Archive: Suzuka

Sebastian Vettel foam finger

That’s what I’m talking about. My index finger is extended in honour.

Suzuka is a proper place to become a World Champion.

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

The legacy of refuelling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to re-introduce strategy while keeping purists happy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aerodynamics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The points system

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

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

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

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

The circuits

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

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

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

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

And the McLaren team principal said:

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

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

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

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

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

What else is Bernie to blame for?

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

I must confess to being rather perplexed by Toyota’s stance in the driver market over the past couple of months. It may be correct that neither Jarno Trulli nor Timo Glock have the potential to truly set the world alight. But neither are they complete disasters. In fact, they are both rather competent.

Even though he has a tendency to fade away during races, Trulli is very quick over one lap and brings with him a wealth of experience that very few alternative drivers would be able to offer. He has also had a couple of highly impressive results this year, including an convincing 2nd place in Japan. But, fair enough, he’s a poor racer, so I could understand Toyota ditching Trulli in favour of another experienced driver or an exciting young talent.

But to, at the same time, appear to be absolutely desperate to also get rid of Timo Glock seems absolutely bonkers to me. Glock’s real talent remains to be seen. He has never won a race, and he tends to qualify poorly — but often races extraordinarily well. In this sense, he is almost a mirror-image of Trulli.

It is worth remembering, though, that Glock is still relatively young and therefore has a lot of potential to improve. I thought his 2nd place finish in Singapore was a hugely promising sign, in addition to some other impressive performances this season.

Yet, Toyota appear to be totally nonchalant about his potential, even on the back of that result in Singapore. Ever since then, they have contrived to replace him with Kamui Kobayashi, a Japanese Toyota protégé but an unknown quantity. He supposedly had a cold in Japan, so was replaced during Friday Practice at Suzuka. But no-one saw that Glock had much of a sniffle.

Then, since his qualifying crash the following day, he has been forced to sit out as a result of “cracked vertebrae”. But eyebrows are raised as Glock happily walks around the place. Phantom colds and injuries — it is almost as though Toyota’s doctor has been slipped a tenner to fabricate reasons for Glock to sit out the rest of the season.

Of course, Glock’s impact was mighty hefty, so he could well be injured and sitting out as a precaution. But it is very convenient that it should open the door for precisely what Toyota appear to have wanted, which was to put Kobayashi in the car ASAP.

Toyota have been in a strange position during this year’s Silly Season. They have been positioning themselves rather oddly. Experienced journalists are reading between the lines and saying that it’s because they will not be in F1 next year, despite having committed until 2012 by signing the Concorde Agreement. This is further underlined by the fact that Williams’s engine deal with Toyota has been terminated a year early.

Joe Saward has an excellent post today analysing the situation. Toyota leaving F1 is the worst-case scenario. The best-case scenario seems to be having a reduced budget next season. Since at least September, there has been talk of the Toyota F1 team having a massively slashed budget for next season.

For a number of months, Toyota boss John Howett has been talking down the chances of Jarno Trulli racing for the team next season. The claim is that Trulli is asking for too much money.

Why a team that is so low on money would go on to court Kimi Räikkönen of all people remains to be explained. Räikkönen has openly scoffed at the offer, by ruling out every team bar McLaren as a destination for next season. Quite right too. Räikkönen would be better off driving a bus than driving a Toyota F1 car.

No doubt Räikkönen is a better driver than Jarno Trulli or Timo Glock. Despite question marks over his motivation, at least Räikkönen has proved that he can do it. But let us face it — Toyota are living in a dream world if they think they can attract a driver of Kimi’s calibre for a cut-down price.

I was flabbergasted to read what John Howett had to say about his current drivers, who I think have done a good enough job this season:

We like Timo very much, he did a great job, but still we have a car that is more regularly capable of being on the podium and much closer to the top this year. We are not delivering, and there are things beyond the team and the chassis itself.

It is not difficult to decode Howett’s message. Don’t blame the car, blame the drivers. That is despite the fact that Toyota — in their eight seasons in Formula 1 — have never even looked close to having a car capable of winning an F1 race.

I also think that it is a bit rich of Toyota to complain about its drivers. They have always behaved a bit strangely when it came to their drivers. This is the team that did away with the promising partnership of Mika Salo and Allan McNish after just one season, for no good reason. This is the team whose most sophisticated driver choice was to hire a boy called Ralf then parade around the place saying “Schumacher drives for us!”, which at least pleased the marketing men.

Jarno Trulli is rightly miffed about John Howett’s stance.

Now I don’t know whether Toyota really wants to retain me or not. And with someone trying to denigrate me through the press… I’ve read many incorrect things about me. I haven’t spoken with the team about my contract for at least two months. So, either someone is playing dirty or maybe this person has been misquoted. But I keep calm and good.

Meanwhile, while Timo Glock has been lying in his “sick bed”, negotiations with Toyota for a drive next season are said to have completely collapsed.

So what are Toyota playing at? Do they seriously believe that replacing known quantities such as Trulli and Glock with the likes of Kobayashi, Nakajima or Sutil will pave the way for a more successful future? If so, I am sure they are the only ones in the world who believe it.

If Joe Saward is right, and this is all a final desperate attempt for the Toyota F1 employees to keep the gravy train running, they are surely only ensuring a bigger death a year or two down the line.

If Toyota leave, good riddance I say. Throughout their entire existence, I have found them to be easily the least likeable team on the grid by a long shot. Their behaviour this season has only further underlined my impression that Toyota is an entity that has no place in F1 and wouldn’t succeed in a million years.

I love the Brazilian Grand Prix. It is a unique circuit — not only anti-clockwise, but uniquely short in the same way you might think of Spa-Francorchamps as being uniquely long.

It is also special because it has now comprehensively replaced Suzuka as the proper place to settle a World Championship, particularly due to its useful time slot. It is on prime time on European television. That is another unique aspect of Brazil, due to the lack of North American races this year.

So it was most fitting that Jenson Button managed to seal the deal in Interlagos, even when it seemed further out of his grasp than ever. A disastrous qualifying session sent us off the scent. The only saving grace was that Vettel’s was almost as bad. But his main rival Barrichello was on pole at his home race.

Unfortunately for Barrichello, he never gets any good luck at Interlagos, even when he is doing well. I will never forget the tragedy of his car breaking down in 1999 while he looked like he could win the race driving for Stewart. His bad luck struck again.

After a strong first stint which he led with relatively little challenge, he somehow managed to lose the plot by failing to push hard enough at the start of his second stint, handing the lead to Mark Webber. Later in the race came his tangle with Lewis Hamilton, which resulted in a puncture for Barrichello.

(Apparently Lewis Hamilton can’t go to Interlagos without having an eventful time. Hats off to him for ploughing his way up to a 3rd place finish from 17th on the grid.)

In normal circumstances, therefore, we would normally be talking about Mark Webber’s fabulous win. And Pink Peril was right to point it out in the comments to my previous article. Mark Webber did a great job — the one person who managed to do well in both qualifying and the race.

He certainly had a better weekend than the Red Bull driver who needed it, Vettel. It was suspected that Red Bull would do well thanks to the “testing” Webber was able to do at Suzuka. Sadly we didn’t see much of Webber’s race because the television cameras were more focussed on the Championship protagonists.

As for the Championship winner, Jenson Button, I would say he had the race of his season — possibly even the race of his life. It really is as though his bad qualifying performance gave him the kick up the backside he needed. I read one story today which said that after his poor qualifying, he texted his mum to say, “Don’t worry mum, we’re going to kick some butt.” She replied, “Good, go and kick some butt.”

It was as though a barrier had been passed. Button was no longer defending his lead, as he had been since the start of the season. The tide had turned so far that he now had to attack to win. And attack he did!

His aggressive and ballsy driving was captivating to watch. He was already 9th by the end of lap one. Once the Safety Car period was over, he was ready to line up Romain Grosjean, and in the process took a risk by going round the outside. I thought Grosjean did a solid job when racing side-by-side for two or three corners against Button. Button put a lot of faith in the inexperienced Grosjean not to do something silly. But both came out of the fight looking good.

Within a lap, Button got past Kazuki Nakajima in a rather risky move at the Senna S. Several laps later, also into the Senna S, he finally got past Kamui Kobayashi who was in his first race. After that, as the pitstop strategies shook out, Button found himself looking good.

There has been some criticism of Kobayashi’s driving, particularly weaving in the braking zones. Certainly he pushed it too far later on in the race when he was involved in a high-speed accident with Nakajima. But his defensive driving against Button impressed me and suggests that Kobayashi has promise, even though he wasn’t particularly good in GP2 (like Nakajima).

While there was some decent racing going on for most of the race, the majority of the action came on the first lap which was rather crazy. My theory is that they just decided to do a Wacky Races thing because it was on prime time.

First there was the accident which brought an end to the races of Adrian Sutil, Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso. Alonso was so placid about it that the BBC’s commentators did not even notice him at first. He just trudged nonchalantly into his lift. I sense that he really has just been going through the motions, awaiting his big chance in a red car before exerting himself once again.

Little wonder Alonso went by unnoticed, because Jarno Trulli was running up to Sutil and gesticulated in quite a threatening manner. I am struggling to remember the last time I saw a driver so angry. It looked like it was going to turn into this sort of moment!

I am struggling to see what Trulli was so worked up about. Maybe Sutil could have left Trulli some more room, but I think Trulli was optimistic trying to overtake him there anyway. And it is not as if Sutil drove into Trulli. In fact, before Trulli loses control of his car you can see Sutil clearly make an attempt to steer away from Trulli to give him more space.

It was a racing incident in my book. But the accident that resulted was quite a high-speed one, which I guess is why Trulli was so rattled.

Then there was the pitlane fire, when Heikki Kovalainen drove off with the fuel hose still attached. It wasn’t Kovalainen’s fault — he was instructed to leave, but the fuel hose was still attached.

I really am confused as to why we get so many more of these incidents these days. I can’t remember ever seeing a driver leaving with his fuel hose still attached until Jenson Button did it at Imola in 2006. Since then there have been several, from Christijan Albers (who was effectively sacked for it), to Massa in Singapore last year and Alguersuari in Singapore this year, to Kovalainen now. And I’m sure there are one or two more that have slipped my mind.

The increasing frequency of these incidents is quite alarming, particularly when so much attention was given to Ferrari’s pit lane incidents in 2008. Surely teams and drivers must be more aware than ever of the possibility, and it is just bizarre that it keeps on happening over and over again now.

Massive, massive kudos to Kimi Räikkönen for driving through the fire which resulted from Kovalainen’s premature pit box exit. The fuel was more or less being sprayed into his face, and flames briefly exploded all around him. Yet he kept his foot down and kept driving.

After the race, he said his eyes were still burning! Yet he plodded on. As far as I’m concerned he could have been blinded by that sort of thing. He must have huge balls. And people say he doesn’t have motivation.

One last thing to mention — Robert Kubica. He finished 2nd, his best result of the season, after starting 8th. He had a great restart when the Safety Car pulled in — he was right on top of Nico Rosberg and passed as soon as he could. I am sorry that Kubica has not been able to show more of his talent this year. I hope Renault can build him the car he deserves.

Next we head to the brand new circuit in Abu Dhabi. The last time the Championship was decided before the final race of the season was in 2005. Then we were treated to one of the best Grands Prix there has ever been, the breathtaking 2005 Japanese Grand Prix. Maybe the same end-of-term atmosphere can spice up Abu Dhabi, which aside from the gimmicky pitlane exit looks like it will be another bland Tilke operation.

This won’t take long.

First of all, it is worth pointing out just how awesome Sebastian Vettel was at Suzuka. At this “drivers’ circuit” which suited the Red Bull car down to the ground, Vettel was untouchable.

An error meant that instead of the normal on board channel, the BBC broadcast the on board camera of Vettel only for a large part of the race. Although this meant being unable to see any other cars on board, it provided an opportunity to watch an up-and-coming master at work. I can tell you he was definitely pushing hard, and to my mind he almost lost his car at Degner 2 twice. And they are only the moments I saw.

Vettel’s awe-inspiring dominance was in stark contrast to the other three Red Bull drivers in a weekend that promised so much. Even the Toro Rosso, which has been at the back for almost all of the season, looked like it had awesome pace. Unfortunately, its two rookie drivers both made a bit of a hash of things multiple times each throughout the weekend, meaning the potential came to nothing.

Webber also had a tough weekend after a big crash in Saturday Practice which left him with no car to qualify with. Having started from the pitlane, he then suffered a litany of problems forcing him to pit three times in quick succession. As a result, the race ended with one Red Bull dominating, and the three others footing the result sheet.

Beyond that, there is not much to say about the race. Jarno Trulli did a good job, which he does once or twice a year. But it’s not the sort of thing that would impress me enough to hire him. Maybe the new Lotus team will think differently.

For my money, the best action of the race came from Heikki Kovalainen. Firstly, there was his tangle with Adrian Sutil which appears to have divided opinion. I think it was a racing incident — Sutil was probably too optimistic to go for it, but Kovalainen was probably too eager to close the door abruptly having left it wide open in the first place.

But if that was a bad move from Kovalainen, he more than made it up with his gutsy and opportunistic overtaking manoeuvre on Giancarlo Fisichella while they were both coming out of the pits. I let out a yelp and probably woke up half the street at that time of the morning, as I thought it was going to end up as a huge accident. In the end, it turned out well for Kovalainen and I was left impressed. It is the only ballsy thing I can ever remember him doing. But it’s probably too late to save his career at an established team.

It says a lot about the state of F1 at the moment that the biggest talking point of the weekend was the way penalties were dealt with. Eight drivers were penalised after qualifying. Most were for ignoring yellow flags after Sébastien Buemi’s accident, another was for blocking and others changed gearboxes and chassis.

This left the entire world scratching its head as to what the actual grid might be. Apparently several permutations were doing the rounds, while the FIA decided to sleep on it and published the grid just hours before the race began. Seemingly this is not a case of the Random Penalty Generator — it all seems above board, with the grid having been determined as it should be by the letter of the law. But clearly this is a system that fails the fans. We watch qualifying to find out what the starting grid will be, only to tune into the race finding that the stewards have changed it.

Then there is the case of the investigation into Nico Rosberg failing to observe the lap delta times under Safety Car conditions. It transpires that Rosberg was unable to know what his target time was because the message was overridden by a low fuel message from the standard ECU. Given that McLaren Electronic Systems designed the ECU, my first thought was that this was a particularly elaborate way of penalising McLaren for the incident.

In all seriousness though, this just sums up how Formula 1 has been swallowed up by an officious governing body more interested in rules than racing. The Safety Car rules have become so ridiculously complex in the past few years, mirroring the crisis that hit qualifying a few years ago when several formats were tried out in quick succession.

I suspected that Nico Rosberg knew he was guilty of driving too quickly under Safety Car conditions when he conducted an evasive interview on the BBC after the race. When questioned, he would only say that he didn’t gain an advantage. When asked if he was within the rules, he only said “I definitely did what I should do”.

As it transpires, he probably had good reason to be coy given that it seems as though he simply did not have the information that should have been displayed, even if it meant he technically broke the rules. In that light, it is fair to let Rosberg off on this instance, but he shouldn’t even have been in this position in the first place.

Now we are left with the tantalising prospect of Sebastian Vettel making a Räikkönen-esque comeback. James Allen says that a mental block has been passed, with Vettel now within 16 points of Button with two races to go. That is closer than Räikkönen was with two races to go in 2007.

It still seems like a long shot, but if the momentum is going anywhere it is not towards Button. All of a sudden, the pressure looks like it’s all on Jenson Button.

There is not a great deal to say about the racing at the Marina Bay Street Circuit this weekend. With the novelty of the night race concept having worn off, Singapore’s street circuit revealed itself to be on a par with Valencia’s in terms of on-track boredom.

That is not to say there aren’t a few talking points. Even though the race was quite insipid in many ways, there is little insipid about the podium. Lewis Hamilton put in a solid, though uneventful, performance to take a well-deserved second win of the season.

But I was most interested to watch the interview with his team mate, Heikki Kovalainen, after the race. Amid the latest rumours that Kimi Räikkönen is heading back to McLaren, Kovalainen is on the back foot. He needs to put in better performances in order to prove to McLaren and other teams that he deserves to be employed. But his demeanour after the race said it all — he sounded like a driver who realised he had been found out. 7th isn’t really good enough when the car is capable of winning.

Full credit must go to Timo Glock for finishing second. It is true that he largely inherited this position as a result of the woes of drivers in front: drive-through penalties for Rosberg and Vettel, and brake failure for Webber. But he was there to capitalise, having done well to qualify sixth when quite frankly to my eyes the car looked horrible on Friday. His team-mate Trulli, meanwhile, finished a lowly 12th.

Fernando Alonso obviously likes the circuit and scored the best result of the season at the same point where Renault’s fortunes turned last year. The Renault hasn’t looked capable of finishing on the podium all season. And Alonso has seemed strangely off-key to me this year. But he did it this time round, and caused a stir by dedicating his podium finish to Flavio Briatore. Some are interpreting it as a parting shot; others the human reaction of a man who has lost the boss who helped make him successful.

Whatever, it seems increasingly clear that his move to Ferrari for 2010 has been secured, with the rumour mill frantically suggesting that an announcement will come at Suzuka this coming weekend. Perhaps that is the reason why Alonso’s fire in the belly has returned to allow him to finish third.

Then we come to the title protagonists. Red Bull had another nightmare weekend which has pretty much hammered the last nail into the coffin for their championship hopes. All four Red Bull cars seemed to be suffering from brake issues, with such a failure making Webber’s race end in the barrier. Vettel could have had a much better result were it not for a drive-through for speeding in the pitlane, something which Vettel is adamant he has not done. In that context, fourth is a pretty impressive result for him.

As for Brawn, they salvaged something from what threatened to be a disaster. It seemed to be an up and down weekend for them. They seemed happy on Friday, but Button began complaining vociferously during Saturday Practice. Then both Brawns struggled in Qualifying, culminating in Barrichello’s session-ending crash. Ross Brawn declared qualifying to be disastrous.

As it was, they put in an okay performance during the race to finish 5th and 6th. Most importantly, Brawn have practically sealed up the Constructors’ Championship.

Meanwhile, Jenson Button has extended his Drivers’ Championship lead for the first time since Turkey. He edged further ahead of Barrichello by just one point, but with just three races to go, it looks like a tall order if anyone is to overhaul Button’s 15 point lead.

Maybe that makes the Championship boring now, which is perhaps why my eyes glazed over during that period in the middle of the race when nothing seemed to be happening. It has been an interesting season, but not an exciting one. Fair enough — we have had plenty of exciting seasons over the past few years and were perhaps overdue a dodgy one.

I am very much looking forward to the next race at Suzuka though. F1 finally returns to this classic circuit after three years, and it will surely provide a better class of show than the gimmicky Marina Bay circuit.

Just a final word about Adrian Sutil. What a chump. Fair play to him for trying to overtake someone, but his was a foul-up of Coulthard-esque proportions. Indeed, the entire incident was reminiscent of Coulthard’s attempt to overtake at Valencia last year.

But from my perspective, Sutil’s attempted move on Alguersuari was never on in a month of Sundays, and his determination to keep the throttle floored while in a spin was a stupid move when there was oncoming traffic. You have to feel sorry for Nick Heidfeld, who had his amazing run of consecutive finishes brought to a cruel end by a driver who should know better. Sutil’s $20,000 fine seems hefty, but I don’t feel much sympathy.

Who is the most controversial man in F1? Is it Bernie Ecclestone with his bizarre comments about Hitler and Jewish black female drivers? Is it Max Mosley with his political posturing and Nazi German prisoner themed sex orgies? Nope — it’s Michael Schumacher.

When it was announced that Michael Schumacher was preparing to replace Felipe Massa at Ferrari while the Brazilian convalesces, the great ideological gulf among F1 fans suddenly re-emerged. I can’t remember seeing such strong reactions on any issue about any subject, let alone F1.

For some people, Michael Schumacher might as well be Jesus. You could produce video evidence of him killing a kitten and he would still be the greatest man on earth. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t appreciate genius when they see it?

For others, there is nothing that can redeem Michael Schumacher. He is a serial cheat whose team-mates were all hamstrung and whose seven World Drivers’ Championships are among the least deserving ever awarded. You must surely see that he is the most evil man on earth?

My view is slightly more nuanced. He was a bit of both. His record speaks for itself, and he must take credit especially for his ability to build a team around him. But I hated the way he went about racing.

The Edge of Greatness cover Incidentally, for a fair-minded assessment of Michael Schumacher, I highly recommend James Allen’s book, The Edge of Greatness. I always thought James Allen as a commentator was too biased in favour of Schumacher, but his book displays a very measured and nuanced assessment of his qualities as a driver, and his failings as a sportsperson.

I must come straight out and say that I have never been a fan of Michael Schumacher. Never. And for me, his talent was tainted by his tendency to bend the rules whenever he had the slightest opportunity.

I don’t even rate him much as a racer. For me, his wheel-to-wheel skills were rather poor, and he disguised this by being overly aggressive. That was why he often panicked under pressure, such as at Jerez in 1997. If he found himself in the midfield, he sometimes had very clumsy races indeed — his botched move on Takuma Sato at Suzuka in 2003 springs to mind.

Schumacher was famous for relying on Ross Brawn strategies to “overtake in the pitlane” rather than try to make a genuine overtaking move. I highly doubt that Schumacher would have won as many Championships if refuelling wasn’t legal. I won’t lie: 2000–2004 were my least favourite years of watching F1 since I first fell in love with the sport in the mid-1990s.

Since Schumacher left F1 I do feel as though I have started to enjoy F1 a lot more. Even though some of the drivers are not perfect in terms of their adherence to the rules or their spirit of fair competition, it feels a lot less like a dark cloud such as Rascassegate will come rumbling over the hills at any moment.

Now, of course, he is back in F1 and it has changed again. It amuses me greatly that even weeks before his first grand prix back is due to start, he already sought ways to cheat, to unfairly gain an advantage over his competitors. It says it all about him in one action.

Williams are not my favourite team either, but they were totally right to block this blatant infringement of the rules. Just a couple of weeks before, Toro Rosso’s new driver Jaime Alguersuari was refused a similar request, and he did a perfectly adequate job. Quite why a supposedly great 7 times World Champion needs to practice so much is not clear to me.

Ferrari’s enormously arrogant statement in retaliation against the blocked request sums up why I can’t stand the team so much. Apparently they think the red rule should still exist. What happened to that spirit of cooperation they were supposedly so keen on? I guess now that the Concorde Agreement is signed, cordial relations are not so important any more.

It is clear that the testing rules need amending. I have been saying so for a long time now. But until a new set of rules are agreed upon, everyone needs to adhere to them, otherwise you may as well just rip the rulebook up (some would argue Ferrari have ripped up the rulebook and written their own anyway).

This is all a sign that Michael Schumacher does not intend to simply go through the motions. I had wondered quite what was in this comeback for Schumacher. I saw easily why Ferrari were interested. But what could possibly have motivated Schumacher?

After all, he potentially has so much to lose. With his wife and kids — and we know his wife is concerned because he says he has made an “arrangement” with her that health is the top priority — he surely doesn’t want to be doing something so dangerous. He cannot possibly need the money, and he certainly doesn’t have anything else to prove (unless he wants somehow to prove that he can be a good sportsperson, but that opportunity has already been shot).

He also risks being embarrassed because of his waning ability. At 40, he is the oldest driver to compete in F1 since Nigel Mansell in 1995, and let us not forget that Mansell’s last period as an F1 driver was not exactly a roaring success. And after two and a half years out of competitive grand prix racing, there is every chance that he will be rusty during his forthcoming races.

But now we know what motivates him — it is his sheer, ruthless competitiveness. He may have initially agreed out of “loyalty” to Ferrari, but once he’s a driver again he is up to the same old tricks, looking for the slightest advantage wherever it may come from.

Of course, many would say that this is what sets him apart from everyone else.

As well as David Coulthard’s career, the Brazilian Grand Prix brought down the curtain on another fixture of Formula 1 life. ITV broadcast their last grand prix before Formula 1 moves back to the BBC for 2009 onwards.

ITV’s first race was way back in 1997, the Australian Grand Prix. “Do not adjust your sets,” said anchor Jim Rosenthal. “This is Formula 1 on ITV.” My recollection is hazy. I was just 10 at the time. I had begun watching Formula 1 in 1995 or 1996, right at the tail end of the BBC’s F1 coverage.

Up until that point, Formula 1 was only ever shown on the BBC and in a lot of ways it was unthinkable for the sport to move over to commercial television. The first BBC Grand Prix was broadcast in 1976 — on a circuit that, albeit radically altered, is still used by F1 today: Fuji.

Their last grand prix was also in Japan, at Suzuka in 1996. For the occasion, they put together a package that really highlighted just how much of the history of Formula 1 — both good and bad — the BBC had brought to British homes over the years.

At the time, the downside of Formula 1 moving to ITV was obvious: the constant commercial breaks. This was a sad reality of Formula 1 coverage on ITV, and there was no use in complaining about it. For as long as F1 was on ITV, it was going to be interrupted by adverts.

That doesn’t make the pill any less bitter though. It has been estimated by Keith Collantine that over the course of its 206 grands prix, ITV took enough commercial breaks to miss 31 races’ worth of action — almost two entire seasons. The number of important events that ITV missed are almost too countless to mention. Lewis Hamilton’s gearbox failure in Brazil 2007, Michael Schumacher’s engine blowing in Suzuka 2006 and the infamous incident when ITV interrupted an intense battle between Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher in the final few laps at Imola 2005 are just a few examples from recent years.

Once, ITV even opted not to show the United States Grand Prix live on ITV1, shifting it to the digital-only ITV2. This was in the pre-Freeview era, at a time when digital television viewers were very much in a minority. The decision to leave F1 fans in the lurch like this was a real slap in the face. Thankfully, ITV never repeated this stunt with any other race, although a good few qualifying sessions have been shown on digital-only channels over the years.

The adverts were not the only issue people had with ITV’s coverage. The obsession with Lewis Hamilton was almost suffocating. Their previous fixation with Jenson Button was more muted, but more ridiculous since Button was not even a fraction as good as Hamilton.

Other elements of the ‘pre-race show’ were also criticised for their light nature. Cooking with Heikki Kovalainen, anyone? Then there were the countless tedious reports about “glamorous” events.

The commentary has been another focal point for criticism. James Allen is a good writer (I’m a big fan of his book about Michael Schumacher, The Edge of Greatness). He was also good as a pitlane reporter. However, his commentary grated with many, including me.

There is no doubt that it is a tough job, and some of the sheer vitriol that was written about James Allen by some people was not justified. But I never understood why ITV did not give another commentator (such a Ben Edwards) a chance given that the unpopularity of James Allen was so widespread.

Then there is Ted Kravitz, who is an excellent journalist. But too often he got over-excited in the heat of the moment and sometimes regressed into stating the obvious. He was never too far from saying something like, “They’re putting on some new tyres. And, is that?… YES, some fuel is going in as well.” It is fair to say that when Murray Walker retired, the quality of ITV’s coverage took a step backward.

ITV’s coverage was not all bad though. There is no doubt that Formula 1 coverage in the UK has come on leaps and bounds since ITV gained the rights in 1997. It is worth remembering that the BBC did not even show qualifying often until its last few years of coverage. In this respect, ITV has fewer blots on its copybook, although I don’t doubt that the BBC would have moved in a similar direction. After all, broadcasting in general has changed a lot over the past twelve years.

In its final moments, I felt that ITV were pretty open about the shortfalls of their coverage. Steve Rider wrapped up the highlights of the Brazilian Grand Prix saying, “no more awkward commercial breaks”. I can only imagine the embarrassment that the producers must have felt whenever something important happened during a commercial break.

James Allen has also responded to his critics, saying:

I was always pretty confident that when Murray decided to retire I would get the gig, but never anything less than utterly self-critical and seeking to improve with every race and every year, which I think I’ve done.

It’s a very difficult and high-pressure job, because with 20 cars there are 20 different points of focus…

Of course there are many people at home in their armchairs who think they could do it better and one of the challenges for me was that I replaced Murray just as the internet opened up to allow everyone to have their say in chat rooms and forums.

But I know from market research and viewer feedback that the pros massively outnumber the vocal minority of cons.

Despite the criticisms though, I think overall ITV and North One can be proud of what they have done over the past twelve seasons. Tomorrow I will look at some of my memories from ITV’s coverage over the years.

Hello, my name is Max Mosley. Please will you take my bullshit survey? I will be able to twist it out of shape and use it as justification for my many ridiculous rule changes, such as making engines last for 200 years at a time and making drivers qualify whilst standing on their heads. I am sane.

Last time around, the respondents to the survey said that Suzuka and Spa-Francorchamps were the best circuits in Formula 1. Already Suzuka has been replaced by Fuji, and the future of Spa is uncertain (it has already been knocked out of this year’s calendar). As for improving overtaking, the only thing the FIA have come up with is a ridiculous diagram of a rear wing with a hole in the middle.

Still, feel free to take this year’s survey!

This year’s most ridiculous question: “Would you like to see more in-depth interviews with sponsors?” What? So that they can tell me even more bullshit than Max does?

What is really interesting is that they seem very interested in podcasts at the moment… No doubt if there is ever a Formula 1 podcast you will have to pay mega bucks for the privilege of listening to it.