Sunday, 20 September 2015

#F1: Swingapore

What a difference!  Ferrari and Red Bull the dominant teams, Mercedes fighting behind the top four, before eventually retiring one car after Championship leader Lewis Hamilton lost power to end up 40mph slower through the speed trap.  Singapore certainly provided a change from what's been the norm in Formula 1 this season.

Hamilton's lead in the Championship is still assured, and I can't see anyone else taking the title this year.  It was definitely interesting to watch a race playing out without Hamilton fifteen seconds ahead of everyone else, though.  Sebastian Vettel proved he hasn't lost his touch when it comes to controlling a race from the front, as he led from Pole position to take a third win this year in his Ferrari.  His teammate Kimi Räikkönen, on the other hand, finished third but seemed unable to match Vettel or Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo for pace.

Räikkönen seems to turn the car in differently from Vettel at the entry to the corners.  It's hard to see exactly what's going on there without access to more slow replays of the two of them (I might look some up later and do some more analysis when I can compare them more thoroughly), but Vettel is able to squeeze a bit of extra grip in the turn where Räikkönen can't.  Ferrari's upgrades this weekend have helped them a lot, though, and as I remarked on Twitter their capture of technical director James Allison from Lotus is looking ever more inspired – and ever more of a loss for the Enstone-based team.

Speaking of Lotus, it was another weekend to forget, really.  They were not quick at this circuit, but Romain Grosjean managed to deliver a surprised top 10 Qualifying position.  He had a possibility of picking up some points, as well, running in the lower end of the top 10 most of the evening – but I think the team got his strategy wrong.  They were the first to stop for tyres at each Pitstop window, and I think this ended up costing them as his tyres were older than everyone else's in the last few laps of the race, leaving him unable to defend his position from two hungry young Toro Rosso drivers on considerably fresher (and softer) tyres.

It was the Toro Rosso pairing of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. who stole the show, and had everyone talking during the post-race analysis.  However, I was less than impressed on a couple of occasions.

Let's go back to the battle with Grosjean, for a minute.  Max Verstappen passed Grosjean to take eighth place, and did an excellent job of it (although there were a nervous few moments where I half expected a repeat of Monaco, where Verstappen misjudged his braking and run straight into the back of the Lotus driver!), but when it was Sainz' turn to line up Grosjean for an overtake, I felt the Lotus man was rather hard-done-by.  Sainz' overtaking move was brave, and well-executed – but the TV replays showed clearly that he had all four wheels off the circuit as he did it.  He should've had to give the place back.

What irked me even more was that Martin Brundle's commentary for Sky F1 seemed to say that this did not matter.  He claimed that it was a good move, and it would be wrong to penalise drivers for trying to make overtakes.  It's not wrong to penalise drivers for breaking the rules, though, and Sainz clearly did.  I wrote just last week about how important it is for rules to be applied fairly and consistentlyespecially the 'track limits' rule – and here is a commentator and big motor racing personality advocating that we waive punishment for a clear infringement of the rules just because it looked cool.  That is utter nonsense, and makes a mockery of the sport.

As I remarked on Twitter, this is akin to a footballer hitting a fantastic strike from thirty yards out, only to see his shot rebound off the goalpost – only for the referee to say he is awarding a goal anyway, because it was such a good strike.  Yes, Sainz was driving extremely well – but rules are rules, and no matter how nice a piece of driving his overtake on Grosjean was, it was an illegal move as defined by the 'track limits' rule, and that rule should've been upheld accordingly.  (Ironically, Grosjean himself was involved in something similar in Hungary a few years back, when he passed Felipe Massa with a brilliant piece of skill – and was then told he had to relinquish the position because he had gone fractionally outside the limits of the circuit in making his move stick.  As I have said time and again, inconsistent applications of rules ruins racing, and this was another case in point.)

Sainz' teammate Max Verstappen may have made a legal overtake on Grosjean, but his conduct towards his team was less than exemplary.  In the final laps, running eighth with Sainz behind him in ninth, Verstappen looked less and less likely to find a way past Sergio Peréz in front, and his team instructed him to switch with Sainz so the other driver could have a go at getting past the Force India and claiming seventh place for the team.  Verstappen refused.  In this instance, his team boss Franz Tost later said that Verstappen was right to ignore the orders, but I wonder what kind of precedent this sets within that team.

Verstappen's engineer asked him twice to swap places with Sainz.  When Verstappen remonstrated after the first request, the response from the pit wall was a curt "Max, just do it."  How did Verstappen know that this order wasn't for a more serious reason?  Contrast his petulance with Hamilton's professionalism in Monza; a few laps before the end of the race, when he seemed to be cruising to certain victory, Hamilton's race engineer instructed him to pick up the pace and pull out a further gap to Vettel in second place behind him.  "Don't ask questions, just do it – we'll explain all later" said Hamilton's engineer.  The Championship leader complied, without hesitation.  He could obviously tell that the team knew something he didn't (we later found out they had been made aware of an issue, and were anticipating a potential time Penalty which could have taken the win away from Hamilton unless he finished more than twenty seconds ahead of Vettel), and that the situation was urgent.  He responded in a calm, professional manner, doing what was asked of him and securing maximum points for himself and the team.

Verstappen, on the other hand, was supremely lucky.  As it turned out, nothing bad happened as a result of his insubordination (not in terms of the race result, anyway), but how was he to know at the time that there wasn't something more serious behind that request?  The endorsement of his actions by Franz Tost as well makes the situation worse, in my mind.  It has set a precedent at Toro Rosso for ignoring the team, if you think you know best, and just ploughing your own furrow.  Don't expect Sainz to do his team any favours in future Grand Prix after that.  Might that end up hurting their points tally, come the end of the season?  I wouldn't rule it out.

Ultimately, one of biggest deciding factors for those mid-to-lower grid teams was the timing of the Safety Car.  In my view, the Safety Car spent too much time on-track in Singapore today; we could quite easily have had a couple of laps fewer behind the Safety Car on both of the occasions it was called into action.  In the first incident (when Massa and Hulkenberg hit each other), the initial response from Race Control was a Virtual Safety Car.

Now, I like the idea of the Virtual Safety Car.  I see what they are trying to do here, and I think it is laudable.  You control the pace of the cars and allow marshals time to clear the track without bunching up the field too much and having all that nonsense of backmarkers unlapping themselves taking up time.  But it is fairly clear quite early on whether an incident is serious enough to warrant the use of the real Safety Car – especially on a street circuit – and if it is we need to see the Safety Car come out much sooner.  In this instance, we wasted several laps under Virtual Safety Car conditions before Race Control realised the shunt had been bigger than that and plumped for the real Safety Car anyway.

In the second Safety Car period, it was brought out straight away, in response to a bizarre situation of a member of the public casually sauntering along the track.  That was totally fair enough, of course – but long after he'd disappeared off the scene, we were still trundling around behind the Safety Car, as backmarkers unlapped themselves (or, in the case of Manor F1 debutant Alex Rossi, didn't quite), and the pack shuffled itself into order.

This ended up being the root cause of much of the late drama in the race (including the Toro Rosso brouhaha I have mentioned above, as well as a collision between Pastor Maldonado and Jenson Button), as the cars bunched up behind the Safety Car and were held up from restarting the race.  My opinion is the racing could've resumed a couple of laps sooner (at least), and the luck of simply being in the right place at the right time when the Safety Car is deployed (always a factor to some extent, of course, due to the nature of racing) would've had a less significant influence on the outcome of the race than it ended up having.

Next week, in Japan, it will be very interesting to see whether Mercedes return to their usual dominance of proceedings, or whether Ferrari's new upgrades will continue to shine.  My feeling is Mercedes will be back on top, but Ferrari will be closer to them in the past; Red Bull will fade away after being very competitive in Singapore (which is one of their favourite tracks); and we will see yet more inconsistent rules and Penalties unfairly influencing the racing action.

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