Brazilian Grand Prix 2008 - 15/11/08

A little way before the halfway point of the 2008 F1 championship, the season began threatening to become a classic. Having witnessed what will undoubtedly stand as one of the most dramatic, memorable and last-minute championship deciders in the history of Formula 1, that threat has been realised. When Felipe Massa crossed the finish line at Interlagos in 2008 as the race winner, he was world champion. Thirty-nine seconds later, Lewis Hamilton had crossed the same line in 5th position and stolen the title back from Massa by passing Timo Glock's dry-shod Toyota after Juncao corner.

Had Timo Glock and Toyota followed the same strategy as the other frontrunners and pitted for intermediates, he wouldn't have finished as high up as he eventually did, so that was entirely the correct decision for him and his team. It would have stood as an even better decision had the rain not intensified on the final lap. Sebastian Vettel's pass on Lewis Hamilton came about because McLaren had set up Hamilton's car with little downforce. Compared to Vettel's Toro Rosso, the McLaren's wet weather pace was compromised as it was primed for straightline speed.

Vettel and Toro Rosso (not to mention Fernando Alonso and Renault) had put themselves in a position to capitalise on Hamilton's wet weather pace by pitting early for dry weather tyres. Alonso was able to run and finish as high as second due to the early switch. Vettel spent a significant amount of time towards the front as a result of running a light 3-stop strategy. All of the above combined to allow Vettel a shot at Hamilton in the wet closing stages. Demoting Hamilton to 5th, a thrilling finale was set up.

For their part, Ferrari played clean and gave it their best shot. Much blame has been directed the team's way for pit-stop blunders and reliability issues. At Interlagos, Ferrari and Massa were flawless. Felipe led the majority of the race, being headed only during pitstop windows. On Saturday he had stated his intentions with a quite spellbinding laptime for pole position. Kimi Raikkonen came through in third place having been advised to not take risks with second-placed Alonso.

Before the race, McLaren and Lewis Hamilton knew they just had to stay out of trouble and finish fifth or better for the title, which they did. However, to say they had the ball firmly in their own hands to drop would be to disregard the role played by all of the above competitors. Toro Rosso, Renault and Toyota all made key strategic decisions that made the finale what it was. But is it fair to say that Hamilton was lucky to win the title because of the increase in rainfall right at the end? Is it right for Massa to feel robbed?

There are a number of things that must be remembered above all else. The championship was allowed to be decided by racing teams, racing cars and racing drivers doing what they signed up to do best. Racing. There was no political controversy, no questionable driving or team tactics, no penalties, nothing to cloud the decision. The fact that so much wrath has been directed at Timo Glock is regrettable to say the least. Anyone who followed Glock's exploits in GP2 and Champ Car will know he rolls over for no man, will know that at his core he is a tough-as-nails fighter and competitor who will grab any and every opportunity to move up. There can be no doubting his or Toyota's integrity in this instance.

One must recall Hamilton driving away from the field at China and obliterating absolutely everyone on a washed-out day in Silverstone. One must remember how lucky we've been to have two drivers completely deserving of the title being able to lock horns until the last corner of the last lap of the last race. One must remember that despite all the interference throughout the year, it was settled on the track. And one must ask himself, had Felipe Massa been world champion, would 2008 have been remembered for its last racing lap or replays of penalties awarded for first-corner clashes at Spa and Fuji?

Chinese Grand Prix 2008 - 29/10/08

The Chinese GP was one of little excitement or incident, but to dismiss it as such would be an injustice to a faultless, deeply impressive and crushing victory by Lewis Hamilton and McLaren. Squaring up and consummately defeating both Ferraris without any outside assistance or circumstance will provide immense psychological benefits to McLaren ahead of the title showdown in Brazil.

Other points of note included an interesting first-lap tussle between Fernando Alonso's Renault and Heikki Kovalainen's McLaren. Initially it may have seemed as though Alonso and Renault had risen to the point of actually beating a McLaren in a straight fight, however the truth lies more in the fact that Kovalainen's car had its front tyres on the wrong way around leading to chronic understeer. Also on the first lap, Jarno Trulli and Sebastien Bourdais collided. Trulli had the chance to score some good points at Shanghai, highlighted by Timo Glock's rise from twelfth to seventh by the end of the race.

On the subject of Toyota, there must be some disappointment as to how 4th place in the constructors' championship has been lost to Renault. It wasn't all that long ago that Jarno Trulli earned 3rd place at Magny Cours and Glock 2nd place at the Hungaroring. With a podium each, one championship position and eight points separating them, it's easy to believe that Glock has matched Trulli over the course of the year. It is even possible to conclude that Glock, for the most part a rookie, has been more impressive than Trulli. Is it the truth though?

The number of times you will have read about the so-called "Trulli Train" phenomenon negates the need for it to be re-iterated here, but the fact that Jarno has out-qualified Glock 13-4 suggests that Trulli's ability during Saturday is the direct cause of this phenomenon. Again, this is old news. Trulli has scored on nine occasions compared to Glock's five in 2008, with 3 retirements to 4 respectively. On paper, Trulli has clearly had the better season but considering that this is Glock's first full year in F1 the fact that he is only 8 points behind Trulli at this stage is a huge credit to him. Renowned as a strong racer and fighter, he has more than justified a second season alongside Trulli. However, he will be expected to match or better Jarno for next year if his stock is to continue rising.

Toyota's example also shows how one race can completely alter the way things look at the end of a season. Had Trulli not collided with Bourdais, he may well have finished ahead of Heidfeld and Kubica in 5th place. As a result, he would have 2 retirements instead of 3, and we could say he had "half" that of Glock. Also he would be somewhere in the region of 14 points clear of Glock (taking into account both Trulli and Bourdais finishing ahead of Timo in the race). That would have put Trulli ahead of Vettel in the championship and Webber ahead of Glock. Instead of one championship position between them, there would have been three. That makes for very different reading at a glance.

But how will things look at the end of the season as far as the top of the championship is concerned? As demonstrated above, one race makes all the difference, and one race is all that remains. If the race is as incident-light as China and the contenders qualify at the sharp end, the outcome will favour Hamilton. Also, when Hamilton has had bad races this season, Massa and Ferrari have more often than not failed to fully capitalise. It's a shame that foul play is a major consideration in most race predictions, and most feel the stewards will have a part to play. There has been much advice for Hamilton published and reported across the F1 media. All Hamilton and McLaren will be hoping for is that the Brazilian Grand Prix is as incident-free and unexciting as the Chinese Grand Prix.

Japanese Grand Prix 2008 - 27/10/08

Seeing the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji in the dry, you almost felt that it was the first running of the new layout after 2007's washout offering. The format of the outcome followed a number of recently-emerging but almost established 2008 trends, such as questionable penalty decisions, surprise winners and common losers.

Lewis Hamilton received a penalty for an over-zealous attempt at the first corner that looked to have effectively scuppered the first half of the race for Felipe Massa and fellow front-row starter Kimi Raikkonen. The resulting heavy braking significantly flat-spotted his tyres to the point of needing to pit at the end of the first lap anyway. Felipe Massa then received a similar penalty halfway down the same lap for turning Hamilton around at the chicane after being passed. Massa had to take to the grass and kerbing for his attempted re-passing of Hamilton, the rest is history (with a dose of mystery). Thus, the title contenders were relegated to the tail-end of the field. With all of this going on, Robert Kubica assumed the lead with a chasing Fernando Alonso sizeing up another classic kill.

Since Hamilton had to pit for tyres straight away, two consecutive pit sojourns dropped him clean out of contention for points. Damage from the collision with Massa didn't help matters. Massa still had a shout of gaining some points and reducing the deficit to Hamilton in the title race. While Fernando Alonso was carrying out his 2006 re-enactment at the front of the field with mesmerisingly consistent fast laps during an inspired short-fuelled second stint, Felipe Massa came across Sebastien Bourdais exiting the pitlane. Bourdais, with nowhere else to go, slowed and took as much of the kerbing on the inside of turn 1 as possible. Massa proceeded to drive into him and spin, resulting in a 25-second penalty for Bourdais after the race. This meant that Massa's eventual 8th place and solitary point gain on Hamilton became 7th place and 2 points gained.

All were at a loss to explain the penalty handed out to Bourdais in arguably his best lights-to-flag performance of the season. In normal circumstances, a team like Toro Rosso would have appealed such an obviously ridiculous penalty in order to regain the valuable points and end-of-season prize money. Why was there no appeal? Well, just remind yourself of who supplies Toro Rosso with their performance-enhancing engines...

And so it was that Fernando Alonso, against a season's worth of odds, won back to back races in Singapore and Japan. With the title protagonists dropping the ball on such a regular basis, these performances have elevated Alonso back into the limelight for all the right reasons that brought him to our welcoming attention originally. Cue notable F1 journalists engaging emergency backtracking gears.

Going back to McLaren and Hamilton, Mercedes big cheese Norbert Haug was asked how he felt about the reduced points deficit with 2 races remaining. Haug's response typified the almost perverse optimism and forced positivity F1 people adopt in interviews these days. He said that the average points per race situation had improved from 7 points over 3 races (2.33), to 5 points over 2 races (2.50). Credit to the man, pulling that one out must have taken some doing.

Singapore Grand Prix - 04/10/08

The inaugural Grand Prix of Singapore was a success, the kind of success that puts into sharp perspective just how much other such events have failed to live up to the term ‘success’. The event had an inescapably unique allure and identity. Fans of Champ Car will have known what the cars would have looked like under lights, but the breathtaking surroundings and skyline of Singapore were woven into much of the TV coverage, unlike at Valencia. Yes the drivers complained of bumps and sparks, however you will be hard pressed to find any viewer who shared their complaints.

Admittedly the success of the race was helped by the dramatic turn of events during Sunday’s race, but that could be said of many a Grand Prix. Singapore’s presentation of this event, and the undeniably attractive setting, must be recognised as significant positive factors.

Just one race after the sport crowned Sebastian Vettel as the youngest winner in the history of F1, the previous holder of that mantle reminded all naysayers of his enduring talent and remarkable ability to bring a win home given the slightest sniff. Fernando Alonso has been branded many things, but he’ll always be a race winner and champion. Well-known F1 journos had happily said they did not believe Alonso would ever win a race again. I myself had said a few weeks ago that his performances had been a little shy of what we had come to expect of past champions in slightly inferior machinery.

While Alonso’s victory owed much to the safety car, it should be remembered that he was fastest in practice 2 and 3 and set the third fastest lap of the race behind only Massa and Raikkonen. Ferrari saw to Massa’s chances, and he later spun himself also, plus Raikkonen crashed out. Alonso was fast, made no errors and executed an overtaking move on Trulli equally as impressive as the one Hamilton pulled on Coulthard (a direct result of Alonso’s pit exit). The difference in performance of Renault over Toyota is much smaller than the difference between a McLaren’s performance and that of a Red Bull, so that should reduce the shine taken off Alonso’s move due to Trulli’s fuel load. If you listened to ITV’s commentary, James Allen and Martin Brundle mentioned how many believe Alonso to still be the best driver in the sport. Anyone unfamiliar with the history of F1 tuning in this year would have wondered where those statements had come from seeing as how so much coverage and praise is usually reserved solely for Ferrari and McLaren, specifically Hamilton.

Nico Rosberg rekindled some of the early season promise of Williams by achieving his second career podium. Interestingly, out of the 15 world championship rounds so far this season, Rosberg has qualified in the top ten on 7 occasions. Of those, 5 have been at all the temporary/partially temporary street and public tracks that F1 visits (Melbourne, Monaco, Canada, Valencia, Singapore), which shows Rosberg and Williams’ strength at this kind of venue in 2008. Rosberg was one of the main beneficiaries of the safety car situation on Sunday despite making his stop when the pits were closed. The length of time taken to issue him with a stop-go penalty allowed him to pull out such a lead over those held up behind Trulli and Fisichella, that he eventually finished second just ahead of Lewis Hamilton.

It is said that the reason it took so long to issue his and Kubica’s penalties was that the stewards were debating what to do about Massa and Ferrari’s botched pit stop and unsafe pit release. The incredibly cynical amongst you could say that Ferrari and the stewards once again cost Hamilton points by delaying what should have been an immediately issued penalty for Rosberg, thereby allowing him the opportunity to make up enough time to emerge in front of Hamilton. But that’s probably taking things a little too far, eh?

Rosberg’s old Williams team-mate Mark Webber once again demonstrated his disastrous bad luck by retiring his car due to the gearbox attempting to select two gears at once. The cause of this was said to be an electrical surge originating from a passing tram, whose tracks Webber was driving over at the time. You could not make this stuff up.

This week saw Ferrari’s Luca Di Montezemolo make a number of fierce remarks about the current state of F1, and its need of the safety car to produce any amount of excitement. Some would argue that Ferrari’s own drivers and pit crew, just as in Valencia, are capable of providing enough drama and entertainment quite without the aid of a safety car. Montezemolo also reserved some strong words for the state of the Singapore GP venue, suggesting it would be a more fitting location for a circus than a motor race. The accusations levelled at Singapore’s Marina Bay circuit by Montezemolo are hard to accept as anything beyond intense disappointment at a ruined opportunity by Ferrari to pull out a lead over McLaren.

Following on from last week’s column, it now appears that Renault are leaning towards promoting Lucas Di Grassi to a 2009 race seat after recent impressive and consistent testing performances. Romain Grosjean may well need to win the GP2 championship next year in order to earn a seat in F1 for 2010. Although, if Nelsinho Piquet is binned by Renault in favour of Di Grassi, Grosjean will undoubtedly take over the mantle of lead test driver.

Who Will Make It To F1? 25/09/08

As the end of the F1 season fast approaches, talk begins about which drivers will have their contracts renewed and who will move where next year. There is also a healthy amount of guesswork as to which rising star will be the next to make it to the highest echelon of motorsport. There are a number of candidates, and as usual the most likely of these will be GP2 graduates with close ties to current F1 teams.

Bruno Senna is one of the most likely to make it to F1 in the coming years, and some would argue cynically that he would have made it based on the strength of his surname regardless. Traditionally, the GP2 champion and runner-up have the best chance of being picked up. With this year’s GP2 champion Giorgio Pantano not garnering much interest, Senna is the more attractive option. He is undoubtedly a marketer’s dream for obvious reasons, and considering his close ties with Toro Rosso’s Gerhard Berger, his performances in GP2 with relatively minimal racing experience make him worth a look. He does however have fewer race wins to his name than other GP2 alumni such as Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Heikki Kovalainen, Nelsinho Piquet and Timo Glock. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop Kazuki Nakajima from bagging a race seat.

Other GP2 drivers in with a very serious shout of being F1 drivers are Sebastien Buemi, Lucas Di Grassi and Romain Grosjean. Buemi is a Red Bull favourite who impressed with third on the grid at Monaco on his GP2 debut. Having already tested for Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Toro Rosso, his familiarity with F1 machinery and Dietrich Mateschitz’s favour, he stands an excellent chance of being on the F1 grid sooner rather than later. Some say the confirmation of his place at Toro Rosso in 2009 is imminent. Despite this, he didn’t really feature heavily for the 2008 GP2 crown.

Romain Grosjean and Lucas Di Grassi are both part of Renault’s young driver development scheme and both have had seat time in this year’s Renault R28. With the lack of a successful French driver in F1 for some years now, Grosjean could be the favoured choice here. Considering Piquet’s uncertain F1 future, both of these drivers must feel that they have a good chance of a Renault seat next year or the year after. Grosjean practically dominated the inaugural GP2 Asia series but has found the main series much tougher going. Both he and Di Grassi have victories this year, but Brazilian Di Grassi finished one point ahead of Grosjean (and only one behind Senna) despite not participating in the opening races of the season. Di Grassi did of course finish runner-up to Timo Glock in 2007’s GP2 title race. Even though it looks impressive to have returned late to the highly competitive feeder series and recorded victories, Adam Carroll did much the same thing in 2007 yet no F1 opportunity materialised for him. Di Grassi’s Renault connection puts him in a better position than Carroll ever was.

Adam Carroll won the 2007 Hungarian GP2 race for FMS

Another driver that cannot be discounted is India’s Karun Chandhok. Force India owner Vijay Mallya has already expressed his admiration for Chandhok, on paper that combination seems to be something of a no-brainer. The reality might be somewhat different though as Red Bull-backed Chandhok has not delivered the results expected of a driver in his second year of GP2 in a championship-capable team. Mallya has also said that he will not place anyone in a race seat for the sake of having an Indian driver in F1, he is after success and has not been able to altogether conceal some disappointment at his team’s 2008 season.

Of those who competed outside of GP2 in 2008, Nico Hulkenburg probably has the greatest F1 prospects. Already a Williams F1 tester, his complete domination of the second A1GP season is hard to forget. That did not immediately translate into race-winning form in the F3 Euroseries in 2007, but this year he is leading that championship and a Williams F1 seat could depend on the outcome of a season in GP2. On the subject of Euroseries champions, another driver who may be re-entering the single-seater radar is Paul di Resta. Having won the Euroseries in 2006, he has followed that up with two incredibly impressive seasons in the popular DTM series against such talents as Jamie Green, Bernd Schneider, Mattias Ekstrom and of course, Mika Hakkinen. His relatively instant success and assured performances in that series could send him the opposite way to Alexandre Premat, against the tide and into GP2, with an excellent shot at F1. Di Resta’s Mercedes backing will benefit him, whereas one feels it may be too late for another former Euroseries champion, Jamie Green.

Finally, moving out of Europe altogether, there is Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal in the Indy Racing League. Both are young and come from immensely well-known and successful American racing families and demonstrated massive potential in their formative years in the series. Andretti has tested for the Honda F1 team and Graham Rahal was close to a GP2 switch a couple of years ago but opted to stay in Champ Cars and subsequently the IRL. Formula 1’s perception of the quality of the US racing scene remains a massive barrier for these two hopefuls, plus Sébastien Bourdais’s progress in F1 will act as a benchmark for any IRL defector in the near future. At the very least, one of these two drivers must win the IRL crown convincingly to attract any sort of meaningful attention from F1 teams, despite the glaring American-driver-sized hole in the sport.

Italian Grand Prix and Comparisons - 17/09/08

The Italian Grand Prix provided a good opportunity to run some comparisons and highlight the differences in form between various teams and their drivers. One glaring comparison comes in the form of Toro Rosso scoring their first pole position and grand prix victory courtesy of the magnificent man of the moment, Sebastian Vettel. Of the Red Bull teams, few would have expected the smaller of the two to be the first to achieve those kind of heights. It makes you wonder how much Christian Horner and company regret their efforts in shifting the customer Ferrari engines to Toro Rosso in favour of the customer Renault engines. The differing fortunes of the two Toro Rosso drivers was discussed in detail last week, however you can’t help but notice that the significant divide in luck and results between Vettel and Sébastien Bourdais widened as Bourdais’s fourth spot on the grid tragically morphed into last.

Staying with Red Bull, this year it seems that Mark Webber is more consistently outperforming his retirement-bound teammate David Coulthard. His qualifying prowess was never in doubt, but it has also been Webber scoring the lion's share of points for Red Bull. Out of 26 points in total, 20 of them have been scored by Webber. However, the only podium for Red Bull Racing this year has been scored by David Coulthard in his solitary points-scoring performance in Canada.

Red Bull's situation mirrors that of the factory Renault F1 team where lead driver Fernando Alonso continues to regularly score significant points for the team and qualify well, but struggling Nelsinho Piquet has given the team their one and only podium of 2008. The real Alonso has now shown up and finished fourth at three of the last four races whereas Piquet has scored only three times all year, also sporting 7 retirements in 2008. It must be growing harder and harder for Flavio Briatore to justify Piquet's position in the team for 2009.

At this point in 2007, there was much less to choose from between the two McLaren and Ferrari drivers, but this year the relative performance of the drivers in each team has made the prioritisation of a championship contender much easier for 2008. At Ferrari, Kimi Raikkonen has time and again demonstrated his excellent race pace, but his failure to deliver in qualifying has compromised many a race this year. A total of only 6 podium finishes out of 14 and effectively three key retirements have made this a relatively underachieving year for Raikkonen. He will no doubt have to play second fiddle to the much-improved Felipe Massa, who already has a season and career best 5 victories to his name. We can call it 5 victories seeing as how the fortuitous Belgian GP victory makes up for the cruel way in which the Hungarian GP slipped away from him.

Over at McLaren, the Italian GP once again highlighted the different type of season that one team's drivers can have. You would have thought that Heikki Kovalianen finishing second would be more pleased with his result than Lewis Hamilton finishing 7th. However, would anyone have expected Vettel to win the Italian GP quite as unchallenged had Hamilton been the one starting alongside him on the front row? Hamilton's relief at the result comes from minimising the damage his starting position of fifteenth did to his title hopes, with Massa gaining only one point more than Hamilton on Sunday. Despite McLaren’s infamous equality policy, you feel that Kovalainen will have to back up Hamilton’s title bid from here on in, if he wasn’t already.

Belgian Grand Prix and Sébastien Bourdais - 08/09/08

The Belgian Grand Prix, at least on track, made amends for the deeply disappointing bore that was the European Grand Prix a fortnight ago. A wonderful race with surprises, lead changes, a number of superstar performances, heartbreak and plenty of excitement. There are undoubtedly numerous detailed reports on the race as a whole, so we'll focus on two key issues relating to Sunday's events.

2008 has been a season where miraculous results by underdog drivers have been within touching distance, and yet the bringing home of said result has been scuppered at the very last hurdle. One is reminded of Adrian Sutil and Force India's tragic loss of 4th place in the closing stages of the Monaco GP. Toro Rosso's Sébastien Bourdais has now suffered two similar occurrences, bookending his 2008 season so far. Bourdais was inches away from a debut 4th place finish at the season-opening Australian GP when his car suffered its retirement.

Staying on the subject of Sebastién Bourdais, ever since the introduction of the STR3 at the Monaco GP, he has failed to match the pace of the up-and-coming Sebastian Vettel in the sister Toro Rosso. If Bourdais had any hope of progressing in F1 and proving his ultimate worth in this pinnacle series, he had to get the better of his highly-rated teammate on a regular basis. Before the STR3, he was doing a good enough job of outqualifying Vettel and bringing the car home, something Vettel failed to do at the start of the season on a number of occasions. Since then, Vettel has deservedly owned the limelight at Toro Rosso with a few points finishes and marvellous qualifying runs.

However, Bourdais seems to have rediscovered some form as of late, undoubtedly a result of no longer making sweeping changes to the STR3's setup and instead focusing on smaller details to better adapt the car to his driving style. His first appearance in Q3 at Valencia was followed by a 9th place on the grid for the Belgian GP last weekend. His race form was superb, comfortably running in the top 5 all race after an excellent start, albeit via a trip up Jarno Trulli's backside. At the start of the final lap, Bourdais was 3rd! Could it be that despite all of Vettel's consistent performances, it would be Bourdais who would fulfil the promise of that first race and earn Toro Rosso's maiden podium?

The answer was to be no, on the final lap with the rain falling, Bourdais's luck ran out and he was passed by the intermediate-shod Nick Heidfeld and Fernando Alonso. How could anyone ever count those two wiley competitors out of the reckoning? But to add insult to injury to injustice, teammate Vettel and BMW's Robert Kubica also passed him on that last lap having run behind him throughout the entirety of the race. So, what could have been the most glorious vindication of his transformation from Champ Car deity to simply Formula 1 driver, ended up as another near-victory for the underdog and yet another race where Vettel beat him to the line.

It is unclear at this time precisely what happened to Bourdais on that final lap, but it shouldn't overshadow what was a timely reminder of the skill he possesses with a racecar. This is the same driver who literally dominated the Champ Car scene for 4 consecutive years, setting numerous Schumacher-standard records on the way to his titles. In the same machinery as his competitors, one recalls that he was 1.5 seconds a lap quicker in qualifying than his rivals at the famous and majestic Road America circuit, a circuit not unlike Spa in its characteristics, challenges and length. Over the years his competitors have included Timo Glock, Cristiano Da Matta and Justin Wilson, the class of whom cannot be doubted. Hopefully, Bourdais's performance on Sunday will justify his place in F1 for next season just as a series of incidents and one near-fourth place at Monaco appear to have done for Adrian Sutil.

Speaking of incidents, true to recent 2008 form, the result of a GP was again decided off the track and after TV viewers would have enjoyed all proceedings. Lewis Hamilton was given a significant time penalty, relegating him from the position of victor to third place, behind Felipe Massa and Nick Heidfeld (could have been Bourdais...). Hamilton was adjudged to have received an unfair advantage by cutting across the final chicane in his chase of Kimi Raikkonen. Hamilton did lift off and let Raikkonen retake the lead, however he then outbraked him into La Source and regained 1st place. That's fine. He gave the place back and his move at La Source was a different corner and a different story, right? Wrong. Had Hamilton not shortcut the chicane, he would have had to stand on the brakes to avoid running into the back of Raikkonen (again), and would therefore not have been in a position to take 1st place at La Source.

From that angle, it would appear that his penalty was justified. However, what about Massa's post-race penalty at Valencia? That was relatively tame in comparison. The difference most likely comes from the fact that the Massa incident did not decide the outcome of the race on track, but Hamilton's move on Raikkonen at Spa did. Had Massa been released into Hamilton's path at Valencia instead of Sutil's, the outcome may have been different, although some would argue not.

Two weeks ago I argued that if Massa had been given a time penalty, therefore handing his well-earned victory to Hamilton, that would constitute using the letter of the law to defeat the spirit of the law. The incident at Spa is probably not entirely within the same vein. Hamilton would undoubtedly have passed Kimi sooner or later. However, the conditions proved that nothing is certain, and Hamilton himself handed the lead back to Kimi because of the prevailing wet weather and an attempt to avoid crashing into Nico Rosberg. So who knows what the outcome would have been had Lewis not cut the chicane. Apparently Ferrari did not go to the stewards initially concerning the incident, so had the Spa stewards not punished Hamilton, would anyone have complained?

Fernando Alonso 2008 - 28/08/08

We would all love to think that having returned to Renault, Fernando Alonso would once again be the gritty but cheery fighter who had earned the respect of one and all. The driver who ended the reign of Michael Schumacher and could possibly become the greatest driver of his generation. However, how has Fernando Alonso really done so far in 2008? Is he still the same Fernando Alonso fondly remembered from the 2005 and 2006 championship campaigns?

As much as it had become one of last year's most attractive bandwagons, did anyone actually feel that F1 was a better place having Alonso to direct all of their negative sentiment towards? There was McLaren's punishment and Lewis Hamilton's "delayed" first victory. Then there was the lack of loyalty, sportsmanship and camaraderie in today's super-competitive business-driven F1. Finally, there was the matter of espionage between top F1 teams. Alonso became a manifestation of all the above and a convenient scapegoat for everyone's distaste for the aforementioned issues.

In order for people to love him again, they would first have to forgive him. Many will feel too aggrieved by his oft-mentioned disagreements with McLaren, Ron Dennis and Lewis Hamilton. Some may never love him again. However, in order to respect him again, Alonso would have to deliver on the track. Everybody remembers Schumacher's stellar performances in inferior Ferraris throughout the years. In comparison, this year's Renault R28 is far from the second or even third best car. Alonso's performances would have to be judged accordingly.

The first race of the season was classic Alonso, a gritty and never-say-die race performance that lasted until the very final lap, resulting in an opportunistic last gasp fourth place at the hands of Heikki Kovalainen and his steering wheel. The fire within, set alight by last year's McLaren experience, was evident in his immediate post-race comments. Since then, notable performances include a slightly misleading front row grid slot in Barcelona and good race (until retirement). Alonso's fourth place at the Hungaroring was also impressive.

If we assume that for the better part of the season so far, Renault have been the fourth best team, does Alonso's championship position reflect this fact? Currently lying 8th with 18 points, it's a fair reflection of the team's form and general position respective to the others. However, in the case of a double world champion, should this championship position reflect the relative strength of Alonso's team? Shouldn't it be the case that a driver who won both of his titles while in cars not considered to be the best over any entire season, be further up the order?

Yes there have been retirements, but also mistakes. Canada was an example of a great opportunity to score strong points, as was Monaco. The wrong choice of tyres have also cost Alonso on a couple of occasions. Before last year, Fernando was renowned as a driver who made extremely few mistakes. Undoubtedly things have changed for him in terms of motivation and having different things to prove, and of course he has not got a vehicle capable of being a frontrunner. That has not been the case since his year at Minardi. Despite all of this, you can't help but feel that he should have been higher up the standings, at least ahead of Jarno Trulli. This is a driver who qualified fifth at Monza in a car which had aero pieces broken off, then suffered a penalty, started 10th and made his way up to 3rd in the same race. To be fair, Alonso has put in some stellar qualifying performances this year, but had he put himself in better positions in the races maybe the sole Renault podium this year would not belong to Nelsinho Piquet.

Fernando Alonso has a reputation for being a driver who if given even the slightest sniff of a victory, will put on a devastating charge. Also he is known as a driver who can majestically dominate a race from the front, destroy the opposition without putting a single wheel wrong. In 2008, Alonso has generally not had a car to challenge for top positions and you are forced to wonder how driven he has felt at various times in the cockpit.

We are talking about a man who, lest we forget, is the most successful driver on the current grid of drivers. A man who came within one solitary point of a third consecutive drivers' championship in a team with which all communication and affection had broken down. And so we hope that when given the opportunity to run towards the front, we will once again see the best of that man, Fernando Alonso. So far this year, we have not yet seen this man.

European Grand Prix 26/08/08

It is often said in F1 journalism that the television viewer can only grasp a certain amount of the big picture when it comes to any particular Grand Prix weekend. There are of course a multitude of websites and publications that allow the more interested viewer the benefit of an experienced journalist or analyst's insight on the weekend's events. However if you are strictly a Sunday afternoon viewer, what would you have seen of the European Grand Prix in Valencia?

First of all, you would have been greeted by lavish praise being heaped on the brand new Valencia circuit by the drivers, teams and ITV team. The location is of course breathtaking, and the unique features of the track such as the bridge make it a special event. The aerial shots of the track were impressive, no doubt. The track itself has some superb high-speed sections which were enjoyable when viewed from in-car cameras. However, most of the race was at track level and from that level the racetrack looked incredibly dull. Just rumble strips, fencing, featureless walls and run-off areas. It was very reminiscent of Champ Car races on temporary street circuits. Viewers may have been quite disappointed that the whole event wasn't slightly more visually appealing and as breathtaking as they were led to believe it would be. Monte Carlo can certainly spoil a person's visual perception of how a street event can be presented.

Unfortunately, the racing did not make up for the lack of visual stimulus. There were of course mighty impressive performances to be witnessed, such as Sebastian Vettel's 6th place for Toro Rosso (formerly Minardi let's not forget), Felipe Massa's domination of the event from lights to flag, Lewis Hamilton's solid drive to 2nd while suffering the after effects of illness and Timo Glock's rise to 7th by virtue of a good 1-stop strategy. However, when you compare the top finishing positions to each driver's starting position, it makes for grim reading…

Felipe Massa, Started 1st, Finished 1st
Lewis Hamilton, Started 2nd, Finished 2nd
Robert Kubica, Started 3rd, Finished 3rd
Heikki Kovalainen, Started 5th, Finished 4th
Jarno Trulli, Started 7th, Finished 5th
Sebastian Vettel, Started 6th, Finished 6th
Timo Glock, Started 13th, Finished 7th
Nico Rosberg, Started 9th, Finished 8th
Nick Heidfeld, Started 8th, Finished 9th
Sébastien Bourdais, Started 10th, Finished 10th

Out of the above, five drivers (half) finished where they started. The only reason Heikki and Nico finished one place above their starting slot is because of Kimi's retirement. Obviously these details have been manipulated to suit my point, but you get the picture. The TV viewer would not have seen any interesting top 10 passing moves…because there weren't any. There was a terrible case of field spread and therefore the much vaunted three main overtaking opportunities provided no passing of note. Raikkonen's aforementioned retirement and Ferrari's dodgy pit work were the closest we got to any sort of drama or interest. It makes you wonder how many viewers were lost to the closing ceremony of the 2008 Olympics.

This was a wonderful opportunity for Formula 1 to net a whole new selection of viewers who may or may not have been aware of a brand spanking new event on the marina-lined streets of sunny Valencia. What they received sadly was a very dull spectacle on a track that only really showed its beauty from high in the sky, and even the eventual winner was not clear! Felipe Massa, having been released into Adrian Sutil's path after his second pitstop, came under investigation by the Valencia stewards. The rules are pretty clear; if a driver is released into the path of another driver in a manner deemed to be unsafe then there must be a penalty. It was not close enough to the end of the race to warrant waiting for proceedings to come to an end before deciding the punishment. So not only did viewers not know for sure if Massa and Ferrari would keep the victory, they were confused further by the fact that the letter of the law was not exactly followed with Ferrari not being punished there and then with a drive-through penalty.
Later on, Ferrari and Massa were allowed to keep the victory but were fined 10,000 Euros for their misdemeanour. You could argue that had Ferrari been penalised, the letter of the law would have been used to defeat the spirit of the law, as they thoroughly deserved their victory. But rules are rules, and Formula 1 has enough complicated rules that viewers are unaware of, let alone ones that aren't even being followed.

As for the spectators who actually attended the event, well their interest would have dive-bombed before the first lap was even completed. This was due to the fact that Kazuki Nakajima's collision with Fernando Alonso lead almost immediately to Alonso's retirement from effectively 2008's second Spanish Grand Prix on lap 1. Considering that the only reason Spain has two annual F1 events is Alonso's immense popularity in Spain, the guaranteed ticket sales and fever his success has generated for F1, those spectators will have felt hard done by having spent their hard-earned cash only to see their hero involved in a first lap collision. That however is what they call a racing incident, which is also a very suitable analysis of the European Grand Prix of Valencia. Not so much an 'event', just more of a 'racing incident'.

Incidentally, there wasn't much racing after lap 1…

Hamilton Mania 10/04/07

It is a difficult thing to write about Formula 1 and not state the obvious, but it's almost unavoidable. The direct relationship between success, television coverage and public perception is one of those obvious facts of F1. If a team or driver is experiencing a consistent run at the front of the pack, they will receive more television coverage and column inches than those who aren't. A very good example of this is the relative disappearance of Renault F1's Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds from ITV's F1 coverage over the first two grands prix of the 2007 season. You would be forgiven for thinking that they were no longer a part of the F1 circus if ITV's coverage is anything to go by. They have of course not gone anywhere, they just aren't winning races or achieving podiums, but they are still scoring points. A massive drop-off in performance compared to Ferrari, McLaren and BMW Sauber has made them midfield point-scorers as opposed to race winners as they were over the past two seasons. As a result, we are no longer graced with Flav's sweat patches and flamboyant and emotional reactions during the races or Symonds's sensible post-race analyses.

One rather downplayed reason for Renault's lack of front-running form is World Champion Fernando Alonso's move to McLaren. It is doubtful that Alonso would be challenging for race wins in the current R27 Renault, but you just know he would be eclipsing Fisichella's current best effort of 5th, and may well have scored a podium at either Melbourne or Sepang. As it is however, he has scored a second place and win at those tracks respectively. His performance at Sepang last Sunday was nothing short of imperious, a lesson in how to lead and control a race, not to mention deliver a victory in only your second race for a new team, a team who didn't win a single race the previous year. Kimi Raikkonen's achievement of delivering Ferrari a race win on his debut is an equally impressive feat, although Ferrari are not coming off an unsuccessful winless season as McLaren are.

However, living in the UK and watching ITV's coverage, how can anyone follow any aspect of F1 and not hear about rookie Lewis Hamilton? Whether you follow him with a bursting sense of much-deprived British national pride or are sick to the teeth of the amount of times you've heard his name to the point where you'd be forgiven for thinking he was the only driver in the race on Sunday, it cannot be denied that his debut performances have been superb. Withstanding pressure from two faster Ferraris, two extremely talented and more experienced drivers, two podiums in two appearances, two completed races and two accomplished team performances. The boy has most certainly done good, but I fear the public perception is being annoyingly influenced by the television coverage. Let's not forget that he was 0.7 seconds off Alonso in qualifying and finished almost 20 seconds behind him in the race. Fernando Alonso could not have done anything better in the two races he has driven for McLaren so far. Having been blocked off by Heidfeld, Hamilton was ahead of Alonso for most of the Australian GP, so Alonso knowing there was no pace to match the Ferrari, planned how to usurp second from Hamilton. From that point on he didn't stress his engine, conserved fuel and tyres over 2 stints and when the time came, he had more fuel than expected, managed a whole extra lap on low fuel, rattled off a couple of searing laps and came out comfortably ahead of Hamilton for the last stint, and then proceeded to pull away. What else was to be expected of him? Was he supposed to hassle his team mate, risk an accident, stress an engine that was required for the furnace of Malaysia and waste fuel? No.

But how did it look to the public and how was it portrayed? It looked as though Fernando didn't have the speed to match Hamilton and couldn't catch or pass him. But he did. I think to expect Hamilton to have gotten the better of Alonso on his debut was asking way too much. What Hamilton had achieved was stellar enough! In Sepang, Hamilton holding up the Ferraris also helped Alonso scamper away at the front without the threat of Massa or Raikkonen breathing down his neck. However, if neither of the Ferraris could actually pass Hamilton (the slower McLaren) successfully, how did anyone expect them to pass Alonso when he was faster than Hamilton? Alonso would probably have won the race had Massa and Raikkonen passed Hamilton, but by no means as easily as he did. Hamilton did however set the fastest lap of the race, but it should be remembered that he did this on the most optimal combination of low fuel/fresh soft tyres of the 2 McLarens over the whole race distance.

After the race, when Alonso, Hamilton and Raikkonen were waiting to mount the podium, James Allen commented that of all the drivers Hamilton appeared the freshest and least exhausted. Yet, in the press conference Hamilton was struggling for breath and looked absolutely shattered. This is all perfectly understandable, his first Malaysian GP spent mostly defending under pressure, and Lewis is without a doubt the brightest new talent in F1. He will be world champion one day. My problem is with the shameless bias shown towards him by the ITV crew. It's almost an insult to the intelligence of the viewers to have the commentators harp on about Hamilton incessantly and to the point where they are actually making inaccurate comments about his performance, fitness and ability relative to the other competitors...yes there were other people racing in the last 2 GPs. Honest.

The absolutely stunning performances of Williams Toyota's Nico Rosberg in both Australia and Malaysia should remind everyone of the talent he possesses as another of the new generation, and he is actually younger than Hamilton. His vehicle is also vastly inferior to the race winning McLaren, as it was last year. Fisichella has also put in two faultless performances for Renault to drag them into the points from lowly qualifying positions. There is such a danger of the excellent performances of such drivers being completely neglected by the television presenters because they are not at the very front, and because they are not Lewis Hamilton. Lewis once again was awarded Martin Brundle's driver of the day despite Alonso's absolutely perfect performance with a faulty radio. Lewis even admitted he made the mistake of thinking the gap to Alonso on his pit board was the gap to Raikkonen and ended up relaxing more than he should have.

One thing I should make clear, Hamilton has been spellbinding in his first two races and has made only rookie errors, neither of which have been costly. He has done everything expected of him and more, completely justifying his selection ahead of Pedro De La Rosa and Gary Paffett. He is however in a front-running team and I believe Rosberg could perform to the same level given a McLaren Mercedes MP4-22 with the preparation Hamilton has had, and for those saying that we should be expecting a win from him in Bahrain...take it easy guys.

So, if you've happened to miss the first two grands prix of the year and want to know the TV version of what transpired, let me sum it up for you: Lewis Hamilton is the biggest star of the season with two podiums so far, Renault, Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds are no longer in F1, and the two races were won by some other unfit blokes…can't remember who.