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Stunning Spa & stuff

  On the face of it, Sebastian Vettel winning his eighty gazillionth race of the year from Webber and a McLaren might not sound too interesting. It might sound predictable, dull, boring, bereft of suspense and denuded of excitement. But Noooooooooooooooooooo!!! The Red Rags may have, yeah OK, yet again, dominated practice but until the final lap of qualifying the dominator was Mark Webber, showing yet again that he is rather useful on the damp stuff. Even that should not have happened. The Red Rags are not supposed to have enough grunt to be quick on the super-fast Spa-Francorchamps and it was assumed that they would struggle against the McLarens and Ferraris. 

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  Then, just to make a Red Rag one-two even more unlikely, they blistered the buggery out of their front tyres in qualifying by running an extreme degree of camber. Of course the rules state that they had to start on these damaged bits of black and could not alter their set-up so their race chances didn't look so hot. And THEN, they both bogged down at the start with the anti-stall kicking in, more so for Mark than Seb and the surprise leader at the end of lap one was the super starting Nico Rosberg. Seb's start wasn't too bad and he held out Massa for second but Mark's was the F1 driver's version of discovering rampant crutch-rot.

    He has, however, obviously found a new friend in young Bruno Senna who undid all his excellent practice and qualifying work to make a complete pig's breakfast of La Source, and slam, tyres smoking, into Jaime Alguersuari who had started a career high sixth on the grid. The resulting carnage rescued Mark's start as he weaved through the flying shrapnel and emerged ninth through Eau-Rouge. The major casualties were Alguersuari, who oddly enough survived Senna's assault, but was, as a result pushed into the path of the faster starting King Fernando who neatly removed the left front corner of the Toro Rosso. Senna, obviously had a bent snout and had to pit at the end of lap one while both Lotus's got caught up with each other while avoiding the mess and Button's McLaren not only had a damaged wing but also had one of his mirrors taken out by someone's debris going through Eau-Rouge. As he mentioned, a bit scary that.

   From there, it was one of those races where a mixture of circumstance, conditions and testicles infected with elephantitis resulted in the Red Rag one-two. Part of the circumstance was the Hoon putting himself into the wall after forgetting to look and see if there was anyone along side him who he could hit when moving over to take the ideal line through Les Combes. There was and he did. Kamui Kamikaze did not roll over and die as the Hoon imagined when he initially passed the young Japanese Sauber pilot, but closed back in on the run from Radillon and had come alongside in the braking zone. Quite aptly named, as the result was a very broken McLaren and an equally broken Armco barrier. On this occasion the Hoon won back a few of the fans who he lost at Monaco when, after viewing the footage, he admitted that the accident was "100%" his fault. You don't mind a guy making a mistake if he admits it. The conditions took care of the Ferraris as, as ever, the flying fag packets could not make the harder tyres work in the cool temperature and King Fernando dropped to a distant fourth by the flag.

   The Testicular Elephantitis Passing Move of the Year will surely go to Webber who, on the harder rubber, caught King Fernando who was leaving the pits and ballsed it out around the OUTSIDE at Eau-Rouge. Everyone watching, including commentators, spectators and Red Rag managers closed their eyes and waited for the resulting plane crash. There was no horrible noise, just the joint exhalation of a few thousand breaths and the stunned viewers opened their eyes to see Webber pulling away from the Ferrari.  Both intact. It is as much a tribute to King Fernando's racing ethics as the skills of both drivers that something very horrible did not happen. I may be wrong, but I cannot remember a successful pass for position around the outside of Eau-Rouge. In fact, the last time I recall anyone even trying it was the unfortunate, but very brave, Stefan Bellof attempting the move on Jacky Ickx in Porsche 956s in 1985. Despite Ickx's equally high standard of ethics and skill, that particular move had tragic consequences and robbed the sport of quite possibly Germany's first World Champion.

   Had it not been for Webber the award may well have gone to Jenson Button who pulled off some wonderful moves in a great drive from thirteenth on the grid to the final step of the podium. Or maybe Vettel passing Rosbert on the outside at Blanchimont. There may have been a lot of overtaking as a result of a very long DRS zone between Radillon and Les Combes but it was the passing elsewhere that this race will be remembered, and for a very long time at that.

   Another beneficiary of the Senna carambolage was Daniel Ricciardo who was running as high as sixteenth early on and although he dropped back as the faster cars recovered he was still on course to give HRT one of their better finishes until the car ground to a halt just as the red flag came out for the Hoon's mangled McLaren. Also benefiting was the under-whelming Herr Schumacher who had one of his better days since the comeback. It didn't look too flash on Saturday when a rear wheel decided it just didn't want to hang around with the Mercedes, leaving the German to get somewhat better acquainted with the barriers than he would normally like on his out-lap in first qualifying. Starting dead last, however, may have been a blessing as if he had begun in a normal sort of place, somewhere around the bottom of the top ten, he would have been in the middle of the La Source kafuffle. As it was, he rose steadily through the race and just before the end took fifth place from the other Mercedes of the kin of the Flying Finn.

   Just days before the Belgian Grand Prix it was announced that Bruno Senna would be taking Nick Heidfeld's place at Renault. Despite outscoring Vitaly Petrov so far this year, his pace, especially in qualifying, has disappointed Renault team management. After 185 starts it would appear that Nick's dream has come to an end, although it has seemed that way before. Despite being a member of the Mercedes junior squad he debuted with the hideously crap Prost-Peugeot in 2000 (not even Jean Alesi could score points in that) before joining Sauber in 2001. He out-pointed team-mate Kimi Raikkonen that year and expected to be named as a replacement for the retiring Mika Hakkinen at McLaren-Mercedes for 2002. It came as a surprise for Nick then, when Raikkonen was signed by McLaren and so he stayed with Sauber for another two seasons. Dropped by Sauber at the end of 2003 it looked like the promising German's career may have stalled but he was given a lifeline by the struggling Jordan squad. After another fruitless season he was given a surprise chance with a drive alongside Mark Webber at Williams where he proved his capability with a pole and three podiums in the year that Williams decline really began. 

   When Williams engine supplier, BMW, split with the team to form its own squad, it purchased the Sauber outfit and named Nick as their lead driver. Four seasons with the Bavarian/Swiss squad brought eight more podium finishes but as time wore on he was slowly outpaced by the super-fast Robert Kubica. When BMW pulled the plug and sold the team back to Peter Sauber, Nick's career once again seemed to be over and he was replaced by Pedro de la Rosa. There was the possibility of finally joining Mercedes as they rejoined Grand Prix racing as a works team but then the deal was done with Michael Schumacher and Nick became a "test" driver who, because of the new testing rules, could not even test the car. De la Rosa's poor form saw Nick back in the Sauber for the last five races of 2010 and when Kubica suffered his horrendous rally accident at the start of this year, Nick stepped into his former team-mates seat at Renault.

    He may not have achieved the heights that he would have liked but if Hungary was really his final Grand Prix, then Nick bows out with a record that many drivers would be proud of. 185 starts, 1 pole, 13 podiums and 259 points ain't half bad for a guy that was often in mediocre machinery.  

 

Sam Snape

05/09/2011   

F1 - IS DANIEL EATING THE LION?

  It is coming up on two years now that Jenson Button won the 2009 World Drivers Championship. Once the initial euphoria had waned it emerged that there were "issues" in renegotiating his Brawn (soon to be Mercedes) contract. Then suddenly, Jenson was a McLaren driver. And many fans, and quite a few pundits as well, cried "that's the end of Jenson!!" Leaping into the proverbial lion's den by joining a team that had been built around the super fast Hoon (Lewis Hamilton) many believed that Button would be demolished and his career in tatters by the time his contract was up for renewal.

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  Fortunately for your scribe, I wasn't one of those doomsayers, but I did describe it at the time as possibly one of Button's most courageous decisions. Those who ever watched Yes Minister would appreciate that one. I thought that Jenson would probably be outpaced over one lap but not destroyed by the Hoon and that the new rules outlawing refuelling may even balance things out in the races. It was, I thought, an impressive display of self confidence by Button that he believed that he could not just compete with, but beat Hamilton.

   The 2010 season confirmed my belief's (thankfully) and although Lewis was generally quicker over one lap (ie; in qualifying and scoring race fastest laps) the points gap at years end was just 26 points, only one point greater than a win, and both drivers scored two victories for the season. What few foresaw, apart from Jenson that is, is that at this point in 2011, taking both years into account, is that Jenson has scored six more points than Hamilton and both have taken five race wins. In other words, Button has scored 32 more points than Lewis so far this year and until last week in Suzuka he was the last man standing with a chance of stopping Vettel taking another championship.

   In Suzuka Jenson new precisely what he needed to do and pretty much dominated the weekend in what is clearly an inferior car than the Red Bulls. Fastest in most practice sessions, front row of the grid and a superb race in which his exceptional ability to maintain the life of his tyres meant that his victory was really never in doubt. He did everything he possibly could have done to maintain his title challenge without resorting to the sort of tactics common to a certain German driver. Vettel did himself a great disservice by resorting to those very tactics and really should have been handed at least a drive through penalty for his start-line antics. But I digress... 

  So, far from being demolished and his career in tatters, Button gleefully announced that he had signed a new multi-year contract (believed to be at least two years with the option of a third) and McLaren are obviously delighted to have retained his services. All is love and tranquillity on Jenson's side of the garage and one gets the impression that McLaren is no longer "Lewis's team" but is at least equally, if not more, Jenson's.

    Could this be one of the reasons that Hamilton is having so many accidents lately?  Lewis's comments on his future have modified from the 2008-09 type of "I want to spend my entire career with McLaren" to the "McLaren must lift their game if they want to keep me" type several times this year. Along with his misguided outbursts regarding Massa and Maldonado after Monaco many have blamed his management team for not keeping Lewis concentrating on being a great racing driver but being a "brand". This is also a possibility. And you've got to think that Martin Whitmarsh is getting just a little bit sick of having to defend Hamilton time and time again after either a crash or a crass comment. Or both.

    It's almost certainly a combination of all of these. As many in the team are growing ever fonder of Button, Lewis is not "feeling the love" as much as he has in earlier years, his mind is possibly not fully on what it should be concentrating on, and he is being beaten by a team-mate for the first time in his career. The pressure is on and some cracks are starting to show. In the last year he has had an accident at Monza (Massa), an accident at Singapore (Webber), been penalized for weaving at Sepang, two accidents at Monaco (Massa and Maldonado), two accidents at Spa (Maldonado and Kobayashi), an accident with a drive through penalty at Singapore (Massa) and an accident at Suzuka (Massa). 

   That four of these have occurred in the last four races where Button has been getting the upper hand suggests that Lewis is over-compensating. He has always been an aggressive racer going for any gap that existed but now he is going for gaps that aren't really there. This could turn into a vicious spiral in which Hamilton tries ever riskier moves in a desperate attempt to regain the upper hand and is involved in more and more incidents.

    So Jenson is going from strength to strength at McLaren and Lewis seems to be struggling to cope with this new dynamic so the next few years will be interesting viewing. Will Hamilton fight back and regain the upper hand over Button? He certainly has the ability to do so. Will he accept that overall, he and Jenson are pretty equal and, being comfortable with that, reduce his recent impetuosity? Or will his recent run of recklessness spiral out of control until Daniel has eaten the Lion?

 Sam Snape 

11/10/2011

F1 - RICCIARDO STEPS UP

  When, on Sunday afternoon, the field lines up for the British Grand Prix there will, or at least should, be two Australian drivers on the grid for the first time since the Austrian Grand Prix of 1977. On that blustery August day Vern Schuppan scraped into the race in the second Surtees TS19 while Alan Jones was confident of a reasonably good result in the ever improving Shadow DN8. As things turned out both drivers finished the rain effected race, Schuppan down the back of the field in what was to be his final Grand Prix start while Jones survived the early rain and carnage to score what was his first, and Shadow's only, Grand Prix victory. The result was so unexpected that the Austrian officials didn't have a copy of the Australian national anthem so a version of Happy Birthday was played instead. I don't think Jones was terribly offended though...it was the only time in his F1 career that he was able to drink champagne on the victory podium, his Williams being sponsored by Saudi Airlines between 1978 and 1981. 

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  With any luck there will be a similar result for Australia on Sunday. Mark Webber in the Red Bull will be looking for another good result and trying his damnedest to beat the seemingly unstoppable Sebastian Vettel. It is strangely in keeping with the sort of luck that Mark has encountered through his career that he gets into the best car in the field just as his team-mate matures into probably the best driver of his generation. Vettel is becoming less the "next Schumacher" than the Schumacher is becoming the "previous Vettel". Despite some unpleasant brain fades last year (Turkey, Belgium etc) which cost him quite a few fans in this part of the world it must be remembered that Vettel is still not much more than a steadily maturing kid. He only turned 24 last Sunday. And away from those more childish moments he is a hugely popular figure in the paddock and with the press. Anyone, especially a German, that not only gets, but finds Monty Python, FaultyTowers and Black Adder hilarious, can't be a bad guy. So long as he doesn't let the pressure, media demands and the hideous political correctness required by some teams get to him, he is destined to be one of the most popular multiple world champions in the sports history.

    Barring disasters, the latest in the lengthening line of Red Bull junior drivers will make his race debut on Sunday. Red Bull has done a deal to replace Narain Karthikeyan with Daniel Ricciardo at HRT for the remainder of the year, excluding the Indian Grand Prix where Narain will regain his seat. Like Vettel, Buemi and Alguersuari before him, Daniel has risen rapidly through the junior ranks with the support of Red Bull and just five years after coming to Red Bull's attention, he is on the brink of becoming a Grand Prix driver. Ricciardo started in Formula Ford in Western Australia in 2005 before heading into the Formula BMW Asia series where he scored his first wins. In 2006 he ran in the UK Formula BMW series before an impressive drive in the World Final secured his Red Bull backing. In 2007 Red Bull entered Daniel in the Italian Formula Renault series as a build-up to full European series campaigns in 2008.

   Daniel racked up 14 wins in 2008 winning the Formula Renault Western European Cup and coming second in the Eurocup series. At the end of the year he was entered in a couple of Formula 3 Euroseries races before his title winning season in 2009. Ricciardo dominated the British Formula 3 championship that year with seven wins and by October had been signed by Tech 1 to compete in the Formula Renault 3.5 series for 2010. He further impressed the Red Bull management when he completed his first Formula One test and posted the quickest time for the Red Bull team. His 2010 Formula Renault 3.5 was frustrating at the same time as it was successful. With 8 poles and 4 wins, one of which at Monaco, Ricciardo only missed out on the title in the final race of the year. He again took part in the rookie driver test for Red Bull in December at the Yas Marina circuit and stunned observers with a time that was a whacking 1.3 seconds faster than the newly crowned champ, Vettel, had secured pole position with just days before. OK, the track had improved but even so...So far this year he has scored a couple of wins, including his second in a row at Monaco, while combining his Formula Renault 3.5 racing with Friday testing duties for Toro Rosso in Grands Prix. His impressive performances there have led to Red Bull paying for his drive with HRT, giving him some experience before he is probably promoted to either Red Bull or Toro Rosso next season. 

  Meanwhile the technical changes to the "hot blown" exhausts comes into effect this weekend as well. No-one really knows how this will affect the relative performance of the cars but some basic observations can be drawn. Obviously the teams that do not have the device, (HRT, Virgin, Lotus & Williams) will not suffer at all. Of the others there is no real knowledge just how much of each cars speed is a result of this but it will probably be Renault, who designed their entire car with its forward exiting exhausts, who will suffer the most. But as always, we will really only know on Sunday evening. Will the pack close in or will Red Bull disappear into the distance again, like Webber did last year at Silverstone.

Sam Snape

 04/07/2011

F1 - THANK YOU PIRELLI

 Two races in eight days and many of the questions still unanswered after Albert Park have been resolved. Particularly in the area of those round black things supplied by Pirelli. The Italian tyre manufacturer bravely accepted a request from the FIA to produce tyres that would degrade much quicker than the previous product from Bridgestone. The hope was that with different cars running on different strategies there might be more on-track overtaking late in the race as these differing strategies played out. The risk here for Pirelli is that some drivers would be blaming their tyres for lost opportunities and that the casual viewer would assume that Pirelli simply couldn't make tyres that were durable. This would not be an ideal advertising point. Pirelli accepted the risk and produced tyres that have an outer layer that gives good grip but wears down quickly to an inner layer that is overly durable (it would probably last a month of Sundays) but has very little grip. The result of Pirelli's commercial bravery was in evidence in Shanghai with what was possibly the best, most exciting, non-wet Grand Prix in the last twenty years. Grand Prix fans around the world owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Pirelli, for this season now appears to have the prospect of having some of the most exciting on-track racing in living memory. 

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  One question that still remains unanswered is just how fast the Red Rags will be once they get everything actually working on both cars for an entire Grand Prix weekend. We already know it will be bloody fast but just how bloody fast is the question. Die Wunderkind has already racked up three poles, two wins and a second while Webber's record of a third, a fourth and a fifth with two fastest laps has been severely blighted by KERS failures in all three events. Vettel has also been hampered by this problem to a lesser extent but usually not at such vital moments as his unfortunate team-mate. Neither ran with KERS in Oz where Vettel won while Webber, battling with a rear damper issue struggled home to fifth. At Sepang, Vettel had intermittent KERS problems from about half distance but was already well in control of the race. Webber had his KERS die on the warm-up lap and was swamped at the start, dropping from third to tenth by the first corner. That he fought back to fourth with the races fastest lap was a fine effort in itself. But a more astonishing effort came in China. Again Vettel took pole while Webber had his KERS die in the final practice session on Saturday and had to qualify without the system. That, and a bit of a blunder in not using soft tyres in quallie one, saw him fail to make the cut and line up 18th on the grid. Vettel chose the favoured two stop strategy and even when his KERS started playing up latter in the race he still looked a good bet for the win. Webber's KERS was still being temperamental and he chose a three stops starting on the hard tyres. Fifteen lap down and he was only in 17th place.

    This is where the Pirelli bravery kicked in. Vettel was attempting a fairly long final stint and with about ten laps to go his tyres were shot. With no KERS and no grip he was hauled in by a three stopping Hoon. After a couple of laps of spirited defence the Hoon's better grip saw him grab the race lead with just four laps to go. Meanwhile Webber was storming through the field using the three sets of brand spanking new soft tyres. His charge included some stonking passing moves on Schumacher, Alonso and finally Button to take a stunning third place. His fastest lap was an incredible 1.4 seconds faster than anyone else managed in the race. During the final ten laps he was occasionally three seconds a lap faster than the rest of the field and regularly hauling in the leaders at around two seconds per lap. He finished just seven seconds behind the Hoon and three behind his team-mate. If the team can get the car to work properly all weekend and chose the correct strategy, then the rest may just be squabbling for the left-overs.

   Did McLaren's back to basics arse end improve the car by about a second a lap? Err, yeah, probably by more than that. They maintained their fine qualifying pace from Oz in both Sepang and China. Although events conspired against them in Malaysia they both mugged Vettel off the line in Shanghai and led comfortably through the first stint. Old Jense made a rookie blunder and stopped in the Red Rags pit box for his first stop, a move that dropped him behind the Hoon and Vettel. The Hoon's three stop race saw him easily catch Vettel and as mentioned, grab the lead with just four laps to run. A superb never-say-die drive that would have been the drive of the race, if not for Webber.

   Is the Ferrari really a pick-up truck or was Albert Park just a blip. Nope, it may as well be a Ford. They have plenty of work to do to catch the front four. Did the Mercedes upgrades make it a potential winner? Nope. The car apparently loses stability when the DRS (Drag Reduction System - ie; movable rear wing) is activated. Not so much of a problem in the race when it can only be used once per lap. Big problem in qualifying when it can be used on any straight bit of track. Rosberg proved that the car could be a potential contender with a fine drive in China but until they can improve their qualifying performance they will need buckets of luck to get onto the podium. The Unter-ubermensch started back in 14th on the grid while Rosberg again made the top ten but never seriously threatened the top teams.

   Renault is currently battling Ferrari for third best car and picked up another podium at Sepang. This time it was quick Nick who took third place while Vitaly decided he was running in the 1000 Lakes Rally and tried to out-jump the Flying Finns. His airborne antics ended with a damaged tub and a non attachment scenario vis-à-vis his steering column and the dashboard bulkhead making steering just a tad difficult. Awesome on-board footage though.

   Team Willy is currently having its worst start to a season since it ran a March in 1977. Talk is mounting of a major reshuffle in the design team with even Sam Michael hinting that he may have to step aside from the Technical Directors job. Something must be done and soon to halt this decline and stop this great team from imitating the likes of Tyrrell and Brabham in sliding feebly from the sport. It would be disappointing to lose Sam entirely as he is a lovely bloke and very bright but he just ain’t no Adrian Newey. Neither is anyone else for that matter but for what ever reason Sam just hasn’t been able to get the job done. What ever changes, Frank and Patrick just cannot afford to keep going as they are and unfortunately, Sam has been in charge of the design team while the team has been in decline. Mind you, the last time they failed to score points in the first three races of a season was in 1979. And just remember what happened later in that year. Lets hope they can have a repeat of that season.

   Among the minnows Lotus has shown that it has in fact joined the mid-field pack, albeit at the rear of the pack but just getting there is a great stride from last years performances. Their final positions in China may not have been their best results since their return but beating a Williams on actual race pace is undoubtedly their best performance. The Hispania boys proved that their horror in Oz was not a reflection of their true abilities. They may be currently battling Virgin over who occupies the last row of the grid but at least there is little chance of repeating their terrible double failure to qualify again.

   So, Pirelli’s tyres have turned out to be great for the racing as has the DRS. The only quibble I have with the DRS is that the FIA is deciding when and where it is used. I would like to see it being used one per lap at a time and place of the driver’s choice, so long as he is within one second of the driver in front. That way, if the driver behind got a good run on the leader anywhere on a circuit he could bung on the KERS & the DRS and possibly make a move at a less than expected spot on the circuit. And the guy in front would never know exactly when he had to use the KERS to try to defend such a move. A bit like the ‘80s and hitting the turbo boost button, and no-body minded that.

   In other, and very happy, news, Robert Kubica is set to be released from hospital sometime in the next two weeks, "I am starting to feel a lot better now. My recovery is moving in the right direction: my strength and weight are increasing day on day and as a result I will leave the Santa Corona hospital very soon," he said. "I don't have a precise date as yet but I hope to be able to leave within the next 10 days. The mobility of my hand is limited but this is pretty normal in this kind of situation, because the connected arm muscles are still very weak due to the long period of immobility. Things are definitely improving day by day. As soon as I leave hospital, I'll head to my home in Monaco for a short period of rest. Then I'll move to Dr. Ceccarelli's facilities in Italy where I will start a deep rehabilitation program and a preliminary soft training programme. The two programmes will gradually cross over based on the speed of my recovery."

  Sam Snape

 19-04-2011 

F1 - THE FOG OF WAR

 It is oft said that truth is the first casualty of war. It is also a truism that in battle a plan does not survive the first shots. So it is in Grand Prix racing. Not one teams weekend went as planned and many found that the truth, or at least their version of the truth, went up in flames as well. Whether it was Red Bull, Hispania or Pirelli, something unplanned hit everyone. The weather was certainly unplanned, with mid afternoon temperatures struggling to break out of the teens. This, combined with the non-abrasive nature of Albert Park meant that teams were struggling to get the new Pirelli tyres up to operating temperature. Some, of course, more than others.  

 

 

  The Pirelli problem was a perplexing one, although it gave us the wide variety of strategies that it was hoped for. Some drivers struggled to make the tyres last and three stopped, thus getting help up behind slower cars and being unable to unlock the speed of the new sets. Two stops seemed to be the optimum strategy as shown by the podium getters, Vettel, Hamilton and Petrov. Startlingly, Sauber's Sergio Perez made only a single stop and made it work with a superb drive to seventh place. Pity about the rear wing. 

   Lotus were the most vocal about their problems with the Pirellis, claiming that that they were unable to get sufficient temperature into the tyres during short qualifying runs. Their pace compared to the leaders in longer race stints seems to add weight to their explanation of their poor qualifying performance but this is one of those truth thingies. Everyone had the same tyres. All the other teams, barring Virgin and Hispania, were able to deal with the tyre/conditions predicament better than Lotus. The problem therefore, in cooler conditions, is either the Lotus or the drivers. From the footage of poor Karun Chandhok's concrete interface moment, it is possibly that the car just doesn't like cold tyres. Yeah, the guy's inexperienced at this level but he's not that crap a driver. He often out-performed Bruno Senna last year while he was in the HRT.  We wait to see how they perform in qualifying at Sepang. It will be warm there so Lotus's excuses in Australia will have no standing if there is not marked improvement.

   As previously stated though, all teams had their problems. Even Red Rags weekend was problematic. Sure, Vettel had a brilliant weekend and showed just how good Newey's latest brainchild is. But Webber was struggling. Struggling for outright pace, struggling to make the tyres last, struggling to better his result here in a Minardi. In all of these he failed. Why? Is it that Vettel has improved by eight tenths of a second since last year? Sorta doubt it although winning that first title can make one more confidant. Mark has lost eight tenths in pace over the winter, not likely either. Remember these two were so closely matched last year that they were usually split by hundredths, if not thousandths of a second in qualifying and after Hungary Webber had more wins and more podiums than Vettel and was comfortably leading the title chase. Car doesn't suit Webber's driving style? Possibly, but he has had that problem before and it hasn't put him that far off his team-mate. There were murmurs from Christian Horner about a possible chassis problem which may be an explanation or maybe Webber is just not destined to have that great race at Albert Park. Think Barrichello and Interlagos. Sometimes it is just not meant to be. And then the Red Rags had their KERS turned off for the race as they were a reliability concern so that didn't help Webber when he got stuck in traffic after his first stop. No KERS no pass. Again, Sepang may give us some more answers.

   Team Britannia seems to have told the truth when they finally admitted that the new wonder exhaust system on the MP4/26 was the equivalent of emu excrement. They then bolted on a bog standard version with a relatively simple under-tray and were instantly close to the pace. The Hoon celebrated his monikers first anniversary by beating Webber to a front row spot on the grid and a fine second place in the race. Not something that anyone thought possible just a fortnight ago. Jenson drove a splendidly, albeit unusually, aggressive race, absolutely hounding Massa through the first stint until getting a drive-through for cutting the corner where he finally managed to barge his way by the Ford pick-up, err sorry, Ferrari. He was heard over the radio querying how the pick-up was able to pull away from him on the main straight while the McLaren's adjustable rear wing was in the open position. It was likely that the barn door that McLaren bolted onto the back of their car to make up for that simple under-tray might just have had something to do with it.

   Meanwhile over at Ferrari their plans went array when their latest offering showed good pace on the straight bits but was as quick as the aforementioned pick-up in the twisty bits. Neither King Fernando or the mended Massa ever looked like troubling the Red Rags or Team Britannia and even connived to finish behind the very impressive Vitaly Petrov. The Silver Slings simply proved that their "Oh Fuck" moment hadn't actually vanished overnight in Barcelona. The unfortunate truth emerged that they were about where they were last year and again the gap between Nico and the unter-ubermensch was still about three to four tenths of a second in qualifying. Had they miraculously fixed their car? Well it wasn't quite as much of a Bassett Hound as it had been in early testing but it is still nowhere near the pace.

   In the Renault camp it came as a bit of a surprise when quick Nick was blitzed all weekend by Petrov. Quick Nick was so un that he failed to get out of qualy one while Vitaly saved the teams plans by planting his black and gold beauty in sixth on the grid and having a superb race to take the final podium spot. Team Willy's weekend was a disaster with both cars suffering from transmission problems. Neither car shone nor finished so their truth of nipping at the heels of the front runners is looking a bit shaky. Force India was probably the most realistic going into the race. Since their stunning pole at Spa in 2009 they have been sliding slowly back to the tail end of the mid-fielders so to have both drivers scoring points was a pleasant surprise for the squad. Even if it was only by the two Saubers being disqualified.

   Speaking of having your best laid plans buggered up. The Saubers showed reasonable pace in qualifying and the duo finished seventh and eighth in the race with the impressive Sergio Perez leading home Kamikaze Kobayashi. Sauber's sneaky plan of have Perez only one stop was not considered feasible by the rest of the paddock but it came off beautifully for the Mexican youngster. Until scrutineering of course. When both Saubers were rubbed out with a rear wing infringement, which they briefly considered appealing but finally accepted. Bugger.

   Toro Rosso's testing pace was shown not to be an underweight ploy after all and Buemi startled everybody by planting his steed in the top ten in qualifying and had a steady run to claim eighth place in the final results. Lotus's woes have already been mentioned but Virgin seems to have fallen even further back from last year and were a good two seconds behind the Lotus's. HRT were a shambles as they again tried to build their cars at the first race but this year they were caught out by the 107% rule which was strictly enforced. They were packing for Sepang on Saturday evening defiantly claiming they would put up a better result in Malaysia. Then again, they couldn't really do much worse.

   So what do we really know about the pecking order after Albert Park. Not much. The Red Rags are fast, the Virgins aren't. Everyone else had plans and expectations go array and even Pirelli didn't get what they expected from their tyres. It was too cold for the tyres, the straight was too short for the movable rear wings to have any effect, Red Rags turned off their KERS and the list goes on. Roll on Sepang where many more answers, however temporary, will be revealed.    

  

Sam Snape

 

 

02/04/2011