Monday, 30 March 2015

#F1 – Mercedes unsettled, Ferrari resurgent

Quite a few interesting things to have come out of yesterday's Malaysian Grand Prix in Sepang.  The big headlines were the first Ferrari victory since Spain 2013 – and the return of Sebastian Vettel to the top of the Podium, after a win-less season in 2014.  But we'll get to that…

In his interview for the BBC ahead of the race itself yesterday, Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg spoke of the disappointment of narrowly losing last year's Championship title to teammate Lewis Hamilton; however, he also said that he was 'over it' after just one day.  I'm sorry, Nico, but I'm just not buying it!

When you look at his driving (both yesterday, and two weekends ago in Melbourne), Rosberg is still very clearly feeling the effects of having lost out to his teammate at the end of the 2014 season.  Where Hamilton appears relaxed, confident and assertive on track – clearly a driver who is enjoying himself, and who has found a rhythm in the car – Rosberg seems cowed and nervous by comparison.  On several occasions, Rosberg has pulled out of overtaking manoeuvres, or has seemed half-hearted under braking, in a way which would've been quite uncharacteristic of him last year – and the way in which he is so frequently asking his team for information about other cars and other teams over the radio makes him seem jittery and unsure of himself.

To me, it seems obvious that Rosberg has not yet recovered psychologically from the toll of the 2014 title battle, and the damage which losing to Hamilton caused him; he won't truly be back to his old self until he can take the fight to Hamilton on track – and win – to start building his confidence back up.  Unfortunately for him, there seems little chance of his actually achieving this, at the moment – Hamilton has looked in another class so far this season, and he has made Rosberg (himself an exceptional racing driver) look naïve and ordinary by comparison.  Rosberg knows this too, and as a consequence Hamilton has him beaten before they even get into the cars.

However, for all his confidence, and all his momentum so far this season, Hamilton has his weaknesses too.  And this is where Vettel comes back into the picture…  I don't think Hamilton and the Mercedes team expected such a robust challenge from Ferrari this weekend, and I think the result was the Vettel caught them napping slightly.  For an élite racing team, that's pretty poor.

Once Hamilton realised he had a fight on his hands in the shape of Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari, he became agitated and surly, snapping at his race engineer over the radio and appearing to criticise the team for strategy decisions in public.  For all his tremendous natural racing flair, Hamilton is a driver who is quick to react when he believes he has been wronged – I wrote last year that his achilles' heel as a sportsman is how quickly he allows himself to descend into a 'victim' mentality when he feels things aren't going his way, and we saw signs of this again towards the end of yesterday's race, as he began to see a Vettel win as the most likely outcome of the afternoon's racing.

Hamilton can complain all he likes that he was put on the wrong tyre by his team, and that this is why he lost the race to Vettel, but this is just sour grapes – Vettel looked the better driver for the vast majority of the Grand Prix, and the Ferrari was clearly the fastest car in a straight line.  Hamilton could have been on any tyres, and it wouldn't have made a huge amount of difference, Vettel was just too strong for him.  Vettel thoroughly deserved to win in Sepang yesterday.  He was confident and self-assured, and he is obviously loving life at Ferrari!  I wonder whether this story strikes anyone else as familiar, though?  A confident, young German driver with a ruthless competitive instinct and forensic attention to detail who already has a few World Championships under his belt moves to a Ferrari team who've spent a few years in the wilderness, drifting aimlessly along while other teams take the glory – before long, Ferrari become a force to be reckoned with once more…

So, is Vettel the new Schumacher?  Well, more than one thing contributes to a racing team's success – that much is obvious.  But the fact that Vettel has been a positive influence at Ferrari, and that their return to form is at least partly linked to his arrival at the team, is (to me) self-evident.

But credit must also go to the designers – in particular, James Allison, poached from Lotus a couple of seasons ago.  It is worth remembering that when Schumacher left Benetton for Ferrari at the end of the 1995 season, he took with him the technical team of Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne who had made the Benetton team so successful; although he didn't come from the same team as Vettel, or at exactly the same time, Allison seems now to be filling that rôle, and the car he has designed for this season is better than anything Ferrari have produced for a number of years.

In short, for the first time in quite a while, we are seeing a Ferrari team with purpose and direction – a Ferrari team hungry to achieve success once more.  The link between this upturn in performance and the arrivals of Allison and Vettel is too strong to ignore; their influence is clearly having a big affect on Ferrari.  So where does this leave Kimi Räikkönen?

Räikkönen had a pretty torrid season last year – his first back with Ferrari after his sabbatical, and subsequent stint with Lotus – and played a poor second fiddle to Fernando Alonso throughout the season.  Although I would give the edge to Alonso on pure racing ability, Räikkönen is a great driver in his own right (and a former World Champion too, let's not forget!), and I do not think the gulf between him and Alonso is anything like as large as it seemed to be last year.  The 2014 Ferrari did not suit Räikkönen one bit – it was a pretty weak effort all-round from the Italian team, to be fair, but somehow Alonso was able to wring its neck to a greater extent than his Finnish teammate, who often found himself languishing outside the points as a result.

This year, Räikkönen is obviously much happier with the car he has been given, and his performances and attitudes on track have borne this out.  And yet, he still doesn't seem to get the joy his teammate does, in terms of race results.  Is Kimi the unluckiest man in Formula 1?  I would say there are plenty of candidates for that title, but Räikkönen's name has to be up there.

In Australia, Ferrari were running strongly, but had a few issues with pit-stops; those issues all happened when Räikkönen was in the pits, and never when Vettel was stopping for tyres.  In the end, Räikkönen had to retire due to safety concerns regarding a wheel which had not been put on properly during a stop, and he scored no points while Vettel went on to take his first Podium finish in Ferrari red.  Yesterday, Räikkönen was matching Vettel's laptimes during qualifying – until he got caught out by the rain.

The weather had a much bigger effect on the Finn than on his teammate, simply down to when they had gone out on track, and he ended up qualifying in eleventh place, nine grid slots down from Vettel in second.  And this meant that, at the start of the race, Räikkönen had traffic to deal with – he suffered an early puncture, and although a Safety Car period shortly after helped nullifying some of the time he lost as a result of the puncture, that set the tone for him, in a race where he was always trying to make up lost ground.  Fourth place was a decent result behind a flying Sebastian Vettel and the two Mercedes of Hamilton and Rosberg, but could he have tried for a Podium place if he hadn't been beset by yet more misfortune?  Surely his luck will have to turn soon?

I hope so.  A strong, confident Kimi Räikkönen is good for Ferrari, and good for F1 in general.  With Ferrari coming back into the picture, Mercedes still strong, and a mid-grid of exciting young talent and teams who have certainly improved hugely on their 2014 cars (which leads me to wonder whether Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat felt a little like they were both back at Toro Rosso this weekend, as both of their junior team's rookie drivers finished ahead of them?), this should be a fascinating season to watch as it unfolds.

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