Three mysterious drivers

At last I have finished my exams so I now have more time to post. There is a huge backlog of issues for me to get through, and I’m not sure if I’ll get through them all. I will attempt by condensing posts and including them as ‘mini posts’ in a series. These little sub-sections could have been posts in their own right had I had the time. This first of my catch-up posts looks at the trouble we have nailing down three front-running drivers.

The mystery of Kimi Räikkönen

Clive wrote a post last month revealing his “gnawing doubt” about Kimi Räikkönen.

Why does he throw it off the road so needlessly sometimes? Why has he not blown Massa into the weeds yet? Why does he look so determined at one race and then apathetic at the next? It is all very well blaming it on his enigmatic personality but that explains nothing. The fact is that he is completely unpredictable and it is probably this that makes me doubt him.

There’s no doubt that Räikkönen blows hot and cold. Just look at the first half of 2007 compared to the end of the season. At the start, Kimi was rather unspectacular — almost anonymous. But as the season finale drew closer he became hyper-motivated, more flawless and quicker. The fact that he overcame a 17 point deficit in the final two rounds just says it all.

But now he is looking a bit more average again. In Australia he seemingly couldn’t keep his concentration, spectacularly throwing it off the road needlessly a number of times. In Bahrain and Turkey, too, we saw little of his foot-to-the-floor attitude we saw towards the end of last season. Clive asks, “Must we admit that Massa is on a par with our hero?”

I think it’s a bit much to say that Räikkönen and Massa are on a par with each other. But unquestionably Räikkönen has not become the race-winning machine some people expected him to become five or six years ago.

My own theory is that Räikkönen is genuinely great. But we became too used to Michael Schumacher’s utter dominance. When he retired, we expected someone to immediately fill a Schumacher-sized gap. It doesn’t happen that way.

Schumacher was exceptional in that he was in close contention for the Championship in almost every year of his F1 career (1999 being an exception due to his broken leg, 2005, 1996 and 1993 due to abnormally inferior equipment). No-one before him can claim that level of dominance, and I see no reason to expect anyone after him to claim it either. Not for a long time, anyway.

The mystery of Felipe Massa

Ah, for the days before Bahrain. It was all so simple then. Massa can’t handle F1 without traction control and Ferrari are looking to replace him ASAP. Not so fast. In the subsequent three races the Brazilian has mounted an incredible fightback under extreme pressure. Dodgy drivers don’t score 28 points from 3 races.

But I’m not a convert. I still think Massa is a sub-par driver who certainly does not deserve a Ferrari seat — at least not with an “equal number one” status. As has been pointed out by plenty of people, this year’s calendar flatters Massa. Turkey has moved to an earlier slot, meaning that most of Massa’s favourite circuits are bunched together.

In fact, this year he has done worse than last year. Last year he won in Spain whereas he could only come second behind his team mate this year. In 2007, Massa scored 37 points at the five circuits where Massa has managed to score 28 this year.

Of the Massa-friendly tracks, only Interlagos remains. Given that it is at the end of the season, Massa will probably be well out of contention by then, and may have to give way to assist Räikkönen’s championship hopes.

Monaco comes next, and Massa’s record there is not so glittering — a sole third place from last year being his best result in the principality. I might find myself eating humble pie here, but I doubt it. It will be business as usual from this Sunday.

The mystery of Lewis Hamilton

The last time I wrote about Lewis Hamilton, it was on the back of a lacklustre Bahrain weekend. Since then he has mounted something of a fightback, with strong performances in Spain and Turkey. But the Turkish Grand Prix yet again brought to the fore that issue that Hamilton appears to have with tyre management.

After the race it was announced by Bridgestone that Lewis Hamilton’s tyres were found to be at risk of internal delamination. Therefore, for safety reasons, McLaren opted to put him on a three stop strategy, thereby minimising the amount of time spent on his tyres, particularly the softs.

I have to take my hat off to Lewis Hamilton for managing to make the best of a bad situation. There seems to be some confusion over the optimality of his strategy. Clive seems to think it was advantageous to be on a three-stopper, but I don’t understand his explanation. He says, “that the three-stop plan was the only way for [McLaren] to stay with the Ferraris and it had nothing to do with tires”. But the explanation for this, as Clive himself goes on to explain, has everything to do with tyres. And if it was the only way for McLaren to go, why was Kovalainen on a two stop strategy?

Mike Gascoyne on Maurice Hamilton’s Inside Line podcast said that the two and three stop strategies are actually equally optimal at Turkey according to the simulations. But if that is so it doesn’t explain why Hamilton was the only person in the entire field to opt for the three stop strategy. If they were really equal, would not more people try it out if only to try and overtake their rivals ‘in the pitlane’?

I conclude that if Hamilton’s tyres could withstand it, he would have gone for a two-stopper. So he had a compromised strategy in Turkey. In this context, Hamilton had a stormer of a race. Even if the three-stopper was his preferred strategy, it was a great fight between him and Massa. On live timing it looked captivating as the pair swapped green and purple sectors throughout the race. And on top of it there was even a genuine overtaking move for the lead!

So hats off for the performance. But is it time for Hamilton to get his act into gear when it comes to looking after his tyres? I have been saying this for a while now. All too often now, Hamilton has been thwarted by shot tyres. You can pretty much squarely blame his championship loss on his worn-out tyres.

The debate has been whether or not Bridgestone should cater for Hamilton’s more aggressive driving style. There is something to be said for this. However, Hamilton should really learn the limitations of his equipment and be able to drive on that limit without exceeding it. Is that not what motor racing is about? For a period of time Kimi Räikkönen became known as a car-breaker because his engine went pop a few times. I think a better case can be made for Hamilton being a tyre-ruiner.

We keep on hearing from a certain man who works for ITV that Lewis Hamilton is “Senna-esque”. Senna was known for being able to make dry tyres work in wet conditions. Hamilton is struggling to make dry tyres work in dry conditions. So until he masters this, I’d like to see less of the Senna comparisons.


  1. Ah, you have made clear to me why no-one seems to understand what I’m saying about Hamilton in Turkey. My point is entirely that, on the day, the three-stop strategy turned out to be quicker, against everyone’s expectations, including Hamilton’s. They had done their calculations and reached the conclusion that two stops was slightly quicker – so they all went for that.

    But Hamilton couldn’t – his tyre wear rate forced him to three stops. And it was entirely fortuitous that something, the weather, the track temperature (who knows?), made a nonsense of the predictions. It was enough of a change to swing the advantage towards the three-stop strategy. The proof is in what actually happened.

    A driver, apparently marginally slower at this track than his team mate, managed to keep pace with the Ferraris and even be quicker than them at times. Meanwhile the other McLaren was circulating a second slower, even when unhampered by traffic. The difference was weight – Hamilton ran most of the race considerably lighter than the other three cars and was as quick as the fastest of them. A McLaren on a two-stop, heavier strategy just wasn’t fast enough to have stayed with the Ferraris, let alone win the race.

    For Kovalainen or Whitmarsh to say that they could have won had there not been the slight clash with Raikkonen is pure wishful thinking. At the first corner, Massa and Hamilton were already through by the time Kimi and Heikki arrived. Without contact, Kovalainen could not have hoped to be higher than third by the end of the first lap. Since the Ferrari was obviously the quicker car when fuel loadings were the same, it is doubtful that Heikki could even have held on to that position; the best he could realistically hope for was fourth.

    But Hamilton claimed second. In reality.

    The tyres ceased to have any effect on the outcome once they’d forced Hamilton’s change to a three-stopper – they would last the race and he could hammer them as much as he liked. And it was luck that decided that, on that particular day, the three-stopper would prove to be the one to be on.

  2. Long time no see. It’s nice to read you again.

    Kimi=> I see his behaviour and I see a teenager in the body of an adult. This guy has real problems with his motivation and I can’t stop thinking that sometimes he is thinking more in the party after the GP than in the GP. His problem with his wife says it all also. It’s a shame, because he is fast, but a pilot is more than a fast driver.

    Massa=> He is a sub-par driver. However, he has responded very well to the attacks that he received in the beginning of the season. His proud and the circuits made it. Nevertheless, I don’t see him in the top three at the end of the season.

    Lewis=> His best race ever (according to him) was a second place in Turkey. I wonder if he is starting to realise his place in this circus. I am serious now, the best thing that can happen to him is moving to the artic far away from the British press. There he could concentrate on learning and polishing his driving. He is not ready to be the champion and I think that he doesn’t know that yet. He is a natural talent, and has the potential to become one of the greatest. But read carefully, potential is conditional, he needs to improve, otherwise he will drown in his own expectations. Comparing him, or any pilot nowadays, to Senna is insulting the memory of Ayrton. As simple as that.

  3. can you write up something similar on Webber and Coulthard ? 🙂

    With Kimi I have sometime the feeling that he does not do any more than what is needed. why winning all the races when 5-6 will still do the trick ? 🙂

    Massa – hm, Massa has created himself a bad image, an image of sub par driver, and short of winning the title there is not much he can do to get rid of it it seems … I would not say he is a sub par driver. I wold say he is a driver who has yet to prove he belongs to the top. A season like this one, unpredictable, with at least 6 cars able to regularly finish on podium and steal points from each, may be his chance… And when talking about Massa friendly tracks – last time around at Hockenheim Massa finished 2nd behind Schumacher.

  4. When three-stop strategies are equal to two stop strategies according to the simulator, it would make sense to go for the two-stopper. For while a simulation can take into account running in clear air very well, it is less capable of tracking where other cars are going to end up (which will generally be somewhere off the clear-air prediction because the simulation programmers cannot know ahead of time which drivers are going to get struck down with which types of misfortune). As a result, the more stops taken, the more risk there is of finding yourself stuck in a clump of traffic that the simulator could not predict. This would be a plausible reason why, even when Gascoyne said that two- and three-stop strategies were equal, that nearly everyone went for the two-stop option; because it is safer in practise.

    Raikkonen, I think, will always have a subtle consistency problem but his great drives are worth waiting for. The same, to some extent, applies to Massa (who by the way seems to thrive on the equal number one status – maybe that’s why Ferrari stuck with it this year?)

  5. Thanks for explaining Clive — I hadn’t thought about it that way.

    F1Wolf — There’s no mystery about Mark Webber for me. I’ve always thought he is a perfectly capable driver who was simply dogged by bad luck. It’s great to see him scoring so consistently this season. But I will mention them in my next post about the “one car teams”!

    Alianora — That’s a good point. I suppose also that extra pit stops are inherently risky because of the increased risk that something might go wrong — stalled engine, fuel rig problems, sticky wheel nuts, etc etc.

  6. It is possible that Hamilton’s pace in Turkey was only possible because of his technique and setup; had he gone easier enough to wear his tyres efficiently enough for a two-stop he may have finished behind the Ferraris, and could have been fighting his own teammate had Kovi not had an accident. He had nothing to lose.

    I too get frustrated with the Senna comparisons, however Hamilton is extremely precise, uses all of the road, and doesn’t know how to drive conservatively. The traits are similar in that respect.

  7. Lots of good insightful comments here. I would just like to disagree on one.

    I don’t think Kimi is a teenager in an adult body. As one grows emotionally and intellectually (with Kimi it’s very hard to evaluate either–but he is 28 now.) one begins to recognize that life is more than a single endeavor. As he has said, there is more to life than just F-1. It’s unfair to put this down as a loss of desire to win.

    That said, I think that he has not lost his desire to win or his concentration. F-1 is so technical and so car/engineer dependent that small variations in driver’s style are hugely magnified by changes of any kind in the chassis, tires, and setup. If you look very closely at last year and this year, I think that Kimi’s problems relate more to these things than to a lack of desire.

    What Kimi does lack is Schumacher’s ability to hold a team together in perfect balance, to choose his own very good but still inferior teammate, demand that he get all preferences from the team, and always, regardless of circumstance, have the preferences that a No. l gets for and during a race. For example, there was one race qualification wherein Barrachello was faster and Schumacher was convinced it was because B’s car was better. Schumacher demanded B’s car for the race–and was given it!!!

    Kimi was always faster than S. (and everybody else for that matter) but he has been dogged by bad luck of various kinds his whole F-1 career. Hamilton is the mental/emotional teenager. Look at the stupid mistakes he has made last year and this year. And bear in mind that he has been doing nothing but racing since he was 10, and was herded and guided for last ten years or so by one of the two best teams in F-1. He is, as Ron Dennis has said, much more experienced than most people give him credit for. But he has still made the kinds of mistakes seen in lesser series.

    Kimi, by comparison, was driving his cart and taking turns with his brother to do so, at a garbage dump (literally!) in Finland. Despite this he was taken into F-1 after only 28 races in cars! Who else has ever had the talent to accomplish that? And he managed a 10th place finish with a back marker team in his first race. Kimi is not done yet!

  8. Thanks for the great comment Ted. Good points about Kimi! I have to say, personally I love Raikkonen, but watching him this season has been a bit depressing for me. I hope you’re right and he still has something in him.