Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Land of the Rising Seb

The latest chapter of the 2012 season saw controversy, first lap drama, home delight for one driver and a championship that has become even tighter with just 5 races to go…

Vettel and Red Bull heap the pressure on in title battle: It’s amazing how the championship can turn in only a couple of races. The current points system probably make gaps seem bigger than they really are but Vettel’s back to back wins have seen him surge to within 4 points of Fernando Alonso. However the biggest worry for Ferrari has to be that Red Bull have found some pace, both in qualifying and the race. Both Red Bull drivers were on it in qualifying although Vettel can count himself a tad fortunate that he only got a reprimand for impeding Alonso at the end of Q3. However that does mean that one more reprimand this season will mean a 10 place grid penalty so he has to be careful. It’s now unlikely that consistent points finishes will get the job done for Alonso and I feel he’s going to need a big result somewhere, be it a victory or a problematic race for Vettel. One advantage for the Spaniard is that he still has two fresh engines left for the remaining races, whereas Vettel and Raikkonen only have one left and Hamilton has none.

Raikkonen and Hamilton remain firmly in the hunt and there’s enough races left for them to overcome the margin to Alonso. McLaren have shown great pace at most venues recently to challenge for the podium. Lotus haven’t quite threatened the leaders as much in recent races. They have staggered their development across the year and are introducing a lot of updates (including a Coanda style exhaust system) in Korea so that could be a crucial weekend in terms of how realistic Raikkonen’s chances will be of a second title.

Grosjean under siege after another collision: It was sad to see Romain Grosjean get himself into another tangle on Sunday. It was a clumsy collision with Mark Webber into turn 2 rather than anything malicious and his subsequent lacklustre race and demeanour afterwards was of a man who is starting to feel things mount up on him. However I disagree with the likes of Johnny Herbert and Martin Brundle who suggested afterwards that there was nothing that the Frenchman can do to turn things around. It’s also frustrating to see the media constantly referring to him having been involved in 8 incidents at the start of races this season when most of those haven’t been his sole responsibility. Grosjean clearly has great speed and ability but has been too eager and aggressive at times this season to make up positions. Especially in the current era of Formula 1 when overtaking is much more plausible. Strangely, team mate Raikkonen hasn’t been as spectacular but has shown his race craft and experience to rack up the points and be the only driver to complete every lap of every race so far in 2012.

Grosjean has to learn pretty quickly but he can do it and we have to remember that he remains pretty inexperienced. Sebastian Vettel came in for plenty of criticism during 2010 (including from me which I feel embarrassed about on reflection) and Lewis Hamilton has bounced back from an error strewn 2011 to drive a season full of clean battles.  I also felt Webber lost out unfairly afterwards as the safety car came in too soon. Once it is deployed it is meant to wait for the cars to form up in a train and Webber wasn’t given any chance to do so and lost a bit of time in the process.

That wasn’t the only drama of the start in Suzuka as Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen made contact, pitching the championship leader into a race ending spin. I must admit I needed to watch this incident back quite a few times to determine what exactly happened. For me, Raikkonen did nothing wrong. He always had part of his car alongside the Ferrari and was entitled to hold his position. Either Alonso thought he had left enough space or was trying to be aggressive and force the Lotus to back off. It’s not the first time the Spaniard has had an incident like this recently. At Monza on the approach to turn 2 he squeezed Paul di Resta onto the grass but no damage was done to either car. I think the verdict on the Suzuka contact is that it was a racing incident but it would have been interesting had Raikkonen been the victim whether the stewards would have investigated Alonso for forcing another car off the track.

Kobayashi delights home crowd: It’s always a great moment when a driver finishes on the podium at their home race but it really was a special moment to see Kamui Kobayashi delight the fanatical fans at Suzuka with third place. The Sauber driver managed to navigate through a yellow flag zone to put himself on the second row of the grid and a great start saw him right behind Sebastian Vettel at the restart. It looked like he wasn’t paying much attention as Vettel streaked clear by the time the green flags were out again. However watching back some onboard footage after the race revealed that Kobayashi was paying attention and when Vettel put his foot down, so did he. However the Sauber appeared to be in the wrong gear, one that was too low, and Kobayashi immediately hit the rev limiter and had to upshift a couple of times to get some momentum. Thankfully that would be the trickiest moment of the afternoon and despite some late pressure from Jenson Button it was mission accomplished for Kobayashi. 

Felipe Massa did even better with a vital second place for his confidence. The Brazilian made a good start then brilliantly swerved around the chaos in front. Not making Q3 gave Massa the advantage of starting on a fresh set of options and this allowed him to run longer in the first stint and he really made the most of this to get the jump on Button and Kobayashi. After that he was untroubled for the rest of the race. The question now is what role they will have in the next shuffle of the 2013 drivers market. Nico Hulkenberg has been linked with Ferrari and Sauber. I’d be surprised if he went to Ferrari. Not because he isn’t good enough, in fact I rate him very highly. But Ferrari seem to want a 1 year deal so they can be open to any new options in 2014 and if this is the case then surely Massa is the obvious choice, especially after his improved performances in the last few races.

Esteban Gutierrez has the backing of Telmex behind him in his bid to get a race seat. Kobayashi has the experience within the team and with Perez leaving this could be useful but it seems that he is unable to bring in much financial support from Japanese companies. I think we could see some changes amongst the teams at the back as well with the likes of Narain Karthikeyan and Vitaly Petrov looking vulnerable.

15 down, 5 to go: Next up on the calendar is Korea. I personally think it’s a great track. The long straights in sector 1 create exciting battles and makes the opening lap a thrilling prospect! Sector 2 has a couple of high speed direction changes before the final sector which is twisty and partly surrounded by concrete walls. The super soft and soft compounds should add to the fun as well. Then it’s off to India where the organisers claim the issue of dust has been solved and the kerbs that broke Felipe Massa’s suspension twice in 2011 have also been lowered. Abu Dhabi is a tough track on gearboxes and there seems to have been a plague of problems with them already this season so watch out for issues there.

Then it’s time to head back to the USA for the first time since 2007 as Austin joins the F1 scene. Rumours of the garages being too small at the circuit have been dismissed and Charlie Whiting has hailed the facilities as absolutely first class. From driving the track on the new Formula One game I can tell you that it has a lot of corners, a long straight in the middle and a massive uphill gradient into turn 1 which will make the start quite challenging. And then it’s Brazil to end the season on November 25 where hopefully both championships will still be up for grabs. The drivers title looks like it could well come down to the race at Interlagos. Red Bull look good in the constructors but certainly not out of reach. Another intriguing battle could be for fifth place with Sauber closing in on Mercedes. Caterham will also be desperate to get a twelfth place finish or better to retake tenth in the championship from Marussia.

There’s only a quarter of the season left and it’s all going to happen in the next 7 weeks so make sure you enjoy it. I sense it’s going to be one of the most dramatic of recent years.


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