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.

Monaco Grand Prix 2010 - 06/06/10

The right man, at the right place, at the right time. This is Australian, Mark Webber, at Red Bull Racing in 2010 winning the Monaco Grand Prix. No longer Mark Webber, expert qualifier or Mark Webber, most unlucky driver in Formula 1. Back to back pole positions followed by two consecutive crushing victories have elevated Webber to the joint lead of the 2010 F1 drivers’ championship alongside teammate Sebastian Vettel. Despite securing every pole position in 2010, Red Bull racing had managed to hand half of the season’s victories to their competitors, but now finally their two drivers have found their way to the top of the standings, with no sign of a development plateau for the car. It was inevitable that with such pace to burn, eventually the Red Bull crew would get it together and start chalking up wins, and now that the victories are flowing and Webber and Vettel sit atop the table, the chase truly begins.

Webber’s race was certainly not a straightforward lights-to-flag affair, requiring careful management of the lead through a total of four safety car periods. The first safety car summons was for Nico Hulkenburg who lost control of his Williams in the tunnel on lap 1 due to front wing failure, the second was for the other Williams of Rubens Barrichello on lap 31 where a rear failure sent him into the wall coming up to Massenet corner. The third occasion was for a suspected loose drain cover where Barrichello had crashed, and the most memorable was the last approximately 3 laps before the finish for Jarno Trulli’s ill-advised move on an unsuspecting Karun Chandhok into Rascasse, ending up with Trulli’s Lotus sitting atop the HRT. Having passed the incredible Robert Kubica at the start for second place, Vettel never looked like challenging Webber for the lead even with 4 restarts. Kubica had qualified on the front row and his Renault looked sharp all weekend, most believed he would be the first driver to take pole position away from Red Bull in 2010, but it wasn’t to be and he stayed well in touch with Vettel to claim yet another podium in 2010. Another reminder that the explosive Robert Kubica who stormed onto the F1 scene in 2006 is still very much around, and still very much a future champion.

The rise of Webber and Vettel to the top of the charts has not been purely a result of their devastating pace, just as they were handing out points to their rivals earlier in the season, others have conspired to send gifts the other way too. World champion and former championship leader Jenson Button had a very short Monaco GP. After only making it as far as lap 3 he said “I knew after the formation lap that there was a cooling cover left on the left-hand sidepod, where the radiator is. We thought everything was going to be okay, and it would probably have been fine if we hadn’t had a Safety Car”. McLaren’s other Brit, Lewis Hamilton qualified fifth and stayed there all afternoon, being told much to his disliking that he had to look after his brakes from quite early on.

Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, who was probably the only driver who could have challenged Webber for victory on Sunday, had yet another compromised weekend. Alonso went quickest in both Thursday practice sessions, and was quickest in P3 on Saturday when he lost control and crashed his Ferrari into the barriers, writing it off for qualifying. He had to start Sunday’s race from the pitlane, but benefited greatly from the early caution as he used the opportunity to change immediately onto the harder compound for the rest of the race. After dicing with Lotuses, HRTs and Virgins (especially a wild Lucas Di Grassi) and passing most of them at the chicane, showing good pace he was able to leapfrog most at their first stops and run 6th behind Lewis Hamilton when all had settled down.

Alonso was also involved in the race’s biggest talking point on the final lap as the fourth safety car period came to an end. Due to the Trulli-Chandhok sandwich at Rascasse, it was believed that the race would end under safety car conditions, but the news came that the safety car would pull into the pits on the last lap, leaving Webber, Vettel, Kubica and co to cross the line at racing speed. Rule 40.13 of the F1 sporting regulations states that "if the race ends whilst the safety car is deployed it will enter the pitlane at the end of the last lap and the cars will take the chequered flag as normal without overtaking". Alonso was running 6th at this point and Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes 7th, Michael appeared to catch Fernando unawares at Rascasse on the restart and passed him into Anthony Noghes corner to take a provisional 6th place. Cue complaints, stewards’ inquiries and much evidence presented. The track showed a green flag situation and that was Ross Brawn and Mercedes’s defence, but in the end Schumacher was handed a 20 second penalty which dropped him out of the points. Alonso definitely responded on track to Schumacher’s advances but was unable to keep him from passing and nearly lost his left rear on the barriers, so that certainly didn’t help his cause when he claimed his team advised him not to pass Hamilton due to these new safety car rules, and there was clearly a green light displayed. There is undoubtedly a debate there about using the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law, but unfortunately for Mercedes the letter of the law was very clear, but there is something to be said about the difference between a race ending under safety car conditions, and bringing the safety car in on the last lap. The rules have since been clarified, as you would expect.

Ferrari’s other driver, Felipe Massa, had one of his best showings of the season so far, qualifying a respectable 4th on the grid and staying there all race not too far behind Vettel and Kubica, and never really being threatened by Hamilton’s McLaren. Outscoring Alonso again while being slower generally is keeping Felipe within touching distance of the leaders, and if his pace picks up when he is able to get the F10 to his liking, days like this will count. Other interesting intra-team rivalries at Monaco included Force India’s Vitantonio Liuzzi finally rediscovering a semblance of form as he outqualified Adrian Sutil and made Q3, however Sutil got the better of him in the race as they finished 8th and 9th. There are considerable rumblings regarding the replacement of Liuzzi with Paul Di Resta, given his perceived lack of competitiveness compared to Sutil and the fact that his seat for 2010 owes much to the transfer of Fisichella to Ferrari. It could be though that it’s wishful thinking from the media as opposed to a genuine feeling of dissatisfaction from the team, after all with no in-season testing how wise would it be?

At Mercedes, despite returning to his habit of outqualifying Schumacher albeit by a significantly smaller margin, Nico Rosberg lost out at the start and was not able to find a way past Michael even though he ran longer at the pit stops and set a series of blistering laps. It was all academic as Schumacher’s penalty promoted Rosberg up to 7th place. The early season poise, confidence and precision of execution appears to have temporarily deserted Rosberg, who felt he was capable of pole at Monte Carlo. The team accepted responsibility however for putting both cars on the same piece of tarmac during qualifying, costing both a better grid slot. Annoyingly for Mercedes, rumours persist about favouritism and a change in development direction to suit the returning multiple champion, even though Monaco saw the return of the short wheelbase car. Fans of Schumacher will be pleased to see the old dog returning to his old tricks at the end, regardless of the outcome it’s hard to believe Alonso won’t have taken a dent to his pride. The pace appears to be trickling back and the awareness of opportunity, backed up by tactical genius will undoubtedly see Schumacher on the podium before long. Fans of Formula 1 (not necessarily the same as Fans of Schumacher) will be hoping Nico rediscovers some of his early 2010 sparkle and registers a debut win before too long.

As well as Force India getting both drivers into the points for the first time, Monaco was important for Toro Rosso’s Sebastien Buemi who scored his first point of the year thanks to the 20 second penalty handed to Schumacher. Jaime Alguersuari’s strong performances have put Buemi significantly in the shade at an establishment where there is precious little patience for underperforming drivers.

So finally, after a career that has included such lows as airborne upside-down Mercedes CLR Le Mans cars, a blown engine within an ace of winning the Monaco GP in 2006, a young German in a Toro Rosso wipe him out from behind in Fuji’s 2007 torrential downpour and even a passing tram cutting power to his car as it crossed tramlines at Singapore in 2008, Mark Webber’s luck is coming good. Untouchable at the last two Formula 1 events during a season where every driver and team have experienced peaks and troughs in fortune, the Aussie who began his full professional international career alongside German legend Bernd Schneider is beginning to show his might to another German legend of the future in Sebastian Vettel. With both Red Bull drivers leading the drivers’ championship, and the team leading the constructors’, their superiority over the rest which has been threatened since Bahrain is now a cold reality, wherever you look.

Spanish Grand Prix 2010 - 13/05/10

A whole winter of rigorous testing, a mini-season of flyaway events, four grands’ prix worth of practice sessions, qualifying and races rife with difficult circumstances and opportunities to display latent qualities. This is what it took for Jenson Button to establish himself as a multiple race-winner and equal to Lewis Hamilton at McLaren. This is how long Nico Rosberg had to toil in order to cement his position as Mercedes front man and serious competition to million-time world champion Michael Schumacher. This was the amount of time required for Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel to distil their incendiary pace and apparently fragile vessel into crushing dominance laced with respectable reliability. Yet, despite two months of tide-stemming battle against prevalent perception, it has taken a single weekend of rain-free happenings in Barcelona to reaffirm the old beliefs.

Schumacher outperformed and outpaced Rosberg all weekend at Mercedes, spending a majority of his race repelling the gentle advances of Button’s McLaren. The inevitable opinions surfaced again, that Mercedes and Ross Brawn have tailored the Mercedes to Schumacher’s preferences at the expense of a previously promising teammate. Rosberg vehemently denied such stories throughout the weekend and claimed the improvements to the car were genuine. Jenson started 5th ahead of Schumacher but due to a costly pit lane episode emerged behind Schumacher and spent the rest of the day there. Various attempts by Button to pass into turn 1 were foiled by the Old Man moving across to the inside, forcing the McLaren to go around the outside. Predictably, whispers emerged that McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton would have continued up the inside and forced his way through at the first possible opportunity, as opposed to the impression one got watching Schumacher remain completely in control of the situation, comfortably keeping Button at bay and finishing 4th ahead of him.

Hamilton, having qualified 3rd behind the dominant Red Bulls and just ahead of home favourite Alonso, had a good start and nearly stole the lead from the Red Bull pair. With no change in position at the very front, the race settled down very quickly as the top four of Webber, Vettel, Lewis and Alonso led the way. Lewis spent an impressive-yet-typical Spanish GP afternoon staying well in touch with Vettel’s Red Bull, even leapfrogging him in the pits as Vettel had more pit lane difficulties. Hamilton’s excellent drive to second place unravelled 2 laps before the end as a wheel rim failure caused deflation of the left front tyre, sending him off at high speed, rewarding Alonso’s Ferrari and Vettel’s ailing Red Bull with the final podium spot.

Sebastian Vettel’s ailing Red Bull. A familiar phrase this year, however it is possible that Red Bull’s continuing reliability headaches were somewhat soothed by the crushing speed they displayed with Mark Webber’s stunning pole position nearly a full second a head of Hamilton in 3rd. Webber and Vettel’s speed was such that despite finishing so far ahead of the second placed Ferrari of Alonso, it was widely believed that Webber had left much in reserve. Vettel for his part managed to maintain thoroughly respectable race pace even after an extra pit stop and the shadow of impending brake failure forced him into cruise mode for the closing stages of the race. A tremendously ominous Red Bull one-three capped a Spanish GP where their early season advantage seemed to have actually grown over the chasing pack, with no hint of an F-Duct or outboard mirrors. What is not to be forgotten though is that five races into the 2010 season, Red Bull drivers are neither first nor second in the drivers’ championship with the team still keen to hand gifts to rival outfits. Mark Webber can clearly lead faultlessly from the front, but surely the team are concerned how most of the issues are occurring on Vettel’s machine. Much like the Brazilian GP last year, Mark’s imperious performance was somewhat sidelined by Hamilton and Vettel’s late race incidents, as well as the considerable airtime dedicated to Schumacher and Button. But make no mistake, this win was far from academic.

The fact that no team is having their season unfold according to plan is terrific news for the championship battle. Button still leads on 70 points with Alonso just 3 behind on 67. Vettel sits third on 60 points with teammate Webber next on 53. The biggest losers have been Hamilton and Rosberg who endured no-scores. Other drives of note include Rubens Barrichello’s run to 9th and Jaime Alguersuari’s eventful journey to 10th and another championship point. Both made spectacular starts, passing multiple cars and then consolidating their positions. Jaime again put another great move on fellow rookie Hulkenburg, but undid much of his good work by taking Karun Chandhok’s front wing with him during a botched lapping manoeuvre. His extra pit stop and subsequent drive-through penalty probably cost him further 2010 glory. There was further confirmation also of the genuine points scoring pedigree of the Force India and Renault in Sutil and Kubica’s hands respectively, as well as Fernando Alonso’s continued advantage over the seemingly baffled Felipe Massa at Ferrari.

So should we relax in the comfortable and familiar knowledge that order has once again been restored to the F1 universe, a place where overtaking doesn’t occur, where races are decided by pit lane blunders, a place where hyped drivers eclipse their teammates even if they are behind, a world where a Newey car can be one second per lap faster than its rivals and still not win the title? A few days in Monte Carlo ought to make these questions a little bit more difficult to answer.

Chinese Grand Prix 2010 - 21/04/10

You get the feeling that the 2010 Formula 1 season is going to put a number of lingering questions surrounding the sport and its drivers to bed. Is Jenson Button a worthy champion? How good is he? Can he repeat his success in a car that isn’t dominant alongside Lewis Hamilton? How will Michael Schumacher fare against the next generation? Does Nico Rosberg have what it takes given the right machinery? Are Renault a spent force? Is it possible to succeed in F1 with a proper startup operation given enough time?

Just as with the first race of the year in Bahrain, it’s perilously easy to answer all of the above questions at this stage, but certainly the evidence is mounting for each case. Another exceptional tyre call from Button paved the way for his and McLaren’s second win of the season, while teammate Lewis Hamilton again provided the lion’s share of entertainment and ended up a close second behind Button at the flag. Starting 5th and 6th respectively, the McLaren drivers were disappointed with qualifying and yet another Red Bull front row, but in their own signature styles made their way to the front. Button’s decision to stay on slicks during the first rain scare secured him track position behind early leader Rosberg, track position that he never surrendered even after his lead was wiped out by the second NASCAR-inspired safety car period for debris on the circuit. His soft touch on the tyres ensuring the life of his rubber throughout the various treacherous stages of the race, even Jenson managed to overshoot the hairpin before the end of the lap as the rain increased. That set up a nervous finish as Hamilton closed the gap to 1.5s, but Button held on to win his 2nd race for his new team in 4 starts, taking him to a career total of 9 victories and the championship lead.

Lewis’s race was altogether more dramatic as he made a beyond-last minute decision to pit for intermediate tyres on lap 3, cutting across the gravel and painted off-track surfaces to get into the pits, a decision that he himself later described as an error. Within 2 laps the intermediates were destroyed and seeing how well Rosberg, Button, Kubica and Petrov were doing on the slicks, most of the field including Hamilton pitted again to lose the intermediates. Having made it into the pits ahead of polesitter Vettel, who himself had been stacked behind Webber at the first pit stop due to the Aussie passing him into turn 1, Hamilton was released from his pit box as Vettel drew alongside. As the two raced out of the pit lane, Vettel was seen to feint right and push Hamilton close to pit mechanics and equipment, earning both a post-race reprimand from the stewards. Hamilton then passed Barrichello, Webber and Kovalainen before pulling a double pass on Vettel and Sutil when the former didn’t manage to cleanly pass the Force India driver at the end of the back straight. After a memorable exchange with Schumacher that finally bore fruit on lap 17, Hamilton’s post-race comments all but implied that he was unimpressed with the German’s aggressive defending. Following the second safety car period where most were caught off guard by leader Button’s slowing before the restart, Lewis squeezed Webber off track. Further victims of the number 2 McLaren included Schumacher (again), Petrov, Kubica and eventually Rosberg, who was leapfrogged in the pits. Another spirited and impressive Sunday performance, but the cold truth is that Hamilton was outqualified again by Button, as well as beaten on strategy regardless of outright pace. Second place was a great reward for his efforts, and the safety car a great gift from Jaime.

Mercedes managed to produce a second successive podium performance in Shanghai thanks to Rosberg’s fine 4th place on the grid and the decision to remain on slicks during the first period of the race. Nico succeeded in holding off both McLarens at the start and led the race when the Red Bulls pitted for intermediates early on. Showing good pace initially, Rosberg was under no threat from Button, even stretching the gap to 4 seconds before an off-track excursion on lap 20 eliminated his advantage and handed the lead to Button. Post debris car, Rosberg was running about 2sec behind Button until Hamilton got his scent and started hounding him around lap 35. Employing effective switchbacks and imaginative use of the defensive line, Nico put up a stirring defence for his position, forcing Lewis to pit on lap 37 in order to make up time on fresher tyres. Indeed Rosberg emerged from his own pit stop behind Hamilton on lap 39, having made his point to those who accused him of capitulating to Hamilton in Melbourne. Their sparring had allowed Button to stretch his lead and the remainder of Nico’s run to 3rd place was consumed with keeping the charging Ferrari of Alonso at bay, which he did through intelligent prioritising of his tyre life. This was a result to celebrate for Mercedes and Rosberg, even if they were forced to play bridesmaid to yet another 1-2 from a rival team, but one is forced to think what Nico could have achieved without his off-track moment and the intervention of the second safety car. You want to believe that given the opportunity and the machinery, Rosberg will be a race-winner and championship contender, and given the expected development of his car and the impressive performances to date he probably will still mature into just that. It should also be remembered that the eventual winner of the Chinese GP and current world champion had a similar extracurricular moment during the race.

What of Michael Schumacher? Much more pronounced tyre degradation coupled with an early final pit stop meant that he was struggling to stay afloat come the end of the race. Early progress through the changeable conditions and battles with Hamilton showed he had lost none of his racecraft and despite a significant pace differential could make trouble for drivers looking to put a move on him. Sutil and Vettel made their way past after the second safety car, but Felipe Massa found it much harder, actually being forced off the tarmac by his former mentor before eventually making a move stick. Michael’s lack of success was, according to him, dictated by an inability to pace himself and manage the life of the new intermediate tyres. Ross Brawn and Norbert Haug continue to fight his corner, insisting that he hasn’t shown what he’s got yet, that circumstances have not favoured him and that improvements and a return to form are inevitable. Of course, if Schumacher is regularly amongst the frontrunners by midseason, this period will be forgotten, as will the supposed death knells on his comeback. Regardless of perceptions and the unusual circumstances surrounding the last 3 races, Schumacher will not be allowing the press or his rivals to decide when to catalogue his return as a failure and an error of judgement, but that determination and promise of improvement needs to bear fruit sooner rather than later.

Amid denials of engine concerns and farewells to outboard mirrors, Ferrari rendered almost all of their good work from qualifying useless as Alonso jumped the start, rounded the Red Bulls and led into turn 1. Salvaging 4th place from a day where he had to make 5 trips through the pit lane, including a drive through penalty for that start, is a feat to be applauded. Alonso, aided hugely by the second safety car, did well to overtake drivers such as Sutil and Schumacher on a day where he unbelievably found himself staring at Massa’s gearbox again. One of the lasting memories of the 2010 Chinese GP will be that of Alonso sliding down the inside of Massa aggressively on pit entry, forcing Massa to be stacked behind him as Alonso had a new set of inters fitted, thus losing Felipe a number of places in the process. There was never any question of who was the faster Ferrari driver this weekend (or even this season) but clearly Fernando was desperate to not sacrifice any more of 2010 behind Massa, despite most of it being nobody’s fault bar his own. This incident, apart from arguably rescuing the Chinese GP for Fernando, was pure gold for those again looking to fan the flames of an Alonso intra-team dispute. The difference is this time his teammate really doesn’t look to be as much a threat to him as a regular inconvenience. Surely this won’t be the case throughout the rest of the year, but for now Massa’s performances have been far from stellar. We await another incident free Alonso-Ferrari weekend in order to gauge their true position in the current 2010 hierarchy.

Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull again suffered the curse of the 2010 polesitter and had yet another forgettable Sunday. As if being passed by teammate Webber into turn 1 wasn’t bad enough, he was a victim of switching to intermediates early on. Webber’s pass meant that Vettel had to wait behind Mark to be serviced, costing him valuable track position. Later on, Webber hitting one of the air jacks caused further delay to Sebastian’s following pit stop. Bad luck aside, the Red Bulls just didn’t have the pace in those conditions. Vettel looked at one point to be capable of staying with Hamilton on his charge back up through the field, but eventually he had to settle for 6th place with fading tyres, which is not such a bad reward considering all the drama. Webber’s day was even worse, being pushed so wide at the second restart and eventually being passed by Renault’s Vitaly Petrov, eventually coming home 8th. Considering both Red Bulls were on the same strategy as Hamilton, there will be much to think about when comparing the relative pace and finishing position of the aforementioned McLaren driver. How many more front row starts can Vettel afford to let slip through his fingers?

Renault will be thoroughly pleased with yet another demonstration of how much talent and racing nous is still present within their team despite high profile departures. Both Kubica and Petrov secured valuable track position at the start by staying out on slicks, and if not for Alguersuari’s front wing bringing out the safety car, Kubica may well have had another podium finish well clear of Hamilton and Alonso who eventually got by him. Renault’s successful start to the season, Kubica’s continuing run of remarkable performances and Petrov’s first points of the year are a staggering return for a team who had been all but written off. They are a constant beneficiary and thorn in the side of the so-called top teams who continue to find ways of wrecking their own race weekends. It is doubtful that in normal dry conditions they could score so competitively for the rest of the season, but with such strategic guile and Robert’s safe hands, anything is possible. Petrov’s spin undoubtedly cost him further points, but his late pass on Webber will no doubt endear him further to the management.

Elsewhere, Lotus’s Heikki Kovalainen briefly ran as high as sixth in the points and ended up ahead of Hulkenburg’s Williams. Surely the promised upgrades and improvements to the Lotus car will make them an even more respectable outfit worthy of their place on the grid. Hispania also managed to bring both cars home, with Senna 2 laps down on winner Button. Sauber’s season continues to depress as a promising start for De la Rosa was marred by more Ferrari engine trouble and Kobayashi was involved in the first lap carnage. Virgin Racing also have better times to look forward to as both cars retired. Jaime Alguersuari’s weekend promised better after he outqualified the more experienced Buemi yet again, but as Buemi was removed by the spinning Force India of Liuzzi on lap 1, Toro Rosso had to settle for a 13th place finish after decaying tyres and a front wing replacement cost Alguersuari track position. Had he not pitted early with suspected, but subsequently no front wing damage, and had he not made a mess of passing a lapped HRT car this may well have been another points score for the ever-improving young Spaniard.

What is making the 2010 season such a classic year is not solely down to the presence of four world champions, or a packed grid of 24 cars, or even the unpredictable weather affecting results. It is a combination of the above, but more importantly, it is the fact that so many of the top drivers in their various teams are performing at a peak level in their careers and delivering performances throughout the grid that are worthy of mention and notice, whatever obstacle they may encounter. It is as a result of this phenomenon and against this backdrop that drivers such as Schumacher and Massa appear to be disappointing currently.

Malaysian Grand Prix 2010 - 05/04/10

It has taken until the third race of the 2010 season for the inevitable Red Bull one-two finish, and such is the nature of Formula 1 that the manner in which it was delivered all weekend left the others looking as though they had been on borrowed time for the first 2 events. Of course, it is never as simple as that in F1, just as Red Bull’s 2010 season could not be so quickly written off as being plagued by reliability issues. McLaren and Ferrari will of course win races again this year, but what is clear is that they will have to execute a perfect weekend’s worth of operations to achieve those victories. That kind of weekend begins with correctly reading the weather…

Qualifying in Sepang was rain-affected. Of course it was, how could it not be? Q1 saw many teams go out at the start to register banker laps, among them Red Bull and Mercedes. Ferrari and McLaren decided to go out much later as they believed the rain would ease off and not return, and this mistake at the very start of competitive proceedings for the Malaysian GP would haunt them until the very last laps of the race on Sunday. The rain came again in the latter stages of Q1, the result being that Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa were out of Q1 and would start the race 19th, 20th and 21st respectively. Jenson Button had delivered a lap good enough to see him through to Q2, however one instance of aquaplaning left him beached in the gravel and unable to take up his spot in Q2. The result was 17th on the grid. Despite all of this, the hero of qualifying was Mark Webber who decided to make his final Q3 runs on intermediate tyres, claiming a dominant pole position ahead of an excellent Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel. Adrian Sutil and Nico Hulkenburg also starred in 4th and 5th places after the brief hiatus of a red flag in the final Q3 session.

With the Malaysian GP grid reminiscent of the unforgettable Suzuka 2005, the race itself did not quite measure up to the anticipated excitement, primarily due to the fact that both Ferraris and Button’s McLaren were not able to cut through the field on the early laps in the manner that Lewis Hamilton did, and of course the lack of any rain. Hamilton’s dynamite start and ruthless overtaking saw him make steady progress until his pit stop on lap 30, by which time he had been running 2nd. His meteoric rise through the order was somewhat offset by highly questionable weaving antics on the finishing straight in order to break the tow that Vitaly Petrov’s Renault had on him. He was issued a warning for his behaviour, but at those speeds with those token mirrors and a complete disregard for a gentleman’s agreement between the drivers, Lewis continues to polarise opinion. Luckily there were no Melbourne traffic cops around, and Hamilton continued without penalty.

Another major factor that stopped Sepang 2010 becoming a classic was that up front, barring another failure, there was never any doubt about the eventual victor. Vettel made a great start from 3rd, hugging polesitter Webber’s gearbox and using the associated slip from the sister Red Bull to pass Rosberg’s Merc. Sebastian made great use of Webber’s last minute move to the outside and claimed him down the inside into turn 1. He was unchallenged thereafter, Webber’s attempts to get back at Vettel were hampered by a problematic airgun at his pit stop. Despite briefly being split by Hamilton who ran a very long stint to open the race, the Red Bulls were in control the whole day and finally cashed in on their advantage. With Vettel having firmly thrown his hat back into the championship battle, and the fact that matters outside of his control have stopped him sweeping all 3 of the first grands prix of 2010, the on-form driver of the moment is unquestionably feeling that this must be his year. A victory from a position other than pole, and the mistakes of 2009 seemingly behind him, he could well be right.

The most significant of the early retirements was that of Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes, who after a good start had to park the car on lap 8 with a loose rear wheel. Force India’s Vitantonio Liuzzi also missed out on another points haul by retiring on lap 12. The other Force India of Adrian Sutil managed to stay out of trouble and score excellent points for 5th place having spent the latter stages of the race fending off a charging Lewis Hamilton, confirming the significant step forward this team have taken. While Hamilton made big inroads into Sutil, he was not able to find a way past in the normal 2010 fashion and crossed the line 6th.

In the other McLaren, Jenson Button had a comparably difficult start to the race being passed by both Massa and Alonso on the first lap. Button pitted very early for fresh tyres, no doubt hoping to score a repeat of last week’s inspirational decision, but despite being alongside Hamilton when the latter emerged from his stop, was not able to stay with him and fell back into the clutches of both Ferraris towards the end of the race. Massa managed to pass Button after many laps of following, demoting him to 8th place. Alonso, however, who had spent the first part of the race stuck behind Massa, then Toro Rossos and now Button, could not make a pass on Button. He had run very long into the race before putting on soft tyres, he then proceeded to set some extremely fast laps while hunting down Button and Massa at roughly 2 seconds per lap. During on-board coverage it became clear that Alonso had lost the use of his Ferrari’s clutch and was having to monster the throttle to get the car to change gear, making those faster laps even more impressive. These problems coloured his whole afternoon and undoubtedly affected his ability to make a move on the STRs, his teammate or Button. Two laps from the end, Alonso finally took a dive at Button into the first corner but went in too deep, allowing Button back past. The result was an overstressed engine and his first Ferrari retirement. While Alonso will feel aggrieved at having lost the possibility of a few points after what he claimed was the best drive of his career, as well as Massa taking the championship lead by coming home 7th and once again fending him off, neither Felipe nor Fernando should have been in that position in the first place.

Other notable drives included a very solid run to 3rd from Nico Rosberg, a trouble-free day for someone who had very little chance of troubling the Red Bulls. Nico’s first podium for Mercedes and another assertive performance over Schumacher will undoubtedly fulfil all his early season hopes. All that is missing now is a victory. Renault’s Robert Kubica once again took full advantage of a great qualifying and the issues of others to score a 4th place finish, not to mention getting past Sutil and Hulkenburg on the first lap. He later told Polish TV that he had to employ extreme measures to stop his engine from cooking for the last quarter of the race. Along with his 2nd place for BMW in Brazil last year, this is a very impressive patch in Kubica’s career. One of the most standout drives of the day though has to go to arguably F1’s most improved driver so far in 2010, Jaime Alguersuari. His qualifying form and race pace have started to match the much more experienced STR driver Buemi, and his supreme overtaking of Nico Hulkenburg around the outside helped elevate him into 9th place and his first career F1 points. This, coupled with last week’s battle with Michael Schumacher, promises much for the future of the sport’s youngest ever driver. Hulkenburg himself finished 10th for his first F1 points and a much better weekend than in either Bahrain or Australia, undoubtedly more to come from him also.

Under the new points system, Massa now leads with 39 points having not yet won a race, with Alonso and Vettel on 37. Button and Rosberg sit on 35, Hamilton on 31 and Kubica on 30. As far as the championship is concerned, we could not have asked for a better start. Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull have all had a day in the sun, and days to forget. With Mercedes, McLaren and Ferrari hoping to close the qualifying gap to Red Bull, hopefully things will only get closer as the season wears on. As a side note, under last year’s points system, the championship would currently show Massa 16, Alonso 15, Vettel 15, Rosberg 14, Button 13, Kubica 13 and Hamilton 12. Not a great difference, but then at this stage of the season it’s more about being in touch, and with seven drivers very much in touch one hopes that boredom would be a fading worry for this year’s championship.

Australian Grand Prix 2010 - 30/03/10

Triumph. Triumph over adversity, indecision and inclemency. Triumph over rain, Bahrain. Triumph over difficult beginnings. Triumph for Jenson Button and Formula 1, that was the story of the Australian Grand Prix 2010. The spiritual season-opener delivered all that Sakhir did not; excitement, unpredictability and specifically, frequent overtaking. Everywhere you looked, there was a story, whether it was Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull denying him yet another straightforward victory, the three-star world champion sandwich at turn 1 on the first lap, a stirring charge through the field by Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, or even the assured drive of a man once again on the rise, Robert Kubica.

Qualifying had seen Red Bull lock out the front row, with Vettel claiming his 2nd pole in a row. Home favourite Mark Webber, having not had a smooth run through the second sector on his flying lap, lined up second just ahead of Alonso who had put in an excellent performance. The rest were a quite significant amount behind, most notably Lewis Hamilton who had no excuse apart from a lack of pace and eventually fuel for qualifying 11th, over half a second behind McLaren teammate Button. Rosberg again got the better of Schumacher while making it clear to the media he was unhappy and capable of much better. Rubens Barrichello, Robert Kubica and Adrian Sutil all put in quality laps to overshadow their stable mates and make Q3. Elsewhere, Lotus appeared to have moved ahead of Virgin as the fastest of the new teams, with Sauber looking more and more like pre-season’s biggest sponsor hunters.

Colder temperatures than expected during qualifying in Melbourne turned out to be an occasion of portent, with all teams having to start the race on intermediate tyres. The rain was not expected to last with a dry line forming early on, but of course it would have its effect on the race outcome. Vettel got away from pole cleanly, but the best start was Felipe Massa’s vaulting him past Button, Alonso and Webber into 2nd place. Alonso himself had a diabolical start from 3rd, leaving him surrounded by turn 1. The resulting collision as he turned in on Button caused him to spin, clatter into Schumacher and leave him facing the wrong way. While Fernando sat there for a few painful seconds as the whole field went by, Robert Kubica had gone from 9th to 4th by avoiding the carnage ahead, whereas Schumacher had to pit for a new wing.

The first lap also saw a horrifying crash lead to the season’s first safety car as Kamui Kobayashi’s front wing came off, got caught under his front wheels and sent him careering into the wall. His subsequent rebound threw him back on track and into Sebastien Buemi and Nico Hulkenburg whose races were done on the spot. The sleek new Mercedes SLS safety car pulled in at the end of lap 4, leaving Vettel to resume his lead from Massa, Webber, Kubica, Rosberg, Button, Hamilton, Sutil, Barrichello and De La Rosa. By lap 6 it was clear Jenson was uncomfortable with his car, and he was passed by an on-fire Hamilton, leading to Button pitting at the end of lap 6 for slicks. He then proceeded to go off the road at turn 3, making his decision look premature and losing him a hatful of seconds. However, as soon as he collected himself, Button confirmed his masterstroke and started to set blistering sector times, signalling the need for the rest of the grid to also run slicks which they started doing by the finish of lap 9.

Webber, who had passed a struggling Massa for 2nd, pitted later than most and lost considerable track position as a result. He rejoined 5th, and after a short trip across the grass once again ended up behind Massa who himself had a slow tyre stop due to pit lane traffic. By this point, Button had scythed his way through the field on his warmer slicks using his knowledge of where the grip lay. He now ran 2nd behind Vettel but ahead of Kubica and Rosberg. Come lap 16, Fernando Alonso had fought his way through the pack and was once again running 8th and in the points, but Michael Schumacher had gotten caught up behind Jaime Alguersuari’s Toro Rosso. Lap 16 also saw both Webber and Hamilton pass Massa, then as Hamilton tried to pass Webber on the approach to turn 3, both ran wide and allowed the Ferraris of Massa and Alonso through. This wouldn’t be the last time Lewis and Mark would cause trouble for each other.

The on-track action and intrigue was fast banishing the memories of Bahrain two weeks previous, and even more so when Hamilton passed Massa on lap 22 and Webber got the better of Alonso as the Spaniard got offline between turns 3 and 4 losing a lot of grip and traction. As if there wasn’t enough to keep track of at the front, the biggest shock (or was it?) of the afternoon came as leader Vettel was pitched off the track with suspected wheel/brake failure. The resulting yellow flags had stopped Nico Rosberg from reclaiming the 4th place he’d just lost to the charging Hamilton. All of this left last year’s winner, Button, well ahead of Kubica who himself had maintained position after a superb first part of the race. Hamilton soon caught him and Webber once again dispatched Massa. Alonso had closed up to Massa as well but the threat of imminent team orders did not materialise, and Alonso failed to find a way past for the rest of the afternoon despite once again clearly having the legs on his teammate.

Another major turning point in the race came when Webber, Rosberg and Hamilton pitted again for fresh tyres between laps 31 and 35, dropping them considerably back from the fight for second place. Cue Webber joining behind Rosberg and passing him quickly, then Hamilton going off on a still greasy track and letting Webber through but taking him straight back, followed by both drivers trading fastest laps as they closed by almost 2 seconds per lap on the Ferraris. Inevitably they caught the train again, and the visibly difficult Ferraris which were lifting midway through corners due to chronic understeer, were expected to be easy meat for Hamilton and co. What happened next was an untimely reminder of the difficulties faced by the drivers who tried to pass slower cars in Bahrain. In Alonso’s wake, neither Lewis nor Mark could make any further headway and their pace was reduced to that of the Ferraris with their knackered tyres. This in turn led to the faster degradation of Hamilton’s fresher tyres, especially after the punishment meted out to them over the preceding laps.

When Lewis finally had a sizeable run at Alonso down to turn 13 and had gotten alongside, Alonso kept the inside covered. As Hamilton was pushed wide, Webber took a dive up the inside, hit the McLaren’s rear and both ended up in the sandpit. Rosberg, who had been keeping a very close watching brief, was extremely close to getting past Alonso himself immediately after the incident at turn 13 and showed that had Webber and Hamilton not made contact, the latter may well have slid past Alonso into turn 14. As it was though, Alonso’s masterful defending of position ensured 4th place after such a miserable start, with Hamilton and Webber finishing 6th and 9th respectively. Throughout all of this unfolding drama, world champion Button calmly maintained his lead and preserved his 50+ lap old tyres to come through 12 seconds ahead of the Robert Kubica’s 2nd placed Renault, who himself had withstood pressure from McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes drivers to claim a memorable podium finish and provide further evidence of his pace and good results on temporary circuits, such as Monaco and Montreal.

It’s great for the championship to have the lesser-rated members of the major partnerships get one over on their illustrious rivals so early on. Felipe Massa has cause to be very proud of his 3rd place performance, very much making up for the loss of position to Alonso at Bahrain’s first corner. However, his noticeable lack of pace compared to Alonso during the race in Bahrain when both had passed Vettel, and the gap to him in Melbourne qualifying will not be lost on the returning Brazilian. Similarly at McLaren, this result is a tremendous boost for a team looking to make it back to the front of the grid and a world champion who very few people gave a chance of standing up to Hamilton. Jenson’s early call for slick tyres and his reputed ability to nurse them made the race for him and stood in stark contrast to Hamilton’s barracking of his team for bringing him in a second time. Suddenly Jenson does not look like the awkward new boy trying to infiltrate a tight circle of friends.

Over at Mercedes, Nico Rosberg did a much better job of supplanting Michael Schumacher as the lead driver in the team by once again scoring solid points, even if he never looked a podium threat at any stage despite running 3rd during the early part of the race. Schumacher crawled into 10th place and the points having finally passed Alguersuari (twice) and then Pedro de la Rosa. However much you consider his time away and his age or the new regulations, 10th place is never going to be an acceptable result for Schumacher, a driver for whom satisfactory was often unsatisfactory.

But what of Red Bull, their well supported Aussie hero and their champion-in-waiting? Their blatant speed advantage has not delivered a victory or even a podium. Vettel cannot be faulted, having not put a foot wrong since the opening day of the season, but Webber’s two qualifying hiccups and latest difficult race day performances can only be attributed to himself. This team is starting to drown in a myriad of missed opportunities, be it Webber’s chance to open up some sort of lead on his superstar teammate who has had nothing but heartbreaking, victory-shattering car dramas or the team as a whole failing to capitalise on a clear early season head start. You expect Vettel will sorely miss the possible 50 points when McLaren and Ferrari start to close the gap as the season progresses into Europe.

Red Bull’s aforementioned rivals will be grateful for the victories handed to them on days where their cars were incapable of winning on pace alone. Possibly of greater importance, F1 has earned temporary respite from the acidic criticism levelled at the sport’s new regulations and the dearth of overtaking opportunities with a scintillating spectacle. Of the new teams, Lotus have also earned themselves a shred more credibility by having a solid Heikki Kovalainen bring home his car 13th, achieving another full race distance for the fledgling squad, just as Karun Chandhok brought home his Hispania Racing Team car 5 laps down but in one piece. Triumph.

Australian GP 2010 Preview - 26/03/10

Ferrari and Red Bull

The most impressive speed at the opening round of the 2010 F1 season in Bahrain two weeks ago was displayed by Red Bull Renault and Ferrari. RBR’s Sebastian Vettel appeared to have the outright pace advantage with Fernando Alonso very close by. Both teams will of course be hoping that the two week break since the first race will not have been enough for the chasing pack to develop their cars enough to be a big threat to their early season dominion.

With pole and race win going to Vettel and Alonso respectively, for RBR’s Mark Webber and to a lesser degree, Ferrari’s Felipe Massa this weekend will be vital for establishing their own championship credentials. Webber’s poor qualifying in Bahrain condemned him to an afternoon of gearbox chasing, and while Massa made a popular comeback straight to the sharp end of the results with 2nd place, he certainly won’t be keen to have Alonso pull another first corner move on him. As far as Massa will be concerned, the comeback race is over and the injury doubts are dispelled, the championship battle and the competition have begun. Webber will also be aching to use such a rare car advantage to capitalise on what could be the best chance he’ll ever have to win his home race. Alonso and Vettel were considered pre-season favourites for the championship, therefore their teammates will be doing everything to turn the tide as early as possible. Another eclipsing performance from either Vettel or Alonso will see momentum will start to build in their favour.

McLaren and Mercedes

While pre-season testing suggested that Mercedes GP and McLaren weren’t quite up to Ferrari’s pace, qualifying over a second behind Vettel’s Red Bull at Bahrain came as a shock. Both teams were undoubtedly hoping to be close enough to capitalise on any slips but only Hamilton was able to take advantage of Vettel’s demise. The new regulations ensured that neither Rosberg, Button nor Schumacher were able to make great progress from their starting positions, placing an even higher premium on qualifying performance.

Much was made, needlessly so, of the gap between Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher on his return. Michael’s race pace and consistency were all that could be expected of him given his time away and the new regs, and his one lap pace will continue to improve. The best is yet to come. For Rosberg, every single opportunity to gain from Schumacher’s so-called “rustiness” must be taken with both hands. So far he’s only benefitted from the comparisons, therefore another qualifying and race victory over Schumi will be his main aim this weekend. An overall race win or pole position may still just be out of reach for the Mercedes car without others running into trouble.

At McLaren, regardless of the playing-down, Hamilton has definitely taken first blood in the intra-team Brit world champ fight. Jenson will be annoyed at having qualified the better part of half a second behind Lewis at Bahrain and then getting stuck behind Schumacher and Webber while Lewis made the podium. He too will be keen to reverse any mounting inertia that Hamilton may establish by another strong result over Button this weekend. It was evident from halfway through 2009 that Jenson needed to step up during qualifying, and this year’s regulations may consign Button to many tough races if his one lap pace remains shy of Hamilton’s. As a team, McLaren will be pushing fiercely to close the early-season gap to Red Bull and Ferrari before the new points system pulls them out of reach, while maintaining any advantage over Merc GP.

Williams and Force India

Another season, another Williams car that won’t trouble the podium? Frank and Patrick will be hoping not. Barrichello managed to just squeeze into the points at Bahrain while Hulkenburg had a torrid debut, spinning on lap 3 then battling past all the newcomers for no reward. Nico will undoubtedly get closer and closer to Rubens as the season progresses, but the team are in danger of falling behind not only Force India, but also Renault unless major development strides are made. With the overtaking situation apparently gloomy and the top 4 teams looking good for maintaining their stranglehold on the better points with such good quality driver line-ups, Williams may well be thankful for the extended points system this year.

For Force India, this is new territory. With a car that looks to be points-capable throughout the season, costly errors and pointless incidents absolutely must be eliminated. Williams, Renault and Sauber will undoubtedly improve as the season wears on, so these early opportunities for scoring good points and making use of advantageous tyre strategies such as Sutil’s in Bahrain must be followed through. Force India themselves showed great development potential in 2009, putting the onus firmly on Sutil and Liuzzi to make use of a great starting position in 2010. The team will surely be looking to have both cars in the top 10 in Australia.

Renault, Sauber and Toro Rosso

Renault may well have surprised a few people with the pace of their car in Bahrain. Kubica made Q3 and was looking good for a fruitful day before coming together with Sutil on lap 1. Petrov’s race was cut short by reliability gremlins, but the team are confident that regular points scores are a real possibility. One feels that with Kubica leading the team in fine form, the occasional podium may not be out of the question. The target must again be Q3 and a top 8 finish for Renault in Australia.

Sauber were probably Bahrain’s biggest disappointment having shone in pre-season testing. Both Pedro de la Rosa and Kamui Kobayashi were struck down in the race with terminal problems, but their pace was far from what was promised. Having introduced their own F-duct system, their aim will be to get nearer the top 10. However the F-Duct system on the McLaren certainly didn’t help them in the overtaking stakes on the evidence of Bahrain, so Sauber may well have to look closely at what comes next. Expect another midfield performance barring any major race incidents or safety cars.

Toro Rosso may also have cause to be disappointed with their Bahrain showing, with Alguersuari being the only one to join the new teams dumped out of qualifying at the first hurdle. Being their first year as a proper constructor, they will probably find it hard going, but much of the Faenza staff will have been in this position before. With Jaime’s pace edging closer to that of Buemi’s with experience, they will expect to stay well clear of the new teams in the races and hopefully give Sauber and Williams cause for concern. Staying out of trouble will be a major priority.

Lotus, Virgin and HRT

The arrival and relative performances of these three new teams to F1 in 2010 has produced some genuine back-of-the-grid interest. Certainly the personalities behind Virgin Racing and the heritage surrounding Lotus F1 have helped gain them support and a following, or at the very least some airtime. Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok will of course bring the might of their respective nations’ support and interest to HRT.

Lotus were the only one of the new teams to get their cars to the finish (pretty much) first time out with Kovalainen winning the new team battle at Sakhir. However, it was Timo Glock’s Virgin Cosworth that probably had the edge on pace. Hispania of course had to use qualifying and the practice sessions of the Bahrain GP as a televised shakedown, and the race as a (short) testing exercise. As we progress race by race, expect the gaps between these new teams to decrease and the fight to become more intense. The aim of all these teams without question is to finish the Australian GP and gain invaluable mileage and data, or possibly even a Toro Rosso-shaped scalp.

Notable Absentees: Nick Heidfeld 22/03/10

The 2010 season is the first in which Nick Heidfeld does not have a Formula 1 race seat since entering the top flight ten years ago with Alain Prost’s team. Heidfeld’s decade in F1 ended last year with the withdrawal of BMW Motorsport, leaving Quick Nick to chase fruitlessly after drives at Mercedes and McLaren amongst others. Eventually, for this season he ended up as reserve driver for Mercedes GP, and one can’t help but feel Heidfeld’s time in a top F1 race seat is over.

Nick Heidfeld entered F1 on the back of impressive campaigns in the lower formulae. F1’s then main feeder series was F3000, albeit much more indirectly than GP2 is now. Heidfeld narrowly missed out on becoming a rookie F3000 champion in 1998, losing out in the end to a hungrier and more experienced Juan Pablo Montoya. Having already tested a McLaren F1 car the year before that through becoming the 1997 German F3 champion, Heidfeld was taken on as McLaren F1 test driver in ’98. In his second year of F3000, Nick won the championship convincingly. While the calibre of competition in that year may have been questionable, with only Franck Montagny, Alex Yoong, Enrique Bernoldi, Justin Wilson and Stephane Sarrazin ever making it to an F1 race seat for any period of time, you can only beat what is in front of you. Or not in front of you, as the case was in 1999 for Heidfeld and the series-leading West Competition outfit.

In his early F1 career while driving for Sauber between 2001 and 2003, Heidfeld had Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen as teammates, both of whom have gone on to achieve much in F1. Despite coming out on top against both of those Ferrari-bound men, his long term stock never rose the way Massa’s and Raikkonen’s did. A spell at Williams-BMW in 2005 saw Heidfeld record his first pole position at the Nurburgring, and in a memorable race where Raikkonen’s McLaren fell apart on the last lap and most of the big names had some off-track drama, Nick held it together to finish 2nd. This immediately after another great showing at Monaco, where he also finished 2nd. Despite these memorable results, he finished behind Williams teammate Mark Webber in the final 2005 standings, his chance at a front-running Williams car coming a year too late. However, Heidfeld had done enough to impress head of BMW Motorsport Mario Theissen.

The defining period of Nick Heidfeld’s Formula 1 career was undoubtedly his four years as a BMW Sauber driver alongside Robert Kubica. After seeing off the challenge of Jacques Villeneuve in the sister BMW, the impressive late season debut by new-boy Kubica in 2006 once again cast the spotlight on someone other than Nick. His response to the hype and excitement around yet another wunderkind teammate was Heidfeld’s greatest triumph, his best ever season. In 2007 when all eyes were on McLaren, Alonso, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Ferrari and spygate, Heidfeld scored points in 14 out of 17 races, finishing a career-best 5th in the championship. Most notably, eclipsing his highly-rated teammate Kubica 61 points to 39, but again finishing no higher than 2nd in a race. The following season saw BMW-Sauber produce a car far more to Kubica’s liking, and in a season where the team finally had a championship challenging, race-winning car, it was his teammate who took a memorable first win for the Munich-Hinwil outfit in Canada. Heidfeld was, of course, 2nd. Nick managed four podiums to Kubica’s seven, and finished 15 points adrift of his teammate at the completion of the season.

Finally, in 2009 when BMW-Sauber were genuinely expected to be a serious title prospect, the KERS-powered ball was dramatically dropped. Often off the pace, both Heidfeld and Kubica struggled to get anything out of the ’09 package. While development of the car did lead to better late-season form, the decision had already been made to withdraw from F1, leaving Heidfeld out of a job. Despite such an uncompetitive machine, Heidfeld did record yet another 2nd place finish in the monsoon conditions of Sepang. Those oft-quoted Heidfeld adjectives came to mind; Solid, dependable, reliable, consistent. It’s no wonder Heidfeld holds the record for most consecutive finishes in F1 races. With such a record, how was it that Heidfeld was unable to find a seat on the 2010 grid, whereas Kubica (who Heidfeld beat again) was able to land the lead driver position at Renault? Was it due to Heidfeld’s other records, that of the driver with the most F1 championship points without a win, the most 2nd places without a win, the most podiums without a win?

Every F1 team wants to believe that given the right car, their driver can win races, even if they are the 11th fastest team on the grid. Does his lack of a winner’s trophy make Heidfeld any less worthy of a 2010 seat than Heikki Kovalainen or Jarno Trulli? Did a career built on reliability and results, and a good record against illustrious teammates, not even earn him a place at a Sauber or Force India? Ever since his first foray into F1, Heidfeld will feel that the limelight was always reserved for his contemporaries, whether it was Montoya and his tie up with Williams and Chip Ganassi, Raikkonen getting the McLaren drive he felt belonged to him, Kubica receiving the plaudits at BMW or Schumacher, Rosberg, Vettel and even Hulkenburg being the more celebrated Germans.

I doubt we’ve seen the last of Nick Heidfeld in an F1 race seat, but maybe we’ve already seen the best that he has to offer in a car that could, and should have made him a winner. Yes we remember the move around the outside of Fernando Alonso’s McLaren at Bahrain in 2007, and yes we remember Nick was the first driver in 31 years to take an F1 car to the Nordschleife. But as it stands, a driver who showed much early promise and clearly justified his place in F1, may be remembered more for what he did not achieve.

Notable Absentees: Kimi Raikkonen 20/03/10

In 2009 it became clear very early on that Kimi Raikkonen was not going to see out the full term of his Ferrari contract. Despite neither Kimi nor Felipe Massa starting the season particularly well, the perception had always been that Raikkonen lacked commitment and ambition having already achieved world champion status. What had never been in doubt was the talent at Kimi’s disposal, and however much you had read that on his day Raikkonen was unbeatable, those occurrences became few and far between.

In his last year at Ferrari, Raikkonen did record his customary victorious performance at Spa Francorchamps, albeit after a race-long battle with Force India’s Giancarlo Fisichella. This was an indication of how troubled the 2009 Ferrari F60 was, but Kimi and the team’s sole win of the season came among a short string of impressive results. Being partnered with Badoer, then Fisichella, seemed to spur Raikkonen on to squeeze the best out of a bad car in the last third of the year but it was never going to be enough to keep Alonso from usurping his seat. It was also not enough to guarantee him a drive anywhere else for 2010. There was interest in him from Mercedes GP and more obviously McLaren, but Kimi’s attempts to keep himself in a seat for 2010 seemed somewhat obligatory instead of voluntary. Reports of unreasonable wage demands and low-responsibility contracts inevitably resulted in Raikkonen being left standing when the music stopped.

Should F1 have done more to try and keep one of its most recent and well-supported champions in a seat for 2010? Surely in a year where every top team seems to have a world champion incumbent or at least a serious challenger, Raikkonen could only have added to the hype and the spectacle? This raises the question of where he could have gone, having spurned opportunities to sign for Mercedes and McLaren. Undoubtedly the return of Michael Schumacher is a bigger draw than a former world champion who seems borderline uninterested, so realistically the only other teams that could offer Kimi a tilt at race wins would be Williams and Renault, neither of which would have been able or prepared to pay what Kimi’s management were asking. Not even close.

With his heart turning towards more extreme forms of motorsport able to provide greater thrills than finishing anywhere below 1st in an F1 race, Kimi Raikkonen became a World Rally Championship driver in 2010. After Juan Pablo Montoya’s exit from F1 in 2006, Kimi’s is probably the greatest loss to the sport in recent years. While he may not have been a modern F1 driver in the commercial sense of the word, unsuitable for the demands of many teams, ironically Raikkonen had great personality specifically in his widely perceived lack of it. Without question one of the fastest, most gifted and cleanest drivers throughout the years, when Raikkonen got it right in 2007 he did it his way. While the McLaren duo of Hamilton and Alonso depleted each other, Raikkonen wrapped up the title with win after win.

Depending on who you talk to, Raikkonen should probably already be a 3-time world champion instead of that solitary title in 2007. A late change in tyre rules in 2003 swung the championship away from him and McLaren towards Schumacher and Ferrari. Furthermore, in 2005 Raikkonen and McLaren had the fastest car on the grid, but early season reliability woes allowed Fernando Alonso and Renault to amass an unassailable points advantage despite the fact that Raikkonen scored as many wins that year as the eventual champion. No F1 fan will ever forget what was arguably the greatest victory in modern F1, a last lap pass on Giancarlo Fisichella for the lead at the mighty racing temple that is Suzuka in 2005, having started 17th on the grid. Here’s to the future return of another great F1 champion, who completed his slow descent out of the limelight after being thrust into it so suddenly.

Bahrain Grand Prix 2010 - 15/03/10

The first race of a Formula 1 season is usually very exciting due to regulation changes. Usually. It’s not enough to just label a season as the most exciting prospect in recent memory, you have to cite reasons for such billing. The opportunity to see two-time world champion Fernando Alonso in a potentially championship winning team would allow us to witness again what a supreme driver can do in a supreme car. Add to that the chance to finally compare champions like Button and Hamilton to each other, and more importantly to the legendary benchmark that is Michael Schumacher. The lack of refuelling for 2010 means that a driver’s ability to effectively manage pace, tyre life as well as other systems will be of particular significance and reduce the need for multiple pit stops. Pre-season testing suggested that many cars would be close together on pace with a few surprises, and the new teams well out of the equation. So exactly how much of the above was really expected to create a scintillating spectacle of overtaking and high drama?

With a few small exceptions, qualifying ensured that the fastest drivers in the fastest cars were ahead of the slightly-less faster drivers in similar or slower machines. Without KERS-tastic rockets, a more traditional F1 start meant no big surprises on the run down to turn 1. Sebastian Vettel got away well from pole while Alonso hung around the outside of Massa in turn 1, giving him the inside and 2nd place for turn 2. Rosberg passed Hamilton for 4th shortly after Lewis was given the squeeze by Massa leading up to turn 3. Mark Webber’s Red Bull emitted thick plumes of smoke from the back resulting in Schumacher passing him for 6th. Webber’s race would have been further compromised had Robert Kubica and Adrian Sutil not touched and spun, probably as a result of reduced visibility.

Vettel generally extended the gap to Alonso, while Fernando did the same to Massa. Not a great deal else happened up front until the pit stops around lap 14 to 16. In previous years, due to a lighter fuel load at the end of a stint, it had been more effective for cars to pit later than those around them. Conversely, this year the earlier stoppers have the advantage due to an ever-decreasing fuel load and fresh tyres at the start of a stint. With some slick pit work, the McLaren team had Hamilton stationary for just 4.5 seconds and therefore he jumped Nico Rosberg who stopped a lap later, for 4th. Similarly, Jenson Button who had been following Schumacher and Webber at a conservative distance managed to jump Webber for 7th in the pits. Mark will be rueing another weekend where Vettel’s performance hinted at the chasm between their destinies as Red Bull drivers, having had his average qualifying and bad start compounded by being held up by Schumacher, then Button jumping him in the stops. Button himself later lamented not pushing harder on his softer tyres having tried too hard to preserve them leading up to his pit stop.

On the harder tyres, the Ferraris and especially Alonso, seemed to have more for Vettel. At one stage Alonso took nearly a second out of Vettel after a gentle reeling, but due to the high track temperatures, tyre wear and dirty air, Alonso was staying out of Vettel’s slipstream to preserve his machinery. It was as if he rebounded off a protective field around the leading car and fell into Massa’s grasp briefly, a worrying omen for 2010. On lap 30 it became obvious that Vettel’s Red Bull was ailing having shed a piece of exhaust, and consequently power, at an alarming rate. He was summarily swallowed up by Alonso, then Massa. While there were laps where Alonso closed on the leading Red Bull, and despite Fernando stating he was preparing and preserving his car for an all-out attack on Vettel in the last 10 laps, he had to admit it would have been “Difficult” to catch and pass the incredible German. Subsequently, Lewis Hamilton also passed the slowing Red Bull after a period of great pace that saw him leave Rosberg’s Mercedes behind. According to Rosberg, Vettel’s Red Bull had such good levels of downforce that he couldn’t make any time on him in the closing stages through the new twisty middle sector of the Sakhir track. Rosberg had no doubt taken some significant life out of his tyres catching Vettel.

So it was that Fernando Alonso, like Kimi Raikkonen in 2007, endeared himself to the Tifosi and his new team by closing out his debut GP for Ferrari with some very fast laps, stretching the gap to Massa into double figures. Unlike Raikkonen though, Alonso didn’t need a wake up call from his crew on the radio to prevent him falling asleep in the lead. Massa himself claimed he was asked to look after his car, reporting high temperatures. Hamilton completed the podium with Vettel holding off Rosberg for 4th. Would it not be damning for the current crop of drivers and teams to have Michael Schumacher, 41 years old and 3 years away from racing, to step back in and waltz to the front of the pack? A sixth place finish for Schumi is a more than acceptable and worthy return given what he is up against, the nature of the regulations and competition ensuring he didn’t get any higher (or lower) than 6th place once the stops were done. He will only get better and closer to Rosberg and the rest.

The new teams had the kind of day that you would expect, the experienced drivers staying out of trouble for the most part in young and fragile cars, while mechanical gremlins claimed a good proportion of the newcomers. Glock was probably the fastest of the new teams’ drivers, but Lotus managed to get both Trulli and Kovalainen to the finish. Nico Hulkenburg and Vitaly Petrov had a predictably hard time, but at least Petrov had a great start to run 11th early on and Kubica proved the Renault does have decent pace. Rubens Barrichello brought his late-stopping Williams home in 10th place for a point, just behind Liuzzi who had a solid run in a Force India that will be a thorn in the side of any misfiring top team. Sauber will justifiably be disappointed in how the season has opened for them, their pace from testing promised much but delivered little, both Kobayashi and De La Rosa retiring from the race having never threatened the points scorers. Jaime Alguersuari showed that he was closer to Buemi at Toro Rosso than last year, and that will undoubtedly be an interesting story to follow as the season wears on.

And interesting stories appear to be the main theme of the 2010 season opener, not thrilling on-track action. The level of excitement and satisfaction viewers derived from Sunday’s opening GP will be directly proportionate to what their expectations were. As mentioned previously, opening races are usually exciting, but more often than not that is a result of them being held at Albert Park. Last time Bahrain played host to the inaugural race of the season in 2006, Fernando Alonso came out of his second pit stop mere centimetres ahead of Michael Schumacher and held on through turn 1 to secure first place and a subsequent victory. That was it, a flash of excitement in the closing stages of, Rosberg’s debut aside, an otherwise mostly unremarkable race at the front. The worry is that this year, without the introduction of a mandatory second pit stop or more variation in the tyre compounds, the flash of excitement will occur only at the start leaving viewers praying for rain and failures. Expect a few changes to have been set in motion by the time we reach Australia in a fortnight’s time.