Great racing under a shadow

GP2
It was almost a perfect weekend for Davide Valsecchi, coming from eighth to first to win the Bahrain sprint race in the closing laps. Calado had made a good start, getting in the lead ahead of Leimer and Gutierrez. Gutierrez and Leimer scrapped, and the Racing Engineering driver eventually won. Leimer also took the Brit, who had a bit of wear of his tyres and also lost out to his teammate Esteban Gutierrez. In the lead, Leimer was judged to have gone too fast under yellow flags and had to take a drive through penalty. Gutierrez was back but not in charge as Valsecchi was right behind him. The Italian took the win in the penultimate lap.
Felipe Nasr, despite his penalty and having to start from the pitlane after stalling on the way to the grid, finished 6th. It was an excellent drive from the young Brazilian. Simon Trummer also did well and took the final point in eighth – his first in GP2. Razia finished fourth, Chilton fifth, and Jolyon Palmer also had a great race to finish seventh. For a sprint race, there were a lot of drivers coming from the back into the points. Even Ricardo Teixeira had a good race to finish 13th, van der Garde finished 9th and also took fastest lap to make sure Valsecchi didn’t have a perfect weekend. Grid staller Tom Dillmann finished 10th.

F1
Usually when Vettel starts in the lead, he’ll get miles down the road and nobody will be able to catch him. Today, however, Lotus were flying. Grosjean and Raikkonen soon found themselves second and third, and after pit stops it was the Finn in second. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to quite get close enough to Vettel, but they put pressure on the Red Bull. The team were delighted with their double podium – the first for the Enstone team since 2006. It was also the first double podium for a team called Lotus since the 1970s!
Behind, things weren’t quite so simple. McLaren were struggling with pit stops especially for Hamilton. The Brit was released late after wheel nut trouble, putting him in the path of Nico Rosberg. Rosberg squeezed Hamilton as he overtook, in an incident that was put under investigation by the stewards. He later had another, similar, incident with Alonso. Button was doing well until he had problems in the final laps, and was forced to retire two laps from the end. Senna also had to end his race early.
A two-stop strategy paid off for Force India’s Paul di Resta, and he took sixth behind Rosberg. Webber was well off Vettel’s pace, but managed his traditional fourth. In seventh was Alonso, doing well for Ferrari, and then Hamilton behind. Massa was racing well and took ninth, at times faster than his teammate during the race. Button’s retirement saw Schumacher promoted to the final points position.

Frankly, the race was fantastic and if it weren’t for the circumstances in Bahrain, I’d be delighted. I’m happy for all the guys, but I hope they stay safe as they celebrate and prepare to leave Bahrain. I also hope the GP2 boys stay safe as they remain in the country for another week. James Calado reported seeing “A lot of black smoke around the villages on way back from track. Police with stun grenades at the ready.” (@JamesCalado)

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Penalties for Karthikeyan, Ericsson and Teixeira

F1
Narain Karthikeyan was given a 20-second penalty after the race in Malaysia for causing the collision with Sebastian Vettel. Considering how wet the edges of the track were at the time, and how the Indian needed to move away from the edges to make sure he didn’t spin, I’m not sure he was to blame. Vettel should have given the HRT more room – it was a wide stretch of track – and been less enthusiastic to move onto the racing line.

GP3
As expected, Antonio Felix da Costa has been confirmed at Carlin for 2012. The Portuguese driver who won the final GP3 race last year with Status, will be Alex Brundle’s teammate. da Costa was 2009 FR NEC champion and came third in the Eurocup. Clearly talented, he should have a great year at the British team.

F2
2010 champion Dean Stoneman returns to F2 for the pre-season test at Silverstone this week. The Brit, who was due to drive in FR 3.5 last season but was diagnosed with cancer, has made a good recovery. It is possible that he will be back in the series this year.

GP2
Marcus Ericsson was handed a 10-place grid penalty for the accident with Davide Valsecchi’s during the weekend’s sprint race. The Italian had gone off the road trying to overtake Luiz Razia, and when he came back onto the track, the Swede hit him and caused the car to flip over. GP2 cars are built to F1 safety standards, which was good news for the Indian. iSport believe the penalty to be unfair.
Meanwhile Ricardo Teixeira was fined for coming back onto the track in an unsafe manner. The Angolan driver had gone the wrong way down the access road after going off the track, then turned himself around once back on it.

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.

2011 review part 8 – Canada

The F1 circuit left Monaco for its sole trip to North America, where the cars would be roaring around the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. It was dry at the start of the weekend, but rain was predicted for Sunday.

Friday morning and it seemed Sergio Perez had fully recovered from his Monaco accident as he took part in FP1. Sebastian Vettel decided to take his first hit in the Wall of Champions. It was Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg who went fastest, with Alonso second and Schumacher third. The Mercs had good pace on this track.
About fifteen minutes before the second practise session began, Sauber announced a change in their plans for the weekend. Perez was not feeling well enough to drive, and his place was taken by McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa. The Spaniard is a tall driver, while Perez is much shorter, so he missed most of the second session while the pedals were adjusted. Fastest was Alonso, ahead of a recovered Sebastian Vettel.
On the Saturday, however, things were back to normal with the German leading. Alonso’s Ferrari was again running well and he finished second-fastest. Then it was time for qualifying.

Rain threatened in Montreal’s skies, but did not fall as Jarno Trulli beat his teammate for the first time in 2011. Liuzzi was ahead of Glock, Karthikeyan ahead of D’Ambrosio. Though the Belgian did not meet the 107% rule, he was allowed to race. Dropping out in Q1 was Jaime Alguersuari.
The second session saw Paul di Resta become the fastest of the dropouts, with Maldonado, Kobayashi and Sutil behind. Massa was fastest. De la Rosa managed 17th.
Finally, the shining Ferraris did their best to knock Vettel off pole, but despite being very close they did not manage it. As usual, it would be world champion Sebastian Vettel at the front for the race on Sunday.

Sunday came, and with it the promised rain. It began under the safety car, and as the rain lightened the car came in and the race really began. On the start-finish straight, Hamilton attempted to overtake his teammate through a closing gap and failed. He was out of the race, but Button was able to continue. He pitted to check for damage, but was okay. The safety car came out again as the damage was cleared. Button, who switched to intermediates on the drying track, was penalised for speeding under the safety car, putting him in 18th.
The race continued after the restart, with Vettel showing his skill in getting a good lead on his opponents at the hairpin. Button’s tyres were doing well, so others decided to pit for inters just before the rain worsened again. Vettel led from Kobayashi and Massa as the safety car came out for the third time, and eventually the red flags stopped the race.
For over two hours the cars sat on the grid, waiting for the restart. But it came, to the delight of the Canadian fans. The safety car led them away, and Kovalainen’s car broke down shortly after. The Finn was forced to retire. His teammate would also struggle, and be stuck at the back of the race for the remaining laps. The safety car was kept out a long time, and Virgin pitted Jerome d’Ambrosio for intermediates during this time. However, this was not allowed as they were supposed to be on wet tyres, and they received a drive-through penalty.
Once the racing restarted, Vettel led away from Kobayashi. The Japanese driver was busy holding off Massa. Everyone pitted for inters. Alonso tangled with Button and crashed out, though it was deemed a racing incident. Button had a puncture, and limped back to the pits as the safety car came out. Once again, Vettel pilled away easily on the restart – Button was at the back of the field. As Schumacher shone, Sutil crashed into the wall. Slicks were becoming the order of the day on a drying track. Schumacher was by now up to second, between Vettel and Massa.
Massa spun while trying to lap Karthikeyan, and recovered but lost third to Webber. Button, on a charge, was up to fourth! Heidfeld hit Kobayashi from behind and the safety car came out for the final time. Button fought his way past everyone, and was closing on Vettel by seconds every lap. On the final lap, he was close behind. Could the German hold the rainmaster off?
A mistake from Vettel – the first of the season! Button passed and took the lead for the first time in the race. He crossed the line and won! It was an incredible final lap, and this race will go down in F1 history.
Barrichello took two points for struggling Williams, while Tonio Liuzzi finished 13th for HRT to put them in 11th in the championship.
There were further retirements from Maldonado and di Resta, though the Brit was classified as he had his accident three laps before the end of the race.

F1 now returned to Valencia. Could DRS make a difference in this dull race? Well, I didn’t watch much of it. Nobody retired, Alguersuari went from the back to the points. Vettel won. And then they went to Britain, where F1 silly season would be in full force.

[To be continued]

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]

2011 review part 6 – Spain

The Spanish Grand Prix marked the real start to the European season. Traditionally the place where most teams bring out major upgrades to their cars, perhaps Williams could improve on their poor start to the season. Another hope was that DRS would not be as effective as in Turkey.

Mark Webber proved to be fastest in the first sessions, while Lotus got a huge boost in pace to leave the Virgins in the dust. The McLarens – particularly Hamilton – were able to come close to the Red Bull’s practice pace. Final practice saw Vettel fastest by less than a tenth from his teammate. Renault were more concerned with their car making it to qualifying, as an issue with their exhaust set Nick Heidfeld’s car on fire. This would go on to cause a Photoshop meme, with the German leaping away from the fire.

Come qualifying, there was hope from Lotus that Kovalainen at least would make Q2, and so it proved to be. This was mainly thanks to problems with Williams (Barrichello had technical problems and would start 19th) and Renault’s injured car. Jarno Trulli was fastest of the dropouts in 18th. Q2 saw the Force Indias choose hard tyres while Kovalainen went for it on soft tyres. This placed the Lotus fifteenth on the grid ahead of di Resta and Sutil. The Saubers and Toro Rossos also failed to make the final session, but Pastor Maldonado made it for struggling Williams.
In the final session, Vettel had no KERS for his single lap, and he almost made it to pole. But Webber, who had the boost, went faster by two tenths of a second. Third was Hamilton, while on home turf Alonso got into fourth. Petrov managed sixth ahead of Rosberg, while Massa would start a disappointing eighth. Behind came Maldonado, and in tenth – saving tyres for the race – was Michael Schumacher.

Race day, and Webber did not hold his lead as Vettel snatched it straight away. But he didn’t have it all his own way as Hamilton hounded him for two-thirds of the race. Only DRS’s ineffectiveness prevented Hamilton from getting that much-needed overtake on a track that has always been notoriously difficult in this area.
Alonso struggled on the Pirelli tyres, ending up fifth and the first of the lapped drivers. Webber and Button finished third and fourth to maintain their teams’ perfect total of laps completed thus far. Schumacher beat Rosberg, while Nick Heidfeld proved tyres were everything by finishing in the points from starting 24th. Both Saubers also got points.
Team Lotus’s Kovalainen had a rare crash while pushing hard on the circuit. He had been running well in a midfield position when he lost it and went into the wall. Retirements also came from Tonio Liuzzi and Felipe Massa, the Brazilian suffering from a gearbox problem.

The teams had to leave Barcelona quickly for Monaco, where the race weekend starts a day early and you have to fit in the track walk and setting everything up. Could Lotus continue to close on the midfield? Could Red Bull hold off McLaren? And how well would DRS work on the narrow streets of Monte Carlo?

[To be continued]

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]