2011 review part 5 – Spain

After the traditional short break for Easter, the European season began in Turkey. Joining the F1 circus were the GP2 and GP3 teams, beginning their own championship races.
The Friday morning was soaking wet, which meant Team Lotus’s Karun Chandhok was once again denied any decent practice time (he had crashed the car at the start of FP1 in Australia). The biggest event of the session, however, was caused by Sebastian Vettel. Pushing the RB7 to its limits, he got onto the wet kerbs just after turn eight and spun, skidding through the grass and hitting the wall.

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The rest of practice was dry and uneventful, with Vettel failing to run in the second session. In the third, he set the fastest time by a thousandth of a second from Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher. On Saturday afternoon, it was time for qualifying.

Kamui Kobayashi became the fall guy, not even setting a time after his Sauber broke down. D’Ambrosio received a penalty for ignoring yellow flags in practice and started 23rd, with Kobayashi at the back as he did not meet the 107% rule but was granted permission to race. (The penalties would not always be applied in this order for future races) In Q2, Barrichello was narrowly squeezed out of the top ten by Nick Heidfeld, and the two Force Indias would start behind the Brazilian but ahead of Maldonado. Perez and the Toro Rossos were next. In Q3, Felipe Massa failed to set a time after mechanical problems and would line up tenth on the grid for race day. Nico Rosberg trounced his teammate for Mercedes’ best qualifying thus far, starting third behind the Red Bulls. Vettel, as ever, was on pole.

Race day came, and DRS was to play a major part in the action. In the opinion of many, it was just too easy at Istanbul Park, especially after the zone had been extended. The Pirellis wore quickly and winner Sebastian Vettel stopped four times on his way to the third win of the season. Pit stops, however, were all he had to worry about. Mark Webber took second while Fernando Alonso claimed third for Ferrari having been overtaken by the Aussie close to the end of the race. Both Buemi and Kobayashi would put in great drives, finishing in the points despite bad qualifying.
Retirements were few, coming only from Paul di Resta whose car broke down late in the race. Timo Glock failed to start the race. Kovalainen would have beaten his teammate had his Lotus not suffered mechanical issues which slowed him down.

Vettel dominated the championship. But with Barcelona traditionally the location for major car upgrades, there was still a chance to beat him despite the huge lead on Hamilton.

In GP2, Romain Grosjean won the feature race from pole, and took fastest lap in the sprint. This put him at the top of the championship, on equal points with Sam Bird and just three ahead of GP3 graduate Stefano Coletti who won the sprint race.
In GP3 it was Nigel Melker who had the best start, winning the feature race and coming third in the sprint for fourteen points. Andrea Caldarelli was closest behind, on ten points. Sprint winner Alex Sims had eight points – the same as fourth-placed Tom Dillmann.

[To be continued]

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2011 review part 4 – China

China’s Grand Prix is usually wet, and after Vettel’s dominance in the first two races of the year it was hoped that the rain – along with the fast-wearing Pirelli tyres and DRS – would allow somebody else a chance to win. On the first day of practice heavy smog surrounded the circuit, but it cleared up as the race weekend progressed and did not cause too many visibility problems.

Red Bull dominated on the Friday with a massive lead from the McLarens and Nick Heidfeld’s Renault. The midfielders were joined by a surprisingly speedy Heikki Kovalainen, while at the back was HRT doing well to come close to the Virgins.
More surprises were to come on the Saturday, though not for pole position as Vettel made it three from three. Webber had been having car problems and only took one run in the session, on hard tyres. This was a surprising choice from Red Bull, but it was even more surprising when the Aussie could not even manage the 17th-fastest time. He was out in Q1. Q2 also saw a rather amusing sight. Petrov, putting some good laps in with his Renault, stopped on track after he made it into the top ten. The red flags came out with just over two minutes left on the clock. As the car was taken to safety, there was a huge queue for the pit exit. The lights went green, and the track exploded as cars raced to make it over the line before the chequered flag. All made it, but it was close.
Making it to Q3 were both Toro Rossos, with Jaime Alguersuari ahead of his Swiss teammate. The Mercedes of Nico Rosberg qualified 4th and well ahead of the Ferraris, but behind the McLaren pair. Paul di Resta squeezed in-between the two Toro Rossos to start 8th. Vitaly Petrov, unable to set a time, would start 10th.

Race day was dry, but Jenson Button put his all into the start to lead from Vettel after the first lap. This was a crucial move that would determine the fate of the race, as Vettel could not get enough lead to have a free strategy choice. The state of his tyres and KERS would decide what happened.
Mark Webber was determined to make up for qualifying with a storming drive that would take him from 18th to 3rd. The lead changed hands more than at any other race in the season, with Button, Hamilton, Alonso, Vettel, Rosberg and Massa all taking their turn at the front and in total ten different leader changes. Button would not lead again after that first stint, but the work had been done. Red Bull’s two-stop strategy for Vettel failed to pay off, and Hamilton was closing in on him in the closing laps. With better tyres and a clever use of his KERS, Hamilton overtook with five laps to go. He maintained the lead as Vettel fell behind. The German managed to avoid being overtaken by his teammate, but it was a close thing.
Perez and Sutil had a tangle which left the Mexican with a drive-through penalty. The Sauber driver came home 17th behind Lotus’s Heikki Kovalainen but ahead of a struggling Pastor Maldonado. Though Williams had managed to get both cars home, it was obvious that their car had serious problems – and perhaps serious driver problems as well.
The only retirement came early in the race as Jaime Alguersuari’s tyre came off after a Toro Rosso pit stop error, yet the race was still exciting. For the first time a race had 23 classified finishers – a new record, emphasizing how reliable modern F1 cars are. For Narain Karthikeyan, not such a good record – the first driver to finish 23rd as he was overtaken by Tonio Liuzzi (recovering from a drive-through after a jump start) in the final lap.

Could McLaren continue to challenge Red Bull and prevent them from securing another constructor’s championship? And did Webber’s comeback make going out in Q1 to save tyres a good thing that could get you points?

[To be continued]

d’Ambrosio gets Pic-axe

(I stole the title from someone else!)

It was an emotional Brazilian Grand Prix. For Jerome d’Ambrosio, it will most likely be his final F1 race unless he can go somewhere next season. He has been replaced at Marussia by excellent French GP2 driver Charles Pic. D’Ambrosio competed well against his German teammate, helped a bit by the car being more reliable. He finished 14th twice, with Glock’s best being 15th.

The race today was full of tension, but despite attempts by Jessica Michibata to perform the McLaren Rain Dance, none fell. Taking the lead from the start was polesitter Sebastian Vettel, with Mark Webber close behind. Alonso got between the two McLarens, but nobody could keep up with the Red Bulls. Early on, Vettel had gearbox problems, and though he held on, he lost some time to Webber. The Aussie took the lead, making it the first time both Red Bulls have led in the same race for the entirety of 2011.
Behind, Alonso overtook Button with a daring move arund the outside that will definitely go down as one of the best overtakes of the season. Towards the end of the race, the situation reversed itself as DRS and KERS brought Button back to third. The gap to Vettel was too far for the Brit to catch up in the remaining laps, and he settled for the bottom step of the podium.
In fifth came Felipe Massa. He had been having an okay race, not getting into trouble. Stopping later than most other drivers, he even led for a lap or two. Towards the final laps, the out-of-position McLarens came to overtaken the Brazilian. Jenson Button succeeded easily, but Lewis was struggling with gearbox problems. He tried hard to get past, and tension was in the air. But it was the McLaren gearbox that gave way first and Lewis parked up by the side of the track. At the end of the race, Felipe did some spectacular doughnuts before entering the pit lane. He was the final driver to finish on the lead lap.
Coming home sixth was a special treat for Force India’s Adrian Sutil. Despite driving well this season, the German seems likely to be replaced at the team by test driver Nico Hulkenberg. Sutil brilliantly overtook Nico Rosberg mid-race, and was definitely the driver of the race. In eighth was Sutil’s teammate Paul di Resta. The Scottish rookie has had a great first season, racking up 27 points to beat Jaime Alguersuari in the points. Sutil finishes with 42 points, placing him 9th in the championship.
In ninth was Kamui Kobayashi, making sure Sauber beat Toro Rosso, and in tenth was Vitaly Petrov. Kovalainen made sure Team Lotus secured 10th in the championship by finishing 16th and best of the new teams, ahead of Bruno Senna. Retirements came from Tonio Liuzzi, Lewis Hamilton, Pastor Maldonado and Timo Glock.

Maldonado has retired from seven races this season – more than any other driver – yet looks set to secure a drive for next season. By contrast, rookie Paul di Resta has led more laps than any other driver; the Scot has completed seven more than Fernando Alonso despite retiring in Turkey and Canada. He had late retirements in both races, however, whereas Alonso’s came earlier in the Canadian race.

From tomorrow, I will be figuring out season statistics and posting the most interesting ones here and on Twitter. I hope you have a great winter break!

Kvyat and King dominate the NEC

The final two Formula Renault NEC races of the season took place yesterday. In the first of Sunday’s races, Danny Kvyat dominated from pole, though he was challenged by his teammate Carlos Sainz (the series champion). Jordan King was also battling with the pair, and it must have been a great race to watch. King took up the third step on the podium.
In the final race, Jordan King battled his way up into the top three with Kvyat chasing – the first six drivers were reversed from the finish of race one. Stoffel Vandoorne tried hard but lost his pole position start, while Clemente Picariello had been running in third for the final laps before hitting the kerb as the clock ran down, relinquishing the position to Jordan King.
Incredibly, Kvyat and King have dominated this final round of the NEC, with the British driver picking up his third, fourth and fifth podiums of the season. Kvyat narrowed his gap to fourty points behind Sainz, and has finished second in the championship. King finished 11th having only competed in half the races.

Now to Formula One, and the race was dominated by Sebastian Vettel, though it came close at the end. Famously easy on his tyres, Jenson Button came close to the Red Bull driver at the end but the traffic prevented him from getting through.
There were four retirements from the race – Timo Glock took himself out on a wall in lap nine. Later, the two Mercedes drivers were battling with Perez and when the Sauber driver ran off the track, Rosberg got past. Schumacher was next to attempt to pass, but he ended up emulating Mark Webber’s accident in Valencia 2010. Though he didn’t fly, his accident was enough to cause a safety car. And Jarno Trulli was the second driver in the queue, having just been lapped by Vettel. The German was destined to get away, with second-placed Jenson fifth in the line.
It is clear that something needs to be done about the safety car proceedure in order to make it much more exciting when the car comes in. Watching as drivers try to untangle themselves ruins some of the excitement. If Jenson had been right behind Seb… who knows?
The third retirement was Jarno Trulli, whose gearbox blew up. It had been on the edge, but Lotus decided to run it anyway to avoid a penalty. It lasted until close to the end of the race, so it was a good risk. Finally, Jaime Alguersuari took himself out in the final few laps, too close to the end to call a safety car, so he was a classified non-finisher.
Of course, the accidents can’t tell the whole story of the race, and there was a big battle between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa. They may have been championship rivals in 2008, but these guys are not getting on well this season. Hamilton was trying to overtake the Ferrari when he hit the Brazilian’s tyre with his front wing. The wing was damaged and the tyre punctured. This was – typically for Massa – right after they had pitted. Massa has had a lot of bad luck with his tyres getting damaged right after a pit stop.
The Brazilian was not happy, and only climbed back into ninth at the end, while Lewis – who was behind Massa after his drive-through – came back to fifth.
With Alonso finishing fourth and Button finishing second, Vettel hasn’t won the championship just yet. But as he only needs to score a single point – or either Alonso or Button to not win all the remaining races – to secure the championship, it is pretty-much in the bag.

Next weekend: Formula Renault UK action at Brands Hatch, Formula Two action at Monza.

Qualifying summary

Not much can pull me away from F1, except for Jordan King, my favourite up-and-coming driver because he’s from my home town. Jordan has been driving in the Formula Renault Northern European Cup, and was on pole for today’s race. Though overtaken, he stayed close to the winner to finish less than a second behind and taking the number two spot on the podium. It’s so far his best finish ever – matching a second place in Formula Renault UK that came after the winner was disqualified. He starts second for the next race. His 24 points have boosted him up to 12th place.
For a driver in his first full year of racing, he is doing incredibly well. He has so far had two pole positions – one in the UK series where he got taken out by Alex Lynn and today’s – and had three podium finishes. He has participated in Formula Two as well as these other series, and done himself proud there too. Jordan might not be doing brilliantly in Formula Renault UK, but he’s shown elsewhere how much talent he has.

Now F1, and qualifying today wasn’t as exciting as it could have been. Q1 began with silence before the first drivers came out on track, and the Lotuses and HRTs left it a while before making their first runs. Renault turned out to be the team on the edge, with their updates for Singapore abandoned. Heikki Kovalainen was unable to make a second good run, but still beat his teammate’s best lap. And Vitaly Petrov became the fall guy.
Q2, and a crash for Kobayashi in a bad spot caused a red flag. The Japanese will start 17th. The others dropping out were the Williams, Senna, Perez and the Toro Rosso drivers. So we had both Red Bulls, McLarens, Ferraris, Mercedes and Force Indias in Q3.
It could had been a very exciting finale, but in the end it didn’t go that way. Vettel set a hot lap quickly and Hamilton was second. The Force Indias did not attempt a lap at all. McLaren had a refuelling problem and Hamilton was unable to set another lap, while Vettel messed up on his final attempt – quite unusual for the German – but was not beaten by his nearest challenger of Webber. Button took third, while Alonso and Massa were fifth and sixth. The two Mercs were next, followed by the Force Indias in numerical order.
Hopefully the race will be better tomorrow. It’s a big challenge for the drivers to stay out of the wall and also to avoid copying Kobayashi and catching air at turn 10 – the chicane. If you get off the ground, there’s no way you’ll be able to catch yourself in time before you go into the wall. So this could be a good one, and if the backmarkers stay cautious they could be in with a chance at a good finish.

This is Red Bull’s 15th consecutive pole – they have taken every one since Abu Dhabi last year. They need ten more to beat Williams’ 1992-3 record of 24. Can they do it? Probably.

Friday practice summary

Well, what can I say? Today was very exciting! Ten minutes before FP1 was supposed to begin, the race director announced that it would be delayed by 30 minutes due to the need to repair some kerbs that the support races had damaged. This was in multiple sections of the track, and there was also a water leak at turn 14. Kerbs were removed, and the cars permitted to cross the white lines.
Thirty minutes late, the shortened sixty-minute session got underway. It began fairly calmly, before Webber got stuck behind Glock for several laps. Instead of holding back to gain more space, he tried to overtake the Virgin on the final corner. But Glock turned in without seeing the Red Bull – he had no reason to expect him to be there – and Webber’s front wing caught on Glock’s tyre. This resulted in a puncture and a broken front wing.
A few minutes after that, Heikki Kovalainen was suffering from mechanical issues so had to pull up in a run-off area. But his front brake ducts overheated as he stopped, setting both front tyres alight. Red flags went out, giving teams even less running time in the session.
Things got going again, until Felipe Massa ran over some of the repaired kerbing. It hadn’t been repaired very well, and the Ferrari pulled it loose. The session was again red-flagged, and there were about three minutes of running left at the end for one flying lap.
The fastest driver was Lewis Hamilton, with Sebastian Vettel 0.4s lower. Third was Mark Webber, a second off his teammate’s pace, and fourth Alonso.

Practice two was the full 90 minutes, and there were thankfully no red flags. The kerbing had been removed from the apex of Turn 13, however, which allowed the cars to cut it close to the wall there and on the track they turned into.
A lot of drivers came millimetres from the wall, a few touched it lightly, and Sebastien Buemi managed to knock his wheel completely off, held on merely by the tethers. Fortunately he only caused a yellow flag, but his session was over. His teammate also suffered mechanical issues and missed half the session, which is not good for Toro Rosso.
Jenson Button was another driver to have problems, when his McLaren’s wheels locked as he was going around a corner. He went straight on instead, but was unable to get reverse gear. The front of his car started smoking and he quickly got out to head back to the paddock. Incredibly, once you leave the circuit you find yourself in the middle of a normal, active city, and it was strange to see the McLaren driver motorbiking through the people.
Maldonado, Sutil and other drivers sometimes found themselves in run-off areas, but they managed to spin around and get back on track. Paul di Resta had mechanical issues as well and only set eight laps.
Fastest was Vettel, with Alonso 0.2s slower. Hamilton was just ahead of Massa, both around 0.7s slower.

So it was definitely an interesting day at the Singapore Grand Prix circuit. This bodes well for qualifying tomorrow, and the race on Sunday.

How to stay in championship contention

The championship is hotting up, and with only six races to go, Vettel has almost got his second consecutive championship. Here, in handy table form, are the positions where each of Alonso, Button, Webber and Hamilton need to finish in order to ensure they remain in contention.

VET

 

ALO

BUT/WEB

HAM

1

4+

2

Out

2

7+

5+

1

3

9+

6+

2+

4

Any

8+

3+

5

9+

4+

6

Any

5+

7

6+

8

7+

9

8+

10

9+

11+

10+

As you can see, Vettel needs to finish on the podium to have a chance of being declared champion. If he wins, Hamilton is out of the running and only one of Button or Webber can remain in contention (they can’t both finish second). Hamilton also needs to finish ahead of Vettel in order to reduce the gap between the pair from its current 126 points, and he must finish in the points.
Alonso, who has been showing strong form recently, is likely to prevent Vettel from winning just yet. He has, after all, won the Singapore Grand Prix twice in the three years it has been running, though last year’s win was better than his 2008 win.
Even if the championship is wrapped up, don’t think it means the fun is over. The racing this year is some of the best we have seen in the modern era. And with the BBC/Sky deal coming into effect from next season, British viewers at least should watch until the end. It might be the last chance you’ll get to watch a full F1 season if you can’t afford or don’t want Sky.