Button looked more untouchable than ever. Yes, Sebastian Vettel took pole position, but yet again it was with a light fuel load. Matters were not helped at all when Vettel ran wide halfway through lap one, handing the lead to Jenson Button on a plate. From that point, the race was effectively won.

Increasingly, Red Bull look like a team not yet capable of winning races. After Vettel’s unforced driving error, the Red Bull’s tacticians failed to adapt and Vettel was kept on a three-stop strategy which was only ever going to drop him backwards. Time and again Red Bull have given Vettel an unworkable strategy, which is allowing Mark Webber to gain the upper hand by the end of the race. It’s difficult to know which to blame more between Vettel and the Red Bull team for their inability to take the fight to Brawn.

One possible explanation for keeping Vettel on a 3-stopper was that the Red Bull could not handle the softer tyres as well as the Brawn can. Mind you, Webber managed on a two-stopper.

One of the most disappointing aspects of Vettel’s race was the fact that he once again demonstrated an inability to overtake when it mattered. He got stuck behind Hamilton in Bahrain and Massa in Spain. This time in Turkey he failed to overtake Button despite having caught up with him quickly as a result of being on a lighter fuel load. Now we are told that the Red Bull car is bad in dirty air (so much for the FIA’s new aero regulations then). But I have to admit to losing a bit more faith in Sebastian Vettel every race now.

It’s not only Vettel who is managing to mess things up. Rubens Barrichello had an absolute nightmare of a race. The Brawn made another one of its occasional sluggish starts, and Barrichello found himself down in 12th at the end of lap 1, having started 3rd. He made a valiant effort at climbing back through the field, with some optimistic overtaking moves. This provided the main entertainment of the race.

He had a particularly brilliant battle against Heikki Kovalainen. But when Kovalainen “kersed” him back, Barrichello just got frustrated and ended up getting in a tangle a lap later. That only left him further behind.

Having dropped down in 17th, he tried to charge back through. He easily dispensed with Lewis Hamilton and totally spooked Nelsinho Piquet into making a mistake. But he was rather too optimistic against Adrian Sutil. I actually couldn’t believe that the most experienced F1 driver of all time thought that was even remotely a goer. Perhaps it goes to show how frustrating Rubens Barrichello is finding this season, despite the fact that he has the best car.

Perhaps it is a sign that Barrichello is past it. The picture that is emerging is one that is similar to what we saw with David Coulthard last season — an experienced driver whose mind is not quite as sharp and is unable to think on his feet as well as he used to.

Apart from that, it is difficult to know what to say about the race. The one other notable on-track battle was Piquet against Hamilton, where against the odds the Renault driver got the upper hand (albeit on a much lighter fuel load).

Ferrari’s resurgence has come to nothing, with Massa finishing 6th and Räikkönen 9th. Toyota looked better than they had done, but not enough to challenge at the front. And BMW also improved, but only to the midfield. Their pet project, kers, looks like it might be dropped for the remainder of the season.

Let’s hope that someone can make the British Grand Prix more of a challenge, but I don’t see it happening.

It’s sad to say, but it’s true. The Spanish Grand Prix is now one of the most important events on the calendar since the emergence of Fernando Alonso. But the circuit that hosts it simply does not produce a good F1 race. I can’t remember the last time there was an exciting Spanish Grand Prix, and 2009 won’t exactly stick in the memory for long either. But while the on-track action left something to be desired, there were still a few interesting aspects of the grand prix, and there are a few talking points to be considered.

First of all there is the controversy surrounding the strategy of the two Brawn cars. According to Ross Brawn, Rubens Barrichello’s three-stop strategy was the optimal one. But the driver just couldn’t put in the laps. It’s strange because one of the things that leapt out at me while watching the live timing during the race was the fact that at one point he was lapping around a second faster than anyone else on the circuit.

Jenson Button was always going to be favourite for the win since he grabbed pole position in spectacular fashion on Saturday. But that all changed when Barrichello had an amazing start, and passed his team mate on the outside going into turn 1. Barrichello’s race unravelled during his third stint though, and it became clear that the strategy just wasn’t working for him. I wonder why it was expected to. No-one else opted for a three-stop strategy apart from Kazuki Nakajima way back in 13th place.

There is an excellent analysis of the Brawns’ strategy over at F1 Fanatic.

Putting that aside, you have to applaud Jenson Button for putting in the good lap times when it counted. Brawn were dominant in this race, and this circuit was always expected to suit their car. I sense that Brawn’s advantage will not be so large in Monaco, where I feel Red Bull will have the edge. It is certainly a circuit that Red Bull have tended to do well at in the past.

As for this race, the Red Bull team must have mixed emotions. Mark Webber pulled off the surprise of the race by managing to climb to third largely through pitstop strategy. In the end he was very close to Barrichello at the finish line, so he did a great job.

Sebastian Vettel was more disappointing. For the second race in a row, Vettel’s race has been ruined by being stuck behind a slower car. In Bahrain it was Hamilton, but just for the first stint. His luck worsened further in Spain when he was stuck behind Massa. It transpired that both drivers had identical strategies, so Vettel had no chance to “overtake him in the pitlane”.

Does the fact that this has happened two races in a row raise a question mark over Vettel’s abilities? I certainly find it disappointing that Vettel has been unable to overtake these drivers for two races in a row. It is true that both of these cars were kers-equipped, making it particularly difficult to overtake. But Button managed it in Bahrain. Perhaps Vettel needs to work on this aspect of his racing, and certainly he could do with starting a bit better because in both cases he qualified ahead only to get “kersed” (as Anthony Davidson put it during this weekend’s Chequered Flag podcast) at the start.

It must have been all the more bitter for Sebastian Vettel when it ended up that he was being held up for nothing. Felipe Massa’s fuel rig was seemingly faulty, and he didn’t get enough fuel in his car. The Brazilian had nothing to do but lift off and wait to be overtaken first be Vettel and then by Alonso.

At least Massa was running well in 3rd or 4th for the majority of the race. Räikkönen, hindered by his poor decision to stay in the garage at the end of Q1, never made much progress through the midfield and eventually had to retire with a hydraulics problem. Yet more reliability woes for the Scuderia. I find it difficult to imagine how Ferrari’s season can get worse in any more ways.

Congratulations to Fernando Alonso for driving a good home race and finishing 5th. His fans will be hoping that this is a sign of more to come from the Renault package, and I have no doubt that the team will be able to develop that car well, just as they did last season.

Toyota, who came close to winning in Bahrain, seemed well off the pace in Spain. Jarno Trulli wasn’t helped by his awful start, which left him in the midfield cluster which resulted in him going onto the grass and starting a collision that ended the race of four cars. Timo Glock also got bogged down at the start and never looked close to being that high up the order again.

BMW have improved a little, but not enough. Their car now looks radically different to the one that finished last in Bahrain. Two points for Nick Heidfeld is undoubtedly an improvement. But increasingly BMW’s decision to divert their focus from 2008 seems like the wrong one. Robert Kubica remains pointless.

It’s a similar story for Williams. Although we have become accustomed to seeing them stuck in the lower midfield over the past few years, they appeared to promise a lot during pre-season testing. Nico Rosberg must be disappointed to only be scoring a point in what was actually a pretty good race for him.

McLaren were expected to do badly here, and so it proved to be. Lewis Hamilton finished in 9th. That is not good. For the first few races, Hamilton impressed me with his ability to squeeze good results out of what is undoubtedly a poor car, including a fabulous fourth in Bahrain. He was unable to do that in Spain, and seemed pretty tetchy in the post-race interviews. Heikki Kovalainen retired with gearbox issues. Another one to add to McLaren’s reliability problems, but at least their list is not as long as Ferrari’s.

So another race passes, and Brawn look more dominant than they have done since Australia. But as I say, I have a feeling that Monaco will be a rather different matter, and I look forward to seeing how the teams perform there.

Fota today announced its plans for the future direction of Formula 1. Perhaps predictably, the announcement is a mixture of the sensible, the radical and the downright crazy.

Fota carried out a “global audience survey”, with participants from 17 countries and encompassing committed fans of Formula 1 as well as marginal fans and those who don’t watch F1 at all. So there is clearly an eye on trying to expand F1′s appeal without alienating the existing fanbase. The key findings of the survey are not too controversial and I expect most fans will be nodding sagely as they read the list:

  1. F1 isn’t broken, so beware ‘over-fixing’ it

    Quite right. Amid all the doom and gloom, we are all fans for a reason and that reason is because we love the sport. It is worth remembering that there isn’t much wrong with F1. Indeed, most of what is wrong with F1 stems from ill thought-out rule changes over the past decade or so.

  2. F1 needs to be more consumer-friendly

    There is little doubt about this. F1 fans are somewhat short-changed compared to other fans. Internet coverage is woeful while the fact that HD broadcasts are not yet available is nothing short of a scandal. You cannot escape the feeling that Bernie Ecclestone simply should be doing a better job catering to the fans.

  3. Major changes to qualifying format are not urgent

    For all the hand-wringing about the qualifying format, the reality is that it’s the race that matters. Attempts to make qualifying more entertaining over the past few years have only backfired, and the last thing qualifying needs is yet another strange new format. The grid would be more meritocratically formed by ditching the ridiculous “race fuel load” concept.

  4. Revisions to the points-scoring system

    There is a clear consensus that the current points system simply does not reward winners enough. The only thing that has prevented a change so far has been disagreement over what the new system should be.

  5. Evolution of pit stops and refuelling

    There is a hint that refuelling should be banned (which is will be from 2010 onwards anyway), which makes sense given the dramatic reduction in overtaking which has occurred since 1994. Pit stop strategy does add an interesting dimension though, and it would be wrong to do away with pit stops altogether.

As for Fota’s actual proposals, my reaction is more mixed.

In general, Fota are promising a more fan-friendly environment. The technical and sporting changes must be approved by the FIA first (so you can be sure they will end up being a mess anyway). But as far as I know there is nothing to stop the teams from deciding among themselves to create a more fan-friendly environment. So it is very promising to see that this is exactly what they are promising.

Fota’s suggestion of increased media access to data is a must, and I can’t wait to see what the teams will reveal to the fans this season. Nominating senior team spokesmen is also a good idea. In my view, teams are sometimes quite good at talking to the media during races. ITV certainly managed to get a lot of senior figures doing live interviews during races over the years. But to guarantee this sort of access is of course a good move.

By now, further technical restrictions (such as increasing the life of engines, gearboxes and so on) are expected and uncontroversial. The move to reduce the use of exotic materials will no doubt reduces costs considerably without spoiling the show. But beware any moves that will make F1 seem too much like a spec series. Originally kers was supposed to be a performance differentiator. Already, just one year on, all sides seem determined for there to be a standard unit. What a mess.

I am unsure about a further reduction in testing. Fota has proposed a 50% reduction. This will save money, but there are a host of disadvantages which I have already outlined in my previous post on the subject.

Fota’s proposed new points system is 12-9-7-5-4-3-2-1. Put simply, this is not enough. A two point difference between 1st and 2nd place is far too low. Three points is hardly any better. In my view, 1st place should be worth around double what 2nd place is worth.

I am sceptical of the move to share data about starting fuel loads. The real solution is to get rid of race fuel loads in qualifying. But to publish the starting fuel loads would spoil the surprise element of the strategy, which is the only decent aspect of refuelling. Tyre compounds are already public via the medium of strange green markings on the tyres, so I’m not sure what Fota are proposing that’s different.

The suggestion that one point should be awarded to the constructor that makes the fastest pitstop during the race is absolutely stark raving bonkers. Fast pitstops are rewarded anyway by on-track advantage, and should not count for anything else. I can already envisage Force Indias and Brawns that are well out of the points coming in for unnecessary pitstops, stopping for a quick half-second wipe of the visor or something, just in order to make the fastest pitstop. What a joke. I’m amazed this idea is even being taken half-seriously by Fota.

I am not so sure about the reduction in the duration of the race to 250km (from the current 305km). The key findings note that “the current race format is not viewed as fundamentally broken”, and that concepts such as sprint races would debase the F1 experience. As such, it is completely unclear on what basis Fota wants race lengths reduced. It is completely contradictory.

I wouldn’t rule out shorter races completely. It is true that often very little happens after the final pitstops have shaken out. But 90 minutes is a good length for a major sporting event and part of the essence of Formula 1 is that there is the element of endurance to it.

I think it would be a good idea for there to be a mixture of different race formats throughout a calendar. Nothing too radical. But there’s nothing wrong with having some races shorter than others. And why not have some races where refuelling is allowed, and others when it is banned? Different drivers could demonstrate their varying skills, and different cars could take advantage of their peculiar characteristics.

I suppose there could be a risk that teams will start constructing special cars (with different fuel tanks, weight distributions, etc) for different race formats. But how about having a limit on the number of chassis that each team can use in a season? After all, it worked for engines.

It has to be said, unintended consequences are never far away in the world of F1 rule changes. For just one example, take a look at how quickly aerodynamic flick-ups have resurfaced, despite their supposed banning. Skate fins? What on earth?

Now we are presented with a number of oddities that have come about as a result of this season’s new testing restrictions. In-season testing is banned completely. Each team is limited to 15,000km, but according to James Allen it looks as though no teams will top 10,000km, because this year’s testing events have been so heavily disrupted. Teams that go to Portugal and Spain get relentlessly rained on. Those that go to Bahrain are treated to sandstorms.

Moreover, what little testing time there is has been eaten into by the need to test 2010-spec tyres. The bans in refuelling and tyre warmers coming into effect next season will put different demands on the tyres. As such, Bridgestone need to get data so that they don’t end up barking up the wrong tree as they develop the new tyres. But with no opportunity to do this later on in the season, some teams (McLaren and BMW) have had to sacrifice some time from their already tight pre-season test schedule.

Now McLaren’s test driver Pedro de la Rosa has expressed concerns that the lack of test time is actually dangerous for reserve drivers. Should a reserve have to come in for some reason, he will be thrown into the deep end, straight into the action having had little experience of the car. That would be bad enough in a normal year, but with the radical rule changes that have come into force this season you can expect out-of-practice drivers to be even rustier.

Now it is becoming obvious that the testing restrictions are damaging the careers of young drivers. All winter, it had looked as though Rubens Barrichello’s chances of retaining his seat at Honda / Brawn were close to zero. Reading some reports, you’d believe that Bruno Senna was practically a shoo-in.

Now it looks as though Barrichello has been given the nod, leaving Senna with nowhere to go. The ever-excellent Grandprix.com trailed the possibility a few days ago, noting that “Barrichello is a better bet [than Senna] as his experience will be useful in a year when there is little opportunity for young drivers to learn how to drive F1 cars.”

From this perspective, it looks like Honda / Brawn have made the right decision here. Moreover, Barrichello outperformed Button last season, and it would have been a real shame if Barrichello’s career ended with a snub. Mind you, there is the risk that Barrichello will have a David Coulthard-style final season of doom, and we wouldn’t really want that.

But what now for Bruno Senna? Holding out for an F1 seat, he has more or less ruled out staying in GP2 for a third season. Indeed, it is difficult to see what he could achieve with another year in GP2. Drivers who spend too long in a category like GP2 tend to have their potential stunted.

In a sense, this is a predicament which is yet another symptom of the serial mismanagement at Honda which has deteriorated this winter to extreme levels for obvious reasons. Senna sounds pretty frustrated over this situation, and wouldn’t you be?

But any other year it would be no big deal. Senna could sign as a test driver for one year, as countless other drivers have done before, and spend the season racking up the miles on the test track in preparation for his first full season. And should he needed to replace another driver mid-season, he would have experience required of him.

Failing that, he could have gone on to make a decent career as a test driver. It may not have the glamour of a race role, and you can bet your bottom dollar that all test drivers yearn to race. But it is, at least, a decent income earned from driving cars — and they can always hope. People like Luca Badoer, Marc Gené, Anthony Davidson, Alexander Wurz and, yes, Pedro de la Rosa, have all made a decent living out of testing F1 cars. Felipe Massa started out at Ferrari as a test driver, and today he challenges for Championships.

Now what? All Bruno Senna can do is twiddle his thumbs. He can always suffer the humiliation of going back cap in hand to a GP2 seat. But this could backfire on him, and all the best seats have already been filled.

Could this be one reason why there is only going to be one rookie this season? Sébastien Buemi is the only newcomer to F1 this season, but he has done plenty of testing for the Red Bull teams and he is filling a vacancy that David Coulthard voluntarily left behind.

Remember when everyone was certain that Renault were not going to re-sign Nelsinho Piquet? Then, out of nowhere, they signed him for another season. Is that because, for all his faults, he at least has experience that the likes of Romain Grosjean and Lucas Di Grassi now cannot hope to attain?

Let us not forget another major FIA-instituted change for 2009, which is yet another instance revealing the lack of joined-up thinking inside the FIA. This season sees the inauguration of Max Mosley’s Formula Two project. Remember, this new feeder series was supposedly invented specifically to make it easier for young drivers to reach F1.

Well, it’s all very well adding yet another “second-top” rung in an already-cluttered world that contains GP2, A1GP and World Series by Renault among others. But the top rung now has a fundamental crack that will cause the ladder collapse when a driver reaches it, sending him — and his career — crashing to the floor.

There might be an allowance in F1 for “young driver training”, but this is no more than a fig leaf. A “young driver” is someone who has not tested on more than four days in the past 24 months. How is a young driver supposed to progress with such scant “training”?

Max Mosley likes to use F2 to make out that he is opening doors for young drivers. The reality is that this door leads drivers up the garden path. There have seldom, if ever, been as many feeder series as there are today. An F1 team can take their pick from 20+ GP2 drivers, countless A1GP drivers, anyone from WSR who takes their fancy and goodness knows how many F3 drivers. F2 isn’t needed, especially now that young drivers will find the welcome mat at F1′s door cruelly swiped from their feet.

This is the first of a series of posts rounding up my final thoughts on the season.

You probably don’t need to be told that Lewis Hamilton is the 2008 Formula 1 World Drivers’ Champion. At the age of 23 years and 300 days, he eclipses Fernando Alonso to become the youngest ever World Champion. He has done so in just his second season.

No matter how well-protected Lewis Hamilton has been by the McLaren team, you don’t achieve that sort of thing by luck. Hamilton is lucky in that he has always been in a great car. It is unprecedented for such a strong team to offer a race drive to a rookie. As such, the statistics flatter him.

However, it is highly questionable that this year’s McLaren MP4-23 was the best car in the field. Ferrari did, after all, win the Constructors’ Championship. Certainly, the McLaren car put in some dominant performances, most notably at Silverstone and Hockenheim. But in both races Hamilton truly overshadowed his team mate, Heikki Kovalainen.

The Finn finished a distant 7th in the Championship, a massive 43 points behind Hamilton. No other inter-team battle has been so comprehensive in its outcome — not even in Renault. Whether the gulf was caused by Hamilton’s superiority or Kovalainen’s inferiority is a matter of interpretation. I suspect it was both.

Kovalainen will point to the fact that he was always put on the more unfavourable strategy, giving him a heavy car during qualifying. This makes his pole position in Silverstone all the more special. But Kovalainen had only one race win which, let us be clear, was a fluke.

Other drivers on the grid have been more flawless. Fernando Alonso, Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel spring to mind. But impressive though those drivers have been, the spotlight does not shine so intensely in the midfield. Nor were any of those drivers regularly in contention for wins like Hamilton and Massa were.

In the end, the Championship battle rightly came down to a showdown between Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton. Both drivers have made their fair share of mistakes. While Massa had a few spins throughout the season (Malaysia, Britain), Hamilton had a couple of unforgivable crashes (Bahrain, Canada).

Both drivers have also had some bad luck. Ferrari’s pitlane blunder in Singapore cost Massa a sure win and was completely out of Massa’s control. Meanwhile, Hamilton found himself at the rough edge of a suspiciously high number of stewards’ decisions.

It would have been unfortunate if Massa had won the Championship for that reason alone. There is enough anger surrounding the stewards’ decisions this year that had Massa won the Championship many people would regrettably have viewed it as a tainted win. As Clive says, just like Räikkönen’s triumph last year, Hamilton’s Championship victory is the best for international relations.

In the end, I think across the year Hamilton has shown that he deserves to become World Champion. He demonstrated that 2007 was no fluke. Mind you, in a lot of ways Hamilton’s 2008 season was a great deal worse than 2007. It was certainly less consistent. Hamilton never looked even close to equalling his staggering run of nine consecutive podiums achieved in 2008. The problem with 2007 was that Hamilton’s season completely collapsed right at the end. This year the foul-ups were interspersed all across the season — and they weren’t as severe for the most part.

This is key to why Hamilton has won this year when the title eluded him last year. He could afford the odd blow here and there as long as he didn’t let the whole thing unravel at the end. His approach towards the final two races was a world away from the immature hot-head that went to China and Brazil last year. ‘Discipline’ was the keyword emanating from the McLaren camp.

Hamilton’s Championship victory was calculated. The McLaren team’s preparations were so meticulous that it all came down to a confident weather call. Hamilton did not lash out at Vettel once the German had overtaken him, as the Hamilton of old may have done. Instead, he waited for the rain to come and spoil Glock’s final lap.

It was a calculated gamble, and it almost didn’t pay off. But McLaren and Lewis Hamilton knew exactly what they were doing. What a contrast to last year’s bungle which saw McLaren leave it too long to change Hamilton’s tyres in China and Hamilton being too eager to needlessly make up positions in Brazil.

Even though Hamilton’s performance in Fuji this year caused some raised eyebrows, that looks like it was a one off. The overall picture of Lewis Hamilton this season is one that has learned from the mistakes of last year. He has reined in the impatient streak and has learnt not to needlessly go for the win.

For me, it would have been a shame for Hamilton to have lost out on the Championship for a second time, having come so agonisingly close twice. Massa showed that he has what it takes to be a Championship contender. But Hamilton has now done it twice. And even though he couldn’t make it stick in 2007, it would have been cruel to let all of his effort and now obvious talent go unrewarded for a second year.