I have scarcely had time to breathe since the Belgian Grand Prix. Back to back races are pretty hectic. Makes me glad I’m just a blogger and not actually working in F1 (although if any jobs are going… ). On top of the Grand Prix, Monza marks the climax of the GP2 season — and if you follow GP2, keep an eye out for details on liveblogs that I will be running for the races.
After the controversy of Spa-Francorchamps, we desperately need to have some good racing this weekend to take our mind off all the politics and scandals. Just a shame Max Mosley is at Monza this weekend then! On the plus side, rain is expected for this weekend which should provide some good entertainment.
All the more reason to take part in the F1 Fanatic liveblogs this weekend. It’s all the usual times for all the sessions this weekend, with Friday Practice 1 kicking off at 0900 UK time. As ever, check the F1 Fanatic FAQ if you have any questions about watching F1 online.
The Belgian Grand Prix was frustrating not just because of the stewards’ decision to penalise Lewis Hamilton, but because for almost all of the race the indispensable Live Timing was not working. Live Timing is without doubt the best feature of Bernie’s website. And like many of life’s great things, you never realise how much you depend on it until it’s no longer there.
That is on the back of a number of failures over the past fewgrands prix where individual transponders have failed, causing drivers to start falling down the order on the screen when in fact they had lost no places at all. But this was a whole lot more serious — the live timing application simply wasn’t loading at all.
I wonder what caused the failure. I spent periods of the race trying whatever I could think of to get live timing to work — using different browsers and so on. I noticed that Formula1.com as a whole was slow. I do wonder if the failure was simply caused by too many people trying to access it. If that is the case, I hope it has sent a message to Bernie Ecclestone. The fans love circuits like Spa-Francorchamps, and we want fewer Tilkedromes!
In addition to the live timing problems of the past few races, there have been a number of incidents involving fuel rigs. There were a number of fires during the Hungarian Grand Prix while drivers were taking on more fuel. Then in Valencia, in addition to at least one more fire, a Ferrari fuel rig became stuck, partially causing the nasty incident when Kimi Räikkönen left his pit box too soon.
Fuel rigs ought not to be having these sorts of problems as they are all standardised and supplied by the FIA. These types incidents of by no means unheard of. But it does seem unusual that there have been so many problems in such a short period of time.
Now Renault have criticised the meteorologists employed by the FIA to provide all of the Formula 1 teams with weather data. All the teams contribute to pay for the service provided by Météo-France. But it seems as though Pat Symonds doesn’t think the system is working well enough. Here is what he said during the post-Belgium Renault podcast:
We use a weather prediction service this year from Météo-France. It’s really not been terribly good at the best of times. But it actually failed for fifteen minutes during the race just before that [the rain shower towards the end of the race] occurred. I think if you were to listen to the recordings of our pit communications, you’ll find a bit that would definitely need to be bleeped out when the radar comes back on and we see what’s on it. So it was very difficult for us to make those decisions at the time.
I have done so much blogging about that incident that I still haven’t got round to writing a full race review of Belgium yet, which I feel I should do. So that will have to wait until after the Italian Grand Prix.
In the meantime, I have just listened to the post-Belgium Renault podcast. As always, it was a great listen. Pat Symonds really is a joy to listen to. He is opinionated without being ranty, and he is usually forthright and honest in his opinions, even when it reflects badly on the Renault team.
I was interested in what he had to say about how the team decides when a driver should come in for a pitstop. It was reported immediately following the Belgian Grand Prix that Fernando Alonso was very frustrated with the Renault team. He claimed he wanted to switch to wet tyres earlier and that if he did he would have won the race.
I was therefore quite surprised to hear what Pat Symonds had to say about how the team decides when a driver should switch to wet tyres when it is beginning to rain.
…with what we had to deal with at the end of the Belgian Grand Prix [i.e. when a track is going from dry to wet conditions], we leave it entirely to the driver. He is the only guy who can really judge what it’s like. He’s the only one who knows if the car is aquaplaning, he’s the only one who knows whether he thinks he can keep it on the track and out of the barriers.
So if a car is on dry tyres and it’s raining and the driver feels he needs wet tyres, he comes in. He comes in as quickly as he can. He doesn’t even have to give us a complete warning. We have a system on the car whereby if he presses a button on the steering wheel it sends a signal to the pits. It’s superimposed over the TV picture that the mechanics are watching, saying which car’s coming in and how far away it is in seconds from the pitstop.
So [it was] Fernando’s decision there, and I think a very good one.
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.
Felipe Massa remains, to me, the most mysterious driver on the grid — perhaps even more mysterious than Kimi Räikkönen. He has a reputation of being a highly erratic driver. And yet, had his engine now blown in Hungary he would be leading the championship. Indeed, as things stand he is only eight points away from the lead — not a million miles off.
He can have more spins than you can count in Silverstone, leave out the welcome mat for overtaking cars in Germany, then pull off one of the most amazing starts you have ever seen in Hungary. This repeats a similar pattern at the start of the season. He had a pair of embarrassing spins in Australia and Malaysia. Everyone was writing him off. And then bang, bang, bang — 28 points from three races.
The constant fall and rise, fall and rise characterises Felipe Massa. Is he genuine championship material or just a mediocre driver who is simply lucky enough to have a great car?
I was developing a theory about what was going on. Last week Bridgestone boss Hirohide Hamashima seemed to confirm it.
Hamashima has also shed some light on the fight at Ferrari between Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen — claiming the Brazilian is superior when the car is perfect, but Raikkonen excels when the driver has to overcome some technical deficiencies
“When the car conditions are very suitable for Felipe his abilities are 110%, but once the car is not so good his abilities are 90%,” he explained. “But Kimi could get the package performance at 100% even if the car condition is not so good.”
That fits with what is becoming clear about Felipe Massa. If conditions are not quite right, he is simply all over the place. Think of the rainy conditions at Silverstone, for instance. But when the car is well hooked-up, Massa is a machine. In Budapest, the warm temperatures suited the Ferrari down to the ground and Massa had an amazing start and drove a great race until his engine expired.
So, Massa excels when conditions are perfect for him, but can’t cope if the slightest thing is wrong. This begs the question though. Does this sort of driver deserve to win the World Championship? Should a Champion really be the sort of person who can cope with some drizzle? Someone who can cope with a bit of adversity? Or does his superiority in perfect conditions excuse his mishaps?
You have to hand it to BMW. Just like France, the British GP weekend didn’t look like it was shaping up too well for them.
Robert Kubica had to completely abandon Q3 (thereby qualifying 10th by default) due to a car issue. The dampers had to be changed overnight meaning that the Pole was effectively driving a car he had never driven before during the race. In the end he put in a plucky performance, running in third until he aquaplaned off 21 laps from the end. You could call it Kubica’s first mistake of the season, and I was immensely disappointed to see him make an error.
Nick Heidfeld, meanwhile, drove a stormer. Qualifying was good by Heidfeld’s standards. He started 5th on the grid and it looks as though Quick Nick has finally solved his tyre heat issues. And in the race he did a more than solid job. Not only did he keep it on the racetrack, but he also had a few overtaking moves up his sleeve. An audacious, opportunistic double overtake was pulled off while Kovalainen and Räikkönen were more concerned with each other. This effectively put him in second place.
Renault had another poor race. If you look at the lap chart, Fernando Alonso was absolutely all over the place. The team gambled by opting to keep Alonso on worn inters. It was the same gamble as Ferrari made, and the result was pretty similar. All things considered, I suppose Alonso should be pleased with his 6th place finish.
But Nelsinho Piquet overtook Alonso for the second race in a row and was looking really good until he spun off while in 4th place. Maybe the Brazilian really is on the up.
Meanwhile, Williams continue to disappoint. The real headscratcher for me is Nico Rosberg. I think it is getting to the stage now where Williams should be docking his wages for every front wing he trashes. That guy can’t stop getting into little incidents. People complain about DC crashing all the time — but look at Rosberg. Not impressive.
Kazuki Nakajima continues to do a solid job picking up the points. Kudos to him. At one point he was in last place, so to plough his way back up to 8th is good going.
The Williams pair are now equal on points. When one of them in considered to be an awesome hot-shot and the other is seen to be there just because he allows Williams to have cheap Toyota engines, you have to wonder just what is going on with Rosberg. You can’t even say he’s had an undue amount of bad luck. He is simply not performing to the standard that we are led to believe he has in him.
Talking of the Championship, it just gets better and better! The top three drivers are all equal on 48 points, and fourth-placed Kubica is just two points down on that. Kubica could well have been leading the championship again if it wasn’t for his spin.
After I criticised McLaren for failing to fully capitalise on their supposed advantage at Monaco and Canada, I have to applaud them for pulling this out of the bag. This is a truly unpredictable season.
It’s like last year but even better. You turn up to each track not quite knowing who is going to have the upper-hand between Ferrari and McLaren. But this time the Drivers Championship is even closer. Plus there is the added element of BMW who are still plugging away near the top.
The midfield race is also pretty hot. Beforehand it looked as though the teams from 4th to 7th were really close. But now Toyota and Red Bull have pulled out a bit of a lead and just a point separate them in the battle for 4th. Meanwhile, Honda have pulled themselves into contention in the race for 6th place. The battle covers Williams, Renault and Honda and the gap between the three teams is just two points.
This is the half-way stage of the season. Not too long ago we would have seen Ferrari having practically wrapped up both titles by now.
Not only is the championship close, but the races are amazing as well. For my money, the British GP was the fifth amazing grand prix in a row. We are well overdue a boring race. Every time I think the next one will be boring, but it isn’t! In short, 2008 is awesome. If the new aero rules for 2009 bring us boring races and a Championship dominated by one team, I will run into a brick wall.
Anyone who has known me for long will know that I am no fan of Lewis Hamilton. But I really have to hand it to him for his performance at Silverstone yesterday. It was an absolute masterclass. People joke about how Hamilton describes every single win as his “best ever”. Yet this time around he is probably right.
Hamilton had just had the worst two races of his career. His performances in Canada and France were error-strewn and exhibited the worst of his most obvious trait, his impatience. The media was beginning to round on him, and although you could argue that the criticism was fair, there is no doubt that Hamilton was totally rattled about the whole thing.
It was worrying when it seemed as though he was beginning to pick fights with the media. If you start a fight with the media, especially in Britain, you simply don’t win. Combine this with rumours that the Hamilton clan does not get on with McLaren boss Ron Dennis or the team’s big-name PR man Matt Bishop and it was beginning to look as though Hamilton’s career was on the verge of coming down in flames.
As I have said before, Hamilton is great enough when the pressure is not on. But when it really matters he looks like a nervous wreck. So I didn’t see how — in this situation, following a terrible June, at his home grand prix — he was going to perform well. His dire qualifying performance only added to that sense.
Yet come race day it all came good for him. Somehow he put behind him all the troubles that had been building up. From 4th on the grid, he capitalised on poor starts from the cars ahead of him and was challenging his team mate for the lead by turn 1, the famous Copse corner. Indeed, Hamilton was so aggressive that he tapped Kovalainen, and both cars almost lost control.
That tap could easily have been just the latest Hamilton-instigated disaster. Yet both drivers got away with just a twitch of the rear each and carried on racing at the front as if nothing had happened. It was obvious that Hamilton was absolutely desperate to overtake his team mate. He wasn’t just hungry. He was starving. Understandable after a month-long fast.
Finally, on lap six, Hamilton took his team mate. It was plain that Kovalainen was holding Hamilton up, and as soon as the Brit was released he drove off into the distance. That was understandable given the rumours that Kovalainen was on a heavier fuel load. But the rumour wasn’t true — Kovalainen was the first of the McLarens to pit.
Hamilton was heavier and was comprehensively showing Kovalainen how to do it. After the Finn’s mesmerising qualifying performance it was a real disappointment. It’s difficult to pin down just how good Kovalainen is. Ron Dennis still claims he is in the process of “re-building” the former Renault driver. It is said that Kovalainen is still not where he should be in terms of confidence and fitness.
His qualifying performance looked like we were finally back to the Kovalainen we were promised before he came into F1. But come race day he was put firmly in the shadow by Lewis Hamilton and it’s clear that Kovalainen still needs some work if he wants to be the star driver he might be. He eventually finished over a lap down in 5th. Not great.
Meanwhile, Hamilton sped off into the distance. He made only one small mistake while others seemingly couldn’t stop spinning. Whenever I looked at live timing my jaw hit the floor at how much his lead had grown. By the end of the race the gap to second-placed Nick Heidfeld was 68.5 seconds. Hamilton’s victory could hardly have been more comprehensive. What a way to silence the doubters. Having to bear Hamilton’s post-race cockiness is a small price to pay to see such an awesome drive.
It could all have been so very different if Ferrari had got it right. They had one of their nightmare weekends that they have from time to time these days. This was not quite of Melbourne 2008 proportions, but it was close.
You expect Silverstone, with its long straights and sweeping, fast corners, to suit the Ferrari. So their lack of pace in practice was a bit of a mystery. It’s not that they were particularly slow in practice, and Massa could be excused for having a huge shunt in Friday Practice 1 that wasn’t his fault (as he spun on a huge patch of Alonso’s oil). But McLaren were right up there at the top of the timing sheets.
Come qualifying it was beginning to look like Ferrari were properly out of sorts. They had a hairy moment in Q2 when they struggled to set any blistering times, and they must have breathed a sigh of relief when they got through to Q3.
Then came the race. Felipe Massa was back to his old self. He is not known for being great in the wet, and the Brazilian spun no fewer than five times. The first came on lap one. He was second-last after the spin. The only person behind him was Mark Webber, who also spun on lap one. But by the next lap Webber had overtaken him and Massa was dead last.
Webber ploughed his way through the field in stunning fashion, overtaking cars at the rate of about one per lap. At one point he reached 10th position. The Australian was helped by the fact that he was on a lighter fuel load, but it was nevertheless a stunning display. His pitstop strategy was not enough to provide him with a good result in the end though. But he certainly showed Massa how it’s done.
Massa lacked Webber’s confidence, and sometimes looked as though he wasn’t even trying. He took several laps to pass the sluggish Nico Rosberg and didn’t find the Force India of Fisichella much easier to take. After that, his ramshackle performance ensured that he remained firmly last of the runners and in the end he was the only person to finish two laps behind the leader. If Felipe Massa wins the World Championship, I will shit myself with rage.
At least Kimi Räikkönen looked a bit better in the driving department. In the early phase of the race Kimi looked like he was in with a shout of the win, being the only person who was really competing with Lewis Hamilton. But then Ferrari made a strategic blunder.
The two leaders took their pitstops simultaneously. Hamilton took a new set of intermediate tyres. Räikkönen kept his old inters on. It would have worked perfectly for Ferrari if conditions had remained as they were. But then the rain came. McLaren’s forecast must have been better. Hamilton’s fresh inters still had a tread that was capable of clearing the water from his path. Räikkönen’s tired old tyres weren’t up to the job on a circuit that was getting wetter.
Almost immediately Hamilton was a second faster than Räikkönen in just one sector. By the next lap he was almost five seconds ahead. Before long Räikkönen was firmly in the distance and Hamilton’s race was certainly his to lose. Belatedly, Räikkönen came in to change his tyres. But his race was already ruined. A couple of spins later, Räikkönen finished fourth. He was a lap down. How humiliating. From challenging for the lead to being lapped all due to a dodgy tyre decision.
It was another strategic blunder from Ferrari who seemingly were not aware of the rain that was just minutes away from arriving. How they must miss Ross Brawn, who was working a few doors down the pitlane at Honda masterminding Rubens Barrichello’s race.
Barrichello took extreme wets early on and was setting blistering lap times. It was a gamble but it paid off. Moreover, it was a masterful drive from the most experienced driver of all time. He was the last of the runners on the lead lap, 82.2 seconds behind Hamilton. But in these conditions that was enough for a well-deserved podium finish. How sweet it must be for Honda and Barrichello. The team is still not at the sharp end of the grid, but under the guidance of Ross Brawn they have certainly turned the corner.
My British Grand Prix race review will be continued tomorrow
Wow, what another incredible race! This year’s Canadian Grand Prix was always going to be exciting. The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve usually provides excitement and unpredictability and pre-race reports of the possibility of rain threatened to add even more uncertainty into the mix. Then when the circuit started breaking up even more than normal during qualifying, another element of chance was added.
Well, the Canadian Grand Prix was highly exciting — but not, as it turned out, for the reasons expected. As the race drew nearer predictions for rain became vaguer and in the end it was not a threat. And overnight repairs to the circuit appear to have done the trick — the repaired tarmac held up better during the race than it did for the qualifying sessions.
But you can always rely on the tough pseudo-street circuit to throw the cards in the air. The barriers are almost as close as Monaco, but the Montreal circuit is much faster. This means carnage, safety cars and above all it means you need to skill to win the race.
Lewis Hamilton showed he does not have this skill — not this time round. He was mesmerising during qualifying, but a schoolboy error put paid to his hopes to repeat the feat this year. Pitting during the safety car period, Hamilton failed to notice that the red light was on at the end of the pitlane. While Kimi Räikkönen and Robert Kubica waited diligently for the light to turn green, Hamilton just ploughed straight into the back of the red car.
Nico Rosberg wasn’t much better, as in turn he hit Hamilton on the rear for good measure. The damage to Hamilton and Räikkönen’s cars was extensive enough to end their races immediately. As the pair climbed out of their cars, Hamilton looked sheepish and turned away from Räikkönen to avoid the inevitable ear-bashing. No so easy Lewis — Räikkönen tapped him on the shoulder so that Hamilton could not avoid paying attention. The Finn wagged his finger like a school teacher. Even with their helmets on, the emotions were clear to see from their body language.
Some will say that this is payback for Räikkönen taking out Sutil in Monaco. Indeed, what goes around comes around. Now all we need is for someone to ride up Hamilton’s jacksy for things to really even out…
Hamilton’s many supporters quickly began to complain about the rules surrounding the red light at the end of the pitlane, but this is no excuse. The red light is not a new rule. Pitlanes have always had red lights at the end — certainly for as long as I can remember, and probably for a much longer time than that. There is a very sensible reason for that.
The fact is that a safety car period means that there should be no overtaking on the race track. You can’t have cars re-joining the field in the middle of the queue because of the confusion it would cause. Where in the queue to re-join? It’s like barging your way to the front of the queue at the post office: it’s just not on. Plus, such an eventuality would lead inescapably to overtaking — therefore racing — taking place. You simply can’t have cars re-joining the middle of the train during a safety car period.
Hamilton should know the rules. He does know the rules. He was just too late to notice the red light. That means game over. It is now up to the stewards to decide if he will be penalised for ending Räikkönen’s race. The three protagonists in the pile-up — Hamilton, Räikkönen and Rosberg — are being investigated by the stewards as we speak and we await their decision. My gut instinct is that if that was a Piquet Jnr or a Nakajima that ploughed into the back of the World Champion in the pitlane, that young driver would be facing a ban.
(Update: It has been announced that both Hamilton and Rosberg will face a 10-place grid penalty at the next Grand Prix in France.)
It could all have been so very different. Sitting next to Räikkönen at the end of the pitlane waiting for the lights to change was Robert Kubica. In a parallel universe, Hamilton would have ploughed into the back of Kubica. In this instance, the luck went the Pole’s way. It’s a classic Montreal win — get a bit of luck, then use your skill to capitalise on it.
Robert Kubica certainly has the skill. He had plenty to deal with during the race. Being among the first to stop during the first Safety Car period, meaning that he had to trundle around in the midfield. He spent a portion of the race being held up by a Toro Rosso. He was the leading driver of those who had made a stop, but it was beginning to look like Nick Heidfeld had the upper hand up front. The German had pulled out enough of a lead to make a pit stop and still come out ahead of Kubica.
However, Heidfeld was on a one-stop strategy and was advised by his team to let through the lighter Kubica, who would need to make an extra pitstop. The race became a classic battle of pitstop strategies: the one-stopping but heavier Heidfeld and the two-stopping but nimbler Kubica.
It was tough for Heidfeld to keep his patience while his team mate steamed into the lead. At one point he got sucked into a battle with the (probably two-stopping) Alonso, when in reality the pair weren’t really racing at all. His engineer wisely advised Heidfeld to forget Alonso and let him past in an attempt to ultimately save him time.
In the end, Kubica had the speed to capitalise on the situation. When it was time for Kubica to make his second pitstop, he was over 25 seconds ahead of his team mate — enough to retain his on-track advantage. He would go on to take the win.
The victory is historic for a number of reasons. Firstly, Robert Kubica is the first Polish driver ever to stand on the top step of the podium. For this, he must be immensely proud.
This is also BMW’s first ever win as a constructor (although the won races in the past with Williams as an engine supplier). And of course, the BMW team has grown out of the Sauber F1 team. It is worth remembering that, despite the temptation to shorten the team’s name to ‘BMW’, officially this is still ‘BMW Sauber’. I did not find Sauber to be very likeable, but under the guidance of BMW and Mario Theissen, I now have an immense amount of respect for the team.
So a first-ever win for BMW and a first-ever win for Sauber. And for that win to be a 1-2 as well makes the victory sweeter. It’s the first time a team’s first win has been a 1-2 as well for ten years. Jordan did it way back in the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix with Damon Hill and Ralf Schumacher.
This is a signal that BMW mean business. McLaren may have laughed off the possibility that they could sustain the pace of development across the entire season, but commendably BMW have got on with the job and come up with the goods. You can’t ask for more than a 1-2, and BMW have provided it. It is a testament to the leadership of Mario Theissen and the great driving skills of Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld.
I can’t help but be reminded of the steady progress that Renault made with Fernando Alonso. Renault’s performances improved throughout 2003 until that first win came. In 2004 some another win came along with more strong race showings. Then in 2005 and 2006 back-to-back World Championships came. Can BMW repeat the feat? I wouldn’t bet against it.
Just as Alonso led the charge for Renault, Kubica is the promising young star who is threatening the big guns. I wouldn’t say that this win was overdue. But we certainly knew it was coming. And for that first win to come at the scene of his horrendous accident last year — one of the most violent-looking accidents I can ever recall seeing — speaks volumes about the man’s positive character, mindset and approach. Is Robert Kubica a future World Champion? Put it this way: I’m excited for him in the same way as I was excited for Alonso about five years ago.
But does this mean that Nick Heidfeld is the tired, past-it, lost talent that Trulli represented in the Renault days? I am a big fan of Quick Nick. But this season he has just not been on it at all. Perhaps the car doesn’t suit him.
Whatever the problem with Heidfeld is, by anyone’s book 2nd place ought to be a reassertion of his authority. However, Nick Heidfeld looked thoroughly dejected in parc fermé. No doubt he feels that the win should have been his had he been able to hold up Kubica during the race as he perhaps feels he had the right to. All I can say is, Kubica had the speed to win the race and Heidfeld didn’t. The decision to let Kubica pass was the only sensible decision for the team to make. In the end the race was won on raw pace, and Kubica had it while Heidfeld didn’t.
Nonetheless, 2nd place represents a titanic effort from Heidfeld. Yes, he had a bit of luck. But he still had to wring the performance out of his car to take the advantage. He started from 8th on the grid, which is the kind of performance we have come to expect from Heidfeld this season. But today he came alive and played a vital part in BMW’s maiden 1-2. He should be proud, not dejected.
And, as he pointed out in the press conference, Heidfeld has played a major part in the development of the BMW Sauber team. He has been there with BMW since the start of the BMW-Sauber relationship. He raced with BMW engines when he was at Williams. And before that he spent a number of years at Sauber. Heidfeld can be happy with the doubtlessly valuable input he has provided the BMW Sauber team over the years, and today was payback day. Hopefully one day soon — as much as I am a huge fan of Kubica — it will be Heidfeld on the top step of the podium in navy blue and white overalls.
Well thank goodness for that — the second good race in a row. Just what the doctor ordered to let us forget about all the politics going on in F1 at the moment. So where to start?
First of all, hats off to Lewis Hamilton who drove a great race despite banging into the barrier early on in the race. I was a bit worried about McLaren’s prospects following qualifying. Ferrari are usually poor at Monaco and the fact that they had a 1-2 in qualifying (seemingly with reasonable fuel loads as well) spelled potential bad news for McLaren. So far most of the tracks can be reasonably considered ‘Ferrari tracks’. But if McLaren can’t win at Monaco, it will be difficult for them to win anywhere.
But while qualifying was bad, the race turned out to be fine. Despite Hamilton’s bang, he otherwise drove a pretty flawless race to take the chequered flag. Hamilton has described it as the best win of his career, and it’s hard to argue with that.
But he was helped out by some good luck. He was lucky that his bash on the barrier didn’t cause any long-term damage to his car. And after the race there was the revelation that he had developed a slow puncture on his slow-down lap. Had the race gone full distance (instead of hitting the 2 hour limit), it might have been a very different story.
Hamilton was also helped out by Ferrari’s lacklustre race. Felipe Massa was surprisingly solid early on. He dislikes the Monaco circuit and he is known to be poor in the wet. But somehow Felipe Massa has just started to make it all click, and he has been performing superbly well after his embarrassing first two races of the year.
At the start of the race he built up a pretty dominant lead representing an astonishing two seconds per lap! But eventually the conditions got the better of him. An off at Ste Devote meant he had to pass the lead on to Kubica. A late change to dry tyres put an end to his race. Not Ferrari’s finest strategic moments.
Ferrari also made a major error by not having Kimi Räikkönen’s tyres on in time before the start. Immediately the Finn had a drive-through penalty. His start was also incredibly poor, as though he wasn’t paying attention to the lights. He gifted Hamilton second place before even reaching the first corner.
During the race Kimi had a big off at Ste Devote, damaging his front wing in the process. He was also completely off the pace for the duration of the race, and never looked in contention for the win. The final nail in the coffin came after the safety car period where he failed to account for his cold brakes towards the Nouvelle chicane (the fastest part of the circuit), lost control and ploughed into the back of poor Adrian Sutil.
Is this really the 2007 World Champion? Räikkönen has been distinctly patchy all season. It really makes you wonder. Since winning the Championship has he lost motivation? He has been known to have off weekends before, but they are now coming at a rather alarming frequency. I think if he had been driving like this while he was at McLaren, he would never have got a drive at Ferrari. No wonder the red team has supposedly signed up Fernando Alonso for 2010.
As for the victim of Kimi Räikkönen’s poor form, Adrian Sutil, you have to feel sorry for him. I’m not the greatest fan of Sutil. He’s never really shown before why he deserves the hype that some people give him. But his Monaco GP was a stormer, and he was running on 4th on merit, in between the two Ferraris. No wonder he was in floods of tears after Räikkönen drove up his backside.
However, had that not happened the story could well be different. After the race it transpired that he overtook three drivers under yellow flags. In the event he was warned as to his future conduct, but had he finished the race he could well have been penalised.
I also thought it was a bit much for Mike Gascoyne to complain to the stewards about Räikkönen. He said:
as I said if that had been someone at the back, a young guy doing it, they would get a penalty. But it doesn’t seem to happen the other way around.
Of course, a lot of people were saying the same thing about Fisichella’s tangle with Nakajima in Turkey. Had it been Nakajima flying over the top of Fisichella, I am sure the Japanese driver would have faced a ban. Ho hum.
In Monaco, Fisichella himself was celebrating his 200th race. But apart from that he had little to celebrate. He was thoroughly outclassed by his team mate and ended up having to retire in the pits.
Heikki Kovalainen’s run of bad luck continued. A stall on the grid at the start of the formation lap meant he had to start from the pitlane. He spent the entire race in the midfield, but I suppose he should be given credit for managing to finish 8th after gaining two positions right at the end due to Räikkönen’s tangle with Sutil.
Apart from Sutil, one other driver stood out as flawless — Robert Kubica. At one point, after Massa’s off, Kubica looked quite good for the win. It was not to be though as Hamilton ultimately had the pace to outclass him. But this is yet more evidence of Kubica’s talent behind the wheel. Not many drivers can say they didn’t make a mistake yesterday, but Kubica is one of them.
Nick Heidfeld must be wondering just what has hit him. Quick Nick does not look so quick any more compared with his team mate. Sure, he wasn’t helped by a hit from Alonso. But the German was off the pace all weekend, and it’s continuing a disappointing season. Kubica, meanwhile, appears to be ultra-committed with his seemingly extreme diet. I hope soon he is in a car good enough to win a race, because he certainly deserves it now.
Sebastian Vettel had a storming drive. At first it was not looking so great. They were all at sea during practice, unable to make head nor tail of their new car. And because of that new car he started 19th on the grid thanks to a gearbox penalty. But all this did not deter him as he moved up to eventually finish 5th. Great result for the Toro Rosso team.
Mark Webber had a fantastic race. He excels at Monaco but has not always had the luck. But this marks his fifth consecutive points finish — a personal best for Webber. After a career tainted by bad luck, his patience is finally paying off and he sits pretty in 7th in the Championship.
The team mates of those two Red Bull drivers both had to retire within seconds of each other on the same spot of the track. Seemingly a river had formed at Massenet, Coulthard lost control and hit the barriers. Yet another poor showing from David Coulthard, whose appearance should actually be applauded following his scary accident in qualifying which he described as the hardest hit he’s had in his entire career.
Toro Rosso driver Sébastien Bourdais followed Coulthard into the barrier after hitting the same river. We are now waiting for Bourdais to show what he is made of. I don’t follow American motor racing too closely, but I thought they had a few street circuits over there, so I was hoping that Bourdais would be able to show what he’s made of at Monaco. It wasn’t to be. After a strong showing in Australia, he has done little to impress since.
Fernando Alonso was another victim of that river at Massenet. He got away just like Hamilton did though and recovered following a tyre change. He was looking good for a period and made a stunning move on Mark Webber at Mirabeau. Unfortunately Alonso must have become too confident after that because a few laps later he tried to pass Heidfeld at Lowes in a move that was never really on the cards. That only had one conclusion: crunch. Alonso never recovered from that.
At least Alonso doesn’t have the heat on him like his team mate Nelsinho “Junior” Piquet Jnr. Clearly the team have lost confidence in him because they would not let him change to dry tyres until they saw what Alonso could do on dries. But the time they let him come in, his extreme wets were well past their sell-by date and he had a swarm of cars all over the back of him and beginning to get past. However, Piquet didn’t help his case by binning it almost as soon as he got onto dry tyres. More ammunition for his critics.
Another rookie who disappointed was Timo Glock. He had no fewer than three spins during the race and I have to say that it increasingly looks like he is not F1 material. Trulli wasn’t much better, it has to be said, with an anonymous race at a circuit he’s supposed to be good at.
Barrichello finally broke his duck. A points position has been beckoning for a while, and he has finally got it. Button should have done more. He excels in the wet, but was unable to show it in Monaco this year. An early tap with Nick Heidfeld basically put paid to his chances.
Kazuki Nakajima provided yet more evidence that he is not just another crash-happy kamikaze pilot from Japan. Monaco will have provided ample opportunity for him to stuff it in the barriers or something, but he had a solid, if fairly anonymous, drive to 7th. Meanwhile, his much-hyped team mate, Nico Rosberg, was not so impressive. He looked set to score some points until getting it all wrong through the Swimming Pool. A big crash resulted.
All-in-all, a great race at Monaco with plenty of talking points. What a relief — the Monaco GP is often a boring procession, but the wet-dry nature of the race ensured much mayhem.
Next up is Canada which is often a good race. The track suits the McLaren and Hamilton won there last year, so they will be hoping to capitalise on their Championship lead. It’s a surprise that Hamilton leads the Championship. Thanks to the patchy form of both Massa and Räikkönen, Hamilton might be able to grab an authoritative lead. Don’t underestimate Robert Kubica as well, who remains just six points away from the head of the table.
This is part two of my series of posts reviewing the F1 season gone by. Last week I wrote about F1’s backmarkers. This week: my top 13 drivers.
13 — Alexander Wurz
When Alexander Wurz burst onto the scene in 1997, he was talked about as a hot prospect. I’d say he was the Nico Rosberg of his day. So the way his career panned out must be seen as a disappointment. He was unfortunate enough to fall into the trap of becoming a test driver, then becoming too good at being a test driver to be considered for a long-term drive.
His occasional races with McLaren were typical. He came across as a bit rusty, as though he had forgotten how to race as opposed to just drive the car. However, when he was on form he shone brightly.
The story was much the same this year with Williams — his first full-term drive with a team since 2000. Most of the time he looked off the pace, and was outclassed by team mate Nico Rosberg. But he had two or three stunning drives, which is why I have placed him so far up the list.
His drive in Canada led to a well-deserved third place. Of course, an element of luck was involved as the multiple safety car periods probably worked to his advantage. But even with luck playing a role, to have qualified 19th and finish on the podium is good going.
More impressive in my view, though, was Wurz’s drive at the Nürburgring. He adapted to the fiercely changeable conditions better than most. Some said this was in part due to his knowledge of the local microclimate, as he used to live just opposite the circuit. But his immense experience was also at play as he got his Williams ahead of better cars.
12 — Sebastian Vettel
In a year of excellent rookie performances, Sebastian Vettel has been overshadowed a little bit. Drafted in at short notice to deputise for Robert Kubica at Indianapolis, Vettel got a little bit spooked at the first corner, but held his nerve for the rest of the race to grab a point.
It was to be his sole race for BMW. But a few races later a vacancy appeared at Toro Rosso, and Vettel took it. Some joked that, while Vettel scored a point in his F1 début, by signing for Toro Rosso he ensured that he wouldn’t score another point until at least 2009.
Those wags turned out to be wrong. On the one hand, he did not comprehensively outperform team mate Vitantonio Liuzzi, although it looked to me as though he did a bit better than Scott Speed. But undoubtedly the Toro Rosso was handy at some circuits towards the end of the season (perhaps sometimes due to rainy conditions) which helped Vettel.
Liuzzi as well as Vettel looked good towards the end of the season, but Vettel was able to capitalise on the opportunities more. He was running in third at Fuji until his infamous collision with Mark Webber, who was effectively his team mate. It was an unforgivable mistake, no matter what the mitigating circumstances were and Vettel obviously knew it. However, he went a long way to burying the memory of that incident by finishing an incredible fourth place at the next race in China.
A lot will hinge on the competitiveness of next year’s Toro Rosso. But given a semi-decent car, Vettel will have the capability to grab highly impressive results from time to time.
11 — David Coulthard
The thing that impresses me about David Coulthard is not so much his driving ability, but the fact that he shows no sign of running out of steam. He is F1’s oldest driver, and of the current crop only Rubens Barrichello has more experience. Usually that would be a sure sign that you’re off — even if you are Michael Schumacher. But DC just keeps on going.
Results this year were mixed, but mostly impressive. He started the year badly with a ludicrously over-ambitious move on Alexander Wurz which almost decapitated the Austrian. As accidents go, it was probably even more shocking than Robert Kubica’s because it demonstrated just how vulnerable drivers still are in that open cockpit.
Coulthard also other race-ending accidents, and of course he was also often the victim of the Red Bull’s dire reliability. But when he was able to finish, it was often in an impressive position. The end of the season was particularly strong, topped by a fourth place in Japan. No podiums like in 2006, but you can’t win them all.
10 — Mark Webber
What has Mark Webber done to deserve such terrible luck? While David Coulthard had his reliability problems from time to time, Mark Webber seemed to suffer all the time. Formula1.com reports that all but one of his seven retirements was caused by either gearbox, transmission or hydraulics.
When he managed to finish a race, though, it was more often than not in a high position. He was particularly impressive in the wet, as he grabbed a podium at the Nürburgring and was lining himself up for a win at Fuji until Vettel smashed into him.
Webber was also excellent at qualifying. He is a surprisingly high seventh on this year’s ‘supergrid’ (where drivers are arranged according to average grid position).
9 — Robert Kubica
In a lot of ways Robert Kubica was a disappointment this season. There were a lot of good results — a slew of fourths and fifths. But his BMW car was handy and he was comprehensively outperformed by Nick Heidfeld.
Unfortunately, Robert Kubica’s 2007 season will mainly be remembered for that shocking accident in Montreal. For me, it was the lowest point of the season as there was a period of time where I feared the worst. It was a truly sickening accident to watch, and at one point Kubica experienced a force of 75g. Kubica was lucky to escape without any major injury (particularly since, by the end of the accident, his feet and ankles were completely exposed).
Kubica did not let the accident deter him. He was eager to take part at Indianapolis, but was ordered to take the week off by doctors. He bounced back at Magny-Cours, though, to finish fourth and went on to score in all but two of the remaining races. That is what makes people like Robert Kubica different to the likes of you and me.
8 — Nico Rosberg
I get the impression that people weren’t really sure what to make of Nico Rosberg at the end of 2006. This year he really cemented his reputation as a solid, reliable driver. Overall, he outperformed Alexander Wurz and Frank Williams seems rather keen on retaining his services. This is odd for Mr. Williams, who usually sees his drivers as disposable commodities.
Despite this, we are yet to see any real result from him. Yes, he is in the Williams which is not the best car. But even Wurz was seen towards the front of the field once or twice this year. Rosberg seems more comfortable in the midfield, and his best result is a solitary fourth (at Brazil, an awesome drive), although you’d be most likely to see him finish seventh.
Nico Rosberg is one of those drivers who is on the borderline for me. A lot will hinge on next year and how he adapts to the removal of traction control.
7 — Jenson Button
Okay, hear me out. A lot of people mocked Nick Fry when he said that this was Jenson Button’s best ever year. Indeed, Nick Fry’s unflappable optimism is often rather laughable, but I think he had a point on this matter.
Let us face facts. We all know that the Honda car was awful. And yet, Jenson Button has six points to his name this year. That is six more than Rubens Barrichello scored. In fact, Button largely outperformed Barrichello in every area this year. Button fought hard to wring results out of that car — and he managed it, particularly towards the end of the season.
I am not usually a fan of Jenson Button. However, this year has made me really appreciate how good he is in the wet. He put in an amazing qualifying performance at Fuji and was really unlucky to walk away from that race with nothing to show for it after getting involved in an accident during the race. Still, he came back in China to score an amazing fifth position.
But it was not just rainy conditions that allowed Button to score points. He broke his duck this year at the bone-dry Magny-Cours circuit. This year, Button has gone up in my estimation a great deal.
6 — Heikki Kovalainen
Kovalainen didn’t start the season too well. His Australian Grand Prix was so disastrous that Flavio Briatore said it couldn’t have been Heikki — it must have been his brother. Ouch!
But as Kovalainen got comfortable in the Renault, he began to put Giancarlo Fisichella in the shadow. His first truly great moment was in Canada. There he survived a race of attrition to finish fourth, leaving Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari behind, having started plum last.
Arguably better was his race in treacherous conditions in Fuji. He was helped out a bit by the collision between Webber and Vettel, but you wouldn’t begrudge Kovalainen the second position.
It really was a year of excellent rookie performances! Kovalainen came within a whisker of beating Tiago Monteiro’s record of most rookie race finishes in a row. Kovalainen finished every single race of the season bar Brazil, so the record — finishing his first sixteen races in a row — must be shared with Monteiro.
It is difficult to believe that Kovalainen is still uncertain to get a drive next season. He is undoubtedly talented, but it looks as though only McLaren would be willing to hire him next season — but would they want two relatively inexperienced drivers? Renault are too busy trying to woo Alonso, and reading between the lines it seems as though Kovalainen does not want to be team mates with Alonso.
5 — Felipe Massa
I still find it difficult to understand where Felipe Massa is at. He does have the ability to pull the rabbit out of the hat. He is a proven race winner, a deserved race winner indeed. And let us not forget that for the majority of the season he was McLaren’s closest rival in the Championship.
It is possible to say that the only reason he fell behind Räikkönen was because of an unlucky patch where the team messed up his qualifying chance in Hungary and a DNF in Italy due to suspension troubles. For a long time, Felipe Massa was being seriously considered as a potential World Champion.
But Massa yet again revealed himself to be far from the complete driver. He was made to look rather silly by Lewis Hamilton at Sepang. And his performance in the changeable conditions at the Nürburgring was embarrassingly bad.
You could also say that the only reason Massa was able to seize the initiative in the first place was due to the teething problems Räikkönen had at the beginning of the season. Two of his three wins were during this phase.
A lot of people were astonished that Felipe Massa had managed to extended his contract with Ferrari until 2010. I have heard that the tifosi prefer Massa to Räikkönen, but I cannot fathom why. Massa is just the sort of driver who I’d imagine would struggle without traction control, so next year will be very interesting indeed.
4 — Nick Heidfeld
It is amazing to think that a few years ago Quick Nick was almost finished in F1 terms. His lifeline came in the form of the Jordan team, which was by then deep into a trough. He impressed enough in that dire car for Williams to pick him up, and ever since he been associated with BMW.
Those years of perseverance have really paid off as he is now in a great car, with a team on the ascendancy and he has comfortably outperformed his head-turning team mate, Kubica. Who would have thought back in 2004 that Nick Heidfeld would ever rake in a points haul of 61? This is about twenty times what he got at Jordan!
Heidfeld had a slew of excellent results. He finished fourth five times, but he also scored two podiums. One was an impressive drive at Hungary where he fended off the threat from Fernando Alonso. Indeed, in Bahrain he made an amazing pass on the outside of Alonso. But he went one better at Canada to finish second in that hectic race. Nick Heidfeld comfortably established himself as the ‘best of the rest’.
3 — Lewis Hamilton
Undoubtedly the surprise of the year. Even those who raved about Hamilton’s GP2 performances were flabbergasted at just how well he was able to cope this season.
For me, his trademark is his audacious overtaking manoeuvres. At the start of the year his lightning starts were fearless as he made his way round the Alonsos and Räikkönens of this world as though they were little kids. Rivals ran wide as Hamilton drove the corners as though he were in a slot car. He psyched out Felipe Massa in Malaysia. He surprised Räikkönen at Monza with perhaps the move of the year.
Some have criticised Hamilton for being over-ambitious when overtaking. His move on Barrichello at Brazil, for instance, was derided as dangerous and stupid. But part of the art of overtaking is trying to work out if the other guy is risk-averse enough to get out of your way. If Hamilton had tried the same move on, say, Nakajima, it would be a legitimate criticism. But you have to look at the situation and say that Hamilton’s audacious overtaking moves have never yet resulted in an accident.
Lewis Hamilton’s other major strong point is his qualifying, particularly towards the end of the season. I could scarcely believe some of the lap times he managed to put in. Alonso was definitely put in the shade several times by Hamilton this season.
However, there is the bad side of Hamilton’s driving. He took several questionable actions throughout the season. His driving behind the Safety Car in Fuji was widely criticised, and was a contributory factor in the famous smash between Webber and Vettel. The employment of a crane to get his European Grand Prix going again was arguably illegal.
But his lowest moment came during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. His refusal to follow team orders and give Alonso his legitimate chance during qualifying (as per internal McLaren rules) set off a chain of events that essentially resulted in the breakdown of the relationship between Alonso and the rest of the McLaren team. Most sickeningly, the whole situation subsequently worked in Hamilton’s favour, so he felt no real punishment for his actions.
On track, too, Hamilton disappointed at the end of the season. To lose a 17 point lead in just two races when there were no mechanical problems, in a car as fast as the McLaren, just beggars belief. Hamilton’s cool head impressed at the start of the season, but clearly by the end the pressure was just too much for him.
Many will point out the fact that McLaren should not have left Hamilton out on shot tyres for so long at Shanghai. This is true, but it also ignores some important points. First of all, Hamilton was the only driver whose tyres were so badly worn out in the first place. This was due to his impatient start and his desperation to win at all costs (when he only needed fourth). Secondly, if Hamilton knew he needed new tyres he could have just pitted anyway (we all know how Hamilton likes to ignore team orders anyway!). Thirdly, it was Hamilton’s fault for entering the pits too quickly and spinning off.
Some also ask why McLaren put Hamilton on a three-stop strategy in Brazil. But the reality is that Hamilton blew his chances himself by going on the grass on the first lap. Once again, this was down to his impatience, and a desperation to take a position that he simply did not need to take.
Even leaving aside the question of whether or not Hamilton pressed the wrong button on the steering wheel, his chances were blown at that moment on the first lap. Even after that, his entire Brazilian Grand Prix performance was, in my view, quite nervy.
Overall, I would define Hamilton’s style this year as ‘impatient’. Sometimes this has worked to his advantage, as it did with his great overtaking manoeuvres at the start of the season. Sometimes it worked against him, as it did in China and Brazil. To become World Champion, Hamilton needs time to mature a bit in this respect. Perhaps he will tone down the exciting nature of his driving in order to do this.
2 — Fernando Alonso
Off the track, 2007 was a bit of a nightmare for Fernando Alonso. Even on the track it was quite bad, as his rookie team mate got the better of him on several occasions.
However, overall, Alonso’s performances were more consistent and demonstrated his extra experience. He had a few bad races. In Bahrain he was unable to fend off Nick Heidfeld, although seemingly Alonso’s car was damaged in transit, compromising grip levels. In Canada he was overtaken by Takuma Sato of all people (although Alonso was disadvantaged badly by the new Safety Car rules).
Alonso was also unusually off colour at Fuji. He spun off in the wet. It was a far cry from the Alonso we saw at Hungary in 2006.
By the end of the year it seemed clear that Alonso did not particularly want to win the Championship with McLaren. This was most obvious in Brazil. So we won’t know what he was capable of.
This year has damaged Alonso’s reputation because of certain off-track events. But on the track, Fernando Alonso is still, for my money, the best driver on the grid. However, this year he was outperformed by one driver in particular.
1 — Kimi Räikkönen
When Kimi Räikkönen burst onto the scene in 2001, who would have thought it would have taken him eight season to win his first World Championship? Räikkönen is the most experienced first time World Champion since Nigel Mansell. The debate will rage on about whether Räikkönen was unlucky with reliability at McLaren or he is a ‘car breaker’.
There are also constant question marks and innuendos about Räikkönen’s commitment to winning the World Championship and off-track antics of a different sort to what Alonso got up to. Let us not forget, though, that Räikkönen came unbearably close to winning the World Championship twice when he was at McLaren. So Räikkönen’s ability and willpower can not be in doubt.
A lot of people love Räikkönen for his cool attitude. He doesn’t give a hoot. He just gets in the car and drives the wheels off it. Meanwhile, he likes to have fun off the track. He is the closest contemporary racing drivers get to the ‘playboy’ model of the stereotypical 1970s grand prix driver.
But on race weekend his approach is laid back, not reckless. At Brazil in 2006 he famously told Martin Brundle that he couldn’t be bothered watching Pelé present Michael Schumacher with a special trophy because he was taking a shit. You really can’t get much more relaxed than that, and I’m sure he was every bit as relaxed at this year’s Brazilian Grand Prix.
In this context, it is easy to see how Räikkönen just capitalised on the spat between Hamilton and Alonso. Räikkönen was not being put off, so he just drove ahead of them, pulled back a 17 point deficit and waved goodbye to the McLarens. Brilliant.
Räikkönen has the right attitude, and when he gets in the car nothing deters him. He won six races this year, more than anyone else.
However, even Räikkönen’s season was not perfect. He had a very bad patch at the beginning of the season. The blame was put on the transition to Bridgestones and the new Ferrari car, although if this was the case then it doesn’t explain why he won so easily at the very first race in Australia.
Luca di Montezemolo had to give Räikkönen a kick up the arse via the press. It worked — and from the French Grand Prix onwards it is impossible to find fault in Räikkönen’s season. A well-deserved Championship win.