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.