Force India skip free practice – should we be in Bahrain?

F1
Practice One saw limited running due to the sandy conditions. As per usual, Lewis Hamilton came out fastest with Vettel close behind. Force India were busiest, and even put their cars on softs in the first session. Paul di Resta was third fastest, Hulkenberg sixth. As the session closed, it emerged that the Silverstone-based team planned to only run a part-session in FP2, or maybe even miss it, due to safety fears. What is most confusing is that qualifying is at the same time as FP2, and the race tomorrow will be later. So why miss FP2 but not the other sessions?

Force India did indeed miss Q2, while the Caterhams moved closer to the midfield – their drivers split Senna and Maldonado. Nico Rosberg was fastest, though he has concerns about the heat with the tyres. Button was not happy with the McLaren, but the Red Bulls were doing well. Webber was second, outpacing his teammate who was third. Then it was Hamilton, Schumacher, Button. Kobayashi got the Sauber into seventh ahead of Alonso, Grosjean and Perez.

Some Sauber team members were also involved in an incident last night, but escaped without harm.

Protests have been escalating in Bahrain for the last while, and there have been serious clashes with the police. We can only hope that nobody is seriously injured – Bahraini or F1. With more protests planned for the next two days, surely things will only get worse?

GP2
In practice Davide Valsecchi easily went fastest, 0.67 ahead of Max Chilton in second. Johnny Cecotto was third-fastest, 0.87 off Valsecchi.
Qualifying saw the Italian repeat his effort, going fastest on options on his third lap. Esteban Gutierrez will start second, with Felipe Nasr third to continue his spectacular rookie season. Racing Engineering’s Fabio Leimer took fourth, ahead of Johnny Cecotto – the Venezuelan having a good weekend so far. Ericsson took the sixth-fastest time but his 10-place grid penalty from Malaysia sent him down to sixteenth, promoting Stephane Richelmi. James Calado was seventh, Luiz Razia eighth. Chilton and Haryanto shared the fifth row for Carlin.
Brendon Hartley was given a five-place grid penalty for an incident with Giedo van der Garde, knocking him down to last behind Ricardo Teixeira. Slow Serenelli beat Teixeira by nearly two tenths of a second, but both were way off the pace.

NEC
Kevin Kleveros was Manor MP’s unannounced driver in car 31 for the opening round of the Formula Renault NEC. In Q1, Stoffel Vandoorne took pole with Pierre Gasly second and Jordan King third. The session had been held up for a few minutes because of hail!
Q2 was also red flagged due to rain and a huge number of crashes. In the end, Vandoorne took pole again. Reigning Intersteps champion Jake Dennis took second, while an impressive run from Shahaan Engineer saw him go third.

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Super-DRS leads to Super Pole for Super German!

With such a mixed-up grid, and so many strong teams and drivers, the question of who will win is unknown. Perhaps Kobayashi could get his first podium, and maybe Rosberg will get that long-awaited first win.

F2
It was a fascinating F2 race. I was unable to make it out to Silverstone, but I was watching the live timing and can’t wait for it to be shown on Motors TV. Tuscher fell back quickly from pole, and Zanella took the lead with Marinescu and Bacheta behind. As the race went on, these three pulled a small gap over the drivers behind, including Dino Zamparelli who was fifth for all but the final lap when his car got a problem. In the closing laps, Marinescu began to struggle but Bacheta picked up the pace. First he took the Romanian, and on the penultimate lap he overtook Zanella for the lead. It was close, but he maintained his position for the win. So far, the Brit has a 100% record of scoring points in F2, and he also leads the championship.
Marinescu took fastest lap but fell to fourth, with Alex Fontana third making it two Swiss drivers on the podium. Daniel McKenzie did excellently and finished fifth after Zamparelli fell back. Tuscher ended up sixth with rookie Hector Hurst seventh. Zamparelli finished ninth, with Iranian Kourosh Khani taking the final point.

Auto GP
Sergey Sirotkin took his debut pole position at Marrakech, but stalled briefly on the line to lose position. Pal Varhaug took the lead, and maintained it until his pit stop when he stalled the car. The team got it going again, but he was only able to finish third. Championship leader Adrian Quaife-Hobbs didn’t make the best start and struggled on his tyres. As soon as possible, he pitted for fresh tyres and then he improved. He managed several slick overtakes, before getting behind Sergio Campana – then running second. After Varhaug’s muddled stop, this became the race for the win. Quaife-Hobbs had many opportunities, but he wasn’t taking any risks and I’m sure he was satisfied with second. Campana took his first win.
Adrian Quaife-Hobbs still leads the championship with 95 points, while Varhaug is now 24 points behind in second. Sirotkin came home sixth and has 60 points, while Chris van der Drift has 49 in fourth. Both Manor MP boys are about equal, and de Jong is fifth with 43 points. Race winner Campana is sixth with 39.

Tomorrow, the same series will be on track once again. Can Rosberg win his first race? Will it be a double for Bacheta on home turf? And what adventures await in the reversed-grid Auto GP? There’s also BTCC and WTCC action.

Malaysian Grand Prix more than Exceeds Expectations

Today, an up-and-coming young driver challenged a two-time world champion for victory… and almost made it. It was wet to start, and most were on inters, but Sergio Perez pitted on the first lap for wets. Others soon followed. After a soggy first few laps at Malaysia, the race was red-flagged until the rain grew lighter. At this point, Perez was sitting in third behind Hamilton and Button. But the race began again, and soon it became dry enough for intermediates. Perez was one of the last to pit, while Ferrari got Alonso out ahead of the McLarens. When Perez emerged, he was also ahead.
At first, Perez slowly fell away from the Ferrari – though he had a fantastic gap to Hamilton in third. Button had disappeared, having hit Narain Karthikeyan while racing for position (the HRTs had got ahead by starting on wets instead of inters). The time came to change for fresh intermediates, but as usual the Sauber was treating the Pirellis better. The Mexican led for a few laps before also changing tyres. Then the charge began.
Closer and closer, by over a second a lap at some points on the drying track. But it was getting so dry that slicks were the way to go. Ricciardo pitted first, and soon the others did too. Ferrari brought in Alonso, but Sauber kept Perez out an extra lap. This left the Mexican in second after his stop, and may have costed him the win. Still, Perez was faster. The Sauber once again closed by over a second per lap, until it got within DRS range. The first try didn’t work. The second… never got an opportunity to happen as Perez went wide, losing four seconds.
There were only a few laps to go, and Perez’s pace wasn’t as good as it had been. Still, he finished 2s behind Alonso in a fantastic drive that will go down in history. If he is not driving for Ferrari in 2013, I shall be very surprised.

Sergio Perez gained 14 places in his first race (starting from 22nd) and 7 places today, making a total of 21 places over 2 races – more than any other driver. He is the first Mexican on the podium in over 40 years, since Pedro Rodriguez.
By contrast, Romain Grosjean has had an appalling first two races. Qualifying well, he has lost 36 places over 2 races, and only completed just over 3% of the possible laps.
Sebastian Vettel has sunk to 6th in the championship, his lowest position since Australia 2010. The last time Vettel scored 0 points but finished a race was at the 2010 Belgian GP. Vettel also had an avoidable collision with Karthikeyan towards the end of the race, which shred his tyre and lost him position. Surprisingly, Karthikeyan was penalised with a drive-through, while Button had accepted the blame for his incident earlier in the race.
The leader of the WDC, contrary to all expectations, is Fernando Alonso. Hamilton is second, Button third and Webber fourth. McLaren still lead the WCC, with Red Bull second, Ferrari third and Sauber 4th.

What will happen in the rest of the season? If the first two races are anything to go by… I haven’t got a clue!

There’s a short break for Easter, and then the Chinese GP will be on April 15th.

1-2s for McLaren and Penske around the world

Indycar and Formula One – the two top single-seater series in the world. Today, Indycar’s first round and F1’s second round both had their qualifying sessions. Despite popular perception, Indycar is NOT just cars going round and round in circles – especially since there are only a few oval tracks left on the calendar. Unlike NASCAR, there are several permenant race tracks and street courses.
Indycar’s 2012 series features an all-new car: the DW12 named after Dan Wheldon. There are also two new engine suppliers, meaning that the series has a new dimension that will allow much more interesting racing. However, the chassis are still single-make.
Twenty-six drivers are taking part this weekend, though the number will change over the season, including reigning champion Dario Franchitti who is cousin to Force India’s Paul di Resta. Unlike the 26 taking part in GP2, however, these guys are all competitive. Rubens Barrichello, taking part in his first race weekend in the series, was soon on the pace. During qualifying, he barely missed out on the second session. He will start 14th, just behind his KV Racing teammate EJ Viso and just ahead of Takuma Sato.
Pole position was taken by Will Power, who has regularly been barely beaten by Dario Franchitti to the championship. His teammate at Penske, Ryan Briscoe, will be next to him.

Formula One saw the McLarens sandbagging until the final qualifying session, when they suddenly gained pace. It wasn’t as big a gap as in Melbourne, but Lewis went top fairly early on and Jenson Button lines up next to him. In third was Michael Schumacher. Mercedes engines last had a 1-2-3 in the 2009 European Grand Prix: Hamilton on pole, with Kovalainen and Barrichello second and third.
Mark Webber once again outqualified his teammate, who starts fifth due to Kimi Raikkonen suffering a five-place grid penalty. Then it’s Grosjean, Rosberg, Alonso, Perez and the demoted Raikkonen. Starting at the back after his penalty is Heikki Kovalainen, who is behind the HRTs. Both managed to beat the 107% rule.

Lotus F1’s hospitality unit suffered a major fire on the Friday night just before the curfew began. It was caused by a dodgy fuse on a fridge. Fortunately they saved a race suit for each driver as well as some helmets – but not all of them. Lotus also lost a lot of food and gifts for their guests. They have been relocated down by the Marussia garage, and seem to be taking the situation well judging by their Twitter account.

Ex-teammates share front row at Sepang

GP2
Former Caterham teammates Davide Valsecchi and Luiz Razia showed their talent today by putting their cars on the front row for the feature race at Sepang. Valsecchi, who was not penalised for setting a fast final sector in practice under yellow flags (he was probably past the incident when it happened), took pole for DAMS just ahead of Razia’s Arden. Valsecchi was dismissive of his achievement, remembering that what really matters is the race. “Having the pole position today but a bad result tomorrow then you throw away your weekend.” Surprisingly, it is only the third pole he has achieved in GP2 – once in his title-winning Asia campaign, and once in 2010.
Luiz Razia, however, was much happier. Afer a tricky 2011, Arden will be delighted to find themselves on the front row. Razia believes that his team’s tyre strategy could pay off, as he things they will be taking a different route with the primes/options to others.
On the second row, Carlin’s Max Chilton showed just how well he and the team are working together in their second year of GP2. The consistent Brit belives he could have gone even faster if he hadn’t hit traffic on the final corner, so we will have to see what happens in the race.

Fastest in practice was Jolyon Palmer, the first to try out the medium tyres, will start 7th. Apart from Razia, the remained of the top eight are drivers whom I believe could win the championship: P4 – Coletti; P5 – Leimer; P6 – Calado; P7 – Palmer; P8 – van der Garde. Felipe Nazr qualified 10th but will start 9th after Fabio Onidi was given a three-place grid penalty for impeding Rodolfo Gonzalez. Esteban Gutierrez starts a disappointing 15th, while Marcus Ericsson starts 20th. The gap from first to 24th was 1.5s.

F1
Dry sessions allowed good running for the teams, and Lewis Hamilton topped both sessions for McLaren. Mercedes and Alonso were also going well, with Red Bull and Toro Rosso close behind.
There were no major incidents and despite threats of rain it never came.

And the fastest team is… someone

Both free practice sessions in Melbourne today were marred by rain, and as if that wasn’t bad enough for HRT, their cars had massive reliability issues – when they could get them on track. Narain Karthikeyan’s car was available straight away in FP1, but broke down on its third lap of the circuit. Pedro de la Rosa had to wait until FP2 for his turn, though this is still a massive improvement on previous years for the Spanish outfit. Pedro’s car also only managed one lap in that session, though Narain Karthikeyan managed 16.
Wets, inters then finally slicks were the order of the day, with the fastest times coming at the close of the sessions. McLaren set a Button-Hamilton 1-2 in FP1, while Schumacher pipped Nico Hulkenberg to the top in FP2. Schumi was also third in FP1, and looks set to be a strong contender, but Hulkenberg was 12th. It seems we won’t know the likely order until FP3 or qualifying.

It will probably be dry on Sunday, so none of this wet running is very helpful for the teams. Who will be on pole? Nobody knows. Who will win? Nobody knows.

I’m off to the Scottish Highlands for the weekend, and while I will catch the F1, I won’t be able to write about it. See you all on Monday!

2011 review part 7 – Monaco

The Monaco Grand Prix of 2011 will probably be remembered for a while. Not for any of the racing, but for the events on the day preceeding the race.

The first two practice sessions were on the Thursday, with the first session interrupted as a water leak spilled onto the pit straight. Several drivers spun, including Tonio Liuzzi and Michael Schumacher. One driver who has always done well at Monaco is Pastor Maldonado, and he was seventh-fastest. Paul di Resta, who had never raced before in Monaco due to driving it DTM not GP2, took it slowly and was nineteenth-fastest. Vettel led the times in the morning, but Alonso did in the afternoon.
Friday was left for the support races, and on the Saturday it was final practice before afternoon qualifying. The session saw Nico Rosberg lose control of his car coming out of the tunnel and go flying, just missing the barriers as he flew into the air off the sleeping policemen at the chicane. This caused Charlie Whiting to decide to remove the sleeping policemen, which in the afternoon would prove to be a wise decision.

Qualifying, and the usual suspects were joined by Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari. The Spaniard would start behind both Lotuses, with Kovalainen barely beating Trulli. Neither HRT set a time, but both were allowed to race.
In Q2, Sergio Perez shone – like Maldonado he has done well at Monaco in GP2 – and made it to the final session. Neither Renault, Barrichello, Kobayashi and the slow Force Indias did not make it, however.
The final session, and some of the drivers headed out to set times, including Sauber’s Perez. As he was coming out of the tunnel, the Sauber spun and shunted sideways into the barriers. The session was immediately red-flagged. Anxious fans watched the TV screens as an ambulance, marshalls and medical staff surrounded the car. The minutes ticked by, until the ambulance drove slowly off. Slowly, meaning he wasn’t in any serious danger. The session continued, and Vettel took pole. Hamilton’s lap was discounted as he cut the chicane, though his lap time on cold tyres had not been very good anyway.

The race was filled with mishaps, and DRS was only just effective. Hamilton had a couple of incidents with Felipe Massa, the second of which put the Ferrari driver out of the race. He also spun Maldonado, who was on target for points, and the Venezuelan was out as well – but late enough to be classified. The Brit would get a lot of penalties from this race. So would Paul di Resta, as he got in the way of a Ferrari at the hairpin and had a drive-through. Schumacher managed to ‘park’ his Mercedes at the pit lane entry with a mechanical problem; but the main bunch of retirees came as the race leaders – Vettel, Alonso and Button – met drivers one and two laps behind, all coming together at the same point in the circuit. Alguersuari and Petrov were forced to retire, and the race was red-flagged as medical help was required for Petrov. The Russian was okay, however. The red-flagged allowed repairs to Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren – whose rear wing was broken – and the three frontrunners to change tyres. This completely altered the dynamic of the race, as there had been hopes Vettel’s tyres would wear too much and Alonso or Button could win.

The evening of the Monaco Grand Prix was the Indianapolis 500, one of the greatest races in the world. Alongside the IndyCar regulars was British driver Dan Wheldon. An IndyCar champion, he had been left without a full-time drive in 2011. But he was there for the Indy 500. On the final corner of the final lap, the race leader James Hinchcliffe had a decent lead but crashed into the wall. Wheldon, running second, took the advantage and crossed the line to win the race for the second time.

The next stop for F1 was Canada. Always a good race, what would the track throw up this year? And with Vettel having won all but one race so far, could anyone stop him?

[To be continued]