Archive: Monza

There is a surfeit of motor racing championships that aim to usher in the next generation of Formula 1 stars. But only a few are worth paying serious attention to.

GP2 — the ‘official’ way to progress to F1

The most well-known by a long way is GP2. Backed by Bernie Ecclestone, GP2 is the closest thing there is to an ‘official’ feeder series to the pinnacle of motorsport.

Since its inception in 2005, GP2 has been a stepping stone for some of F1’s biggest names. With a solid F1-style car and a unique status as the support race to almost every European grand prix (thereby giving drivers vital experience at many F1 circuits), there is no doubt that GP2 is a strong category.

The main alternative: World Series by Renault

World Series by Renault logo

But beyond the ‘official’ routes to F1, World Series by Renault (sometimes known as Formula Renault 3.5) has established itself as a series to take seriously.

No fewer than 18 F1 drivers have raced in World Series by Renault or one of its earlier incarnations. Among them are Robert Kubica, Heikki Kovalainen and Kamui Kobayashi. In 1999, World Champion Fernando Alonso also won what was then the Euro Open by Nissan series.

Most impressively, in 2007 Sebastian Vettel was leading the championship when he became an F1 driver mid-season. We all know how that story ends.

Strong drivers in World Series by Renault

This year’s World Series by Renault field has some very strong drivers in the field. Two of the favourites for the championship, Daniel Ricciardo and Robert Wickens, are currently already F1 test drivers, for Toro Rosso and Virgin respectively. These drivers are so hotly tipped that both have been rumoured to become race drivers before this season is even finished. I will certainly eat my hat if they are not racing in F1 in 2012.

The pair put on a wet weather masterclass in Race 1 at the Nürburgring two weekends ago. In changeable conditions, they had the measure of the rest of the field while engaging in a tense battle for the lead.

The talent doesn’t end there. Other current F1 test drivers participating in World Series by Renault include Fairuz Fauzy and Jan Charouz (both for Renault F1).

Meanwhile, Jean-Eric Vergne is next in the queue behind Daniel Ricciardo in the Red Bull Young Driver sausage factory, and rightly so. His performances at Spa-Francorchamps were at times jaw-dropping.

Young Estonian Kevin Korjus (Race 2 winner at the Nürburgring) has also turned heads in his rookie World Series by Renault season.

Scrappy driving in GP2

When you compare it with this year’s GP2 field, the ‘official’ feeder series seems to lack that edge slightly. No driver has managed to take full control of the championship — nor has anyone shown signs that they deserve to.

Romain Grosjean has come the closest. But you could argue that he ought to be. He is highly experienced compared to most of his competitors, and even has some F1 races under his belt. He is this year’s Giorgio Pantano. He has been involved in some questionable incidents. He managed to crash into his teammate at Barcelona. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he then climbed all over him as part of the truly farcical scenes in the qualifying session at Monaco.

Meanwhile, the hotly-tipped Jules Bianchi (who is a Ferrari test driver) has been surprisingly clumsy, lurching from needless crash to avoidable gaffe. After a promising (albiet curtailed) GP2 Asia campaign last winter, Bianchi currently languishes in 15th in the championship, having managed to score points in just two of the eight races so far.

Giedo van der Garde has arguably been the most consistent, but still manages to make needless errors. In Valencia, he was penalised for overtaking under yellow flags.

Beyond this, it is difficult to see where the F1 stars of the future are in this year’s GP2 field.

A good alternative for both viewers and drivers

Moreover, the World Series by Renault season has been more action-packed for my money. This season’s calendar visits seven current Formula 1 venues, including some of the best circuits in the world. Spa, Monza, Silverstone and even Monaco all have slots in World Series by Renault. The calendar is refreshingly light on Tilke designs.

The Formula Renault 3.5 cars themselves are impressive, providing an ideal bridge between the well-established Formula Renault 2.0 cars. They typically run just a few seconds a lap slower than GP2 cars.

From next season, the car will step up a gear with a more powerful engine and greater downforce. But most eye-catching is the introduction DRS-style moveable aerodynamics. It could well be that the new Formula Renault 3.5 cars will prepare drivers for F1 better than a GP2 car can.

The combination of superb F1-style cars, excellent circuits and promising drivers is creating great entertainment. For me, it is the feeder series to watch.

All of a sudden, the complexion of the championship has changed. Just a few races ago, Fernando Alonso was one of the outsiders in the championship. As has been widely noted, when he declared himself capable of winning the championship at Silverstone a few races ago, his remarks were met with scepticism. He was, after all, a relatively distant fifth; 47 points away from the lead.

Now, after a Monza masterclass and a Singapore showcase, the Fernando-Ferrari package looks formidable. Alonso has the momentum, and has shot up into second place in the championship.

This isn’t just back-to-back wins. This is back-to-back wins on two circuits that are polar opposites of each other. Monza is a true low-downforce, high speed challenge. That was supposed to favour McLaren. Singapore is a circuit where teams apparently run with more downforce than they do in Monaco. That was supposed to favour Red Bull. Instead, Fernando Alonso was majestic in his Ferrari at both of these radically different circuits.

Much has been made of the fact that Alonso can also fully rely on the support of his team mate Felipe Massa, while both rival teams have both their drivers battling each other as well. But Alonso does not even need this support. Massa played no role in Alonso’s victory at Monza, and he wasn’t even in a position to assist in Singapore. Alonso is supreme — and that is what is making him the main contender now.

It is all the more amazing when you consider just how many mistakes Alonso was making earlier on in the season. It really was a case of unfulfilled potential at the midway point. There was the first corner incident at Melbourne. The jump start in China. The hugely costly practice crash at Monaco. Getting bogged down behind Petrov in Turkey. Botched overtaking attempts on Kubica and Liuzzi at Silverstone.

Ferrari were not having a great time either. The car has not always been competitive. Not so long ago Alonso was making negative comments about the pace of development at Ferrari, noting that it was much more relentless when he was at McLaren. Then there was the distraction of the team orders fiasco and the fallout that ensued. Yet now, Alonso is in the pound seats for the Championship.

Red Bull’s challenge

Red Bull have, all in all, looked like the strongest team all season. And although much has been made of their calamities, they have generally done a good job. More is made of their inability to convert front row starts into wins than is necessary. When there are 23 cars behind you, it is easy peasy for one or two of them to usurp you.

What is more notable is that Red Bull have had so many front row starts when the others just haven’t. And while the victories may have been a bit more evenly shared out, Red Bull have still be consistently up there, challenging all the way through the season while both Ferrari and McLaren have had peaks and troughs. Moreover, it has been abundantly clear that Red Bull have been innovating heavily throughout the season.

The fact is that Red Bull currently lead both championships. And while they have lost a bit of momentum recently, they are still the team that have the least to do in the remaining four (or three) races.

Has the tide turned against Red Bull? In one sense, no. Monza was always going to be their weakest circuit of the year — yet they still managed to finish 4th and 6th in the race. Not great, but not too bad either.

Red Bull’s biggest problem is not that they have lost momentum. They are still a formidable force, whether or not they have had to compromise on flexible wings and floors. No; Red Bull’s biggest problem is completely out of their hands.

McLaren on the back foot

Red Bull have to deal with the fact that essentially McLaren have faded into the background of the championship race. This means that the rewards are being split three ways rather than five. If Red Bull have a problem, it is Alonso who capitalises — full stop. Earlier in the season, it could have been either Alonso, Hamilton or Button. Not now that McLaren have essentially faded from view.

Spa and Monza were crunch races for McLaren, as the last two circuits in the calendar that truly suited their car. Neither race was perfect. Spa was not too worrying — Hamilton took a dominant win in arguably his most majestic display to date. Button was running well until his accident with Vettel.

But Monza must have rung alarm bells. Seemingly distracted by the decision over whether to run the F-duct, McLaren lost their grasp. Hamilton was rattled after his set-up disadvantaged him during qualifying. The team had to rely on Jenson Button to do the business at the front.

The problem is that Button has not looked like he has had the fire in his belly since some point in the season — maybe around Turkey? Button started the season with two victories in the first four races, but has not looked like winning since then.

Monza was a good chance. But in reality, it was clear all race long that Alonso has the superior pace, and there was nothing Button could do to avoid ceding the lead.

Hamilton, meanwhile, knocked himself out on lap one by getting involved in a needless accident — a scenario that was repeated in Singapore. While Alonso has been dominant and mesmerising, Hamilton has returned to his clumsy ways, misjudging a move for two races in a row. He has thrown away a shedload of points.

You have to question Hamilton’s mental state as we approach the end of the season. He was supposed to have shaken off these clumsy errors, but now he has only himself to blame for finding himself on the back foot.

Most worrying of all from McLaren’s standpoint is the fact that it doesn’t look like they know what to do to turn the tide. Since the failed upgrade package of Silverstone, McLaren have not been on great form.

It looks like Ferrari have won the development battle. The failure of experimental gearbox parts on Massa’s car in Singapore demonstrates that they are pushing very hard towards the end of the season. No wonder that all of his rivals now view Fernando Alonso as their number one threat.

The Hungarian Grand Prix lived up to its reputation for being a boring circuit in terms of overtaking, but always delivering action of some sort. Hungaroring may be dull as a spectacle, but there is never a shortage of talking points.

This year’s was provided by Michael Schumacher. His already infamous move to push Rubens Barrichello towards the pit wall while both were travelling at top speeds was one of the most vicious I have ever seen. I was yelling while it was happening.

I think I will forever vividly remember watching the onboard shot from Rubens Barrichello’s car live. I was cheering him on as he lined up to overtake Michael Schumacher. Then I was horrified when I realised what Schumacher was doing.

Not that it is much of a surprise. It is well known that Michael Schumacher is capable more than anyone else of pulling a dirty move out of his lowest drawer. His famous tainted legacy: Why does driver who is so good — a seven time World Champion no less — feel the need to pull off these extreme moves.

In a way, what he did to Barrichello in Hungary this year was worse than anything we have seen from him before. When he crashed into Damon Hill in 1994 it was to win the championship. When he crashed into Jacques Villeneuve in 1997 it was a last-ditch attempt to win the championship. When he parked his car at Rascasse in 2006 he was a championship contender. This? A futile fight for 10th position in a nothing year for him.

By now everyone knows that 2010 has not been the comeback Michael Schumacher was hoping for. In his recent interviews he has stated that he is only interested in winning championships. Scrapping away in the midfield is not interesting to him. He doesn’t like racing; he is only interested in winning.

I have always felt that his wheel-to-wheel abilities are actually quite poor. Schumacher’s speed cannot be in doubt — when he is out in front. But when he is on the back foot, he switches into panic mode. All of his most notorious moves have been snap decisions that he has made in a moment when he has suddenly been put under pressure. He is a quick driver. Unfortunately this means he often makes a move before he has engaged his brain.

This is what we have seen this year. Not just in Hungary, but also in Canada. He noticeably struggled in Montreal. He had a scrappy race and made a few panic moves, including a chop across Felipe Massa.

Unfortunately, an uncompetitive Michael Schumacher is no less ruthless. If anything, he is worse when he is on the back foot. Is it really the done thing to desperately try to push someone into the pit wall for the sake of one point?

One perspective is that this is good, hard racing. I also liked the viewpoint put forward by Axis of Oversteer — that this is the manifestation of genuine bad blood between two drivers. Schumacher and Barrichello have a lot of history, and it’s easy to imagine that this was all in the minds of both drivers.

But full credit to Rubens Barrichello for completing the move. He showed great bravery on the track, and immense integrity off the track. Barrichello’s behaviour after the race was exemplary. Meanwhile, Michael Schumacher complained that Barrichello is a whiner.

It is said that at Spa in 1998, Michael Schumacher stormed up to David Coulthard and accused him of “trying to fucking kill me”. I think Barrichello had cause to do a lot more than merely “whine”.

Michael Schumacher knows that in order to be successful you have to be ruthless, and at times aggressive. He is by no means the only aggressive driver on the grid. Mark Webber stands out. In fact, Webber was involved in quite a similar incident at Fuji in 2008 with Felipe Massa. But in this instance, Webber’s move across the track was made much earlier, much more gradually, and he did not push Massa nearly as far.

As such, Webber is respected as an aggressive driver, but also one who speaks about on-track safety with authority. As major player in the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, Mark Webber has made it his business to care about safety. This is the beauty of Mark Webber — he pushes it, but he knows exactly where the limit is, then stops. The problem Schumacher has is that he doesn’t know where the line is drawn.

Michael Schumacher is a hugely successful driver that many look up to as a role model. I would hate to think that he finds these sorts of dangerous manoeuvres acceptable. I am surprised that he did not receive a disqualification. He should also have received at least a one race ban. I bet if, say, Vitaly Petrov tried the same thing, he’d be sitting out the next few races.

The next race is in Belgium — where Schumacher’s fans turn out in force. The race after that is Monza, where the fans have quite a few fond memories of Schumacher as well. I would hate to think it is the case, but you would almost think the powers-that-be had one eye on the purse strings and the PR value of having Schumacher continuing racing — even though he is a known danger.

It has to be said that the writing was on the wall for the Bahrain Grand Prix before the teams even arrived there. And it’s not due to the refuelling ban. There are arguments for and against refuelling, but on balance I think banning refuelling is a good idea.

The legacy of refuelling

Some people had decided in advance that scrapping it was a bad idea, and have used the relatively pedestrian Bahrain Grand Prix as definitive evidence that they’re right. But one race is far too soon to judge. And as I pointed out in the previous article, there was actually more overtaking than normal.

It is no secret that F1 has a bit of an overtaking problem. The amount of overtaking has declined steadily throughout its history, and nose-dived in 1994 when refuelling was introduced in the modern era. In the intervening decade-and-a-half, the amount of overtaking has been relatively stable at this low level.

For me, the biggest legacy of refuelling has been to gift seven World Championships to a driver who isn’t particularly good at wheel-to-wheel racing, but transformed “overtaking into the pit lane” (i.e. gaining positions just by being in the pit lane at the right time) into the most important aspect of modern-day grand prix racing.

It is often argued that this “strategy” element adds an important dimension to the racing. The argument goes that what is lost in terms of on-track action is gained in terms of strategic intrigue.

This may have been true in the early days of refuelling, when strategists were still finding their feet with the new rules. But over time, it became clear what worked and what didn’t.

Armed with 15 years’ worth of data, teams had their strategies worked out by computers to the extent that there was one clear optimal strategy, and the race was won or lost on whether your first stop was made on lap 17 or made on lap 18. More often than not, after the first stop, it was clear how the rest of the race would play out, and the whole spectacle usually settled down.

The powers that be concocted increasingly contrived ways to re-inject a strategic element into the racing, but it stopped working. We reached the ridiculous situation where cars were qualifying on race fuel loads, which still did little to avoid the harsh reality that there is one optimal strategy.

How to re-introduce strategy while keeping purists happy

For me, there is far too much talk about “the show”. F1 is not a show. It is a sport. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to see a show, you should go to the pantomime. Todd on the latest Formula 1 Blog podcast said it best: “Jim Clark didn’t take part in a show. He took part in a race.”

Yet, with the obsession with making F1 more entertaining, the rules have constantly been tinkered with. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and the powers that be have to tread a fine line. They must make the sport more appealing to people who, truth be told, aren’t really interested in F1, while keeping the purists happy.

F1 is special because it is, at its core, about finding the fastest driver in the fastest car. Everything else is tinsel. Some of the new rules actively go against this attempt to find the fastest.

Look at the obsession with strategy. Look at attempts at mixing up the grid. The current tyre rules are among the most unpure in F1 today.

Forcing drivers to use two different types of compounds achieves nothing for anyone except Bridgestone. And I am yet to work out what is achieved by the new rule forcing drivers to start the race on the same tyres they qualified on. What does it prove? Do we tie one hand behind the back of footballers to “spice up the show” there? It is ridiculous.

Yet, all the talk is to introduce a mandatory two stops. That is certainly what Martin Whitmarsh implied on the BBC’s coverage last weekend. The idea sends a shiver down my spine. And quite how it is supposed to spice up the action is beyond me. Just now the optimal strategy appears to be a one-stop. Now they want to enforce a two-stop strategy? It’s difficult to see the scope for spiced-up strategy action here.

But I can think of a way of re-introducing the strategy element while keeping the purists happy: get rid of the mandatory tyre change. This would blow wide open the possibility of a no-stop strategy, thereby potentially reducing the predictability of the current situation. Sure, Bridgestone will be unhappy — but they are leaving the sport anyway so there is no point in making them happy.

Aerodynamics

The decline in overtaking pre-dates 1994. It has been clear for years that it is not as easy for F1 drivers in F1 cars to overtake as it perhaps should be. There are plenty of pet theories as to why this might be. The ones that get the most attention are the ones that are put forward by Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA, as they are the most powerful people in F1. But of course, they have their own agendas.

The FIA and Bernie Ecclestone have long blamed modern aerodynamics for the lack of overtaking. The received wisdom has become that aerodynamic grip is bad news if you want overtaking, and that the emphasis should be more on mechanical grip.

I was very interested to see James Allen write about what Frank Dernie thinks about this — that’s it’s a load of old cobblers. I have felt for a while that the argument that aerodynamics damage the racing does not hold water. On a Renault podcast a couple of years ago, Pat Symonds pointed out that the races that have the most overtaking, as everyone knows, are wet races. In the wet, aerodynamic grip is ramped up, and mechanical grip plummets.

When you think about it, it’s so right. It does amaze me that, in the face of so much hard evidence to the contrary, people still blame aerodynamics for the poor racing. I have come to the conclusion that many people’s views on the overtaking problem are shaped largely by fashion and spin rather than the evidence.

Speaking personally, I love seeing what sorts of devices teams come up with. We have all been fascinated by McLaren’s “F-duct” (even though it seems to have done them “F-all” good). Neutering these sorts of areas is the first step on the slippery slope towards spec chassis. And then it just wouldn’t be F1 any more.

I am not totally averse to restricting the cars though. Formula 1 is, after all, a formula — it always has been.

I am no engineer, but it strikes me that F1 cars are simply too fast to allow for much overtaking. In particular, the brakes on F1 cars are so good today that there is little opportunity for a driver to perform an outbraking manoeuvre. With such small braking zones, the scope just isn’t there in the same way it might have been in the past. Is somehow reducing the power of the brakes a viable option?

The points system

Bernie Ecclestone has also sought to blame the points system for the lack of overtaking, and the system has accordingly been tweaked. I personally think there is something in this. The points system rewards conservatism.

Think about instances where a driver attempting to overtake faces a 50-50 situation (or, more accurately, a ⅓-⅓-⅓ situation). By this I mean that there is a ⅓ chance that a clean pass will be made and a position will be gained, a ⅓ chance that an attempt will be made but will fail, and a ⅓ that the move will go wrong and end in a crash. (Obviously this is a major simplification of the real-life scenario, but I think this “50-50″ thought experiment still underlines an interesting point.)

Under last year’s scoring system, for a driver in second place trying to overtake the leader, this “⅓-⅓-⅓” situation would lead to an expected gain of… -2 points. Under the new points system, the expectation is -3⅔ (although as a percentage of the winner’s points haul, this is better). No wonder drivers can’t overtake. It’s not in their interests to even try unless they are practically left an open door.

This was the core reason why I was in fact, contrary to the fashion, in favour of Bernie’s proposed “medals” system. Then, attempting to gain a position would be unambiguously advantageous.

The circuits

However, I think there would be much more to be gained in ensuring that circuits are more challenging and provide more in the way of opportunities to overtake. Nothing is certain. After all, Suzuka is normally entertaining, but produced a bit of a stinker last year. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

But we all know that certain circuits, in general, produce better racing than others. I really do struggle to think of any grand prix held at Interlagos that was boring. But I know not to expect much action at, say, Valencia or Shanghai. Or Bahrain for that matter.

We know this because teams and drivers will often turn up a circuit and say, “there is only a certain place you can overtake, and it’s here”. Adrian Newey, Sam Michael and Martin Whitmarsh are all in agreement. As the Williams technical director said:

You’ve got to ask yourself, why do you go to a race such as Barcelona where no one overtakes, and then take exactly the same cars to Monza, Montreal or Hockenheim and you get lots of overtaking.

And the McLaren team principal said:

You only need to do simple statistical analysis and look at where the overtaking moves are If, say, we race on 18 circuits with 350 corners, then 90 per cent of overtaking moves in a year would happen at just 10 corners… The fact that overtaking is focused on such a small number of corners clearly demonstrates that it’s circuit-dependent.

Ferrari and Renault went to Valencia in 2008 proclaiming that they know from their simulators that there would be little in the way of overtaking. Ferrari even based a fundamental decision about their engine on this prediction. And they were right.

But Bernie will not entertain the suggestion that the circuits are to blame. This is because, unlike the effort made by drivers or the aerodynamics or the strategy, this is the area that he is responsible for. And he doesn’t want to take responsibility for it.

The effect of adding a new slow, narrow, bumpy, twisty section that looks as though it was almost designed to prevent overtaking was predicted before the race began. Quite why the organisers of the grand prix thought it would be a good idea is beyond me.

GP2 world feed commentator Will Buxton saw the writing on the wall, and was left exasperated by the negative effect this different circuit configuration had on the GP2 racing. He predicted a similar negative effect on F1, and it transpired that he was right.

What else is Bernie to blame for?

While I confess that it is a bit too easy to lay the blame on Bernie Ecclestone for the boring race in Bahrain, there is another core part of F1 that he is responsible for, which led to a dull spectacle being played out in our living rooms last Sunday. But that is what I will deal with in another article in the near future.

This season never ceases to amaze me. The racing hasn’t always been the best, but the outcomes have seldom been predictable. At first, the utter dominance of Brawn, and Button in particular, was unbelievable. They were unstoppable, and it took longer for the other teams to catch up.

Then when the other teams caught up, it looked like Red Bull had the pound seats. But in fact the whole thing unravelled for Red Bull and we instead saw a run of six different drivers winning six different races. That hasn’t happened since 1985.

Throughout that period, Button had underperformed. And despite maintaining his Houdini-like grip on the Championship lead, he appeared on the back foot. He faced questions over how he was handling the pressure of fighting for the Championship, and lost his cool when asked a direct question about it by Ed Gorman of The Times.

He turned up at Monza apparently reinvigorated. It is said that he changed his approach. Instead of worrying about defending the Championship, he was thinking of it was a five race championship in which he had a 16 point head-start. His tail is now up again, and this weekend he was part of a great Brawn revival.

I have to confess that I didn’t predict Brawn doing well at Monza. After all, at Spa-Francorchaps, a circuit with similar characteristics, Brawn were stuck firmly in the midfield. But I guess the hard braking zones, coupled with the awesome power of the Mercedes engine, played straight into their hands.

It was a disciplined approach from Brawn, who shunned headline-grabbing table-topping throughout the weekend. They instead went for a one-stop strategy, which left them occupying row 3 of the grid, but played into their hands massively during the race.

The only problem for Jenson Button was the fact that it was Rubens Barrichello who won the race. But despite having his best race since Turkey, Button has only lost two points from his lead — which is more-or-less the same sort of drop he has had from most of the past six races.

At the same time, Red Bull had yet another disastrous weekend. Mark Webber’s race was over after a first-lap tangle with Robert Kubica through the tight Roggia chicane. Meanwhile, Vettel lacked pace and could only score one point. The chance of a Red Bull driver winning the Championship has significantly diminished. Vettel has a 26 point deficit with only four races to go.

However, the most noteworthy part of the race was probably when Lewis Hamilton crashed on the final lap while he was running in third. The odd thing about it is that there is no immediately apparent reason for the crash. It seems that Hamilton just pushed a bit too hard. He was certainly pushing very hard all race, but you have to wonder why he thought he had a chance of catching Button with so little of the race remaining.

Some people like the fact that Hamilton is an aggressive driver, and I agree that it is more fun to watch than a more conservative driver who might settle for third. But this kind of needless mistake is something that Hamilton is particularly prone to, and it is what, for me, stops him from being a truly great driver. He needs the maturity to realise when is the right time to be aggressive rather than the simple “always push hard” approach.

You look at a race weekend like this and it is no surprise that Mercedes appears to want to back Brawn rather than McLaren in future. The Mercedes engine was clearly the class of the field, and McLaren had the perfect opportunity to make it work for them.

Fuel-corrected, Heikki Kovalainen was fast enough to be on pole position. But he had a horrendous first lap, getting swallowed up by car after car, and losing four places when he really should have gained places because of his kers. Looking at his strategy, many tipped Kovalainen to win. But he looked very average during the race and could only finish 6th.

It further cements my view that Kovalainen is a driver who is simply unable to win. His one career victory was inherited after Massa’s engine blew. Fair enough, but he can’t race his way to the front. His underwhelming performance at Monza this year is very reminiscent of last year’s Italian Grand Prix. That was another one that Kovalainen should have won, but he was unable to challenge Sebastian Vettel in the Toro Rosso.

Oh, McLaren. If they’re not getting themselves embroiled in political scandals as a result of their overly complicated interpretations of the rules, they are messing up their strategy or making some awful error in the pitlane. As for their drivers, one is too aggressive for his own good and makes high-profile mistakes, while the other one is too slow to ever be in a position to make mistakes.

It’s interesting to compare McLaren’s driver line-up with Brawn’s. The Brawn pair have both been written off in the past, yet this year they are the class of the field. Meanwhile, McLaren’s highly-rated drivers of moderate experience end up looking like the Chuckle Brothers in comparison. It seems like Mercedes’s shift in focus towards Brawn can’t come soon enough.

The other Mercedes-powered team, Force India, continued its good form from Spa-Francorchamps. I suppose on reflection Force India may have cause to be disappointed. On the back of Fisichella’s scintillating performance in Belgium, Sutil’s 4th place looks relatively subdued. Meanwhile, Liuzzi’s retirement with transmission failure while he was looking set for a solid result must count as a missed opportunity.

Mind you, how impressive was Liuzzi this weekend? Liuzzi is a star of the future of the past, having once been tipped for a drive at Ferrari while he impressed the world in F3000. But he ended up getting swallowed and spat out by the Red Bull driver development juggernaut, where he was messed about by the management.

But it should be remembered that Liuzzi held his own against Sebastian Vettel while at Toro Rosso. The talent is there but has been wasted over the years. His performance at Monza surely cements his future at Force India or perhaps even a better team.

No-one can have failed to have spotted the irony. Giancarlo Fisichella has realised his childhood dream. Like any Italian driver, the opportunity to drive for Ferrari at all — never mind at Monza — is a real dream come true for Fisichella. But as with Luca Badoer, that dream has not quite gone to plan.

At least Badoer did not have a former team for him to compare. But Fisichella must have particularly mixed feelings as he struggles in his Ferrari while his former team Force India threatens to have the very fastest car in the pack.

A strong Force India showing at Monza was always on the cards. On the back of an excellent performance at Spa-Francorchamps, where Fisichella got pole position and finished 2nd, it was clear that Force India’s car was handy in a low downforce environment.

Force India were particularly bullish in the run-up to this race too. Knowing they may have had an advantage for Spa and Monza, Force India booked one of the few straight-line tests that are allowed per year for this week in order to maximise their advantage. It also gave their new race driver, Vitantonio Liuzzi, a chance to familiarise himself with the car (albeit not on a racetrack).

Liuzzi will probably be driving the very same car that Fisichella excelled in at Spa. It is little surprise that he has hit the ground running, qualifying a solid 7th for his first race since 2007. I have long felt that Liuzzi wasn’t given a proper chance in F1, and it delights me to see that he may now get a prolonged spell at a stable team. There have been strong rumours for a while that Liuzzi had a 2010 race contract with Force India in the bag already.

Meanwhile, Fisichella’s former team mate Adrian Sutil has his tail up, and appears to be adapting well to becoming Force India’s de facto team leader. He was probably fast enough to get pole position today but a mistake on his quick lap put paid to that notion. Nonetheless, Sutil must fancy his chances for a great result in the race, despite the fact that he is surrounded by kers-equipped cars on the grid.

Meanwhile, Fisichella, having chosen to move to Ferrari, is struggling to adapt to his new car and qualified 14th on the grid. He must be scratching his head a bit over the fact that his old car is seven places in front, and his former team mate is a massive 12 places in front. Fisichella says he is far from unhappy, and even takes pride from the fact that he helped develop that Force India to become a front-runner.

You certainly can’t blame him for deciding to move to Ferrari. Which would he prefer — a good result, or the chance to say he’s driven for Ferrari. He has three career wins already. Balancing the chance of getting a fourth victory in a Force India, or getting a moderate result for Ferrari, you can see even then why he might prefer the latter option.

What his performance so far this weekend shows you don’t have to have been out of racing for ten years to struggle to get to grips with the Ferrari F60. Yes, Badoer’s performances were not great, but I felt very sorry for him being expected to perform straight away in a car that is said to be difficult to drive.

Giancarlo Fisichella’s performance has not been quite as bad as Badoer’s. But given that he is fully race-fresh and fit, you would expect that. Fisichella will probably have expected to do better than this. It has been a slightly lacklustre weekend. He was 20th in both Friday Practice 2 and Saturday Practice. On Saturday he further underlined his difficulties by crashing at the Parabolica. Indeed, I found myself wondering what oh-so-hilarious nicknames the journalists might like to come up with now that a different Ferrari is struggling at the back.

Following Badoer’s struggles in Valencia, Ted Kravitz revealed that the F60 may be a particularly tricky car to master. The driver is required to do lots of hands-on switch-flicking and knob-twisting throughout the lap.

This is also Fisichella’s explanation for why switching to a Ferrari has not brought an immediate improvement in his pace as a driver.

It’s a different car so there is different reaction going into the corners. You work much more with the steering wheel and the switches compared to Force India. With Force India I was just concentrating on the driving, here I am quite busy.

As for his crash during Saturday Practice, that is said to be due to Fisichella adapting to the behaviour of the car under braking while it is harvesting its energy for kers. Kers was another worry that Fisichella did not have to deal with at Force India, but it is fundamental to the performance of the F60.

These insights about the Ferrari F60 remind me of the received wisdom about Ducati’s MotoGP bike. There are many parallels between Ferrari and Ducati, and this appears to be another one. The Ducati has long been famous for making previously-good riders look poor. Only Casey Stoner appears able to extract the full potential from it, while other Ducati riders tend to struggle to find any pace at all. The suggestion is that the Ducati is a very difficult bike to ride and that only Stoner has tamed it. Perhaps Felipe Massa had a similar magic with the Ferrari. (In yet another parallel, both Stoner and Massa are currently not racing in order to convalesce.)

The experience of watching drivers attempt to get to grips with a tricky car under the intense spotlight of a race weekend, rather than the relative privacy of a test session, has at least put a few myths to bed. Certainly, the idea that results are more down to the car than the driver was given a boost when Jenson Button seemed unable to stop winning at the beginning of this season. But it was dealt a blow when Luca Badoer stepped into the Ferrari, and finished last in Belgium when his team mate won.

Now we see Fisichella with his hands full and we are presented with a yet more complex picture. A driver needs to grow into his car. He needs to learn how to drive it and gain in confidence with it. It is also true that a car needs to suit a particular driver’s style. Arguably Badoer wasn’t given enough time to adapt, and Fisichella will need more leeway too. Here’s hoping the tifosi have patience with him if he is unable to score a good result during the race.

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.

After the controversy of Spa, which I described at the time as being among the darkest days of F1, the Italian Grand Prix has provided the sport with its best day for a very long time. It’s the good news story F1 craved.

Sebastian Vettel has become the youngest ever Grand Prix winner at a scandalously young 21 years and 74 days. He is so young, he is the first person younger than me to ever win a grand prix. He becomes the sixth race winner of the season, and the third new winner. It’s a rich year for new talent.

What’s more, unlike the other first-time winners this year, Vettel did it on sheer skill. There was not a hint of a fluke about this. The normal front-runners were out of contention after they messed up in qualifying while Vettel sat his Toro Rosso on pole.

Heikki Kovalainen should have been able to challenge from second place in the vastly superior McLaren. As it was, the Finn never came close to challenging for the lead. On the podium, Kovalainen had a face like he was chewing a wasp, and quite rightly. He’s got a lot to be ashamed about. He was trounced today on merit.

But it wasn’t other people’s mistakes that allowed Vettel to win. The young German was simply mesmerising on the challenging Monza circuit, the fastest circuit on the calendar. In treacherously wet conditions where most other drivers slipped up, Vettel only deviated from the circuit once as far as I could tell, and it was just a harmless little trip across the chicane.

Vettel was absolutely in the groove. His composure just astounds me. When you think about his age, so many other people would have chucked it in the wall. But Vettel maintained a laser-like focus on the racing line and never looked in danger of losing this race.

Without a doubt, this has been one of the most impressive drives I have ever seen since I started watching Formula 1 almost a decade and a half ago. The magnitude of what we have seen at Monza can scarcely be described. It is a true giant-killing in every sense.

Toro Rosso are not supposed to win races. They are supposed to be the second string team. They are subsidised by the Red Bull team that is supposed to be further up the grid. They get Ferrari engines that are supposed to win races when they are placed in red cars.

Today Toro Rosso leapfrogged Red Bull in the Constructors Championship. And Sebastian Vettel comprehensively outperformed the Ferrari team whose cars could only finish 6th and 9th.

I am actually struggling to comprehend quite how Toro Rosso have pulled this off. Red Bull driver Mark Webber has talked about how they have the “new big red engine”. But Force India have a big red engine too. Heck, Ferrari have a big red engine. And Sebastian Vettel and his Toro Rosso team were the only people able to do anything with it in Monza.

The Toro Rosso team has been steadily improving as the season has continued. It has been slow but steady progress. Vettel’s team mate Sébastien Bourdais has also been performing well. He finished 1st in Q2 in Belgium and was on for a podium finish there until a disastrous final lap when he fell back through the field as conditions worsened while he was on the dry tyres. I felt very sorry for the Frenchman who struggled to hold back the tears when he was being interviewed about it.

I felt sorry for him today too as he stalled it on the grid having qualified 4th. He could only sit back and watch as Sebastian Vettel gave the world a demonstration of what the future of Formula 1 looks like. This man — who only has 22 grand prix starts to his name — has today shown the old hats and the young pretenders how it’s done.

The combination of national anthems that were played out on the podium today were familiar. The German national anthem followed by the Italian national anthem. That is the combination that greeted dozens of Schumacher victories for Ferrari. What an omen.

What is great, though, is the fact that Vettel is not a Schumacher. On the face of it, Sebastian Vettel is an unlikely grand prix hero. He’s not a bulky Webber or a square-jawed Coulthard or a 16-hours-per-day-in-the-gym Schumacher. Nor can I remember him playing one single dirty trick in his F1 career.

He is a lanky, gangly, goofy-looking kid. And despite his obvious raw talent, he doesn’t display a hint of arrogance. Of course he believes in himself. But he is polite and funny when being interviewed. Apparently he is very friendly in person. Unlike your Kubicas or your Räikkönens, charisma drips off this star. These people are not supposed to be so talented, they’re not supposed to have that drive to win.

In a lot of ways, it’s zero to hero in less than a year. In one of his first races he impressively ran in 3rd place before infamously crashing into his Red Bull team mate Mark Webber, prompting the Australian to launch into a foul-mouthed tirade on live British breakfast television.

Today, Webber and Vettel appear to get on very well. They will be team mates next year as Vettel is all set to move to the proper Red Bull team (whether this is the right choice for his career just now is debatable). And now Vettel is a race winner. An incredible rate of maturity.

Let us not forget the role of Mario Theissen in Sebastian Vettel’s career. The BMW boss gave the then-19-year-old his first shot in an F1 race in Indianapolis last year. Vettel ran across the chicane at the first corner, but otherwise stayed out of trouble and scored a point in his début.

Following today’s performance though, that other BMW protégé Robert Kubica now feels like old news. This even puts anything Hamilton has done over the past two years firmly in the shade. To win a race for a tiny team as Vettel has done is very different to winning a race in the fastest car as Hamilton has done.

Let us not forget that the Toro Rosso team is essentially the old Minardi team. They may be bankrolled by big Red Bull cash these days. But most of the team is still the same and it is still based at the same Faenza location. Every fan of F1 has a soft spot for these guys. They are an Italian F1 team that you can actually like.

You would dream of a Minardi win, but you would never believe it would happen. But today it has happened. Moreover, they did it in their home grand prix, the Italian Grand Prix, at that most historic of circuits, Monza. They’ll be dancing in the streets of Faenza tonight.

There is a lesson in there. Minardi were the bravest of the backmarkers. They have lasted for decades without winning a race. They could go for years on end without ever scoring a point. Yet they stuck at it and survived as a thousand and one other backmarkers came and went. And today, the years of hardship have paid off.

This is why we watch motor racing. These people do it for the love of the sport. Instead of dreaming of working for Ferrari, these guys dreamt of becoming Ferrari. And they were never deterred.

Thank you Giancarlo Minardi. Thank you Paul Stoddart. Thank you Dietrich Mateschitz. Thank you Gerhard Berger. And most of all, thank you Sebastian Vettel! Thanks for reminding us why we watch grand prix motor racing. Forza Minardi!

Several times on this blog I have recommended The Inside Line podcast with Maurice Hamilton and Ian Phillips. As always, it came up with the goods following the Belgian Grand Prix. Ian Phillips gave his opinion on the incident where Lewis Hamilton cut the chicane.

For those that don’t know, Ian Phillips is Director of Business Affairs at Force India. That team uses Ferrari engines, so Ian Phillips has no particular reason to express an anti-Ferrari viewpoint. Ian Phillips has been in the motor racing business for a long time and has probably seen more motor racing than I can ever hope to watch in my entire lifetime. So his opinion is always worth listening to.

I have transcribed what he said in the podcast below simply because, as it is in podcast form, it is not currently searchable and easy to find on the web. I would highly recommend that you subscribe to the podcast — here is an iTunes link, and here is a non-iTunes one.

The relevant part begins at 6:30. The podcast was recorded before they knew what the outcome of the stewards’ investigation was. According to Maurice Hamilton’s preamble at the beginning, they didn’t even know what the investigation was about, but they did know that there was an investigation. Here is what Ian Phillips had to say:

Lewis — again, this is what we have to state — was mature, because I think it was coming into, was it the last chicane? And he got squeezed by Räikkönen. He was right alongside him — actually… almost in front. Räikkönen squeezed him and made him take the short cut. And you’re not allowed to take that short cut. Well, you can, but you mustn’t gain position.

And of course he came out alongside Räikkönen. But he had the presence of mind straight away — because I don’t think anybody could have told him — he let Räikkönen come alongside. Then he actually let him go in front and pull in front of him. So they went nose to tail. But by the time they got to La Source, he was having another go at him! And it was extraordinary stuff.

But that moment was real maturity and professionalism when he was forced by Räikkönen to cut that chicane and I thought that was great presence of mind. Because he could have thought, “I’ve got this in the bag.” Now that would have been a stewards’ inquiry and that would have been a problem for him.

To my mind he behaved perfectly correctly and did the right thing. I think by then he knew he’d got the upper-hand. I think he’d been frightening Räikkönen. “I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m coming.” And the guy [Kimi Räikkönen] is saying, “Where’s he coming from?!”…

I think the view of the entire paddock is that Lewis is entirely innocent of anything that’s happened in that motor race. He was an absolute hero. Räikkönen was the man making mistakes and ultimately went and threw it in the wall anyway.

But, this is Formula 1. In seven days’ time we’ll be talking from Monza, the home of Ferrari, the reigning world champions. So I won’t predict the outcome of the stewards’ inquiry.