Melbourne talking points

What an exciting start to the season. I don’t suppose it’s the done thing to yelp at 7am on a Sunday morning and wake the neighbours up, but I think that’s what I did.

First of all, hats off to the Brawn team. They’ve been through a lot over the winter. Let’s face it, as the Honda team they’ve been through a lot in the past two years. Their 1-2 finish in Melbourne is a just reward for the effort they have put into this car, and for what they have had to put up with from the high-ups at Honda.

And good riddance to them. By now it is banal to point out that Honda must be kicking themselves. They poured all that money into the development of the car, and have given that car away to a private team that they are subsidising in return for nothing. It makes Honda look pretty stupid for giving away such a great car. To the distant observer, it must look as though Honda have the reverse-Midas touch. Which, in fairness, they do.

Jenson Button’s victory was fairly uneventful, but Rubens Barrichello’s route to 2nd was more interesting. The Brazilian had a terrible start when anti-stall kicked in, and then got involved in a first-corner accident which damaged his car on the front and on the rear. His front wing got damaged further during a botched attempt to overtake Kimi Räikkönen. After the race Barrichello noted that the Brawn must be a good car if he can crash it so much and still finish 2nd.

Barrichello was lucky to inherit 2nd, of course, when Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel took some silly pills and decided to crash each other out. That was a disappointing incident for me because I like both drivers and to see them both hit the self-destruct button like that was not what you’d like to see from two such promising drivers.

Most observers agree that blame must be shared fairly equally between the drivers. It was Vettel’s original mistake that allowed Kubica to get so close, but the Pole was far too optimistic trying to take Vettel the way he did. Vettel was most apologetic on the radio to his team, and to BMW’s Mario Theissen after the race (Vettel obviously had one eye on his future BMW contract). But I’m not sure if Vettel did much wrong during the move itself. Maybe he could have backed off, but why should he?

In the rush to make something out of the mess, both drivers ended up compounding their problems by simultaneously slamming into the wall. Kubica’s incident was quite scary in a way because two of his wheels came off. In fact, one of the tyres came very close to striking his head. The tyres were then left lying close to the racing line on the circuit, bringing back bad memories of Alonso’s accident at Interlagos in 2003. I found it surprising that the tethers failed to do their job in Kubica’s accident, and I should think the FIA are investigating.

Vettel caused his own danger by continuing trying to race with three wheels on his wagon. Well, the team told him to at least. Red Bull have been fined $50,000 for that, and quite right too.

Very definitely not right is the 10 place grid penalty handed out to Vettel for forcing Kubica off the track. As far as I’m concerned, it’s as much Kubica’s fault for being in that position in the first place. It’s yet more evidence that the FIA stewards are only interested in bureaucracy, and are not interested in allowing the drivers to race.

All-in-all, Vettel had a disappointing weekend. He had to pull over with mechanical problems on Friday morning, and went on to spin off in the afternoon. He put in a strong qualifying performance to clinch 3rd on the grid, but his incident with Kubica was another black mark. Now there is a debate over whether his apologising shows that he doesn’t have a Champion’s menatlity.

Lewis Hamilton has been somewhat overshadowed by the fairytale of Brawn. Expectations were low as a result of McLaren producing a dog of a car this year. But with the spotlight turned away, Hamilton put in an excellent drive to make his way up to 3rd. You’d say there was attrition to help him, but there weren’t really that many retirements. All things considered, given the expectations McLaren must be chuffed to be 2nd in the Constructors’ Championship and sitting on 6 points to Ferrari’s zero.

As for Ferrari, they had a disastrous start, made all the worse by the fact that they weren’t expected to have a particularly bad race. Kimi Räikkönen was supposed to come back with renewed vigour. But he clumsily clattered the wall in a way which was very reminiscent of his worst moments of 2008. Meanwhile, Massa fell foul of a mechanical failure, confirming that Ferrari do not yet have a reliable enough car.

Toyota showed flashes of promise. The way both Trulli and Glock came through the pack after starting from the pitlane bodes well for the race pace of the car. Jarno Trulli’s 25s penalty seems harsh and there is some controversy surrounding it. It is true that the punishment doesn’t really fit the crime, but it was all the stewards could do in the circumstances.

Toro Rosso must be absolutely delighted with the way the race went for them. It may be as a result firstly of the Kubica–Vettel crash and secondly Jarno Trulli’s penalty, but they have scored 3 points and were the only team except Brawn to have two points finishes. I reckon Toro Rosso will find it very difficult to score many more points, but this is an excellent start to their campaign. It is also worth noting that rookie Sébastien Buemi put his team-mate Sébastien Bourdais in the shade this weekend.

Williams failed to fulfil the promise shown during practice. Kazuki Nakajima spoiled his race by slamming into the wall early on. Meanwhile, Nico Rosberg’s strong performance was totally ruined by his inability to make the soft tyres work for him. That may be a problem with the Williams car, in which case the team may be doomed as a result of the greater difference between tyre compounds this season. Nevertheless, 6th place is not a bad result.

For what it’s worth, I like the greater difference between compounds, and the on-track events this weekend appears to indicate that the rule changes have worked in their attempt to spice up the action. But that’s for another post.

19 comments

  1. I mostly agree with your analysis. I would like to know what do you think of Alonso’s performance.
    In my opinion, there where three winners yesterday:
    -BBB: Button, Barrichello, Brawn.
    -HAM: There were doubts of his performance with an average car. I would say it was superb.
    -ALO: Although he was far from HAM’s performance, he was able to convert a bad situation into valuable points.

  2. I was conscious that I hadn’t mentioned Alonso — indeed, he’s the only points scorer that I hadn’t mentioned. I must say that I struggle to remember much about Alonso’s race, apart from the fact that he was able to keep Glock behind him by using Kers.

    On the face of it, 5th is a good result, but it doesn’t stand out as anything particularly special. A lot of good drivers made mistakes yesterday, and at least Alonso didn’t do that. But the fact that the Toyotas (starting from the pit lane) and Hamilton (starting from the back of the grid) managed to beat him is a bad sign I think. Maybe the Renault car is not yet as good as he needs it to be.

  3. I see. The main Alonso’s problem was that he had to wait for Piquet to finish his pit stop just after de 1st SC. He lost a good 12 seconds that would have been valuable at the end of the race.

  4. Very definitely not right is the 10 place grid penalty handed out to Vettel for forcing Kubica off the track.

    I agree, but Vettel himself apologised for it, which is an admission of guilt, so what can you do? I don’t want to see the FIA meddling in matters like this which, to me, looked like a racing incidents where you can’t apportion blame substantially on one side or the other. But I guess Vettel thought it was entirely his fault. Not the kind of behaviour we expect from an F1 driver!

    There were doubts of his performance with an average car. I would say it was superb.

    I must admit, I was half-expecting Hamilton to lose a wing somewhere, probably against the side of Alonso’s car, but he drove a very measured race. Yes, he rode his luck, but he was set for sixth on merit which was still more than that car deserved.

    The main Alonso’s problem was that he had to wait for Piquet to finish his pit stop just after de 1st SC. He lost a good 12 seconds that would have been valuable at the end of the race.

    And then what did said team mate go and do after the safety car came in?

    Oh dear…

  5. >>and for what they have had to put up with from the high-ups at Honda. And good riddance to them. By now it is banal to point out that Honda must be kicking themselves. <<

    You miss the point. Honda’s car sales are horribly down. They are laying off staff, downsizing, putting plants on extended shutdowns, cutting salaries, stopping bonuses – whatever they need in order to survive. To be seen to be spending lots of money on F1 at such a time would not be considered well, especially in Japanese culture. Toyota are of a different scale, and maybe approach this differently, but I was very surprised they also didn’t take a sabbatical.

    Don’t be too harsh on Honda’s management for judging that their company and their workforce is more important than putting hundreds of millions into a sport for advertising purposes.

  6. Scott, of course Honda’s pull-out is for political reasons. But all the other manufacturers are facing decreasing sales too. They all managed to stay in F1 — without having as good a car.

  7. To judge the Honda pull-out, we have to consider only one point: Did they know that their car was a bullet?
    -Yes => Seppuku
    -No => Pity

    Nevertheless, we have to take into account that Mr. Brawn is known also to be a master of deceit, maybe the bosses didn’t trust him enough.

  8. Not just that. The Honda Racing Team made a conscious decision to sacrifice 2008 in order to focus on 2009, and Honda must have poured hundreds of millions into the car’s development. Mix in the brain of Brawn, and you assume they must have had a good idea that the car would be pretty competitive. Honda invested heavily in it, yet they have made a decision to sacrifice the returns.

  9. Maybe is a question of mentality, it is not easy to accept such a sacrifice.
    Allow me to cite Grand Moff Tarkin:
    “Retreat? In our moment of triumph?”
    (And then the Death Star blew away).
    Maybe the Honda bosses were huge Star Wars fans and saw it coming…

  10. Wow, who’d have thunk!! What a race. As always the first race has posed more questions than answers.

    Firstly, who is where on pace? Clearly Brawn is competitive, BMW seem to be on par, Kubica looked like a shot at the podium, however, where would the KERS equipped Heidfeld have finished if not for the drama at the start? Red Bull have a good car (that was a silly move by Vettel & even sillier staying on track with a three wheeled car) & the Heidfeld question applies to Webber’s race also, his damaged car was unable to demonstrate its potential. Similarly, Toyota doesn’t seem to be struggling too much. The two teams I can’t get a fix on are Ferrari & Williams. Is Ferrari capable of running with the leaders & where exactly is Williams? Massa had a failure & Kimi damaged his car; Rosberg lost out when Piquet dropped it at the restart & then faded while running the soft tyres, regardless, that car has pace.

    The next question is whether to run with or without KERS. Is the weight/ballast penalty worth the additional boost? At the moment it is up in the air, interestingly Brawn cars & Kubica’s BMW have no choice in the matter.

    Strategy? The FIA has thrown a fantastic variable into the mix with the performance differential between the soft tyre & primary tyre. Does a team start their car light & use the soft tyre’s advantage in getting off the line & then pit early, getting the compulsory soft tyre running out of the way? Or alternatively, leave running the soft tyre to the very end of the race & use its speed performance then. This is a particularly difficult call as a safety car period can destroy any advantage gained. Worse, when those soft tyres start to grain their performance drop-off is dramatic; no driver wants to be caught out on the reduced grip they offer in a crucial phase of the race. My guess is that leaving the running of the soft tyre until the end of the race carries far more risk than going to the grid shod with the soft option.

    Historically the season early races are followed by frantic testing & development & the return to Europe shows the real running order, this year the cars complexity & the testing ban will throw a spanner in that precident.

    Finally, how foolish must Honda be feeling the Brawn car was designed around their engine, not the Mercedes, there is every reason to assume that Honda would be in the position Brawn GP now occupies. OUCH!!!!

  11. About the tyre compunds, I don’t really like or understand their logic.

    Yes it provides a greater variable into strategies, but firstly it is “artificial” racing. What other forms of racing do you see this articial racing?

    Bridgestone wants this arrangement because they say they want people to talk about the tyres now that they are sole supplier. People got talking about them alright! Listen to the drivers and they all pretty much said the softs are horrible and crap. Is that what you want people to talk about?

    And during this economic downturn, where’s the logic in manufacturing and lugging around the world, a whole set of crap tyres for each team? That’s a huge cost saving and carbon footprint reduction initiate there! Where’s the logic?

    But hey, we’re addicted to this sport where logic and common sense is a luxury rather than the norm…

  12. If we ignore the fact that there was no need for the stewards to investigate what was clearly a racing incident, I fail to see that they were bound by any admission of guilt on the part of Vettel. If that were so, they would have to give equal weight to drivers’ protestations of innocence. Their job is to hear the opinions of the drivers, consider the video evidence and come to a reasonable conclusion. If the evidence indicated that Vettel’s apology was mistaken, there was no need for them to decide that he must be guilty because he thought he was.

  13. One point worth noting, is that in the unlikely event of the Brawns being excluded due to the diffuser being declared illegal (Nothing the FIA does surprises me anymore…) Lewis Hamilton will actually be leading the world driver’s championship!

    Overall though, an excellent race (with a slightly flat ending). Good to see the Brawns running with such a pace, but as Button himself is quoted as saying, I think that when we return to Europe, we may see the old world order being restored.

    Despite their troubles, the Ferrari’s weren’t that far off the pace.

  14. Thanks for the comments everyone.

    The tyre compounds issue, touched on by peterg and Freeman, is an interesting one. Personally, I like the fact that there is a perceptible difference between the two compounds.

    I do get Freeman’s point that it is artificial racing, but I am sure it exists in other categories. In fact, I’m sure the idea was pretty much nicked from ChampCar. Personally I enjoy it. It adds a strategic element, yet it is a form of strategy that actually increases on-track action, unlike refuelling.

    You also make an interesting point about the fact that now all the drivers are bitching about (option) Bridgestone tyres! So maybe this will backfire on Bridgestone in the long run.

  15. Yep, we could see in the Spanish TV how the Renault crew got very stressed,a few people even fall… that costed Alonso lots of possibilities of being upper in the list.

    Nevertheless, we all know that F1 races are plenty of IFs; the truth is that the car is not as good as they thought. So Renault better improves and very soon or we will see Alonso again suffering quite a lot. The only thing that seems positive is that in fact Renault is close to the “big teams”; whether or not this means what everybody speculates with the diffusers, I do not know. Apparently Renault says it really makes a difference in their analyses so far, so all we have to do is wait and see.

    Finally, the Australian race was really fun, so perhaps all changes did work. Looking forward for more!

  16. See, the way I took Vettel’s apology was to the team, for not scoring points. Not that he was accepting the blame for causing the incident, which in my book was clearly a 50/50 racing incident.

    And since when does a champion have to be infallible? And be arrogant enough to assume that he is always in the right? Why is being ‘nice’ seen as an undesirable trait? I’d much prefer someone who can admit when they are wrong and maintains a reasonable sized ego on his shoulders than someone who thinks they are some sort of omnipotent diety who never makes mistakes.

    As for Vettel’s supposed admission of guilt, well that means diddly squat anyway. Perhaps its just the industry I am in (insurance) but people say and do all manner of things after an accident. You can’t take off the cuff remarks as any admission of liability. It’s the stewards job to review all of the available evidence and make a decision (same as it is for an Insurer), not to rely on flustered remarks made while people may not be thinking straight. Of course the FIA don’t think the rules apply to them anyway, but one day hopefully they’ll wake up and do their job properly.

    I will be watching Alonso with (more) interest this season. Will he regret maybe signing for Ferrari if their performance does not pick up? But will he stay at Renault if theirs doesn’t improve either? For sure his race was scuppered by having to queue behind Piquet in the pits, but I can’t say that he was necessarily on fire before that anyway.

  17. Pink Peril, Vettel was definitely shown on the BBC approaching Mario Theissen to apologise to him face-to-face. I agree with you, though, that just because Vettel is a nice guy doesn’t mean he can’t be Champion one day.