I can hardly believe we are already more than halfway through the Formula 1 season. It has gone by so quickly. Normally I look at the performances of the drivers at the halfway point. But this year I haven’t felt as able to keep on top of everything, so instead I will look at the constructors.
Of the three new teams, Hispania have probably had the hardest job after taking over the Campos entry at the eleventh hour after it hit severe financial difficulties. Although their car is probably the slowest, it does not have the poorest reliability record, and as such the team currently sits ahead of Virgin in the Constructors’ Championship. Hispania have also acted quickly to sort out the problems with the Dallara chassis, and have hired big name designer Geoff Willis to sort out the mess for next season.
However, recent musical chairs involving their drivers have left a sour taste in the mouth. Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok are both well-liked drivers who have done an admirable job in hugely difficult circumstances, even though you might say neither is a potential future World Champion. Sakon Yamamoto is not liked very much, and is not terribly good as demonstrated in his previous two stints in F1. But the team appear to be desperate to get him into the car nevertheless. The process has been handled appallingly.
On the track, Virgin is probably the least exciting of the new teams. Their reliability record is poor, and the speed is not particularly impressive, even if they occasionally manage to beat a Lotus every once in a while.
On the plus side, their controversial approach to design the car without the use of a wind tunnel has proved the doubters wrong, as the car has not been disastrously off the pace.
Both drivers have shown flashes of brilliance. But you sense that Timo Glock in particular would be capable of more if only he had decent equipment.
Lotus have very quickly established themselves as the fastest of the new teams. But it has not all been plain sailing for them, and their reliability record needs improvement. I also wonder how much better they would be doing if they had two better race drivers than Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen, although the experienced line-up is probably ideal in a development sense.
The next target for Lotus is to start beating the established teams on a regular basis. But with Williams and Sauber both having made significant improvements recently, it is difficult to see how they can make much headway beyond battling with Toro Rosso. Whatever, next year will be important for Lotus — anything below ninth in the 2011 Constructors’ Championship would surely be a disappointment. But that just shows how far they have come already.
Although they have begun to make strides up the grid in the past few races, the fact remains that this has been another disastrous year for Williams. They have spent much of the season battling at the wrong end of the grid, counting Sauber and Toro Rosso among their rivals.
Perhaps the most worrying thing is that when you hear the likes of Patrick Head and Sam Michael try to explain the team’s performance over the past few years, they seem to be at a loss, except for vaguely talking about money being an issue. Williams lack answers.
Rubens Barrichello has been doing more or less the sort of job you would expect him to do. Meanwhile, promising rookie Nico Hülkenberg has not shown as much promise as you might have hoped. This has been coupled with a heavy dose of bad luck. I hope the second half of the season is better for Hülkenberg, of whom I am a fan.
8. Toro Rosso
I am finding it difficult to draw any firm conclusions about Toro Rosso yet. They have had some very poor showings indeed. But on the plus side, you must remember that this is their first year as a ‘proper’ constructor, designing their own chassis. On this basis, this season must be regarded as a success, even if they have not always been as quick as they may have liked.
Both Jaime Alguersuari and Sébastien Buemi are continuing to improve. Alguersuari has shown some real flashes of brilliance, and has impressed me a lot this season — particularly in a couple of battles with Michael Schumacher!
But with a more anonymous season, Buemi has been keeping his nose clean and has picked up the majority of the team’s points haul so far. That is mainly due to his assured performance at Canada, where he did well standing his ground as he briefly led the race as the pitstop phase was shaking itself out.
After a promising winter testing season, the start of the actual season itself was deeply embarrassing for Sauber as they totally failed to convert pre-season promise into real race results. The car was not only frightfully slow, but it was also horrendously unreliable, making Sauber easily the worst of the established teams.
A question mark also hung over the choice of drivers, probably the riskiest on the grid. The decision to opt for Pedro de la Rosa, who had not raced since 2006, was bizarre — and I am a fan of de la Rosa! Meanwhile, Kamui Kobayashi was a man whose entire reputation was built on two races in odd circumstances.
The good news is that Sauber have turned the corner. de la Rosa is not making a fool of himself, and only needs more luck now in order to start scoring points. Meanwhile, Kobayashi looks set to become a points-scoring regular now. His performance in Valencia was absolutely superb, and he backed this up with another solid performance at Silverstone.
Sauber have also acted quickly to improve the car, making the decision to hire James Key early on as the car’s deficiencies became clear. The improvements he has made since joining the team can be seen vividly in the results.
Wow, a day certainly is a long time in F1. I am not sure when I will get round to actually writing about the Hungarian GP, though at least there is a long break until the next race.
But the big news this evening is that the next race will feature Michael Schumacher on the grid. He has been announced as the replacement for Felipe Massa while the Brazilian makes his recovery.
A lot of names have been bandied around over the past few days, and none of them seemed terribly lucky. Optimists suggested that Fernando Alonso or Robert Kubica might be able to get out of their current contracts to move to Ferrari mid-season.
Mirko Bortolotti was another driver on the radar. Last year’s Italian F3 champion has impressed in previous tests with Ferrari. He is currently building up his skills in Formula Two is widely tipped to have a bright future. But it is near enough unheard-of for Ferrari to hire a young rookie.
Some talked up the chances of David Coulthard or Anthony Davidson getting the role. That seemed a bit like pie in the sky thinking though.
The other drivers who currently have relationships with Ferrari are the team’s official test and reserve drivers, Marc Gené and Luca Badoer. But they were unlikely to step in for a whole host of reasons. Neither has a particularly strong track record as a race driver, although you can argue that neither ever had a decent opportunity to show their skills.
But their lack of fresh experience will have seriously counted against them. Gené last raced five years ago for Williams, and faced the ignominy of being replaced by Antônio Pizzonia for being too slow! Meanwhile, Luca Badoer hasn’t raced in F1 for ten years.
The last time Ferrari had to replace a driver midway through a season was when Michael Schumacher broke his legs at the 1999 British Grand Prix. Then, it was widely expected that Luca Badoer, as Ferrari’s test driver, would take his place. Instead, the Scuderia controversially overlooked him and hired Mika Salo.
It was a bad year for Badoer, who came close to finishing 4th for Minardi in that season’s European Grand Prix before his car broke down. He has never had an opportunity to score a World Championship point since.
Luca Badoer has held the test role at Ferrari for a staggering thirteen years without there ever being a sniff of a race drive. If he was overlooked in 1999, he was going to be overlooked today.
Now that testing is banned, it makes you wonder just what the point of a test driver is any more. I recently read that neither Marc Gené nor Luca Badoer have had any mileage whatsoever in this season’s Ferrari F60, in which case the advantage of selecting them over Michael Schumacher — who has loads more talent and, perhaps even more importantly, ocean loads of PR value — is non-existent.
This comes mere weeks after an elaborate re-arranging of deckchairs at Red Bull, as they apparently sought ways to replace Sébastien Bourdais at Toro Rosso without putting Brendon Hartley in the car. Up until the mid-season point, Hartley had been the official Red Bull reserve driver. But mere days before the reserve driver would actually be needed, he was replaced by Jaime Alguersuari.
Other drivers left twiddling their thumbs this year include: Pedro de la Rosa, Gary Paffett, Christian Klien, Romain Grosjean (though perhaps not for long), Adam Khan, Kamui Kobayashi, Nicolas Hülkenberg, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Anthony Davidson and Alexander Wurz.
If a team had to bring in a replacement driver, how many of these would be considered ready and able to race? Not many of them have much in the way of decent mileage of 2009′s cars. Who is to say, for instance, that McLaren would not rather stick Paul di Resta in their car over Pedro de la Rosa? Would Toyota happily give Kobayashi a seat, or would they prefer to take Nakajima?
Just a few years ago it looked like drivers could make a decent living out of being a test driver. Now they never get to test, and they’ll be lucky to get to race.
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.
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.
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 inventedspecifically 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.
Following the controversy of the Belgian Grand Prix, they needed to do it. And thankfully they have — the FIA have finally clarified once and for all exactly what they expect a driver to do if he needs to use an escape road.
During the drivers’ regular meeting with Race Director Charlie Whiting, it was made clear that drivers who cut a corner will not be allowed to challenge at the following corner as Hamilton did to Räikkönen at La Source in Belgium. This will come as a relief to fans and drivers alike who were previously left in the dark as to what the precise limit is.
On Thursday David Coulthard called for clarification in the rule. Meanwhile yesterday his Red Bull team mate Mark Webber expressed his relief saying, “generally, it is pretty clear for people to probably not attack immediately again, which wasn’t mega, mega clear in the past.”
Moreover, the solution is a broadly sensible one as it is relatively easily defined and fans and drivers will now know more clearly when a driver has pushed the rules too far. For this, the FIA should be applauded.
However, Charlie Whiting apparently raised eyebrows as during the meeting by revealing that this rule has actually been in place for two years! According to Ian Phillips (Director of Business Affairs at Force India) commentating during Friday Practice 2 on Radio 5 Live Sports Extra yesterday, Mr Whiting was adamant that the rule was originally clarified two weeks ago — but team principals could find no written record of the rule. It has already been established that neither the Formula 1 Sporting Regulations nor the International Sporting Code mention what a driver is expected to do after cutting a chicane.
Given Charlie Whiting’s apparent certainty of the rule, it does raise the question: why did he initially give the Hamilton move the “okay” in Belgium? Ian Phillips speculated that Charlie Whiting was only saying some things during the meeting because an FIA bod was also present in the room at the time. Whatever, it is another interesting twist in the story of Charlie Whiting’s behaviour surrounding the infamous incident in Belgium.
After this news emerged, we were discussing in the liveblog the implications of the new rule. Robert McKay made a very good point (at 1:25 during Friday Practice 2).
it’s also an interesting “rule” because there are some tracks where the definition of a “corner” is not clear – when Brundle says “some teams call this turn 5, some 6″ or whatever.
This was a particular issue at Valencia, where some small kinks in straights were given a turn number. Take a look at the map. Let us say, for the sake of argument, a driver cuts the chicane at turn 5. Can he scream up behind a driver through turn 6 then go on the attack at turn 7? Or should he wait until turn 8? I know which would seem fairer — waiting until turn 8. But under the strange definition of a “corner” applied to the Valencia Street Circuit, it’s not exactly clear cut.
Also, Charlie Whiting’s “clarification” only appears to clarify what should happen when a driver is on the attack. What about a driver who is defending, such as Michael Schumacher was during the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2006? Should a driver in this situation let the driver behind by? Because Schumacher didn’t — and he didn’t get punished for it.
Today’s clarification makes the situation with cutting chicanes much clearer. But even under the new situation, there is still scope for another controversial incident to occur one day.
I have some concluding thoughts about the incident which I have gathered after seeing how the debate has unfolded on blogs and forums. Basically, the problem boils down to the lack of clarity in the regulations.
First of all, I notice that people keep on referring to what the rules are. “The rules say he needs to let him past”, “The rules say he needs to lose any momentum he gained”, blah, blah, blah. What is interesting is that no-one can ever actually find these rules. That is because they don’t exist.
In comments sections I have referred several times to the wording of the stewards’ decision and the rules that it cites. I will do that here so that you can see what I am talking about.
The stewards, having receieved a report from the Race Director and having met with the drivers and team managers involved, have considered the following matter, determine a breach of the regulations has been committed by the competitor named below and impose the penalty referred to…
Facts: Cut the chicane and gained an advantage Offence: Breach of Article 30.3 (a) of the 2008 FIA Formula One Sporting Regulations and Appendix L chapter 4 Article 2 (g) of the International Sporting Code Penalty: Drive-through penalty (Article 16.3(a)), since this is being applied at the end of the Race, 25 seconds will be added to the drivers’ elapsed race time
The race track alone shall be used by the drivers during the race.
Note that the regulations and the Code say absolutely nothing about gaining an advantage. If the stewards are to apply the letter of the law, every driver who ever ran wide or cut a chicane whether or not he gave any gained positions or momentum back would be penalised. That would have probably meant almost every driver in the Belgian Grand Prix getting penalised.
Clearly, this would be a farcical situation and it is right that the FIA exercises caution when it comes to enforcing these rules. Over time it has become a convention that a driver who is perceived to have gained track position by going off the race track should give back any positions that he gained.
The problems with this are obvious though. It is almost impossible to measure what gains a driver made by going off the circuit. For instance, where does the Bus Stop begin? Is it when Kimi Räikkönen brakes? Is it the first apex? Is it when Lewis Hamilton brakes. We just don’t know — there is no set definition. This is where the arguments stem from.
So, you can argue, as Clive has done, that Lewis Hamilton was ahead of Räikkönen going into the corner. Certainly, Hamilton had the edge during the braking zone of the first apex. It is also clear that Hamilton was catching Räikkönen very quickly for a long period running up to the chicane.
But you can also argue that Hamilton braked later than Räikkönen knowing that the escape road was an option that he could take. Conversely, you can argue that Räikkönen braked earlier than Hamilton simply because he was not coping well in the wet conditions, as is evident from his sector times leading up to the incident.
The problem is that we don’t know how the stewards came to their decision. Presumably they think that under any other circumstances, there is no possibility that Hamilton would have been as close to Räikkönen coming towards La Source unless he took the escape road. This is what the argument that Hamilton should have been penalised boils down to.
But the rationale for how the stewards reached this decision is shrouded in mystery. The convention, as I mentioned before, is that a driver who gains a position by using an escape road must give it back. That is what I understood it to be.
Now all of a sudden other people are saying other things such as, “the convention is that a driver must give back a position then not attempt to overtake for another corner (or two).” Or, “the convention is that a driver must give back a position then get back into the dirty air of the other driver” (how this is supposed to happen when F1 is supposedly getting rid of dirty air next year, I don’t know). Or, “the convention is that a driver must give back a position and any other distance he gained” (how this is supposed to be measured by anyone, as I have pointed out before, I don’t know). I saw another person say that he should have given a “courtesy pause”.
I have to confess that these “conventions” are all news to me. Given this myriad of “conventions” that people have come up with, it is clear that there actually is no convention. And let me just reiterate that anyone who says that any of the above are rules is simply lying. The regulations say absolutely nothing about giving back a position or anything. It is quite clear that the rules state that anyone who goes off the race track — whether they gain from it or not — should be penalised.
The problem is when it comes to asking: where do you draw the line? The debates have shown that there is no agreed point at which the line should be drawn. And here is the problem with the FIA as many fans see it at the moment. This is where the perceived inconsistencies come from. When there is no set convention, there are bound to be inconsistencies.
When there are three different stewards at every race, this only compounds the situation. When the stewards are assisted by a man, Alan Donnelly, who is perceived to be politically close to Max Mosley and who until he was appointed in the post listed Ferrari among the clients of his company, that is when things start to become really bad. Whether the fans are right or not, they perceive there to be a pro-Ferrari bias within the FIA. You can’t really blame them.
It is legitimate to ask why Lewis Hamilton got penalised in Belgium when Michael Schumacher was not even investigated for cutting the same chicane in two consecutive laps while trying to defend his position (first at 4:20 then at 5:50).
Was that permissible because Schumacher was ahead and defending his position? Or was it permissible because his car was red? Is it a coincidence that the other car is silver?
Perhaps a better video to use is the instance where Felipe Massa didn’t get penalised last year in Fuji for this driving, when in dangerous conditions he barged Robert Kubica off the road twice before taking a wide line onto the run-off area coming towards the finish line, which gave him the speed to beat Kubica. (Before anyone starts, I was highly critical of Hamilton’s driving at Fuji last year — check the archives of my other blog.)
Was Massa given the benefit of the doubt because of the torrential conditions? Or was it because his car was red?
At the time, Martin Brundle commentating on ITV said that it looked “50:50″ between Massa and Kubica for naughty driving. It is true that Kubica cuts a chicane a couple of times as well, although he never gained anything like the sort of advantage Massa got coming out of the final corner.
I use this clip because it is an instance where both drivers were a bit naughty. This is just like what happened in Belgium. Hamilton was a bit naughty by cutting the chicane. But when he gave back the position, Räikkönen was a bit naughty by making two moves going towards La Source. Then Räikkönen was a bit naughty by crashing into Hamilton at La Source.
Then Räikkönen was a bit naughty by running wide at Pouhon (Hamilton ran wide at Pouhon as well, but Hamilton re-joined the track much earlier than Räikkönen did. Räikkönen just carried on taking the wider line through the run-off area and this gave him the momentum to catch right up to Hamilton again). Then Räikkönen was a bit naughty by overtaking under a yellow flag (understandably, given the situation).
My point is not that Räikkönen should have been punished for anything he did in that hectic lap. As far as I am concerned, this was just tough racing. It wasn’t completely clean from either driver. Both drivers were pushing it to the limit in all senses. But not in any case was there a clear instance of a driver deliberately setting out to gain an unfair advantage at any point, nor do I think either driver ever seriously endangered anyone’s safety.
For me, this is just the sort of instance where you have to say to yourself, “these things happen in racing”. For me, it was an example of what good racing is all about. Watching the onboard video is an absolute joy for me. I think it is excellent edge-of-your-seat tension. I feel bad that it has been ruined in a way by the overly-officious stewards who somehow managed to overlook all of Räikkönen’s transgressions yet punish Hamilton’s transgression.
It’s great racing, and Hamilton got punished for it. My worry is that a driver who is 50:50 about whether he can make an overtaking move without having to take the escape road will now be more likely to hold back and settle for second. As BBC commentator David Croft and none other that Renault’s director of engineering Pat Symonds have pointed out, this penalty distorts the incentives that an F1 driver has to overtake. When F1 is supposed to be encouraging more overtaking and more great racing, this is a major retrograde step.
If anything is clear, it is that the regulations in this area are clear as mud. Since tarmac run-off areas came into vogue, this has slowly become a greater and greater problem for Formula 1. It was inevitable that sooner or later there was going to be a big controversy over the interpretation of the rules about using run-off areas.
My problem is that now too many rules in F1 are down to interpretation. The vagueness of the rules demands that this be so. But that leaves it wide open to corruption, or allegations of bias. Given the inconsistencies, it is highly possible that the drivers do not know how far they can push it. And the fans certainly don’t know. That is not acceptable.
I don’t think there is a single race that goes by when there is not some pathetic person who says things like, “driver X cut the chicane, driver Y crossed the white line, driver Z farted in the wrong place, therefore they should all be penalised so that my favourite driver can win the race.” With F1′s rules as vague and flexible as they are today, fans can craft a race result that suits them. So can the stewards.
My problem with the Hamilton penalty is that I cannot feel confident that the stewards would have penalised a Ferrari driver for doing the same thing. Many other people feel the same way. At worst, the system is open to corruption. At best, Formula 1 has become a judged competition. Slowly but surely, Formula 1 is changing from a sport where the winner is the person who crosses the line first into a sport where the winner is whoever the stewards thought did the best job. Figure skating on wheels.
Perhaps the FIA really likes that idea. But I don’t. What the FIA needs to do is sort this mess out once and for all. If there really is a need to rotate the stewards, at least have one or two permanent stewards — and make them credible. Also, make the rules on using run-off areas and escape roads much, much clearer so that drivers, stewards and fans alike know where the line is drawn. Because just now we are all guessing, and that is where the debates are coming from and that is why Formula 1 keeps on having these controversial situations.