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.