German Grand Prix 2010 - 26/07/10

Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) - Getty Images

You would be forgiven for believing that Ferrari and Fernando Alonso had reached rock bottom at Silverstone in regards to their 2010 championship campaign, but the events of Hockenheim have shown that Ferrari can snatch acrimony from the jaws of glory all by themselves and without the help of a safety car, the weather or the stewards. It appears that alongside the championship momentum they have inherited from Red Bull, they have also inherited the controversy. Ferrari’s decision to move Felipe Massa over for Fernando Alonso for victory at the German GP may on the one hand be completely understandable, but their execution of the aforementioned swap has landed them in deep water with the fans, media and the authorities. What should have been just cause for celebration amongst the Maranello squad has degraded into a fervent defence of their tactics.

British Grand Prix 2010 - 19/07/10

As the 2010 season’s momentum once again passes through Red Bull hands like a baton, a pattern is emerging as to how the Milton Keynes squad deliver their victories compared to a seasoned winning outfit like McLaren. When Sebastian Vettel won in Valencia, Mark Webber had a dreadful start and ended up using Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus as a launch pad to a horrific airborne accident. And as Mark Webber strode away to his series-leading third victory of the season at Silverstone, teammate Vettel received a puncture from Hamilton at the start and spent most of the day at the back of the grid, eventually recovering to 7th. The net result is that as Red Bull Racing emerge from the first half of the season with back to back wins, they are neither top of the drivers’ or constructors’ table despite their majority 5 wins this year, compared to McLaren’s 4 victories.

Mid-season Review - On The Verge - 14/07/10

Nico Rosberg

One driver who could easily have found himself in the top 5 so far in 2010 is Mercedes GP’s Nico Rosberg. This season is without a doubt the most important year in Rosberg’s career so far, his first opportunity with a proven front running outfit, the very team that won last year’s drivers’ and constructors’ world championships. Alongside him at Mercedes is seven times world champion, Michael Schumacher. If ever there was an opportunity to gauge the real potential and talent of an F1 driver, surely this is it for Rosberg. On the whole, Nico has outperformed Schumacher in qualifying and on race day, the only exceptions being the Spanish and Turkish GPs where Michael outqualified Nico and finished ahead in the races. This was attributed mainly to Mercedes bringing a raft of upgrades to the car which allegedly suited Schumacher more than Rosberg, specifically a longer wheelbase. As soon as Mercedes switched back to the short wheelbase for Monaco, Nico outqualified Michael again, though it should be noted that a late-race penalty for Schumacher dropped him out of the points, promoting Nico to 6th. In recent races, Rosberg appears to be rediscovering the scintillating early season form that made the paddock stand up and take notice, notching up another podium at the British GP to go with the 2 earlier podiums in China and Malaysia. However, this was also to be the year that Rosberg finally made the breakthrough as a Formula 1 race winner with arguably his best opportunity being the Chinese GP which he led for a while before falling off the road and gifting the lead to Jenson Button. His pace relative to Button and position on the road could just as easily have seen him come home 1st. Admittedly, Ross Brawn has conceded that his group concentrated much resource on last year’s titles at the expense of the 2010 car, with the development race not flattering Mercedes GP so far this season. As heartening as it is to see Nico find his way back towards the front of the pack, one feels that as McLaren and Red Bull gear up for a fierce championship run-in, that doesn’t leave much space on the top step for Nico Rosberg and Mercedes.

Fernando Alonso

Before the full extent of Red Bull’s advantage became clear in 2010, Fernando Alonso and Ferrari were the title favourites. With Sebastian Vettel’s Bahrain gift, after 1 race there was no reason to believe differently, which is precisely the point at which Alonso’s season picked up downhill speed instead of upwards momentum. Various dramas have included a first corner collision with Button and Schumacher in Melbourne, vehicle expiration in Malaysia after a bad decision on qualifying tyres, drive through penalties in China and Great Britain, catastrophic qualifying in Turkey, a crash in P3 at Monaco which resulted in Fernando sitting out qualifying and issues with traffic in Canada when he had race winning pace and poor safety car luck in Valencia relegating him to the lower points-paying places, as well as suffering yet another ego-crushing late-race move from a driver in a fundamentally slower car, with a revitalised Kamui Kobayashi taking over the mantle from Takuma Sato. The fact that Alonso was still very much in touch with the championship leaders even after the Turkish GP is a reflection of the topsy-turvy nature of this year’s championship and all the different drivers who have found their way to the top of the pile from race to race. The lack of consistency amongst the leaders allowed Fernando’s great pace in races to keep him in touch throughout a number of solid recovery drives, but Valencia and Silverstone saw Ferrari and Alonso fall foul of the stewards and safety car rules, leaving him nearly 50 points behind Hamilton in the standings going into the second half of the season. Fans of Alonso will be desperate to see what was originally billed as a dream combination finally come good and string together a series of faultless weekends in order to bring the double champion and arguably the most complete driver in the sport back into championship contention. One would have believed that teammate Felipe Massa would have been one of the greatest challenges to Alonso in his debut Ferrari year, instead of his own uncharacteristic propensity for errors and questionable decisions in 2010.

Rubens Barrichello

At Williams, Rubens Barrichello has predictably outperformed highly rated rookie teammate Nico Hulkenburg, sporting 29 points to the Hulk’s 2 points. The team are undoubtedly disappointed that the car is not capable of podium finishes under normal circumstances, often struggling to even make the top 10 in Barrichello’s hands. Having said that, the last two races in Valencia and Silverstone have seen the never-ending Rubens story pick up 4th and 5th place finishes on days when bigger names have run into trouble. Also predicted was the possibility of Hulkenburg starting to match Rubens on pace in qualifying by mid-season, and there are some small signs of that coming to pass. The Hulk has outqualified Rubens on 3 out of 10 occasions this year, most recently at the European GP. Rubens still definitely has the measure of Hulkenburg in the races as he clearly showed his ability to maximise an opportunity in the last 2 GPs and increasing his points tally by 22 at those two events alone.

Kamui Kobayashi

On the subject of rookies, Sauber’s Japanese newcomer Kamui Kobayashi has finally begun exhibiting more of the promise seen at the end of 2009 in his two Toyota outings. Qualifying roughly on par with the vastly experienced Pedro De La Rosa, Kobayashi has scored points three times in the last 4 events after a string of 4 consecutive retirements at the start of 2010, most notably running 3rd for a significant period of the European GP ahead of Jenson Button’s McLaren and pulling memorable late race moves on Fernando Alonso and Sebastien Buemi. The vastly improved Sauber package has given both drivers the tools to run competitively, De La Rosa even making Q3 at Silverstone. The securing of technical director James Key from Force India has added to the performance of one of the most disappointing packages at the start of 2010, but Key himself admits that the medium to high-speed nature of Silverstone suited the C29’s characteristics.

Photographs by Paul Hitchens

Mid-season Review - Top 5 - 13/07/10

1 – Lewis Hamilton (McLaren)

Lewis Hamilton

Throughout the first flyaway phase of the season, Hamilton showed plenty of speed and fighting spirit without the luck required to emerge as a winner in 2010. An unfavourable tyre call and collision with Mark Webber in Australia and a difficult qualifying in Malaysia meant that his scorching progress through the field on both occasions didn’t get him on the podium. A tactical masterstroke by teammate Jenson Button kept him off the top step at China and the Spanish GP saw a certain 2nd place finish snatched away from Lewis in the closing stages thanks to car failure. However, come Turkey and Canada, the McLaren had made up noticeable ground on the dominating Red Bulls. Hamilton won the Turkish GP after forcing the Red Bulls into the now infamous pressure error that left the way clear for Lewis’s first win of 2010. Just as in his debut season of 2007, Hamilton followed up his breakthrough win of this year with a second consecutive victory, and the subsequent lead of the championship. What was more remarkable about his Canadian performance was the fact that it was the sole occasion on which a Red Bull hadn’t started from pole this season. Despite the McLaren appearing visibly slower than the Red Bulls in Valencia and Silverstone, Hamilton bagged a brace of 2nd place finishes to maintain his lead of the world championship. Lewis has shown himself to be arguably the best overtaker in the sport currently, coming out on top during memorable tussles with Button, Alonso, Rosberg and Schumacher. The only blots on his copybook this year consist of the harsh words he’s had for his team during the races and weaving in front of Vitaly Petrov during the Malaysian GP. Hamilton’s ability to consistently finish high up the order and invariably move forward from difficult positions in a race will see him to this year’s World Championship if the Red Bull duo continue to fall over each other and suffer the bad luck that has stopped them from running away with both titles this year.

2 – Robert Kubica (Renault)

Robert Kubica

Right up until the beginning of the Lewis Hamilton phase of the 2010 World Championship began in Turkey, Robert Kubica was the driver of the season. An unfortunate start to the year in Bahrain masked the true progress and potential of the Renault team, until an inspired drive to 2nd place in Australia’s varying conditions made it clear that F1’s first Pole was back. Kubica followed what appeared to be a one-off result in special circumstances with seven more points finishes, a run that ended with his first retirement of the season in the recent British GP. Those points finishes included a 4th place finish in Malaysia and 3rd place in Monaco. As always, Kubica’s ability on temporary circuits has shone through in 2010, with his Renault being a genuine pole position threat in Monte Carlo and Montreal. To come back from the difficult 2009 that both Renault and Kubica have had and fly out of the traps as they have done in the first half of the season has been magnificent to see, and a timely reminder of the talent at his and Renault’s disposal. Kubica has also demonstrated he has lost none of his fight, often having to employ defensive tactics to maintain an early race advantage. His head-to-heads with Schumacher in Canada and Alonso in Britain will have indicated a significant unwillingness to relent. You get the feeling that he’s gotten the absolute maximum out of his package every weekend, thoroughly putting rookie Petrov, who has actually done reasonably well, in the shade.

3 – Jenson Button (McLaren)

Jenson Button

Incredibly, Jenson Button has probably done more for his career, reputation and legacy as a top F1 driver and world champion in the first half of the 2010 season by moving to McLaren and taking on home-grown hero Hamilton than through his efforts for Brawn GP in 2009. Two glittering early season victories in Melbourne and China highlighted Button’s speed, tactical nous and confidence in himself, firmly establishing Jenson as a serious title contender and the biggest intra-team challenge to Hamilton since Alonso. With Jenson’s easy manner warming him to the team, his tenure at McLaren will undoubtedly be longer than the Spaniard’s. Despite the strong start, the unforgettable battle with Hamilton at Turkey, his pass of Alonso to claim 2nd at Canada and a strong recovery drive at Silverstone to bag 4th from 14th on the grid, Lewis is slowly exerting a measure of superiority over Button on sheer performance in qualifying and race results. Button has also shown slightly less aggression in overtaking than Hamilton has, and is starting to find more limiting issues within the car at certain weekends. However, a similar ability to always move forward in races and his proximity to Lewis in the standings means that as upgrades continue to be placed on the MP4-25, Button will always have a shot at victory and subsequently, retaining his driver’s title. More than ever Jenson needs a weekend where he outperforms Hamilton in order to maintain the credibility of his championship bid as a first year McLaren driver.

=4 – Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)

Sebastian Vettel

When you think of Sebastian Vettel in 2010, every image of a race-winning, pole-owning, world champion elect outing is accompanied by the memory of a brake failure, engine burst, pointless collision, drama. The incident with Mark Webber at the Turkish GP 3 races ago is still casting a shadow over operations at Red Bull, which undoubtedly affects the drivers. Questionable driving from Vettel on that occasion, as well as a similar jink towards Hamilton in the Chinese GP pitlane and his clumsy pass on Sutil at the recent British GP have all painted the picture of a driver who’s still on the verge of becoming the full article. Despite all of this and despite the fact that the Red Bull RB6 is without a shadow of a doubt the class of the 2010 field, Vettel has produced spectacular laps in qualifying and should really have more than the 2 wins this season to his name. Technical issues have robbed him of wins at Bahrain and Australia where nobody, including Webber, appeared to be on the same racetrack. If at any point this season a modicum of consistency and calm descends upon the Red Bull garage, Vettel is still close enough to the McLaren boys in the standings to deliver the championship that this car, alleged intra-team favouritism and his ability can clinch. Ten races into the season and we’re still waiting for that to happen, but we’ve had glimpses at Malaysia and Valencia of what is possible when a weekend goes to plan, and Seb’s scything late-race recovery drive at Silverstone has shown what’s possible when it doesn’t. The excitement and interest in this year’s title race has undoubtedly been helped by the issues faced by RBR, but however many future titles Vettel amasses, to miss an opportunity like 2010 for Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel would be criminal, even for someone who is close to being painted as the new F1 villain.

=4 – Mark Webber (Red Bull)

Mark Webber

On the opposite side of the Red Bull garage sits Mark Webber, at the opposite end of his career to Sebastian Vettel. It is incredibly difficult to separate these two as Webber has had equally glittering moments to Vettel this year, including a string of poles and two stunning wins at Barcelona and Monaco, as well as a controlled drive under difficult conditions for him personally at Silverstone. A very public spat with his teammate and now possibly his team may have earned Webber sympathy and followers, but at this stage of his career and with the opportunity he has to finally claim a major world championship, the outspoken Aussie may do well to get his head down and concentrate on the business of winning. Something he did most admirably at the British GP, but winning against such internal adversity will inevitably take its toll. In contrast to the highs, you always feel Webber’s style of attacking and defending will lead to incident. His collision with Lewis Hamilton in Australia, the horrific airborne episode with Heikki Kovalainen in Valencia and to a much lesser degree with Vettel at Turkey could all have been easily avoided. Valuable points lost on such occasions have allowed Hamilton and Button to creep ahead in the title chase. However, the way Webber is resisting any possible attempts by RBR to engineer Vettel into the lead driver position could help to keep the team honest as every move they make is widely and publicly dissected. Regardless of the immensely superior machinery at his disposal, Webber has followed up his breakthrough year admirably in regards to consistently being at the front and showing himself to be a regular race winner and series leader now he is free of his leg injury. The 2010 world championship is as much of a reality for Webber as it is for Vettel as long as the Red Bull management do not exert their authority too often over the race team’s operations and attempts to keep things equal between the two, although Christian Horner and Adrian Newey’s role in the British GP front wing debacle should not be understated.

Photographs by Paul Hitchens

Turkish Grand Prix 2010 - 12/06/10

On lap 40 of the Turkish Grand Prix, the 2010 Formula 1 season exploded. Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel who were joint-leading the world drivers’ championship and running 1st and 2nd in the race, drew up side by side in their constructors’ championship leading Red Bull Renaults on the approach to turn 12. The race leaders, the championship leaders, the very spearheads and pacesetters of Formula 1 2010, point-to-point, neck and neck, producing one very unexpected victor. But how did things reach that stage?

Having bagged a third successive pole, the Aussie was odds-on favourite to consolidate his position as the man on form. Vettel looked to have something for him right at the end of Q3 but a roll-bar failure meant he only lined up 3rd on the grid, the Red Bulls split by Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren. Jenson Button closed out the second row confirming the pace advantage of the Red Bulls who were flat through turn 8, and the McLarens armed with their effective F-ducts. They were followed by Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, the young German again being pipped by the Old Man. Renault looked to be the 4th fastest team in Turkey all weekend with both cars sandwiching Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. Fernando Alonso again found himself facing a difficult race after making a mistake on what would have been his best lap and lining up 12th as a result, although he didn’t believe he had the pace for Q3. Sauber finally had something to cheer as Kamui Kobayashi made Q3, also Bruno Senna qualified his Hispania ahead of Lucas Di Grassi’s Virgin. After announcing their imminent split with Dallara, this is a major result for a team that has had dominion over the back row for most of the season.

As the lights went out, Vettel turned P3 to P2 by passing Hamilton before turn 1, but crucially Lewis regained the position slipping up the inside out of turn 2, hanging it around the outside for 3 and making it stick. A very important move in the race as it placed the McLaren between the Red Bulls, forcing the pace of the frontrunners to remain hot for the duration of the event. The significance and consequences of that fact would be felt for many days after the race. Michael Schumacher also fashioned a great start for Mercedes, passing Button around the outside of turn 1, but a repeat of Barcelona was avoided for Button as he re-took 4th place from Schumacher before the lap was out. The events of lap 1 clearly demonstrated how difficult it would be for any car to shake the McLarens. Elsewhere, Nico Hulkenburg and Sebastien Buemi came together on the opening lap in keeping with their seasons so far. After Buemi felt the need to make clear to the media that he finished ahead of his teammate in Monaco, 16th place in Turkey will rankle.

The first part of the race consisted of Hamilton very much keeping pace with Webber up front, the straightline speed of the McLaren bringing it into contention by turn 12 despite the time and ground lost in turn 8. Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button running 3rd and 4th also remained in close attention while rapidly dropping the rest of the field. Vettel was the first of the frontrunners to pit as Red Bull brought him in a lap before Webber and Hamilton pitted nose-to-tail at the end of lap 15. They would have departed nose-to-tail as well had Hamilton not had an issue with the left rear, allowing Vettel to nip ahead for 2nd place as the McLaren lost ground. Button stayed out a lap further and was closer to the leading pack as a result after his stop.

Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, who started the season with a great debut victory for the marque celebrating their 800th GP in Turkey, pitted early at the end of lap 11. This allowed him to leapfrog a number of cars ahead of him and put himself in the points after a disastrous qualifying. In a season of 7 races so far to have collided with Button and Schumacher at the start of the Australian GP, to have started towards the back and retired due to a bad tyre call in Malaysian GP qualifying, to have jumped the start in China, to have put the car into the wall in Monaco GP Practice when winning pace was evident, Alonso’s Turkish GP qualifying mishap marks one of the most error-strewn starts to a campaign the double world champ has ever experienced. It is a reflection of the bizarre happenings this year that Alonso is still well in touch with the championship leaders.

The suspense continued to build as Hamilton made advances on Vettel, forcing Vettel in turn to put pressure on Webber up front, exchanging fastest sectors and laps. A sense of anticipation was building unlike anything experienced so far this year, a certainty in the air that something cataclysmic would unfold at the front of the Turkish Grand Prix against a backdrop of possible rain. All the while, fuel consumption at McLaren was an issue as the pace turned out to be hotter than predicted. By lap 39 Mark Webber had been asked to turn down his engine, something he later alluded to in the press conference, while apparently Vettel had managed to eke out his fuel consumption a lap further. This allowed him to run the engine richer for a lap or so longer, thus bringing us to the point of convergence on lap 40. Vettel, having gotten a great run on Webber from turn 8 onwards, looked right then ducked left on approach to turn 12. Webber, as he has done to so many others, squeezed Vettel onto the marbles leaving just enough space for a solitary Red Bull RB6 which Vettel duly filled. Time slows down. Both cars maintain their line for a miniscule moment in time, or was it miniscule? How long was it for? A second? 10 seconds? Vettel moves half a car-length ahead, his rear wheels alongside Webber’s sidepod. Then, eager to elbow his way into a better corner entry, Vettel visibly turned the wheel to the right and drove into Webber’s side. Both were spat off the track, Vettel’s car with terminal damage, Webber requiring a pit stop. McLaren cannot believe their fortune as Hamilton and Button inherit the lead.

The gravity of this event may well be felt strongly throughout the rest of the season and throughout Red Bull Racing as it has highlighted that the much lauded team spirit in RBR isn’t quite the beacon of unity once believed. The extreme sports brand that turned itself into a serious F1 team now has a serious F1 problem. Red Bull motorsport advisor Dr Helmut Marko openly sided with Vettel, despite his protégé having a penchant for turning right on opponents (see Vettel vs Hamilton in Shanghai pitlane), and Christian Horner has had much smoothing work to do since. Webber had allegedly requested that Vettel back off, but his request was denied due to the close proximity of the McLarens. Neither driver has accepted any blame for the incident 2 weeks on.

That was not the end of the excitement at Istanbul Park as on lap 49 with both McLarens being urged to save fuel and look after their tyres amid a few spots of inconsequential rain, Hamilton was assured by chief engineer Phil Prew that Jenson would not overtake him after he turned down the wick. Hamilton backed off considerably through turn 8 allowing Jenson a strong run at him. He made a move around the outside of turn 12, which became the inside of turn 13 and the subsequent lead of the Turkish GP. Button’s compromised entry into the final corner allowed Hamilton the opportunity to re-pass him into turn 1 where after very light contact, he retook the lead. A demonstration to Red Bull as to how teammates battling for the lead should respect each other’s track position and anticipate a competitor’s whereabouts on the tarmac during such an occurrence. The contrast couldn’t be starker between the two sets of events, however McLaren were not to come out of the Turkish GP smelling of roses amid accusations of fuel saving and tyre management instructions being used as a disguise for team orders. The two McLarens proceeded to follow each other home to record their second one-two of the season, and Hamilton’s first victory of 2010. Lewis’s less-than-ecstatic demeanour after the race and the obvious confusion fuelled rumours of misunderstood team orders. Genuine fuel and tyre concerns remain McLaren’s official explanation for the confusion and backing off.

Behind the fortunate McLarens, Webber managed to hobble back to the pits for new tyres and a replacement front wing, while having enough of a gap back to Schumacher in 4th place to retain the final podium position. Schumacher himself held teammate Rosberg off again to finish just ahead. Behind the Mercedes duo, driver of the season so far Robert Kubica put on another solid show in his Renault ahead of Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. Fernando Alonso’s somewhat clumsy pass on Vitaly Petrov in the closing stages promoted him to 8th behind his stable mate, but Petrov needed to pit for new tyres due to a resulting puncture, dropping him out of a well-deserved points finish. Adrian Sutil passed Kamui Kobayashi as well late on, the latter scoring BMW Sauber Ferrari’s first point of the 2010 season.

So who exactly was the aforementioned unexpected victor of the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix? Was it Lewis Hamilton who showed enough pace and tenacity in Turkey and indeed all season to be deserving of the win regardless of the energy drink explosion ahead of him, giving McLaren the lead in the constructors’ championship? Was it Mark Webber, who in light of the ensuing intra-team drama and seeming marginalisation actually came out of the Turkish GP with an extended points lead in the drivers’ championship? Or was it in fact the millions of F1 supporters and fans who witnessed a magnificently tense race which for once actually had a fitting climax with equal measures of gasp-worthy drama and unforgettable side-by-side racing at the very front? One desperately hopes that in future, “fuel-saving”, “tyre management” and the forced reigning-in of F1 drivers’ competitive instincts by nerve-shattered team principals do not rob us of the very things that made the 2010 Turkish GP unforgettable.