Monday, 8 September 2014

#F1: Monza Bonanza

It has been my goal for a while, now, to post a short write-up of each Grand Prix in the days following it (or, at least, before Qualifying for the next race starts!), even if nothing truly remarkable has happened, as some kind of 'regular feature' on this Blog.  Although, in all likelihood, it is doubtful whether I shall successfully be able to navigate this small, dreamlike coracle of prose between the Scylla and Charybdis of work commitments and laziness, I am going to attempt it nonetheless - and therefore humbly set out my thoughts on yesterday's Italian Grand Prix in Monza herein…

Hamilton back to his best

I wrote here after Monaco about how important it is for Lewis Hamilton not to let himself get dragged into a downward psychological spiral of victimhood, and to carry on racing his way rather than always comparing his fortunes on-track with Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg's.  It was clear that Hamilton was not happy after what happened between himself and Rosberg on the first lap in Belgium two weeks ago, so I was very pleased to see that he seemed to have put that behind him as he came to Italy.

Hamilton was too much for Rosberg in Qualifying in Monza, and took a brilliant Pole position.  His start was poor, and he ended up chasing the race in fourth place; it would've been easy, at this point, to get disheartened again, and to turn into Mario Balotelli - "why always me?"

Thankfully, Hamilton didn't let this happen - he put the disappointments of the start behind him, knuckled down and set about the task of reeling in Rosberg's lead.  After the first lap, Hamilton was flawless; he didn't do a thing wrong as he hunted down Rosberg, and it was one of the most dominant and complete performances I have seen from him recently.  (The speculation that Mercedes 'ordered' Rosberg to give way to Hamilton as 'punishment' for the incident at Spa is so inordinately stupid that I shan't address it here.)

If Hamilton goes on to win the Championship this year, this race at Monza will be looked on as a turning point in the season; I hope his new positivity continues as we go to Singapore in two weeks time.

Rosberg not a bad egg

The booing of Nico Rosberg on the Podium - both last time out in Belgium, and again in Italy yesterday - is simply not on.  He is a racing driver, paid to deliver results for his team, and at the moment he is leading the Championship - fair play to him.

Personally, I do think it would be brilliant to see a British driver win the title again, and there is no question that Hamilton has the means to overhaul Rosberg's lead in the remaining races.  However, if Rosberg is crowned World Champion after the final race in Abu Dhabi, he will have won the title on merit and he will be a worthy Champion.

Penalty precedents

Another talking-point after yesterday's race was the five second time Penalty given to Kevin Magnussen by the Stewards after they deemed he had 'forced' Valtteri Bottas off the track while defending his position from Bottas' overtaking manoeuvre into the Turn 1 chicane.  I disagreed with this decision, and took issue with the Penalty for two reasons.

Firstly, the Penalty was issued as a 'Five Second Stop/Go Penalty' - ie. to be taken in the Pit Lane - but it was decided that, as no further Pit Stops were planned (Monza is traditionally a one-stop race), the five seconds could simply be added to Magnussen's overall finishing time.  In my view, this changes the nature of the Penalty - and, therefore, changes the nature of the race.  The Stop/Go Penalty is about more than just the time you lose in the Pit Lane - the time you spend stationary puts you at a different place on the track, possibly amongst different cars also fighting for position.  The result of this is a different type of race.  Simply adding the time on at the end of the Grand Prix removes this element of uncertainty, and turns the race into something of a time-trial event for the cars involved; Formula 1 has never been about that.

Secondly, the Penalty itself was overly harsh on Magnussen, who was defending his line from Bottas' oncoming Williams.  Neither car was driving dangerously (unlike Esteban Guttiérez' weaving around on the straight when he hit Romain Grosjean's Lotus and gave himself a puncture), it was simply a 'racing incident' - the sort of thing which is perhaps to be expected when cars are fighting for position on a race track.  I worry that the Stewards will set a precedent for giving Penalties for ever more minor incidents, thus making the drivers more cautious in their approach, reducing overtaking and on-track battles and sterilising Grand Prix racing.

It is, perhaps, ironic that this creeping trend towards risk aversion comes at the same time as a whole new slew of ridiculous proposals to 'make the sport more exciting'.  I have almost lost count of the number of time I have written about how moronic it is to try and 'engineer' and 'create' drama in motorsport, and how making the racing more artificial is an insult to the fans.

We were treated to some fantastic on-track action at Monza yesterday, from the likes of Bottas and Magnussen, as well as Jenson Button, Sergio Pérez, Felipe Massa and Daniel Ricciardo - that the powers-that-be in F1 could seek to discourage this sort of wheel-to-wheel racing through ever more petty Penalties, while at the same time hoping to manufacture more fake 'excitement' is mind-boggling.  The racing we saw yesterday was raw and real, not 'created for our entertainment' by titanium skid-blocks and tyres which barely last five laps; I would hate a situation to develop where the only overtaking moves we ever see are DRS-assisted in specially designated zones, and racing instinct has been neutered by the fear of incurring punishment for being too bold.

Ricciardo a rising star

Each time I see Daniel Ricciardo race, I am more impressed by him than I was the last time.  He is a master at seeing space on the track, reading situations and picking braking points, and he is a joy to watch in the car.  Given the right car, he will go on winning races for a long time to come.

I confess I entertained the possibility that Ricciardo's appointment at Red Bull (a 'promotion', if you like, from the junior Toro Rosso team) was in order to provide four-time World Champion and apple of Helmut Marko's eye Sebastian Vettel with a compliant teammate, already well versed in 'the Red Bull way' of doing things.  Various rumours had circulated last year about the possibility of Fernando Alonso or Kimi Räikkönen stepping into the second Red Bull alongside Vettel, and speculation was rife that Ricciardo was eventually chosen because Vettel had been reluctant to have his status as Red Bull's de facto Number 1 driver challenged by another word-class former Champion.  Given the way the season has gone for him so far, perhaps Vettel is now wishing he did have Räikkönen or Alonso as his teammate, after all…?

The Pit Lane brain drain

If this season has taught us anything, it is the importance of high-ranking technical staff within a Formula 1 team.  Any team which has enjoyed periods of dominance within the sport would not have been able to manage that without a visionary heading up the technical side of the operation - Ross Brawn at Ferrari (and, later on, at his own 'privateer' team), and Adrian Newey at Red Bull are perhaps the best examples in the modern era of Formula 1.  If further proof were needed, however, we need only look at the fortunes of two teams whose fortunes this season could scarcely be more different from their results last year.

Williams have had a dismal time in recent years, and hadn't really produced a car capable of challenging for Podium finishes for ten years.  This year, however, they have reemerged as a serious force in the paddock, and yesterday they overtook Ferrari to claim third place in the Constructors' Championship (that this happened at Ferrari's home race could only have added insult to injury for the veteran Italian marque who haven't been able to produce a decent car since 2009).  The decision of the Williams team to switch to the Mercedes engine for this season was inspired (the Mercedes is easily the best engine in the field), but when it comes to designing a car the capture of Pat Symonds as a technical director is huge, and with him on board Williams have shot back up the standings as a result of his influence.

Contrast this with Lotus, who were, this time last year, the closest challengers to the dominant Red Bulls.  Last year's Lotus was a very well-designed car, even on a much tighter budget than that available to most of the top teams in the paddock, and was particularly remarkable for how kind it was to its tyres.  This year, however, the Lotus team has seen an exodus of talent, with highly-rated designer James Allen leaving to join Ferrari, and star driver Kimi Räikkönen following suit, and team boss Eric Boullier jumping ship to McLaren.  Lotus now find themselves adrift at the back of the field, with a car which looks about as easy to drive as a ride-on lawnmower, and considerably less enjoyable.  In yesterday's race, Romain Grosjean - who finished on the Podium more times than any other non-Red Bull driver in the second half of last season - found himself fighting for most of the race with the Caterhams and Marussias which are generally referred to as the 'back teams'.  How the mighty have fallen!

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